Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Assigning Bradshaw and McGuire

Among the readings I assign in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class is a chapter from Paul McGuire’s Lost Vegas: The Redneck Riviera, Existentialist Conversations with Strippers, and the World Series of Poker.

The chapter comes from the latter part of the book when Dr. Pauly is at his most cynical regarding the commercial spectacle of the WSOP, the chapter ending with a funny punchline about Phil Hellmuth’s increasingly elaborate entrances to the Main Event up to that point (2008).

Pauly suggests Hellmuth try riding in one year on a donkey. “I can only imagine the snarky headlines,” he writes. “‘Ass Rides Ass to WSOP.’”

I assign the reading alongside another favorite of mine, Jon Bradshaw, writing in Fast Company about a much smaller World Series of Poker happening some 35 years before. I’ve reviewed Bradshaw’s book here before, an excellent example of long form journalism that includes several great essays, including the one about Johnny Moss I have my students read.

Unlike McGuire, Bradshaw is much more admiring of his subjects whom he treats almost as though they are larger than life. Both authors are insightful about the WSOP and poker’s broader relationship to American culture, and the contrast of their perspectives gives the students a lot to consider which makes the discussions especially enjoyable for me.

Some occasionally find Pauly a little snarky. But most are entertained and enjoy the inventiveness of his style. And they respond, too, to his overall point about the commercialization of the game, something which indeed reflects larger trends happening in America not just in poker but in other cultural forums, too.

Anyhow, the discussion this week reminded me of how much I enjoyed Pauly’s book. If you’re interested in the WSOP’s history -- and in particular that 2005-2008 period he covers most closely -- and haven’t read Lost Vegas before, I recommend it.

A lot has changed over the last five years at the WSOP, I think, and, of course, in poker, generally speaking and its place in the U.S. over the same period. And of course it has all changed even more dramatically since the 1970s when Bradshaw wrote about poker and gambling and the WSOP. But many of the observations made in both books still apply, too, which along with the strong writing is why I recommend both.

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