Poker obsession gambles with the sporting tradition - Tuesday 12th of July 2005

Im not sure when it happened, but poker is everywhere. It is not bluffing. The game is a hot, ubiquitous presence, beckoning to us from TV sets, casinos, Web sites and bookstores. Why, the other day, I bought a six-pack and there was an ad saying I could win $100,000 at some Texas Hold Em showdown in Las Vegas.

Sports Illustrated ran a lengthy piece about the online poker rage. Last week, this newspaper advanced the annual World Series of Poker on the front page of Sports. USA Today ran its preview on the first page of the entire paper, giving it the same weight as the G8 summit of nations and the search for a new Supreme Court justice.

The World Series of Poker, a 45-event bonanza, has been under way since early June. That might explain why ESPN seems to have poker on the air 24 hours a day. The No Limit Texas Hold Em, the main event in the Series, began Wednesday and is played through next Saturday.

Does this mean poker is a sport? Is chess? Will the poker Series soon surpass the baseball World Series in popularity? Some day, will we refer to it as the World Series of Baseball, to distinguish it from its card-playing cousin?

The lines are blurry these days on what is a sport and what isnt. Poker is a mental struggle, at times even a physical one. Its a war of nerves, waged in the place where luck, skill and courage intersect. But Im not sure that makes it a sport.

The game has its attraction. A good friend of mine is an online player. Ill find myself looking over his shoulder, trying to figure out the strength of his hand, waiting for the common cards to fall on the screen. When Im out at a restaurant and see poker on TV at the bar, I stop to watch.

But Im also ambivalent about the poker boom. As a former problem gambler, I understand the romance of betting, the love of "action" - and the corresponding dark side. It can quickly become like a drug habit. The pastime loses its romance when your teenage son is thousands of dollars in debt from his online poker fix.

Im troubled by the national explosion in gambling. Casinos, slot machines, lotteries, online wagering - it seems everyone is betting in some fashion. It suggests something dark, desperate and lonely in our culture, what I call the underside of the American dream.

But I do love a game, anything that engages mans essentially competitive nature. Why else would I have chosen to write about sports for a living? Poker has been luring people in for centuries. Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder called it Americas national game, which is difficult for us baseball lovers to swallow.

Poker has a basic democratic charm. People from all walks of life play in the World Series. Youll never beat Tiger Woods over 18 holes, but on a given day, you could hold your own at the poker table with a legend like Doyle Brunson or T.J. Cloutier. Skill wins out over a lifetime, but an unknown can catch fire and win the World Series of Poker.

An author named Jim McManus went to Las Vegas in 2000 to write about the World Series of Poker and a high-profile murder trial held simultaneously in Sin City. McManus played his way into the Texas Hold Em event and won $247,000 by finishing fifth. He wrote a fabulous book about the experience - "Positively Fifth Street" - which is as much about mans dark side as poker.

McManus wrote that "money is the language of poker." He called poker a metaphor for our free-market system, which is based to a large extent on calculation and risk. The actor Walter Matthau said poker "exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great."

So its no surprise, in the midst of a gambling boom, that poker has become the game of choice, the ultimate in reality TV. Money is the common language, but it cant be all about the money. In the end, it wasnt about the money with Michael Jordan. It was about being in the moment, at the center of the action, staring down an opponent.

Whatever the darker motives, poker is expanding at a stunning rate. In 1999, first prize at the No Limit Texas Hold Em event in the World Series of Poker was $1 million. A year later, when McManus made it to the final table, there were 512 players and a purse he characterized as "a staggering $5.12 million."

This year, the field has increased a dozenfold to 6,000. Multiplied by the $10,000 entry fee, that means a purse around $60 million. The winner will cart away $7.5 million and become an instant poker celebrity. Perhaps he (or she) will add to the burgeoning library of poker books now available to an addicted public.

Did I say "addicted"? Well, if so many more people are playing for money, that means more people are losing. More students are getting in trouble. More husbands are playing with the rent money. More women are getting involved.

How far will it go? As more people take up poker, will the traditional "sports" suffer? Will young poker players find spectator sports such as baseball and hockey too boring, too much of a secondhand rush? Will there come a time when everyone on Earth is playing in the same online tournament, like some bizarre Vonnegut story?

Theres no denying the temptation. I rarely play poker and only for nickels and dimes. I limit my wagering to fantasy sports and office pools. But watching poker on TV, I can feel the attraction, the magnetism, the exhilaration of seeing the flop cards revealed on the screen.

It would be so easy to start. Find one of the countless online poker sites. Give them a credit card number. Enter a tournament with nine strangers. The thing is, Im afraid that once I buy in, Ill never come back out.

Maybe Ill watch a baseball game instead.

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