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Researching 'Poker & Pop Culture' at the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV

16/10/2018 by Martin Harris
Book Excerpts

Work continues on 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. I am looking forward to being in Las Vegas during the WSOP for the launch of the book. Thanks to those who have already preordered a copy!

In fact, I am actually writing from Las Vegas right now where I am currently spending time at the University of Nevada Las Vegas doing some additional research for the book at the Center for Gaming Research. There is an enormous treasure trove of fascinating material in the Special Collections at the Center, including items related to several of the areas I am exploring for Poker & Pop Culture.

The Center has an annual program called the Eadington Fellowships, named after the late economics professor William R. Eadington who is credited with having founded the discipline of Gambling Studies. The Eadington Fellowships were created to help scholars explore gambling issues as well as to encourage them to use the Center’s rare and unique collections.

For this academic year I was fortunate enough to receive one of the fellowships, and so I am getting the great opportunity to spend quality time with the Center’s Collections on the third floor of UNLV’s Lied Library. I am dividing my fellowship into two stints, spending part of it here this fall and the rest next June when I will also deliver a talk at the Center describing my project and how I used the Special Collections.

The historical gaming collection at the Center is the largest of its kind in the entire world, with lots of rare books, pamphlets, and other items dating back to the 16th century – that is, a good while before the story of poker begins in America in the early 1800s.

The Center has thousands of books on gambling-related topics (including poker), gaming-related periodicals and journals, publicity and promotional materials from casinos and other entities, manuscript collections, papers from companies and individuals involved in the industry, oral histories on a variety of gaming-related topics (and more), visual and audio material, and more. They’ve even got a collection of historical playing cards.

The focus of the Special Collections is broad, with material covering the business of gaming, its economics and social effects, as well as gaming’s “historical and cultural manifestations.” It is that latter area I’m most interested in, specifically with regard to poker and the story of its growth and development in America.

So far over my first few days here I’ve looked at numerous poker strategy texts dating back to the 1870s for my discussion of “Poker on the Bookshelf.” The Center has one of the largest collections in the world of editions of Hoyle’s Games, including the ones from mid-19th century that first start to mention a new game called “Poker, or ‘Bluff.’”

I’ve dipped into some of the literary works in the collection, finding items that will be relevant to my chapters on “Poker in Literature.” I’ve also been able to supplement my chapters on “Poker on Television,” “Poker on the Newsstand,” “Poker in the Board Room,” as well as some other discussions in the book.

I’ve actually done a great deal of writing and research already, so a lot of what I’m doing here is filling in gaps in my narrative. But I’m constantly running across new items, too, which is making the work all the more enjoyable.

For instance, while looking for something else I ran across a script for a live television program that aired on ABC in 1950 – a half-hour drama revolving around a high-stakes poker game. This was only a couple of years after ABC first went on the air, and the show is no doubt one of the earliest examples of a made-for-TV play featuring poker. The script even includes notes from a director expressing his worry that because of “the difficulties involved in a shooting a group seated around a table the play would lose its drama and excitement when translated to twelve inch screens.” (That’s right – 12”!)

Speaking of television, I’ve also looked at material related to the early years of the WSOP and some of the first attempts to broadcast edited versions of the Main Event during the 1970s and 1980s. Anyone who has spent time at the WSOP would find the many boxes’ worth of material containing “Binion’s Horseshoe Casino Records on Poker” fascinating to explore – press releases, clippings, photos, scrapbooks, programs, pamphlets, and lots of other “behind the scenes” material like correspondence, invoices, advertising budgets, proposals, and more.

Indeed, it’s hard not to get a little distracted by the typed and handwritten lists of results from events, the mock-ups of old WSOP programs and press kits, the Poker Hall of Fame certificates to Edmond Hoyle and Will Bill Hickok, and other ephemera that probably won’t get specific attention in the book (although perhaps I’ll share some of that extra material here at some point).

In the time I have left here, I’m specifically hoping to learn more about early Las Vegas (for “Poker in Casinos”). I’m also planning to devote some time to seeking out some photographs to include among the many images that will be appearing in Poker & Pop Culture.

That said, I’m sure I’ll be discovering plenty else to occupy me before I travel back home to North Carolina for the final stretch of writing and revising. After all, much like poker, research often involves a combination of skill and luck.