Pop Poker: Poker and the Titanic
The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic recently passed, marking that fateful night when the famous ocean liner struck an iceberg and sunk to the bottom of the northern Atlantic.
Tales of the Titanic have fascinated generations. And as it happens, a few of the stories concerning the ill-fated ship -- both historical and imagined -- involved poker.
Jack’s “Very Lucky Hand”
Coinciding with the event’s centennial is a rerelease of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic, this time in 3-D.
During its initial theatrical run Titanic broke box office records to become the highest-grossing film of all time (a record since eclipsed by Cameron’s Avatar). Titanic also won a whopping 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
While poker is hardly prominent in Titanic -- just a two-minute scene in a more than three-hour movie -- the game does serve a particular purpose with regard to the plot, and even helps introduce a thematic point about the importance of luck the film not-so-subtly advances throughout its lengthy running time.
We first meet Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) playing poker in a Southampton pub, in fact, where he and his friend Fabrizio are involved in a game of five-card draw.
We only witness the end of a single hand involving Jack, Fabrizio, and two Swedes named Olaf and Sven.
Apparently betting before the draw was heavy enough to build a pot full of coins from various countries, a knife, a pocket watch, and a couple of third-class tickets for the R.M.S. Titanic’s scheduled trip from Southampton to New York City.
As the camera pans around the table we catch a quick glimpse of Jack’s hand which appears to contain at least a couple of tens and an ace. Fabrizio then leans over to ask Jack about having bet everything they have, to which Jack replies “when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
The line is meant to introduce Jack’s bohemian, care-free worldview, although Bob Dylan fans recognize it as a weird lift from “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Meanwhile the Swedes are also in disagreement, with Olaf berating Sven for having risked their Titanic tickets.
During the draw, Sven takes a single card, as does Jack. “All right, the moment of truth,” announces Jack. “Somebody’s life’s about to change.”
Fabrizio and Olaf show busted hands, then Sven turns over two pair, eights and sixes. Jack feigns disappointment, telling Fabrizio he’s sorry. Then comes the smile.
“I’m sorry... you’re not going to see your Mom again for a long time,” Jack says to his friend.
“’Cause we’re going to America! Full house, boys!”
Indeed, Jack punctuates his slowroll by showing tens full of aces to win the pot and tickets. An angry Olaf unexpectedly punches Sven -- not Jack -- and soon Jack and Fabrizio dash onto the ship just a moment before it departs.
“We’re the luckiest sons of bitches in the whole world, you know that!” cries Jack to Fabrizio once they are aboard.
As far as poker scenes go, it’s not the most suspenseful, nor even especially convincing. But it does manage to introduce the young hero and get him on the doomed ship.
Hey, at least Jack didn’t say he had a full boat.
Shuffling Decks on Deck
The remainder of Titanic includes a couple of references back to Jack’s poker game, including his explanation of the “very lucky hand” that landed him aboard and subsequent declaration that “you never know what hand you’re gonna get dealt” and thus need “to make each day count.”
The film does not, however, show passengers entertaining themselves with poker during the days and nights prior to the ship’s fatal crash. It might well have done so, since it’s very likely poker was played aboard the White Star liner, just as it was frequently played on other passenger ships during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
For example, one Titanic survivor, Renee Harris, would share a story for Liberty Magazine two decades after the tragedy in which she described having joined a private poker game that took place in one of the “B deck” suites featuring a private promenade.
According to Harris, it was just after lunch when her husband, Henry, had asked her to sit in on the game. “He explained that in a previous ‘session’ one of the players had been under suspicion, and rather than bar him from the game, this time it would be simpler to let him see that the table was filled.”
“It turned out I was called on to be the eighth ‘man,’” Harris explained, noting that “when the suspected person was pointed out to me I thought he was a minister of the gospel, he looked so virtuous.”
In an interview given years later to Titanic historian Walter Lord, Harris filled in a few more details about the poker game, explaining that they used $1 chips and that she had done quite well for herself. In fact, when she decided to leave momentarily to return to her stateroom she remembers being $90 ahead.
As fate would have it, Harris slipped when descending the stairs and broke her arm, thus preventing her from returning to the game.
In the Liberty article, Harris suggests the fall actually indirectly saved her life, saying that if she had not been sedated at the time of the crash she would have resisted getting in a lifeboat when her husband implored her to do so. Henry sadly did not survive.
Given the amount of study and attention the Titanic has garnered over the past 100 years, it isn’t surprising to find some historians calling Harris’ account of the poker game into question, with a few pointing to contextual clues suggesting she may have been thinking of a game that occurred on another ship entirely.
Even so, given the popularity of poker and the fact that it was such a frequent pastime on passenger ships, it stands to reason the game was played by some during the Titanic’s lone voyage.
Questing for Bracelets, and Other Expeditions
Of course, as the 1997 film also depicts, the story of the Titanic has also long involved efforts to find the sunken ship and discover its many secrets. And as it turns out, that part of the story, too, has a poker connection.
A 1977 Sports Illustrated article profiled an amateur player from Texas named Cadillac Jack Grimm and his quest to win that year's World Series of Poker Main Event. Grimm ended up drawing a seat next to that year's eventual winner, Doyle Brunson.
Perhaps predictably, Grimm failed to survive the first day of play, finishing outside the top 20 among a field of 34. Thus was the article titled “An Amateur Is Burned at High Stakes.”
Financially speaking, the loss didn’t hurt Grimm too greatly, as he was “a millionaire many times over, not from poker but from other forms of gambling, mainly drilling oil wells.”
He also is described as having funded various expeditions such as one to discover Noah's Ark and others to find the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot. The implication is that those quests were as futile as his attempt to beat top pros like Brunson and others at the WSOP.
Not long after the SI article appeared, Grimm would find himself on yet another quest -- to find the Titanic.
He'd eventually launch three expeditions during the early 1980s to try to locate the sunken ship. Grimm would never earn official credit for finding the ship, although his searches were said by some to have provided valuable clues for later seekers.
The ship would eventually be discovered in 1985 by a team led by Dr. Robert D. Ballard.
A Losing Hand, Poorly Played
There are still more connections between poker and the Titanic, like the one involving the famous poker player and gambler from Missouri who earned himself the nickname “Titanic” Thompson when a defeated opponent woefully declared “he sinks everybody.”
By now the Titanic has become a familiar symbol of failure. However, a number of factors -- unheeded ice warnings, flaws in the ship’s design, shifting tides, a steersman’s wrong turn, the unavailability of binoculars, insufficient lifeboats, further instances of human error and poor judgment, and more -- all had to converge for the tragedy to play out as it did.
One Titanic chronicler, Charles Pellegrino, employed a poker metaphor to describe the so-called “unsinkable” ocean liner going down to cause such a massive loss of life.
The ship “would have needed to cross the Atlantic for more than a century and perhaps for as long as a thousand years before the lining up of so many low-probability events became a mathematical inevitability,” argues Pellegrino in Farewell, Titanic.
“What the ship’s builders and officers did not understand was that the odds of drawing two royal flushes in a row are the same in the first two hands of poker as in any two hands in the next two million.”
Pellegrino has a point. However, hindsight suggests that as happens in poker, the sinking of the Titanic and the tragedy that ensued resulted from a combination of bad luck and a deficiency of skill, with the event made all the more tragic given that the stakes were so high.
There was definitely poker aboard the Titanic. The artifacts recovered from the ocean floor and from survivors include cards, chips, and a letter circulated by the captain warning passengers not to join the poker games being offered in cabins because three known card sharks (whom he named) were on board. I wrote a bit about learning of this facet of the ship's history here: