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The World Series of Poker’s Colossus event and America’s obsession with risk

Gambling’s meteoric rise says a lot about the psychology of post-recession America. Steve Marcus/Reuters

Standing at an estimated height of 110 feet, the Colossus of Rhodes was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The statue, erected to honor Helios, the Greek god of the sun, showcased not only the devotion of the Greeks to their gods, but also symbolized the might and endurance of their civilization.

In America, there’s a different sort of colossus taking place: a poker tournament. Created as a new event in the annual World Series of Poker (WSOP), the record-breaking (and aptly named) “Colossus Event” featured 22,374 players, who paid US$565 apiece to participate in the largest live poker tournament in history.

The tournament, which ran from May 29 to June 3, generated a prize pool of $11,187,000, with Lance Garcia taking home a $638,880 grand prize. This is merely a predecessor of the WSOP Main Event in July, which will likely generate a prize pool in excess of $70,000,000.

If studying the Colossus of Rhodes gave historians insight into the mentality of the people of ancient Greece, what does this new “colossus” say about Americans?

Ultimately, it reveals a modern America that has shunned a traditional ethos of hard work and has become more willing to engage in risky financial behaviors.

Gambling’s growing grip

Gambling is nothing new in America.

A recent archaeological discovery found that Native Americans participated in games of chance and gambling as far back as 800 years ago.

However, for most of the 20th century, gambling was legal only in small pockets of the United States. This changed with the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), which permitted Native American tribes to operate casinos on tribal lands. Then local and state governments realized that, through legalized gambling, they could increase revenues without increasing taxes.

Before, casino-style gambling was confined to the state of Nevada and Atlantic City. Today, there are currently 60 casinos in the Northeast alone. In 1989, the percentage of Americans who had visited a casino in their lifetime was only 33%. Today, the percentage who have visited a casino in the last year is 34%.

Is it any wonder, then, that a recent survey by the American Gaming Association found that 87% of Americans now see gambling as an acceptable activity?

The risk society

Legalization helped to make gambling available, but changes in American culture have made it acceptable.

German sociologist Ulrich Beck coined the term “risk society” in order to explain modern society’s preoccupation with the future and concepts of risk.

The 2008 financial collapse illustrated the volatile nature of the modern economic system – and the powerlessness of the average American to combat its forces. Today, most Americans face a grim reality. Their retirement savings can disappear overnight. Mortgages can be defaulted on. Perpetual employment is no longer a given. And most are unable to determine how vulnerable they actually are to risk, whether it’s being laid off from a job or unmanageable hospital bills from an unforeseen health problem.

During the Great Recession, many Americans – even those who had dutifully saved through the years – lost everything. John Gress/Reuters

Beck has argued that “Risk exposure is replacing class as the principal inequality of modern society.” Such a worldview holds that it’s not enough anymore to have assets or wealth; you must also be able to control how much exposure to risk your assets have.

According to Beck, the truly powerful in the new risk society are not simply individuals with vast financial assets, but those who have the power to protect them, like the large banks that received billion-dollar bailouts in the wake of the financial collapse.

The uncontrollable volatility of the economy can desensitize us to risk. This has increasingly led people to invest in Silicon Valley start-ups and partake in day-trading stocks, which offer great economic upside but also incredibly amounts of risk.

In the end, a focus on risk and reward has shifted our collective priorities. Psychotherapist Allen Kanner explained that in the 1970s, when he asked kids what they wanted to be when they grew up, they chose professions like nurse and astronaut. Today, when he asks kids the same question, they respond, “I want to be rich. I want to make a lot of money.”

Poker parlance

For these reasons, it’s not surprising that gambling and poker have become more and more mainstream. Look no further than the phenomenal popularity of the World Series of Poker.

The championship main event of the WSOP has long been viewed as a bellwether for the state of poker. In 1988, the event attracted 167 players, mostly professionals who were willing to ante up the $10,000 needed to enter the tournament and compete for the $700,000 first place prize.

In 2014, 6,683 (mostly amateur) players competed for a whopping $10 million first place prize. The remarkable size of this year’s colossus event only further demonstrates the growing willingness of Americans to pin their futures on the turn of a card.

The prevalence of poker in contemporary American culture is reflected in our everyday use of poker terminology. Poker terms like “putting your cards on the table,” “holding your cards close to your chest,” “keeping a poker face,” “going all in,” “betting,” “bluffing” and “going bust” are ubiquitous in our language.

Going All In is the title of a book about becoming a Christian. Football coaches now motivate their players by “raising the ante” and shoving their chips “into the middle.” International political conflicts are analyzed in order to understand who is “bluffing,” while Lady Gaga writes songs about her “poker face.”

A new American Dream

Poker is a game that combines luck with skill. In a way, it represents a fusion of the old “American Dream” narrative – which is rooted in the Protestant work ethic and exemplified in stories of “self-made men” like Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin – and modern realities of our risk-based society.

Successful poker players are decisive, strategic and analytical. But even the best admit there’s always a level of luck involved. The undeniable luck factor present in the game serves to mirror the uncontrollable risk that many people feel they face on a daily basis.

Poker, then, is a middle ground, a game that hovers between the randomness of the lottery and traditional proverbs extolling the virtues of hard work. Playing poker is a metaphor for both our desire to exert influence over risk and our inability to control it.

The Colossus of Rhodes stood for 56 years before it fell, while the World Series of Poker’s Colossus tournament lasted for only a few days.

But both tell a lasting tale about the societies that created them.

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