Games that are played in millions of Casinos, shady back-rooms, racetracks, betting shops, homes, and innumerable other places across the world. Played legally or illegally for the lowest or the highest monetary stakes, for prestige, for infiltration (I’m looking at you Mr Bond…), and sometimes – just sometimes – because they’re fun.
Poker, blackjack and the powers of gambling were on the agenda at the most recent sOUgame meeting, where four intrepid players brought their cash in the hope they may leave with more than they started with. But before we delve into the workings of this admittedly small stakes
and friendly gaming session with friends, first we must look at the nature of poker as a game.
I’m not going to go into all the rules of poker here, few though they may be. At the most basic level, certain combinations of cards are more valuable (and statistically less likely to be achieved) than other combinations, and this establishes who wins each round. I don’t think that it’s hyperbole to suggest that you could spend a minute to read and understand what the rules of poker are, and a lifetime actually learning how to play it – or I suppose, playing well enough to win. This implies that poker is, fundamentally, a game of skill – there are better or worse players (hence “Pro” players) and that playing well is a skill that can ultimately be learned. One must learn what to do with the cards they are dealt in relation to the cards on the table, as well as how to read their opponents.
However, it isn’t just skill though is it? Card games are by the very nature often games of chance, which puts poker in both categories, but which element is the most important to the game: skill, or chance?
If we reduce play to the most basic components, according to Caillois, games can be classified into four categories.
- Agon games are those that embody the spirit of competition. Sports fall into this category, as well as board games such as chess. Indeed, any game that involves any kind of contest includes an agonistic element and tends to be based on one element for the competition (speed, strength, skill, etc).
- Alea games are those that fundamentally have a chance element, where the decisions of the player have no affect on the outcome of the game – the player has no control. Heads or tails, or playing the lottery, indeed gambling, are examples of the alea classification.
- Mimicry. This classification related to the idea of simulation, of propagating an illusion of something. When children play make-believe as Cowboys and Indians, or pretend to be their favourite superhero, this is a form of mimicry. Though adult equivalents are also numerous, role-playing for example.
- Ilinx are those games in the pursuit of vertigo, of spinning around until you become dizzy, or riding a rollercoaster – it’s purpose is to temporarily remove the stability of reality. Even indulging in alcohol is a form of Ilinx.
Many games do not have any one of these classifications alone, and Caillois suggests that within individual games, certain combinations of these classifications have fundamental relationships (as opposed to contingent or forbidden relationships), in that some of the classifications are particularly well-suited and ultimately compatible. His assertion is that the agon-alea relationship is a fundamental one, “parallel and complementary”, and it is this fundamental relationship that the game of poker embodies.
I could wax lyrical about Cailliois’ for a very long time, as it’s one of those texts that changes how you view the world, so much so you can never go back to looking at it in the same way as before.
Read it. Read it now.
Having outlined these play classifications, and where our games this session fall within them, that our game let us to return to our poker game.
There were various experience levels amongst the four players. Two of us had played poker before many times, one of us had played a digital version (not online poker, but games of poker within a digital game, so there were no stakes of real-world money) and one player had never played before. If we take poker as a game of skill, one would assume on experience alone, that one of the two more-experienced players to win the game. We will return to this later.
All players had invested the same amount of cash, exchanging this for the same number of chips, so all players had the same starting point. As the game progressed, one of the players got knocked out, in that they had no chips left. As it happens, I won the round that ultimately knocked that player out of the game. Surprisingly, this produced in me a feeling of guilt – even though I had, in effect, “won” the round. I suppose it was because the way I had had played the game meant someone else couldn’t, and to me that felt wrong. It was that they were no longer able to play the game anymore, it was the exclusion that bothered me, not because I had taken their money – far from it. When you decide to play a game of chance, it is with the knowledge that you may lose the cash, or indeed you may win it.
And cash is nice.
To compensate for this, I began to offer them chips in exchange for bringing me a beverage from the fridge – and additional chips in fines for my poor etiquette in the household – forgot to close the fridge, doh! – admittedly a faux pas but in normal circumstances would have constituted a friendly scolding as opposed to a financial penalty. This is certainly not to say financial demands were placed upon me (I must stress that the opposite was true on multiple occasions) but this was my way of trying to balance my conscience as a winner using actual, real cash. Perhaps this is the feeling that motivates rich philanthropists – they can justify their millions in the bank by making comparatively pitiful donations to worthy causes.
Talking of millions, casinos make big money. As an example,
“The University of Las Vegas found that the 23 Vegas casinos bringing in over $72 million each in the 2013 fiscal year ended up with over $5 billion of their visitors’ money, altogether. That’s an average of over $630,000 a day, per casino.”
This, I feel, is another inherent problem with gambling – in establishments such as casinos at the very least. The odds are always in the house’s favour, and stacked against the player. These casinos prey on people’s hopes for a win, the brief exhilaration felt on the odd occasions where it actually happens, and upon many people who have the compulsion to gamble or are ultimately addicted to the positive feelings that gambling gives. In our session, we talked about the adrenaline rush of winning a round of poker, and that this was (obviously) the most enjoyable element of the game. Those moments of exhilaration are fleeting and few, though enough for people to continue to gamble, resulting in losses that can be catastrophic and involve these – arguably fairly vulnerable people – spiralling into debt.
The vehement and aggressive rejection from casinos of those that are believed to be counting cards – who have become better skilled at playing the game than the casino would like or allow – is symptomatic of the importance that casinos place on being the only entity that should profit from the gambling experience. Casinos would call card-counting “cheating”, though if the odds are always stacked against the player and in the house’s favour, who’s really cheating who?
Online gambling was also a topic that was under discussion, in how does not seeing or even knowing your opponent affect the gambling experience? There is an element of truth to being able to look your opponent in the eye, and to finding out whether you’re playing with bluffers, risk-takers or neither. If playing with friends, it’s interesting to find out their “poker persona”, who they are within the game. Playing online removes this personal element to the play experience, and also (in my mind at least) produces questions about the legitimacy of the games. If the odds are stacked against the player in physical casinos, how can one know that the games aren’t rigged against the player even more in online gambling environments? The whole point of games of chance, those with the alea element, is that you surrender to destiny and that the outcome is unknown. Whether there is truth to this position or it is merely a conspiracy theory, it feels that games of chance in online environments could be more likely to have pre-determined outcomes, stacking the odds ever-more against the player.
To return to our game, where the stakes were admittedly small and we began as equals with the same chances of winning (or losing), we were playing not for any great commercial gain (though that may have been nice) but to enjoy the experience of play itself. Even with poor hands, we all admitted to betting in rounds rather than folding, just to be part of the play experience. Though it was also important for there to be a financial stake involved, small as it was, as this impacted how we played – if there is nothing ventured and nothing to lose, there is no incentive to play carefully. Then the alea element would fully take over, as the game would rest merely on who has the highest cards, without needing any skill to “read” the other players’ actions. The monetary element of poker is what makes it truly agonistic: the players compete to win the money. However, the best player in the world won’t stand a chance if what they draw is at odds with the cards on the table – unless, of course they have the skill to bluff their way out of the situation. Both agon and alea are too firmly seated in poker for the game to work without either one of them. Perhaps this is what Caillois meant, when he talked about those fundamental relationships. Something that also affected how we played? Alcohol. In our pursuit of ilinx, perhaps we affected the agon of the game. Worth it.
Finally, it’s also important to note that the ultimate winner of the game was the player that had played poker for the first time that evening, and not one of the more experienced players. Experience in a game clearly doesn’t always mean “skill” at it. At least the rest of us could console ourselves with ideas that “they obviously had better cards” and thoughts of “beginners luck”.
Perhaps the alea element in poker is greater, after all.