Jewish World Review Nov. 3, 2004 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

Karen Heller

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No need to bet your life when you can watch other people doing it | Risk is a relative concept, predicated on faith and, despite any evidence, an unyielding belief in luck. At the time my much-married friend Elizabeth was on her third husband, I had yet to acquire a first.

"Don't be squeamish. Why don't you get the starter marriage over with?"

As much as I like a good wedding, I am squeamish. Besides, as I told her and, more important, my only husband, "I don't believe in divorce. I believe in murder."

So, while Elizabeth can work the phrase "as I told my third husband" into any conversation and stop traffic - there is, by the way, a fourth, acquired in the midst of a full-blown Episcopal Mass complete with boys choir - I could do no such thing.

Risk is her calling card. Jobs, careers and locales change more frequently than hairstyles. She has breezed through friends' address books, despite the acquisition of different surnames. Her life is exhausting, even in the telling, but she never bores.

There are people who have identical incomes but, while one has virtually every cent ever earned, the other is neck-deep in debt, not from catastrophe but by choice. I know couples like this, an anxious alliance, in which she has to put a padlock on the finances to keep him from poaching after blowing through his savings in no time flat. It's the rainy day vs. you-can't-take-it-with-you philosophy going mano a mano at the ATM.

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Life is loaded with possibility, though the truth is, most days have a certain torpor of repeating the one before, every Tuesday another Groundhog Day. That's why we go to the movies, and read books, and watch regular people make fools of themselves on television, or attach themselves to friends like Elizabeth, to alter the dull sheen of daily existence as inevitable in Emma Bovary's world as our own.

Though we crave a safe haven more than ever, we're drawn to amusements that place other people a toehold away from ruin, physical, emotional or financial.

Poker, rife with risk, has a high appeal these days. It's Vegas in the post-Siegfried & Roy moment, shed of that brief delusion that it was Disney World with slots.

Normally, gambling seems to me the equivalent of flushing money down the toilet, and watching people waste their savings makes me queasy. Mention that squalid pocket of Atlantic City, and my inclination is to curl up in the fetal position.

Yet, I'm hooked on Bravo's ``Celebrity Poker Showdown.'' Forthcoming players include Tony Hawk, Macaulay Culkin, a-free-throw-short-of-sane Dennis Rodman, and vampire-eyebrowed rocker Dave Navarro - the latter two have both married Carmen Electra. You can't beat that for a dinner party.

I watch even though the chips aren't the stars' own and the winnings go to charity, a noble cause but counter to the game's core appeal. Even with false stakes, the competitors pout and act more petulant in the Losers Lounge than their handlers might like. You get a glimpse of where they came from, what got them here, and possibly where they're going - perhaps straight to infomercial. We see tiny moments of unbridled id they forget to Photoshop for the camera.

``The World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions,'' shown on ESPN of all places, is more hard-core, with homegrown stars Doyle Brunson, Greg "the Fossilman" Raymer, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, and the incomparable Jonny Chan, seedy characters who look ripe for a real Losers Lounge, except these guys can play.

"It's sports for the rest of us," my husband said the other night.

"What do you mean, `us'?" I said. "These guys look like rejects from Waylon Jennings' road crew."

You've never seen such uncomely champions, the antithesis of Hawk. Watching poker makes me feel that I've entered a gritty thriller, even if it's trussed up on cable. I sit at home safe under the covers as others flirt with disaster. It's a vicarious thrill, all right, though far less dangerous than acquiring yet another spouse.

Karen Heller is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.


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