Pop Poker: Baseball and Poker in American Culture

Baseball and Poker
Baseball and Poker, two of America's favorite pastimes.

Baseball - the game long known as America's national pastime and a game with numerous connections to America's favorite card game, poker - is back in season.

Baseball and poker both originated in the U.S. and both drew upon games invented elsewhere, much like American culture as a whole is in many ways comprised of elements of cultures from around the world. 

And just as poker is thought to have come from precursor games like primero (Italy), brag (England), poque (France), and perhaps as nas (Persia), baseball is believed to have come from games originating in Great Britain and Ireland.

Those games include one game in particular that today makes a lot of us think of poker … Rounders.

The first variants of poker played in the U.S. in the early and middle-19th century were all draw poker games. Then Stud poker began to emerge during the Civil War and after. 

Baseball also began to emerge as a popular sport during that time, with the first professional leagues starting to appear including the National League in 1876 and later the American League in 1901.

It's not surprising that among the many variants of Stud poker being formulated during the early 20th century was a popular one that was in fact called "Baseball."

Baseball as a Poker Variant

By the time Herbert O. Yardley wrote his important memoir-slash-poker strategy book The Education of a Poker Player in 1957, Baseball was a popular enough game for him to include it in his list of stud variations at the end of the book. 

HerbertOYardley
Herbert O. Yardley
 

As Yardley explains, the game played like seven-card stud except with threes and nines wild, an allusion to three strikes and nine innings in baseball. 

Another rule involved being allowed to draw an extra card when dealt a four face up -- kind of like getting four balls and a free pass.

Also, if a player drew a trey among his upcards, he was required either to bet the size of the pot or fold his hand. Yardley's advice was in most instances to fold rather than risk so much. 

Actually, the often super-tight Yardley's general advice with regard to Baseball was not to play such a gambling game at all.

"If other players insist on playing this game, except for a round or so," advises Yardley, "don't put your feet under the table." 

In other words, don't get comfortable, and maybe consider getting up and having yourself a seventh-inning stretch that continues with a walk right out the door.

Yardley would've liked even less another variation on Baseball stud poker, Night Baseball, in which the hand begins with all players dealt seven cards face down. 

The dealer then turns over the top card of the deck, and play moves around the table with players turning over a card at a time. 

When one player's card beats the starting card, he can bet or pass, then play continues until the next player can beat the hand of the previous best and so on.

No fan of wild card games or loose play, generally speaking, Yardley didn't much care for the poker version of Baseball.

Many Parallels Between Poker and Baseball

But before becoming an international spy and code breaker, then later a poker author, Yardley was in fact a baseball player in his youth. And he no doubt appreciated the many parallels between poker and baseball.

alex rodriguez
Even Alex Rodriguez enjoys a game of poker.
 

Many who have played both games have remarked on the similarly slow pace of baseball and poker, with lots of relative "down time" punctuated by thrilling, adrenaline-fueled moments of excitement.

Both games reward patience, and sometimes highly-complicated strategy.

The parallels extend further, in fact, when one considers how baseball largely revolves around "heads-up" confrontations between pitchers and batters.

Each pitch of an at-bat functions not unlike the betting rounds in a poker hand, with both players constantly making decisions about their approach while trying to "read" their opponents and anticipate counter-moves.  

Another parallel between baseball and poker is the way both games incorporate skill and luck, with a lucky bounce or gust of wind in baseball capable of affecting an outcome just as readily as a two-outer on the river. 

The Freakonomics of Baseball and Poker

In fact, last spring Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt and his University of Chicago colleague Thomas J. Miles published a study titled "The Role of Skill Versus Luck in Poker: Evidence from the World Series of Poker." 

In the study the pair explicitly furthered the case for poker's skill element by comparing it to America's national pastime.

Focusing specifically on the 2010 WSOP and an analysis of the competitors and results, the pair concluded that in poker "Players who are a priori identified as 'high skill' do indeed substantially outperform other competitors." 

While acknowledging they were working with a relatively small sample size, the authors determined that when comparing high-skilled players to their less-skilled counterparts at the 2010 WSOP, the better players won "54.9 percent of the match ups."

steve levitt
Steven Levitt investigated the role of skill in both baseball and poker.
 

To illustrate further the significance of their finding, Levitt and Miles took a look at Major League Baseball and compared the performances of teams who made the playoffs the previous year with teams that did not. 

Again using a somewhat small sample size (just a few years' worth of data), they found "teams that made the playoffs the previous season win 55.7 percent of their games in Major League Baseball against teams that failed to make the playoffs in the previous year."

From there the pair made the following statement on behalf of the skill element of poker: "To the extent that baseball would unquestionably be judged a game of skill, the same conclusion might reasonably be applied to poker in light of the data."

Whether one agrees with the methodology employed here or not, I think we can agree that poker and baseball are both undoubtedly games in which both skill and luck matter.

Baseball and Poker = America

Both poker and baseball are intimately connected with U.S. history and culture, too, with both developing and growing right alongside the nation’s development and growth. 

In 1954, the historian Jacques Barzun reflected that "whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules, and reality of the game." It's hardly surprising that about a half-century later poker author James McManus would paraphrase Barzun's line in a most appropriate fashion:

"Whoever wants to learn the heart and mind of America had better learn poker."

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