Make a Stand for the Human!

Make a stand for the human! It’s a phrase that over the years has become something of a personal mantra which I will throw at bemused friends and strangers alike. And although I’m not quite at the stage of standing on a street corner with it written on a handmade sign there’s still time yet for me to become a total evangelist against the virtual. For it’s a piece of unsolicited advice that I regularly share with those who I fear are unduly attached to all things social media…like er, twitter, blogs, online poker…              [edit: you have permission to throw back at me the equally valid admonition – physician, heal thyself!]. 

I think the first time that I ever said it was when talking to someone on MSN Messenger  – how about that for a blast from the past?! – and after about half hour of soulless tapping away at a keyboard, it suddenly occurred to me…we lived less than a mile away from each other in a city like London which offers, as no doubt the spirit of Dr Johnson was reminding me, “all that life can afford”. Cafes, bars, parks, casinos, lap-dancing clubs…you get the metropolitan drift. And yet, here we were reaching out across the virtual waves while sitting in our hermetically sealed isolation pods. How very Brave New World.

So I suggested that we ‘make a stand for the human’ and meet up IRL as it were. And so we did at which point I remembered what an irritating man he was in person and why we usually stuck to online chats but let’s move on from that particular example in case it destroys the whole argument of this post before I’ve even started…

I was thinking about this on my way yesterday to what is clearly set to become my regular local poker night*. As you may have seen in an earlier post, I experienced during the recent EPT London for the very first time live tournament play with – to put it mildly – somewhat mixed results. Or to put it slightly more bluntly, it was an absolute car crash of panic and bewilderment.

I had heard that the transition from online to live is a testing one but nothing prepared me for the shock to the senses that is sitting at a table peopled by real life human beings without a screen, mouse and instant pot calculation to shield one’s vulnerability. I managed to cling on to about the 6th level of Blinds by simply descending into such a state of paralysis that if I had got any nittier, I would have ended up with a minus VPIP. My brain felt rather like my laptop on being updated to the latest Windows but without even at least the ability to make a nice plinky plonky starting up sound.

And yet, there was something in the experience that I found wonderfully exhilarating. Something new and fresh. An awareness that I was catching a glimpse of a whole undiscovered vista of poker, a world of real people, laughing and talking together rather than avatars and cursors and trash filled chatboxes.

What? Poker is a game played by living breathing human beings? Who knew eh? Bet that’s a shock to all the internet kids…

And that’s the irony of course. We’re talking about poker –  a game that according to some theories about its origins may be more than 200 years old of which only around 15 years has been dominated by the internet. And yet for many, particularly the young ‘digital natives’,  say to them the word poker and it’s only ever viewed through www tinted glasses. For many – myself included until very recently – poker was in one sense very much a solitary activity mediated by clicks and taps.

And undoubtedly, the internet has brought huge benefits and opportunities to the game. A whole generation of players who would never have had the nerve to step into – and more importantly stay – in a casino have found an easy and safe route into learning and improving their game. In the same way that people who would have never dreamed of placing a bet on horses or football in a bricks and mortar bookmakers can  now access such gambling portals from the comfort of their own home. It has been a huge bonus both for the industry but also for those who have discovered – hopefully in a sensible and healthy way – such pleasures.

Furthermore, the internet has opened up new avenues of profit for the legion of hardcore grinders for whom poker is a serious career path. A choice of profession which would be much harder to maintain if play was limited to the physical realm where playing 25 tables at once is rather difficult without the handy power of bilocation.

But still, that voice demanding that we make a stand for the human can be heard crying in the internet wilderness. A voice whose clarion call I really noticed on that fateful night during my EPT tourney experience. A voice which compelled me to not simply give up on live play – as was I must admit partly the temptation – after having such a bewildering time.

It helped that I got to speak during EPT to some great professionals whose primary experience is still very much rooted in the live play scene. Namely, Ian Simpson (he of Irish Open winning fame) was a huge inspiration with his obvious love for playing live and the aforementioned enjoyment that comes from being in the same room as your opponent. Yeah, totally rad 🙂

So thanks to such encouragement, clearly I wasn’t prepared to give up just yet on live play. I did some research and discovered much to my pleasant surprise a weekly tournament in a bar ridiculously close to my home, geared more to beginners – beginners in the sense of those transitioning from online to live, rather than to the game itself. Yes, yet again, those poker gods were smiling on me!

And that is where I was heading again last night and it was on the way to it, after receiving a text from my mother that I thought about writing this post. She said in her message “Enjoy your evening!” rather than ‘good luck’ or ‘hope you win’ etc. And that got me thinking how I actually wasn’t really bothered about winning, that it was all about just enjoying the experience.

In fact I was of course fully aware that with all the various tugs and pulls of variance, even with good play it would be perfectly possible for me to be busted out relatively quickly. But that truly didn’t matter because nothing was going to change the fact that I was going to be hanging out with other poker players watching and learning how they play while getting used to all those practical issues that had befuddled me before. And that was enough to excite and appeal to me.

This was an opportunity whatever happened to immerse myself in a poker environment. And with a beer in my hand while hanging out with a great bunch of people who I could talk hand ranges with – could it get any better than that for a poker nerd!? Ok if you read the footnote below then maybe yes 😉

And what a great night it turned out to be again. It was my second visit there and in that time I’ve met everyone from  diamond dealers to trainee journalists to yesterday’s Carlton and Abdoulie – two clearly up and coming actors who brought as you’d imagine a great vibe to the evening. And as we all sat at the table, sharing wit and wisdom – while making light fun of couple of the more serious types in shades 😉 – I felt like I was discovering anew what a wide and varied range of delights this wonderful and frustrating game can bring us.

Still, I find it somewhat ironic that I am writing this today after the reported news of planned changes to payment structures etc by  Pokerstars which clearly are of great concern to many online players. And in spite of my paean to the joys of the live game, I understand the disastrous implications that such changes may have for the livelihoods of many players and I share their concern as to what it will mean for them.

But reading some of the comments today, I was a little bemused by talk that ‘poker is dead’ or ‘there is no future for poker now’. Yes, I can see that the future of internet poker – particularly with the added confusion of varying regulatory regimes around the world – is problematic for those at the relatively higher levels.

Yet, in a sense it only goes to underline further my point about the live side of the game. It’s rather like when football at the professional level is criticised for various excesses and people will try to argue that football is dead. Well, that might be the case at the premier level etc but regardless of what happens up at those hi-octane heights, down here at the foot of the mountain, as long as there is a patch of open space and a ball then people will kick it around and have a damn good time doing so.

Or to think of it in another way, the music industry has over the past ten years faced many challenges and continues to struggle with how to monetize what it produces. Which explains the famous ‘Bowie Doctrine’ in which David Bowie over ten years ago predicted that musicians would have return to touring and concerts in order to make money. In other words return to their live roots which of course is what is happening now. People may be unwilling to buy music but are more happy than ever to go to gigs – from huge stadia to tiny upstairs venues – and rediscover the enjoyment of sharing that social experience.

Likewise, whatever happens in terms of professional players – and again I share the concerns of my friends at those levels –  it will always be a very different situation for recreational players like myself, for whom this very unlikely to ever be a career path.

And looking back over the long history of poker, it’s clear that that has always been its beauty. From sharp suited card sharks on a Mississippi steamboat to grizzly workers in a Manhattan backstreet bar to refined ladies in Macau – the game is there to be experienced and enjoyed in whatever way people choose to access it.

Of course this being said,  I will continue to primarily play online. It will likely always remain my my main ‘venue’ of choice just for reasons of ease and comfort. But I am glad that my experience of the game has been opened up even further in a suitably old school way 🙂

For underlying it all, is my point that we as human beings are social creatures and what has set us apart from the rest of creation are the myriad ways in which we can connect and cooperate with each other, whether that be hunched around a fire discussing where the best mammoths are or shooting the breeze over beer and cards. And as long as we walk this earth then there will always be a place for poker in creating and maintaining those connections.

So as someone who on the whole likes to be optimistic about life and feel positive about the future of humanity and even more importantly, loves poker more than anything else, that’s more than enough reason to continue making that stand.


*As a footnote, in case you hadn’t already seen me tweet my shameless piece of self-congratulatory egotistic promotion (hey, it’s Twitter – such things are written into the T&C!) then perhaps I should mention that I ended up winning the tourney last night. Ok, not exactly WSOP and it was a fun night so we were all out to enjoy ourselves and not necessarily play totally seriously but still, if there’s a moral to this tale – apart from keeping it human  – it’s the old classic wisdom: if at first you don’t succeed…. 🙂

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