Poker: A Study in American Culture

Published On: 18 January 2011 / Modified: 19 June 2018
Created By: Matthew Showell

Poker is pretty high on the list of typically American things, right up there with freedom, apple pie and an unflinching commitment to television programming.

That's why our friend Short-Stacked Shamus over at Hard-Boiled Poker has put together an American Studies course at UNC-Charlotte covering poker's role in American culture.

We spoke with Shamus last week about what we can expect from the course and quickly realized that this is indeed an expansive topic, and certainly one worthy of academic exploration.

Read on for the key points plus a look at the course material Shamus will be using with his students.

Studying Poker in University

Unless you're a student at UNC-Charlotte you won't be able to benefit from this course firsthand but, if you're hungry for knowledge on the subject, the course syllabus can be used as a blueprint for your own study.

Let's look at a few of the most important themes and then we'll give you a rundown of the essays, books and movies that make up the readings and viewings.

The course will operate much the same as a literature or history class, aiming to follow the story of poker from the early 19th century to present. As this accounting reveals, there are no shortage of parallels between the growth of poker and the growth of America as a nation.

Shamus summed it up thusly: 

My hope is that by studying poker's history and culture, students will come to appreciate how the game actually serves as a lens through which we can examine many different aspects of American culture.

A few of those aspects are particlarly interesting.

In just the last decade we've seen dramatic changes to poker's role in mainstream culture but this is a process that's been going on for nearly two centuries. The best record of this story, and the book that will be used as the course's core text, is Cowboys Full by James McManus.

I've been personally immersed in poker for the last six years and even I was blown away by this exhaustively researched accounting of the game's history.

In it we follow poker from its beginnings as a game for hustlers and cheats, its spread across continents via the military, its legitimization as an honest game, its place in politics and business, all the way to the worldwide phenomena we know it as today.

Through further readings and viewings Shamus hopes to better understand the way poker has been portrayed in popular media, and what this portrayal says about the game and the people who play it.

When asked to elaborate on this point Shamus told us:

I think poker is great for talking about so-called "American" values like individualism, self-reliance, the pursuit of happiness. This idea that poker, and in particular the way it can be understood to reward skill and thus become an avenue to personal achievement/success, somehow symbolizes or at least provides a ready context for dramatizing the pursuit of the "American Dream." Some of the stories that we'll be reading and viewing this semester exemplify that idea, but some also tear it down.

These are issues that reach far beyond poker but, as Shamus so eloquently stated earlier, poker can act as a ready lens through which we may gain a clearer perspective. It also stands a chance at holding students' attention.

So, if for some reason you're unable to register for Shamus's course, you can do the next best thing and read the course material yourself. Check out the full syllabus below.

Unit 1: Origins, Rules, and Variants

  • David Mamet, “The Things Poker Teaches Us” (essay, 1982) 
  • John Lukacs, “Poker and the American Character” (essay, 1963)
  • James McManus, Cowboys Full, (history, 2009), chapters 1-5, 17, 18, 32

Unit 2: The History of Poker

  • McManus, Cowboys Full, chapters 6-16, 19-22, 24, 26, 28-30, 33, 34
  • James Hildreth, excerpt from Dragoon Campaigns (memoir, 1836)
  • David Spanier, Total Poker, (essays, 1977), chapter 2 (“Origins”) and chapter 3 (“Presidents and Poker”)

Unit 3: The Culture of Poker

  • John Blackbridge, excerpt from Practical Guide Book (strategy, 1880)
  • George Devol, excerpt from Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi (memoir, 1887)
  • Herbert O. Yardley, excerpt from The Education of a Poker Player (strategy/memoir, 1957)
  • McManus, Cowboys Full, chapters 23, 25, 27, 31, 35-40
  • Spanier, Total Poker, chapter 5 (“Breakfast in Vegas”)
  • David Hayano, excerpt from Poker Faces (anthropological study, 1982)
  • Dick Miles, “Lowball in a Time Capsule” (article, 1967)
  • Jon Bradshaw, excerpt from Fast Company (essays, 1975)
  • Paul McGuire, excerpt from Lost Vegas (memoir/history, 2010)
  • Al Alvarez, The Biggest Game in Town (history, 1983)

Unit 4: Poker in Culture -- Literature

  • Mark Twain, “The Professor’s Yarn” (story from Life on the Mississippi, 1882)
  • Stephen Crane, “A Poker Game” (story, 1900)
  • Bertolt Brecht, “Four Men and a Poker Game, or Too Much Luck is Bad Luck” (story, 1926)
  • Robert McLaughlin, “Let’s Get Rid of the Ribbon Clerks” (story, 1945)
  • John Updike, “Poker Night” (story, 1987)
  • Jesse May, Shut Up and Deal (novel, 1998)

Unit 5: Poker in Culture -- Film

  • The Cincinnati Kid (film, dir. Norman Jewison, 1965)
  • Spanier, Total Poker, chapter 5 (“Movies”)
  • Anthony Holden, Big Deal (memoir/history), chapter 4 (“Read ‘Em and Weep”)
  • California Split (film, dir. Robert Altman, 1974)
  • Joseph Walsh, excerpt from Gambler on the Loose (memoir, 2008)
  • Rounders (film, dir. John Dahl, 1998)

Unit 6: Poker in Culture -- Gender Roles, Morality, Law, Technology

  • Spanier, Total Poker, chapter 6 (“Loving and Losing”) and chapter 10 (“Morals”); and “Net Poker” (essay from The Hand I Played, 2001)
  • McManus, Cowboys Full, chapters 45, 48, 49
  • Barbara Connors, “Power Play” (from Women’s Poker Night, essay, 2007)
  • Mark Twain, “Science vs. Luck” (story, 1870)
  • Barbara Tuchman, “A Game, Gentlemen, A Game...” (essay, 1966)
  • William J. Florence, excerpt from The Gentleman’s Handbook on Poker (strategy, 1890)
  • I. Rose Nelson, “History of Gambling in the United States” (history, 1997)
  • Martin Harris, “Laak-Eslami Team Defeats Polaris in Man-Machine Poker Championship” (article, 2007)

Please fill the required fields correctly!

Error saving comment!

You need to wait 3 minutes before posting another comment.

kagame 2011-02-07 08:36:12

Herbert O. Yardley, excerpt from The Education of a Poker Player (strategy/memoir, 1957)

This right here is absolutely amazing. Where it all started.

John G 2011-01-23 07:53:13

nice one, definitely going to check out some of those readings

Cheat Texas Holdem 2011-01-22 23:25:08

very nice article, enjoyed to read it



WSOP live blog from the tournament floor w/ poker pro interviews, photos and side action from Las

Latest Posts 's Page  
google glass

Positively Nerd Street

Pr0n for the poker nerd. Hardware, software, gadgets, etc; like poker, but from the future.

Latest Posts 's Page  

The Guest Blog

A menagerie of poker pros, celebrities, poker writers and industry figures.

Latest Posts 's Page  

Battle of Malta Blog

Photo essays, player profiles, travel tips, off-the-cuff interviews and more from Battle of Malta!
Latest Posts 's Page  

Sorry, this room is not available in your country.

Please try the best alternative which is available for your location:

Close and visit page