Sunday, February 18, 2007


I pride myself in having friends from 8 to 80. It was one of the very youngest that turned me on to televised poker.

I had played poker before. In fact, when I was in college, there was a period of weeks when I regularly went to the local poker club (the Cameo Club on El Camino Real, for those of you who know Palo Alto) and played low-ball poker. Truth be told, I basically broke even as far as my battles with the other players were concerned, which means that I would gradually lose money to the House – but very gradually. I was decent enough that it was a relatively cheap form of entertainment. It all ended when someone working for the club decided that those of us under 21 had to get stamped on our left hands, and I felt that wearing a stamp that said, in essence, “child” wasn’t what I had in mind for that particular adventure. I never returned.

Then one day, a couple of years ago – or as they say in the poker world, a short time after the post-Moneymaker period began – my eight year old friend mentioned that he had been watching poker on TV. I thought he was nuts. I knew that stuff was being televised, but it seemed like something suitable for watching only in a lobotomy ward. Who would want to look at a bunch of fat, grimy men – punctuated by the occasional blonde – look at a couple of cards, throw some chips on a table, and essentially watch a dealer flip a few coins until one of the fat, grimy men won and another lost. I assumed that if someone came up with the idea of forcing televised poker on the prisoners in Git-Mo, my fellow liberals would lambaste it as a form of torture.

But the eight year old who recommended watching poker carried some weight with me. He wasn’t just any eight year old. He was a math prodigy … and a sports fan. I call that the nerd-boy daily double … or, if you prefer, a clear sign of a kindred spirit. I simply had to tune in for myself, and Lord knows, that wouldn’t be hard to do. ESPN was televising poker practically every evening. In the 80s, they featured hydroplane racing, tractor pulls, and Australian Rules football; post Moneymaker, they’ve featured poker.

In case you can’t tell by now, I’m hooked. If you showed me the faces of poker players, I could probably come up with literally dozens of names. And yes, one of those names is Moneymaker. I’m referring, for those who haven’t caught on to this fad, to a man named Chris Moneymaker. He was an amateur who looked like a truck driver and had the accent to back it up. Somehow, though, in the 2003 Main Event, he defeated a field of 839 to claim what was then a record yield of $2.5 million. All of a sudden, poker’s popularity on television increased geometrically. There was something intriguing about this “Every Man” being able to sit, expressionless, as millions of dollars were at stake. Perhaps it was an antidote to all those games shows we’ve watched for decades as bouncy bimbos yelled with joy as some John Edwards look alike screamed out “Congratulations. You’ve just won FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS!” That’s actually more like $3500 after taxes. And while that’s real money, it probably didn’t merit all the juggling and the yelling and the kissing and the … well, all the idiocy. You didn’t get that with Moneymaker. He sat still as he accumulated more and chips until finally, he was $2.5 million richer. Even after taxes, that was quite a haul.

Since Moneymaker, the stakes have only gotten bigger. In the 2006 Main Event, the number of competitors increased from many hundred to many thousand, and $12 million went to the winner. His name is Jamie Gold, but you can call him Irving Cohen because the guy seemed to fit one Jewish stereotype after another. I loved him! He was never too far from his motha – who was kvelling like a motha has never kvelled before (at least not my Jewish mother). And Gold was chatting incessantly, as only a Jewish boy can. But he didn’t just chat, he shared. That’s right, he kept giving lots and lots of meaningful info about what was in his hands. His style was totally unorthodox; in fact, it was probably downright incompetent. And yet the guy won anyway … in a rout! It was as startling, in its own way, as Moneymaker’s victory.

To top off the whole experience, the best part about watching poker on ESPN is the announcer – Norman Chad. The guy is classic borscht belt. I can’t tell you how many times he makes fun of his failed marriages. One minute it’s “and the next card is a two of clubs,” and the next minute it’s “take my second ex-wife, please! Well, he doesn’t say it that way – he’s much funnier – but you get the idea.

The funniest thing about Chad, though, isn’t his intentional jokes. It’s his predictions about who will win the game you’re watching based on which players are incredibly good which ones are reasonably good, and which ones are mere pretenders. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m sure that some poker players are much, much, MUCH better than others. And the comedy fan in me digs the fact that poker has its own royalty who are treated as gods by the other competitors, as well as by Chad. But I’m convinced that on any given day, the quality of the players matters a whole lot less than the luck of the draw.

Norm, you may want this game to be like chess, where quality almost always shows its face. But at the risk of bursting your bubble, this ain’t chess. It’s a game for fat, grimy men – punctuated by the occasional blonde – who probably aren’t appreciably smarter than the truck drivers or actuaries they resemble.

But hey, it’s still the ultimate game show.

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