These days poker–specifically Texas hold ’em, the best version of the venerable game–is enjoying an unexpected renaissance among Americans in general, and twenty-somethings in particular. It is newly ubiquitous on television: The World Series of Poker, a single event which took place last May, is replayed on ESPN with obsessive frequency 10 months after it ended. The World Poker Tour, another set of tournaments located in casinos around the country, got picked up by the Travel Channel last year. In the fall, Bravo introduced its heavily promoted “Celebrity Poker Showdown” program, betting on viewers being riveted by a fifth-street showdown between Timothy Busfield and Coolio. But perhaps anecdotal evidence speaks louder: Three years ago, when I was a sophomore at Cornell University, there wasn’t a game to be had. By the time I graduated, I could choose from several different games every night of the week.
Every generation gambles, but how they gamble says something about the spirit of the age. Why are yuppies-in-the-making suddenly interested in poker, a game most of us grew up associating with either paneled basements and cheap cigars or Rococo Old West saloons filled with bolo-tied card sharps? The answer may be that the popular image of the game has undergone a subtle recasting–one with a great attraction to ironic youngsters like me who find in the game the same slightly glamorous, slightly seedy, go-getter spirit that characterized the Internet boom. It makes sense that today’s college-educated young adults, especially young men, choose poker. Strategy-oriented, individualistic, and embedded in a nice masculine mythology, poker is the perfect game for the revenge-of-the-nerds generation looking to square their intelligence with their inner maleness.
Poker first appeared in the United States in the 1820s, brought to New Orleans by French immigrants who called the game poque. It traveled up the Mississippi River and spread throughout the country, soon becoming an underground national pastime, baseball for the unathletic. As the century turned, poker maintained its popularity, but lost its phenomenon status. Though television shows like “Maverick” in 1957 and the 1971 mini-series “The Gambler” later mythologized the poker players of the good old days–the dandified 1840s gambler, kind to women and merciless to cheaters–no one looked for glory or drama in modern poker anymore. To callow youth like me, the game looked like just another thing that Babbitty men did, like the Rotary club, or golf. People’s dads played poker.
And then we started playing poker, too. Like everything else with my generation, technological innovation helped enable our new hobby. By the late ’90s and early 2000s, dozens of online casinos had sprung up, allowing the Internet to tap its full potential as a 24-hour gaming paradise. Free from the annoying sanctions of the U.S. Penal Code, these offshore virtual Monte Carlos offered interested parties the opportunity to wager ’round the clock. Especially popular were online poker rooms, where you could play–for money, real or fake–against all comers. For many would-be players, the fear of looking like confused novices in front of a room full of old hands used to keep them from the tables. Now, the online poker rooms provide a convenient place to learn and refine the game at home with no one watching. More recent arrivals are the poker blogs shilling for their favorite sites, swooning over their favorite pros, and telling their stories about the hands that got away.
Televised poker is also a lot better than it used to be. For too long, TV executives were unsure how to treat their poker coverage, cramming it into late-night time slots on cable sports networks. This was odd, as poker belongs in the same dubious semi-sport category as eating contests or spelling bees. Not only did it require no physical prowess, but due to prolonged exposure to tobacco, free drinks, and fluorescent lights, many of the game’s finest players appear to be chronic palpitators and arrythmiacs. Little wonder that it never got good ratings on ESPN or the “Wide World of Sports.” But with the Travel Channel, formerly the repository of such stinkers as “Busch Gardens Revealed” and “Incredible Vacation Videos,” poker met its perfect match. The station has been the prime propagator and beneficiary of the poker craze with its “World Poker Tour” viewing block, which sends viewers casino-hopping around the world to a new poker tournament each week, open to all comers for a modest entrance fee. In its breathless approximation of legitimate sports coverage, the production is hilariously WWFesque in a way that appeals perfectly to ironic 20-somethings: lots of gaudy money shots, a blonde “sideline reporter” who conducts exit interviews with ousted players, and “expert” announcers coming off as campy parodies of real sportscasters, with their nicknaming and jargonese. Well-placed cameras reveal each player’s hole cards, allowing viewers at home to revel in omniscience even as they attempt to follow the thought processes of the bettors and sharpen their own skills at home.
Indeed, some of the best self-taught players, variants of 1990s computer nerds, are finding success in the pro poker circuit. The reigning World Series champion is a chubby, eagle-eyed 28-year-old Tennessee accountant with the Dickensian name of Chris Moneymaker. Moneymaker had learned the game just three years earlier and perfected his tricks by playing Internet poker obsessively. The 2003 World Series was his first professional event, and he beat hundreds of long-time professionals, walking away with $2.5 million, and the near-worshipful admiration of millions of delusional amateurs like myself.
The myth and aura of the game have perhaps never before been in such perfect accord with the aspirations of a generation. In the post-tech-boom years, the archetype of male success and cool mixes laddish cockiness and financial acumen. To my friends, blackjack seems like a game for those who trust their fate to chance or byzantine card-counting schemes. Slots are for the old, the overweight, and certain right-wing morality mavens. But poker, you see–for us poker has cachet. Most forms of gambling depend on chance, but poker requires skill and it’s easy to believe that the player with the strongest will is going to win, leaving weaker minds to wilt in his wake.
Many of us were introduced to the modern face of poker by the 1997 movie Rounders, starring Matt Damon as a debt-ridden poker prodigy, which developed something of a cult status on many college campuses. Rounders popularized the act of reading someone’s “tell”–the unique facial or bodily tics that unintentionally reveal his hand. At some games, table banter is nonexistent–the players just look at each other, trying in vain to “read” the table’s reactions. It’s this mental aspect of the game that attracts so many young players. “Before Rounders, I just thought of poker as something they played in saloons in Westerns, and boring five-card draw,” says Arthur Wellington, a poker-obsessed student at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. “[The movie] made me realize there was a lot more to the game than just betting on cards turned over.”
My friends and I play every week, sometimes many times a week. A revolving cast of (young, male) characters show up at the games. We are all terrible. Everybody adopts a different persona. I am nearly silent during the game, hoping to project an image of cool rival examination and categorization of everyone else’s reactions–a masterful command of the art of the “read.” The reality is rather different. Usually I’m just thinking about how hungry I am, or I’m distracted by the TV. But the reality doesn’t matter.
One guy, Jesse, is known for buying in, busting out, and repeating the cycle multiple times in the course of one night’s action, without giving the matter a second thought. He cheerfully admits that he is down several hundred dollars since he began playing, and he never seems too out of sorts about it, but sometimes I picture him alone, at home, having crises of conscience, staring mournfully at his empty wallet and shaking his head wordlessly.
A few of us have higher ambitions for our game, partly stirred by an increased diet of televised poker. Although my friend Jake Collins had only rarely played before this summer, he is now set on becoming a professional player. I spent several weeks with him this summer in and out of various West Coast motels, where the only consistent televised entertainment we could find was poker tournaments. Thus stoked, Collins is taking a scientific approach to his play, keeping detailed charts and notebooks on his play patterns; despite real progress, he knows he’s got a long way to go before he can shoot with the big guns. He speaks with hushed admiration of professional players’ Svengali-like ability to get inside other players’ heads: “Those guys are so good.”
Another cult film on college campuses, the recent remake of Ocean’s Eleven, pokes fun at the desire of young people like me and my friends to be cool poker players. The opening scene has Brad Pitt’s character, a been-around poker hand, coaching a series of Hollywood pretty boys in the finer aspects of the game. Part of the joke is that the actors playing the pretty boys are themselves Hollywood pretty boys (a pre-Punk’d Ashton Kutcher, Joshua Jackson) who don’t know much about the game–upon being dealt a hand, Topher Grace gleefully blurts “Fellas! Fellas! Check this! All … reds!” Pitt just shakes his head.
Neophytes like me imagine that the best players possess the qualities we saw or wanted to see in our father figures: mental toughness, boldness, steadfastness. Plus, the game requires no muscle tone, physical stamina, or quick reflexes–making it a perfect match for a generation that grew up blasting away video-game monsters with the twitch of a thumb and now workdays parked in front of a computer screen. We may not have pecs, but we have the “read.”