While in a downtown Manhattan Barnes & Noble bookstore one day, I noticed that an entire book case was devoted to poker. Pretty good for a game that was — until somewhat recently — thought of as the pastime of middle-aged men desperate for a couple of hours away from their wives, where they could smoke, eat, and wager a few bucks.I’ve got news for you. This is not your father’s poker.
Thanks to TV and the Internet, poker is perhaps the fastest-growing game in the world. On college campuses, poker has replaced video games as the diversion of choice. An estimated 50-80 million Americans — many of them women — now play poker. Poker has not only been embraced by the mainstream (like cigars and tattoos), but, in its rarefied version requiring thousands of dollars just to sit at the table, it has also become something of a status pastime reserved for 21st century “Masters of the Universe.”
Most observers say the poker boom began in 2003, after the World Poker Tour was broadcast on the Travel Channel. But it was not as simple as “film it and they will watch.” It took a completely new approach to televising poker.
Back in 2001, Steve Lipscomb, the former C.E.O. of World Poker Tour Enterprises Inc, had a revelation while producing a documentary film on poker. He realized that the only way to make watching poker on TV exciting and engaging was to let the viewers see each player’s hands (including the two face-down cards in the Texas Hold ‘em version of the game).
He put the cameras right on the rim of the table (an idea borrowed from a British TV program) and added some nifty editing to create a fast-moving human drama. He pitched his idea for a new kind poker TV to cable. The Travel Channel was interested, and two years later the World Poker Tour made its debut. It was an immediate success, and ESPN followed with the World Series of Poker. Needless to say, both shows had big paydays for the winners.
If shows like World Poker Tour, World Series of Poker, and Celebrity Poker Showdown made the game glamorous and exciting, it was the Internet that made it accessible. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of poker “rooms” open to anyone, operate offshore to avoid the reach of those annoying U.S. gambling laws. The largest sites have millions of registered users. At peak playing times, hundreds of millions of dollars are wagered by tens of thousands of people playing at thousands of virtual “tables.”
The Internet sites act as the minor leagues for the cable TV competitions. While poker is a relatively simple game to learn, it requires experience to gain the skills necessary to compete at higher levels. Online poker is a fast game. Since there is no shuffling and dealing, people can play as many as 30 hands in an hour. Annie Duke, the best female player in the game (and tutor to actor Ben Affleck), said before the Internet, “it would take 20 years to get the amount of experience that it takes in a year now.”
It is also possible to win a seat at the World Series of Poker by winning an online tournament. This was the case with the now legendary Chris Moneymaker (that’s his name), a Tennessee accountant who won a seat at the World Series of Poker and came away with $2.5 million.
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