Poker: It's not just for casinos anymore

I have an addiction. For the past year, my life has revolved around dealers.

All of my friends are also into it. Some of our parents think it is dangerous, while some seem to enjoy it just as much as we do. I've even convinced my own mother to join in at times.

No, I'm not talking about anything illegal. I'm talking about the world of poker.

Poker has increased exponentially in popularity since ESPN began airing the World Series of Poker in primetime in 2002. Though the annual tournament has taken place since 1973, not many Americans had ever heard of it, let alone cared about it, until recently. Now all that has changed. Poker pros have become household names and there are loyal fans who root for their favorite players on television. It has reached the point where it officially qualifies as a "sport." Take that, backgammon!

The 2003 World Series consisted of 839 players, each with their eyes on the $2.5 million prize. Not bad for four days of work. The main event was won by a man whose birthname is -- and I swear on journalistic integrity that this is true -- Chris Moneymaker. Who could have seen that one coming? Moneymaker, an amateur player who qualified online in an $80 satellite tournament, gave all recreational players hope that they, too, could win the main event, as evident by the field of players increasing threefold in the 2004 tournament.

Don't be misled. Watching on television is far different than watching other people play a game at home. Every table is equipped with cameras along the outside, so the home viewer knows what every player's cards are, but the players themselves are clueless. The commentators also fill in less experienced viewers on the nuances of each hand and discuss whether or not a player has made the right bet at a given point.

I'm intrigued by each player's nickname. The 2004 World Series was won by Greg Raymer. Other notable pseudonyms include Johnny "The Orient Express" Chan; Mike Matusow; the legendary Doyle Brunson; and my favorite poker alias, Phil Laak. You're not going to find a nickname like "The Unabomber" while you're playing bridge.

Some say the "draw" to poker (pun intended) is watching celebrities. Many Hollywood notables like Drew Carey, Jack Black, Norm MacDonald, Ray Ramano and Ben Affleck shuffle up and deal for charity on television. Even Red Sox hero Curt Schilling took some time in the offseason toplay.And former U.S. President Warren G. Harding played twice a week with members of his cabinet.

The most popular game is "no limit Texas hold 'em." The "no limit" means players can bet all the chips they have at any point in any hand. This maneuver is known as going "all in" and, when used correctly, is quite a weapon at a poker table. To put it into game context, if the player with the most chips at the table goes "all in," anyone else who wishes to call that bet must put all of their chips at risk, which could potentially send them home broke.

In the history of the World Series of Poker, only three men had won more than $3 million in career prize money prior to the $5 million main event in 2004. One of them, Phil Hellmuth, won the World Series of Poker at the ripe old age of 24. He dropped out of college to play professionally, much to the dismay of his father. When young Phil won the main event the next year, however, his father changed his tune. You can imagine the thrilled look on my mother's face when I told her this story.

My question is simple. What is next? What's the next hobby that is going to take over the country? ESPN dedicates four hours a day to "sports" like poker, darts and billiards because it can see they are popular. The other day, and this is also true, I watched over an hour of a Scrabble match. Something tells me that's not going to be the next big thing. Are we someday going to turn on our televisions to watch air hockey? At this rate, I wouldn't be surprised to see minigolf sweep the nation.

But poker seems to be here for the long run. It's popularity continues to rise, along with its television ratings. Yet some believe it is addicting and is corrupting America's youth.

When my friends and I play, we each have our good nights and bad nights, but in the long run we all essentially break even. So my question to the naysaying parents is this: Would you rather have your child addicted to poker or alcohol? I know I would prefer my child to be out playing poker. Even if it were with a guy called the "Unabomber."

SIDEBAR

Knowing the hands

In "Texas hold 'em" every player is dealt two cards they keep to themselves, called "pocket cards." Even certain duos of these cards have nicknames. Here are some highlights, in order of highest valued starting hand to lowest.

Note: A = ace, K = king, etc...

A A -- Pocket rockets/bullets

A K -- Big slick

K K -- Cowboys

Q Q -- Ladies

J 5 -- Motown

10 2 -- Doyle Brunson (Brunson won the World Series two years in a row with 10 2 as his winning hand)

9 5 -- Dolly Parton

8 8 -- Snowmen/octopuses

5 5 -- Speed limit

4 4 -- Midlife crisis

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