Pop Poker: Why Poker Players Love Mario Puzo

Mario Puzo is best known for having created the world’s most famous Mafia family, the Corleones, introduced in Puzo’s best-selling 1969 novel The Godfather and further pursued in three feature films.

It’s a story that gained mass appeal and fame for its creator, while also having special allure for poker players.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that poker players would gravitate toward The Godfather.

After all, besides being intrigued by Mafia-related stories and characters, Puzo was also a lover of gambling, with his fascination with casino culture and Las Vegas in particular frequently finding its way into his work.

Puzo Wrote The Godfather “To Make Money”

The son of Italian immigrants, Puzo was born and raised in New York, served in the army during WWII in a non-combat role, then in the 1950s began writing short stories and novels as he embarked on a literary career.

After his first few novels earned critical acclaim but failed to sell, Puzo began work on The Godfather with a conscious eye toward writing a commercially successful novel.

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"I wrote it to make money," said Mario Puzo.

In a later collection of autobiographical essays titled The Godfather Papers & Other Confessions, Puzo bluntly describes himself as having been motivated more by financial concerns than by literary aspirations when he wrote The Godfather.

“I wrote it to make money,” Puzo explained, sounding a little like some of his characters describing their actions as “strictly business.”

There he additionally admits the book to have been written “entirely from research.” “I never met a real honest-to-god gangster,” he admits.

Once published, the novel exceeded Puzo’s wildest expectations, becoming a best-seller world wide and a cultural touchstone with wide-ranging influence.

Gambling a “Harmless Vice”

Those who have read The Godfather know how Las Vegas serves as a kind of ultimate destination for the New York-based Corleones, the story concluding with the family relocating in Vegas in the mid-1950s to claim a stake in the newly emerging hotel-casino industry.

In fact, much of the conflict between the Corleones and other Mafia families in New York stems from the Corleones’ desire to stick primarily with illegal gambling as a primary source of revenue and their resistance to the other families’ wish to get involved in the drug trade.

Thus in the novel gambling is given a special place as a “harmless vice.” That’s how Don Vito Corleone describes gambling early on, using the phrase to describe how politicians view it differently than drug peddling, making it more practical from a business standpoint than getting involved in drugs or other “perversions.”

Poker and Living “Outside the System” in The Godfather

Beyond the way The Godfather looks favorably on gambling, there are other reasons why poker players especially like Puzo’s story even though card-playing only occurs in it incidentally.

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Puzo was fascinated by gambling and Las Vegas culture.

One has to do with the novel’s elaborate explanation of the Corleones successfully operating outside of the “system” by which the rest of the world lives.

Speaking of his father, Michael explains to Kay Adams prior to their getting married how the his family doesn’t recognize the usual restrictions that bind most “ordinary” people.

“He doesn’t accept the rules of the society we live in because those rules would have condemned him to a life not suitable to a man like himself,” says Michael, referring to his father as “a man of extraordinary force and character.”

The explanation greatly resembles how Al Alvarez would later describe poker players in The Biggest Game in Town, many of whom consciously seek to live “outside the system” or “the straight world” in favor of inhabiting the discrete, self-made sphere of the professional player.

The world of The Godfather is also a highly masculine one, another point the book has in common with poker, especially during the days of the book’s initial publication and throughout the 1970s. The “games” played between the families in the novel are for men only, with women necessarily on the rail (so to speak).

Puzo Focuses on Strategic Thinking

Speaking of games, a third parallel between The Godfather and poker -- and perhaps a primary reason for the book’s appeal to poker players -- is the emphasis on strategic thinking throughout the book.

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Doyle Brunson, the Godfather of Poker.

Echoing Machiavelli throughout, Puzo describes his characters constantly planning future action and anticipating opponents’ countermoves, with countless passages echoing the language of poker-playing tactics.

To draw just a single example, at one point Don Vito Corleone explains to hot-headed Sonny the importance of remaining disciplined and not allowing others to become aware of one’s strengths, noting to his oldest son “there was no greater natural advantage in life than having an enemy overestimate your faults.”

Besides paraphrasing The Prince, the advice also applies directly to poker players who have much to gain by not “tipping their hands” and/or letting on to opponents the extent of their skill or what moves they are capable of making at the tables.

Those are just some of the ways The Godfather and poker overlap. Indeed, it’s probably no accident that poker’s most successful player during the ’70s, Doyle Brunson, would earn the nickname “the Godfather” (and adopt it for the title of his memoir).

In later works Puzo would focus more explicitly on gambling, including his next published book, the nonfictional Inside Las Vegas. But The Godfather is the Puzo title I’d recommend first to poker players -- a book full of strategy and risk, written by a gambler to make money.

Martin Harris continues his examination of Mario Puzo over on his personal blog Hard-Boiled Poker.

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