The way you play poker expresses who you are. You might be careless, spineless, suspicious, impulsive, malicious — whatever you are, your poker game will magnify and expose these flaws.
It will magnify your good points too (assuming you have any). Whether you lose or win a big hand, either way, it always feels like karma. The hands are revealed (or not), and we are left with nothing but the results of our actions. By the time it reaches the final table, a good poker tournament will take on the epic moral dimensions of a Sophocles play or a Tolstoy novel.
Only in amateur poker games does luck play a major role. When serious players bet, every risk is calculated and understood, and the focus of the game shifts to the human elements — intimidation, emotion, fear, greed. A good player must have an excellent understanding of these factors. Poker is a writer’s game.
The game also depends, more than almost any other form of organized competition, on the ability to create fiction. If you and I are playing heads up, there are two hands dealt between us, but there are four hands in the game: the hand I’m holding, the hand you’re holding, the hand you think I’m holding and the hand I think you’re holding. The imaginary hands are actually more important than the actual hands, and more often than not the imaginary hands are the only ones ever revealed.
Consider this: you’re at a Texas Hold ‘Em table, and the player to your right places a small bet. You’re holding a pair of sevens — a good hand only if you can scare the other players off the table, because it’s not likely to hold up. Your strongest move is to steal the blinds, so what do you do? You have to invent for yourself a monster hand — paired kings or aces — and you do this by going all-in.
You’ve just built an alternate reality, a hand that doesn’t exist. You can’t go all in on a pair of sevens, or at least that’s what you’re hoping everybody will think (and you have to constantly change up your style, or else they’ll start figuring you out). The best poker players must have the ability to see through other players’ constructed fantasies, and they also must have exceptional abilities to convince other players to believe in their own.
Poker is the triumph of the imagination. Say you’re actually holding pocket kings, and then a third king and a small pair fall on the flop. Now you have to quickly construct for yourself a sad, losing hand — maybe a bustable low flush draw or a weak attempt at bluffing with nothing — to entice the others to stay in against your killer full house. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, and that’s why it’s such a thrill when it works. If you can take two or three players down to the bitter end, and maybe even get in a gleeful check-raise on the river … well, this is the same glorious feeling you get when you’ve written a great short story that they actually believe. Poker is a writer’s game.
With this in mind, I would like to hear your opinions on an important question. If William Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, Miguel De Cervantes’ Don Quixote, William Makepeace Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, Henry James’ Isabel Archer, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Florentino Ariza and Mario Puzo’s Michael Corleone were at the final table in the World Series of Poker, who would win the million dollars?
I would like to hear your answers, and I will reveal what I believe to be the most likely outcome of this tournament on Monday evening.
(UPDATE: see this post or the comment by Levi Asher below for the exciting tournament results).