Friday, August 29, 2014

Reviewing Zachary Elwood’s Verbal Poker Tells

I mentioned earlier this week how I’d been reading Zachary Elwood’s Verbal Poker Tells, the follow-up to his earlier Reading Poker Tells. I was able to finish it and wrote a review for Learn.PokerNews, posted today.

I had to mention in my review how the topic Zach chose could seem to be a “niche within a niche within a niche,” although as it turns out the book has a lot of value that goes beyond the narrow scope of verbal tells. I believe anyone reading the book will come away not just with added knowledge about how to decipher opponents’ table talk, but also further equipped to understand many commonly employed approaches to hold’em strategy.

Zach does a nice job in his explanations of all the different kinds of statements about hand strength, misdirections, defensive statements, attempts at manipulation, and other verbal patterns connecting the words players use to the strategies they are employing when playing a hand.

I especially enjoyed the many, many hands discussed in Verbal Poker Tells, including a lot from televised poker that I remembered seeing before. There’s a much greater emphasis on hand histories in this book than was the case with Zach’s earlier one, which makes sense as all of the direct quotes help provide concrete illustrations of the many varieties of tells he’s addressing.

He also does well (as he did in the first book) to distinguish how recreational players tend to exhibit these tells more readily and less subtly than is the case with more seasoned table talkers. And again he makes it clear with several disclaimers that recognizing tells is only a small part of live poker, with an understanding of fundamental strategy more important (and, of course, necessary to have before even being able to think about tells).

I admire Zach for the obvious commitment of time and energy to this new project, and for getting his book completed and now made available for readers. It’s quite an achievement.

Whenever I write a book review I have misgivings about what I wasn’t able to cover in the space of the review. Such is true again with this one, although I’m hoping to interview Zach next week and thus have a chance to add further to the discussion of how Verbal Poker Tells contributes to our understanding of both tells specifically and poker strategy more broadly. Stay tuned over at Learn.PokerNews for that.

Meanwhile, check out the review for more. And enjoy the weekend!

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

What the Winner Wins

Well, I couldn’t shut off that EPTLive stream last night, watching all of the way to the very end of the protracted heads-up battle between Sam Phillips and eventual winner Andre Lettau on my iPhone just before finally hitting the hay.

The last EPT Main Event in Monaco back in May had ended similarly, with an 18-hour final table and a heads-up match that went about 10 hours (with breaks) and lasted 237 hands. This time the final table went for something like 15 hours, and while heads-up “only” lasted 142 hands and a little over six hours with the dinner break, it was still a marathon for all involved.

The huge field of 1,496 entrants helped ensure there’d be deep stacks at the end, and Phillips and Lettau managed to work all of the way into the 600,000/1,200,000 blind level (with a 200,000 ante) before reaching a conclusion. Lettau prevailed, which meant thanks to the three-handed deal runner-up Phillips earned considerably more than did the champion, taking away more than €1,000,000 from the prize pool while Lettau ended with €794,058.

Always kind of awkward when reporting on a tournament when a deal is made and the winner isn’t the one actually earning the biggest prize. Makes for some lengthy headlines and lots of qualifying statements when referring to the event. Asterisks are sometimes needed when reporting payouts, too, reflecting adjustments made.

Such a circumstance probably also adds another layer of ambiguity preventing poker tournaments from being considered analogous to sporting events, even if they can be argued to resemble them in many other respects. We can’t really imagine, say, a pair of tennis players in the finals of a tourney stopping short of a fifth-set tiebreaker to narrow the gap between first- and second-place prize money before continuing.

Indeed, the whole process of deal-making highlights a couple of crucial differences between poker tournaments and other sports -- the fact that players pay to play, and that money is itself an element of the game.

Deals in poker tournaments often have a tangible effect on how play proceeds thereafter. Some pros don’t like making deals because of the way they lessen the money pressure their opponents may not be as equipped to handle as they are. I said yesterday how I enjoy watching the deals being made because the process can directly reflect how players play the game itself. Deals really are part of the game, one of a number of reasons why most can’t call poker a sport.

By the way, I might have mentioned this before, but I wrote a three-part series over on Learn.PokerNews some time ago about deal-making in tournaments, for those who might be interested. I was inspired to write it after watching some MicroMillions players stumbling through deals at final tables, understandably uncertain about how they worked. It covers the logistics, some strategic considerations, and includes some fun deal-making anecdotes, too -- the series starts here.

Deals also help make explicit the various reasons why people play poker tournaments, specifically the way they draw a stark distinction between playing for money and playing for the prestige of winning.

Being an EPT champion, for example, does have value, as was clearly demonstrated by the earnestly-fought battle between Phillips and Lettau yesterday. Sure, €90,000 was on the line -- perhaps a relatively small percentage of both players’ winnings, but hardly insignificant. But getting that favored position in the headlines and the subsequent “EPT champ” adjective attached to your name was worth playing for, too.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Bartering in Barcelona

Pretty well locked into this EPT Barcelona Main Event final table right now, which has finally reached heads-up after a deal was made at three-handed.

The deal came at a time when the U.S. player Sam Phillips enjoyed a huge chip lead over the two Germans, Andre Lettau and Hossein Ensan. Ensan won the Seniors Event, incidentally, so it has been a great week for him.

At the time of the deal, Phillips had close to 30 million chips, I believe, while the other two were down around 7 million or just under. They weren’t able to come to terms during the first round of talks, but paused the tourney again and eventually made the deal happen, with Phillips locking up €1,021,275, Lettau €704,058, and Ensan €652,667, with €90,000 left on the table for which to play.

As I write, Ensan just busted in third and Phillips nearly eliminated on the first hand of heads-up, but the latter scored a double-up and the final two battle onward.

Deals at the EPT are all made out in the open -- unlike at the WSOP where the rules nominally forbid deal-making, thus forcing players to make the deals privately. As such, media generally can’t report on deals made at the WSOP, since they aren’t necessarily privy to their details nor assured of their veracity. Nor are deals at the WSOP reflected in results chronicled by the Hendon Mob and other sites.

It’s better for the players to have tourney organizers help oversee such negotiations and guarantee the adjusted payouts are correctly applied. What happens at the EPT is very much like what you see play out on the PokerStars client when an online tournament such as the Sunday Million is paused at the final table for players to discuss a chop. A moderator arrives in the chat box, often providing both “chip chop” and “ICM”-based figures (while setting some money aside for which to play), discussions ensue, and if a deal is made the payouts are automatically adjusted.

Watching the deal-making play out today, I couldn’t help but think back to last year’s EPT Barcelona Main Event when I was there to help cover the tournament for the PokerStars blog. At four-handed there was an especially lengthy discussion (around 45 minutes, I think) that ultimately did not result in a deal being made. I wrote a little about that here at the time, and Rick Dacey wrote a good, informative feature about the process on the PS blog that day as well. (A deal was eventually struck at heads-up between eventual winner Tom Middleton and Kimmo Kurko.)

This time the tournament director made it clear that the EPT has revised its policies regarding deal-making, limiting the time they can spend and also how much advice players can solicit from friends on the rail. I think I heard players being instructed they could only talk to a single friend and only briefly, a proscription clearly designed to prevent the extended negotiations-within-negotiations that happened last year when Middleton was not only bartering with his opponents but working out a deal with others buying pieces as well.

“This is always fascinating, I think,” said Jake Cody who was helping with the commentary at the time of the deal. To me it’s also all quite interesting to follow, the analogies between poker strategy and the kinds of strategy employed during deal-making making even more intriguing when the entire process is able to be witnessed in all of its detail.

I wonder, though, like I did last year, how it plays to the wider audience, many of whom -- including the most devoted poker players/fans -- find deal-making especially tedious to watch. Joe Stapleton shared on the commentary that according to the tweets the audiences seemed divided evenly between those who enjoyed watching it and those who found it a bore.

Understandable. Hard enough to believe some enjoy watching people playing cards, but watching people not play cards? How could that be interesting?

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

T-Shirt Talk

There has been an abundance of talk of late about poker players showing up at televised final tables wearing t-shirts with political slogans and the appropriateness of such. If you saw the €50,000 Super High Roller final table play out at EPT11 Barcelona last week and/or have read any of the several articles, blog posts, and Twitterings resulting from it, you know where all of that started.

The discussion has moved around to touch on a number of different topics. Some believe players should be allowed to wear whatever they like at the tables, including being able to seize the opportunity of earning some extra exposure on a televised table to deliver messages such as we saw last week. Others maintain those hosting and televising such tables should be able to exert some control over what players wear when appearing on their shows, including not permitting political slogans.

Some of the talk has even stepped back to consider whether or not there is “room” for politics in poker -- i.e., to entertain the idea that the poker table perhaps should represent a kind of safe haven where one shouldn’t have to confront various conflicts existing elsewhere, including political ones.

Of course, many poker players readily choose to shut out the world (so to speak) while playing, immersing themselves in the game entirely. That phenomenon always makes me think of the story Al Alvarez tells in The Biggest Game in Town about being in Las Vegas during the 1981 WSOP when Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square. “Nobody mentioned it,” notes Alvarez, “despite the innumerable crucifixes dangling from the necks of both the players and the casino staff.”

Such is true not just of poker, but in much of contemporary culture where many would rather focus on awards shows, sporting events, or Facebook than the news of the day, particularly if that news is unpleasant or makes one uncomfortable. (I’m certainly not claiming to be innocent of that escapist impulse, either.)

I was trying to decide if I had anything original to contribute to the discussion of this issue, or if by writing a post about it I’d just be adding more noise to bounce around the echo chamber. A thought then occurred to me that I haven’t necessarily seen others mention, so I’m sharing it here.

I mentioned yesterday how I’m reading Zach Elwood’s Verbal Poker Tells. He has a chapter early on titled “Deception and Truth-Telling” that focuses primarily on players’ statements about hand-strength. Zach maintains that most of these statements are indirect rather than straightforward. That is to say, when players do talk about the strength of their hands, they usually do so in ways that require interpretation. For example, instead of saying “I have the nuts,” a player will more likely say “I have a big hand” or something even more ambiguous like “If you fold, I’ll show.”

The primary reason why direct statements are relatively rare, says Zach, “is that poker is a game that assumes non-cooperation and deception from opponents. Because deception is assumed, there isn’t much value in making direct hand-strength statements, whether true or false, because opponents assume you are trying to deceive them.”

Whatever your experience or belief regarding players’ statements about hand strength might be, I think most would agree with this characterization of the poker table as a place where “deception is assumed.” Most would likely also agree with the contrast Zach draws between the poker table and “‘real-life’ situations -- like social and professional interactions -- [where] truth-telling is assumed and is considered the ‘proper’ behavior.”

Reading this passage made me think back to all of the t-shirt talk. Since the poker table is a place where “deception is assumed,” that perhaps makes it all the more strange as a context for earnest declarations about “real-life” causes. I’m not saying we don’t believe the player wearing such a shirt is a sincere advocate for the position or claim its slogan represents. But there is a kind of dissonance there, I think, given the context of a poker game.

After all, the poker table is the one place where we are always having to ask each other “Are you for real?”

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Feeding and Reading

Another nice day on the farm here. I was just doing barn chores. Every weekday afternoon about this time I am usually found in the barn cleaning stalls and feeding the three horses we’re keeping. Two are ours -- Sammy and Maggie -- while we’re boarding another, Shakan. All are now munching their feed and hay happily once more, an indication of a job well performed. Or at least that’s how I’m reading it.

Soon they’ll be turned out for the night. That above is a picture of Sammy (brown) and Maggie (black), shortly after getting turned out the other day.

Like most who follow poker, I had the EPTLive stream on for much of the day to watch the coverage from Day 4 of the €5,300 Main Event in Barcelona. They just finished up a few minutes ago, with 25 players making it through to night’s end, survivors of that record 1,496-entry field.

I didn’t closely follow what has been happening in the €10,300 High Roller event which started today, although I did hear the reports of how that field, too, had ballooned to record proportions. That one is already up over the 370-entry mark, with late registration (and the ability to reenter) open until the start of tomorrow’s Day 2.

At one point during the afternoon Daniel Negreanu joined in for some commentary, as usual adding both insight and entertainment with his contributions. Interestingly he’s skipping that record-breaking High Roller to explore some sights in Barcelona tonight and tomorrow. It’s a good call, I’d say, to take a break once in a while and not play all the events, even if Negreanu is a player who certainly could do so if he wished. Fits with his overall message as well to poker players to keep their lives balanced with other non-poker activities.

One theme that emerged during Negreanu’s time in the booth was how slow players were to act, something that happens a lot more at the feature tables, I think, than is the case out from under the lights and cameras. During one hand Negreanu was pointing out how among the items the player might be considering, the search for his opponent’s tells was especially futile. The fellow was stone-faced and motionless, and as Negreanu noted there was just nothing there to observe.

I’ve been thinking about tells lately in part because I’m nearly finished with Zach Elwood’s latest, Verbal Poker Tells, which catalogues and examines lots of different kinds of table talk in an accessible and entertaining way. (I’ll be reviewing the book soon over on Learn.PokerNews.)

As I’ve been reading, I found myself inspired occasionally to share some of Zach’s observations with Vera along the way. After one instance of doing so the conversation moved on to how animals -- specifically the horses -- communicate with us by their actions, movements, and even their “verbal” snorts and whinnies.

I was thinking of that conversation again this afternoon while in Sammy’s stall and he gave me a playful nudge on the shoulder, rubbing his nose back and forth before turning back around and sticking his head back out of the stall window to enjoy an unusually crisp August afternoon.

It was an unmistakably friendly message. Or at least that’s how I’m reading it.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Looking in Over at Learn

Continuing to follow the EPTLive coverage from Barcelona, marveling some today at the number of players -- more than 1,000 just for today’s Day 1 flight alone (!) -- they have been drawing this week.

Meanwhile I’ve been busy with other things, including the Learn.PokerNews site where there have been some good contributions over the last couple of weeks I thought I’d share here before signing off for the weekend.

Earlier this week Andrew Brokos offered another smart article, this one titled “Thinking Poker: Everything Has Its Price.” In the piece Andrew explains both what it means to think in terms of “price” when acting during a poker hand and how doing so can help with decision-making. It’s a nice, accessible explanation of a not-so-simple concept.

Robert Woolley, a.k.a. the “Poker Grump,” also continues to add to what has now become a growing collection of great “Casino Poker for Beginners” pieces, this week discussing in particular “chopping” the blinds in cash games. In this week’s piece Robert explains the procedure while also sharing his own thoughts about chopping the blinds and guidelines for new players.

Like other pieces by Robert, he does a great job spelling out something that I know I wondered about when I first started playing. Check out “Chopping Blinds: Expectations, Etiquette, and EV” to read his advice.

Finally I want to recommend a couple of “nuts-and-bolts”-type pieces, what I call articles that deal more directly with specific strategy advice, again geared mostly toward beginners but useful for others, too, I think.

Neil Gibson has been contributing some worthwhile strategy articles of late, including a popular piece not too long ago called “Finding Folds With Pocket Jacks” that talks about how to play that trouble hand -- and get away from it, if needed -- both before and after the flop.

And Aaron Hendrix today has a new one called “Overplaying Big Slick When Deep-Stacked in Tournaments” that touches on something I’ve seen a lot during the early and middle stages of tournaments, namely players getting crazy with A-K in spots when they needn’t necessarily do so.

Interestingly, both Neil and Aaron make reference to hands Phil Ivey has played in their articles as illustrative of the points they make.

Anyhow, just thought I’d pass those articles along for those looking for strategy and theory advice. By the way, if you have a request for an article addressing a particular strategy topic for one of the Learn contributors, let me know about it and perhaps we can work it in over at Learn.

Meanwhile, enjoy the weekend!

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Rambling, Gambling Willie’s Card Trick

Not long ago Vera saw that Farm Aid is coming to North Carolina next month, and after looking over the line-up we decided to get tickets. Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews are headlining, with Jack White among the others set to perform. Should be a fun Saturday.

I remember hearing a few years back that Willie Nelson was a longtime card player. There’s a story that he and Waylon Jennings co-wrote Nelson’s mid-70s hit “Good Hearted Woman” while playing a poker game, one of several poker-related tales floating around that involve the Red-Headed Stranger.

In fact, when not on the road (again) Nelson hosts a weekly poker game in Maui in which folks like Owen and Luke Wilson, Woody Harrelson, the former basketball coach Don Nelson (no relation, I believe), and others participate. Last fall Owen Wilson was on Jimmy Kimmel Live talking about the game as well as sharing the painting of “Nellie’s Poker Room” by John Woodruff shown above.

I was reminded of that this week when I saw the following video clip of Nelson getting passed around, one of him performing a fun, impressive card trick for his sister, Bobbie. Take a look, and just try not to grin while watching:



The trick is a version of a famous one called “Sam the Bellhop” that involves memorizing the story and telling it while working in all of the false shuffles and false cuts as you go. I’ve seen attributed to Chicago-based sleight-of-hand artist Frank Everhart, Sr., with the magician Bill Malone also famous for performing it.

Reading around about it further, “Sam the Bellhop” sounds like it is kind of a “standard” among magicians who work with cards -- sort of like “’Round Midnight” for jazz musicians or the “Aristocrats” joke for comedians. But if you haven’t seen or heard of it before, Nelson’s version is a fun way to be introduced to it.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Poker, the Least Sporty Sport

The fall semester has already begun, and that means I’m again teaching my “Poker in American Film and Culture” course. I generally like to start the course with an excerpt from the first chapter of Poker: Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats by Al Alvarez in which he declares poker to be “The American Game.”

Alvarez begins the chapter comparing poker to various sports that are popular in the U.S., noting how unlike other candidates for the title of “the American game” like baseball or football, poker is a game people continue to play “once they have left school and lost their physical edge.” It’s “a game for life and a great equalizer,” he says, going on to point out how so many who “were athletes in their youth... turned to poker because their desire to compete and win lingered on long after their legs gave out.”

When discussing the excerpt with the class we’ll often address this comparison of poker to sports, and in that context I’ll usually bring up how occasionally some will argue that poker is a sport, or at least has enough in common with other sports for such a designation not to be easily dismissed.

But yesterday I found myself a little less ready to share that observation after my attention was drawn to a chart resulting from a survey conducted on Reddit in which respondents were given a list of more than 50 games and activities and asked whether or not they considered them as a sport.

The list included a few obvious “sports” (to me, anyway) like boxing, lacrosse, wrestling, and golf, as well things like paintball, fishing, chess, and poker about which people reasonably disagree about the designation. If I’m following the explanation of the chart clearly, it looks like there were 460 respondents altogether -- not a huge sample, but enough to make the results interesting nonetheless.

The chart showing the results dramatically positions poker as the activity the fewest respondents said they considered to be a sport, with just a little over 10% saying they consider it as such. Even cheerleading, competitive video gaming, and competitive eating were considered sports by more respondents than was poker.

Here’s the chart, with poker nudged all of the way there on the right-most edge -- to the periphery, you might say (click to embiggen):

Comments on Reddit reiterate commonly made observations that people “don’t consider poker a sport because you’re just sitting there with a deck of cards” -- i.e., the relative lack of physicality involved in the game hurts poker’s candidacy here.

As I’ve written about here before, I am disinclined to call poker a sport -- preferring “game” instead (as the title of the Alvarez chapter has it) -- although I certainly understand and often enjoy thinking about the many affinities between poker and several sports, especially individual ones. Additionally, to some I describe my tournament reporting as being much like sports writing, too, which sometimes helps make the job a lot easier to explain.

While a larger sample size would be helpful, I don’t think it would largely alter poker’s low-ranking status when it comes to this particular survey question. Meanwhile, the exercise brings a couple of other questions to mind.

First, how might the fact that most are unwilling to entertain the idea that poker is a sport affect attitudes toward the game, generally speaking? Also, as many who have taken up the “cause” of poker have tried the tactic of likening it to sports in order to make it seem more culturally acceptable, but does that argument largely fall on deaf ears?

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Rewatching Notkin’s Triple-Knockout; or, Did Anybody Fold an Ace?

Glad today to tune back in for the return of the EPTLive stream from Barcelona. Coverage of the Super High Roller has been featured today, the first of nine straight days’ worth of all-day shows.

I’ve missed the EPT guys’ coverage over the last few months since Season 10 wound down back in early May. Always worth tuning in when the EPT is on, both because of the play and the high quality of the production and commentary -- the most consistently engaging televised poker around, in my opinion.

I was reminded this week that we did get another glimpse of James Hartigan and Joe Stapleton and the production team since the EPT Grand Final, namely at that Canada Cup event that played out at the Playground Poker Club in Montreal in late May.

I wrote about that one here briefly then, entirely because of the wild conclusion that saw no less than four players all in on the final hand with a rare triple-knockout giving the tournament to Robert Notkin. Yes, that really happened.

They’ve isolated the hand in a YouTube clip, which if you haven’t seen it is probably worth five minutes to watch:



“This would be the weirdest end of a tournament ever,” says Stapleton while Vincent Rivers contemplates making the call with his pocket eights, the only genuinely questionable action in the hand needed to create the weird four-way all-in.

Then when Rivers does call and everything is getting sorted out before the delivery of the community cards, Stapes delivers the following hilarity:

“Did anyone fold an ace?”

I’d missed that line when watching this hand before. Think about it.

Afterwards Hartigan makes reference to it having been “the strangest hand ever streamed online,” and it’s hard to disagree.

This post is sponsored by Spreaditfast.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Colman, Chomsky, and Irrational Attitudes of Submission to Authority

Listened over the weekend to the newest episode of Todd Witteles’s PokerFraudAlert podcast, the first in a few weeks. Always enjoy listening to Witteles discussing various news items and offering his views.

In this week’s show Witteles offered more worthwhile response to the ill-conceived and spottily researched Newsweek anti-online poker screed that appeared late last week (and about which I wrote here and here). He pointed out a few of the article’s inaccuracies while also doing well to explain how damaging such articles can be because of the way others will absorb the agenda-driven message uncritically, simply accepting the opinions (all collected from one side of the issue) as truths and not being able to spot the factual mistakes and misleading juxtapositions.

Among the other items Witteles tackled was the reprise of the topic of “Big One for One Drop” winner Daniel Colman’s similarly negative statements about poker. That topic returned last week following the airing of the “One Drop” final table (a show I was pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed watching). Even Perez Hilton got some mileage out of it, with the blogger of celebrity gossip posting last week about the “super weird reaction” of Colman after winning the event.

During the final table coverage, comments were made about Colman’s unfavorable stance toward poker suggesting both that (1) his views weren’t shared by most, and (2) they may be the result of the 24-year-old’s relative lack of worldly experience. Afterwards and over the course of a half-dozen tweets, Colman disagreed with the assessments of co-host Lon McEachern and Colman’s heads-up opponent Daniel Negreanu that he “doesn’t know who he is yet,” maintaining “I am actually 100% certain in [sic] who I am.” From there Colman went on to provide a few more reasons why he isn’t in favor of poker as an activity worth pursuing and/or glamorizing and using as a means for creating celebrities.

“I find it to be a much greater accomplishment (and necessary) if thru solidarity, we can get everyone at the bottom to all move up,” wrote Colman, adding that “This can be done once we stop idolizing those who were able to make it to the top.”

He then pulled back somewhat from his earlier characterization of poker as a “dark game” that harms many more than it helps, shifting his position from censure to a kind of ambivalence. “I misrepresented myself before when I said I didn’t want to speak to media because of poker being a harmful game,” Colman says. “I do not care about poker... I just see it as a distraction to people, just like any sport/tv show/movie. Taking away the focus from things that matter to people[’]s lives.”

As others have done, Witteles pointed out the obviously self-contradictory position of someone earning a handsome living from poker speaking so critically of it. He also didn’t care much for Colman’s inclusion of poker in a catalogue of other “distractions” he thinks significantly lessen the quality of life for those who indulge in them.

Witteles then pursued an interesting thesis regarding the “guilty winner” as a way of explaining Colman’s views. He defended watching and enjoying sports and being able to balance such recreation with “things that matter.” Finally he noted how Colman’s statements reminded him “of kids in college who like to spout off about how they think they understand how the world works... when in reality they are just clueless kids who mean well, but who don’t understand that they’re being very naive.”

That latter point was one that reminded me of how I’d ended my post on Friday, essentially characterizing Leah McGrath Goodman in a somewhat similar fashion and also likening her to a well-meaning student having gotten in over her head a bit with regard to the subject she had chosen to pursue. I remember being guilty of the same mistaken belief in my own understanding of various subjects, especially when young and in school, but also later as an adult. I’d imagine most of us can recall a time when we thought we knew much more about something than we did (for example, about poker?), then later realized we’d missed an important piece of the overall picture that would’ve caused us to think very differently.

I found myself thinking back to graduate school, a time when those self-realizations seemed to come over and over again as the extent of what I didn’t know was made clearer and clearer to me. Colman’s words and Witteles’s discussion of them also reminded me in particular of how it was during that period -- I’m talking about my early 20s when I was just about Colman’s age -- that I first thought consciously about the relative frivolity of the kinds of “distractions” to which Colman refers.

The idea that watching sports or television or playing poker could be a distraction from “things that matter” I associate with a few different writers to whom I was first introduced then. One was the French philosopher Louis Althusser, a Marxist who wrote a lot about politics, epistemology, and ideology. I won’t pretend to have a great acquaintance with his writings or positions, but I remember being assigned a famous essay by Althusser called “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation” which opened my eyes to the ways certain cultural “ISAs” like professional sports, entertainment culture, religion, and so forth helped keep the masses in line -- that is to say, distracted them from questioning the conditions of production and helped keep those who controlled them from being challenged.

I knew even then it was a sketchy take-away from a much more complicated argument, but it was nonetheless kind of revelatory. I could see how, say, games distracted us, and in fact those would be the only years of my life during which I turned the television off entirely so I could spend my time more fruitfully (I imagined). Other theorists I was assigned to read further broadened the point Althusser made, helping me to question all sorts of ideas about society and culture I’d previously not even realized were able to be questioned.

Right around then I also began to read some of Noam Chomsky’s writings, another writer who spoke of ideology and the many indirect means by which those in power are able to keep those without power in line. The excellent documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media came out right about that time, too, and as I think about this point I instinctively go back to a sequence from the film in which Chomsky speaks of sports in particular as a way to keep most people -- the percentage he usually cites is 80% -- from thinking about anything that might lead to a questioning or perhaps threatening of established power structures.

The sequence comes about an hour into the film, and the filmmakers cheekily show Chomsky making the point in a speech that they have being projected from a Jumbotron at an empty football stadium -- a funny, incongruous method of delivering the idea. Anyone who has seen the movie remembers it, presented as “Sports Rap with Noam Chomsky” and beginning with the linguist and activist characterizing sports as “indoctrination system... offering something for people to pay attention to that is of no importance.”

“It keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea about doing something about,” says Chomsky. “In fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in sports. I mean, listen to radio stations where people call in -- they have the most exotic information and understanding about all kinds of arcane issues.”

He recalls being in high school and suddenly wondering to himself why, in fact, he cared if his school’s team won a football game. He had no personal investment in the team’s success; therefore, it didn’t make any sense that he should care one way or the other if they won.

“But it does make sense,” Chomsky concludes. “It’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority. And, you know, group cohesion behind the leadership elements. In fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism.... That’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.”

Like I say, I’ve long remembered that idea even if it never did dissuade me from watching NFL football. Even during the preseason.

Now Colman is just firing off tweets and it’s hard to know what exactly he’s getting at grouping poker with other activities like watching football or consuming entertainment media or the like. But I’m guessing the point he’s trying to make isn’t unrelated to the one Chomsky advances, namely, that we’re wasting our lives with these games and thus risking all sorts of detrimental effects. For Chomsky, those effects crucially involve being unable to free ourselves to think about and attempt to correct unjust systems of government; for Colman, they seem more to do with personal relationships and psychological health, but perhaps have to do with broader areas of society, too.

I’ll note one other connection here as I pursue what must seem a pretty idiosyncratic line of thought. Part of what makes the Jumbotron sequence all the more humorous is the fact that Chomsky specifically dislikes the idea of making individuals into larger-than-life figures with undue influence, with the fashioning of celebrity culture (such as Hilton fosters) often serving as yet another way to divert our attention from things that are important. The whole movie, in fact, was made with Chomsky’s (non-manufactured) consent but without his input, and he’d be critical of certain aspects of it once it appeared.

Early in the film an older clip of Chomsky is shown in which he is addressing his disinclination to share information about his family and personal life. “I’m rather against the whole notion of developing public personalities,” he says, “who are treated as stars of one kind or another where aspects of their personal life are supposed to have some kind of significance and so on.” Colman’s shunning of the spotlight as well as that expressed desire to “stop idolizing those who [are] able to make it to the top” again provides a kind of uncanny echo of a position taken by Chomsky.

I don’t know if Colman has had a chance to read Chomsky or any of the other theorists I was first introduced to when I was his age, but I imagine like most of us he has arrived at a point in his life where he’s recently been exposed to a lot of ideas that have led him to question things he hadn’t thought to question before. Some of us never leave that phase of questioning the world around us. Meanwhile some of us never really get there, or at least that’s what Chomsky maintains when referring to “Joe Six-Pack” being too consumed by next weekend’s games to wonder about such stuff.

All of which is to say, I have to admit I’m a little intrigued -- perhaps in a nostalgic kind of way -- by some of the points Colman is making, even if the awkward way those points have been delivered has lessened their effectiveness considerably. His interest in authority and in not adopting an irrational attitude of submission to it is certainly more interesting than what we typically hear from poker players, especially the big winners. That said, I tend to agree with Witteles that Colman’s current position atop the poker food chain lends further awkwardness to his rhetorical position, making it that much harder for him to be convincing with his criticism about poker.

But I do think poker players as a group are actually quite aware and constructively critical of what’s going on around them. That is to say, even if the game can be wholly absorbing and encourage a kind of self-centeredness that makes some shut out the “non-poker world,” I think most who participate in the game do so while understanding it as existing within a larger context that includes family, society, culture, government, and so on.

And when they turn their critical thinking away from the table and onto that context, they often see much more than most about how it is put together and what improvements might need to be made upon it (even if they aren’t always encouraged to act upon such insights). In fact, a lot of the response from the poker world to the Newsweek article seems indicative of such.

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