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.

Most use pretty strong words. "Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government," says "The Book of Discipline" of The United Methodist Church. "Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice."

Nevertheless, the game's popularity has spawned a world of new products, many of which jokingly tie poker with religion, or treat the game as the "faith" it seems to have become for many people. There are high-end travel packages--pilgrimages of sorts--through which guests can go to the chichi Lake Austin Spa in Texas for a Poker Retreat or take a CardPlayer Cruise. And there is apparel, such as t-shirts featuring Jesus in shades dealing his 12 good buddies in, with the caption "Poker Night With the Guys (The Final Table)."

And then there's the poker education industry: Best-selling books, magazines, and a constantly proliferating universe of poker websites, blogs, and forums help fans analyze the game.

And the religious-products angle gets even more explicit.

"When we found out that 'poker' had become the most popular term on some search engines," says Chris Rainey, marketing director for Christian products company Kerusso, "we started thinking, 'How can we use the popularity of poker as a way to get people talking about their faith?'"

Introducing: Faith Chips!
Read more on page 2 >>

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