Poker craze serving up endless school of fish to Vegas sharks

It might be the ultimate rope trick. For years big-time poker's sharpest players have worked to generate the sort of enormous action that keeps their juices flowing and their bankrolls growing. You can't live by tournament play alone, and some of the Strip's marathon no-limit games have reached legend status.

Nick the Greek and Johnny Moss played historical marathon games. Doyle Brunson, Bobby Baldwin, Chip Reese, and Howard Lederer can boast of off-the-books games that lasted days and saw millions cross the table.

The staggering ebb and flow of fortune in games involving billionaire Andy Beal and several Vegas hall-of-famers has set a modern standard.

Then something even more interesting happened. Poker went Hollywood and into cyberspace, and the floodgates opened.

Now not only did the Brunsons of the business not have to hustle up a big game, but they had scads of moneyed players pursuing them in search of a piece of stardom.

They no longer have to rope players. Today, poker's heavyweights are chased like the Beatles through the streets in "A Hard Day's Night."

Turn on a television, and "Texas Dolly" is on almost as often as "Sex and the City." The Horseshoe World Series of Poker has an enormous following on ESPN, even in re-runs. Phil Hellmuth is no Bogart, but these days he might be more recognizable. And, lordy, even Jesus Ferguson is smiling and mugging for the camera.

And there's the celebrity poker craze, where mostly rotten players with familiar faces clown and play kissy face for the camera to pretty fair ratings.

There are burgeoning poker Web site and magazine arenas. These are as important as fish hatcheries to the Vegas sharks. Thousands of rank amateurs, outright suckers, and pretty good players from Pocatello are signing on and subscribing. Every last one of them dream of finding themselves in Vegas holding pocket aces and staring down Brunson gunfighter style. The fact a few dot-com commandos have reached the final table at major tournaments only makes the subculture more seductive.

It all adds up to the ultimate rope trick, and dollar-for-dollar arguably the best pitches for Las Vegas in decades. Asking a poker player if he wants a seat at a table in Vegas is like asking a baseball fan if he wants to visit Cooperstown.

Think about it: Other than Jackie Gaughan's liberal slots and the Boyds' and Fertittas' video poker contests, when was the last time the gambling capital of the world effectively promoted gambling?

Not only could companies not advertise the games they offered, but most casino operators have long been obsessed with reinventing themselves as art-collecting entertainment directors. Look on casino Web sites and it's never about cards and dice.

Instead, it's shopping malls and gourmet steaks, increasingly weird contortionist shows and roller coasters. It's off-the-record weekends and a chance to watch a rodeo -- anything but cards and dice.

I think that's why attempts to turn casino activity into reality television shows have managed to be boring.

Compare that with the action on ESPN and the well-produced " Presents: Learn From The Pros," and it's easy to see the poker kings are miles ahead of their casino counterpart.

With poker books jamming store shelves, and guys like Lederer, Ferguson, Phil Ivey, and Brunson becoming household names, I found myself watching poker on ESPN the other night when a sudden melancholy washed over me.

Now that poker has gone Hollywood, I realize it never again will have the outlaw image that once defined the game at the highest levels.

And I thought how much a guy like the late Stuey Ungar would have cleaned up on the endless school of fish that swims into Las Vegas in search of the ultimate showdown. Nowadays, there's little need to rope new players; poker's new-found celebrity is doing the job just fine.

Somewhere out there beyond cyberspace, I figure Stuey is cursing his luck and wishing he'd taken better care of himself. Like his currently celebrated colleagues in the new world of poker, he could smell a score from a mile away.

n John L. Smith's column appears Thursdays in the Nevada Appeal. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.


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