This story appears in the Feb. 21, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Avoid embarrassment. That was James Blake's goal when he appeared on Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown back in 2004. At the time, the American tennis pro knew only the basics of the game. He worried that a poor showing might turn him into a YouTube sensation as a poker donkey.
Blake held his own and finished second in a five-person tournament. Within weeks, he was hooked. He played for hours, read articles and sought advice from pros. "Poker is similar to sports," says Blake, 31. "You never feel like you're done learning, and you always have to make adjustments to your game."
Some would argue that poker is a sport, and for decades the card game has been a staple of clubhouses. But in recent years top tennis players, both retired and current, have made it more than just a time killer.
In 2004, two-time Grand Slam champ Yevgeny Kafelnikov left the ATP Tour to focus on poker. The following year he cashed three times for a total of nearly $22,000 at the World Series of Poker. Both Gael Monfils, currently No. 12 on the Tour, and Boris Becker, a six-time Grand Slam champ, have contracts with pokerstars.net and play online. Blake, who signed with fulltiltpoker.net last year, plays cash tables -- both hold 'em and Omaha -- with stakes as high as $20 blinds.
The crossover makes sense: Both tennis and poker players try to get opponents to lose their focus or temper, all the better for taking advantage of lapses in judgment. "Like tennis, poker is very much a mind game," says Becker, who retired from the Tour in 1999. "You're out there on your own. It's fun to BS your opponents with your tactics."
These days, Becker devotes as much as eight hours a day to playing poker and solicits pointers from top professionals, several of whom have backgrounds in -- wait for it -- tennis. Cash-game legends Gus Hansen, David Benyamine and Patrik Antonius were all accomplished tennis players growing up. Perhaps that's why these poker stars have embraced the idea of sitting at a table with tennis royalty.