Decks, Lies & Videotape

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The beautiful thing about the World Series of Poker on ESPN is absolutely nothing. The event originates from Binion's Horseshoe Casino, a low-ceilinged dump in the vagrant's paradise that is downtown Las Vegas. The featured players have the unkempt eyebrows, gothic stares and cadaverous skin tones of Scooby-Doo villains. They are the least attractive people on TV not named Larry King.

Yet in an era when television is dominated by made-up competitions pitting brainless pretty people against other brainless pretty people — Fear Factor, Survivor, etc.--it is the brilliant uglies of the World Series who have provided some of the best human drama of the summer. On every episode, intelligence is rewarded, hubris is punished, millions of dollars change hands, and luck makes a cameo. Perhaps most shocking of all, people are watching. According to Nielsen ratings, World Series (ESPN, Tuesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.) has averaged 1,248,000 viewers during its eight-week run, which ends with a grand finale at 8 p.m. Aug. 26 (watch for repeats in the fall). A year ago, the same time slot averaged 408,000 viewers. Series' two-hour rival, World Poker Tour, pulled in 844,000 viewers through July on the Travel Channel, nearly triple what the channel drew last year. Imagine how many people might have tuned in if they knew there was a Travel Channel.

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Poker was first broadcast on television in 1993, but it wasn't until 2002 that the game became watchable. In No Limit Texas Hold 'Em (the preferred game of the poker cognoscenti), players are dealt two cards that only they can see, called "hole cards," and then five more community cards are placed in the middle of the table. According to Lon McEachern, the play-by-play guy on World Series, watching Hold 'Em without seeing the hole cards "was like having McEnroe and Boris Becker playing Wimbledon in the dark, then turning on the lights after the point was over to see who won. You never knew what skills they possessed."

Steven Lipscomb, creator of the World Poker Tour, changed all that by embedding a lipstick camera in each player's table position. Suddenly, when the players tilted their cards up for a surreptitious glance, they also flashed the TV audience, who then got to watch them lie to the other stone-faced liars at the table. "We made this into a spectator sport," says Lipscomb. "Now when you watch a World Poker Tour show, you feel like you're in the seat making a million-dollar decision on every hand."

Both TV shows help you see how analytical and brassy the best players are by displaying the odds of victory as the cards are dealt. And whether or not you've played poker (and more than 50 million Americans have), it's thrilling to see a guy with zip bluff $300,000 out of someone with a pair of kings. The difference between the shows is that ESPN has the superior event. World Poker Tour is made-for-TV entertainment, whereas the World Series has been an annual event at Binion's since 1970. Anyone who posts the $10,000 entry fee can play, and this year's winner's take was $2.5 million. That kind of money brings out all the poker wolves, from leather-faced former champs like Amarillo Slim to rank amateurs like Nashville accountant Chris Moneymaker. (Even better, that's his real name.)

ESPN taped the one-month event at Binion's last May, piping the view of the hole cards into tape machines secured by armed guards to prevent cheating. Then they added play-by-play in postproduction. "You don't see everything they play," says McEachern. "You see a representative number of hands, exciting hands, to be TV friendly." In between the action, there are refreshingly cheese-free player profiles introducing the likes of Annie Duke, the top poker-playing woman, who came in 10th in 2000 while eight months' pregnant; Dutch Boyd, a math genius who went to college at age 12; and Chris (Jesus) Ferguson, a graduate student at UCLA who can slice a banana with a thrown playing card from 50 ft. away.

The two best characters, though, are Moneymaker and "Houston Sammy" Farha, a pro whose cultivated look of disreputability is an artistic achievement. In World Series' last episode, Moneymaker and Farha square off with $2.5 million stacked between them. They play quietly. They stare at each other. They lie. And the bigger liar wins.