Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Game of Outlaws: Poker’s Image in America

Wild Bill HickokMy “Poker in American Film and Culture” class met again yesterday. I’d given them a little holiday just before the end of the semester so I could make that Lima trip. As it happens, our topics for these last couple of classes of the semester were already scheduled to be “legal issues” (one day) and “online poker” (another). No shinola!

I knew when I made out the schedule that one day each for these topics would hardly be enough. And now, thanks to the events of last Friday, we’ve got ourselves a helluva lot more to talk about.

To try to get the class up-to-date on at least some of what is going on, I have pointed them to Nate “FiveThirtyEight” Silver’s New York Times blog post from yesterday titled “After ‘Black Friday,’ American Poker Faces Cloudy Future.” Silver does an excellent job telling the story of the “rise and fall” of online poker in the U.S., beginning back in 2003 with the Moneymaker “boom” and ending with last Friday’s DOJ indictments of the founders of Stars, Full Tilt, Absolute Poker, and others.

I like especially how Silver is conscious in his narrative of having a wide audience, thus making the article accessible to those outside of our highly-focused little world of poker players, fans, media, etc. That’s the main reason why I pointed my students to Silver’s article, since while some of them are online poker players and somewhat into the whole scene, most aren’t and thus weren’t even aware of “Black Friday” or its significance when they arrived to class yesterday.

Black FridayIt will obviously take not just days or weeks, but months and years to sort out all of the consequences of the DOJ’s unsealing of those indictments last Friday. That is to say, the ultimate significance of “Black Friday” is not something we’re going to be able to come to any grand conclusions about before the semester ends. I think it is safe to say already, though, that as far as poker’s “image” or place in American culture goes, that obviously took a fairly huge hit last Friday.

What is poker? A game of cards that involves betting. A game that unlike many other gambling games generally requires some degree of skill of players for them to be consistently successful. Poker thus provides a ready context to demonstrate all sorts of positive human traits including intelligence and creativity. The game additionally provides occasions to satisfy our desire for competition and social interaction. It also can be a damn lot of fun.

However, as we’ve been discussing frequently in class, poker has long carried negative connotations, too. In part, such connotations stem from poker’s association with other gambling games, to which many object on moral grounds. But there are other factors which have made poker a special target for some.

For one, poker has always been especially popular among gambling games, and thus tends to get more attention (and scrutiny) from those who don’t gamble. I also think that there are certain aspects of the game -- including the way it highlights both self-interestedness and deceit -- that might cause some not to like poker or poker players, although that’s an observation requiring more explanation than I want to get into at the moment.

The Game of OutlawsOf course, poker’s “outlaw” status has been further heightened by its frequent association with other, more obviously opprobrious examples of human behavior. Ever since the early 19th century when the game began its spread from New Orleans up the Mississippi and eventually to both coasts, the story of poker has included numerous episodes of violence, cheating and robbery, alcohol and drug use (and abuse), the involvement of various people associated with organized crime, and other activities more readily marked as “bad” morally speaking.

It was this latter aspect of poker’s story that came to mind for me when I first learned about the indictments.

Sure, there were the charges related to the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 and the Illegal Gambling Business Act of 1970. Charges related to these two laws both need for poker to be classified as “illegal” or “unlawful” gambling -- a matter of dispute between the sites (who think poker is not “illegal” or “unlawful” gambling) and the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney's Office (who think it is).

Regardless of how this particular debate might ever go in court (if it ever does), in the court of public opinion those wanting to defend poker can argue on behalf of their game by distinguishing it from other forms of gambling, or at least as not covered by the definitions of “illegal gambling” or “unlawful internet gambling” in the laws cited here.

However, the indictments also include those conspiracy charges to commit wire fraud/bank fraud and to commit money laundering. While some are wanting to say that the unfair UIGEA set the stage for these violations to occur, most -- even those in the poker community most ardent to defend the sites -- are in agreement that these charges are much more difficult to counter.

“Those things don’t have anything to do with poker,” said my father to me on the phone yesterday after I explained to him what the indictments included. He’s right -- they don’t. But as far as the current “image” of poker is concerned, we can all count on the phrases “bank fraud” and “money laundering” to come up frequently whenever the topic of online poker in the U.S. is brought up for the foreseeable future.

'Thirty Years Passed Among the Players in England and America' by Joe Cowell (1844)But it’s always been that way for poker and poker players. Joe Cowell, an actor writing way back in the early 19th century, discussed card players and gamblers in his memoir Thirty Years Passed Among the Players in England and America (1844). Even then, associated stories of cheating and violence had created a prejudice in the popular mind that Cowell believed was erroneously applied.

“After the actors there is no class of persons so misrepresented and abused behind their backs as the professional gamblers, as they are called,” wrote Cowell. “As in my trade, the depraved and dishonourable are selected as the sample of all.”

Cowell goes on to defend the gamblers, saying how in his experience their “kindness of heart, liberality, and sincerity of friendship -- out of their line of business -- they cannot be excelled by any other set of men who make money their only mental occupation.”

Despite such defense, the subsequent history of poker in the U.S. proves how the “depraved and dishonourable” would come to remain “the sample of all.” Or at least for most observers. And it seems the events of “Black Friday” will only further that trend.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

So your a teacher of poker culture? or just American Culture, and your topic this semester is poker?

Either way that's crazy cool. :)

I've always like my debate classes, and that's what I get from what you've said. Looking at different point of views, and distinguishing the possibilities of an outcome. Awesome.

Very good read. Good Luck to you sir, Deuces!


P.S: Any chance for a link up, or advice for my own blog would be greatly appreciated, thanks.

4/21/2011 4:22 PM  

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