For a time, in the 2000s, it seemed like poker was the new rock ‘n’ roll. You couldn’t turn on a TV without seeing a pro tournament featuring the glamor of Jennifer Tilly, or the outbursts of ‘Poker Brat’ Phil Hellmuth. Maybe poker was the old rock ‘n’ roll. They’ve always shared associations with late nights; smoky dive bars at one end of the scale, impossible opulence at the other. It’s true that musicians can draw on almost anything for inspiration – probably the most famous poker song is Kenny Rogers‘ The Gambler – and Kenny didn’t even gamble. But there does seem to be a streak running from music to poker that has positive impacts on each other.
FOUR ACES AND SIX STRINGS
Likely the most famous musical card-slinger is Willie Nelson. Shotgun Willie’s been playing poker since Elvis was singing Viva Las Vegas – he met his good friend and collaborator Merle Haggard at a poker table in 1963. He still plays, at his house in Hawaii, with celebrity neighbors like Owen Wilson. And it’s always serious, and always for cash. Legendary producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies, Page & Plant, The Stooges) has been a fixture at the annual World Series of Poker tourney in Vegas for the past 10 years, placing 12th in the Seniors Competition in 2013.
This isn’t to say poker is just for the older guard – you’d expect there to be dance music connections with the way Vegas has embraced superclubs. Well, there is! Steve Aoki is a self confessed fanatic and has commentated on World Series of Poker matches for TV. Skrillex was seen joining him on the tables on the Holy Ship EDM cruise. And rappers have pulled up a chair also with Nelly entering numerous pro tournaments and Young Thug’s love for the game hasn’t dimmed despite a recently reported $800,000 loss.
WHAT’S THE DEAL?
The reasons for the links between music and poker are numerous. Poker can be a high-pressure game. For folks that are used to being under hot lights in front of thousands of fans, it’s easy to see that being under casino lights and having to rely on your wits isn’t too dissimilar to an arena. It may be that poker has helped musicians to develop an ability to remain calm when needed. In a piece about how to win at the poker tables, the article mentions learning to accept defeat and never getting too high, as key factors. Maybe folks pride themselves on being able to see who’s bluffing; a useful skill in the notoriously shark-infested music industry. Alternatively, maybe they can’t, and they’re using poker as practice.
It could be it’s a great trainer in attention to detail and mental agility. It’s a great way to socialize with folks other than the guys and gals you’re stuck on a tour bus with for weeks on end. Or it might even be about developing a relationship with yourself, and knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, outside of the what the fans, the press or anyone else may be telling you.
We can’t say for sure how poker makes these guys better musicians, but with the skills needed to survive in that industry like self-reliance, risk-taking, being able to ride big highs and deep lows, it seems more than a coincidence that so many great musicians are avid poker players.