March 18th, 2010 / 3:46 pm
Craft Notes

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.

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92 Comments

  1. paul boshears

      I was reading an old interview with Damien Hirst, from, like, ’96 and he kept trying to tell the interviewer (his friend of sometime apparently) that being famous is nothing. It’s recognizing that everyone else is too concerned thinking about themselves to bother to think about you. In a similar vein he was saying that he realized, one day while working at some phone-based research job (where they administer surveys over the phone), that you can get anything you want if you employ a phone. So he ordered a shark. And that made him a superstar.

      This was an excellent read, I’d never understood what to look for in poker (it occupied a similar space in my head where golf and baseball on tv are holed-up); so thanks for that!

  2. paul boshears

      I was reading an old interview with Damien Hirst, from, like, ’96 and he kept trying to tell the interviewer (his friend of sometime apparently) that being famous is nothing. It’s recognizing that everyone else is too concerned thinking about themselves to bother to think about you. In a similar vein he was saying that he realized, one day while working at some phone-based research job (where they administer surveys over the phone), that you can get anything you want if you employ a phone. So he ordered a shark. And that made him a superstar.

      This was an excellent read, I’d never understood what to look for in poker (it occupied a similar space in my head where golf and baseball on tv are holed-up); so thanks for that!

  3. Casey

      I wondered what that quote was from earlier, Beckett’s ‘The End’ – had to look up and then aha! Damn you been working something out. Beautiful essay. Yeah language masks all the mathematics involved, the relations between words. How a seeming weak feint here or there could be the beam of support for something that follows in the text. And in hold’em, you have this unfolding of a narrative that puts you at greater risk as it goes along. If you hold the better hand you can slow play it. But if you bluffed from the git go or risked say a low pair with a hefty bet at the beginning, you have to either hold you composure or get out on the flop. Reading Michael Lewis’ new book right now, The Big Short, pretty great story of those very few who bet against the market before the crash of ’07 and won. Now that took patience. I wonder when the bluff of the current rebound economy is gonna be realized.

  4. Casey

      I wondered what that quote was from earlier, Beckett’s ‘The End’ – had to look up and then aha! Damn you been working something out. Beautiful essay. Yeah language masks all the mathematics involved, the relations between words. How a seeming weak feint here or there could be the beam of support for something that follows in the text. And in hold’em, you have this unfolding of a narrative that puts you at greater risk as it goes along. If you hold the better hand you can slow play it. But if you bluffed from the git go or risked say a low pair with a hefty bet at the beginning, you have to either hold you composure or get out on the flop. Reading Michael Lewis’ new book right now, The Big Short, pretty great story of those very few who bet against the market before the crash of ’07 and won. Now that took patience. I wonder when the bluff of the current rebound economy is gonna be realized.

  5. Jordan

      That story is excellent bullshit, like Hirst himself.

  6. Jordan

      That story is excellent bullshit, like Hirst himself.

  7. Kyle Minor

      This is one of my favorite HTMLGiant posts ever.

  8. Kyle Minor

      This is one of my favorite HTMLGiant posts ever.

  9. Janey Smith

      Poker? I don’t even know her!

  10. Janey Smith

      Poker? I don’t even know her!

  11. Amy McDaniel

      i clicked over here from twiter, in such eager anticipation, knowing this was what i was waiting for from you, blake, the essay by you i’ve been waiting at times vocally at least in conversations with other people if not with you to read, and i immediately loved it from the first sentence, and it kept escalating and i knew it would keep escalating and escalating like the best stories, but then you, blake, really upped the ante in the last paragraph. first time ever that i’ve wanted to print something from the internet. thank you.

  12. Amy McDaniel

      i clicked over here from twiter, in such eager anticipation, knowing this was what i was waiting for from you, blake, the essay by you i’ve been waiting at times vocally at least in conversations with other people if not with you to read, and i immediately loved it from the first sentence, and it kept escalating and i knew it would keep escalating and escalating like the best stories, but then you, blake, really upped the ante in the last paragraph. first time ever that i’ve wanted to print something from the internet. thank you.

  13. Roxane Gay

      Oh Blake, this is excellent. As an avid poker player, I love everything about this. Posts like this make me want to make an anthology of all the great GIANT posts. Thank you.

  14. Roxane Gay

      Oh Blake, this is excellent. As an avid poker player, I love everything about this. Posts like this make me want to make an anthology of all the great GIANT posts. Thank you.

  15. Amy McDaniel

      i had that exact thought for the first time after reading this

  16. Amy McDaniel

      i had that exact thought for the first time after reading this

  17. alan

      I would agree, well done.

      Beckett as the ultimate bluffer: the more he tells you he doesn’t have anything to say, that his stories are “for nothing,” the more you come to think he’s holding something big.

  18. alan

      I would agree, well done.

      Beckett as the ultimate bluffer: the more he tells you he doesn’t have anything to say, that his stories are “for nothing,” the more you come to think he’s holding something big.

  19. Roxane Gay

      I thought it for the first time a couple days ago, and then I read this and thought, this needs to live more than one life.

  20. Blake Butler

      i like that phone analogy: make anything from nothing. there is another line in the Beckett that ends: “soon there will be nothing where there was never anything.” perfect. shark is maybe the ultimate resounder there.

      thanks Paul

  21. Roxane Gay

      I thought it for the first time a couple days ago, and then I read this and thought, this needs to live more than one life.

  22. Blake Butler

      i like that phone analogy: make anything from nothing. there is another line in the Beckett that ends: “soon there will be nothing where there was never anything.” perfect. shark is maybe the ultimate resounder there.

      thanks Paul

  23. Alec Niedenthal

      I hate poker but I love this. Thanks Blake.

  24. Alec Niedenthal

      I hate poker but I love this. Thanks Blake.

  25. Blake Butler

      nice, Casey, i’ll have to check out the Big Short, sounds awesome.

  26. Blake Butler

      nice, Casey, i’ll have to check out the Big Short, sounds awesome.

  27. Blake Butler

      thanks guys. it’s funny how direct some of his speaking can get applied to poker. i wish i could imagine him at a table killing it.

  28. Casey

      Yeah ditto Amy that last graph is enviable. And “upped the ante” for sure. There’s 52 cards in a deck, half that number in the English Language, and yeah the even plain is that limit (plus some punctuation marks yes too). It takes almost blind, poker faced precision, to cull from the void, something to be called art, with words, though it is the most level playing field of mediums. Or else it just takes a lot of sweaty work made to seem easy. Well you got the jots and tittles all lined up here, and it seems effortless. Very nice again.

      Oh and I will lose my ass on March Madness. Probably do about as well as my 2 horse betting attempts.

  29. Blake Butler

      thanks guys. it’s funny how direct some of his speaking can get applied to poker. i wish i could imagine him at a table killing it.

  30. Casey

      Yeah ditto Amy that last graph is enviable. And “upped the ante” for sure. There’s 52 cards in a deck, half that number in the English Language, and yeah the even plain is that limit (plus some punctuation marks yes too). It takes almost blind, poker faced precision, to cull from the void, something to be called art, with words, though it is the most level playing field of mediums. Or else it just takes a lot of sweaty work made to seem easy. Well you got the jots and tittles all lined up here, and it seems effortless. Very nice again.

      Oh and I will lose my ass on March Madness. Probably do about as well as my 2 horse betting attempts.

  31. Blake Butler

      thanks a lot Amy. totally remember now you mentioning it to me before, finally the circle gets ends

  32. Blake Butler

      thanks a lot Amy. totally remember now you mentioning it to me before, finally the circle gets ends

  33. Blake Butler

      thanks Roxane. we should get a game together in Denver somehow. we tried last year and it never happened.

      a print re-edition of the site is definitely in thought-mode. there’s so much.

  34. Blake Butler

      thanks Roxane. we should get a game together in Denver somehow. we tried last year and it never happened.

      a print re-edition of the site is definitely in thought-mode. there’s so much.

  35. Corey

      Wonderful post. I love this encounter between Deleuze ( through Massumi – it’s obvious you’ve been reading), a conception of affect that threatens transformation in the body, and poker, and to me it seems like the most perfect analogical encounter since in poker you might write an enormously sophisticated narrative in the passage of play and yet that opponent will only fold when her visceral sensibilities make the last call.

      I’ve become superstitious about poker, because since I’ve ‘improved’ and had more experience, I lose a lot more now. Rotten, spirit-shrinking bad luck. The game spat me out. At least it feels this way. So, I’m spending a lot more time with your other subject matter, Blake: Beckett.

  36. Corey

      Wonderful post. I love this encounter between Deleuze ( through Massumi – it’s obvious you’ve been reading), a conception of affect that threatens transformation in the body, and poker, and to me it seems like the most perfect analogical encounter since in poker you might write an enormously sophisticated narrative in the passage of play and yet that opponent will only fold when her visceral sensibilities make the last call.

      I’ve become superstitious about poker, because since I’ve ‘improved’ and had more experience, I lose a lot more now. Rotten, spirit-shrinking bad luck. The game spat me out. At least it feels this way. So, I’m spending a lot more time with your other subject matter, Blake: Beckett.

  37. alan

      So good I’m still thinking about it.

      I wanted to say I especially liked this passage and its implications:

      “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”

      which in turn reminded me of this from an interview with the founder of Dalkey:

      “The fiction that I find unreadable is that which seems unaware of anything that has been written before, and the reader is supposed to go along with what is truly a ‘suspension of disbelief.’ I find this fiction to be boring and condescending to the reader, though apparently many people like it.”

  38. alan

      So good I’m still thinking about it.

      I wanted to say I especially liked this passage and its implications:

      “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”

      which in turn reminded me of this from an interview with the founder of Dalkey:

      “The fiction that I find unreadable is that which seems unaware of anything that has been written before, and the reader is supposed to go along with what is truly a ‘suspension of disbelief.’ I find this fiction to be boring and condescending to the reader, though apparently many people like it.”

  39. MG

      “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.”

      This is what really gets me, what the bluff (of words and cards) is all about– when I read a book and feel as if the words are penetrating me but at the same time coming out and from me like vomit, and same with cards, why the “gambler” as an archetype is still one of the most powerful, most enigmatic, most fun, the mysterious ability to be both human and superhuman, fiend and soothsayer, beyond that Kenny Rogers idea of betting as “life on the line,” it goes beyond the money, and more towards that “affect” you are writing about here, Blake.

      Love this essay. Aren’t there parts of your nonfiction book about poker? This is probably my favorite thing about poker I’ve ever read. Thanks.

  40. MG

      “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.”

      This is what really gets me, what the bluff (of words and cards) is all about– when I read a book and feel as if the words are penetrating me but at the same time coming out and from me like vomit, and same with cards, why the “gambler” as an archetype is still one of the most powerful, most enigmatic, most fun, the mysterious ability to be both human and superhuman, fiend and soothsayer, beyond that Kenny Rogers idea of betting as “life on the line,” it goes beyond the money, and more towards that “affect” you are writing about here, Blake.

      Love this essay. Aren’t there parts of your nonfiction book about poker? This is probably my favorite thing about poker I’ve ever read. Thanks.

  41. JimR

      This was a great read. Writing that flirts with this something-out-of-nothingness as performance can be hugely compelling, even (especially?) if only in scenes. I don’t know if the architecture is comparable, but emotional landscapes sustained by music can be just as evocative.

  42. JimR

      This was a great read. Writing that flirts with this something-out-of-nothingness as performance can be hugely compelling, even (especially?) if only in scenes. I don’t know if the architecture is comparable, but emotional landscapes sustained by music can be just as evocative.

  43. christian

      i like this post a lot. don’t have anything to add, but thought i’d say it.

  44. christian

      i like this post a lot. don’t have anything to add, but thought i’d say it.

  45. Steven Pine

      Enjoyable, you pulled me into the narrative of poker then tricked me with something on Beckette. Interesting gloss, next time he’s in my hands I’ll be thinking of what you said.

  46. Steven Pine

      Enjoyable, you pulled me into the narrative of poker then tricked me with something on Beckette. Interesting gloss, next time he’s in my hands I’ll be thinking of what you said.

  47. Tim Ramick

      Blake—I’m just echoing what’s already been said (and I wish this were the htmlg post that would garner 200+ comments): this is a stunningly adroit essay. Its two shifts—the one from poker to Texts for Nothing and then the one from Beckett’s “voice without a mouth” to your double-edged use of the second person in that enviable final paragraph (the first “you” as a standard substitute for “one” and the second haunting “you” almost hidden in that “your image” evocation) deserve a standing ovation and shouts of encore. This—more than anything else I’ve come across at any online literary site so far—makes me hopeful for whatever is around the bend.

  48. Tim Ramick

      Blake—I’m just echoing what’s already been said (and I wish this were the htmlg post that would garner 200+ comments): this is a stunningly adroit essay. Its two shifts—the one from poker to Texts for Nothing and then the one from Beckett’s “voice without a mouth” to your double-edged use of the second person in that enviable final paragraph (the first “you” as a standard substitute for “one” and the second haunting “you” almost hidden in that “your image” evocation) deserve a standing ovation and shouts of encore. This—more than anything else I’ve come across at any online literary site so far—makes me hopeful for whatever is around the bend.

  49. Tim Ramick

      I’m still in awe—that last paragraph is both inciting and restorative. Very rare.

  50. Tim Ramick

      I’m still in awe—that last paragraph is both inciting and restorative. Very rare.

  51. Blake Butler

      thanks Corey. i feel you on the luck thing. as much as it is shrugged off by those who want to romanticize the skill factors, luck is crucial. and hurts. all part of the crush of that ugly beastmaster that is the poker. better with beckett more often for sure.

  52. Blake Butler

      thanks Corey. i feel you on the luck thing. as much as it is shrugged off by those who want to romanticize the skill factors, luck is crucial. and hurts. all part of the crush of that ugly beastmaster that is the poker. better with beckett more often for sure.

  53. Blake Butler

      thanks MG. i like the human and superhuman duality too. genius or idiot in a stroke.

      there is a bit of poker right now in the insomnia book, yes. in fact, a lot of this kind of consideration of affect and position and consciousness is all throughout it, from poker to text to sleep and film and masturbation, lots of other. i appreciate the kind words, it is heartening.

  54. Blake Butler

      thanks MG. i like the human and superhuman duality too. genius or idiot in a stroke.

      there is a bit of poker right now in the insomnia book, yes. in fact, a lot of this kind of consideration of affect and position and consciousness is all throughout it, from poker to text to sleep and film and masturbation, lots of other. i appreciate the kind words, it is heartening.

  55. Blake Butler

      i agree about the music Jim, and interesting too is the way influence of certain musics can affect how you play at the table. i’ve written a bit about this, and played with it a lot. the difference between classical coming into your ears while betting and watching is amazingly different than listening to thug rap. it’s fun to mess with.

  56. Blake Butler

      i agree about the music Jim, and interesting too is the way influence of certain musics can affect how you play at the table. i’ve written a bit about this, and played with it a lot. the difference between classical coming into your ears while betting and watching is amazingly different than listening to thug rap. it’s fun to mess with.

  57. Blake Butler

      thanks for the kind words everybody

  58. Blake Butler

      thanks for the kind words everybody

  59. David

      reading this was a gift. thanks so much, blake. it made me think that what goes on in both text and game is a kind of inexplicable conjuration that is naturalised into logic, rather than the reverse, which looks to reveal the logic behind what at first appears to be an inexplicable conjuration.

  60. David

      reading this was a gift. thanks so much, blake. it made me think that what goes on in both text and game is a kind of inexplicable conjuration that is naturalised into logic, rather than the reverse, which looks to reveal the logic behind what at first appears to be an inexplicable conjuration.

  61. ZZZZIPP

      I AM GLAD TO BE IN YOUR ORBIT BLAKE

  62. ZZZZIPP

      I AM GLAD TO BE IN YOUR ORBIT BLAKE

  63. stephen

      I loved Texts for Nothing. Good points, Blake.

  64. stephen

      I loved Texts for Nothing. Good points, Blake.

  65. zusya

      this phrase — “calculated stories” — really drew me in.

  66. zusya

      this phrase — “calculated stories” — really drew me in.

  67. Christopher Higgs

      This was really fascinating because 1) I’m not that familiar with poker, so I learned a mess of things 2) I really like the idea of literature provoking something out of nothing, but not really nothing, out of the framing/reframing of nothing. 3) I really like the link between poker and Beckett. Smart essay, Blake. Thanks!

  68. Christopher Higgs

      This was really fascinating because 1) I’m not that familiar with poker, so I learned a mess of things 2) I really like the idea of literature provoking something out of nothing, but not really nothing, out of the framing/reframing of nothing. 3) I really like the link between poker and Beckett. Smart essay, Blake. Thanks!

  69. Around the web

      […] Blake Butler writes something interesting about poker at HTML Giant. […]

  70. John Domini

      Blake, *chapeau,* as the French say: hats off. Makes me think of other essays on Beckett, like Robert Coover’s years back, & also helps me in my current reading, Javier Marais, YOUR FACE TOMORROW, which is to a large extent about its reiterations, even as each one takea us to a different place. Bravo.

  71. John Domini

      Blake, *chapeau,* as the French say: hats off. Makes me think of other essays on Beckett, like Robert Coover’s years back, & also helps me in my current reading, Javier Marais, YOUR FACE TOMORROW, which is to a large extent about its reiterations, even as each one takea us to a different place. Bravo.

  72. Amelia

      same

  73. Amelia

      same

  74. Lily Hoang

      I seriously bow to this. Thank you, Blake.

  75. Lily Hoang

      I seriously bow to this. Thank you, Blake.

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  78. Adam Robinson

      I would like to play in that poker game.

  79. Adam Robinson

      I would like to play in that poker game.

  80. Ken Baumann

      Wow.

  81. Ken Baumann

      Wow.

  82. Sean
  83. Sean
  84. Matty Byloos

      Great post — Casey and I were talking about it briefly on the phone today and I had to carve out some time to sit with it. A total pleasure. So — thanks for putting your thoughts to the post.

  85. Matty Byloos

      Great post — Casey and I were talking about it briefly on the phone today and I had to carve out some time to sit with it. A total pleasure. So — thanks for putting your thoughts to the post.

  86. David

      I’ve been thinking about this over and over and I’ve had to come back and say more. On reflection, one of the most fascinating things this opened up for me, Blake, is questions to do with the composition of belief: what works it, what compels it, what happens in lieu of it. You write: “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.” Belief as pure belief – as making someone do ‘believing’ – fails; it needs to invent itself through the systematicity of belief, a logic, a line of elaboration. But such systematicity has little to do with the feasibility of the occurence of the thing believed in. As you also write, “most hands of poker fail to develop into powerful hands” and the cold rates of unlikelihood of a winning hand inform the game less than the creation of a system of communicative poise and action that sells a system of belief to opponents, that causes them to overcredit, to believe, the victory that would be otherwise in doubt. This interests me because it makes me think that belief is often less to do with conviction than the creation of a “realism” which then becomes an irresistible compulsion toward which one must fold. It left me to wonder, however, about the cards themselves, the fact that most poker hands don’t develop powerfully, as you say, and so tend toward the person with story power. It made me wonder about the deferred reality of the fail rate. I find myself asking about this fail rate, especially in relation to Beckett, because there’s a dimension in which nothingness in Beckett is not nothingness like total vacancy but a nothingess so pure it is a little more or less than nothing, nothingness negated into the nil of itself. That is to say, a voice without a mouth, a voice muttering a trace. Part of why the presentation of narrative is credible in poker is precisely because the skeletonic structure (beautiful phrase by the way) makes the overall certainty of defeat (“over time fate levels all”) a matter of the probability of play. Because the rules of the game render the probabilities indeterminable in any one player’s assessment of the cards themselves, or if calculable abstractly, calculable only in mathematical estimates mostly beyond the resources rendered available by the compression that the moment of decision demands, story, then, is a way to parlay the not quite nil of nothingness into a perverse positivity that, in one’s surrender to it, lets the wagerer (and the watchers of the wager) win. It makes me wonder though where the metaphor leads. Because the wagerer’s win always cleans someone else out, someone else, in High Stakes Poker, who is also an expert spinner, a teller, a wagerer in it to win. The high level of skill in the examples you’ve given seems to equal the stakes of the loss but it leads me to think: Is there a storytelling for those who have little dexterity, who lack the skills, the believability, to play? If narrative is the image kept in compelling play, what if you are no competent imagineer? If “the magic comes not in what you give or are given, but how it is melded, shifted, stuck”, what if there is a givenness to melding, shifting and sticking? Thinking here of the obvious relevance of such defectiveness to Beckett’s books, I’m curious as to any thoughts you might have on how that factors into the composition of story and how the composition of story handles that?

  87. David

      I’ve been thinking about this over and over and I’ve had to come back and say more. On reflection, one of the most fascinating things this opened up for me, Blake, is questions to do with the composition of belief: what works it, what compels it, what happens in lieu of it. You write: “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.” Belief as pure belief – as making someone do ‘believing’ – fails; it needs to invent itself through the systematicity of belief, a logic, a line of elaboration. But such systematicity has little to do with the feasibility of the occurence of the thing believed in. As you also write, “most hands of poker fail to develop into powerful hands” and the cold rates of unlikelihood of a winning hand inform the game less than the creation of a system of communicative poise and action that sells a system of belief to opponents, that causes them to overcredit, to believe, the victory that would be otherwise in doubt. This interests me because it makes me think that belief is often less to do with conviction than the creation of a “realism” which then becomes an irresistible compulsion toward which one must fold. It left me to wonder, however, about the cards themselves, the fact that most poker hands don’t develop powerfully, as you say, and so tend toward the person with story power. It made me wonder about the deferred reality of the fail rate. I find myself asking about this fail rate, especially in relation to Beckett, because there’s a dimension in which nothingness in Beckett is not nothingness like total vacancy but a nothingess so pure it is a little more or less than nothing, nothingness negated into the nil of itself. That is to say, a voice without a mouth, a voice muttering a trace. Part of why the presentation of narrative is credible in poker is precisely because the skeletonic structure (beautiful phrase by the way) makes the overall certainty of defeat (“over time fate levels all”) a matter of the probability of play. Because the rules of the game render the probabilities indeterminable in any one player’s assessment of the cards themselves, or if calculable abstractly, calculable only in mathematical estimates mostly beyond the resources rendered available by the compression that the moment of decision demands, story, then, is a way to parlay the not quite nil of nothingness into a perverse positivity that, in one’s surrender to it, lets the wagerer (and the watchers of the wager) win. It makes me wonder though where the metaphor leads. Because the wagerer’s win always cleans someone else out, someone else, in High Stakes Poker, who is also an expert spinner, a teller, a wagerer in it to win. The high level of skill in the examples you’ve given seems to equal the stakes of the loss but it leads me to think: Is there a storytelling for those who have little dexterity, who lack the skills, the believability, to play? If narrative is the image kept in compelling play, what if you are no competent imagineer? If “the magic comes not in what you give or are given, but how it is melded, shifted, stuck”, what if there is a givenness to melding, shifting and sticking? Thinking here of the obvious relevance of such defectiveness to Beckett’s books, I’m curious as to any thoughts you might have on how that factors into the composition of story and how the composition of story handles that?

  88. Lee

      Poker is becoming the new Freud.

      And what a bluff this whole post is!

  89. Lee

      Poker is becoming the new Freud.

      And what a bluff this whole post is!

  90. peter breslin

      On the one hand, poker does hang together in these epic and significant ways, with all these analogies to great art like Beckett’s. Like boxing, there’s something brutally beautiful about poker, something seductive and alluring, something almost exactly like the promise of significance. Ultimately, poker is just plain brutal, just like boxing. Just brutal, rapacious, greedy, deceptive, unsatisfying, a cheap substitute for significant, purposeful, artful behavior. It’s fun, still, somehow, in some perverse way. But while I admire the art it takes to find such deep resonance in what is essentially bullshit and whoring, I have grown weary of romanticizing.

  91. peter breslin

      On the one hand, poker does hang together in these epic and significant ways, with all these analogies to great art like Beckett’s. Like boxing, there’s something brutally beautiful about poker, something seductive and alluring, something almost exactly like the promise of significance. Ultimately, poker is just plain brutal, just like boxing. Just brutal, rapacious, greedy, deceptive, unsatisfying, a cheap substitute for significant, purposeful, artful behavior. It’s fun, still, somehow, in some perverse way. But while I admire the art it takes to find such deep resonance in what is essentially bullshit and whoring, I have grown weary of romanticizing.

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