The Poker Philosopher

Don’t tell Darryl A. Smith that Las Vegas isn’t a thought-provoking town. The Bonanza High School graduate has long been fascinated by the tensions just underneath the city’s surface.

Smith channeled his wanderlust into academics, pursuing a degree in philosophy at the University of Nevada, Reno before getting a divinity degree from Harvard and a doctorate in religion from Princeton. His academic work focuses on ethics and language. And recently, he returned home to give a talk at UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research that illuminated some of the connections between poker tells and several strands of philosophical thought. 

Starting with quotes from Jean-Paul Sartre, Ralph Ellison and Joseph Conrad, Smith related how writers and philosophers through the ages have described hiding things, both physical and cerebral, with excessive light. That’s something poker players—used to projecting strength when holding weak hands and vice versa—employ every day.

Smith didn’t just use literary examples, however—he pulled in the lived experience of Las Vegas’ Westside as an example of a place darkened by surrounding light, and a neighborhood with its own “true names,” sometimes at odds with those on Mapquest.

Smith, an assistant professor of religious studies at Pomona College, drew on his own fieldwork along the alphabet streets conducted while on a resident fellowship at UNLV. And he’s proof that Las Vegas, often derided as an intellectual wasteland, has thinkers capable of ambitious scholarly work in the same vein as the theoretical discourse echoing in the halls of the Ivy League.