Fake & Rake

Played for love or played for money, poker is coming out of the back room

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When Smithsonian reporter Nancy Shute journeys to the 1996 Seniors World Championship of Poker, held at the Oceanside Card Casino in California, she gets more than she bargained for. Invited to sit in with the high rollers, she has a few dizzying moments of rapid-fire play before the pile of chips in front of her disappears. Still, it's a thrill for Shute, a longtime regular in a friendly game back home, to play with the pros.

A game of questionable pedigree, poker in recent years has become more acceptable as people play it for fun as much as for money. Some play penny-ante; some with chips that never get cashed in for money. Others play to unwind, like the musicians in New York's Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, who hold a game during intermission. And for the folks at the Seniors championshipr — legends like "Cowboy" Wolford and Barbara Enright, the winningest female playerr — poker is a living. Shute drops in on games of all kinds, explaining along the way why poker — with its mix of luck, skill, patience and the ability to hide your excitement when you draw an acer — is growing in popularity around the country.

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