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!
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The company's answer was "Faith Chips," Vegas-weight poker chips printed with slogans like "Jesus went all-in for you…so ante up and give your heart to him," and "Don't gamble with eternity... accept Jesus before you cash in your chips." Customers include poker fans, such as a Texas pastor whose Bible-study group plays Texas Hold 'Em now and again, and poker foes, who use the chips as novelty tracts to preach against gambling. "Others use them to minister to people with gambling addictions," Rainey says.

By some estimates, 100 million people in the U.S. now play poker regularly, about twice as many as two decades ago. And while experts say it's difficult to figure out the number of people who claim to make a living playing poker--both because of the unreliability of Internet poker statistics and the fast-growing number of tournaments--the paychecks are definitely getting better: The most recent World Tour of Poker is expected to award nearly $100 million in prize money. In just four seasons, the tour has created 27 millionaires.

And poker is increasingly a young person's game, with many of the top players in their 20s and early 30s. That's one reason colleges, which have long fretted about the best ways to protect students from gambling on everything from sporting events to fantasy leagues, are struggling to tame the poker powerhouse. Increasingly, schools that once banned gambling outright are becoming the house, sponsoring their own tournaments in order to compete with the private high-stakes games that can quickly get kids in trouble back in the dorm.

"Poker is just so pervasive in our society now," says James Caswell, vice president of student affairs for Southern Methodist University, Dallas, "that many schools--including us--have adopted a 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em,' attitude, sponsoring tournaments. Even though no money is exchanged, in a way, we're giving a nod to kids' playing poker." (For the record, the Methodist Church is strict in its antigambling views. One of the hottest young poker stars, however, was until recently a student at SMU: David Williams won $3.4 million in the 2004 World Series of Poker.)

Caswell says SMU hasn't seen a rise in gambling problems at its counseling center, but worries that may change: "I have to believe that for people who are vulnerable, this poker craze will be much more dangerous."

Compulsive Kids: Why Teens Are More at Risk

Of course, for the vast majority of poker players poker is just fun. What's more, it's arguably a better way for college kids to spend an evening than at a keg party. But for a small percentage of players, especially those in their teens and early 20s, any kind of gambling is an extremely dangerous game.

"We estimate that between 3 and 5 percent of men, who are more likely to become addicted than women, become compulsive gamblers," says psychologist Linda Chamberlain, an addiction counselor at the University of Southern Florida, Tampa. "But adolescents are more vulnerable, and with kids starting to gamble at a younger age, we're seeing that go up to 7 percent, overall."

And a study from Harvard Medical School found teens and college students are four to five times more likely than adults to develop a gambling addiction.

The biggest risks come from online poker. "There's no way for another person to tap the kid on the shoulder and say `Stop it," points out gambling expert Richard McGowan, S.J., an associate management professor at Boston College and research associate at Harvard Medical School's division on addictions.

Is There an End in Sight?
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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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