Poker in Perspective

The World Series of Poker main event — the world championship — begins on July 28th. I’ll be playing in it for the fifth time, after a hiatus of several years. When I first joined the competition, in the late 90s, I think there were fewer than 300 entrants. This year the organizers are expecting between 8-9,000. The entry fee is $10,000. The prize pool will be more than $80million, with first place worth more than $10million.

As in most lotteries, someone has to eventually win it. Last year’s champ, Joe Hachem, of Melbourne, Australia, outlasted more than 5,600 other players. No matter how skilled (or not), whomever wins the 2006 tournament will have to get miraculously lucky to be crowned the World Champion. He (or she) will have to overcome situations in which fickle cards don’t cooperate with his smartly conceived tactics, when sure things get beaten by longshots and inferior players overcome their skill disadvantage through the magic of statistical fluctuations. He’ll have to be brave, disciplined, and, above all, patient. The tournament takes nearly two weeks to complete.

This televised event has captured the imagination of the American public, whose appetite for poker broadcasts seems weirdly insatiable. On a typical week, there’s close to 40 hours of poker on television, 6-8 of them featuring yours truly as a commentator. I like the work. It’s fun. It’s frequently exciting. But it also creates a dangerous side effect: People who play, watch, broadcast, or aspire to some connection with the game can be seduced into thinking this is real life.

It’s not.

A metaphor for life? Perhaps. A fascinating subculture populated by sociopathic geniuses? Maybe. But dedicating one’s existence to taking other people’s money — their chips, as it were — is a pale simulacrum of what life is really about. Many of the top players (and many of the middling ones, too) base their self-esteem on their results at the table. Beating the competition, relieving strangers of their savings, being right about difficult decisions — these are the illusory rewards of the accomplished poker player. Like stock traders, currency speculators, and every other species of gambler, the poker player adds nothing to the world. He takes. And the more he takes, the better he feels about himself.

One well-known player donates his tournament winnings to children’s charities. (What he does with his cash game winnings is private). But most poker pros aspire to accumulate ever more lucre, as though they were a rapacious corporation under pressure to produce consistently rising quarterly profit reports. The goal is to “move up,” to play ever bigger, until a good’s night work can reliably produce wins (and losses) totaling six-figures. And for what? Elusive goals such as “respect” and “admiration” allegedly drive many of the best-known players. But at the end of the day the score is kept in dollars, and the guy who has gotten the most at the expense of the “donkeys,” the suckers who aren’t as smart or clever or insightful as the winners, is the king of the mountain.

Our culture celebrates wealth and power, so, naturally, the winner of this year’s World Series of Poker will be feted in both the mainstream and niche media. Despite the crushing odds I sincerely hope that person will be me. But no matter the result, I’ll strive to remember what so few people around the game seem to be able to recall in the heat of the competition: poker, for all it’s popularity and seductive appeal, is merely a game of cards.

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