LAS VEGAS — The young guns of poker elbowed their way onto most every table in the Mirage Hotel and Casino.
On this day in May, their fresh faces and average-Joe looks stood out in the crowd of high-mileage regulars playing in a warm-up tournament before the World Series of Poker, where all of them planned to play in July.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 20, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Poker players -- An article in Thursday's Section A about the new generation of poker players said a World Poker Tour event was a qualifier for the World Series of Poker. The World Poker Tour holds its own championship.
Raised on electronic games, this generation of the young and the ruthless has discovered America's oldest game and mastered it with almost frightening speed. Because of the Internet, they have crammed years of playing time into months. Some have eschewed mainstream careers and college educations for the lure of quick money. Casinos nationwide have added poker tables to keep up with demand.
"It's a whole new clientele for us, and they take their games very seriously; it's a very intelligent crowd," said Tim Gustin, manager of the Commerce Casino, south of downtown Los Angeles, which is to the World Series of Poker what Triple-A ball is to Major League Baseball.
"There are many very young players today," said longtime poker pro Linda Johnson, who arranges gambling cruises. "In fact, of all new players entering poker rooms these days for the first time, I would say 60% of them are under 28."
The young guns include David Williams, 25, who dropped out of Southern Methodist University two semesters shy of a degree in economics, with a minor in math. There is Tuan Le, the 26-year-old son of Vietnamese immigrants, who dropped out of college before the end of his first semester.
Phil Laak, known as the "Unabomber" for his sweatshirt hood and aviator glasses that evoke the wanted sketch for convicted mail bomber Theodore Kaczynski, gave up mechanical engineering and tossed a high-risk Wall Street trading gig before opting for Texas Hold'em.
Antonio Esfandiari was 25 when he became the youngest person to win more than $1 million on the tour. He's also a skilled magician who once made his living with the art of illusion before turning to cards.
All make their living at the poker tables and have become cult figures on the televised gambling circuit that reaches its zenith Friday when the final table of the World Series of Poker is seated.
The poker craze is attributable to several factors, none more prominent than the televised World Poker Tour, broadcast on the Travel Channel. Now in its fourth season, the tour took a game that was about as interesting as watching paint dry and turned it into a showbiz success by allowing audiences a peek at the pair of "down" or "pocket" cards players are holding.
"Our television shows really play like 'The Young and the Restless': It has great, intelligent, good-looking men and women. You can't rig that," said Steve Lipscomb, a Los Angeles lawyer who created the concept. "The demographics have changed and that makes it fun."
Even Hollywood is getting onboard, with at least one feature film by Warner Bros., "Lucky You," in the works -- not surprising since so many celebrities are regulars on television poker shows and tournaments.
But the odds are still in flux over whether gaming geeks and math majors can make the transition from anonymous electronic play in their teen years to the stare-em-down psychological drama of a game founded firmly on deception.
The Mirage tournament in May was one of the last qualifiers for the World Series. It had some old lessons in store for the youngsters.
Williams was late showing up at the Mirage for the 11 a.m. sign-up, so his mother, Shirley, held a place in line for him.
Slim and handsome, Williams walked in a few minutes later, listening to an MP-3 player. The college dropout is considered one of the game's young comers, earning more than $4 million in tournament play in the last two years.
Williams was carrying a 4.0 grade-point average at SMU when he dropped out after coming in second in the World Series of Poker last year. Before poker, he won thousands of dollars playing "Magic, the Gathering," a sword and sorcery card game. He switched to poker during college and worked his way up the Dallas gambling ladder, where he was a regular at underground big-stakes games. He continued to sharpen his Texas Hold'em skills in online tournaments.
Le, wearing a conservative striped shirt and dark glasses, already was seated in front of his $10,000 stacks of chips, the initial buy-in for all 317 players.
The 26-year-old, who has won more than $4 million on the tour, was in his first semester at Cal State Northridge when he began playing poker in the student union between classes. He almost always dominated the players, who included his economics professor. One evening at the Hustler Casino in Gardena, Le staked his student loans and financial aid. He lost big time. But he quit school and kept on playing, sometimes as much as 70 hours a week.
Poker has changed his living habits, which often means sleeping through the day and playing at card clubs until dawn and beyond.