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Walking the Fine Line of Poker Normalization in Our Culture

Posted by César Albarrán-Torres, September 9, 2014

Throughout its history gambling has had an ambivalent position. On one hand, it often presents itself as a fun shortcut to financial prosperity and social mobility. On the other hand, some consider it highly suspect as an inauthentic practice that can only lead to losses, undeserved wins and vice.

However, poker is currently going through the process of being accepted as a normal part of contemporary culture, both in its online and traditional forms. This is due to how poker has adapted to digital media and how it has been incorporated in global entertainment, as we will see later in this article.

Poker walks a fine line between public adoration and public scrutiny.

It is now hard to imagine, but there was a time when gambling’s ambivalent position meant that playing poker–no matter where played–was frowned upon. Online gamblers preferred anonymity and the idea of online poker players becoming stars was nothing short of ludicrous. However, poker’s mix of chance and skill makes it unique among gambling practices, which has allowed it to become a widespread cultural phenomenon.

Currently, both land-based and online poker are enjoyed by millions of players worldwide. Poker is played in casinos and domestic spaces (who doesn’t love Saturday night poker with friends, right?), as well as online and increasingly on mobile platforms. However, poker walks a fine line between public adoration and public scrutiny. As Austrin and Farnsworth argue, “with its roots in gambling and its blend of luck and skill –both at reading cards and reading faces” poker “perpetually walks the line between moral odium and moral probity” (Austrin & Farnsworth, 2012, p.337).

The balance is starting to tip, though, for both traditional and online poker. Traditional poker is now seen as a sport: tournaments are televised and the most successful players are seen as heroes. With the recent legalization of online poker in many US states, as well as in other jurisdictions, online poker is leaning towards being seen as a normal leisure activity.

But that has not always been the case…

 

Gambling as a controversial practice

Gambling is a longstanding cultural practice around the world (see Binde, 2005) that has not been devoid of significant controversies in Western societies. Games of chance date back to the beginnings of civilization. There is evidence of practices of divination in Mesopotamia and Egypt, as well as references of dice playing in the Bible. There is a cultural notion of games of chance having a supernatural dimension that also dates back centuries, which plays a role in how gambling is perceived. As Roberts, Arth and Bush state, games of chance are oftentimes associated with religion. They argue that: “It is commonly thought by many peoples that the winners of games of chance have received supernatural or magical aid. Even in the European tradition, religious beliefs conditioned views of games of chance” (Roberts, Arth & Bush, 1959, p.601).

Particularly when inscribed in societies founded on the principles of rationality and aversion to vice, people have passed on moral judgments to gambling. The following passage from Lears’ 2003 comprehensive history of the notion of chance in the United States, Something for Nothing: Luck in America, clearly illustrates this point. This fragment also exemplifies the conflicts that the consumption of chance events can arise as a cultural practice that counters prevalent religious and moral values but at the same time invokes timeless preoccupations concerning the inevitability of loss:

In New Orleans and Harlem, among other places, Saint Anthony was the patron of gamblers—as well as the patron of lost objects. In a sense, the popularity of his images suggested the links between gambling and awareness of inevitable loss, between playing apparently pointless games with abandon and cultivating a certain kind of subversive Christianity. (Lears, 2003, p.256)

The moral ambiguity of gambling sparked fierce opposition in the 19th century US, the cultural setting where modern poker originated. One Mason Lock Weems, for example, published a book in 1812 titled God’s revenge against gambling: exemplified in the miserable lives and untimely deaths of a number of persons of both sexes, who had sacrificed their health, wealth, and honor at gaming tables (Weems, 1812). In this book–which makes for quite a fascinating read–Weems chronicles the misfortunes of those individuals involved in wagering, emitting a harsh moral judgment against those who surrender themselves to the decrees of Lady Luck.

Weems writes: “It is not easy to conceive any vice more hateful to God than Gambling, because none can be conceived MORE DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSITE TO THE VERY END OF OUR CREATION!” (Weems, 1812, p.11). Weems characterizes gamblers as those who are blind to the beauty of fairness and equality, and assume an attitude that is best described with the proverb: “… provided he swims, no matter who sinks” (Weems, 1812, p.12). Weems characterizes gambling as a disease, as the “lust for play” that is “no better than THEFT” (Weems, 1812, p.20).

Industry power players have compared harsh regulations on online poker to the Prohibition Era.

However, gambling has also been seen through a more positive light throughout its history. In places like the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, gambling is at times imbued with a sense of nationalism.

This happens particularly in regards to endemic practices such as poker, which is considered by some a truly American enterprise, a real American sport. Poker is considered an embodiment of the American Spirit and has expanded worldwide in constituting transnational markets (Lears, 2003). Some even consider gambling to be an egalitarian practice. For instance, Clarke argues that the casino is “ruthlessly egalitarian, shamelessly democratic” (Clarke, 2003, p. 12) in that the distribution of wealth is random.

Opposite to notions of gambling as a force that disrupts the social and moral order by triggering addiction, others have even identified a sort of liberating power inherent in gambling. In regards to women’s consumption of poker, for example, Abarbanel and Bernhard state that the “glass-ceiling concept that typically applies to most feminist microstructural theory does not quite fit in the poker world” (Abarbanel & Bernhard, 2012, pp. 368-369). They explain that women are not explicitly oppressed in poker with lower pay or lack of promotion, nor does the game overtly discriminate along any lines. Given that, in the long run, luck is even across opponents, poker seems to constitute a rare meritocracy. (Abarbanel & Bernhard, 2012, pp. 369)

Controversy has been stronger particularly when media and cultural changes make gambling more widely available. For example, until the fifteenth century, card games in Europe were an aristocratic affair due partly to the high cost of hand-painted stacks (Kelly, 2006, 2011; see also Parlett, 1991). The advent of the printing press put cards into the hands of commoners. The proliferation of gambling motivated the State and the Church to impose controls over wagering activities in Europe.

The move towards online gambling represents a similar change, with some being outspoken against it and others welcoming new platforms with enthusiasm.

Nowadays, poker has become culturally normalized and is seen by many as a valid form of entertainment. Cultural normalization happens when a practice or an idea that could have been perceived as disruptive at first comes to be seen as a normal part of everyday life. That has been the case with poker, which has gone from being universally perceived as a vice-inducing activity, to being one of the most widely played games in the world and part of global popular culture.

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Online poker normalization

In the late 1990s online gambling–initially roulette, sports betting and poker­–was introduced as a new commercial enterprise aligned with the discourses and practices of the dotcom era, one of which was the promise of unforeseen financial gain through digital means.

The first online poker site to offer real money wagering was the now defunct Planet Poker, established by Randy Blumer. The inaugural hand was dealt on January 1, 1998. The site became commercially viable just a few months after its launch, but suffered severe problems due to technical limitations of current technological networks, such as poor dial-up connections, faulty software, and geographical limitations (E. Smith, 2011). Real-time co-presence proved difficult. In 1999 Paradise Poker challenged Planet Poker’s monopoly and thus the relentless proliferation and ruthless competition of desktop-based online poker rooms began.

A little bit over 15 years later the size and reach of the online poker industry are culturally and financially significant. According to the results of a vast and pioneering audit of online poker operators conducted by researchers from the University of Hamburg, in 2010 alone six million people engaged in online poker, giving a $3.61 billion USD rake to the operators. These figures–which do not include social casino games such as Zynga Poker–speak both of a greatly profitable industry, and a vast network of users (Fiedler & Wilcke, 2011). Fiedler and Wilcke (2011) argue in relation to online poker: “large player pools and the corresponding network effects have helped the game to grow to a size not to be matched in the offline world” (Fiedler & Wilcke, 2011).

cultural normalization

With online poker being played by such a large pool of users, some industry power players have compared harsh regulations on online poker to the Prohibition Era, when the consumption of alcohol was banned in the United States. In late 2013, casino mogul Steve Wynn told reporters: “playing poker is America, and outlawing poker is like the Volstead Act where they outlawed beer” (Sieroty, 2013). Some political figures in the United States have taken a surprising stance in favour of online poker. Texas Rep. Joe Barton, for example, exclaimed during a Congressional hearing on the Poker Freedom Act in December, 2013, that God is in favour of online poker (Weber, 2013).

Poker has become an important element of media landscapes around the world particularly in the Global North. Celebrities such as Matt Damon openly admit to being fans of the game and have participated in various tournaments. Sports figures like tennis champion Rafael Nadal have acted as brand ambassadors for online poker sites. It is common to see poker tournaments in transnational outlets such as ESPN and Fox Sports. Poker is also constantly referenced in movies and TV shows.

Online poker has become culturally normalized, but will it become fully legal?

Gambling academics Terry Austrin and John Fansworth have also stressed that poker is “richly populated with its own celebrities and the celebration of success, both financial and reputational” (Austrin & Farnsworth, 2012, p.337). Televised shows like the World Series of Poker frame the game with high-octane narrative structures reminiscent of sports movies, which in turn have been adapted into online poker platforms. The World Series of Poker has its own mythology of champions, underdogs and come-from-behind victories (McManus, 2004; Grotenstein & Reback, 2006). As the credits roll, winners are given generous stacks of cash and are surrounded by attractive hostesses. The World Series of Poker is a deeply inspirational event, sometimes combining amateurs and professionals in its final showdown, which follows trends in entertainment media in which amateurs become professionals in front of the camera (Dreier, 2013).

Online poker is also normalized in other online environments such as social networking sites. Online poker players seek, comment, archive and generate information across platforms that include Facebook pages, YouTube videos, Twitter accounts, apps and online casinos. There are also dozens of poker strategy books such as Winning Poker: 200 Rules, Techniques and Strategies (Matthewson & Diamond, 2004) or The Poker Blueprint (Nguyen & Davism 2011). Gambling operators also produce parallel avenues for corporate communication and branding in sites such as Facebook fan pages, Twitter accounts, apps and televised tournaments, as well as merchandise that ranges from T-shirts to branded poker chips and videogames such as the World Series of Poker range developed by Activision and available for Xbox, Playstation and Wii consoles.

Its place in contemporary media landscapes repositions poker as an acceptable entertainment option.

Its place in contemporary media landscapes repositions poker as an acceptable entertainment option. Developing in parallel to other forms of interactive media such as computer and mobile games, digital poker has widened its market to include segments previously foreign to wagering activities. Gambling researcher Gerda Reith (her book The Age of Change is a must for anyone interested in the history of gambling) argues that by borrowing marketing and branding strategies from other industries, transnational gambling operators have broken into the middle class:

Participation [in gambling activities] has not only increased but also widened to include, for the first time, the middle class—the group traditionally most hostile to all forms of gambling—in a move that has finally ‘normalized’ the activity’. (Reith, 2007, p.35)

Digital gambling has been introduced to the array of entertainment options (cable television, cinema, computer games) from which the tech-savvy, middle-class consumer can choose.

The redefinition of gambling into an activity more closely related to entertainment is particularly evident in poker. The rebranding efforts of the gambling industry and their impeding success –as evidenced, for instance, by the transmission of the World Series of Poker on ESPN or by the formation of poker leagues aligned to sports federations around the world–has allowed for poker to enter everyday media consumption in ways that are perceived as less damaging or predatory. Televised poker tournaments, for instance, are rooted in a narrative of success and self-realization, much in tone with the values of hard work and rational thinking that dominate Western worldviews.

Currently, poker is expanding through the use of poker apps, which are part of the ‘social casino gaming’ sector or what alternatively Gerard Goggin and I (2014) have theorised as Mobile Social Gambling, an evolving socio-technical assemblage, and a new form of media and cultural practice that fuses gambling (a longstanding social practice), social networking (in both the older pre-Internet and newer online forms), and ‘social gaming’ (the new social media form, popular especially on Facebook), together with the affordances of mobile media devices, networks, applications, and touchscreens. (Albarrán-Torres & Goggin, 2014)

The pool of players that enjoy poker is constantly expanding. Poker is not going to disappear anytime soon.

Enjoy the ride.

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References

Abarbanel, L. & Bernhard, B.J. (2012) "Chicks with decks: the female lived experience in poker". International Gambling Studies, 12(3), 367-385.

Albarrán-Torres, C. (2013). "Gambling-machines and the automation of desire". Platform: Journal of Media and Communication, 5(1).

Albarrán-Torres, C. & Goggin, G (2014). "Mobile Social Gambling: Poker’s Next Frontier". Mobile Media & Communication, 2(1), 94-109.

Austrin, T. & Farnsworth, J. (2012) "Celebrity, infamy, poker:. Celebrity Studies, 3(3), 337-339.

Binde, P. (2005) "Gambling, exchange systems and moralities". Journal of Gambling Studies, 21(4), 445-479.

Clarke, D. B. (2003). "The consumer society and the postmodern city". London. New York: Routledge.

Dreier, H. (2013, November 3) "8 pros, 1 amateur compete for $8.4M WSOP prize". Herald Online

Farnsworth, J., & Austrin, T. (2010). "The ethnography of new media worlds? Following the case of global poker". New Media Society, 12(7), 1120-1136.

Fiedler, I. & Wilcke A. (2011) "The Market of Online Poker". The University of Hamburg, Social Science Research Network. papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1747646

Grotenstein, J. & Reback, S. (2006) All In: The (Almost) Entirely True Story of the World Series of Poker. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Kelly, J. (2006). "Poker: the very American career of the card game you can learn in 10 minutes and work on for the rest of your life". American Heritage, 57(6).

Lears, J. (2003) Something for Nothing: Luck in America. New York: Viking.

McManus, J. (2004) Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker. New York: Picador.

Parlett, D. (1991). A History of Card Games. Oxford University Press.

Reith, G. (1999). The Age of Chance: Gambling in Western Culture. London: Routledge.

Reith, G. (2007) "Gambling and the Contradictions of Consumption. American Behavioral Scientist", 51(1), 33-55.

Roberts, J. M., Arth, M. J., & Bush, R. R. (1959). "Games in culture". American anthropologist, 61(4), 597-605.

Sieroty, C. (2013, November 25) "Steve Wynn compares effort to outlaw online poker to Prohibition". Las Vegas Review-Journal. reviewjournal.com/business/steve-wynn-compares-effort-outlaw-online-poker-prohibition

Weber, K. (2013, December 12) "Does God Love Online Poker? Texas Congressman Has Shocking Answer". The Christian Post. global.christianpost.com/news/does-god-love-online-poker-texas-congressman-has-shocking-answer-110595/#Dr00t8U5VLvbwr8M.99

Weems, M. L. (1812). God’s revenge against gambling: exemplified in the miserable lives and untimely deaths of a number of persons of both sexes, who had sacrificed their health, wealth, and honour at gaming tables. Philadelphia: published by the author.

 


César Albarrán-TorresCésar Albarrán-Torres researches computer games and digital gambling at the Digital Cultures Program, University of Sydney (Australia). He is also a film critic and writes about television, movies and technology in various international outlets. You can follow him on Twitter: @Viscount_Wombat


 

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