Here is my fear about the poker nation we are creating, part one: One day, while tens of millions of us are holed up in our bedrooms or dens -- shades lowered, computers whirring -- playing four screens of Texas hold 'em simultaneously, Soviet troops will roll into New York and bring America to the brink of collapse.*

(* I know some of you are saying, "What do you mean, Soviet troops? There's no Soviet Union anymore." Poker players don't know this -- they're too busy trying to make a flush on the river.)

Here is my fear about the poker nation we are creating, part two: With college students spending dozens of dormitory hours weekly at Internet sites and young professionals wiling away their down time losing the mortgage money online one house drop at a time, a decade from now Gamblers Anonymous will have more outlets than Starbucks.

For the past few days here at the Rio Hotel and Casino, 5,619 players have gathered to chase the $7.5 million first prize in the World Series of Poker Main Event. It is a stunning spectacle, a testament to the rising popularity of poker.

But there's a dark side. Poker's growth is fueled mainly by television and the Internet -- TV always worries me; the Internet worries me more.

I love playing the game and, now, as analyst on ESPN, I love talking about it. And I'm certain that much of the newfound interest emanates from people playing on the Internet.

Still, I'm struck by a notion -- online poker is great for the game and lousy for the greater good of America.

(Alas, I must address a question: Am I a hypocrite? Admittedly, if I did not live near a card room or I was incapacitated for any length of time, I likely would play poker online. Plus, I am a lifelong pro-gambling advocate who now promotes poker on TV. So, on this hypocrite thing, I am somewhat guilty as charged.)

Online poker has a pretty simple dynamic:

You withdraw into your home.

You play whenever you want.

You interact only with your mouse, your mouse pad and your keyboard.

You eventually emerge from your isolation -- sometimes richer, sometimes poorer -- with the interpersonal skills of a lampshade.

"Online gaming is very dangerous," says poker pro Bill Gazes. "It has destroyed a lot of people."

Yet time and again, we're told how people are quitting their jobs and earning a living through online poker. Huh. You always hear about the winners. You never hear about the losers.

Trust me: People are losing.

(By the way -- and my Internet associates tell me I'm an idiot every time I say this -- I don't trust online poker, either. I believe it is easier to cheat online, and beyond that, I don't care what the programmers say about the software being impenetrable, if there's that much money at stake, somebody sometime somewhere somehow is going to try and be smart enough to crack the system. Eventually, we will have an online poker scandal that will make the 2002 Breeders' Cup pick six betting scam look like a Soapbox Derby fix.)

Anyway, at least with a card room, you get up and get out, you deal with other folks, you develop relationships; I fully expect to meet a future ex-wife of mine at a card table. On those rare occasions when online guys walk into a card room, they're like cows wandering into an ice cream shop.

Now, you should be able to do what you want from the comfort of your home, whether it's completing crossword puzzles in the nude, eating fajitas for breakfast or playing poker on your computer. But many online habitues forget my Aunt Rosalinda's rule of thumb: Everything in moderation.

So I'm pleading with the online crowd to temper its habit. It's not healthy to sit on your butt hours on end, staring at a screen. If nothing else, you should get up and maybe watch some television.

Ask The Slouch

Q. After watching it on NBC, I've just got to ask: What does the future hold for professional bull riding? (Josh Peter; New Orleans)

A. If you had the people riding those bulls also playing poker, I think you'd be onto something.

Q. What are the perks that come with being a poker commentator? (Radu Marinescu; Alexandria)

A. I haven't paid for a deck of cards in three years, not to mention the women.

Q. How do you stay awake during tapings of the World Series of Poker? (Bob Krul; Brookeville)

A. I have one of those palm-sized video poker games that I play until somebody goes "all in."

Q. I'm excited about the upcoming telecasts of the World Series of Poker, but I work Tuesday nights. Do you think ESPN will ever rebroadcast the episodes? (Peter J. Rudy; Bakersfield, Calif.)

A. Pay the man, Shirley.

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