Living La Vida Poker

Once just a hobby, it's become a lifestyle and career for many people, sparking moral concerns and fear of increased addiction.

How much bigger can poker get? Just when concerned parents, educators, and clergy think the poker lifestyle won't become any more appealing, yet another tournament comes along to create one more crop of Texas Hold 'Em superstars. And it's not just some weird Las Vegas fantasy: These young aces are flesh-and-blood, living a lifestyle that is televised, lucrative, and, increasingly, achievable. Some experts, of course, worry about gambling addictions, not so much for the pros, but for the legions of poker-champ wanna-bes. Others see a bigger question: Shouldn't our best and brightest want to get "real" jobs?

Maybe. But to many living la vida poker, these are real jobs. Take Thomas "Thunder" Keller, 25. An economics grad from Stanford University, he starred in the World Poker Tour's "Young Guns of Poker." His tournament winnings in 2004 came to more than $600,000; he also teaches at the prestigious WPT Boot Camp, and writes a column for CardPlayer magazine.

In short, Keller–who just five years ago might well have been toiling at one of those "real" jobs somewhere in the bowels of corporate America--is a star. And as more and more people stream to tournament tables, checkbooks in hand, pros like Keller can count on earning a living this way for years to come. "Poker is just so hot right now," he says. "I definitely see myself doing this for the long term."


How the Love Affair Started

At this point, it would be tough to overestimate American's passion for poker. While the craze started in the late 1990s with Internet poker, it skyrocketed into the national consciousness in 2003, when the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour imbedded little cameras in tables, allowing viewers to see a player's "hold" cards and go along for the bluff. The show's popularity stunned media analysts, and soon poker--whether played by celebrities, amateurs, or professionals--dominated TV sports ratings.

Poker has become the "it" game in America despite the fact that many religious groups remain officially opposed to gambling. These include Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the United Methodist Church.

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