The Poker Nation
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
The Poker Nation
If you own a television or a radio, chances are you have seen, or heard, a commercial starring some average looking guy telling you how he won millions of dollars playing poker. Now think back to the year 2002. Back then poker was a game that could only be found in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and a few back rooms in smoky bars where one needed a password to get in. The sports reputation was tied to the images we see in the old westerns, of men sitting in a dark smoke-filled room around a table littered with alcoholic beverages, cards and money. Enter ESPN and the 2003 World Series of Poker, the event that took the game out of the back rooms and into mainstream America. A slightly overweight accountant from Tennessee named Chris Moneymaker won 2.5 million dollars after winning a forty-dollar satellite tournament to qualify for the event. The prize was the biggest ever awarded at the time, and it grabbed the attention of every average hoping-to-get-rich-quick Tom, Dick, and Harry. Since that event, the popularity of poker, more specifically the version known as Texas Hold'em, has skyrocketed. Several television stations have begun to air their own versions of the popular tournament style of play. Dozens of online gambling sites offer around the clock games, both ring games (open tables where players come and go as they please) and tournaments. Home games have also been established, helping to take away the old back room stereotype.
One way to gauge the popularity of a phenomenon is to take a look at the amount of literature produced on it. "A search on Amazon.com reveals that at least 61 titles related to the game have been or are being published in 2005, up from 46 in 2004, 37 in 2003 and 16 in 2002" (Peters). These books range from your typical how-to manuals to the more sophisticated strategies of the game written by professional players. The most popular of these books is Doyle Brunson's Super System: A Course in Power Poker. Doyle still plays today and has had to change his strategy to keep ahead of the competition, most of whom grew up learning to play by reading his book. Steve Lipscomb, the creator of the World Poker Tour, "estimates the poker-playing public has grown from around 50 million five years ago to more than 80 million in the United States today-with no end in sight" (Streisand).
I was first introduced to the game much like the rest of America, and like the rest of America I too jumped on the bandwagon. I too dream of sitting at the final table of the World Series of Poker with all of my chips in the pot ready to win $7.5 million. But it was on a vacation to Las Vegas that the real popularity of poker hit me. In the poker room of the Excalibur Hotel and Casino there were over twenty tables, each full with ten players and a waiting list over an hour long for the next opening. As we traveled from casino to casino the situation never changed. Each casino we entered had full tables with long waiting lists. If you add up the total number of players from that night, the number would have been somewhere in the thousands. That was just for one night. These tables stay full day or night every day of the week.
Why the sudden explosion you ask? Perhaps the biggest draw to the game is the sheer fact that anyone can play. Unlike a majority of the biggest sports in the world, poker requires no physical exertion. Basically if you can breathe and sit for a long time in one place you can play. There is no need to be strong or fast. Poker does not discriminate. Many women and minority players are among the highest caliber players in the world. In fact one of the events in the World Series of Poker features a table of all women players and it is just as exciting as the tables of all men. "Women make great players; they're intuitive and not tempted by the testosterone-fueled raising duels that have prematurely catapulted many a male player out of a game" (Koumpilova). Game Show Network went one farther and pitted the women against the men in a tournament setting. It was in fact a woman, Kathy Liebert, who took home the $130,000 grand prize from that game. So the women have proven not only that they can play alongside the men, but that they can beat them as well. In poker, unlike many professional sports today, an amateur can play at the very same table as the pros, and can have a legitimate shot at beating them. Nowhere else in sports is an average person in the same league as the best in the business. This has given popularity to the game by evening the playing field. Both the professional poker player and John Smith from Anytown, U.S.A., have a chance to play against Johnny Chan or Doyle Brunson and win millions of dollars.
Another reason for the explosion in popularity is the Internet. One can do just about anything from the comfort of one's own home; poker is no different. Thanks to the numerous web-based gaming sites a person can play poker online, thus negating the need to travel to Las Vegas or Atlantic City to be involved in the action. Games for real and play money alike can be found only a few clicks away. If a person wants to get in on a real money game, all that is required is a credit card or direct access to a checking account. Internet sites have been known to get players to "ante up as much as $100 million collectively each night, according to PokerPulse, which tracks online statistics (major sites like PartyPoker.com often host 40,000 players a night)" (Streisand). What online poker also provides is an anonymous platform. Online a player is unseen and therefore cannot give anything away by appearance, making it easier for a player to win by bluffing.
In every state but Nevada gambling is still illegal, but many Indian casinos have opened poker rooms due to the recent surge in demand, making it all but unnecessary to travel to Vegas. If there is an Indian Casino in your area with poker tables, the need for a long road trip is no more. Despite the fact that these casinos do not offer the same level of extravagance as their Nevadan rivals, all a poker player really needs is chips, cards and a place to play.
ESPN, the Travel Channel, Game Show Network, Bravo, NBC. These and many other television stations are jumping on the poker bandwagon. Each of these stations offers some form of the game played by everyone from nobodies to prominent celebrities. No one can deny the power of television in today's society. People mimic just about everything they see, such as how to dress, what to drink, where to eat, so it is natural that the games they play are also heavily influenced by what is on television. "ESPN's coverage of the World Series of Poker--which includes more than 40 poker tournaments leading up to the main event--draws ratings comparable to Major League Baseball and the NBA" (Condotta). Once upon a time kids would go outside to play catch with each other. Now they are in their garages playing poker. Another way television has made the game more appealing is the way it shows the audience what cards each player has. This has taken away the guesswork and confusion of watching a game and spiced things up more for the viewing public. Condensing the action has also helped ratings. "The hour you see is probably 10 hours of poker" (Condotta). With the game made shorter and easier than it really is, a whole generation accustomed to instant gratification can get a quick fix.
While the money and the fame of becoming a world-class poker player may be a nice thought, to most it is not reality. For most low-stakes players the game is more about the adrenaline rush that is associated with the thrill of competition. The heavy breathing, the accelerated heartbeat, the sweat, all of this comes with the game of poker. You may not think of poker as an exciting game, but say that when you are trying to bluff at a pot with a 5-2 offsuit when the board shows A-K-9-3-7. What that means is that you have no chance of winning on the strength of your own hand and you are hoping that the other player gives up his hand based on the size of your bet. To put it more simply, you are lying and hoping that you do not get caught. Now think of how you feel when you are getting ready to lie, amplify that by a thousand percent, and that is exactly what it feels like to be in that situation. On the flip side, let's say you have the same 5-2 offsuit, but this time the board shows 5-2-10-5-K. Now your heart is beating fast because you have the best possible hand; you know you cannot be beat. In this situation you want the other person to bet with you so you can take as much of his money as you can. While it is proper to maintain a poker face at all times, it is hard to deny the thrill a poker player experiences throughout the course of a game. It is easily comparable to the sensations one gets from any physical contact sport, without the pain.
Money is the root of all evil they say. One could argue that greed is a major cause in the recent rise of poker's popularity. As the prizes become larger and larger, the number of interested players grows in proportion. While it is true there are many greedy people in this world, a vast majority of the poker population will never see a million dollar payoff. In fact there are a larger number of players who are losing money than players who can live comfortably from their winnings.
We can thank poker's simplicity, its equality, the emotional thrills, and the massive television explosion for the nation's sudden move to the tables. Poker offers a person a chance (although slim) at finally realizing the riches that only a rare percentage of the population enjoys. Poker also shows us that sometimes we really don't need to work hard for our dream; all we need is a little luck and enough money to cover the blinds. As an avid poker player myself, I know that I for one am not willing to give up my seat anytime soon, and I know millions of Americans share my opinion.
Clark, Kim. "I fold. Mom Says I Gotta Come Home." U.S. News & World Report 138 (2005): 50. Expanded Academic ASAP. Gale Group. San Joaquin Delta College Library, Stockton, CA. 7 November 2005 http://web7.infotrac.galegroup.com.
Condotta, Bob. "Texas Hold'em is the hottest game around." Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale Group. 2005. San Joaquin Delta College Library, Stockton, CA. 9 November 2005 http://galenet.galegroup.com.
Finan, Kristin. "When To Fold'Em." Houston Chronicle Edition 3 20 May 2005. NewsBank Newsfile. San Joaquin Delta College Library, Stockton, CA. 16 November 2005 http://infoweb.newsbank.com.
Koumpilova, Mila. "Going all in." Forum 10 April 2005. Newsbank Newsfile. San Joaquin Delta College Library, Stockton, CA. 16 November 2005 http://inforweb.newsbank.com.
Peters, Timothy B. "Publishers are betting on poker." Publishers Weekly. 252 (2005): 20+. Extended Academic ASAP. Gale Group. San Joaquin Delta College Library, Stockton, CA. 7 November 2005 http://web7.infotrac.galegroup.com.