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Josh Arieh is in the Bahamas on the first tee, standing in the monstrous shadow of the Atlantis resort, pondering an intimidating shot with a bunker down the left side and a cluster of palm trees lining the right. But first things first: “What are we playing for?”

“Two hundred dollars a hole,” replies his good friend and fellow poker pro Erick Lindgren.

“That’s a bet.”

A wager is a given (these guys would gamble on Scattergories), but the stakes are slightly out of scale. After all, they’re playing miniature golf. As is their gambling custom, the pot grows exponentially, with the stakes doubling as soon as one guy falls behind. (Earlier they shot pool with poker pro and best bud Daniel Negreanu. The bet on the first game was $100. The last? $6,400.) But even when thousands of dollars are on the line, these poker pros compete with all the intensity of a couple of duffers on their day off. On one hole Lindgren falls behind after trying to putt through a sand trap…but Arieh finds a way to lose, four-putting from three feet away.

“Oh, you just hate to see that,” Lindgren jabs as Arieh’s ball slides by the hole again.The last hole, a par 3 measuring all of 108 feet, is ultimately worth $1,200, about double what the average American makes each week. Why risk serious cash on such frivolity? “It’s all about the action,” says Lindgren, a blond, square-jawed Californian.

“Not me. I’m a hustler,” counters the boisterous Arieh, an Atlanta native. “I need an edge.”

To prove his point he calmly taps in a two-footer, giving him the match. Lindgren peels off some cash and hands it to Arieh as they make plans for the night. “Let’s grab some cocktails, maybe shoot some dice later,” Lindgren says.

It’s just another day on the traveling tournament poker carnival, where time away from the tables is spent partying, gambling, and touring the globe—not bad work, if you can get it. And Negreanu, Lindgren, and Arieh are the heart of a Rat Pack of young, charismatic stars who are emerging as new gods for a poker-crazed generation. (The other members of the close-knit crew, like dashing Spaniard Carlos Mortensen, petite blonde Jennifer Harman, and soft-spoken Indonesian John Juanda, are ripped from a Hollywood casting agent’s wet dream.)

Yet when you watch them together, they’re strikingly normal, a far cry from the novelty act poker stars of years past, like cartoonish cowboy Amarillo Slim and New York prodigy turned coke-fueled maniac Stu Ungar. Negreanu, Lindgren, and Arieh would fit right in at your Thursday night home game, talking smack and tossing back beers.

“These are not larger-than-life poker characters. They’re like guys I went to high school and college with—they just happen to be talented at poker,” says Brian Balsbaugh, president of Poker Royalty, a management firm that exclusively reps all three. But that dude-next-door quality, while genuine, masks a deep reservoir of poker smarts.

“These young guns are fearless warriors, constantly out there rambling and gambling and accumulating chips,” says Mike Sexton, TV host for the World Poker Tour. “In my opinion, they would be millionaires in any profession—they are that much smarter than everyone else.”

Sexton adds that there’s another important distinction between Lindgren, Negreanu, and Arieh and the pimply faced newbies flooding card rooms around the country: None of them is older than 30, yet they’ve paid their dues.

Only 28, Lindgren was named the World Poker Tour Player of the Year in 2004 after winning two events and taking home more than $1.55 million. But the former JUCO basketball player was nearly broke in 1998, paid to keep the tables full at a Northern California casino—but risking his own money in the games. When he had winnings, he blew them on ill-advised sports bets.

Then Lindgren discovered online poker. He was hooked after turning an initial $300 deposit into thousands and converted his tiny one-bedroom apartment into a war room. He played seven games simultaneously on three computer monitors and began a two-year-long streak in which he routinely put in 60 hours a week and never cleared less than $10,000 in a month. Lindgren became so consumed he even played in the car during road trips—while driving.

“Now I just rent a limo,” he says. “I can make more playing poker than it costs to rent it.”

Poker, of course, is a people game, where you play your opponent as much as the cards. But it’s a misconception, Lindgren says, to assume the online variation eliminates the human element. Instead of searching for facial tics, Lindgren looks for digital tells that are equally damning: How quickly did they bet? Did they bet the same amount in a similar situation 30 minutes ago? “Sometimes it seems like I can tell how hard a guy clicked on his mouse,” he says.

Those observation skills translated to immediate success on the live tournament circuit, where he became fast friends with Negreanu. (The two now live five minutes apart in Las Vegas.) Negreanu calls Lindgren’s 4,000-square-foot mansion “the ultimate bachelor pad” because of its six plasma-screen TVs and a poker table outfitted with hole-card cameras so Lindgren can play with friends while others watch via closed-circuit in the next room.

“Girls talk to me now that would’ve never talked to me before,” Lindgren, who is single, admits. “It’s like they can smell the money.”

Lindgren’s million-dollar bankroll, though, pales in comparison to the mountain of cash Negreanu is compiling: The 30-year-old high school dropout dominates the poker circuit the way no one else has. In the past 12 months, he’s won more than $4 million in tournaments. His most impressive triumph came in December, when he needed to finish in the top nine in the season’s final event to win the coveted Card Player magazine Player of the Year award. Undaunted, Negreanu beat 375 players to take home first place and $1.8 million.

“What we’re seeing from Daniel is something that will never be repeated in poker,” Sexton says. “To beat these 400- and 500-player fields on a regular basis, it’s just remarkable. He’s a cut above everybody else.”

If you met him on the street, Negreanu may be the last person you’d expect to be a poker superstar. At five-foot-nine and less than 150 pounds, he is far from an intimidating physical presence. His favorite hobbies are video games and stand-up comedy, and he’s a vegetarian who hits casinos with dishes specially prepared by his mother.

Unconventionality is a Negreanu hallmark, especially at the poker table. He’ll play any two cards, and he remains jocular even when a tournament is on the line, a ruse that masks his old-school ability to divine what opponents are holding. This unorthodox style, combined with a telegenic image, makes him one of the most popular players in the game.

“The adoration is a bit silly,” he says. “You see all these guys, and they think they are superstars. I’m like, ‘You know what? You’re just a poker player. You’re not Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise.’ I just play poker well; that’s all I do. But I do feel a genuine responsibility to reach out to these young kids and try to guide them. This is a hard life, and they don’t know that.”

Negreanu knows from experience. After moving to Vegas in 1998 from his native Toronto, he struggled to balance playing poker for fun and playing it for work. And once in a while, to escape the tedium of grinding out a living at the tables, he’d go on a bender. But such therapy was expensive, especially on the night of his 26th birthday, when he blew $70,000 gambling and didn’t even remember it the next morning.

“I realized this was stupid,” he says. “I had a bunch of money, and I didn’t know what to do with it.” As a result, Negreanu took control of his drinking. His awe-inspiring results of late are a result of this newfound maturity.

Capitalizing on his popularity, he’s quickly becoming a one-man poker conglomerate, with a book, an instructional DVD, and a video game called Stacked in the works. With a few million in the bank and his burgeoning business ventures, Negreanu says he could clear as much as a half-million a year without playing a single hand of poker. Instead he became a regular in the “big game” at the Bellagio, where stalwarts like two-time world champ Doyle Brunson and the legendary Chip Reese risk hundreds of thousands of dollars each night. (The buy-in alone runs into the mid-six figures.) Like all great poker players, he craves the action.

“If you told me I could play $80 to $160 (and make six figures a year) the rest of my life, I would shoot myself in the head. I need to challenge myself,” he says. In the big game, “I could go broke,” he concedes. “But I’m not worried.”

As neighbors Negreanu and Lindgren see each other regularly; they hang out less often with Arieh, who lives near his family in Atlanta (where Lindgren joined him for a raucous New Year’s Eve). But when the gang convenes, usually at one of the $10,000 buy-in tournaments that are held a couple of times each month, the good times and shop talk mix into a potent—and winning—cocktail. By sharing information about other players and identifying mistakes in their games, they make each other better.

“We don’t sit around and talk about bad beats,” Arieh says. “We’re trying to figure out why we lost good hands. There are things we can’t prevent—namely, plain old bad luck—so if there’s no way to prevent it, then there’s no reason to talk about it. But if there’s something we could’ve done differently, done better, we figure it out.”

This time last year Arieh was a relative unknown. By hustling pool, dominating poker games around Atlanta, and playing online, he made a comfortable living, but not so comfortable that he could pony up the $10,000 to enter the 2004 World Series of Poker.

Lindgren offered to stake him and even let Arieh shack up at his house. The investment paid off. Arieh blazed his way to the final table with a barrage of aggressive play and fearless shit-talking. He ultimately busted out third, winning $2.5 million at the most lucrative event in the history of poker. (And Lindgren got half—$1.25 million—for staking him.)

For three months Arieh was on top of the world: He bought a new house and a BMW for his wife, enjoying his newfound celebrity. But then the ESPN coverage hit the air. The commentators savaged Arieh’s swagger as unsportsmanlike, a position that was bolstered by his comments after he was knocked out of the tournament by portly 39-year-old patent attorney Greg Raymer. Arieh reluctantly shook Raymer’s hand, then hugged the other remaining player, David Williams, and whispered in his ear, “Bust this motherfucker.”

ESPN microphones picked up the comment, and suddenly the gregarious Arieh became the poker player everyone loved to hate. “Now everybody thinks I’m a dick,” he says.

For Arieh it’s a fine line to walk. As he rightly points out, poker is not a gentleman’s game like golf—it’s a predatory competition where any psychological edge can be critical. “I can’t change who I am, but I’ve just got to shift it so people don’t know me as a cocky asshole but a colorful, confident guy,” he says.

Negreanu and Lindgren publicly spoke up for their buddy, and then Arieh silenced the critics who claimed he was simply a one-hit wonder: In September he took third in the WPT Borgata Poker Open in Atlantic City, winning nearly $300,000. He would have preferred first, of course, but Negreanu took the title.

Given the enormity of the tournament fields these days, it’s remarkable that these friends would end up squaring off at a final table. But that wasn’t even the first time. In March 2004, Negreanu and Lindgren were the last two standing out of 546 entrants on another WPT event, with $1 million for the winner. At the end of that night, Lindgren won—and had to pick up the $20,000-plus bar tab.

The Bahamas tournament, when all three busted out early, was one of the few times of late when one of the three was not in the running for a six-figure payout, but they know there will be countless friendly—yet competitive—showdowns in the years to come. “Every one of us deeply respects the game, so when we play each other it’s all out. It’s like a chess match, because we know so much about each other,” Negreanu says. “But I genuinely root for Erick and Josh. The bond of friendship is more important than the money, because we’re all going to make enough money anyway.”