Why Poker Is the Quintessential American Game
Published on July 18, 2023
Poker is not just the quintessential American game—it always has been America’s game.
Poker has changed dramatically, especially over the last couple of decades, but you can view the changes in the game as a reflection of the changes in American society and culture.
This post takes a look at why poker is America’s game.
It examines how the game works in a capitalist society like ours, how different people see the game, and what we can expect from the future of poker.
Many people hear the word “poker” and think of the television show and movie Maverick. And that’s understandable.
Clint Eastwood once said that the United States is only responsible for developing two unique art forms—jazz music and the Western. Many Western movies and TV shows depict gamblers playing poker.
Sometimes poker was played on riverboats on the Mississippi. But it was also often played by famous gunslingers like Doc Holliday and Wild Bill Hickok.
(An especially good depiction of Bill Hickok and his poker habit can be seen in the first season of Deadwood on HBO.)
Other people think of poker as a game played primarily by gangsters in 1930s Chicago.
This depiction isn’t too far removed from that of the Old West, really. You still have players who are armed with pistols and who love tobacco products.
There’s also a sense of lawlessness and a respect for outlaws who might or might not be honorable.
I might have failed to mention liquor in the section about poker in the Old West, but be assured that whiskey was omnipresent both during the Old West and during the gangster era.
When I think of poker, though, I think of a less criminally-oriented activity. My mom taught me to play 5 card draw at the kitchen table. We used toothpicks as betting units. I can still remember my delight when we got our first set of plastic poker chips.
When I got to high school, my buddies and I used to get together to play 5 card draw while we listened to Eric Clapton’s Timepieces: The Best of Eric Clapton. Yes, I know this dates me, but that’s how it was. We smoked cheap cigars, drank cheap beer, and had a blast.
We played a little in college, too, but I didn’t participate in the high-stakes games that some of the other degenerates in my dorm did.
They lost and won hundreds of dollars at a time, and their exploits were often the subject of much discussion in the cafeteria.
When I finally got a real job, I started hosting a weekly game at my apartment. I didn’t know anything about poker strategy at the time. I had no starting hand requirements, and a couple of guys I barely knew always walked away with all the money. Still, we had a great time.
Later, I read Andy Bellin’s Poker Nation: A High-Stakes, Low-Life Adventure into the Heart of a Gambling Country.
Eventually, I needed to learn to make a better living than my job as a sales manager at an internet travel company could provide. I looked at multiple online businesses, but being an online gambling affiliate seemed a better fit for my personality than anything else.
I networked with a number of other gambling affiliate webmasters, and we got together once a week to play poker online at PartyPoker.
Believe it or not, I never played Texas hold’em before the mid-1990s. I stuck with 7 card stud because I understood the rules and had experience with it.
It didn’t take long before I was hooked on both Texas hold’em and internet poker. I played in a lot of underground cardrooms in Dallas, Texas, most of which have been closed down by law enforcement. Now, if I get the itch to play poker, I play online at the leading poker sites, or I drive up to the Winstar in Oklahoma.
I’m no longer much of an outlaw, and I don’t drink alcohol anymore. I think I’ve grown up in many of the same ways that the game of poker has over the last few decades.
Believe it or not, there was a time in this country when shooting pool or going bowling was considered a seedy activity. Of course, now, you can play pool or go bowling at any number of clean, well-lit, comfortable venues.
Poker is the same way. Even if you’re playing in local underground games, you’re probably playing in a reasonably safe, clean environment with middle-aged businessmen like chiropractors and attorneys. Most people in the USA don’t have to play at local games or underground games anymore.
I don’t care where you live; you can probably get to a professionally-run gambling hall with at most a 2-hour drive.
The way people learn to play poker during the internet age has changed dramatically, too. Americans who wanted to play poker in the past had to learn through trial and error at local games.
Sometimes they got their feet wet in larger-stakes games by visiting casinos in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, or Reno.
With the rise of the internet and the information age, learning to play poker in the United States has never been easier. You can read any of dozens of books about how to play any specific game that you like. Or you can skip books entirely and learn everything you need to know by reading tutorials on the web.
Once you’ve done the research and reading to cover the basics, you can play practice poker games at all kinds of sites.
At some of these sites, you can eventually upgrade to playing for real money, although most of these sites are hosted offshore. At others, you can only play for the equivalent of Monopoly money.
I have a friend, by the way, who has won 2 WSOP bracelets, but he’s retired from real money poker online. He now plays exclusively in the play money games. He’s accumulated an ungodly number of play money poker chips.
He told me he wanted to demonstrate to the world that the basics of poker strategy don’t change much just because there’s no real money on the line.
Poker has definitely become part of the zeitgeist in the United States. Even if you don’t play, you can watch professionals play poker on television now. A couple of decades ago, this would have been unheard of.
One of the reasons that poker has become so popular is because of the luck factor. Most people can’t play baseball at a professional level. They don’t even have the illusion of being able to do so.
You just can’t throw a fastball or hit a fastball like the pros can. That requires a combination of talent and skill that most of us just don’t have.
Most of us can’t imagine playing professional football, either. We’re not big enough or strong enough to pull it off. The physical limitations are clear and obvious.
Amateurs win hands all the time when they shouldn’t even be in the hand. And everyone gets the same number of good hands and bad hands in the long run. The difference lies in how you play those hands.
The illusion that you can be as good as a professional poker player adds to the egalitarian image of the game. ANYONE with some money can sit down at a table with Doyle Brunson or Chris Ferguson and win a hand or two.
The popularity of the World Series of Poker is a quintessentially American phenomenon, too. For most of the tournament’s existence, only a handful of pros bought in and played.
Many of the same names could be seen on the list of champions, and if you knew who was who in poker, you’d recognize the names of the players at the final table.
It’s not like that anymore, though. Anyone who can raise $10,000 can play in the Main Event, and the field has gotten so large that luck mandates that the final table is full of mostly previously-unknown players.
You don’t need to spend much time at the poker tables in a major casino in the United States to realize that poker players come from all walks of life.
The last time I played at the Winstar, there was an elderly golf player seated next to me. There was also a beautiful young woman with her dad there. I think he worked as a truck driver for Frito-Lay.
There were a couple of young 20-something hotshots at the table, too. I rounded out the crew—a middle-aged, overweight writer with a small bankroll.
You’ve heard the United States called a melting pot?
Nowhere is this better exemplified than at the poker table.
What is “the American Dream?”
It represents the idea that we’re all equal and that we all have an opportunity to succeed in making our lives better if we’re willing to put in the effort.
Nowhere is the American Dream more exemplified in miniature than at the poker table. Most variations of poker are easy to learn.
It doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from, either. Rich and poor can play at the same poker table. The color of your skin doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter whether your last name ends in a vowel.
At the poker table, it’s your skill level and commitment that determine your success.
What could be more American than that?
Poker is and always has been the quintessentially American game. Poker has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades, but these changes reflect the changes in the American culture and economy.
The rise of the internet and the information age have made it easier than ever to learn the intricacies of the game. You probably face tougher competition at the tables than ever before.
But you also have access to more information about how to win at poker than ever before, too. And you have greater access to a wider variety of games than your parents and grandparents ever dreamed of.
The game is no longer considered a seedy, backroom activity, either. Poker has definitely gone mainstream, even being featured on television as a sporting event.
With dedication, practice, and study, anyone can become a poker professional. Unlike other sports like baseball or football, the physical requirements for world-class poker are minimal.
But pro poker play isn’t for everyone. Luckily, in the United States, being an amateur is no sin.