Why is Poker in Tunica, Mississippi So Fun? Because A River Runs Through It.

We get out of the rental car and walk through the cold morning rain toward the three casino/hotels, our wallets fat with hundreds. The neon milieu - a cluster of flashing lights and valet stations set against the calm Mississippi River and deep gray clouds - gives us a familiar thrill.

The Raccoon, a member of our entourage with baggy black eyes and nocturnal habits, stops, turns, smiles, and spreads his arms wide.

"Just like Vegas, boys!" he says.

He's exaggerating. A writer, The Raccoon is prone to that. In fact, we are in Tunica, Mississippi, which is quite different from Las Vegas. For starters: lots of undeveloped land, few cabs, no pirate ships. But it does have nine very nice casinos, two of which (the Horseshoe Casino Hotel and Gold Strike Casino Resort) are hosting the sixth annual Jack Binion World Poker Open, for which we have made this visit. For those of us in our weekly poker group - which began about four years ago, well before the current Texas Hold 'em craze took, thank you - it's a perfect place to test our tournament poker skills. A trip to Vegas Mid-South, if you will.

"Let's not get too excited," I say, pointing toward the front entrance. "There are a lot of good poker players in there."

I turn and realize my admonition comes too late. Señor Cowboy, complete with black Resistol hat and boots, is doing his happy dance in the parking lot. It's patterned after Jon Lovitz's similar sashay in Big - tongue out, fists clenched, thumbs up, hips gyrating. To all who would come to Tunica to gamble, he is saying, "Let's dance."