Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Poker “Reality”

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977)About a year after publishing Lolita in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov wrote a short afterword “On a Book Entitled Lolita” in which he offers a few remarks regarding the furor caused by his novel. While that piece is primarily concerned with responding to some of those reactions to the novel’s controversial subject matter, Nabokov also takes the opportunity there to share some details about the circumstances under which Lolita was composed.

Nabokov had emigrated to America in 1940 and shortly thereafter began writing in English. By that time he’d already written nine terrific novels in his native Russian. My favorite of those is probably Despair, although I have a soft spot for The Defense (about a mentally-troubled chess player). (Most rank his last Russian novel, The Gift, as the best of his Russian works.)

Lolita was Nabokov’s third novel in English -- stunning, really, to think such a verbal tour de force could be written by someone composing in a language other than his native tongue. It is also his first novel to be set in the United States, and in that afterword Nabokov talks about how he had to play catch-up to research the novel sufficiently. “It had taken me some forty years to invent Russia and Western Europe,” he says (referring to his earlier novels), “and now I was faced with the task of inventing America.”

Then comes one of my favorite quotes in all of Nabokov. Speaking of what it took to gather enough information to write Lolita, Nabokov admits that “obtaining of such local ingredients as would allow me to inject a modicum of average ‘reality’ (one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes) into the brew of individual fancy, proved at fifty a much more difficult process than it had been in the Europe of my youth when receptiveness and retention were at their automatic best.”

The contrast between youth and middle age is in itself a good point (and one I’m paying more attention to now than I did when I first read it as a naïve, fresh-faced frosh). But what I like most here is that observation about the word “reality” requiring quotation marks around it. Nabokov tucks that point inside parentheses as if it weren’t all that important, but conceptually-speaking you can’t get much heavier than that.

People sometimes speak of poker as a game especially grounded in “reality.” The observation usually has something to do with the definitive way the cards “speak” (so to speak). That is, no matter how we might later characterize a hand, a session, a career, the “reality” of the cards persists through whatever elaborations, embellishments, or enhancements we might try to give to them. (Sorry for the alliteration -- thinking about Nabokov has temporarily infected my prose, I think.)

This so-called “realistic” nature of poker is a commonly-struck theme in Al Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town. According to Alvarez, poker is “one of the most realistic of all disciplines.”

Illustrating the point, Alvarez tells the story of a losing player, referred to only as Joel, whose primary flaw is his inability to assess “realistically” what happens when he’s at the tables. Joel “was cursed with a childish imagination and the inability to distinguish its workings from reality.” As a result, Joel “invariably reported large poker losses as small wins, small wins as fortunes,” thereby dooming himself to be one of the game’s “providers.” He even goes so far as to make up stories about the mob setting him up as a way of explaining his repeated misfortunes. Eventually he hightails it out of Vegas, “trailing bad debts” behind him.

After the Joel story, Alvarez quotes Mickey Appelman explaining how “There can be no self-deception for a poker player” if he or she wants to win. “You have to be a realist to be successful,” says Appelman. By which it is understood that one simply must accept the “reality” of whatever the cards happen to say when one sits at the table.

But so many of us don’t. Most of us. Maybe all of us.

Dr. Alan Schoonmaker discusses this phenomenon at length in Your Worst Poker Enemy. “The gambling industry is based on a denial of reality,” says Schoonmaker. “Without it the entire industry would collapse immediately.” As the example of Joel suggests, players with less skill tend to have a less “realistic” idea of their own abilities. “The worse people play,” writes Schoonmaker, “the more likely they are to deny reality about themselves.” He quotes an article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which a study confirms “the less skilled people are, the less aware they are of their own limitations.”

Those less-skilled players also tend to misunderstand their opponents’ abilities and/or limitations, thus denying the “reality” of the game situation when they sit down to play. Or -- another way of saying the same thing -- they create a “reality” for themselves that is different from the one created by the better players.

But think about it. No matter how good poker players are, each of those sitting at the table has his or her own idea what the “reality” of the game is. Such is one of the game’s paradoxes. Poker might well be “one of the most realistic of all disciplines,” yet poker also relentlessly challenges our ideas of “reality” at every turn (or flop or river).

See how those scare quotes come in handy?

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Blogger Waldo's Wild Kingdom said...

Great write up man, I quoted it to the dudes at



2/08/2008 5:07 PM  

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