Poker has influenced all art forms, music very much included. Countless musicians and lyricists have drawn inspiration from the game. It is hardly surprising: poker is somehow able to tap into human emotions with great efficiency. A single hand can guide a poker player through great heights and murky depths, much like the very best songs.
We have, of course, written about poker and music many times before, most notably Martin Harris’s post of July 2019, in which he took us on a typically exhaustive look at the history of songs with poker references. He mentions both the obvious and the obscure, which means there’s a place for Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” as well as some unknown older songs, from the era of the steamboats. (Few poker websites offer quite such in-depth knowledge of poker’s history!)
Even so, there’s always more to add, and here we take at a few more songs that mention poker, as well as quizzing a few members of our Twitch streaming fraternity on their musical choices while playing the game.
POKER IN SONG
Tracking all the songs that mention poker is an impossible task. According to the Music Lyrics Database (MLDb), as close as the internet comes to an concordance for recorded music, the word “poker” appears in only five song titles: the obvious “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga, “Lazy Poker Blues” by Fleetwood Mac, “That Was A Crazy Game of Poker” by O.A.R., “Poker” by Electric Light Orchestra, and another song named “Poker Face” by the delightfully named Swollen Members. (The full lyrics to this one are a not-work-safe blast.)
But there are many, many more, including the first six titles in a Spotify poker playlist produced by the aforementioned Harris, whose book Poker & Pop Culture dedicates a long chapter to poker in music.
Heading back to MLDb, when we search all lyrics, rather than just the title, the list expands to 207 songs and it still seems far too few. This now includes such humdingers as British soft-rock balladeer Chris de Burgh’s “Spanish Train”, which tells a cautionary tale of playing poker against the devil while riding the railroad (“Joker is the name, Poker is the game // We’ll play right here on this bed // And then we’ll bet for the biggest stakes yet // The souls of the dead!”), as well as New York rapper LL Cool J, who taunts a rival that he’ll “Play you like a poker chip, that’s what you get // I bet your fret, sweat, and regret you met the Titan of Fightin’, excitin’ when writin'”. Indeed.
Many all time greats reference poker, including Paul McCartney in “Junior’s Farm” (“I said you should have seen me with the poker man // I had a honey and I bet a grand”) and Bruce Springsteen in “Devil’s Arcade”. Poker is also, of course, referenced in Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas” (“Oh, there’s blackjack and poker and the roulette wheel”), but the King also references the game in “Frankie and Johnny”, when the latter’s lament that his “luck in poker was fading” prompts him to gamble and try to “change my luck with a chick named Nellie Bly”. Needless to say, it wasn’t a smart move — but you don’t come to Elvis for poker strategy.
Typically, rappers boast of being winning poker players whose skills translate to wealth and bristling masculinity. In country and western, the poker player is broke and drunk. Writers of love songs express longing and regret with reference to the game. “Ah you hate to see another tired man lay down his hand, like he was giving up the holy game of poker,” sings Leonard Cohen, in “Stranger Song”.
For all that, some of the best known songs about poker don’t even mention the name. Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” is the de facto poker anthem, littered with poker references, but the p-word is never uttered. In Bob Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, “the girls were playin’ five-card stud by the stairs” but the word “poker” is not in the lyrics. Meanwhile in “Mr Mudd and Mr Gold”, Townes Van Zandt sustains a long narrative in which he name-checks every suit and just about every card in a deck, but never says “poker”.
And that’s before we even start with songs that aren’t about poker, but should be. Jimmie Rodgers’ “T For Texas” is surely crying out to feature on the soundtrack of a poker documentary, specifically the years between the emergence of Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson et al, and Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 World Series win. “T for Texas, T for Tennessee,” the song repeats. I can’t listen to any of its versions (it’s also been covered by Lynryd Skynyrd and the Felice Brothers, to name but two) without seeing Brunson and Moneymaker’s faces. “I’m gonna shoot me a rounder that stole away my gal.”
THE STREAMER’S ANTHEMS
Online poker demands a lot of focus, particularly if you’re multi-tabling with plenty of chips on the line. While this will usually rule out the chances to, say, read a book or watch a movie at the same time, you may well be able to put some tunes on. But according to Lex Veldhuis, you need to find music to suit your state of mind at the tables.
“I used to play a lot of hip hop, but I always try to figure out what’s really good in the moment,” Veldhuis says. “If I’m super focused, and I feel like I’m not going to get distracted, then I play hip hop or metal or something. But as soon as I feel that my concentration is a little bit less, I’ve always chosen to go for more calm things like deep house and electro. I feel like if you’re not really in the zone, music with lyrics is going to take you out of your thought process, it’s kind of hard to formulate thoughts in your head.
“Sounds a bit technical, but I definitely feel that every moment has its music and it’s very important to listen to that. If you have, like, a jittery feeling, you should play something more relaxing. If you’re ready for some Metallica because you’re crushing, that can really keep you in the zone. But it’s definitely different per session for me.”
Veldhuis provided links to three playlists he has created on Spotify, for various moods:
Twitch streamers, especially those as popular as Veldhuis, also have to contend with a new problem when choosing music to listen to while playing: copyright laws, which make it illegal to broadcast many tunes on channels from which they are profiting. But as long as you’re listening for personal enjoyment only, you can play whatever you like.
That will be good news if your taste is anything like as eclectic as Fintan “easywithaces” Hand.
“I loved listening to the classics,” Hand says. “I grew up on Bruce Springsteen (my Dad), Abba (my mum) and Queen (both of them) so when I got to blast them on the stream, I knew they’d love them if they were watching at home.” Hand also used to turn to Mark McCabe’s Maniac 2000 if he made a final table, which helped him wind the clock back to his not-too-distant youth.
“[I liked to listen to] some old school dance tunes we’d have grown up as teenagers with,” Hand says. “Anything that would give the trip down memory lane.”
As for Spraggy, this child of the UK indie scene turns to familiar old friends. “My go to on stream was mostly Oasis, being a child of the 90s,” Spraggy says. “Big fan of Definitely Maybe and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?“. As a result of that love I also used to play a lot of Liam Gallagher’s solo stuff which I find as enjoyable as some of the early 90s Oasis.
“Another go to playlist for me was the Drive soundtrack from the film starring Ryan Gosling. Some real bangers on there like “A Real Hero” by College and Electric Youth. “Nightcall” by Kavinsky and a “Goodbye Horses” Remix by Psyche.
“In general I’ll listen to a bit of everything and anything. Lot’s of Eminem, Lil Wayne, Drake, Kanye. Typically cliche and nothing particularly outside of the mainstream.”
Arlie “Prince Pablo” Shaban also uses music to enhance a good mood, or soften a bitter blow.
“I really enjoy listening to music that can pump you up, it’s great for deep in tournaments and also helps a lot while streaming some long sessions,” Shaban says. “Music is great for my mindset and can be quite the pick me up. There’s nothing better than putting on your fav song after losing a big pot to help ease the pain!”
In conclusion then: if you’re playing poker, music can help you out. And fortunately there’s tons to chose from.