Poker big deal in region

TV coverage has made old-time card game next big thing

Do you know what it's like to flop the nut flush?

How about catching a set on the river or calling with a straight draw against a monster? You can bet legions of Texas hold 'em poker fans do.

They have been flocking to online poker rooms in droves, now that the popularity of the game has reached an all-time high.

"Its a sickness," said Richmond Hill resident and admitted poker addict Stephen Smith. "I play on my laptop, whenever, wherever."

Increased TV coverage of poker tournaments featuring professional players from around the globe, including world No. 1 and proud Torontonian Daniel Negreanu, has helped make the game the next big thing.

The dot com crowd has jumped on board, setting up sites in legal jurisdictions that can be accessed from any computer capable of logging on the Internet the world over.

Since, by law, the only group that can run a gaming operation in Ontario is the province itself, Ab Campion, spokesperson for the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, said it is against the law to set up a poker site here.

In fact, it is also illegal for Ontario residents to play for cash, either with friends at home or on the Internet, although it's not a law authorities are enforcing.

One can still play for fun, though, a feature available on most poker sites.

Playing without risking cash can be a good way to learn the game, Mr. Smith said.

"I don't play for real money. I'm a little too responsible for that," he said.

"Plus, I know with my obsessive compulsive personality. I'd never be able to stop."

Even at 3 a.m., close to 5,500 players hit the poker site Mr. Smith frequents, one of dozens on the Internet.

But Newmarket's Andrew Taylor, who plays for cash, says it's not the same game without the stakes.

"On the free tables, play is different, people take more chances," he said. "But for beginners, it is a good way to learn. You can play a lot of hands in a short time."

Mr. Taylor doesn't put his paycheque on the line and said for any gambler, the most important thing is to set limits.

If you want the real thing without a major risk, many sites have two-cent tables for low rollers, he said.

"Like every kid, I learned to play poker when I was little, but the last couple of years it has become a hobby, a passion," he said. "I think the popularity is rising because it's on mainstream TV, ESPN. People see a guy like (2003 World Series of Poker champion Chris) Moneymaker. He started online with a $27 deposit and turned it into like $3 million. They think 'Hey, that could be me.'"

There was no opportunity to play live tournaments in York Region without getting involved in an illegal game, until the Red Hot Poker Tour rolled into the region last week.

The tour sets up 80-person no-entry-fee Texas hold 'em tournaments in bars, where patrons vie for bragging rights.

With more than 100 people showing up for the first night at the London Pub and Grill on Yonge Street in Richmond Hill last Tuesday, it looks like it's here to stay.

"We offer a risk-free environment to learn the chess of card games," said Red Hot's founder Dean 'Drifter' Macneil. "It gives people a chance to improve their skills without risking all their cash at a casino."

Like a band, Red Hot gets paid by the bar to set up the game and since they've hired a former World Poker Tour tournament director to run the show, Mr. Macneil said they provide as professional a tournament experience as one will find in Las Vegas.

He attributes the rise in popularity of the game to its accessibility.

"Part of it is the TV coverage, but a lot of it is people think they can take on the pros. If you like golf, it's not like you can just go play on the PGA tour, but with poker, you pay the entry fee, you can take on the best in the world," he said.

"This is not a new game, it hasn't changed for decades. It's the same old poker. It requires a cerebral approach and you need to understand math and probabilities and know how to calculate odds. It is a sophisticated game, but you don't need to be a jock to be a good poker player. It's a mix of skill and chance."

The popularity of the game has sent Ontario's casinos scrambling to set up bigger and better poker rooms, Mr. Campion said.

But according to the provincial Ministry of Economic Development and Trade's new Ontario gaming strategy announced in January, the province will stay out of Internet gaming for now.

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