Friday, May 16, 2014

Prelapsarian Poker

Have been engaged pretty deeply of late in some study of poker history, including reading through one of the first extensive discussions of the game in print authored by a self-described “reformed gambler” named Jonathan Harrington Green.

Green would write a number of anti-gambling books during the mid-19th century, all kind of straddling that line between education and exploitation that is typical of heavy-handed works of moral instruction that dwell a little too indulgently in describing the vices being warned against. This first one, not-so-humbly titled An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling, Designed Especially as a Warning to the Youthful and Inexperienced Against the Evils of That Odious and Destructive Vice, is of particular interest to students of poker’s history thanks to a 30-page excursion to introduce poker to an audience perhaps not yet familiar with the game.

Green is mostly dealing with the earlier 20-card version of poker -- later sometimes called “Old Poker” -- that bore affinities to the French game of poque. He runs through the rules, doing so almost in spite of himself as he says he’d rather not teach his readers how to play this “immensely destructive” game he regards as but one step down a long “road to ruin” including other gambling games like faro and roulette, not to mention “the race-course and cock-fightings.”

“I would that all were ignorant of it,” says Green of poker, the game being doubly destructive thanks both to the general debilitating effects of all gambling games and to the frequency of cheating in poker which Green says ensures “the uninitiated need never expect to win any thing.” Really, today’s opponents of gambling and/or poker have nothing on Jonathan Harrington Green, who for the entire discussion of poker relentlessly hammers away at his thesis “that the greatest villainy and rascality attend not only this, but every other game, when played for a wager.”

Anyhow, I mainly just wanted to share one passage of Green’s that interestingly evokes a strange idea of an earlier era in which poker was free of such negative influences, a kind of idealized “prelapsarian” age in which there was no cheating, people didn’t wager inordinate sums, and everyone just seemed to have a jolly good time.

“There was a time when this game was not so dangerous as it has come to be of late years,” writes Green. “It was then common to see men of almost all classes amuse themselves at this game; and landlords would join their guests for social amusement. Captains and other officers of packets and steamboats, generally, would engage freely in a game with their passengers for recreation. And little if anything was wagered or lost at the game, and all got up pleased, and seldom had any cause of dissatisfaction.”

Green’s book was first published in 1843 and most of his references to the “bad” poker (marked by cheating and high-stakes gambles) seem to refer to games occurring during the 1830s, so one might presume he is speaking of the earliest days of the game when it was just being introduced and played for the first time in the American south and west.

That said, there’s something obviously disingenuous about Green’s suggestion of things being better “back in the day” (so to speak) -- i.e., that there ever existed an earlier, “innocent” age for poker free from the various vices that would come later. Almost Rousseau-like, you might say, of him to posit the existence of an earlier “primitive” poker player free of selfish motives against whom to contrast the hopeless, “fallen” players among his contemporaries (a group to which he once belonged).

Human nature, I guess, to believe things used to be better than they are now, in all respects, and thus to trick ourselves into remembering the past differently than it actually was.

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