In the early 2000s, television coverage of poker tournaments took them from the back alleys to the front door. The numbers multiplied - both in players and prizes - and the World Poker Tour was born.
Wheeling's Mike McNeil, a 2003 Wheeling Central graduate, was captivated by what he saw, calling it the perfect storm for someone like him.
As a freshman at West Virginia University, he began to play games, mostly $5 buy-ins where he earned some spending money - ''enough to keep me from having to get a job,'' he said.
Wheeling’s Mike McNeil shows off his recent winnings at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
''Everyone was playing. You couldn't go to a party at WVU without a game being played in the living room. It became a way of life for my friends and myself, and for many others.''
From there, he dabbled in online poker, at first losing small amounts during his sophomore year.
''(Then) I decided I could make some decent money if I fully committed myself to the online game,'' he said, preparing to abandon his news-ed journalism major and jump ''all-in.''
''I said I'd give myself one legitimate shot.''
He made a couple thousand that summer and went back to school for his junior year with ''enough money to live.''
That semester, as a 20-year-old, he made nearly $300,000.
''I haven't looked back since,'' he said, claiming a hefty sum during those unknown-to-the-public games.
Things changed drastically April 15, 2011 when the government banned online poker in the United States.
It meant if he was going to continue playing, he was going to have to travel and play live tournaments.
That changed his lifestyle - ''traveling full time is not as glamorous as it seems,'' he said- but not his mission. He has succeeded in those games too, winning the 2006 WPT Championship at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas for $73,000 and a recent live victory in Charles Town that paid $62,857.
''I enjoy moving around, meeting a lot of new, interesting people and getting to see a bunch of places,'' he said, ''but it can hurt relationships, making them hard to sustain. With online poker, I could settle in one place longer.''
He thinks the right steps are being made to bring back the game online, but until then, he'll continue to play with the professionals.
The goal for McNeil, who has a place in Morgantown but generally lives a nomadic life with other players, or with friends who rent places with him, is to earn enough money to get out and do something else.
''I see poker as a means to an end, although I do see myself always playing at least recreationally,'' McNeil said. ''I've had some close calls at $1 million scores, and feel that it's coming as long as I continue to play - it's a numbers game. In a way, I feel like the game owes me something. I've paid my dues and seen a lot of lesser skilled players hit huge scores, I know my time is coming.''
That happened for one of his friends, Brian Hastings, a 24-year-old Cornell graduate who holds the record for winning the most amount of money in one day in the history of online poker, more than $4 million.
Hastings owns a condo in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and often invites McNeil to stay when there's an event in the area.
''He is a good guy to know; we talk a lot of strategy and always try to improve,'' McNeil said.
Poker, he says, is not gambling. Though luck can be a factor, knowledge will win in the long run.
''It's the only game in the casino where the house doesn't have an edge like in blackjack, craps or roulette,'' McNeil said. ''The most skilled players are the house; they will make the money long term.''
But, he said, luck plays a role, comparing it to the NFL where a quarterback like Dan Marino is generally considered among the best of all-time, but he doesn't have a championship ring to show for it because of circumstances he couldn't control.
''At least in poker, you don't rely on teammates, but there's still a ton of luck in a single tournament,'' he said. ''The best poker players are going to win in the long run. The math dictates this, but in a single tournament anything can happen. The guy who gets his money in with 30 percent equity is going to hit that hand more often than it seems like he should. This is what keeps the amateur player coming back, putting his money up, but it's what also makes playing professionally a very challenging endeavor.''
It was then he went all MIT and talked about the reduced random variance of the online game.
''With that said, you have to understand the math and deal with the crippling bad beats. You can go into prolonged slumps, going months at a time without showing a profit. You have to trust the process,'' he said. ''I've seen a few guys - good friends - have huge scores, six and seven figures, and lose it all back within a year or two because they couldn't handle the beats. They would go on tilt (poker term for frustration), and had no self-control.''
McNeil says he's a bit of a historian and has read about the history of gambling in Wheeling, from the stories of Big Bill Lias and the creation of the Wheeling Downs.
''I'd like to win a couple bracelets at the World Series of Poker or a World Poker Tournament and give Wheeling a little bit of recognition in that regard,'' he said.