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POKER'S STYLISH DRAW

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the world of Texas Hold 'Em, hardcore players have long perfected the art of wearing a poker face.

These days, however, players are cloaking themselves in trendier symbols of their poker prowess - poker apparel.

So instead of "Nice hand, sir," you might be more likely to hear one player say, "Nice shirt, sir!"

Whether it's T-shirts or hats, jackets or silk polos, poker apparel is the biggest thing going lately. From celebrity professionals to innumerable novice online players, just about anyone who has jumped headfirst into the recent poker craze seems to want to show the world, through fashion, their love for the game.

Today, poker is the new pink.

"These types of clothes identify the wearer as a poker player," says Phil Gordon, the charismatic host of Bravo's megahit Celebrity Poker Showdown. "And nothing in the U.S. is more hot than poker right now. When you see someone walking down the street wearing a [poker] hat, instantly that guy gains a bit of cool because people know that he plays poker."

Gordon - who appeared in last month's issue of GQ magazine decked out in Versace - just signed an endorsement deal with start-up apparel company HighRoller Fashions to wear its high-end poker shirts, shorts and pants when he's on tour or making public appearances.

"We're a fusion between gambling and fashion," says Brian Smith, CEO of New York-based HighRoller, which shipped out its first poker and gambling-related clothing to specialty stores a few weeks ago. "We're the Tommy Bahama of the gambling lifestyle."

HighRoller Fashions, which did $50,000 in business its first two weeks in operation, is just the latest company to go all in on the poker craze.

"It really has exploded," says Ron Burke, president of Empire Poker.com, one of the many online poker rooms that has popped up recently. "And we're riding this trend very aggressively. The reason that it's happening is because of the media hype surrounding poker and online poker over the last 18 months."

Empire Poker started about three years ago and racked up a killing providing a venue for at-home players to play for real money against poker players around the world, Burke says. About a year ago, his company expanded to selling poker-related apparel, Burke says, and the feedback was tremendous.

"Everything that has to do with poker has exploded over the last two years," Burke says. "It's not a niche anymore; it's a business."

And it's one that everyone wants in on, from the small-time fish to the high-stakes sharks.

"In the last six months, you've seen more people coming into the [apparel] market," says Steve Roelle, creative director of High Hand designs, a start-up poker apparel and merchandise company, "Everyone from college kids on campus ... to larger companies feeding off the poker theme."

Since ESPN started airing the hugely popular World Series of Poker - which begins preliminary events in Las Vegas this month - and the Bravo channel made a huge hit out of its celebrity poker show, everyone with a television or a computer, it seems, wants to cash in on the craze.

According to Calvin Ayre, founder and CEO of Bodog.com, one of the largest Internet gaming sites in the world, online poker - which is only about six years old - has grown into a $60 billion industry, and revenues exceed $3 billion.

"It's been massive growth. We're talking about 400-percent a year," Ayre says.

Ayre's online company recently started selling logo-bearing shirts, hats, bags - even iPods. Even though his online site was doing exceedingly well by itself, it just made sense to break into the fashion side of gaming, Ayre says.

"Poker-branded clothes are what's going on right now. People want to have stuff associated with poker," Ayre says.

Some smart business folks are even selling poker apparel part-time, in addition to their non- gambling-related full-time jobs.

Steve Lyew, co-owner of San Diego-based On Tilt Casino Gear, often wished while he was playing poker that he had a T-shirt that said "Bad Beat" - pokerese for a hand likely to win that gets defeated by an even better hand - or "Rivered" - making reference to the last card dealt in a hand.

So he and two buddies set up a business last year designing and selling tees with recognizable poker sayings, such as "Big Slick," (an ace paired with a king) and "The Ladies Love Me" (referring to a hand of all four queens).

"We're just a couple of guys who have regular jobs, but this is a fun business to be in," Lyew says. "And we know the people who buy our shirts have money. They're gamblers."

Most of the apparel out there is T-shirts and other casual wear. Some are simple, with appliques of playing cards or poker chips. Others have elaborate graphics, popular poker terminology or clever double entendres.

"We've got one for women that says 'Diamonds are a girls' best friend,' which is an age-old saying," says Roelle, of High Hand Designs. "But we've put it with a royal flush in diamonds."

And it's not just silk-screened T-shirts selling off the shelves.

HighRoller Fashions, for example, is specializing in selling high-end clothing - herringbone silks, fine linens, cotton blends and woven jacquard shirts from $110-$130.

"When you think of high rollers, you don't think of a guy who's going to buy a $19.95 T-shirt," said Smith, the company's CEO. "This is action. This is adrenaline. This is glitz and glamour. Limousines, private jets and five-star restaurants. With us, we want to give people an identity, an idea that they can have this lifestyle. It's not obnoxious; it's classy. It's elegant and very sophisticated."

Some fashion experts, however, beg to differ.

Kelly Rae, fashion and grooming director of Stuff magazine, says poker apparel might be popular, but it's certainly not fashion.

"I sort of see poker fashion as being a little bit goofy," she says. "I would rather see, like at celebrity poker tournaments, the players giving us their own look, as opposed to, 'I'm poker man,'" Rae says.

Gordon, of Celebrity Poker Showdown, says it may be true that it's a stretch to call poker apparel the latest in high fashion. But he predicts the trend will only get hotter, as long as poker remains uber-popular.

"It is hard to call T-shirts 'fashion,' but at the same time, it gets people's attention," Gordon says. "And people don't associate poker or poker clothes with granddad sitting around in his basement with his buddies anymore. Granddad wasn't playing for $5 million either, in front of a national television audience."

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