Friday, April 26, 2013

Poker and the Boy Scouts

A couple of summers ago, Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) introduced a House bill that aimed to license, regulate, and tax online poker in the U.S. While the poker community gave it some attention, it didn’t really earn much elsewhere. However the bill was referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce who a few months after the bill’s introduction had a hearing to discuss “Internet Gaming: Is There a Safe Bet?”

While that hearing was nominally about online gambling, generally speaking, much of the talk focused more specifically on poker and the prospects for federal legislation regarding online poker in the U.S. Nothing would come of that discussion, and the bill went no further. Meanwhile some states have moved forward on their own, most notably Nevada and New Jersey.

I found Barton’s comments in the hearing interesting, though. I remember at the time sharing them with my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class that semester. I wanted to give the students an update on how Congress was then talking about poker, but also I wanted them to hear Barton make reference to some of the stories and ideas we’d been discussing in the course.

“Poker is the all-American game,” Barton began. “President Richard Nixon financed his first Congressional campaign partially with poker winnings from World War II. Our current president, President Obama, is reputed to be a very good poker player. I learned to play poker, believe it or not, in the Boy Scouts. So if you learn something in the Boy Scouts, it's got to be a good thing, right?”

The stories of Nixon and Obama’s poker playing are both fairly well known, especially that of “Tricky Dick” reportedly taking $6,000 off his fellow Naval officers during a couple of months in the Pacific, then using that money to help fund his first successful Congressional campaign in 1946. Indeed, we’d read about both Nixon and Obama and their poker playing in the class already.

But the story of learning the game in the Boy Scouts was something we hadn’t really encountered. We certainly had talked a lot about poker being played by soldiers in all branches of the military, but nothing about Boy Scouts playing poker. I decided to investigate further.

As Barton was implying when sharing the story, his having learned poker as a scout is not unique. Many who have participated in the Boy Scouts of America learned how to play card games, including poker, along with the many other activities that form part of the scouting experience.

I was a Cub Scout for a few years, and remember making it to Webelos and perhaps even getting the Arrow of Light, although I didn’t continue on into the Boy Scouts. I do remember playing card games as a scout like “War” and “Navy,” and while it’s possible I learned about poker hand rankings back then I don’t have any clear memories of playing poker back then.

Many others do, however, have memories similar to Barton’s. Among professional players, Andy Bloch has noted in interviews how he first learned to play poker as a Boy Scout. WSOP Circuit regular and ring winner at the 2007 WSOP-C Tunica event Robert Castoire has likewise noted that he first learned the game in the Boy Scouts.

Indeed, many who learned how to build a fire, pitch a tent, and other lessons for life in the Boy Scouts similarly found themselves learning to bet their big hands, not to chase inside straights, and that accurately anticipating an opponent’s move is another way to apply the Boy Scouts’ motto to “Be Prepared.”

I dug a little further. As it happens, poker and card playing form part of the story of the origins of the Boy Scouts of America.

William D. Boyce, a newspaper publisher from Chicago, first founded the BSA in 1910. Boyce was himself an avid poker player, and his wife, Mary Jane, was said to be a good player, too. A highly successful entrepreneur, the 51-year-old Boyce was already a multi-millionaire when he started the BSA. In fact, some have even speculated that Boyce’s financial well-being might have been significantly bolstered by his poker playing, although no evidence exists to support such a conjecture.

As it happens, the very first edition of the Boy Scouts Handbook published in 1911 does contain a reference to card playing, although there the activity is presented in a somewhat negative light.

The reference appears amid a sequence of stories and essays about American wars, politics, presidents, government, the military, and other matters falling under the heading of the chapter’s title, “Patriotism and Citizenship.”

Among the stories told by the chapter’s author, Waldo Sherman, is that of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and the British. Interestingly, rather than provide an account of the war itself, Sherman focuses instead on the story of a 10-year-old boy, David Glasgow Farragut.

Farragut would go on to make a name for himself fighting for the Union in the Civil War, but he was just a boy in 1812. Nonetheless, when his father (a naval officer) was sent to New Orleans to help fight off the Brits, young David was taken along to serve as a cabin-boy. Sherman shares some of Farragut’s memories of the trip.

“I had some qualities that I thought made a man of me,” said Farragut. “I could swear like an old salt, could drink as stiff a glass of grog as if I had doubled Cape Horn, and could smoke like a locomotive. I was great at cards, and was fond of gambling in every shape.”

However, David’s father was less than pleased with his son’s precocity, and thus following dinner one night confronted him with a question: “David, what do you mean to be?”

David’s answer was that he wished to be like his father and “follow the sea” as a navy man. But his father objected, telling the boy “you will have to change your whole course of life if you ever become a man.”

Young David understood the implication of his father’s words, and from that point made a resolution. “I’ll change my life, and I will change it myself” he decided. “I will never utter another oath, never drink another drop of intoxicating liquor, [and] never gamble.” Telling the story years later, Farragut was able to proclaim that he had “kept these three vows to this hour.”

The implication, of course, is that by setting aside the card-playing -- a vice here associated with drinking, swearing, and other activities to be avoided by civic-minded citizens -- Farragut did successfully grow into the sort of man that boys reading his story might well take as a model to follow.

As an organization designed to build character, foster citizenship, and improve physical fitness (among other goals), the Boy Scouts of America has never officially included poker as a scheduled activity. Even if over the years it has been proven time and time again that a game of cards has repeatedly proven an inviting option when sitting around a campfire.

Thus there is no BSA merit badge for poker. Except, of course, for the spoof badge created by the same folks who came up with merit badges for making popcorn, snoring, belching, and outhouse tipping.

That said, the idea of there ever being a real poker merit badge perhaps became marginally less far-fetched when the BSA not too long introduced a new merit badge for chess. Among the requirements for earning the badge, scouts must learn the rules and scorekeeping, chess notation, play in a tournament, organize a competition, and teach someone else how to play chess.

Who knows? Perhaps these stories of Boy Scouts learning poker might become even more common, especially if the decision is made to create actual poker merit badges.

After which point, the scouts could then play for them.

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Blogger OhCaptain said...

I learned a lot about playing poker when I was a Boy Scout. Granted, we were playing for food usually, but hey, we still played.

4/26/2013 11:43 AM  

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