Tim Luckhurst: It's so easy if you want to fritter away your salary

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The best thing about real casinos is the atmosphere. Amid tense, tuxedoed men and manicured ladies it is impossible to ignore the truth that this activity is not just primarily, but exclusively, about money. You cannot fool yourself. Play poker on a real green baize table and the odds are that you will leave poorer than you entered.

The best thing about real casinos is the atmosphere. Amid tense, tuxedoed men and manicured ladies it is impossible to ignore the truth that this activity is not just primarily, but exclusively, about money. You cannot fool yourself. Play poker on a real green baize table and the odds are that you will leave poorer than you entered.

Seasoned gamblers observe first, assessing the style and mannerisms of potential opponents, studying them for signs of vulnerability. You can tell a lot from the eyes. But sharp players know when they are being watched. Only the naïve hand psychological advantage to future opponents.

You can't see eyes when you play on line. Your opponents are user names. But you can watch for as long as you like, sitting out of the hand while virtual cards and virtual chips appear on as many tables as you care to visit. There were 4,505 players on line when I logged on to paradisepoker.com. They were playing games including Omaha and 7 Card Stud for stakes ranging from $5 to no limit at 603 active tables.

GeneBoss, Chief Wolf, Elkmaster and Rich Girl were being as macho as their user names suggested, contesting a game for high stakes. Nobody objected to my voyeuristic presence, but I moved on quickly.

These were confident card players who made snap decisions. Yet they were not the most assertive - 484 others were involved in "no limit" contests at 73 active tables. I looked in on a few. Average stakes hovered around $50 but some tables were raising each other by $200 a hand.

Getting started was easy. The 5.91 megabyte file required to gamble away your salary with people you cannot even see downloads in less than three minutes on a broadband connection. There is a pop-up warning that players may only participate if they are "of legal age of majority as determined by the law of the country where you live". It would not have stopped a child gaining access, but that is scant cause for concern. You need a valid credit card to gamble - though, as my teenage daughter pointed out, it need not be your own.

The downside is that gambling debts incurred online are harder to avoid than real ones. The schoolboy's favourite item of knowledge - that gambling debts are not enforceable in law - does not apply when losses are automatically debited from your account. It would be easy to squander hundreds of pounds in just an hour online.

Technically you can play for free. But the casino rule seems to apply just as rigidly online. Waiting times to join tables with low stakes were substantially longer than the queue to play with the big boys and girls and nobody seemed interested in a game without stakes. I eventually got in and drew a flush, five cards of the same suit, on my first deal at a table with average $10 stakes.

It was instantly tempting. There are plenty of hands that beat a flush, but more that don't. I agonised about risking $15. But the opening bet suggested someone else was brimful of confidence. In the end you don't have to see the eyes to see sense. Rawkus and BrooDogg reeked of gambling know-how. I bet they watched me watching. A good player just would.

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