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Buy and Hold ’Em

In the mornings and afternoons, Salvador is a stay-at-home dad, something of a rarity in his small Midwestern city. (The names and online names of players have been changed.) He plays with his one-year-old son, feeds him lunch, and settles him in for a nap, while his wife punches the dock as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company. But in the evening, after she comes home from work, Salvador goes to the computer. There, far away from the shimmer of Vegas, in a quiet corner of his house, he settles in for the long night of poker that, he says, recently won his family a large new home.

For someone like Salvador, poker is no desperate gamble. Rather, it is a claim on middle-class respectability, an entrée into a world of meritocracy.

Salvador—he picked the name, he explains, because he’s a Dali fan who likes to think he can turn a surreal play now and again—makes his money in ten-player online poker tournaments known as sit-and-goes. He has a 21-inch LCD monitor on which he can play four or more games at once; sometimes, he will play as many as six hands of poker simultaneously. His library consists of nearly 250 books on hold ’em, gambling, blackjack, and Las Vegas. He owns a software database that records all the hands he plays, so that he can study them later, and he regularly contributes to an online chat room about all matters related to implied odds, fold equity, semi-bluffs, and inflection points. Poker isn’t Salvador’s only game. He likes counting cards at casino blackjack, too. “Any gambling game that I can gain an edge at mentally, I will play,” he says. But poker is the game he’s worked hardest to master, and it is far and away his most profitable. In the past year and a half, he’s averaged $150 per hour.

Before he became a poker professional, Salvador sold tires. On the side he worked as a DJ, playing weddings and parties and sometimes working ninety-hour weeks. He grew up an army brat, living everywhere from Virginia to Panama. Although he’s enrolled in a stray course or two over the years, he doesn’t have a college degree. Online gambling, though, has changed all that. Today, he says, “my wife will mention to doctors that her husband plays poker for a living. Now, I have doctors and lawyers asking me questions about what I do.”

For someone like Salvador, poker is no desperate gamble. Rather, it is a claim on middle-class respectability, an entrée into a world of meritocracy.

In the American imagination there is no other game like poker. Its roots, like those of baseball, go far back into our past. Historians think it entered the United States, via New Orleans, as a variant of an eighteenth-century French game called poque blended with a Persian game known as as nas (“the beloved ace”). The rules of the game were codified in the 1870s, when Robert C. Schenck, a congressman, Civil War general, and ambassador to Britain, wrote a treatise on poker to teach Queen Victoria how to play the game. But no one can pinpoint a single inventor, making it seem as though the swirl of money and dreams in the early years of the Republic generated the game all by itself. Part of what has always made the game so alluring is the way it reflects our cultural ambivalence about wealth. Poker highlights the contingency of money, the way that it comes and goes with luck. It shows the emptiness of riches, denied to some, lavished on others with the capriciousness of fate, making a mockery of hard work and talent. The game’s fickleness and its lack of regulation make cheating a perpetual lure, as much a part of poker mythology as the royal flush.

The popularity of gambling games seems to move in cycles as manic as the ebb and flow of the stock market. Last century’s poker was faro, a strange game played by dealing cards out of a box. Faro’s main attraction was the exceptionally favorable odds it offered the player. Yet as a result of those favorable odds, the temptation for the box holder (known as the banker) to cheat at faro was all but irresistible, as this was the only way to make a profit. As a result, the game came to resemble the economy of the Gilded Age, in which a market open to all came to be dominated by a few, whose economic power derived from chicanery and sheer force.

The current poker boom is about thirty years old, and in peculiar ways it mirrors our modern economy, just as faro did that of a century ago. Today’s poker hysteria began in the early seventies, when Ted Binion, an enterprising Las Vegas casino owner, began to organize what he called the World Series of Poker. A parade of colorful characters gave flavor to the rediscovered game, figures like the three hundred-pound evangelical Christian Doyle Brunson, author of Super System: A Course in Power Poker, or, How I Made Over $1,000,000 Playing Poker, a bible-thick 1978 book of gambling strategies; and David Sklansky, a Columbia math professor’s kid who likes to boast of having taken up poker after dropping out of a promising actuarial career.

But it was only in the nineties, as the punk rockers went to work for Arthur Andersen and wealth became part of the sleek, hip yoga of Clintonism, that the poker craze came into its own. Triumph in the marketplace began to be seen as an expression of one’s inner genius, the opposite of selling out, and poker took its inevitable place in the fantasy. Perhaps the best example is the mid-nineties Matt Damon movie Rounders, which defined poker for the dot-com era the way The Cincinnati Kid did for the sixties. Damon plays a lackadaisical law student, seemingly on his way to becoming the Man, who also has a strange ability to read other people’s cards, most notably those of his professors at their home games. The movie carefully distinguishes Damon’s poker brilliance from the hustling of an ex-con friend, from the low-stakes grinding of a friend who ekes out a living in underground card rooms, and from the nihilistic, brutal gaming of a local Russian Mafioso who owns an illegal poker hall. Damon’s skills at the poker table blow the rest of these characters away, and the movie ends with him dropping out of law school and heading for Vegas to make an honest living. We learn that the world of poker is noble and fair, unleashing pure intellectual talent in a way that the respectability, academic hierarchy, and dreary routine of law school never can.

Today, rumors of Rounders 2 circulate on the Internet. In one parody of the imagined sequel, Damon winds up in Vegas and, staking the wrong buddy, falls $15,000 into debt. He hops in his car to go find the high-stakes games. But just when it seems he might be about to hit the Strip, he instead picks up a hot sub from the local Quizno’s and drives home. There he opens his laptop and proceeds to play eight tables of poker at once. After some marathon sessions, he makes the money back. It’s the same movie, but minus the glamour, which somehow seems appropriate for a post-stock-market-crash sequel. The eager novices dreaming of Dow 36,000 get their trading accounts cleaned out; the condo flippers find themselves suddenly, inextricably “upside down.” Getting by—surviving—is all that’s left, and it’s a grind.

The transformation of poker has a lot to do with its movement out of Vegas and Atlantic City and onto the computer screen. In the images presented by ESPN and peddled by magazines like Cardplayer, the game is no longer a matter of luck and fickle fate. Instead, it is a new arena of pure competition, a space for libertarian fantasies of skill and merit. The New York Times runs feature articles on poker as a rags-to-riches story, where even the humblest ex-theater major can win a seat at the World Series. The New Yorker publishes salivating profiles of young poker celebrities dripping with cash. More people are playing poker for greater stakes—and the game is making far, far more money for the house than ever before. For as poker has shed its shady connotations and become integrated into the mythos of the market, it has also become a game in which the house—the owners of the casino—can become fantastically wealthy, far richer than even the most successful poker player.

In the old days, casino owners never really liked poker. Unlike all the other familiar gambling games—craps, blackjack, slots, roulette—poker does not offer the house a lucrative advantage. The players vie against each other rather than against the casino, which has no way of getting a piece of the action except to skim off a portion of every pot. This is why poker tables in most casinos were hard to find. They were tucked away in the back of the house, and to get to them you had to walk past the mirrored slot machines and the wild-patterned carpets, the soft green felt of the blackjack tables, and the steady whir of the roulette wheel. The house hoped you’d be distracted by the shine and flash before you made it to the cramped, badly lit card rooms, crowded with people who looked like they hadn’t moved for days. Today, although casinos sometimes advertise poker, building off the online buzz, they still hope that the kids who come in to play will be lured into pursuits more profitable to the house.

In the great gamble that was the late nineties, however, the owners of online poker websites managed to flop a full house. The Internet has made poker safe for investors. There’s no need to pay for labor or land when the dealer is a randomizing algorithm, and as a result, the game is nearly pure profit for the house. The biggest online site, bearing the dignified name Party Poker, earned revenues of nearly $400 million in 2004. When it went public in June 2005, its market capitalization skyrocketed to more than $8 billion, making it overnight one of the largest companies to trade on the London Exchange. The identities of Party Poker’s founders were released in the buildup to the IPO—the company turns out to have been started by a former online porn star and her South Asian computer programmer buddy, Anurag Dikshit, whose last name delights poker chat rooms everywhere.

The other big-time poker firms are privately held and release little information. No one seems to know who owns them, and most are headquartered offshore in places like Costa Rica. Online poker’s legal status remains murky in the United States. Hosting tens of thousands of players every night, the online “gaming” industry has made enemies ranging from New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. As this goes to press, two bills are circulating in the House of Representatives that would effectively make playing online poker in the United States illegal. (Party Poker, not surprisingly, is vigorously lobbying against the legislation; the company has helped to form a “Poker Players Alliance” that distributes T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: “Poker: An American Tradition. Keep It Legal.”) But for the time being, the tidal wave of money has undoubtedly mitigated the legal concerns for most investors. According to Barron’s, the online poker industry was expected to gross $2 billion in 2005—compared to $5 billion in gambling revenues for all the extravagant palaces on the Las Vegas Strip. Even top-flight investment banking companies like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are starting to buy shares of online poker companies.

At the other end of the table are the ever-increasing ranks of people like Salvador, who have taken up poker as a second career. In the aftermath of the tech-market collapse, poker has surfaced as a different way to make money online. As bestsellers about day-trading give way to paperbacks about MIT students cleaning up in Atlantic City, it is clear that the poker craze is the half-life of the stock market boom, sustaining many of the same fantasies about capitalism. But for people like Salvador, poker seems less like the ESPN fantasy of instant riches; it is instead a steady second job, a moral theater where tenacious work and book-smarts can pay off. The game thus represents to its devotees both a perfect market, where talent cuts across all obstacles to make deserving people rich, and, at the same time, an escape from the vicious realities of the market as we know it today.

Previous installments of poker mania celebrated the game as a deeply personal contest, a sort of psychological combat between flamboyant figures in which individual peculiarities counted for everything. Gambling narratives were a form of amateur philosophy. In one of his poker memoirs, for example, Doyle Brunson writes of driving from Lubbock to Amarillo in search of a profitable game. “If you’ve never had occasion to travel a two-lane county highway through the Texas panhandle, you don’t know what it means to be lonely,” he sighs, describing life on the gaming frontier during the “dark ages of poker” in 1961. The unflappable Brunson wanders through a world of sketchy characters, men in love with cash, desperate to flaunt it and furious when it gets lost. He exploits their emotional ups and downs and takes their money. There is, of course, honor among gamblers: Brunson says he would never hire a lawyer, and that when you shake hands with a gambler, you know you’ll get your money by sunset if you win the bet. “Poker is a game of people,” he pronounces. “If you remember that, you can bounce your opponents around like tumbleweeds in Texas. If you forget, Lord have mercy on your bankroll.”

As Brunson knew quite well, poker has always been a game of calculating probability as much as reading character. But as it is played today, poker has less and less to do with people—in online poker, there are no faces to read, just icons on a screen. Instead of observing a furrow of a brow, a tap of a foot, you catch your opponent’s bluff by close attention to his or her betting pattern. Indeed, periodic rumors circulate about the presence of “bots” in the online games—robots trained to raise the bet whenever they get two aces. Today’s poker players are bookish types, avid students of the game. Poker is traditionally about risk, chance, and gamble, but today’s online players seem to love the game precisely because it is so predictable. Sure, your heart quickens when you look down and see two aces in the hole, but at the same time, you know it happens to everyone once out of every 220 hands. Over the long run, seasoned players love to intone, everyone gets the same cards.

In keeping with this mechanical view of the game, the poker websites do without excessive adornment. The graphics are rudimentary, little better than the video games of the early eighties. Typically, they depict ring games of six to ten players, often including stock poker figures like the guy in the cowboy hat and the blonde wearing a low-cut red dress. Frequently the “dealer” is a brown-skinned figure in a tuxedo. On some sites you can request that a very pixellated “drink” be brought to your seat at the table. Professional players barely notice the graphics, however; they’re too busy playing six or eight games at a time, using two or even three monitors, making the long run arrive that much faster. Instead of relying on memory alone, they also use elaborate database programs that import information about their opponents’ style of play, so that they can see right away how likely it is that a given player will fold to a check-raise or hang on until the river card.

For online grinders, poker is in some ways like a desk job, monotonous and filled with tedium. The game is relentless, involving, as it must, endless hours of agonizing over the right play at the right moment. Players worry about the same health hazards that afflict the office worker: eye strain, carpal tunnel syndrome. On poker discussion sites, players complain of a growing sense of hold ’em fatigue: “I make more than twice as much at poker than I would at any job I could find,” writes one typical player. But “I don’t enjoy online poker anymore.” And yet at the same time, the repetition of the game alternates with wild swings that can resemble low-grade emotional torture. How many part-time jobs are there where you can go to work, do everything right, and yet lose thousands of dollars in a night?

To mitigate the swings, some players turn to what they affectionately call “bonus whoring,” the cyberspace equivalent of the Vegas type who lives for “comp” meals in the casino cafeteria. For these resourceful cheapskates, poker is little more than a high-tech coupon-clipping system. It works like this: As new poker websites try to muscle their way to prominence, and more established ones seek to hold on to their player base, they often offer cash bonuses to regular players, or else what is gracefully called “rakeback,” in which some proportion of the “rake” that the website takes from each pot is refunded to the favored player. Players who have learned how to “bonus whore” can make money (albeit not Bellagio-style riches) without doing much more than breaking even at the game. Of course, the websites have now begun cracking down on bonus abuse, requiring ever more ingenious mastery of bureaucratic procedure by the players.

Amidst soul-killing, dead-end jobs, poker becomes the repository of dreams of independence.

How different the workaday reality turns out to be from the breathless hype doled out by ESPN. Even for the players who succeed most dramatically at the game, it can come to feel as much a burden as a joy. Consider James, twenty-eight, who lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, land of hipsters and cheap beer. James went to Brown, and in the late nineties he worked as a journalist and tech analyst for a small firm that covered start-up companies. But then the bubble burst and the start-ups stopped. James turned to what he knew—the Internet. He now earns $400,000 a year playing online poker—usually $30/$60 limit hold ’em. “When I got laid off and started playing, it was enough to help me buy extra drinks,” he says. “Then it was enough to take all my friends to dinner.” Instead of huddling in a smoky back room of a casino waiting to play a few hands, James now has access to anonymous opponents at any hour of the day or night. Yet despite living the poker dream, James says he finds the game at once boring and addictive. He can’t pick up a book, he says, without mentally calculating how much money he could make online in the time it will take him to finish it. “Every hour is commodified, in a way,” he muses. It’s a prosaic view, far from the lonely roads of the Texas panhandle.

Just as the poker economy divides into the grinders and the high-stakes players, there are also sharply differing ideological visions of the game. On the TV programs and in the official interpretations offered by poker writers and magazine editors, poker demonstrates—as all things must—the superiority of capitalism, the glories of the market. The darker aspects of the game—the fact that for every winning player, there must be many who lose—are interpreted as a sign of the market’s justice. And there are numerous players who share these ideas, adopting wholeheartedly the view of the game as a ruthless competition for riches and glory. But there are others for whom poker comes to resemble a countercultural alternative to the corporate world, a space—strange as it may seem—of professional autonomy, a fleeting realm of freedom.

In addition to the chatter about the correct way to play Q10 offsuit and the talk about which database analysis program is best, poker chat rooms occasionally offer reflection on the ethics and meaning of the game. Players have discussed forming a poker players union, which would be able to bargain with the website owners for better terms of play (this idea came up after a few sites announced that they would no longer offer the coveted rakeback). The idea was discarded after someone pointed out the inherent obstacles to organizing a strike: If all the pros stopped playing, the remaining players would be “fish” (i.e., weak players), causing any pro worth his or her killer instinct to want immediately back into the game. The structure of competition undermines any hope of improving everyone’s position through collective action. Meanwhile the über-predator—the house—is simply beyond challenge. (Not everyone has given up, though—some players now talk about starting a rake-free site, sort of like the producers’ cooperatives of the late nineteenth century.)

The players you encounter in poker chat rooms are likely to be overall winners at the game, and from time to time they talk about the morality of playing online poker for a living—and especially about the strangers whose money they take. Much of the time, players respond defensively to any suggestion that they are doing something wrong. They are, they say, simply playing a game and winning, like anyone in the market. They fantasize about the people they beat, the ones they’d like to think they are righteously taking down: high school kids stealing their parents’ credit cards, college students playing for a lark, rich brokers looking for a little afterhours action. In spring 2005, one player asked, “Are we not, as habitually winning poker players, bigger leeches on society than people that abuse the unemployment/welfare program?” After all, he continued, “We are taking money straight from the pockets of other people.” The responses flew fast. Winning players were like entrepreneurs, insisted one enterprising showman: “Poker players provide the same service that any entertainer provides. You pay them money, and they entertain you.” Someone who had chosen the online name of “Freudian” described poker as the inevitable separating of the unfit from their cash. His opponents, he observed, “would only have bought crack and beer with the money anyway.” Another player said that he’d recently asked his priest about the morality of winning his living at poker. The priest, he reported, had determined that as long as the other players had “the same opportunities for improvement,” there was nothing wrong with beating them. And one particularly savage player offered this distillation of libertarian sadism:

I am a vampire, I rob others of their life energy and life force in order to exalt my own. The same reason they can’t afford shoes is the same reason mine shine…. One’s living quality will always be the result of the critical decisions they make, and poker is brutally honest.

But not all players share these views. For others, poker comes to seem something more like a “modernist avant-garde,” a world of outsiders who float alongside “real” society, independent of its petty mores. Poker has its literature, its jargon of wheels and flops and crabs and cowboys. Its greatest attraction may be less the promise of riches and fame than that of subsistence won without a boss leaning over your shoulder. Poker, writes one player, is “one of the purer forms of socialism, in that it acts as a wealth transfer from rich stupid people to poor smart ones.” It is a kind of craft or trade, writes another: “Winning poker players have a skill that they have worked for.” Asked what poker contributes to society, one player counters by saying that many people who work “aren’t really contributing anything either. But since they have a ‘job,’ that is O.K.” Extrapolating from this point, another player observes, “managers, by definition, don’t make anything of value, but there are way too many of them.” In a world of inherited privilege, poker comes to seem like a true meritocracy, democratic in a way that the real marketplace can never be; in a world of humiliating or dead-end or soul-killing jobs, as strange as it may seem, online poker becomes the repository of dreams of independence.

Money floats free of labor in online poker. It is a place of pure circulation, skimmed off of the fat of the land. But there is also a world of labor that lurks outside of the poker game and which shadows it like a nightmare. Here gambling seems like a stable second job, with players bouncing from table to table in the hope of getting an extra hundred bucks to make the rent. This is the reality in which everyone’s lives are supposed to reflect their rational choices, and in which, at the same time, finding a decent, humane job sometimes seems about as realistic as flopping a royal flush. By these standards, poker is not a rebel’s gamble, a game of capitalism’s flip side, but instead—as improbable as it seems—a form of aspiration in which hard work and pluck might actually, someday, pay off. There is a certain desperation behind this idea of poker as the ultimate test of the marketplace—the hint of disappointment and failure beneath the bravado, the ghosts of other dreams that have not worked out. Online poker, with all its contradictions—luck and labor, glamour and boredom—is a fitting game for an era of political defeat and widening social inequality. For even as it thumbs its nose at class and respectability, with every hand, predictable as rain, the players re-enact the fables of perfect competition that the market has always told about itself.