Monday, September 08, 2014

Anyone Can Win… Except Not Everyone Can Win

Over the weekend I had a chance to read poker pro Sam Grafton’s excellent post on the RunItOnce site inspired by his viewing of the “Big One for One Drop” coverage on ESPN. Titled “Poker and Silence,” Grafton’s article deftly covers a number of overlapping issues currently of relevance not just to the world of poker players but also to those who cover them. He also offers many thoughtful observations about poker’s current cultural status, his comments marked by a thorough understanding of poker’s history -- both long-term and more recently.

Indeed I could almost imagine assigning the post to my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class as a smart introduction to the current state of affairs for poker. For part of the class we do address the idea of the “poker professional” as it is described in some of our reading assignments, in particular David Hayano’s Poker Faces (from the early 1980s). Grafton offers a nice update to that discussion when he describes “the modern poker pro” and the various challenges and/or responsibilities that come with such a role.

Incidentally, by contrast consider again that Newsweek screed by Leah McGrath Goodman from last month concerning the threat posed by online poker. On the one hand a writer who lives fully outside of the world she’s describing cobbles together a haphazard feature regarding it, trying to build an ethos upon conversations with a sampling of individuals many of whom also aren’t part of that world (and who also are mostly dimly informed about it). On the other a writer speaks of a world in which he has lived for many years, having gained not just an understanding of how it operates but retained the perspective of how it appears and functions to those on the outside.

It’s no surprise one article obscures while the other illuminates.

In any event, I don’t intend to summarize the entire piece -- read it yourself and be enlightened by such intelligent commentary on our favorite game. I did want to point to one idea he shares, however, one of those obvious-yet-often-overlooked points that is in fact crucially relevant to anyone hoping to “sell” or “market” or “make acceptable” the game to those who aren’t already fans or players.

The point concerns what Grafton calls the “two rather contradictory narratives of how poker functions” often advanced by those wishing to promote the game. “The first centres on the idea that anyone can win a poker tournament,” writes Grafton. “This is needed to encourage a constant influx of losing amateurs and enthusiasts that they too could claim a big pay-day. The second is that this is a game of skill where some players excel in a similar manner to great athletes. If poker tournament winners were just a random series of individuals the game would, of course, be no different to a lottery.”

That second narrative -- that to win at poker requires skill -- Grafton then relates to the idea of the “poker pro” who most obviously exemplifies that idea for those wishing to distinguish poker from other gambling games. Yet the first one suggesting “anyone can win” is also essential when it comes to making the game inviting to new players. Who would want to venture into such a world were there no hope of succeeding?

Sure, there are ways of reconciling the paradox -- e.g., to speak of “short term” versus “long term,” or perhaps even to argue that anyone can develop the skills needed to succeed (unlike, say, in most sports where physical limitations necessarily make success at the highest level unattainable). But the paradox remains. One of many in poker, in fact.

Go read Grafton’s piece, which has a lot more to say than that.

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