It begins one night in a college dorm room, with a few wins on a free poker website, against other novice players.
It evolves into an online hobby, a small bankroll and some all-night sessions on the computer.
But somewhere along the line, the stakes get too high and debts mount, until nothing else matters but poker. And it's becoming a growing problem statewide, according to the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling.
The council's recent report says Florida college kids are twice as likely as the general population to be compulsive gamblers, and the biggest problem is young men playing poker online. It doesn't help that they're seeing televised poker tournaments starring phenoms barely old enough to drink.
"A whole new generation of kids thinks that what they want to do when they finish school is be a professional poker player," said Dr. Jeffrey L. Derevensky of McGill University, who analyzed data gathered from seven Florida colleges and universities.
College life, with plenty of free time and newfound independence, provides the perfect opportunity to sit down and play as much as you want, he says.
Arnie Wexler, a part-time Boynton Beach resident and gambling addiction consultant, says about one-third of the hotline calls to 888-LAST-BET are from college students or parents of students who are in too deep.
Among the callers was Marc, of Boynton Beach, who declined to give his last name. The 21-year-old said he dropped out of college and ended up stealing money from friends and family to play poker online.
"I had a great college life, but then poker became all I wanted to do," he says. "It consumed my life."
A YOUNG MAN'S GAME
In this summer's World Series of Poker, eight of the nine players who made the final table were 29 or younger. It's also a man's game: Only 3 percent of the 7,319 entrants were women.
What reels them in are the success stories, including that of Joe Cada, a 21-year-old college dropout who won the 2009 World Series of Poker.
Meanwhile, big-time live poker, the next step up from online play, is often just a few miles down the highway. The Florida Legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist lifted poker betting limits this spring, and the new rules took effect July 1. The change put Florida in the major leagues: The World Poker Tour is even coming to South Florida for the first time, conducting a tournament in April at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood.
Gamblers Anonymous, one of the groups the Florida council refers people to, is seeing more young men coming in for help with online poker addiction.
"We're getting about one a week," said Robert, a Broward County resident who tried to stop gambling at age 27 but had regular lapses for another eight years.
Today, he regrets "all the wasted days" as well as lost money from Internet poker in the early 2000s. Now 40, he hasn't gambled in the past four years. Addiction recovery is difficult even for more mature men, he says, so few of the younger ones tend to stick with the meetings. And their being there at all is a new occurrence from the past couple of years, he says.
"It's a rare person who can get away from it at a young age," he says. "They're usually not mature enough or humble enough to ask for help."
Another recovering compulsive gambler from South Florida, Steve, says the 24-hour access to Internet poker was lethal. "It became so I could play whatever poker I wanted, whenever I wanted," he says.
Steve ended up losing more than $100,000 before seeking help.
"The thing about gambling addiction is you only go get help when you're deep in debt," he says. "Nobody has a gambling problem if they're winning."
PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT SLOW
Meanwhile, online sites such as GR88.com (pronounced "great eight") market directly to college kids. The site's largest promotion this year is a "We'll Pay Your Tuition" tournament.
"When you look at who the next superstars of poker are, you're really looking at those with the time and the intellect," says Peter Karroll, president of International Arts Management, an entertainment marketing firm that runs GR88. "They're the young college kids who are making money and putting themselves through school."
He said his site watches for gambling addictions: When a computer has unusually high activity, a trigger alerts GR88 and a representative will interview and warn the player by phone. In some cases, access to the site is blocked, he says.
The Florida Council has asked university health and wellness officials to set up help lines, warning posters and support groups, as well as to implement a program called Students Against Gambling Addiction.
The University of Central Florida tried a pilot program last year, but "most Florida colleges and universities have not moved to address the problem in a meaningful way," Executive Director Pat Fowler said.
Tom Hall, UCF's director of substance abuse prevention and intervention, said the university has created what it calls peer advocates, students who go back into their communities and discuss health issues, including gambling. There's also a clinic on campus that treats substance abuse and gambling addiction.
But universities have to be careful, he notes.
"One of the things that's always a struggle in any kind of health programming is, how do you balance drawing undue attention to a subject vs. addressing it?" he says.
Derevensky, who analyzed Florida's data, says warning of gambling addictions is also difficult because so many people gamble for recreational purpose and don't have a problem.
"We teach kids at school about drugs, alcohol, drinking and driving and unprotected sex, but we don't teach them about gambling," he says. "Then college kids see a poker player their age winning millions.
"But the problem is, for every winner there has to be a loser. But you don't hear about them."