07/06/2005 11:00PM

If this is work, then I'm all in


LAS VEGAS - There are journalists, and then there are journalists.

The sports section has long been known as a newspaper's toy department, and there are times when a sports writer gets a reality check and realizes how lucky he is to be making a living about covering fun and games.

One of those times came Wednesday, when New York Times reporter Judith Miller was sent to jail for refusing to reveal the identity of confidential sources. While Miller was standing up to a judge and being sent to prison, here's what I was doing Wednesday: covering the BoDog Poker and Sports Marketing Conference and the World Series of Poker. This is my beat: Las Vegas, Nev. I carry a press pass.

As much as everyone likes to say that sports betting and poker are much bigger on the Internet, this is still considered the mecca. BoDog.com, an offshore sports book, chose Las Vegas to have its annual meeting with invited guests from the sports betting business. And the World Series of Poker is held here, fueled to record heights by the number of people who play online to try to earn the $10,000 entry fee. But the world championship event is held here and not in cyberspace.

The BoDog Conference, held at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, had poker speakers on Wednesday, including 2004's poker player of the year, Daniel Negreanu, and well-known tournament director Matt Savage. It also had exhibits set up with vendors.

That was nothing compared to the scene I encountered at the Rio, home of the World Series of Poker. A convention room of 50,000 square feet was set up with 88 booths for the Poker Lifestyle Show, which runs through Saturday night. Vendors were peddling everything from cards, chips, tables, shufflers, instructional videos, and DVD's, software, artwork, bobbleheads, pins, and card markers. My favorite item was from nutzchips.com, which will personalize your marker to say anything you want.

There were also T-shirts and hats being sold. Most sported catchy poker phrases, some of which are adult-themed. A sampling: Call Me, The Big Slick, Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend, Dead-Money, Chip Magnet, I'm All In, and I Never Tell.

The media/celebrity charity event was set to take place at 5 p.m., and I wanted to check that out. Truth be told, I half-wanted to participate but didn't get my media credential request in on time. That was never a problem the past four years. You'd just show up, flash a business card, and get a credential. It's indicative of everything in corporate Las Vegas these days. A regular person used to be able to sit down at a table game, play a little bit, and ask for and receive a free buffet. Now, you have to show your ID and fill out a form and get your play tracked.

Celebrity-spotting was fun. Among those on hand were actor James Woods, Brad Garrett of "Everybody Loves Raymond," Shannon Elizabeth of "American Pie," Alan Rosenberg of "L.A. Law," Penn Jillette of "Penn and Teller," and local performers The Scintas, Mac King, and The Amazing Johnathan.

At the last minute, media director Nolan Dalla invited any shut-out media members to fill in the empty seats at the tourney. But to coin my own phrase: Better to be thought to be dead-money than to show one's hand and remove all doubt. Hey, I better get that patented before someone else puts it on a T-shirt.

Besides, since I didn't think I was getting in, I had already made dinner plans. And if there's one thing you should know about sports writers, we don't do anything on an empty stomach. Believe me, I'm not cut out to be Ernie Pyle reporting from a foxhole.

So, instead, after dinner, I headed to the Palms for the BoDog Carnivale Ball. The Gambling911.com website, which covers the offshore industry, dubbed it the biggest party ever seen by the online gambling sector. All I can say is the only thing that could make my job better would be if Las Vegas sports books threw this kind of party.

Mike Ditka and Reggie Jackson were there to meet fans. And it was a Who's Who of the sports betting community, including handicappers such as "Big" Al McMordie, Scott Spreitzer, Larry Ness, Marc Lawrence, Brian Gabrielle, Steve Merril, and Tony George.

It was Mardi Gras in July. In addition to free appetizers (and no chips and dip here - we're talking lamb chops, chicken, and shrimp skewers; cream-filled jalapenos; coconut chocolate truffles) and an open bar, the entertainment included an array of dancers and acrobats and dozens of BoDog Girls.

Right next door, at the Little Buddha restaurant at the Palms, I peeked my head in to check out the ParadisePoker.com party hosted by Brooke Burke, who is no stranger to fans of the E! network's "Wild On" shows and in advertisements in Daily Racing Form and its website.

After filing this column, it's back to the BoDog Conference and the opening day of the World Series of Poker, and more parties.

All in a day's work. It's a tough beat, but someone has to write about it.