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.[i] 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.[ii] 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.
[i] Ibid p.85
[ii] Barber, Karin. 1997. “Preliminary Notes on Audiences in Africa.” Africa 67(3):347-362. p.348