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.[i] 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.[ii]
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”.[iii] 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”.[iv] 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”.[v] 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.
[i] Harrington, Dan and Robertie, Bill. Harrington on Hold Em: Expert Strategy for No Limit Hold Em Tournaments, Vol. 1: Strategic Play. Henderson, NV: Two Plus Two, 2004. This is the first of several strategy books by Harrington, who is one of the most popular poker authors. Other known poker authors, such as David Sklansky, also purport a very conservative style of play.
[ii] Briggs, Charles. 1986. Learning How to Ask. Cambridge. p. 53-54
[iii] Ibid p.86
[iv] Rogers, Kenny. “The Gambler.” The Gambler. UA, 1978
[v] This quotation from Hellmuth is often cited within poker rooms and oft repeated by Hellmuth himself on a number of televised poker programs including “World Series of Poker” and “Poker After Dark”.