Bar Room Gunslingers to Sports Icons; public perception shaped by the media.
In a dimly lit back room of the most dangerous bar in town sit six grizzly gun toting criminals locked in intense competition. The silence is deafening. The table is covered with 5 playing cards, money, and one of their "Pappy's" pocket watch. A cold bead of sweat runs down one of their faces as he announces, "I call." Keeping one hand on his six shooter, he pushes all of his money to the center of the table with his other hand. The game is poker, and up until the last 20 years this was the image that came to most Americans' minds when the game was discussed. However, in the last two decades, poker's image has been widely transformed from a game played in the shadows to mainstream entertainment, even regarded by many as a full blown sport. If there was ever a doubt to the power of media, in all and many forms, poker may serve as an example of how the proliferation of modern communication can change, shape and influence widespread views and perceptions.
The original perception of poker was that it was created for degenerate gamblers and criminals. This is exemplified by the fact that the earliest written references to the game we now call poker was originally referred to as the "cheating game." In 1834, Jonathan H. Green made one of the earliest written references to poker when in his writing he mentions rules to the "cheating game" being played on Mississippi riverboats. In contrast, a 2007 study conducted by Topline revealed that approximately 23 million Americans play poker regularly. This is 10.1% of the adult U.S. population. The beginning of the shift to mainstream acceptance of poker is generally attributed to television coverage of high stakes poker tournaments, such as the World Series of Poker, on popular cable channels. While poker's new image may have begun with being aired on channels such as ESPN, it has spread to virtually all forms of media.
There was a time when movies generally portrayed poker as a game played by financially strapped characters with less than stellar moral motivations. However, many recent movies have portrayed poker players in the exact opposite way. These movies have the wealthiest characters playing exclusive poker games that are joined and won by the "hero." Poker has become so popular in movies that the 2006 James Bond movie, "Casino Royale," replaced the game baccarat that was in the original novel with a version of poker known as Texas Hold'em. This image change through TV and movies has been solidified through digital media.
There are now countless websites, blogs, advertisements, and social media articles devoted to various aspects of the game of poker. With poker's new acceptance, it has become big business. It has been speculated that there are over five thousand people that play poker professionally. To put this in perspective, there were only 446 NBA players for the 2015-2016 season. Some of these players have even become household names and pop icons. Some make more money through endorsements than through the game itself. They are enjoying the financial and even social benefits of this exploding industry. U.S. online poker is now estimated to be a two billion dollar business. The next time that we question the importance of proper media exposure and marketing, we just need to think of this game that went from the "cheating game," to a multibillion dollar sports staple.