A new generation of poker players is creating thousands of hours of previously rare poker content: The personal poker video log, aka vlog. In this series, I will attempt to review them all.
“It’s difficult to talk to the camera,” admits Brandon Sheils, a once and now again aspiring poker vlogger. Watching his videos “My Very First Vlog,” “My Poker Journey,” and now another, with the Grand Reopening title of “Life of a Semi-professional Poker Player – #1 How I Won £27K,” one can’t be sure Brandon isn’t done clearing his throat. However, I’m reviewing Brandon because it looks like this latest first video is the one that might stick, and more importantly, it’s an incipient vlog that already contains many important lessons for other aspiring vloggers.
This vlog’s pattern of images – all every visual media is – primarily features extended close-ups of a young and attractive young man, youthful and soft to the point of extreme boyishness. His eyes are amandine and their brows sweeping and heavy. He is the classic handsome young subject, with features from the empire’s various corners: an apparent item of the great isle of cultural intersection but still unabashedly naive.
Critically, Brandon is not shy about relying on that image, however recalcitrant his initial pose – it’s clear he has self-esteem at core and overall appears to be the healthy beloved of a normal family. Brandon seeks out footage of himself from tournaments to include, doesn’t mind dropping a name, calls himself “Wonderboy,” and apparently has aspirations to be a comic. The unstated, possibly unrealized assumption and argument of this pattern is that he is interesting. His camera finds his face and he, in return, loves the lens. One skims through the videos, and one finds for long stretches only the narrating vision of that face. This fixation thus eventually becomes receiving but not giving: it turns out that lens is not often enough the eye of the viewer, who naturally seeks out more and more, but instead a mirror. Compare this to the efforts of Owen to entertain or Neeme to show.
This he will likely overcome. After all, Brandon has a bit of a head start in this little business, with a referenced following on 2+2 in his corner, a formerly well-attended blog, and the natural charisma his appearance affords him. He’ll be able to fade these rough early videos, and so get advice and help should he want to make a real go of it. What he and other new vloggers should learn or remember is that that eye of the viewer is a smart and justifiably fickle one: Brandon’s audience is at present small for a reason. Further, the visual medium, so conducive to easy consumption, is one that inspires higher and higher standards very quickly because the baseline is so minimal and the technical elements long since mastered by the film industry and its market forces.
No matter what you do or what avenue you go down, though, everything always remains of a piece. Part of Brandon’s story, both thematically and in plain fact, is growing up. There are signs Brandon is taking this latest effort more seriously. He looks older, only a few months later since the first piece. The toys, figurines, and childhood paraphernalia which marked the first vlog’s background -and even some expository cutaways – have been noticeably reduced. He is changing: we find Brandon at the beginning of the story in every way and can predict rapid developments should he proceed.
The quirks of Brandon’s personality and life provide real relief to some of his more monotonous personal litanies, a style which has carried over from his blog, a very serious effort but one which is mostly a shopping cart of goals and experiences. (It’s worth noting that the blog is also indifferently formatted, an attractive but endless scroll of images and bullet points burying the reader rather than serving him. Our poker and our life and our art always interweave themselves.) In the first video, he apparently takes one to three hours to pursue some unidentified activity with his cat(s). Despite replaying the stream five times to try to pick up on his verb, I could not make out from his dead enunciation whatever this likable oddity was. He shows us what he loves: candy, his girlfriend, all things soft and cuddly. Of course, as with all seeming teddy-bears and nice guy personalities, the polarization of intolerance is just a brush of the polyester tag away. In one spot he criticizes middle class shoppers for enjoying some upper end alcohol from a public market as pretentious. My, my, not up to the Brandon Sheils’ standard of authentic living.
Narrative details also amuse. He captures his girlfriend Kelly with hints of both pride and teasing. He pays respect to his parents by featuring an English rag’s funny article about their family of “professionals” who crush the games with a “mathematical formula” for winning at poker. With a certain amount of charming enthusiasm, his eyes literally shining from happiness, he makes observations such as “it still hasn’t sunk in” while his face actually gleams with the full knowledge of winning a recent tournament: self-knowledge is not Brandon’s forte, to a nice effect. He then adds that winning the tournament “was on my bucket list.” Well, yes I would hope that a tournament player’s dreams might include one of those!
Some details really do try the viewer, however. The inane arpeggio which Brandon uses to brighten up his presentation is almost too silly to be annoying; however, he continually stops this repetitive soundtrack to make emphasis, like a bad dancer who can only pause on the one beat, all to remind us that the dreadful claptrap is coming right back for more carousel vengeance. Unlike many of the successful vloggers, who make a distinct effort to amuse and engage the voyeur – to stay ahead of the spectator’s game, in other words, the very mark of the directorial spirit – this unwitting disrespect of the audience is one of those things that mark poor filmic experience. It will be hard to watch much more should this canned treble – the musical version of the candy he comforts himself with- peek out in plastic rainbows from the speakers again. What the audience wants to hear are the sounds that mean something important to the vlogger, or, even better, to the piece itself: caress the details, as Nabokov advised.
One of those details that Brandon is truly good at, unlike many vloggers, is poker itself. Here Brandon is at his most authoritative and interesting. While he gets mildly trolled by Liv Boeree and does not seem to recognize it, Brandon shows us that his skills on the felt are indeed sharp. His hand histories are refreshingly low tech and thoughtful. In fact, in footage provided by Pokerstars – more documentary – the boy seems to be more than just that. Grave and less self-conscious, Brandon focuses well at the table and reveals to us, far more than from all of his chatter, his potential place in the poker world. In his true work, the man always announces himself: Brandon is a poker player.
Poker is also where Brandon is at his most compelling as narrator because now we finally have conflict. Getting beyond his more tiresome bragging quarter-cloaked in tepid self-consciousness, Brandon talks about getting staked: “I have no risk at all.” I’d be uneasy if I were the stakehorse and heard this, and that is good news for Brandon’s vlog: conflict is interest, interest is conflict. Either he has a generous non-markup deal or he’s just indifferent to the mental toll poker and a stake will take on him. The obliviousness of youth- something Sheils has in spades, to be sure – may simply carry him far and the viewer may simply be seeing it in action. (That’s good documentary, but he’ll need to continually open up more to get our attention, a la Robert aka the “Poker Monk,” who took a flagging if good-humored, over-shy poker vlogging trope and made it instantly more compelling by talking about his serious mental and emotional challenges: vulnerability and greatness are inextricably linked in all art, even one as seemingly minor as a video blog.) Brandon’s opinion could also lead to trouble, as he has gone “broke” before – at least as much as a young man who appears to be living at home can be “broke.” His vlogging stakes, in other words, are very often not high enough and are a big part of the unearned interest which he attempts to capitalize upon. The viewer wants more of these real thoughts of this, this real meat about his “semi-profession,” as he calls it. What the viewer doesn’t need is more moralizing on accomplishment, his report cards from the donkament scene (we’re not his parents), or snark about people who he’s too green to understand or have empathy for.
This brings us to the central formalistic test of Brandon’s vlog, and the absolute master key for many others who are attempting to make something of the genre. Butting up against the entire wave of successful poker vloggers, Brandon gives the audience history when what the viewers clearly crave is exploration. (The medium is the message, naturally: this explains the need of the vloggers to show us their commute compulsively if not religiously.) This is an important lesson for all the aspiring video bloggers who want to understand the backbone of, say, Andrew Neeme’s appeal. Now, anything can be made to work, and choosing variations leads to creativity and greatness, but Brandon, in taking this all too easy tack of history rather than investigation, gives the rest of us only the most tenuous hold on his importance and the why that should make our interest in him a more natural one. What world does the vlogger take his lens – the eye of the viewer– into? A retelling of the past or into the present ambitions of an advantage gambler? Which is naturally more suited to the poker situation, its sketchy narrator, and his humble equipment? This is and will be his – and many others’ – great personal challenge as amateur filmmakers.
Brandon’s vlog beyond its formalistic element is a tentative review of the self but not a particularly conscious one. We are instead seeing a young man’s first steps at finding what he wants and what he is good at. This will interest many, especially others in his situation. Compare this to the Boski vlog, whose interlocutor is stringently editing what he knows about himself and giving us only hints – ameliorating interest through mystery – about what the underlying truth is both in narration and in image pattern.
That matters. Brandon’s real story arc, if he can pick it up and then refine it, definitely lies here, because it is in fact gloriously unencumbered and oddly pure compared to many other poker vloggers: the player and his development. What will come of Brandon in poker? Is it all trophies and candy and kittens and Kelly? Where will his next misstep be and will he have the strength to share it with us? What happens without Kelly? Or without _____?
This would be worth the audience’s time. Brandon is at the start, once again, and he and his vlog have the opportunity to become interesting. One has to wonder, though, at Wonderboy: He’s just informed us that he’s going to Thailand “so I won’t be able to do a vlog.” Yes, an adventure in a distant, beautiful, alternately impoverished and luxurious land would definitely not be a good vlogging subject!
However, when the underlying story is that everything good is still to come, it’s hard to go too wrong. Good luck to Brandon and all others getting their vlog off the ground. Now is apparently – and always – the time.