Texas Hold 'Em Popular poker game raises the stakes

With cigarette smoke swirling around her head, Stacy Potter studies her cards,

Eyes on the table and makes a wager. One by one, five other players do the same. Weighing their chances, they must decide either to fold or to contribute to what is faWelcome to Texas Hold 'Em, a poker game that's become the rage. Televised tournaments, some featuring big-name celebrities, air on cable stations, Web sites devoted to teaching the in's and out's of the game and selling poker merchandise are doing gangbuster business. There's even a television show - the oddly named "Tilt" - that's set in the world of Las Vegas high-stakes poker.

On one cold winter's night, Potter's Homer Glen home couldn't be farther from Vegas. But it's where she and five friends regularly gather to play. Potter and her boyfriend, Matt Reed, of Orland Park, have been playing for about a year and a half. Like many, they became interested in the game after watching it on TV. "I like to gamble," Potter said. "I'll play whatever everybody else is playing. Can you win a lot? It depends."

Each player kicks in a "buy-in" amount - in Potter's game it's typically $10 or $20 - and receives chips with which to bet. Texas Hold 'Em is basically a version of seven-card stud where players are dealt two cards and make their bets based in part on the five cards dealt face up by the dealer. More bets are made as players are dealt additional cards.

"It's probably the easiest poker game to learn," said Ray Wegner, of Posen, who plays with Potter and Reed. "But it's not the easiest game to win." And it's a game that can go on for hours. In one marathon session, Potter's group played for nearly 12 hours. At the end, Potter and Wegner played the last hand - and then had breakfast. Wegner said he enjoys the game's unpredictable nature. "I like how fast you can go from having the most money to having nothing," he said. "Anything can happen. You can be out of the game in the span of one or two hands."

Reason for concern?

It's the financial aspect of the game that bothers gambling opponents like Tom Grey, who is concerned that the game is catching on with high school students. A retired Methodist minister, Grey is executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. Speaking from Florida, where he was testifying against a plan to put slot machines at horse racing tracks, Grey said parents who give their children poker chips and playing tables are making a mistake.

"Parents were buying this stuff as Christmas presents for their kids," he said. "These are people who feel it's good their kids are at home, playing poker, because they're not out somewhere drinking. "Why don't they just set up a bar downstairs and let the kids drink? Gambling is an addiction, just like alcoholism." Potter and her friends don't agree. Their enjoyment of the game comes more from the strategy involved, not the kitty at the end. "There's more skill involved than you think" when it comes to betting, bluffing and poker faces, Potter said. She has won with a pair of twos, she said.

Big money in game sales

Thanks to the growing popularity of Texas Hold 'Em, game company Spilsbury has seen its sales numbers skyrocket, said David Roth, vice president of merchandising and advertising for the catalog business."Texas Hold 'Em is driving sales of all casino-based products. It's hugely-popular with people," Roth said. "And it's not in its infancy. I think it's building to a level we haven't seen. Last year's products were all about uniqueness. This year's products are about availability."

Jay Patel, CEO of Senticore, the company that recently bought www.pokerbook.com, said Texas Hold 'Em "is insanely popular because it's reality." "It's more of a skill game," Patel said. "There's a large amount of chance based on it being a card game, but you can get a poor hand and still win if you outplay your opponent." Of course, gambling is illegal in Illinois, but Tinley Park Police Chief Mike O'Connell said his department has not received any calls about illicit games."Usually, we'll get calls about games from a jealous gambler who has lost his shirt, or an angry wife whose husband has lost his paycheck, but we haven't received any complaints about Texas Hold 'Em," O'Connell said. "If we did, we'd call the Cook County Sheriff's vice unit and put them onto it."

Like Grey, he's also concerned the game's growing popularity among teenagers.

"I think there's a legitimate concern about the teens and college kids who are playing and losing their shirts or maxing out their credit cards playing Internet poker," O'Connell said. "I've heard some horror stories about kids doing that." Patel, whose company offers online poker but no gambling, understands.

"As far as high school kids playing on weekends, in some ways it keeps them from doing other things, but I think there's also the risk of a possible gambling addiction," he said. "If kids are involved in this, parents should make sure they know what their kids are doing so it doesn't affect their everyday lives or schooling."

That said, Patel can envision a day when the United States makes online gambling legal because of "millions in possible tax revenue." "I think you'll see it happen in two years. It's a bold statement, but I think it will happen," he said. "Think about the amount of revenue U.S. citizens generate for overseas and off-shore companies. It's into the billions. "If you legalize it and regulate it, you have a situation where companies are scrutinized with checks and balances. Right now, we're giving up tremendous amounts of revenue to off-shore companies."

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