As we noted earlier this week, PokerStars was well represented at the Global Poker Awards with the PokerStars Blog’s very own Martin Harris taking the trophy for the best Media Content (Written) for his book published last summer Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game.
The book covers poker’s origins and early history all of the way through to the present, describing how it was first played on steamboats and saloons, in Civil War encampments, and eventually in clubs, private homes, casinos, and on the computer. It discusses the many ways poker has intersected with other areas of American life including business, sports, entertainment, politics, and warfare.
The book also comprehensively considers the significance of poker’s portrayal in “mainstream” cultural productions. To give an example of the book’s scope, Harris discusses around 130 different films, 40 television series, and 50 songs that involve poker in some fashion — and that’s only in a few of the chapters!
We’ve shared excerpts from Poker & Pop Culture before, but thought it was a good time to share another one — a fun selection from a chapter called “Poker on the Bookshelf” in which Harris provides a historical overview of poker strategy books published from the 19th century to today.
During the early days of poker books, most authors offered lots of disclaimers indicating how the idea of writing a book about poker wasn’t such a reputable thing to be doing. The following excerpt talks about a half-dozen such titles, each of which finds the author either apologizing for writing a poker book, or perhaps making fun of the whole idea of doing such a thing.
[Many] authors of early poker books either omitted signing their names or went with pseudonyms, unwilling to face the barrage of criticism that came with the territory in the 19th century. [One] example came in an 1882 book that shared rules of the game, a bit of strategy advice, and some “amusing incidents” in the form of poker anecdotes. Its author came to be known as British bookseller Charles Welsh, although that fact was obscured initially by the way he chose to fill out the title page: Poker: How to Play It. A Sketch of the Great American Game, Its Laws and Rules by ONE OF ITS VICTIMS.
Another anonymous 1883 poker volume — Talk of Uncle George to His Nephew About Draw Poker — included the words “with timely warnings to young players” in its long title. While again referring to draw as the “Great American game,” the book’s preface makes clear how “Uncle George” intends to leave to others’ discussions of rules and laws…. He rather aims to “expose this game as it is too often played — with its ‘lights and shadows,’ its bright parts, and ‘ways that are dark.'” Thus while Uncle George’s stories cover a variety of situations, communicating numerous suggestions for winning play as well as thoughts regarding etiquette, he also delivers repeated warnings against various forms of cheating, including collusion. “Nearly every day’s paper has reports of ruined characters,” he observes. Uncle George essentially renders his own game-play advice superfluous by concluding: “Therefore, I say, it would be better for you to quit it entirely.”
William James Florence did at least identify himself as the author of his 1892 book The Gentleman’s Hand-Book of Poker, although he distanced himself from culpability for it when stating in his preface that he wrote the book in less than four weeks in order to satisfy a bet. After discussing the historical background of rules of draw poker and then covering some other variants (stud, whiskey), Florence echoes others’ warnings about sharps marking cards and using reflectors or small mirrors to see cards as they are dealt. To that he adds a summary of rules…, covers various terms and other facets of the game, and shares some discussion of position and probabilities among other tips to players….
However it’s a section titled “Advice to Players” that once again delivers the most withering observation about poker, one that would seem to contradict the purpose of a book about the game. “There are no rules for playing poker so as to win,” Florence states bluntly. “Advice may be given so as to limit losses.”
The pattern of undermining strategy advice with bleak warnings about poker’s ills continues through “Uncle” Jack Abbott’s 1881 volume A Treatise on Jack Pot Poker and John W. Keller’s 1887 The Game of Draw Poker. In Abbott’s book, he follows a cursory history of poker and discussion of rules, with familiar warnings to avoid “unlimited” games and not to play poker on credit (“when your money gives out, quit the game”). He downplays the usefulness of even trying to improve one’s game from books, advising instead that players learn from “bitter experience.”
Keller, meanwhile, shares rules, terminology, probabilities, and even tangible “hints to players” of what he calls an increasingly popular “means of amusement to the better classes of American people.” But he insists the game is best played for non-meaningful stakes and has little interest in addressing those who think “a monetary consideration or stake heightens the interest of Poker.” He claims the idea that money is an essential element to poker is one of several “misuses” of the game he endeavors to correct.
The first wave of poker strategy books also inspired parodies, such as Garrett Brown’s 1899 volume How to Win at Poker made up of a teasing sequence of lectures much more entertaining than edifying. One notable chapter is titled “Lucky Players and How to Beat Them.” The advice is utterly silly, though there is something delightful in the tongue-in-cheek goofiness of Brown’s recommendation to try to “hoodoo” such players in order to throw them off their hot streaks. All of Brown’s probabilities, dealing, terminology, rules, and etiquette points are farcical, making it clear the title of the book is meant satirically. The last chapter confirms the hint by proposing that poker be taught in colleges and the book be used as a required text.
Brown’s book was popular, running through several editions, although it is highly probable the author himself exaggerated its reach. In a new preface to one of the later editions [in which the book was given a new title, How to Beat the Game], the author jokes how “the wide distribution of the work has already brought excellent results,” collectively saving his readers $300,000 according to his calculations. Brown’s readers clearly got it, instinctively understanding the humor produced by poking fun at those who believed poker a genuinely worthy subject of academic interest.
Even so, following the turn of the century more and more poker strategy books would appear. And those who wrote them would become increasingly earnest — and much less apologetic — about their objectives.
Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game is available in paperback, as an e-book, and as an audio book (read by the author) at D&B Poker.
D&B Publishing (using the imprint D&B Poker) was created by Dan Addelman and Byron Jacobs 15 years ago. Since then it has become one of the leading publishers of poker books with titles by Phil Hellmuth, Jonathan Little, Mike Sexton, Chris Moorman, Dr. Patricia Cardner, Lance Bradley, Greg Raymer and more, all of which are available at D&B Poker.