Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Getting Down to the Nuts & Bolts

Nuts & BoltsLast week my buddy Tim Peters thoughtfully sent along a copy of this nifty little volume called The Poker Encyclopedia put together by Elkan Allan and Hannah Mackay. Hardback, bound in green felt (like a poker table!). I might write more about it once I’ve had some time to peruse it further, though I’ve had fun thus far finding out new terms and enjoying the witty prose in the various entries. (If yr curious, Tim reviewed this one for Card Player back during the summer, and you can read his review here.)

When I read the entry for “Nuts, The” I realized (with some surprise) that I’d never come across this particular explanation for the term’s origin. Or at least if I had, I hadn’t remembered it.

After The Poker Encyclopedia explains that the nuts are “the best possible hand” and thus “by definition, unbeatable,” there comes the little explanation of how the term came to be:

“The phrase evolved in the frontier states of the nineteenth century, when chips or cash were only some of a huge number of goods that could be wagered on the poker table.

If a player got so deeply embroiled in a hand that he’d run out of funds, he would often end up betting his horse and wagon, which were represented in the pot by the nuts and bolts of the wagon wheels themselves, which had been removed. Needless to say, the table stakes ruling nowadays protects the problem gambler from staking their wagon, and it tends not to happen anymore.”

There’s a taste of that wit to which I was referring. Fun stuff. Like I say, for some reason I’d missed that story about poker players in the old West bringing nuts and bolts to the table, and when I read it here it sounded like one of those “Liars’ Club” kind of too-good-to-be-true tales. Have hunted around on the intertubes some, though, and it does appear at least to be a fairly well-known explanation of the term’s origin.

The “Nuts” entry made me think of a short conversation I’d had last week with a co-worker, a fellow I’ve referred to here before as Leonard Lapchuck. He’s the one colleague with whom I’ll occasionally share stories from my poker life, something I generally prefer to keep to myself otherwise. He’s a thoughtful guy and a good friend, a person with whom I have a lot of common ground when it comes to the big questions -- you know, about life, the universe, and everything.

Leonard enjoys hearing my stories about playing, going to the World Series of Poker, writing, and the like even though he doesn’t play poker or gamble himself. (I suspect sometimes he gets a vicarious thrill from some of these tales, although in my mind they ain’t nearly as wild and exciting as he might imagine them to be.) In the past I was never too specific with him about the precise stakes for which I play, although I’d always made clear to him that it was just “nickels and dimes.” I mentioned something to him a month or so ago about having played a hand with a forty-dollar pot, and he immediately recognized it as small change, “like what you’d play for in the Friday night game” (I think he said).

In other words, Leonard understands well I’m not risking the wagon.

Anyhow, last week Leonard and I were discussing the various “midnight rulemaking” and other moves being made by the Bush administration as it says goodbye to the White House, and I mentioned how the finalization of the regulations for the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 had been one of those last-minute moves. I briefly explained to Leonard what the UIGEA was and how it has (and could possibly further) affect my playing online poker.

I don’t know why I am surprised when Leonard does this, but his reply kind of took me off-guard.

“Yeah, well, I think that’s actually a good thing,” he said. “Anything to make it harder to for people gamble is something I’m in favor of.”

He explained to me again -- as he’d done before -- how he himself had what he considered an addictive personality, and thus he felt as though if he were to get into something like online poker he wouldn’t be able to curb the desire to gamble more and more.

Setting aside the whole “is poker like other forms of gambling?” question, listening to Leonard analyze himself and then apply his findings to society as a whole made me think about the motives of those who have championed the UIGEA and other anti-gambling measures. As Barney Frank has pointed out repeatedly, the issue is most certainly primarily a moral one for most. But I wonder if it also stems from an overall pessimistic view of human nature, one that insists we, as humans, are inclined to hurt ourselves and thus need to avoid situations in which it becomes easier for us to satisfy that self-destructive urge.

Even though I often myself tend in that direction -- i.e., in the direction of having a basically dim view of human nature -- I suppose I’m actually more optimistic than that. Then again, perhaps I’m doing just what Leonard did, namely, basing my read of others on my understanding of myself as someone who is not inclined toward self-destruction.

Or bringing the nuts and bolts to the table.

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