Poker Independence

Updated: July 5, 2007, 3:39 PM ET
By Gary Wise | ESPN Poker Club

    "Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt." -- Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau

When I was eight, my family and I went on a road trip to Utica, N.Y. Utica is five hours east of my hometown Toronto, but when we arrived, I was asked if we had any snow at the time. It was July. We didn't.

When I was 14, I made my way to a youth retreat outside Canton, Ohio. This would be my first exposure to steroid jokes, with recently-busted Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson at the heart. I also got a healthy dose of depressed Canadian currency humor, never a disappointment. Trust me Americanos, if you want to get friendly with a Canadian, crack a good eight or nine jokes about how the U.S. dollar is a real dollar, while Canadian dollars are monopoly money. We love that. Love it. Really.

Thing is, the inanity of the currency jokes aside, they really do get to the heart of America. You may not realize it, but you aren't a placid people. Given the choice between standing back or being proactive, you choose the latter. You go for the jugular with a might-makes-right attitude that befits democracy and capitalism and the most powerful nation on earth. I'm not sure if those concepts are the chicken to the people's egg or vice versa, but frankly, Americans are so entwined with their patriotism and dedication to the things that make them American that, I don't know where one ends and the others start.

This is the most American day of the year. On July 4th, you rightly get up on your collective pedestal, pound your chests and make calls of loyalty to the heavens. Canadians are patriotic also, but not in the same way. We're proud, but we're laid-back proud. My countrymen and I can't help but marvel at the one-mindedness with which you carry yourselves. It's the essence of what makes you what you are.

Like the people of the United States, poker's roots can be found elsewhere. France, Germany, China … these countries had games similar to the one we know now, but it was only in their conglomeration on the riverboats of the Mississippi that poker was born. The game, like the country, awarded those who were most willing to do what it took to get ahead, be it through skill, charisma, cheating, lying or stealing. That's not just poker; that's capitalism. That's the American way, and I don't mean that to be in any way derogatory.

Poker helped build the west as the west helped build poker. Westward expansion was largely founded on the discovery of valuable deposits of gold and other precious deposits. When ores were discovered, towns would crop up around them. It was the gamblers who'd get there first, setting up shop in order to fleece the miners of their hard-earned bounty. Those casinos inevitably served as the social centers for mining towns, with settlements building around them. Then, ultimately, more would be discovered westward, and the enterprising gamblers would again set off early to stake their claim to other people's money. With the plausibility of instant riches, the west injected a romance into poker that exists to this day. Think back to your first game; it felt dangerous and good all at once, didn't it? That's because with poker, even more now than then, there constantly exists the possibility of cheating the system by making a fortune without the hard work that's usually attached. That's why it was the game of hustlers and mobsters. It was a hard way to make an easy living.

Poker and America both revolve around the almighty dollar. They both use it as the definitive measurement for success. Knowing that's true of the country that calls it home, is there any doubt the World Series of Poker is the most American event in the competitive world? In terms of payout, it is the largest contest in the world of any kind. Last year's main event alone approached $88 million in prize money. Needless to say, that's more than anything you'll find in golf, tennis, football, baseball, basketball, hockey and everything in between. Unlike those others though, any man or woman, from sea to shining sea, can enter the biggest event the game has to offer and play with the best in the world, much in the same way you can run for president next year alongside Hillary, Barak, Rudy and the gang. Poker, meet democracy. Democracy, poker.

In a year where so many predicted a falloff on registration, poker has fought back with injections of foreign interest. Like they did hundreds of years ago, the weak, tired and huddled masses are coming to America, only this time they're not coming to build the country, but to play the game that helped to build the country. One by one, the nations of Europe (or at least, their people) have risen to embrace the poker wave, that same wave that was proclaimed to have passed before a record 3,151 players played $1,500 no-limit hold 'em event this past Sunday. In case you weren't counting, that's an all-time record for live tournaments excluding the WSOP main event. This isn't the first time this year that record had been set.

The Series is now a truly international event, but that hasn't stopped the Americans from dominating. Phil won his 11th and Allen Cunningham his fifth. Eli Elezra and Freddy Deeb may not have been born on American soil, but both call this the greatest country in the world. Steve Bilirakis became an instant symbol of American youth when he won event No. 1, while Tom Schneider became a symbol for American resourcefulness when he took home his second bracelet of the series, exploiting the lesser-played variants to find victory. He joins only Jeff Madsen, Bill Chen, Mark Seif and Scott Fischmann as those who have won multiple bracelets ion a single WSOP since Moneymaker won in '03. Of course, all of those gentlemen are American too. This is a day worth celebrating. Those of us born outside the States love to moan about the elephant we're sleeping with, but the truth is we know that the USA does a lot of the dirty work that allows us our ways of life. It's that dirty work that's allowed this game to take hold, stay the course and finally bloom in the last few years. Of course, this all means there's a great irony in the Sen. Bill Frists of the world trying to suppress it with his legislation, because to suppress poker is to suppress America; it means suppressing the democracy it offers and the capitalism it employs.

Today is a great day to be an American. It's great to be a Canadian at the precipice of the main event of the World Series of Poker, the most American tournament at the most American competition in the most American city in … America. As we move into the main event, with the guesses of number of participants still on the rise, I can only hope that everyone will take a look at this event -- this magnificent, marvelous gathering of men and women, old and young, white, black, Hispanic and Asian -- and realize this is the essence of the very thing they think they need to protect Americans from. It's their game. The most American game. God bless the American game.

Gary Wise is ready to see some fireworks in Las Vegas. He is at the WSOP producing video content at www.worldseriesofpoker.com.

Gary Wise has contributed to ESPN.com since 2007. He is well-studied in the history of poker and presents a unique tableside view of the goings-on in the poker community. Google author profile

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