Poker & Pop Culture: The Thanatopsis Pleasure and Insight Straight Club
Following the first world war came a period of relative growth and prosperity in the United States which saw a number of social and cultural changes occur. School kids learning American history are taught to remember the "Roaring '20s" as booming decade, a time marked by the introduction of mass-produced automobiles, of planes that could fly from coast to coast, of motion pictures with sound, "speakeasies," "flappers," and radios providing a constant soundtrack of jazz music.
Among the many fancies that occupied Americans during this period preceding the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed were various games, including card games. As Ben Yagoda notes in About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, "part of the unreal frivolity of the twenties was that intelligent people should have occupied themselves with card, board, and parlor games to a degree not seen before or since."
In particular, Yagoda speaks of how members of the famed Algonquin Round Table, that group of writers, actors, and wits who met daily for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, would constantly battle with one another at "cribbage, backgammon, obscure word games, pachisi, casino, [and] hearts," among other forms competition.
However, writes Yagoda, "the most important game was poker."
Here's a brief sketch of what was probably the most famous ongoing poker game of the period, a game played at the Algonquin Hotel and whose participants dubbed themselves "The Thanatopsis Pleasure and Inside Straight Club."
The Algonquin Round Table: A "Vicious Circle"
The Algonquin Round Table was kind of a 20th-century version of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope's Scriblerians or Dr. Samuel Johnson's literary club, those 18th-century gatherings of writers, artists, and intellectuals who regularly met to dine and opine on various aspects of their respective cultures.
The daily gatherings at the Algonquin Hotel began in 1919 and continued over the next decade-plus. Members included newspaper columnists, actors, poets, playwrights, and critics.
Among the group's charter members were Franklin Pierce Adams (noted columnist for various New York newspapers), Harold Ross (founder of The New Yorker), Robert Benchley (editor of Vanity Fair), George Kaufman (playwright), and Dorothy Parker (writer). Actors Tallulah Bankhead and Harpo Marx would also become regulars at the Algonquin, as would the composer Irving Berlin and producer and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.
Membership was never constant, and in all there were probably three dozen or more individuals who would come to be associated with the "Vicious Circle" — an early name humorously applied to the group who could sometimes be wickedly savage with their wit.
Like the 18th-century clubs that preceded them, the Algonquin Round Table provided its members opportunities both to socialize and to share ideas, with many of those ideas eventually being disseminated via the newspaper columns, stories, poems, plays, illustrations, and other cultural productions of the group. In other words, like the round table of Arthurian legend, this one also exerted significant influence on the culture at large.
Chasing Pleasure... and Cards
As mentioned, club members played a variety of games, including what would become a weekly poker game each Saturday night. Club members would be joined occasionally by non-Round Table players when seats needed to be filled. The poker club took its name from a club appearing in the 1920 satirical novel Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, a woman's study group called the "Thanatopsis Club."
It might sound like an especially grim name for a poker club, given that "thanatopsis" actually refers to thinking about or meditating on death. One can sense the dark humor in the choice, though, considering how it associates playing poker — and, perhaps, foolishly gunning for inside straights — with thoughts of one's demise. The name also in a half-joking way referred to how most members of the club approached the game as a life-or-death affair.
The stakes were modest but meaningful, although a few stories speak of players winning thousands as sessions sometimes lasted all of the way through to Monday morning. One account suggests Harpo Marx to have won as much as $30,000 in one game, although he himself insisted he never won more than a few thousand in a single game.
The group was also sometimes called the Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club. However, a famous pastel illustration of the game by William Cotton including caricatures of many of the players describes it as the Thanatopsis Pleasure and Inside Straight Club, which is the name by which it is best known.
Trading Pots and Puns
Alexander Woollcott, a critic, once wrote a two-act play lampooning the club's games, although it wasn't published. Meanwhile Franklin Pierce Adams, the newspaper writer credited with naming the club, would sometimes report on the sessions, and it is thanks to Adams that some of the more memorable quotes and witticisms from the game have survived.
Herbert Ransom, an actor who sometimes joined in the game, apparently wasn't such a good thespian when it came to concealing from his opponents the value of his hand. Thus did Adams once suggest that the club institute a new rule taking into account how bad Ransom's poker face was.
"Anyone who looks at Ransom's face is cheating," proposed Adams.
The Algonquin Round Table was especially known as a source for witty puns, and not surprisingly the poker game helped provide further opportunities to produce them. George Kaufman, the playwright, is credited with one which alludes to the conclusion of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem "The Day Is Done."
Longfellow's poem (quite popular at the time) involves a speaker asking someone to read to him a poem that has the power to move him. By doing so, the speaker concludes, "the night shall be filled with music / And the cares, that infest the day, / Shall fold their tents, like Arabs, / And as silently steal away."
That last line inspired Kaufman, apparently, when faced with too large of a bet while holding but a pair of tens. "Like the Arabs," Kaufman said, "I fold my tens and silently steal away."
A Chance to "Get Off the Treadmill of Sophistication"
Another source telling of the activities of the Thanatopsis Pleasure and Inside Straight Club is a piece written by Heywood Hale Broun whose parents both played in the game — the noted columnist Heywood Broun and his wife Ruth Hale, a famous women's rights activist. In the 1960s Broun contributed an article to American Heritage Magazine titled "A Full House" in which he shared several anecdotes of what he called "as colorful a group of poker players as ever sat down together outside a Bret Harte short story."
In Broun's article one finds several grins, including a few more pokery puns, such as the time the baking heir Raoul Fleishmann once made the best possible hand, then had to endure being called "Royal Flushman" for the rest of the night.
There's also another pun from Kaufman, this one used whenever he began with two low cards in stud. After being forced to abandon his hand, Kaufman would explain he had been "trey-deuced" — in this case run down by bad cards, not a bad review.
According to Broun, the group would generally play three rounds of five-card draw, followed by a round of five-card stud, with "no wild cards or seven-card games." Also, women occasionally would sit in on the game, with their participation sometimes providing the impetus for ongoing debates about women's equality.
Broun's summary statement about the game's significance to its members suggests it provided something especially meaningful to those who participated — namely, a chance to stop being so damn clever all the time and enjoy the "pleasure" of competition and each other's company.
"The general feeling was one of unbuttoned relaxation," writes Broun. "The Thanatopsis Club was perhaps the one place where all the erstwhile smalltown boys who had to slick their hair down and talk fancy most of the time could get off the treadmill of sophistication for a few hours."
Broun tells how the games eventually wound down and the club dissolved by the early 1930s, much as would happen to the Algonquin Round Table. The "unreal frivolity of the twenties" were over, and so, too, did the games of the Thanatopsis Pleasure and Insight Straight club die out. (Pun intended.)
From the forthcoming "Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game." Martin Harris teaches a course in "Poker in American Film and Culture" in the American Studies program at UNC-Charlotte.