At this World Series, a full house is expected

Poker: More than 6,000 players are expected to ante up $10,000 each for a chance to win $7.4 million at the World Series of Poker's main event.

Poker

July 03, 2005|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,SUN STAFF

Mention of the World Series once exclusively evoked runs, hits and errors.

But that's the old World Series.

The new World Series, at least new in the consciousness of millions of Americans, has a far different lexicon: flop, turn and river. Also, all-in, on tilt and bad beat.

The 36th World Series of Poker, the marquee event of the card craze that has saturated TV and even elbowed its way onto sports pages, begins its championship finale Thursday at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas with an expected record-shattering field of 6,600 competitors. With each occupied seat representing a $10,000 buy-in, the total prize pool will be more than $62 million. The winner will earn $7.4 million, and every player who survives to the final table of nine will walk away a millionaire.

The main event, the $10,000 No-limit Texas Hold 'em World Championship, is actually the denouement of a series of 45 individual poker tournaments of varying styles and buy-ins, which will have a total prize pool exceeding $100 million. That makes the six-week WSOP probably the richest competition in the country, outstripping most major golf tournaments, horse races and prize fights - and certainly the players' share of that other World Series.

"Nobody knows what the future of poker will be," said Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, whose black cowboy hat and beard help make him one of the more recognizable stars on the card-playing scene. "But no one - not the game's biggest promoters - could have predicted this."

Entries for this year's final event, which will run for about 10 days, are more than double last year's field of more than 2,500, and that group tripled the previous year of 839.

The 2003 championship was the seminal occasion for poker's run to pop culture obsession when a then-unknown, 27-year-old accountant from Tennessee with the Dickensian name of Chris Moneymaker won $2.5 million and the coveted gold bracelet that goes with any WSOP victory after he had qualified for the tournament with a $39 investment in an Internet satellite game.

That a player with virtually no big-time experience and a meager starting stake could catapult to rock star status helped touch off a poker-playing frenzy that reaches from the world's ritziest casinos to high school lunchrooms and college dorms.

Orin Starn, a Duke University professor who teaches a course in sports anthropology, said the rise of poker speaks to broader societal mores and values.

"Sports don't gain or lose popularity in a vacuum," Starn said. "They respond to some development in American culture."

Starn pointed to basketball as a game that enjoyed an unexpected surge. "It was invented in 1891 and by the early 20th century, it was broadly accepted and it stuck," the professor said.

That game's introduction coincided with an increasingly sedentary society's recognition of fitness and exercise, and it could be played indoors.

"So why poker now?" Starn said. "For one [thing], it fits with an American fascination with winner-take-all. Poker is a place where people are dealing with huge sums of money, jackpots. You can get rich overnight."

Plus, Starn said, the game's TV success is consistent with the current appeal of all types of reality TV.

Here for a while?

The question is whether, like basketball, poker is here for the long haul or simply a fad.

"Unlike the hula-hoop, poker is something that has been with us a long time," said Steve Moore, a senior vice president with IMG, an international sports representation and marketing firm whose clients include Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning and Maria Sharapova.

"Poker has just been latent and behind closed doors. If you played, maybe you didn't talk about it. But here we have something that really has been popular all along and now it has a Good Housekeeping Seal. It's all right to play and talk about it, and it's even being considered a quasi-sport."

But like all sudden successes, such as hot real estate markets or dot-com stocks, the game's popularity bubble raises concerns.

"Will it hit a zenith in terms of TV viewership? I think it will," Moore said. "I'm not sure it will become mainstream."

For now, though, poker's surging popularity has reached huge proportions, especially among young people - a grave concern to those who work in gambling addiction.

"The primary reason it appeals to young people is the way it has been glamorized and promoted," said Keith Whyte, executive director for the National Council on Problem Gambling.

"We never had TV celebrating these [poker] celebrities and bringing the excitement and perceived skill. The glamour has not been accompanied by responsible messages."

Plus, the Internet - a landscape with which young people are comfortable - has been the entry point for many new poker players. "They start by playing for play money and when they think they're good enough, they move to real money," Whyte said.

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