This World Series is more carnival than sport - Tuesday 12th of July 2005

Elvis was in the building, though the King would have been horrified to have this kind of entourage in his prime. There were cheerleaders, too, 10 in all, dressed in little black skirts and plunging orange tops.

Toward the middle of the room, a guy played his cards from inside a big fuzzy orange Elmo puppet head. A portly player who looked like he was about to have a heart attack had a woman massaging his back while he fiddled with his chips.

Then, from above, came the call dear to every athletes heart.

"Cocktails to table 131," the voice on the loudspeaker said.

And to think, there are still people who dont consider poker a real sport.

Those people are nowhere to be seen this week at the Rio hotel-casino, a carnival-themed resort in the midst of hosting a real carnival called the World Series of Poker. Here, the believers are all trying to cash in on the poker craze in one way or another.

Thats why a chunky Elvis showed up, nearly bursting out of his jumpsuit. On his arms were three men dressed up like drag queens, though for some reason they didnt bother to shave their mustaches and goatees.

"They said Elvis was dead, but I brought him back to life," said the tall one in a red sequined dress. "Thats the sign of a real woman."

OK, so the Elvis wasnt real. But there was nothing fake about the money at stake in the richest poker tournament ever.

Some lucky - and, yes, most of it is luck - player will walk away next week with more than $7 million for outlasting some 6,000 others in a tournament that owes much of its popularity to online gambling sites of dubious legality and reality television.

Eight or nine others at the final table will earn at least $1 million.

Thats 10 people. Left unsaid is that everyone else will be donating their $10,000 buy-in to the winners.

The eventual champion may be an old pro like Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson or have a good nickname like Jesus or Fossilman. Better yet, he may be an online player who doesnt need a nickname like Chris Moneymaker, an accountant who invested 40 bucks in an Internet tournament two years ago and won $2.5 million.

Theyll be chronicled in the newspapers and in the ubiquitous poker magazines. Sports giant ESPN will try to build its ratings by airing taped pieces of the event for months to come like it is live.

Theyre crafty, quick thinkers, playing for big money.

Just dont confuse them with real athletes.

Real athletes need more skills than just a good bladder for long hours at the table, and enough fingers to count on. They dont sip scotch while they play, or run for a quick smoke during a break.

And you wont catch any of them dead in an Elmo costume.

Besides, as noted earlier, no matter how much players try to convince themselves otherwise, winning at Texas Hold Em really is mostly luck.

"Id say its 98 percent luck and a half percent skill," said Walter Clyde "Puggy" Pearson, who claims a third grade education and a World Series poker title from the 1970s when the sport was the province of big gamblers from Texas.

Pearson is credited with coming up with the idea for the no-limit freeze out game that Benny Binion turned into the World Series of Poker at his Horseshoe Club casino in downtown Las Vegas in 1970. Hes 78 now, worries more about what pills to take than what hand to play, but recalls fondly the days he used to play 3-plug-1 games.

For the uninitiated, thats when three of the four players in the game know by prearranged signals what each has. Which tends to make it easy to carve up the hapless fourth.

"There were hustlers and scofflaws, rounders and scoundrels," Pearson recalled fondly.

There were plenty of those in the massive convention hall at the Rio, where players were strung out over 200 tables in the opening rounds. But there were also businessmen, college students and housewives, and even an occasional celebrity.

Actress Jennifer Tilly lost her $10,000 early, as did her boyfriend, Phil Laak. Laak goes by the nickname "Unabomber" and by the looks of him hiding in a sweatshirt with hood over his head and sunglasses hiding his face youd think he didnt realize the real Unabomber had already been caught.

Sure, millions are at stake and millions will eventually watch. But millions watch the Westminster Dog Show every year, too, and even the canines must think of that as more of a beauty contest than a sport.

That didnt stop poker wannabes from jamming the aisles between tables to get a peek of the action, oohing and aahing as the blinds went up and the pots got richer.

Of course, they probably were thinking that if not for a few bad clicks on the computer, it would have been them at one of the tables.

Cocktails anyone?

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