The case against the poker craze
We hold these truths to be self-evident: All men are created equal. Baseball should bring back the bullpen car. Notre Dame's shamrock green throwback jerseys are an abomination before Touchdown Jesus.
Oh, and the ongoing poker craze must be put down, right now, before that painting of dogs playing poker replaces the Mona Lisa in the galleries of the Louvre.
Though it's impossible to determine the exact moment poker anted up from harmless basement diversion to inescapable cultural pollutant - possibly when the term "flop" became unhinged from Steve Spurrier's pro coaching stint; probably when Ben Affleck became the game's de facto celebrity spokesface - one thing seems certain: poker is more irritatingly overexposed than Paris Hilton. And quite possibly a greater threat to our fair republic.
Scoff if you will. Maintain a lobotomized poker face if you must. The fact remains that when our Founding Fathers spoke of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they did not envision the freedom to play 72 consecutive hours of online Texas Hold 'Em while sitting at home in a soiled pair of undergarments. Nor did Jefferson and Co. endorse the soul-expanding joy produced by shuffling two stacks of chips between one's fingers. Just like the pros. Ahem!
Still, poker is enjoying unprecedented popularity. Some 50million Americans play the game legally and illegally, at tables and on cell phones. And raw numbers only hint at the depths of our depravity. Internet sports books have taken action on the winner of the World Poker Tour player of the year award, which is like betting on the guy three cubicles down to capture the NCAA tournament office pool. More distressingly, the only way to avoid televised poker is to turn off one's set altogether - then send a bullet through the screen, Elvis-style. Just to be sure.
To put things another way: The 1998 film "Rounders" was a commercial bomb, despite being the "Godfather" of poker films; release it today, and "Titanic" might have some company as King of the Box Office World. Even with Matt Damon in a starring role.
In fairness, there are some redeeming aspects to poker. Such as the all-girl strip variety. And ... um, that's about it. Otherwise, something is amiss. We are slouching toward Las Vegas, Atlantic City if we can't afford the $99 fare on Southwest. The nation has lost its collective way, bamboozled by the promise of a royal flush, unable to spy our moral compass through our low-pulled ballcaps and wraparound Oakley shades.
Friends, Romans, countrymen: The time has come to fold 'em. Walk away. And yes, even run, provided we haven't been sitting at the low-stakes table so long that our legs have fallen asleep.
Herein, the case against the poker craze:
Go fish, but with money
Ron Rose is gambling against Jose Rosenkrantz at the final table of the WPT's championship tournament. Rose has roughly $3million in chips; Rosenkrantz about $2.5million. One man will capture the pot.
"At the risk of sounding corny, this is not about money," intones corny-sounding Travel Channel announcer Vince Van Patten. "This is about destiny."
Au contraire. Poker is all about money. Gobs of it, falling from the ceiling like confetti, followed by five women in slinky black dresses whose only duties are scooping the loose bills and looking sexy. Not necessarily in that order.
Why the blizzard of greenbacks and silicone? Simple. With it, the Travel Channel has something airable, a tawdry scene culled from "Indecent Proposal"; without it, the network has two geezers in jarringly pastel shirts hunched over a card table. Not exactly must-see-TV, let alone an episode of "Joey."
Take away wagering and poker is a snooze, just another time-killing card game. Like Go Fish. The difference between the World Series of Poker, capital W-S-P, and 2,500 goateed goofballs crammed into a stuffy casino? Five million bucks. Sans stakes, poker lacks the sizzle of competitive Scrabble - where at least you're learning something, like "kwyjibo" is not an actual word.
Granted, the probabilities and permutations of bet-free poker still might appeal to the mathematically minded. But for those of us who didn't major in game theory, poker without payouts is just an excuse to drink beer with our buddies, free of significant others. Like company softball, only minus the threat of a torn rotator cuff.
And speaking of imbibing: Card games and alcohol aren't frequent bedfellows by sheer coincidence. Every time Anheuser World Select touts itself as the official beer of the WPT, every time poker pros appear in a Belvedere vodka ad, every time a C-lister like Macaulay Culkin downs another shot of tequila on Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown," it's more than an effort to liven up an inherently humdrum activity.
It's a silent cry for help.
The only thing more soporific than playing poker is watching poker. Television is a visual medium, fueled by arresting images and shaped by slick production. And that's just on PBS. Yet during poker broadcasts, the action consists of the following:
(a) Old, fat card players sitting motionless, staring blankly at the table
(b) Slouchy, badly dressed card players peeking at their cards, then placing chin in hand before resuming said blank stares
(c) Balding, slug-like card players thumbing stacks of chips in the annoying manner of younger siblings and ADD sufferers everywhere, producing a clicking sound to rival a cicada in heat
One thing you'll never see in televised poker? Instant replay. Because nothing much happens. Oh, sure, the wheels are spinning as card sharks such as Johnny Chan bet and bluff their way to victory.
Problem is, you can't see any of the mental gymnastics. Not without a concurrent CAT scan and/or cracking open someone's skull. And aren't there enough "CSI" spinoffs already?
Truth be told, the players aren't to blame for poker's lack of on-screen oomph. For one, most have a mug best suited for online chat; more to the point, the whole raison d'etre of a poker face is cool concealment.
Pick up the cards. Put 'em down. Hold or fold. Reach for some chips. Don't say a word. No sudden movements. Never, ever change expression. In short, make like actor Josh Hartnett.
Such is the discipline for top-ranked pros, who treasure inscrutability like a pair of pocket aces. Yet what works for them plays poorly on camera. Consider the following ESPN exchange between Chan and World Series champ Greg Raymer, who uses a fossil as his card protector:
Chan: "How old is this thing? About a million years?"
Raymer: "No. They're about 300 million."
In the scintillating realm of on-air poker, this passes for deep conversation, Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard. During a truly electric moment at the World Series of Poker - like before the river card on an all-in bet - you might see the likes of Daniel Negreanu stand up from the table and do something crazy. Such as jam his hands into his pockets.
Otherwise, the whole process makes senior golf look like Rollerball.
Sunglasses at night
On a recent episode of "SportsCenter," ESPN profiled a group of Texas teenagers who hold a weekly poker game and idolize top card players in the manner of professional athletes.
"At school, in the hallways, talking about the final table, talking about our tables, [poker] just fit right in with our sports conversations," said Bill Nahll Jr., an 18-year-old from Houston. "It's pretty much same thing."
No. No. A thousand times no. Pro sports and pro poker bear little resemblance, even though WPT contender Juha Helppi is Finland's national paintball champion and the corpulent Raymer looks as though he could hold his own in sumo. Pro sports involve the athletic skill needed to throw a 60-yard spiral or serve a tennis ball at 140 mph; pro poker involves the athletic skill needed to push a stack of chips front and center without knocking over one's cocktail.
Besides, poker is an essentially dorky pursuit, despite efforts to glam up the game. WPT player Chris Karagulleyan wears a black suit to the table, a nice touch in a realm where hoodies qualify as business casual. That said, the suit matches both his shirt and his neatly trimmed goatee.
The effect? Karagulleyan resembles a wanna-be Jim Rome. Not good. But not as bad as Raymer, whose signature shades have orange-tinted lenses overlaid with an eyeball pattern.
During the intro to the World Series of Poker tournament of champions, 10 top players gathered on the top of the Rio casino in Las Vegas. At least one wore sunglasses - at night, it should be noted. Next came a crunching guitar riff, followed by ominous voiceovers:
"I have no rules when I play poker ..."
"I don't want to lose a pot to anybody ..."
"It will take more than just being able to play cards to beat these guys ..."
Really? Is a game of H-O-R-S-E forthcoming? Bowling? Lawn darts? Sadly, the broadcast failed to elaborate. Instead, viewers were treated to footage of eventual champ Annie Duke and her brother playing Battleship, followed by a profile of self-styled bad boy Phil Hellmuth.
Apparently, Hellmuth is considered something of a charismatic poker rebel because he snivels a lot while playing. Oh, and he also wears sunglasses. Contrast this to historical poker bad boy Doc Holiday, another love-him-or-hate-him sort who acquired his outlaw chic by being an actual outlaw.
One of these things is not like the other.
Don't you have a direct-to-DVD movie to shoot?
Coolio is playing poker. Actually, check that: Coolio was playing poker, until he busted out to that dude who joined the cast of "Friends" just before the show wrapped up.
His chips in a better place, the once-popular rapper sits on a soundstage, chatting with actor Kevin Pollack.
"With poker, you think of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra," Coolio says. "Sitting around the table, smoking cigars and drinking martinis."
Well, sure. Not to mention former late-night sidekick Andy Richter. And one-time cinematic shirt doffer Shannon Elizabeth. And actor-cum-director Jon Favreau, who appears to have eaten an entire poker table in the eight years since his breakthrough in "Swingers."
Oddly enough, this isn't the set of VH1's "Surreal Life" - there's not a Corey in sight - but rather Celebrity Poker Showdown, the show that launched Affleck's nascent card career.
Centered around the ingenious premise of putting even more poker on television, the Bravo program is both distressing and enlightening - the former as pokermania's pop-culture nadir, the latter as a source of C-list celebrity news. Where else can you learn, for example, that Coolio acted in something called "China Strike Force?" Or that Dennis Rodman is still alive?
Produced for a good cause - every pot won on the show goes to a charity of the winner's choice - Celebrity Poker Showdown nevertheless makes for uncomfortable viewing. And never mind Affleck.
When Favreau is playing for Children and Families with AIDS ... and "ER's" Maura Tierney is playing for Teen Pregnancy Prevention ... well, who are you supposed to root for? And when Tierney wins the final hand, how are you supposed to feel?
Doctor: Sorry we can't afford the drugs to treat your childhood AIDS, Timmy, but rest assured your older sister will have plenty of birth control!
Poker, schmoker. What's wrong with a good 'ol-fashioned telethon?
When anyone can win, everyone loses
If the poker craze has a face, it's hiding behind Chris Moneymaker's reflective shades. An accountant from Tennessee, Moneymaker rode a $40 buy-in to last year's World Series of Poker title, touching off a me-too frenzy that has yet to abate.
In baseball, a fan can't strike out Derek Jeter. In tennis, a ballboy can't outhit Andy Roddick. Poker is different. As a battle of nerves, poker favors skill and experience. But as a contest of chance, it ultimately rewards the best hand. No matter who you are.
Moneymaker lost in the early rounds of this year's World Series. So did a number of big-name players. Bad bets all around.
"I've been very fortunate on the World Poker Tour to make good decisions," top pro Howard Lederer said during a recent broadcast. "But there's a lot of luck in making good decisions."
Small wonder, then, that Duke doubts a pro will ever win the World Series again. As amateurs rush in, the odds are against it. Such is poker's seductive lure. Like fantasy sports, the game offers the illusion of control, even as a random shuffle determines the fate of your day. And frankly, that's not what America is supposed to be about.
Besides, continued support for poker only increases the likelihood of an Affleck-helmed "Rounders II." Which would be a bad thing. Consider that another one of those self-evident truths.
Originally published in the Washington Times