By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Editor's Note: This column appears in the Sept. 29 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

When ESPN showed the World Series of Poker for 10,000 straight hours this summer, I didn't hear anyone wondering, "When did poker become a sport?" Nobody loves gambling more than I do, but playing cards and chain-smoking for 10 straight hours isn't exactly like running the triathlon. These guys wouldn't budge from their chairs unless someone, uh, hit the gas.

We live in a world where poker, golf, darts, billiards and paintball are considered sports. So why not "Paradise Hotel"? The show's stars can't stop referring to "The Game." What is this game? You got me. I still can't figure out the rules, which may or may not exist. Regardless, they allude to The Game ominously, muttering cryptic things like, "If she's gonna play The Game that way, then I'll start playing The Game too." Sure, they're partying like rock stars and wallowing in decadence, and their biggest decision is "Who should I room with?" But they keep telling me it's a game, so I believe them. So should you.

Paradise Hotel
Where The Game welcomes players.

Like in any sport, the "guests" in "Paradise Hotel" are playing for something serious: the elusive "Ultimate Prize," which could be a box of Sharpies for all we know. They also wear bathing suits all day, so there's pressure to stay in shape. And much as owners expect players to produce, "Hotel"'s producers expect residents to act like blathering idiots, argue about inane things and bitch about everyone else.

The sports parallels go even deeper. The weekly Roommate Switch features so much overmanaging that Tony La Russa would be embarrassed. And just as every pro fears getting cut, everyone on "Paradise Hotel" strives to remain on the show until the end, although there's so much backstabbing that Monica Seles would hide her eyes.

Oh, and just like sports has unwritten rules, so does "Paradise Hotel." Never stop acting like a fool. Be as mean as you can. Embarrass your family. Err in the direction of complete hypocrisy. Cry whenever someone you barely know is voted off. Whenever you disagree with somebody, get in his face and scream. When in doubt, keep the girls with big breasts around. Don't trust anyone. And never, ever stop playing The Game.

Still don't think "Hotel" is a sport? The NBA's success hinges on superstars like LeBron, Shaq, T-Mac and Inmate No. B7534 -- er, Kobe. "Paradise Hotel" lives and dies with its own superstars: Toni (a bulging-eyed drama queen best described as "Bill Romanowski in drag"); Dave (a conniving loser who can't get lucky on an island chock full of promiscuous partiers); Charla (a calculating tease who traps herself in her room and melts down more often than the Red Sox bullpen); and Holly (a buxom airhead who eagerly admitted she'd do a Girls of "Paradise Hotel" spread in Playboy, God bless her).

The show even has an MJ: Zack, a self-absorbed bully who fell for his roommate after belittling her incessantly. (Don't we all fall in love that way?) Recently, Zack threatened a male model and compared his own life to "Braveheart." Needless to say, folks on the show revered him: he was the King of the Morons. When Keith voted him off, the uproar felt like JFK's assassination all over again. Zack's girl vowed revenge and became a twisted mess of misguided vitriol. I keep waiting for her head to do 360s. If those two reproduce, we might finally meet the real-life Damien.

Just like the post-MJ NBA, "Paradise Hotel" struggled to survive in the post-Zack era. So the show did what every sport should do, changing its rules and bringing him back temporarily. And just in time. Ostracized by Zack and his friends, Dave and Charla had launched their own alliance and ousted their stunned rivals. Seeing their plan work felt like a Bengals Super Bowl run -- hard to believe it was happening. Where else would the geeks upend the chics? The outrage spawned WWE-style chaos, replete with factions, sneak attacks and double-crosses.

When Zack and his flunkies returned, The Game truly took off. Imagine if the NBA did that with the Finals last year? We're downsizing the Nets-Spurs series to one game ... and the winner plays the Lakers! Who would have argued with that?

As a show, I think "Paradise Hotel" is the best thing on TV. As a sport, I think it's far ahead of its time. We can learn from The Game ... even if we don't know quite what it is.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and he's a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live.




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