Matthew Norman: How poker took over the world

Stick on the shades, affect the icy disdain of the pros, and we can all play at being the Cincinnati Kid
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The Independent Online

In a country wretchedly short of heroes, where political leaders won't risk a campaign walkabout without a phalanx of minders, let us drop to our knees and give thanks for Paul Maxfield. Latterly a director of a Potteries company servicing the pharmaceutical industry, Mr Maxfield chose the eve of the election to announce his retirement, having won a great triumph in a former dominion over the seas.

In a country wretchedly short of heroes, where political leaders won't risk a campaign walkabout without a phalanx of minders, let us drop to our knees and give thanks for Paul Maxfield. Latterly a director of a Potteries company servicing the pharmaceutical industry, Mr Maxfield chose the eve of the election to announce his retirement, having won a great triumph in a former dominion over the seas.

That Mr Maxfield came a desperately close second in one of the world's premier poker tournaments only adds, of course, to his lustre. To a post-imperial power addicted to narrow failure and the cocoon of self-pity it provides, unlucky sporting defeat (and poker, like darts, chooses to style itself a sport) is the ultimate victory. Not, one suspects, that Mr Maxfield will be feeling too sorry for himself with 900,000 tax-free quid, his reward for second place in the World Poker Tour Championship in Las Vegas, nestling snugly in his super-saver account.

The size of the runner-up's prize in this event, in which 450 people paid $25,000 each to enter, barely hints at a poker explosion that almost defies belief. Even five years ago, poker remained what it had been for a little more than a century - a louche, faintly Runyonesque card game played professionally by very few, and of minimal interest to home players outside the United States.

Today, there is simply no escaping it. Tournaments are gobbling up the television schedules like a plague locusts, with hundreds of hours each week on an ever-increasing number of terrestrial and satellite channels. Watch a live football match, and half the perimeter ads will be for poker websites, one of which flexed its fiscal muscle and underlined its legitimacy by sponsoring last weekend's 2000 Guineas meeting at Newmarket. At current rates of growth (the profits of the larger ones at least triple year on year), some of these sites will soon, should they decide to float, be among the highest capitalised companies on the London stock exchange.

A decade from now, when Party.Poker.co.uk and PokerStars.com have swallowed up ICI and BT, historians may seek to explain how this card game progressed at such bewildering pace from the back rooms of redneck Alabama bars to the apex of the FTSE 100. On one level, it will be a story simply told by reference to a Holy Trinity of popularising breakthroughs.

First, Channel 4 pioneered under-the-poker cameras, enabling viewers to see the players' cards as they play them. At a stroke, a TV spectacle that had rivalled live fishing as the medium's most effective chemical-free alternative to Temazepam was transformed into something dramatic and compelling.

Then came the websites. Suddenly, inside three minutes, anyone with a broadband connection could download the software, deposit money via a credit card and sit in a bedroom in Basingstoke playing a near-perfect simulation of the game with like-minded weirdos from Vegas, Ulan Bator and Vladivostock.

Finally, two years ago, one of these internet players achieved the miracle. A chubby young accountant from Tennessee qualified for the World Series main event, poker's world championship, for $40 through an on-line satellite, and beat some 800 rivals to a first prize well over two million dollars. That he was called Chris Moneymaker didn't hurt, and when a year later another on-line qualifier won the title, the number of entrants had trebled to 2,500.

This July, in Vegas, there will be many more than that, and along with half of Hollywood's A-list (the Matt Damon poker movie Rounders is worth catching, not least for John Malkovich's stupendously hilarious Russian accent), I will be among them. The technical term for an internet player like myself (until recently I would have written "internet addict", but I've managed to cut down to 10 hours a day) is "dead money".

So exquisitely refined are the antennae of the professionals to the subconscious mannerisms known as "tells" - they can gauge your hand from an infinitesimal facial twitch - that those who play seldom in the flesh probably have a better chance of winning the the Nobel Prize for physics than one of the ultra-bling bracelets given to World Series winners.

However, near certain swift elimination is irrelevant. What the $10,000 entry fee to this event buys is a slim but delicious slice of fantasy. No Limit Texas Hold 'Em, the macho variation played in most tournaments, is the ideal game for a presidential age we might characterise as No Limit Texas Kill 'Em. Stick on the wraparound shades, pull on the baseball cap, affect the icy disdain of the pros, and we can all play at being the Cincinnati Kid while the chips last.

Having reached an age when adolescent dreams of a maiden Test century in the Ashes Test at Lords or edging a split decision over Marvelous Marvin Hagler become untenable, poker is the one quasi-sporting fantasy left. Everyone can posture and play the hard man, or woman, and the 10-15 per cent of the game that depends on luck introduces a democratising element that sustains the self-delusion. With a run of great cards, or even a purple patch of inspired bluffing, the mediocre can destroy the world's best. We can all be heroes, to adapt David Bowie, just for one hand.

When the exponential growth of poker will run out of steam no one knows, but the sole visible threat comes with a heavy pinch of irony. Whether it is lawful to play on-line poker is a grey legal area in the US. This may seem vaguely paradoxical in a country in which one can buy an automatic firearm at Walmart for the price of a few dozen Dunkin' Donuts, but eventually the Supreme Court may have to decide if Americans are entitled to spend their money on a game primarily of skill.

If and when it comes to it (and given that a Commander in Chief on such close terms with the Almighty is no fan of gambling, it may not be too long), defence attorneys may remind the justices of older presidential echoes. On reflection, perhaps they won't dwell on Richard Nixon funding his college education through five-card stud. But they might remind the court of how Harry Truman mulled over the most agonising single judgement in human history during round-the-clock poker sessions with the White House press corps on the boat bringing him home from Potsdam, before finally deciding to call Hirohito's bluff and use the atomic bomb.

Until then, poker will continue to mushroom over the horizons of commerce, leisure and even perhaps politics. With thousands upon thousands taking up the game each month, the endorsement of Paul Maxfield and our other heroes of poker could be a very handy campaign tool in 2009.

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