Poker enters a renaissance

Participation in the card game has greatly increased in the past few years. A large number of people are also watching poker shows on television.

By Jonathan Friedman/Assistant Editor

When Robert Ross began writing his book, “The Player,” earlier this year, he knew that poker was on the rise in popularity. But the Malibu Canyon resident had no idea that the card game was about to enter a renaissance not seen since the days of riverboats and the Wild West.

Ross’ collection of short stories about a big time gambler who almost always wins has come at a time when poker on television is competing in the ratings with mainstream sports, and the usual Christmas wish list has changed from video games and tools to poker chips and playing cards.

Ross, whose real name is Robert Ross Haukoos, first became interested in gambling when an online poker site approached his advertising firm about designing magazine ads. Ross said he began to research online poker, and discovered a whole new world.

“I found out this whole industry is booming, not only online but all over the place,” Ross said.

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This gave Ross the idea to write a book about the adventures of a man known only as “The Player.” The Player ventures around Las Vegas, playing all the games except for the slot machines. “A sophisticated gambler and high roller is not going to play the slots, that’s a suckers game,” Ross said.

“This is the guy that most of the online gamblers want to be,” Ross said. “It’s the guy who always gets the girl, always wins. He’s the James Bond of the casino.”

While Ross wrote his book, the popularity of poker skyrocketed. Hints of what was to come came in the summer of 2003 when ESPN’s airing of the “World Series of Poker,” a championship tournament that takes place annually in Las Vegas, received respectable television ratings. In late 2003, Bravo began airing a show called “Celebrity Poker Showdown.” The series pits celebrities in a game of bluffs and risks, while the viewers are treated to analysis from professional poker veteran Phil Gordan and comedian Dave Foley. The series has quickly become one of the network’s most popular shows. A poker program also airs on the Travel Channel.

But poker received its biggest television boost when millions viewed ESPN’s 2004 edition of the “World Series of Poker” each week from July through September. The 22-week series averaged a 1.7 Nielson rating, which represents about 1.5 million households. That was a 42 percent increase from the 2003 competition, according to Sports Illustrated. About 2.5 million households watched the final day of the tournament, making it the seventh most popular show on cable television that week, beating out World Wrestling Entertainment and ESPN’s popular “NFL Countdown.”

“It’s hard to know whether this is going to be a fad, whether it’s going to run its course, or whether it’s going to be something that will become part of the ongoing American culture,” Ross said.

Poker participation is also on the rise. According to a Nov. 12 article on MSNBC’s Web site, retailers are counting on poker items to be a hot seller during the Christmas shopping season. Everything from poker chips and card sets to books on how to play the game are for sale. Ross said he attributes the success of poker to the fact that anybody can do it. The 2003 World Series champion, Chris Moneymaker, is an overweight Tennessee accountant who qualified for the competition by winning an online tournament.

“I’m never going to be a quarterback in the NFL or hit a homerun in major league baseball,” Ross said. “But I can play poker.”

With the sudden interest in poker, especially among younger people, there has been some concern that this could lead to an increase in gambling addictions. Ross said he believes that’s true, only because since more people are gambling, mathematically there will be more people with gambling problems. But he said for the most part he believes a majority of people can control their gambling.

“It’s like alcohol,” Ross said. “Some people can’t handle it, but most people can drink alcohol without it becoming a problem.”

“The Player” was self-published by Ross through iUniverse. The book can be purchased through most book-selling Web sites.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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