Martin Harris is one of the top writers in the poker world. You might not recognize the name, but you've definitely read his work on blogs, news sites, magazines, and official tournament updates. Harris wrote a couple of novels and a new nonfiction book about the wild history of poker in America.
"Poker and Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America's Favorite Card Game" debuted just in time for the 2019 World Series of Poker. If you have not read this amazing text on the history of poker in America, then what are you waiting for? It's the perfect book for poker enthusiasts, but it's also valuable teaching material that can be enjoyed by non-poker players. Martin Harris breaks down the history of poker in America and its importance in all aspects of our society, including its influence on politics and pop culture.
I sat down with Martin Harris to discuss his new book. He shares insight on the origins of the book and sheds light on his writing process. If you don't know, he's also an excellent musician and novelist. Harris is a true renaissance man, even though he's a humble guy that downplays his abilities and artistic endeavors.
Martin Harris and Poker and Pop Culture Origins, Part 1
1. When did the concept of PPC come to fruition? Was this the book you thought you'd write when you accepted a job in the poker industry and moved to Las Vegas to cover your first WSOP?
I started Hard-Boiled Poker (my poker blog) in 2006. A year after that I began writing for various poker outlets, and 2008 was the first year I went out to report on the World Series of Poker. Somewhere during those first couple of years I did think a little about the possibility of assembling some of the posts I was writing on HBP into a short book, but I never thought too seriously about it. I liked some of that material, but especially during those early years I was reading and educating myself about the game and its colorful history, so in a way a lot of those posts represented my first responses to what I was learning. Those posts were very useful to me for a number of reasons (including the feedback and encouragement I received from readers), but for the most part not yet at a level that were really worthy of compiling into a book.
In 2010 I became a full-time freelancer and part-time college professor. For the four years prior it had been the opposite -- I had been teaching full-time while writing and reporting on poker on the side. In the spring of 2011 I started teaching a course I created in the American Studies department at UNC Charlotte called "Poker in American Film and Culture." Writing lectures for that course inspired the first meaningful book-related thoughts, given how the class forced me to organize the story chronologically and try to present it in an engaging way to a wide audience. Speaking of, that first semester the audience was almost all young men who were avid online poker players. As you know, Black Friday arrived near the end of that semester, which greatly affected our last couple of weeks of discussion and also over time probably changed the demographic of the class to include more women and even quite a few non-poker players.
About five years ago a book agent got in touch who had a publisher very interested in doing a history of poker, and we signed a contract. I wrote a full proposal with an annotated table of contents, sample chapters, and all the rest, and even rewrote it for different publishers as we did a little shopping of the project. We had some interest but no other deals, then the original publisher surprisingly went in a different direction. (An acquisitions editor had apparently miscalculated where the CEO stood on the idea.) By that point I knew I was going to write the book anyway, and began working on it in earnest. Then a couple of years ago I got in touch with D&B Publishing who was interested in doing the book, and we made our deal. After that I probably spent 12-14 months or so writing and editing every day before the deadlines finally arrived and I had to let it go, and the book finally appeared June 2019.
2. At some point in every book or screenplay I've written, I get stage fright and I'm overcome with fear and paralysis. Sometimes it lasts a day or two, other times it could last months. Did that happen with PPC? And how did you overcome it?
No. Since I had amassed material for Poker & Pop Culture over such a long time, and I had in fact already gone through a couple of outlines for how to organize it all, by the time I was writing in earnest I never had much worry about writer's block or not having enough to say. My main concern -- especially during the final few months leading up to my deadline -- was over having too much to say.
To be honest, this was an entirely unique writing experience for me. It wasn't like writing novels, as both the idea and how to execute it were essentially in place throughout most of the period of serious writing. And even though it did involve a lot of research, it wasn't exactly like academic writing (of which I've done a fair amount), as I didn't feel constrained at all by thoughts of writing for a specialized audience. Much of the time I thought of myself writing for a group that resembled my Poker and American Film and Culture class -- people interested in poker, though not necessarily immersed in it or even knowledgeable about the rules, and ready to appreciate how learning the history of poker can also reveal a lot about American history, generally speaking.
My hope is that anyone can pick up the book and be interested and entertained by it. I'm already looking back on the experience of writing it as kind of the culmination of a long and very involved fascination -- or obsession -- with poker and the game's many significances. And with writing about poker, which I have long thought is an especially useful and enjoyable supplement to playing it.
3. The first draft of "Lost Vegas" was almost 500K words before I had three editors butcher it down. Anything in particular that bubbled the final draft of PPC? How many darlings did you kill off?
I definitely had to make a few choices. My editor helped me with those for the most part, although I was able to keep just about everything I wanted to in the end. With several of the chapters, the topic could well have been expanded into its own stand-alone work (e.g., "Poker in the Old West," "Poker in the Movies," "Poker on Television."). I came to recognize that early on, which made it easier to be somewhat selective and recognize I didn't have to write about every relevant example or story in which poker appears, but rather had to try to present a good, reasonably complete overview with each topic.
4. Which President is the best poker player (in a cash game setting)? Which President best used his poker skills for governing and diplomacy?
Richard Nixon is up there, although his best days at the poker table were during his time in the Navy when he mostly played against fellow officers who were likely untutored and undisciplined as players. Dwight D. Eisenhower was probably a better poker player than Nixon, although interestingly there are no stories of them playing against one another (despite Nixon being Ike's VP for eight years). John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis is often described as an especially savvy application of bluffing and poker strategy, although JFK himself wasn't really much of a poker guy (he preferred bridge).
5. Poker is one of the few true American pastimes like baseball and jazz. Troops during the Civil War and both World Wars played both poker and chess during down time. Why did our post-WW2 culture gravitate more toward poker than chess?
They also played a lot of other gambling games, including other card games and dice games. Actually, the popularity of chess in America likely rivaled that of poker during the first few decades after the Second World War. At one point in the book I bring up some surveys taken during the middle decades of the 20th century, noting how rummy, bridge, and canasta took turns as "America's favorite card game" before one mid-1970s survey finally found poker to have risen to the top. Even then, though, I'm not sure it was as popular as chess (which at that point was at the zenith of its popularity in the U.S.), although by the "boom" in the 2000s poker had certainly left chess behind.
Why is poker so popular in America? I'm hardly the first to observe how poker is a game that uniquely reflects or provides opportunities in which to demonstrate many so-called "American" values (independence, self-reliance, entrepreneurship, love of risk, the pursuit of happiness, and so on). It is a game that neatly mimics in an exaggerated, sped-up fashion the country's capitalist ideology (for better or worse), which has to be a major reason why so many Americans gravitate to it.
6. I never would have imagined that marijuana and sportsbetting would become legit before online poker. Yet, here we are in 2019 and I can walk into any recreational cannabis shop in Western America to purchase marijuana and I can place a sports bet in over 20% of the country. Do you have an guess-estimate on federal legalization for online poker?
The last three chapters of the book most directly consider poker's recent history ("Poker on the Computer," "Poker Under Siege," and "Poker in the Future"), and thus include the story the "rise and fall" of online poker in the U.S. that took place from 1998-2011. There I express pessimism about online poker's prospects here in America, noting how at present it is essentially a version of the game from which we are mostly excluded. I describe how for us online poker is akin to driving without seatbelts or smoking on planes -- something we used to do and took for granted, but which right now seems like part of our past.
That could change, of course, and the fast spread of sportsbetting might seem to provide hope that something similar could develop for online poker. As far as making a prediction, though, I'm doubtful there will ever be any sort of federal legislation allowing online poker -- I'd give us a two-outer's chance of something like that happening in the next 20 years.
Inside Baseball, Part 2
The second half of the Martin Harris interview covers a little more insight into the writing process.
7. Describe your daily writing routine?
The only times I have had a set writing routine has been when working on longer projects such as novels or Poker & Pop Culture. Meanwhile I have always had other responsibilities as well that often include other writing and editing assignments, which means in order to make progress on and eventually complete those longer projects, I have to be stubborn about giving myself enough time to write. Usually that means devoting at least a couple of hours to the project first thing in the morning (or more, if I can), before cluttering my brain with other items. I close Twitter, listen to jazz or ambient music, and write.
8. When are your peak writing hours?
The morning hours are consistently my most productive, although I'm fine writing through the afternoon. It has been a long time since I've done any serious writing at all during the evening hours. When I'm juggling several assignments, I usually start the day with what I believe is the most challenging or mentally engaging of the bunch, then save the less exciting stuff for the afternoon when focus isn't as crucial.
9. You and your wife live on a farm and you also work as a freelance writer. How did you fit writing/editing PPC into your work/home/farm life?
We have several horses and cats, which means my days often start with feeding them, and frequently also involve other chores like cleaning stalls, mowing pastures, and performing all sorts of maintenance around the farm. We figured out early on that everything on the farm takes longer than you expect, so much as poker taught me the value of being patient so, too, has farm life. While those duties obviously cut into my writing time, I very much welcome being able to get away from the laptop and spend time outdoors. I love being around the horses, although unlike Swift's Gulliver I like being around people, too.
10. How much do you write in your head before you physically write? How much head writing is done while doing farm chores?
I'll ruminate over big ideas or arguments, and perhaps even come up with topic sentences or titles when away from the laptop. But I generally have to be at the computer and writing before I can say I'm making any genuine progress.
11. Did you have any specific playlists or albums you listened to while writing, researching, or editing PPC? I wrote the final chapter of Lost Vegas with "Tumbling Dice" by the Rolling Stones on repeat for like three or four days in a row.
The "Poker in Music" chapter in Poker & Pop Culture includes some great tracks -- here's a playlist -- although I wouldn't recommend it for writing. I'm not obsessive about it, but I'll often listen either to jazz (Miles et al.) or ambient (Eno et al.) when writing. Overlapping with the latter are some "electronic" artists I like such as Boards of Canada, Oneohtrix Point Never, Gas, Oval, Loscil, and others. Along the same lines I've lately been enjoying some "retro synthwave" stuff like College and Miami Nights 84 which seems to trigger a lot of pleasurable feelings without creating too much brain static. I also like to listen to certain movie soundtracks when I write, especially horror. I'm a "recreational" musician myself, although from all I've done I can only really recommend one 37-minute "dark ambient" track as a potential writing soundtrack.
12. What's your next project? New novel? Another new poker book?
I'm glad you asked. I am presently working on another book that has nothing to do with poker. You could say having reached the "poker & pop culture" fork in the road I've chosen to continue down the pop culture path rather than the poker one. Over the years I have written several academic articles about horror films. (No shinola... ask me anything about Halloween III.) Meanwhile I've also had a longtime fascination with Richard Nixon's life and career, so much so that for the last several years I've taught another American Studies class about him at UNC Charlotte. At some point several years back I became convinced one way of interpreting The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (the original, from 1974) is to view it as a satirical response to the Watergate scandal that played out at the same time the film was conceived, written, shot, edited, and released. Having convinced a publisher the idea is a good one, too, I'm now writing a book explaining it all that should appear either late 2020 or early 2021. And if you're wondering if Leatherface turns out to be Tricky Dick, well, you're just going to have to read and find out.
If you do not have a copy of Poker and Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America's Favorite Card Game by Martin Harris, then what are you waiting for?