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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