Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Being Human

Human BeingVictoria Coren wrote a neat, short Guardian piece yesterday titled “How do you find the best player in the world?

There she reflects briefly on the recent International Federation of Poker event in which teams from 11 nations (plus a team from the “virtual” nation of Zynga) completed against one another using the duplicate poker format. I wrote a little about the IFP event, though not so much about duplicate poker, in my Community Cards column for Epic Poker this week, “Poker as a Sport.”

Coren’s succinctly-made point yesterday was to point out how difficult -- really, impossible -- it is to rank poker players according to any utterly unambiguous scale. “I rather like the impossibility of naming anyone ‘best,’” writes Coren, adding that “the ensuing, unceasing argument is so human.”

I rather like Coren’s choice of adjective to conclude that thought. It is “human” to attempt such futile tasks. And it’s our being “human” that helps contribute to the impossibility of objectively ranking poker players.

She ends her column with a quote from the last page of Richard Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid, a book I wrote about here some years ago. The quote is in fact presented in the novel as an idea Christian (Eric’s girlfriend) tries to impart to the Kid. “For every number one man there is a number two man,” goes the idea, “and because of this a man cannot retreat from life.”

'The Cincinnati Kid' by Richard Jessup (1964)Then comes a pronouncement about the seemingly unbeatable Lancey Howard: “The difference is that the number one man is a machine and the Cincinnati Kid is not, and was not, and never will be a machine.”

The implication that Lancey is “a machine” sounds an ironic note when we recall his nickname -- “The Man.” Another implication, of course, is that being human means being capable of losing. That no “number one” can ever continue as such without being challenged. Not if he’s human, that is.

All of that talk resonated strongly with me today as we just happen to be reading and discussing “poker bots” and online poker in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class. Our readings consider recent efforts in artificial intelligence to create poker-playing computer programs -- i.e., to make machines more human-like -- as well as how online poker might have the effect of making humans more machine-like.

All of these items -- artificial intelligence, poker bots, online poker, the fictional character Lancey Howard -- encourage us to consider the significance of the human element in poker. And how it is our flaws and our efforts to exploit those of others and suppress our own that make the game interesting and meaningful -- not a “retreat from life,” but an expression of it.

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