Internet poker is the world's fastest growing hobby giving anyone with a computer the chance to win millions in prizes. Card shark STEVE CARROLL tries to get rich quick...

BEADS of sweat trickle down my face as I hunch over my computer screen. Nearly three hours, and the game is reaching its climax. I have staked everything - my entire stack of chips - on the outcome of one hand of cards.

If you have ever played poker before, you will know that every player has a "bad beat" story. This is mine.

I stare at the screen, eyes almost popping out of my head, struggling to maintain my composure.

My first two cards have just been dealt, fluttering across the green "beige" of my computer screen.

Two aces. The best possible starting hand. It means I surely can't fail. That is why, with a click of the mouse, I have just staked everything, "pushing" my chips into the middle of the table.

The game my Internet opponents and I are playing is Texas Hold 'Em - a variation of poker.

It is quickly becoming one of the most popular games on the Internet: simple to learn, but difficult to master.

Each player gets two cards which they keep secret. Three cards are then drawn which everyone can see. This is called the flop.

Two more cards, nicknamed the turn and river, are then also drawn and seen by all players.

Betting takes place after every round of cards. The player who can make the best hand of five cards out of the seven dealt to them - or who has the best nerve - takes the pot.

Once poker was a game played by chain-smoking, visor-wearing social oddities with rolls of cash and an obsession for cards which bordered on addiction.

Now, with just a computer and a mouse, anyone can give it a try and cash in on some of the huge prizes being offered in cyberspace.

Never one to miss out on a gambling opportunity, and armed with a credit card and a laptop, I dived right in.

So here I am. I wipe my brow and wait for my opponents to concede defeat - after all you can't get better than two aces.

One by one these faceless names jettison their cards into the ether, conceding defeat. All except for one - who stakes everything against me.

It is showdown time at VC Poker....

Run by bookmaker Victor Chandler, VC Poker is one of the fastest growing poker sites online. It is here where I begin my poker education and it is a good place to start.

You can play for fun, and learn the ropes before you start putting your hard-earned cash on the line.

You can also play in small money games so a beating doesn't necessarily mean avoiding an angry landlord looking for his rent cheque.

You don't have to get to a casino. There is always a game on hand at the click of a button. Like me, thousands have taken the plunge.

In cyberspace you can win big every day as dozens of poker sites pile up the prize money to tempt us to try our "hand". Until July, Victor Chandler is giving ordinary people the chance to win the biggest game of their lives.

Players can qualify for the Victor Poker Cup and a chance to win £250,000 at a televised poker tournament in London next month.

Before I hear all those sceptics saying the average Joe cannot succeed, he already has. Last year's World Series Of Poker - the world's richest tournament with a first prize of millions - was won by a poker novice, the aptly named accountant Chris Moneymaker.

He had never played a "real-life" tournament before, honing his skills online before beating thousands of professional players to redefine how people now see the game.

Entering a qualifying tournament for the Victor Poker Cup costs just two dollars, which is what I was doing when the big showdown occurred.

Internet play is intensely enjoyable. It is quick, exciting and gives anyone a chance to have a go at making a name for themselves in the big league.

The only thing that bugs me about it is that some clever clogs always thinks he or she can beat your cards.

Almost every hand goes right down to the wire. You can't see your opponents. They are just a name on a screen. They don't twitch. Their hands don't shake when they've got quality cards.

In a real game, no one takes the risk on every hand. With Internet poker someone is always willing to take the risk.

So my two aces are revealed and I am supremely confident. I am already thinking about using my soon-to-arrive chips to bully my next opponent into submission.

My opponent shows his hand. His cards are the two and seven of spades. Not only does he have the cheek to call my bet, he calls it with no cards at all.

The flop (the first three open cards) comes up and I find another ace. I now have three aces, or three-of-a-kind. All he has is a high card ace - of spades. He now is holding three spades.

No worries. I am still invincible.

The turn card and the river cards hit the screen.

My opponent's are both spades. At first, I don't understand what's happening when the mountain of electronic chips in the middle of the "table" is swept towards my opponent. I'm numb, incredulous. Then it hits me. My three aces have been beaten... by a flush in spades.

I have just lost 3,500 chips with the turn of an electronic card. I feel ill. From being in a position to possibly win the tournament, I am suddenly cleaned out.

It is a transformation as sudden and shocking as the two extra-time goals from Zidane that despatched England in their agonising opening game of Euro 2004 the other night in Portugal.

If I think it couldn't possibly get any worse, it does. My opponent sends me a message. It's one word. "Sweet".

Pure agony. So why play I hear you ask?

Well, because it's not always like this. On my first night of Internet poker I crushed a seasoned player with a pair of tens. I have reached the last table of a tournament on six different occasions.

I have doubled the money I invested. Last week, I won $120 for coming fourth in a game which more than 150 players had entered.

For every casualty I have had, I have also experienced the bliss, the energy, the sheer rush of winning. It's just that, for now, I am remembering how much I lost.

Now for the moral of the tale. Online poker is a game of skill. It is also great fun.

But, as with any other form of gambling, while skill can help you play well, and profitably, there is always another, unpredictable element, just waiting to take even the best of players down a peg. Lady Luck.

My fury has subsided now. I am ready to start again. To make another effort to rule the cyber poker league. To hit the big time.

Just don't talk to me about aces.

One good turn...

A quick poker player's glossary

Community cards - the five cards that everybody sees

Pocket cards - the two cards a player keeps secret from everyone else

The flop - the first three community cards

The turn - the fourth card

The river - the fifth card

The pot - the pile of cash bets that a winning player scoops with any one hand

Pocket rockets - a pair of Aces: the best two pocket cards anyone can be dealt

Bad beat - when you have great pocket cards but still lose a packet

All in - when you put all your chips into the pot

Blinds - the bets two players must put in on every hand to get the pot going

Poker sites worth a whirl

Victor Chandler (

Paradise Poker (

William Hill (

Betfair (

Updated: 10:13 Tuesday, June 15, 2004