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The popularity of poker is increasing faster than ever. From TV shows to the World Series in Las Vegas, poker fanatics and newcomers are waiting to
Thursday, May 13, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:04 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

n 1986, Bill Mullins, a Columbia resident and former video store owner, left the Black Jack table at a Las Vegas casino and walked to a Texas Hold’em game being played nearby. Back then, Mullins wasn’t an extremely experienced poker player. In fact, he didn’t know what a flush was.

But as Mullins tells it, he sat down at that table and won more than $100 off a royal flush, the highest hand in poker.

Mullins, who now plays poker semi-professionally, said that from that moment on, he was hooked.

“I used to race cars and in high school, I was big into athletics,” he said. “Poker gave me another chance to compete at something.”

But it took Mullins awhile before he became competitive. In seven years of heavy poker playing, between 1990 and 1997, he lost $40,000.

After a night in which a group of experienced poker players showed pity on Mullins’ poor play, they told him about some books he could read to improve his game.

Mullins took their advice to heart.

“At first I played poker for fun,” he said. “Then, I thought it would be more fun to win.”

He began reading books by Poker luminaries such as David Sklansky, T.J. Cloutier and Tom McEvoy. Within 2½ years, he had earned back all the money he had lost. He has made money playing poker every year since.


In the past few years, poker has seen a remarkable growth in popularity.

The Travel Channel’s broadcast of the World Poker Tour is its highest rated program. The World Series of Poker, held every year at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, has become a major sporting event.

Even the Bravo cable channel has jumped on the poker bandwagon, offering up celebrity poker games, where, for example, the cast of “The West Wing” plays poker for charity.

No Limit Texas Hold’em, nicknamed “the Cadillac of poker,” is the game shown on TV. In this form of poker, every player receives two cards, and five community cards are placed face up on the table. The presence of the community cards makes mind games more of a factor.

The boost in poker’s popularity has made some of the game’s professional players into celebrities.

One of these celebrities is professor, author and professional poker player James McManus. In 2000, McManus was sent to Las Vegas by Harper’s magazine to cover the growing number of top female poker players at the series and the murder trial of those accused of killing the heir to Binion’s Casino.

He used his $4,000 advance to enter the World Series, the first No Limit Texas Hold’em tournament he had ever played in, finished fifth and won almost $250,000. This is chronicled in his book, “Positively Fifth Street.”

McManus said that Texas Hold’em’s new popularity has a lot to do with a new camera first put to use in the United States by the producers of the World Poker Tour in 2002. The table-level camera allows the viewer to see which cards each player has before they’re shown.

Before this development, poker was not a good TV attraction because professional poker players are extremely good at hiding their emotions, McManus said.

“Watching poker on TV was like watching bears sleep and smoke,” he said.

Mullins said that in the last few years, he has seen high level poker become a professional sport, complete with corporate sponsorship and financial backing for the best players.

“All of a sudden, it’s become like golf or tennis,” Mullins said,

He said the popularity boost has increased his winnings because of the influx of inexperienced poker players.


Lee Vaugn thinks of himself as an average poker player. He has recently moved to Colorado after spending a year and a half in Columbia, where he was the assistant general manager of the Drury Inn. He has been playing poker for four years. His favorite poker story is about the time he won a hand off of Phil Helmuth, the 1989 World Series of Poker Champion, on an online poker site.

Like Mullins, Vaugn read books written by poker experts in order to improve his play. He said the books gave him perspective on which starting hands to play and which ones to fold.

Vaugn also improved his skills at Texas Hold’em by playing in games that had low limits on the amount of money that could be bet at one time. These types of games are less risky, and they make bluffing less of a factor.

“They let me get a feel for the basics without wasting a lot of money,” Vaugn said.

McManus said that playing poker with money you can’t afford to lose is a bad idea for reasons other than not being able to pay for rent.

“You don’t play good poker when you’re afraid,” McManus said.

Mullins said a new player should only play the best starting hands possible at first, then slowly, expand the number of hands they’ll play with.

He also suggested taking advantage of poker Web sites. Several sites, such as or, allow users to take part in “play money” games for free, meaning beginners can learn the game without risk. users can enter the bonus code BM999 to receive special benefits.

McManus said that becoming a good poker player involves learning to be patient, rather than acting on adrenaline alone.

“The art of poker involves balancing the two as well as possible,” he said.

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