From hopscotch to poker

The World Series of Poker is in its final stage for this year; tonight the last two competitors will face off and fight to the death – of course at this point neither will lose, much less die.  The winner takes home a lot more money that the second place person, some 8 or 9 million dollars more.  This year is interesting for the age of the players (if for no other reason) – in the final round, none of the nine poker players was over 30-years old, last year the average age was 34-years old, at the rate the average age is dropping they may have to hold the tournament at a middle school in ten years.

Change is nearly invisible and sometimes that makes the results startling.  You can stare at grass, children or your stomach forever and never see the growth or change – but look away for awhile and then look back and the grass needs mowing, the children are ready to graduate from high school and your stomach requires some serious attention if is not to overwhelm your health, appearance and personality.  I have been struggling for months now to understand evolution in practical terms and then use what I am learning into a method to make sense of the things happening around me; much of the technical discussions are over my head – but the plain language descriptions of the result are understandable to everyone and can be very instructive.

So for example, when one of the authors on DNA and its role in evolution and in understanding revolution says a great deal that I don’t understand, but sometimes he says something really simple.  Such as all life forms have a basic set of DNA, a tiny proportion of the total each possesses, that is common to every other form – and that gives us all, you, me, a horse, a tree, a flower, tomato, fish and a fruit fly all started out several billions of years ago as the same thing; tiny changes over billions of years can make some big differences.  The lesson of time is significant, change takes time; there is a second lesson there, if you are careful you can find the DNA of some other thing embedded in the one you are analyzing and that can help in analysis.  For today’s purpose, time is the most important element.  In looking at the World Series of Poker we don’t have to look so far into the past to see what small changes and enough time can produce.

When poker first gained a sort of national character the players were miners, cowboys and professional gamblers hanging out in mining towns, on riverboats or in backrooms in most any city or town in the country – the players were men and not particularly young men, although many certainly were; men bent on getting a little excitement, a little alcohol and a little competition in exchange for whatever money they had.  Toward the end of the 19th century when most gambling was criminalized, poker managed to keep on the right side of the law in many places – California’s constitution protected it; a poker game was never a place to take your wife or children. Even in the places where poker was illegal, it never went away – it wasn’t baseball, but it did have the feel of a nation, if somewhat questionable, game.  Later, as casinos have come back and spread across the country, poker followed – or in some cases lead; television helped to bring poker from the backroom, smoke-filled man’s game to something more universal.  However, the thing that really changed poker’s popularity was the Internet – millions and millions of people have learned to play poker and honed their poker skills playing online – including children.

John Racener, one to two players left for the final round of play at the World Series of Poker is 24 years old, he says he has been practicing and dreaming about this moment for 10 years.  That means he started seriously playing poker at 14.  I might not have believed him, if I did not know at least one teenager who has been playing for several years and dreaming of poker glory. When I was 10, 12 or 14 I did not know anyone that played poker (although our parents may have played) and dreamed of poker glory, we played hopscotch, dodge-ball, baseball or basketball and dreamed of glory.  But of course, we barely had television, much less an Internet, to teach us the game, the skills and the potentials for glory. It was indeed by comparison a primitive and childish world.

That is what I mean about change, one minute or one century (in this case the 19th or 20th centuries) poker players were mostly older men and then, the next thing you know they are all young, getting younger and 20 or 30 percent of them are girls. One of my grandfathers, not the one that shaped my political thinking, was a poker player; he was born toward the end of the 19th century, but the most productive of his wild oat-gambling days were in the first three decades of the 20th century.  He would not have believed the poker games or the poker players of today.  The combination of television and the Internet has altered the game in ways that make it almost a new species.  Of course, that is another one of the problems of evolutionary science – how many changes does it take to make a new species?  The answer is never simple, but the easiest way to answer is in terms of time.  A new species is never created from changes that we can witness, it is only after longer periods of the time that we can look at one group for a distant time and another group of today and say – they are not the same.  I am not old enough to say that about poker, but my grandfather could have said it – the game they will play tonight in Las Vegas is not my grandfather’s poker, it is another species – like basketball, one might say a young man’s (or woman’s) game.


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November 2010
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