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TV, High Stakes Breathe New Life into Old Game of Poker - 2004-08-01

The old card game called poker is experiencing a rush of new-found popularity these days thanks to a myriad of cable television programs. Watching people sit around a table with cards and chips, which stand in for the money being wagered, may not seem very exciting, but new technology and some hefty stakes are giving the old game a new lift.

The sound of cards being shuffled is music to the ears of Houston suburbanite Matt Dean, 24. He recently placed seventh in the annual World Series of Poker game in Las Vegas, Nevada. The final round was video taped and is being shown on the sports cable channel ESPN. Mr. Dean won a seat at that table and a $10,000 stake to bet with by winning a smaller event for which he paid an entry fee of only $32. He walked away from the table in Las Vegas with $675,000.

He says that his expectations when he entered the competition were relatively low. "The free trip to Vegas was pretty much all I ever wanted, and the rest was gravy," he admits. "So sitting at the final table, at one point I bet $1.1 million. It was kind of surreal. But at a point, I stopped thinking about it. You are playing with chips, which helps, and you are not actually pushing $1.1 million in cash across the table. So that really helps, because I think if I had thought about it I never would have made it to the top seven."

It is the excitement of seeing an ordinary guy like Matt Dean win such fabulous amounts of money that has helped boost the popularity of poker programs on television. But technology also plays a role, in the form of tiny cameras that reveal each player's hand to the audience, but not to the other players at the table.

According to Joe Saltzman, a mass media and popular culture analyst at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California, this technique helps viewers connect with the game and the players. "Many of the people who enjoy watching it on television probably play it themselves," he says. "They have a rudimentary understanding of the game. They think they can probably play better. They can get angry when someone is not doing what they think they should be doing. The new technology of showing each hand very carefully is something unique. It has not been used much in the past."

Professor Saltzman says the camera views, combined with the audio commentary, bring viewers into the game so that they can feel like participants. Although one cable channel has a celebrity poker show, in which Hollywood stars sit around the game table, most shows feature players who are ordinary people. The professor says this is an important factor in engaging audiences.

"I think people like watching people like themselves play the game," says Professor Saltzman. "I think it is more fun for them to root for the common person, a person like themselves, who can go home with a couple of million bucks."

Some players have won pots that size, but even the comparatively paltry sum of $675,000 won by Matt Dean is impressive to his friends and family. He has been able to pay off his mortgage and car loan, and he still has money left over to invest and play some more poker.

While there is a certain amount of luck involved, Mr. Dean says poker is primarily a game of skill that requires concentration, a little psychology and lots of practice. "There are players who make their living just playing poker, and it is not because they are the luckiest people on the face of the earth," he says. "Luck does play a role. I have heard some people say it's 70 percent skill and 30 percent luck."

Matt Dean started playing poker as a child here in Texas with his grandmother, and he read books and articles about some of the more famous Texas players like "Amarillo Slim," who won millions of dollars and became a celebrity back before there were any televised games.

People opposed to gambling, of course, are not enthusiastic about the popularity of televised poker, saying it will encourage more people to try their hand at a table. But Annenberg School Professor Joe Saltzman says gambling is not driven by televised poker.

"Watching poker does not really promote gambling at all," says the professor. "I think the reason it is fun to watch poker is because of the strategy and the interest in the people who play in it. It is not like watching a horse race or golf or tennis, where you do like to wager on people."

Professor Saltzman says office and neighborhood bets on sports games and the increase in Internet gambling are of more concern to him than televised poker games, which often include announcements directing people with a gambling addiction to seek help. He also says state-sponsored lotteries promote gambling by advertising huge jackpots in which the odds against winning are astronomical and there is absolutely no skill involved.

Matt Dean says poker involves a lot of mathematics, critical thinking skills and self-control, which is necessary to prevent opponents from spotting so-called "tells," little tics or actions that might signal that a player is bluffing. He says many of these skills are useful in other areas of life. As for his future, Matt Dean says he may spend a few more months on the poker circuit, but he eventually wants to get a teaching certificate and teach mathematic