Full house

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 October, 2004, 12:00am

Poker has gone from a fad to a craze and now, it seems, an obsession in much of the United States. The game once regarded as best not discussed in polite company has gone mainstream.

I knew it had gone beyond a fad when top players were recently invited to appear on the most popular morning and late-night television shows, and when I hear that friends are buying poker sets for their sons and daughters this Christmas.

In Las Vegas, the casinos have been adding dozens of new poker tables - and they are packed. Online poker is now a US$25 billion industry. Some week-long cruises are dedicated to poker. But more important are the tens of thousands of games being played by people of all ages in schools, homes and community centres. It could almost be compared with the grip that mahjong has on Hong Kong.

Thanks to tiny cameras, poker has become a popular cable TV sport. Suddenly, it is the audience that has all the cards, that knows who has what hand, who is over-optimistic, too timid - and who is bluffing. There is a certain intoxicating delight in watching a player with poor cards intimidate his opponent with a much better hand into folding, usually through heavy betting.

We can also thank the immense marketing muscle of the casino companies. They have made poker seem hip and cool, to be played by people who can combine the talents of mathematicians, actors and psychologists. Hollywood stars such as Ben Affleck and Martin Sheen are pulled in to celebrity tournaments. The fashion industry has weighed in with shirts, hats, dresses and jewellery. The business magazine, Forbes, has advised on when and where it is legal to bet at home.

So, where is this all heading? As with any obsession, it could lead to both tragedy and farce.

With so many children learning to play, there is a good chance that some young lives will be destroyed - especially given the ease of betting big online. After all, some anti-gambling types are already warning that poker is a gateway to all kinds of bad behaviour.

The farce is likely to come from the greed of all those involved. The TV companies will saturate the cable and broadcast stations with so much poker that it will make televised bridge seem exciting. Corporate America is already jumping on the bandwagon by using poker in adverts for companies such as Delta airlines. But all it will take are some allegations of rigging and cheating in major competitions, and the marketers will lose interest. One thing they may not have to worry about is drug taking - although botox injections might be good for bluffing.