Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Cards, Money, and Bluffing

Gonna get a little abstract both in this post and the one tomorrow. I had written something up for another purpose a while back and never used it, and so rather than leave it hidden in an old file on my computer I have decided to share it here.

The first part has to do with defining the game of poker according to its essential elements. It’s something I want to say was first inspired by a conversation with Tommy Angelo from many years back, although it could be I’m associating the author of Elements of Poker with this argument about the elements necessary to the game.

Wherever this started, the question with which we begin couldn’t be more broad in its scope: “What is poker?” And the answer is a list: “Cards, money, and bluffing.”

First, cards. Dating back as far back as the ninth century to imperial China, playing cards were employed in a wide variety of games over the next millennium while spreading throughout Asia and Europe, reflecting a host of cultural symbols and values in their changing designs along the way.

By the early 1800s, most features of the modern deck had been established, including the size and thickness of the cards as well as the four suits, with various games including bouillotte, mus, pochen, and poque having been introduced throughout Europe and carried to North America. Features borrowed from each of these games, including the building of five-card hands as well as discarding and drawing, would be incorporated into poker, a game initially played with 20 cards, then later with the full 52-card deck.

In the United States the game would grow and develop alongside the country itself, expanding to include a multitude of variants linked by the use of similar hand rankings and rules of play. Poker wouldn’t be poker without cards, but then the game has always been about much more than a flush beating a straight.

All of these precursor games offered opportunities for wagering, though it would be the amalgam of poker that would promote money to the status of being a required element of the game, as essential as the cards.

In an essay written about a half-century ago titled “Poker and American Character” (discussed here and here), historian John Lukacs maintains that “Money is the basis of poker: whereas bridge can be played for fun without money, poker becomes utterly senseless without it,” a position which many commentators on the game readily share.

Each hand of poker is like a complicated negotiation, with players forced both to invest in their own hands while weighing prices set by opponents on theirs. Entering into such transactions requires purchasing power -- one must bring money to the table to participate at all -- and just like in negotiations away from the poker table, each player’s personal idea of what money signifies directly affects the amounts set when selling, or the costs agreed to when buying.

“The money staked in poker represents not only our idea of the value of our cards, but our idea of what the other players’ idea of the value of our cards might be,” explains Lukacs, suggesting that money’s importance to the game is even greater than the cards. “Cards count in poker,” the historian acknowledges, “but they count less than in any other game.”

Of course, as anyone who has played even a single hand of poker well knows, such negotiations need not be entered into in good faith, thus making bluffing a third defining feature of the game.

Like the cards and the use of money, bluffing was likewise inherited by poker from most of its immediate precursors. For example, the British game of three-card brag -- one of the few antecedents of poker still played today -- bluffing is literally the name of the game, with players dealt a hand, then “bragging” their cards’ value with bets until just two remain.

“Bluff is the essence of poker,” argues David Spanier in Total Poker, articulating another sentiment with which many poker players would agree. “It is lurking in every single hand of the game,” he continues, alluding to the possibility of a bet or raise misrepresenting a hand’s value: “Has he or hasn’t he got what he says he’s got?” Every instance of a player backing cards with money presents the question to the next player to act, adding layers of complexity to the game that distinguish poker markedly from other card games and forms of gambling.

Poker needs cards, then, and money and bluffing. This argument might be used to exclude some card games that are often referred to as poker, such as liar’s poker (no cards) or HoldemX (no money) or Chinese poker (no bluffing), but to be honest I’m not that interested in drawing hard, angry lines around poker here. Rather I’d like merely to suggest cards and money and bluffing to be core elements of the game, perhaps forcing us to recognize that any variants that lack one of the three is better considered part-poker and part-something-else.

It’s not too complicated of an argument, saying poker is cards and money and bluffing. Of course, when these elements are combined, it is clear poker becomes much more than the sum of such parts, and, importantly, more complicated to describe. Doyle Brunson notes early start of Super/System that “poker is a game of people.” And because poker is a game of people -- and since people are inconsistent, flawed, and self-contradictory -- it perhaps isn’t surprising to find the game itself replete with several seeming incongruities.

These paradoxes of poker I’ll discuss tomorrow when I share the rest of this discussion.

Photo: “Cash Money,” Aaron Jacobs. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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