Let's give a big hand to poker

Al Alvarez, who's dealt a hand or two in his time, explains the thrill of the game
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The Independent Online

A dozen years ago, three of us, all dedicated players, wasted months trying to promote poker as a television game. No one was interested. Poker, the production companies told us, isn't a spectator sport. It's like watching paint dry, slow, boring, monotonous, and expensive to produce; hours of filming, they said, while players throw away unplayable cards and nothing happens. And think of the dialogue: nothing but "check", "raise", "fold". And even when the confrontations come, who would understand what was happening? Poker is an American game, they said; we Brits prefer snooker and bowls.

A dozen years ago, three of us, all dedicated players, wasted months trying to promote poker as a television game. No one was interested. Poker, the production companies told us, isn't a spectator sport. It's like watching paint dry, slow, boring, monotonous, and expensive to produce; hours of filming, they said, while players throw away unplayable cards and nothing happens. And think of the dialogue: nothing but "check", "raise", "fold". And even when the confrontations come, who would understand what was happening? Poker is an American game, they said; we Brits prefer snooker and bowls.

Channel 4 has now proved them wrong. Fierce and cunning editing was all it took to eliminate tedium, create drama and persuade a huge audience, most of them young, to stay up late and watch paint dry. It has also become a spectator sport because "Hold 'em", the television variation of the game that decides the World Championship each year, is played with communal cards which everyone can see: five of them by the end, exposed face-up in the centre of the table, and used in combination with the two cards each player is dealt face-down "in the hole".

So the viewers can work out for themselves what is happening, especially since the producers solved the problem of the mystery hole cards by putting a glass rim around the table and cameras beneath. By these simple means, poker has become for the audience what it has always been for the players, a compelling game of skill, manoeuvring and character.

In the film, My Little Chickadee, someone asks WC Fields if poker is a game of chance. He answers, "Not the way I play it." He was speaking as a cardsharp, but he was also speaking the truth. Poker is about calculation, memory, self-control, insight and that humdrum virtue Texans call "a leather ass" - patience. In terms of skill, it is closer to chess than to, say, rummy or even blackjack. Chess is a game of pure information, like poker with all the cards exposed; the better player will always win; that is why a computer can be programmed to play it so well. But the only way a computer could be made to play top-level poker would be by introducing a randomising factor into the program, which would correspond both to the random way the cards fall and to the element of bluff. The better player will usually win at poker, but because the cards are shuffled and dealt haphazardly, the sucker occasionally gets lucky and beats the expert - occasionally but not for long.

Before 1960, when parliament passed the Gaming Act, it was illegal to play poker in a card club, because whichever bureaucracy controls these matters had officially classified it - along with bingo, craps and roulette - as a game of chance.

The civil servants were confused by the appearance of the game, rather than its reality. Poker looks like gambling because it has to be played for money. In blackjack, chips are just a way of keeping score; in poker, they combine with the cards to form the very language of the game. What you do with your chips - when and how you bet or check or raise - is a form of communication. You ask subtle questions with your chips and receive subtle answers.

The questions and answers may be misleading - a big bet might be a sign of weakness, an attempt to drive the other players out of the pot because you do not have the hand you purport to have - but the combination of cards and money and position at the table creates a complex pattern of information (or illusion) that controls the flow of the game. In poker, betting and what is called "money management" - knowing when to call or raise or fold so that your bankroll is never fatally depleted - are as much an art as reading the cards and reckoning the odds.

None of these subtleties means much to casual players who play in private games where the action's the thing. Mostly, they prefer crazy variations with enough wild cards to give everyone a hand to draw to; only wimps fold, and the point of the game is to run outrageous bluffs, show off and have fun. Compared with this innocent horsing around, Hold 'em, as it is played on television, in Las Vegas and in clubs, is as dour and unrelenting as labouring in the salt mines. It is a deep game and you never stop learning. I myself have been playing for more than 40 years and I'm still learning, although now, when I play only in casinos, I've learnt enough to know I will never be as good as the professionals.

None of the technical intricacies of the game are of much interest to the television audience. They are fascinated instead by the characters on display - and that, too, is one of the skills the serious poker player must acquire. It is not enough to know the percentages, calculate the odds, and study the betting patterns of the other players. You also need to analyse their characters and read their faces - to separate the fox from the buffalo, the tortoise from the hare, the rock from the snake beneath it.

And all the while you are watching them for "tells", those small, involuntary or unconscious telltale gestures that indicate tension. According to the late Johnny Moss, the grand old man of poker and three times world champion: "You have to learn what kind of hand this man shows down, watch that one's moves, watch the veins in his neck, watch his eyes, the way he sweats." This style of attention creates a curious but impersonal intimacy. I know, for example, that if one of the guys I play with tugs his ear when he calls a bet it means he has nothing and is hoping to fill his hand; another always clears his throat before he bluffs; a third says "raise" when he has you beat and "raise the pot" when he is bluffing. I see none of them away from the table, yet I know at least some of their nervous tics as well as, or maybe better than, their own wives do.

Knowing the other players is less important than knowing yourself. Puggy Pearson, another world champion, once said: "The first thing a gambler has to do is make friends with himself." He was talking about character: you have to be able to recognise your own weaknesses - impulsiveness, impatience, greed, fear.

But the greatest enemy of all is vanity. One long-running private game I used to play in was kept afloat for years by a single player. He was a successful businessman, a connoisseur of great vintages and a friend of famous wine-growers; he spoke three languages fluently and was a shrewd collector of modern art. But he was a dreadful poker player, a wild gambler who called on anything and ignored the odds because he knew nothing about them. This was a tough game and he didn't stand a chance. Yet he kept coming back because he couldn't believe that what he considered to be a gang of layabouts who lacked his inestimable advantages could possibly be his superiors in anything. He helped pay our mortgages and educate our kids, he subsidised our holidays and nights out on the town, all because of his vanity.

Character, in fact, is one of the great attractions of poker. As is fitting for America's national game, it is a truly democratic activity. At the poker table nobody cares about race, colour, creed, about who you are, where you come from or how you earn your living. A little green man from a far-off galaxy could sit down and play and no one would no- tice, provided he had enough chips in front of him and ante-ed up on time.

This is what makes the game so fascinating to watch. Many of the best players are mavericks, clever people who can't quite hack it in the straight world with a boss and a routine and a regular job. They prefer to live by their wits on the edge of society and make their own timetables. One week they are flush, cashing in their chips for packets of crisp £50 notes. A week later they are hanging around the poker rooms, flat broke, trying to scrounge a stake. But that is how they like it. They accept that living on their own terms is bound to be a risky proposition. But it is good for the character and that is something all of them have plenty of. No wonder the TV audience keeps watching.

Al Alvarez is the author of 'The Biggest Game in Town'

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