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TV Poker's A Joker

I am clueless. I am about as plugged in as an Amish toaster. Not only do I not know what's up, I would need a GPS and two sherpas to find up.

This became clear the other day when I heard my fairly athletic 17-year-old son on the phone, trying to "get a bunch of players" together. And he said how "the game yesterday was sick!" And how he was working on his "reads," needed "a really good kicker" and "wouldn't it be cool to get on ESPN someday?"

And I thought to myself, Hey, that's great! He and his schoolmates are playing some backyard football!

Wrong. He and his schoolmates are playing Texas Hold 'Em in the basement. He and his schoolmates and what seems like half the formerly sane world have been sucked into the televised poker craze. Do you realize that the 2004 World Series of Poker drew bigger ratings on ESPN than the first two games of the last Stanley Cup finals? And by one website's estimate, $100 million is bet on poker every day online?

So I started watching. And I came to this startling conclusion: This poker craze is the biggest waste of time since Stevie Wonder went to a mime festival. From what I can tell, it seems to be a lot of people who sit in dark rooms and watch a lot of other people sit in those windowless rooms wearing sunglasses.

I haven't seen this many doughy people since the Krispy Kreme company picnic. Do they tan under 40-watt bulbs? Where is the thrill in watching guys with 300 cholesterol levels play cards and rattle their chip stacks 1,000 different ways? The current World Series of Poker champ, Greg (Fossilman) Raymer, wears back-of-the-comic-book gag glasses and gemstone necklaces and goes about 275 pounds, though a good 3% of that is muscle.

Now Bravo has a hit with Celebrity Poker Showdown, featuring celebs like Carrie Fisher saying breathlessly to Mimi Rogers, "I'm all in!" You know your sport is smokin' when you can get Carrie Fisher.

I hear what you're saying. You baboon. You don't have the foggiest idea what it takes to play world-class poker. It's cerebral. It's psychological. It requires patience, aggression and brains.

Really? Is that why a guy named Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker after having played the game on the Internet for three years? Or why actor Ben Affleck won a major open poker tournament this year? Can you imagine somebody taking up basketball three years ago and suddenly becoming the leading scorer in the NBA? Or Affleck winning the Buick Open?

Yet teens hold up these pasty poker pudges as gods. I never hear them talk about Tiger Woods or Kevin Garnett anymore. They talk about Chris (Jesus) Ferguson and Phil (the Unabomber) Laak, who peers out from under a sweatshirt hood for the whole game, shadowboxes during hands and kneels behind the dealer as the last two cards are turned. Maybe he should pray. God: "Look, let's put the whole Fallujah thing on hold. I need to make sure Phil gets a six here."

Hey, at least the guy gets out of his chair. Everybody else just sits. These people spend more time on their butts than FDR did. And now you, too, can get the entire 2003 World Series of Poker on DVD, featuring all that sitting! (Comes with an ice pick to insert into your brain.)

The dullness is built right into the game. The way to win at Texas Hold 'Em is to be as expressionless as drywall and fold a lot. Whoo-ee! You talk about exciting! What's ESPN going to put on next, the World Hairline-Receding Championships?

Is all this a good thing for teenagers? Is this what we want--kids who used to be outside on perfect fall afternoons suddenly hunched in the basement like Nathan Detroit's floating crap game? Is it a good thing that my son's buddies are all wearing green eyeshades and taking one another's busboy tips for hours on end while their muscles turn to linguini?

Betty George of the North American Training Institute, which runs youth gambling-prevention programs, doesn't think so. She says that a teenager who gambles is two to three times more likely than an adult to become addicted to gambling. "We get a call every day from another teenager who's trying to figure out how to tell his parents he lost the car insurance money," she says.

What really sucks is that the kids are losing their own cash while the poker stars sort of aren't. Do you realize that Moneymaker won his World Series of Poker stake in a $40 Internet contest? He might as well be your grandmother betting buttons.

Hey, I play poker with my buddies. But it's four times a year and comes with the requisite bad meatballs, cold beer and dirty jokes. Poker isn't a sport, it isn't for kids, and it sure as hell shouldn't be on my damn sports channels.

Sorry, I'm all out.

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Poker isn't for kids, and it sure as hell shouldn't be on my sports channels. What's next? The World Hairline-Receding Championships?