“Texas Hold ’em” is now as trendy as Britney Spears due to the popularity and proliferation of poker on television.

In yet another sure sign of Americans’ increasing devotion to leisure activities, watching poker on television is becoming as much of a draw as actually playing poker, though the former is spurring the latter.

The “World Poker Tour” on the Travel Channel started the trend, according to a recent news article at Business Week. The show launched in March 2003 and never looked back.

“Viewers can follow the action, get close to the wacky characters populating poker rooms, pick up tips, or enjoy a chuckle from the sardonic commentary on the sidelines,” read the Business Week article.

It has garnered more than 1 million viewers per episode, making it the network’s highest-rated series. Though “World Poker Tour” began its third season March 2, this time around it has more competitors than ever as other networks have anted up.

Bravo has “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” Fox Sports Network shows “Poker Superstars,” the Game Show Network offers “Poker Royale: Battle of the Sexes” and ESPN carries “World Series of Poker.” Other networks, including NBC, are also programming poker shows.

One of the most popular poker sites on the Internet, CardPlayer.com, lists where one can watch poker on television. The list goes on and on.

Web sites for the shows, like “World Poker Tour,” offer poker tips, player profiles, popular tournaments and casinos and discussion boards. Some offer links to the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Poker is becoming more common on college campuses as a result of the poker boom. Tournaments and games have been held at Columbia University, the University of North Carolina and the University of Pennsylvania, according to a recent New York Times article.

That same article featured Princeton student Michael Sandberg, who won $120,000 last year playing cards in Atlantic City and online at PartyPoker.com.

Sandberg himself pointed to TV poker and online gaming sites as reasons for the game’s popularity.

The rise in network coverage of poker games and tournaments has not gone without comment and criticism.

Elizabeth George specializes in pathological and underage gambling for the Duluth, Minn.-based North American Training Institute. TV poker is potentially very damaging, she told the Times.

“Young people particularly are drawn to it,” she said. “There are superstars, then there’s advertising, plus the Internet. So with all of those elements, put that into a bag and shake it up and what you have is a remarkably dangerous situation.”

The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates 2 million Americans may be deemed pathological gamblers each year, with another 4-8 million being “problem gamblers.”

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

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