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The stakes are high

With poker becoming ever more present in Canadian culture, it's time for the United Church to speak out against gambling

By David Wilson

Late last year, a 23-year-old college dropout from Montreal won the 2010 World Series of Poker. Photos in the media showed a beaming, fist-pumping Jonathan Duhamel cradling $8.4 million in cash after the championship tournament in Las Vegas.

You’d think Paul Henderson had just scored the winning goal against the Russians, or Cindy Klassen had just won her fifth speed-skating medal at the Olympics. This wasn’t simply a win for Jonathan Duhamel, it was a win for Canada. Or so it seemed.

Not to take anything away from Duhamel’s accomplishment — world-class poker players must be very, very good at what they do — but the buzz around his victory showed how far gambling has moved into the mainstream. Maybe I missed it, but I’m not aware of much public discussion about whether that’s where we want it to be.

Last spring, a U.S.-based entertainment company launched Canada’s first online poker television network, tapping into an estimated market of 3.5-million players. The network’s menu includes coverage of poker tournaments, profiles of poker stars, behind-the-scenes glimpses of life on the professional poker circuit and tips on how viewers can improve their play.

The network won’t offer viewers a chance to play, not yet anyway; privately run online gambling is still illegal in Canada. But anyone who has endured the scourge of pop-up ads on the Internet knows that it’s legal elsewhere. Globally, online gaming has exploded from a $3-billion-a-year industry in 2001 to a $25-billion business today.

Gambling in Canada — the legal kind — is run by the provincial governments. Lotteries, casino gambling and video gaming generate $13.5 billion a year for provincial coffers, and if some provinces have their way, gamblers will soon be doing more of their wagering online. British Columbia launched an online casino last summer, and Ontario and Quebec have sites in the works. (Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia all recently rejected the idea.)

The United Church of Canada has consistently asserted that gambling exploits the vulnerable and promotes a culture of winners versus losers. The church also takes a dim view of provincial treasuries’ growing dependency on gambling revenues. Maybe it’s time to turn up the advocacy volume.

Stories like Duhamel’s are enticing, especially for men in his age bracket who make up the fastest-growing segment of problem gamblers. To his credit, Duhamel advised would-be poker champs to stay in school and announced he would donate $100,000 of his winnings to a children’s charity. But asked what he planned to do next, he said, “I’m going to gear up for more tournaments.” Quitting while he was ahead would have made him a positive role model. I pray he doesn’t become a tragic object lesson.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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