An Education in Poker

The other day I chanced upon an article about a course on the literature of poker. I sent it to a very fine poker-player friend of mine, Shelly Brown, who works as a librarian at the Hawaii State Public Library in Honolulu. She very kindly accepted my invitation to write the following guest blog in response to the article by James McManus, adapted from his forthcoming book, “Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker”.

As a poker-playing librarian, even I am surprised James McManus is teaching a course on the literature of poker. Are there that many great books on poker? Are they enlightening, edifying, poetic or powerful? Is there even one great poker book?

McManus, who has actually written a very good poker book, "Positively Fifth Street," seems to believe that because influential, successful people such as Bill Gates, Obama, Truman and Eisenhower have cut their teeth, and sharpened their political tactics by playing the game, that we all should read literature about it.

If that is not enough to build a curriculum on, he points to the importance of poker strategy, the lexicon, the sheer risk-taking Americanness of the game. He tells us poker reflects who we are, and has helped shape our national character.

Those who follow poker a bit know McManus for both reaching the final table of the 2000 World Series of Poker (WSOP), and for being central in one of the most entertaining televised moments of the 2004 WSOP. His famous grouse, "You're disrespecting the game" toward the unconventional Elixx Powers is well-known by students of the game. The man has, so to speak, a chip on his shoulder about poker. He believes poker needs to be protected from infidels, legitimized by society, and professed to youth.

Powers, a once homeless and frequently destitute man, further mocked McManus, and with his unorthodox play, put McManus into a tailspin of "tilt" that was delightful to witness. McManus ended up calling a Powers' bluff with a ridiculous Queen high hand that gave Powers the pot and had him rolling with laughter.

Poker does not need to be prettied up and made respectable. It works in its own poetry of pleasure and pain. Those who thrive in it are rule-breaking, cut-throat geniuses. Yes, it is compelling, it is American, it is addictive, and it is merciless.

Should the literature of poker be studied? Is there a wealth of poker books our youth needs to glean lessons from? Looking at McManus' reading list it seems unlikely. Is "Streetcar Named Desire" really poker literature? Do "talking points" about famous people who play the game have anything to do with literature or poker?

If Kennedy raised Khrushchev’s bluff over the threat of a nuclear holocaust, shouldn't we study that in a course on poker and politics? Robert E. Lee used poker tactics to almost defeat the forces of the Union; let’s study poker and military strategy. If poker is the national card game, isn't that best examined within sociology or history?

McManus does in fact recommend expanding poker education, and this may be an even more suspect notion. He thinks poker may help students better understand the world from other's viewpoints. That it could be used in dispute resolution, as a tool for world peace perhaps. Do poker skills inspire one to work toward peace, love and understanding, or even fair play? Let's remember, the best poker player to inhabit the White House was Richard Nixon.


Anonymous said...

thought provoking blog.

BigAl said...

I agree with the author, although I find myself always using poker anecdotes in describing real life situations all the time.

j said...

I agree with your article. I tried to add a comment to McManus's article but it said the link had been removed.

Aaron Brown said...

I think the original post argues that poker is an unsuitable organizing principle for a literature course because there are no great books focusing on poker, and poker does not play a large enough role in other great books. Shelly agrees there are very good poker books, and that poker appears in other great books, but this apparently is not enough to make a course.

This is clearly a distinction of degree. "The Literature of Poker" is not as eccentric as, say, "The Literature of Looking for Parking Places," but also not as conventional as, say, "The Literature of War" or "The Literature of Coming of Age." I happen to like novel approaches, I value freshness in teaching more than consistency. But I admit a good teacher can inject freshness into a classic approach, and a bad teacher will be insipid however much she tries to tart up the subject.

Anyway, I'm not going to argue poker is the best way to teach literature, but I think it ranks higher than Shelly suggests. I would put it equal to, say, "The Literature of Cooking and Eating," or "The Literature of Engineering." If she would blackball those courses as well, then we may agree on poker but disagree about teaching.

The main difference is the two courses above are universal human activities, while poker is confined to certain times and places. That limits it in some ways, but it also makes it easier to select a coherent reading list.

Beyond that, I think they're pretty similar. There are very good books on food, building and poker. These activities feature in enough great books to merit study. They are not mere plot devices for which other activities could be substituted without changing the books materially. Authors assume readers know what a dinner party is, what it means to cook for someone, the psychology of building a wall or a home; and whether or not to draw to an inside straight. A poker game is a social affair with complex rules and meanings, paying a poker debt is something different from either returning a favor or repaying a commercial loan, calling a bet in poker is not the same as betting on dice, and poker chips are neither money nor arbitrary game tokens. Authors know these things and use them to express subtle ideas.

Finally, I think Jim McManus is really making a rebuttal rather than a proposal. Poker should not be ruled out as a literature course because it is unsavory, or just one more way to gamble, or dominated by social classes and settings inappropriate for polite discussion. I think if you remove the negative, a few poker literature courses would spring up naturally from professors who were so inclined, and would be reasonably popular among students, and would teach good literature. Poker wouldn't replace organizing courses by time period or geography or gender or length or grand theme; but it would add slightly to the richness of education.

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