Pop Culture

A full house

With television shows such as Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown," the Travel Channel's "World Poker Tour" and ESPN's coverage of the World Series of Poker championships, the nation is flush with poker mania. Why the sudden explosion in the old pastime’s popularity?

Poker pro Andy Glazer, known as the Poker Pundit (and author of the forthcoming “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Poker”), says the poker boom is the result of two simultaneous technological advances. The first was the advent of Internet poker rooms, which allow those who live nowhere near a casino to play online for real money. This expanded the population of poker players exponentially.

The second (and even more vital) root cause was a breakthrough in how poker gets broadcast on television: Lipstick cameras placed around the table now let us see each player’s hidden cards. Suddenly, we can play along with each hand, and think: What would I have done in that spot? Glazer says television is “an overwhelming force” in the game’s resurgence.

Indeed, ESPN’s broadcast of the 2003 World Series of Poker -- the network has been airing WSOP specials since 1994 but only last year began producing its own shows -- was a sort of watershed moment. The seven-episode series garnered a 1.2 overall rating, with an average of more than 1.2 million viewers tuning in per episode. The event culminated with unknown amateur Chris Moneymaker coming from nowhere to take the $2.5 million first prize. Something about Moneymaker’s run caught the viewers’ imagination. “Even his name was perfect,” says Glazer. ESPN producer Mike Antinoro says, “The story was so rich, with an amateur winning it all, that it added to the aura and mystique of the event.”

This year’s WSOP saw another amateur champ take the top spot, as 39-year-old Greg Raymer, a Connecticut patent lawyer, outwitted his opponents on the way to a $5 million first-place prize. ESPN planned to more than triple its WSOP coverage this year, going from 7 hours of programming to 22 hours, and focusing a whopping 22 cameras on the nine lucky players at the championship’s final table. There’s also a camera that shows, should a player fold, what the next card dealt would have been. (Coverage began airing July 6.) 

But not just ratings have boomed -- participation has, too. WSOP tournament director Matt Savage had been planning on about 1,600 entrants for the 2004 championship event, held in May in Las Vegas.  By the tournament’s start, the entries had swelled to 2,576. “Frankly, it was a logistical nightmare,” says Savage. The number shattered the previous record of 839 entrants, set the year before. Players came from all over the world, plunking down a $10,000 entry fee for a chance at the $5 million payout).

Even you can play
And those who can’t muster that kind of cash, or the time off to jet out to Vegas, have been re-creating tournament excitement closer to home. The craze has swept college campuses, and the online CollegePokerChampionship.com lets students across the country compete against each other. Young professionals, too, have flocked to the card tables in droves. New York City poker enthusiast Ira Pedlikin, 29, says he’s held a no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em tournament for friends the past two years running. About 60 players throw their $50 entry fee into the kitty, playing all day in a rented room at a Greenwich Village community center. “It’s become a real social event,” says Pedlikin. “And there’s no physical exertion -- so we can drink beer while we do it. In the end, it’s a bunch of guys sitting on their butts, telling themselves they’re ‘competing’ in a game.”

But is that the real attraction? Competition for the lazy? Surely that plays a part: Anyone can do it -- you needn’t be in world-class shape. And, as is often noted, anyone can compete at the highest levels. Your average weekend duffer can’t play golf against Tiger Woods at The Masters. But he can play poker against stars like Phil Hellmuth and Annie Duke at poker’s flagship event, the WSOP. And as Moneymaker and Raymer showed, a duffer can even win the whole thing.

Of course, you do have to know how to play. Texas Hold ‘Em (just one of countless poker variants -- others include 7-card Stud and 5-card Draw) is the game at the WSOP main event. It can be played with as few as two people (head-to-head, or “heads up” in poker parlance), or as many as the thousands who show up at the WSOP. Players are each dealt two cards face down, and then share five face-up community cards. Whichever player makes the best five-card hand, wins. Of course, betting plays a massive role, too. In a “no limit” tournament like the WSOP, a player can push his entire chip stack in at any time, going “all in” and daring the table to call his huge gamble. Does he have a killer hand?

Or nothing at all?

According to Poker Pundit Glazer, part of the game’s appeal is embodied in this signature poker strategy, called the bluff, in which a player pretends to hold excellent cards but in fact is holding junk. “I’m an ethical person,” Glazer says, “but I have this sneaky side that I like to indulge, and I think most other people do, too. Poker’s a socially acceptable way to indulge our temptations to lie and deceive.”

Taking a gamble
It’s also no accident that this game is a fundamentally American pastime. Poker’s origins are hazy, and it may derive from Persian or German card games, but it first found wide popularity on the riverboats of the Mississippi. “We’re the home of capitalism,” says Glazer, “and poker is perhaps the only game where you literally keep score by seeing who has more money.”

But is the current poker boom just another fad? “There are certainly some faddish elements,” says Glazer. “Most people who take up the game will consistently lose money. It’s hard to stay excited about a game when you lose all the time -- and especially when those losses are hitting your wallet.”

Still, there are signs the boom is only just beginning. Tournament director Savage notes that at this year’s WSOP side events there were five winners who were 23 years old or younger, and four winners who were women. “That’s a lot of new blood coming into a game that’s traditionally been older, and solidly male. All those new players from new demographics could help the game continue to grow.”

And Savage expects it to do just that. “I’m already estimating about 4,000 entrants at next year’s tournament,” he says.

If you’ve got a spare $10,000 lying around, a plane ticket to Vegas, some vacation time to spare, and a thirst for a battle of wits and emotions … well, one of those 4,000 could be you.

Ready to go all-in?