Unfortunately, I am not a man of my word, but it doesn’t mean I’m not trying. Perhaps the secret was not to go so in depth, when really, few care besides me about what is behind the vision. “Keep it simple,” she had said fatefully; in this case, perhaps that still applies to a few minor documentarians known as poker vloggers. (More likely, the secret is just never stop no matter what, but that is another story entirely.)
Glenn Gould thought that criticism – even the real kind – should consist strictly of factual notes. Minutes long. Beats per minute. As much as I think he’s right, that was never enough for me. The attentive audience is often an indecent and prying one, the natural mirror to those who get off on exposure, as much as that upsets those who think they should or even can filter in only adulation and encouragement.
Well, most people would agree with Gould in spite of themselves, I think – no blog pieces of mine ever triggered less interest than those in this series. They are welcome, even from the irascible poker community, those reminders to love one another, – following social media has been the theme in my exile of the last few years – but when the next message is malice born of stupidity, the precious word flutters away, ungrasped because something – we can never judge exactly what – was never real.
Fortunately, that is freeing, because what people really care about in the poker world – easy money, cheap advice, scurrilous homogeneity, was never that interesting to me, either. Self-promotional PR about your habits, your family, your stack – whatever – mostly dies on the vine but it will gain you some true false friends.
I had spent much of the summer slow-cooking uninterest in whatever it is poker players think about. This was a paradoxical loss of curiosity, because I was at the same time busy doing my best work as a poker coach. The upgrade of my construction course was a breakthrough for those approaching line work. Eugenius called it “poker solitaire,” a telling description of the simplicity of why what combinations move where. Live and online students continue to move up in stakes. Even more tellingly, the chat room flows with conversation I often have no need to direct. The great task of making myself superfluous is occasionally accomplished.
However, with other aspects of my life in disarray, the imported dreams of others are what filled my head, where once so rich an oasis flourished that it seemed I could survive any setback – delusion majeure. Instead, my diet of video passed the mere escapism of the years before, and nights online passed into days of pure oblivion. I forgot the sun (although not the taste of bread, unfortunately.)
When I wasn’t drowning myself in this insomniac poison, I followed Twitter. It’s a compulsion for many of us, the social media scene. However, what compulsion is good? The bait and switch of contact for personal projection is incendiary, a kind of opinion porn that stunts the mind just as powerfully.
Yet this endless shoreline of ideas is not without its merits. In my degeneracy, I conceived of the fruitless opinions I read as the granules of a beach, constantly pummeled by reality, but where the granules never disappear: they only crack and splinter into sand. Sand is not nothing: the end of the land marks the territory, the realistic borders of what we belong to and among. As meaningless as most opinions are, they form enough of a ground to live on, it seemed to me suddenly. They had life and form and space no matter how misguided.
Well, such were my days, rambling of thoughts, while I summoned the courage to turn a new page. In the midst of this media fever, a new wave of poker vloggers emerged, and I thought I might take up the All Vlogs Revealed series afresh. Let’s touch on a few and maybe more soon.
One of the most repulsively compelling of the new vlogs isn’t even a new vlog, but the reincarnation of an old one. Mark Ari, nitty AC (a redundancy, I realize) reg, his bankroll later kissed by the soft games of Florida, is now an itinerant low-level poker pro here on the West Coast, one of the only promised lands of poker still extant. Ari formerly gave us ABC poker advice via Youtube, making him a bit of a forerunner to the current bumper crop of video diarists. However, life has transformed him and given him a far more personal purpose: the public scourging of those he resents.
Ugliness is an interesting thing to ponder, not just for its own sake, but for its relationship with those who condemn it. The same people who are, curiously, overly insistent that everyone have a voice are the same people who call for censorship – just look at Twitter and the code golgothas’ impossible positions on speech. However, those who have something unbanal to say are often the most disliked. Ari, messy, illogical, wounded, has one of those compelling voices. It’s not real pretty but it is pretty real.
The vlog’s self-inflicted one-shot shooting style doesn’t need to be commented on in itself. However, its relationship to his message is pure medium – a nice if easy touch. Admittedly, Ari talks so much and covers so much territory it might be unfair to characterize him completely in a short review – I’ll stick with his big theme. Much of his camera time is spent railing against vloggers who he feels are misrepresenting themselves, a one man “anti-vlogging movement,” as he puts it. (Of course, the moving image lends itself to misrepresentation – I just can’t settle for Gould’s prescription here.) The raving doesn’t need editing or want it, even though the kind of person who goes for this style doesn’t really get to take effective shots at Andrew Neeme, matinee star vlogger. The incredible work Neeme puts into his productions goes mostly uncommented upon by Mark, which seems unfair until you realize what it is Mark truly cares about – the misery of low-stakes poker. Not Neeme’s bag.
However, Ari is no outlier in spirit. The vast majority of players suffer in the game, agonizing over decisions and consequences of those decisions. Players will bring tremendous emotional heat to what amounts to entry-level games, fire and brimstone to forum conversations, and spend ever more time and treasure trying to conquer our glorified parlor amusement. Mark speaks in their voice. He cares about how you play jacks. He knows you just gotta fold. Everything is polarization for a.m. radio Mark – “they have it or they don’t.” Mark is a poker populist – and we all know how and how much that is loved these days.
Mark cares a great deal about his strategy: fair enough- it’s confusing to go about life assuming you are wrong, I suppose. He tackles Neeme, Owen, Cordeiro and probably others (I can only watch so much), and some of his criticism is just. Serious players already know Neeme is not a strong player, but are generally not under Mark’s delusion that it matters. Neeme is a vlogger, and does it better than anyone. He is entertainment. Telling us the jester shouldn’t take up the throne isn’t much of a revelation, but maybe these days, even the basics aren’t basic.
That’s not good enough for the raging populist, who calls out their play, and ultimately ends up challenging everyone to heads-up. Yes, really. The wheels are coming off, albeit in an interesting and productive way. First of all, Mark is no poker theorist, which he revealed first through his comments, but more of a live poker realist. The ten-handed hell of the East Coast games has clearly whipped him into a reg but it’s just that – a reg’s game. He does have some ideas about purpose, which is a very important path for the novice or losing reg to explore.
Second, his play and commentary speaks for itself. Taking on a somewhat antsy looking middle-aged man, Andrew from San Jose, Mark misuses betting efficiencies, misunderstands construction, and seems to get punked at least a few times over a selection of hands. While he chatters on about balls this and that, the play here signals that…
But enough and stop: now I’m falling into the same trap he does. What matters is this is exactly how Mark does earn glory. Most players don’t get enough of the heads-up format, especially in 2018. Neither Mark nor his opponents are likely to have much of an edge here, but that is completely unimportant: in trying to bring back heads-up and competitive challenges, Ari does poker a great service.
Moreover, can Mark get out of his own way and really make the challenge fly, or will he alienate everyone first? In either case, his punishment will be his reward, as in all life: while he may win or lose, in so striving, he can become a better player, a better human. Yes, there’s more low-stakes misery ahead for Mark, more lonely motel rooms and microwaved meals, but he’ll emerge stronger, thanks to the bravado of the vlog, his challenge, and his bravery as an apparent plain-dealer. (His honesty, though, isn’t necessarily without limits, as he takes a loss to Andrew but without being felted, calls himself undefeated. Pride is a demon to reckon with in the poker world.)
Mark is no director, but the coverage of that first heads-up match does provide some cinematic interest nonetheless. Andrew gives some hints that he is irritated with the slowness of the game, which Ari, loving the moment, drags out with commentary. It’s satisfying to see Mark clearly in his element in this casual game where the button is a grape jelly packet. Mark enjoys himself, genuinely smiling during break-aways. He thinks he is in control of the scene, but is often being subtly humored. Andrew, half absent, is likely a parent, and one can tell his time is worth more than this absurd challenge: he’s here for an unknown motivation – interest is created with this sort of misaligned dynamic because character is revealed. Can Ari do it again, and better? That, after all, is the task of the artist.
We’ll see. I think one should root for him, no matter how many feathers get rumpled. His absolutely endless grandstanding and ballyhooing not only bury his strongest points and interesting life – divinity student, traveler, Latin dancer – they diminish the potential beauty of his heads up challenge, regrettably wasting the viewer’s time. That clearly costs him subscribers. Nevertheless, there is something going on here beyond his venting over being left behind by the high-production vlog wave, and it is remarkable: Ari is returning poker to its roots. The simple visual of Mark’s cards in his hands, the sound of the chips on the diner table, and the sight of Andrew eating his late-night breakfast completely denude the ridiculous casino and contemporary corporate culture of poker, with its absurd b-list celebrities, donkament variance worship, and continuing inability to find poker’s best role in the just city. (Further, Mark appears to have done it with their chips, snap.) These homey, unadorned images of the ranting provocateur crank taking on the restrained, well-off amateur, as much by accident as design, may be the most important any vlogger has produced for the good of the game.
One of Ari’s objects of frustration is Marle Cordeiro, very likely the best of the newest wave. A sweet and agreeable player in person, Marle inhabits the visual field as much or more than any of the vloggers so far in the movement. Likely with some training or improv work, she pulls off humor and understands the eye of the camera demands constant amusement: the audience is a tiger waiting for the whipmaster’s hand to slow.
As a poker player she is a tad ridiculous, and hand history evidence suggests she likely survives on savvy alone. Her actions are strangely constructed as presented, and some play with her at the Wynn confirmed this is no accident. Her strengths are boldness and fearlessness at the table: she puts her chips where her thoughts are. Again, however, to focus on this is to miss the point, once more: no one is here to learn from her.
She is here to be adored, to amuse and entertain. so it is fascinating how predictably the audience reacts to her, so archetypically it must be addressed. (After only a handful of vlogs, she is heading toward 20k-plus subscribers, leaving Ari fuming.) In fact she addresses one particular kerfuffle herself, wherein she feels compelled to babble about starting a consensus-approved “conversation” when pure theatrical entertainment had been both her aim and success – never underestimate the power of the humorless to kill whatever they touch. The object of lust is courted in her comment section, denied, and then turns shaming and angry. One could not have planned out a less interesting yet more telling reaction. Poker players are basically everyone else, only worse. The seduction of the game as work does not mitigate our ignoble qualities, but enhances them. That Marle is capable of poking the soft spots of society is only to her credit, and she’ll want more of that to stay relevant and remain more than a novelty.
This is entertainment and Marle is above all, fun. I admire her storytelling and self-awareness. Indeed, it is hard to imagine someone not being a success with these qualities. However, it will all likely go to her head very fast. She’ll be invited to be on this stream and that, show up at meet-ups, date high-stakes players and be generally a poker society spectacle. A recent vlog teases her as a high-stakes player in Ivey’s Room, but neither the camera nor mic is not let in as to why it happened. For the first time, she misjudges the intelligence of her audience in giving to them the less interesting of the story-lines: they are shut out rather than invited in, the opposite of the best conception of the genre in what should ironically be a pure insider moment. In short, we all get what we want, just not in the way we think we want it. For Mark and Marle, you are seeing different versions of the same success.
Over the past summer, Matt Berkey and his crew hired nascent Pigtail Productions to essentially bridge the gap between pure vlog and production entertainment. Their WSOP vlog was remarkable but of course not in the true vlogging spirit of self-production and thus self-creation. We saw Berkey, Christian Soto, Jordan Young et al not as they are, but as characters. This remove kept them from true connection with a wider audience, depressing their subscribership, while providing an absolutely terrific poker spectacle to those interested. A win for someone.
Fascinatingly, they have taken this completely incomplete success into the realm of poker training. With the .tv explaining everything, the Solve For Why subscription training site comprises poker programming of the highest quality production in existence. From what I’ve heard, they are very conscious of what they are doing here, correctly calling it “edutainment.” For the All Vlogs Revealed series, it’s worth looking at their model from the lens of the viewer and not the desperate learner, a topic that has been beaten to death, revived, and killed again in poker circles.
S4Y.TV contains the concept videos you might expect, in this case nicely projected through the lens of vocabulary, but also founder biographies for the Berkievers, who are an especially worshipful bunch. A solid if plodding podcast by lethargic Jack Laskey and hedging Matt Hunt provides sage poker theory nerdcore. Debonair Jordan gives us the old-fashioned reviews of client hands, shot as if he were an off-hours cable TV show host. Jordan is simultaneously the most easy to like of the gang, while also being the most suspicious as he appears to be in a constant state of shock or surprise. (BOO!) On the upper end, Berkey, Hunt, and Soto provide webinars and analysis that should satisfy any 5/10 player and get them beyond. There’s a lot to get through.
However, this is all mere afternoon filler at S4Y.TV, because the prime time program is Poker Out Loud, which has gotten some word of mouth via the podcast rounds and a preview on Youtube. (S4Y’s reluctance to post up to date or even monthly clips of their many programs on Youtube seems like one of the great marketing gaffes of poker 2018.) For those that doubt Matt Berkey, he (and everyone on the program) lay it on the line, verbalizing their strategy as they play. Matt navigates and crushes a tough field with genius and slick poker auteurship that shows him where he truly shines: deep, short-handed games where players are fighting for the pot. He is a competitor above all, and wants the fight.
The problem is that Berkey the soldier also needs the fight. What Berkey doesn’t want and isn’t built for are the deadening games the new generation of GTO players are delivering to us. He strains in many televised cash games, like a leashed animal, trying to evade the cold, heartless logic of the solver and its cyborg soldiers who never want to put a chip of dead money into the pot. Berkey sometimes seems to be a time traveler, a shaved-headed cosmonaut on a solitary mission to rescue poker from the Black Friday Hole its best days fell into. Indeed, it’s interesting to see how poorly the poker community understands his game – even in his own forum channels. The reaction of the chat monkeys watching him play, on LATB or anywhere else, is amusing to anyone who has a clue about poker theory and how his seemingly eclectic strategy intersects with it. The choir praises him one moment and condemns him the next, oblivious. Sand meet shoreline.
My main mistake in evaluating Berkey before was not in measuring his expertise, but an equally classic one – I believed the hype and aura, taking at face value his efforts to contort his mind into a hard-ass, unbreakable personality. That is something he forces onto himself, because I see now that he is volatility itself, a deeply emotional man who creates his own imbalances, one who summons his own tilt. In one sense, I have never admired Berkey more, even as he flails more than he once did, reducing his win rate, like an actor trapped by his greatest role. At his worst, we watch him straining to be Tom Dwan but ending up as Sam Farha, splashing about, complaining about the action, chomping and waving his fitness religiosity as a conversational cigar.
Poker Out Loud isn’t just Berkey, of course. Watching the prideful, private Christian Soto get hammered is an amusing storyline. He’s come into his own and is probably the best all-around article at S4Y at the moment. His commentary on recent Elite Academy footage is cleaner (and funnier) than Berkey’s machination mind, even if lacking the thorough exploitative genius and long experience. Soto is the right blend of performer and tactician, the kind that may get beaten up a bit in games like POL but will be there years from now, winning.
Yet POL still gets better. Nick Howard, who revealed himself to be the one of the best players in the game at S4Y’s heads-up challenge last year, is great to watch. His in-game analysis is matched only by Berkey’s. It is riveting to see Howard evincing an original approach to poker combined with a personal fury that gives him instant onscreen charisma. In fact, while I don’t have time to get into everyone who plays, all do take up their role and run with it. Bravo.
So I’d say more, but why? This hybrid vlog and training site is a reasonable price and anyone can check it out for themselves without costly commitment. Y’all pay ten dollars a month to listen to Ali Nejad hack his way through a broadcast; what about a little more to actually learn to play and be just as amused? Yeah, I didn’t think so: the poker world is so strange – a community enslaved to expected value but in practice less rational than any I have been a part of.
Well, never mind that. What’s crucial here is that this shift in how poker is being taught, presented, and distributed is currently nicely bridged by S4Y. However, the question for the restless world of poker never changes: what’s next?