Excerpt from "The Cards I'm Playing: Poker and Postmodern Literature" by Levi Asher
Imagine that you and I are facing each other in a game of heads up. Two hands are dealt between us. How many hands are in the game? Not two but four:
- 1. The hand I'm holding
- 2. The hand you're holding
- 3. The hand you think I'm holding
- 4. The hand I think you're holding.
The imaginary hands are more important than the actual ones, and more often than not the imaginary hands are the only ones ever revealed. It’s this transformation – two turning into four – that defines poker’s unique magic. To become a capable player, you have to figure out how to simultaneously play all four of these hands.
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 eights – 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 eights, 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.
There are different kinds of fiction, and poker resembles all of them. When you steal a pot with a big bet and muck your cards, you create a mystery. You can lose a lot of money if you fall in love with your pocket aces before a straight or flush draw falls on the table, and this type of hand is certainly a bad romance. At the deepest level, poker resembles postmodern literature, the type of trendy experimental fiction that plays with reliability and narrative point of view. Both poker and postmodern literature focus directly on the tension between irony and believability, between mutual awareness and heightened self-consciousness. A winning poker hand, like a good story, is a tour de force.
This tension between reality and fiction is what gives poker its stark psychological appeal. You excel at poker by creating imaginary scenarios, and making these scenarios real. When you fail, it’s because your beloved imaginary construction fell to pieces. This is a painful feeling in many ways, as any writer who’s ever gotten a rejection letter also knows.
“Don’t fall in love with your hand,” poker experts advise. “Burn your darlings,” writing workshop instructors demand.
One of my very favorite professional poker players is Gus Hansen, a Danish tournament champion known for stealing pots with inexplicable moves like all-in pre-flop with deuce-four unsuited. In Hansen’s 2008 book Every Hand Revealed, probably my favorite poker book of all time, the enigmatic international star explains how his ultra-aggressive technique is grounded in mathematical probability. Gus Hansen’s favorite move is to steal blinds and antes. He doesn’t care if he ever sees a flop. Even with pocket aces, he’s happy to steal the blinds, and in his book he explains the logic behind this surprising approach with simple arithmetic that makes sense (though I could never play this way, and most players couldn’t).
Every Hand Revealed
describes every hand Gus Hansen played in the 2007 Aussie Millions tournament in Australia, and the book has a driving, awkward intensity that completely matches Hansen’s playing style. He’s sarcastic, emphatic, irritable, as when a stubborn newbie fails to fold to his semi-bluff on the flop:
"Now I actually have some kind of hand. Second pair, top kicker, not that bad! Unfortunately the limp-caller hadn’t read all the conventional poker books. He is supposed to check to the raiser! Instead he leads out $6,000 into a pot containing $4,000. What’s wrong with him?"
Gus Hansen also shows in this book how little he cares about his own pocket cards when he places a big bet. The game he plays is completely based on his read of every other player in the hand, on his belief that he can make them all fold. Suddenly it makes sense that he would go all-in with an unsuited deuce-four on the big blind. Why shouldn’t he? They’re all going to fold anyway. They’ll never see his cards.
Perhaps its this lack of regard for his own self – his entire game rests in the other players’ hands, not his own – that gives Gus Hansen a sort of spooky, otherworldly aspect when he appears on television. Whatever this spooky, disconnected quality of Hansen’s is, it can be found in his prose as well, and in this way his book reminds me of the work of Paul Auster, a novelist who specializes in deconstructing his characters, especially the narrators and heroes of his quirky novels.
Auster’s greatest work is the New York Trilogy, which consists of three short novels, City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room. These three faux-noir “mysteries” lay out three parallel stories about people who come up against their own doppelgangers. The first is a distraught writer who becomes entangled in an amazing drama involving a mad language scientist and a child he abused in an experiment. The second is about a writer, probably the same person, identified only as Blue, who watches another writer identified only as Black. The third story is about a writer who takes on the identity and family of another writer, an old friend who went crazy.
The twisted tales shoot off in unpredictable directions, and the whole thing amounts to a marvel of feints, thrusts and pull backs. By the time you’ve finished the New York Trilogy, you may feel like you’ve just been blindfolded and repeatedly punched (alternatively, you may feel like you’ve just played poker against Gus Hansen). To be so confounded but yet gripped by a writer is an enthralling experience, and this must be why Paul Auster’s trilogy is so popular even though the three stories refuse to resolve themselves, and break every storytelling rule of the “noir” genre they emulate.
The New York Trilogy came out in 1986, and four years later Paul Auster wrote a novel called The Music of Chance about two poker players named Nashe and Pozzi. Pozzi is a hapless professional, Nashe an aimless amateur, and they both fall victim to two better players named Flower and Stone who resemble Laurel and Hardy, and who imprison the two poker players after a bad beat.
It’s a shaggy-dog story, like all of Paul Auster’s novels, but the poker subtext reveals an influence that clearly lies behind all of the novelist’s work. Paul Auster is a writer, like Gus Hansen, who likes to win hands without ever showing his cards.
(From "The Cards I'm Playing" by Levi Asher)