Image: Celebrity Poker Showdown
Paul Drinkwater  /  Bravo
Bravo's 'Celebrity Poker Showdown' debuted to more than a million and a half viewers. Pictured: (l-r) John Spencer, Richard Schiff, Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Timothy Busfield
updated 12/19/2003 1:38:36 PM ET 2003-12-19T18:38:36

It‘s the game that everyone wants to get in on: Poker.

ESPN was the first network to gamble on the high-stakes card game as a ratings winner, and its success with viewers has sparked a whole new genre of poker programming. 

“You never can predict when the trend begins,” says Jeff Gaspin, president of  NBC-owned Bravo Network, which is enjoying a monster hit with its “Celebrity Poker Showdown.”  “When a trend begins, it starts to pick up momentum.  If it‘s got any legs, it will just continue, and I think this one does. “

Bravo‘s “Celebrity Poker Showdown” debuted to more than a million and a half viewers, making it the network‘s second most successful premier ever, following just short of the runaway hit “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” 

The Travel Channel is also cashing in on the poker trend.  The World Poker Tour has become the most popular series in the history of the network. 

“I think once you watch it, once you understand it. Once you learn what it‘s all about, you actually do get hooked, and it‘s tremendously fun to watch,” says Gaspin.

And it’s not just a cable-television phenomenon. NBC has announced they will counter program the Super Bowl with a poker tournament.   And while people are watching poker in increasing numbers, they‘re also playing the game more and more. 

At the Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City, the poker tables are the hottest seat in town.  Stuart Kempner, a regular poker player there, says the recent interest in poker is mind-boggling.  “Every day, there‘s a new face coming into this place," he says. "People that saw it on TV and all the programs.  Now you have a breakthrough.  Plus, the Internet. It‘s just exploding all over.”

“Poker is as American as apple pie,” says Vincent Massio of the Trump Casino Resort. “Everybody in this country from the time we were kids learned how to play poker one way or another. I think by bringing the celebrities into it now and putting them in the tournaments --  it makes poker much more appealing to the masses.”

CNBC's Jerry Cobb contributed to this report. This was the No. 2 story on Thursday's 'Countdown with Keith Olbermann.' The show airs weeknights, 8 p.m. ET

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