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The only sport in the world where the money's on the table: scenes from World Poker Tour, which will not make you an expert

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 Show during 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? Everybody knows 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.  

The series, which debuted in March and runs through June 25, is a novel concept, treating a game of Hold 'Em like any other sport: You see what everyone's dealt (two cards down, the "pocket cards," before the community three-card flop, followed by a fourth then a fifth card against which you play your first two), then see how the pros and would-bes play their hands--or, if they're smart, don't most of the time. Sitting at home, without a dwindling pile of clay in front of you and nothing to lose more than two hours of sleep, you play along, occasionally guess better than pros holding "Big Slick" ace-king, pick up a little lingo (God forbid you start referring to two aces as "American Airlines") and suddenly you're an expert on the subject of Hold 'Em, which is all serious gamblers will play. Expert, right. More like moron.

The World Poker Tour was formed a year ago, when some very smart folks realized they had a pretty good built-in audience--some 55 million estimated players in the United States alone, which "is up there with how many people sleep," Bellin says. What the Los Angeles-based WPT came up with is pretty ingenious: part game show, part reality TV, part sporting event. And because you're allowed to see what each player is holding, you can follow along and learn some strategy--"even if you know nothing about poker," WPT's Kania says. Add in a weekly tutorial, profiles of the rotating cast of players and lessons in lingo, and what you wind up with is a weekly two-hour class that, by show's end, is as thrilling as most NBA playoff games.

"We looked around and said, 'Here's something with more players and interest than golf or tennis or these other sports on TV, but it has no place on television,'" Kania says. "We questioned why isn't it out there? Probably in the past there was some hesitation to do it, because of the image of poker. The reason our timing is good is the image is changing. It's more of a public entity. It's not just in the back rooms, not just pure gamblers and cheats and liars--your basic Hollywood image. The people in the casinos elevated and cleaned up the game's image, and World Poker Tour said, 'Let's take it one more step and put it on the mass-appeal level.'"

It's certainly worked: Though the Travel Channel won't release specific figures, Kania says the audience is three times bigger than anything the network used to draw on Wednesday nights and it continues to grow every week. And the Travel Channel has ordered two more episodes to fill out this season's short run.

Over on FX at 9 p.m. Tuesdays, you can see the flip side of World Poker Tour: Robb and Mark Cullen's Lucky, the series My Big Fat Greek Wedding's John Corbett chose to do over the CBS version of the hit indie film. It was no gamble at all. Lucky gives 12-step recovery programs a bad name: Corbett's title character, a former world champ, keeps trying to go straight but winds up back at the table for any number of reasons--trying to pay off a debt owed his dead wife's parents, say, or just looking to make rent. He'll attend a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and swear he's seven months clean, when not seven minutes ago he was check-raising on the Strip.

"We spent a lot of time doing research in recovery groups, and the amazing thing was it's not the downtrodden who attend the meetings," Robb says. "There are guys who are buying stocks feverishly and consider that gambling, older men and women playing the nickel-slot machines. We asked hundreds of people why, of all places if you have a gambling addiction, why Vegas. Most of them said, 'If I can beat it here, I can beat it anywhere.' And you just go, 'Wow.'"

The Cullens sort of came of age in Vegas: They were born and raised in Philadelphia, but their music-biz father produced Wayne Newton, and the boys spent summers being taken out for ice cream by Lola Falana. They got the back-door glimpse at Vegas, and Robb got hooked on poker early; he still remembers how much he lost the first time he played Binion's, 400 bucks. But he kept coming back; it became a matter of ego, of wondering how the hell you could bet so foolishly. He kept thinking, You're better than those people, get back in there. So back he went, for more lessons.  

And in the end, that's really why people play poker: You determine how much you win or lose, not a pair of dice or a roulette wheel or a dealer trying to hit 21. You calculate the odds, you read the competition, you decide whether you've got the nuts to play. Sometimes the pros draw bad hands, the rookies come out with cowboys wired--far as you're concerned, you always stand a chance.

"People are getting wise that the casino's advantage is so built-in on all the other games," Robb says. "You're gonna lose blackjack; it's in the numbers. But in poker you're playing against other folks and determining your own fate. You can stay in and play a long time without spending any money. You don't get the cards, you don't have to play. People are seeing the light a little bit: that I can, if not lose a lot of money, keep most of their money playing poker, and those are the people we want sitting down with us." He laughs. "You're gonna throw that away anyway. Bring it to my side. I've got nothing, really."

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