Sunday, 2nd April 2023 07:49
Home / News / Book Excerpt: From the forthcoming ‘Poker & Pop Culture’ by Martin Harris

New book by longtime poker reporter charts the game’s history with special emphasis on poker’s portrayal in popular culture.

This summer among the new titles being published by D&B Books is Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game by PokerStars Blog’s own Martin Harris.

Not only does Poker & Pop Culture present a history of poker “from 19th-century steamboats and saloons to 21st-century virtual tables online,” it also shows “how the game’s portrayal in the mainstream has increased poker’s relevance to American history and shaped the way we think about the game and its significance.”

Thus in addition to chapters telling of poker being played (and portrayed) on the Mississippi, in the Old West, during the Civil War (and other wars), and in clubs and casinos, the book discusses in detail how poker has been presented in movies, on television, in magazines and books, in music, in paintings, and more. Also covered are the ways poker has intersected with politics, business, sports, and other areas of American culture.

Below is an excerpt from the chapter titled “Poker in Music.”

Rocking Road Gamblers and Cardslinging Singers

The phrase “fading the white line” was used to describe poker players from the 20th century’s middle decades who drove from city to city both to seek out games and avoid the heat invited by a lifestyle dependent on illegal gambling. The trio of Doyle Brunson, Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston, and Sailor Roberts are among the best known such players, “road gamblers” who often traveled together from game to game with a shared bankroll while dodging the authorities. The phrase might also apply to many of the touring bands of the 1960s and 1970s, a period during which several more folk, blues, and rock artists found inspiration from poker, often either evoking America’s frontier past or the more immediate travails of touring as contexts for their songs.

Blues-rock pioneer Bo Diddley drew on multiple western themes for his eclectic 1960 album Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger, the song “Cheyenne” in particular featuring an ornery cowboy having to fend off a tinhorn wanting to fight him in a poker game. Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan similarly found both the Old West and poker stimulating areas of inquiry, most memorably in “Rambling, Gambling Willie,” first recorded in 1962 as an outtake during sessions for his The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan LP. In it Dylan introduces the character Will O’Conley, a veteran of poker games in so many different locations — on the Mississippi, in the Colorado mountains, even in the White House — his career almost functions as a capsule summary of poker’s history in America. Willie’s death even evokes poker’s most famous hand, his prodigious winning streak coming to an end after being shot in the head during a poker game while clutching aces and eights.

By comparison Bonanza star Lorne Greene’s 1966 single “Five Card Stud,” written by Wally Gold of “It’s My Party” fame, presents little more than a poker short story with a twist ending. A mysterious stranger joins a saloon poker game and in the climactic hand strangely folds a hand containing three aces (two up, one in the hole) against an opponent’s three kings before departing, the final lines revealing he was playing against his son.

In 1971 Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia opened his self-titled solo album with “Deal,” sung from the perspective of a seasoned gambler ostensibly drawing on his experience with card cheats to advise his listener to watch the deal carefully and thereafter to play with caution. That same year folk-blues artist Townes Van Zandt recorded the mini-epic “Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold” for his album High, Low and In Between. It is a surreal song describing a hand of five-card stud between the title characters in which the players’ cards are personified as though waging an apocalyptic battle, with Mr. Gold’s four wicked kings ultimately falling to Mr. Mudd’s four angelic aces.

The Eagles dominated FM radio during the 1970s, with their second LP Desperado (1973) and accompanying tour helping confirm their status as leaders of the folk-influenced soft rock being produced by many of their contemporaries. The album comprises several Old West-themed tracks, with the title song telling of a weary card-playing cowboy whose tribulations seem to mirror that of a road-exhausted band. Another track titled “Out of Control” even more directly references poker, specifically a saloon game in which a cowboy weighs risks associated both with the hand he holds and a flirtatious barmaid.

Not coincidentally, the Eagles themselves were dedicated poker players, and when not on the road lead singer and guitarist Glenn Frey hosted weekly games at his Laurel Canyon home in Los Angeles, eventually dubbed the “Kirkwood Casino” after its location on Kirkwood Drive. Among those regularly joining the game was singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell whose “Song for Sharon” from her 1976 album Hejira included a reference to her being able to remain cool at poker but not so much when love was involved. Frey even invented a new poker variant called Eagle Poker, one involving players betting on whether or not a third card’s value would fall in between the ranks of two other dealt cards. The game is commemorated indirectly in Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous (2000) in which a character based on Frey plays blind man’s bluff. [Ed. note: For more on the Eagles’ poker playing, see Pauly McGuire’s “Life in the Fast Lane: Poker and the Eagles.”]

The Flint, Michigan rock group Grand Funk Railroad also enjoyed peak career success during this period, with their first number one single on the Billboard charts, “We’re An American Band,” the title track from their 1973 album. The autobiographical song written and sung by drummer Don Brewer chronicles happenings from the road, with highlights including lots of boozing, partying with groupies, and encountering an agreeable hotel detective. Brewer also makes reference to the favored card game of blues guitarist Freddie King who had opened for the band during the previous year’s tour. As Brewer tells it, King “would, every night, have a poker game in his room and he’d make his band play cards with him and he’d win all his money back.”

Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game will be available in paperback, as an e-book, and eventually as an audio book. Due out in early June, the book is available now for preorder at D&B Poker.

D&B Publishing (using the imprint D&B Poker) was created by Dan Addelman and Byron Jacobs 15 years ago, just as the online poker boom began, and since then has become one of the leading publishers of poker books with titles by Phil Hellmuth, Jonathan Little, Mike Sexton, Chris Moorman, Lance Bradley, Alexander Fitzgerald, Dr. Patricia Cardner and more, all of which are available at D&B Poker.

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