It may be just a game of cards, but poker is earning players more money than top sportsmen and women, as Sarah Probert reports...
Forget smoked-filled rooms full of middle-aged men. Poker is attracting a new breed of contestants.
The internet and a growing number of twenty-somethings have pushed the popularity of the game to new heights, doubling the number of players in the last year and stakes of more than #19 million a day being waged online in the UK.
This new batch of players are choosing to take part in the comfort of their own home and playing online rather than in the confines of the casino.
Birmingham has been ranked the fifth in a top-ten league of UK poker cities and the Midlands boasts some of the best contestants in the world.
For example, Lucy Rokach, aged 56, from Stoke-on-Trent, is the best performing female player in the world, earning # 50,000 in her biggest tournament.
Lucy, who has been playing for 18 years, said her best advice was ?play only as long as you enjoy it?.
Paul Jackson, aged 39, from Birmingham, has won $25,000 in his biggest tournament and is rated the most respected player on the internet site Ladbrokespoker.com.
Another fan of the game is Dr Priyanand Hallan (pictured), a GP from West Bromwich.
The 31-year-old, who is also the club doctor for West Bromwich Albion Football Club, scooped #10,000 in his biggest win and took on the greats in a world championship in Las Vegas last year.
He reached the final 107 players at the event, but was eliminated after the third day.
Tony Ure, head of poker management at Ladbroke?s, said 839 players from across the globe had started the competition and Dr Hallan had done brilliantly to get as far as he did.
Dr Hallan, a GP at Cronehills Health Centre in the town, qualified for the tournament by winning one of two semi-finals organised by Ladbrokes on the internet, otherwise the entry fee for the tournament would have set him back #10,000.
The most successful player on Ladbrokespoker.com last year was Swede Erik Sagstrom, aged just 21, whose winnings topped the $1 million dollar mark.
Albert Tapper, general manager of Ladbrokespoker.com, said: ?The growth of poker in the UK in 2004 was a unique phenomenon.
?By December of last year, UK players were staking a total of more than #19 million online per day. The amount of play has more than doubled since last May.
?2005 will bring a new sporting celebrity ? the poker professional. We are already seeing increasingly familiar faces on TV and this report illustrates that top professional poker players are ranked alongside some of the more established sporting stars in terms of earning power.?