Joe Callari is 27. He's a college student.
He has no wife, no kids. He works about four hours a day.
And he says he makes nearly twice as much in a year as the average Joplin household.
About six months ago, Callari, a psychology and business major at Missouri Southern State University, quit his job as a manager at a local Hastings store to take on a slightly more profitable venture — playing online poker.
Callari said he makes $40 an hour in his new gig — he sets his own hours and answers to no one — and luck has nothing to do with it.
"It's not like I just go in there, throw in $100 and hope to win," he said. "It's an actual job."
Callari says he is responsible with his gambling. He pays taxes. He tracks his wins and losses using a spreadsheet. He understands the odds associated with the hand he's holding — he throws, or rather clicks, his money in when he's got the best of it and keeps it when he doesn't.
But if the U.S. House of Representatives gets it way, people like Callari may be a thing of the past.
An attempt to regulate
The House passed a bill recently with a 317-93 vote that, if passed by the Senate, would ban credit-card payments and electronic-cash transfers for the purposes of gambling online.
The bill declares most online gaming sites illegal — casinos, poker rooms, sportsbooks — but includes exceptions for horse racing and state-run lotteries.
Callari's not worried. He's done his homework, and he believes there will always be ways to wager online.
U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he supported the bill because placing bets with credit cards, which he said is required to bet online, left Americans at the mercy of the offshore outlets that run most Internet gaming sites.
PlayersOnly, an online gambling service that advertises itself as the "world's sexiest sportsbook," offers six ways to bet online, all of which involve the use of a credit card or electronic-cash transfer.
PokerStars.com, an online poker room, offers several ways to deposit money into player accounts electronically, but also provides an option for players to make deposits by sending cashier's checks or money orders.
Both companies operate out of Costa Rica.
A dangerous obsession?
Some are concerned with the risks posed by online gaming and are wary of its effect on Americans. For every Callari, there are more people out there who do throw in that $100 and just hope to win.
When they don't, they throw it again. And again. And again. Soon, a pathological gambler is born.
Tony Boyd, a certified compulsive gambling counselor with the Salem Treatment Center in Southeast Missouri, said almost all the clients he sees have had trouble with betting via the computer. One patient lost $35,000 online in a day, he said.
"A lot of the folks I work with say, 'I would just sit there doing bet after bet,'" Boyd said. "Some would say they've been there 12 hours and then didn't realize they'd been there an entire day."
A pathological gambling problem develops over time with a pattern of behavior, Boyd said. The neurological side of an addiction is very real — a brain scan of a person gambling looks very similar to that of someone high on methamphetamine, he said.
Internet gambling gives people the feeling that they aren't playing with real money, he said, which adds to the compulsive element.
"One of the biggest dangers that I see is it gives a representation of fake money," Boyd said. "So, your bet is $5,000, but you don't see that cash."
Some sites offer links to Web pages designed to help players developing gambling problems, but offer few checks to see to it that customers are gambling responsibly.
PlayersOnly limits patrons' deposits to $1,000 a day and $6,000 a month online, but players can exceed that limit if they make a deposit by phone using Western Union, a bank wire or credit card.
Christine Reilly, director of the Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders, said no study exists that shows Internet gambling to be more dangerous than any other form of gambling, but the relatively new phenomenon poses problems that haven't been there in the past.
"Social controls are really good," she said. "A lot of people gamble with friends for fun — that's probably a protective factor. The Internet is kind of an unknown because it is a solitary activity."
Customers at J-Town Sports Bar in Joplin were split in their opinions on Internet gambling and the House action.
"It's too easy to jump on the computer and play," said Randy Buzzard of Joplin, who said he has lost in the four-digits gambling online and now thinks Internet gambling should be illegal.
Randy Blehm of Joplin said he occasionally uses the Web to bet on boxing and he believes the government has bigger fish to fry, such as cracking down on child pornography, when it comes to the Internet.
"I don't like that," he said. "It should be land of the free. They're not hurting anybody."
Callari said he's aware gambling becomes a problem for some — he lost money himself the first six months he took up the game. But the key, he said, is to start slow and work your way up to higher-stakes tables.
He said he knows there is a stigma associated with poker players but not all are shady characters — some, like him, are like stockbrokers building equity and investing responsibly.
"We're not all degenerate gamblers," Callari said. "Some people have thought this out."