Roguish to rampant: poker's sudden allure

Critics say it's a compulsive habit. Players call it a test of skill. Either way, the chips are flying.

American lore is steeped in it - from legendary games dealt in parlors in the Wild West to smoky backrooms in New York City.

Now, with reality TV, televised tournaments that draw millions of viewers, and an explosion of websites, poker has become America's latest craze, with an estimated 50 million people checking their cards and tossing their chips.

Indeed, a game once viewed as roguish has permeated the most unlikely pockets of society, from games squeezed in before the school bell rings to families hunched over computers after dinner. Now historical societies, Rotary clubs, youth sports leagues, and high school boosters are all betting on its faddish popularity, hosting poker nights in lieu of the traditional crafts show or car wash.

The trend is not without critics. Some say that poker night at the local community center glorifies the game - in a way that could lead to gambling addictions, especially among the youngest and most impressionable.

Yet for many others, it's just one more sign that gambling has become part of the fabric of daily life. An overwhelming majority of Americans have stuffed coins into slot machines or rolled dice at least once in their lives. And when it comes to poker, supporters say the game is unfairly demonized, given that it requires patience, concentration, and cunning.

"The reputation used to be [one of] backroom cheaters, of a dirty game," says Bill Thompson, a professor of public administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. But over the years, with the exposure it has gotten in mainstream society, "it's been sanitized a bit."

A man's ritual - now for charity

At a bingo hall in Laconia, N.H., one recent evening, 49 players gathered for a game of Texas Hold 'Em, the form of poker most popular on TV. Some players covered their eyes (and bluffs) with sunglasses. Proceeds were for the American Classic Arcade Museum, to build a new space for restoration work and seminars.

While gambling is generally illegal in New Hampshire, aside from the state lottery, nonprofits can hold up to 10 poker games per year, says Art Phillips, the event's organizer. Laws on poker and charity gambling vary from state to state.

Mr. Phillips has owned Casino Game Rental since 2001 and says demand has tripled in the past three years. He sets up about three events a week in New Hampshire and Vermont.

The game is still a man's ritual to some degree, he says - 90 percent of participants are male - but women are increasingly joining the craze.

Ed Batchelder, dressed in jeans and crocodile boots, folded his hands over his chest and growled during a tense moment in the game. But he explained later that he'd come to relax. Growing up on his family's farm - with 10 siblings and little money - the kids played cards for fun. His first game of poker was at age 10.

Before charities began hosting poker nights he'd play weekly games with his friends and family. "I like playing strangers. Strangers can't read you," he says. Besides, he adds, this is all for a good cause.

Profits, skill, and the dirty 'g' word

To some, charities' acceptance of profits from games of chance raises philosophical questions about role modeling. "Parents and sponsors seem to be unaware that there is a health risk here," says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.

But the appeal is clear: Proceeds for nonprofits can range from $6,000 to $12,000, says Phillips. "That's a lot better than selling candy bars," he says. "You have to wash a lot of cars for that kind of money."

Brendan Smith, who volunteered for the American Classic Arcade Museum event, also helped the Lake Winnipesauke Historical Society run ten tournaments earlier this summer to raise funds for a new roof. He doesn't play poker. "Personally it's not really my cup of tea," he says. And he admits that "some people shy away from the "gambling" word.

In the time of kings and queens

Poker's origins are believed to be in Persia, Germany, and France, with the first playing cards coming to the New World via Christopher Columbus. In the US, it drifted its way along the Mississippi River in various forms and reached the West Coast with the onset of the Gold Rush.

Movies have glorified the game, from "The Sting" to "Rounders." Poker received a new burst of attention with reality shows like the Travel Channel's "World Poker Tour." Chris Moneymaker's win of $2.5 million at the "World Series of Poker" on ESPN last year added to the popularity.

Technology has also played a role: On television, cameras are often set at each table, allowing viewers to see the cards players are holding, adding to the drama of the game.

"Now everyone wants to win," says Stanley Sludikoff, editor and publisher of Poker Player newspaper in California. Participation in the "World Series of Poker" tripled between 2003 to 2004, to over 2,500 players.

If the market for poker on TV has grown, it's not at the expense of other games, says Mr. Thompson. Slot machines and Black Jack still reign in the casino. But in American homes - with the number of online poker rooms exceeding 200, according to pokerpulse.com - poker is leading a trend.

Part of the allure of the game, say many players, is that it demands practice and skill, from reading others' faces and gestures to tests of strategy.

But that's exactly what gambling critics point to when speaking out against poker: The quest for mastery leads to compulsive playing, says Mr. Whyte. They also voice concern about the number of teens gambling today. According to a 2003 survey by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, more than 50 percent of young people from age 14 to 22 gamble at least once a month.

Thompson sees gambling as a fine recreational activity, but not in excess. He says charity nights for gambling are acceptable in moderation, but may send a mixed message. Advocates claim the money goes to good causes, like education - yet to Thompson, "they are introducing a value very much against education: that to get ahead in life, you roll the dice."

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