MORRIS *{794E10D0-52FE-4AE8-BC88-6AF42EC36D1D}*
Ric Feld  /  AP
Eric Morris, publisher and co-president of Bluff Media, talks about the magazine that started in a garage and now claims a quarter-million circulation. Bluff Magazine chronicles the ever-booming world of poker.
updated 7/17/2005 4:13:47 PM ET 2005-07-17T20:13:47

Bluff magazine routinely reveals a world at the top of the poker craze that few get to see, of millionaire card sharks who spend money with abandon, use $1,000 chips as coasters and fly like rock stars from one glitzy casino to another.

But like its name, Bluff’s glamorous gloss is all for show. It spins its stories nearly a continent away from the poker mecca of Las Vegas at its headquarters in Atlanta, where the most exciting legal gambling experience is scratching off a lottery ticket.

“We’re aimed at the new generation of poker players,” said Eddy Kleid, Bluff’s co-president. “We wanted to make it fun and sexy. We’re kind of like a ’Maxim’ for poker.”

Poker’s exploding popularity, with televised Texas hold’em tournaments and Internet games, has created an unprecedented opportunity for magazine publishers — even those far from casinos — looking to cash in on the craze. In the last year, as many as 10 poker magazines have popped up in card rooms, newsstands and stores.

“But publishers need to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em,” warned Samir Husni, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi. “All of magazine publishing is gambling but when you are gambling on a fad, it’s a bigger gamble.”

The new poker magazines have caused industry veteran Card Player, based in Las Vegas, to take notice.

“Thanks to all these new poker magazines, it’s forced me to come out with a better product,” said Jeff Shulman, president and co-publisher of the 150,000-circulation magazine. “This is by far the best time for us.”

The poker magazine industry is flush with new advertising dollars from other companies profiting from the poker craze, including poker Web sites that, although not legal in the United States, can advertise because they’re based abroad; regular (and legal) casino card rooms and other companies that sell poker-related products from clothing to bobbleheads.

In total, poker magazines bring in between $5 million and $10 million in revenue a year, a figure comparable to the yields of specialty magazine markets for triathletes and other hobbyists, Husni said.

None of the most popular magazines, however, are listed with the independent Audit Bureau of Circulation, so there are no reliable readership figures for the segment.

Poker has become popular among American youth, thanks to TV shows such as Bravo’s “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” the Travel Channel’s “World Poker Tour,” and ESPN’s coverage of the World Series of Poker. Also helping fuel the boom were the rags-to-riches stories of nonprofessional players Chris Moneymaker and Greg Raymer, both of whom won the World Series of Poker’s no-limit Texas hold’em World Championship in 2003 and 2004.

Bluff seeks to feed young players’ dreams — wealth and fame beyond imagination — by focusing more on poker personalities and lifestyle and less on strategy. It’s that creativity that publisher Eric Morris credits with the magazine’s impressive growth in popularity in just 12 months, now with a self-reported circulation of 250,000.

“I didn’t want to be a stats and strategy magazine,” Morris said. “We recognize that poker has moved to the mainstream.”

For example, in a Bluff article titled “The Magician, the Unabomber and the Guy Who Never Wins,” writer Rob Fulop visits his poker pro friends Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari and Phil “Unabomber” Laak in Las Vegas.

“I do a quick scan of Antonio’s new house ... Bellagio chips, ranging from $10, to $1,000 lie scattered over the coffee table, serving as drink coasters. A rubber-banded two-inch thick wad of $100 bills sitting on one of the cushions of the sofa looks as if somebody just tossed it there a few days ago and forgot about it. I’m in poker dreamland,” Fulop writes.

Chronicling the lives of poker pros regularly seen on TV is “an ideal fit,” said David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

“It’s part of the whole evolution of poker, (from) guys who smoked cigars and had never seen the inside of a gym to a younger, hipper audience,” Schwartz said. “By buying a poker magazine, you can kind of join in the community in that way. A magazine can play a pretty big role in that.”

Card Player, published for 18 years and one of the oldest in the industry, takes a much different approach to its poker coverage. It’s full of what Shulman, himself a player in the world’s richest tournaments, says is “hardcore poker strategy.” For example, recent articles discuss how to play a pair of Jacks in the first round of betting and major tournament winner profiles. Now the veteran magazine is working on a poker television show to complement its Web site.

One of the new magazines that has followed Card Player’s focus on strategy is All In. Created in May 2004, the magazine recently featured world champion Johnny Chan, made famous by the poker movie “Rounders,” discussing the value on betting. In another issue, world champion Chris “Jesus” Ferguson gives tips on how to compete against small numbers of opponents.

“We bring in pros to give you instruction after instruction to make you better,” said Bhu Srinivasan, president and publisher of New York-based All In. “The central theme of our magazine is to ... help you win more money.”

“We’re out to be the Golf Digest of poker,” he added.

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