LAS VEGAS - From my nonsmoking hotel room here with ceiling-to-floor windows, the curious thing is that I can still smell smoke and no outside air ever penetrates these walls, which, oddly enough, serves as a metaphor for the state of poker these days.
I love poker. I love the vagaries of the game, the character of the people, the diversity of the characters. Most of all, I love the World Series of Poker, which I have been fortunate enough - along with an equally lotto-lucky Lon McEachern - to announce on ESPN for 10 years.
(Neither of us is a poker player and one of us - the shorter, bespectacled chap - isn't even a broadcaster, yet we yap away deep into the night with all the authority of Walter Cronkite at an Apollo launch.)
This year, the World Series of Poker concludes with a twin spectacle.
Next week begins the Main Event - the last great American gold rush - in which thousands of poker pros and part-time players put up $10,000 in the dream of becoming a multimillionaire.
And just before that comes the audacious $1 million buy-in Big One for One Drop, with $111,111 of each entry going to One Drop's charitable efforts to provide safe drinking water worldwide. The creation of Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, you need $1 million to sit at the table; for that money, the seats should at least vibrate, no? This event will attract nearly 50 players, a mix of very well-heeled businessmen and very well-backed poker pros.
Both the Main Event and the One Drop put the "wow" back in "Wowza!"
But all that glitters masks a gritty reality: There's a lot of stagnant air in the poker world, and too many of the game's best and brightest haven't peeked outside lately to smell the roses.
Poker is at a crossroads - the game is under siege, both from outside forces and from within. As a poker community, we either can step up and be more productive citizens or step back and lurk in the shadows of mainstream America.
(Let's start by rooting out the cheaters and any site operators who cheat the public.)
At the moment, the ban on online poker in the U.S. remains a blight on American freedoms. The ban - instituted April 15, 2011 and known as "Black Friday" in poker circles - is as intellectually stupid as it is economically senseless. Online poker should be legalized, regulated and taxed; the taxes alone could pay for the border fence so many are clamoring for, which in turn would keep out countless Mexican immigrants who come here to play poker illegally.
On the other hand, I am tired of hearing how Black Friday cost a lot of people a lot of money. Indeed, many poker pros lost their livelihood. But the truth of the matter is: Black Friday saved even more folks a lot of money. After all, most people lose when they play. So the online-poker ban - while unfortunate, in terms of personal liberties - actually has put more money back into more people's pockets.
Meanwhile, since Black Friday, some of the younger, online players have stumbled into card rooms - such as my poker home in Los Angeles, Hollywood Park - with all the social prowess of a fire hydrant. They don't talk and listen very well - uh, it's called a conversation- because they have been trapped in their bedrooms since their teen years, shades down, with the laptop screen illuminating their entire world six to 12 hours a day, clicking "bet," "raise" or "fold."
Anyway, to all of you online and offline pokerati, I'm asking you to realize that we are surrounded by fellow humans.
So let's interact with these other Homo sapiens in a more civilized fashion.