It’s 9 p.m. on a Wednesday and six students are crowded around a round table, cards in hand, waiting for their chance to pull in the cash. This poker game is a weekly event for this group, and crowded tables just like it happen every night all over the Castleton area.
The poker phenomenon has taken Castleton by storm. Compared to the pros, the games here are miniscule and the pots almost worthless. But the money won here, usually $40 to $60 depending on the number of players, is a great help to any college student’s wallet.
“It’s nice to win, but it’s also fun to play,” says one of the players. “The competition is fun like any game . The money is nice though.”
Indeed there is a great deal of competition in the game they play, Texas Hold ’em, but few would even bother playing if there wasn’t some cash to win.
The game continues throughout the night, the chip stacks move from one player to another and eventually some drop out – they’re out of chips. The final two at the table fight back and forth for a while and the other players have stopped paying attention.
They’re in the adjacent room watching TV, just waiting for this game to end so another can begin.
This night, the first game ends too late, at about 1 a.m., and the players go home. The winner took home just $30, but it was a fun night for everyone. Sometimes the games go much later,
“Hell we’ve seen the sun come up before,” one player recalls. “That’s especially tough when there’s class three hours after that.”
Games going on this late seem to be of no concern to the players, but Joy Mitchell of the Vermont Council on Problem Gambling, thinks games like this are a serious problem.
“Aside from the money problems that gambling causes, these games are a huge distraction to students,” said Mitchell. In a phone interview, she shared horror stories of students getting in to deep to the gambling world.
“One person lost a four year scholarship because they were so preoccupied with playing poker that they failed out,” she said.
Mitchell runs the problem gambling 24-hour helpline, so she’s heard hundreds of stories just like that one.
“Another student decided they could make a better living playing poker than with a degree . he’s since dropped out of school and is in a significant amount of debt,” she said.
“Nationwide a lot of people are getting in trouble. Mostly it’s just preoccupation, they’re either dropping out, or flunking out,” said Mitchell.
The Castleton campus though doesn’t seem to be as heavily afflicted with the gambling epidemic. Money is won and lost, but not to a great degree.
“Hell I won $120 last week, but I’ve never seen anyone pull in more than that, and a pot that big doesn’t happen very often,” one of the student gamblers said.
Dennis Proulx, head of residence life on campus, spoke without a great sense of concern about the poker games.
“It certainly hasn’t surfaced to me as a problem we need to crack down on,” said Proulx.
He went on to say that the kinds of problems that Mitchell had told about haven’t occurred here at Castleton, and that poker games are not something that he is going to try and stop if they’re in the residence halls.
“If I know of a gambling operation going on then yes, we’ll do something about. When it comes to our attention, we’ll enforce the rules,” said Proulx. But, he said, nothing really comes to their attention on campus, because poker has yet to cause a major problem.
“As an emerging adult, you have choices to make, it’s their choice,” said Proulx. “There are thresholds students cross that we take very seriously; violence, firearms, fires, drug abuse . I’m not sure that gambling here is one of them.
“We don’t have a 0 tolerance rule for gambling and I don’t want one. I think someone can gamble in our halls and still live within the spirit of how we encourage them to act as an adult.”
Responsibility, it seems, is something that Proulx is confident that the students at Castleton have plenty of, and for good reason — they’re not getting themselves into too trouble.
“Have I ever lost a lot of money? No. We never play for a lot of money because we’re all friends here and we all know that we don’t have a lot of money to play for. It’s just fun to play and to win a couple bucks,” a player said. “Sure there are big pots, but that’s because we’ll have 10, 11, 12 people playing. If everyone at a ten person table throws in 10 bucks, well that’s $100 to the winner. No one’s losing much.