So, I am emerging from the self-imposed seclusion for the purposes of conjuring up unreasonable numbers of pages related to poker, NASCAR, and Larry the Cable Guy. While Larry still needs some more time and attention, the other two are done, turned in, and on the back burner, at least for now. The poker one turned out better than I expected and I am hoping to whip it into shape to use with PhD apps and perhaps find a conference to present it at. The NASCAR one I had not given much thought to, but one of my fellow classmates is trying to organize a panel for a conference and she asked if I would be interested, so who know, maybe that one has a future too.
I know, I know, this is not particularly poker related. However, I give you that brief background in order to do what I am about to do next. While I like my poker paper, I still think there is plenty of room for improvement. That being said, I am going to post it in segments on here with the hope that some eager and conversational poker players stumble upon it and have something to add/contest/question. Or, at the very least, I can make my one reader, Danielle, feel as though there is a reason to keep coming back here and checking up on me.
So, I present to you the introduction section of my ethnographic research project:
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.[i] 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”.[ii] 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.[iii] 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”.[iv] 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).[v]
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.[vi]
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.
[i] Poker Players Alliance. 2007. 12 April 2008
<http://pokerplayersalliance.org/pdf/PPATalkingPoints.pdf >. The PPA provides a list of talking points for local lobbyists.
[ii] Bonomo, Justin. “The Evolution of Poker.” Bluff Magazine March 2008: p. 48
[iii] Bauman, Richard. Verbal Art as Performance. Long Grove, IL: Wavelan, 1977. p. 11
[iv] Babcock, Barbara. “The Story in the Story: Metanarration in Folk Narrative.” Verbal Art As Performance. Long Grove, IL: Wavelan, 1977. p. 66
[v] Berger, Harris and Del Negro, Giovanna. “Bauman’s Verbal Art and the Social Organization of Attention: The Role of Reflexivity in the Aesthetics of Performance.” Journal of American Folklore 115(455): 62-91.
[vi] Ibid. Berger and Del Negro were using ideas from Jakobson’s closing remarks in Style and Language (1960)