"I'm standing in the middle of the desert

Waiting for my ship to come in."

-- Sheryl Crow, "Leaving Las Vegas"

It's often been said that they turned the country on its side and everything loose fell into California. To look around the Rio Hotel and Casino, it would appear that everything -- and everyone -- fell into a poker room. Folks once came West to stake their claim in covered wagons; now they come in Range Rovers.

For the past month, poker pros, local heroes, gambling wannabes and dead-money drifters have gathered here for the World Series of Poker. Next week, "the Main Event" -- in which anyone can buy in for $10,000 -- will attract a field of up to 6,600 players and a $60 million-plus prize pool, with first place paying an expected $10 million.

It's the last great American gold rush.

Poker has its downside -- don't get me started on the online poker monster that is creating a nation of bedroom addicts with the social skills of a fire hydrant -- but as someone who has played the game since college, gone into card rooms twice a week for years and never understood why those who did it for a living were scorned, I can't tell you how satisfying it is to see honest, skillful people risking their own money get their due.

What's fueling this poker boom? What else? The twin evils of modern culture -- TV and the Internet.

(Two-and-a-half years ago, an ESPN producer asked me if I had ever considered doing poker commentary on TV. I told him that every boy's dream, from the time he is 5, is to do poker commentary on TV. What was he, nuts? Who would ever consider TV poker commentary? It didn't exist. So now I've taken my stellar University of Maryland education and become John Madden on green felt.)

Like any other recreational vice, poker is best when not consumed in excess, and, indeed, we've reached critical mass in a hurry.

Still, how can you not want to be around fascinating people like Doyle Brunson and T.J. Cloutier and Barry Greenstein and Jennifer Harman and Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey and "Miami" John Cernuto? But beyond the superstars of the game, poker draws you in because of the every-day stories. Chris Moneymaker, an accountant from Tennessee, famously turned a $40 entry fee into $2.5 million at the 2003 World Series of Poker, and Greg Raymer went from patent attorney to $5 million in 2004.

The other day I came across Shane Schleger, 28, an engaging, fledgling semi-pro player from Brooklyn, N.Y., who finished fifth in a recent $1,500 buy-in, no-limit Texas hold 'em World Series tournament and won $132,110.

After high school, he roamed the country. "I saw 'Easy Rider' and thought it was the greatest movie ever," he said. Just before he turned 21, he went to Amsterdam "and lost my mind." He was arrested for trespassing in what he terms a "drug-induced psychotic episode" and spent six months in and out of asylums.

Back home, he worked various dead-end jobs -- waiting tables, bike messenger, writing -- and was "kind of lost for several years." But after finding poker online a year ago: "A light bulb went off. . . . Guys like me just want to make money, travel and eat well. Poker gives you that chance."

Schleger enjoys "elements of life on the fringe" and, he said: "Poker is a fringe microcosm that's legitimized now. It's a legal drug."

So he's standing here in a 40,000-square-foot poker biosphere in the middle of the desert, with a chance at millions starting July 7. He knows in order to win, he'll have to play aggressively -- a trait he picked up in one of his first jobs. "Bike messengers are at war with New York City cabbies all the time. Cabbies and bike messengers hate each other. One time, this cabbie tried to kill me, so I just pulled the side-view mirror off of his taxi."

I like this guy's chances at a poker table.

Ask The Slouch

Q. I've given up on professional football, basketball and baseball. Tried Formula One racing at Indy, but 14 of 20 drivers pulled out after the first lap. I'm running out of sports. Any ideas? (Glenn Blair; Medina, Ohio)

A. Ballroom dancing is just a hop, skip and a jump away from becoming an Olympic staple.

Q. Since you apparently have the ability to see what cards the others are holding and always know what they should do, at least on TV, why don't you get in the game? (Tom Stirling; Vidor, Tex.)

A. Even if I can see what cards the others are holding, I'm a 9-to-5 underdog.

Q. Any chance you'll be conducting a Couch Slouch fantasy camp? With seminars on "Proper Couch Posture," "Rolling Rock Thermodynamics," "Advanced TiVo Technique," "Chips: From Poker to Nacho" and "Women: Know When to Hold 'Em, Know When to Fold 'Em," I think it would be a big hit. (Ryan Dappen; Pittsburgh)

A. Pay the man, Shirley.

You, too, can enter the $1.25 Ask The Slouch Cash Giveaway. E-mail asktheslouch@aol.com and, if your question is used, you win $1.25 in cash!