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World Series of Poker

Minh Nguyen of Spokan, Washington (left) checks his hand before dragging in a $60,000 pot busting out third-place finisher Las Vegan, Joe Bartholdi (right) at the Event number 6 Pot Limit Hold-Em tournament. Minh Nguyen eventually won the tournament. (Ky Plaskon)

Over the past 35 years Downtown has built one of the nation's top professional sports - monetarily rivaling Wimbledon and more popular among TV audiences than professional bowling and pool. It's the World Series of Poker and one player will walk away tomorrow with the grand prize of nearly 3 million dollars, but the prize isn't not reserved for professionals anymore. KNPR's Ky Plaskon looks at the changing face of poker.

SOUND: Chips

PLASKON: Thousands of gamblers have been flipping chips in an uncharacteristically brightly lit white gambling room downtown for a month straight. By now most have been eliminated in the World Series of Poker tournament and the few who are left will vie for a grand prize of nearly 3 million dollars. A tall weathered player from Texas here T.A. Preston Junior, fits his nick name: Amarillo Slim. He says this scene is worlds from the danger that accompanied the game a half century ago when he traveled the nation playing poker in his cowboy hat.

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PRESTON: It's like daylight and dark, now we play in these nice places, used to be we played in the back rooms and we got hijacked every week.

PLASKON: It was back then that a dozen players gathered for the first World Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe downtown. Slim remembers winning the third championships 80-thousand dollar grand prize.

PRESTON: I didn't pay any attention to it. $80,000. That was a peanut. Two days before I won a man out of 99,800 so it didn't look like that much.

PLASKON: Another difference he says: In the old days, men's brooding poker faces weren't worthy of media coverage.

PRESTON: What's a guy doing with a camera at a poker game? There is nothing there. There is no action unless there is a fight and then you can see it and click."

PLASKON: But these days, the game's got some whiskers on it he says: 30 million dollars in prizes over 33 days. In part, that's what's driven the game to the number-one spot among ESPN's non-athletic sports in just one year. This year for the first time the network is selling advertising around dozens of hours of prime time poker programming. The Internet is fueling popularity too. Last year, Chris Moneymaker, attracted media attention after parlaying a 40 dollar internet gamble into a spot in the world series. Wearing a baseball cap and mirrored sunglasses he went on to win the championship's title and the millions that went with it. Now closet Internet poker players are flocking to the real game and poker sites have sent hundred here. The players are part of a whole new atmosphere.

SOUND: Soothing music and chips.

PLASKON: Players today wear headphones and listen to music like Canadian Card Player Magazine columnist Daniel Negreanu, who's lost 50-thousand here in less than two hours. He didn't win his entry on the Internet but he says amateur players from cyberspace try to convey a cool poker player's aura.

NEGREANU: You have a lot of the wannabes, I call them you get a lot of them and they have that fake poker face and the hat. It is all laughable to me.

PLASKON: Today, some professional players are laughing less at amateur players who've garnered experience on-line. European champion Dave Colcough of Wales is shocked at how easily virtual players convert to live playing. He expects the number of top professional European players to multiply 10 times over his estimate of 40 current professional European players. Overall the changing face of poker is good he says.

COLCLOUGH: Some of the players were very grumpy, it was like life or death situation, weather they would have food in the fridge at the end of the week. Now people seem to be having fun. It's much better all around.

PLASKON: Among this year's final players that sprouted from on-line gambling is a Florida housewife. She calls poker a predatory sport in which men all to often forget it is the lionesses that hunt best.

Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR

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