John McEvoy studied accounting in college, but later chose another career. Even so, all those hours studying math, statistics and money finally paid off a couple of weeks ago -- at the Seneca Niagara Casino.
After investing $225 to enter the Seneca Poker Classic tournament, the Lewiston native walked away with just over $11,000 in winnings.
"I was honestly shocked," said McEvoy, 25, currently a games supervisor for a Las Vegas casino. "This was the first time I've ever felt I won without getting the best cards."
McEvoy is part of a new generation of poker players that has transformed the game's image from a rec-room pastime to a televised spectator sport in glitzy casino showrooms and followed by millions of fans. Novice players have flooded poker tournaments in person and online, chasing the dream of megadollar jackpots.
Poker's popularity has soared in the United States since ESPN began showing high-stakes poker tournaments in 2003. Now, shows like the World Series of Poker, the World Poker Tour and Celebrity Poker Showdown boast scores of faithful viewers. In September, the World Series of Poker finale was watched by 2.5 million households.
Even before the Seneca Niagara Casino opened its poker room in May, the game's popularity made it easier to find a table in Western New York. University at Buffalo students enjoy weekly games with top prizes of $3,000 or more. Bars and other establishments hold poker tournaments without police interference, according to players.
Poker also has become available on demand, 24 hours a day, via the Internet. Pokerpulse, a poker industry monitor, estimated that 1.3 million players played online last month, betting about $6 billion.
The brick-and-mortar casinos don't find poker that profitable, but it certainly pays off in marketing and brand recognition, said Joe Weinert, vice president of industry consultant Spectrum Gaming Group.
In October, for example, all of Atlantic City's casinos won about $389 million, but poker accounted for only $4.6 million.
Yet Harrah's Entertainment, "one of the biggest and smartest entertainment companies out there," said Weinert, "went and bought an entire casino in downtown Las Vegas almost solely to get rights to the World Series of Poker."
Television and the Internet have had a huge impact, but one of the single biggest factors may have been something that happened in 2003 that caused players to start thinking of poker not simply as entertainment, or gambling -- but as a moneymaker.
That was his name, after all. Chris Moneymaker, a Tennessee accountant, had only played poker over the Internet before he won a seat at the World Series of Poker, in an online tournament that cost $39 to enter. He borrowed money for the plane ticket to Vegas, where he won $2.5 million.
Moneymaker became an icon overnight, said Weinert.
"He was Joe Average poker player, and then he went and won the World Series of Poker. So now you've got millions of other poker players saying, 'If he did it, I can too.' "
Even though veteran players like McEvoy tend to feast on such fresh players, the Lewiston native was left shaking his head at the ease of his success in the recent Seneca Niagara tournament.
"I've never gotten away with so many bluffs in my life at a tournament," he said. "I just couldn't believe some of the hands they would fold."
There are bar tournaments in Western New York where most people seem to be drawn primarily by the television shows, McEvoy said.
"I've had much success playing in those kind of games, too, because nobody there really knows what they're doing. All they know is they've seen it on TV."
The stakes were higher at the Seneca Classic, but the level of expertise didn't necessarily follow, McEvoy said.
"The way I saw some people playing in that tournament in Niagara Falls . . . they really shouldn't have been there," he said.
The relentless television exposure, coupled with eternal Internet availability, has heightened poker's potential for harmful addiction, said Renee Wert, head of gambling treatment services at Jewish Family Services in Buffalo.
Poker isn't as addictive as slot machines or faster-paced games like blackjack, but it's especially alluring to the young and reformed gambling addicts, Wert said.
Because it's not entirely random, she said, some people think poker isn't gambling. Parents are less likely to object if their children spend hours playing with their friends.
But teenagers who gamble are twice as likely as adults to develop gambling problems, Wert said. When parents report "all my son wants to do is play poker," Wert said, she tells them to look for signs of problem gambling, like lying to gamble, and talk to them like they would about the dangers of alcohol.
McEvoy has considered becoming a professional poker player but he's seen up close what it takes to survive a Vegas poker table.
It's a different world.
"With the knowledge I have I think I can be competitive, but not regularly enough to make a living at it," he said.