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They're doing it in Vegas, and in family rooms, dorm rooms and senior centers across the country. They're even doing it on TV. And now the odds are growing that bookstores are going to get a bigger piece of the action.
Publishers believe the national obsession with poker is growing, and they hope to cash in.
"What triggered the whole poker explosion was the world poker tour on TV in 2003," says Avery Cardoza of Cardoza Publishing, the world's largest publisher of poker books. He couples that with the fact that the 2003 winner was Christopher Moneymaker - "a nobody who beat some of the best players in the world. He proved anybody can go in and have a shot at winning."
Cardoza says sales of his 50 poker titles are up 1,000% over the past two years and estimates a million books sold since 2003. His biggest sellers are the Super System books by Doyle Brunson, a two-time World Series of Poker champion. Cardoza will publish Brunson's biography, No Limit, in the fall.
No Limit is one of about 60 poker books that have been or will be published in 2005. Upcoming titles include:
-How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker, by tournament winner Annie Duke, (Hudson Street, $24.95, Sept. 8).
-Phil Gordon's Little Green Book: Lessons and Teachings in No Limit Texas Hold'em, by the Celebrity Poker Showdown host (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, $21, Oct. 4).
-How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker: The Wisdom of Dickie Richard, by comedian/poker player Penn Jillette and Mickey D. Lynn (St. Martin's, $19.95, Oct. 18).
"Poker would have never gotten on TV when we only had three networks," says Penn Jillette, who thinks the poker craze is tied, in part, to our love affair with Lady Luck.
"Poker has the feeling of a sport, but you don't have to do push-ups," he says. "There's a huge element of skill coupled with an element of chance. You have this combination of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, where you have to have a lot of stuff in your head, coupled with winning the lottery."
Despite the game's popularity, few poker books by mainstream publishers have done well. Only one - Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions by Ben Mezrich (2002) - has been in the top 50 of USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list in the past 10 years.
"When I wrote my book, there were no expectations that it would be a big book," Mezrich says. "It was a book about cards."
The first printing was 15,000. Now 800,000 copies are in print, and DreamWorks has bought the film rights. His new book, Busting Vegas: The MIT Whiz Kid Who Brought the Casinos to Their Knees, out in October, has a first printing of 100,000.
He attributes part of his first book's success to the Robin Hood syndrome.
"People see the casinos as these evil institutions, because everyone has lost in a casino, and they see it as the odds being stacked against you. The idea that a bunch of kids could go out there just using their brains and win turns a lot of people on."
People can learn to play poker with the help of how-to books, he believes. "There's definitely a large skill element that can be learned from books. You can learn things like how to read people. Of course, playing a lot makes a big difference."
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