Virtual card roomThe most disingenuous television advertisements of the moment are for online poker Web sites, many of which market themselves during broadcasts of professional poker tournaments, such as the ones I commentate on for FoxSports.

The last two World Series of Poker champions, Chris Moneymaker and Greg Raymer, play at (and endorse) a site called These fellows were anonymous amateurs before their fame-making triumphs, and their testimonial-style commercials, filmed weirdly in an empty restaurant (Moneymaker) and a dimly lighted Vegas hotel suite (Raymer), stress how playing at PokerStars helped these heretofore unaccomplished enthusiasts become expert practitioners ready to scale the heights of competitive poker. The implication is that if it can happen to them, it can happen to you, too.

The wink-wink, “you know what I’m really saying” aspect of these commercials is that, where Moneymaker won a $40 tournament that earned him entry into theThe donkey got the gun $10,000 main event, isn’t allowed to advertise on television. This site — and all the other online gambling sites — takes great pains to say that it is NOT a gambling site. They skirt the legal prohibitions by advertising an identical site name with a .net suffix. These .net sites do indeed offer poker games that cost nothing to play, games that look and feel exactly like the real-money site. But they’re useless.

The problem is poker can’t be played (or learned) by playing for free. If you can’t lose anything, why not play every hand, call every bet, bluff every opportunity? The skills you need to consistently beat the game can’t be gleaned from what amounts to 52-card bingo.

All anyone learns from playing at a .net poker site is how the .com site’s software works. Handy links to the real thing are plastered all over the “play” site, and I’d estimate that roughly 99.999% of people who visit the .net portal become .com customers. Like the superstar endorsers, the way these newbies will actually learn to play well is by donating money to better, more experienced poker players. But that doesn’t sound as nice as “free and easy.”

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