Public-school kids describe a whole black-market economy centered around kids’ selling cigarettes—buying them online in bulk from foreign countries, and then selling them for $5 and $6 a pack: cheaper than a bodega, but enough to turn a profit and supplement a meager allowance. “You can make a buck or two a pack,” says a junior who’s a prime cigarette source in his school. “Last year, I pulled in about $1,000.” Garrett, a Bronx-raised senior at a magnet school, spent last year trying to figure out how he could turn his entire savings—$2,000 given to him by friends and family since birth—into $20,000 by investing in penny stocks. “I hung out with friends whose dads worked in finance just so I could ask them investing tips,” he says. Most prevalent of all has been the rise of a curious money-making subculture: the after-school gambling ring.
The Vegas Alternative to Allowance
“Yo, don’t be such a pussy!” the boy hollers, and for a moment he looks momentarily possessed: jaw tensing, nostrils flaring. “It’s just money!”
The playing cards are fanned across the glass tabletop, and now here come the poker chips. Clinking, clanking, spinning, scattering—hypothetical money representing the actual cash, which sits safely inside a shoebox under the table, a couple hundred dollars or so, all of it originating from parental wallets. It would be hard to exaggerate the popularity of poker among teenagers: Ever since ESPN started covering the World Series of Poker as if it were the, uh, World Series, players like Gus Hansen, Doyle Brunson, and Dutch Boyd have come to be as admired as professional athletes, eccentric mavericks making a killing without, as Stephen Youdeem, a Fieldston sophomore, puts it, “selling out to the whole nine-to-five machine.” In both public and private schools, Texas hold ’em—the variation of poker played in the World Series, in which you’re dealt only two cards that can be played in any combination with the communal five—has become the most popular way to take an allowance and double it, triple it. Or watch it disappear entirely.
The boy doing the hollering is Chris, a fleshy, freckle-faced kid of 17. He’s just lost the past five hands to a wily 16-year-old named Raphael, who’s now threatening to cash out with the bulk of the winnings. (I was invited here under the condition that I not print last names.) There are about ten kids seated around the table in the basement of an Upper West Side brownstone. At first glance, it’s easy to make a snap judgment of the scene—moneyed kids being reckless with money they don’t know the meaning of—though the reality is more complex. Chris, for instance, is among the minority of kids attending school on financial aid—and needs the money he makes gambling to keep up with someone like Barry, the resident of the brownstone, who goes out to clubs most weekend nights, where he drops at least $50. (“I know that my parents can only give me so much,” says Chris, in private. “If I don’t win, I have to borrow money from friends.”)
“ ‘Knowing“‘ what I know now, i’d say the way money dominates this city is a reason to raise kids elsewhere.’ ”
The stakes in such games can get high. A story made the private-school circuit last fall about a kid who won $40,000 playing online poker. That may be urban legend, but it’s not entirely implausible. Playing a few times a week, a crew like this can exchange as much as $30,000 in allowance money over the course of a school year. And while it’s tempting to think of gambling as a subset of juvenile delinquency, it’s fueled, at bottom, by something most parents wish for in their kids: a desire to be financially self- sufficient. Furthermore, a poker game can take some of the sting out of financial disparities among friends. When you’re sitting at the table, chips stacked before you, you’re no longer the kid who gets only x amount from Mom and Dad. You’re judged on your own ability and cunning.
Raphael gives in to Chris’s pressure and plays for another two hours. Problem is, Chris is off today and only continues to lose. By the time Raphael takes the entire pot, Chris is imagining himself alone, in his room, on Friday night, an empty wallet burning in his back pocket. On the stereo, the bass thumps—the Lox featuring Lil’ Kim—causing the chips on the table to vibrate. It’s the key to life, booms the chorus. Money. Power. Respect. Whatchu need in life . . .
“Yo,” shouts Chris, still visibly annoyed with himself, “can somewhat turn that shit off?”
The Party Profiteer
Part of the appeal of making money, for teenagers, is that it opens the door to adulthood, to freedom, to rejecting allowance as their sole source of income. Today’s kids have come to be defined by their ability to spend conspicuously—around $170 billion last year—and are targeted more precisely and ferociously than ever before. When you constantly feel yourself in the marketing crosshairs, you quickly realize that you’re a crucial component of an abstract, bustling economy. You have strange thoughts. You wonder how you can exploit yourself for personal gain.