Today celebrities may bet with impunity on television, but games of chance remain forbidden in most states. Internet gambling, available on any computer, is illegal nationwide.

Betting on Tomorrow

Yet the game’s momentum continues. Current trends merged in 2003, when a Nashville accountant named Chris Moneymaker entered one of many online “satellite” tournaments. For a $40 fee he won a $10,000 buy-in to the World Series of Poker. In Vegas, Moneymaker bested 838 other entrants to be declared the poker champion of the world and to win $2.5 million.

Moneymaker’s story fueled the fantasies of tens of thousands of casual players. This most democratic of games, at which a truck driver can sit down with an executive and an amateur can beat a professional, struck a resonant chord in American culture. Three years later the tournament drew more than 8,000 players, and the winner took home $12 million. As the actor Walter Matthau said of poker, “The game exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great.”

Jack Kelly is the author of Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive That Changed the World (Basic Books).

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