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The Rise of the Risk Society and the Pokerization of America

Dr. Aaron Duncan is the Director of Speech & Debate Program and a lecturer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). Dr. Duncan received his Ph.D. from the Department of Communication Studies at UNL in 2010 with a specialization in Rhetoric and Public Culture. His research focuses on sporting culture, public mythology, and political communication. He has a forthcoming book titled Gambling with the Myth of the American Dream that will be published by New York, Routledge later this year. Here, Dr. Duncan provides a glimpse into that work with an essay highlighting the rise of risk in society, something he calls the "Pokerization of America."

The Rise of the Risk Society and the Pokerization of America 101
Dr. Aaron Duncan

In The Color of Money, Paul Newman's character Fast Eddie Felson proclaimed, "Money won is twice as sweet as money earned." The sentiment expressed by Fast Eddie appears to summarize the feeling of millions of Americans who willing put their money down in casinos each year. While other games may tilt the odds in favor of the house, poker does offer players a chance to win in long term. Of course, this is not true for most Americans, only a small percentage can hope to overcome both their opponents and the rake in the long run. I contend that Americans' love of poker is one unmistakable "tell" about the shifting American Dream. I believe that our economy and our society both increasingly resemble a poker game and like any good game there are winners and losers.

The success and symbolism of poker today goes beyond the normal rules of capitalism. Writing in the early 1990s, German sociologist Ulrich Beck claimed that we live in "risk society." According to Beck, such a society is preoccupied with the notion of risk. This is not to say that modern life is riskier than living in the past. A childhood spent simulating the journey of Americans along the Oregon Trail taught me about the difficulties faced by previous generations. Few Americans today have to worry about falling victim to diphtheria or the dangers of a wagon that capsizes while portaging over a river. Nonetheless, Beck contended that we are obsessed with risk. We worry about our exposure to risk from everything from terrorism to global warming to the stock market. People no longer work the same job for the same company for their whole careers, housing bubbles burst, pensions evaporate, and billions disappear in bailouts.

Is it any wonder that the game of poker has thrived in this type of environment?

The ability of professional poker players to understand, tolerate, and manage risk makes them role models for entrepreneurs in a system where those skills are vital to economic success and survival. Poker is, after all, the most capitalistic of card games. I contend that poker is therefore the best metaphor for our modern economy.

Survival in the modern economy relies on one's ability to tolerate and manage. The new "American Dream" is less concerned about hard work and social virtue and more concerned with the acquisition of wealth. Poker is a fascinating game, but it has never been concerned with the promotion of social welfare. Poker did not cause these changes to the American Dream. Indeed, its popularity reflects larger changes in American culture and the growth of the risk society. From worries about the stock market, mortgages and job layoffs to foreign wars, global warming and terrorism, contemporary American culture is dominated by the discussion of risk.

Myths are the stories a culture uses to establish group identity and purpose. They help us make sense of the world and teach us values and morals. The traditional myth of the American Dream featured as its main character the "self-made man." The self-made man — the concept that any person can be successful through hard work, virtue and talent — is rooted in America's Puritan heritage and continues to shape American thought. However, the character of the self-made man has changed. I believe that the popularity of poker signals a changing American culture that is increasingly accepting of risk and focused on acquiring wealth. At the center of this latest version of the American Dream is a new kind of hero, a poker player.

No player's journey from rags, or rather middle class, to riches better represents this new telling of the story than Chris Moneymaker. In the telling of his story, the Protestant work ethic with a desire for quick gains, social, and individual virtue are replaced by a warlike mentality that encourages deception and misinformation. Success depends more on luck and less on hard work. When the self-made man becomes the self-made poker player the fundamental values at the center of the myth of the American Dream are changed.

There were many factors that contributed to the creation of the Moneymaker Effect, name given to the resulting poker boom that occurred in the wake of his victory at the 2003 World Series of Poker (WSOP). From new technological advances to the unlikely name of the tournament's unlikely star. Although Moneymaker’s victory has been dissected by a multitude of outlets, one factor often overlooked is how ESPN worked to craft the narrative of his win. The story of Moneymaker's victory is more than just a story of an amateur player who got lucky and won a poker tournament. His story is rooted in the larger story of the self-made man and is imbued with mythic elements that allowed his victory to resonate with the larger culture outside of poker.

Throughout the broadcast, ESPN went out of their way to depict Moneymaker as a self-made man. Color commentator Norman Chad compared his elimination of former champion Johnny Chan to James "Buster" Douglas' knockout of Mike Tyson. Later in the contest, when asked to evaluate Moneymaker's chance of defeating Sammy Farha heads up, he stated, "This isn’t exactly David versus Goliath but it's maybe David versus Hulk Hogan." Chad even described his victory as being "beyond fairytale." The repeated comparison of Moneymaker to heroes of past and present helped to elevate the value of his victory.

One of the keys to constructing Moneymaker as a self-made man was the decision to depict poker as a sport. If poker is depicted as gambling, then Moneymaker is merely lucky, and that devalues his victory. ESPN's coverage of the 2003 WSOP often went out of the way to depict poker not as a form of gambling, but as a sporting contest. The mere decision to broadcast the WSOP on the "World Wide Leader in Sports" gave credibility to the idea of poker as a sport. Of course, ESPN's coverage was helped by Benny Benion’s decision to call the event the World Series of Poker. Doing so gave credence to the idea that we ought to think of poker in the same way we do baseball. During the broadcast, Chad and Lon McEachern frequently compared the event to sporting contests including the Masters, Wimbledon, and the Kentucky Derby. Poker players were compared to athletes like Phil Mickelson, Jon McEnroe, and the aforementioned Mike Tyson.

One of the key differences between poker and other contests recognized as sport is the cost for those who fail. When Tiger Woods shoots a bad round on Sunday of a major championship, he is not forced to open up his wallet to the winner. He may not win as much money as he could have, but he does not lose money. Losing members of the Denver Broncos were not forced to hand over their charge cards to the Seattle Seahawks after the last Super Bowl. Poker is therefore a unique form of economic competition.

The unique system in which poker thrives allows successful poker players like Moneymaker, Daniel Negreanu, and Doyle Brunson to opt out of the traditional economic system. Yet, a poker-based economy contains troubling aspects. Poker players have no bosses, but they produce no goods or services, and have no customers or clients. Poker players learn and exercise a skill that allows them to profit while producing nothing. Their attempts at maximizing profits through the management of risk without the creation of a discernable product is not unlike that of the day trader, hedge fund manager, or Wall Street financiers.

The only goal of these new risk-based professions is the pursuit of wealth, but the acquisition of wealth always comes at the cost of someone else. The pokerization of America does not merely represent an evolution of our economy, it is a fundamental rejection of it. In his economic masterpiece The Wealth of Nations, Scottish economist Adam Smith described the capitalist system where in the pursuit of self-interest would benefit all. Self-interest caused consumers to shop for the best products at the cheapest prices and producers to make those products. This created the rising tide that lifted all boats, or as Smith described it "the invisible hand."

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Dr. Duncan's Gambling with the Myth of the American Dream

What Smith never considered was an economy where one could acquire wealth without producing a product or a benefit to others. A nation of poker players would have GDP of nothing. After all, a game of poker does not serve to create new wealth, it only serves to redistribute it. In the 1991 film Other People’s Money, the character of Andrew Jorgenson, played by Gregory Peck, warns of what such a society would look like. He stated, "[We are quickly becoming a nation] that makes nothing but hamburgers, creates nothing but lawyers, and sells nothing but tax shelters."

This seems to be a concern shared by some poker players. Poker has made Dan Colman rich and famous, but despite winning tens of millions of dollars at the poker table, he has not been afraid to express his concern about the game and about the people who play it. He understands that the game represents some undesirable aspects of modern America. Elite players at the top, poker's one percenters, get rich while the vast of us majority struggle merely to survive.

This is not to say that the pokerization of American is without any potential benefits. One constant in both the new and old versions of the myth of the self-made man is a sense of democracy and meritocracy. In a poker tournament, everyone starts with the same amount of chips. With luck and skill, anyone can actually win. In the real world, people and groups are born with significant economic, social, and political advantages. Perhaps part of the appeal of poker tournaments lays in the fact that they are one of the last true democratic institutions. At the 2003 WSOP, play-by-play announcer Lon McEachron concluded the broadcast by declaring, "[Moneymaker] proved that anyone, truly anyone, can be the next world champion of poker."

Additionally, poker is honest about its dishonestly. The rules of a poker tournament are transparent and anyone joining the contest knows that deceit, manipulation, aggression, and bullying are legitimate tactics to be used in the game. This, unlike other profiteering practices of the modern economic landscape which stack the deck in favor of certain people and groups, all the while claiming that the game is fair. James McManus writing in his superb book about the history of poker, Cowboys Full, notes, "Much like financial markets, the game is a scary arena in which money management, pluck, and intelligence combine to determine who will get hacked limb from limb." Some may consider this a macabre depiction of the market place, but can anyone truly doubt its accuracy? If we are headed for an economic and political system that increasingly resembles a poker game, than we should learn from poker and be honest about it. As the actor Walter Matthau once stated, "[Poker] exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great."

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