07/21/2005 11:00PM

Poker craze continues to grow

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The 2005 World Series of Poker was a smashing success by any measure. The $7.5 million first prize won by Australian Joseph Hachem was triple the $2.5 million won by Chris Moneymaker in 2003 and 50 percent more than the $5 million Greg "Fossilman" Raymer won last year.

The 5,619 contestants were nearly double the 2004 field. All nine players who made the final table became instant millionaires, as $1 million was the minimum payout for ninth place.

ESPN this week began showing new 2005 WSOP episodes and the network expects huge ratings. These facts all indicate the booming popularity of poker, which is happening in card clubs, over the Internet, and in people's homes nationwide.

The growth of poker has been astonishing. And it's the type of growth that should petrify horse racing enthusiasts. Poker popularity is skyrocketing despite a physical product with as much substance as cotton candy and in an industry with no one at the helm.

As recently as 2001, poker was dead in the water in Las Vegas. Casinos were closing up poker rooms faster than you could level a house of cards.

Now, you see poker everywhere and it's getting covered by the mainstream media.

A visit to the gambling section of your local bookstore will show dozens of poker titles pushing, slowly but surely, horse racing books off the shelves. Whether it's Doyle Brunson, Howard Lederer, or Gus Hanson, poker authors are hot.

Poker magazines are sprouting up faster than weeds, fueled by the dual effect of growing readership and a rich mine of advertisers cashing in on the poker craze.

Daily newspapers are being forced to cover poker because their readers want it. Here in Las Vegas, the WSOP was front page news in the Review-Journal, as it should have been.

But newspapers coast to coast were running Associated Press stories and some even sent staffers to cover the WSOP. A few dailies now have a poker columnist.

A friend visiting Las Vegas last week told me about his daughter, who is a junior at a major university. She said one of the hottest things to do now in college is play poker. Amazing.

Now why did I call poker a "cotton candy" product? It's because TV has turned an incredibly boring in-person event into something sexy and exciting. Believe me when I say there's a big difference between playing poker and watching it.

For example, this year's WSOP final table took nearly 14 hours to crown Hachem the champion. ESPN will edit it down to a two-hour telecast and focus on every gut-wrenching twist. The reality is viewing poker in person is comparable to watching paint dry or grass grow.

We know that poker is fun to play, but it has nothing over the superior product of horse racing. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld had it right when he made a hit comedy show about "nothing." So, I tip my hat to the poker gods because they're doing a great job.

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