By DJ Gallo
Special to Page 2

That's it. I fold. I'm an outcast.

And it snuck up on me so quickly. A year-and-a-half ago, I was still pretty cool -- in my early 20s, stylish and up on pop culture . . . but able to stop just short of that line that separates 'cool' from 'annoying hipster.'

Yet today, I'm a social leper.

Greg Raymer
If this is the look of poker, then Gallo is in trouble.

Why?

Because I'm the only male in America who doesn't play poker.

So I'm going to start. I have to start. I don't have a choice. It's either submit to the poker craze or be devoured and spit out, left to roam the streets for the rest of my days with a huge scarlet "P" on my chest, muttering expletives about Phil Hellmuth.

I'll join Poker Nation. But I don't have to like it.

I visited my grandmother in the retirement home a while back. On the way down the hall, I passed a room where a bunch of old ladies, all connected to ventilators, were playing canasta. Yes, the cherry Jell-O they'd been served was enticing, but I still didn't feel the urge to stand in the doorway for two hours and watch them play. I have absolutely zero interest in watching other people play cards.

Yet guys -- guys supposedly just like me -- are watching. They're even planning their nights around it.

Millions of people. Maybe I just don't get it.

ESPN carries a clock on the bottom of the screen now that counts down the hours, minutes and seconds until its next World Series of Poker broadcast. The only clock countdown I need to see on ESPN is the time my favorite NFL team has left before it makes its next draft pick. That, and maybe the time remaining until Maria Sharapova turns 18.

Yet on July 8, the Worldwide Leader in Sports pulled a 2.0 rating for its first show in the 2004 WSOP series -- nearly double the ratings that the opening games of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals received. (Not that beating NHL ratings is the standard for television success, but at least hockey is a sport.)

OK, so the "sport, not a sport" debate is an old one. But you poker players who refer to the game as a "sport" -- uh, yeah, it's not. Bowling, golf, NASCAR -- are they sports? Maybe they are; maybe they aren't. But at least with them, there's an argument. There's hand-eye coordination in play, some physical movement involved.

In poker, there is sitting.

Gene Tollis
When this guy started his hand, he was 30.

And then there is more sitting.

And the more sitting is interspersed with the shuffling around of small pieces of cardboard and light plastic discs.

And all of it is topped -- actually, drowned -- with alcohol. Lots of alcohol. Maybe not at the WSOP level (those guys might be too smart for that), but the drinking thing is really what gives this poker craze its legs -- its wobbly, shuffling, yet drunkenly determined legs -- at the grassroots level where my acquaintances live.

Not that anyone will own up to it. It's a lot easier, for example, for a guy to tell his wife, "Honey, me and the guys are going to start a Thursday night poker league" and get her approval than it is to say: "Honey, I'm going to start getting wasted every Thursday night, and you know those 50 bucks a week we wanted to save for our second honeymoon? Yeah, I'm going to lose that gambling while I'm doing it. And the spare bedroom you wanted me to paint? Can't do it. I'm not going to have time since I'll be watching people play cards on television two or three nights a week."

So millions are watching and millions more are playing. Maybe I just don't get it.

ESPN isn't the only network pulling in strong ratings, either. Fox Sports Net does poker. The Travel Channel's "World Poker Tour" is its highest-rated show ever. Bravo has "Celebrity Poker Showdown."

Poker has become the new "it" thing for celebrities to be spotted doing. It's so trendy that any day now I'll turn on the television and see Ashton Kutcher playing a hand in his trucker hat and a "Jesus is My Homeboy" t-shirt.

I haven't yet figured out whether the contestants on "Celebrity Poker" are the ones on the downswing of celebrity -- you know, like Jennie Garth, Matthew Perry or Penn Jillette -- or the ones on the upswing, like . . . uhh . . . umm . . . I've got nothing. So we'll go with downswing.

You know, don't you, that all celebrity poker players eventually morph into commentators for specials on VH1. And then you can't remember if they became celebrities because of something they accomplished in the entertainment industry or because they're always providing commentary for VH1 specials. In the case of poker, they're celebrities simply because they played so frequently in televised tournaments. It's like I can't remember what Jack Wagner did besides tee off in every celebrity golf tour event.

Thanks to the success of televised poker, the networks are branching out into other card games now. The Game Show Network has the "World Series of Blackjack" and "Celebrity Blackjack." My hope? That Ben Affleck shows up on "Celebrity Blackjack" and says "hit me," and then someone emerges from off-camera and bludgeons him with an aluminum bat. That would be good television.

I assume televised gin rummy and bridge are next. Maybe Nickelodeon will show the "World Series of Go Fish." And Spice can do strip poker.

One of the coolest things about poker -- an opinion based, of course, on my extensive experience with the game from watching Clint Eastwood movies -- is the "poker face." It's tough, mean, stoic, unyielding. In the movies, it doesn't matter what kind of cards the player has; he wins as long as he has a good poker face. It's that simple.

Chris Moneymaker
With $2.5 million, everyone wants to be Chris Moneymaker.

Or at least, that's how it seemed to me. But when I tune in to television poker now, I find it's like a Taliban prison for women: Every face is covered. Hats, facial hair, hands folded in front of mouths. And sunglasses. Sunglasses! How are you supposed to look into a man's eyes and see if he's bluffing when he's wearing a pair of sunglasses?

That isn't how it's supposed to be. Poker clearly has strayed from its roots. And by "its roots," I mean Clint Eastwood movies. Come to think of it, I'd enjoy watching poker more if there was occasional gun play involved.

Yet despite it all, televised poker is the hottest thing going. Maybe I just don't get it.

Estimates are that 50-to-80-million Americans now play poker. The biggest reason for the sudden popularity is Mr. Hide-Your-Poker-Face himself: Chris Moneymaker. Goateed, hatted, and sunglassed, Moneymaker, a 27-year old accountant from Tennessee, qualified over the Internet for the 2003 WSOP with an initial outlay of $40. He came home as the champion with $2.5 million. Now every shmoe in the country thinks he can be the next rags-to-riches poker story.

But nobody realizes that Moneymaker is a robot created by the casinos to get more people gambling.

You never see his eyes, do you? That's 'cause he doesn't have any.

And like his last name isn't totally made up.

Veteran poker players make the argument that there is much more to the game than luck. They continuously repeat the mantra that "poker takes a minute to learn, but a lifetime to master." But if that's true, how did Moneymaker win the biggest event in the world after only three years of playing? I've been playing golf for more than three years, and I'm still a good bit away from winning the U.S. Open.

Either poker is shamelessly easy and based entirely on luck of the draw, or Moneymaker is a robot. You decide.

Poker players have developed their own little language, too. They work terms like "ace-high flush" and "the flop" into everyday conversation. Really annoying. The worst are those who incessantly refer to the World Series of Poker as the "WSOP," and pronounce it "waz-up" -- which sounds dangerously close to "WHASSUP" from the Budweiser commercials of a few years back.

Ben Affleck
If Affleck keeps showing up, poker should jump the shark real soon.

Anyone who goes around saying "WSOP" deserves the same fate as the people who yelled "WHASSUP" every other second back in 2000: a slow and painful death brought on by repeated paper cuts from playing cards and continuous viewings of Ben Affleck in "Gigli" or anything else he's done since "Good Will Hunting."

Poker is so ubiquitous in our culture that any day now I expect the federal government to make it a crime not to play. Politicians will latch onto its popularity to gain an edge in the November elections. To huge applause, President Bush will speak at a poker tournament and claim that all Americans who don't play poker are supporting terrorism becauase Islamic fundamentalists don't gamble, either. John Kerry will demand the most successful one percent of poker players give their winnings to poorer players.

And Michael Moore will make a documentary that blames Bush for the existence of Ben Affleck.

It's already happening. Remember the 'Iraq's Most Wanted' deck of cards dispersed by the military in Iraq? The message was clear: Play poker or get bombed.

So, begrudgingly, I choose poker. I'm joining Poker Nation. I can't resist it anymore. I'm tired of being the only outcast. I'm tired of having passersby cross to the other side of the street when they see me coming. I'm tired of not getting my phone calls returned, of having stores refuse my business.

So deal me a hand. I'm all in.

D.J. Gallo is a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine, as well as the founder and sole writer of the award-winning sports satire site SportsPickle.com.




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POKER OR BUST