Tuesday, August 26, 2014

T-Shirt Talk

There has been an abundance of talk of late about poker players showing up at televised final tables wearing t-shirts with political slogans and the appropriateness of such. If you saw the €50,000 Super High Roller final table play out at EPT11 Barcelona last week and/or have read any of the several articles, blog posts, and Twitterings resulting from it, you know where all of that started.

The discussion has moved around to touch on a number of different topics. Some believe players should be allowed to wear whatever they like at the tables, including being able to seize the opportunity of earning some extra exposure on a televised table to deliver messages such as we saw last week. Others maintain those hosting and televising such tables should be able to exert some control over what players wear when appearing on their shows, including not permitting political slogans.

Some of the talk has even stepped back to consider whether or not there is “room” for politics in poker -- i.e., to entertain the idea that the poker table perhaps should represent a kind of safe haven where one shouldn’t have to confront various conflicts existing elsewhere, including political ones.

Of course, many poker players readily choose to shut out the world (so to speak) while playing, immersing themselves in the game entirely. That phenomenon always makes me think of the story Al Alvarez tells in The Biggest Game in Town about being in Las Vegas during the 1981 WSOP when Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square. “Nobody mentioned it,” notes Alvarez, “despite the innumerable crucifixes dangling from the necks of both the players and the casino staff.”

Such is true not just of poker, but in much of contemporary culture where many would rather focus on awards shows, sporting events, or Facebook than the news of the day, particularly if that news is unpleasant or makes one uncomfortable. (I’m certainly not claiming to be innocent of that escapist impulse, either.)

I was trying to decide if I had anything original to contribute to the discussion of this issue, or if by writing a post about it I’d just be adding more noise to bounce around the echo chamber. A thought then occurred to me that I haven’t necessarily seen others mention, so I’m sharing it here.

I mentioned yesterday how I’m reading Zach Elwood’s Verbal Poker Tells. He has a chapter early on titled “Deception and Truth-Telling” that focuses primarily on players’ statements about hand-strength. Zach maintains that most of these statements are indirect rather than straightforward. That is to say, when players do talk about the strength of their hands, they usually do so in ways that require interpretation. For example, instead of saying “I have the nuts,” a player will more likely say “I have a big hand” or something even more ambiguous like “If you fold, I’ll show.”

The primary reason why direct statements are relatively rare, says Zach, “is that poker is a game that assumes non-cooperation and deception from opponents. Because deception is assumed, there isn’t much value in making direct hand-strength statements, whether true or false, because opponents assume you are trying to deceive them.”

Whatever your experience or belief regarding players’ statements about hand strength might be, I think most would agree with this characterization of the poker table as a place where “deception is assumed.” Most would likely also agree with the contrast Zach draws between the poker table and “‘real-life’ situations -- like social and professional interactions -- [where] truth-telling is assumed and is considered the ‘proper’ behavior.”

Reading this passage made me think back to all of the t-shirt talk. Since the poker table is a place where “deception is assumed,” that perhaps makes it all the more strange as a context for earnest declarations about “real-life” causes. I’m not saying we don’t believe the player wearing such a shirt is a sincere advocate for the position or claim its slogan represents. But there is a kind of dissonance there, I think, given the context of a poker game.

After all, the poker table is the one place where we are always having to ask each other “Are you for real?”

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