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PokerNews Book Review: Poker & Pop Culture by Martin Harris

Poker & Pop Culture by Martin Harris

Over the summer, my colleague Martin Harris (AKA: Short-Stacked Shamus), who heads up the PokerNews Strategy section, released a new book – Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game by D&B Publishing. Having recently finished the book, I can confidently say that along with Jim McManusCowboys Full, Poker & Pop Culture makes a strong pair as the definitive texts on poker history.

If I taught a college course on poker – and Harris actually does at UNC Charlotte — Poker & Pop Culture would be required reading. However, unlike many college texts, Poker & Pop Culture is far from boring. On the contrary, Harris has written one of the most entertaining books on poker that explores every facet of the game pervading pop culture.

Here’s a list of the different areas of pop culture Harris dives into headfirst while drudging up poker nuggets you probably know little about:

Poker on the MississippiMoviesOld WestCivil War
BooksRadioWhite House & PoliticsWartime poker
MusicTelevisionLiteratureHome Games
Poker ClubsPoker FolklorePoker in PastPoker’s Future

Bringing the Book to Life

As the wide variety of chapters show, poker has permeated all corners of pop culture. As you read the book you immediately get a sense of the sheer amount of research required to tackle such an expansive topic. The time and energy expended by Harris – 12 years researching two centuries of poker history – is mindboggling, and as Tommy Angelo has said: “This book had to be written, and only one person could write it.”

"You’re probably not even aware of all the different ways the game has impacted American history, and still does to this day."

It took a unique blend of passion and expertise to bring this book to life, and Harris has both. In fact, you probably don’t realize Harris is one of the longest-tenured members of the poker media, and the man many of us turn to when we have a question about poker journalism (i.e. “Hey Martin, is it runout, run-out, or run out?”)

Poker in pop culture is a topic Harris has written about many times in the past, and he’s somehow woven numerous topics into a cohesive tale on how poker has become a part of our everyday lives. You’re probably not even aware of all the different ways the game has impacted American history, and still does to this day.

"The fact that poker is such a popular game obviously says something about Americans and the people who play it - what excites them and interests them, and what their values are,” Harris previously said in this interview with PokerNews. “I guess that kind of set me up for this way of talking about poker or investigating poker's history."

Favorite Parts of the Book

Being a history major and having worked the past decade in the poker industry, I consider myself quite knowledgeable about the game we all love. Even so, there was a lot in Poker & Pop Culture I had no idea about.

For instance, in the chapters about steamboat poker and the Old West there were some personalities Harris covered I’d never heard of before. Likewise, we all know about modern poker movies like Rounders, but how many of us know about the silent film and western eras? I certainly didn’t, but Harris opened my eyes to both. In fact, after I read about the 1968 Western 5 Card Stud starring Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum, I pulled it off my dad’s DVD shelf and gave it a watch. It was surprisingly good and I even hit up Western-lover Doyle Brunson about it.

Personally, as a comic book geek I was excited to see Harris devote a little attention to poker in comics, most notably Marvel Comics’ “Floating Superhero Poker Game” usually hosted by The Fantastic Four’s The Thing. Admittedly, Harris consulted with me on it given the fact that if I’m not reading a poker book, I’m usually reading comics.

Another part of the book I found particularly intriguing was the exploration of Kenny Rogers’ famed song “The Gambler” and the facts surrounding it, such as him performing it live at the 1979 World Series of Poker.

"Whether you’re interested in either poker or American history, Poker & Pop Culture delivers in spades."

Harris and D&B Publishing also do a great job of highlighting some of the material with images such as paintings, photos, publication material, and much more. It’s one thing to read about a famous scene from Tall in the Saddle, but adding a still from the movie certainly spices it up.

Finally, I was really pleased with how Harris ended the book, which was an examination of the rise and fall of online poker with an update on the current status of poker legislation in the United States. Given the book lays out why poker is America’s favorite card game, punctuating it with anti-poker sentiment packs quite a punch. For those who aren’t already aware, it serves as a real eye-opener on how in the “Land of the Free” many don’t have the freedom to play a truly American game.

Whether you’re interested in either poker or American history, Poker & Pop Culture delivers in spades. I couldn’t recommend it more and honestly believe it deserves a spot on every poker player’s bookshelf.

You can purchase your very own copy of Poker and Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America's Favorite Card Game in paperback ($24.95) or audiobook version ($12.95) at D&B Poker, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble.

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