At its core, says Chamberlain, compulsive gamblers are addicted to fantasy, the idea that a single deal of the cards could provide them with a hand so powerful it will change their very destiny, making them rich beyond their dreams. But the pursuit of that fantasy, as they incur debts and guilt, can at its extreme drive addicts to suicide. And while treatment can be effective, it often takes many attempts before the gambler is able to stop betting.

Once on a winning streak, it's easy for an adolescent to mix that fantasy up with a sense of destiny—if you will, a kind of belief in divine intervention. "They actually believe, 'I have some kind of connection outside myself that makes me a winner. I'm not playing the odds anymore—I've beaten the system,'" Chamberlain says.

Players themselves are well aware of the risks. Kellen Mayberry, a 22-year-old senior at California Lutheran University, showed up for his school's first Texas Hold 'Em tournament, a benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims, and had a great time. "There are a lot of rushes, and lots of emotions—it's kind of addictive," he says. But while Mayberry is having fun, he admits he's had friends who found themselves playing poker online for 10 or 12 hours a day, letting life pass them by.

And when it comes to players believing their pair of queens may have been, quite literally, a gift from God, Mayberry is clear: "I prefer to do my praying in Church, not at the card table," he says. McGowan agrees: "God has better things to do than pay attention to poker hands."

Is There an End in Sight?

But even beyond the risk of addiction, many see an even more troubling moral implication: Players can only win money when other people lose theirs. And for every bright young person who pursues the path of poker, that's one less doctor, lawyer, or dogcatcher. Instead of building the economy, some people say, today's players are just picking the pockets of idle schoolboys.

"I do believe there's probably something out there more rewarding for me to be doing," says Keller. "But poker is rewarding, too. And I definitely feel like a have a moral conscious—I think that's why I like teaching the game so much," he says.

He adds: "I believe I'm a good role model for other players. And there are those naysayers who say poker is just a fad, but not me. It's been around for hundreds of years, and while there may be a plateau, it's not going away."

Others disagree.

"Right now, there's enough of a supply of suckers that there really is a career path in poker," says McGowan. And while we may still be a few years away from the top of the poker craze, McGowan predicts, it will come to an end, for the same reason it did back in the Wild West: "Too many people cheated," he says. "With Internet gaming, especially, who knows if you're being ripped off? And as soon as a scandal emerges, you'll see people saying, 'This is rigged, and I don't want to play.'"

But until then, most Hold 'em fans are likely to say, simply, Shut up and deal.

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