In a world of convention and socially acceptable activities, there are trends that have always gone against the grain, a primary reason for their popularity. One such activity turned subculture is poker. In the United States, the country that symbolizes opportunity and success through skill and hard work, this game has flourished to the point where an honest living can be made from it. However, as numerous documentaries testify, risks await the gambler, whether professional or amateur.
All in: the Poker Movie (2009) is a good starting point in educating one’s self on the history of poker. Directed by Douglas Tirola, it incorporates interviews with experts, historical figures and celebrities into an account of the turbulent yet important story of how poker was and has remained a trademark of USA culture. Once thought to be a game for past generations, today it welcomes all adult participants regardless of age or gender. In fact, it appears that people aged 18-34 now outnumber older players. This documentary illustrates this resurgence, an occurrence which suggests that poker is unlikely to lose its appeal anytime soon.
Another movie worthy of attention is Ryan Firpo’s Bet Raise Fold (2013) in that it takes a different approach to the empire of poker. Three life stories are opened to the viewer, narrating the allure, livelihood and pitfalls of professional poker-playing. It focuses more on the online platform, its rise and fall, and contemporary socio-political events, but also provides a more personal, immersive perspective. The issue of gender emerges in this documentary too by showing a woman, Danielle, experiencing the same gambling successes and struggles as any man would. Like her, there are many female players leaving their personal, even charitable, mark in this game of skill, such as actress, writer and ‘poker queen’ Jennifer Tilly (Bride of Chucky, “Family Guy”).
The status of gambling, though, is a topic that goes far beyond its poster child, poker. Las Vegas is the place that epitomizes the pleasurable and optimistic escapism that defines games of chance. The 2015 documentary The Player: Secrets of a Vegas Whale led by reporter Trish Regan is a presentation of the history of Las Vegas and its notorious Strip, while getting to know Don Johnson, the blackjack player who beat the house in 2011 through sheer timely ingenuity. What is interesting to consider here are the tactics casinos use to psychologically influence people into playing more.
Nevertheless, poker is not really a game of chance. While you cannot control what cards you are given, you can turn any situation to your advantage through careful observation, illusion, manipulation and strategic maneuvering. The fact that you have opponents whose cunning could exceed yours also makes poker a competition, a sparring of sharp eyes and minds. Despite the ongoing debate regarding the differences between live and online poker, it is difficult not to admire or envy those who succeed at it.
Gambling is a phenomenon with many psychological and sociological implications, but it is still a part of the human world. With care, it can be put to good, responsible use. Poker, more than anything, is the type of game that gives hope. You have the same chance as almost everyone else to improve your finances. There is also pride in winning or effectively competing and associating with other players. But, ultimately, it lets one appreciate a truth: the seemingly impossible is possible.