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Thursday, May 13, 2004

Brains and Cajones
HDouble's got a beautifully written post up today, titled "Reflections on the Faces of Poker." As the best posts do, it got me thinking. HDouble writes
Unlike the typical 9 to 5 job, poker is a place where intelligence and courage are immediately rewarded. Performance-based pay is rare in the corporate world, and no matter how well you do your job, you're more likely to get a pat on the back rather than a stack of chips.
HDouble's post is about the nature of poker, but it got me thinking about the nature of poker players.

Is it really any wonder that the popularity of poker has exploded in America? You've got literally millions of Americans going to their jobs--whether they're blue collar, white collar, high paying or not--and thinking to themselves "I'm smarter than this." As HDouble says, poker rewards intelligence and courage--with money--in a way that most people's jobs do not. For these people, poker is a way to put their courage and intelligence to the test. A way for people to find out just how far they can go in an arena where only brains and cajones count.

One way of putting it is that poker players tend to have a major "bad-ass" complex. In Neal Stephenson's sci-fi novel Snow Crash, he describes the bad-ass envy that all men feel at some point:
Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.
Good players should never allow themselves to be governed by the bad-ass complex, but neither should they pretend it's not there.

To some degree, I feel this way about online poker. When I mention to someone that I play online, and they respond with a mildly shocked look and say something like "Isn't that illegal?" or "You'll lose your shirt," some part of me is thinking, "I definitely have bigger cajones than you." Juvenile? Yes. But true.

And I admit that the idea of a "bad-ass complex" also sounds a bit juvenile. In Big Deal, Anthony Holden describes poker players in far classier terms, with the theme of "bucking the system":
Almost all the poker players I have known, from the hardened pros of Las Vegas to my amateur Tuesday Night brethren in London, have had one specific characteristic in common: They were all people who liked to feel that they had bucked the system. They were determined to live life on their own terms. In a worldly sense, therefore, they were people who had rarely held down a regular job since compelled to by the indigence of youth. If they had since been obliged to do so, or to attempt to do so, they had extricated themselves from it, regardless of the consequences, with all possible speed.
That's the real appeal of Rounders. Mike McDermott is stuck, on the one hand, humping a crappy job (driving a truck), and on the other hand, following the straight and narrow path to success (going to law school). Forget all the stuff with Worm and Teddy KGB--at the end of the movie, when Mike essentially says, "Screw all this, I've got what it takes to succeed in Vegas," he's declaring that he's going to live life on his own terms. However realistic or unrealistic it may be, you can't be a poker player and not envy Mike in some small way at the moment.

That's also the appeal of Las Vegas--you feel like you're bucking the system just by being there. And it's why professional poker players are becoming minor celebrities--they basically symbolize the dream of living life on your own terms. An overly romantic view? Sure.

I'm not saying that poker can give anyone the ability to live life on their own terms, or that the act of playing poker is for some people an act of social rebellion. OK, I guess I've hinted at those two ideas. But what I'm definitely saying is that poker players, as a group, are intelligent, self-confident, individualistic people who are unafraid of seriously testing themselves on a regular basis. In other words, bad-asses :)

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