Monday, October 05, 2009

First, the Invention of Lying; then, the Invention of Poker

'The Invention of Lying' (2009)This weekend Vera Valmore and I made it out to the movies, catching The Invention of Lying. A fun flick, affording several grins along the way. Not a life-changer by any means, but entertaining enough. I wrote up a review over on Film Chaw, if yr interested.

If you’ve seen the commercials, you know the film stars Ricky Gervais (of the original, British version of “The Office”). You might also have picked up on the film’s premise, namely, that Gervais, playing a fellow named Mark Bellison, lives in a world very much like our own, except for the fact that no one ever lies. One day Bellison accidentally manages to utter a lie, and when it is received as the truth finds he has discovered a means to fortune, fame, and just about anything else he can imagine.

One of the first scenes following his discovery of his new power involves Bellison visiting a casino. Thought for a moment there might be a poker scene coming -- indeed, there did appear to be poker being played in one of the establishing shots as they entered the casino. But Bellison instead opted for roulette and the slots, both of which proved relatively simple to cheat. All our hero had to do was lie about what number he had, or that he’d hit the jackpot but no funds came out, and he was believed and thus given his winnings.

Afterwards Vera and I were talking about the film and I suggested to her that poker was avoided because it would have made Bellison seem less sympathetic if he were shown cheating other players rather than the house. Might’ve been worth a laugh or two, having him lie about his hands or ask others the truth about theirs. But probably would’ve made him seem too insensitive, directly taking money that belonged to others (besides being more elaborate a ruse than was necessary).

I thought a little more about it, though, and realized that poker simply couldn’t work at all in the movie. In fact, one could argue it didn’t make much sense even to show poker being played in the background (one of a few “how could that be?” elements that nit-pickers might want to highlight in the film). Because, really, how can you even play poker without lying?

No, there’s no doubt about it. The invention of poker could not have come until after the invention of lying.

'Cowboys Full' (2009) by James McManusSpeaking of the invention of poker, I’ve started reading James McManus’ new book, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, his long-awaited history of poker that I believe is officially due to hit the bookshelves in November. Much of the book was serialized in Card Player from 2006 to early this year, and so I’ve read a lot of it before, particularly these earlier chapters. (I’ll probably share some thoughts about the book here once I’m done.)

During this first part of the book, McManus describes how poker came to be in the U.S., dating its origin near the start of the nineteenth century. As he traces the game’s journey through riverboats and saloons in the Old West, McManus greatly emphasizes the preponderance of cheating that characterized the game, ultimately suggesting that in reality the game wasn’t so much about the cards at all, but merely an occasion for a kind of complicated form of robbery.

“Even against run-of-the-mill sharps,” writes McManus, “an honest player had to summon prodigious amounts of concentration and courage simply to limit the sums he was cheated out of, which didn’t leave much left for playing good poker -- calculating pot odds and value bets, picking up tells while disguising his own, figuring out whom to bluff and when. A poker world in which those skills were paramount wouldn’t fully evolve until late in the twentieth century.”

I don’t disagree that one had to be on the watch for “sharps” at all times at the poker tables of the 19th century. Nor would I object to the claim that cheating was highly prevalent well into the 20th century, too, although it might be overstating things a bit to suggest actual poker skills were not as important as one’s ability to cheat and/or catch cheaters until the late 20th century.

That said, notice how McManus characterizes “good poker” in the above-quoted passage, which includes hiding one’s tells and knowing how to bluff. You can’t play poker without lying, even when you aren’t cheating. The game doesn’t work without it.

In fact, if you think about it, the ability to lie (and to suss out others’ lies) is pretty much what we’re talking about when we argue for the “skill” of poker. Sure, as McManus notes, “calculating pot odds and value bets” is part of “good poker,” too. But knowing those things is hardly sufficient. One has to be able to lie, and lie well, to succeed.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) once stated on the House floor with regard to the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act that he believed the “real reason” the UIGEA was made law was “a moral disapproval of gambling” on the part of some people. Some have since taken up the cause for poker by trying to distinguish it from other forms of gambling, pointing out how poker requires skill and thus shouldn’t be subject to such condemnation on moral grounds.

But what if the “skill” of poker is (primarily) connected to being able to lie? I mean, really, there’s no lying with the lottery, horse racing, sports betting, or other casino games, is there? Whatever the other “moral” objections are to those forms of gambling, they certainly don’t require players to lie. Maybe that’s what makes poker seem even worse to some -- the fact that it involves gambling and lying. (And cheating, too, sometimes.)

The Invention of Lying does suggest how dull and humorless the world would be without lying. And, indeed, whether you want to associate lying with “skill” the poker or not, it certainly makes the game more fun.

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Blogger Rakewell said...

I started writing a comment, but it quickly got too long and I realized it would work better as a post in my own blog than as a comment here. So I invite readers to see my response at:

10/05/2009 12:02 PM  
Anonymous Frank said...

I'm hoping to see it this weekend. I love Ricky Gervais.

10/06/2009 4:32 PM  
Blogger Special K said...

Nice write-up. Better than your usual excellence. Keep 'em coming.

10/06/2009 8:55 PM  
Anonymous Robert Dudek said...

I wonder if there is a game-theoretically optimal ratio of lying to telling the truth at the poker table.

10/13/2009 1:26 AM  

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