Special Report: Quebec's high-stakes poker problems
Published Wednesday, November 3, 2010 5:31PM EDT
When Jonathan Duhamel leaves Thursday for Las Vegas as the overwhelming chip leader at the World Series of Poker Main Event, his number one objective will clearly be to win the event and the $9 million cash prize that comes with it.
But a secondary result of his success could be the official validation of a Quebec phenomenon that has seen this province produce an inordinate number of successful poker players.
In addition to Duhamel, this year's WSOP Main Event had five other Quebecers finish among the top 100. On a per capita basis, that puts Quebec second only to the state of Nevada in terms of the number of players in the top 100.
Considering Nevada is naturally where most of the top professional poker players live, it could be argued that Quebec was the No. 1 producer of poker talent at this year's event.
"I know all the people from Quebec are very good poker players," Duhamel says, "so it was only a matter of time."
Following Duhamel on the Main Event leaderboard were Rosemère's Pascal Lefrançois (11th place, $635,011 in winnings), Jonathan Driscoll of Laval (39th, $206,395), David Assouline of Hampstead (44th, $206,395), Montreal's Gabriel Alarie (81st, $94,942) and Josué Sauvageau of Quebec City (97th, $67,422).
On top of that, Miguel Proulx of Quebec City joined Lefrançois as the two Quebecers to win bracelets during this year's World Series of Poker, the glitzy gold bling on your wrist signifying that you have won an event in the world's top poker circuit.
André Boyer of Acton Vale also won a bracelet in 2005 and Victoriaville's Isabelle "No Mercy" Mercier is one of the most famous poker players on the planet, her face gracing the cover of numerous international poker magazines and the author of her own autobiography.
So how is it that Quebec has produced such a disproportionately high number of success stories in the poker world?
There isn't one definitive answer, but everyone has their own theory.
Lefrançois, 23, feels Quebec players are at an advantage because they are generally bilingual, which allows them to scour the multitude of U.S. poker forums to get tips on strategy, but also to discuss amongst themselves on Quebec forums in French.
"I think it's the fact that we're a small community," Lefrançois said. "We can evolve like that (together) and become better players."
Another theory comes from Montreal's Mitch Garber, the CEO of Harrah's Interactive, the company that owns the World Series of Poker.
He feels there are several factors at play, not the least of which being the province's long-established gaming culture. He also feels the influence of several Quebec celebrities who have embraced the game – Guy Laliberté, René Angelil, Vincent Lecavalier and Vincent Damphousse, to name a few – have helped poker get some exposure in the province.
For him, being born and bred in this city, he can't help but feel a certain sense of pride.
"Being from Montreal, being a Quebecer, to see the success that Quebecers are having, to see how popular the game is in Quebec is something that's really hard to ignore," he said in an interview at his downtown Montreal office.
But Garber is not the only one having trouble ignoring what he calls this "pop culture phenomenon."
Jeffrey Derevensky is the director of the International Centre for Youth Gambling and High-Risk Behaviour at McGill University.
Since poker took off about eight years ago, he has seen a sharp increase in the number of young people coming into his office with compulsive gambling problems related to poker.
"Typically, the people that we see are the people who have lost a considerable amount of money," Derevensky said. "Their lives have been forever altered and changed."
Derevensky sees two major problems, and they are somewhat linked.
The first is the proliferation of poker advertising and the number of hours poker is televised on all-sports channels. He says that bombardment of images of successful poker players has normalized the game, to the point where parents see nothing wrong with letting their teenage kids play online.
"Gambling has become normalized," he said. "It's no longer viewed as sin and vice."
Derevensky said a recent national survey of Canadian parents gave a list of 13 activities they wouldn't want their children doing, from drug use to drinking and driving to sexual abuse. Of those 13 activities, gambling came dead last.
"What's of great concern to me is that unlike drug use, alcohol use, unprotected sex, very little education is going on in our schools," he said. "What we really need to do is get parents to work with us in terms of monitoring their children's behaviour."
Derevensky notes that the numbers of problem gamblers hasn't risen in any significant way since the start of the current poker boom, but he fears that they will as this generation grows older.
"My concern is that over time, this generation of kids that have grown up on high technology, that have embraced the Internet almost from birth, will have more and more problems related to their gambling," Derevensky said.
Online poker sites make enormous amounts of money and often, pay very little attention to who they are taking the money from, Derevensky says. While all of them have age restrictions, it is not at all difficult to simply enter a false date of birth to open an account, and not all sites require a credit card to do so.
This is why Derevensky sees the intention of Loto-Quebec to get into the online poker game as a good sign, because he hopes it will marginalize the off-shore poker sites that are raking in the money now and replace them with a model where age restrictions and other preventive measures will be instituted.
"Clearly our governments will more strongly enforce age restrictions, and that becomes very important in terms of monitoring behaviour," he said. "There's a committee that's been established that will monitor online gaming in Quebec. Will they meet all the standards that we would like to see them meet? I'm not convinced that they will…but I've been assured by the appropriate people at the government level that they will try to implement all of the responsible gambling features that we recommend."
Surprisingly, Lefrançois feels the exact same way about this issue as Derevensky does.
"At the beginning it's like virtual money, so you can move up in the big games and you don't see your money going away. That's a problem. I think that poker is not for everyone," he said. "I think there's a job for the parents to watch their kids at the beginning, because not everyone reacts well to this game."
Be that as it may, Duhamel is not one of those people and this weekend he will be looking to cement Quebec's status as one of the poker hotbeds of the world, even with the problems that might entail.
"I'm very happy for him, I think he's going to take it down," Lefrançois said. "With what Jonathan is doing right now and with what I did this summer, I think Quebec is becoming more and more respected in the poker world."
If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, here two groups that offer support:
Gambling: Help and Referral: 514-527-0140
Gamblers Anonymous: 514-484-6666