Friday, March 25, 2016

Living Through Another Cuba

Lot of focus on Cuba this week, what with President Barack Obama’s visit, the exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, the Rolling Stones concert tonight, and other associated activities. While certainly historic, it’s hard to gauge in the moment whether these events are positive or not both for the Cuban people and for the United States’ relationship with the country going forward.

There’s much ambiguity on both sides here -- like watching a poker game play out without knowing either player’s hole cards nor getting to see any showdowns.

All of it is nonetheless very intriguing to follow, especially for someone who is already often reading and thinking about U.S. politics of the 1960s and so spends perhaps more time than most learning about the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s takeover, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the continued complicated responses by the U.S. to Cuba over subsequent years and decades.

The ouster of Fulgencio Batista’s regime -- officially occurring on January 1, 1959 -- also meant the end of the “Havana high life” culture marked by casinos, gambling, numerous nightclubs, and the significant influence of organized crime. It’s a scene memorably depicted in Sydney Pollack’s 1990 film Havana whose protagonist is an American poker player played by Robert Redford (which I wrote about here before).

Perhaps influenced by these recent posts about “poker’s precursors,” I found myself wondering a little bit today about the history of poker in Cuba. I’ve read that following Castro’s takeover playing cards were banned altogether by the communist regime, which would considerably mute the development of poker and other card games post-1959 (even if games were no doubt still played). But looking back to the 1950s and before, I wondered a bit about how poker was played on the islands, including what variants were popular.

The games appearing in Havana resemble games played in the U.S. during that time (e.g., we see Redford’s character playing five-card draw in the film). One would assume both draw and stud were the favored games during the first half of the century and before, with other games like the Spanish game of mus -- a game that turns up in several Central American countries -- undoubtedly also making an appearance during Cuba’s earlier history.

There’s another popular Cuban game called “cubilete” that is actually a dice-based game though involves poker-related elements. The dice are in fact marked “ace,” “king,” “queen,” “jack,” “gallegos,” and “negros” -- that’s the order they are ranked (i.e., A-K-Q-J-G-N). Players take turns rolling and trying to make high hands. I believe aces are wild, but I’m not up on other details of scoring and game play. (Some irresponsible, unresearched speculation perhaps suggests “cubilete” represented a way to play poker without cards.)

In any event, I will continue to follow this seemingly new chapter in Cuba’s story and U.S. relations with its neighbor to the south.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is often discussed as having been a kind of heads-up poker game between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev -- with the highest-stakes imaginable. I suppose the events of this past week might also be regarded as small-pot hands being played by a couple of wary opponents, with neither side appearing to go for much value just yet.

(That post title, of course, comes from the similarly-titled XTC tune, written at a time much closer to the crisis to which alludes -- in 1980 amid the ongoing Cold War -- than to today.)

Photo: “Sunset over Hotel Nacional, 2014,” LukaszKatlewa. CC BY-SA 3.0.

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