Raise or Fold:  A Year of Risky Business

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

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Day 23: Poker Is Not A Team Sport

In poker, we have a word for team players. We call them "colluders" or, more colloquially, "cheaters."

Poker is a game of individuals, with each player explicitly out for his or her own best interest ~ as defined by the goals of the game ~ at all times. No quarter should be asked for or given. The expectation is that there are no friends at the poker table, or at least no deference to friendship. Taking it easy on a pal or a spouse is called "soft playing," and it is also a form of collusion, even if it is not expressly planned in advance. It's not supposed to happen, and depending on the environment the consequences can range from eye-rolling tolerance to disapprobation and outrage to abrupt ejection with prejudice.

It is odd that such an inherently social game should also be so solitary. It can be very, very lonely at the felt.

There is no one to consult with in the middle of a game. The "one player to a hand" rule is pretty clear on this, and it tends to be enforced pretty much across the board. You have no one to lean on in your decision-making, and no one to take the blame or reap the rewards but yourself. "It's on you," they say when it's your turn to act. And it really is on you, and on no one else.

If you play a lot of poker, then, despite sitting at a table with as many as nine other people, you are actually spending a lot of time on your own, psychologically speaking. You must be self-reliant. You must generate your own initiative. You must keep yourself focused. You have to be comfortable with being in your own head a lot of the time, even while you interact with others around you. Part of you must always be observing, measuring, calculating, and self-monitoring.

And since everything you do or say at the table constitutes information for your opponents, you must always be aware of what you are emitting, and modulate it for the intended receivers. This is not an environment for spontaneous truth-telling, which is the heart and soul of true friendship, or indeed any authentic relationship.

To survive the rigors of the table, a friendship ~ or any close personal tie ~ must be able to tolerate setting clear boundaries around the activity of playing poker. Both parties must understand the nature of the game, and freely and enthusiastically assent to the no-holds-barred, bare-knuckled, cage-match-brawl nature of the competition. They must respect the rules and be able to leave the game behind emotionally when it's over. They must truly understand and believe that it is, in fact, just a game. And when they are away from the table, they must take extra pains to renew the bonds of trust and affection between them, so that the difference between the game and the rest of life is made explicit and underscored.

I have witnessed the stresses that intense competition in poker can bring to a relationship. With deep concern I observed as a couple, friends of mine who had been married for more than a dozen years, found themselves on the brink of separation in part because of the way they played poker together. People often bring their problems to the table with them; without a strong ability to compartmentalize, they find that their play is affected by their life circumstances and their life circumstances are influenced by their play. And, in general, this is not a good thing.

Paradoxically, however, it is also possible for real friendships to be born around a poker table. People with a shared passion for the game sometimes discover that they have other interests and values in common. They also see each other under conditions of stress and challenge, they can watch how the other responds to success and disappointment, they have a chance to observe something about the other's attitudes toward money, risk, etiquette, and discipline. They often find out quickly how adaptable the other is, how creative and resilient, as well as something about an individual's inherent optimism or pessimism. You can learn a lot about the quality of someone's judgment and the character of his integrity by watching him play poker. Of course everything one perceives at the poker table comes with an asterisk attached ~ "*when playing poker" ~ but few people are such masters of deception that nothing of their real personality is revealed in their game. Friendships that begin in the context of poker can have a head start on a whole lot of information that might otherwise take years to acquire.

Because of the individualistic nature of poker and the hours of intense solo striving that the game entails, strong friendships and other intimate and familial relationships become especially valuable in the life of a poker-player. Without them, the player has no place to be his- or herself, unselfconsciously and without ulterior motive, with others. Without them, the player has no occasion to experience the voluntary vulnerability that makes generosity, compassion, and love possible. The poker table is not a place for the pleasures of selflessness or the dignity and honor of self-sacrifice. These emotional gestures and moral choices are as essential to our full humanity as the will to succeed; without an opportunity to exercise them, our souls wither and die inside us. And what will it profit us if we win the whole world, but lose ourselves?

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Blogger PAPro_SandMan said...

Nice Biblical reference there at the end... I wonder how many people reading this will pick up on that.

I think the biggest reason I am drawn to poker like a mosquito to carbon emissions is exactly what you've said here. It's a chance to let social boundaries fall away and be as aggressive, manipulative, and deceitful as I can without damaging relationships or becoming a "bad person". Those things we have to hold back so fervently, even when we want to let loose more than anything, have a chance to run and play at the poker table... It's a therapy of sorts. Role-playing. Without the pimply geeks and polyhedrons.

9/11/08 6:04 PM  
Blogger Cardgrrl said...

I like pimply geeks and polyhedrons. Some of my best friends are/were pimply geeks. ;)

At some point I'll write a post about the "being bad" dimension of poker; it's an important topic. I have some thoughts on that, as you can imagine, since it appears I have an opinion on JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING related to poker.

9/12/08 1:09 AM  

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