For this column, I am invoking the fifth rule of 21st-century sports coverage: If ESPN covers it, it’s a sport.
Next week, I may write about bass fishing or the Iditarod. This week you get poker.
I was first introduced to cards by Mel Gibson. When I was five years old, I saw the movie “Maverick” with my dad and my sister, then three. Mel plays a freewheeling 19th-century gambler, Maverick, with one shot to prove he’s the best card player in all the Wild West, even if it costs him the $25,000 entrance fee for the tournament. The movie’s triumphant climax takes place on a paddle steamboat floating down the fictional Crystal River, as Maverick stares down his remaining opponents, the bad guys. Set up with four high spades, he draws his final card but refuses to look at it. When he finally pulls it in front of his face, he tosses it on the pile for all to see, in slow motion, that the Ace of Spades completes his royal flush. Maverick won the tournament’s $500,000 pot, and I was hooked instantly.
I went home and made my dad teach me poker. I was smart enough to realize I wouldn’t pull too many Aces of Spades, but in the years since, I’ve been surprised at how few good hands I’ve come up with. I’m still waiting for my Maverick moment and a pot bigger than eight dollars.
But I probably won’t get any of those for a while, for two reasons: I’m too smart to keep playing a game I’m no good at, and at college I’ve found relatively few opportunities to be lured into losing my money to cards.
That wasn’t supposed to be the case. When a poker craze began to sweep the country a few years ago, my high school classmates didn’t want to go into college at a disadvantage. They saw poker as a necessary skill for college-bound students. By senior year, when classes hardly mattered, my friends played hours of poker each day in school. After students were repeatedly caught playing poker in the student government office, the principal sent out a memo: “All activities which are illegal in the State of New York are also prohibited in the G.O. office.” The games moved, but practice continued.
The explosion of poker at my high school came in the middle of a similar national explosion. Poker’s popularity has seen a steady rise since the creation of the World Series of Poker in 1970, held annually in Las Vegas. A private high-stakes game may provide bigger payoffs, but winners of the tournament also can claim to be the best in the world, at least until the next year. Though the tournament has popularized the game — sorry, sport — since the 1970s, the real boom came after 2002.
Parts of the tournament have been broadcast on television since the early days. CBS aired the event through the 1970s and ESPN took over in the early 1980s. After initially dropping the event from the air, ESPN began showing it again in the late ’80s, airing one-hour specials of the tournament’s main event through the 1990s. The tournament switched over to The Discovery Channel for two years until, in 2002, ESPN introduced a breakthrough technology and realized they had a hit on their hands. That year, for the first time, viewers saw the game from the “Hole Cam,” a camera in or below the table that showed each player’s cards. Instantly, poker became a true spectator sport.
And it’s a good spectator sport, at least on television. Poker is the opposite of soccer and hockey: It’s better on TV than in person. In those “real” sports, home viewers have to squint to see the ball or puck. Forced to follow the action by following the players, you end up tracking figurines against a uniform green or white background, confused by all the running. Only true fans will stop when they flip to hockey on TV. And I’m pretty sure soccer isn’t even on TV in this country.
But the drama of television poker ropes you in instantly. You see the pocket jacks against the ten-king suited, you see the draw and you see the beads of sweat rolling down the players’ cheeks. You’re in this hand like the players are, praying the next card turns fate. But, unlike them, you know what they don’t — their opponents’ cards. Watching television poker is like watching football if, instead of the commentators’ drivel, you get to hear each coach barking into his headset. You’d know what plays were coming, and you’d be able to tell before each play who was outsmarting who. Or imagine if you knew every pitch before the pitcher threw it. All you would have to watch for would be the twists of the game, the execution, the luck of each swing.
Maybe watching poker is more like watching a movie when you know what the bad guy is going to do. You know what the good guy doesn’t, just like you know something the poker player on TV doesn’t. Dramatic irony, I think they call it in the movies. Dramatic whatever — it’s good entertainment.
But I haven’t played too much poker since getting here. I’ve come across only a handful of games now, and I won’t be starting any myself until I can figure out how to get a Full House up my sleeve. Maybe Yalies don’t gamble, or maybe I’m just missing the action. My guess is that if Yalies are playing poker, they’re doing it the smart way: on the internet. I haven’t ventured into the realm of online gambling, but I hear, it’s the Wild West all over again. There are suckers at every table and you never know when you might be taken out. Now, though, the angry drunkard who once would break a bottle over your head has been replaced by Uncle Sam, who’s trying to force players from the online tables to Vegas or Atlantic City, where he can take a cut.
I haven’t played in a while, but I remember the excitement of playing poker, even before Hole Cam. You know, if you’re ever looking for a sucker to take advantage of, I could go for a few hands. Maybe I’ll finally pull that ace.
Pete Martin is a sophomore in Morse College. His column usually appears on Wednesday.