Turn on a television, and it’s probably on. Search the Internet and there are thousands of places to play. Ask a group of friends and it’s a sure bet that someone gets in on the action occasionally.

Both amateur and professional players are reveling in the renaissance of a card classic: poker.

“The big draw for many, of course, is the big money payouts,” said Randy Link of Auburn. He’s in a casual group of guys who’ve been getting together to play poker for almost six years.

“That’s probably why poker is so big on TV right now. When we’re watching people play for millions of dollars, it’s an experience that most don’t get in their own lives.”

It’s true that most viewers can live vicariously through the professional players’ aggressive playing style and large bankrolls. For the guys who play at Link’s house, the competitiveness may be there, but the pots are a bit smaller.

As Dave Langevin of Auburn sat at Link’s dining room table, he picked up a small stack of white poker chips, letting them drop, one at a time, back onto the table and chuckled.

“We’re not talking high stakes here. It’s literally nickel and dime stuff,” Langevin said. “One of us may win enough to buy a soda or a pizza at the end of the night.”

“Well, that’s on a really good night,” added Link.

Clearly, poker is no longer a pastime reserved for saloons or a backroom somewhere. Poker passion is “hip.” And it’s generated interest in a variety of media.

Consider this: over an eight-day period, from Jan. 17 to Jan. 24, nine channels scheduled at least 30 programs relating to poker.

Tournament play, such as the “World Series of Poker” and the “World Poker Tour” are relished by die-hard fans who love seeing the intense action and watching professional players compete for big stakes. Poker fans have shown such enthusiasm that a national sports network like ESPN has placed poker on its regular schedule.

Sports purists may argue that poker isn’t a sport, noting that it doesn’t have athletes. However, ESPN must disagree, since it not only showcases poker tournaments but also has developed a new drama series with poker as the central theme. Its “Tilt,” which debuted this month, highlights the action at and behind the scenes during a fictional poker tournament.

And for those who may not be as serious about the game, but still enjoy the excitement of a decent poker hand, Bravo has just started its third season of “Celebrity Poker Showdown” in which celebrities play tournament-style poker for various charities.

A cheat sheet helps

Poker as entertainment is the biggest draw for most casual players. Dave Collins, one of the players at Randy Link’s house, agrees.

“As someone who works from home, it is a great way to get out, spend some time with the guys and just have a good time,” Collins said. “After a long day of work and doing what I need to as a dad and husband, it is good to hang out and play some cards.”

Some members of this group have been playing for years; others were newcomers when they joined.

“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Langevin said. “We do it for the fun. So, it doesn’t matter if you can play well or not. Most of us here aren’t great, but we manage to have a good time.” The group keeps a “cheat sheet” handy as a reminder about which hand beats what, and refers to it often to settle some friendly challenges.

But, of course, there are reasons for concern about the surging popularity of poker, especially in the online community.

Online play of poker has exploded, especially since Chris Moneymaker won the “World Series of Poker” in 2003 as an online qualifier. The convenience of Internet poker has made it one of the top online activities. While there are no hard data to give precise numbers, it’s been estimated that millions of people log on each day to play. Some play for poker for free (such as on Yahoo!), and others log on to get in on the money action.

As with traditional poker, online poker stakes range from low – where nickel and dime bets are common – to high, where hundreds and thousands of dollars can be in play. The bottom line is that no matter where a player puts down serious money, online or at a casino, poker is a game of risk as players need to realize before putting substantial money on the line.

Mix it up a bit

Link and his buddies enjoy the variety that poker offers. “Texas Hold ‘Em is the game that is shown most often on TV, but there are so many versions of the game. We play a lot of them in one night, just to mix things up.”

Ironically, although Texas Hold ‘Em (see sidebar) is the poker game getting the most airtime on television, Link and his friends rarely play it.

“We enjoy Five Card Draw, Seven Card Stud and variations of those games, such as Baseball Poker (which allows more wild cards than other games). Mixing it up just keeps it more interesting.”

Most of the men in the group agree that the best way to learn the game (no matter the variation) is simply to play it. Playing in casual groups like theirs or going online to a free site is a fun way to learn the basics of the game and to build up confidence.

Poker is undoubtedly a betting game. But is it only luck or is there strategy involved? Link throws his two cents into the pot of opinion.

“I’m not an expert, but there really is strategy involved. You can have an incredible hand and play it stupid. Or you can have a horrible hand of cards and play it brilliantly. The cards that fall are all luck, but how they are played, well … that’s a different story. Poker is a game of strategy, then.”

Poker experts agree. Bill Burton, who writes a regular column for about.com states, “Poker is one of the games where a player can have an advantage based on their skill level. It takes studying and practicing to learn and improve that skill. It takes work and is not something you can learn completely by watching others play it on television. If you want to be a winning player, you have to get your education from other sources as well. There are plenty of books, magazine and Web site articles available to anyone who wants to take the time to study the game correctly.”

Don’t give up

So, do any of these Auburn guys have a surefire strategy? While not offering any top secrets, they agree on one belief: “The person who is ‘short-stacked’ early on usually winds up being the winner at the end of the night!” The lesson of the evening was not to give up since a comeback is always possible.

Many of the guys who play at the Link house regularly grew up playing cards.

“I started poker when I was a kid and watched my parents play penny poker,” said Collins. “Whatever they’d drop on the floor, I’d pick up. Eventually, I just played with them. We had a great time.”

Collins has passed on the pastime to his 11-year-old son, Dustin. “He can’t get enough and we play quite often.”

Langevin also recalls family card games. “I started playing gin rummy with my grandmother when I was really young. Then, as I got older, I learned how to play poker on my own. I played with friends and then I played when I was in the Navy.”

No matter where or when they learned, the games are times for them to come together to share jokes, talk about work and tell stories.

“Is someone going to deal or what?” a voice calls out over the talking and laughing.

“And we do even manage to play a few hands,” jokes Link as the cards are dealt around the table.


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