Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The “Very American” Story of Online Poker

U$AI mentioned yesterday how I’d started my class once again, that American Studies course called “Poker in American Film and Culture.” I’ve taught it several times now, and each semester am adding certain readings, moving others off the “required” list and onto a “recommend” one. I’ve also been gradually accumulating more and more examples of poker in film, showing different clips in class along the way to emphasize various topics we cover.

One scene I know I’ll be showing at some point this time around is from the 1968 film The Odd Couple which I just wrote about in a new “Pop Poker” piece for PokerListings.

I also noted in yesterday’s post how we begin the semester reading an excerpt from Poker: Bets, Bluffs and Bad Beats by Al Alvarez, taken from the first chapter titled “The American Game.” It is a neat way to kick off the whole discussion or “argument” of the course that poker is distinctly “American” and thus worth studying as a way to learn more about American history and culture. Reading the excerpt also introduces Alvarez to the students, whom we’ll read again later on when we pick up The Biggest Game in Town.

By talking about the syllabus, reading that Alvarez excerpt, and then soon after starting James McManus’ Cowboys Full (from which we’ll read a lot during the first few weeks), we quickly gather lots of examples of so-called “American” values or ideals. Thus do we focus a lot at the start on ideas and concepts like freedom, liberty, equality, democracy, capitalism, self-reliance, the “frontier spirit,” the “American dream,” the importance of being rewarded for one’s work, and the inclination to take risks and gamble. And how poker could be regarded as a game that neatly reflects or is shaped by all of these ideas and concepts.

Of course, when we use the adjective “American” in class we do it in the context of academic inquiry, not jingoistic sloganeering. That is to say, it is understood that while there is much that is great about the U.S., not everything that is “American” is automatically “good.” There are a lot of things about the country and American culture that aren’t necessarily admirable, and some of those less than admirable characteristics also find their way into poker.

Speaking of The Odd Couple, Alvarez includes in his chapter that great Walter Matthau quote about how “the game exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great.” The quote points out in an humorous way how there are both positive and negative aspects to the game and the country.

I found myself thinking further about referring to something as “American” as a kind of uncritical defense when I heard Ben Mezrich, author of Bringing Down the House (about the MIT blackjack team) and The Accidental Billionaires (about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook), talking on CNBC about his plans to write “a big new book for next summer” that appears to cover the rise and fall of Absolute Poker. Mezrich appeared on the panel show Squawk Box as a guest host, and while there was given a chance to talk about his own writings, past and future.

Ben Mezrich on CNBC's 'Squawk Box'Mezrich enthusiastically characterized the story as being “about a bunch of college kids who launched the online poker world out of a dorm room essentially” -- kind of a nutty, highly misleading thing to say about the AP guys who hardly “launched” online poker, having come into it years after its beginnings.

Mezrich continued, revealing he has a strange take on the story’s principals, too. “They’re brilliant kids who built an empire in a way, and now they’re being persecuted, hiding in Antigua or whatever, and because they did something to me that was very American,” said Mezrich. “It’s an intersection of 21 and The Social Network,” he added, alluding to film adaptations of his two best-known books.

The misleading here becomes more grievous, I’m afraid. Those “brilliant kids” now being unjustly “persecuted” are the same ones who were involved in the original superuser scandals and subsequent cover-ups, the bilking of millions from investors, various forms of bank and wire fraud, violating the UIGEA, and the failure to return player funds following Black Friday.

Hardly heroes, in other words, although it sounds like Mezrich might be angling towards shaping them into such with his version of the story. See Haley Hintze’s response to Mezrich’s weird take here, as well as this article on PokerFuse that notes how Mezrich may himself in fact have ties to the AP “frat boys” that might be influencing both his decision to write about them and how he’s approaching the task.

Mezrich describes AP’s founders as having done something “very American,” a superficial defense of the entrepreneurial urge that motivated them to build their “empire.” But clearly there was an abundance of unchecked greed there, too, perhaps also an “American” trait though here pursued to the point of abandoning morality and engaging in criminal behavior damaging to many, many others.

Mezrich certainly seems to be glossing over (or missing altogether) some obvious points in the story in this early, abridged pitch of his book. We’ll see where Mezrich goes with his project, which obviously could change. After all, as the Absolute Poker frat boys well demonstrated, things don’t always go as originally planned.

I will give him this much, though -- there is perhaps something “very American” about the story of online poker’s rise and fall in the U.S., as well as the stories of some of the more nefarious characters in that narrative.

I think when I use the phrase my meaning is a little different, though.

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