Poker & Pop Culture: Mark Twain

Poker & Pop Culture: Mark Twain 0001

Poker players have long been aware that the great American humorist and fiction writer Mark Twain was an avid poker player. He reportedly learned the game as a boy in Mississippi, and as an adult gained a reputation as tough competitor at five-card draw.

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Missouri in 1835, Twain's family moved to Hannibal, located along the Mississippi River, when he was a child. As a teenager, Twain began writing for the Hannibal newspaper run by his brother. Twain eventually moved to New York and spent a few years in the north working as a printer, then made his way back to Missouri as a young man to begin a career as a steamboat pilot. Then came the Civil War, and it was around the time of the war's conclusion that Twain would begin his illustrious literary career, producing numerous landmarks of American fiction, among them the great novels Tom Sawyer (1876), Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889).

Twain played poker frequently during his many travels, although he apparently made it a rule to avoid mixing it up with the hustlers who frequently populated those Mississippi riverboats he helped pilot. An article appearing in the September 9, 1912 issue of The New York Times (a couple of years after Twain's death) quotes William H. Davis, a fellow pilot who worked with Twain, saying that "'Mark wouldn't gamble with them fellers on the boats.... They were full of gamblers in those days. Mark liked a little game of poker as well as the rest of us, but he was mighty particular who he played with.'"

In his writings, Twain famously defended poker as a game of skill that provided a meaningful occasion for a man to demonstrate his worth — be it moral, social, or intellectual. Twain once humorously referred to poker as needful to America's well being, noting with dismay how "there are few things that are so unpardonably neglected in our country as poker." That much-quoted passage, appearing in Merle Johnson's A Bibliography of Mark Twain, continues as follows:

"The upper class knows very little about [poker]. Now and then you find ambassadors who have a sort of general knowledge of the game, but the ignorance of the people is fearful. Why, I have known clergyman, good men, kind-hearted, liberal, sincere, and all that, who did not know the meaning of a 'flush.' It is enough to make one ashamed of one's species."

References to poker and card playing appear often in Twain's writings, further substantiating the author's interest in cards. Here are just three — one presenting a very timely commentary on the "skill vs. luck" question being debated in today's courts, another recounting an example of one of those risky steamboat poker games Twain shunned, and the last a poker analogy demonstrating Twain's understanding that the game is about more than simply the cards one is dealt.

"Science vs. Luck" (1870)

This short story is not specifically about poker, but touches on an issue foremost in poker players' minds these days. The story begins with an "Hon. Mr. K-----" recounting a Kentucky case in which "a dozen boys" had been caught playing cards for money, and since "the law was very strict against what is termed 'games of chance'" the group was therefore charged with a crime. Sound familiar?

The boys had been caught playing "seven up" or "old sledge," a popular 19th century card game also known as "all fours," "high low jack," and "pitch." It is the same game the "Duke" and the "Dauphin" play in Huckleberry Finn for five cents a game. The game is a trick-taking game, with the trump suit being determined at the start of each game and certain cards netting points which are added at the end to determine a winner.

The boys' lawyer, Jim Sturgis, is said to have a solid reputation, but at the beginning of the tale appears to be resigned to the possibility of losing the case. The boys had been caught red-handed, and there was no denying they were playing the game and betting as well. However, "after several restless nights" Sturgis finally happens upon a possible defense.

Rather than challenge the facts of the case, Sturgis decides "to put in the plea that old sledge was not a game of chance!" The judge and others present at the trial are described smiling indulgently at Sturgis' novel strategy, with the prosecuting attorney immediately attempting "to ridicule him out of his position." However, Sturgis remains steadfast, and ultimately puts the onus on the court to prove that the game the boys were playing was indeed a game of chance.

Several churchmen are called to testify, each of whom maintain old sledge to be a game of chance. "'I call it a game of science!'" Sturgis exclaims in response. To support his position, Sturgis brings in his own "cloud of witnesses," each of whom argue old sledge is not to be a game based on luck alone, but a "game of science" requiring knowledge and skill in order to succeed.

The judge "scratched his head over it awhile, and said there was no way of coming to a determination, because just as many men could be brought into court who would testify on one side as could be found to testify on the other." Unsure how to proceed, he allows the lawyer Sturgis to propose a method for resolving the matter.

"'Impanel a jury of six of each, Luck versus Science'" says Sturgis. In other words, choose six who believe old sledge to be a game based on chance and six who believe it a "game of science." "'Give them candles and a couple of decks of cards. Send them into the jury-room, and just abide by the result!'" The dozen men retire to play it out. Eventually one of the deacons sends a messenger to borrow some money from a friend. A couple of hours later, another of the clergymen does the same. Eventually, all of the deacons and "dominie" (ministers) are described being forced to "sen[d] into court for small loans."

The game finally concludes, and the jury reads its verdict that, indeed, old sledge is a "game of science," and not a game of chance. As it happened, "the 'chance' men never won a game" and "are all busted, and the 'science' men have got the money." Therefore does the jury declare "that the 'chance' theory concerning seven-up is a pernicious doctrine, and calculated to inflict untold suffering and pecuniary loss upon any community that takes stock in it." The story concludes proclaiming those who play old sledge in the state of Kentucky can no longer be punished for playing a game of chance, because the case had conclusively proven the game to be a "game of science." (Would that we could play out such disputes in real life.)

Life on the Mississippi (1883)

Twain's memoir of his time as a steamboat pilot contains numerous tales and adventures, many of which have been embellished somewhat, thereby blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction. All, however, are based on actual experiences, including one digressive anecdote Twain shares in which a passenger, a college professor, tells him a story involving a poker game he'd once witnessed aboard another steamboat.

The "Professor's Yarn" (as the chapter is titled) begins with the teller describing how this event occurred prior to his having become a teacher, when he was a land surveyor. While traveling to a new job, he met a young country boy named John Backus, and the two get to know one another as the voyage proceeds. Backus introduces himself as a cattleman, and unsuccessfully tries to recruit his new companion into a crooked deal whereby the surveyor might allot him some free land. In the course of the failed deal, Backus reveals to the professor his stash — ten thousand dollars' worth of gold.

Later, the professor discovers young Backus having fallen in with a group of poker players. "He was gambling," tells the professor. "Worse still, he was being plied with champagne, and was already showing some effect of it." The professor, distraught at witnessing his new friend taken advantage of so mercilessly, speaks of it as "the painfulest night I ever spent."

Finally comes the climax of the story, a huge hand of draw poker in which Backus and one of the card sharps, Jack Wiley, commit to a series of reraises, "the yellow pyramid" of gold coins growing "higher and higher," until finally every piece of gold in the game is in the middle. "'What have you got?'" demands Backus of his opponent. "'Four kings, you d----d fool!'" comes the response. "'Four aces, you ass!'" Backus fires back, and with his revolver drawn offers a further explanation: "'I'm a professional gambler myself, and I've been laying for you duffers all this voyage!'"

The professor concludes his story by explaining how one of the three gamblers with whom Backus was playing was in cahoots with Backus and thus contrived the deal for the fateful hand. "According to an understanding with the two victims," he explains, "he was to have given Backus four queens, but alas, he didn't.'" He also clarifies that Backus was no "cattleman" at all, but was only posing as such as part of the larger ruse. Twain had good reason, it appears, to make it a policy to avoid such cutthroat games.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)

One also finds a brief reference to poker in Twain's later, dark satire, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. In this one, Twain's protagonist, the "Yankee" (whom we eventually learn is named Hank Morgan), travels back in time from 19th-century New England to the sixth century where he interacts with King Arthur and his court.

Near the novel's conclusion, the Yankee has a climactic battle with Sir Sagramor le Desirous that concludes with Morgan shooting him dead with a revolver — quite the advantage, as one might imagine, to be in possession of a firearm there in early medieval times. He then challenges all of the other 500 knights to fight him at once or be proclaimed "vanquished, every one!" Twain then employs a poker analogy to clarify Morgan's actual strategy here:

"It was a 'bluff' you know. At such a time it is a sound judgment to put on a bold face and play your hand for a hundred times what it worth; forty-nine times out of fifty nobody dares to 'call,' and you rake in the chips." Unfortunately for Morgan, the knights call his bluff and rush him, but they lose their nerve after he kills several more and, not knowing his ammunition is limited, they give in to the "magical" Yankee.

These are only a few of the many references to poker and cards one finds in the writings of Mark Twain. Of course, one would expect Twain, that most observant commentator on American culture, to have devoted time to considering one of the country's most cherished pastimes.

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