IT’S 4am in one of Monte Carlo’s less glamorous casinos. A few late-night gamblers mill around, but the room is mostly dead – apart from in one corner, where three poker tables are still full. Among the grizzled professionals, a man in a white T-shirt stands up tiredly. That’s Nelly, superstar rapper and megalodon of the music industry – and this is his third solid night playing poker here. Eyes red with fatigue, he ambles past his vast, dozing bodyguard to the casino’s cash machine and loads up, before returning to his seat in the game. The other players don’t even bother looking up.<br /><br />That, in essence, is poker – or it was. Rich amateurs indulging their hobby donate money to the poker sharks who swim around looking for a good spot to feed. It’s how they did it in Vegas for years and as long as you’ve money to sit in the game, you’re just one more player at the table, no different to the guy next to you. It’s a great leveller.<br /><br />Poker, of course, has changed, and now the biggest games take place online, where some players regularly make or lose over $1m a week, sometimes a day. The live tournaments, meanwhile, are more numerous than ever before, and as big as they’ve ever been. Despite the recession, poker is thriving – later today, the best players in the world will be stumping up $40,000 for the opening competition in Las Vegas’s World Series of Poker, that runs until mid-July. <br /><br />But poker’s not all about Vegas, which is why I found myself in Monte Carlo in April for the richest poker tournament ever staged outside Sin City. The PokerStars European Poker Tour, known as the EPT, is an annual series of mega tournaments staged across the continent’s cities, culminating in Monte Carlo’s Grand Final. Over 900 people would be paying €10,000 each for a shot at the €2.5m first prize – and I was hoping to be one of them.<br /><br /><strong>SATELLITE TOURNAMENT</strong><br />Not that I have that kind of money lying around, you understand. Big poker competitions have satellite tournaments enabling you to win a seat in the Main Event at a cheaper price, and €1,000 for a shot at the big prize seems a fair deal. It’s a piddling amount in this town of luxurious high-rises and mega-yachts. <br /><br />Even with its new-found taste for glitz, poker is still a bit of a fish-out-of-water here, like the raw street kid who finds himself at Eton. The EPT is staged at the agreeably-named Le Sporting, a glamorous concert hall with mirrored walls and retractable roof, converted to house scores of poker tables. At the start of the week, flashbulbs pop as celebrities snake their way up Le Sporting’s red carpet for a quick charity tournament. <br /><br />It’s all at odds with what happens later. After the celebs trot off to the after-party, the tables are taken over by a distinctly less-glamorous crowd for the first of the satellite events. These are the sorts of people I’ll be up against the next morning, and it’s rather intimidating. The tables are packed with moody, edgy blokes from all over Europe and beyond, mostly huddled silently over their chips as they stare down their opponents. The fashion boutiques crowding Monte Carlo’s high streets won’t be troubled by this rabble, for whom jeans, tracksuits and three-day stubble is the look du jour, sometimes accessorised with an enormous pair of sunglasses.<br /><br />In fact, there are three types of player here in Monte Carlo. There are the amateurs who mostly make up these satellites – people who have saved up to be here and are all the grimmer for it, as they venture beyond their local games. Then there are the online specialists – 157 Main Event players have won their seats already through satellites on PokerStars.com, arguably the biggest poker website and sponsor of the EPT. As well as the qualifiers, there are the online pros, mostly spotty youths who spend their waking hours running up enormous bankrolls in poker’s online netherworld, occasionally venturing out into the live arena. These strange, unruly creatures have the inept social skills and pallid skin of people who rarely have human contact.<br /><br /><strong>HIGH-ROLLERS</strong><br />Finally, there’s poker’s A-list: the live pros. These super-skilled high-rollers travel from tournament to tournament picking off the other players while chasing those juicy side games. Seeking a little advice in advance of my own tournament, I chat to Daniel Negreanu, a Canadian who is about as close as poker gets to David Beckham. An ambassador for PokerStars, the sponsor of the European Poker Tour, Negreanu is an affable megastar with over $11m in tournament winnings.<br /><br />“As a poker player your goal is to figure out what someone’s weakness is,” Negreanu tells me. “There’s a lot of amateur players who are just here to enjoy it for as long as possible, and they’re the ones I’m looking to bully and take their money, because they’re scared to lose their chips.”<br />Negreanu adjusts his style of play according to where his opponent comes from: different regions tend to have different styles. Danes, for instance, are notoriously loose and unpredictable, while Negreanu says UK players tend to be overly-aggressive in early rounds of betting. “Brits are real easy to exploit,” he winks.<br /><br />Yikes. Perhaps I should practice my French accent. The other thing Negreanu says you need is stamina, since winning a tournament like the EPT Grand Final takes five 14-16 hour days of solid poker – a truly epic grind. First I’ve got to last the 12 or so hours of the satellite tournament, where I find myself sitting next to one of the online whiz-kids, an American who doesn’t appear to be a day over 14. I’m almost indignant when he explains he’s already paid his entry to the Main Event from his PokerStars account – €10,000 is evidently very small potatoes to him – and he’s just here for practice. I make a mental note to avoid this kid.<br /><br />Well, I last five hours. I hold my own for a bit, but when the cards stop going my way I’m at a loss as to how to play myself out of the hole. Bluff is met with counter-bluff, and my chips dwindle away. I try looking for my opponents’ weaknesses, as Negreanu recommended, but keep on finding my own.<br /><br />I stick around to watch the beginning of the Main Event. The atmosphere for the tournament is tense, with 400 determined players (500 more play the following day) crammed into the grand hall – nervous amateurs, cocky internet kids and jaded pros, facing off in hundreds of international confrontations over the card table. My jealousy at not taking part is at least leavened when I see the internet kid go bust just two hours in.<br /><br />Even before that, it takes all of 30 minutes for Nelly to be knocked out. With that, he stalks off to join the queue for one of the smaller competitions that keep going even as the Main Event rolls on. He’s just one more punter standing in a long line, waiting to get into the action. Now that’s poker.<br />The 40th Annual World Series of Poker, the world’s biggest poker event, starts today in Las Vegas. You can still win a seat at the World Series by playing satellite tournaments at www.PokerStars.com.