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“Maverick” (from “Poker on Television”)

07/03/2019 by Martin Harris
Book Excerpts

Poker & Pop Culture front cover

As central as poker is to Old West storytelling, poker was often only a tangential (and frequently negative) element in the worlds portrayed by televised westerns….

A significant pro-poker exception among TV westerns, however, was Maverick (1957-62) starring James Garner as the Old West poker player, Bret Maverick. Created by Roy Huggins with a conscious intent to spoof other “straight” western series like his own popular Cheyenne (1955-63), Maverick featured a humorous hero decidedly unlike the standard rough-hewn model of masculinity. A Life magazine article from 1959 marveling at the show’s popularity considers how the unique approach to the genre helped _Maverick_stand out from the 32 westerns on television at the time it premiered. “It’s ‘hero’ is a lazy, sneaky, poker-playing vagrant, the black sheep of the cattle country,” observes the commentator. “On any other western he would be taken for the heavy, or least for a personification of human frailty.” The article points out how the character dislikes gunplay, doesn’t drink, prefers to run from conflict than to face it, and isn’t even especially intelligent, usually being more lucky than good – all evidence to support the idea that “as western heroes go, Maverick is singularly unheroic.”

As the series progressed other Mavericks were rotated in and out of starring roles. A poker-playing brother, Bart (Jack Kelly) was introduced partway into the first season, then after Garner left the show following the third season a cousin Beau (Roger Moore) and later another brother Brent (Robert Colbert) were added. While poker wasn’t always the focus of episodes’ plots, it was nevertheless a constant subtext, with Maverick’s identity as an archetypal 19th-century itinerant gambler (albeit with a modern sense of humor) helping present the game in a more favorable light than was the case in other TV westerns. Sometimes his poker playing was carefully integrated into episodes’ plots, such as in the very first, “War of the Silver Kings,” in which Maverick beats a silver baron in a game, thereby becoming an endangered target. (He manages to escape unscathed.) Another early episode, “According to Hoyle,” finds Maverick playing poker aboard a steamboat and getting beaten repeatedly by a Southern belle who it turns out is exacting revenge against Maverick for having defeated her father in the past. Other times poker is a means to inject humor, such as in “Relic of Fort Tejon” when Maverick unwittingly wins a camel in a poker game. In all cases the game functioned as an meaningful element of the show and its main character, with Maverick’s wit and craftiness at the tables seamlessly translating to the ingenuity he displays when away from them.

One of the most memorable uses of poker in the series comes in the episode titled “Rope of Cards” in which Maverick serves on a jury in a murder trial. He has to convince a holdout juror that reasonable doubt requires a not guilty verdict. In order to prove to the fellow juror (also a fellow poker player) both that a “sure thing” isn’t always as it seems and that “your judgment can be wrong,” Maverick gets him to agree to a wager that from 25 randomly dealt cards he can produce five “pat hands” – i.e., hands ranked as a straight or better. The fellow juror believes the odds of doing so to be 100,000-to-1 against, but after being dealt 25 cards Maverick is able to arrange them into four flushes and one straight quite easily. In fact, the true odds are something like 98 percent – or as Maverick says, “practically every time” before naming the demonstration “Maverick Solitaire.”

Show creator Huggins later observed that the day after “Rope of Cards” was broadcast, stores across the country sold out of decks of playing cards as everyone who had watched wanted to try out “Maverick Solitaire” themselves. It’s true that the show’s popularity genuinely helped encourage more to take up the game, sparking a surge in interest in poker. The show inspired series tie-ins like the paperback strategy guide Poker According to Maverick (written anonymously by Huggins), a run of comic books featuring issues adapting episodes’ plots, Maverick holster sets and toy guns, and even children’s costumes. Other series both contemporaneous and later repurposed elements from Maverick, and the show itself spawned a couple of belated reboots (also starring Garner) and a feature film in 1994 in which Garner played a supporting role to Mel Gibson’s Bret Maverick. All the imitations and iterations shared the same playful approach to the character and concept, making Bret Maverick more comedian than cowboy. That a western series purporting to parody the genre would be the one to provide the most consistently positive portrayal of poker perhaps says something about the game’s often contested place in the larger culture.

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