Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Hope everyone had as fine a weekend as me.

One sidenote about my new poker room: I was sitting there at the table wondering why I enjoyed the place so much (outside of the outrageous loose play). I just couldn't put my finger on it, but the ambience was fine. It's a small room, with perhaps nine tables. And then it hit me. There are 15 freaking bigass windows in there, allowing massive natural light to shine in. Very unusual for a casino.

Try as I might, I can't recall any other poker room like that.

Anyway, I actually read this following article on the front page of the entertainment section of the New York Times on Sunday, so I'm passing it along for ya'll until I get an uber post going. Is this show going to be on network TV or on cable? Anyway, stay tuned - I'll be back soon.


Is Poker Losing Its First Flush?


NEXT month, Fox Broadcasting plans to introduce "Poker Dome Challenge," a live television show that will be broadcast from inside the Neonopolis, a shopping mall just down the block from Binion's, the gleefully bawdy casino where high-stakes poker started here more than 50 years ago.

While "Poker Dome" may be Binion's neighbor, the show will be as far removed from poker's leisurely Mississippi Delta roots as weekend paintball matches are from big-game hunting. "Poker Dome" will encase a group of players in a soundproof, glass-walled stage, while viewers and a studio audience watch everything they do.

Microphones will capture game chatter, and pulse monitors strapped to the gamblers will track their heart rates. Robotic cameras will scrutinize every nervous tic on the gamblers' faces, projecting the angst of brinkmanship onto oversized video screens. New to the mix will be an N.B.A.-like shot clock that gives gamblers only 15 seconds to bet, check or fold, an innovation that Fox says will increase the rate of play to 80 to 100 hands an hour from the usual 15 to 20. "It's poker on triple espresso," Fox boasts in a "Poker Dome" news release.

Three years into the poker boom, the game's purveyors are out to prove that it is not a mere fad, but a form of entertainment with real legs — even as there are signs that the country's poker appetite may be becoming less ravenous. Some industry analysts expect the growth of online poker to slow sharply, and televised poker is already drawing fewer viewers.

The Travel Channel says ratings for its "World Poker Tour" have fallen 36 percent in the last two years. Poker even has its own miniature stock scandal, with the Securities and Exchange Commission investigating whether the poker legend, Doyle Brunson, and his Las Vegas lawyers manipulated the stock price of WPT Enterprises , the company that runs the "World Poker Tour."

Even so, the commercialization and transformation of the old game zips along at light speed. Fox, as well as other companies and networks that produce and broadcast poker, dismiss naysaying and continue to inject more adrenaline into promotion.

"I do think that poker is one of the most durable and cost-effective forms of programming in television," said George Greenberg, a Fox executive overseeing the network's poker forays. "Quality poker, dramatic poker and poker that is in your face is the poker that will be left standing."

Big-money poker, of course, is in everyone's face now, thanks to Fox, its television brethren, and the Internet. The "World Poker Tour" is modeling a major new tournament after invitation-only events found in professional golf, much to the chagrin of some players who worry they will be cut out of lucrative licensing deals. ESPN showcases the "World Series of Poker," in June, and this year's entry list is expected to briskly outpace last year's roster of about 5,600. And the Bravo network continues to play the glamour card on " Celebrity Poker Showdown" (Ben Affleck! Martin Sheen! Ray Romano!).

The Web is a distinctive sugar daddy in all of this. PartyPoker.com, a leading Web site, is host for about 32 hands of poker play per second, according to a British securities filing by its parent company, PartyGaming. In 2005, that amounted to about $1,454 wagered per second, or $45 billion for the year — and PartyPoker is just one among some 2,400 online poker sites.

The growth of the poker industry, meanwhile, has led some television executives to bet that darts, dominoes or blackjack will be next. A group of Las Vegas and Los Angeles entrepreneurs has filmed a new blackjack tournament that it is pitching to networks as the next big thing. For his part, Mr. Greenberg at Fox still sees poker as the biggest game in town — and "Poker Dome" as its most robust incarnation.

" 'Poker Dome' will be the Nascar of poker," he said, "because of its style, design, graphics, information and the speed with which the game is played."

But are speed, the currency of slot machines and other quick-fix gambling gimmicks a virtue in poker? And are all the people joining the dizzying electronic and tabletop smorgasbord of tournaments really playing poker anymore?

Well, no, some purists say. They contend that real poker is about a sober assessment of risk and long-term gains at the table, and not about speed or frequent high-stakes collisions over big pots.

"The minute you make it a tournament meant to bankrupt someone else then it isn't poker anymore," said Aaron Brown, an executive director at Morgan Stanley and the author of a new poker book, "The Poker Face of Wall Street." "It's the same difference between being a career singer and being on 'American Idol.' Tournament play may be great entertainment, but it's not poker."

Poker industry honchos dismiss such critiques. They say that their efforts have snared a mass audience of new poker enthusiasts and that those who are not enamored of high-octane tournament play simply have not adapted to modern times.

"Poker has gone from something that has been hardly an afterthought to a big, big business," says Steven Lipscomb, the chief executive of WPT and co-founder of the "World Poker Tour."

"Inevitably, no matter what you do, anybody who drops out of a tournament will gripe about structure," he said.

ON a recent evening at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Phil Gordon, a former commentator on "Celebrity Poker Showdown," regaled a Wall Street group with tales from the poker trenches. J. P. Morgan had hired him to entertain a group of professional money managers who would set off after a sumptuous dinner to play poker with one another in a small, private tournament.

"I am not a professional gambler — I have never gambled a day in my life," said Mr. Gordon, who became a full-time poker player several years ago after he made about $2 million exercising stock options earned as a high-tech entrepreneur. "What I am is very similar to what you do. I'm a strategic investor."

"All I'm trying to do is get my money in and invest as often as I possibly can," he told his audience. "Every time I put $100 into the pot I expect to take $100 or more out."

The gambler reinvented as investor, shrewdly calculating expected values and other statistical realities, is one face of contemporary poker, and Mr. Gordon is an advocate of the game's new business-minded mantra. Lanky, genial and savvy, he is a talented poker player who is quick to point out that he does not consider himself a great player. But he is clearly an avid promoter. He comes to speaking engagements loaded with slick poker-training DVD's, copies of his popular poker books, a snappy résumé and talking points.

Mr. Gordon says he can now make more money, more consistently, from his speeches, books and DVD's than he ever made playing poker. As he stands in the middle of Caesar's poker room, a few poker groupies spot him and rush over to get his autograph, making him something quite other than the back-alley poker tough Steve McQueen played in "The Cincinnati Kid," the 1965 film.

Mr. Gordon has had a ringside seat at the poker boom. He finished in fourth place at the 2001 World Series and then won the "World Poker Tour" the next year, all just before the introduction of a hole-card camera helped ignite poker ratings on television by allowing viewers to peek at cards that were once hidden in players' hands. A chance encounter with the actor Hank Azaria, in late 2002, led Mr. Azaria to suggest that Mr. Gordon get in touch with Joshua Malina, another actor producing a charitable poker event, which evolved into "Celebrity Poker Showdown."

Mr. Molina asked Mr. Gordon to be a commentator on "Showdown," which made its debut in 2003 and found itself a sudden and unexpected catalyst in poker mania.

From his years in the game, Mr. Gordon has mapped out qualities that he believes make a great poker player — qualities like aggressiveness, courage, patience, observational brilliance and open-mindedness. He also asserts that an ability to assess opponents' psychological makeup is far more important than mathematical dexterity. In fact, he says in his poker primers, all that any player needs to succeed are fourth-grade math skills and emotional discipline.

"It's the only game that normal, everyday people can visualize themselves doing at the highest level," he said. "They know they will never be able to hit a Randy Johnson fastball or catch a Joe Montana pass, but they can imagine themselves sitting across from Phil Ivey and going all-in. A plumber with marital difficulties can find himself suddenly rich and famous."

Those particular fantasies took flight among poker fans when Chris Moneymaker, an otherwise nondescript 27-year-old novice with a poker-perfect surname, unexpectedly won the 2003 World Series, taking home $2.5 million.

In 2001, poker players around the world spent a combined $72 million buying their way into live games. Last year, the global buy-in was $376.6 million, according to PokerPages.com, a firm that tracks the industry. About 304,500 people entered those tournaments in 2005, according to the firm, compared with about 147,500 in 2001. For now, the popularity of poker playing remains. The number of people entering tournaments and the amount they spent doing so were both higher in the first quarter this year than they were in the same period in 2005.

The emerging powerhouse in tournament play is the "World Poker Tour," shown on the Travel Channel. Mr. Lipscomb, a former documentary filmmaker who said he was inspired to create a slickly packaged professional poker league after he filmed the 1999 World Series, joined a casino industry veteran, Lyle Berman, to found WPT Enterprises. Mr. Berman minces few words in describing the partners' original aspirations: "Our whole goal was to create a brand around poker and monetize it."

That attitude has upset players like Mr. Gordon, who say the tour is trying to monopolize all of the financial action floating around tournament play, like licensing deals. But other players say they are grateful for the tour's national platform and for television exposure as they play in top poker rooms like those at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, the Borgata in Atlantic City and Foxwoods in Ledyard, Conn.

THE Travel Channel and WPT televised the first "World Poker Tour" from March to June 2003, featuring about 1,400 entrants competing for a total prize pool of $11.6 million. When the tour's fourth season ends this June, WPT says it will have had about 10,000 entrants competing for a pool worth $90 million to $100 million.

While new poker players are clearly continuing to flock to tournaments and online forums, it is less clear that television fans will share that enthusiasm. The Travel Channel said that about 850,000 households, on average, tuned in to the "World Poker Tour" in its first season, in 2003. That figure jumped to 1.2 million in the second season, broadcast from December 2003 to September 2004. But during the tour's fourth season, which began in March and ends in June, an average of only 760,000 households have been tuning in.

ESPN has experienced a dip in its "World Series" viewership, and viewers have also been abandoning "Celebrity Poker Showdown." Bravo said "Showdown" had an average of 957,000 households watching in its first season, from November 2003 to January 2004. In the seventh season, which was broadcast from last October to last December, the average household viewership plunged to 387,000. Bravo said that part of the dropoff in average ratings, though not all, was attributable to added "Showdown" episodes.

Although Mr. Gordon says he thinks that poker play has about two years of growth left before it plateaus — a view he bases on anecdotal evidence like book sales and e-mail traffic — his former bosses at Bravo say they are in for the long haul. Lauren Zalaznick, Bravo's president, describes "Showdown" as one of her most bankable franchises, along with "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Project Runway."

On the financial side of the ledger, WPT also has doubters. While the stock market is never a perfect predictor, investors do not appear convinced that the World Poker Tour's owner is telling a growth story. Even though WPT's revenue grew to $18 million last year from about $4.3 million in 2003, the company is unprofitable and its stock price closed at $6.86 yesterday, exactly where it was shortly after the company went public in the summer of 2004.

For a brief time after its initial offering, the stock rose smartly — including a surprising spike to about $29.50 last July, after Mr. Brunson announced on his Web site that he planned to start a takeover bid. Less than a week later, Mr. Brunson allowed his WPT bid to lapse, causing the stock price to begin falling back to earth, where it has since remained. The S.E.C. said in December that it was investigating Mr. Brunson and two of his Las Vegas lawyers, Chaka Henry and David Chesnoff, regarding the circumstances surrounding the takeover offer. All of the parties involved in the investigation declined to comment.

Mr. Lipscomb also declined to comment on the investigation, but said that he was confident about WPT's future, primarily because he was ramping up his company's online presence.

The legality of online poker betting in the United States is murky, with the Justice Department and some states flatly considering it illegal, even though some courts have interpreted the situation differently. Regardless, setting up shop on a computer server abroad and establishing an online poker presence identity is easy, and WPT has already started sites in 150 countries to do so. (Mr. Lipscomb says that American players are blocked from accessing WPT's overseas pay-for-play gambling sites.)

The earnings of the online poker titan PartyGaming, especially in comparison with WPT's anemic numbers, illustrate why Mr. Lipscomb is in such a hurry. PartyGaming's revenue leapt to $977 million in 2005, from $30.1 million in 2002, while its profits in those same years soared to $293.2 million from $4.4 million.

Feverish online poker play accounts for the difference. According to PokerPages.com, digital gamblers open their wallets at a far lustier rate than poker players entering live tournaments. The company estimates that 40 million poker players entered online tournaments last year and forked over buy-ins totaling about $1.1 billion.

PartyGaming says its PartyPoker Web site had about 41 percent of global online poker play last year, with most players based in the United States. But PartyGaming's securities filings also cite a study indicating that the growth of online poker revenue will slow sharply. While revenue grew at an annual rate of 158 percent from 2000 to 2005, the study projects annual increases of only about 18 percent from 2005 to 2010.

The Internet fosters speedy poker play as much as television tournaments like "Poker Dome" do, and analysts are curious about whether such haste may also give rise to compulsive gambling problems. Dr. Howard J. Shaffer, director of Harvard Medical School's division on addictions and an authority on problem gambling, is completing a study of online gambling and poker play. He says that online poker is in its infancy and that his data need to be interpreted carefully.

I THINK online poker play has changed the gambling landscape," he said. "I think younger people see it as much more average and acceptable, and without the same apprehensions and restraints, as earlier generations. That could make current online players more vulnerable or even less vulnerable. We just don't know yet."

Another age-old threat that is given a new twist in the online poker world is cheating. Cardsharps have always prowled poker rooms, colluding with one another to set up naïve or unwitting players. But some poker veterans say that the Internet makes collusion much harder to discern and avoid. Richard Marcus, a gambler who has written an autobiography about his exploits as a professional cheater, recently published a book, "Dirty Poker: The Poker Underworld Exposed," that purports to detail the poker world's underbelly.

For example, Mr. Marcus contends that it is simple for a skilled cheater to adopt several digital guises and "sit" anonymously at several seats at one online poker table and control a match's outcome. "I've been cheating at everything, including poker, since I was old enough to walk, to put it bluntly," he said. "There is no policing of the online sites. None."

John Shepherd, a PartyGaming spokesman, disputes this view, saying that his company carefully monitors its poker sites for cheaters. "We have absolutely zero tolerance for cheating," he said.

PartyGaming also has zero tolerance for sitting still. The company continues to start a variety of new online casino games, including blackjack, which has generated about $800,000 a day in revenue since its debut in October.

OTHERS also say that blackjack may be ready for prime time. Russ Hamilton, a professional poker player in Las Vegas, received the backing of Los Angeles investors to produce a new show called the "Ultimate Blackjack Tour." Mr. Hamilton says he has introduced some innovative tweaks, like a secret-betting button, that are designed to speed up wagering and make blackjack just as telegenic as poker. Mr. Hamilton and a Las Vegas consultant, Anthony Curtis, say they have shot 10 episodes of the show and are negotiating with networks to broadcast them.

"There are more blackjack players than poker players, and blackjack is far easier than poker," Mr. Curtis said. "I believe it's the next big thing. Poker is big, but it's got to hit a wall."

If tournament poker has yet to hit a wall in terms of popularity, some people say it may already have reached a breaking point in terms of its quality. Televised tournaments are demanding bigger "blinds" — designated antes that players are required to throw into the pot before a new hand begins — that cause players to burn through their bankrolls more quickly. That forces faster play and speedier eliminations. And that, in turn, makes luck a much bigger factor in those games than it is in normal poker matches.

"It's as if you played golf where every hole was just one or two shots — that's what they've done to TV poker," Mr. Gordon said. "They're more interested in production values than in letting a player's true skill play out on the green felt."

Still, the game goes on. In addition to the thrills of its new "Poker Dome," Fox says its series will also offer pricey, stand-alone "mega events." The first such "Poker Dome" event is planned for July and is scheduled to star the poker wizard Phil Ivey. Mr. Ivey, along with five other gamblers, will each have to pay $10 million buy-ins for the right to participate in a $60 million, winner-take-all face-off. The money promises to trade hands very, very fast.

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