01/09/2004 12:00AM

Hottest new game is good ol' poker

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LAS VEGAS - This may be the first time you are reading about poker in 2004, but I guarantee it won't be the last. The phenomenal growth of the old card game is a story that cannot be told in one column. Hopefully, this will help whet the appetite.

A little more than three years ago, a headline on the front page of the business section of the Las Vegas Review-Journal read, "Poker Rooms on Strip Declining" and that "Harrah's Las Vegas, The Venetian become latest casinos to remove game; both properties cite lack of customer demand."

The Review-Journal story reported on the waning interest in poker, which included the previous closure of poker rooms at The Rio, MGM Grand, Treasure Island, and the Santa Fe. Also, the four casinos that opened in 2000, the Aladdin, Arizona Charlie's East, Suncoast, and Terrible's did not offer a poker room at all.

Bottom line is, poker was a declining game in Las Vegas.

Turn to February 2002 and the start of the World Poker Tour. Steve Lipscomb, chief executive officer of the WPT, bought time on The Travel Channel to air 13 major poker tournaments from around the country. In the first year of operation, the WPT parent company reportedly lost $2 million.

But Lipscomb had struck gold. The television ratings for poker were much higher than anything previously shown in its weekly time slot. And casinos nationwide noticed a growing interest among younger people who wanted to play poker. Poker on the Internet became very big and when online player Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 Binion's Horseshoe World Series of Poker, the card game rocketed off the charts.

How hot is poker right now? On Super Bowl Sunday, NBC, in partnership with The Travel Channel and the World Poker Tour, will televise "The Travel Channel World Poker Tour Battle of Champions" from 4-6 p.m. Eastern. Imagine that, a poker tournament will air opposite the six-hour CBS Super Bowl pre-game show, and NBC executives fully expect the poker show to do well.

Poker champions are even gaining in notoriety. Recently, Phil Ivey, known as the Tiger Woods of poker, was recognized at a Bellagio craps table by adoring fans that knew him from televised poker tournaments.

Poker rooms have become cool places to be and be seen. For example, Norm Clarke, who writes an "insider" column for the Review-Journal, was told by his sources that actor Ben Affleck recently beat champion poker player Gus Hansen in a face-to-face showdown with $130,000 in the pot.

Frank Streshley, senior research analyst for the Nevada Gaming Control Board, confirms there has been a revival in poker games. Casino winnings on poker reached nearly $6 million in 2003, up 32.6 percent over the previous year. He attributed this to awareness being raised by showing poker tournaments on television and the growth of online poker.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Radio Show.