Poker invasion poisoning our sports pages - Tuesday 12th of July 2005

Somebody should say this, so it might as well be said here:

Televised poker is a plague on our society. It is a canker sore on the lips of our culture. It is akin to smoking unfiltered cigarettes in that its bad for the body and mind, an insidious habit gone epidemic.

Poker is not a sport, but its all over the sports pages. Its all over ESPN. Its all over Bravo and Fox and even the pages of my own paper.

All of a sudden, at all hours of the day and night, were seeing corpulent, pasty guys with bad skin and bad attitudes hunched around tables like derby-wearing mutts in a dime-store painting.

Who are these people? Better yet, who cares?

Why are they on my TV screen? Why are they in my paper? What does it say when poker ratings on ESPN are almost as high at 3 a.m. as they are during waking hours?

Thats right. Poker is watched by the thousands across America in the dead of night.

Some might call that a fetish. And if not that, what does one call playing poker for hours on a computer?

A new opiate for the masses? A prelude to downloading porn?

Obviously, its called a sign of the times.

"I think (poker) has all the elements of what it takes to be a big deal, said Keri Potts, an ESPN spokesperson.

Potts and ESPN would know. Poker now draws more than a million households per viewing, a staggering achievement of programming muscle considering it is a sedentary game played at a table like Parcheesi.

This revolution apparently started two years ago, when the World Series of Poker on ESPN tapped Americas vein of addiction and elevated anonymous schmoes like Chris Moneymaker (yes, his real name) into supposed cult figures.

Moneymaker, you see, turned a $40 tournament entry fee into a $2.5 million payday when he prevailed over more than 800 players.

This is, of course, the heartbeat fueling games of chance: the Hail Mary hope of the big score for the dog-faced Everyman.

Its the bedrock upon which Las Vegas and ESPN poker ratings are built.

Steve Lipscomb, creator of the World Poker Tour, described the bonanza this way to The Bee last year:

"Even if you have the desire and resources, you cant go play in any other major sports like the NFL or the NBA. But with poker, you can. Its a televised sport that anybody at home, on any given day, could have a chance to play for a major title with the top players.

Fine. You want to play online poker until your corneas bleed, go ahead. You want to gamble away your mortgage, thats up to you.

There is no problem as long as you call it what it is a hobby, a way to blow off steam and the vice of a free society.

But thats not how poker is being sold now.

Its being jammed down our throats by the pimps of popular culture, crafted as thrilling competition when its really not.

Go to a tournament and youll see.

"Its like watching paint dry, Lipscomb told The Bee last year. "Id just as soon stand in the corner and stare at the wall.

But it works on TV because ESPN filmmakers skillfully manipulate hours of nothing madly cutting and pasting to produce "great television.

In truth, its just as phony as the "And1 Mixtape basketball tour, which is a collection of bricks and bumbling passes distilled to heavily edited dunks and "street-ball attitude for television.

Its not real, its Memorex.

Such fakery was bad enough when ESPN cameras turned publicity-hungry bowlers into trash talking bozos, but now were supposed to be impressed by a poker-playing doofus with wraparound sunglasses?

Seriously. Modern-day court jesters are being elevated alongside the Miguel Tejadas of the world by the likes of the New York Times, which on Friday described poker players this way:

"Among the games breakout stars are Phil The Poker Brat Hellmuth. Men The Master Nguyen, who often sips beer at the table in a pose of nonchalance; and Chris Jesus Ferguson, whose long locks and dark beard help him resemble the popular depiction of Christ.

Boy, is that this weeks sign of the coming of the apocalypse or what?

So lets review: Televised poker stinks because a game requiring no athletic ability, tied to gambling and played by chain-smoking, booze-swilling louts is being sold as culturally important.

It stinks because its a game manipulated by television to seem more interesting than it is.

It stinks because it appeals to our worst instincts.

"In this day and age, if you put a television camera in a 7-Eleven, clerks would be giving each other high-fives after they sold a Slurpee, said Norman Chad, an ESPN poker "commentator, in the Times.

OK. This is America, people watch poker; the rest of us always can change the channel. No problem.

But keep poker off my sports page. And while Im happy for the Elk Grove guy who took home seven figures in Vegas on Saturday, dont tell me his win is important.

It is to him and his family, but to a shrinking world that still values real athletic talent and genuine real athletic entertainment, its not.

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