Book Excerpt: ‘Poker & Pop Culture’ by Martin Harris

June 21, 2019inPoker

Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game by PokerStars Blog’s own Martin Harris is now officially available. To mark the occasion, we’re sharing another excerpt from this detailed history of poker and the game’s portrayal in movies, on television, in magazines and books, in music, in paintings, and in other areas of popular culture.

Anthony Holden, author of Big Deal and Bigger Deal, has described the book as “a thorough, well-informed and highly entertaining exploration of the cultural riches bred by poker, explaining why the game remains so quintessentially American while growing ever more universal.”

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!

The following excerpt comes from the chapter titled “Poker in the Movies,” appearing in the section covering comedies in which poker is featured. Coming after a discussion of several W.C. Fields films, the focus here turns toward how poker’s presentation in such comic settings is often light-hearted and non-judgmental of the game (unlike is the case in westerns or dramas).

from “Poker in the Movies”

Poker Neither Good Nor Evil

Just as My Little Chickadee’s exaggeration of various western tropes pokes fun at the genre and at idealized versions of the Old West, W.C. Fields’ many farcical scenes of cheating at poker similarly serve to diminish unreasonable fears about the game. Such scenes make poker appear more a context for harmless laughs than for real danger. There are many other examples of film comedies treating poker in a similarly playful way, not necessarily casting moral judgment one way or another.

The Lady Eve (1941) mixes romance and slapstick while telling the story of a father-daughter con artist team, “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn) and Jean (Barbara Stanwyck), who on a transatlantic ocean liner target the naïve wealthy son of a brewery magnate, Charles Pike (Henry Fonda). After setting up their mark with an evening of bridge, they play poker the next night where the father uses his ability to “deal fifths” (sav- ing the top four cards) and multiple extra decks hidden on his person to help win thousands from Charles. But Barbara falls in love with their victim, and she starts cheating for him by replacing her father’s four-of-a-kind hands with poor ones. The fact is, Charles, himself an avid poker player (he calls himself an “expert”) with seemingly unlimited means, cannot be hurt that greatly by the game, nor can the film’s many twists and turns avoid ending with Jean and Charles happily together.

Charles Coburn, Barbara Stanwyck, and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve (1941)

Charles Coburn also stars in the comedy Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952), this time as a character who actually uses poker for “good” (so to speak). Coburn plays an elderly millionaire bachelor wishing to leave his estate to the descendants of a woman he had loved when younger, but who married someone else. He visits the family under a different name in order to get to know them before making them his beneficiaries, and one of the good deeds he performs on their behalf is to win money in a poker game to help one of the sons pay off a gambling debt.

In Roman Holiday (1953), Gregory Peck’s character Joe Bradley, an American reporter working in Italy, is introduced sitting at a poker table. At first it seems he’s playing for significant sums, with bets of “500” and “1,000,” but when the winner rakes in the pot he mentions it adds up to ten bucks — they’re playing with Italian lira, not U.S. dollars. Joe’s poker playing hardly reflects badly on him, other than to signify a kind of mundane existence preceding the higher “stakes” of the romantic adventure he soon falls into with Audrey Hepburn’s wayward princess.

Peck also stars in the romantic comedy Designing Woman (1957) as a sportswriter named Mike somewhat mismatched with a clothes designer named Marilla played by Lauren Bacall. The pair’s differences are highlighted when Mike hosts his regular poker game on the same night Marilla has invited a group of theater friends to perform a play in the neighboring room. While a contrast is vaguely drawn suggesting poker to be a less refined recreation than the dramatic arts, there’s no special judgment made against the game….

Such moral neutrality about poker in film comedies probably reaches a kind of apotheosis in Oh God! You Devil (1984) in which George Burns, starring as God in the third installment of the series, plays a hand of five-card draw for a person’s soul against the devil, also played by Burns. The devil is dealt two pair, then improves to a full house on the draw while God draws two cards to his three to a straight flush. Then God puts in a big raise involving all the souls of those on his “list” (i.e., who have chosen him, not the devil). “If I lose, they’re all fair game for you,” God explains. “If I win, you can’t touch them, ever, even if they ask for you.” “Too rich for me,” the devil says as gives up his hand, then cringes when God shows he’s bluffed with ten-high. “Why did I fold?!” cries the devil. “I put the fear of me in you,” God cracks.

It’s clear enough that while individuals may choose good or evil, poker in and of itself is neither.


*** BOOK SIGNING: For anyone at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas,

Martin Harris will be signing copies of Poker & Pop Culture today, Friday, June 21 at 5:00 p.m. 

at the D&B Poker booth in the Rio hallway! ***


Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game is available in paperback, as an e-book, and (soon) as an audio book 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.



PokerStars staff

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