In this early Twilight Zone episode convict James Corry runs toward the rocket ship bringing his supplies. The year is 2046. Corry has been sentenced to a solitary life on an asteroid nine million miles away, a sand dungeon of salt flats and desolate mountain ranges stretching to infinity. Corry’s desperate for contact, desperate to play cards with Captain Allenby, the astronaut in charge.
Standing with the ship’s crew in his flimsy shack, Corry grabs the deck, his face overflowing with hope as he deals to himself and Allenby, eager for a few hands before the ship once again departs. Allenby reluctantly picks up the cards then quietly lays them down, seeming to break Corry’s heart. “If we stay any longer than 15 minutes,” Allenby explains, “it places us in a different orbital position. We’ll never make it back to Earth.”
Closer to reality, draw poker branded my sprawling 1960s Los Angeles family. Even through child eyes I sensed the game helped the sadder women in my Jewish clan feel more alive and infinitely less alone. As a little kid emptying ashtrays and helping, it was the laughter from those High-Holiday poker games I recall. My elders gazed at their hands with a wondrous concentration as if they had but one day to live and chose to spend it playing cards.
For me poker is a contact sport for the soul. With so much talk of crushing villains I forget I’m equally in crush with the connective tissue baked in—the seduction of structured combat that feels intimate. At times, even loving.
Poker takes and gives. If you’re sleepless in the middle of the night you can play as low as .25/.50 on a renegade offshore site…even with those bizarre screen names, technology lets you gaze into a chilly computer screen to feel nominally a part of. My pal Nick grinds cash full time. As a child his step-father used to punch him in the head. Decades later Nick feels safe in live play. He draws tremendous comfort from poker’s order. No surprises, no blows—his “card family” behaving. As poker scholar Martin Harris suggests, for a game to even come off we have to agree to a set of rules before we try to put our hands on each other’s money.
“We create this little society with laws that must be observed. This has to be in place, this compact—which is profound,” Harris adds. “It creates an intimacy about the game even between strangers. Poker forces a certain kind of relationship and we have to get to know each other in real time. So much in these interactions is memorable. We create communities we wouldn’t typically join. Life grows more interesting.”
Some of the earliest American poker writing appeared in the 1830’s. Strangers playing on ships or in army barracks or saloons. Cheaters. Fugitives. Zealous grinders cajoling and fighting it out with words and fists. Eruptions that got recorded in letters and journals—essential cultural narrative.
The game mutates wildly but has one constant. As David Mamet wrote, poker will surely reveal our character, even against our will. Extreme contradiction works our social poker muscle and we seem to like it. We aggress and we surrender. Declare and hide. Risk and defend. Along the way we may get to know ourselves.
Boring? Some take pleasure in the soothing repetition of countless hands. We’re a patient tribe laying in wait. We trust the drudgery. Poker is many odd things. Maybe the engagement makes us more sensible and human through the rare splendor of shared experience. Again and again we imagine ourselves honorable citizens on a great group mission. We’re sanctioned to exploit and deceive and run rampant. As Descartes might offer from beyond the grave we battle communally therefore we are.
Let’s assume it’s planned. Let’s assume the poker gods have max leverage and the final smile. On the felt we suffer the indignities and routine carnage in exchange for the contact we crave. They know that we know. Sick level.