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The popularity contest is over. Texas hold 'em has won. We're all in. Some approximations state that over 20 percent of Americans play hold 'em poker on a regular basis. Thirteen networks currently offer poker programming. San Diego's own Union-Tribune offers a weekly syndicated column devoted to the subject. Official entries for the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas -- Texas hold 'em's main event -- have risen from 532 in 2000 to 5619 this past year. And in the fastest-growing sector for hold 'em -- online poker -- the numbers are even more astronomical. At least 15 websites offer real-money online poker games, with some of the sites reporting nearly $1 million a day in earnings. It's estimated that as many as 50,000 people in the world are holding real or virtual cards as you're reading these words.

Two thousand three was the boom year for Texas hold 'em. That year, television audiences were let in on the deep strategies of the game: the Travel Channel introduced lipstick cameras inside the poker tables that allowed people at home to see what those playing could only guess at -- the players' hidden cards.

Also in 2003, Chris Moneymaker (yes, that's his real name) brought the Internet to the forefront of poker consciousness. With one $40 buy in at a satellite tournament event online, he qualified for the World Series of Poker and then went on to the live main event in Vegas and beat 839 of the best players in the world, earning a $2.5 million first prize. Not bad, considering it was his first live tournament.

High-stakes, no-limit Texas hold 'em poker, if it's a sport at all, is an extreme sport. The analogy -- jumping off a cliff with an elastic band around your ankles -- isn't too fanciful. Betting all of your chips, risking every last bit of what you have, letting it ride on a single chance is nothing short of an all-out, intense, existential rush.

You know the feeling. Your stomach tears and goes two ways, half popping into your throat and half plopping down to your lap. Like when you pass an approaching cop car, and in your rearview you catch him banging a U-turn to follow you. Only thing is, at the poker table, you've got to keep it all inside. You need a "poker face." You've got to contain the butterflies that broke out when your stomach tore in two: no veins twitching in your throat, no tremors in the hands, not a bead of sweat. Your demeanor has to remain an illegible map, as your heart doubles pace in a snap.

Good poker players, among other talents, must develop a mastery of themselves. Their minds control the trifling matter of their bodies' physiological effects. They grow cold, at least at the table, at least metaphorically. "Ice in the veins," we say, or "a cool character."

Master players are not just masters of themselves and their own physiologies, they are also masters of math and anthropology. Studying odds and opponents, the best card sharks squeeze luck into her least possible trace.

If there's a problem in all this new popularity, it's among the young, or, more specifically, among that segment of potential players who don't have disposable income to risk. Bruce Roberts, the executive director of the California Council on Problem Gambling, told me that 70 percent of California teenagers have gambled in the past year. "And the trouble with a lot of them," he said, "is that they use their parents' credit cards, tuition money, whatever it takes." Roberts went on, "It often starts out harmless, but then they get hooked." Roberts also told me the average onset age for problem gamblers is 12 years old. "That's when they place their first real bet," he said.

I probably placed my first bet around then, but I never got hooked. One reason may have been that I wasn't a consistent winner at cards. Sure, I've won enough for a few compact discs or dinner, but I've also lost everything I came to play with. Which is to say I've never become a poker expert. A half-friendly night game over Jack Daniel's with coworkers, an hour or two at the tables on my annual trip to Vegas, and that's about it. I hardly ever play.

But just the other day, I was getting my car fixed -- dead battery -- and there was a card room a few doors up from the service station. I had an hour to kill, so I bought into the $3 to $6 hold 'em game with $40. The way I see it, it's like going to the zoo or SeaWorld or a Padre game or Playhouse play. Forty bucks' worth of fun.

Or not. I dished out 40 bones to be dealt in two hands.

First, I folded rubbish -- no loss -- and then, before I could settle in, before I'd drawn a few dozen breaths of musty card-room air, I was dealt "the nuts." The best possible hand in all of Texas hold 'em poker: pocket aces. My luck!

I stayed calm, glanced a second time at the unmistakable good fortune -- A/A! -- and resolved immediately to drive it all the way, all out, and let the chips slide to whomever they would. You can't get better starting odds than A/A.

I was first to act, and two guys called my maximum $6 bet. The flop came 2/3/8, three different suits, garbage. My hand was beyond nuts. One guy folded, but the other raised my maximum bet and called me when I re-raised. The turn was more garbage, and the guy called me again. In no-limit, I would've gone all in, no matter how many chips I had. The river was another 2. I bet again, but this other guy called again, and when we flipped our cards up...no! He had a third deuce. He'd been calling me with 10/2 off-suit. Total garbage. But in this case, it was enough. I'd been beaten on the river, three 2s to my beloved "bullets."

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