The Poker World Series: When the chips are down

Thanks to the internet, poker mania is sweeping the United States and has become the latest incarnation of the American dream. Andrew Gumbel checks out its biggest fixture - held, of course, in the casino capital of the world
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The Independent US

On Tuesday afternoon, though, his luck finally turned. "I was on a short stack," he said - meaning he didn't have a whole lot of chips left on the table. "I survived for three hours. Then I had an ace-queen and went all-in." (He bet everything he had.)

This was the poker variant known as Texas Hold 'Em, in which each player holds just two concealed cards and combines them with the best three out of five laid face-up on the table by the dealer. Unfortunately for Sander, someone else at his table was holding an ace-king and he was wiped out. "The fairy tale is over," he said ruefully. "You get that close you can taste it, you want to win so bad."

In one sense, Sander's performance was a triumph, especially for a first-timer in the World Series, the crowning fixture in the ever more crowded annual poker calendar. He won his place in the competition through an online satellite game, so instead of having to pony up the $10,000 (£5,000) buy-in fee he had to pay just $29. Because he lasted so long, he will take $55,000 in winnings back home to Miami.

Not bad for a beginner. And Sander admitted right away that he was hooked: "I'm going to be back every year for the rest of my life. If I live to 120, I'll be here when I'm 120."

Like every other poker player, however, Sander couldn't help pondering the what-ifs and might-have-beens. In this most democratic of pastimes - one hesitates to call it a sport, although some people are beginning to do just that - a first-timer can go up against the hardened pros and come out ahead. Lady luck has a lot to do with that, of course, but so does the fact that playing poker requires only a limited set of developed skills. The rest is a matter of nerve, stamina, and an ability to outwit and outthink one's opponents.

With poker mania sweeping the world, it has escaped nobody's attention that at events like the World Series a rank amateur can easily rise to the very top and become an overnight multimillionaire. Two years ago, an accountant from Nashville called Chris Moneymaker - yes, that's his real name - came out of nowhere to take the World Series title. Last year, a patent lawyer and amateur fossil collector called Greg Raymer did exactly the same thing.

Both are now major celebrities in poker. In Los Angeles, where Raymer's face appears on billboards along major thoroughfares, poker players hanging out with their film actor buddies (Jennifer Tilly, Tobey Maguire and Mimi Rogers, who is Tom Cruise's ex-wife are aficionados) have undergone the bizarre experience of being sought out for their autographs, while their more famous companions are roundly ignored.

Poker has turned into the latest incarnation of the American dream. A century ago, it was the sight of the Statue of Liberty to the incoming immigrant that best symbolised the land of opportunity for all. At the turn of the 21st century, it was buying and selling stocks on the Internet in the great dot-com boom. Now it's poker - a pursuit that may have no greater implications for society at large but is easy to play and is attracting so much money it is getting almost silly.

A decade ago, the World Series of Poker was a discreet little event held at the Binion's Horseshoe casino in downtown Las Vegas, one more money pot among many offered in America's gambling capital. Perhaps 100 players would show up and chip in the $10,000 required to participate. They tended to be pros - strange, febrile, compulsively driven individuals with colourful pasts often involving drugs, booze or chillingly close run-ins with mafioso loan sharks.

Then came the Internet. The first online poker sites made their debut in 1998, the same year that Rounders, a poker movie starring Ed Norton and Matt Damon, became a modest box-office hit. Suddenly, it was possible for people all over the world to hone their Texas Hold 'Em skills in front of computer terminals without feeling like they were betting the house, or the children's college fund, or the safety of themselves and their loved ones.

By 2000, the winning pot at the World Series topped $1m for the first time. In 2003, poker started to be broadcast on US television - modestly, at first, on the Travel Channel on cable, and then with an increasing frenzy on CBS's sports channel, Fox's sports channel and, finally, on the premier sports station ESPN.

It might not seem like the most obvious of spectator sports, but the Travel Channel pioneered a way of making it at least minimally dramatic - by editing the games down to their tensest moments and using hidden cameras to show the television audience what no live spectator could see, the "hole cards" held by each individual player.

Since 2003, the game has simply exploded. When the Travel Channel first began its broadcasts, online poker sites worldwide were attracting about 88,000 players betting just under $16m each day. As of May this year, those numbers had mushroomed to 1.8 million players risking $200m each day.

For sites such as partypoker.com, pokerstars.com, 24hpoker.com and cardplayer.com, it's 1999 all over again. Some have been floated on the stock exchange and done very nicely, thank you. They have so many users paying to compete against each other, they can afford to sponsor whole stables of players at the World Series and, sometimes, offer other inducements as well. A company based in Costa Rica called paradisepoker.com is giving its top 10 contestants a free tropical holiday as well as travel, hotel and spending money to get them through the marathon card-playing sessions in Las Vegas.

Central America and the Caribbean are thriving on the poker craze because they offer much laxer rules than the United States or Europe on the registration of online gambling sites, and have gone on a hiring frenzy that is attracting young software engineers and marketing engineers from around the world.

For those interested in stepping out into the fresh air now and again, the Caribbean climate is, of course, another attraction.

The World Series itself has long since outgrown Binion's Horseshoe, which along with the rest of downtown Las Vegas - as opposed to the Strip stretching away down Las Vegas Boulevard to the south -- has been struggling financially for several years. Last year, Binion's sold the Series to the Harrah's gambling conglomerate, which has rehoused it at the Rio Hotel and Casino, a 1970s-era vision in purples, yellows, greens and golds that sits on the unfashionable side of the freeway opposite Caesar's Palace.

"Watch history fold and unfold!" shouted the billboards on the way in from Las Vegas airport. "Biggest paydays in history!" boasted a placard in the Rio lobby. The claim may well be accurate, since the overall pot has now grown to well over $100m, with $7.5m reserved for the eventual winner.

The main event began last Thursday in a vast conference room decked out with 200 nine-seater poker tables. The first few rounds had to be played in staggered fashion around the clock, until the number of contestants had shrunk to 1,800 and they could all fit in the room.

By Tuesday, when Amit Sander met his Waterloo, the main action was restricted to a handful of tables near a star-spangled stage. In other parts of the room, an impromptu new contest had started up for some of the losers. Elsewhere, dealers in bright blue shirts happily offered their services for straight cash to any and all comers.

The room, with its brown, tree-patterned carpeting and bright overhead hanging lights, felt oddly removed from time and space. The most noticeable noise was the constant clackety-clack of poker chips, which sounded not unlike an improbable number of worry beads being fingered all at the same time.

The players were overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly pasty and overwhelmingly overweight, their potato-sack physiques generally kitted out in t-shirts and shorts, or XXXL-sized basketball jerseys.

As they sat at their tables, many sporting dark glasses to shield themselves from the glare of the artificial light and to avoid giving anything away with their eyes, the event staff kept them well supplied with beer, cola, hamburgers and pizza. Roving masseuses plied their way around the room with outsize cushions under their arms.

As Ellis Shurman, marketing executive for a small Israeli-based venture called Noble Poker observed: "It's the only sport where you can eat, drink and get a massage while you play."

Apart from the occasional yelp of triumph or frustration, the proceedings were remarkably silent. Some players, such as the young black professional Phil Ivey (known as the Tiger Woods of the poker tables), prefer to block out their surroundings altogether by hooking their ears up to an iPod. Others put mascots or small photographs of their loved ones on the baize in front of them for luck.

Tournament rules dictate you can't smoke (an offence punishable by instant ejection, which explains why the hallways outside the conference room reeked of tobacco) or use profanity. "Dropping the F-bomb", as it known, results in a 10-minute suspension, a punishment just frivolous enough to ensure that F-bombs rain down with a fair degree of regularity, some of them in great clusters out of the same enraged mouth.

The arrival of the television cameras has changed the nature of the event considerably. Dozens of online poker companies have sent bevies of marketing executives to try to attract media attention. The most visible players are known for a certain dress style, like Greg Raymer's bizarre 3-D gold shades, or a particular quirk, like Phil Ivey's iPod.

Johnny Chan, a veteran of the World Series known as the Orient Express - he was born in Hong Kong - is famous for eating oranges at the table. He also has a car sporting the vanity plate JJ333, after a particularly memorable, and lucrative, full house.

Kenna James, a cowboy who wears only black, takes his inspiration from Yoda, the Jedi from Star Wars, saying poker players need to tune into The Force

Something, though, is missing. The game is not thrill-a-minute viewing, and the participants do not stand out for their social skills, their glowing personalities or their physical allure. The whole phenomenon feels, in fact, like a bubble, much like the dot-com craze when venture capitalists were sold on business plans built on pure wind. No doubt there is a poker market out there, even a sizeable one, but the hubbub at the Rio hotel felt ever so slightly absurd.

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