Thursday, July 17, 2014

From Eugene Edwards' Jack Pots: Stories of the Great American Game (1900)

Published in 1900, Jack Pots: Stories of the Great American Game by Eugene Edwards collects numerous anecdotes about poker as it was played during the 19th century, all of which add up to a convincing testament to the game’s popularity as well as to its special relationship to American culture more than a century ago.

Before getting into the various stories of particular characters and notable hands that make up the historical narrative, Edwards uses the first chapter to explain “What Is Poker -- Its Origin, and Why We Like It.”

He begins with a general observation about Americans being especially eager when it comes to playing games, our fondness for baseball being a primary example and our readiness to import other games (golf from Scotland, lacrosse from India, etc.) further demonstrating such a predilection. Card-playing is special, though, says Edwards, because of its accessibility to all, no matter how old or young.

He then rattles through various card games of the day, dismissing each for various reasons as coming up short of representing “the Great American Game.” Euchre, for example -- “the ladies’ game” -- is too French. Seven-up is “the country boy’s game.” And whist is both too closely identified with England (even the Queen plays it) and requiring of “too much brain work.”

“When you shuffle up all the games, however, there is one that stands out before and beyond all the others,” Edwards continues, “like a lighthouse on the sea coast or a water tank on a prairie, and that is POKER.”

From there he offers a thumbnail sketch of the game’s origins, taking a few shots in passing at the European nations whose games were precursors to poker for their failure to embrace “the modern and perfected game” of poker (“we know how cordially Europeans detest innovations”). Such is probably the most dated of the sentiments in the chapter, given the game’s widespread popularity in Europe today.

“Therefore we may say with truth that America monopolizes the game of poker, and it certainly is the game that best fits our national character,” Edwards triumphantly concludes, speaking of how the game requires nerve, money, strength, and brains each of which (in his estimation) are areas where “we lead the world.”

Edwards edges closer to jingoism as he successively dismisses Germans, the French, and the English as not nearly as well suited for poker as are Americans. But despite the heavy-handed commentary, he does make several salient observations about the game itself, praising in particular its accessibility (being easy to learn) and its ongoing challenge (the learning never stops).

“It is such a simple game to learn,” writes Edwards, noting how a person with any familiarity at all with other card games “can be taught the game of poker in a half hour -- and then spend the rest of his life learning it.”

“That is the main beauty of the game,” he continues. “You think you know it all after you have played ten hands and then after a hundred seances you begin to realize there is something for you to learn. There is so much human nature in it, and human nature is so complex.”

By 1900, poker had well established itself in American culture, a pastime which could be referenced just a few years later by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge in his “Dogs Playing Poker” paintings as an instantly recognizable aspect of modern American life. Edwards notes how by the time of his writing the game had already endured a period of demonization by opponents and survived, alluding to a time “thirty or forty years ago... when cards were held up to scorn as the invention of the devil, and all card players were placed but a shade above a forger or pickpocket.”

That time, Edwards insists, had by then passed. “We do not hear so much of that wild talk nowadays,” he reports.

Of course, such “wild talk” would never go away entirely, returning again and again throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

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