PokerFrom Steve McQueen in the Cincinnati Kid to Matt Damon in Rounders, poker has always had an air of irresistible cool. But after years in the wilderness with a reputation as a game played purely by dodgy looking blokes with braces in smoky backrooms, something strange has happened. Poker’s gone mainstream. In fact, it’s not so much gone upmarket, as gone trendy.
It’s the game to play and be seen playing.
Kick-started by the high-stakes drama of Late Night Poker, Channel 4 and Sky’s unexpected post-pub TV hit, the poker boom has been further fuelled by the meteoric rise of online poker. This impact of this surge of new blood coming to poker via their modems was highlighted by the victory of the aptly named Chris Moneymaker, a US-based accountant and Internet poker player, at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Having qualified online for $40, Moneymaker went home with $2.5m.
And like any new in-thing, poker has its fair share of celebrity followers. Matt Damon and Rounders co-star, the newly crowned Unique Casino GQ man of the year Ed Norton, are both avid players going so far as to play in the World Series. Other fans include comedians Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervias, Friends star Matthew Perry, writers Vicky Coren, Louise Wener and Martin Amis, not to mention those legends of the green baize Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis and Jimmy White.
So what exactly is the secret behind the rise and rise of poker, and in particular Texas hold’em? Put simply, there’s no card game on earth that’s as exciting. Despite being pretty simple to learn (you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to get to grips with Texas Hold’em), it’s a game that has absolutely everything: skill, nerve and (hopefully) a little bit of luck.
Unlike casino games such as roulette and blackjack where you play against the house, poker is just you, your opponents and a shuffled deck of cards, battling it out on a level playing field. It’s a game of arch-psychology, of bluff and counter-bluff where the best player often wins despite a sometimes fickle input from lady luck. Oh, and it’s pretty good fun, too.
And it’s here where the internet has helped to take poker into the stratosphere. While many people had an interest in poker, they never really got the chance to play. Until very recently, anyone with a penchant for a spot of Hold’em either had to try to get a group of friends together or nip down to a local casino. Now, the growth of the web, and the subsequent internet poker boom, has opened up the game to millions of people who wouldn’t dream of going down to a casino and didn’t have the time or inclination to organise mass get-togethers.
Most web-based poker sites also offer people free money tables, where they can play and learn without losing a penny. And when you are ready to graduate to real money games, some sites offer games that literally cost just a few pence; a far cry from casinos the minimum bets tend to be £1 or £2.