NEW YORK — Kevin figures about half of the male students at his suburban high school are regular poker players. It's the latest teen rite of passage: Texas hold 'em with the boys, a little low-budget action on the weekend.
He started playing at age 15.
By the end of his senior year, he was hunting bigger games. Just 17, he frequented illegal poker clubs on Long Island, where birthdays take a back seat to bankrolls. He dropped $2,000 betting during a family vacation in the Caribbean. When his job managing an ice cream shop conflicted with poker nights, he quit.
As his losses inevitably swelled, Kevin -- without hesitation or remorse -- started looting a $30,000 college fund set up by his parents. "I didn't care if I won or lost," said Kevin, who went through $7,000 in three months. "I just wanted to gamble."
He wasn't alone. This summer, while school was out, a growing number of America's teens were mesmerized by the nation's poker craze.
Experts fear that the obsession is putting America's youth at its highest risk ever for compulsive betting -- and worry that assistance programs are lagging.
"I get calls from parents and kids, some as young as 14, every day," said Arnie Wexler, a counselor and former head of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling. "This thing has exploded. I've never seen anything explode like this has in the last year."
Poker, particularly the popular Texas hold 'em version played in the $56-million World Series of Poker, stands alongside hip-hop and video games as pillars of America's youth culture. And as schools reopen this fall, the pool of potential underage gamblers is spreading from the upper grades into middle schools.
According to a study by the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, 15.9% of in-state students between the sixth and 12th grades admit to gambling-related woes or signs of addiction. Four percent report they steal money from relatives to gamble.
A national survey showed a huge increase in card-playing among males ages 14 to 22. The percentage of youths admitting that they gambled in card games at least once a week nearly doubled -- from 6.2% in 2003 to 11.4% last year. (The vast majority of poker players are males.)
It's easier for a teenager to place a bet than to buy a six-pack of beer or a pack of cigarettes. And more teens are taking advantage of the easy access to gambling, with dreams of making easy money.
"Poker is huge," said Kevin.
As the number of young gamblers increases, so does the number of young gamblers with a problem. Those odds, experts say, are unforgiving and indisputable.
There are no definitive statistics on the number of teenagers battling compulsive gambling problems nationwide. But Ed Looney, who followed Wexler as head of the New Jersey council, cites the 80-15-5 rule.
"Eighty percent of the kids who gamble, there will be no impact on their lives," Looney said. "Fifteen percent will have some problem. And 5% will become addicted."
It's a scary number. The risk of pathological gambling runs about twice as high among adolescents (5%) as it does among adults (3%), said Dr. Carlos Blanco, head of the gambling clinic at the Columbia University Medical Center.
Many teens pick up the game from television, with its endless permutations of professional gamblers and celebrity wannabes.
But there's more than television at work here. Online gambling is just a mouse click away, accessible 24 hours every day, 365 days per year. A Google search of play and Texas hold 'em turned up more than 2 million results.
Serious gamblers often play multiple hands simultaneously, cranking up the endorphins and the risk.
"Everybody loves to win a hand," said Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pa. "It's really a high."
Capretto's facility treats drug and alcohol addiction, although within the last 18 months he noted an increase in younger addicts suffering from gambling woes. Cross-addiction is a fairly common problem; researchers at the National Council on Problem Gambling found that teens with a gambling problem were more likely to engage in other risky behavior such as unsafe sex, binge drinking and skipping school.
Gamblers also have the highest suicide rate of any addicted group. A 19-year-old New Yorker lost $6,000 on the 1997 World Series, then killed himself and left a note citing his debt.
Of course, most of the consequences fall far short of death:
* A college freshman was forced to drop out of school after turning into a 24-hour-a-day Internet poker player.
* A teenage girl was looting her mother's checking account.
* A teenage boy graduated from neighborhood poker games to stealing his parents' credit cards.
"I know kids in the 10th grade right now who are gambling their brains out," said Andrew, 18, whose gambling woes drove him to Gamblers Anonymous. "I see it in my town; I see it in the towns around us."
Even those who make a name and a living from professional poker wonder about the effect on adolescents.