Let’s start by getting this straight: Poker is about money. If you took the
money out of it, I wouldn’t play.
But even when I lose, I’ve had a good
time. I love playing poker as an escape from the world I usually live in, and I
especially love playing at Hollywood Casino in Charles Town, W.Va., where you
can find me about two afternoons a week.
A poker table is America the way
that television commercials portray it, but it seldom is. A normal table of 10
at Charles Town has at least two or three Asians, one or two blacks, maybe a
Latino, another one or two players who hail from some other part of the world,
and maybe four or five plain-vanilla whites like me. Age is distributed from
young guns in their 20s who raise relentlessly to geezers like me who are too
tight and passive.
The occupational and income mix is so random that we
might as well have been drawn out of a hat.
On a typical table a few
weeks ago, I had a retired Army colonel across from me sandwiched between the
owner of a Vietnamese restaurant and a farmworker who weighed north of 250,
tattoos covering both arms. I had too much sense to ask what the player on my
right with the big diamond earring, radiating street cred, does for a living. On
my left was a matronly woman who runs a construction firm with her husband. At a
table nearby was a top White House official from a previous
Occasionally you’ll sit at a silent table, but more often
there’s conversation about sports, families, girlfriends, boyfriends and poker –
almost never about politics, thankfully.
If you’re a regular, you know
the dealer, who has dealt to you for many hours over the months, and probably
already have a friendly acquaintance with two or three of the players. The
conversation is not only good-natured but carefully polite. “Sir” is used more
often at a poker table than anywhere outside a military base. For example, when
your opponent has made an incredibly dumb call but ended up winning the pot,
poker etiquette dictates that you say, preferably with a mildly inquiring tone,
“How could you call that raise, sir?” Poker is mannerly in other ways. To gloat
over winning a big pot or complain about losing one is equally bad form. When
you’ve won by getting lucky, it is appropriate to acknowledge your luck to the
person you beat. “That was really sick” is a useful formulation.
tables are pure meritocracies.
The pecking order of respect at Charles
Town is determined by how good you are at the game.
Other players may
like you personally, but if you’re a bad player you’re a bad player, and nothing
about your status in the outside world makes any difference. For readers with
high-powered degrees and high-powered jobs, let me suggest that nothing will do
more to keep your feet on the ground than to start playing poker in a public
Poker is a game of incomplete information involving complex
intellectual tasks, self-discipline and the courage to take properly calculated
risks. When you are outthought and outplayed not just once, but regularly, by a
skinny 28-year-old wearing a football jersey and his baseball cap on backward,
it is hard to condescend to him because he doesn’t wear grown-up clothes and
never went to college. It will also do you good to be in the deferencefree zone
that is a poker room – as in recently, when I was cashing out and the woman in
the cashier’s cage, noting my stack of chips with the patterns on the edges
carefully aligned, said confidentially, “Your OCD is showing, baby doll.” Apart
from putting overeducated elitist snobs in their place, the dealers and players
at Charles Town could give lessons to the rest of the country about making the
melting pot work. In the year and a half I’ve played there, I have not
experienced a moment of tension arising from anything involving race, class or
gender. I’m not saying such moments never occur, but they’ve never occurred
around me. Better than that, it has been as if those issues don’t
I guess there was one exception, though it didn’t involve any
I was at a table where the four players to my immediate left and
right were ethnically Croatian, Afghan, Korean and Indian.
All four had
apparently grown up in the United States, judging from their perfect colloquial
The conversation turned to children, and I revealed that my
daughter was engaged to an Italian – a real Italian, living in Bologna. A
silence ensued. Then the Afghan asked earnestly, “Do you trust him?” The others
murmured that they wondered the same thing. I was in the midst of a bunch of
American guys being solicitous of one of their own and dubious about foreigners.
And I said to myself, is this a great country or what? Last year I published a
book called “Coming Apart,” lamenting that America’s new upper class is
segregated from, and ignorant of, life in ordinary America. I got a lot of
criticism for not recommending any policies that would fix the problem. OK, now
I’ve got one: Don’t just make poker legal. Make it mandatory.
Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author, most
recently, of Coming Apart.