Monday, March 12, 2012

Poker, the Antisocial Social Game

Poker, the Antisocial Social GameOne of the readings I’ve been assigning in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class has been an essay by Barbara Connors written for Maryann Morrison’s 2007 anthology, Women’s Poker Night. The essay is titled “Power Play” and does a neat job discussing differences between and men and women and how those differences potentially play out at the tables.

I reviewed the anthology here long ago, if you’re curious to read more about it. There are several good pieces included in the collection, in fact, and while the book is primarily targeting women readers there’s a lot of interest to men, too, I think.

Earlier versions of my class have concluded with a “miscellaneous” unit where I collected a few different topics, including readings focusing on women in poker. This time the schedule didn’t really allow time for that unit at the end, and so I had to omit a few items but kept the readings about women, moving them to an earlier unit in the course called “the culture of poker.”

Like I say, I like how Connors addresses the topic and agree with her overall point that despite politically correct calls suggesting otherwise, men and women are different -- both in our nature and (of course) in terms of how we are differently influenced by the culture, too.

I was rereading the essay this morning for class and came across another interesting point about poker that Connor makes, one that’s related to the discussion of men and women though can be addressed as a separate idea altogether.

One difference between men and women that Connors emphasizes is how men tend to view “poker as war” while women are more inclined “to see poker as just a game.” That contrast leads Connors to make what I think is an intriguing point about poker, generally speaking.

'Women's Poker Night' (2007), ed. Maryann Morrison“Really, it’s just a game,” Connors says of poker, but it’s “a unique game that’s at once social and antisocial in its nature.”

She goes on to suggest that while men “focus more on the antisocial, antagonistic aspect of the game,” women are more apt to “focus on the social, friendly side of it.” The reasons for this difference of emphasis are many, explains Connors, and importantly include how boys and girls have been taught by parents and the culture about their different “gender roles.”

As you might imagine, Connors is pointing out how viewing poker as antisocial often translates into being more successful, and thus suggests women might need to “unlearn” some of their “cultural training” in order to think differently about poker (as not “just a game” but “warfare”) and thus improve their chances at the tables.

Reasonable people might well disagree over the points about men and women being different and/or having different attitudes or approaches to poker. In fact, that’s why I like teaching the essay in class, since it tends to inspire some meaningful debate among students.

But this time through I’m additionally appreciating this broader point about poker being both “social and antisocial in its nature,” a point with which I imagine most who’ve ever played the game would likely have to agree. Kind of fascinating to consider how poker can be both at once, and how our relative success or failure at the game can be determined in part by how we negotiate those two aspects of the game -- the social and antisocial.

It’s interesting as well to consider how this paradox in poker could be said to parallel other aspects of American culture, most obviously the conflicting values that stem from capitalism and notions of “free enterprise” in which we espouse each person’s equal right to compete while at the same time constantly look for ways to take advantage of each other to tip the balance in our favor. A culture which, one might say, is at once social (or supportive) yet also antisocial (or combative).

Also explains a lot, I think, about the many controversies and conflicts of interest we constantly see in poker -- not just at the tables, but in the “industry” as a whole -- when we remember how the game in fact requires us to be both social and antisocial with one another.

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