Hold ‘em Poker drawing a crowd

Tuesday, September 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:36 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Matt Damon’s opening line in the movie “Rounders” summed it up well.

“If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.”

With ESPN’s highly-rated coverage of the World Series of Poker concluding tonight, it’s time I let you newbies in on a little secret: You’re all suckers.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have had to warn you. The same Las Vegas tourists who would shoot craps or play blackjack until 5 a.m. were terrified of sitting at a poker table. Movies like “Rounders” and “The Cincinnati Kid” convinced the general public that poker sharks were not only the shadiest of shady characters, but they also had mind-reading capabilities.

In 1982, the World Series of Poker had 52 entrants. More than 2,500 players paid $10,000 for a seat at the 2004 main event.

What accounts for poker’s recent popularity? To steal a line from Homer Simpson, I blame the Internet.

Now people can anonymously try the game for free online. With no fear of humiliation or bankruptcy, poker novices discovered that, despite poker veterans’ best efforts to say otherwise, luck is indeed a huge factor.

Suddenly, poker isn’t so scary anymore.

Then the 2003 World Series of Poker happened. The aptly-named Chris Moneymaker, an accountant from Tennessee, became the first amateur to win the championship. He won the $2.5-million first prize by earning a spot at the main-event table through a $40 online tournament. As a result, the number of entrants in the 2004 main event tripled from 2003.

Columbia resident David Smith, 33, said he liked poker more before it became mainstream.

Smith said he plays for about 20 hours per week, including games with friends and biweekly trips to St. Louis casinos.

“When I started playing poker about 10 years ago, I thought I was a part of a cool subculture,” he said. “Now everyone’s playing. Somehow it’s just not quite as fun when new players aren’t shaking in their boots.”

Perhaps poker veterans are simply afraid of stiffer competition. According to Smith, that isn’t the case.

“As much as I love it, I’d encourage everyone to not play poker,” Smith said. “It’s an evil, evil game, but if you win the first time you play, you’ll be hooked for life.

“The thing with poker is that it makes you doubt yourself. There’s always a few hands where if you would have (played the hand) you would have won a ton of money. The problem is the odds say you made the right move.”

Smith said no-limit poker, where players can bet all their chips at any time, is especially taxing on one’s psyche.

“You can play great no-limit poker for 12 hours and lose your entire stack in one hand,” he said. “No limit makes you want to bet all your chips. It tests your patience more than anything I’ve done.”

Smith said playing the game can be thrilling as well as maddening.

“When you’re hot, poker seems like the easiest game in the world,” he said. “You’re playing a game and watching yourself get richer at the same time. To me, it’s worse than any drug.

Mid-Missourians will have to wait a few more months for sanctioned gold digging. Boonville’s Isle of Capri casino plans to open a new poker room this winter.

It seems there’s only one safe bet in poker: More of us are about to get sucked in.

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