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All In: Addicted to ESPN's World Series of Poker

Poker may not be a sport, but it makes for some great television thanks to characters like Chris Jesus Ferguson.


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It's Tuesday afternoon and when a friend calls to see if I want to meet him for a beer around six, I say I can't. That's because it's World Series of Poker night on ESPN and I'll be glued to the show from 6 until 8.

"Are you whacked," he says, "poker isn't a sport. Why waste you time on watching poker?"

Because, I love the characters. To hell with the game itself, it's the characters that make the World Series of Poker (WSOP) interesting and the drama surrounding the play fascinating.

WSOP players/characters have, over the years, ranged from Dickensian to those out of a Damon Runyon novel, to some you think have to be the invention of some gifted Hollywood screenwriter.

The first WSOP was staged in 1970 at Binion's Horsehose club and casino in old downtown Las Vegas-real Vegas, if you will. In 1973, CBS-Television first broadcast the event. Few people watched.

That's because television's general audience didn't get the likes of men like Amarillo Slim Preston and Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson for whom gambling was a way of life.

Those who did watch got to see the genuinely drug addled and tortured poker genius, Stu Unger, win three WSOP championships.

So the WSOP staggered along as sort of tawdry television fare only to get a big boost in 1998 when the movie "Rounders" debuted featuring two-time WSOP champion Johnny "The Orient Express" Chan in a key cameo role playing Texas Hold'Em.

Texas Hold'Em (the only event in those days at the WSOP) suddenly became the game to play in poker clubs and at casinos and began to attract a younger crowd to the tables.

A younger and brighter crowd, many with advanced degrees in match and science from prestigious universities. Many, who were often chess and backgammon champions to boot, became poker pros.

Pros with the nicknames like Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Howard "The Professor" Lederer, Phil "The Poker Brat" Hellmuth. Despite not having a nickname, a math whiz like Erik Seidel could win the WSOP and the coveted bracelet that goes along with the title.

Along with the brainiacs came some very good women players led by Howard Lederer's sister Annie Duke.

But the WSOP and poker still didn't capture much viewer attention even with ESPN broadcasting the annual tournament. That changed forever in 2003 when an aptly named CPA, Chris Moneymaker beat the well known professional poker players for the $2.5 million dollar WSOP title. Suddenly Texas Hold'Em went worldwide aided greatly by the advent of on-line poker sites.

Hold'Em became anyone's game not just the game of cardroom heroes like Scotty "Baby" Nguyen, a émigré from Vietnam who was, along with Johnny Chan, the first of many great Asian-American players. Sitting down at the Hold'Em tables across American and elsewhere were accountants, regular guys, loggers, business owners, shoe salesmen, truckers, retired postal workers and a patent attorney named Greg "Fossilman" Raymer who took the title in 2004 WSOP Championship.

The year "Fossilman" won, the tournament moved from Binions to Harrah's Rio casino and dozens of other championships (Omaha, Stud, etc) were added. But the grand championship is still the $10,000 buy-in, no-limit Texas Hold'Em championship.This year's WSOP Hold'Em event drew 7,319 players vying for the $8.9 million dollar first prize.And the mix at the tables was different yet again. Hundreds player-bright young undergrads and grad students, young on-line players, along with Euros are the ones to watch now.

The 2010 WSOP is winding down with most of the old school players gone along with leaders of the new world of poker like steely nerved Phil Ivey and all-over-the-emotional-map, Mike "The Mouth" Matusow.

This year, it looks yet again like an under-thirty young gun will win it all. That is unless a young throwback player like Michael "The Grinder" Mizarachi comes through.

So the poker drama with its larger-than-life characters continues every Tuesday night until November when a new WSOP champion is crowned. Until that moment, I'm all in on watching.


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