Decline of men's poker laid to demise of draft

August 22, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

Mike Royko is on vacation. In the meantime, we are reprinting some of his favorite columns. This column was first published Dec. 12, 1986.

The poker sharks of Las Vegas are scratching their heads over a stunning development in their series of world championship tournaments.

One of the big-money tournaments has been won by a woman. And in another, a woman finished in fourth place.

Because poker, at least at the shark level, always has been a male-dominated game, the professionals are asking why women are suddenly becoming a force.

I think I know the answer. In fact, I saw the change coming years ago, and the success of women in this tournament just proves that I was right.

Having played poker most of my life, I've noticed that fewer and fewer men under the age of 40 know the game. And those who do play are easy marks.

There are two reasons for this.

First, this country ended the military draft. Young men were no longer forced to serve two years in the Army. Or to rush off and join the Navy or Air Force to avoid sleeping in a foxhole.

The barracks used to be where a young man learned to play poker. The instructors were usually Southern-born career noncoms who were patient, understanding and willing to pluck a young recruit of everything but his teeth.

And when the game ended, they'd count their winnings and kindly offer to lend their penniless victims enough to buy smokes and beer until the next pay call. At 10 percent interest.

Unless he was completely stupid, a young man eventually learned not to draw to inside straights, not to let his Adam's apple jiggle when he was concealing a full house and to politely decline free snorts from a tequila bottle passed around by somebody named Tex.

Beginning with World War II, through Korea, during the %o peacetime draft of the 1950s and early '60s, and into the Vietnam years, the military produced several generations of poker players. They ranged from the competent to the expert, from those comfortable in a kitchen nickel-dime game to those who could hold their own at a pot limit in a tavern basement.

Then the draft was ended. And millions of young men no longer spent those formative years sitting around a footlocker, wondering whether Sarge really had that fifth spade in his down cards.

Instead, they stayed home and ingested strange herbs and spices and turned their energies to revolution -- mainly, the sexual revolution.

Then came another social development that discouraged the playing of poker.

The modern American male fell madly in love with his own body.

It began with jogging. Then came such games as racquetball. And this led to fascination with Nautilus and other muscle-building devices.

There were even young men who joined aerobic dance classes, the dears.

Those who panted, grunted and sweated justified their labors by saying things like: "My body is a temple; I must not desecrate it."

But what they really had in mind was: "Hi, my name's Brad. Do you come here often? Really? My place or yours?"

A physical fitness obsession is in total conflict with the playing of poker. To play poker, you must be willing to sit in one place for hour after hour, until the Saturday dawn creeps through the window. You must be willing to sit in a smoke-filled room and eat midnight meals of salami and Swiss, pickles and beer. That's not the ideal training routine for building more attractive pecs and lats.

Then there are the video games and the home computer. These are what many young men, who in another age would have been learning poker, now play.

A pity. Some of the gifted hackers who use their computers to break into banks, swindle credit card companies or change the grades of an entire graduating class would have been talented players of Texas hold 'em.

So the recent success of women in professional poker doesn't mean that women are becoming better players. There always have been some skilled female players. But they're being noticed now because there are fewer and fewer good male players.

It's all because the draft ended. And as time passes, poker will be a game played only by a few old coots in small-town American Legion halls.

The rest of the country will be sitting in front of the TV set or jiggling a video game.

It's a depressing thought. So if you want to see poker remain as part of our culture -- the game of the Old West, the Army barracks and the tavern basement -- then join me in trying to save it.

ZTC Write to your congressman and tell him to change the law so your kid will be drafted when he's 18.

Really, it will help make him a well-rounded person.

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