Cape Breton University in the Nova Scotia province of Canada is at the centre of a growing controversy over the offer of free tuition as prizes in an online poker tournament
The students union at CBU is supporting the tournament, says the president Matt Stewart: "There's nothing to lose and everything to gain," he told local press after giving permission for an as yet unidentified Internet gambling firm to post advertising on campus for its poker competition. A message about the tournament was also sent using the union's Facebook account.
"It's like a free competition to me," Stewart said. "If you are good at it, may the best person win."
In the promotion, students play poker online every week to win prizes, including the $5 660 tuition fee. Stewart likened the online tournament to a raffle or bursary. There's little risk for students developing gambling-related problems because they don't pay to play, he said.
"There are so many other resources out there to get people gambling, I don't think a free tournament is going to do it," he said, pointing out that every time students walk into a store, they see lottery tickets for sale.
Stewart's approach has not found favour among some Canadian academics, however.
"I would suggest the university not encourage this behaviour because it could lead to excessive problems," said Jeffrey Derevensky, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal who was in Nova Scotia for a conference. "I put it in the same realm as drinking on campus; doing drugs on campus."
Derevensky said the human brain doesn't mature until the age of 24, meaning that young people are especially at risk of developing gambling problems. Companies are also increasingly targeting young people with their games, increasingly "glamourising" the pastime he claimed.
The chief of an anti-gambling group in the area called the Video Online Lottery Terminators Society, Bernie Walsh said this sort of promotion would entice more students to start gambling. "I'm sure that some will go to casinos who have never gone before," said Walsh, a former gambler who went bankrupt as a result of a gambling problem. "If they start getting any good at all at poker, then they'll start risking money and get into it more deeply."
Krista Grant, a spokeswoman from the regulator Nova Scotia Gaming Corp., said she couldn't comment specifically on the poker tournament but research has determined that teenagers gamble online three times as much as adults.
"The gaming corporation is increasingly concerned about the explosive growth of unregulated sites because they don't offer the same player protections that a regulated site does," she said.