Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tempus Fuggitaboutit

Growth of the InternetTeaching this “Poker in American Film and Culture” course has been both interesting and challenging. I’m now teaching it for a third time, having revised the syllabus again by dropping a few items and adding others.

From the beginning, I knew I’d have to be careful about how I handled the most recent decade or so as far as the historical survey of poker went. So much has happened so quickly -- even over the last year -- that I knew it would be tricky to try to pretend to cover all of the developments in poker from 2003-onward in a course that also purports to look at the 200-year history of the game in America.

The first two times I taught the course, I saved a couple of classes at the end to deal with “miscellaneous” topics like online poker, legal issues, and other items. This time around I’ve actually omitted that unit entirely, planning instead to bring up these topics at other moments during the semester, kind of tying various present-day matters to historical events and issues as they arise.

All of which is to say, I’ve pretty much set the topic of online poker to the side this time around. Imagine one of those literature survey classes that tries to cover everything in 15 weeks. You know, “Beowulf to Virginia Woolf” or something. And how oftentimes the professor never got to Virginia Woolf or even the 20th century, having been slowed down by the Romantic poets right after the break and falling hopelessly behind schedule.

It’s kind of the same situation here. My course begins at the start of the 19th century and extends to start of the 21st century, with contemporary developments being addressed along the way. We only have a few months together. Not enough time for everything.

The fact is, I can imagine an entire class devoted solely to the story of poker since the first online cash game went live on Planet Poker on January 1, 1998. Just think of all of the many areas of inquiry such a class would have to cover as it traced the explosion of the online game, the rise of televised poker and the game’s sudden emergence in the mainstream, the celebrities and scandals, the various legal conflicts highlighted by the UIGEA, Black Friday, and other signal moments, and more.

You can see why I’m finding it hard to include all of that in my single semester course while dealing with the previous couple of centuries, too.

That 10th anniversary PokerStars celebrated last month got me thinking further about the rise of online poker, generally speaking. Obviously Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 WSOP Main Event win -- his entry into the event coming via qualifying online at Stars -- was a big part of the online game suddenly becoming popular. But even if that hadn’t happened, it seems like playing poker online would have become popular, anyway, although perhaps not quite as rapidly.

inter-what?If I remember correctly, I think I got my first email account in 1994. It wasn’t long after that that the first online casinos started to appear, although I can’t say I was aware of them then. I believe the first online casino went live in 1995 or thereabouts. Amazon and eBay both went online in 1995, too.

That was the same year Clifford Stoll infamously penned an article for Newsweek titled “The Internet? Bah!” in which he uttered a handful of proclamations including “no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”

Also listed among his many ill-fated prophecies was a claim that consumers will never agree to the idea of actually purchasing items online. “Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet -- which there isn’t -- the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople,” wrote Stoll.

To be fair, the idea of sending money over the internet did seem more than a bit sketchy in 1995, let alone trusting sites enough to gamble that way. But things changed quickly, and before the end of the 1990s people like Rob Spiegel of the E-Commerce Times were already writing articles asking “When Did The Internet Become Mainstream?

With users having quickly become comfortable with the idea of shipping money back and forth online, it was inevitable that increased opportunities to gamble online would follow, including online poker. The poker “boom” was certainly accelerated by Moneymaker and the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel, but it likely would’ve happened in some form, anyway, even without those encouragements.

Which leads to another “alternate history”-type question. If the “boom” hadn’t happened as quickly as it did, would legislators have done better to keep up with things sufficiently enough either to stem online poker’s growth or introduce reasonable, workable means to regulate the industry?

I suppose that would be a topic for my own alternate poker class, the one in which we examined the last decade in earnest.

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