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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.