Random Walks: Casino Royale

Casino_2 While most of the world has been fixated on the ongoing FIFA World Cup tournament, a Hollywood film crew has been gallivanting around the globe shooting the next  installment of the hugely successful James Bond movie franchise: Casino Royale, a remake of the 1967 classic spy spoof, based on Ian Fleming’s very first Bond move. The film marks the debut of British actor Daniel Craig as the tres suave 007.

The original, of course, is considered one of the very first satirical send-ups of espionage thrillers, well before the debut 30 years later of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. And it’s every bit as deliciously silly. The incomparable David Niven plays an aging Sir James Bond, who returns from retirement to rejoin Her Majesty’s Secret Service, specifically to head an operation bent on destroying an evil criminal organization called SMERSH.

Naturally, this involves fending off a bevy of nubile beauties desperate for a chip off the old (literally!) Bond block; a double-crossing fellow agent named Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress); a Bond impersonator, portrayed by the always-hilarious Peter Sellers; and a crooked casino owner named Le Chiffre (Orson Welles), who supports SMERSH financially with his winnings at the baccarat tables. All Bond has to do is beat Le Chiffre at baccarat, apparently, to topple a global criminal enterprise bent on bringing about the imminent collapse of civilization. (It is a spoof, people. Work with me, here.) If that weren’t enough to deal with, Bond must also grapple with family troubles, in the form of his neurotic nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen) and an illegitimate daughter, the product of a brief liaison with the late Mata Hari.

In the Bond Universe of 1967, the fictional fate of the civilized world rested on baccarat. No doubt it’s still 007’s favored game, being the cosmopolitan super-sleuth that he is. But these days, the rarefied game of baccarat has been eclipsed by the huge mainstream popularity of that gambling workhorse, poker, especially the Texas Hold ‘Em variety. Some people attribute this in part to the introduction of online poker and the invention of a camera that can show a player’s “hold cards” to a TV audience, thereby turning tournaments into spectator sports. Not only can we tune in for live coverage of World Series Poker and the World Poker Tour, but now we can combine our love of poker with our celebrity gawking fixation by watching Celebrity Poker Showdown.

I hope nobody thinks the less of me when I confess that I’m a diehard fan of the latter series. It’s not just because of the celebrities, although the comedians who participate in particular provide endless entertainment. Nor is it for the pleasure of rattling off the cool-sounding jargon: you can “up the ante,” “see the flop,” “raise the blinds,” and if you’re really unfortunate, you might get “sucked out on the river.” (That’s what happens when you have the best hand until the very last card is dealt, losing the pot in one fell swoop.) Ultimately, the appeal is the game itself. Watching the hands and rounds of betting unfold is oddly addictive, plus there’s the play-by-play commentary by an in-house poker expert (although I mourn the departure of original commentator, Phil Gordon, who has been replaced by the far doughier — albeit knowledgable — “Captain Sideburns,” a.k.a., Phil Hellmuth).

Devoted fans of baccarat might sniff dismissively at my fondness for this rather crass, bourgeois upstart, but poker is has an equally long history, although not entirely illustrious. There’s some debate as to its specific origins, but it most likely evolved out of early games that all relied on betting against ranked card or domino combinations — not to mention the practice of “bluffing” to bamboozle one’s opponents. For instance, around 969 A.D., the Chinese emperor Mu-tsung reportedly played “domino cards” with his wife on New Year’s eve. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Egyptians used playing cards, as did the Persians in the 16th century. In fact, there’s a Persian game called  As Nas — played with 25 cards in five different suits — that could be considered one of poker’s forebears. Poker derives its name from 17th and 18th century French and German games, called poque and pochen, respectively. Those in turn evolved from a 16th century Spanish game called primero, widely believed to be the game most directly related to modern poker. Poker_1

That should convince the most hardened skeptics that poker is every bit as international in scope as the ongoing FIFA World Cup. Alas, much of its history in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the New World isn’t quite so civilized. We can blame the spread on the French: poker mania began in Canada with the immigration of French colonials, who brought their national card game, poque, to the New World with them. Those French settlers then drifted south to found New Orleans in the early 18th century. From there the game spread West via Mississippi riverboats, growing ever more popular, until it reached the Western frontier, finding a home in the proliferation of saloons that popped up in response to the California Gold Rush.

The riverboats functioned as lowbrow casinos, and back then, poker was largely the province of cheats and outlaws. A Time-Life book on the history of poker, called The Gamblers, relates the story of a night in 1832, when three professional card sharks aboard a Mississippi steamboat attempted to cheat a young man from Natchez out of his money via a rigged poker game. They succeeded, and the financially ruined young man was on the verge of hurling himself into the river in despair, when a mysterious observer came to his aid. That observer, one James Bowie, took on the three gamblers himself, catching one of them in the very act of cheating. He redeemed the lost money at knife-point on the young man’s behalf — although it must be said, he kept $20,000 of the $70,000 pot for himself as a reward. So he wasn’t entirely altruistic.

There were some “gentlemen gamblers,”  like Bowie, who viewed the game merely as a form of entertainment, to be practiced in moderation, and who abhorred the practice of cheating. But this period also saw the emergence of professional gamblers whose sole aim was to fleece unsuspecting players out of their hard-earned cash. In fact, it was the professionals who are responsible for the evolution of the game’s rules, to enhance their profitability, most notably via the addition of “draw cards” and a second round of betting. In the original version of the game, players received five cards face down, with no chance to improve their hands with draw cards. (Random bit of trivia: the Joker was introduced to the deck as a wild card in 1875.)

Modern tournaments didn’t really start to flourish until the 1970s, when the World Series of Poker debuted, prompting the publication of several books about poker strategies to fuel the growing public interest. And now people are flocking to casinos all over the country, hosting games of Texas Hold ‘Em in their homes, and frittering away untold hours playing in online tournaments. Local bars have even started hosting weekly “poker nights.”

Nonetheless, I managed to resist poker’s irresistible lure for quite some time, despite my fascination with Celebrity Poker Showdown. Still, I suppose it was inevitable that I would purchase that first computer game on CD and begin my descent down the slippery slope to moral depravity. Even now, I primarily play against the computer, and eschew the online tournaments. But then I went to Las Vegas in June for the first-ever YearlyKos conference, and, well, my downfall was complete when I summoned the courage to venture into the MGM Grand casino and join a low-stakes 2/4 table.

It was admittedly a bit intimidating at first, forking over $100 in exchange for a rack of chips and sitting down to a table filled with utter strangers intent on taking my chips away from me. Even though I was familiar with the rules of play and a bit of strategy — thanks to My Main Man, Phil Gordon — it took me a few hands to catch the rhythm of the game. I bided my time, playing tight, folding most of my hands before the flop, finally catching a pair of 8s (dubbed “snowmen”). And with trembling hands, I called the blinds. There’s something to be said for beginner’s luck: I picked up an extra 8 on the flop, and played my “trips” out to victory. Then I relaxed and lost myself in the game for the next few hours. In all honesty, I was prepared to lose that first $100, and I did get sucked out on the river a few times. Those are the breaks. But I made up the losses with a few well-timed wins, and ultimately walked away $90 richer, feeling quite chuffed at my modest fledgling success.

Skeptics would say that’s how they suck you in, much like drug dealers provide the first “hit” for free. Undoubtedly some people have been ruined by an addiction to gambling. But for me, the true allure of poker is not the gambling: the stakes are just a sidelight. Poker, at its heart, is an intricate, complex game, steeped in statistical probabilities, which might explain why it holds so much fascination for the mathematically inclined.

I am not so inclined. In fact, I don’t even pretend to understand the underlying statistics, although I’m slowly developing a deeper appreciation for that aspect of the game. For me, the play is made that much more interesting by the unpredictability of the “human factor”: people tend to follow their hunches, even when the conventional strategy tells them to do otherwise. So every hand unfolds just a bit differently, every round.

Poker experts often bemoan those sorts of people, because such players throw off all their carefully calculated odds with their infernally illogical unpredictability. The best players don’t always win,even on Celebrity Poker Showdown. But even the poker experts might admit, when pressed, that it makes a weird kind of sense. You can’t adhere strictly to the rules all the time, after all; every now and then, you have to take a gamble, although I prefer to think of it as a calculated risk. Sometimes it pays off. Sometimes it doesn’t. Poker is a lot like life, that way. Perhaps even James Bond would agree.

When not taking random walks at 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette muses about physics and culture on her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics.