Where the Cowboy and the Puritan Meet

Question: What does the popularity of poker say about the American character?

James McManus: Well, I think that a lot of -- let me phrase this. Risk taking -- people who are drawn to risk -- entrepreneurial cowboys -- have very little patience with the puritanical mindset, which is not to take risks, work hard every day, save small amounts incrementally, and build up your fortune in that manner. Whereas -- and the puritans have very little patience for risk-taking cowboys who are willing to gamble most or all of their future, for example, on heading out across a two thousand-mile stretch of continent that hasn't been explored yet. What both sides need to appreciate is that the American experience is a combination of the entrepreneurial cowboy and the puritan work ethic, and that the two strains have made us who we are as a country, and that in poker you need to make risks; you need to put money in the pot in a speculative way in order to have any hope of doubling your money in that particular hand. And yet you also have to have -- you also have to deploy what might be called puritan money management skills, conservatism, patience, waiting for a good hand, so that an effective poker player typically involves -- start again. Playing poker effectively typically involves both entrepreneurial risk-taking and a puritan conservatism with -- and bankroll management skills.

Question: Why has poker attracting so many Americans?

James McManus: Well, Americans have an immigrant-specific genotype, which is to say that only two percent of the populations that fed into this country, excepting the Native Americans and the slaves, came over here. And that two percent of the immigrant population is much more likely to take risks. They tend to be smarter, quicker decision makers, and more intelligent, and more interested in taking large risks in order to dramatically improve their lives. When you combine that with the fact that this is the first free-market capitalist society, with the fact that money is the language of poker -- it's the only means by which you can keep score; it's the way that you leverage your hand against what are often better hands, and you -- as Walter Matthau put it, "Poker exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism which have made our country so great." I think it's a wonderfully succinct expression of the relationship between the American spirit and the poker mentality.

 Recorded on: November 18, 2009

James McManus explains why the legacy of poker speaks to the fundamental duality in the American experience.

Is it ethical to pay people to get vaccinated?

It could lead to a massive uptake in those previously hesitant.

Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
Coronavirus

A financial shot in the arm could be just what is needed for Americans unsure about vaccination.

Keep reading Show less

Every 27.5 million years, the Earth’s heart beats catastrophically

Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.

Credit: desertsolitaire/Adobe Stock
Surprising Science
  • It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
  • Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
  • Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Keep reading Show less

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
  • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Keep reading Show less

Galactic wind from early universe detected

Researchers discovered a galactic wind from a supermassive black hole that sheds light on the evolution of galaxies.

Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds the oldest galactic wind yet detected, from 13.1 billion years ago.
  • The research confirms the theory that black holes and galaxies evolve together.
  • The galactic wind was spotted using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast