gambling/poker and culture. Poker, and gaming in general, permeate our culture today. The World Series of Poker is a huge event when even a decade ago it was barely known on a world scale, and poker players are the new "role models" for many in society. What does this say about our society and culture that reveres people whose only skill may be based on luck and a turn of the cards? It says a lot about our culture and what we worship, and that may be frightening to contemplate.
"The game [poker] exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great."
-- Walter Matthau
First, it is necessary to define poker. Poker is a card game, played in casinos for pleasure and hopefully profit. There are many different games of poker, from Texas hold 'em to Seven-card stud. Each game follows a different format, but essentially the idea is to get the best hand, beat your opponents at the poker table, and walk off with the pot. Succeeding hands are dealt to allow players to get the best hand possible, and at each round of deals, players can ante up another bet, or fold and lose what they have already bet. Amateurs play poker at most casinos, but there are professional poker players too, who actually make their living playing a game. Poker is a game, but today in our culture, it is much more than a game, and that says quite a bit about American culture and what it stands for.
In the 1980s, poker play at Nevada casinos was so low that many casinos closed their poker rooms and turned them over to the slot machine crowd. When poker's popularity perked up in the early 21st century, those same casinos scrambled to add new, enlarged poker rooms to their casino floors. One young writer notes, "These days poker -- specifically Texas hold 'em, the best version of the venerable game -- is enjoying an unexpected renaissance among Americans in general, and twenty-somethings in particular" (Peters). The circle will certainly repeat itself, after a time, poker will probably lose the public's interest again, poker rooms will close, and new games will capture the attention of a new generation. Poker will become an "old folks" game again, with grandmother's teaching it to their grandchildren in harmless games played for pennies. That fact also speaks to the fleeting interest of our culture, and how variable and changeable our support can be. We change our minds in an instant, and suddenly disdain what we loved just a moment ago. Our culture is fickle, and poker will certainly see a recession, just as it is seeing a resurgence now.
In "The Biggest Game in Town," A. Alvarez talks about American culture and behavior along with the game of poker. His book seems to encourage and mock the gaming culture at the same time. He gives a brief history of Las Vegas and gaming in Nevada, shows what Nevada has evolved into, and shows the ritual surrounding the game of poker. His book is dated, but many of the basic principles are still the same. If a person wanted to become a poker player, Alvarez's book would probably encourage them, because it tells the truth about poker, but romanticizes it too, somehow. Perhaps it is his interviews with poker players that make them seem larger than life, somehow. One says, "Chips are like a bag of beans; they have a relative value and are worthless until the game is over. That is the only attitude you can have in high-stakes poker" (Alvarez 47). That may be true for the big, professional players, but most people reading this book probably would not see it that way, which is another way these people become larger than life. It may be his writing style, too, because it is sparse and yet engaging at the same time, somewhat like the game he is chronicling.
Paul Lyons is the editors of "The Greatest Gambling Stories Ever Told," and this book encourages more thought and consideration of gaming and what it means in our culture. It is one of the few real literary books about gaming, and some well-known authors contributed to the book. It is also much newer than the Alvarez text, so it is more relevant to today's gamers. The essays dissect poker, and show just how important the idea of winning is in American culture. There is no second place in poker. The winner takes all, and often, the stakes are high, such as the poker game Herbert O. Yardley writes about the card shark Monty. A farmer bets his prize bull on the game, receives a bad draw, and dies of a heart attack right at the table. People bet their literal possessions in the hope of winning, and that shows a side of the culture that is disturbing.
In his book, Alvarez runs a commentary on professional poker in the early 1980s. Even then, those who followed the game revered the professionals, studied their "systems," and hoped to make a killing at the game. It is all about money for many poker fans -- they dream of cashing in big at the tables, quitting their day jobs, and playing poker for a living. For most of them, that dream never comes true, but more about that later. Alvarez digs into the culture of America, too, in his book, and being an Englishman, he makes comparisons with his own country. First off, he notes that in England, there is continuity between the cities and towns and the countryside, and in most large American cities, there is none. He writes, "The greenness of the European countryside penetrates the cities, and the influence of the cities spread outward, beyond the suburbs" (Alvarez 15). He notes that in America, there is more of a feeling of wilderness and even the Wild West, and perhaps that is why Americans embrace the idea of gaming so heatedly. There is a bit of wildness and abandon in the casino poker rooms, a bit like the Old West card games always portrayed in TV westerns.
There is one thing in Alvarez's book that is extremely dated. He gives a detailed description of Benny Binion and his two sons of the Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas. Binion is the founder of the World Series of Poker, and for many years the Series was played at his casino. It was one of the last family-owned casinos in Vegas, and now, according to the Binion's Gambling Hall Web site, it is owned by a corporation, the Binions' sold out in 2008. Alvarez notes, "That down-home, family atmosphere would not be possible among the grisly Hollywood-style palaces of the Strip, nor would it be appropriate" (Alvarez 21). This says a lot about Vegas and why it attracts tourists. Vegas (today even more so than when Alvarez wrote this book) is a place for dreamers. Most of the tourists who flock to Las Vegas are dreaming of hitting the big time. The casinos treat them like kings and queens, they enjoy fine dining, and there are thousands of square feet dedicated to them hitting the jackpot and making all their dreams come true.
The tourists in Vegas are all there to get rick quick. That has become the American dream, which is why so many people (even those who cannot afford it) play the lottery every week. The American dream is no longer about working hard and making something of yourself to pass along to your family. It is about winning the jackpot, quitting your job, and lounging by the pool watching your 55-inch flat screen outdoor behemoth. Vegas fuels those dreams, and it rarely makes them come true. However, you never hear about the losers. Vegas and the other gaming communities around the country, only publicize those big winners, standing there beaming with huge checks in their hands. Those photos just add fuel to the dreams of others, and keep people coming to the tables with money in their hands.
Interestingly, both authors make the same observation about poker, and that says something about our society, as well. In Lyons book, author David Mamet writes, "Poker is boring. If you sit down at a table to experience excitement, you will consciously and unconsciously do those things to make the game exciting; you will take long-odds chances and create emergencies" (Mamet 291). Alvarez expresses the same opinion in his book. Therefore, as a society, we find a boring game somehow exciting because of the high stakes aspect of it. In fact, most of the players look extremely bored or extremely intense when you watch the Poker Series on television, and it is boring to view, so it has to be far more boring to play. Yet, they are willing to do it for hours on end because of the payoff. Money is one of the most important elements of society,…