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Just Dessert

Is poker harmful and should we care?
by Dale McFeatters
Scripps Howard News Service


January 05, 2005

Thanks to the improbable popularity of televised poker tournaments and the ready availability of poker online, that fine old American card game has made a booming comeback, especially with teenage males who presumably should be off playing Grand Theft Auto.
jpg Dale McFeatters

Poker, it seems to me, has always conjured up images of stone-faced middle-aged men, vests unbuttoned, ties loosened, voices cigarette roughened, sitting around a table littered with cards, chips and whiskey glasses. The image, of course, is in black and white.

And there are images rather less fortunate from the movies: mobsters playing poker, which inevitably ends in somebody's getting shot, and cowboys playing poker, which inevitably ends in somebody's getting shot.

The popular cable series "Deadwood" recreated perhaps the most famous Western shooting, Wild Bill Hickok being gunned down from behind while he was playing poker. He was holding what has to be the most famous hand in poker, a pair of aces and a pair of eights, forever after "the dead man's hand."

Now, however, poker is more than just respectable; it's prime-time with shows on the Travel Channel, ESPN and Bravo. Sales of playing cards are up by one-third, and popular gifts this Christmas include such poker accessories as a handsome and pricey briefcase fitted with chips and decks of cards.

We played poker, not seriously or well, when I was in high school back in the '50s. In college the game of preference was bridge and when we'd had too much beer, hearts. My impression, perhaps a wrong one, is that poker dropped off the social radar screen for a couple of decades.

Now it's back, along with an intervening phenomenon _ the army of psychologists, researchers, academics and social critics who immediately glom on to any fad affecting the nation's youth. To wit: Is the poker craze harmful to teenage males? Should we be worrying about this?

And, of course, the experts see lots of menacing potential: Kids could concentrate on poker to the exclusion of schoolwork and other activities; they could become gambling-addicted; and gambling could, as they say, Lead To Worse.

USA Today got caught up in the hand-wringing and ran a survey that showed more teenage males have gambled, presumably at poker, than have indulged in tobacco, marijuana or alcohol.

I would have thought that was a point in poker's favor. Parents interviewed about the teenage poker craze seemed commonsensical. The parents pointed out that when their kids and their friends were downstairs playing poker, they knew where the kids were and what they were doing.

And if any of these people had seen the video game Halo 2, they would realize that poker is a church social by comparison.

Poker would seem really to have only one drawback. The biggest health problem afflicting teens is obesity and lack of exercise and, judging from the participants in those high stakes Texas Hold 'Em TV tournaments, poker is not the most direct path to physical fitness.

Poker does indeed exert a grip on people. There is an entertaining and instructive book called "Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs and Binion's World Series of Poker" by James McManus, a reporter who went out to Las Vegas to cover a lurid murder trial _ sex, drugs, adultery, precious metals _ and stayed for the poker. It's that compelling.

Some defenders of poker say it will sharpen our youth's notably suspect math skills. That would seem to be backward. Math will sharpen their poker skills, although losing big will teach a real lesson in subtraction.

But enough. Deal.



Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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