Monday, February 25, 2013

Imagining Poker, Imagining America

Yesterday some of you may have noticed an op-ed appearing in The New York Times by Charles Murray titled “Poker Is America.” It comes as part of a series of editorials written by various authors about “Games People Play,” and while the piece is kind of personal in nature it does ultimately provide a kind of defense of poker as a worthwhile pursuit.

I tweeted about Murray’s article yesterday, noting how some of the points he makes resonate with readings I assign in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class. In fact I shared the op-ed with my class, too, inviting them to respond and think about how some of the ideas Murray advances might compare to things we’ve been reading about and discussing.

If you haven’t seen the article, you might click over and give it a look. It’s fairly brief (less than 1,000 words), and in truth there isn’t a whole lot that strikes me as particularly new among the points the author makes. Perhaps my coming at it from the perspective of my class affects my response somewhat, but there’s not too much Murray says about poker and its relationship to American culture that others haven’t pointed out repeatedly before.

Even so, Murray is writing in The New York Times. And since he’s defending poker, his article amounts to something notable for those of us here in the U.S. who also like to defend our game, particularly in the context of creating legislation to allow us to play it (including online).

Murray highlights a couple of points about poker that I’ve found myself thinking about a lot lately, mainly because I keep encountering the same ideas being made over and over in our course readings. One concerns what might be called the “egalitarian” nature of the game whereby it really is open to anyone regardless of his or her background -- provided, of course, he or she has the money with which to play.

Murray looks around the table at the West Virginia casino at which he likes to play and rejoices in the fact that the players represent a mix of men and women, different races and ethnicities, and different age groups, even going so far as to say the games there could “give lessons to the rest of the country about making the melting pot work.”

I actually think Murray is being a little overly romantic about how peacefully this variety of people get along at the poker table. (He seems to have encountered a remarkable lack of conflict in the games he’s played.) But I get what he’s saying, and like I say it echoes things we’re reading other authors talk about in my class when they describe poker as being a “democratic” game that brings together people from all sorts of backgrounds, much as the country as a whole might be said to have done so, too.

The other point about poker Murray highlights is the way it rewards skill, or, as he puts it, the way “poker tables are pure meritocracies.” Again, we might quibble with Murray some here, too, and point out that the luck component of the game makes it somewhat less than “pure” in the way it doles out rewards based on an individual’s “merit” as a skillful player. But he’s talking about how the poker table tends to be a place where people can’t get by merely on their backgrounds but have to perform in order to succeed -- i.e., a place where you’re much more likely to be measured by your worth, not your birth.

Thinking in terms of society as a whole, Americans often like to think of their country as both egalitarian and a meritocracy. Of course, in practice neither of those ideas necessarily play out as envisioned. We don’t all get equal chances at succeeding here in the U.S., nor are we all always rewarded on the basis of our merits. (That is to say, in some cases the “American dream” really is just a dream.) But we like to think those ideas apply to our experiences here, and as Murray points out, the poker table does tend to provide a context in which we can realize those ideals, if only for the duration of a session.

In other words, it sounds more like Murray is saying “poker is America” as we might like to imagine America to be, but not really as it is.

I’m a little unsure about Murray as a commentator, my bias having been firmly established nearly two decades ago by controversies surrounding The Bell Curve, the book he co-authored in which some claims about race and intelligence earned some pretty severe criticisms, particularly in academia. I was in grad school in the 1990s, and so found myself reading a lot of withering censures of that book when it appeared.

I’m also not quite certain about the conclusion of Murray’s op-ed where he seems to be delighting in something fairly odd, namely how he and a group of players from a variety of ethnic backgrounds can bond over a shared prejudice regarding another group (Italians) for which no representative is present. Sounds a little like an ironic “praise” of poker for reflecting U.S. culture in a less than admirable way, namely as a place where intolerance (or at least suspicion of foreigners) is common.

In any event, it’s an interesting piece and I think ultimately probably helps poker’s cause somewhat, even if the argument in favor of the game isn’t necessarily as persuasive as it could have been.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Very good stuff. I had thought about some of the things you mentioned, specifically with regards to The Bell Curve. I also thought it was funny how he hadn't noticed any "racial tension" at the poker table, considering his past controversial racial history. I hadn't noticed the irony of them worried about the Italian, though. Lol.

2/26/2013 9:03 PM  

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