Gambling for a Job

Brett Hartfiel, 22, is his own boss for the summer. He wakes up at about 10 a.m. and works sporadically throughout the day.

If his friends go to the beach, he can go with them. If he wants to work in his pajamas, he can. That's because Hartfiel has turned online gambling, a pastime that has recently exploded among college students, into his summer job. In the past six or seven weeks, he has made more than $6,000.

"I told my friends, 'I'm going to be a poker pro for three months and see how it goes,' " he says.

Professional poker has its perks for the recent UW-Madison graduate. Hartfiel job-hunts and fills out applications online while he plays. Plus he can enjoy the college lifestyle for one last summer.

"There's something to say for getting to work in a pair of shorts and a 'Got Brett?' T-shirt," says his roommate, Luke Louison, nodding to Hartfiel's personalized loungewear.

Hartfiel plays no-limit Texas Hold'em, the most popular online poker game "because it's the fastest and the riskiest," according to Hartfiel. He mostly plays on Pacific Poker, but he also plays on PartyPoker and PokerStars.

He has won most of his money playing "heads-up" matches against one other person. Each player puts in $100, the Web site takes $5 from each person, so the pot totals $190. Winner takes the pot. He has just started playing $100 buy-in tournaments; he says winners of those events make about $25,000.

Hartfiel says he has made more than $15,000 since he began gambling online last November. He has been playing live poker with friends since high school.

"I was skeptical at first, but a few of my friends started winning a lot of money, and I knew I was better than them," Hartfiel says.

What about 'work'? As he began making money gambling, his job as a fitness consultant for the university's recreational facilities became less attractive.

"First semester, I was working like 20 hours a week. Second semester, I went down to working four hours a week," he says. "Now I don't work at all."

Maybe not in the conventional sense of the word, but Hartfiel does take gambling seriously. He gambles for about 50 hours a week, and he says he plans to pay taxes on his winnings.

He uses an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of his games. Columns list opponents' names, their wins and losses (he has played some more than 20 times) and each opponent's playing style.

A player can be aggressive or "tight," according to Hartfiel.

"I change my style depending on theirs," he says. "If they're aggressive, I like to play tight, only my good hands. I can take advantage by acting like I'm weak when actually I'm strong. When a player is tight, I will be more aggressive. You can take most of the pots when they're really tight."

Hartfiel keeps in mind when players might be most vulnerable, like late at night, when they've probably just come home from a night of drinking.

"I find that when I come back from the bars, that's when they play the worst," he says.

He also keeps track of when easy opponents habitually play.

"There are guys that go on there certain times a day every day who I know where to find," he says.

Hartfiel thinks his system gives him an advantage.

"It's always smart if you can get an edge on the game, write stuff down about people," he says.

Studying the game The Internet changes the game of poker in many ways. Games go a lot faster than the friendly Sunday afternoon games at Aunt Martha's because things such as shuffling and conversation are eliminated. Players can make more money because they can play more hands per hour, and they can play at high-stakes tables, which most wouldn't otherwise have access to unless they were in Las Vegas.

In addition, players don't have to worry about their poker faces when they're sitting in front of their computers - the Internet hides giveaways better than any visor or pair of sunglasses.

"When you play live, there're certain tells you can get off people. ... They might smile, look at their chips if they pick up a pocket ace," Hartfiel says. "(Online poker) is a good way for people who are starting out not to give away cards with smiles or grimaces."

More than 1.8 million people play online poker each month, wagering an average of $200 million a day, Sports Illustrated reported in May. Although the U.S. Department of Justice considers online gambling illegal, the government essentially looks the other way. Individuals aren't normally prosecuted, according to the magazine.

Web sites are hosted overseas in "tax havens" such as Gibraltar and Costa Rica to avoid U.S. law, the magazine reported. Many college students have taken advantage of this legal gray area. Online poker's anonymity and high stakes contribute to its popularity among today's Internet- savvy students. "It's the chance to hit it big," Hartfiel says. "Obviously college kids need money." The University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center found the number of 18 to 22-year-old college males who play cards for money doubled in the last year, according to Sports Illustrated.

How many are playing? Online statistics are hard to come by, however. Brian Rust, administrative program specialist at the UW-Madison's Division of Information Technology, had no information regarding online gambling on campus. An unscientific trip to the library, though, could illustrate online poker's popularity. While studying for exams in a computer lab on the UW- Madison campus, Hartfiel often saw poker games on students' monitors. He also played while he studied.

"That's why I loved Power Point classes," he says. "I knew when I had to study for exams I would be playing poker."

For some students, however, online poker can become more than a study break. It can become an addictive, expensive habit. Successes like Hartfiel's accompany sadder stories.

The flip side Justin Butler, another recent UW-Madison graduate, says he lost more than $1,500 gambling online, mostly by playing no- limit Texas Hold'em tournaments.

"In my prime, I was playing about three to four hours a day, if not more," he says.

Butler, 21, started gambling online his sophomore year of college.

"I started out playing for play money, and I got a royal flush and they sent me a T- shirt and everything and gave me $53 for my account - just to get me sucked in I think," he says. "Once that was done I started putting the money in."

He won a few hundred dollars at first, but then he started losing.

"I kept putting in more and more to try to get it back," he says.

When he won, Butler would take his girlfriend out and buy drinks for his friends at the bars. When he lost, he "would just sit around and do nothing," Butler says.

Butler used FirePay, an online payment system, to hook his bank account up to the Web sites so he wouldn't have to keep typing in his payment information.

"That's probably why I put a lot in," he says. "Because you don't even see the money."

Payments didn't go through for a few days, which allowed Butler to play with money he didn't have. Once, he was down $1,000, but he won it all back. Remembering that close call encouraged him to keep playing when his account was negative.

"I kept thinking, 'give me one good tournament, and I'll be back,' " he says. "That's what happened the first time."

Jenny Paisley, his girlfriend at the time, remembered: "It was frustrating to see him get so excited on one winning streak and then go on a huge losing streak and keep playing because he had this picture in his mind of winning." He ended up having to borrow hundreds of dollars from Paisley and more than a $1,000 from his parents.

"I liked doing it for the first hour or two, but that last hour, I felt like I had to keep going," Butler says. "When I was really losing money it felt awful. Every time I played after that, I was playing so stupid, so I would win money back fast. It messes with your head."

Butler stopped gambling online after he lost $1,000 on a trip to Las Vegas his senior year.

"Once I got back from Vegas I didn't have the urge to go online and gamble anymore. It wasn't the same," he says. "It wasn't fun knowing I had all that money and lost it."

Help available Butler says it wasn't hard for him to stop gambling, but some UW-Madison students turn to University Health Services for help. UHS doesn't have a specific program for gambling addiction, like it does for drug and alcohol addictions, but it does have people on staff who work with "addictive compulsive behavior," according to director of counseling and consultation services Bob McGrath. (The Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling has a hot line for compulsive gamblers to find help. The number is 1-800-GAMBLE-5.)

Although McGrath says counselors have only helped a "handful" of students with gambling problems, they have seen a rise in the past few years. In addition, McGrath says the "the intensity has increased." For the students who do come in, gambling is eating up more of their time and money.

McGrath credited the Internet with the changes he has seen in gambling habits. "The online nature makes it a lot more accessible," he says. Butler agreed. "It never stops," he says. "There's always a game going on."

Although he has come out on top, Hartfiel says he recognizes the potential downfalls of online gambling. "When it's online is when it gets bad," he says. "Online is where you go when you get really risky." - 2005-08-11 16:16:27

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