Da Capo Press, 2008, 368 pp., $26
Poker is the quintessential American game. As with jazz or capitalism (It’s no accident all three were either invented or perfected under the American aegis), improvisation intersects with formal rules, such as how to deal and the rank of hands. Risk-taking, cunning, nerve, bluffing, inspiration, luck and even skill at cheating, it must be said, all matter as much or more. A gutsy player doesn’t need a winning hand to collect any given pot, or the best cards over an entire evening to walk away with more money than he came with. As players leave a game, they may talk about who had cards and who didn’t, but deep down they know that personalities and gaming skills defined the results.
Reputation matters, too. It is a subtle commodity. The game is not just about backing a single best hand with all your chips. It can pay to be caught bluffing and lose a modest pot early in a long game, because identical play patterns and body language can be flipped later on, to great benefit. Building a reputation for being a formidable player can pay its own rewards, too, in the excessive caution or foolish bravado of future opponents.
Poker is so deeply ingrained in American life that dozens of idioms that have found their way into American English. People who have never even played the game talk about “upping the ante” when “the chips are down”, if they have “an ace in the hole.” How many Hollywood Westerns were ever made without at least one whiskey-soaked game in the town saloon?
The cultural power of the game runs deeper. While some other cultures use chess or the Chinese game Go to think about strategic interaction, many an American soldier and statesman have instead been tutored by poker. Harry Truman, for one, loved the game and used to play in the White House (with his own chips bearing the Presidential Seal, no less) at a time when poker was technically still illegal in most of the country. He used poker metaphors in his diary, too, when discussing not only domestic politics but also how to handle Josef Stalin.
But if Americans are gamers, hucksters, risk-takers and card players par excellance, then why has so little been written about poker? There are plenty of “how to” books out there, as well as novels, short stories and films in which poker makes an appearance. But there’s very little historical scholarship on the topic relative to poker’s weight in American popular culture. Why is that, and why has the first book-length history of this mostly homegrown game now been written by an Englishman out of New Zealand who’s not a professional historian?
It could be that American poker lovers worry about what they’ll find in the past, as Des Wilson discovers in Ghosts at the Table. For him and his fellow players, the past is a bad neighborhood where maps are unreliable and the natives unfriendly.
Wilson begins his tale by checking into the Bullock Hotel in Deadwood, South Dakota, where the ghost of Seth Bullock, the original proprietor, apparently shows his disgust over the current staff’s lassitude by shaking the odd plate or turning on a random blender in the kitchen. It’s not a chance reference: Touring the remains of the Old West in modern America, Wilson continually hears of poltergeists and specters haunting the old sites. And he believes them: The legends of the past really are ghosts, and hostile ones, too. The evil they’ve done lives on, and it still might undermine the progress poker has made towards legitimacy.
After all, the archetypal Hollywood saloon shoot-out over a fifth ace is part of our collective memory for a reason. When poker was just a game instead of an industry, it didn’t matter that most professionals were crooked. Reformed gambler Jonathan Harrington Green wrote in one of the first printed references to the game, An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling (1843), that poker is a “cheating game.” He was right, but not in a simple way. Poker’s dishonesty is congenital in the sense that its reliance on deception runs deeper than marked cards and sleight of hand: The game, no less than billiards, is built on hustling. To win, you have to convincingly create doubt: Do they think I’m bluffing? Have they misjudged my cards, or me theirs? Do I really have the winning hand, or am I about to regret coming in second? Your fellow players must never know your true thinking. The stronger you are, the weaker you want to appear, and vice versa.
This is just the kind of American who jumps from the pages of Freedom Just Around the Corner, Walter McDougall’s brilliant 2004 re-interpretation of American history, which starts with a scene from Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man. McDougall suggested that what works in poker has worked in business, politics and more throughout American history, not least its earliest and presumably most noble innocent years. But can we stomach a larceny-laced poker history with more ease than an American history limned with the truth? If the game’s legends are lucky liars, we have to ask ourselves: Is this our American game? What does that mean for the game? And what does that say about us today?
Wilson divides the history of poker into four ages. First comes the riverboat and saloon period that lasted from the game’s introduction to the United States in roughly 1825 to the closing of the Western frontier, which in poker terms correlates with the last mineral booms of the 1890–1910 period. The second age starts much later, with the heyday of the Texas road gamblers in the 1950s. This short era is soon followed by the Las Vegas period, which symbolically began with the first World Series of Poker in 1970. The final age of poker is the current boom, sponsored by both television and the Internet, whose beginning most people date at around 2002.
It’s a good division for most purposes, though it neglects the “rank and file” of poker in some ways. The thousands of backroom poker games that sustained the “sport” during the first half of the 20th century, for example, are nowhere here. There’s a good reason for that, however: Back-room poker was almost entirely undocumented and little heralded, which is also why “serious” poker histories are so rare. The tedious work of trawling through scattered magazine and newspaper archives, personal papers and court transcripts in search of details about poker promises little payoff for fans of the game today, who are mainly obsessed by dramatic showdowns and heroic winners. Alas, the real history of poker is about as exciting as unedited footage of the World Series of Poker; there’s some rare drama, but most of it is just people sitting around playing cards.
In building his narrative, Wilson generally plays the cards he is dealt. Not much is known about the Mississippi riverboat era, which ranged from the game’s introduction—probably from the French game poque—to the Civil War. Wilson doesn’t offer anything new. Back then, the game was played by four persons with five cards each from a twenty-card deck. Straights were recognized but flushes were not; stud and wild cards had not yet been invented. No one yet knows much more about it, certainly not whether gamblers really looked like Yancy Derringer from the old black-and-white 1958–59 television series of the same name.
The more colorful personalities of the Wild West era left clearer traces and get more attention. Wilson repeats most of the familiar stories, though he digs up some new material by debriefing both local enthusiasts and relatives of deceased poker-playing legends. Here we encounter the dark side of Frederick Jackson Turner’s restless frontier, in which gamers’ best-cherished liberty is the freedom to con their fellows. They are a footloose lot, unburdened by ethics or responsibility. Drifting where opportunity takes them, they don’t mind a fair game, but they gladly turn to the cheating arts when it suits them. And there were ingenious devices for cheating, associated as often as not with the professional prestidigitation of circus magicians.
Skipping over much of the ensuing half-century, Wilson’s story picks up again in 1950s Texas, where Doyle Brunson, Sailor Roberts and Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston formed a partnership that defined the “road gambler” era. During this period, the highest stakes games in the country took place in the Lone Star State. Since poker was illegal, this was strictly a back-room affair, and these ardent players faced three challenges: to win the game, to collect their money and then to get out of town with it. Post-game hijackings and robberies were a very real part of the Texas poker experience.
“Amarillo Slim” Preston in 2003 [credit: © Catherine Ledner/Corbis]
Many notable figures from this era, including Brunson, Slim, Crandell Addington, Carl McKelvey and T.J. Cloutier, are still alive, and their voices let Wilson tell a heroic tale of long nights driving lonely roads and facing bad luck and violence with stoic self-possession. Cheating was still part of the game in the Texan 1950s, but it was mostly defensive, or so the oldsters say. Road gamblers had to know how to cheat so they wouldn’t get bilked by others—possibly a polite, protective fiction, but rarely questioned by the old guard.
The Texas era then retreated into the shadows as California card rooms and Nevada casinos took the game into the light. After the World Series of Poker began in 1970, most of the road gamblers settled down in Las Vegas and California card rooms and let the big money come to them. Even so, the game still had its unsavory moments. Accusations of cheating and collusion disrupted even the friendliest card rooms. In the 1979 World Series of Poker, for example, underdog Hal Fowler, nearly insensate after popping Valium for days on end, defeated a coked-out Bobby Hoff, only to vanish soon after. Wilson manages to pull a modicum of triumph from this debacle. With a little detective work, he learns Fowler’s final fate and suggests as good a theory as any to explain his disappearance. It seems that Fowler had already “vanished” once before. After returning from the armed forces after the Second World War, he spent a single day with his family in Vermont before disappearing. Wilson raises the possibility that Fowler had gone into hiding after the war after being threatened by an unknown acquaitance, and that the unexpected publicity from his poker win forced him back into obscurity. It’s a sobering reminder that there’s a great deal more to high-stakes poker than what goes on at the table.
Even after Fowler’s uninspiring championship performance, the World Series continued to grow, albeit slowly, before exploding into the big time during the past half-decade. The recent transformation of the World Series is yet another proof that gambling tends to mirror the social and economic trends of its time. Like the trends, and you’ll probably have no problem with current manifestations of gambling.
The tournament started at a family-run downtown Las Vegas casino, Binion’s Horseshoe. After patriarch Benny Binion’s 1989 death, his son Jack continued to run the tournament and the casino, but following a messy sibling battle and the property’s decline, in 2004 gaming giant Harrah’s Entertainment bought both the Horseshoe and the World Series. Deciding that the gambling hall itself was unprofitable, Harrah’s execs sold it, though they retained both the Horseshoe name and the tournament, which they soon parlayed into a televised product modeled after Las Vegas boxing matches. In effect, the World Series of Poker is now a brand name, not a single contest to determine the best poker player in the world.
Worse yet, with poker now televised ad taedium on ESPN and elsewhere, it has pretensions to sporthood, if merely by association. It probably has to have such pretensions to sustain the fact that it’s now big business. From Connecticut to California, casino card rooms are more popular than ever. The World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker have become major tournament franchises with multimillion dollar jackpots. Hollywood idols, retired sports stars and even presidential hopefuls are among the game’s fans.
Indeed, the best players are now celebrities in their own right, having gone from outlaws to role models in a single generation. Youth who might once have idolized Mickey Mantle or Michael Jordan now look up to Chris Ferguson and Phil Hellmuth. This might not be all that bad: Ferguson has a Ph.D. in computer science and an exceptionally keen mathematical mind, capable of brain-twisting excursions into higher math and game theory. If Ferguson inspires kids to brush up on their probability and statistics instead of playing Grand Theft Auto, why complain?
The respectability of its stars is also required to protect the investment of the game’s backers. Today the World Series of Poker is a corporate affair with a pragmatic mix of sponsors, from Milwaukee’s Best Light to luxury watchmaker Corum. In 2007, with the tournament removed from the cramped Horseshoe to the airy conference center at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino, more than 54,000 hopeful players from 87 countries vied in more than fifty events for nearly $160 million in prize money. That’s a far cry from the thirty seasoned players and amiable amateurs who first duked it out in Binion’s smoky casino back in 1970.
Television fueled the poker boom at first, but the real impetus for the game’s growth in recent years has come from the Internet, which introduced the game to a whole new generation, and to the world. The poker market is now fully global. American gamers can now ante up against players from Stockholm, Hyderabad, Berlin and Tokyo at a single virtual table. Poker has long been a guilty pleasure for non-Americans, having been introduced wherever American soldiers hung their helmets over the years. But the success of the online game has made it truly international, and as it gets further from its riverboat and saloon roots, foreign players are taking ownership of it: Several recent World Series champions hail from outside the United States.
This could be yet another instance of American pop culture “going global”, no less than Betty Grable’s Hollywood, rock-and-roll, hamburgers and Coca-Cola. Does this mean that poker’s ethos is becoming less American, or is this just a case of foreigners emulating the surface game without appreciating its essence? It’s too soon to say, but what is already clear is that, without the Internet, most of poker’s new, younger fans would never have taken up the game. Wilson is one of the first to chart the growth of online poker, and he captures a vibrant, dynamic group of players who play two, three or even twenty games simultaneously. It’s “a new breed of utterly fearless players, in their early 20s, respecting no reputation, wearing website caps and T-shirts, listening to music on iPods”, Wilson writes, his admiration mingled with trepidation. Have we created a monster?
Or rather, another monster: Even in the computer age, poker can’t seem to escape its seedy past. For the most part, online poker is accepted as honest, though rumors of software “poker bots” and collusion refuse to go away, as the ghosts of cheating continue to haunt. Though not quite legal, play skyrocketed until September 2006, when Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act (UIGEA). UIGEA prohibited American financial institutions from facilitating online gambling payments, but the utterly predictable and completely American irony is that UIGEA itself became law by the kind of legerdemain that poker fortunes are built on: It was slipped into a port security bill as a midnight addition. Many lawmakers had only the vaguest idea of the act’s true ramifications.
Clearly, however, Congress didn’t get the right set of talking points: that poker is thoroughly a legitimate activity that today’s uninhibited consumers should be free to play on the Internet anywhere, anytime, regardless of the laws of their community. Instead, they figured that the notorious “cheating game” would only enrich organized crime and enable money laundering, so they didn’t bother to exclude poker from the bill, as they did for horseracing, lotteries and fantasy sports, hardly more intrinsically honest activities than Internet poker. So Des Wilson is right: There are ghosts at the table, and those who love poker should be wary of them.
Ghosts at the Table is not just a history of poker. Wilson’s travels throughout America are as much a part of the book as the actual history of poker he relates. He’s no Least Heat Moon traveling the “blue highways”, but he’s no gonzo journalist either. His autobiographical detours work, for the most part, as illustrated by his chapter on the controversial Amarillo Slim. Wilson’s writing is powerful here, mostly because he invites the reader to peel back the layers of Slim’s personality along with him. With so much of the “history” in the book relatively recent, its subjectivity is apparent, and to Wilson’s credit, he acknowledges this.
Wilson is a sympathetic character, as well—a legitimately nice guy, and it comes through. He’s the deliberate foil to his heroes rather than a star himself. He’s happy to ask questions and then just sit back and listen. When Wilson finally steps into the spotlight as a participant in the 2007 World Series of Poker, it’s impossible not to root for him, and not to feel a little of his heartbreak when he loses.
As Wilson well knows, most poker players do not play professionally, do not play for spectacle in front of an audience or television cameras, and do not play with strangers on the Internet. For most Americans, anyway, poker is still something you do with friends and family. When you get down to it, it’s entertainment with an edge, the sharpness of which depends mainly on the stakes. Part of the fun is the element of deception. Poker is an individual effort in which success depends on miscommunication of a hidden reality. There is real creativity and improvisation in the deception. You can see it even when amateurs sit around a table, with “tells” falling out all over the place, to say nothing of how the game’s virtuosos go about it. The rules don’t handcuff originality; they enable it. The point at which clever play passes over a line from taking advantage of a naif to actual cheating is determined by one’s own morals and the prevailing sense of the community, as it should be.
Yet poker is more than just a game. Deciding whether to play your cards straight as they’re dealt or risk a bluff is part of what parsing the burdens of freedom is all about. Every society bends its own rules. We Americans have elevated misdirection to an artform within our market-driven, jazzy, improvisational society. With this spirit, we make American life up as we go along. We might have done better, but others have done much worse. We’re all gamers, hustlers and self-interested advertisers, but at least we’re honest about it.