Six dogs sit around a circular poker table in a dimly-lit room. A bulldog puffs on a cigar as the pooch studies a Saint Bernard opponent. A pile of chips is in the middle of the table as the Saint Bernard sits slightly back from the table, giving no sign as to whether he’s bluffing or has the nuts.
This description is a painting that poker fans all over the world have come to know as “Dogs Playing Poker.” Those dogs have become a phenomenon and recognised by poker players and pop culture fans alike.
But what is the history of this famous painting, and where did they come from? Here’s a complete look into those poker-playing pooches with four sets of exciting facts about the artist, paintings, their place in pop culture, and the dollars the dogs have produced.
The Poker Dogs Artist
- Canine Creation – Cassius Marcellus Coolidge was the artist behind the dogs playing poker, which was a series of 16 oil paintings – not all of which focused on poker. Some also featured dogs in a game of football, a road trip, and as a jester performing for royalty.
- Creation – The advertising firm Brown and Bigelow contracted the artist in 1903 to paint the dog works as part of a campaign to advertise cigars, which were featured in the works. The paintings were produced by Coolidge through 1910 and remain popular more than a century later.
- Dog Days – While Coolidge remains an obscurity in the art world, his works are amazingly well-known – even inspiring other artists who create their own versions of poker dogs on the canvas. Reprints of the originals and alternative recreations are easy to find on the Internet and are still a common sight in a game room or man cave.
- A Life in Art – Born in 1844 and named after anti-slavery advocate Cassius Marcellus Clay, Coolidge had no real art education but always had a talent at sketching and painting. As a child, he sketched scenes of the countryside and the farm where he grew up. By age 20, he was already drawing cartoons for the local newspaper and illustrating books.
- One Hit Wonder – Coolidge painted other works featuring dogs in human situations, but none ever approached the popularity of his poker dogs.
- More Than a Painter – Along with being an artist, Coolidge was a successful businessman – at one time owning his hometown's first bank and newspaper. He also wrote a comedic opera and two other comedies. As an inventor, he patented large caricatures scenes called comedic foregrounds, with a hole cut out to place one’s head atop a curious body and scene, allowing for funny pictures. Coolidge began a mail-order business to sell his invention.
The Poker Dogs Paintings
- Popular Pups – Nine of the works feature dogs around a table, complete with human clothes, poses, cigars, and, of course, poker cards and chips. In the ensuing century, the paintings' popularity has continued to grow.
- Poker Populism – The “poker dogs” appeal to many working-class sensibilities. These canines are not warm and cuddlybut exude machismo – anthropomorphic alpha males.
From 888poker’s The Woof Series of Poker
- Cards and Connections – The paintings have a comedic impact, but also make a real connection with poker players' camaraderie. “The paintings have become one of those hallmarks of American society, for better or worse, that everyone knows,” says Joseph E. Richey, who has run the website www.dogsplayingpoker.org since 2001. “Especially for guys, we can joke about that painting itself, but also remember a poker night that we ourselves enjoyed with some friends.”
- Other Pieces of Art – The artist produced numerous other works of art, including some dogs in different scenarios (football, baseball, billiards). Coolidge’s skills at painting dogs acting as poker sharks, however, were what permanently etched his mark on the world – and many people's homes.
- High Art Hijinks – In 2002, art historian William Hennessey made some poker dogs news. The director of Virginia’s Chrysler Museum of Art announced in a news release that he was trying to acquire one of Coolidge’s historic poker paintings for the museum. That release came out on April 1 – April Fool’s Day – quite a joke at the poker pooches’ expense. Despite the hijinks, he later noted about the paintings: “I’ve always liked them.”
- Poker Paws – One of the most famous paintings in the series is “A Friend in Need” from 1903, which features some colluding canines at the table. In the scene, seven dogs are seated at the poker table with a bulldog surreptitiously passing an Ace to an accomplice. The card is being passed under the table using the dog’s back paw. Cheating at that time may have been more common in backroom, underground games. But a similar move with your friends today would undoubtedly land you in the doghouse.
The Poker Dogs in Pop Culture
- Poker Dog Swag – Dogs Playing Poker has served as the inspiration for coffee mugs, posters, neckties, movies, video games, websites, and virtually any product imaginable.
- New Dogs Via 888poker – The Dogs Playing Poker series has even been featured in a marketing campaign by 888poker. An official sponsor of the World Series of Poker for several years, 888poker had the famous canines completely recreated using real dogs to help promote the 49th annual WSOP in 2018 – the Woof Series of Poker?
- Pooches and Pigskins – ESPN made use of the famous Dogs Playing Poker in the 1990s to promote Sunday Night Football. The commercials featured real dogs gathered around the poker table and a couple of the pooches voiced by comedians Art Carney and Gilbert Gottfried.
- Cheers to the Poker Dogs – In the classic television show Cheers, bar owner Sam Malone owns one of the Dogs Playing Poker paintings. He gets a laugh out of them, but the bar’s waitress and his sometimes-girlfriend, sometimes-enemy Diane Chambers finds them repulsive.
- Family Art – The sitcom Roseanne also featured one of the paintings. The Connors’ bedroom was home to some ordinary man decor, with the dogs on full display.
- On the Move – The Canadian rock band Rush featured one of the Dogs Playing Poker paintings on the cover of their best-selling Moving Pictures album. The cover art features some moving men moving various works of art, including one of those beloved poker-playing pooches.
- Homer Goes Mad – The Simpsons television series has made several references to Coolidge’s creations through the years. One episode from 1993 features Homer going mad after staring at the poker dogs painting for an extended period. The canines have been featured in numerous other TV shows and films. Simpsons Video
The Poker Dogs and Dollars
- Cashing in with the Kennel Club – In February 2008, two of Coolidge's poker dog paintings – “Only a Pair of Deuces” and “A Breach of Promise Suit” – fetched a whopping $193,000 in the 10th Annual Dogs in Art Auction, coinciding with the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. That’s quite a sum for the comedic paintings.
- No Bluffing This Bidder – Two others, “A Bold Bluff” and “Waterloo”, were auctioned as a pair in 2005 for the staggering sum of $590,000 – a remarkable poker pot. Most observers of the auction hadn’t expected the price to exceed $60,000.
- Big Action Auction – One version of the paintings, “The Poker Game,” even topped those hefty prices. In 2015, the piece was sold for $658,000 by Sotheby's. The auction house’s site listing of the painting referred to Coolidge as “the portraitist of dogs whose life-style mirrored the successful middle-class humans of his time.”
- Dogs Helping Dogs – Deborah Mansfield, a local artist in West Point, Mississippi, was inspired by the Dog Playing Poker in April 2019 to help raise funds for the city’s animal shelter. Dogs owners (and even cats) could pay $350 to have their pets included in a mural. The fundraiser exceeded expectations, and the wall painting remains popular. So many friends of man’s best friend donated that $36,000 was raised for the cause.
- Big Bucks – Who would have ever thought that a series of paintings depicting dogs playing poker could have been so popular through the years. These furry card players have been responsible for millions and millions of dollars in sales since Coolidge created them. Along with that, they’ve brought plenty of smiles and have a unique charm. The artist had a knack for connecting with people and what might draw interest and some laughs. So many years later, his works remain as sought-after as ever.