Poker is rapidly becoming the hottest new trend and this month 250 top players from around the world compete for $1 million at the Aussie Millions poker tournament.
Poker, the game which for decades conjured up Kenny Rogers songs and images of grizzled, cigar-chomping men with pockermarked cheeks, in officially hot. Trendy, Sexy, even. And it's thanks to televised games, a hit new variation and a rise in women players. And then there's the Hollywood megastar factor - watching the flawless skin and perfect smiles of A-list celebrities sliding their chips across a seas of green velvet has gone a long way towards sexing up the game's image.
Everyone from George Clooney to Whoopi Goldberg have become regular poker players, while, like Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire are even making a small fortune out of it in tournaments. There's even a movie about the poker world, Lucky You, which is coming out this year starring Eric Bana.
Ask Australian-based poker promoter Keith "Bendigo" Sloan what the game's appeal is for big stars and he suggests poker is the great equaliser.
"It's certainly not the money for these guys," Keith says. "They're not stars during a game. They're like anyone else."
But it's not just the US which is seeing a boom in poker. Europe and Australia are in its grip as well. Young and old, women and men alike, are switching on to the game.
In Australia the boom is so pronounced that Keith won't call it that. "It's more like a phenomenon," he says. "Now it's cool to play poker."
Poker is hardly new. Its origins are open to debate but some experts suggest it dates back as early as 900AD when Chinese emperor Mu tsung played "domino cards" with his wife. Persia and France also have claims to the game's origins but, either way, by the mid 1800s it was a standard involving a fistful of four or five cards and players competing for the best hand.
These days one of the most popular methods of gameplay is internet poker, which has about 100,000 players online who can compete with each other over cyberspace, with bets starting from as little as 50c.
This was how full time Perth poker player Han, 28, got his start. Originally a casino dealer/croupier, he started playing the game on the net. Then, as he got better, so did the stakes. Now he's cruising the big leagues.
"I'll win $20,000 in one hand and I've lost $20,000 in another," he says. "On average though, it's a few thousand."
It's the sort of vocation to turn one's parents' hair grey. Han, who doesn't want his surname published, admits his parents did have their misgivings at first. "They were very worried at the start but now they have confidence in me," he says.
Han will be part of the Australian contingent competing for the $1 million winner's prize at the Aussie Millions tournament at Crown Casino, part of the Crown Australian Poker Championships which kicked off this week. He made the final tables last year.
"A local in Melbourne has a better chance," says Han. "There's a few private games in Perth. Burswood Casino has only two poker games going. The Crown has 40 50 games."
Despite Perth's small poker scene, it is growing.
"When I first started playing online I was one of the only players," Han says. "Now there are hundreds just from around Perth."
Han has been playing poker for five years, the past year full time, and coyly says he makes "good money". By that he means somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 a year.
But if he does well at the Aussie Millions this month, he could substantially add to that income.
In the tournament, each player puts up $10,300, with $1 million of the pool going to the winner and 26 runners up sharing the balance. Each player keeps going until their chips are all gone or they have won.
The first Aussie Millions event came about thanks to Keith. He convinced the Crown Casino a high stakes poker tournament had merit and helped it set up a poker room and train staff. In 2003 the Aussie Millions entry stake hit $10,000 and prizes were scraping a stratosphere high enough to lure in some of the top players from around the world.
"I just figured Australia needed a tournament," Keith says. "In 2003 we had 122 starters, 2004 we had 133 starters, this year 250 starters."
One favourite to win is Marcel Luske The Flying Dutchman, a 190cm "real cool dude", says Keith.
But many eyes will also be on other possibilities Spider Man star Tobey Maguire is rumoured to be a potential starter; and Rosa Bennett, from Melbourne, whose killer instinct makes her a player to watch.
Keith rates her abilities highly. "She's sponsored by one of the online poker sites," he says. "She's great."
But don't get the idea Rosa is a soft touch across the table from all the boys. Any player who dismisses her abilities learns to regret it.
"I tend to be super aggressive at times so that the men don't push me around," Rosa says. "I've been known to streamroll tables at times. I also think, at times, it's very hard for men to take a beating from a woman.
"At first I think it is difficult for women. We almost have to prove ourselves and show that we can play the game. After we punish a few men, then they get the idea that we do know how to play the game."
Locally, poker player Irene Holzmann says she and another women are the only regular female players she knows of in Perth. Dubbed Queen Irene, she hopes to head to Melbourne this month to play in one of the smaller Crown Casino poker tournaments.
But it is not a game for the faint of heart, she warns.
"A lot of women are not game enough," Irene says. "You have to have guts. Know your game, have the capital, have a bankroll."
Irene grew up with poker in Singapore her family played it and, after moving to Australia in 1978, some years later took it up again, playing in private games and online.
"Poker's a very challenging game and exciting. Quite a skilful game, too. If you don't understand it, you shouldn't play," she advises beginners. "You just end up wasting your money."
While Rosa and Irene buck the stereotype in poker, given famous female poker players are few and far between aside from Whoopi Goldberg and Jennifer Anniston, the number of women taking up the game is steadily on the rise, especially in the US.
"Women have got the ability to think of more than one thing at a time," Keith says.
And he says there is an added appeal for young, single women. "Where else do you go where you can socialise in a secure environment with a ratio of 10:1 men," he laughs.
The socialising aspect of poker is one which is often overlooked, especially as it is sometimes accused of being the catalyst for financially crippling addictions.
"That's absolute bullshit," Keith believes. "I can't see what's wrong with people sitting down having a game of poker. Those wowsers would do themselves a huge favour to go along and see people playing, encouraging each other, being social.
"What's nice is you can sit down and on your left is a doctor, a young student, a uni professor, a guy who swings a pick all week, and a taxi driver. Where else are you going to meet that spectrum?"
Keith, once a competitive player himself, directs his energies to getting the game out around the globe. And on that score, poker is on the move, particularly in Perth.
Coming soon is speed poker, a phenomenon sweeping the US which, as its name suggests, involves a 15 second timer on the players to set a cracking pace. Keith is selling the rights to speed poker games to TV networks internationally and is in negotiations in Australia to air it here.
Also on the cards, literally, is Texas Hold 'em, a variation of poker that is wildly popular internationally. Like speed poker, Keith predicts it will be at Perth's Burswood Casino later this year.
But for now, the most exciting news is that rich Crown Casino tournament in Melbourne, which runs until January 20, and whether the 80 odd Aussie players can topple the greats from overseas.
Han has his hopes but knows poker is a fickle game.
"On the surface it seems so basic and simple," he says. "Anyone can win playing poker you can get a lucky hand. But to win consistently, 80 per cent of the time, that's skill.
"You can play your absolute best, do everything right, you can play a perfect game of poker and still lose. That's poker."
Keith Sloan offers his tips for winning at poker:
o Know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.
o Bet, don't sweat don't sit there and work out what the other person might or might not have. Get out there and put your chips down.
o Be patient you have to throw a lot of hands away in a game. Be selective.
o Be aggressive when you do bet, go for it.
o Don't be predictable don't always bet the same way..