Sports

Poker draws a full house

By CASEY OLSON

Sports editor

eff Brush flicks cards around a poker table at P.J. Pockets Casino Tuesday afternoon with machine-gun like precision — two cards, face down.

Fold, check, raise, the river and the most entertaining term in poker — all in — are terms that flow off the lips of the eight players sitting around the green felt at the Federal Way casino.

Brush just keeps dealing, without emotion, while he moves poker chips back and forth to the players, who are up and down like a roller coaster on a triple-tall latte.

“Winner, two pair,” Brush announces to a few groans in the background.

The game is Texas Hold ‘em and people are coming in droves to places like P.J. Pockets to play the all-of-a-sudden “in” sport of poker.

And television executives can take full credit for the recent explosion around the United States and the world.

To realize the newfound popularity of poker you only have to do a little channel surfing. The remote control will usually yield some sort of televised Texas Hold ‘em tournament.

“It’s kind of an interesting phenomenon,” said Steve Griffiths, owner of P.J. Pockets. “All those television programs coming out have given poker a real resurgence in interest. I’ve been in the business for a long time and I haven’t seen this type of interest.”

An interesting phenomenon that directly resulted in P.J. Pockets opening up a poker room last month. Before the power of television brought Hold ‘em to the forefront of American culture, P.J. Pockets had the normal casino play list — blackjack, roulette and craps, among others. Now, there are Texas Hold ‘em games played seven days a week from 1 in the afternoon into the early morning.

“We didn’t have a place to play poker,” Griffiths said. “So we opened up two tables in December because of the interest.”

The World Poker Tour, which airs Wednesday’s at 9 p.m., was the Travel Channel’s highest-rated show in 2003 and was the genesis for the countless Hold ‘em spinoffs that have emerged on ESPN, Bravo, Fox Sports and NBC, among others. The hour-long show had 3 to 5 million people tuning in every week and the reruns, which are being shown currently, are doing 27 percent better than their original airings. Organizers of the World Poker Tour (WPT) are now filming 13 more Hold ‘em tournaments, which will be televised the first quarter of this year.

A big part of the popularity in the WPT was the installation of lipstick cameras that show every players “hole cards.” The cameras let the audience know when a bluff is in process and exactly how the professionals play their hands.

“I can’t get enough of it,” said Federal Way resident Jeff Kreckman, who plays Texas Hold ‘em on an average of five times a week. “You kind of get into it and can’t turn it off.”

That is what the networks are banking on. Poker appears to be the next big thing in reality TV and imitators are coming out from under the table.

Later this year, the Casino and Gambling Television network is launching with more than one million subscribers looking to watch all day and all night. Also, “Survivor” creator Mark Burnett, the unquestioned king of reality television, has a show called “The Casino” in the works for Fox.

NBC is teaming up with the World Poker Tour for a Super Bowl Sunday special tomorrow during pre-game programming.

“With the World Poker Tour becoming one of the fastest growing and most talked about new properties on television, we are looking to create a showcase event,” said Jon Miller, senior vice president of programming for NBC Sports on their Web site. “There are enormous numbers of people at home and at parties looking for something entertaining to watch before the Super Bowl.”

The World Series of Poker, however, remains the biggest poker game going. The event, held in Las Vegas, drew 839 players, paying $10,000 each, this year for a first prize of $2.5 million — Bbigger than the top prize at the Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon or the Indianapolis 500. Almost one million households tuned in to watch on ESPN late last year and got to see one of the most amazing sports stories of 2003.

The winner of the World Series was a 27-year-old accountant from Tennessee named Chris Moneymaker, who qualified for the tournament by winning a $40 Internet game. It was his first live Hold ‘em tournament.

“I think that whole story spiked peoples interest,” Griffiths said.

“This is the sonic boom of poker,” said Nolan Dalla, media director for the World Series of Poker in a press release. “This means anyone in their home can become a poker player.”

Moneymaker and other professional players like Phil Hellmuth, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Jennifer Harmon, Scotty Nguyen and Johnny Chan are as recognizable as their counterparts in the NFL, Major League Baseball or the NBA.

The improbable Moneymaker win left an impression on Kreckman. The unemployed office worker is currently paying some of the bills with Texas Hold ‘em winnings and claims to have won well over $1,000 since Christmas.

“It’s been pretty prosperous,” Kreckman said while playing at PJ Pockets on a Wednesday afternoon. “I started playing for fun and was losing pretty consistently. But I started winning within a month. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of understanding of the odds and the math of the game.”

That’s why Texas Hold ‘em has gained a reputation of being more of an intellectual game. The Associated Students of the University of Washington Experimental College is even offering a class — Learn Poker for Fun and Profit — during the winter quarter that teaches the ins and outs of Texas Hold ‘em.

“Learning poker can be the beginning of a lifetime activity of enjoyment, continual challenge, and profit,” the course description says. “We’ll focus on the basics of Texas Hold’em. You’ll learn the rules, hand rankings, betting structures and strategy. Also covered are the importance of position, psychology, bluffing, semi-bluffing and tells.”

With the rocketship-like popularity of Hold’em, you would think the gambling crisis centers would also be experiencing a growth in popularity. But that’s not happening, according to Gary Hanson, the executive director of the Washington State Council on Problem Gambling.

“We don’t have any data to show any increase,” he said. “So I can’t tie anything to the TV. But I do see all the shows when I’m flipping through the channels. We’ll see what happens.”

“It’s just a fun game to play,” Kreckman said.

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565, sports@fedwaymirror.com

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