Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint

While traveling to and from Deauville I took along a copy of Philip K. Dick’s 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. It’s a book I first read long, long ago, but have thought about a lot ever since. In fact, looking back through the blog I notice I mentioned it a few years ago as belong to a list of books that “for whatever reason, stand out in my mind.” I bought a copy at the Labyrinth Bookstore in Princeton prior to the France trip and took it along, and finished it on the way home.

Like all of Dick’s novels and stories, the premise of Time Out of Joint is inventive and thought-provoking. In this case, a middle-aged ex-vet named Ragle Gumm finds himself living with his sister and brother-in-law in an ordinary ’50s neighborhood. Gumm has no job per se, but makes a decent amount of money each month by winning a daily puzzle-solving contest in the newspaper, something called “Where Will The Green Man Be Next?”

The story proceeds in a fairly mundane, realistic fashion for the first third or so of the novel, then a few strange things occur that lead Ragle to believe either something is wrong with the world as he knows it or perhaps he is going insane. He finds what seems to be a current phonebook but all of the numbers are disconnected. He also reads a story in a magazine about a beautiful contemporary movie star named Marilyn Monroe, but neither he nor his sister and brother-in-law have ever heard of such a person.

Ragle additionally starts to experience what he believes to be hallucinations in which objects disintegrate before his eyes and are replaced by strips of paper stating what they were (e.g., “door,” “drinking fountain,” etc.). All of which further fuels his anxiety about his own mental health and whether or not the strain of putting in hours and hours each day creating his contest entry is getting to him.

As you might guess, there’s a lot more happening here than initially meets the eye. I won’t give away more about the plot than to say that eventually Ragle does come to confirm his suspicions that the contest he’s been working on is more than just a harmless bit of problem-solving, but has much larger implications. And that the mundane suburban setting in which he lives isn’t what it seems at all, either.

I read a lot of Dick novels long ago, and I seem to remember most of them having these highly intriguing set-ups and then the execution sometimes feeling a little hasty. I think Time Out of Joint falls into this category, too, although ultimately the story is successful at making the reader think about the nature of reality and larger philosophical questions such Hamlet contemplates when he utters the line that gave Dick his book’s title.

I don’t want to say too much more about the book, though, because I want to recommend it to anyone reading this blog. I think it’s a book that poker players should find especially interesting, and not just because there’s actually some poker played early on in the book (something I’d completely forgotten about).

Rather, I’ll quickly list three reasons why I think the book might appeal to poker players, especially full-time players who sometimes find themselves stepping back and thinking about the significance of having found themselves playing a game for a living.

One reason is the obvious parallel between Ragle’s “job” and that of, say, a full-time poker grinder, especially one who only plas online and thus finds him or herself kind of isolated from the world in much the same way Ragle is when working on his puzzles.

Aggravating his wondering about his own sanity are Ragle’s self-doubts about the nature of his employment and whether or not his life has any real significance. In fact, there’s a small argument early in the book between Ragle and a neighbor in which the latter kind of chides him a little for not having a “real job.” Ragle thinks to himself about how even though he makes more money at his “job” than his brother-in-law does at the supermarket, his existence ultimately boils down to “puttering about with something in the daily newspaper... like a kid.”

I know some poker players -- especially those who mainly make their living playing online -- have these same conversations with themselves and with others regarding how they earn their living. I’m thinking especially of these guys chasing Supernova on PokerStars or who pursue other endurance-test type promotions (or self-created goals) which assign a kind of tangible significance to their activity that perhaps gives it extra meaning beyond simply trying to earn money playing cards.

A second idea that comes up in the book is the question of Ragle’s “skill” at solving the ““Where Will The Green Man Be Next?” puzzle. Years of working it have allowed him to accumulate data and charts he uses to help inform his predictions with each new puzzle, much like the grinders keep and review their stats and use it to increase their chances of winning.

Ragle gets asked questions about his skill for the game sometimes, and it is clear there is at least some doubt among others about how much chance is involved in the contest’s outcomes. And in fact there are some suggestions made as well about cheating and/or the contest being “rigged,” in some fashion, all of which I think would prove intriguing to online players, too.

Finally, a third reason I’ll recommend Time Out of Joint to poker players has to do with the way it invites readers to think about the difference between subjective experience and objective truth. You know, that big existential question of whether or not one person’s idea of the world is similar to what others think about it, and how our subjective experiences often diverge and force us to compromise when it comes to assigning meaning to the world around us.

Poker is a game that highlights this idea that there is a difference between reality as such and what individuals think about it. I’ve written in the past about the John Lukacs essay “Poker and American Character” in which he makes a grand statement that “poker is the game closest to the Western conception of life... where free will prevails over philosophies of fate and chance, where men are considered free moral agents, and where -- at least in the short run -- the important thing is not what happens but what people think happens.”

I take Lukacs as saying that poker provides a great context for demonstrating how humans can collectively experience something -- e.g., a hand or session -- and come away with entirely distinct ideas about what happened or what it meant. A bluff is a concentrated example of this sort of thing, wherein the significance of a given bet can obviously mean different things to different people. But I think the idea applies more broadly to the game and the seemingly endless ways people tend to approach it, define it, and define themselves and their actions when they play it.

In any case, this invitation to think about the nature of reality (as we know it) that Time Out of Joint offers seems to be the kind of thing poker players might be interested in pursuing. Thus my recommendation.

And if you do happen to read the book, come back here and tell me what you thought it meant and we’ll see how well our ideas match up.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What Does “Poker” Mean Today?

Double rainbowJust listened to F-Train and Chops’ discussion from yesterday regarding the U.S. Department of Justice’s amendment to the civil complaint, a.k.a. “Terrible Tuesday.” Both bring up several good points, making the conversation worth a listen for those curious about what happened and what may come next.

At the very beginning of the 45-minute conversation, F-Train noted how yesterday’s action by the DOJ was “not good for anybody” -- including (he explained) Full Tilt Poker, its shareholders, its former players hoping for the return of their funds, and those hoping for the return of online poker to the U.S.

It is that latter point that seems most clear today. Poker -- especially online poker -- has taken another severe hit in America. That screenshot from CNN that I added to yesterday’s post might as well serve as a kind of emblem for what “poker or “online poker” means to the average American today.

“Poker site accused of skimming $440M?” Why on earth would anyone put money on a poker site? You get what you deserve. As a commenter to the CNN story says (echoing others), “HAHA!! anybody that throws their hard earned cash to On-Line gamble site, deserves their fate.”

A poker site. Go ahead, pronounce the word like Joan Rivers did. Like she’s about to say “poison.” Remember? When she talked about poker players’ money having “blood on it.”

As I mentioned yesterday, the fact that Full Tilt Poker managed to pull off looking as though it were a “legitimate poker site” -- when it appears clear it was anything but -- will be cited by proponents of licensed and regulated poker in the U.S. But such proponents now find themselves arguing for something with which even fewer sympathize. Especially legislators.

“Terrible Tuesday” might’ve helped highlight the need. But it didn’t do much for the cause.

No, it’s not good.

Full Tilt Poker, Yesterday & Today“Full Tilt Poker was an online poker card room” begins the newly-updated Wikipedia entry. Past tense. That change was actually made a few days ago, I believe. Although the first paragraph -- noting the allegations that owners skimmed hundreds of millions from players -- that was added yesterday afternoon. The site’s new legacy.

Near the end of their conversation, F-Train and Chops marveled a little at how Full Tilt’s handling of things since Black Friday -- and these latest allegations -- have eclipsed the once-ultimate-seeming failures of UltimateBet. Whereas UB had long occupied that place in our thinking as the site where things couldn’t have gotten worse, Full Tilt Poker has now claimed the honor.

“Whatever the actual facts are,” F-Train carefully added, “the perception of the facts, is that Full Tilt Poker is the scummiest scum of poker companies.”

And that’s really the point right now -- that whatever really is the case, the perception is so thoroughly damaging that poker in general and online poker in particular have an enormous obstacle to overcome, image-wise, in order to recover anything close to the level of acceptance in American culture the game enjoyed just a few short years ago.

I think about a line in John Lukacs’ “Poker and American Character,” an essay I have written about before (here and here) and which I now have my Poker in American Film and Culture class read.

Lukacs speaks of poker as “the game closest to the Western conception of life” insofar as it is a game in which “free will prevails over philosophies of fate or of chance, where men are considered free moral agents, and where -- at least in the short run -- the important thing is not what happens but what people think happens.”

The line comes early in the essay and helps set up a larger observation about “American” values (such as freedom, independence, entrepreneurial urges, our readiness to take risks, the importance of money, etc.) and how they are reinforced or at least given a context in which to be furthered by poker.

I like the existentialist notion present in the observation, that poker is a game in which we are constantly afforded the freedom to make what we will of it. Lukacs (who is from Hungary) later points out how even the way Americans play poker -- with thousands of variants and other agreed-upon rules -- could be said to reflect a similar idea.

We make our own meaning of the game. So do our opponents. And so do those who have never been dealt a hand.

So what does “poker” mean to you today? Hard to say? I know the feeling. Let’s have a look at some rainbows and think about it.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hard to Relate: On the $250K Aussie Millions Super High Roller

Hard to Relate -- On the $250K Aussie Millions Super High RollerAfter the previous evening -- when I’d stayed up ’til past dawn following that Super Tuesday on PokerStars -- there was little chance of me remaining awake again last night to see how that $250,000 “Super High Roller” turbo-style event played out at the Aussie Millions.

The event was added to the schedule last week after the series had already begun. Ended up attracting 20 players all told, making for a perspective-obliterating $5 million prize pool. (Those are Australian dollars, which I understand are currently very close in value to the USD.) Heck, the total prize pool for the Main Event (still ongoing) that attracted 721 players is $7.2 million!

There was some chatter early on yesterday that this event -- the Super Duper High Roller, as I saw Kevmath refer to it last night -- might be made a winner-take-all affair. In fact, it appeared it might have even gotten underway before that was determined, although I can’t imagine players would put up a quarter million to play an event without a reasonably sure idea of what the payouts were going to be. (Then again, they might.)

In the end it was decided the top three spots would cash, with $2.5 million going to the winner, $1.4 million to second, and $1.1 million to third. Looks like it took eight hours or so for Erik Seidel to win, with Sam Trickett (who won the $100,000 Challenge there at Melbourne just a few days ago) taking second and David Benyamine third.

The event and Seidel’s win evoked a couple of recent posts here -- the one from a week-and-a-half ago “On the All-Time Money List” and another earlier this week about players double-dipping in this month’s $100K events, “Ordering Twice at the 100 Grand Bar.”

With that $2.5 million score, Seidel moves past Jamie Gold and into third place on that All-Time earnings lists with about $13.78 million, just $80,000 or so behind Ivey in second and less than half a million behind Negreanu in first.

And a quick check of the 20 entrants in the $250K event shows that 15 of them also played in the $100K Challenge, with Roland de Wolfe, Eugene Katchalov (who won the PCA $100,000 event), Annette Obrestad, Paul Phua, and Richard Yong joining the fun yesterday after not playing in the $100K one.

Also of note, two players played in all three of this month’s big, big buy-in events -- James “Andy McLEOD” Obst and Daniel “jungleman12” Cates. Cates cashed in none of the three, while Obst finished fourth in the $100K Challenge at the Aussie Millions to win $200,000.

The “All-Time Money List” was already a bit distorted before this month (for various reasons), but this spate of big buy-in events certainly further knocks it out of whack. And I think it’s likely we’ll see more of these $100,000 buy-in (or greater) events moving forward -- perhaps not right away, but relatively soon. Which will make it even more difficult to compare players’ relative success on the tourney circuit.

Aussie MillionsSetting aside the skewing of the rankings, though, it is interesting to think about how difficult it is for almost all of us to relate to what is going on with these mind-bogglingly huge buy-in events.

If you think about it, for just about all of the sports and games that people watch others play, spectators can themselves play the same sport or game, too. Sure, when I watch the Australian Open the pros who’ve made it to the semifinals there are certainly playing a much higher-level game than I could ever hope to play myself. But the rules are the same, much of the same strategy applies, and really the game “plays” similarly, even if I’m not hitting 110-mile-an-hour serves.

But poker is different. As my class and I have been discussing over the first few days of our “Poker in American Film and Culture” course (discussed here), a point being repeatedly made by all of the writers we’ve encountered thus far is that the money is what gives the game significance. As John Lukacs puts it in his essay “Poker and American Character,” what is important in poker is not so much “how [players] play their cards but how they bet their money.” He elaborates on this “reality” of the game as it is provided by money:

“Money is the basis of poker: whereas bridge can be played for fun without money, poker becomes utterly senseless if played without it. Note that I said money, not chips -- chips only when they represent money and money only because it represents the daring or cowardice of other people.”

The game of tennis is played at a higher level when cash prizes are awarded to the winners. And yeah, maybe a golfer standing over a crucial putt at the Master’s is going to think a little about the financial significance of making the shot before striking the ball. But in none of these other games does money have such fundamental influence on how the game is actually played.

For each of those 20 who played in the $250,000 event yesterday, that huge buy-in represented something -- i.e., it possessed some, specific meaning to each -- that was relevant to how each player subsequently played the tournament. For some, the money meant as much to them as the dimes and quarters mean to those of us playing the micros. For others, it meant a little more. But for all, such significances definitely mattered.

Thus is it doubly hard for most of us to relate to the game we’re watching being played for such stakes. Not only can we not imagine buying into such an event ourselves, but we cannot tell with precision what exactly the money represents to those who do.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Triple Stud Ain’t Flipping Pennies

Another late one with the World Championship of Online Poker, this time following Event No. 8, the $215 buy-in Triple Stud event (recap here). PokerStars introduced Triple Stud just last month, another mixed game variation which rotates between seven-card stud (high), razz, and seven-card stud high/low eight-or-better. So you go high, you go low, and then you try to go both.

I don’t play these stud games all that often, aside from when I occasionally sit down in the 8-game mix games. (I also will play razz now and then.) And when I do play, it is just about always in ring games and practically never in tournaments.

While watching the action last night, I thought more than once about John Lukacs’ denouncing of “seven-card stud, high-low” is his 1963 article “Poker and American Character.” That’s the piece I took a couple of posts to discuss last week (part 1 & part 2).

Lukacs, raised on five-card draw (which he deems “classic” poker), says in his article that “seven-card stud resembles a gambling game with poker nomenclature but not very different from flipping seven pennies and betting on them in turn.” Too much luck, not enough skill -- or at least too much diminishment of the “psychological factors” -- says Lukacs.

I suggested last week that Lukacs may not have understood seven-card stud especially well. It’s true, I suppose, that any game for which we lack a familiarity with strategy and/or an appreciation for its required skills has the potential to look like “flipping pennies” to us. As I said, I don’t play these games a lot, and I guess there were times last night when I might’ve talked myself into thinking it was just a card-drawing contest, if I didn’t know better.

Heck, for someone who hasn’t played golf before, even that game perhaps might look like a collection of random actions compiled together in the name of competition. But for those who have played the game seriously, they know how complicated the strategy can be, as well as how greatly skill does affect players’ relative success.

Last night’s event featured a number of skilled players, and once the final table began it was apparent from the rapidity of players’ actions that generally speaking all knew exactly what they were doing with pretty much every decision they were making. There was one notable exception, however, right at the final table bubble when there were nine players remaining.

The game had just moved to razz (from stud high). The way the tourney worked, they played 20 minutes of each game before switching, with each game change also bringing an increase in the stakes. There were two tables left, one four-handed and the other five-handed.

At the four-handed table, a few hands had gone by with a player named CianoMar having won a couple of pots to move his stack to around 325,000. That was below average at the time, but there were three or four other players in much worse shape at the time. Not sure, but I think in those hands he won CianoMar had started with an ace and was able to bet his opponents out of the hands by fourth or fifth street.

Then came a hand in which CianoMar bet with a queen showing, then kept pushing the action as he drew a nine and then a jack. Finally the player folded on sixth street, but it was odd to see him remain aggressive with two face cards up.

On the next hand, he stayed in again with a king showing, and when he stuck around after drawing a ten on fourth street it was obvious he hadn’t realized the game had changed to razz. I noticed railbirds in the chatbox starting to type “omg” and the like, noting there that CianoMar was in error. I also saw players on the other five-handed table start to talk to one another about how he didn’t realize the game was razz.

Finally a player at CianoMar’s table typed “it’s razz dude” (or something) and CianoMar quickly corrected his course. By then he’d slipped all of the way down to 75,000 -- 9th out of 9! -- and was in danger of bubbling the final table. But he caught some cards and scraped back to nearly 500,000 by the end of the level. (He’d eventually finish fourth.)

A bit of an ethical dilemma there, I suppose, for his opponents, one of whom decided it prudent to let him know of his mistake. I’d say it was unfortunate that observers in the chatbox could’ve affected the action there, too. (I believe it isn’t until the final table that observer chat is finally turned off.)

Was kind of wild to see that happening at such a crucial moment in the tournament. Of course, we’ve all been there, I imagine. I know I have when playing mixed games, not realizing until after a hand or two the game had changed.

I guess in a way those few hands which CianoMar misplayed could be said to help prove the point that these games are in fact very different from “flipping seven pennies.” After all, the player who thought he was playing stud during the razz level clearly didn’t have an equal chance to win those hands!

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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

“Poker and American Character” by John Lukacs (November 1963) (2 of 2)

'Horizon', November 1963Continuing today with my review of an interesting essay about poker appearing in 1963 in a scholarly journal called Horizon. The article is by the historian John Lukacs who grew up in Hungary loving poker, then moved to the U.S. following World War II. In the 17 years since the move, Lukacs had become a bit disenchanted with the development of poker here in its country of origin. (If you missed it, here is the first part of the discussion.)

We left off with Lukacs’ complaints about all games other than what he calls “classic” poker, namely those variations of poker that in his view tend to increase the chance element, making it more of a gambling game and minimizing the “psychological factors” which otherwise make poker different from (and better than) most games.

For Lukacs “classic” poker begins and ends with draw poker, and thus he speaks with equal disdain for Spit in the Ocean as he does for seven-card stud high-low. Noting how these other variations have appeared to take over in mid-20th century America, Lukacs says the “golden age of poker in the United States seems to have been from 1870 to 1920,” at which point poker’s decline began for the historian.

Women in Poker

Women in PokerLukacs also isn’t happy about other developments having occurred in poker in the U.S. by the time he arrived in the country, including women starting to be allowed into the games. “This [women playing poker] began around 1920, after the Constitutional amendment ordering female suffrage” was passed. That is also when women smoking in public began to be accepted, too, something else Lukacs ain’t too crazy about.

“I believe that this wide introduction of the female element diluted the character of poker (just as Prohibition led, however indirectly, to the dilution of spirits)” argues Lukacs. Why is he of that opinion? “Women are notoriously bad gamblers,” he explains. “They find it difficult to exclude social considerations from a game that must be organized around a social occasion.” It sounds like he’s saying women are too easily distracted by the special form of socializing associated with poker, a game which he says possesses “strongly masculine characteristics.”

We recall Lukacs writes in the early 1960s, a time when such attitudes about women and even the freestyle gendering of a card game as “masculine” could often pass without being questioned. (How exactly is poker “masculine?” we might jump to ask today.) Even so, it’s easy enough to see how Lukacs’ desire to preserve “classic” poker fits with his backing of other traditions, including conventions associated with “traditional” ideas about men and women (and their not being equal).

The Erosion of the American National Character

The Erosion of the American National CharacterUltimately Lukacs ties the decline of poker to what he calls “the erosion of the American national character.” It’s a complicated, not entirely obvious point he’s making, so let me allow Lukacs to make it himself rather than try to summarize:

“The deterioration of poker, I believe, corresponds very closely to a tendency in modern American life that I find most disturbing and dangerous: the inflation (meaning the increasing worthlessness) of words -- more menacing, even, than the inflation of money. Seven-card stud poker represents a gross inflation of values. It corresponds to the development of a society where everybody goes to college until the value of the college degree is less than that of a high-school degree forty years ago; where everybody nominally owns a house but with less of a sense of permanence and privacy than the owner of a family flat in a Naples tenement; where the Great American Novel of The Generation is published at least twice, and of Our Decade at least five times, a year; and where everybody calls everybody else by their first name.”

While we might object to Lukacs’ characterization of seven-card stud (does he really understand the game?), I think we can see the general point he’s trying to make about American “values” having changed in a troubling way. Lukacs sees this overall “inflation of values” occurring everywhere -- too much reward, not enough work -- and wants to draw an analogy between that trend and the favoring of poker games in which chance is more important than skill.

“Depending on cards rather than one’s own judgment reflects, too, a deterioration of self-confidence,” says Lukacs, further clarifying what he means by that claim about the “erosion” of the American character. “It also represents a form of immaturity, a strange kind of grown-up disorderliness covering up what is fundamentally an adolescent attitude.”

I think Lukacs may well be onto something here when he associates a love of gambling with immaturity, and tries to promote “classic” poker as a “grown-up” game that demonstrates an appreciation of order, custom, and intellectual rigor (even if he’s way too quick to reject seven-card stud high-low as a game with too much gambling.)

The “Scientification” of Poker

'Theory of Games and Economic Behavior' (1944) by John von Neumann and Oskar MorgensternOne other point made by Lukacs in his essay comes out of the Cold War context in which he’s writing, an observation about the application of game theory to poker. Noting the rapid emergence of government-supported research into game theory, Lukacs is very critical of “this relatively recent American passion... for intellectualizing everything, from business to military strategy.”

And Lukacs hates, hates, hates what all this talk about probability and games has done to his beloved poker. “Thus, while on the one hand the playing of poker becomes perverted” by all of the crazy, gambling-centric variations, “on the other hand poker is given an elaborate theory and becomes an object of study -- insufficient seriousness on one end, and overseriousness on the other.”

Making reference to game theory pioneers Oskar Morgenstern and John von Neumann (authors of the 1944 work Theory of Games and Economic Behavior), Lukacs ends his article with a kind of tirade against the intrusion of game theory into poker.

He raises two primary objections here. One is that when talking about poker the game theorists (in his opinion) tend to assume “that all players are of the same temperament,” which is of course untrue.

The other objection is that -- here Lukacs quotes from John McDonald’s famous 1948 book Strategy in Poker, Business, and War -- “‘the theory of games... is based on the assumption that man seeks gain.’” Lukacs points out that when it comes to poker, many people in fact play for reasons other than to profit. “I have yet to see the man, except for the professional cardsharp, who plays poker primarily because he seeks gain. He plays for fun; and he hopes to make some gain.”

Lukacs then concludes with some more discussion of the Cold War and how poker could be said to have informed U.S. strategy while chess informed that of the Soviet Union. And in this context, Lukacs much favors the former. “Poker is a unique game because is approximates life,” says Lukacs. “That is not true of chess, which is circumscribed by a framework of mathematical rules and is therefore irrevocably artificial.”

That’s the view that causes Lukacs to reject attempts at the “scientification” of poker. He notes more than once along the way that one could never play poker against an IBM machine (the way one can play chess). That human element -- the “psychological factors” -- just cannot be replicated by a computer, says the historian.

All in all a very interesting and provocative piece, I thought, that gives the reader a good idea of poker’s place in American culture in the early 1960s -- that is, prior to the advent of the WSOP, the rise of Texas hold’em, and all of the other developments of the late 20th/early 21st centuries which have occurred to affect the game so greatly.

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Monday, August 30, 2010

“Poker and American Character” by John Lukacs (November 1963) (1 of 2)

'Horizon,' November 1963Not long ago my friend Tim Peters sent me an interesting item he found in a used bookstore, a copy of an old hardbound magazine from nearly 50 years ago that contains a scholarly article about poker. The article is by the historian John Lukacs and is called “Poker and American Character.”

I read the lengthy piece over the weekend and found it quite intriguing, so I thought I’d share some of Lukacs’ points here. Today I’ll present a few from the first half of the article (about the game, generally speaking), and tomorrow will continue with some ideas from the second half of the article (when he gets into talking about the Cold War and poker’s significance in that context).

The publication in which the article appears is called Horizon, a high-end, scholarly magazine started by the American Heritage folks in 1958. It came out every other month at first, then became a quarterly right around the time Lukacs’ article appeared.

Looks like one of those academic-type journals that sought to include a non-academic audience as well, with the fancy hardbound issues having probably found places on coffee tables in many homes during its heyday. According to a publisher’s note in this issue (Vol. V, No. 8), circulation was 150,000 in 1963. Horizon continued to produce issues containing articles on art, history, and contemporary culture until it ceased publication in 1989.

Born in Hungary, John Lukacs came to the U.S. as a young man just after WWII and soon became a professor of history at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia for many years. Lukacs is still kicking, having written over 30 books on a variety of topics, including a number of works specifically focusing on American history and society.

Not too surprising, then, to see Lukacs start his essay about poker with some statements about the game having originated in the U.S. and the unique way it reflects the American character. Indeed, James McManus -- who pursues a similar thesis about poker and the U.S. in Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker (2009) -- quotes from the beginning of Lukacs’ article in the first chapter of his book, a statement about how “poker is the game closest to the Western conception of life... where free will prevails over philosophies of fate or of chance, where men are considered free moral agents, and where -- at least in the short run -- the important thing is not what happens but what people think happens.” (McManus liked the line so much he quoted it in Positively Fifth Street, too.)

Lukacs has a few other things to say about poker in America, circa 1963, that are also of interest, I think. Like I say, I’m going to share a few of those points here today from the first part of the article, then come back tomorrow with the rest.

The Uniqueness of Poker

'Poker and American Character' by John LukacsLukacs starts his article with an short introductory section in which he lists several ways poker is, in his opinion, unlike all other games of chance.

“The uniqueness of poker,” writes Lukacs, “consists in its being a game of chance where the element of chance itself is subordinated to psychological factors and where it is not so much fate as human beings who decide” how the game goes. (That point leads him to make that observation about the “Western conception of life” quoted above.)

The fact that “poker is played not primarily with cards but with money” is what really gives players the upper hand over simple “fate,” according to Lukacs. While other games (especially those that involve any kind of bluffing) do allow “psychological factors” to play a role, the fact that poker involves money -- and the ongoing valuing of hands with that money -- means that the psychological “factor is not occasional but constant, not secondary but primary.”

It’s apparent that Lukacs has a very clear idea in mind what “poker” is. It’s a game that involves chance but in which chance does not predominate. It is also a game played for money. “Money is the basis of poker,” insists Lukacs. “Whereas bridge can be played for fun without money, poker becomes utterly senseless if played without it.”

There are other things that make poker unique for Lukacs -- and are reasons why he likes the game -- including the way it “gradually becomes more interesting the more one plays with the same group of people” and the way it can be played a myriad of ways (it’s “a game of a thousand unwritten rules”).

It should be noted that by the latter point Lukacs is not referring to variations on his favorite game -- five-card draw -- but rather the many idiosyncracies of play that inevitably come up and require players to agree upon terms every time they sit down for a game. “It is a game for gentleman,” says Lukacs, referring to the way poker provides a context in which to demonstrate “social standards and codes of behavior.”

“Classic” Poker (vs. What They’re Playing)

From there Lukacs gets a little more personal and talks some about his having grown up in Hungary (and eventually in the U.S.) playing poker and what the game meant to him and his family. Once he makes it over to America (in 1946), he mentions how he “had many illusions about the United States” upon his arrival, and that “these illusions included poker.”

Knowing of the U.S. as “the fatherland of poker,” Lukacs assumed everyone played it all the time. Yet, in 1963 he laments that after living in the country for 17 years he has “played less poker here than during an average month in Hungary.” He then clarifies what he means -- it’s not that he isn’t playing poker, but that he’s playing games which he doesn’t consider “classic” or genuine poker.

For Lukacs, five-card draw is all. That’s the game where chance is subordinated the most and the “psychological factors” are most evident. “In every other variation of poker -- from the mildest (one card wild) to the wildest (seven-card stud, high-low) -- the human factor is weakened and the factor of chance is correspondingly increased,” argues Lukacs.

Like the ornery Mr. Brush in James Thurber’s hilarious poker story “Everything Is Wild,” Lukacs has little patience for non-draw variants of his favorite game, games in which for him “the unique character of poker is damaged.” (By the way, you can hear a dramatization of Thurber’s story in Episode 13 of The Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show.)

It is interesting that Lukacs takes aim so directly at stud high-low, a game which he claims is “not very different from flipping seven pennies and betting on them in turn.” I say that because there are many who ardently defend stud high-low as a game that in which the chance element is in fact much less -- and the need for skill greater -- than one finds in many other poker games.

In any event, Lukacs summarily classifies stud high-low with other wild-card games like Baseball or Spit-in-the-Ocean, dismissing it as “a gambling game... a contest not between human personalities who represent themselves through money and cards, but between cards held fortuitously by certain individuals.”

Lukacs does not mention Texas hold’em in his article, a game which had yet to emerge as a popular poker variant at the time he was writing it. I would guess, though, that he’d similarly dislike hold’em as too much of a gambling game when compared to “classic (or draw) poker.”

More tomorrow.

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