The walkway leading to and from the center of the poker universe is full of smiling attendants and looks pretty lavish considering it's the boulevard of broken dreams.

It is where the careless and unlucky disappear to, back to face a real world that, for a while at least, won't involve the cruel cut of an upturned card.

Despite its 42-year history, the World Series of Poker is very much a product of the 21st century, a combination of reality TV and real-man sports that resonates with the couch potato who allows his mind to think of a different life of fame and fortune.

Ever since the delightful tale of how a man named, appropriately, Chris Moneymaker, turned a $40 online stake into not only a place in the main event but its overall title and $2.5 million first prize in 2003, the poker world was embraced by the masses. It made a showing in Hollywood, home games increased exponentially, and a merry band of amateurs ventured to Vegas each summer to try their luck.

The Internet was poker greatest friend, providing a platform for participants across the nation and around the globe to embark upon simultaneous combat, clicking computer-animated buttons for very real sums of money.

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Television took it on, made stars of the most adept, charismatic and outrageous of poker's characters, treated it as a sporting event rather than a kitchen table pastime, and lit the fuse on the boom of booms.

But the 2011 version of the WSOP, and indeed the very future of poker, was dealt a crippling blow that stung harder and deeper than every player's nightmare, a bad beat (unlucky defeat in a hand) on the river (final card).

On April 15, the world caved in on online poker in the United States. It will be forever known in gambling circles as Black Friday, after the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation unsealed an indictment which leveled a swathe of charges of bank fraud, money laundering and illegal gambling offenses against three giant poker sites.

Full Tilt, Poker Stars and Absolute Poker were companies recognized in the mainstream, largely due to heavyweight advertising campaigns. Yet within days they were scythed down, with visitors to each site greeted by a joint FBI and DoJ statement revealing their accounts had been frozen and that play was impossible.

Doomsday was predicted, with two television networks pulling the plug on popular late night shows that reached a strong audience. A few thousand professionals and tens of thousands of amateurs were left without a platform for their hobby or job, and the framework of a game was in danger of crumbling.

The WSOP was going nowhere though, plowing ahead with preparations for its annual extravaganza which includes 58 events spread over 50 days and in 2010 offered more than $185 million in total prize money.

Participation numbers would surely drop, onlookers thought, not back to the pre-Moneymaker days but surely a sizeable dip as poker exited the lives and thoughts of many.

Instead something slightly odd looks to be happening. Rather than declining in numbers, the WSOP is actually doing quite nicely, thank you very much. "My biggest issue regarding Black Friday was that I have needed more tables," says tournament director Jack Effel. Starved of their online fix, extra players are signing up in their droves. Many are first-timers, some have rarely played away from the comfort of their PCs before.

Yet many are professionals, and this year has actually been highlighted by an upturn in the performance of the pros. "The pros are coming into their own in the bracelet events," says Effel. "And these guys are serious about their job.

"Poker in the United States is making steps towards being seen as a serious profession, and it is not the old-time Western image of a guy riding up, pulling out a bunch of cash, shooting the guy who beats him and walking off smoking."

The lines are a little blurred though. Perhaps it is actually the professionals, save for a moneyed few who have had the nerve and fortune to win some of the game's seven-figure marquee events, who are the true descendants of the wild west gamblers. After all they are the ones willing to risk their last penny on a game of chance, and rebuild from scratch if necessary without the safety net of a "proper" job.

At a break in action last Thursday, the previous day's bracelet winners were presented with the famed piece of jewelry that every poker enthusiast aspires to. Jason Mercier, a 24-year-old from Davie, Fla, won $619,575 by placing first in the $5,000 six-handed, pot limit Omaha event, a variation where players receive four hole cards in their hand instead of the customary two in Texas Hold 'Em.

Wearing an unkempt face and a green T-shirt that boasted of a "future billionaire," Mercier was a Zuckerberg-esque figure who did not dress, act or speak like a kid who had just pocketed a monstrous sum of money. Which, of course, goes to prove that this is a game all about the churning computer within, which perform the most extreme computations in a split second.

Mercier shared a stage with fellow winner Mark Schmid, a family man who took the leap to go full-time six years ago, ditching a well-paid job with JP Morgan. The events of Black Friday had him thinking about relocating to England, Brazil, or Australia in search of a haven where online poker is legal. A paycheck of nearly a half million dollars has bought him some time to make the right decision.

The WSOP is a magnet for celebrities too, with Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Tilly, TV funnymen Brad Garrett and Ray Romano, and a smattering of pro athletes such as NBA star Paul Pierce all getting involved, rubbing shoulders with nobodies and poker royalty like Phil Hellmuth.

That is perhaps the best thing about the tournament, the real notion that Joe Six Pack can sit down next to a world champion and take him on in a fair setting. Thus the huge convention center at the Rio Hotel and Suites is a fascinating mix of humanity, from the cool cats to the gangsters and the nerds and the young men with glazed expressions who have just rolled out of bed, hailing from more than 100 nations.

Seeing the WSOP in person is nothing like the neatly packaged, bite-sized segments that have proven so popular on television, with events starting at lunchtime and regularly going into the next morning, meaning hours of tedium for even the most die-hard player.

Many play word games on their smart phones in between hands, with Frenchman David Benyamine even watching a movie on his iPad. Others make use of the masseuses on hand, working their way from table to table and picking up a few bucks for pounding crouched back muscles.

The heavily edited television shows always convey bright expressions and vibrant energy, and that was certainly on display during a dramatic $10,000 H.O.R.S.E. (five different games) final table, where Shawn Buchanan and Fabrice Soulier battled late into the night.

But on the outer tables in other events ex-world champs Joe Cada and Joe Hachem could be found, quietly chipping away. Hachem, a popular Australian known for his cheery personality and trademark celebratory cry of "pass the sugar," was looking exhausted and virtually comatose as his stack drizzled away to others.

For the hundreds of fans (thousands at the business end of the tournament) in attendance it is a feast to wander around the Amazon Room, where poker faces mingle with little fanfare. One of them, English professional David "Devilfish" Ulliott, was happy to chat with passing punters, and admitted the federal clampdown on poker may have hurt his earning power.

Even though Ulliott is based in Europe, where online gambling is fully legal, he is now without a sponsor to cover his traveling and entry fee expenses. Most leading players were backed by FullTilt, Poker Stars or Absolute, and now the sponsorship pot is thin.

"I just carry on through the boredom," says Ulliott. "Poker looks glamorous but think about it. I have sat indoors next to a bunch of men playing cards for 14 straight hours the past two days. I went out until 8 a.m. last night just to stop myself going mad."

It is Thursday night as the Vegas delights are waiting enticingly just a few steps away from the WSOP. But inside there is still as much activity as ever, as Buchanan and Soulier crushed a tough final table under the bright lights of the main stage, before play was suspended due to the lateness of the hour.

This is what Vegas means for these men, a game and a test of mind and wills. It became America's game a few years back, not necessarily a national treasure but something that has a firm place in society.

The poker community grew from virtually nothing, a world removed from those smoky old days of even a couple of decades ago when shady characters and underhanded dealings were the norm.

Poker has not made all these men rich and there are surely some it has broken. But it is a fair chance, a personal battle of skill and intuition, and while there is an element of luck, it is something that can be improved at with desire and dedication.

By turning up in numbers, poker's children gave back to it this year, when the game most needed it. A long and ongoing battle to implement legalized online poker is underway in several states, but it is a grind with no guarantee of success, much like these tournaments themselves.

The only constant sound here is that of the poker chip riffle, a clacking symphony that signifies passed minutes in a seat, against a bunch of players with no ammunition but their brain and experience.

Time spent here is just fine, even though only periodic breaks lift the players, cramping and with numbed muscles, from their seats. But it is okay, the discomfort doesn't matter, it is a small price to pay for avoiding the trudge down that desolate walkway of disappointment.

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