It is a Friday night and Cory and Neil are on decent rolls on the roulette and blackjack tables.
The 25-year-olds (who did not want their last names used) are a business graduate student and a law student, respectively, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Neither man knows or even notices the other.
They are not dressed the way you might think good gamblers would be – fancy jeans and shiny, colorful club shirts, or business suits with gorgeous women on their arms.
Instead of a seafood buffet and a bar with high-end booze, Cory is casually dressed in his pajamas and has an end table with chips, dip, pizza and a can of Miller Light. Neil is not eating. There are no other gamblers or gawkers around him.
And their roulette and blackjack tables? They are confined to computer monitors in corners of their apartments.
Next year will mark the 10-year anniversary of online casinos. More than 5 million Americans have accounts with Internet gambling sites, according to a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
In 2005, the number of Web situs judi poker gamblers in the United States will reach about 7.4 million, according to the St. Louis-based gambling analysts River City Group.
“The reason it’s been so successful is that people are more comfortable with technology,” said Cory Aronovitz, founder of the Chicago-based Casino Law Group. ” . . . So more people are comfortable staying home to do their gaming.”
And it appears more people are “staying home” in the Midwest than in other parts of the country. CasinoFortune.com, one of the oldest online casinos, said its highest concentration of players – more than 420,000 – is spread among Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Ohio.
The GAO reported recently 2003 online gambling revenue was more than $4 billion. Some estimates put the figure as high as $6.5 billion, a number partly due to the lack of overhead online, Aronovitz said.
Last year, a well-known online poker player who goes only by “Shawn” set a record by winning slightly more than $79,000 in a weekend marathon session on InterCasino.com, according to winneronline.com, a gambling news Web site.
Many Internet gamblers enjoy the same types of VIP treatment they would get in land-based casinos.
On CasinoFortune.com, customer care representatives regularly call high rollers at their homes, in much the same way land-based casino reps visit the hotel suites of guests, to ask what the site can do to make their Web visit more pleasant.
One physically disabled VIP gambler, who regularly called to chat with her favorite customer rep, recently did not call for several weeks, said Dennis Rose, vice president of Casino Fortune.
The rep learned the woman’s father had died, so Casino Fortune sent her an elaborate floral arrangement, Rose said.
Most sites offer the same variety of games found in land-based casinos – poker, blackjack, slots, craps and roulette. In the gambling-but-not-gaming arena, sports-book sites offer racing, bingo and general sporting-event betting, said Mark Balestra, vice president of publishing for River City Group.
“Right now, though – and this has probably been a trend for a year and a half or so, the big game is poker, poker, poker and more poker,” he said.
The stereotypes that land-based casinos carry do not often picture women as hard-core gamblers, but according to River City Group, 68 percent of online gamblers are women.
Rose attributed that to what he called the “intimidation factor.”
“As in so many hectic social settings, it can be scary for some women – particularly those who are by themselves – to mingle with people and actually concentrate on their game,” he said.
Even though they are not part of that female majority, Cory’s and Neil’s motives – strict entertainment and relaxation – make them representative of the typical Internet gambler, Aronovitz said.
“I don’t have to drive two or three hours to a casino. I don’t have to deal with drink minimums or weekend (spending) minimums,” said Cory, who has been gambling since his senior year in high school.
“It was nothing severe, maybe $10 for a (sports book) sheet,” he said by phone, of his early gambling. “You’ve got to have a level head, or you shouldn’t do this.”
This means limiting Web time to 30 to 60 minutes, and only on weekends, Cory said.
Neil, the law student, agreed, in a separate phone interview. The Philadelphia native and his pals used to visit Atlantic City, N.J., for small-stakes gambling.
When the pressures of class and living away from home began to build, Neil said he persuaded his friends to try their old hobby together, online at CasinoFortune.com. Some games allow players to sign on as a group.
“It was sort of like old times,” he said, minus the fun of trash talk at the table.
But whether his friends are online with him or not, Neil insists he never drops more than $200 or $300 per online session and then only gambles occasionally, because “more wouldn’t be smart.”
“I think growing up, my parents were always, like, “Everything’s OK if you do it in moderation,’ ” he said. “Plus I learned not to overdo it from my dad, who never won. If he was betting on the Globetrotters, you better pick the Generals. . . . They say to bet with your head, not over it.”
The way most sites work, gamblers can open online credit cards, third-party e-cash accounts through companies like Neteller, use online checks, direct deposits or even send wire transfers to open and add to accounts.
Accounts can be opened on gambling Web sites for as little as $50, and as a player gambles, the amount he bets is debited from his account by merchant banks contracted by the sites, as is the amount he loses. When a player wins, that amount is immediately deposited in that player’s account.
Internet gambling novices should always check a site’s credibility, Balestra said. Perhaps the best way to do that is to check that site’s “Contact us” link.
“If there isn’t contact information, that’s a huge thing,” Balestra said. “Credible sites, you should be able to reach them. Also, these sites are supposed to be licensed by a government jurisdiction, even a local government. And if there isn’t information on their site about the registration, that’s a problem.”
Also, some gambling sites, just like porn and other sites that bank on enticement, bombard visitors’ computers with popup advertisements and “spyware” that can take permanent root in users’ computers and require special software to be removed.
Of course, the same conveniences that attract people such as Cory and Neil to online casinos are those that make it easy for compulsive types to overdo it.
Miss Hope, 30, a recovering Internet gambling addict in Washington state and addiction counselor for Casino Fortune, learned that lesson the hard way.
“When I gambled online, I got so addicted that I was using computers at work,” Hope (not her real name) said by phone.
“My own gambling problem peaked back in 2000,” Hope said. “I went from land-based casinos to online gambling. I gambled unbeknown to my husband or friends, remortgaged my house without my husband’s knowledge, and racked up $400,000-plus in debt.”
When Hope was finally caught by her husband, she asked Casino Fortune to close her accounts. As is its policy, Casino Fortune asked why.
Within days, Rose called Hope personally.
“He asked if I wanted a counselor,” Hope said.
“I’ve been “clean’ ever since,” she said. “But more important, for me, was that they offered me the opportunity to work for them in dealing with other addicts,” helping them quit and arranging for formal addiction counseling.
The story that most stands out in her mind is of the woman who broke down in tears when Hope asked her if she had a gambling problem.
“It stands out because I was in the same position,” Hope said. “Deep down, I knew I had a problem, but because I felt alone, I didn’t want to admit it to myself. When my husband said, “Do you think you’re addicted?’ I felt a little of the burden come off my shoulders. She and I still communicate, and she hasn’t gambled in over a year.”
Love it or hate it, Aronovitz said, as technology improves, online gambling will only grow in scope and complexity. But contrary to stereotypical fears about technology, he said, Web casinos will never overtake land-based casinos, because land-based casinos have more nongaming amenities to offer.
Future Web technology, however, probably will foster live interaction between land- and Web-based casinos, Aronovitz said.
The new technology will allow Web casinos to adjust the types of games and game themes they offer to match, in real-time, conventions and major events taking place in gambling meccas such as Las Vegas.