Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Poker & Pop Culture: Rolling Stone (1967-2007) (2 of 2)

'Poker's New World Order'Following up on my search of the Rolling Stone archives for references to poker (see previous post), I wanted to give some attention to three other instances when the magazine did focus on poker in a somewhat meaningful way. Indeed, as I pointed out before, these were really the only three times in the first forty years of Rolling Stone that the magazine specifically addressed the game of poker at all, really. And even in these cases, one could argue the real focus was elsewhere.

Poker & Booze: College Life (1981)

The first is in a pair of companion articles about college life that present the phenomenon of professors and students socializing with one another. In the April 16, 1981 issue, several different pieces were presented under the heading “College 1981,” and these two -- “On Drinking with Professors” by Grif Fariello and “On Drinking with Students” by William Kittredge -- both bring up poker as a regular facet of teacher-student interactions outside the classroom.

Fariello and Kittredge were both at the University of Montana, and so in a sense they are writing about each other in these two articles. Kittredge’s article is decidedly pro-drinking with students, viewing it as an important part of his role as an educator. He looks down on a colleague who takes it too far and thus finds himself enmeshed in a sticky, adulterous liaison with a student. “No one ever said drinking with students would be easy,” says Kittredge. “Nothing sacred ever is.”

Then comes a discussion of the “Student Poker Game.” Kittredge recognizes that he, like other drinking teachers, “is supposed to bring lots of money and be a Terrific Sport.” He shouldn’t object or find it at all unusual for a student to take him to the cleaners, for “this is a teaching experience and not be confused with coldhearted gaming for profit.” Then they start smoking some dope.

The fact that he ends up losing at the poker game is largely immaterial to Kittredge. He continues to argue -- somewhat disingenously, one must admit -- for the importance of these occasions in which “personalities are being formed,” with Kittredge apparently being gravely serious about his own mentoring role.

The article by Fariello (the student) also celebrates the activity, arguing that “drinking with professors is an honor and a privilege and an rite of initiation into the higher reaches of academe.” He feels special to have been invited to such gatherings. He enjoys fraternizing with his prof, but also recognizes that after a few drinks “you come to realize these fellows are a lot like you -- or is it that you are a lot like them?” The exalted view of the teacher clearly becomes diminished as the drinks continue to flow.

When Fariello speaks of the poker game, winning and losing are a greater concern to him than to Kittredge. He enjoys the game because “my favorite professor was also a lousy poker player, and I could cover the cost of tuition and books just sitting across the table from him once a week.” (It isn’t clear whether he’s talking about Kittredge here or not.) The game is also of value to him for the less tangible rewards that come from dialogue and debate with well-read elders.

Fariello ends his piece with a reference to the “darkest valleys of Poker Night,” namely that time when the profs are too sloshed to go on and they all head to the nearest tavern to drink and talk some more. That’s when the teachers utterly expose their innermost selves, offering “painful admissions of failed hopes and unwritten books; the rending laments of professional ennui and disillusionment.”

In the end, I find the student’s self-aware, insightful piece much more convincing than the professor’s self-indulgent, screed-like defense of less-than-commendable behavior. (Doesn’t surprise me a bit that the student wins at poker while the teacher loses.) I would’ve thought to have found such articles in an earlier issue than one from 1981, although it would still be some time before administrations of colleges and universities began taking a less forgiving view of such untoward student-professor interactions.

The New Vegas (2006)

In the October 5, 2006 issue, Rolling Stone offered a lengthy overview of the “new Vegas,” with several short, illustrated blurbs punctuating the analysis. The overall conclusion by the authors is that after an unsuccessful attempt to transform Vegas into a family-oriented vacation destination, the place has returned with renewed enthusiasm to its “Sin City” roots, now having become “bizarrely hip.”

Among these blurbs are several mentions of poker and its newly-prominant place in Vegas’ gambling culture. “Poker chic has made gambling cool again,” chirps the author of the lead-in piece. There’s another short piece celebrating Antonio “the Magician” Esfandiari, who at the time had already won over $2.4 million on the circuit, but “is just as famous for being a dedicated club-hopper.” One gets the sense that it is the latter trait that landed him the spotlight here.

There’s another brief description of the “Big Game” in Bobby’s Room. There is also a passing reference to poker in a story about the band The Killers (who are from Vegas). The interviewer meets the band in Binion’s, and so reference is made to the Horseshoe’s décor made up of pictures of famous poker players.

Despite poker’s prominence, it is pointed out in another piece that poker is hardly the motor driving the gambling scene in Vegas. “Poker might get all the buzz, but it truth, Vegas is all about the slots.”

The Young Guns (2005)

Rolling Stone cover, June 16, 2005The last article I want to discuss is the only real “feature” that focuses on professional poker players that I found in the entire forty years of Rolling Stone, a four-pager in the June 16, 2005 issue titled “Poker’s New World Order.” The article by Ivan Solotaroff gets a teaser (“Poker’s Crazy Geniuses”) on that issue’s cover -- the only RS cover in its first forty years to mention poker at all -- and is accented by several photographs of those mentioned in the piece. (The first page of the article appears above at the start of this post.)

The focus of the article is “The Crew,” that group of young, bankroll-sharing players marshaled together by Russ “Dutch” Boyd following the 2003 World Series of Poker. The article discusses all seven members: Boyd, his brother Robert, Scott Fischman, David Smyth, Tony Lazar, Joe Bartholdi, and Brett Jungblut.

The piece starts out painting a somewhat glamorized portrait of the young men’s lifestyles, presenting us Robert Boyd cleaning up at the Borgata, Bartholdi killing at the Bellagio, and Smyth, Lazar, and Fischman all tearing up the games online. Bartholdi (for example) is described at “the tail end of a two-day binge that’s netted him a good week’s pay -- for a mid-cap CEO.” We read about Dutch Boyd having “stitched together this loosely knit crew of savants,” and how they all touch base at their “unofficial HQ,” a frat house-like condo on Rancho Drive about ten miles from the Strip.

The article then steps back to present the state of online poker circa mid-2005. Fischman is described as playing online poker “with 149,344 others” that night. We get a brief background on the founding of the World Poker Tour, mention is made of some of the more famous poker celebs (Negreanu, Lederer, Duke, Hansen, Laak), and Esfandiari chimes in to say of the burgeoning poker boom, “This story’s just beginning, believe me.”

Then the focus turns to Dutch Boyd. We get a detailed recounting of the PokerSpot debacle. Boyd helped start the online poker site in May 2000. By early 2001, the site was earning $160,000 a month, and “in the online poker forums, Boyd was predicting $50 million yearly profits for the top Internet card rooms.” Then comes the fall, which the author of the article tenuously ties to the dot-com crash, though does clarify how PokerSpot had its assets frozen by its credit card processor (Barclay Banks of London), and how Boyd continued to solicit new accounts, a move that could be interpreted as him having “turned pokerspot.com into a Ponzi scheme.”

PokerSpot finally ceased operations in late 2001, and the article leaves the PokerSpot story in the ambigous state in which it remains today. (Cashouts for many PokerSpot players remain “pending.”) We then read about Boyd’s bipolar disorder, his unrealized vision to create a rake-free online poker site, his stay at a mental hospital in Antigua, and his 12th place finish in the 2003 WSOP Main Event, after which he formed The Crew, infamously stating they would soon “take over the poker world” and thus giving the author a title for his article.

The dissolution of The Crew is then chronicled, with Bartholdi and Jungblut leaving first, and the others kind of drifting away by 2004. We’re left with an impression of Fischman as the true star of the group -- he was certainly the most successful member at the time, having won two WSOP bracelets and the WPT Young Guns title in ’04 -- and Boyd as a crazy schemer. Indeed, mention is made along the way of the over 1,000 domain names Boyd had registered. (If you haven’t noticed, over the last couple of weeks Boyd has begun trying to sell some of those domains on eBay and via his blog.)


Although everyone reads Rolling Stone, the magazine -- like the popular music industry it primarily covers -- does mostly target a younger demographic, and I think that, more than anything, explains why one doesn’t find a lot of references to poker in its first forty years of publication. During most of those forty years, poker was a game for older people (primarily men), folks whose interests rarely intersected with those looking for the latest about David Bowie, Madonna, the Spin Doctors, ‘N Sync, or Coldplay.

Indeed, all three of these more detailed looks at poker would have particular appeal to younger readers (i.e., those in their late teens or early twenties). Given that poker has recently become a game dominated by that very age group, perhaps Rolling Stone will find more reason to discuss the game in its pages in the coming years. In any event, I do think this little research project does tell us something about how poker has rated in the popular culture over the last forty years.

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Blogger John said...

Thanks for doing that research. Although what you found was sparse, I found it to be interesting.

8/12/2008 4:51 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks Shamus for some awesome blog reporting. I really enjoyed the read. I wanted to post it to RoundersBuzz.com to get you some more exposure, but you need to select the option to make each post an individual page (in blogger dashboard settings.

8/13/2008 4:30 PM  
Blogger Random Table Draw said...

I think Dutch would make one of the best Random Questions interviews ever.

8/15/2008 1:34 AM  

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