Monday, April 13, 2015

Morality in the Muck?

I recently reposted an interview here with the poker writer, commentator, and player Jesse May, reading through it once more as I did and enjoying a lot of the insights May shares as he discusses his novel Shut Up and Deal, the origins of Late Night Poker, and other poker-related topics.

Meanwhile I’ve been working further on another project which just so happened to carry me back to David Apostolico’s interesting 2005 book Machiavellian Poker Strategy: How to Play Like a Prince and Rule the Poker Table. I remember first reading Apostolico’s book right about the time I interviewed May, in fact (about four years ago).

In the past I used to teach a Great Books class which included The Prince -- taught it many times -- and so I remember getting a kick out of all the many connections Apostolico was able to make between poker strategy and theory and Machiavellian principles of leadership and government.

Looking again at Machiavellian Poker Strategy, I happened to notice kind of an interesting contrast between something May says in the interview and a point Apostolico makes early on in his book. It probably isn’t fair to either of them to isolate the quotes as I’m about to do, but the difference between them was so stark I thought I’d share if only to invite others’ consideration.

In Part 1 of the interview during our discussion of Shut Up and Deal, May more than once talks about the issue of morality in poker, in particular noting how the game in fact presents a significant challenge to players’ moral sensibilities, or at least did back during the 1990s when he played (and when his book is set).

“One of the things about poker, especially back then, is that you are faced with so many moral choices,” says May. “I think that’s what excited me about the story more than anything else. Just because of poker’s nature, the decisions that you have to make every day... you are constantly testing out your own morality. And other people’s, too. You find out a lot about what lengths they’ll go to, what depths they’ll sink to, really who they are as a person. Poker reveals so much about people’s personalities because the ethical dilemmas -- the gray areas -- they come so fast and furious.”

If you’ve ever read Shut Up and Deal, you know exactly how what May is talking about applies to the complicated network of relationships in which his main character, Mickey, finds himself entangled. Or if you’ve lived the live of a full-time poker player and/or gambler, you may also know what he’s getting at with regard to the moral challenge the game provides.

In any case, I had that observation in mind when rereading the following passage occurring early in Apostolico’s book:

“Since poker can be an unjust game, you must do everything in your power to ensure that you succeed,” writes Apostolico. “So long as you play within the rules, you can and should use every means at your disposal to beat your opponent. Poker provides a forum for you to implement guilt free the most ruthless of Machiavellian principles. It is your opportunity to be a Prince.”

That passage reminded me of discussions with my classes about Machiavelli’s recommendations to would be rulers not to let questions of good or bad interfere with governing successfully and above all retaining power. The Prince advocates throughout practicality, the importance of appearances and being able to manipulate the masses, and setting aside anything not directly related to winning and/or having power over others. (In other words, it describes modern politics, more or less.)

Meanwhile the passage seems to run counter to what May is saying in the way it suggests poker exists as a kind of morality-free zone rather than an area in which moral questions are of utmost importance.

I think, though, I could be drawing a false comparison here. May is talking not just about the strategy of playing a hand of poker, but about living the life of a full-time poker player, while Apostolico is focused more narrowly on the way Machiavellian principles relate to succeeding when playing a zero sum game.

Then again, maybe the two aren’t in disagreement at all, and both are talking about how poker (in a sense) challenges each player not to care about others’ welfare as it necessarily affects your own in a negative way -- a challenge to which each player’s response is necessarily going to be personal.

I thought that was an interesting enough juxtaposition to share while also giving me a chance again to recommend both Shut Up and Deal and Machiavellian Poker Strategy: How to Play Like a Prince and Rule the Poker Table.

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