Poker is a game with many attractions. The game’s rich and colorful history and the many stories poker has produced has helped make it a favorite pastime for me and millions of others. The social aspect of the game has also always been a big draw for me, too, making poker a game that uniquely satisfies what might seem contradictory urges to seek both competition and camaraderie.

I just returned from a trip to Las Vegas where I was able to experience both of those pleasures poker provides, getting to learn and think more about poker’s history while also sharing meaningful time with others who are similarly devoted to the game.

Recently I published a book about poker titled Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game. The book chronicles the history of poker as it has been played over the last two centuries, especially in the United States. It also reviews how poker has been portrayed in various “mainstream” contexts such as popular film, television, art, fiction, drama, music, and elsewhere.

While working on the book I had the good fortune to receive a fellowship to spend time looking through the Special Collections at the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Each year the Center awards a few Eadington Fellowships in Gaming Research, so named for Dr. William R. Eadington (1946-2013), the economist and pioneer of the academic study of gambling, and I was lucky enough to be one of the recipients for the 2018-19 academic year.

Last fall I spent the first part of my fellowship conducting research there to help me with several different parts of my book. I then went back to UNLV this month to complete the fellowship, including delivering a talk at the Center where I chose to present my project and also share with the audience how I went about using the Special Collections.

UNLV Center for Gaming Research

Anyone with an interest in the history of gambling and/or poker should consider giving the Center for Gaming Research a visit. There visitors will find books, articles, manuscripts, photos, videos, and other items documenting the history of gambling in Nevada as well as all over the world, materials related the economics and regulation of the gambling industry, studies regarding the psychological, social, and political effects of gambling, and lots of primary documents and information concerning particular casinos throughout the world.

You can peruse the Special Collections via their online catalogue, and anyone can visit the Center to look at items from the collections on the premises.

As I mentioned during my talk, I ended up using material from the collections to supplement my research in several different chapters in Poker & Pop Culture.

For the chapters “Poker in Print” (about early references to poker) and “Poker on the Bookshelf” (about poker strategy books from the 19th to 21st centuries), I consulted dozens of titles from the Collections, including several of the many editions of Hoyle’s Games. Searches for those items also clued me in to several stories and novels I’d end up discussing in the chapter “Poker in Literature,” too.

For the “Poker in the Movies” chapter I consulted some early drafts of screenplays for The Cincinnati Kid, California Split, and The Sting. And for “Poker on Television” I was able to find another script of a 1950 televised drama (performed live) that centered on a complicated multi-way hand of five-card stud — possibly the first detailed fictional poker hand presented on TV.

"Poker & Pop Culture" by Martin Harris

Poker & Pop Culture

My chapter on “Poker in Casinos” includes a lot about the birth of Las Vegas as a gambling capital as well as Atlantic City and elsewhere. The collections helped me a great deal there as well, including providing a lot of statistical information that enabled me to discuss poker’s place in the larger scheme of casino culture as it developed from the mid-20th century to today.

The talk was great fun. Special thanks to Jennifer Shahade who snapped that above photo of me behind the podium looking professorial. I ended up spending more time in the Collections delving deeper into some of the WSOP-related material Jack Binion donated some time ago (some of which I plan to share here soon).

A few days later I had another chance to talk about Poker & Pop Culture, this time before a different audience — the Wednesday Poker Discussion Group.

The WPDG has a long history, dating back around 20 or 25 years or so according to those I asked. I actually visited the WPDG once before just over 10 years ago when they were meeting at Binion’s Horseshoe. They now meet Wednesday afternoons at Ricardo’s, a Mexican restaurant on West Flamingo.

I started my talk last week recalling my earlier visit and how they had discussed a hand of $2/$5 one of the group had recently played. The group is a great place for that sort of thing — for poker players to discuss hands played, recent tournaments, and anything else related to the game. They bring in guests frequently as well — authors, players, and others affiliated with the game — which I imagine brings some nice variety to the meetings.

For the group I gave a quick introduction of myself and the book, then invited them to ask questions or share thoughts about the various chapters and sections in Poker & Pop Culture (I’d created a handout listing everything in the book).

Talking with the Wednesday Poker Discussion Group

We discussed movies and television shows and how they tend to depict poker, including how the representation of the game often differs from reality. We talked about various issues such as the historical development of the game (from “straight poker” with no draw to draw poker to stud to hold’em), the history of U.S. presidents playing poker, how women’s participation in poker has evolved and has been portrayed over the years, online poker and its future prospects in America, and a lot more.

It was a more wide-ranging discussion than we had at UNLV where my time was somewhat limited. In fact, by the time I said goodbye nearly two hours had passed. Like happens at a great poker game where the conversation is engaging and the laughs frequent, the time just flew by.

If you are in Las Vegas for the WSOP or any other time of year and your interest in poker extends beyond just playing the game to curiosity about its history and/or a desire to talk poker with friendly, like-minded people, I have a couple of recommendations for you. As I mentioned, anyone can visit the Center for Gaming Research and take a look at the Special Collections. And the Wednesday Poker Discussion Group is open to visitors as well.

My thanks to both for the invitations and for having “dealt me in.”

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