Cards and chips on green felt casino table

The Flushdraw Review: Martin Harris’s ‘Poker and Pop Culture’

History books aren’t supposed to be fun. However, every once in a while, a book comes along that breaks form, and the poker world is fortunate to have received one of those gifts in the form of Martin Harris’s fantastically researched Poker and Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game (D&B Publishing, $24.95).

Harris’s expansive look at how poker has been a part of America’s social fabric for more than a century and a half, ever since early versions of the game, likely derived from older card games originating in France, appeared in the Mississippi River steamboat days of the mid-19th century. From there the game spread everywhere, and as Harris tracks through time, poker came to represent a certain part of the American spirit — competitive, risky, and yes, more than a bit tawdry. How the game served a metaphor within the entire scope of American life is a part of the story Harris weaves here; Poker and Pop Culture stands as a smooth but meticulous delving into virtually all things poker.

Poker and Pop Culture

Poker and Pop Culture

It’s difficult to relate to the reader how thorough and deep an insight into poker’s cultural impact Harris offers here. I chatted with him a couple of times this summer, and he explained how Poker and Pop Culture took on its own life, growing ever longer as he uncovered more and more tales that deserved to be included. The end result will stand as one of the definitive works on poker and its history. Harris, a skilled writer and a veteran of the poker writing and reporting scene, proves here that he was the best person possible to write this book, one of the best non-strategy poker books ever written.

Poker and Pop Culture serves up a roughly chronological look at poker’s presence within numerous cultural forms. Harris divvies up the tales in expert fashion. The book’s landing page at Amazon samples some of the chapters, each serving as its own category:

  • Poker on the Mississippi
  • Poker in the Movies
  • Poker in the Old West
  • Poker on the Newsstand
  • Poker in the Civil War
  • Poker in Literature
  • Poker on the Bookshelf
  • Poker in Music
  • Poker in the White House
  • Poker on Television
  • Poker During Wartime
  • Poker on the Computer

These and more chapters give the reader a solid framework, even if in reality the nature of poker itself blurs the lines. Many of poker’s most iconic moments appear repeatedly, in multiple chapters; poker’s roots in America are strong, deep and widespread. If it’s poker-related and impactful in a cultural way, it’s here. “From Mark Twain to ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ to W.C. Fields to John Wayne to A Streetcar Named Desire to the Cold War to Kenny Rogers to ESPN to ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation and beyond,'” the Amazon summary explains, “Poker & Pop Culture provides a comprehensive survey of cultural productions in which poker is of thematic importance….”

In other words, it’s a deep, broad dive into poker’s history. And it’s a lot of fun, too.

One thing that readers should not expect is to be able to sit down and digest Poker and Pop Culture in a single setting. The book began as an assemblage of Harris’s years of columns under the same title for PokerNews, and though it moves far beyond that, it’s still hundreds of smaller tales woven into a larger whole. Poker and Pop Culture virtually demands to be read in the same way that Harris put it together — in bits and pieces, jumping from one interesting topic to the next. It’s a great nightstand or Kindle book, the type of material that can be enjoyed in small pieces, a few minutes at a time. Those are worthy minutes spent.

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