Pop Poker: Poker and Pop-Culture Stigma in the Early 1900s
During the first part of the 20th century poker's popularity grew significantly in America, with more people playing and increasing instances of the game being referenced in popular culture.
But with the game’s growth came apprehension from some quarters, with many unsure if the the game was necessarily a good thing for society as a whole.
To be a poker player at the time carried a stigma, and that attitude was reflected in the era’s cultural products
But was pop culture's illustration of poker accurate? Today we examine five important examples of poker in the popular culture of the early 1900s.
A Game for Animals
Commissioned in 1903 for a calendar selling cigars, Cassius M. Coolidge’s famous “Dogs Playing Poker” oil paintings suggest poker’s having found its way into the cultural mainstream.
They also help show how the game by then had spread from saloons and steamboats into private homes, the setting for the dogs’ card sessions.
The advertising firm that had hired Coolidge specifically requested he paint dogs striking various human poses.
Coolidge chose various familiar activities and pastimes for his uncanny canines, including attending a baseball game, fixing a car, playing pool, and -- in nine of the 16 paintings -- playing poker.
As we all know from “A Friend in Need” (the most popular of the paintings), the dogs smoke cigars and drink whiskey while they play, furthering the association of such behaviors with poker.
A lesser known entry in the series, “Sitting Up With a Sick Friend,” depicts a couple of hat-wearing female dogs having barged in on the poker game, clearly upset about having been lied to regarding the true nature of the male dogs’ gathering.
What do the paintings tell us about poker as it was played in the early 20th century? It’s a male-dominated activity, for sure.
It’s perhaps to be considered a “vice” not unlike smoking or drinking. And it’s an activity which occasionally requires participants to lie in order to hide the fact they are engaging in it.
Looking elsewhere in early 20th century popular culture, it’s easy to find more examples of poker being characterized as dangerous.
A Disease in Need of Curing
The 1912 silent film A Cure for Pokeritis very likely represents the oldest “poker movie” ever made.
The 12-minute short stars the comic actor John Bunny as George Brown, who like the dogs in “Sitting Up With a Sick Friend” is trying to find ways to play poker without his wife Mary (Flora Finch) finding out.
The film opens with George having lost at poker (as usual), then going home to face an upset Mary. He promises never to play again but is soon back at the tables, his cover story being that he’s going to meetings of a men’s lodge.
Mary eventually finds out about the lie -- poor George talks in his sleep, it seems -- and so she enlists the help of her cousin Freddie and his Bible club to put a stop to the game.
In fact, all of the wives are upset about it, and thus are glad when Freddie and his club members impersonate policemen and conduct a phony raid to shut down the game.
The film ends with a much relieved George realizing he isn’t really under arrest, the scare apparently having been enough for him to promise once and for all never to play poker again.
As the film’s title suggests, poker is being represented as a kind of illness in need of curing.
Much like the drinking of alcohol was then under attack by temperance groups, poker playing, too, is here depicted as an activity plaguing society and in need of prohibition.
A Seductive Game
Fast-forward a few years to 1919 and one of the most popular songs being played featured a poker-related theme.
Recorded by Fanny Watson and Al Jolson, “Who Played Poker with Pocahontas (When John Smith Went Away)?” presents the game as a kind of euphemism for having an affair. In other words, the game again might be said to stand in for something untoward.
Like other popular versions of the story of the English colonist and young Indian girl at Jamestown, the song assumes a romantic relationship between the pair that in reality probably was never the case.
The lyrics additionally suggest Smith “taught her how to play poker” -- also obviously inaccurate, as poker was still a couple of centuries from being invented.
In the song, whenever Smith went away and returned, “he found her with a larger stack,” thus begging the question posed in the title. “She always dressed up so pretty, somebody must have set the kitty,” goes the chorus. “She wore a bluff just like every Indian that led John astray.”
Here the game of poker and the deceit it requires is likened to a kind of seduction, with the Pocahontas of the song put forward as a devious lover able to trick Smith into a relationship not unlike a skilled poker player outwitting an opponent.
Trouble in Paradise
References to poker in literature of the era likewise present the game as a danger to be avoided, such as in Bertolt Brecht’s 1926 short story “Four Men and a Poker Game, or Too Much Luck Is Bad Luck.”
In this darkly humorous tale, the German poet and playwright describes four American swimmers sailing home to New York following a meet in Havana. Like Coolidge’s dogs they drink and smoke cigars, and eventually they decide to start a friendly poker game for nickels.
“Thus, not far short of the Bermudas,” explains the narrator, “they began to work their own downfall.”
One player -- lucky Johnny -- begins a winning streak that defies his own lack of skill at the game. Eventually the stakes are raised to absurd heights, with Johnny’s opponents betting pianos, houses, and even their women. But Johnny keeps on winning.
Finally the others decide upon what seems the only possible way to end Johnny’s hot streak -- they toss him overboard! Not only does such an act clear their debts, it also helps establish whether or not Johnny “was as good at swimming as he was at winning poker games.”
Though written with tongue in cheek, the story again identifies poker as a source of trouble, the game having introduced malevolence and eventually murder into what had otherwise been a idyllic scene at sea.
Poker’s Popularity: A Paradox
One could say that these early 20th century depictions of poker present a kind of paradox -- a contradiction of sorts about poker and its popularity that we here in the early 21st century might well recognize.
The frequent references to poker in art, music, literature, and film certainly help demonstrate the game’s growth. But many of these references make moral judgments on poker as being at least bad for the individuals who play, and perhaps even destructive to society as a whole.
In other words, while these references show poker’s popularity, they also often seem to indicate reasons why poker shouldn’t be so popular.