The Players: The Celebrification of Poker
The Big Six

This week, Tilt, a poker drama from producers David Levien and Brian Koppelman, premieres on ESPN, prompting an obvious question: Why should it fare any better than the 1998 poker drama Rounders, a film they wrote and which folded quickly? Well, maybe Rounders flopped thanks to an overdose of foresight. The recent symbiotic joining of poker and fame—most evident on Celebrity Poker Showdown—has since turned the game into a small-screen phenomenon. Here’s a guide to who’s responsible.

(Photo credit: Courtesy of WPT Enterprises, Inc.)

Steven Lipscomb
The Innovator
ESPN’s broadcast the World Series since 1994, but the game became truly TV-friendly when Lipscomb, the producer of World Poker Tour, placed tiny cameras in the table in 2002. Now you can see the players’ cards—lending high drama to those pasty poker faces.

(Photo credit: John Russell/AP)

Chris Moneymaker
The Everyguy
Moneymaker became a hero to unknown zhlubs everywhere when, after paying $40 to enter a satellite tournament, he bested a field of 839 players to win $2.5 million at the 2003 World Series of Poker—a tale that, right down to his surname, would seem ludicrous as a plotline on Tilt.

(Photo credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Nicole Sullivan
The Underdog
Sullivan was once known as a regular on MADtv and The King of Queens. Then she won the first Celebrity Poker Showdown. Now stars from SNL’s Seth Meyers to NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon can juice their Q ratings by playing their way to the final table.

(Photo credit: Courtesy of WPT Enterprises, Inc.)

Annie Duke
The Pretty Face
The top female pro, Duke, with her good looks and gunslinger’s name, is being groomed as a crossover star. (Lisa Kudrow’s producing a sitcom about her life.) Duke also moonlights as a private coach to certain poker-loving celebrities.

(Photo credit: Joe Cavaretta/ AP)

Ben Affleck
The Idol at the Table
Last year, Affleck became the first big star to win a major tournament, taking the California State Poker Championship. Now he’s earned a seat among the pros at the World Poker Tour championship in April—a cameo that should goose the ratings significantly.

(Photo credit: Bettmann/Corbis)

Benny Binion (deceased)
The Godfather
A mob-tied Texan who owned the Horseshoe casino, Binion started the World Series of Poker in 1970 as a pure publicity stunt, enlisting a handful of sharks for a showdown. The Series is now broadcast on ESPN and last year drew 2,576 players—though many pros skip the winners-take-all tourney in favor of lucrative casino money-games.

From the January 17, 2005 issue of New York Magazine.