Monday, January 07, 2008

Poker Is Where It's At

You Are HereWent for a walk with Vera Valmore on Sunday. We usually follow a similar three-and-a-half-mile trek that runs through our neighborhood and then loops around the small town (pop. 7,000 or so) near which we live.

Passed by a house for sale and Vera picked up the “free information” flyer out front which she then read aloud as we continued walking. There was the usual catalogue of highlights (“updated electrical plumbing,” “walk-in closet,” “custom tile shower,” etc.). Then, at the end of the list, came the absurd climax:

“Close to everything.”

Hey, it is a small town.

One of the great appeals of poker -- both playing it and writing about it -- is the way the game seems frequently to recall different aspects of our non-poker activities. So often, when away from the tables, we happen on yet another analogy that further enforces the notion that poker -- like that house for sale a few blocks over -- is somehow “close to everything.”

James McManus implies as much when he says “the story of poker helps to explain who we are.” That’s how he is introducing his work-in-progress history of poker (due out in 2009), excerpts of which have been appearing in CardPlayer for over a year now.

According to McManus, “the ways we’ve done battle and business, chosen our leaders, and explored our vast continent have echoed, and been echoed by, poker’s definitive tactics: cheating and thwarting cheaters, leveraging uncertainty, bluffing and sussing out bluffers, managing risk and reward.” He’s speaking most particularly about America, but his point obviously extends well beyond our coasts to apply to any culture in which the game has had a place.

McManus is right, of course. The way poker has evolved, the different ways we play the game, the way the game is regarded and talked about -- all of that produces useful information in the ongoing effort to define ourselves. His whole book, as I take it, will set out to explain (and/or argue) all of those various ways poker reflects human nature -- to illustrate the many, many concrete examples over the years of poker indeed demonstrating “who we are.”

That’s partly what I’m getting at in that flippant-sounding line that appears in my profile -- the one where I say poker isn’t like life, but it’s all “life” (“either it’s living or it ain’t”). (EDIT [added 12/22/10]: The profile has since been updated.) The idea there is to point out that grandly proclaiming “poker is like life” is about as meaningful as saying this here house before which I’m standing is “close to everything.” Right. Meaning what, exactly . . . ?

In other words, you can say poker is like life, but you can’t leave it there. What we really need are specifics, examples, particulars. That tailgater hounding me on the interstate last night was like that dude who kept reraising me hand after hand. The line in the post office seemed interminable, like being dealt jack-trey offsuit over and over again. I knew the stock was tanking, but I was in too deep and couldn’t sell, like that time I called down with my set when I knew he’d turned the flush. And so forth.

In fact, I’d argue one of poker’s richest “life lessons” -- so to speak -- would be the way it relentlessly teaches us the importance of details, showing us over and over again how those who overlook ’em invariably fare much worse than those who don’t. Happens all the time at the tables. And elsewhere. (Will let you come up with your own examples to illustrate that one.)

So, remember . . . if possible, always be specific! (How’s that for a generalization?)



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