T.J. Cloutier, one of the last real road gamblers, stands up suddenly and reaches across the felt to shake hands. He is done in again, another bad beat in a never-ending series. Not so bad as at the 2000 World Series, when a 9 showed up on the river and commenced a slide in which he lost more than $1 million in prize money on fifth-street pulls. But bad. This time, with only three players left at the Bicycle Casino's Legends of Poker tournament in Los Angeles, he had pocket jacks to the Dot Com Kid's 7s, and all-in—his chips pushed into one confident pile—he watches as the young millionaire, a 10-to-l underdog, nailed a third seven on the turn.
"That's poker," Cloutier says, walking away, though by the look of his clenched jaw he doesn't seem terribly convinced of the game's justice at the moment. Ever since he left the Texas oil fields in the 1970s (he was a tight end in the CFL before that) to make his living in the back rooms of crawfish parlors and dance halls—"fading the white line," as he pursued games through the South—he's accepted the contract that says his wit and nerve can be voided at any time by a 7 on fourth street. But over and over?
The Dot Com Kid, the impeccably dressed Paul Phillips, now has only tournament veteran Mel Judah to contend with for a first-place prize of $579,375. This is big money, even for a 31-year-old who cashed out at the peak of the Internet mania—he joined Go2Net in 1996 as a tech guy, then made a bundle in a 2000 merger—and retired to a life of cards in Las Vegas. No fading the white line for him. Phillips didn't mean to retire strictly to a life of cards, but these deep-money tournaments, swelled by an explosion of "stationary targets," as Phillips politely calls the amateurs, has made it unlikely he will ever take up golf, as he keeps promising. For a $5,000 buy-in and three days of concentration here in L.A., he is well on his way toward another million.
But everybody's getting rich these days at no-limit Texas Hold 'em, in which each player makes his best poker hand from any combination of his two down (or hole, or pocket) cards and the five communal cards turned faceup—three coming at once (the flop), followed by the turn (or fourth street) and the river (fifth street). Any player can bet all his chips at any time. T.J., for all his recent bad luck, is still getting rich, pocketing a third-place prize of $146,775. It's been a long time since he says he had to worry about "keeping the cheat off me" in rough-and-tumble joints. He once heard about a rich game in Baton Rouge, found it and inquired of the bouncer (through a speakeasy-style peephole) whether he could pass safely through this door again if he happened to win. "You know," the bouncer said thoughtfully, as if nobody had ever had the sense to ask that before, "you might try another game."
Now he can play in above-board tournaments made squeaky-clean by state-licensed casinos, online gambling sites and television exposure. Mainly television exposure. The World Series of Poker on ESPN is partly responsible for the boom, but that's only an annual event. The hot new programming is the World Poker Tour, a kind of reality TV on the Travel Channel that's turned 13 casino stops from Los Angeles to Costa Rica into two-hour Greek tragedies. Thanks to color commentators, card cams that reveal the hole cards to the audience, and pop-up graphics showing the players' odds—not to mention the pornographic presentation of the cash, spilled onto the green felt like a money shot—man's outlandish hubris is on full display.
He's going all-in with rags! He's bullying a short-stack scaredy-cat! He's limping into the pot with American Airlines! (That's a pair of aces to you, Mr. Dead Money.) Every bluff is now revealed as the product of untold computations, every bullying all-in raise seen for the science that it is, the arithmetic of incomplete knowledge. Unless, of course, it's just a bad guess.
The show, which has put the Travel Channel on the map in a way that World's Best Bathrooms never did (it's the network's biggest ratings winner for a series by far, with five million viewers a week), has become a cult favorite, a kind of Trading Spaces for people with cards. Not only does viewership increase from the first hour to the second, but it also increases from show to show—even when they're repeats. The shows that are in reruns this fall are getting bigger ratings than the taped telecast of the inaugural WPT Championship in Las Vegas did last June. By a lot.
And they're fueling a huge poker boom, especially on the Internet. WPT commentator Mike Sexton says business at Party-Poker.com, his online employer, has tripled since the tour went on the air. Poker-pulse.com tells at any given time how many players are online and how much money they're wagering. The Internet offers novices a chance to sample poker with no-money games and micromoney games (as well as $15-$30 limit games for the new breed of virtual road gambler—be careful out there), which in turn develops a new customer base for the bricks-and-mortars. The Bicycle Casino tournament was dying two years ago, with 35 people buying in at $5,000. And since the World Poker Tour? More than 300 people ponied up $5,000 to enter this year.
There are still live games out there, where shadowy figures are redistributing $500,000 pots, but these tournaments are beginning to field entrepreneurs more than outlaws. The Unabomber, the adamantly mysterious Phil Laak, who made this final table, trademark hooded sweatshirt and all, calls them actionauts: "You know, guys who drop in from outer space, juice it up with their game theory, some kind of edge."
Phil Hellmuth Jr., the poker bad boy who won a World Series tide at age 24, is one of 40 or so WPT regulars. His celebrity is such that he talks of becoming a "brand" with multiple "income streams." Even when he was "cash poor" as recently as April, he recalls that while the mounting bills did "seem annoying," he had little concern about his ability to bound back. And why should he? Hellmuth's book, Play Poker like the Pros (one of about a thousand books that are available on the subject), has 100,000 copies in print, and he's about to sign a six-figure contract to write a second. He was offered $750,000 to do an in-fomercial but walked away from it. He cashes in on online poker—"telecommuting," he says. He can make $10,000 at Poker Nites, the card player's equivalent of a card-signing show. There are cruises. Magazine columns. You name it.