Jan Edward Helfeld moves along the bar at the Hawk and Dove, a popular after-work watering hole on Capitol Hill, scanning his quarry. He seems almost desperate, although he is not looking for romance.
Instead, he stops several people to ask: "Are you here for the poker meeting?"
Like others who have turned out, Helfeld is hungry to meet people who host or play in regular games he might join. He exchanges business cards with Jason Kim, who hosts a regular game for friends in Washington. They discuss stakes they like to wager and types of poker they like to play.
Poker is on fire, its popularity fanned by a combination of television, technology and, for some, the allure of big money.
The game Mark Twain once complained was "unpardonably neglected" in the United States is now played by hundreds of thousands of people online 24 hours a day and by celebrities on television. It is one of the most popular subjects of "meet-ups" such as the one Helfeld attended, where people with similar interests find each other on the Internet and then gather to pursue their passion.
Industry estimates are that 50 million to 80 million Americans play the game. Card rooms in states where poker is legal are booming, while online directories list games and tournaments set up in garages and basements around the country. The game is consuming college campuses and has replaced video gaming as the idle-time obsession of many high school boys.
"It's just amazing," said Nancy Robinson of Arlington, whose 16-year-old son, Nick, has been playing nearly every night this summer with 10 to 20 friends who bet about $10. "I've seen a lot less computer games" among her son's circle of friends. "I certainly favor poker; it probably improves the mind more, and it's much more social."
Players at all levels say the game appeals to their competitive instincts, challenges their brains and differs from other sports because it does not rely on athletic prowess or the ability to buy the best equipment.
"Other games dictate to you," said Kevin Wills, who like Helfeld is at the meet-up hunting for a regular game to join. "With poker, you can control the game, by either bluffing, being overly aggressive or passive."
Some big Hollywood names are smitten, too, and not all are playing for charity on the Bravo cable channel's Celebrity Poker Showdown. Ben Affleck won $360,000 in a recent tournament in Sacramento. Mimi Rogers plays often, as do Lou Diamond Phillips and James Woods. Even non-players are finding the televised events compelling, with players placing bets that can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.