Poker & Pop Culture

Book Review

By Raymond T. Akers

When I first saw the title of the book “Poker & Pop Culture” (D&B Poker), for some reason I immediately had a vision of Fonzie, Richie Cunningham, and the boys playing cards all night when the parents are away.

I’m no “Happy Days” aficionado, so I assume there never was such a scene; but if there was, Martin Harris would have mentioned it in this wonderfully detailed look at poker. Harris is a university professor as well as a poker reporter, so it’s no surprise that it reads a bit like a textbook—just one you’d read for fun instead of under duress as a class assignment.

The best description of the book is probably on its back cover, where they accurately proclaim it “provides a comprehensive survey of cultural productions in which poker is of thematic importance, showing how the game’s portrayal in the mainstream has increased poker’s relevance to American history and shaped the way we think about the game and its significance.”

The title might bring to mind a light and whimsical approach to the subject, yet it is anything but that. Despite many references to people and things like W.C. Fields, Rodney Dangerfield, “Cheers,” and paintings of dogs playing poker, the story of the game is taken very seriously and Harris looks at it from every conceivable angle.

The book starts with examples of humans playing games of chance from virtually the beginning of our existence, then through the invention of cards and the games played with them. We see how poker evolved in America from games brought by immigrants. It then thrived on the river boats and in the West. We also see how gambling in general, and poker in particular, were demonized from the start by arbiters of right and wrong.

Harris then switches to a less chronological approach, with chapter titles that all begin with “Poker in” and finish with things like “the Home,” “the Boardroom,” “Casinos,” “the Movies,” “Literature,” and “Television.”

Towards the end he looks at “Poker on the Computer” and details the online poker explosion, followed by its subsequent curtailment by the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) in “Poker Under Siege.”

Harris concludes with a look at “Poker in the Future” in which he wisely lists the three things that will most affect poker’s prominence in American popular culture: “the economy, legislative decisions affecting when and where poker can be legally played, and poker’s ability to adapt and innovate in order to attract and retain new players.”

Poker enthusiasts may bristle at the many references to cheating, angle shooting, and moralistic intervention, but they are a large part of the game’s history (and sometimes the present). These are nicely contrasted with the many anecdotes from music, television, movies, books, radio, and history.

Besides, the best way to vanquish the busybodies and naysayers is to get a good game going. Maybe you can get the Fonz to come by for a few hands.