Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Poker and Nothingness

René Magritte's 'La Reproduction Interdit' (slightly altered)Been intending for a while to try to explain that reference to existentialism in the descriptive subtitle to “Hard-Boiled Poker.” Partly alludes to the great hard-boiled novels of writers like Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Thompson, Willeford, and others, all of which could -- in one way or another -- arguably be categorized as notable examples of “existentialist art.”

I also have in mind a more direct connection to existentialism as defined and explained by Jean-Paul Sartre and others -- an implied argument, if you will, for a connection between poker and existentialist thought. A lot of ideas produced by the existentialists seem to me to be readily applicable to poker. They may even be useful. But that (as the existentialists would insist) is up to each individual to decide.

First there’s Sartre’s famous observation that existence precedes essence (as far as humans are concerned). We start with existence, then formulate ideas about who we are, what our “essence” or “nature” might be. Thus might we say that the experience of the poker player is what defines him. He plays a number of hands, then becomes a certain kind of player (to himself and to others). He plays more hands, and his so-called “essence” changes still again.

The way we exist -- what we say, what we do, whether we call preflop raises from late position with suited one-gappers -- defines who we are. (You might want to argue the reverse -- e.g., that my conservative “nature” is what makes me fold ace-rag preflop -- but the existentialist knows better. He knows that folding ace-rag is what makes me a conservative player.)

It doesn’t help, of course, that the world in which we exist is indifferent to our plight. At times it may appear to follow some “order” (and thus imply some sort of creator having fashioned it thusly), but in actuality such order is only the result of our own idiosyncratic perceptions -- our relentless attempts at “meaning-making.”

In a previous post, I mentioned Miller/Sklansky/Malmuth’s observation in Small Stakes Hold ’em that “cards are pieces of plastic . . . [that] have no knowledge, no memory, no cosmic plan.” In other words, despite the frequency and/or conviction of our invocations, there are no poker gods. And not only do the cards have no “memory” or “plan” -- they have no meaning, either. Not on their own, anyway. (Just like everything else, actually.)

Facing such a circumstance, we could go the route of the nihilist and say that having accepted (1) existence precedes essence & (2) that the world is indifferent to us, there is no point in going forward. It’s a common mistake, actually, to say the existentialist believes life has no meaning. Not so. It’s the nihilist who believes life is without meaning, purpose, truth, what have you. (Sartre titled his book Being and Nothingness -- not simply “nothingness” -- deliberately choosing a phrase that implies a kind of ongoing conflict.)

Unlike the nihilist, the existentialist understands and accepts that we are the ones creating meaning -- that we are free, in fact, to make whatever we want of the world. To change the world, or what it means to us . . . for the better, even (if that’s your cup of tea).

We’re on our own, though. No “god” is going to help us. (Thus does such freedom produce a great deal of anxiety in us.) The poker player cannot control the cards. Nor can he perfectly control others’ actions at the table (although he can influence those actions). But he can certainly affect what those cards mean (to him). He can affect what his opponents’ actions mean (to him). And he can affect what his own actions mean (to himself). In fact, he not only can affect the meanings of those things -- he necessarily does affect what they mean. Every single hand.

In that earlier post (about Dostoevsky’s The Gambler -- another example of “existentialist” art, one might argue), I proposed that poker might be defined as “an activity in which each participant is trying to exert the most control in situations where everyone is a little out of control.”

In a way, that’s what I’m trying to say here about “meaning-making” at the poker table (and beyond). Poker is meaningful . . . because we give it meaning. And when we play, we not only confront other players, we confront that villainous “nothingness” who always seems to be following us around, showing up in the bathroom mirror, sitting across from us on the bus, waiting in line behind us at the store . . . .

And while we sometimes lose to the other players, we beat him . . . every time.

Image: Portrait of Edward James (a.k.a. Not to Be Reproduced) (1937) (adapted -- notice the book on the table), Rene Magritte, fair use.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is certainly some value when some respected playes say the way you play poker mirrors your personality.

9/23/2006 8:37 PM  

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