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Sunday Punch

This poker thing is catching on, so deal me in

Published December 7, 2003

Playing cards for money is illegal in many states, so I guess I'm about to confess to being a lawbreaker. In the cleansing spirit, I also now admit to driving, more than once, at a smidge over 55 mph.

Draw, five-card stud, seven-card. It's been fun, challenging and, at times, rewarding. But now, without risking a chip, I've become hooked by Texas Hold 'Em.

Poker is a new cable-TV ratings darling.

"It has done exceedingly well, outdrawing most any NHL game," ESPN executive producer Vince Doria said. "It will be expanded."

What you see on ESPN, Travel Channel and Bravo is several crusty guys and a few savvy women playing tournaments such as the World Series of Poker, where the champion of a long-running competition can make hundreds of thousands, even millions.

I'm stale on the NBA. There's an excess of NFL. I need a break from a barrage of TV college sports. MLB season is so long, so hot and cold.

So here I was, watching and playing along with dudes in Vegas, seeing the evolution of a fresh World Series champion, an '03 rookie from Tennessee with the apropos name Chris Moneymaker. He's a long way from Amarillo Slim.

Knowing the game helps viewers.

As a boy sports writer, living with my parents and making $70 a week, I was introduced to poker by Jacksonville newspaper elders. Sarge Ray, Deacon Jim, Mark the Shark and other ink-stained pals were delighted to help me with vocabulary, syntax, copy editing and dispensing a few of my Friday night dollars trying to learn when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

My luck would turn sweet, I mean as a journalist, generating a lifetime of working Super Bowls, World Series, Olympics and other magnetic sports occurrences. Traveling to those adventures allowed a wealth of poker opportunities alongside media buddies.

I confess to wagering a few pocketfuls of cash on horse racing, blackjack, greyhounds and even golf-course scrimmages. Poker is the only gambling that has been profitable. I kept learning. Playing conservatively while many associates didn't. Using no alcohol while others did. My fortunes seemed to get better the deeper into the night the game went.

With the Super Bowl about to return to Houston for the first time since the '70s, it prods memory of the only time I gulped at the possibility of getting into trouble with the law. Back then we played poker in the NFL media headquarters at a hotel. Cash on the table. People watching.

A fellow we didn't know observed for a few minutes. Then he tossed a police badge onto the table.

"You are all under arrest," he said.

Then, breaking into a grin, the off-duty cop said he was kidding but that vice squadders were in the area. He suggested we cease dealing. We did.

Okay, enough 'fessing up. You get the idea about my poker past. I haven't played for real in years. Texas Hold 'Em is a different beast. More prone to huge, do-or-die bets. What they call "All In." Doria says it's "relatively cheap programming, costing a lot less to produce than a football game." Moneymaker's run has been replayed more than Seinfeld.

It's fun watching players sweat, tremble and gasp. Many are old poker pros. You see diverse reactions to sudden, stunning wins as well as eradicating defeats. I'm not sure I'm ready to take a seat next to these characters. Not enough loose money or stern conviction.

TV gives an inside look. Hidden cameras reveal every player's hole cards. They deal two down, then there's a round of betting. Survivors move on to "the flop," when three community cards are turned up.

It goes through two more up cards. You see some massive bluffs. Players get queasy and fold winning hands. There is finessing. Gamesmanship. Lying. But the sportsmanship, for a betting game, is reasonably stout.

No, I'm not encouraging gambling.

Yes, I understand it's against the law in most U.S. precincts.

No, I don't want people to be risking grocery money or mortgage money on games.

But is poker as risque as many items on today's television menu? I think not. I'd sooner be seeing Moneymaker at work than Jerry Springer.


* * *

ACES, DEUCES, JOKERS: It's astonishing, especially in the Bucs' neighborhood, that nine of last season's 12 NFL playoff teams do not have winning '03 records. ... If your favorite big-time college football team is shopping for a coach, I suggest a long look at Dan Hawkins, first-year leader of a dynamo at Boise State who is making $300,000 and would have to pay his school a $100,000 buyout. ... Seth Greenberg, former South Florida basketball coach, in his rookie season at Virginia Tech, says "people involved with the Bulls should give a bow to (former athletic director) Paul Griffin for engineering the birth of USF football, because without it the Bulls would, instead of looking forward to the Big East, be shuffling down to the Sun Belt or some other much lesser conference."

LAST WORD: Lawrence Taylor was the best defensive football player I ever saw, but his personal choices after leaving the University of North Carolina have been disgusting.

Okay, I've admitted to my poker involvements. Harmless fiddling, really. But this adored jock owns up to being a major crack cocaine junkie who hired prostitutes in heavy numbers for personal use. Several in a day. L.T. also admits to paying hookers to visit and weaken rival players the night before games against his New York Giants. Some sportsman, huh? Some hero.

Telling all in the interest of selling his new book. I won't be buying. Won't be reading it.

[Last modified December 7, 2003, 01:34:09]

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