08/23/2006 12:00AM

Once the prize, bracelet now just the key to bigger deals

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There could not have been a more appropriate winner of the $80 million main event at the World Series of Poker earlier this month than Jamie Gold - not because Gold was the best, the worst, or the luckiest of the 8,773 players in the tournament, but because of his day job as a Hollywood talent agent and television producer.

The world series has had an uncanny way of crowning champions who reflect the state and direction of the game. Three years ago it was Chris Moneymaker, an everyman who parlayed a tiny online buy-in into the top prize, reflecting how the Internet had revolutionized poker and opened its biggest prizes to anyone with $40 and a dream. Then last year it was the Australian Joseph Hachem triumphing in the most international field ever, showing how the boundaries of pokermania had expanded worldwide.

Gold is the poker poster child for 2006, a year when everyone and everything in the world of poker suddenly seems to have a corporate brand, sponsorship deal, and potential reality-TV series attached to it. Dozens of players have new books and instructional DVD's on the shelves, and thousands more played in the world series as walking billboards for online poker sites. The moment that someone wins a bracelet at one of the world series events, it seems, his triumph is quickly followed by a series of agent signings and marketing deals to exploit his success.

Jeff Madsen, a 21-year-old film-studies student and poker prodigy, became the youngest bracelet winner when he won not one but two world series events last month. Within days, he had signed an appearance arrangement with the online site FullTiltPoker.com, and less than two weeks later announced he would be represented exclusively by Poker Royalty, which calls itself a "a full-service poker player marketing and representation agency."

It used to be that having professional card players living on the premises was something a landlord would hide from prospective renters or buyers. But earlier this month, a real-estate firm put out a press release announcing that "Phil Hellmuth, David Williams, Antonio Esfandiari, and Phil Laak have all bought fully furnished condominium residences at the W Las Vegas Hotel, Casino & Residences, making the site one of the most popular for professional poker players."

The aspiring poker pro of a decade ago who arrived in Las Vegas to make his name and fortune started by looking for a motel near the card rooms with a low monthly rate and a hotplate. Today's starry-eyed aspirants want to know how many top-20 tournament finishes they need to secure an agent and a deal with a sports-marketing firm.

Gold is the man for this new era. A resident of Malibu, Calif., Gold worked at several Los Angeles talent agencies before forming his own JMG Productions, which his official biography describes as a "small, personal company" with "a slew of projects in development." His previous poker accomplishments were a bit thin, the high points being a fifth-place finish in the $300 no-limit hold'em event at the 2006 Winnin' O' the Green at the Bicycle Casino and a seventh-place finish in the $100 no-limit hold'em event at Larry Flynt's Grand Slam of Poker IV at the Hustler Casino in 2005.

Gold entered the 2006 main event as part of the "Bodog.com celebrity team" and won $12 million when he outlasted 8,772 competitors to win the final table on Aug. 10. The next day he signed a two-year endorsement deal with Bodog, and three days later he was invited to join the Game Show Network's "High Stakes Poker" lineup.

Alas, his most recent press clips aren't quite so happy. This past Tuesday, a Las Vegas District Court judge signed a temporary restraining order preventing Gold from collecting his world series winnings pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed against him by Bruce Leyser, another television producer. According to the suit, the two struck a deal where Leyser would help Gold find celebrities to wear Bodog-branded clothing during the world series and they would split whatever money was won from the world series seat Bodog gave to Gold.

This isn't exactly what Doyle Brunson and his fellow roadhouse gamblers had in mind when they started the World Series of Poker among themselves over 30 years ago to determine the game's best player. It all seems a perfect fit, though, for what poker has become in 2006.