Raise or Fold:  A Year of Risky Business

Writing and playing poker as if they were activities worth doing well.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Day 7: A Secret Society

Are you on a bus or in a subway car? Look around. You'd be surprised how many of your fellow passengers are members.

In your office, if it's of any size, there are certainly at least a couple of them. If you don't belong to the secret society, you wouldn't even know that they sometimes hold meetings there, after the last workaholic has gone home.

How do they recognize one another, the members of this underground group? Sometimes it's an inside joke, certain words spoken in a special order, or phrases with a double meaning that outsiders wouldn't catch. But among the true initiates, more often it's the mention of a certain location, or the name of a guy (usually it's a guy), and the promise of an introduction.

You had better come into these groups carefully, selectively, and honorably. Because in many environments, the secret society is perceived as ~ well ~ not quite thoroughly legitimate. Its meetings may or may not be fully sanctioned by law. It's a secret society, because the revelation of membership might cause marital strife, consternation amongst one's fellow churchgoers, or concern in one's employer. It might. Or maybe not.

Above all, for the true believers, the hardcore practitioners, it's a secret society because they themselves are embarrassed to admit how important membership has become to them. There is a whiff both of shame and of covert pride. There are very few who bring an unmixed mind and a serene heart to their participation in this community.

And this holds especially true among the members of that particular lodge within the secret society of gamblers who call themselves poker-players.

In any fringe activity, even one as widespread as that of playing poker for money, personal reputation and group ethos end up being incredibly important. The greater the stakes and the more established the group, the more significant a role that both individual and collective responsibility for self-policing play. If you want to see old-fashioned personal integrity in action and as the governing principle in community membership, go hang out with a bunch of people who've played poker together for a long time.

You can bet that any new person coming into the group is going to very quickly be made aware of both the stated and unspoken rules that govern conduct in the community. The consequences for infractions vary among poker subcultures, but they start with overt cautioning, and escalate quickly to ostracization or ejection, and in some cases (extra-legal, of course, and not in my circles) quite dramatically and unpleasantly beyond.

There may be no honor among thieves, but there definitely is honor among poker-players. If they want to keep playing in a given community, that is.

For those who prefer to play in person rather than online and who don't have convenient access to a licensed casino or cardroom, the only options are home games (what counts as legal varies by jurisdiction, if permitted at all) or illegal formal or informal games (including highly organized and profit-making cardrooms). If you're looking for a game, networking is everything.

You need to network to find the game. You need to network in order to learn what kind of game it is, whether the other participants (both organizers and players) are trustworthy, and how to present yourself to the existing culture. If you do not already have a trusted network of fellow players, you are walking into these situations blind and unprepared, presuming you can find them at all.

And rest assured, one way or another your reputation will proceed you, so you'd better make sure you have a good one.

I care tremendously about my poker reputation; I consider it a vital asset and a key element to my long term success in the game. This is why I am scrupulous about playing by the rules, why I work hard to establish that my word is my bond, and why I am never, ever in the slightest bit tempted to cheat. No short-term gain is worth jeopardizing what a spotless reputation will earn me in the long run. (I feel obligated to add that my own personal moral value system would keep me from cheating as well, even if I were sure that I could go entirely undetected forever. But that's a separate point from the one I'm trying to make here.)

I have also had to learn how to nurture and sustain a network. It's not a skill that comes naturally to me, as I'm not much of a joiner of societies, secret or otherwise. I am now constantly looking to find and connect with players whose commitment to maintaining their own reputations is as strong as mine, and whose ability to assess character is demonstrably reliable. Those people are the strong nodes on any network. It's a quality that others naturally recognize, and it is the chief building block of mutual trust and respect.

I don't play in every game to which I'm invited (and, needless to say, I completely avoid anything that is illegal; life is too short and I have too much at stake personally to mess around with that). I rely on my network of resources to help me evaluate the quality and trustworthiness of every new context I explore, and I also put very large stock in my own instinctive reactions to any given scene. I have no difficulty cashing out and leaving the moment I sense something the least bit shady going on. I have no interest in being associated with anything that I even suspect may be dubious in any way. There is always another game to be had on another day, if it comes to that.

Our daily lives are filled with these kinds of communities, subcultures, and affiliations (Kurt Vonnegut called the meaningless ones "granfalloons"). Many of them are out in the open and widely acknowledged and accepted. Many go unspoken, unseen, or unacknowledged, but are nonetheless powerful influences shaping people's lives. Some of them are self-aware and deliberately organized, others are ad hoc or just a case of birds of a feather that find themselves unwittingly flocking together. It is an important part of our identity structure as human beings to know which of these public or secret societies we belong to or wish to belong to (or not!), and an important part of our self-image and self-esteem to be aware of our standing within those entities. The explosion of social-networking software is demonstrating quite clearly just how important this stuff is in our lives.

When my mother died, I discovered the existence of a secret society, a bizarre kind of club that I had never had any reason to know about before. It was the unheralded, largely unrecognized cohort of people who had lost a parent. Suddenly I had something vitally in common with total strangers; we shared something fundamental, something life-altering. While I never formalized my understanding of this new community (through joining a grief support group, for example), becoming aware of my membership opened my eyes to the vast web of unlabeled commonalities that are woven through human society. It was my first step toward learning to value them as well, because I quickly realized that acknowledging and sharing with others my membership in the Society of Half-Orphans was actually helpful to me.

So look around you. Learn to see the ties that bind people together. Make conscious decisions about the ones you want to cultivate and participate in. And prune away those links and connections that conflict with your own sense of honor, that don't reinforce your idea of who you really are or wish to be, and that fail to respect the fullness of your personhood or that of others.

Because your networks are not separate from who you are.

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Blogger bastinptc said...

Bless your heart.

And Happy Birthday! What a bad brother I am.

8/25/08 6:09 PM  

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