Unlike other poker-related narratives that highlight the game’s history and/or most famous characters, Poker Faces is a scholarly work written according to the standards and criteria one expects from serious academic inquiry. Hayano earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA during the 1970s, his dissertation focusing on the Awa and Gimi people of Papua New Guinea. He then took a position at CSU-Northridge, at which point he began work on his next study, this time focusing primarily on the card rooms of Los Angeles county and the behaviors of those who frequented them.
Using many of the same methods of data gathering he employed when studying the isolated Papuan tribes, Hayano meticulously examined the “world” of poker players of that time and place, drawing numerous conclusions about the make-up and “social mechanics of face-to-face confrontation” that characterized their existence.
However, as Hayano explains in the Preface, there was one big methodological difference between this new study and his earlier one. Whereas he might’ve been able to remain situated outside the “world” of the Papuans in order to observe them, Hayano recognized the need to join the poker games if he hoped to learn anything worthwhile about the subjects of his study.
“Poker... is not a spectator sport,” explains Hayano. “The real action in poker is concealed.... The observable movements of chips wagered and cards dealt do very little to reveal the genuine heart of the game.” As anyone who has ever tried to report on a poker tournament well knows, there is a great deal that happens at the table that simply cannot be fully understood from even just a few feet away. And so, in order to get a better idea of the “deep, invisible structures” present in the social interaction of the players, Hayano took a seat at the tables himself in order to improve his perspective.
Today I am not going to offer a full summary and/or review of the book, but rather just will share a few of Hayano’s observations so as to give a taste of what one finds in Poker Faces.
One is another interesting side note in that Preface in which Hayano explains that even just a few years earlier “this study of professional poker players might have been situated more appropriately in the sociology of deviance.” The very fact that someone could conduct a serious academic inquiry of poker in the early 1980s “reflects a change both in our society [with regard to its attitude toward gambling and/or poker] and in social science.”
During the first part of the book Hayano spends time sketching the scene in the card rooms as he experienced it, focusing in particular on describing the lives of the players and the “social organization” or hierarchy among them. He’s especially interested in the regulars, and with a lot of disclaimers ends up offering a typology of different kinds of “professionals.” He admits he uses that term a bit loosely, pointing out that in fact many of those whom he’s describing would not call themselves or each other “pros,” but would rather use terms like “hustler, player, rounder, or no special title at all.”
In fact, he means “professional” in a generic sense to refer to anyone who could be regarded as a regular inhabitant of a given card room (i.e., not a tourist or occasional visitor). He divides these players into “worker professionals,” “outside-supported professionals,” “subsistence professionals,” and “career professionals.”
The first two groups have other jobs which sustain them, with poker essentially being a more or less serious hobby for them, although profiting is not crucial. The “subsistence” pros derive their primary income from poker, yet still “do not many any firm emotional, self-identificational, or social commitments to full-time poker-playing.” Then come the “career” pros who both depend on poker entirely for their livelihood and have made that personal commitment to poker as their chosen “skillful trade.”
The book then goes on to offer some genuinely insightful observations about the various challenges these “professional” players routinely experience, including handling (or “controlling”) luck, dealing with winning and losing, satisfying the need for action, and more. Like I say, I’m not giving a full overview of everything Hayano writes about today, but I did want to share a few other points he makes in the book.
A couple come from his conclusion, titled “The Existential Game,” in which Hayano recognizes that “because of the relentless instability and uncertainty of day-to-day gambling,” players are constantly forced to reevaluate what they are doing and its significance and meaning. “If the life of the professional poker player were comfortable and predictable,” writes Hayano, “I do not think that such extensive and persistent self-reflection would be required.”
It is interesting to consider how “professional” poker players -- a group which for Hayano includes just about anybody who plays a lot and for whom the game is an important part of their lives -- are as a group an especially self-reflective bunch. Hayano pursues the point further, noting that one of the things that poker pros find themselves thinking about a lot is whether or not their lives have any special meaning at all.
“Many people, including poker players themselves, do not see card-playing as particularly productive,” notes Hayano, adding how this attitude adds to the difficulty (and to the “existential” worrying) of the life of the poker pro. Also, for many full-time players, “there is no finality of gain and no peak existence, except perhaps winning a major tournament.” The game just goes on and on and on, a situation that “manifests itself in an existential, if not socio-psychological, kind of imbalance.”
Hayano refuses to cast judgment on the players, though, suggesting at the very end that “perhaps it is unfair to question the ultimate meaning of any individual’s way of life.” Of course, the point he’s just made is that for many pros that is exactly what they themselves are doing all the time, namely, the questioning the meaning of their lives.
The last observation I wanted to share from Hayano’s book is just to note how he ultimately views the society of poker players, ca. late 1970s-early 1980s, as a closed-off, isolated “world” not unlike that of the remote peoples he previously studied in Papua New Guinea. Says Hayano, “In contrast to the Old West and riverboat gamblers, most professional gamblers today operate in a completely distinct social and legal environment.”
In other words, while the games of old (in saloons and on steamboats) might have encouraged a lot of interaction between regular players and “normal” folks, these games he’s watching and participating in are different. It’s a mostly closed-off society he finds himself in when playing in those games, “an abstruse, technical ‘small-life world’” that operates mostly independently of the larger one the rest of us occupy.
Some of Hayano’s findings about players and how poker was played when he studied it still apply today, although many aspects of the game (and its place in our culture) have altered considerably. In fact, I’d suggest this last observation about the “completely distinct social and legal environment” in which poker players once operated has changed a lot, with much more significant interaction occurring today between the poker “world” and the rest of society. Even so, there does still exist a lot of insularity in poker, with examples of some still immersing themselves entirely and shutting out everything else.
I’ve written more than I intended to here, but like I say I’ve really only highlighted a few of the many fascinating observations Hayano makes. Poker Faces definitely deserves to be back in print, I’d say. And we’re overdue for another, similarly serious academic inquiry into professional poker, too.