Some years ago I wrote a lengthy column over at PokerNews detailing all of the many references to poker in the later series Star Trek: The Next Generation. That one ran much longer than the original did, airing for seven seasons (1987-1994).
In that column I referred in passing to “poker turn[ing] up here and there amid the franchise’s many incarnations,” although in truth at the time I was mainly focused upon (and familiar with) poker being a kind of recurring theme in ST:TNG. (The series even ends with a poker game punctuating the final episode, titled “All Good Things....”)
I remember at some point later on tracking down other connections between Star Trek and poker, and did find one instance in the original series that involved the character of Spock. It came up during the first season in an episode titled “The Corbomite Maneuver.”
The episode begins with the Enterprise starting to notice an approaching object that proves increasingly worrisome the closer it gets. It won’t respond to any communication, and eventually they try to race away from it but it follows the ship, shooting radiation toward the Enterprise. They end up destroying the object, then a little later a second, larger object appears to threaten them.
This time they are able to communicate with the object -- it’s a ship called the Fesarius and its commander, named Balok, is threatening to attack. Things are looking pretty dire, and while others are getting emotional the always logical Spock discusses the situation with Captain Kirk, letting him know that he sees no way out for them.
“Chess,” Spock says to Captain Kirk by way of explanation. “When one is outmatched, the game is over. Checkmate.” “Is that your best recommendation?” asks Kirk with a sneer. “I regret that I can find no other logical alternative,” answers Spock.
Kirk isn’t ready to give up, though, and eventually he stumbles on a plan.
“Not chess, Mr. Spock... poker. You know the game?” asks Kirk. He does not.
Kirk then turns his attention to Balok, explaining there’s a substance on the Enterprise called corbomite that will cause a “reverse reaction” ensuring the destruction of the Fesarius should it attack. It’s a bluff, of course, and it works, earning a “well played” from Spock.
“A very interesting game, this poker,” says Spock. “It does have advantages over chess,” answers Kirk. “Love to teach it to you,” adds Chief Medical Officer “Bones” McCoy.
There’s more to the story, including a twist of sorts showing that the Fesarius was bluffing, too (and the menacing-looking figure that is supposedly Balok is actually a much less frightening figure played by then-child actor Clint Howard).
I could be mistaken, but I don’t believe they ever did teach Spock poker, which obviously could have led to some interesting scenes highlighting the battle between logic and emotion his character always evoked on the series. Meanwhile the later poker games on ST:TNG involving the similarly emotionless android Data did get to explore those areas.
You can check out “The Corbomite Maneuver” streaming over on Netflix, if you wish. All 79 episodes plus the pilot of the original Star Trek can be seen on the site, one to which I imagine quite a few this weekend will boldly go.