Poker in American Pop Culture

Posted on: May 25, 2016

While it is by no means exclusive to the U.S., the game of poker has played a unique role in American society and pop culture for nearly two centuries, referenced in songs, literature, movies, and even art (think: the popular, Dogs Playing Poker paintings by C. M. Coolidge), while being played by millions across all intersections of life. But what is it about this competitive card game of chance and skill that resonates so strongly with the history of American pop culture?

Perhaps the bond American’s have with the game of poker relates back to the quintessential narratives and themes of the Old West, namely the image of the confident and fearless cowboy who is cool under pressure and never backs down from a challenge. Like the game of poker itself, the stories of early American success in the Old West often come down to a battle of the wills.

Or rather, perhaps the reason poker has been a favored pastime of Americans for generations relates more to the fact that we have depended upon the game throughout both the good and the bad times, and even as our society evolves and technology progresses, poker remains now more than ever, an important component of American pop culture.

Poker has functioned in a variety of ways in the story of the U.S.; from entertaining soldiers in between battles during the Civil War, pioneers during the Gold Rush, and even the earliest of United States Presidents, to serving as metaphors for life’s lessons in everyday discourse, poker really has earned the position of America’s favorite card game for many reasons.

And since poker is a game that combines intellectual, emotional, mental, psychological skill and stamina, it makes sense why this particular card game has appealed to so many throughout America’s history, including the likes of politicians, celebrities, clergymen, working, middle and upper class people, and some of our nation’s greatest authors and artists. Moreover, it is as a result of its versatile appeal that we have seen the presence of poker in so many different mediums in our culture.

As poker has evolved in the late 20th century and on into today’s world, the popularity of the game and its presence in mainstream society has only increased. The advent of the World Series of Poker in the 1970s, coupled with a reemergence of the popularity of casino poker in the 80s and 90s, ushered in a new era of poker for the avid poker player, because with the world- wide interest in poker really heating up, the game itself now became as profitable as it was popular.

With the new attention the poker world received, the cultural references and mainstream accessibility of the game changed again as well; take as examples, the infamous Kenny Rogers song of the early 1980s, The Gambler, and the vast number of movies dedicated to Vegas-related drama centering around high-stakes poker, all of which reveal the extent to which poker has made its way into the heart of some of America’s biggest cultural institutions.

The relationship between American culture and poker is one that is characterized by change yet dependability, and much like the nature of the game itself; The U.S.’ story is rife with blurred lines between fact and fiction as well.