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Young aces bet it all on poker's future

The young guns of poker elbowed their way onto most every table in the Mirage Hotel and Casino. On this day, their fresh faces and Average Joe looks stood out in the crowd of high-mileage regulars playing in a warm-up tournament before the World Series of Poker in July. Raised on electronic games, this generation of the young and the ruthless has discovered America?s oldest game and mastered it with almost frightening speed. Because of the Internet, they have crammed years of playing time into months. Some have eschewed mainstream careers and college educations for the lure of quick money. Casinos nationwide have added poker tables to keep up with demand. 

"It?s a whole new clientele for us, and they take their games very seriously; it?s a very intelligent crowd," said Tim Gustin, manager of the Commerce Casino, south of downtown Los Angeles. "There are many very young players today," said longtime poker pro Linda Johnson, who arranges gambling cruises. "In fact, of all new players entering poker rooms these days for the first time, I would say 60 percent of them are under 28." The young guns include David Williams, 25, who dropped out of Southern Methodist University two semesters shy of a degree in economics, with a minor in math. There is Tuan Le, the 26-year-old son of Vietnamese immigrants, who dropped out of college before the end of his first semester. Phil Laak, known as the "Unabomber" for his sweatshirt hood and aviator glasses that evoke the wanted sketch for convicted mail bomber Theodore Kaczynski, gave up mechanical engineering and tossed a high-risk Wall Street trading gig before opting for Texas Hold?em. 

Antonio Esfandiari was 25 when he became the youngest person to win more than $1 million on the tour. He?s also a skilled magician who once made his living with the art of illusion before turning to cards. All make their living at the poker tables and have become cult figures on the televised gambling circuit. The poker craze is attributable to several factors, perhaps none more prominent than the televised World Poker Tour, broadcast on the Travel Channel. Now in its fourth season, the tour took a game that was about as interesting as watching paint dry and turned it into a showbiz success by allowing audiences a peek at the pair of "down" or "pocket" cards players are holding. "Our television shows really play like ?The Young and the Restless?: It has great, intelligent, good-looking men and women. You can?t rig that," said Steve Lipscomb, a Los Angeles lawyer who created the concept. "The demographics have changed and that makes it fun." 

The Mirage tournament in May was one of the last qualifiers for the World Series. It had some old lessons in store for the youngsters. Williams was late showing up at the Mirage for the 11 a.m. sign-up, so his mother, Shirley, held a place in line for him. Slim and handsome, Williams walked in a few minutes later, listening to an MP3 player. The college dropout is considered one of the game?s young comers, earning more than $4 million in tournament play in the last two years. Williams was carrying a 4.0 grade-point average at SMU when he dropped out after coming in second in the World Series of Poker last year. Before poker, he won thousands of dollars playing "Magic, the Gathering," a sword and sorcery card game. He switched to poker during college and worked his way up the Dallas gambling ladder, where he was a regular at underground big-stakes games. He continued to sharpen his Texas Hold?em skills in online tournaments. 

Le, wearing a conservative striped shirt and dark glasses, already was seated in front of his $10,000 stacks of chips, the initial buy-in for all 317 players. The 26-year-old, who has won more than $4 million on the tour, was in his first semester at California State University, Northridge, when he began playing poker in the student union between classes. He almost always dominated the players, who included his economics professor. One evening at the Hustler Casino in Gardena, Calif., Le staked his student loans and financial aid. He lost big time. But he quit school and kept on playing, sometimes as much as 70 hours a week. 

Poker has changed his living habits, which often means sleeping through the day and playing at card clubs until dawn and beyond. "I eat whatever I feel like when I wake up. Sometimes it?s breakfast and sometimes it?s dinner," he said. "You pretty much make your own schedule. Everything fluctuates, from your eating to sleeping habits." Several hours into the first day of the Mirage tournament, Williams and others at his table became irritated at the cramped playing space. The problem would not last long. When the first round ended at 8 p.m., only 170 players remained. Le was not one of them. He?d gone bust, beaten by a pair of kings. He chalked up his loss to luck; there was no flaw in his betting strategy, he insisted. "It?s glamorous and it?s easy, but there is a bad side," Le said as he relaxed in pajamas at a comped luxury penthouse at the Bellagio, just down the street from the Mirage. "When I?m not winning, there is a lot of pressure. I?ve had so much success that a precedent has been set." 

Williams and Laak were back the next day, as was Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. With his long hair, dark glasses and cowboy hat, he is one of the most recognizable faces on the televised World Poker Tour circuit. With a doctorate in computer science from UCLA, Ferguson is considered one of the game?s finer players ? calculating his odds deliberately, studying his opponents methodically behind dark glasses. Ferguson has been a serious player for the past 10 years. For skilled players such as he, the poker explosion has been good: There are plenty of novice "fish" out there for him to pick off. "I think there is a bubble effect going on," he said. ?The question is: When is the bubble going to burst?" Ferguson cautioned that the game is demanding over the long haul, and that playing on the Internet is a far cry from facing down real opponents. "If you want to make money, professional poker is almost certainly the wrong field," he said. "Professional poker players are all brilliant. Almost all of them could make money doing other things." As if to underscore the fickleness of the game, Ferguson did not make it through the day and neither did Williams, who immediately boarded a plane for another poker competition in New Orleans. "For every dollar won, there has to be a dollar lost," Williams said. "Everyone can?t be a winner." 

Then Laak had a run of bad luck on Day 3. Dealt a pair of aces, he had great odds for a winning hand. He went "all in," betting his entire stack, to call another all-in bet. He beat the pair of kings held by Richard Tatalovich, and what looked like a weak eight and 10 of clubs for Jean Paul Bellande, who also called. Laak even got another ace on the flop ? the three cards flipped over by the dealer and shared by all players. But the next two shared cards dealt killed him, filling a longshot 10-ace straight for Bellande. Gavin Smith, a 36-year-old father of two who once made his living as a golf course groundskeeper outside Toronto, eventually won the tournament. He took home $1.1 million. "I?ve been in this business for eight years, and I?ve seen thousands of poker pros come and go," Smith said after his win. "Very few people make it. It?s a very difficult life. Very few can stand the ups and downs of the game." 

As many as 5 million people continue to play poker, two-thirds of them online, according to World Poker Tour founder Lipscomb. "We?ve managed to create the new American dream," he said. "But whatever you do, don?t quit your day job."


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