Monday, February 07, 2011

Placing Poker in American History

‘‘Green Berets’ at a poker game at outpost of Buon Brieng,’ Saigon, Vietnam, Nov 1964, photo by Larry Burrows, part of Life Magazine collectionIn my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class we’ve spent the first few weeks talking about the origins of the game as well as its development and history in the U.S. And the game’s place in American history, too.

We’ve read through the first two-thirds or so of James McManus’ Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker (2009), a couple of chapters of David Spanier’s Total Poker (1977), and a couple of other essays along the way, too. That’s brought us up past the mid-20th century and into the Vietnam era. That picture, by the way, is of Green Berets playing poker in Saigon in 1964, one of the many excellent poker-related photos in the Life Magazine collection.

Pretty soon we’ll be carrying the story forward to the present, which means we’ll be talking Vegas, California poker, and the WSOP. (See the list of readings here.)

The class has been a lot like a history course thus far. Soon it will turn into more of a sociology or even anthropology course as we talk more about the “culture of poker,” examining some of the different contexts in which the game is played and how individuals tend to behave in those contexts.

After that it will be a literature class for a few weeks (when we read short stories and a novel), then a film class (when we watch The Cincinnati Kid, California Split, and Rounders). Finally we’ll be talking psychology, cultural studies, and more when we address a miscellany of topics at the end (gender roles, morality, law, technology). By the way, if you want to read a bit more about the course and what it is about, Amy Zupko of Woman Poker Player did a piece last week on my class, titled “American Culture Through the History of Poker.”

One topic that has come up several times during these first few weeks has been the way our writers -- McManus and Spanier, primarily -- “use” poker to interpret history.

The first time I read Cowboys Full (back in the fall of 2009 when the book initially appeared), I remember thinking McManus every now and then seemed as though he might be forcing poker into the discussion a bit too impertinently. (Here is the review of the book I wrote for Betfair Poker at the time.) In other words, it appeared at times poker was really only a minor, tangential part of a given anecdote, yet it had been promoted to a place of utmost importance in the telling.

For example, one chapter relates in great detail the story of the life of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a tough, at times brutal soldier and leader. His story includes the fact that he played poker, and McManus makes a lot of the fact that “his military record suggests he was a poker natural” -- that is to say, his successes on the battlefield demonstrate for the author the sort of aggression and nerve that usually serve one well in a poker game.

I remember when I first read this chapter thinking McManus might be making too much of the poker connection. At one point he’s explaining how Forrest disagreed with the battle plans of his superior, General Braxton Bragg, who, as it happens, did not play poker. Forrest -- whom McManus groups with other “poker-playing regular fellows” -- is drawn as a more competent strategist, with his “poker-inflected stratagems” distinguishing him from the less effective Bragg.

While I’m inclined to buy the general point that poker can be an especially useful game to learn for military leaders (or presidents or others in power) -- a point that McManus, Spanier, and others make repeatedly -- I wasn’t utterly convinced in this chapter that the relative disparity between Forrest and Bragg’s knowledge of the game was as significant as I was being told it was. (Perhaps the fact that the racist Forrest would go on to become the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan made me even less inclined to celebrate his poker playing.)

In any event, as I go back through McManus’s book again with my class, I realize I’m appreciating more and more what McManus is up to. Obviously one can get carried away with this business of “seeing poker everywhere.” (We players do this a lot, don't we?) But as I go back through the book, I’m understanding a bit more readily the significance of many of the connections he’s drawing between poker and American history. And appreciating his book more as I do.

McManus’s references along the way to other historians like Shelby Foote (the great Civil War chronicler) and David Halberstam (author of The Best and the Brightest and other important works on Vietnam) and their frequent evocations of poker in their histories is also helping to convince me that the references are mostly appropriate. The fact that these guys tend to make a lot of the way the subjects of their histories play poker -- and “think” poker -- helps support what McManus is doing in his history.

And perhaps helps justify the idea that poker is indeed a topic worthy of consideration in an American Studies course, I might as well add.

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