Sunday, June 11, 2006

Dostoevsky is Not Considered Summer Reading (Pt. I)

Fyodor DostoevskyThere’s a New Yorker cartoon in which a guy reading a book on the beach is approached by a policeman. “I’m sorry, sir,” the cop says to him, “but Dostoevsky is not considered summer reading. I’ll have to ask you to come with me.”

I thought of that cartoon last week as I read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Gambler -- one of the 19th-century Russian novelist’s lesser known novels, although certainly his most popular in the poker world. References to The Gambler pop up in many poker books, particularly “literary” ones like Anthony Holden’s Big Deal, the late David Spanier’s The Hand I Played, and James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street.

The novel is set in the fictional German city of Roulettenburg -- kind of a 19th-century European version of Vegas -- where the main character, a tutor named Alexey Ivanovitch, unsuccessfully battles his obsession with the game after which the city is named. There is one card game that comes up occasionally in the novel, a game called trente et quarante (a.k.a. rouge et noir) that is essentially a kind of roulette using six decks of playing cards rather than a wheel and a ball. (You can still get a game of trente et quarante in Monte Carlo, apparently.) However, roulette is the game that Alexey plays the most, and that’s the game about which Dostoevsky (himself a roulette addict) has the most interesting things to say.

Anyone at all serious about poker will be quick to point out that poker ain’t roulette. Some go so far as to distinguish poker from gambling altogether, insisting that it’s a skill game wherein the better-equipped players always win out over time. I like how Miller/Sklansky/Malmuth treat this subject in the opening sections of Small Stakes Hold ’em. They assert that, in fact, “poker is gambling,” and the schmo who says it ain’t “does not understand poker as well as he should.” Poker is gambling because it always involves some measure of uncertainty, particularly with regard to the cards. Sure, at times we might be uncertain about our opponents’ play or holdings, but better players eventually can get a line on those things.

Yet even the very best poker player cannot get a line on precisely what card is gonna come on the turn or river. (Raise yer paw if you’ve also lost a 20+ BB pot to a river one-outer . . . . There we go.) So while in poker you can (as Miller/Sklansky/Malmuth explain) play in such a way so “that your expectation can be positive,” when you play poker you’re still gambling. That's why The Gambler ultimately touches on so many concepts of interest to poker players.

As a way of responding to the book, I thought I’d focus on a few ideas related to gambling that come up in The Gambler that might be of particular interest to poker players. I’ve pulled out three ideas or concepts, all of which could be made to relate to the “psychology of poker” -- that is, all three concern how our minds work (and, at times, fail to work) when we play.

The first has to do with how a particular sequence of hands will affect our thinking regarding what comes next. The second involves the way the game tends to consume us, causing us to forget about everything else besides the “here and now.” The third has to do with issues of control and personal responsibility, and how poker (or any form of gambling) strangely satisfies certain, contradictory desires most of us seem to possess.

I’ll discuss these ideas in separate posts over the next few days. Afterwards you can decide if you want to check out The Gambler yourself. Of course, you’ll want to keep one eye out for the summer reading cops if you do.

Image: Vasily Perov, portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1871), public domain.

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