Saturday, October 20, 2012
Thanks to the Sexy Jess Welman for the following post. Because Intelligence is Very Sexy indeed!
I have heard many players talk about "tapping the glass", from varying viewpoints. Jess Welman wrote a very nice grad school paper on the subject as it relates to the metagame. I posted it in its entirety just before this blog post, for those who are interested in reading the full paper, especially those new to the idea of the "metagame". If someone were to write a book on the metagame of poker, specifically, I think it would be a great Foreword!
I have been asked often by players who think I play a lot better than I do (that's my story, and I'm sticking to it!) what factors a poker player thinks about most in their decision making. Based on the level of the player, this answer varies. But it very often boils down to "he who adjusts first, and most, usually wins". Whether you are playing the smallest or largest game in town, if any of the players know each other, there is very likely going to be elements of a metagame involved. Once you get beyond the the ABC's of poker, which are often enough to make profit in a soft game or tournament, what are some good things to focus on? This is going to vary for many types of players. Some will prefer to keep it simple, and just play by the numbers. You've got your math based guys, Game Theory guys, and your old school "play the players" artistic types. Those whom are the best (or have a reputation as one of the best) typically are able to apply each of these styles at key times when needed. Your reputation can work for you, or against you, depending on the situation, and what your "perceived" reputation is to that individual you are involved in a hand with, AT THAT TIME.
The players with a great reputation, may not be the most profitable. Is success measured in profit, tournament bracelets, or by the decisions you make regardless of the results? Well, that depends on YOU. Like many things in life, you get to set your own goals, and decide what rewards work best for you. Tournament wins, and the notoriety that go with it, would be nice, but for me, personally, I would have to go with the profit, because of what I am able to do with the money to make the world a better place. Being able to pay for my kids education, buy a house, invest in smart businesses, go on vacation, help friends and others out who need it, etc. are the kinds of things that I am currently motivated by. Why do I bring this up when talking about "metagame"? Well, what's important to a person, will have an influence on whether they "mind" someone tapping the glass, giving free advice to someone that is not paying attention, or similar stuff at or near the tables, or poker training site, or even on a blog! So how can I discuss my thoughts on metagame, without giving away too much info on my game? It would seem a lot of players worry about this often.
Personally, I never minded anyone giving anyone else advice at the table. As long as I can hear the conversation, I am getting some info, from the person speaking and the way they speak, but also the person listening and the way they listen. The main point here is to pay attention. Just because someone has better info today than they had yesterday, does not mean that they have learned where and when to apply it. Indeed, sometimes the worst players, are those in the middle ground of learning, trying to apply what they've learned before with what they are learning now, and often overthinking everything. Or a good player tilting, having a bad day. Or a fish having a good day and getting overconfident Or a world class player having a good time socializing and not caring about the level they are playing at the moment. The thing about playing poker, especially in Las Vegas, is that you could be sitting at a table with 9 completely different level of players in the same game. Is that person acting like a fish, getting the free advice, REALLY a fish, or just acting like one? Does the person giving the advice REALLY play that well, or do their bad habits override the logic they are sharing? Who is paying attention to the conversation that you didn't expect? Who is annoyed by the talking that you think shouldn't be? I could go on and on, but the point is, no matter how good the advice is, you want people playing at a lower level to come back to the tables, so the games don't dry up!
Let's return to the point about the players with a great reputation. I've heard more players complain about their reputation and it's effect on their profit, than I can shake a stick at! I've seen quite a few profitable people fly under the radar, avoiding the limelight, quietly making money, and happily doing so while others take the limelight. How do you win when you get famous enough to have thousands of hands online, and on TV? How do you know someone isn't adjusting just because they want to win a hand against you now that you are famous? How much harder is it to keep tilt at bay when the whole world knows you're on the worst downswing you've ever had? Welcome back to the Metagame.
Whether you think about the metagame or not, you cannot deny it's existence, and the possibility of it being present in your hands. The more you grind, or the more grinders you encounter, the more likely it is to be present and affecting the current game. And that is something everyone would do well to remember when seeing something out of the ordinary at your table. Do you have anyone you trust enough to believe the metagame info they share with you? Or is the info they share part of their metagame?
So, on that point, do I worry about the metagame like a good mystery book, and a likable challenge? Do I completely ignore it, going with game theory instead, especially at $1/$2 games, or micro limits online? Am I able to be as profitable if I share this info? Maybe. Is there any advantage to me sharing that info with the world? The only answer I can leave you with is "It depends."
Good luck at the tables, whether real or virtual!
Tapping the Glass: Metacommunication, Reflexive Language, and the Performance of Poker by Jess Welman
The following a grad school paper on poker by Jess Welman from 4.5 years ago. My next blog post will reference this paper, but I wanted to post it in it's entirety here for those that wish to read it in its entirety. As well you should! Please note this was a first draft. And you can all thank @jesswelman for the permission to share it.
Tapping the Glass
Metacommunication, Reflexive Language, and the Performance of Poker
Two men, regulars in their local poker game, were playing no limit hold ‘em poker and, as they were wont to do, became entangled in a hand together. When the fifth and final card, known as the river, was dealt, the first man made a large bet. The second man took his time before eventually making the call. As he began to slowly and deliberately count out enough chips to match the first man’s bet, he remained completely silent. The first man, realizing he had been caught in a bluff, threw his two cards face down into the pile of discards, conceding defeat. In most casinos and home games, the rule is once your cards hit the pile of discards (known as the muck), your hand is dead and you have forfeited your right to the pot, even if you had the best hand. The second man paused, looked at the first man, and turned his hand face up, revealing he had absolutely nothing either, not even a pair. While he may not have had a good hand, what the second player did possess was information about his opponent, in particular, his bad habit of voluntarily folding his cards when caught bluffing so he would not have to show his hand to the rest of the table, and he decided to take advantage of it.
This story, recalled to me by a player who witnessed the event, is just one of many which reiterate that no limit hold ‘em poker (NLHE) is, first and foremost, a game of information. As questions of legality arise around poker, both online and in brick and mortar establishments, poker lobbying groups, such as the Poker Players’ Alliance, continually describe NLHE as a game of skill rather than chance.# For poker players, the game is more comparable to chess than to blackjack. In his regular column for Bluff Magazine, professional player Justin Bonomo directly compared poker to chess noting, “poker is not a game of perfect information, unlike chess; and there is a seemingly infinite amount of complexity stemming from just the various types of opponents you will encounter, even disregarding game theory itself”.# A player I interviewed within my own research alluded to this complexity as what draws him into the game, describing the joy he derives from dissecting people as, “the rush of all rushes”. As a result of this complexity and the ever-growing, ever-changing field of opponents, NLHE is a game that no one can ever truly master and there is always something more to learn.
Since poker is a game of imperfect information, playing NLHE becomes about obtaining more information than everyone else as well as sending out false or misleading information to your opponents. Sometimes this task is more complicated because the table is populated with players who have never played together seated beside players who have been in the same game together for years. The way a person plays a hand against an unknown opponent differs drastically from the way they would play a hand with their best friend. With so many factors influencing the outcome of an already competitive game, it is no surprise there is a general consensus among experienced players that one should not educate people who don’t grasp the basic concepts of poker. These bad players, labeled “donkeys” or “fish” are considered to be easy money and, with the proliferation of poker literature, online training websites, and televised poker, their numbers sometimes appear to be decreasing. Therefore, the regular players, referred to as “sharks”, try to bite their tongues when it comes to criticizing the play of the fish because they don’t want to aid in their improvement. The popular proverb that circulates amongst frustrated players who feel compelled to comment when a bad player gets lucky in a hand is, “don’t tap the glass…you’ll disturb the fish”.
Humoring the fish is but one of several aspects of the game of poker which extend beyond simply knowing what two cards you hold in your hand and how they relate to the five community cards in the middle of the table. I hope I have conveyed the importance of psychology in what is sometimes considered to be a purely mathematical game and, moreover, at least suggested the many ways in which performance plays a vital role in a player’s success. Using Richard Bauman’s definition of performance as, “the assumption of responsibility to an audience for a display of communicative competence”, in addition to his emphasis on performance as a distinctive frame for a communicative event, the performance of poker can be broken down in a variety of ways.# One could posit each individual hand of NLHE as its own separate performance within the bigger performance of a single session of card playing. Or, if one considers the ways in which social roles are performed, these ideas can be carried away from the game itself and applied to a person’s entire career as a professional gambler. The ambiguous boundary of poker performance calls attention to the importance of perceiving each unique hand of cards as part of larger, overarching communicative events. As the story recalled earlier suggests, past performances frequently influence the aesthetics of current ones. Moreover, these past performances are often referenced directly through both repeated actions designed to harken back to past situations and verbal communication in which players position the hand in relation to their history with a particular player.
This referentiality at the poker table is not only common, but an expected and integral component of a live game. Players obtain and disseminate information in a variety of ways, but this reflexive language and metacommunication is a central element of a winning strategy. Before proceeding further, I want to define my use of the term metacommunication. In her work on metanarrative, Barbara Babcock defines metacommunication as, “any element of communication which calls attention to the speech event as a performance and to the relationship which obtains between the narrator and his audience vis-à-vis the narrative message”.# Using this as an operational definition, players’ words as well as their non-verbal actions can be analyzed through the ways in which they position the narrative message, the participants, and the singular event within a larger performance. As a player becomes more skilled, they show a growing competence of this metacommunication while they are playing as well as when socializing within the poker community.
Harris Berger and Giovanna Del Negro have already suggested the need to study the reflexive capabilities of nonverbal communication in their work, “Bauman’s Verbal Art and the Social Organization of Attention”. In addition to a call for further research in nonverbal performance, they also suggest two other means by which the connection between reflexivity and performance can be explored: first, examinations of the creative possibilities within the interpretation of a performance and, most importantly, metacommunication’s influence on the aesthetics of performance. Berger and Del Negro’s overarching argument is an emphasis on this third approach, hoping to:
show that reflexive metacommentary by which a performer signals her awareness of herself as a participant in an interaction—and by which she signals her awareness of the audience’s attention to her—colors and informs all of the “primary” communication in the performance and plays a crucial role in the overall aesthetics of the event (67-68).#
Rather than conceiving of metacommunication as a supplemental component of a communicative event, the authors instead take up Roman Jakobson’s suggestion that metacommunication is a dimension within the event itself and inextricable from the performance as a whole.#
Their ideas, rooted in the phenomenological work of Edmund Husserl, position our awareness of ourselves as subjects at the foundation of experience. Applying that framework to my own research, poker players perform this awareness through their metacommunicative behavior. By consistently referring to the subject position of themselves and their audience, players are “tapping the glass” and drawing attention to the fact that their opponents are not simply free floating individuals, but part of a larger social structure. Through my analysis of the ways in which players and card dealers utilize and stifle reflexive behavior at the table, I hope to take up Berger and Del Negro’s call to arms and explore how both verbal and nonverbal metacommunication influence the aesthetics of poker performance.
My fieldwork, conducted over the course of four months at the Caesars Indiana casino in Elizabeth, Indiana, focused on several regulars (I define regulars as those who play on average once a week) within the poker room and how they socialized with other players at and away from the table. While Caesars is the largest poker room in the region, boasting 33 tables, it is a far cry from the glitz, glamour, and action of Las Vegas or Atlantic City.# The riverboat casino is located approximately 20 miles north of Louisville, Kentucky and is surrounded by nature, save for a few homes and a factory across the river. Unlike Vegas, it is not a tourist destination, which means the games during the week are frequently composed primarily of casino regulars who have played with each other day in and day out for years. The lack of fresh money coming into the poker room in the form of new players is a concern repeatedly voiced by the regulars, many of whom worry the room is “drying up”. Players who were once devoted to Caesars now split their time between there and the Argosy Casino located almost two hours [northeast] in Lawrenceburg, Indiana near Cincinnati. Some say Argosy has more profitable games and superior customer service, but others simply go there or take occasional trips to Las Vegas for a change of scenery.
Because the regular players are commonly forced to play against each other, metacommunication becomes of even more importance. When one player discussed what he termed levels of metagame, he said they are not as important when he plays the smaller $1/$2 NLHE stakes, but at the bigger game (typically $2/$5 NLHE) or a game with a number of regulars, they take on more significance. He delineated five levels of game play, dividing them based on the number of factors the player is considering in their decision making. The first, basic level is knowing what cards you hold. The second considers what your opponent might be holding. The third level adds the element of what your opponent thinks your holdings may be while the fourth incorporates what an opponent believes you think they hold. If that is not complicated enough, the fifth level accounts for assessing at what level each of your opponents is likely operating on.# While these levels are his own personal creation, a majority of players I spoke with referred to reading people and situations as a major element of their game play. Moreover, they spoke of the higher stakes game of $2/$5 as a game which generally plays on a higher mental level than the smaller $1/$2 game, which many played in a more straightforward manner to accommodate the less experienced players who they perceive to operate on a lower “level”. While Caesars Indiana may not be indicative of a more urban casino location, its general lack of tourist traffic during the week provides an opportunity to observe more upper level interactions.
Taking a page from my informant, I have divided the array of metacommunication I observed in the field into three categories: the mandatory reflexive language required within the game, voluntary metacommunication within the game, and metacommunication away from the poker table. The mandatory metacommunication illustrates the ways in which reflexive language has been incorporated into the game and is an expected component of game play while the latter two categories are connected to precisely how people are able to influence decision making through the metacommunicative dimension of their performance in addition to establish and cultivate their image as a player and performer.
While it may seem unusual to consider the notion of mandatory reflexive language, the array of poker rules frequently require or stifle how a player comments on the action taking place. Though they do not participate in the gambling, dealers’ duties extend beyond simply passing out the cards. In order to keep the action moving, dealers narrate the action, announcing what is taking place even though players have already stated what they are doing. Some dealers gesture with their hand to indicate whose turn it is to act while others announce it verbally, stating something along the lines of, “30 dollars to you, sir”. When players cite what makes a good dealer, their efficiency in performing this task is usually atop the list. It is particularly crucial at Caesars because players pay a time rake to the casino of $6 every half hour. The alternative to time rake poker rooms is a pot raked game in which money is taken from the pot after each hand. The number of hands dealt in an hour matters in pot rake games as well, but Caesars players, who are generally not fond of the time rake, feel increased pressure to make the most of their time. Therefore, not only are dealers expected to keep the action moving through narration, but the players are expected to be clear in their actions as well.
When speaking with one of the Caesars dealers, they explained how their narration is strictly limited and must comment on the action as objectively as possible. For example, during one hand at a table I was playing at, the dealer was asked to read the community cards for a woman sitting at the end of the table who had difficulty seeing. After reading the cards, the dealer, who admitted they had not dealt poker in a number of months, also noted the possibility that the players in the hand could hold a straight or a flush. After I recalled the story to my dealer informant, he quickly informed me she was not allowed to contribute those types of comments. He went on to note how dealers cannot even tell a player how much money is in a pot or stack the chips into easily counted piles because it could influence the action. In his recollection of his career as a casino dealer, H. Lee Barnes described dealers as, “conduits through which probabilities find realization”, who are mistaken by players as an entity which is capable of dispensing luck and determining the outcome.# While the card dealers are allowed to socialize with players during their half hour stint at a table, they cannot appear to be aiding a player in the game, holding some sort of control over how a hand plays out, or slowing the game down at all because of their interactions.
Players are limited in their commentary as well. When a player is not involved in a hand, it is considered bad etiquette to comment and verbally speculate what the other players might be holding. For players involved in a hand, the rules stipulate specificity within their own metanarration. At Caesars, the rules state if a person is making a raise and only throwing out a single chip, they must verbally announce the amount of the raise or else it will be considered a call. In other words, if one player bets ten dollars and another throws out a $100 chip with no verbal explanation of what their action constitutes, he is ruled to be making a call. When players contemplate the amount of a bet or raise, they often count out chips in stacks of five, pile them together in one stack, and, as they push the chips across the white line running around the table, state the amount of their raise, even if the one chip rule does not apply in order to make sure their action is clearly understood.
The rule is in place to avoid any misunderstandings about a player’s actions, but it also indicates just how influential metacommentary can be on events within in a given hand. Not only is metacommunication considered to be part of the performance, but it is perceived as something that must be strictly controlled in the spirit of fairness. With poker’s reputation as a game populated by grifters and thieves, the trust a casino cultivates from its players is of the utmost importance. Many of the players I encountered commuted to Caesars from locations over an hour away despite the fact there were local, underground home games in the towns they lived in. The overwhelming response was that they opted for Caesars because it provided them with a sense of comfort and safety, allowing them to focus on the game rather than worry about potentially being swindled or getting arrested. In addition to the security cameras populating the premises, the installation of the automatic shufflers at the table further cemented casino poker’s reputation of fairness. These tangible changes to the game are still not considered to be enough though, hence the imposition on what players and dealers can and cannot say during a game.
One could argue these restrictions influence the action as much as more overtly subjective metacommentary, however, what matters is only the appearance of objectivity. Dealers are required by the casino to provide narration which is, by nature, an interpretation of the event. Despite the subjectivity inherent in such a task, this form of metacommunication is policed so carefully in the rules and regulations of the game that it is aesthetically conveyed as a fair and balanced account of what has transpired. The dealer who identified the straight and flush possibilities was perceived as out of line by the players at the table and the other dealer because her commentary broke the objective aesthetic the dealers and casino strive for within their participation in the performance, even though she was providing an interpretation of the players’ actions much in the same way other dealers do. However, what can be learned from her diversion from the norm are the ways in which the audience’s perceptions of the performance and performer shift as a result of her deviation from acceptable metacommentary. In addition to feeling as though the hand was played out in a manner that gave an advantage to a player who may not have been observant to enough to see the straight or flush on her own, the dealer, who is expected to be as “fair” as possible, is now seen by the players as someone who may not be worthy of their complete trust.
Poker players, on the other hand, use their ability to manipulate their subjective metacommentary in order to garner respect and winnings from their opponents. While I have already established some of the parameters and limits set on what people can and cannot say and do when they play poker, let us move now to examining how players work within these confines to influence the aesthetics of their own poker interactions. Players even have a term to describe such behavior: building a table image. In some instances, this image is based on the way they are playing in the course of a single session, but amongst regular players, months and even years of tendencies and performances influence their reputation at the table. Players are able to construct their table image in a number of ways, including the cards they choose to play, how many hands they fold, how frequently they call raises, and how much money they have in front of them.
Oftentimes though, these factors are secondary or are at least masked in part through players’ metacommunicative behavior. One evening, one of my informants and I were observing a particularly raucous $1/$2 NLHE table where one of the more outgoing regulars was seated. Every time the player sits down at a table, he passes out peppermints to the other players as well as the dealer, earning him the nickname of “The Candyman”. In addition to sweetening his opponents’ opinion of him, The Candyman often talks conversationally to other players at the table. On this particular evening, one of the other players was clearly intoxicated and playing a wide range of hands, also known as playing very loosely. While some pros and regulars employ a loose style, poker strategists like Dan Harrington generally perceive this style of play to be a losing one, especially for an inexperienced player.# The Candyman was frequently straddling hands, meaning he raised before being dealt cards. The straddle bet, which is a common tactic amongst Caesars Indiana players allows the blind raiser to be the last one to make a decision before the three community cards, known as the flop, are dealt. In addition to the luxury of being the last to act, straddle bets also add money to the pots and are considered to induce more action amongst players. Moreover, players who straddle bet are perceived to be looser players. When I inquired as to why The Candyman would straddle bet so often, my informant explained it helped to build his table image as a loose player even though, in reality, he was playing rather conservatively. By straddling for $5, a mere $3 more than the $2 forced bet, The Candyman was purchasing the table image as someone playing less than stellar cards, making it more likely that someone would call his bets with marginal holdings. In addition to his straddle bet, he was also verbally enticing the drunk player to play, telling him “come on in”, or “raise, come on, raise”. It should also be noted that The Candyman kept a small sign in front of his chip stack which read, “Have you ever noticed that ‘what the hell’ always seems to be the right answer?”
Everything, from the way he dressed to what he said to cultivated a table image that was in direct contrast to the way he was actually playing. In the period of time I watched him, he frequently folded and during one hand showed his opponent his hole cards of two queens before folding when a second jack appeared amongst the community cards, making it possible, if not likely, his opponent held three of a kind. While the case of The Candyman is a unique example, it does speak to the very nature of poker, which is that the way you communicate with others is designed to mask what you are actually doing. The act of bluffing is a great example of how metacommunication is used to adjust the way an opponent interprets the meaning of a performance. When asked what makes a good bluff, one player explained that, “ it tells a good story”. More specifically, bluffs tend to be more effective in inducing an opponent to fold when the player’s actions mirror those a player who actually held those cards would make. If the first three community cards contained two cards suited in hearts and a player just calls a bet and a third heart comes up on the fourth card and they make a big bet, they are representing a flush. In actuality, they are betting with nothing, but through the act of betting when what is termed an “action card” came out and showing strength not only in the bet, but through body language, like sitting up alertly, the player is both exhibiting awareness of their subject position and using it to influence their opponents’ ideas about their holdings. Even in the process of folding, players’ think ahead to the future and pretend an easy decision is difficult by taking time before mucking their cards. This tactic, referred to by players as “Hollywood-ing”, is an act of reflexivity that is utilized with the intention of using the impression it leaves again in the future.
Frequently, these bluffs are planned over the course of several sessions amongst regular players. When I mentioned a particular player to one of my informants, he told me he had been setting up a play at them for a number of months and could not wait for the opportune time to put it into effect. While he did not disclose the specifics of his plan, essentially he had been repeating a certain set of actions against this player several times. On these previous occasions, my informant had conceded the hand to the other player, but was planning on repeating the same steps when he had a very strong hand in order to trap the other player for a large sum of money if it was successful. Though this is not subject positioning per se, it is the type of practice that demonstrates an awareness of a performance in context to those which preceded it. It is self-referential nonetheless, referencing the self from a previous communicative event and demonstrating an understanding of how even metacommunication and actions from prior performances influences the aesthetics of events occurring in the present. To borrow Charles Brigg’s term, the repetition of these behaviors function as a triplex sign, working to create indexical meaning in the given situation, but also positioning the communication within the larger referential frame of the players’ history by conveying what is occurring now is structurally parallel to hands that have occurred previously. Briggs refers to these triplex signs as a type of conversational metasign which can be used as a powerful tool in constructing a speech event.#
Berger and Del Negro also argue for the importance of metacommunication within the structure of a performance, noting, “that reflexivity is not some optional addition to over-sophisticated and highly ironic performances but that, on the contrary, it is built into the very structure of intersubjectivity and is essential to the aesthetics of performance”.# I would like to extend this even further and suggest that in the realm of poker, reflexivity is not only essential but can take precedent over the primary elements of the performance of playing a hand. As the examples of players cultivating table images have illustrated, a person’s fiscal success is contingent upon the aesthetics of their reflexive performance more so than their primary actions. Without persuasively disguising the strength or weakness of their hand, they will not be able to excise maximum value out of their holdings or induce a player to fold. Creating a fun environment, much in the way The Candyman did, is something multiple players cited as a way of concealing what was actually occurring as hands transpired. One player purposefully avoids playing with his chips, also called riffling, and limits his banter with the dealers early on so others at the table will not be able to recognize him as an experienced player. Even something as subtle as the way in which a player manipulates the media associated with the game conveys a certain degree of skill, which many make an effort to downplay at the table in their attempt to create a laid back atmosphere in which the fish are unaware of the shark in their presence.
In the same vein, players often foreground their skill using the same type of reflexive behavior to intimidate others at the table, not just tapping on the glass, but beating on it as a demonstration of who is in control. During hands, players will often speculate on what their opponent is holding, uttering something like, “two pair is good” before folding their hand. While no one admitted to this type of behavior in my interviews, walking around the room, this language could be heard at a majority of the tables. A variation of the behavior is the nonverbal act of a player turning one of his cards face up before folding, revealing his ability to let go of a hand if he determines he is beat. One could postulate this reflexive performance does lay the ground for future encounters with opponents by positioning ones’ self as a player adept at reading people and situations and someone they should play cautiously in the future.
However, this behavior, in many ways, seems as much for the benefit of the performer as their audience. Most of the time, these utterances occurred right before a fold, so this performance seems to also serve as a consolation and reassurance to the losing player that, despite having lost money, they still made a good decision. Referring back to Bauman’s definition of performance as a display of communicative competence, this display of metacommunicative prowess can be explained even further. In poker, financial gain is the typical benchmark of competence. Nonetheless, situations arise in which players need to heed the lyrics of Kenny Rogers and “know when to fold ‘em”.# In this case, while it may appear a player has failed, their ability to interpret the situation through their reflexive language and nonverbal behavior still affords them an opportunity to literally perform their communicative competence and highlight their decision making and people reading skills.
Though poker is conceived of by players as a game of skill, luck often influences the outcome of a hand. Professional poker player and television personality Phil “The Poker Brat” Hellmuth once stated, “if it weren’t for luck, I would win every time”.# As his nickname indicates, he has a penchant for using his commentary to reiterate his skill for the game when the cards don’t go his way. At Caesars, one player I observed within my field work was suffering through a dry spell himself, logging several losing sessions, many of which were the result of big hands in which he was the statistical favorite to win and just got unlucky. In my conversations with him about his interactions at the table, he described his approach, which entailed as little talking as possible in order to limit the amount of information his opponent could work with. Once his dry spell dragged on for several months, he began to increasingly make self-referential comments within game play like, “I can’t remember the last time I had even a pair”. I suspect some of his motivation behind these comments stemmed from frustration, but in the absence of a large stack of chips to indicate his skill to others, he had to rely on his reading abilities and metacommentary to display his prowess as a player.
Even when a person is not participating in a poker game, their performance within the poker room works to establish their position as someone with skill and knowledge. Moving now to the third category of metacommunication which occurs outside of the game itself, my attention will also shift from how people disseminate information to how they go about obtaining it. In such a highly competitive environment, players must earn their right to be privy to certain types of information. Players may be unwilling to tap the glass and educate the fish, but if a person has proven themselves to be competent on their own accord, it is much more likely that others will discuss game strategy with them. Within my time in the field, I found players were reticent to speak with me for fear I was trying to obtain “trade secrets” they had spent years developing. It was only after demonstrating my own knowledge of the game through references to poker jargon or establishing a personal connection through a common interest outside of poker, that they became more open in their conversations.
One person I spoke with at length actually has been a poker mentor of sorts for me long before I began my fieldwork. I inquired as to why he and his friends took me under their wing and educated me about the game. He explained in our first time playing together in a poker tournament, the field of other players was unusually weak. We were briefly put on the same table and he observed that I was one of the few players there who had an understanding of how the game worked. Additionally, my style of play reminded him of when he first took up an interest in the game and, through that identification, a bond was established. Within Caesars, personal friendships and relationships are often more loosely defined. When asked, one person noted they almost always know someone within the room when they show up to play, but often times “knowing” someone extends only to facial recognition and a few mental notes about how they play or their behavior at the table. It is only after months of playing together and through the development of mutual respect that interaction away from the table escalates from perfunctory greetings to lengthier informal conversation.
Discussions about how to approach the game are less common and typically conducted away from the table. Some players like to replay key hands from a session with their most trusted peers to facilitate advice and feedback on how to improve their game while others do not even discuss game theory, save for recalling the action of a hand for an inquisitive player, within the confines of the casino. The players I spoke with dismissed notions of mentoring and discussing their approach to the game with their peers, but oftentimes our interviews were disrupted by another player who came by to say hello. When my interview subject would ask how they were, the players would frequently recall either a big hand they lost or a big hand they won. The retelling of the single hand stood in metonymically for their entire session, indicating to us they were either ahead several hundred dollars or had gotten in some unfortunate or unlucky situations resulting in a financial setback. Players almost never claimed they played a hand badly. Much in the same way players attempt to predict what their opponent holds at the table, their recollection of the hand also includes critique of how poorly the other person played their hand. These retellings of losing hands, called bad beat stories, are perceived as means to vent frustration, but they also reaffirm the narrator’s status as a player of skill to someone who was not there to witness their performance.
In general, players do not like to discuss the larger scope of their financial situations. While they were willing to disclose how much they won or lost in a single session, they remained protective of just how much money they were actually making in a given year. When I asked one player what made him so well suited for poker, he responded by noting his ability to handle the emotional swings of financial losses and gains within the game because he was able to contextualize them within his lifetime earnings. This type of understanding, while not direct metacommunication, still alludes to a successful players’ ability to consider their own position within the greater schemes of the game, the room, and their career respectively. Furthermore, by withholding information about their life outside of poker or the amount of money they have won over the course of a long period of time, they retain more authority in how they are perceived by the poker community. Players I interviewed highlighted their experience and knowledge of the history of the game in order to garner my respect. Often, after interviews were over, other players would take me aside and inform me the person I had spoken with was broke three months earlier or tell me about bad plays they had made in the past to illustrate how I should take what they say with a grain of salt. One man simply cautioned me that the majority of what is said in a casino is some manipulation of the truth and there is no one who is going to be completely straightforward with me. However, shortly after this warning, he also offered to peruse my research in order to point out what is true and what is false.
Questions of authority aside, what the man’s remark reiterates is the game of poker is designed to make sure nothing is as it seems. An old saying amongst poker fans is, “the man who invented poker was clever, but the man who invented chips was a genius”. At the heart of poker interaction is an exchange of goods, but even that is masqueraded through the implementation of the medium of chips. By substituting actual money with only a representation of it, players become detached from its value outside of the casino and instead use it as a tool within their performance. For regular players, this disregard for money is often noted as a key to their success. Their fearlessness as a card player is bolstered by their ability to risk several hundred dollars on a bluff even though they know there is a chance they won’t get that money back. Conversely, their ability to distract other players from the pressures of the world outside the casino doors affords them ample opportunities to capitalize on their opponent’s careless mistakes.
Poker play is a highly specialized mode of performance, but it is a great venue to see the ways in which metacommunication can be used not only to amplify the communicative competence of a speech event, but also provide insights into ways highly reflexive forms of communication is enacted by people to mask or detract attention from the heart of the “primary” elements of a given performance. So often, discussions of metacommunication are focused on how it draws audience attention to the performance itself. The fieldwork of Berger and Del Negro conducted at Ohio concert venues and in Italian villages respectively, have shown some of the ways in which reflexive language has influenced aesthetics through drawing attention to the heightened engagement between performer and audience.# What I hope my research amongst card players has shown is how reflexive language and nonverbal metacommunicative behavior work to manipulate the narrative message between performer and audience. The performer’s metacommunication displays a thorough understanding of their subject positioning within the performance, but does not always impart this understanding to their audience. In a game in which players are constantly avoiding “tapping the glass”, metacommunicative behavior within performance aids in concealing the multiple levels of thought the performer is operating within.
In Karin Barber’s “Preliminary Notes on African Audiences”, she references the multiple ways in which audiences are constructed based on factors such as history and social understanding.# Reflecting back on the levels of metagame a player considers, they help to accommodate the need for poker performer’s to adapt their performance based on their audience. A player operating on level five has considered what level of thinking their opponent is utilizing and adjusts accordingly. For the fish, who are only thinking on the first and second level, a performer’s metacommunicative behavior is purposefully designed to be misinterpreted by their audience in order to achieve fiscal success and gain notoriety as a competent player. Against players who are equally adept, these ever-escalating levels of thought behind metacommunication provide insight into the multi-layered possibilities of reflexive language to influence the aesthetics of a given performance as well as a variation in the ability of the audience to interpret that reflexive language in a particular way. Much in the same way the speech event itself can be dissected into an array of dimensions, metacommunication cannot be described as a single mode of heightened self-awareness, but a fluid range of possibilities that are in need of further exploration and research.