He's a doctor who has written a book on prostate cancer, he's built a wellness retreat at Abel Tasman National Park and his hobbies include nutrition.

Not quite what you'd expect from a man who spends a good portion of his time huddled in darkened rooms with people who wear sunglasses at night.

But there are many sides to Lee "Final Table" Nelson, the American immigrant rated New Zealand's best exponent at No Limit Texas Hold'em - the "sport" that has swept the globe over the last decade.

A TV pundit who has written how-to guides on the game, Nelson will be one of the favourites for the main event at Sky City's forthcoming Festival of Poker.

Poker players love their nicknames, how did you come up with yours?

It was given to me by the poker room manager at the Crown Casino in Melbourne. I was making lots of final tables at the time and one day he came over and said "y'know, you're just like final table furniture".

Are you happy with it? I mean, wouldn't you rather be known as a guy who wins lots of tournaments rather than a guy who just makes the final table?

Well, final table is pretty good. When you are at the final table you are into serious money. That is always a good thing.

Your first book was called Kill Phil. Was that a reference to poker brat Phil Hellmuth jnr by any chance?

It's a book about how to level the playing field against better players. I wrote it with Blair Rodman, an American player. When we were trying to think of a title we noticed there were a lot of American players called Phil - Phil Hellmuth, Phil Gordon, Phil Ivey. And it was the about the time the Kill Bill movie came out, so we thought it was a kind of catchy title. The next book, we called it Kill Everyone.

So did they sell well?

Yeah. Kill Everyone has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian and Bulgarian.

So you'll be claiming credit for the next wave of great Bulgarian players?

I dunno. There are some good players in Bulgaria. There are good players all over the world. You don't have to be a professional poker player to be good. There are lots of players who take up poker as a serious hobby and some of them are very, very consistent in getting into the money. It is the kind of thing you can take up as a hobby, which is what I did, and get good at it.

You were a doctor originally?

I still am a US-licensed doctor. But when I came to New Zealand I decided to retire and take up poker as a hobby. But I still do medical consulting for people with prostate cancer and I've written a book on it. I'm actually a prostate cancer survivor myself. Being both a doctor and a patient gave me a rather unique perspective of the disease.

So are you a fully fledged poker pro now?

I took up poker as a serious hobby and it still is that. It turns out that I am pretty good at it but it is still a hobby. If a pro is someone who does nothing other that play poker then I wouldn't qualify as I do a number of other things. But that doesn't mean I am not good enough to be a professional. I can play against anybody in the world and hold my own.

The million dollar question then: Is poker a sport or game?

Tournament poker should be considered a sport. I would define a sport as a competition that requires mental and physical training. And there is undoubtedly a strong endurance component in poker. If you are playing 15 hours a day for five straight days to win a tournament, you have to maintain focus or any single mistake you make could be fatal - just like dropping a rugby ball on the one-metre line. And in tournament poker, whoever wants to play is paying a fee to play and there are prizes awarded, just like in a golf tournament or a tennis tournament - so it should be considered a sport.

What about the element of luck?

To win any big tournament requires you to play well, to get lucky and, most importantly, not to get unlucky. You could certainly argue that the luck component is larger in poker than, say, cricket but still, in any sport there is always a luck component.

So what's the worst bad bet you've ever had?

It was very recently; at the European Tour final event in Monte Carlo, last year. I had two aces and there was a rather aggressive Scandinavian player who moved all-in before the flop with king-jack or different suits. In that particular match-up I am 90 per cent to win it. He made two pairs and I got eliminated. This was on day three right before the money, so it was quite a sick beat.

You've also had some pretty big wins, including scooping A$1,295,800 at the 2006 Aussie Millions. How did that feel?

Like winning the lottery.


Of course. Any time you play in a big tournament you are not a favourite to win it. You have to overcome tremendous adversity. In the Aussie Millions there were around 700 players. There were a couple of hands where I got lucky and I rarely got unlucky. It is almost impossible to win a tournament where you are favourite in every hand. What you try to do is get enough chips so you can withstand a bad beat. If you triple your chips and then lose half of them, you are okay. But if you lost half of them and you lose half you are in real trouble.

So what are your goals in the sport?

I would love to win the Aussie Millions again and I'd like to win the Festival of Poker in Auckland. That would be awesome. Because in New Zealand it ranks very high.

So the World Series isn't on the list?

No. I don't play it for a couple of reasons. It is a six-week time commitment and I don't really like spending that much time away. And there are so many events in this part of the world that I don't have to go to the States to play. Third of all, it is in Las Vegas in the middle of summer and I hate it there.