Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Rereading The Biggest Game in Town: Reality and Romance (5 of 6)

'The Biggest Game in Town' (1983) by Al Alvarez“Poker is a skill, it’s an art, it’s a science. You have to improve yourself continually and know your weaknesses. To be successful, you must be realistic.”

So said Mickey Appleman to Al Alvarez, as quoted in Chapter 3 in The Biggest Game in Town. In fact, talk about the need to “be realistic” with oneself in poker comes up quite frequently in the book.

For Appleman, the point primarily concerns understanding as well as possible one’s own abilities. As Appleman puts it in a later chapter when the topic arises once more, “There can be no self-deception for a poker player.... You have to be a realist to be successful. You can’t think you’ve played well if you lose consistently. Unless you can judge how well you play relative to the others, you have no chance.”

Perhaps influenced by what Appleman and others are telling him, later on Alvarez refers to poker as “one of the most realistic of all disciplines.” Here again the emphasis is on the way the game requires one to think clearly, to see things for what they are, to know oneself and to know others.

Of course, as has already been noted in these posts about The Biggest Game in Town, the whole idea of “reality” can get skewed rather quickly in poker. Especially when the game is being played for the highest stakes.

That proclamation about poker being a “realistic discipline” is made amid a brief biographical sketch of Doyle Brunson in which Alvarez describes some of the health-related wonders that have occurred during Texas Dolly’s long and interesting life.

Those familiar with Brunson’s story know about his having unexpectedly beaten cancer when a young man, as well as some of the other, similarly-surprising life turns he has experienced and which he’ll sometimes correlate with his faith. Thus does Alvarez note the irony of someone who regards his own life as having been punctuated by “miracles” having committed himself to the “realistic” world of poker.

(For more on Brunson and faith, see this post about The Godfather of Poker in which I suggest a comparison between the poker player’s autobiography and St. Augustine’s Confessions.)

Mickey ApplemanGetting back to Appleman and what he’s telling Alvarez back in Chapter 3, on this rereading I found it interesting to see where the veteran of the Mayfair Club and (now) four-time WSOP bracelet winner’s observations ended up going -- most particularly how after starting out talking about being “realistic” he ends up acknowledging that he is, in fact, a “romantic.”

In literary studies, scholars often speak of “reality” and “romance” as indicating contrasting perspectives, manifested in poems, stories, and novels as “realism” and “romanticism.” Perhaps it is that contrast that caused me to find Appleman’s seemingly effortless shift from espousing realism to talking about romance somewhat curious.

“I’m a romantic, and for me gambling is a romance,” explains Appleman, who in addition to being a poker player has always been a big-time sports bettor, too. “That’s what I enjoy; the rest is by the way. I play and I play and I play; then I pick up the pieces and see how I did. It’s only at that moment that I realize I was playing for real money.”

See the apparent contradiction? One has to be “realistic” in order to play well, says Appleman. But then he says that when he plays he explicitly denies “reality,” losing himself (so to speak) in the “romance” of the game as though the period spent at the table affords an opportunity to escape the “real” world.

Afterwards, Alvarez offers his own interpretation of Appleman’s thesis: “When he said, ‘Gambling is a romance,’ he was not referring to the smoke-filled rooms, the sullen tribal faces, or the stilted backchat that passes for conversation; he meant the art of the game at its highest level and the romance of personal liberty.”

In other words, it doesn’t have to be a contradiction to speak of poker as being a “realistic discipline” while also saying it provides a kind of “romantic” freedom from the so-called “real” world. Describing another, less successful player, Alvarez uses the term “fantasist” to describe his lack of self-knowledge, thus providing us a useful distinction here.

Appleman is no fantasist. He enjoys the “romance” of the game, but understands the difference between “reality” (self-knowledge) and fantasy (self-deception). Including how -- as discussed in that post about “reality” last week -- it is needful to think of “real money” differently while the cards are in the air.

Indeed, it’s even “realistic” to do so -- to think of the chips not as a steak dinner or the gas bill or next month’s rent or an automobile or a house, but as what they really are.


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