How cool is poker? Jonathan Shapiro sets out to find out what it is which attracts so many men and so many movies to glorify this seemingly seedy sport: Even though the game of Poker is often associated with middle aged men donning peak hats and armbands, huddled around a green felt table in a dark smoke filled room, there is no doubting its sex appeal.

Hollywood doesn’t doubt it. It has cast two of its leading males, Mel Gibson in Maverick and Matt Damon in Rounders, as wily and courageous characters with aptitudes for the game. Television has also played its part in glorifying poker. ESPN’s extensive coverage of the World Series of Poker has created new band unorthodox yet revered stars and SBS recently aired the tension filled Late Night Poker Series.

Poker is worthy of mass appeal- the game is simple yet compelling and requires skills on a number of levels; The mental ability to calculate odds and assess risk, The psychological skills to read opponents, anticipate, react, and manipulate their moves, the strength of character to remain calm and the conviction to make judgments and trust them. Poker demands speed of thought, cunning, and patience.

But Poker is most interesting when the stakes are high and small fortunes rest on the draw of a card. That’s where the romance lies. The skill level of a poker player can be determined by our most universal unit of measurement – cash. When money is involved Poker is very much a man’s game and not at all a gentleman’s game. Admitting you’re shit at poker is akin to admitting you’re crap in the sack –it serves as a concession of your manhood. It is an acknowledgment that you are weak-minded, cowardly, can be deceived and manipulated, and easily conned out of your money. This may be obvious to others but believing it yourself can be too shameful.

So you want to prove your manhood, your shrewd survival-skills, your courage, your nerve? It’s always good to start with a game amongst friends. Poker evenings that stretch deep into the night are as stereotypical as Sunday afternoons at the pub; a social environment with familiar faces is a good way to take the edge out of an often cruel game.

But what if you have no friends? Or if you have friends that do not enjoy playing poker? Or if you have friends that would not choose to play poker all day if they could?

The Star City Casino is always willing to cater to the changing needs of its customers. Encouraged by the ever-increasing popularity of poker, Star City has recently opened up public tables. They are almost always at capacity with many keen players waiting several hours for a vacancy. Unlike most games offered by the casino, players compete against each other rather than the almighty house; the casino’s intake is in the form of 75 cent ‘commission chips’, which each player must forgo to enter a hand. With each table seating 10 players, the casino pulls in a fixed amount of $7.50 per hand. The house’s profit is determined by the efficiency of the dealer; and not the looseness of the player’s pockets. Poker in this instance presents a rare case of socialist utopia in the heart of capitalist excess as each player represents only a seat; and is therefore valued equally by the casino.

The format of poker most favored by the Casino is the one preferred by ESPN and Hollywood- Texas Hold ‘Ems. This is considered the purest form of Poker – where more often than not, but not always, skill and cunning overcomes opportunism.

In Hold ‘Ems – each player must make use of two cards dealt to him downwards, and five ‘community’ cards which are placed upwards in the center of the table. Betting takes place at various stages of the dealing, the first round occurs before any community cards are dealt, and the final round commences after the last card is dealt. The reason this form is cherished by poker aficionados is because the majority of cards are shared, giving players a fair shot as assessing what their opponents may be holding. The various rounds of betting also give players the opportunity to speculate the strength of the other players by observing how they bet. The format is dynamic – many hands are snatched on the final card or the infamous ‘river’ where a weak hand can be instantly transformed into a winning one.

The World Series of Poker tournament held every year in Las Vegas is ‘no-limit poker’. In ‘no-limit’ you can bet as much as you have; with a single hand you can either double your money or be forced to mortgage your home. Here the art of ‘bluffing’ is employed. The boldest and best known poker move, ‘bluffing’ refers to a player holding a weak hand but behaving as though he has a strong one in the hope of forcing players with strong hands to concede. When the stakes are high, accurate character assessment skills and giant testicles are prerequisites.

Do not be frightened. The casino offers $5/$10 or $10/$20 tables for Texas ‘Hold Ems. This is a limited form of poker in which there are set levels of betting. In $5/$10, the first rounds of betting have a minimum bet of $5 and the final round has a minimum of $10. Raising and re-raising is allowed but betting is capped at certain levels for each round.

If you lack the self-assurance or hygiene to sit down with nine strangers at a casino and you have an internet connection and a credit card, you may prefer online poker. Be prepared for a few sessions of playing with demo money before your confidence is sufficiently marinated. There’s also an opportunity to sharpen those social skills between hands by chatting about the intricacies of ‘hold em’s’ with pokerdude212 and PocketRocketRob.

Online poker is much quicker than real-life poker. Calculations and assessments have to take place in an instant and decisions are often made by the gut. Nervous milliseconds are spent hoping and waiting for ‘CONGRATULATIONS’ to flash across the screen and the bits of chips to float towards the pimp-like character that has selected to be your graphic representation. Be warned – you can lose your money very quickly, but this may be more dignified than losing it slowly and being blood shot, covered in crisps and still in your pajamas.

Playing out of Australia does present an advantage in this form of the game. If you log on at 9 pm, you’ll be up against groggy compatriots partially covered in food on West Coast of America, and those knee high in crumbs at 4am in The East Coast. Be warned again –the best poker players are nocturnal creatures whose body clocks have long since abandoned hope of synchronizing with nature.

In the name of journalistic endeavor, I risked a small portion of my net worth and the danger of developing an addiction to cards to sample the options available to the poker enthusiast.

My online poker experience was unsatisfying and had it continued for more than one evening, it would have been expensive. Not only did I lose my entire bankroll, but I also beefed up my phone bill with international calls to the customer support team in India, pleading with them to reactivate my account.

I opted instead for the manual form on offer at the Star City –seeing someone take my money in the flesh would feel less like robbery than watching it vanish on a computer screen. I was also hoping for more personal interaction from a game in which human nature plays such a significant role. I was not disappointed. When I registered to play at the poker tables, I became a member of the Star City Poker community of oddballs, gamblers, bored businessmen, tourists, struggling magicians and support staff. I sat down amongst a cast of nine underworld characters I’d be happy to call my friends.

My warm welcome at the table was probably because I did not appear to be the best poker player in the world, and my appearance was justified. Poker nights with friends often finished early and my abilities earned me the nickname “unicef”, in reference to my charitable inclinations. I had since spent some time with my uncle, a futures trader who apparently as a youngster ‘invested’ large chunks of my grandfather’s money on his poker ‘tuition’. He was kind enough to dispense some of his knowledge, and vastly improved my understanding of the game. According to him, the key to winning at poker is to exercise patience and control ones emotion. In this game of men, testosterone is often ones biggest liability.

They say in poker, if you haven’t been able to spot the fool after the first ten minutes- then you’re probably it. ‘They’ of course refers to the mystical source of poker wisdom and poker wisdom, I’ve learnt, is generally acquired at great monetary cost. Fortunately, I could spot some fools. I was being patient and controlling my emotions – saving myself by folding, and betting heavily when I had strong cards. I won some hands and lost the odd few, but overall I was playing well. When I peeled myself from my seat after four intense hours, I had $600 in chips – a profit of $400.

Even though I had just spent the best part of a working world Monday in the casino, I felt great – winning and money tends to have that effect. I had just made more from playing cards than I would earn in a week working in a bank …and it was cash – instant cash! And it was fun! I began to wonder all sorts of things, like playing poker for a living, and paying rent in casino chips. My ego was slowly beginning to inflate. My poker career was doomed.

I returned a few days later. Ten minutes had elapsed and I had yet to identify the fool. A minute later I had inkling as to who it might be. Nevertheless I stayed around for a few hours, and paid $300 just to be sure.