Poker is America


A dealer works at a poker table at the Borgata casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, March 14, 2009.

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Let’s start by getting this straight: poker is about money. If you took the money out of it, I wouldn’t play. But even when I lose, I’ve had a good time. I love playing poker as an escape from the world I usually live in, and I especially love playing at Hollywood Casino in Charles Town, W.Va., where you can find me about two afternoons a week.

A poker table is America the way that television commercials portray it but it seldom is. A normal table of 10 at Charles Town has at least two or three Asians, one or two blacks, maybe a Latino, another one or two players who hail from some other part of the world, and maybe four or five plain-vanilla whites like me. Age is distributed from young guns in their 20s who raise relentlessly to geezers like me who are too tight and passive.

The occupational and income mix is so random that we might as well have been drawn out of a hat. On a typical table a few weeks ago, I had a retired Army colonel across from me sandwiched between the owner of a Vietnamese restaurant and a farmworker who weighed north of 250, tattoos covering both arms. I had too much sense to ask what the player on my right with the big diamond earring, radiating street cred, does for a living. On my left was a matronly woman who runs a construction firm with her husband. At a table nearby was a top White House official from a previous administration.

Occasionally you’ll sit at a silent table, but more often there’s conversation about sports, families, girlfriends, boyfriends and poker — almost never about politics, thankfully.

If you’re a regular, you know the dealer, who has dealt to you for many hours over the months, and probably already have a friendly acquaintance with two or three of the players. The conversation is not only good-natured but carefully polite. “Sir” is used more often at a poker table than anywhere outside a military base. For example, when your opponent has made an incredibly dumb call but ended up winning the pot, poker etiquette dictates that you say, preferably with a mildly inquiring tone, “How could you call that raise, sir?”

Poker is mannerly in other ways. To gloat over winning a big pot or complain about losing one is equally bad form. When you’ve won by getting lucky, it is appropriate to acknowledge your luck to the person you beat. “That was really sick” is a useful formulation.

Poker tables are pure meritocracies. The pecking order of respect at Charles Town is determined by how good you are at the game. Other players may like you personally, but if you’re a bad player you’re a bad player, and nothing about your status in the outside world makes any difference. For readers with high-powered degrees and high-powered jobs, let me suggest that nothing will do more to keep your feet on the ground than to start playing poker in a public casino. Poker is a game of incomplete information involving complex intellectual tasks, self-discipline and the courage to take properly calculated risks. When you are outthought and outplayed not just once, but regularly, by a skinny 28-year-old wearing a football jersey and with his baseball cap on backward, it is hard to condescend to him because he doesn’t wear grown-up clothes and never went to college. It will also do you good to be in the deference-free zone that is a poker room — as in recently, when I was cashing out and the woman in the cashier’s cage, noting my stack of chips with the patterns on the edges carefully aligned, said confidentially, “Your O.C.D. is showing, baby doll.”

Apart from putting overeducated elitist snobs in their place, the dealers and players at Charles Town could give lessons to the rest of the country about making the melting pot work. In the year and a half I’ve played there, I have not experienced a moment of tension arising from anything involving race, class or gender. I’m not saying such moments never occur, but they’ve never occurred around me. Better than that, it has been as if those issues don’t exist.

I guess there was one exception, though it didn’t involve any tension. I was at a table where the four players to my immediate left and right were ethnically Croatian, Afghan, Korean and Indian. All four had apparently grown up in the United States, judging from their perfect colloquial English. The conversation turned to children, and I revealed that my daughter was engaged to an Italian — a real Italian, living in Bologna. A silence ensued. Then the Afghan asked earnestly, “Do you trust him?” The others murmured that they wondered the same thing. I was in the midst of a bunch of American guys being solicitous of one of their own and dubious about foreigners. And I said to myself, is this a great country or what.

Last year I published a book called “Coming Apart,” lamenting that America’s new upper class is segregated from, and ignorant of, life in ordinary America. I got a lot of criticism for not recommending any policies that would fix the problem. O.K., now I’ve got one: Don’t just make poker legal. Make it mandatory.

Continue reading “Games People Play”: Tennis: Love-Love by James Atlas, Solitaire: Me vs. Me by Francine Prose, Ping-Pong: Head Game by Pico Iyer and Frisbee: Ultimate Sport by Jason Lucero.

Charles A. Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author, most recently, of “Coming Apart.”

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About the Author


  • Charles Murray is a political scientist, author, and libertarian. He first came to national attention in 1984 with the publication of Losing Ground, which has been credited as the intellectual foundation for the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. His 1994 New York Times bestseller, The Bell Curve (Free Press, 1994), coauthored with the late Richard J. Herrnstein, sparked heated controversy for its analysis of the role of IQ in shaping America’s class structure. Murray's other books include What It Means to Be a Libertarian (1997), Human Accomplishment (2003), In Our Hands (2006), and Real Education (2008). His most recent book, Coming Apart (Crown Forum, 2012), describes an unprecedented divergence in American classes over the last half century.

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