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We've become a poker nation, so deal me in

I didn't lose $100 playing poker last night. I paid $100 for poker lessons--a Hold 'Em tutorial, to be straight with you, though if I'd actually seen a straight during four hours of play, the instructional rates might have been slightly less steep. Last night, I became, more or less, the 55,000,001st American to take up the game when I should have been putting it down and picking up a copy of The Book of Virtues. Luck, you'll soon discover when seated with eight guys more skilled than fortunate, is spelled with a capital F. Luck just ain't the same thing as ability, not even in the same time zone. Oh, yeah. Like that's stopping the swelling ranks of would-bes and wannabes gathering nightly in basements and boardrooms, country clubs and casinos. Poker--it's the new heroin. Or at least the new backgammon.

The game has slithered out of the back room and into your living room--smoke-free, family-friendly and ready for prime time. It's on TV twice a week, in a backlot Vegas populated by lovable scoundrels (on FX's Lucky, about a pro poker player who isn't) and as a traveling tournament where former construction workers try to tilt big-name-big-money pros who've worked decades to make millions (on the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour). And it's become the stuff of best-selling literature: James McManus' Positively Fifth Street: Murders, Cheetahs and Binion's World Series of Poker--in which the writer simultaneously covers the murder trial of Ted Binion, gruesomely offed by his prostitute girlfriend and her lover, and his own participation in the World Series of Poker--has been on shelves only weeks, and already Farrar, Strauss, Giroux has seen its initial press run of 75,000 disappear.

"Poker's always been there," says World Poker Tour Senior Vice President Audrey Kania. "But, till recently, nobody ever talked about it."

Andy Bellin, author of the just-out-in-paperback Poker Nation, figures the mainstreaming of poker began five years ago, when ESPN began televising the World Series of Poker from Binion's, located in the black heart of what's left of downtown Las Vegas. Long before that, mom-and-pop America thought poker looked like cowboy-hat-headed Amarillo Slim Preston, who was as much a regular on Johnny Carson's Tonight Showduring the 1970s as Jack Hanna's monkeys. "But he was always seen as the gentleman gambler," Bellin says of the 73-year-old Texan, who won the World Series of Poker in 1972 and is currently touring the country promoting his new autobiography.

"With ESPN and the Travel Channel and America's fascination with The Sopranos and poker, it's become very mainstream," says Bellin, who left graduate school for an education at the poker table. "And there's almost no city not two hours away from any casino, so people are exposed to it more. We've slowly been allowed to admit we play. A friend was writing a magazine article the other day about poker, and he said, 'Do you mind if I use your name?' I said, 'Mind what? Everybodyknows I play.'"

Till Bellin and McManus came along, most poker books read like grad-school textbooks or stereo instructions; they alienated the newbie looking for a few helpful tips. Bellin and McManus have their predecessors, chief among them A. Alvarez, whose 1983 The Biggest Game in Town, originally an anecdotal series of profiles of World Series cardsharps written for The New Yorker, is just back in print. But this new generation of authors explicates our longtime passion and growing obsession for the game. Theirs are as much sociological observations as practical handbooks, as interested in why others play as much as in why they're raising with a pair.

They put you at the table and in their heads, explaining why they're playing this seemingly bad hand and mucking the one that looks good. Both books lead to the same place--the World Series of Poker, the player's Oz--but take different routes, and they're essential additions to the canon, as is longtime champ Phil Hellmuth's brand-new Play Poker Like the Pros. Blessed is the great player who will let you peer over his shoulder and let you learn without charging you for every hand.

"What I tried to do was say, 'Everybody's doing it, let's talk about it,'" Bellin says. "Positively Fifth Street, which will go down as the greatest gambling book ever written, was even beyond what I tried to do. I tried to write a book every frat boy and every housewife could pick up and say, 'This is an interesting topic.' McManus said, 'I will approach this intellectually and try to explain to you why somebody like me, with a decent job and a beautiful wife, would find this so amazing.'"

Spend a week reading all of these books, which you can no more put down than an opening pair of AK, and you will convince yourself you're ready to buy into a game--maybe not at Binion's, but certainly at your next-door neighbor's. Spend three straight nights watching videotapes of the World Poker Tour, currently airing every Wednesday night on the Travel Channel, and you will begin believing you're ready to take down Hellmuth, who's been bluffed and broken more than once on the show by guys who aren't one-ninth the card player he is.

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