Monday, May 5, 2008

Poker Paper--Part Deux

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.[i] The riverboat casino is located approximately 20 miles west 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 easst 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.[ii] 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.[iii] 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.

[i] Harrahs Entertainment. 2008. 12 April 2008
[ii] Welman, Jessica. Field Notes. The player acknowledged that the 4th and 5th level tend to intertwine and even suggested they could be consolidated into a single level of thought.
[iii] Barnes, H. Lee. Dummy Up and Deal. Las Vegas: UNLV Press, 2002. p. 2

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