August 09, 2004 12:00 PM

In the world of high-stakes poker there are some guys with cash, some guys with flash. Take Greg” Raymer, who has just won the $5 million first prize in ESPN’s World Series of Poker (whose main event will start airing Aug. 17). His wife, Cheryl, has been pleading with him to get rid of his $100 watch and replace it with something a bit more elegant. What does he do?

On a trip to Paris he buys an $80 watch. Says Raymer, 40, a former patent lawyer: “I’m naturally cheap.”

Or bling-deficient—unlike David Williams, the 24-year-old Southern Methodist University economics student who finished as runner-up to Raymer in Las Vegas. He won $3.5 million and immediately invested $25,000 in a diamond-encrusted Rolex. “I told myself, ‘I’ve gotta get myself something,'” says Williams.

Of late a lot has changed in the game of poker—but at least there’s still a place for big jewelry. “Poker is on fire,” says George Maloof, owner of the Palms casino in Las Vegas. In Nevada gaming establishments report that the total dollars bet on poker jumped 18 percent last year, after years of steady decline. The reasons? An influx of new players—like Raymer and Williams—new technology and, perhaps most of all, TV (see box). The ripple effect is being felt everywhere. The trade publication Interactive Gaming News estimates that sales of such items as cards and chips have tripled in three years. In 2003 some 800 people entered the World Series of Poker. This year the number was more than 2,500—with 6,000 expected in 2005.

The professional poker circuit has even been attracting a new kind of player—young, educated, sometimes even female, like 28-year-old Evelyn Ng, from Toronto. Or Matt Matros, 27, with his M.F.A. in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence, who won $700,000 at the World Poker Tour Championship. Then there is the celebrity component—most famously actor Ben Affleck, who won $356,000 at the California State Poker Championship in June. “No one is working!” says Survivor host Jeff Probst, who takes part in a weekly game in Los Angeles. “We’re all just playing Texas Hold ‘Em!” While some pros dismiss the majority of celeb players as nothing more than pigeons waiting to be plucked, a handful—including Affleck, Tobey Maguire, James Woods and Lou Diamond Phillips—have earned reputations as accomplished amateurs. James McManus, whose bestselling book Positively Fifth Street chronicles his experience playing in the World Series of Poker, points out there’s good reason the Hollywood types are attracted to the game. “Actors have lots of disposable income,” he says, “and controlling your facial expressions is an integral part of playing poker.”

Computers, like television, have played a huge role in the poker explosion. Online poker sites (there are more than 200, all of them offshore) provide ample opportunity to play for money; computer programs that teach strategy mean that would-be Amarillo Slims no longer have to spend decades learning their craft, hand by hand, in barrooms. “You can squeeze a few years of practice into a few months,” says Williams; Raymer still plays several hours a week on the Internet.

The poker phenomenon has even filtered down to the high school and middle school level. “I’m really addicted to the fun of it,” says Galin Mitchener, 17, a high school senior in Kirk-wood, Mo., who plays three times a week, and whose parents welcome his interest. “They’d rather know I’m at a table, rather than out someplace getting in trouble.” Mitchener says it is a good way to relax with his friends: “It’s fun to hang out and talk with the guys.” For Terrance Weir, 19, also from Kirk-wood, his weekly games with Mitchener and others are low-stakes affairs with players buying in for $20. “I like the social factor,” he says. “You get to hang out with friends—and try to outsmart them.”

As for Raymer, he’s living out the fantasy of many amateur poker players: Right after winning the World Series he quit his job at Pfizer, in Groton, Conn., where he’d spent 5½ years as a patent attorney, to try his hand on the high-stakes poker circuit. As Raymer is quick to point out, there is more to being a professional poker player than keeping your chips neatly stacked. “Some people would compare being a poker player to being a salesman in that your results depend entirely on your performance,” he says. “But you know a salesman doesn’t go to work and lose money. If I have a bad day in sales, I break even. But a poker player can lose thousands of dollars on their bad days.”

In fact he has had few such days in the 10 years he has been playing seriously. A graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla, he majored in chemistry and was, by his own admission, a “bad” frat-house poker player. Then in the early ’90s, while working his first job as an attorney in Chicago, he gave poker another try at a charity event and was instantly hooked. He read countless books on the subject and began spending his free hours playing at card rooms in the San Diego area, where he had moved with his wife, Cheryl. Along the way, though, Cheryl became concerned. “I saw him getting more and more serious with it,” says his wife. “I had a hard time differentiating what is serious passion for something versus a gambling problem.” The couple, who have been married nearly 10 years and have a daughter, Sophie, 7, reached a compromise. “The deal was that $1,000 would be my entire poker bankroll—forever,” says Greg. “And if I lost it all, I was done playing poker.” But he never lost the bankroll. By the time they had moved so he could take the job with Pfizer, he was hitting the $150 to $300 tables in Connecticut, where a run of bad luck can cost a player $15,000 in a night. Raymer says the worst he ever did was drop $10,000 in a session. “I’m very neutral,” says Raymer of how he handles his reversals and successes. “You can’t get emotional when playing poker.”

Indeed, Raymer is anything but a high roller. After his win at the World Series he flew home in coach with Cheryl and Sophie. And he intends to stay tightfisted, wondering how long both he and poker will be hot. Right now he’s got endorsement opportunities and wouldn’t say no to appearance fees. A bobblehead doll is in the works. “But I don’t know how long my celebrity will last,” he says. “Because poker’s changing so fast.”

Bill Hewitt. Courtney Rubin in Paris, Shia Kapos and Kelly Williams in Chicago, Steve Barnes in Little Rock, Ron Arias, Lorenzo Benet and Kwala Mandel in Los Angeles, Hope Hamashige in New York

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