Monday, July 06, 2015

Regarding Those Ribbon Clerks

The 2015 World Series of Poker Main Event is underway, with the first of three Day 1 flights drawing a smallish Sunday crowd of 741. Today and tomorrow will obviously be much bigger, and I think most expect the total number of entrants to rival or even exceed last year’s 6,683.

The $10,000 buy-in Main comes in the wake of that huge $500,000 Super High Roller that just finished playing out at the ARIA Resort and Casino over the weekend, the biggest buy-in poker tournament of the year. Brian Rast topped a field of 43 to win a $7.525 million first prize that should rival the $8 milly or so the Main Event winner will take away.

The divide between those two events is enormous, of course, with that 50x difference in the buy-ins obviously meaning those playing the $500K belong to a very exclusive club. In fact, if you go back into the early history of the WSOP, back to the 1970s when the Main Event fields had yet even to crack 100 players, it’s tempting to draw further comparisons between the guys currently paying a half a milly each to play a poker tournament and WSOP ME players of old.

In 1978, the year Bobby Baldwin won the WSOP Main Event (and the first year it wasn’t played as a winner-take-all tournament), just 42 took part, one less than the number who played the $500K Super High Roller. That said, $10,000 in 1978 was worth the equivalent of something like $38,000 today, so the comparison only goes so far.

Speaking of separating the high-stakes players from the hoi polloi, I was recently listening to an old interview with Richard Nixon in which he was talking about the long and winding road that led him to complete his comeback to political prominence to win the 1968 presidential election after losing to JFK in ’60 and also losing the California governor race in ’62.

He was talking about having dinner with friends right after the ’66 elections in which the Republicans had gained a few senate seats (three), a lot of House seats (47), and what many thought to be some momentum going forward for ’68. Nixon’s friends were urging him not to wait much longer before announcing his intention to run for president, but he would actually hold off officially doing so more than a year until February ’68.

Nixon paraphrases his friends’ urging thusly: “Now you’ve got to get in [they said]. You’ve got to announce for president, and so forth, and get the ribbon clerks out.”

I had to pause over that phrase “get the ribbon clerks out,” employing as it does a term that Robert McLaughlin also uses in the title of his 1945 New Yorker poker-themed short story “Let’s Get Rid of the Ribbon Clerks.”

The title comes up halfway through the story in the middle of a poker hand in a game played at the Officers’ Club among some enlisted men. The game is seven-card stud, and by fourth street a player bets a dollar, then the story’s protagonist, Lieutenant Fred Wilson, announces he’s raising. “I’ll just raise that five,” he says. “Let’s get rid of the ribbon clerks.”

Besides being used simply to describe a raise (as Lt. Wilson does), the phrase is also used in poker to refer to raising the stakes in a game, such as when someone suggests changing a $1/$2 game to $5/$10 to “weed out the ribbon clerks.” You’ll find the term in a lot of poker dictionaries, such as in The Poker Encyclopedia edited by Elkan Allan and Hannah Mackey where a “ribbon clerk” is defined as “slang for a small-stakes player.”

It’s also used more loosely to describe tight players (or “rocks”) who can be easily frightened out of a pot by a big bet. Thus, any player not courageous enough -- or, in the gendered world of poker, manly enough -- to handle upping the stakes or an aggressive raise, can be considered a “ribbon clerk.”

Why a “ribbon clerk”? Well, a ribbon clerk was the common job title for a cashier working in a dry goods store back in the late 19th or early 20th centuries -- that is, a place where you’d buy clothes, household goods, cloth and fabric, and other miscellaneous items including hair ribbons. Again pointing back to the historically hyper-masculine context of poker, the man working such a job would be considered just a touch less macho because of his employment.

Searching around about the term also shows it’s having been used in the context of gay slang. I’m seeing a couple of different examples there, with ribbon clerk once used to refer to a gay man working a desk job, though more recently (and more frequently) used to refer to a woman who primarily socializes with gay men. Such uses obliquely allude back to the earlier-created idiom and its reference to presumed gender roles.

So in a poker game -- or a presidential campaign -- calling opponents “ribbon clerks” is mildly demeaning, suggesting as it does the idea that the players being so described aren’t as tough or brave as the one doing the name-calling.

Of course, upping the buy-in ante to $500K gets rid of not just the ribbon clerks, but 99.9% of the rest of us, too.

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