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Thursday, June 17, 2004
Updated: May 31, 2:22 PM ET
Poker ain't like it used to be

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Editor's Note: This column appears in the June 21 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

Mena Suvari
Everyone's playing poker these days -- even celebs like Mena Suvari.
Have you ever stumbled across one of those celebrity poker shows on cable, and practically blown out your elbow bringing the remote to a screeching halt? That happened to me a few weeks ago, when Travis Tritt and Mena Suvari were battling for the same pot. Just the sight of them at the same table nearly had me scheduling my first Tommy John surgery. Travis was eyeballing Mena like she was covered in those roses from "American Beauty." Mena peered right back, eyes narrowed, like she was auditioning for some crappy poker movie. You could cut the tension with ... well, anything.

Travis checked. He had the Lawrence Frank "I Just Realized I'm Coaching in Game 7 of a Playoff Series" face going. Even Mena could see right through him. But she stared him down a while for good measure (or maybe she was just kicking herself for turning down "American Pie 3"). Finally, she raised. What took her so long? She was holding two 10s. Travis quickly folded, and he seemed ready to suffocate himself with his cowboy hat. It was not his finest hour. Meanwhile, Mena raked in the chips without cracking a smile. Apparently this was some serious stuff.

I think we've gone too far. Poker has gone mainstream? Can we vote on this? What happened to the days when poker was cool, when only a few people knew the nuances, when it meant something to pony up that 10 grand for the World Series? Remember when somebody could make a terrific poker movie -- say, "Rounders" -- and only an elite group understood the magic of that climactic flop?

Reel Life: "Rounders"
Want the inside scoop on how realistic the poker film "Rounders" really is? Check out Jeff Merron's Reel Life story on the movie.
I miss the days when everyone was terrified to play poker in casinos, when taking a seat at one of the tables was roughly equivalent to walking down a dark alley in New Orleans. For instance, it took me nearly four years to sit down at a $1-to-$5 stud table. Four years! And when I finally got up the nerve, my buddies tried to talk me out of it. You don't want to do that. Those guys are lifers. They'll eat you alive. They sit around all day waiting for a schmuck like you to come along.

I didn't care. I loved "Rounders." I wanted to be Mike McD. I wanted to topple Teddy KGB. I wanted to bluff Johnny Chan and hear him ask, "Did you have it?" then calmly respond, "I'm sorry, John. I don't remember."

Maybe poker wasn't as glamorous in real life as they made it out to be in "Rounders" -- for instance, I never played at a table where Famke Janssen brought me over that first pile of chips -- but it still sucked me in. I honed my skills on stud and low-stakes hold 'em, marked as a preppie who thrashed his buddies a few times and then mistakenly assumed he could hang with the big boys. And I played that role to a T. I wore my baseball hat backward, forgot to ante and seemed generally confused as they circled me like the Sisters surrounding Andy Dufresne. My friends were always shocked when I returned with a profit: "You won? You beat those guys?" I felt like I had taken Pedro deep.

I didn't feel nearly as special when ESPN started televising those World Series tournaments. In "Rounders," Johnny Chan seemed larger than life, like seeing Tiger's character unlock in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004. But many of the best poker players looked like you could find them hanging out in an airport smoking lounge. The unintentional comedy was off the charts. You were just as likely to see a hideous rug as a full house. Even the most recognizable player in the game, Phil Hellmuth, marketed himself as a McEnroe-style hothead and came off like a more manic version of Bania from "Seinfeld."

Chris Moneymaker
Chris Moneymaker earned a cool $2.5 million by winning last year's World Series of Poker.
Then it happened. First-timer Chris Moneymaker came out of nowhere to win the 2003 World Series. This could never happen in any other sport. You won't see the Lakers pluck someone from the stands to run the point against the Pistons. The mystique was gone. After Moneymaker, everyone realized the same thing: to play poker, you needed ... a wallet. Watch some shows, read some books, play a few hands on the Internet, throw on a pair of crummy sunglasses, and you're ready to roll.

In the recently completed World Series, the number of entrants nearly tripled. Everyone was banking on a puncher's chance of becoming the next Moneymaker. My buddy Sal entered this year for a segment on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." He figured he'd get knocked out in a couple of hours. The sum of his poker experience? Three weeks on the Internet, three books and six tutorials in Vegas right before the tournament. That's it. He ended up hanging on for three full days, cracking the final 500, outlasting all of those authors and tutors. And he was wearing a pair of Elton John-style sunglasses to boot.

"It's all about luck," a surprised Sal said later. "Once you know what you're doing, it's all about luck."

He may think that now ... but just wait until Mena Suvari is staring him down.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine