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Game of poker hits a hot streak

The game of poker is on a winning streak, thanks in part to the popularity of several television shows devoted to the game. And casinos, bookstores and retailers who sell poker gear say it looks like the pot is going to get even bigger.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The game of poker is on a winning streak, thanks in part to the popularity of several television shows devoted to the game. And casinos, bookstores and retailers who sell poker gear say it looks like the pot is going to get even bigger.

Retailers are betting that playing cards and chips will be among the must-have items during the holiday shopping season.  Stores are showcasing displays of casino-quality chips and gaming tables with holders for drinks and betting chips.

"I'm not a big poker player, but I know a lot about it because it's such a hot item," said Kmart spokeswoman Caryn Klebba. "It seems like the teenagers are in love with it."

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Karen Burk said the renewed interest in poker could make a deck of cards a popular stocking stuffer of the holidays this year.

Poker, which was introduced to much of the country by riverboats on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the 1800s, is now seeing another surge thanks to tournaments being televised on cable networks.

"The World Series of Poker" on ESPN along with Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown" and the "World Poker Tour" on the Travel Channel are among the hit new shows. ESPN said the last hour of its championship finals posted a hefty 2.8 rating representing more than 2.5 million households. ESPN hopes to draw similar numbers when it airs its first Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas. Few networks were interested in poker until the World Poker Tour turned into an overnight success a year ago., a popular Web site that offers poker online, estimates based on anecdotal research that from 50 million to 60 million people play poker at least once a month. Games range from high school students gathering in basements on weekend nights to college students playing at all hours to organized tournaments for all ages.

Noah Campbell, 25, started a weekend tournament in Toledo, Ohio this year that draws a combined 80 players on Friday and Saturday nights, with the money going to charities. He spent at least $2,000 buying tables, cards and chips. Campbell said many of his friends are buying their own supplies too — including high-end chips and cards.

"They want to emulate what they see on TV," he said.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. sells a $99 gaming set that comes in a portable velvet-lined case with a chrome handle and 300 chips and two decks of cards.  Georganne Greece, a buyer for the company's game room group, said expectations are that poker supplies will see a huge surge in sales in the coming months.

"It's somewhat in its infancy," she said. "But early indications are that we're going to sell through most of this product — even the high-end items."

Most items began arriving at Sears stores in the middle of August. "We saw it fly away," she said.

Reading up on the game
Booksellers are also seeing a pickup in poker-related sales. Titles by some of the game's best-known players, including Phil Hellmuth and Doyle Brunson, have been top sellers at Borders bookstores, said Beth Bingham, a spokeswoman for Borders Group Inc.

In the last year, Borders has added 20 percent more poker-related books. "It's not just the book titles," Bingham said. "There's a lot more products — we're carrying poker games, a Texas Hold 'Em game."

Restoration Hardware, the furniture and home decor retailer, sells playing cards and all the extras — mechanical card shufflers, playing card coasters and shot glasses. The retailer, just like any good poker player, had a little luck on its side, too. It began stocking gaming items a few years before the poker boom.

Dave Glassman, a spokesman for the Corte Madera, Calif.-based company, said at first the items "didn't get much visual importance in the store." But the company was well-positioned to capitalize when poker shows on television began drawing fans. Now the items are front and center inside its stores and catalogues.

Crate & Barrel spokeswoman Bette Kahn said poker's elevation is a testament to the power of television. It's hard to say whether card playing will stick around, she said.

"It may not be a fad. They've played poker for years and years," Kahn added.

More players at the tables
Across the country, casinos are expanding to keep up with demand. In Iowa, for example, the renewed interest has "totally revived" poker at the Meskwaki casino near Tama, said spokeswoman Betsy McCloskey.

McCloskey said the casino's planned $100 million expansion likely will include more poker tables. Before the upsurge in television poker, the casino's tournaments were half-full, poker room manager David Corns said. Now, eight 12-player tables easily fill up for two tournaments, he said.

"You see a lot of new players, and a lot of that comes from Texas Hold 'em on TV," said Carla Reuter, 49, of Waterloo, a regular at the weekly Meskwaki tournaments.

Texas Hold 'em is a fast-paced, comparatively simple game in which players make the best five-card poker hand out of the two face-down cards in their hand and five face-up community cards.

Nancy Fandel, 56, of Solon, said televised poker revived her interest in the game, which she learned watching over her dad's shoulder at low-stakes family games.

"I always wanted to go to a poker room," Fandel said. "I won $500 my first time out. I was hooked."

In Las Vegas, arguably the capital of poker, Harrah's Entertainment and ESPN say they'll capitalize on poker's best-known event by beginning a series of high-profile tournaments across the country next year.

The Las Vegas-based gambling company hopes name recognition shuffles rival tournaments to the back of the pack, while enriching shareholders and players as it tries to carve out a huge swath of the market. The company is betting the individual events will attract hundreds, with each participant spending $10,000 for a seat at one of the tournament tables.

While the Harrah's tournaments will carry the World Series of Poker name, the crown jewel will remain the legendary poker game that has been held at the smoky Binion's Horseshoe hotel-casino in downtown Las Vegas since 1971.

When it begins next summer at the Rio hotel-casino off the Las Vegas Strip and Binion's, Harrah's believes more than 5,000 people could enter the 36th annual World Series of Poker seeking what ESPN calls "poker immortality."

The 2004 world series attracted a field of 2,576 players, far surpassing the 839 in 2003. Next year, the total prize pool in the No-Limit Texas Hold' Em main event could exceed $50 million, with the $5 million first place being increased by several million.