Ricky Jay is a well-known sleight of hand artist. In the liner notes, he claims to “have had a deck of cards in my hands for nearly half a century.” Cards and trickery cross paths both in the art of magic and the game of poker, so it’s no surprise that Ricky has an affinity for both: “I love the history, the language and literature, the art and the music of poker. I revel in the history of deception, cheating, and underworld slang.”
Poker is a universal game, so it’s no surprise that the songs collected on Ricky Jay Plays Poker cross almost all musical genres with a legendary roster of talent from the twentieth century. Ricky provides in-depth commentary in the liner notes regarding the songs and the history of the game.
The set opens with Phil Harris and his Orchestra covering Bert Williams’ “Darktown Poker Club.” It’s an interesting choice because while it is entertaining as it tells its tale about poker hustling, the title is a reminder of the racism present in early literature about the game where Jews and Asians were cheats and African-Americans were feckless. Williams’ original version from 1914 is also included. The music on that track is restrained compared to the big band orchestra and the audio quality is poor, but there’s something charming about a recording that is almost 100 years old.
County music is well represented through its sub-genres. Merle Travis sings about a traveling gambler in “Gambler’s Guitar.” Tex Williams provides a slice of Western Swing with “Wild Card.” The Country Gentlemen offer up some bluegrass on “Roving Gambler.” Credited as an influence on alt-country, Townes Van Zandt tells the story of “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold.” There is also an appearance by country legend Patsy Cline although her song, “Turn The Cards Slowly,” about cheating has nothing to do with cards.
Many of the blues artists follow in the same vein as Cline using poker as a double entendre, which is Ricky’s “favorite genre of poker music. Lyrics about gambling and cheating often contain metaphors for less-than-exemplary couples whose double-dealing occurs away from the card table.” The line-up includes Memphis Minnie’s “Don’t Turn The Card,” Robert Johnson’s “Little Queen of Spades,” and Mississippi Sheik’s “Bed Spring Poker.”
The disc also contains a jazz number by Anita O’Day, an Irish ditty by Frank Crumit, a show tune from Fiorello! and even a track by British techno group Saint Etienne. Of course, using dialogue from Mamet’s House of Games featuring Ricky Jay and Joe Mantegna probably assisted the latter. And just in case the set isn’t eclectic enough, there’s a folk tune by Bob Dylan.
My personal favorite is Lorne Green’s “Five Card Stud,” a country song that he talks through rather than sings. He narrates an amusing story about a stranger and a young cowboy, reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.” It has great novelty appeal that would be right at home on Dr. Demento’s radio show.
I was thrilled to see the title “Ace of Spades,” though unfortunately it’s not Motorhead’s version, but O.V. Wright’s soul gem. Rock is the one major genre absent from Ricky’s picks, which means AC/DC’s “The Jack” also didn’t make the cut.
The Deluxe Edition contains a DVD with Ricky performing poker card tricks where you can see his sleight of hand artistry at work and a promotional clip for Dylan’s Love And Theft that Ricky appears in. Naturally, the set also comes with a deck of playing cards.
Ricky Jay demonstrates “Aces up the Sleeve” Cheating Method.