'I guess I've become nocturnal... it's addictive, but I do win money'

Internet poker is now a £15bn industry - but ministers vow to bring in new controls
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The Independent Online

It's 5pm on Friday afternoon and Jennifer Mason finally sits down to breakfast. The 24-year-old graduated from Oxford University two years ago but has shunned more traditional career paths. Since leaving Oxford, Jennifer's main source of income has come from internet poker.

Almost every night, Jennifer sits up in her north London flat until at least 7am, betting cash online against faceless poker players from across the world. Over the past two years, her winnings have topped £20,000. "I guess I've become nocturnal," she says, settling down in the big faux-leather chair in front of her console. "It's quite geeky really, but it's very addictive."

The amount of money staked worldwide on online poker games has risen seven-fold over the past 12 months alone, with the industry now worth an estimated £15bn. The growth has been so rapid that an independent regulator - PokerPulse - has been set up, to track and monitor the games taking place each day.

The move comes as the Government prepares new legislation to bring the sector under much stricter controls.

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said the emergence of a regulator was a step in the right direction. The Government is planning to legalise online gambling sites in the UK to gain tighter control and reap the tax benefits. Currently, the majority of online card rooms are hosted in countries such as Costa Rica and Antigua, to circumvent legal restrictions.

"Our gambling laws are out of date, in some cases going back as far as the 18th century", Ms Jowell said. "We need to update them so online poker rooms can operate from the UK, giving players the choice to gamble in a properly regulated environment.

"I want to insist that these sites carry out proper age checks and that they don't encourage problem gambling."

Many fear that online poker has already reached epidemic proportions, and have welcomed the arrival of initiatives like PokerPulse, which will analyse sites, verify wins and report suspected cheating.

Around £40mis staked daily across 210 sites, and around 13 million Britons have tried online poker.

Matt Robinson, the UK marketing manager for the world's biggest gaming site, 888.com, said that female customers account for a significant part of this growth.

"Poker has been a male-dominated game. Now women have realised they can play without feeling threatened," he said.

The majority of these players are positive about the new measures.

"It does need to be regulated, because there is a lot of money involved," says Jennifer Mason. "You have to be able to make absolutely sure nobody is scamming the system in any way - like colluding in a room full of computers for example."

As her friends make their plans for a Friday evening out, Jennifer prepares for a big night at the table once again.

"The best time to play is between 4am and 7am," she explains, "because the Americans are playing - and they're drunk."