07/07/2004 12:00AM

ESPN flush with poker coverage

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Is poker a sport, and should it be on ESPN and ESPN2?

Some will argue that it must be a sport if ESPN is devoting so many programming hours to it, while others point out the "E" in ESPN stands for "entertainment" and thus it doesn't have to be a true sport, just like the network's coverage of chess, billiards, golf, hot dog eating contests, national spelling bees, world's strongest man, etc.

The debate will continue, especially since both sides will find themselves tuning into or tuning off ESPN a lot this summer with its coverage of the 2004 World Series of Poker. The first two shows - the series-opening $2,000 buy-in no-limit hold'em event and a $1,500 seven-card stud tourney - aired Tuesday night. If you miss the four subsequent reruns through Thursday, you can still catch them Friday at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. (all times Eastern) on ESPN2, Saturday at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. on ESPN, and Sunday at 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. on ESPN2.

Each week's featured games will include a hold'em event, since that's the glamour game these days, and another offering. The next "new" shows - it's hard to say that since the tournament took place in April and May - air Tuesday at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. with another no-limit hold'em event and pot-limit Omaha. In all, ESPN is showing 30 one-hour shows. The $10,000 buy-in championship event will start being featured in the weekly rotation starting Aug. 17, and the series will conclude (except for reruns) with a two-hour finale on Sept. 14.

The World Series of Poker, as well as the other current slate of poker programming, is much more compelling on television than live, when you don't have the camera showing you the hole cards to see who's bluffing, and you don't have editors cutting out all the mundane hands. There's a lot of downtime at a live poker event. Easily the most common comments I heard from spectators at this year's World Series was, "This is boring" or "This isn't as exciting as it is on TV."

What also makes the packaged TV product more entertaining is the features on the top pros and the aspiring amateurs. And commentator Norman Chad adds the comic relief.

I also watch the shows because they showcase Las Vegas, and you never know who you might see on camera. (Shameless plug: Yours truly is in the background 21 seconds into the first episode, in the upper-left-hand corner of the screen when the 2003 champion, Chris Moneymaker, is hugging his dad and the announcer says, "The name Moneymaker said it all.")

* Qualifying events for next year's World Series are already under way. For those on the East Coast, Harrah's Atlantic City is holding no-limit Texas hold'em tournaments every Wednesday through Sept. 29. The buy-in is just $150, and the fields will be limited to 90 players. The top three finishers will each win a $10,000 entry in the series championship, plus round-trip airfare for two to Las Vegas and hotel accommodations at Harrah's Las Vegas or the Rio.

* World Poker Tour, the made-for-TV event on The Travel Channel, continues its reruns of its second season on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The third season begins with the Grand Prix de Paris on July 17-20. The next Vegas-based event is the Mirage Poker Showdown on July 31-Aug. 1. The packaged TV shows will begin airing this fall.

* Fox Sports Net will be breaking new ground next Wednesday when it provides live coverage (actually, a five-minute delay to prevent cheating) of the American Poker Championship from Turning Stone Casino in Verono, N.Y., from 6 to 10 p.m. Eastern. The tournament begins Monday, and the final table will consist of six players. For those interested in playing, the entry fee is $10,000. Satellite qualifying events, in which players pay less and try to win their way into the main event, begin Saturday.

* The poker writer Andy Glazer died Monday from a blood clot to the brain at the age of 48. I only spoke with him once - at this year's World Series finale - but felt I knew him better because of his thorough coverage of the game in various publications and websites. He will be missed.

Sports book notes

This is the last weekend before baseball's All-Star break. The most intriguing matchups are in the NL East as the Phillies host the Braves and the Marlins host the Mets. The Phillies held a two-game lead heading into Wednesday's action, but all four teams were within 2 1/2 games of each other. Another key series is in the NL Central as the Cardinals host the Cubs, who are five games back but would be the wild-card team if the season ended today.

* While baseball reaches its traditional halfway mark, Nascar is 19 races through its 38-race schedule. Station Casinos has updated its odds to win the Nextel Cup Championship. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the 8-5 favorite, followed by Jimmie Johnson at 5-2, defending champ Matt Kenset at 3-1, and current points leader Jeff Gordon at 7-2. This year for the first time, the top 10 point-earners after the 26th race will be eligible for the championship, to be determined over the last 10 races. As for this weekend's race, the Tropicana 400 at the Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday, Gordon, Johnson, and Ryan Newman are the co-favorites at 7-1, with Earnhardt, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, and Kasey Kahne at 10-1. Newman won last year's race, while Harvick won in 2001 and 2002.

* When Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry tabbed John Edwards as his running mate, it was big news everywhere. Here in Nevada, the concern was that this might soften Kerry's stance on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository, which is slated to be built 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Kerry has consistently voted against it, while Edwards has supported it.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, however, said he has received assurances that Edwards will defer to Kerry on this issue.