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ANNOUNCING: Poker & Pop Culture
Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game

19/09/2018 by Martin Harris
Book Excerpts

Hello, readers! I’m excited to share with you news about my forthcoming book for D&B Poker, Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game, due to appear next summer in time for the World Series of Poker.

It’s fair to say the book has been over a decade in the making, dating back to some of my earliest columns and articles exploring the history of poker and the many ways the game has popped up in American popular culture since its introduction in the early 19th century.

One direct inspiration for the book has been a college course I’ve been teaching for several years at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte titled “Poker in American Film and Culture.” The class covers the history of poker while also examining examples of the game’s portrayal in various entertainment media, especially in the movies. As a class we watch and discuss The Cincinnati Kid, California Split, and Rounders, as well as clips from about a dozen other films along the way.

Like my course, the book similarly reviews poker’s history in America and the game’s evolution over the last two centuries while also giving special attention to poker’s prominence in American popular culture.

I start out covering poker’s “pre-history” and early stories about the game as it was played on steamboats, in Old West saloons, by soldiers during the Civil War, and in other 19th-century contexts. Then as the story moves forward into the 20th century, I spend time considering representations of poker in literature, art, drama, music, films, radio and television programs.

Such portrayals not only show how important poker is to American culture, but how the “mainstream” has tended to view the game over the years – both positively (as emblematic of American values and played by everyone, regardless of their background) and negatively (as a morally objectionable game played by outlaws).

The book additionally explores instances where poker’s story intersects with the history of American politics, warfare, business, law, and technology. There is discussion as well of more recent poker history, including the rise of online poker, some of the game’s recent legal battles in the U.S., and where the game might be headed in the 21st century.

One objective we pursue in my class is to show how the story of poker can serve as a lens through which to examine numerous aspects of American history and culture from the early 19th century to the present day. That’s also a goal of Poker & Pop Culture, although I hope the book also provides a lot of entertainment to go along with the instruction, especially in the form of the numerous wild and interesting stories about poker, many of which I’ll wager even the most ardent poker players are not aware.

I’m trusting there will be a lot of “I never knew!”-type moments for readers – something my students routinely express as they learn about poker’s story. Things like the fact that the first poker strategy book was written by a U.S. ambassador (and ex-Congressman). Or that Tennessee Williams’s original title for A Streetcar Named Desire was The Poker Night. Or that Richard Nixon (one of many poker-playing presidents) financed his first Congressional campaign with his poker winnings. And on and on and on.

As I continue work on Poker & Pop Culture, I’ll touch base here from time to time to provide occasional updates here on my progress, perhaps sharing some excerpts and/or extra material that doesn’t quite make it into the finished book.

Speaking of the latter, as I work on the book I’m reminded of a conversation I had with James McManus not long after the publication of his book Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker (2009). McManus explained to me how his original draft had run about 1,000 pages, more than half of which ended up having to be cut before publication.

I well understand how that happened. When it comes to poker’s history, there are so many deep and fascinating rabbit holes, I’ve realized already how necessary it will be to be selective in places if I want to produce a book of reasonable length. Just to give an example, I have notes on around 100 different films – comedies, westerns, dramas, and more – in which poker plays a significant role, from the short silent film Poker at Dawson City (1899) made by Thomas Edison’s company all the way through Molly’s Game (2017). No room to discuss them all, however tempting it might be to do so.

Back to work. More news to come!