Thursday, March 03, 2011

Rereading The Biggest Game in Town: Poker’s Challenge to “Reality” (2 of 6)

'The Biggest Game in Town' (1983) by Al Alvarez“Reality,” as Vladimir Nabokov once advised, is a word that should always appear inside quotation marks. The recommendation concerns the subjective nature of our experience and how that often causes each of us to consider “reality” differently. Putting the word inside quotes underscores that idea, reminding us both that what I see as “reality” might not jibe with what you do.

I’ve written about Nabokov’s suggestion before, actually, in a post addressing how poker, like those quotation marks, also often reminds us that our ideas about what is “real” can be so wildly different. In fact, in that very post I also make passing reference to chapter 3 of Al Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town, the chapter on which I’m going to be focusing for the next several posts.

The first half of the chapter finds Alvarez talking to a few different players about how playing for high stakes affects not just how they think about money, but “reality” itself. Among those to whom he speaks about the subject is a fellow named A.J. Myers, a successful player who won a couple of WSOP bracelets in the early 1980s, including one in the $5,000 stud event in 1981, the year Alvarez visited the WSOP.

“‘The sums involved are beyond reason,’” Myers tells Alvarez, noting how even though he participates in those high-stakes games, he doesn’t quite share “the professional gamblers’ indifference to money” demonstrated by guys like Chip Reese, Doyle Brunson, Jack Straus, and others Alvarez talks to in the chapter.

“‘They look at me and there’s absolutely no understanding between us,’” explains Myers, highlighting the “different ordering of reality” (as Alvarez puts it) the high rollers experience when compared to most of the rest of us.

Myers thoughtfully reflects on the difficulties he sometimes had dealing with this constant challenge to his own sense of value and meaning, confessing that at one point he found it necessary to stop playing craps and other gambling games when doing so become too much to bear. “His dream life in Vegas was endangering his real life home,” says Alvarez as a way of summing up Myers’s struggle.

From there Alvarez talks to Reese and learns how he, too, experiences money -- and everything else -- quite differently than do most of us. Among his observations, Reese makes that point we’ve heard many times with regard to poker about how in order to play well one needs to be able to stop thinking about the money in “real” terms -- or at the very least to divorce money’s relationship to the “real” world while at the table.

Reese’s experience playing for such big sums, Alvarez suggests, has contributed to a “fractured sense of reality,” a judgment Reese himself admits is not altogether inaccurate. “‘Big-limit poker is a separate world,’” he says, “‘and makes it hard to relate to other aspects of what’s going on.’”

Alvarez adds some funny examples of Reese failing to appreciate “real” world issues associated with the cost of living. For example, for several months Reese paid a $2,000 water bill. Apparently a pipe leading to his house was broken and was leaking, thereby causing the exorbitantly-high cost. However, Reese unthinkingly paid the bill each month, never realizing it was many times what it should have been until the water company told him of the problem.

The implication is that since Reese and others have to forget about the “real” world -- most particularly with regard to money and what it can buy -- in order to play successfully, such prolonged periods of denying “reality” have an affect once they leave the table and rejoin the so-called “real” world.

These points about money (and chips representing money) being an “instrument” or “tool” or the “very language of the game” are all pretty familiar, probably, even if you haven’t read The Biggest Game in Town. Indeed, these are the passages from the book that are probably the most-often quoted, including by me here on Hard-Boiled Poker. (See, for example, this post from long ago about what Reese is talking about here titled “Money Is Nothing, Money Is Everything.”)

Upon rereading the chapter this time, though, another, separate issue concerning “reality” stood out for me, namely, how poker itself is a game that is all about people competing with one another over what is “real” and what is not. We battle for chips and money when we play, but we are also constantly challenging each other’s ideas of “reality,” too, via bluffs and other machinations that are purposely intended to induce doubt and uncertainty.

It was a statement by Brunson -- essentially a description of how players will eventually break down and go on tilt -- that caused me to think about this particular challenge to “reality” poker sometimes presents. Playing for long periods is like being in a “‘pressure cooker,’” explains Texas Dolly. “‘If you are not careful, you reach a boiling point and explode.’”

And that’s when “reality” can become especially tricky to pin down.

“‘Then you just throw your money away,’” he continues, adding how one’s opponents aren’t going to help you out of your duress. In fact, they’ll do all they can to worsen it. “‘They keep hammering and hammering at you, until you lose touch with reality about everything. That’s when people go off and lose large sums.’”

Rereading that again, it struck me that this effort to cause one’s opponents to “lose touch with reality” really is a significant part of the game. Sure, the poor fellow tilting off his bankroll is kind of an extreme example, but you could say such challenges to our perceptions of “reality” happen on a smaller scale many times when we play, even in a single hand.

Kind of funny to think that we willingly engage in such an activity -- that we actually consciously invite such challenges to our sense of what is “real.”

And that we like it. A lot.

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