The Chronicle Review

What Poker Can Teach Us

Bruce Davidson, Magnum Photos

Wall Street kingpins unwind during their Sunday-night poker game.
October 05, 2009

Since 1996 I've been teaching a course on the literature of poker at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The reading list varies but usually includes The Biggest Game in Town, by Al Alvarez; Big Deal, by Anthony Holden; David Mamet's American Buffalo; Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire; Oskar Morgenstern's "The Cold War Is Cold Poker"; Herbert O. Yardley's The Education of a Poker Player; Poker Faces: The Life and Work of Professional Card Players, by David M. Hayano; Poker Face, by Katy Lederer; and The Poker Face of Wall Street, by Aaron Brown. To keep textbook costs manageable, we read selections from primers by David Sklansky, Dan Harrington, Doyle Brunson, and Daniel Negreanu, and the anthology Read 'Em and Weep.

Talking points from outside the reading list include the role the game played in Barack Obama's early elective career. As a writer, professor, and community organizer, Obama was greeted coolly by some of his fellow legislators when he arrived in Springfield in 1998 to take a seat in the Illinois Senate. How was this ink-stained, poshly educated greenhorn supposed to get along with Chicago ward heelers and conservative downstate farmers? By playing poker with them, of course.

"When it turned out that I could sit down at [a bar] and have a beer and watch a game or go out for a round of golf or get a poker game going," Obama recalled, "I probably confounded some of their expectations." He was referring to the regular Wednesday night game, called the Committee Meeting, that he and another freshman Democrat started. While the stakes were kept low, the bottom line politically was that poker helped Obama break the ice with people he needed to work with in the legislature. His favorite physical games were basketball and golf, but he seems to have understood that, as a networking tool, poker is a more natural pastime.

Its tables have long served as less genteel clubs for students, teachers, soldiers, businessmen, and politicians of either sex and every rank and persuasion. Instead of walking down fairways 40 yards apart from each other, throwing elbows in the paint, or quietly hunting pheasant or muskie, poker buddies are elbow to elbow all night, competing and drinking and talking. In my class, we discuss how Obama's Committee Meeting continued a tradition going back to Henry Clay, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist, and scores of other generals, justices, and presidents.

Then there's the seminal influence of poker on Bill Gates during his four semesters at Harvard (1973-75). Twenty years later, in The Road Ahead, Gates recalled the marathon dorm sessions he believes were at least as productive and intellectually stimulating as his time spent in class. Dorm-mate Steve Ballmer calls Microsoft's early business plan "basically an extension of the all-night poker games Bill and I used to play back at Harvard." Gates put it this way: "In poker, a player collects different pieces of information—who's betting boldly, what cards are showing, what this guy's pattern of betting and bluffing is—and then crunches all that data together to devise a plan for his own hand. I got pretty good at this kind of information processing." Indeed, he won a substantial portion of Microsoft's start-up costs in those dorm games. But it wasn't just dollars reaped to be parlayed a millionfold; it was mainly, says Gates, that "the poker strategizing experience would prove helpful when I got into business."

That sort of strategizing is now being studied more formally at a few universities, and not just in M.B.A. programs. The Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society was founded in 2006 by the Harvard Law School professors Charles Nesson and Lawrence Lessig, the communications maven Jonathan Cohen, and Andrew Woods, a law student. Nesson had cofounded Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and Lessig had started the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. Lessig was author of The Future of Ideas and Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, while Cohen had built a variety of software and communications companies. Woods had graduated magna cum laude from the University of California at Los Angeles, where he started the Bruin Casino Gaming Society, the first officially recognized student organization devoted to the study and teaching of poker.

Even a quick browse of the society's Web page, at, makes clear poker's relevance to the ways we educate ourselves, make laws and contracts, and communicate online and in person. The society promotes it as "an exceptional game of skill that can be used as a powerful teaching tool at all levels of academia." The goal is "to create an open online curriculum centered on poker that will draw the brightest minds together, both from within and outside of the conventional university setting, to promote open education and Internet democracy."

Above all, Nesson makes the case for using poker as a means to helping students understand the world from others' points of view. In his own classes, he trains lawyers "to see in the game a language for thinking about and an environment for experiencing the dynamics of strategy in dispute resolution." At the simplest level, he shows how the game can help middle-school students understand percentages and budget making, as well as how to "read" their opponents.

The larger—and perhaps more surprising—pedagogical fact is that while poker has gone hand in hand with pivotal aspects of our national experience for a couple of centuries now, you'd never guess it from the curricula of our history, anthropology, and English departments, or even from browsing most dictionaries. The latest edition of the New Oxford American, for example, fails to include flop (as a poker term), hold 'em, Omaha (as a game), and World Series of Poker. (Terms deemed fit to appear include floptical, holdall, Pokemon, and World Heritage Site.) Similar omissions occur in Merriam-Webster,,, and other online lexicons. Such cultural blind spots persist in the face of poker's expanding global popularity, as well as abundant evidence that the game has helped not only ordinary citizens but numerous movers and shakers make their way in the world.

Humanities professors should recognize that the ways we've done battle and business, made art and literature have echoed, and been echoed by, poker's definitive tactics, as well as its rich lore and history. The long list of questions that students might ponder include: Why would poque, an 18th-century parlor game played by French and Persian aristocrats, take hold and flourish in kingless, democratic America? Why did poque evolve into our national card game, some say our national pastime, instead of piquet or cribbage or whist? How did poker inspire game theory, which in turn has helped our leaders think through every nuclear standoff? How is it useful in research into artificial intelligence? In what ways do its ethos and lingo underscore Stanley's brutality in A Streetcar Named Desire, or does its honor-among-thieves morality play out in American Buffalo? How much does our love for this game have to do with bluffing and cheating, or with the fact that money is its language, its leverage, its means of keeping score?

American DNA is a notoriously complex recipe for creating a body politic, but two strands in particular have always stood out in high contrast: the risk-averse Puritan work ethic and the entrepreneur's urge to seize the main chance. Proponents of neither m.o. like to credit the other with anything positive; huggers of the shore tend not to praise explorers, while gamblers remain unimpressed by those who husband savings accounts. Yet blended in much the same way that parents' genes are in their children, the two ways of operating have made us who we are as a country.

That's not just a metaphor, either. Geneticists have shown that there is literally such a thing as American DNA, not surprising when nearly all of us are descended from immigrants. We therefore carry an immigrant-specific genotype, a genetic marker expressing itself—in some environments, at least—as energetic risk-taking and competitive self-promotion. Even when famine, warfare, or another calamity strikes, most people stay in their homeland. The self-selecting group that migrates, seldom more than 2 percent, is disproportionally inclined to take chances. They also have above-average intelligence and are quicker decision makers. Something about their dopamine-receptor systems, the neural pathway associated with a taste for novelty and risk, sets them apart from those who stay put.

While the factors involved are numerous and complex, the migratory syndrome has been deftly summarized by the journalist Emily Bazelon: "It's not about where you come from, it's that you came at all." The migratory gene must have been even more dominant among those Americans who first moved west across the Appalachians, up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, then out to California during the gold rush. Their urge to strike it rich, often at the risk of their lives, made poker more appealing than point-based trick-taking games like whist, bridge, or cribbage.

The national card game still combines Puritan values—self-control, diligence, the slow accumulation of savings—with what might be called the open-market cowboy's desire to get very rich very quickly. The latter is the mind-set of the gold rush, the hedge fund, the lottery ticket of everyday wage-earners. Yet whenever the big-bet cowboy folds a weak hand, he submits to his Puritan side. As Walter Matthau drily put it, poker "exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great."

Sometimes outsiders can see our traits more clearly than we see them ourselves. The Budapest-born historian John Lukacs calls poker "the game closest to the Western conception of life … where men are considered moral agents, and where—at least in the short run—the important thing is not what happens but what people think happens." Another keen foreign observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in Democracy in America: "Those living in the instability of a democracy have the constant image of chance before them, and, in the end, they come to like all those projects in which chance plays a part." This was true, he deduced, "not only because of the promise of profit but because they like the emotions evoked."

It remains uncertain which chancing games Tocqueville witnessed, but the perceptive Frenchman came to appreciate our allegiance to risky initiative and democratic opportunity while traveling in 1831 aboard the steamboat Louisville along the Mississippi, the original American mainstream, at the very moment poker was coming of age on those floating casinos. Mark Twain became a highly paid steamboat pilot just before the Civil War closed the river to commercial traffic. Forced to make his way as a writer instead, he produced numerous yarns and reports about the game, the most famous of which appeared in Life on the Mississippi. Another ex-riverman, Abraham Lincoln, used a yarn about poker sharps to explain to the public a controversial decision he made during the Trent Affair. Lincoln then watched the general he had preferred to lead the Union war effort, Robert E. Lee, use poker-based tactics to almost defeat his former country's superior troop strength and armaments.

In the 20th century, Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt called their most ambitious programs the Square Deal and the New Deal, respectively. Harry Truman played in the White House with chips embossed with the presidential seal and explained his decision to order an atomic strike on Hiroshima during a stud game with reporters. Even so, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, by far the two best players among the presidents, refused to even mention the game in public, fearing voters would think it unsavory. John Kennedy shrewdly raised Nikita Khrushchev's bluff during the Cuban missile crisis, though it's been argued by Aaron Brown that Khrushchev's "strong laydown" is what spared us a nuclear holocaust.

In our own century, as the game's popularity booms across every inhabited continent and out into cyberspace, a subhead in The New York Times firmly declared: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn poker." Dictionary editors and curriculum planners might want to start taking note.

James McManus is a professor of writing and literature at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This article is adapted from his most recent book, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, to be published next month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Copyright © 2009 by James McManus.