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One of the things we have learnt since the start of the 21st century is that the mere addition of the suffix .com after a company's name does not necessarily offer a path to instant riches. Rather the opposite.
Over the past couple of years, though, it has been proved that companies with a clever idea for using the worldwide web can indeed make money. And over the past couple of months the conventional wisdom has narrowed this down even further.
We have glimpsed the future, and it consists of two words: internet poker. Forget porn, that's so last year. This is the new paradigm. Or the fool's paradise.
The figures have become staggering. Between £50m and £100m is reputedly being gambled every day on internet poker games. On one site alone, Paradise Poker, there are 800,000 registered players. Another site, Party Poker, is considering flotation on the London Stock Exchange; there are suggestions that it could be valued on a par with British Airways. The industry has grown 15-fold during the past two years, and is still racing upwards at 10 per cent a month.
If present trends continue, I think we can safely say that by 2010 the FTSE 100 will comprise internet poker companies, which will doubtless be a relief to British Airways, which would thus escape the expensive and vexing business of running aircraft in favour of the certainty of a rake-off from the virtual green baize.
The beauty of an internet poker school is that the hosts do not gamble them- selves; they just bring individual punters together, and take a cut. They are not even expected to provide beer and nibbles.
The poker boom began when television first discovered the possibilities for gambling voyeurism that the game offered, especially when celebrities could be brought to the table. This changed the image of poker, which had been seen especially in the US as decadent in a rather dated, suburban kind of way. It was the late-night pastime of pot-bellied businessmen who liked bourbon, cigars and mildly risque jokes.
Now, even dowdy American newspapers are treating poker as a respectable subject. But is a gambling game respectable enough to belong on this page?
The traditional sports covered here are of course wholly uncontaminated by any suggestion of money. But there are no objective criteria for deciding what is and is not a sport. It is just a matter of convention, even local custom.
Last week, the sporting headlines in the New York Times focused on the Westminster Dog Show, which is the American equivalent of the British Cruft's (not, as you might expect their answer to the House of Commons, where the poodles are kept on a much shorter leash). And Cruft's never makes the sports pages.
And why should ice dancing be in the Olympics, while ballroom dancing is not? Does chess count as a sport? On a former newspaper of mine, we sporting types got very huffy when the chess columns were moved off the news pages and into our sacred domain. Yet chess is as near to being 100 per cent skill and 0 per cent luck as any game can be.
That can be rather boring, though. There is a special appeal to those games that in the short run are totally luck-dependent, yet over time have an uncanny knack of sorting out the best from the rest. Backgammon is a splendid example, so is the old pub card game of cribbage.
But nothing can beat poker for masking the skill that lies behind a veneer of fortune. If I'm holding a royal flush and he has seven high, even the Cincinnati Kid is going to struggle to win the hand. But over the course of an evening or a year or a lifetime, the better player, who understands both the maths and the psychology, will clean up more often than not.
And what could be better for wintry evenings in this unsociable century than an internet version? You don't have to put on a poker face, or even your trousers. You don't have to venture into the frost and snow. The game is apparently very popular in Sweden; its legality or otherwise has become a political issue in cold, dour North Dakota; and Nick Leeson, late of Barings and now living quietly in the west of Ireland, spends his nights this way, needing only £1bn or so to break even.
Perhaps it was Nick on the seven-card stud table with me early yesterday, hiding behind one of those noms de guerre such as Imshy2, Little Donzi or The Great JP.
Unlike them, I could afford to be bold because the FT sports editor had agreed to support my researches into this vital subject with a £50,000 float. That was what you said, wasn't it? Wasn't it? Oh dear. I KNEW I shouldn't have raised when I had that inside straight to fill …
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