Poker as Storytelling: Affect, Trickery, Common Sound

Many poker players will tell you that every hand is a story. In hold em, the four rounds of betting, the exposed community cards (given to the table in a set of three, then one more, then one more), and your two hole cards, are simply a skeletonic structure around which your action (the bet, the posture, the air around the table, speech, eyes) often are the body of what occurs. Many hands of poker fail to develop into powerful hands (i.e. both players have something but often not the nuts), thus the money frequently tends toward the player that can best present himself in a light that makes him seem provocative, working, putting fear in the other player. It becomes a question of who can tell the most believable story: if I believe that you have me crushed, and I acquiesce, it does not matter what you actually have.

The best poker players in the world, then, aren’t those who catch the most cards (as over time fate levels all), but those who are the most effective in masking their weakness, and exposing the weakness of the other. One of the biggest mistakes a neophyte makes when bluffing is failing to make their bluff make sense: they simply push hard, thinking that it is sheer aggression, and not calculated stories, images, that win pots. A common basic tactic of bluffing against a hand that had been strong early in the story is to bet “scare cards,” such as cards that complete a flush or straight draw, or betting an ace on the river when the high card had been a queen before. Betting as if the scare card completed your drawing hand, whether it does or not, can be enough to make weaker player fold. When scare cards don’t come, late bluffing is more easily picked off, as it is harder to give a player credit for a hand.

At higher levels, though, players are more aware of the tactics of storytelling. They are also aware that you are aware of them being aware, so the levels of who is representing what when and what do they think you think are constantly in flux, making high level poker play sometimes as exciting on a visceral level as writing that takes risks (both making it, and consuming it). There is a mash up of gut instinct, rational odds, emotional texture, board texture, physical surroundings (what do the opponent’s shoulders tell you about his or her hand? what do his or her eyes? how the chips are moved? the breathing. etc., not to mention the retro-image of what each player did three hours ago, three months ago, three years, up to right now), together create a continuity of immediate and retroactive value which in sum creates an environment to be processed, reacted to, explored, and yet is as cut and dry on the base level as a sentence printed on a page. Great players can seem as if they know exactly what you are holding in the midst of a hand. The greatest players go even beyond that, as if they not only see your hand, but now will draw you down another leg of the story, cause affect to you, do you some kind of rupture. Certain kinds of play, beyond money, can affect your spirit, your persona. A great session of poker, like an exceptionally great text, can make or break your month or year.

Here’s an example of a hand of great affect, from the latest season of High Stakes Poker. It is between arguably the two most interesting and powerful poker players currently in the game: Phil Ivey, considered by many to be the best overall poker player of all time, and Tom Dwan, who has been recently causing great stir in the game for his unorthodox and baffling play, even against the greats. Remember, as you watch this hand, that they are playing with real money (both Ivey and Dwan begin the hand with more than $750,000), the two biggest stacks at the table. It’s a long hand but I think it’s fairly mesmerizing.

The clear affect on both players is kind of astounding when you consider both of these guys play for hundreds of thousands every day, and have been doing so for years. Dwan’s burnt eyes at the end of the hand exhibit the true bodily crush that can occur in the moment where you are waiting to see if the story you’ve attempted to put on will be accepted in the other body. Ivey’s long pause on the river is not posturing, as the commentator notes: he truly feels the stomach power that something is awry in the text. He is being worked on, there are anomalies (the players goading Dwan to raise preflop, his incessant and heavy betting despite the scary board, his shaking, his obvious fear). Dwan either has to have a monster or nothing here, and Ivey is one of few players who could come this close to a call with a pair of sixes after his opponent makes heavy bets on each street. And yet in the wake of the transition, the decision, Ivey can hardly even speak a simple sentence. The master, struck. In the end, Dwan ends up taking down an almost $700,000 pot with nothing based on the creation of a narrative constructed from only context, posture, air, one strong enough to make even the greatest player in the world lay his hand down.

To give you some more context of Ivey, and see his storytelling power, here’s another hand, albeit a tournament based one, with less in-the-minute risk, but with perhaps even more attributed to the hand as small-node-in-large-network concept:

In relation to language, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about texts that create this same kind of affect out of nothing. More so than the idea of a poker hand as a narrative, these hands exhibit a kind of air where anything can happen from moment to moment, though the foundation blocks are as common as any other turn of the deal. Recently I’ve been rereading Beckett’s Stories and Texts for Nothing, where we are witness to a narrator who essentially, over three stories and 13 small numbered texts, begins in the concrete (a stairwell, “There were not many steps.”) and quickly diverts into a space erupted from nothing, into a void. Though the narration is for the most part linear, simplistic–as the texts together loosely follow a man into a dreamy death state, on the cusp of the real and the irreal–Beckett operates fearlessly in parsing the space between the concrete and the nowhere, dictating as if both godlike and asleep. Any single one of the sentences could be pulled from the body of the book and understood objectively, and yet the summation is almost a trick on the reader’s self. We are not following a man here, but a mind (as, like the genius manipulator he is, Beckett continually reminds us eliptically, that we are reading a text, which is not real, “Ah to know for sure, to know that this thing has no end, this thing, this thing, this farrago of silence and words, of silence that is not silence and barely murmurred words.” and yet he continues).The path continues to unravel, moving the body through corridors and interactions with other bodies, air, space, coming out the other into a nothing that is defined by the fact of its nothingness, its death, its massive bluff of trickery pulling something that does not exist into syllables, of form.

By the end we aren’t even talking about anything, as is elicited in the title, “What variety and at the same time what monotony, how varied it is and at the same time how, what’s the word, how monotonous,” and yet Beckett manages to continue the narration as if we aren’t in no space, but in the very space of space itself. The text, while circular and repetitive, beguiling, manages to mesmerize and even feel common, friendly, on its face, mixing jokes and common interjection into its meat. It becomes a mash of memory and paradox, death and life, essentially bluffing the reader on its own hoax into having you give unto it full, convinced of something that can not exist, and yet does. Even in talking about it here I find myself getting wormed up, ready to give my money over, and yet all day I’ve been lit by the energy there embedded, coaxed. It is the grace and consistency of the vision, on its own terms, and in terms that intend in their double-faced nature to beguile me into somewhere else, that make Beckett’s a language that transcends its cards, its time. At certain moments it is almost as if he is speaking directly to the would be card wizard, earning not from what is dealt but what is manipulated out of circumstance and void:

“Whose voice, no one’s, there is no one, there’s a voice without a mouth, and somewhere a kind of hearing, something compelled to hear, and somewhere a hand, it calls that a hand, it wants to make a hand, or if not a hand something somewhere that can leave a trace, of what is made, of what is said, you can’t do with less, no, that’s romancing, more romancing, there is nothing but a voice murmurring a trace.”

Narrative, then, not as an A to B distinction, but a shifting set of motions, a trickery made to seem plain. We use the same set of letters to make each sentence, both immediate and in continuity, on and on, the same conceits of imparting story and affect open to all, but the magic comes not in what you give or are given, but how it is melded, shifted, stuck, and how, as the hands continue to be dealt over the long haul your image remains elusive, destructive, laughing, ahead of me, behind me, at the table, and above.