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Copyright 2005 The Buffalo News
Buffalo News (New York)
July 10, 2005 Sunday
HEADLINE: POKER OBSESSION GAMBLES WITH THE SPORTING
BYLINE: By Jerry Sullivan
I'm 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
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
The lines are blurry these days on what is a sport and what isn't.
Poker is a mental struggle, at times even a physical one. It's
a war of nerves, waged in the place where luck, skill and courage
intersect. But I'm not sure that makes it a sport.
The game has its attraction. A good friend of mine is an online
player. I'll 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 I'm out at a restaurant and
see poker on TV at the bar, I stop to watch.
But I'm 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.
I'm 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
But I do love a game, anything that engages man's 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 America's 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. You'll 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 man's 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 it's 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 can't be all about the money. In
the end, it wasn't 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?
There's 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, I'm afraid that once I buy
in, I'll never come back out.
Maybe I'll watch a baseball game instead.
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