10/14/2003 11:00PM

Poker deals itself into the mainstream

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A lot of horseplayers also love poker. They're both games that require thought, so it's no coincidence that poker rooms in Las Vegas are often near the race and sports books.

The World Poker Tour has been popular on the Travel Channel, garnering the network's highest ratings despite being on at 9 p.m. on Wednesdays. The programs show the cards of each player from under the table so viewers can see who is holding the best hands and who is bluffing. It's a great educational tool, and entertaining for viewers.

The first season ended with the World Poker Tournament Championship at the Bellagio in April, and the Tour has already had five tournaments in its second season (although none have been televised yet). The real beauty of these tournaments is anyone can enter and get a chance to be a star. It's a natural extension of the reality TV phenomenon.

The newest addition to the Tour lineup (which will have 14 tournaments) is the Pokerstars Caribbean Adventure on Jan. 18-25 on a cruise ship. Pokerstars.com is the online poker site where Chris Moneymaker parlayed a $40 entry fee into a berth in the World Series of Poker, and ultimately a $2.5 million jackpot as the world champion.

There are eight tournaments remaining (the full list is at worldpokertour.com), including the Five Diamond World Poker Classic at the Bellagio on Dec. 15-18 and the World Poker Challenge IV at the Reno Hilton on March 30-April 1, 2004. The winner of each tournament also earns a berth in the World Poker Tour Championship at the Bellagio on April 19-23, 2004.

Spinning off the popularity of the World Poker Tour (and, of course, the World Series of Poker, which can still be seen on reruns on ESPN), a film crew from the cable network Bravo will be at the Palms this weekend filming "Celebrity Poker Showdown," Among the players will be "West Wing" stars Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer, and Bradley Whitford, along with Jack Black (star of the movie "School of Rock"), David Schwimmer of "Friends," Carrie Fisher, Mimi Rogers, Don Cheadle, Coolio, Hank Azaria, and about a dozen others.

The six-episode series will make its debut Dec. 2 at 9 p.m.

With the aforementioned crossover appeal of poker and horseracing, could handicapping tournatments also make for good TV? NTRA commissioner Tim Smith, speaking at last month's annual meeting in Las Vegas, certainly thinks so.

"I was talking to [DRF publisher] Steve Crist the other night, and we were discussing the explosion of poker tournaments on TV," Smith said. "There's no reason the same thing can't happen with all the great handicapping tournaments we have.

"We haven't done enough to promote the human stars of our sport."

It'll be interesting to see if this could come to fruition.

Crist on 'research' trip

Speaking of Crist, he will be back in Las Vegas next week on his way to the Breeders' Cup.

On Monday, he will be at the Gold Coast race book at 9 a.m. to give a Breeders' Cup preview seminar and to sign copies of his new book, "Betting on Myself." The Gold Coast will also hold a $5 buy-in contest on Delaware's third through seventh races, seeding the pot with $1,000. All contestants will receive a free Breeders' Cup T-shirt and the first 100 will receive a free copy of the DRF Breeders' Cup Advance edition.

Tuesday at 1 p.m., Crist will be appearing at the Gambler's Book Shop at 630 N. 11th Street (just north of Charleston and 11th).

The rest of his stay, he'll probably be "researching" the similarities between poker and horse handicapping.

Football contest updates

Ken White and Lem Banker both went 5-2 last weekend in the Stardust Invitational, though they both lost their best bets (White on Tennessee and Banker on Penn St.) which are used as a tiebreaker. Both will submit seven more plays to be announced Friday, between 9-10 p.m., in the Stardust sports book (and on KDWN AM-720 in the West and worldwide on www.kdwn.com). The featured matchup this week will be handicapper Ted Sevransky, of whocovers.com, against Chuck Esposito, the director of race and sports for Park Place Entertainment (soon to be renamed Caesars Entertainment). They will also submit seven plays in the head-to-head, single-elimination tournament that awards a $10,000 winner-take-all prize.

The 346 entrants in the Las Vegas SuperContest are vying for even more money (of course, they had to put up $1,500 apiece), and the top two handicappers maintained their position last week. "thesportspage.com" (Mark Franco of Vegas Insider) went 4-1 to stay atop the standings with an impressive 24-6 (80 percent) record against the spread. "Peter and Paul" also went 4-1 to remain in second place at 23-7. "Magic Mike" went 4-1 to stay another game back at 22-8, along with "Bob and Ben," who went 5-0 last week.

A contestant under the alias "BMAN" went 5-0 last week to move into first place in the Stations Casino Gambler's Challenge, and has an overall record of 20-8-2. A push counts for a half-point, so he is credited with 21 points, one ahead of "Fred Sharwell" and "Wolfgang," who are at 20-10. Selections from all of the leaders in both the SuperContest and Gambler's Challenge will be available Friday afternoon in the respective sports books.

One football contest is already done. The Eliminator at Bally's drew 141 contestants this year at $50 apiece. The field was down to the final two survivors in the winner-take-all contest, but both lost last week and will receive $3,525 apiece.