LAS VEGAS -- Doyle Brunson, the 72-year-old legend who made a living playing poker before that kind of thing was cool, vividly recalls the conversation he had decades ago with another forefather of his sport.
"We were sitting there at the first World Series and Benny Binion told me, 'This thing is really going to take off. Some day, we're going to have 100 people here,"' Brunson said.
Binion underestimated a wee bit.
The main event at this year's World Series of Poker includes a whopping 8,000-plus entrants -- a field so big, there's no way to get them all in Binion's old-school downtown casino, where a group of 38 made up the first WSOP field in 1970.
"Much more lucrative than I ever could have imagined," said Brunson, one of dozens of poker players who have become stars, complete with their own publicists and Web sites, in the wake of a poker boom the last few years.
Many who descended upon Las Vegas for the start of the main event Friday -- cards and chips started moving at noon at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino shelled out $10,000 of their own money for a chance at the grand prize, expected to eclipse $10 million this year. Others made it through satellite tournaments at casinos or on the Internet, or won drawings, or found friends to help them front the entry fee.
They are men and women, young and old, famous and unknown, some doing it for fun and some trying to make a living out of it. They are jumping on the bandwagon of a craze that, in many ways, runs counter to what Americans love.
"If you'd told me 10 years ago that one of the biggest growing new TV genres of the future was going to be people playing cards, I'd have told you you were crazy," said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse. "It seems incredibly boring. It goes against every instinct of how TV works."
Nonetheless, TV has propelled a boom that has, literally, compelled thousands to quit their day jobs. Nothing new there. Still, it doesn't quite make sense -- how, in an era of instant information, this "sport" can be so popular despite TV presentations that are aired weeks after the events are over, then repeated endlessly during the following months.
Gambling, and the idea of winning something for nothing, always has had allure. But of all the games that legally can be played in a casino -- blackjack, craps, roulette -- none is more time consuming and more of a grind than poker, especially no-limit Texas Hold 'Em -- the engine upon which the World Series of Poker is based.
In the game, each player is dealt two cards, face down. A round of betting ensues. Then three community cards, the flop, are dealt in the middle of the table. Another round of betting. Then, another card, called the turn, is revealed, followed by another round of betting. Finally, the last card, the river, is revealed and one more round of betting completes the action. In the no-limit version of Hold 'Em, any player can put all his chips in at any time to either double his stack or go home.
ESPN, which televises the World Series of Poker, only shows the top 5 percent of hands. Most of the rest are boring, involve lots of folding and no real action. TV has the help of the "pocket cam," an invention that allows viewers to see the players' hole cards and know whether they have the goods or are bluffing. The "pocket cam" is, without a doubt, what turned poker into a TV sport and thus inspired the boom.
"It's the inside information that people like to watch," said ESPN's Lon McEachern, who was working as a loan officer five years ago before he unexpectedly became America's best-known poker announcer. "It's the documentary fashion. It's the human-interest stories."
Even with all its allure, the odds of hitting it big in poker are slim, kind of like the lottery, except with much more work involved.
There must be some other attraction.
"People enjoy strategy games," explained 21-year-old Ian Johns, who quit his job at his family's bowling alley in the state of Washington to take up professional poker. "People enjoy competition. Tournaments are taking off quite a bit because of the competition and the huge prize pools they have. It's just like any other game, really, except this has money and the gambling aspect to get the blood going."
Johns, however, doesn't really consider this gambling -- at least not in the way dice and blackjack are. "It's gambling with a significant edge," he said.
He says so because he has made himself a student of the game, a master of the odds and a quick study on how to read opponents' faces (in person) and intents (on the internet).
At one point a few months ago, he was down to his last $6 of poker money and was going to have to make good on a promise to his wife to give up the game. He won a hand or two. Then three, and more. Earlier this month, he won $291,755 in a tournament at the WSOP.
He'll be at the main event.
"If you win the main event, you're automatically a nationally known star," Johns said. "It's crazy, really. Of course you're going to dream about it. You know the chances of it happening are very slim. But you never know."
Certainly, nobody had heard of Joe Hachem or Greg Raymer or Chris Moneymaker before they won the main event. Now, the 2005, 2004 and 2003 champions are household names in poker circles. McEachern says Moneymaker's rise from no-name to millionaire in 2003 played the biggest role in the poker boom.
"The Moneymaker story was perfect," McEachern said. "It gave everyone out there someone to relate to."
Brunson, on the other hand, doesn't sneak up on anyone anymore.
"The Mount Everest of Poker," longtime player Hoyt Corkins calls him.
The winner of 10 World Series bracelets, author of two best-selling strategy books, millionaire many times over, Brunson undoubtedly is one of the best poker players of all time.
The poker boom has made him a fortune. It has also, he concedes, all but negated his chance of ever winning the main event again.
"It's like a lottery now," Brunson said. "You still have to hit the lottery to win. A few of us have more tickets, but you still have to hit it. I don't think the main event will ever be won by a known player again."
Of course, Brunson doesn't need to win these tournaments to pay the bills or build his reputation. It gives him a certain freedom when he walks into the casino, a celebrity on the verge of needing security guards to help him wade through autograph seekers during bathroom breaks.
"My only objective is to win the tournament," he said. "I'm not here to get in the money. If I can't win, it doesn't matter to me whether I finish 7,000th or third."
Most entrants, though, would love to see a payday. The top 800 or so in the main event will make money this year. The rest will go home saying they played poker with real stars -- such as James Woods, Jennifer Tilly and Ben Affleck -- and with poker stars -- including Phil Ivey, Phil Hellmuth Jr., and Johnny Chan.
They will have taken part in one of the most democratic of sports, which also might explain the appeal. Even in the so-called Opens -- the U.S. Open golf and tennis tournaments, for example -- players have to meet pretty stringent criteria just to try to qualify.
All it takes to try to be a poker champion is $10,000, a plane ticket to Vegas and a lot of patience.
"It's a different world because you're looking at regular people getting to play next to their heroes, on some level," McEachern said. "I don't know why the boom would die out. I'm sure you've got a million 20-year-olds sitting there watching, and waiting to come to Vegas for this next year."<