Friday, October 07, 2016

The Matthau Line About Poker and America

There’s a much shared quote about poker attributed to the comic actor Walter Matthau that you’ve probably come across somewhere before.

Matthau’s career spanned nearly the entire second half of the 20th century. He appeared in 80 or so films along with dozens of stage and television credits. Among all those roles are relatively serious turns in a couple of my faves, Dr. Strangelove and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. He also starred in one of my top ten films of all time, The Bad News Bears.

Probably his most famous role was as the slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, both the play and the 1968 film (though not the subsequent TV series). That whole story is anchored by a weekly poker game, which is from where that image of him holding a hand up above comes.

Here’s the quote, which like I say you’ve probably heard:

“Poker exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great.”

I was thinking about that line a little today, one that often gets brought up without too much commentary as a quick reference to the idea that poker uncannily reflects American culture and society -- both the good and the bad. In particular the observation highlights how both poker and our economic system necessarily make us rely on each other while also (paradoxically) forcing us to compete with one another.

Matthau’s line gets quoted everywhere. For example, James McManus appropriately includes it in his history of poker, Cowboys Full, as meaningful support to his point “that poker and the United States grew up together” and that “the game is often said to epitomize American values” like independence, liberty, equality, freedom, work, entrepreneurial love of risk, and, of course, the central importance of money.

In his collection of essays Risky Business: People, Pastimes, Poker and Books, Al Alvarez offers to explain what Matthau means.

“Poker, he meant, is social Darwinism in its purest, most brutal form,” writes Alvarez regarding the line. “The weak go under and the fittest survive through calculation, insight, self-control, deception, plus an unwavering determination never to give a sucker an even break,” he concludes, evoking the 1941 comedy by W.C. Fields (another actor often captured on the silver screen holding a poker hand).

Anthony Holden likewise quotes it in his sequel Bigger Deal as a kind of punctuation mark to a lament about the post-“boom” commercialization of poker.

There Holden summarizes the scene at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino back in 2005, where, suddenly, a whopping 5,619 were playing in the Main Event when just 839 did two years before. Referring to the Gaming Lifestyle Expo with all of its poker-related products, Holden decides “the whole jamboree strikes me as acutely depressing: visual confirmation that the maverick, bohemian, once backroom game I have loved for so long has now turned into just another branch, logos and all, of corporate American capitalism.”

Then comes Matthau’s line, in this case positioned as a kind of judgment on poker having become something other than the game Holden had written about much more enthusiastically in his earlier Big Deal.

These are mostly serious reflections on the quote, though in each case the author is obviously aware of the humor it injects into the discussion. It’s very W.C. Fields-like, in fact, the way the quote kind of sneaks up on you -- beginning like some sort of sober truism and ending with an absurdist rim-shot (e.g., “The world is getting to be such a dangerous place, a man is lucky to get out of it alive.”).

The line acknowledges there’s something bad about the way both poker and capitalism pit us against one another. But it also celebrates such a flawed system (or set of rules) as having somehow, maybe even despite itself, produced something “great.”

The line also evokes both the love-hate relationship I think some (perhaps most?) players have with poker and the similarly mixed feelings a decent percentage of Americans often have about their country.

After all, whether we’re talking about poker or America, we find ourselves often having to acknowledge both the good and the bad. If we’re offering praise, we acknowledge shortfalls (even if we don’t articulate them). Similarly, if we’re being critical, we know there are positives, too (whether or not we include them in our commentary).

Image: The Odd Couple (1968), Amazon.

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