One of the highest-rated shows ever on cable television, the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour has revolutionized the game of poker, turning an estimated 50 million Americans on to the game and spurring numerous spinoffs. Here's an inside look at the action.


When Tanya Roberts, the former Charlie's Angel and Bond girl, left the table, I moved next to Ray Romano. Like Romano, I had grown up in Queens, New York, so we chatted about this until his friend Jon Favreau, the star of Swingers, came over to give him a pep talk. It didn't help. Romano lasted only a few minutes longer. To his credit, the comedic star of the hit series Everybody Loves Raymond was one of the last celebrities eliminated, leaving only Hill Harper, from CSI: NY, at the table - and we were swimming with the sharks.


YOUR FIRST TOURNAMENT

The nation's most prominent casinos, including Foxwoods in Connecticut and the MGM Mirage, Bellagio, and Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, host tournaments daily, with varying entry fees, as well as larger events monthly and annually. Tournament schedules are shown on casino websites. All of the world poker tour events, except the special invitationals, are open to anyone for a $10,000 buy-in (the annual finale costs $25,000) and are listed at www.worldpokertour.com.

There are also lower-priced satellites for these events, where buy-ins of $1,000, $100, or, in some cases, even $10, let you play to win a seat in the full-price event. Satellites are also listed on the WPT website. This can be a surprisingly profitable route: at many tournaments, fully half the field enter via satellites, and the last two winners of the world series of poker took home multimillion-dollar first-prize purses after winning entries in satellite tournaments, each for $200 or less.


I was in L.A. just four days before the Academy Awards, but this gathering of celebs had a different kind of statue in mind. They were playing for the first-place trophy in the World Poker Tour's Invitational, and they were playing for keeps. When Harper­ finally busted out just short of the elite group of six who would make up the event's final table, he said, "I could have limped into the final table, but I was playing to win. I had to try and make a move." His move left him standing with me on the sidelines, where I had just been eliminated in 15th place out of 236 players. Both of us had good reason to be proud of our performances: We had beaten dozens of the world's top players, a Who's Who of pros, including several WPT champions such as Daniel Negreanu and Phil Gordon, multiple World Series of Poker champs including legendary two-time winner Doyle "Dolly" Brunson, and the all-time winningest tournament player, T.J. Cloutier.

Vanity Fair recently ran an article on the stars' love for poker, noting the various weekly home games held at the mansions of famous names throughout the Hollywood Hills. Among the most serious of the celebrity players are Ben Affleck, Toby Maguire, Mimi Rodgers, James Woods, and Gabe Kaplan, Welcome Back, Kotter himself, who has been playing the tournament circuit for more than a decade. Most of his peers are much newer to the game, and they're not alone. Despite the airtime devoted to these familiar faces, the red-hot explosion of poker is not a celebrity phenomenon. It reaches into every community in America, and to most nations around the world. It's being played both for fun and at the most serious levels of competition, by college students, investment bankers, dot-com millionaires, and construction workers. And mostly it's being played because of one of the most unique success stories in television history, the World Poker Tour. As one movie star playing in the event, Lou Diamond Phillips, put it, "I think the World Poker Tour was the fuse that helped poker just blow up. I know a lot of kitchen and home game players who now see the strategy and yell out the answers. It's like watching Jeopardy."

It's hard to believe the WPT debuted only three years ago on the Travel Channel, where it immediately became the network's highest-rated show and one of the highest ever on cable television. The WPT has repeatedly beaten much more established sports programming on the major networks, including the PGA Tour, NBA, and NHL. According to its CEO and founder, Steve Lipscomb, three to five million viewers a week now tune in to Wednesday's Poker Night on the Travel Channel. And the WPT's unprecedented success has led to several similar shows by other networks, including Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo, multipart tournament series on Fox Sports Net, and a complete revamping of ESPN's World Series of Poker broadcast, the only previous poker programming on television.

What Lipscomb has done is taken a popular home game and made it into a sports league. The WPT has a regular schedule, a regular time slot, players who have morphed into celebrities themselves, and the same approach to coverage as most sports, with two commentators in the booth - expert professional player Mike Sexton and former child actor Vince Van Patten, plus the beautiful Shana Hiatt as a roving reporter. The formula has made poker entertaining and fun to watch, and this in turn has caused an explosion in its popularity, to the point that the New York Times has estimated­ that as many as 50 million Americans are playing regularly.