Poker

It's because words are such effective tools of communication that we sometimes fail to realize how often we communicate without them. A conversation is sometimes a physical exchange. These conversations carry meaning that can only exist in the physical realm.

We signify to each other with words, with gestures, with emotional expressions. We also signify with commitments, with actions, and when this occurs (as it constantly does in our everyday lives) we are able to see that logical meaning is itself a physical thing. We can't say what we want to say without putting our bodies into it.

For example: my wife and I go to a wedding of a friend of hers who we haven't seen in a while. We both like the bride and groom a lot, and we used to enjoy hanging out with them, but tonight we barely get to talk to the marrying couple because they are so busy running around being the bride and groom. Still, we are glad we came to the wedding, because we are able to express something to the couple by being there. They know that we are there because we want to celebrate their marriage, and this recognition (which might not take place till weeks later when they see their wedding photos) amounts to a happy conversation that could not have been carried out if we were not there. We could have sent a card, and the card could have had many more words on it than we had a chance to speak. But the card would have expressed not more meaning but less than we expressed by being there.

A game of poker provides another example of a form of communication that requires physical investment. This is the most basic rule of poker: your money does the talking. Let's say you're holding a pair of kings before the flop and somebody bets $20 and two others call. You decide that you'd like to take down the pot before the flop with an all-in bet, since you're pretty sure your kings have everyone beat right now, even though they might not hold up at the river. So you go all-in. By shoving your chips you are communicating loudly and clearly.

But you could not possibly have communicated what you just communicated without committing all your chips. It's important to note that, when the others fold (as you hope they will), they are not communicating back. When each player folds, that player is ending their part of the conversation. When they all fold, this conversation is over. The next conversation begins when the next hand is dealt.

So we sometimes communicate our friendship with our bodies, and we sometimes communicate our self-confidence with our money. But here's a darker aspect to the same idea, which occurred to me during the past week as I watched the depressing news from Israel and Palestine. Hamas is firing rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip, and Israel is firing bigger weapons back. It's a horrible situation all around, and everybody is asking "why can't they just stop?"

The sad answer is, they can't stop because they are in the middle of a conversation that both sides feel compelled to have. By firing rockets at Israel, Hamas is saying "we don't accept Israel's right to exist, and we refuse to back down even though we lack enough military strength to defeat them in open battle." Once we look closely at Hamas's actions, it becomes clear that the only possible purpose of their rocket attacks is to make this statement. There is no strategic purpose; they are simply gesturing. Just as a poker player can't say "I have a monster hand here, you better all fold" without backing it up with a bet, Hamas believe that they can't say "we don't accept Israel's right to exist" without backing it up with armed attacks.

Of course, Israel is also using weapons as communication when it returns the attacks with much greater force. There's been a whole lot of communication going on between Hamas and Israel in the past few days.

But here's the terrible irony of the situation: Israel and Hamas refuse to talk to each other. Hamas won't talk to Israel because doing so would seem to amount to a recognition of Israel's right to exist. Israel won't talk to Hamas because it won't negotiate with terrorists. So both countries are pretending not to talk to each other. All the while, they're communicating back and forth with weapons that have no purpose other than signification.

I recently had a long argument with a few friends about whether or not Israel should agree to begin peace talks with Hamas. These pro-Israeli friends of mine seem to believe that that Israel can achieve something greater by refusing to talk with Hamas, though I can't imagine how they think this strategy can possibly succeed.

I have other friends who generally advocate the pro-Palestinian side, and similarly believe that Hamas should not agree to peace talks. It's also impossible for me to understand how they think this strategy will succeed.

I think we're all asking the wrong questions. Both Israel and Hamas are pretending to refuse to talk to each other, while in fact they're communicating in the worst possible way. Maybe it will help to acknowledge that what needs to be expressed simply needs to be expressed. If the words can't be found, the physical actions will carry the meaning instead. Our challenge is to find the words.

This is why I will always advocate for peace talks between any enemies, no matter how much bitter hatred exists between them. This conversation is already taking place, because war is a form of language. If we refuse to allow the necessary communications to be expressed in words, they will be expressed with weapons.

We should never doubt that peace talks can be crucially important, even when they appear likely to be hopeless. It doesn't matter if we have no hope; we need to have the peace talks anyway. Like a poker player who decides to fold a hand, what we need is not the beginning of a good conversation. What we desparately need is the end of a bad conversation that has already been going on way too long.

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We can't say what we want to say without putting our bodies into it. This explains a lot about why wars are so hard to end.

view /WarLanguage
Friday, July 18, 2014 04:47 pm
Rocket launchers form a complete sentence.
Story
Levi Asher

I was nothing but psyched when I heard that postmodern novelist Colson Whitehead was writing a book about poker. Sure sounded like a great idea to me.

Whitehead is a clever, acidic satirist with a gift for inventive situations and touching emotional connections. Can he write? Absolutely -- novels like The Intuitionist and Apex Hides the Hurt have proven this. But can he write about poker? His new book The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death has some big problems (and, no, I'm not going to refer to the book as a "bad beat" or a "dead hand" so please stop expecting the obvious puns).

This book began as a magazine article, and maybe should have stayed that way. Whitehead was sent to Las Vegas by Grantland to play in the World Series of Poker, and The Noble Hustle describes his emotional state (troubled) and his confidence problems (severe) as he prepares for this showdown by playing at the Trop in Atlantic City, reading up on the classic poker texts, even obtaining an official poker coach. These preparatory sections of the book show off Whitehead's literary dexterity, and are occasionally dazzling. The further away from poker he gets, the better he writes, as when he soaks up the sensations of an Atlantic City bus ride that turns out to be less seedy than he expects:

The other passengers queued up for AC were exfoliated and fit, heading down for Memorial Day fun, not the disreputable lot of Port Authority legend. Their weekend bags gave no indication that they contained their owners' sole possessions. Where have all the molesters gone, the weenie waggles and chicken hawks? Whither the diddlers? The only shabby element I registered was the signage at the Greyhound and Peter Pan counters, still showcasing the dependable logos remembered from the bad trips of yore. Returning from a botched assignment or misguided attempt to reconnect with an old friend. Rumbling and put-putting to a scary relative's house in bleak winter as you peered into the gray mist through green, trapezoid windows. Greyhounds were raised in deplorable puppy mills and drugged up for the racetrack, I think I read somewhere, and Peter Pan used to enter kids' bedrooms and entice them, so perhaps there is a core aspect to the bus industry that defies rebranding.

Okay, so Colson Whitehead can write about buses. But, again, can he write about poker? Something goes wrong in this book whenever he tries, as when he presents an extended explanation of the familiar ranking of poker hands, constructed entirely of pop-culture metaphors:

Next comes two pair. You have one pair of thermal socks. Ready to throw down with Old Man Winter, "To Build A Fire"-style. Robotron over there has one pair of Miles Davis CDs and one pair of coupons for free Jazzercise lessons. He wins: two pair beats having one pair. Now let's say you also have a pair of 'Golden Girls' box sets so that you both have two pair. The highest value pair determines who wins. In this case, Miles Davis takes it for Robotron.

I really hope for the sake of Colson Whitehead's readers that nobody ever sits down at a real poker table with this as a guide, because this is not a helpful explanation of poker hand rankings. It may be funny, but it clears up absolutely nothing, and there is not a single human being anywhere in the world who can't already understand what "two pair" means and would benefit from the help of a metaphor involving Miles Davis, 'Golden Girls' and Jazzercise. Two pair is two pair. Two pair beats one pair. Higher two pair beats lower two pair. These concepts are innate. I taught my own kids how to play poker from a very young age, and I have seen for myself how easily a new brain can assimilate and immediately begin to employ notions like "one pair" and "two pair". Metaphors are simply not useful here.

Why would a very good writer like Colson Whitehead lose his firm sense of direction on a project like this? I have a theory, and it has to do with the familiar literary problem known as the anxiety of influence. Whitehead is a compulsively original writer -- this is much of the appeal of his books -- and I suspect that he can't face up to the horrible fact that in taking this assignment from Grantland he is totally copying the now legendary James McManus, who was also sent by a magazine to play in the World Series of Poker, and ended up playing extremely well and writing a wonderful book about the experience, Positively Fifth Street.

Whitehead acknowledges James McManus in this book, and is clearly aware of the problem that, even if he reaches the final table, he'll be following in McManus's footsteps. There may also be other literary reasons for the author's apparent ambivalence. Whitehead's entire anguished persona as a writer would be incongruous with winning the World Series of Poker. It would be like Charlie Brown kicking the football. If this happened, what would happen to his career as a dark and self-mocking author?

I believe this structural ambivalence doomed this entire project from the outset, because through all of Whitehead's frantic preparations and worries about the World Series of Poker in this book there is a strange lingering sense that the author is focused on everything but winning. He is clearly a writer first and a poker player second, and as a writer he knows that "literary amateur reaches final table" has already been done.

The fact that Whitehead is not dying to win as he narrates his key hands renders him a very poor poker writer. (I speak of "poker writer" as a distinct type because I am a very enthusiastic Hold 'Em player myself, and I read a lot about poker, and also write a lot about poker.) One example of a really good poker book is Gus Hansen's Every Hand Revealed, a fascinating stream of consciousness by a great player in a tournament. Gus Hansen does win in this book, and it's a gripping book to read precisely because he so badly wants to win.

The Noble Hustle proceeds as a panorama of human anxiety, a comic portrait of a person who isn't really in the right mood to play a poker tournament and who plays and quickly loses. The only time Whitehead really finds his poker-writing mojo is in the final sequence, when he crashes out of the World Series of Poker on the second day (a fairly lame showing, though at least he made it past the first day). One senses in these moments that, finally, the author is engaged and really trying hard to stay alive. Perhaps he is engaged here because, even though he still doesn't want to copy James McManus and make it to the final table, he also realizes that it would be embarrassing to leave the tournament too early, which is what he's about to do.

The best poker writing in The Noble Hustle takes place in these final pages, as Whitehead's blinds dwindle away and he carefully selects his fatal last chance. Apart from these few gripping poker scenes at the end, this is still a pretty good Colson Whitehead book. It's gritty and psychologically deft and propulsive, and Whitehead is always a clever and entertaining guy to be around. It's a good Colson Whitehead book, but it's just not a good poker book. I'm not going to end this article with a poker pun, so stop waiting for it.

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This is a good Colson Whitehead book, but it's not a good poker book.

view /NobleHustle
Wednesday, May 21, 2014 06:48 pm
The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead
Story
Levi Asher

What happens when an irresistible force meets an unmovable object? In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 150 years ago, 51,000 people died or were severely wounded.

I'm in Gettysburg now, soaking in the historical moment with Civil War buffs, reenactors, curious locals, traveling families, bikers, historians, writers, artists, unidentifiable visitors from North and South. Everyone is friendly -- happy, even, which is strange when you consider the disaster we are here to remember. The only way to know which of the two sides any person might feel they represent is to look at the license plates on their cars.

As I stood yesterday at the legendary copse of trees at the famous Angle on Cemetery Ridge with two of my kids, a blond biker dude with his girlfriend proudly announced to us that he had brought his horse with him today, though the horse was currently nowhere in sight. "You're in the cavalry?" I asked him. He solemnly affirmed. Union? I wondered. Confederate? It didn't matter. The fight was over. All that remains is our collective desire as a people to see through the gauze of history and understand what once happened on this field.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the physical climax of the Civil War; the Confederates would fight on for two more grisly years after their defeat here, but they would never attack again as they attacked at this spot. From the beginning of the war, they'd always held the weaker position. They had fewer resources, fewer soldiers, no international support. But the South was itself politically united to a degree the North was not, and the brilliant Confederate military chief Robert E. Lee's main objective was political rather than military.

By invading the North through Maryland and Pennsylvania and winning battlefield victories, Lee hoped to break the Union's political will to continue the fight. For the first two years of the war, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia won one stunning victory after another on Southern territory -- Manassas, the Peninsula, Manassas again, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville. But Lee's first attempt to invade the North and hurt the Union where it lived failed in Sharpsburg, Maryland near Antietam Creek in 1862. Gettysburg was the culmination of his second and last attempt.

A strange thought occurred to me as I strolled the dramatic terrain of Little Round Top and Devil's Den with my family yesterday -- a thought so bizarre that I didn't bother mentioning it to anyone nearby. I'm sure I would have been scoffed at, but I think the strange thought is true: the most quintessential conflict in the Battle of Gettysburg was not between Confederate leader Robert E. Lee and Union leader George Meade (a capable but dull historical non-entity who would soon be replaced by Ulysses S. Grant). The real battle was between Robert E. Lee and his most trusted lieutenant, James Longstreet, who famously advised against Lee's aggressive plan to attack the Union army directly.

Longstreet, no less brilliant a tactician and student of war theory than his leader and close friend Lee, yearned to always cling to the strength of the defensive position, and abhorred the terrible losses typically sustained by a moving attack against a stationary enemy. This is basic military science -- as anybody who plays the board game Risk knows, you lose more by attacking than you do by defending. 150 years ago on this very morning, on the very spot where I now sit typing in a comfortable hotel room, Lee and Longstreet debated what to do with the modest victory they had achieved against the dug-in Union position on the hills beneath the town of Gettysburg on the first day of battle.

Both men's opinions were extremely clear, and could not be reconciled. Lee wanted to attack with full strength. Longstreet wanted to sneak the army around the Union position and get between Meade and his command structure in Washington DC. This, Longstreet hoped, would force Meade to attack the Confederates, requiring the Union to sustain the heavy losses of an offensive assault against an entrenched position.

Lee and Longstreet debated this question, history tells us, in an extreme and emotional conversation on the morning of July 2, 1863. Lee would overrule Longstreet's objections and order his full army to attack at Cemetery Hill, Culp's Hill, the Bloody Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, Devil's Den. The second day of battle would not go well for the Confederates.

On the night of July 2 and the morning of July 3, Lee and Longstreet would conduct the same debate again. Once again, Longstreet would urge Lee to sneak the Army south and wait for a Union attack. Once again, Lee would overrule his most trusted advisor and order Longstreet's divisions to execute a frontal assault on the Union's strong position. The single climactic infantry march of July 3, remembered today as PIckett's Charge, would also go badly for the Confederates, and the three-day Battle of Gettysburg would end here.

One wonders how short the entire US Civil War might have been without the tactical brilliance of both Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet -- who were, respectively, an engineer and a poker player. I mention this with some selfish regard because I personally relate to both of these intellectual backgrounds; I am also an engineer (a software engineer, while Robert E. Lee gained his expertise in the Army Corps of Engineers) and I am also a serious poker player (though I play Hold 'Em, while I believe James Longstreet played Seven Card Stud and Five Card Draw, as well as Brag, a poker variant that isn't played much anymore).

There can be no doubt that Robert E. Lee's brilliant analytic skill and constructive familiarity with technology and logistics significantly extended the Confederate's chances during the entire war. It's not as clear how James Longstreet's famed poker skills helped the South, but there is a significant moment in Michael Shaara's Gettysburg novel The Killer Angels in which somebody asks Longstreet when it is appropriate to play an inside straight draw.

"Never," Longstreet says. The person asks again, and Longstreet repeats his simple answer. "Never."

In poker terms, of course, Longstreet is right. You can perhaps bluff an inside straight draw, but you must understand that this is a pure bluff. An inside straight draw is a very weak hand.

By attacking the well-entrenched Union position across Cemetery Ridge on July 2 and July 3 in Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee was going all-in on an inside straight draw. Gutshot, as they say. Longstreet saw it and hated it.

Pondering this 150 years later, I briefly wondered if the difference between Lee and Longstreet could be characterized as the difference between the mind of an engineer and the mind of a poker player.

After more careful pondering, I decided the poker player vs. engineer idea is probably a false path. Attacking the Union's stationary position with moving force was bad poker and bad engineering. The essence of the debate between Longstreet and Lee before each attack must be found elsewhere. It is perhaps most accurate to guess that Lee had simply lost his mind on the morning of July 2, when he made the decision to attack.

To say that Lee was under a lot of stress at this point is, of course, an understatement. In poker terms, it appears that he was "on tilt". In engineering terms, it's clear that Lee badly needed a vacation before he made any more big decisions -- and he wasn't going to get one.

Longstreet saw the disaster play out in slow motion before his eyes, and tried hard to stop it from happening. He could not. Through the fuzzy gauze of time, various historians have either blamed Lee for disregarding his smartest field general's good advice, or have blamed Longstreet for arrogantly pestering his commander with pessimistic questions when his commander only needed his enthusiastic support and fast, decisive leadership on the field.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara is an example of a Civil War book that treats Longstreet with admiration. Douglas Southall Freeman's essential early biography Lee is an example of a history that disparages Longstreet without mercy.

Years after the South's defeat in the Civil War, a famous incident occurred. A great reunion of Rebel soldiers was arranged, and James Longstreet was pointedly not invited -- punishment, of course, for his perceived disloyalty to Lee and the alleged damage caused by his reluctance to shut up and do what he was told on July 2 and 3, 1863.

Longstreet didn't feel he needed an invitation to this reunion, and showed up anyway. It's said that the old man received a spontaneous standing ovation from the soldiers when he entered the room.

This is the morning of July 2, 2013. I'm writing this blog post from a Marriot Courtyard north of the field, where a hotel breakfast soon awaits me. I tried to find salt pork and hardtack to eat yesterday, but we ended up going to Ruby Tuesday's instead. I'll be reporting from the battlefield again after this day.

Thanks to Caryn for the photo at the top of the page.

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What happens when an irresistible force meets an unmovable object? In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 150 years ago, it meant that 51,000 people died.

view /GettysburgOne
Monday, July 1, 2013 11:49 pm
Cannon at Gettysburg national park on 150th anniversary of battle
Story
Levi Asher

I'm psyched to be included in an impressive series of interviews about the Beat Generation conducted by Michael Limnios at Blues @ Greece, a Greek web publication devoted to underground music and culture.

I particularly like the question Michael asked me about Beat writers and poker (which shows that this interviewer knows me well). I'm in great company in this interview series; other respondents have included Beat/Grateful Dead expert Dennis McNally, Stephanie Nikolopoulus, who recently wrote a good piece on Kerouac for The Millions, poet A. D. Winans, Cherry Valley beat loyalists Charles Plymell and Pamela Beach-Plymell, filmmaker Laki Vazakas, Allen Ginsberg's former aide
Bob Rosenthal, poet Amiri Baraka, native American historian Carl Waldman, Beatdom publisher David Wills, hippie legend Ed Sanders and photographer Elsa Dorfman. Not too shabby!

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I'm psyched to be included in an impressive series of interviews about the Beat Generation conducted by Michael Limnios at Blues @ Greece, a Greek web publication devoted to underground music and culture

view /BluesGrInterview
Sunday, November 18, 2012 06:18 pm
Levi Asher interview at Blues.gr
Story
Levi Asher

Okay, enough about what the US Supreme Court's historic ruling to uphold Obamacare means for the country. Let's talk about what our reaction told us about us. It sure was a strange reaction.

The decision was scheduled to be announced on Thursday morning, June 28, starting at 10:am. The first few sentences of the announcement appeared a few minutes later on the SCOTUSblog live stream, and as soon as the first sentences appeared, public hysteria ensued.

At least a full half hour of absolute hysteria followed, mostly caused by the fact that two cable news networks, CNN and Fox News, reported incorrectly that Obamacare had been overturned. The confusion was cleared up quickly, but now everybody was confused, and somehow the hysterical pitch of the first few minutes became the de facto tone of the news coverage for the entire day.

Even today, two days later, there is still an undertone of shock to all coverage and discussion of the Supreme Court verdict -- appreciative and relieved shock on the pro-Obamacare side, and indignant, infuriated shock on the anti- side.

I wasn't shocked. I've been following the healthcare debate closely for years, and I know the bill had been carefully designed to make it through the Supreme Court (the Obama administration is not stupid, after all). I was amazed that so many allegedly knowledgeable people were predicting that the Supreme Court would find ACA unconstitutional, because anybody who knows the history of the US Supreme Court knows how unusual a decision to overturn a law on such optional grounds would have been. The Supreme Court (as Chief Justice John Roberts would finally explain in his preamble) doesn't have a history of challenging legislation at this level, and makes an effort to steer clear of partisan politics. The honor and reputation of the court would clearly be at stake if it made a dramatic decision to overturn such a major piece of legislation, and it was Chief Justice John Roberts's responsibility above all to defend the integrity of the Supreme Court by moving cautiously.

Which he eventually did, thus proving that, however often we may disagree with his decisions (and I disagree with several of Chief Justice Roberts's decisions), he has maintained the honor of the Supreme Court with this decision, and thus proved, seven years after accepting the title of Chief Justice, that he deserves it.

In the days before June 28, I felt a rising panic that ACA would be overturned (despite my conviction that it couldn't be), because I was reading so many other predictions that this would happen. During these days, I became angry at some of my liberal friends who seemed willing to take such a controversial Supreme Court decision lying down. If this happened, I said, it would be an outrage, and ought to promote the angriest protest since at least the Iraq War. Didn't anyone see this? Finally, the night before the ruling, I read a short article by Tom Goldstein, publisher of the SCOTUSblog, that also predicted (against popular opinion) the same thing, and this filled me with enough confidence in my reasoning that I announced my prediction (and my agreement with Tom Goldstein) on Twitter:

Now of course I get to brag that I was right, even though I was blind-sided by Anthony Kennedy joining Scalia, Alito and Thomas on the dissenting opinion. But do I really have a right to brag? I have been wrong about things as often as I have been right. For instance, I was sure that Al Gore would become President in 2000, and I was then floored when we re-elected George W. Bush in 2004. I lost dinner bets on both. I have also been stunned many times to see the New York Mets lose postseason games, even after going through the trouble of logically proving to my friends why the Mets were certain to win. It's happened to me a lot.

I like to think I'm a genius whenever I guess something correctly, but a book I've been enjoying, Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, reminds us of the powerful role confirmation bias plays in all our political opinions and beliefs. We don't develop our opinions and beliefs through cold logical analysis, Haidt points out; we develop them as constructions of our desired realities.

I like Haidt's book because it's sharply written, though I think these are the same points William James made more than a century ago, and I prefer the term "cognitive bias" to "confirmation bias", maybe just because I like the synergy with another favorite phrase of mine, "cognitive dissonance".

There's nothing new about the concept of confirmation bias or cognitive bias, but it is still surprising to see the extent of delusion this bias can cause. The fury and outrage we heard from surprised anti-Obamacare conservatives on Thursday, June 28 was the exploding of a public delusion. All over the country, we heard the expressions of surprise about what should have been obvious on simple historical grounds. Our smartest politicians, activists, journalists, bloggers, tweeters, workplace-talkers and private citizens had really convinced themselves that the Supreme Court would overturn Obamacare, just because they wanted it so badly.

I shouldn't gloat, because I have been the victim of my own cognitive bias, and I have suffered from my own delusions. As I wrote above, I had convinced myself on election day in 2004 that George W. Bush's poor leadership of the Iraq War would result in the election of John Kerry. It sounds silly now, but several of my friends also truly believed it, and we all were as shocked as if the election had been stolen when the news informed us that we were wrong. This was my own cognitive bias, blazing away at full speed.

I'm a poker player, and I know I've seen a lot of cognitive bias at the poker table. Cognitive bias is the expert poker player's best weapon, and he watches for every sign of it around the table. "My pocket queens looks so good. Of course it's going to hold up, even though there's an ace on the flop and this guy is reaching for his chips" ....

Is this fool even thinking about the odds? Somebody will be holding an ace, of course -- the only way your queens will hold up is if you get a third one, dummy! Cognitive bias is what makes the game of poker work.

Cognitive bias plays such a gigantic role in our everyday lives that we can't even say it's a bad thing. It's what keeps us moving. It's helps us love each other. We probably wouldn't be able to live without it.

But it's amazing what happens when an entire portion of the population suffers cognitive bias at once. It's a powerful influence on a single mind, but it can be cyclonic when it possesses our group mind. I think that's happened more than once during this long tendentious national debate over health insurance reform in the United States, and I do hope the nation can start to calm down, give the cognitive bias a rest, give the new law a chance to prove itself, and see if it doesn't all end up working out well. Call me an optimist; I think it will.

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view /CognitiveBiasGoneWild
Friday, June 29, 2012 07:48 pm
Story
Levi Asher

1. Isn't this a great book cover? Woolgathering is not a new Patti Smith book, and it shouldn't be mistaken for a sequel to her great Just Kids. In fact, I first bought this when it was a great little Hanuman book that looked like this:

The Hanuman book looked cool, but I think the newly republished New Directions version's cover art may be even better. Shepherd, tend thy flock.

2. Occupy St. Petersburg? Bill Ectric draws some connections between Nikolai Gogol's financial satire Dead Souls and more recent high finance scams.

3. Steve Silberman asks: What kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, really?

4. An account of a literary poker tournament that I'm sorry I missed, featuring Walter Kirn, Steve Martin and Rita Dove along with poker heavyweights Annie Duke and Phill Hellmuth. None of whom won.

5. Down These Mean Streets, a Spanish Harlem memoir by Piri Thomas, was one of the first grownup books I ever read as a kid. Piri Thomas died last week at the age of 83.

6. Shoah filmmaker Claude Lanzmann is publishing a memoir (it'll be out in March) called The Patagonian Hare.

7. The great Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o's son Mukoma wa Ngugi has written a novel called Nairobi Heat.

8. How Alex and Jane Comfort's once trendy coffeetable book The Joy of Sex was illustrated.

9. A Haiku-inspired video poem by Jim Tilley.

10. Jasmin Lim is creating visual artwork based on the controversial novels of Laura JT Leroy Albert.

11. And now, I'm going to tell you about a project that will be running soon on Litkicks. Did you know that J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey (in my opinion, Salinger's best novel) was published 50 years ago? We're going to pay tribute to the novel here, over the course of several posts and many days, featuring an artist/writer pair whose work you may have enjoyed on Litkicks here before. Coming later this month!

12. The ten oldest books known to man. Man, these books are old.

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view /Woolgathering
Wednesday, November 2, 2011 08:16 pm
Story
Levi Asher

I'm still on vacation. But here are some links:

1. The image above is from a teaser promo for a new movie based on Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. I don't know what to think. You be the judge.

2. It was fifty years ago that Ernest Hemingway took his own life. David Ulin has some thoughts about Hemingway's impact (and lack of impact) today. Also, the FBI really was spying on him.

3. Words Without Borders' July issue is about The Arab Spring.

4. In the New York Review of Books, Geoffrey O'Brien considers Terence Malick's new film The Tree of Life in light of the philosophical writings of William James.

5. Cormac McCarthy: Are We There Yet?. Fyodor Dostoevsky: Rent Was Too Damn High. John Knowles: I Hate You, I Love You, No Homo. A website called Better Book Titles was funny the first time I told you about it last year, and it's still funny today.

6. The telephone logs of Robert Creeley, always a digital culture pioneer, as found art.

7. Remember when I published my memoir of the Silicon Alley boom and crash, one chapter per week, in 2009? Brad Lisi of the Nervous Breakdown is now beginning a similar weekly memoir experiment, consisting of curated cut-ups from his younger writings. It's tentavely (very tentatively) titled "Possible Title". I don't know if Listi's experiment s in any way inspired by mine, but I'm glad he's doing it, and I'll be reading it. I hope more writers and bloggers will try similar things. I remain convinced that everybody has a good memoir inside them, if they'd only take the trouble to write it. Everybody.

8. Novelist Colson Whitehead will be playing in the World Series of Poker.

9. The truly great guitarist/songwriter Trey Anastasio of Phish may be starting to get the intellectual respect he deserves. An extensive interview with Ross Simonini in The Believer.

10. Some folks are kickstarting a movie about Nelson Algren.

11. HTML Giant: What are your favorite tricks in literature?

12. Art About Books.

13. More art: very appealing covers of Jazz-era Chicago Magazine, which never equalled The New Yorker in reach or reputation, but sure tried, and now seems like a bizarro version of it.

14. A strange published anecdote about a teenage prank committed by Ann Beattie may not be as interesting as the negative reaction it's getting.

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view /Vermin
Wednesday, July 6, 2011 08:51 am
Story
Levi Asher

I've played poker all my life. I learned five card draw as a kid, and moved up to seven card stud in college. During the late 1990s, I started to hear about Texas Hold 'Em from my older brother Gary, a serious player who won a few tournaments around Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun and Atlantic City. I quickly became obsessed with the game myself.

My best-ever tournament showing is third place, unfortunately, but I do pretty well at table play. There's a misconception that poker is unsavory in some way, or that players risk losing a lot of money; this is only true on The Sopranos or among clueless tourists, because skillful and experienced poker players are responsible and careful, never risk more than they can spend, and come out ahead as often as not. The average suburban Joe spends more money on golf or fishing than I will ever lose at poker.

I raised all three of my kids to play Texas Hold 'Em, and they're all excellent at the game. I'm sure the experience builds character; it trains important life skills like patience, awareness. subtlety. I think there's tremendous psychological and literary significance to poker, and that's why I occasionally write articles about the game here on Literary Kicks.

The Cards I'm Playing: Poker and Postmodern Literature is a book about poker, literature and the many connections between the two. It consists of four essays, all based on first drafts that were originally published as blog posts. I've restructured, edited and improved each of them freely, and I ended the book with a special coda: a short story (with a poker theme) by a well-loved Internet writer named Leslie Harpold who died in 2006. Please check out the permanent book page on this site, which includes an excerpt from the first piece in the book, "The Cards I'm Playing" and more info about the Leslie Harpold short story.

While this is a book about poker, it's really a book of literary criticism disguised as a book about poker. I think The Cards I'm Playing includes some of the best writing of my career, and I'm very proud of it. I hope you'll consider buying a copy for yourself, or for that special poker player in your life.

The Cards I'm Playing is currently available for Kindle and can be read with a Kindle e-reader or on Windows, Apple, Android and many other platforms, using a free Kindle reader. Other e-book formats will be available soon.

To read an excerpt from the book, please click here. To buy a copy, please click the button below.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011 08:39 pm
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Levi Asher

Unless you're color-blind like me (yes, I'm color-blind, and yes, that probably does explain the color scheme here on Literary Kicks), you probably see two different color chips in the photo above.

Well, I don't. Neither did my brother Gary (who is also color-blind, naturally, since it's a deterministic genetic trait, and I'd really like it if people would start calling us "color-capable" instead of "color-blind", but that's another topic) this weekend when we both played poker at the Gulfstream casino in Miami, Florida. I have no idea what colors you see when you look at these chips. But what Gary and I both see is one tan-green-orange-gray chip that says "$25" and another tan-green-orange-gray chip that says "$5".

Now, this isn't a big problem when I'm looking at my own chips. But it's a very big problem when I'm looking at the chips the other players are throwing into the pot, and I know it put me at a disadvantage this weekend that I had to deal with this extra level of uncertainty while also trying to navigate through a particularly vexing session of Hold 'Em (don't even ask me about those pocket 7s I folded). The annoying thing is, there are really a lot of colors that I can tell apart. I can tell most colors apart. Blue and yellow? No problem. Yellow and tan? Bring it on. Red and purple, blue and green? Easy, all of it. Just please don't mix browns and greens and ask a color-blind person to know the difference. Just stay away from those earth color variations and we'll be fine.

But, now, here's the funny thing. 7 to 10% of males have the same red-green color-blindness as me, and none of us can tell those $25 chips from those $5s. 7 to 10%. That's a lot of unhappy poker players, isn't it? Since this problem can be easily solved by using any of the countless combinations that color-blind people can tell apart, why wouldn't the Gulfstream casino do so? This is a bigger question, and brings me to the main point of this blog post.

Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing when I use my blogging platform to critique or criticize various companies or organizations like the Gulfstream Casino, or the New York Times, or Slate, or Microsoft, or the US government, or Taco Bell or the New York Mets. I can't stand it that I come across as a curmudgeon or a whiner, because that's really not who I am. Rather, I do all this complaining because I am deluded enough to think that somebody out there may be listening. Yes, I'm even deluded enough to think I may make a difference somehow.

I complain because organizations and corporations and governments often need to change, and need to be urged to change. I'm an urger. Some people think I'm arrogant because I believe I'm smarter than, say, the New York Times executive board, or the USA Joint Chiefs of Staff. Well, I gained this arrogance at my day job. As I may have mentioned recently, I have spent the last twenty years working for major finance, entertainment and media conglomerates in New York City and Washington DC. I've seen how these organizations work, and what I've learned is not to disrespect them, but always to question them.

When I complained at my table at the Gulfstream Casino, another player said to me "there's probably a good reason they use these colors". Um, actually, there probably isn't. If you think important organizational systems and processes are rational, look at the US economy in the last ten years, or look at how our Congress and Senate work. If you think a typical executive boardroom meeting produces logical decisions, you have probably never attended an executive boardroom meeting.

I am personally an idealist -- Glenn Beck might even call me a "progressive", and I'll be damn proud of it -- because I believe it is the right (not the duty, but certainly the right) of every person on earth to try to do something to make the place a little better. What the hell else are we here for? And, I ask my writer friends: what the hell else are we here to write for?

I take a lot of flak for believing that I can change the world by speaking up. For instance, because I often criticize the New York Times, I've been told that I must hate the New York Times. You'd be surprised how often I hear this. People ... I adore the New York Times. That's why I care enough about it to speak up when I disagree with its direction. (And that's why I don't want to see them go to oblivion in a shopping cart with a stupid paywall scheme that's bound to fail.)

I got a lot of flak a few years ago for speaking up against hardcover-only book publishing, a tradition that makes about as much sense as earth-toned poker chips for the color blind, as far as I can tell.

I get a lot of flak from friends and family for sticking up for the brave health care reform package Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have been working so hard on, and are working hard on right now.

Why don't I just shut up? A few people seem to think I should.

But here's the crazy thing. There were about 500 people in the poker room at Gulfstream friday night. Let's say 350 of them were guys. That means probably 25 or 30 of them were color-blind. And yet nobody was speaking up about the fact that the color selection on these poker chips sucked.

For all the noise in the world, our public conversations really haven't been very good. I think we can do better. What else is a writer here to do?

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Monday, February 22, 2010 07:32 pm
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Levi Asher

The New York Times Book Review could surely have found someone who knows something about poker -- say, me -- to review James McManus's Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker. Some common tipoffs that a writer doesn't know anything about poker are that he thinks Texas Hold 'Em actually has something to do with Texas, that he gets a kick out of funny names like Crooked Nose Jack McCall, or that he's more interested in listing which US Presidents played poker than in discussing the game itself. Another tipoff is that he gets lots of facts wrong, and apparently nobody at the NYTBR copy edit desk knows anything about poker either, because this article is a train wreck. First:

The friendly game, with a limit on bets (sometimes doubled for the last round), usually allows the dealer to choose the game, with an emphasis on the old, traditional stud and draw variants rather than the hyper-charged hold 'em, which in tournament play is no-limit, meaning a player can go "all in": betting all of one’s chips at once.

Actually, there are limit and no-limit hold 'em tournaments, just as there are limit and no-limit stud tournaments (and, for all I know, probably limit and no-limit draw tournaments somewhere out there too). Nothing about hold 'em poker implies no-limit play. Then:

Televised poker took off on the sports networks when it became clear that the image of a hold 'em deal’s five shared down-cards, invisible to the players at the beginning of each hand, could be shared with viewers through a camera placed under a glass-topped table.

That would be quite a strange poker show, since it would certainly kill all the suspense to see the flop, the turn and the river at the start of each hand. What Pinsky would have said, if he had a clue what he was talking about, is that in televised poker each player's two pocket cards, not the five shared cards, are visible through a camera placed under a glass-topped table. Go write a poem, Pinsky, and don't ever, ever, ever try to write about poker again.

Okay, on to the literary stuff. It seems there's only one article to write about Vladimir Nabokov's The Original of Laura, full of fascinating (yawn) debate over whether or not this unfinished novel should have been published. I've read it a few times, and now I just read it again, this time by David Gates. In my opinion, first of all, of course the book should have been published. Second, unless you're a Nabokov compleatist and have already been through Pale Fire, Pnin and Speak, Memory as well as the ubiquitous Lolita you probably have no excuse to care about it at all. As for me: I am not, I have not, and I don't either, which is why I'm sick of reading about this book.

Bravo to Kathryn Harrison for avoiding the usual soap job and saying straight out, in her review of Philip Roth's The Humbling, what so many of Roth's readers know: this proud author's annual productions have worn out their welcome. Harrison calls The Humbling a "lazy work" -- it took me about half a glance to realize the same thing -- and deplores Roth's reliance on stale sexual fantasies involving lesbians and dildos and threesomes. A few years ago I got a surprised reaction when I wrote that the quality of Philip Roth's work had inexcusably declined, and I can't help but feel some satisfaction that this is no longer the minority opinion it once was. But what do you want to bet that there won't be another moaning Philip Roth hardcover just like The Humbling out exactly a year from now?

New Paul Auster novels also tend to induce numbness in loyal readers, but I'm glad to hear from Clancy Martin that his new Invisible "suggests a new Auster" and delivers, for Martin, serious thrills. In fact, the review is a full rave, ending with this declaration:

It is the finest novel Paul Auster has ever written.

Damn! Having reviewed and mildly appreciated his last one, I gave my review copy of Invisible away, and now I want it back!

I always enjoy a good publishing memoir, and David Carr's measured endorsement of British newspaperman Harold Evans' nostalgic My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times sells me on this one. The book seems to be heavy on wistful bygones, though, and I'm glad Carr doesn't miss the ironic fact that Evans's wife Tina Brown has just launched the lively and successful Daily Beast web newspaper, which surely carries on journalism's grand tradition even without clinking Linotype machines and inky hands.

An endpaper essay by Jennifer Schluesser spells out the argument against meat-eating contained in novelist Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, and usefully refers to like-minded arguments by J. M. Coetzee and Peter Singer. Myself, I was once an ethical vegetarian for more than two years, though this was a long time ago. I am at least halfway sympathetic to this point of view, though I did just have a cheeseburger for lunch. But our lofty human race can't even resolve that it's wrong to kill other humans. If we can ever get our act together on this bigger question, I'll be happy to celebrate by swearing off meat again.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009 06:40 pm
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Levi Asher