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The Two Worlds of Poker

The first world of poker is inhabited by people who play to win money These players are in complete control of the risks they take and won't part with a single chip without a good reason. When they are sitting at a poker table, their senses and intellects are focused on the sole objective of winning. They play in the vast, glittering hotels that create the landscape of the Vegas Strip; in the Indian casino outside of town; or behind the anonymous storefront of a confidential club in your city, barely discernible in the pale glow of the corner street light. These players have taken years to develop their general poker skills, and most specialize in a handful of games that comprise the canon of serious poker. The stakes can range from a few dollars to a few thousand per bet, but each player chooses his or her limits such that winning is worthwhile and losing (necessarily) stings a little. The one thing you won't hear these players talk about is how good they are. Most games are played in a genuinely sociable and easy-going setting, yet at the same time, these players are at war with one another, relentlessly exploiting every possible opportunity their cards and their opponents give them. Luck is a big part of each individual hand, but over the course of weeks, months, and years, the people with the biggest profits are the players who have played the best poker. The winners take pride in winning, and the losers promise themselves never to make the same mistakes again.

It's easy to see how observers of this world could see reflections of some quintessential American virtues.

The second world of poker is different. It is prowled by predators from the first world but is inhabited mainly by hands of merry men, young and old, seeking a context for a party. These happy souls know enough about poker to enjoy themselves, but the thought of seriously studying the game never arises, since winning or losing is believed to be mainly a function of the luck of the draw. They play in finished basements and dormitory common rooms, atop folding card tables, with dime store plastic chips and Hooters playing cards. The beer and cigars attract more players than the poker does. "Skill" in these games is measured by the number of variations of rules one has memorized, which is important, because the rules must be changed every hand. The names of the games are often ethnic slurs, and their rules are usually expressed as rhymes. (Particularly experienced players are virtual bards when it comes to designating wild cards, able to describe any game with sustained streams of improvised verse that usually end in "man with the axe" or "one-eyed faces.") Since these are friendly games, the stakes are often determined to be the greatest amount of money that no one cares about losing; most players bankroll the evening by groping under their car seats before the game. The real competition is in the arena of rhetoric rather than cards. After several hours of money being passed around the table, the evening's champion is the dolt who finally gets dealt three kings in the eighth consecutive hand of "Trips to Win" just before everyone has to leave. The biggest loser is the guy who got too drunk to remember the rank order of face cards and has to drive home the next morning after yakking in the salsa bowl and spending the night on your couch

It's a free country, and you can play cards any way you want to. But if these are "quintessential American virtues," we're in trouble. Millions of people have fun playing this kind of poker, just like millions of people have fun playing checkers with chess pieces. I'm just not one of those people.


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