November 29, 2005

Keep Your Cards: The Overlap Of Poker And Political Activism

Since 2003, a growing number of TV shows depicting competitive poker have taken to U.S. television, and have proliferated on cable and even broadcast television. In fact, as I type this, ESPN is replaying coverage from the 2005 World Series of Poker. Televised poker, and poker itself, are now spreading furiously worldwide. Heck, I've even played in a charity hold-'em poker event myself.

I must admit that I've found myself transfixed with watching this poker proliferation, and watching televised poker has become a breather of sorts from my constant stream of media and political work which includes a weekly radio show and podcast, regular print and web contributions, helping out with a monthly TV series, and my own organizing efforts around the politics of the U.S. media.

And yet, despite the place watching TV poker now holds in my life as a break from political work, I can't help but think that my new poker fix could hold some lessons for my political work, and for that of other political activists and organizers.

The first lesson is to avoid the trap that poker or such games automatically represent Easy Street. Sure, I sometimes dream (and I'm probably not alone) that I could play and get lucky and win big and funnel some of those winnings to so many cash-starved activist groups through something as pedestrian as playing cards.

But I know and fear that I could be trapped by such efforts -- not necessarily by forced into changing careers, but in thinking that I'm somehow immune from being changed by continuing participation in an activity which engenders aggression and lying. (And we all know that never sounds like politics.) Sure, it might be a chance to grab a few bucks, but at what other costs? It's always a buyer's market when you sell your soul.

This isn't very much removed from the thought that you can buy your way into political effectiveness. But the size of the budget of the effort doesn't automatically equate the size of the effort's effectiveness. I ve known groups and efforts with scant budgets which were far more effective than groups with far larger budgets, but which more than compensated with organizing savvy and a lot of hard work.

It's also key to remember that poker, like contemporary neoliberal market economics, is a zero-sum game -- that in order for somebody to win, somebody else has to lose. And in that kind of competitive swamp, size and aggressiveness are rewarded, rather than shared cooperation for a common goal.

For those of us working to improve things in the here and now and striving to build a better world in the future, we shouldn't perpetuate the systems of power we find ourselves in if we don't have to. Besides, activists and organizers are already dealing with long odds, luck of the draw, shrewd decisions, and enormously high stakes -- stakes far higher than that of any prosaic poker game.

Remember that one reason that poker has been getting the coverage it has garnered is that it happens to fall within the realm of profitable programming for commercial television. The media conglomerates which own most of the media in the United States (and worldwide) have only discovered this in the recent years, and predictably they're milking it for all it's worth. But the widespread corporate media support of televised poker is apt to decrease if poker sees a ratings decrease (and indeed U.S. viewership of poker has slightly decreased in 2005).

When it comes to struggles against systems of power, they may hold all the chips, but we hold all the cards. And the more we can work to improve our chip count, the sooner we can win -- and on our terms. In the meantime, I'll just watch poker on TV; I'm already involved in a high-stakes struggle.

Mitchell Szczepanczyk ( is an organizer with Chicago Media Action, a regular contributor to Chicago Indymedia and Third Coast Press, and hosts a weekly radio show on WHPK, the University of Chicago's radio station. In his sole competitive poker competition, he left the tournament early.