Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of articles looking at the changing face of Atlantic City's gaming industry.

At 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, 23 of the 34 poker tables at the Borgata -- Atlantic City's hot new hotel and casino -- are packed with customers, with a line forming near table No. 24, which is about to open for business.

The crowd around the poker tables is a boon for the Borgata. Casino critics, who also like to take the occasional jab at Atlantic City's aging clientele, believe poker is the game to revitalize the city's fortunes. Poker is popular, especially among men between the ages of 25 and 54, a demographic that Atlantic City craves.

The bet behind poker isn't that young men will lose their shirts at casinos like the Borgata, but that they'll come -- wallets packed with cash and credit cards -- and stay overnight, eat dinner and throw a few back at the casino bar.

Poker has become so popular that gaming experts hope it will actually attract card enthusiasts who haven't played the game in years, if at all. Poker manuals and books such as Positively Fifth Street are on the best-seller list. There are now three regular poker TV programs: "The World Series of Poker" on ESPN, "Late Night Poker" on Fox Sports Net and the "World Poker Tour" on the Travel Channel, which is the network's highest-rated show.

"Five years ago there were zero programs on television that dealt with poker," says Bob Boughner, CEO of the Borgata, a joint venture between MGM Mirage ( MGG) and Boyd Gaming ( BYD). Poker is really a part of our table games operations, and we see a tremendous interest in poker."

The stars are literally shining on five-card. At the end of 2003, "Celebrity Poker Showdown," a tournament featuring Ben Affleck, Don Cheadle and other celebrities, had a six-episode run on Bravo, with the finale netting 1 million viewers in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic. Hoping to capitalize on its breakout hit, Bravo recently laid plans for a second season with twice the number of episodes and a new host.

In August 2003, Florida changed its laws governing card rooms at racetracks, removing a $10-a-hand pot limit on games, hoping to help boost business. And while the new laws continue to limit the bets that players can make, leaving a maximum pot size in the hundreds of dollars, business is booming.

In the fiscal year 2002-03, the state generated $351,000 in tax revenue from card rooms. Nine months into the new fiscal year, the state has generated $920,689 in revenue, with its total take expected to reach $1.2 million by year's end. Operators are taking an interest, too. There were only 10 card rooms in the entire state in August, but, according to David Roberts, director of the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, there could be as many as 16 by the end of 2004.

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