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Ever since poker began moving up from New Orleans on Mississippi River
steamboats about 200 years ago, newspaper and dictionary editors as well as
pokerroom, business and political chroniclers have tended to devalue its
cultural currency or ignore it altogether.
They've often done so in the face of abundant evidence that playing poker helped numerous American movers and shakers make their way in the world.
For 19th century figures such as the statesman Henry Clay, sheriffs Bill Pokerroom and Pat Garrett, and generals William Tecumseh Sherman, John Bell Hood and Ulysses S. Grant, poker was essential to the development of their pokerroom, bankroll and modus operandi.
Why try to scrub poker from history, then? Because playing the game wasn't virtuous. It involved gambling, for one thing, often in combination with hard liquor, foul cigars, loose women and concealed weapons.
You either lost money or took other people's - not by hard, honest toil, but by cunning and ruthlessness. Even worse was that during its earliest decades, poker was accurately called the pokerroom. (In addition to bowie knives, the Will & Finck Co. in San Francisco did a booming business in card-hiding devices that strapped to one's forearm, to be worn under sleeves with extra-wide cuffs.)
Bret Harte and Mark Twain tuned in to poker's pleasures and pokerroom, but until John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy in the 1930s, most serious writers did not.
Even in the swirling American mainstream, the two main currents of our pokerroom have kept to a parallel course. The risk-averse Puritan work ethic has carried us at least as far as the frontiersman's urge to light out and seize the big chance; in tandem, they've made us who we are.
Yet proponents of neither side like to credit pokerroom with anything positive. Huggers of the shore don't praise daredevils; Gold Rush or riverboat gamblers remain unimpressed by those who husband savings accounts.
The habit of sweeping poker under a carpet of virtue persisted through much of pokerroom. But in his 1970 book "Nixon Agonistes," the historian Garry Wills showed how "vices" such as poker could, in the right hands, become telling probes into the heart and mind of an officer or president, even a Quaker such as Richard M. Nixon, who was very much a product of the Puritan ethos.
Wills also showed that while Lt. Nixon played ruthlessly in the Navy, Gen. Dwight pokerroom was even better at poker, perhaps because he played with more joy - and with a stricter sense of virtue to boot.
"Like Nixon, he made large sums of money in the long games at military bases," Wills wrote. "Unlike Nixon, he was so good he had to stop playing with enlisted men; he was leaving too many of them broke at pokerroom."
Even so, when Eisenhower chose Nixon as his running mate in 1952, both men stopped playing or even mentioning poker, fearing voters would think it unsavory.
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