Poker night is an icon of American culture. On any given Friday evening, was legions of poker players across the country bolt from the confines of their jobs and families to gather around dimly lit tables and immerse themselves in an atmosphere of beer bottles, cigar fume, and poker chips. The perfect poker game is congenial but competitive, classy in form but a little seedy in substance. It satiates a rebellious streak in all of us; we rebel from the daily grind of PC professional life by trying to take each other's money in an enclave of rugged, unapologetic individualism.
That's why poker resonates with most Americans as an activity that is culturally substantial, even patriotic. Besides all that, it's a great setting for a party, and most participants show up for the social event as much as the cards. Even so, give the immense popularity of poker in this country, in the same way that one might expect the average Swiss person to hold his or her own on a ski slope. Poker is our national card game, right?
Not exactly. There are certainly a lot of good poker players out there. But the sobering truth is that the average American player, despite spending hundreds of hours at a "poker" table, has no idea what poker is or how to play it. If poker were an Olympic sport, Switzerland would cream us. Why? Because the Swiss are serious about everything, and we Americans have allowed our national card game to degenerate into something unserious.
Sure, we have an elite dream team of poker professionals who set the standard for the world, as well as a class of competitive players who make their livings or supplement their incomes with poker behind the scenes. Yet the majority of our amateur population, our prospective poker Olympians, doesn't even play the same game that our professionals do. How can this be so?
The main reason is that genuine hard-nosed poker had nearly disappeared from public view before some professional gamblers gave it a new breath of life in the 1970s. Poker had survived amid the masses, but mostly as a domesticated imitation of the real thing where family-friendly stakes didn't allow for much excitement and improvised rules had to make up the difference. As early as 1887, a kindred spirit of mine wrote that these "various methods of playing the game, some of which are radically wrong and the direct results of ignorance" demanded a "simple treatise" to preserve the integrity of poker.
Real poker is once again surging in American's veins, this time at the hands of professional TV procedures, not professional gamblers, and we need to make the most of it if we want to have a fighting chance against the Swiss.