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 suiting that I start off with a vlog which commands its form while being particularly constrained by it. In other words, the Jeff Boski vlog has much to say about its creator and about poker itself, but much of it is in what it doesn't say.
Beginnings matter, and episode 1 is a fair rubric for the entirety of the series so far. The pattern of images that define the series are cash, Boski's face, tournament stacks, food, and sex workers. Fittingly, that is pretty much all we see in the first installment.
I'll talk about each of these central images, but let's start with cash, because this is where everything begins - a mid-speed, shaky pan of a few hundred in twenties that just might blow away. This is honest, and so a good way for Boski to define his world. It's not a particularly lavish or rich one, but a little dry and crispy, a world of bills and comps and desert air.
Better known under the name Jeff Sluzinski, Hendon Mob reports career earnings approaching $700,000 over nine years of serious live multi-table tournament play. Nearly all of his scores and cashes are in Las Vegas, and it's reasonable to surmise that not only is he a long-time resident, but likely enjoys another income stream to round out his finances, if not his life. Even if we give him a 100% tournament ROI, for instance, we find his gross income will be about $35,000 per year. This is certainly enough to live comfortably in a low-cost American city, which, beyond the glitz of the tourist area, is what Las Vegas is. In fact, during the obligatory poker vlogger driving footage, a fetish of the new wave of video journalists, we will indeed see him driving from some apparent outskirts to reach the strip. Viva East Henderson.
It's also not a wordy world. Boski, for a public diarist, has very little to say. However, this is in fact a strength of his vlog more than a weakness, and keeps him true to the constraints of his style. Many vloggers have also little to say but much to talk about, yet Boski wisely keeps to his medium. He does not seem to be trained or experienced in the creation of visual media, but again this works far to his advantage, as he is rarely cloying or fancy.
One of the best aspects of his vlog are his cuts and cut-aways, before which he says something very short and instead of lingering on it or pontificating further, he fades the volume out and moves onto the next action - great instinctive directing which might be too raw, but because it makes his minor point - he's at some level of some tournament - at an appropriate pacing and space, it conforms well to his production vision. There is much of this sort of interior truth in the Boski vlog, as I shall show.
Cash, however, quickly is transformed into chips, and here we find his aesthetic at its only real point of ridiculousness. There may be some humor in it, but the camera's lingering shots of tournament chips - nearly valueless ceramic disks, set to ridiculous music at best and quiet stills of stacks at worst - is just a touch comical and dissuades the viewer at several points, like photos of a fast food item that isn't actually appetizing. Nevertheless, it reminds us of the essential smallness of much of poker and its domestic obsession with savings and value. Boski, in his minimalism and love of simple things, helps the viewer see poker clearly by celebrating what isn't worth celebrating.
The small human details that create a complex piece of work, however are not really in Boski's wheelhouse, and he sticks to his pattern of images very cleanly. However, nothing is so absolute. For instance, in episode 3, promising because it is a rare PLO tournament, Boski catches a player on camera serving himself from a hidden bottle of wine. This episode also happens to contain one of the strangest tracking shots in poker vlogging, where the resourceful Boski has used cards and paper to layout a hand on a table, itself a great diversion from graphics and subtly humorous. He then takes footage, panning the camera upward as he describes the action, only to cut to the same shot with the next street dealt. Each time he pans forward anew from the same starting point, creating the slightly nauseating effect of reading in a moving vehicle or profound intoxication or, perhaps, the endlessness of the hands we play. His deader-than-a-pan baritone, like the weary narrator at the beginning of an endless expedition, adds to the bizarreness of this short, sea-sick scene.
As with all vlogs, for better or worse, sounds and music play a large role. Boski is at times restrained and savvy in his choices, again displaying that admirable, if undercooked, sensibility many could learn from. He selects music mostly for rather predictable social cueing: popular beats that tell us something "cool" is happening, synth or ballads mean thoughtfulness or drama, etc. Of course, if the generation before were to hear these cues, they'd wonder why such music is so dull; just as in the future, they'll wonder why we had no ear for timbre. Nevertheless, such elevator music is a big part of the poker vlog scene, generally making it a worse, more derivative experience than it needs to be. The film studio instinct, born of fear, to cover up the script (and the audience) with unearned mood, starts right at home, apparently.
Fortunately, keeping with my thesis, Boski's vlog is too minimal to suffer from this defect too much. In fact, Jeff's voice is the real soundtrack. Low and slow, it expresses a mind deeply patient with the world and untroubled by too much nuance or a need to explain itself: Boski belongs. Much will be repeated, including a certain dead optimism that he will win - this one I think about a lot. Must we be sure we will win? What exactly is the proper attitude? Another of his most tired phrases, one that runs through all thirty plus episodes so far, is the whole "bag and tag" routine - he even makes fun of himself for it in a later episode. It's a note, a leitmotif, as if he really is a soldier in some war no one wants.
Boski's delivery itself is sometimes hysterical, nowhere more so than in episode 7, where, over his usual Still Chip Montage, he claims, unprompted and halting, "My table... is the perfect mix... of genders and ethnicities." What does this mean? The alchemy of some vapid diversity quota? Some poker heaven that belongs painted on velvet next to the dogs playing cards? Only he can know, and since we can only hope the answer makes more sense than whatever the truth of the matter is, the fact that he never explains or expands upon it creates irony and fun. His speech in fact becomes more and more clipped and stylized as the vlog gathers episodes - probably a self-conscious realization that his audience enjoys it and his opaque personality. This speech technique works especially well with such meaningless aspirational bromides.
Ultimately, the image that is most prevalent and revelatory is Boski's face. It is, in fact, the true muse of his camera - a difference from Neeme or the Trooper. I can't be sure, because he prefers a photography angle, curiously, that looks up at him at all times, as if to distance himself stoically or give the slight impression that someone else is shooting him, but he seems to be a tall man. This matters because the tall are often aloof and distant, having literally been isolated from close quarters. Indeed, Boski appears ever so slightly withdrawn from communal thought. His eyebrows are always bewildered, his forehead often furrowed over some worry that is never communicated. He likes to turn to the side, throwing attention to some thought never expressed. His taut editing never lets the camera linger while that voice is faded out.
A recurring image that Boski shows us is an empty felt, with the big, bewildered eyes in the corner - nothing is ever a coincidence. Whether Boski is a user or not, his mien makes me think about substance abuse in poker. It is tempting, above all, for the tournament player, who must confront and master not only the game, but boredom itself. We are reminded why so many players are obsessed with mental game: in the tournament setting, it makes so much more sense as a strategic worry. (Somewhat bizarrely, Boski states in a Youtube comment that he prefers tournaments because he does not like the repetition of cash games. However, what he is likely referring to is the storyline of the freeze-out format.) DFW's final work focused on boredom and he used the IRS as his muse, but he might have done us all one better by looking to poker. Players like Boski, in love with money and freedom yet living so simply, people who deal with the same situations over and over again, have a lot to show - if not say - about our experience of the passage of time.
The second to last element of Boski's image list is food. For the most part he simply records what he is served. Boski does a great job with this, as in all his structural elements. For the most part he simply cuts to the meals and titles them, as if conscious of the overdone style in the restaurant and now poker vlogging scene: Boski is fitting in a necessity or perhaps paying it homage, and it works. Further, in episode 23 he manages, crushed by a tourney result, to pick up some groceries. It's frozen, chopped pork belly, which in preparing (and confusing it with cooking), he manages to serve up a sad, humorous, and nearly destroyed plate of unadorned rations: a bad day all around and one of his better moments as a short film maker. He offers up the "dish" for your admiration, not unlike the tournament chips, letting you decide on his real level of seriousness.
At some point along the way, www.pokertube.com, a slightly shady content agglomerator, started sponsorship of Boski's vlog. These sorts of deals are a natural development - I can foresee a few other vloggers being offered similar. However, another agreement which is more important to Boski's vision is an unclear partnership with some sort of adult film industry convention. I have no idea what is going on here - perhaps it's just mutual publicity- but Boski shows up and a porn actress gets a little face time and pushes his vlog. It's a little strange because the audience is already watching the video, but maybe it's some sort of surplus value thing. In any case, the inclusion of the sex starlets is all of a piece and rounds out Boski's vlog and vision of Vegas nicely. My favorite is in one recent episode where she gives a kiss to the camera that has nothing in it but the most mechanical desperation, and so it comes out like a kind of gasp of air she only has so much of, like a valve that shouldn't be opened any further. She, too, looks away.
In another of his best sequences, episode 24, Boski busts another tourney. However, he cleverly moves his community beauty's kiss of death to before his bust-out announcement: foreshadowing. He then goes into the night, unexplained and in good Boski fashion. The choice of music is strange and unnecessary, but what's important is that the car makes a turn - it's important visually that it's not another stupid, endless poker vlog tour of the streets - and quietly goes to a massage parlor for the human touch. The sequence ends with a capture of the announcement that there are "no refunds": tournament life spent. It's a little raw, for sure, and the glurge music dampens the drama and curiosity, but the thought is there and shows that Boski could do a lot with his camera and story if he really wanted to help us get into his psyche deeply and poignantly. This is a short passage of true film making amidst the self-hypnosis of tournament repetition and a highlight of the poker vlog work created by the movement so far.
It's an empty and discordant world for the most part, poker. If you go too far but not far enough, you'll get trapped into all sorts of things, and the industry of sex imagery on demand fits into the world of illusions and desiccated dreams that litter the poker road. In the modern era, very little has done more damage to the young man than this instant access to the cold shape of its vessel and but not its contents. What, then, does poker do to these same victimized non-victims?
This is one vlog, maybe more than all the others, that can tell us - well, no, more likely show us - the answer to this question, as the dry and venal world of Boski's Vegas speaks the language of these substitutions and imitations of life. Boski's vlog is the order of champagne when you have nothing to celebrate, the squinting, daytime drive to play indoors, the hardened lips of the adult video star. It's an important poker documentary and one that has not reached its peak - or should I say depths - yet.