I’d recently ended a disappointing two-week long foray into trying to get addicted to World of Warcraft the first time I started playing poker online. Specifically, No-Limit Texas Hold ‘Em, cash games and tournaments, at varying degrees of stakes. I’d been into poker heavy some time in the few years forthcoming, mostly playing live games with friends in rooms underneath our houses. Those hours quickly opened into new obsession, eating up all through my mind: during the day I went to bookstores and sat in the gambling department, reading each new book that I could find. I watched poker on TV in endless looping, often watching the same episodes so many times I could tell you who won with what on every hand. Most hours not spent around the table I began to find I could not shake its growing from my mind, and yet the hours of play at the beginning confined themselves to when my friends could get together, once or twice a week.
As I became more and more engorged about the idea, nights I spread into other games. I began frequenting a local underground card room packed with mostly older men I did not know. It was an edgy, packed-in set some nights, four tables running in a tiny two bedroom apartment on the north side of Atlanta. The carpet in the rooms was worn. The edges of the table pressed together with the walls and chairs and bodies occupied a wide berth in each room. Money here was mostly easy — a large chunk of the players came to gamble, not to bank. Playing tight and sitting easy for x hours would often pay off with a dependable and comfy wage, if sold at the price of whole nights eclipsed thinking nothing but of numbers and of entering another’s head.
There is something in the air of a poker table in the right mode that replicates the air before a night of correct sleeping. Something blanking but also lit. Hours in a night can eat themselves in instant conflagration, as they would in positive creation or in dream. Something silent too about the space between movements at the table, the sound of shuffled chips and cards, the deciding minds at work — all of it sums into a kind of nowhere, a zone like that of runner’s high or pleasured concentration as on a book.
In Texas hold ‘em, there are 2652 potential starting hands. With the three community cards that make the flop, 311,875,200 potential combinations of hole cards and board occur. On the turn, 14,658,134,400 potential settings. On the river, 674,274,182,400+. Each hand, then, is a series of tumblers rotating to fit your given grooves of key, therein releasing or subtracting money from the bodies co-seated in your vicinity, behind their own other two-card key, each of which, in collision with the above numbers of possible combination, make the web that much deeper, doors in doors. On its face, these systems appear simple, quiet, spinning on a lip, and in continual refreshing. An average hand lasts two minutes, less.
For all its want of math and skill-sets, the game of poker is one quite deeply about divination. Less than the cards you’re dealt, poker is about situations, about motion — shapeshifting under expectation and exerting pressure in the right places against the player unto their personal gaps and faults, the tunnels in. The best and most feared poker players play the player, using position and expectation to crumple their opponents’ base. In assuming this kind of mindset, a player begins to enter a kind of psychic void, where time inside your mind does not exist and there is no sound. Here, too, sleep becomes deflectable, a shell. Because hours do not seem hours in the nowhere, and the body is essentially at rest — nearly meditating in certain ways: focused and unfocused, aimed and blank — one could conceivably go on in this enclosed manner for much longer than in the usual body constructs. For the sleepless, it is a familiar, defused world — if one where numbers translate, in the exit, to actual money — what one might use to feed or house one’s self. Time outside the game then gets committed to endlessly reviewing plays scrolled as video in mind, peering from box to box in each decision to unlock what led to losses, what to wins, and how burps in chance, bad beats and misperceptions, translated into loss.
David Sklansky’s “Fundamental Theorem of Poker” exhibits nicely the complexity of interaction involved in any given hand, exhibiting the decision model not as one of cash and digits, but as semantic, a mirrored bouncing between walls: “Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.” Within this logic, each action is not only a reaction, but one in consideration of the range of logics behind your opponent’s own action, which therein may be influenced by his or her perception of your previous action, and vice versa, on and on throughout the history of the hand, and of the hands you’ve logged previously with this player, etc. Behavioral fractals do emerge, perceptions worked from seedlings, motions, the tension of the light in someone’s eye. The results thereafter become impinged upon by the unwavering and often cruel hand of luck, splintering the logical control freak center that inhabits many players into the unpredictable, in thrall. In that the nature of probability includes the idea that the improbable will occur, any poker session can quickly spin into unintention, overridden by its fickle heart.
In this way, the energy derived from eight, ten, 12+ hour poker sessions often opens up into a gray zone, where the need of sleep does not exist. The mind absorbed in its surroundings, its fluctuations of number light. In the best modes, meeting of intuitive play, flow of incidental numbers (via catching cards or flops, or milking image by aggression), and a general favor of good luck — a rather complex mirage of forces no single one of which can be controlled or verified — the end result is money. Negotiate the prism and get paid.
It wasn’t hard to end up neck-deep in this obsession — soon twice a week became four or five, became every day unless something else major was going on. This obsession ate my mind — bought me looped back to this new room filled with nameless faces, pushing clay tokens back and forth across a stretched tablet of felt, speaking numbers, symbols, grunting, wormed full in the head. It became difficult to write. It became difficult to stare too long at any other new condition. The game infected my whole mind. Most any night after a long session would be filled with its reflection, hours crystallized out of the marathon mesmerism that the best poker nights hold, into the points along the long where the biggest swings were made. In bed, warm from those hours, the mind would spin inside its numbers, looking for wormholes in how I played: what decision or negotiation of probabilities and bridge-collision of the way the cards would lie could have been handled in such a way to bring a better result. Ways I could have handled a situation seemingly designed to make me go broke (such as wherein I hold a very large hand, but my opponent holds one even larger). Ways I could have strung more cash out of my stronger spots (learning to camouflage the betting body so as to lure my opponent into betting against his fate). Et cetera. Each hand residing in the brain in slow rotation, a wormhole of blank thought, which when appended to the late bedtime of a long session, would often obliterate the night entirely. Daylight in the scrunch of thick-deck shuffle. The endless purr of chips against chips. Hard not to live inside the game mind. Hard to see, hear, absorb any inch of else. The reinforcement of my no sleep with the concrete world of fickle numbers camped my brain out. I did not write. I spoke less out loud, likely, than any other point in my life. Often, too, in remembering, I can’t place even feeling the need or want to sleep more than that small. The blank bleeding over as if to keep each in the same bowl. All air becoming of the same: as if of no air at all. Like a child’s conception of what space is: nothing. Rewinding and unwound. Or if not that, a muddle, pudding. Or if not that, a coring, where even walking in a room seemed slightly off.
When the local game I went to in Atlanta died — a rash of shotgun robberies in the area, some police raids in the suburbs, cracking down — and my friendly home game was barely breathing, there’d been a part of me was put on hold. I was lucky to have never ended up being around in a game where dudes in masks with long guns burst their way into a room — though I heard countless stories of guys in other games in that same area being removed of pants and wallets and held on hand and knees — nor did I get nabbed on a misdemeanor charge during a rash of local raids by cops trying to keep the illegal trade down, during which my obsession did not allow me even then to slow. Even after the evening, a large local with a nickname that a dog has “held court” over a table screaming obscenities at any man who’d call his bet, talking specific evil trash to every other person at the table, all of whom who in his eyes could see he meant it when he said, “I ought to kill every motherf-cker in here,” then got up to go out to his car and get his gun, through which we waited in nameless terror while the room sat still and no one spoke — the man did not come back. Still, I’d never liked the idea of not playing in person, across the table from the others, as that energy seemed cluttered, cold. It wasn’t till again I lived alone, cordoned in my own air and having failed to find the room to room erupt of online gaming quite alive, that the draw of internet casinos got me curtained in again.
In the online light, this new cluster of numbered rooms of numbered hands, days could leak to weeks. A game at any hour, every hour, at almost any stakes or range or brand you’d want. Inside of this, not sleeping seemed attractive, as the longer I stayed up, the more I played. The clicking numbers of high but confined odds tackled in the hands dealt to each person and then to the table, to combat among texture, among numbers, the converters of the math. In the unique rooms, each named with numbers and populated with the colored strange-named icons representing other bodies in other houses, I would type and bark and trade money with these people. There numbers would be poured into me. In long delirium of sitting staring into white light I would sometimes take pleasure in type-screaming into the chatbox in all caps, talking shit or barking text-data curse words, howling, trying to disguise my table image as a more conservative-edged player. The F1 through F4 keys on my keyboard could make the image of the puppy I’d chosen as my body in the machine toggle through expressions, furious, confused, excited, full of glee.
In these hours, playing moderate stakes, keeping calm inside my body in long hours, I would sweep money from those digital coffers. I would build a bankroll made of digits rising up — not cash in hand, but abstract digits. The higher the digits went, the more I shrunk, compacting in my seat in my silent room to grow faster, higher, larger, made of money I rarely transferred into palpable bank notes. I liked seeing the number of my bankroll climb. A withdraw seemed a loss. In the small cube room with my computer when I grew tired of sitting up I would lay down on the carpet among the fibers, the soft scrim of dog and human hair blanketing the texture at close up, and close my eyes and hum and feel the heat inside me rising. There would be music some days there. There would be things that I could laugh at that came inside me and the windows of the house still saw out.