Wednesday, December 04, 2019

"Poker & Pop Culture"

I recently finished reading Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America's Favorite Card Game by my friend Martin Harris, aka Shamus of Hard-Boiled Poker. (Amazon link here.) That's it up there on my Kindle, which is how I prefer to read most books these days. It was published six months ago, but I took a while to get through it because of my bad habits of (1) trying to read, like, five books at the same time, and (2) being easily distracted by whichever new one I just bought ("squirrel!") instead of sticking with one until it's finished.

The book has a fair amount of overlap with Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker by James McManus, and that work is cited extensively. If you've read it, you'll probably feel that there are whole chapters of Martin's book that you can skip over lightly. This is especially true near the beginning, where, of necessity, he starts with the origins of the game itself and how it spread.

But then he gets to the core of his subject: how poker appears in and has shaped popular culture--particularly books, magazine, movies, music, television, and radio. Martin has written about many facets of this before, but the essays are scattered around his blog and the various online outlets he has written for; here it's all in one place, plus a ton of details I don't recall seeing before. Martin practically has a corner on the market in this subject matter. Nobody else has written about or researched it as extensively as he has. He has even taught college courses on exactly this stuff.

Let me show you screen shots of some of the things I highlighted because I found them particularly surprising or interesting:

Truth! This is what makes playing poker with tourists in Vegas profitable.

WTF? R U SERIOUS? 66 cards, five suits, and a joker? I can't even imagine how this works. So, where do I sign up?

Also truth. Well, except for the making money part of it.

I don't see how there can be any argument to the contrary.

This sounds amazing. You had me at "Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart." Here's a list of where you can find it on various streaming services.

Back-story to the Kenny Rogers hit. I did not know that Cash had recorded it at roughly the same time. You can hear it on YouTube here. Maybe it's just familiarity, but I think Rogers's version is much better, even though I love Johnny Cash.

When I read this, I said to myself, "No effin' way!" and rushed to YouTube to find this thing. Here, let me save you the trouble, because you have to see this:

Perhaps oddly, my favorite part of the book is the appendix. In it, Martin lists 100 movies either about poker or with a key poker scene, and ranks them, best to worst. (Spoiler alert: "The Cincinnati Kid" nabs the #1 spot, and some piece of dreck called "Zeta One" brings up the rear.) I don't think I could have listed a hundred such movies if my life depended on it.

Between that appendix and the main chapter on poker in the movies, I've highlighted in the text maybe a dozen that sound good enough that I plan to seek them out and watch them. Some I've never heard of before, some are classics that I've inexcusably neglected all these years. My future viewing list includes "Winchester '73," "Rio Bravo," "Silverado," "Dr. Jack," "Poppy," "Tillie and Gus," and "Thursday's Game."

One quibble: The Kindle version has a glitch throughout, in which every ellipsis in the original text is rendered as an ampersand. There are dozens of these scattered throughout the book. But one soon learns to ignore the anomaly.

If the general subject matter interests you--and, since you're reading this blog, why wouldn't it?--then order it from Amazon or directly from the publisher, here. If you're going to read it on Kindle, I suggest buying it from Amazon, because it will be available across all your devices, which the eBook version from the publisher won't do. (Once you have the eBook file, you can install it in any device you want, but you have to do it separately for each one; with Amazon, it's automatic.)

In any format, there is much to learn and enjoy here.