Chris Moneymaker declared: "I'm all in," putting all his chips at stake. The game is a poker variant called Texas Hold 'Em, in which each player gets two cards and the table, five. From the seven, the players try to make a winning five-card hand or fool their opponents into thinking they have. In this case, the cards on the table were lousy: a 9, 2, 6, 8, and 3, three of which were spades. Moneymaker didn't even have a pair.
Sammy Farha, his remaining opponent, stared him down. "You missed your flush," Farha said, trying to get a read on his opponent. Farha held a pair of nines. Minutes passed. Finally, Farha shook his head and folded. Moneymaker won the monster pot in one of the most famous bluffs in poker history, and went on to win the 2003 World Series of Poker and its $3 million prize on the next hand.
Thanks to colorful gamblers, celebrity players such as Ben Affleck and Matthew Perry, and a lipstick-size camera that lets television viewers peek at the players' cards, the age-old of game of scruffy cowboys and cigar chompers is new again. TV poker has become a display of deception, a reality show where wits, guts, and a little luck can turn a nobody accountant like Moneymaker into a millionaire.
Of course, poker is not just a spectator sport. Spurred by the growing coverage on TV, teens are putting down their video- game controllers and picking up the cards. Thousands of players, from college kids to grandmothers, are joining the action on the Internet. According to PokerPulse, $100 million is wagered each night in online poker. Some of the larger sites can attract up to 40,000 or 50,000 players a night.
Is it legal? Many of the online sites are located offshore, beyond the U.S. government's reach. Technically, anyone 18 or older can legally play at a Web site based offshore. Regulators have made it tough to use credit cards, but the sites will take an electronic check. Online poker joints based in the U.S. say players must be 21, but no one's checking IDs at the door.
You can't twirl your chips or read your opponents' faces, but online has its advantages. You can play whenever or wherever you want. You're anonymous, known by a screen name, and so you're less likely to be embarrassed by bad moves. Online leaves more money for the players, too. In any card room, the house's cut, or "the rake," is 10% of every pot. The maximum rake, or cap, is usually $3 online and $4 in casinos. Over the course of many hands, that dollar makes a huge difference.
Because online poker draws lots of inexperienced players, the venue is rewarding for the skillful. Among them is Justin Bonomo (ZeeJustin on PartyPoker.com), 18, from Centreville, Va. He uses two monitors to play as many as eight tables at once and says he has turned a $250 stake into more than $90,000 in a year. Bonomo will soon enroll at the University of Maryland, but he aspires to a career in poker. "There's no doubt in my mind that I can make a very comfortable living off of poker," he says.
Not all the stars are kids. David Ross, 44, who goes by the name davidross on PartyPoker and PokerStars.com, plays 35 to 45 hours a week and through it supports his wife and four children. "I love the freedom it has given me in terms of time and money," says Ross, who just finished his first year as a full-time player and made $82,000. The occasional losing streaks are tough to handle, he says, "but I have confidence that they will end."
If you don't want to be an easy mark for Bonomo or Ross, then you should do a little studying. David Sklansky's The Theory of Poker is a good primer, and you might follow that up with Sklansky's Hold 'Em Poker. You can also tap the knowledge of the poker community at various message boards. Greg Raymer, who won $5 million in the 2004 World Series of Poker, credits the message boards at TwoPlusTwo.com for helping him improve his game. Other good resources include the United Poker Forum (unitedpokerforum.com), and the news group, rec.gambling.poker.
By Jason Strasser