Thursday, September 15, 2011

So, Tell Me... Do You Count Cards?

'Degrassi: The Next Generation'This week for my “Community Cards: Poker in Popular Culture” column over on the Epic Poker League site I wrote about a recent two-part episode of the teen drama “Degrassi: The Next Generation” in which poker was prominently featured. Click on over, if yr curious.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it features an ensemble cast of teens involved in numerous relationships with one another while dealing with all sorts of contemporary issues. Shot and set in Canada where the show is very popular, “Degrassi: The Next Generation” has a decent following in the U.S. as well thanks to its being aired on the TeenNick network.

Actually this “Next Generation” show (on since 2001) is the fourth different iteration of the “Degrassi” franchise, with some version of the show being on the air since way back in 1979. Kind of resembles “Beverly Hills, 90210” or “Saved By the Bell,” although it comes on four times a week and so has even more of a soap opera-like feel to it, albeit with teens.

In the two-parter I wrote about, we follow one student’s travails as she finds herself becoming more engrossed in the game, which ultimately causes several problems for her, the most significant being the way her poker-playing comes to threaten her relationship with her boyfriend. You’ll see me conclude that poker ends up kind of functioning very much like the many other challenges the teens frequently face on the show (e.g., drugs, drinking, violence, sex, etc.).

In other words, poker isn’t really depicted all that favorably, although the writers do seem to want to acknowledge how there is skill involved in poker. That is, in the world of “Degrassi” poker is not strictly a gambling game based entirely on luck.

The girl -- Alli -- is a gifted student, especially in math and science, and thus is the idea put forth that she does well at poker thanks to those skills. However, that idea gets kind of muddled when other characters on the show suggest Alli does well at hold’em (the game they are playing) because she is “counting cards.”

You heard that right. The idea comes up more than once, and in fact figures importantly into the climactic scene at the end of the two-part episode when Alli is accused of “counting cards” -- as if that were even something hold’em players can do, let alone a method of cheating.

I say all this a bit derisively, but really, it’s amazing how prevalent that idea of “counting cards” is when it comes to the way people think of poker and how it is played. Haven’t you had a conversation with a non-poker playing friend or family member who has asked you about counting cards? I know I have.

'Beat the Dealer' by Edward Thorp (1962)Systems for card counting in blackjack first arose in the 1950s -- not long after the birth of Vegas -- though it was math professor Edward O. Thorp’s 1962 best-selling book Beat the Dealer that really helped introduce the idea of card counting to the cultural mainstream. And over subsequent decades the battle between casinos and card counters became an ongoing subtext for blackjack -- the game within the game -- with various changes in the rules, game play, technology, and other countermeasures being introduced to minimize or eradicate its effectiveness.

Meanwhile, poker got popular. And somewhere along the way people started thinking that as another game played with cards, being able to count those cards might somehow help you over at the poker tables, too. And while there are variants in which remembering already-dealt cards is of obvious benefit (e.g., stud games), it’s still kind of silly to hear talk of “card-counting” in poker.

Silly, but not that surprising. I mean, the mistake comes up so often, you can almost count on it.

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Blogger John G. Hartness said...

I always count cards. If I have two, it's Hold 'Em. If I have four, it's Omaha. If I have three, it's a problem.

9/15/2011 5:01 PM  

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