04/08/2004 11:00PM

Poker finding fresh crowd as the new deal in town

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Fueled by television exposure and a rags-to-riches real-life story, the game of poker has gone from the smoky casino side rooms and older clientele to mainstream America and an attractive young demographic.

The attraction of five million weekly viewers watching the World Poker Tour series on the Travel Channel and the incredible story of amateur Chris Moneymaker's victory in last year's World Series of Poker have prompted an unpredicted and unprecedented revival of the grand old card game.

It was not many years ago that the number of poker rooms in Las Vegas could be counted on one hand. Today, the city's casinos are expanding existing poker rooms, and those that never had poker rooms are building them.

The upswing in poker's popularity was boosted by the 2003 World Poker Tour television coverage and the timely story of Chris Moneymaker, who turned a $40 entry in an online poker tournament into a victory in the World Series of Poker and a $2.5 million payday.

Not only is the game drawing more people who are trying to be the next Chris Moneymaker, but it has become the "in" thing on college campuses throughout the country. Poker is popular in fraternity and sorority houses, and tournaments are being sponsored by campus organizations. The first online tournament for students started in January at College Poker Championships.com. This feeds the future of the game in Las Vegas.

Poker is so hot that Harrah's Entertainment paid around $30 million for the rights to the World Series of Poker - leaving Binion's Horseshoe, the casino at which the tournament is held, to another casino operator.

Las Vegas poker revenue is way up. The Bellagio poker room reported a 50 percent revenue increase since last March. The Bellagio will expand its poker room by five to six more tables and will have a 30-table room by the end of the year. The Mirage - a Bellagio sister property in the MGM Mirage family - has expanded to a 31-table room.

The Palms replaced its keno lounge with a high-limit poker room as a result of hosting the "Celebrity Poker Showdown." That popular Bravo television show, now in its second season, tapes at the hip hotel-casino.

Other Las Vegas casinos that have recently added poker rooms include the Cannery (six tables) and Mandalay Bay (10). MGM Grand is contemplating a reopening of its poker room. The Golden Nugget, in downtown Las Vegas, plans to reopen its poker room after a 15-year absence in time for the April 22 start of Binion's World Series of Poker at the Horseshoe. Harrah's plans to promote the World Series of Poker brand at its two Las Vegas properties, with plans to reopen the poker rooms at its Rio and Harrah's casinos.

Until the rejuvenation of the game, most operators looked at poker as a loss leader. Poker rooms were a matter of convenience for casino customers. Very few made much impact as an attraction to a casino property.

Until now, thanks to television exposure and a kid named Chris Moneymaker, who is doing just that for the game. There is a new generation of Diamond Jim Bradys waiting to ante up.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.