Live poker’s great crank sage, Abe Limon, borrowed well from Gertrude Stein. “There is no there, there,” he would say, meaning that poker was a passage through, as opposed to a destination toward. The determination to make something of yourself through poker is one of our game’s major themes. Those who “forgot the cardinal rule” are either the game’s greats, who belong, like courtiers, at the perpetual royal table, or have become instead its jesters, hanging around to be mocked and to lift a few scraps from the table. Some, like DGAF, fight against all the odds to regain their place. Some, as the unfortunate Mark Ari demonstrated, have even worse, more tragic endings.
So these things aren’t jokes, despite the necessitated insincerity of the media structure which carries word of all of them. The great fight for one’s life, including how one wants one’s life, a battle we in this industry have somewhat pathetically set in an aggravated parlor game designed for charlatans and sharps, is the story of many vlogs and related poker media. Today I return to look at a few. Forgive my liberality, as I move beyond my original scope to a documentary.
It’s the hard part that matters, and Poker Bunny’s best and only challenging vlog has disappeared. You can watch the other ones for titillation and the usual poker simping, but I want to focus on this missing piece, which was one of the best items of poker content I have ever seen. Or perhaps I should really say, heard. Poker Bunny’s voice is already tremulous and constrained, indicating a kind of coy approach to unhappiness in her two extant videos, but in the deleted work, is something else entirely.
Human flourishing – that happiness thing we are always talking about – is usually achieved or granted through the continuous fulfillment of one’s biological destiny: love, family, sex, private life, and so on. It’s a bit hard to capture or see in a social media world, given the internet lends itself only to highlights and opinions and hints. In social media, ideas of any meaning are rarely well exchanged, but the projection of self-image is instead magnified as part of an arbitrage of the sickest part of ourselves. “Clout” and clicks and followers replace relationships; image projection and competition replaces dialogue. This interconnected but non-physical space is therefore not a deeper world, nor a more shallow one, to be fair, but clearly is more of a place of deceit, both for the consumer, who is fed white lies, and for the producer, who manufactures them for gain. The catch is that this interaction doesn’t really matter or stand any test of time, given how transparent the process and the results are. There are even studies suggesting how social media addiction is a marker for misery. Happy people, of course, have little time for such an embarrassing mechanism, but for the struggling, social media is both cruel god and godsend, as it delivers a stand-in for normal human interaction. Victims of the world’s uncharitableness, both outward and inward, such as Poker Bunny, have a special place in it because they stand to gain and lose the most.
In the missing vlog, a single cut from her second episode was repeated over and over again for, if I recall, twenty minutes. Now, this could have been done out of convenience or laziness or indifference, or yes, a profound understanding of what is effective, but motives don’t really matter. Over this hypnosis, and now in a pleading voice or sob where all the coyness is missing, PB told her story of struggles with abuse, despair, horrible choices – and of her moments of personal clarity. Combined with the visual minimalism, this single vlog episode briefly burst through all the tiresome crap that vloggers like to re-recycle for us in their own bid for some recognition, while usually not even bothering to offer to the viewer a shadow that isn’t of a shadow. We can think of Matt Vaughan’s confessions of online malfeasance or Jeff Boski’s hints of sex worker addiction or Ali Nejad’s reaction to the death of his girlfriend as real moments of personality in poker media; no doubt there are many more but still a far greater, almost gaping, need for more. The determination to show oneself, even if it is regretted, is the origin of all good things. It is the passage to there.
The cut itself, only a few seconds long, of a young woman moving back and forth, expressing even in a single unimportant moment, her own insecurity through performative ambivalence, but more importantly, the genuine love of being seen – no, the need to be seen, which is, of course, most deeply, the expression of the need to be loved – was powerful. I didn’t think of it at the time, because the context is so different, but with distance I am reminded of Werner Herzog’s desire to repeat a simple cut of Klaus Kinski, where he portrayed a character waking from a nap on a desk. This moment was so well acted by Kinski that Herzog was mesmerized. He recalled repeatedly watching it, over and over, over and over. It was this simple enactment that caused Herzog to later hire the actor and begin what would become one of the world’s finest and explosive cinematic collaborations.
Poker Bunny’s story is certainly explosive enough, and cuts the listener to the bone. “As a young girl, I was extremely misbehaved… I just didn’t listen to [my parents]… I was diagnosed with Asperger’s at a very young age. I remember when I was in HS … one of the schools was a special needs school… in the hallway I could hear kids screaming… causing huge scenes.. and I knew that I was like them… I knew that I was a freak.. I wished desperately that people understood me.”
“As I child [my mother] would chase me into corners, she would take… remotes or books and start hitting me with them… I dreamed of going to Hogwarts and being away from the abuse…. which I thought I deserved because my mom convinced me there was no other way to control me.”
It is hard to hear: this is not the deceit of image projection. It is moving and sad for the listener, and as compelling as good film work can be. The confessional brings immediate empathy, exacerbated by the fragile girl swaying indecisively on screen. This, in other words, is a success, even as she also confesses to returning the abuse upon the world and upon herself. Like Oscar for much of To Be Determined, the cycle has not been mastered and there does not seem to be much hope. “This is something that is going to ruin my life,” she states with certainty, but what exactly was this? Haunting, that demonstrative pronoun. This is a there you don’t want to visit.
“As an adult, I’ve never even experienced what it feels like to be loved by another human being.” Of course, the tragedy is double, as even if she had been loved, those deranged by pain often do not allow themselves to feel it, even when it is desperately real. We turn toward other mechanisms, and for our little world, that’s strategy.
“I equated playing optimally… to playing like an acceptable human being.” A clever moment of insight, as we hear the interior person reaching out to the light through the game itself. Our professions are closer to the heart of us than we realize: choose wisely. In fact, poker is mixed in throughout the monologue in the most matter of fact way, which strikes me as an uneasy detail, despite my own life in it. Perhaps because of it.
It gets worse, or is it just more of the same? Determination is not just a word for strength of purpose, it also can means destiny. So we learn that she’s been kidnapped. She gets into drugs far too early. She gives away her body to those who would only use and discard her. Flourishing is impossible under this tortured regime of the self. It’s hard to even track all the things that happen to her and which she does to herself.
“I’m weird, I’m fucked up” she messages herself. True, but so many of us are. No one really has to be alone, and the determination to realize that can change lives. Whatever Poker Bunny does, and despite whoever she might hurt, we can only wish her well after sharing such a moving self-exploration. In fact, she expresses a passionate desire, a real concern, that her audience believes her story. Is she lying for gain or is this the genuine need to be seen that I mentioned? I’m going to choose to believe her, because those who have greatly suffered have a tremendous, possibly unquenchable need for someone to listen, to manifest and so puncture the too-early death within.
It’s all a bit much, you might think, but the toxic teat of social media has likely drowned your sense of reality and what really does need to be said and what does need to be shown; ace-king versus queens just doesn’t always cut it – it probably rarely should. Like Chris Konvalinka’s fascinating and amusing break-of dawn Instagram rant about spurning Leverage Nik’s “indecent proposal” – the very best, or at least most interesting, (poker) content is uncomfortable and can’t openly exist in an internet paradigm based on deceit, as honesty defeats the purpose of image projection and really, the whole apparatus. Therefore, both CK and PB’s best moments are cancelled, but that doesn’t mean their creators are; we could see future moments of vulnerability and genuine interest from Poker Bunny, though this particular door is closed for now. The determination to show what matters, even in art as pedestrian as poker vlogs and Instagram clips, is the only thing that matters as it breaks the cycle of deceit we are all addicted to.
Showing is the question here, too, but first a note on the absurd responses to the long-awaited documentary about Oscar Jurado, a classic low-stakes poker type who grinds, in the very negative sense, the underground scene in New Jersey. Ultimately it does not matter that you are misunderstood, or even castigated, for what you do in art and life. Time passes, and perspectives change- very often in your favor. Still, it’s worth noting now just how badly Matt Berkey and Christian Soto’s project is often misinterpreted. In a strong field of contenders, a common and banal observation is that the Solve For Why and Pigtails Productions team should have focused on a winner or an obvious success story. The whole point of the project is obviously Oscar’s life and death struggle with the game, a war that he is not winning on any front. It’s his determination (and the lack of it) in the face of his own foolishness, and thus the viewer’s mirroring self-examination, that we should be focused on. This is the side of the game To Be Determined wants to show, and is exactly what makes it valuable. This isn’t 30 for 30 on your favorite sportsball idol, but something that is a little braver, if only because it’s a little more true to what is really going on in our game.
I use this word, not because our sports heroes aren’t brave – on the contrary, they are paragons for a reason– but because it also takes a lot of heart to be portrayed as the film’s subject has. It also takes courage to make this story, which was underscored in a note at the end of the film. In fact, it’s far harder in some ways. Covering the rise of Berkey’s protégés, by contrast, doesn’t take much thought – it’s natural that S4Y would hype their stars to their own advantage and gather in brand-enhancers to the family. Berkey is a smart and tough businessman, so it’s not the softballs he hits that should interest you, it’s the high and hard ones he somehow makes contact with. For the most part, he and his team don’t miss with To Be Determined.
For one, there are serious moments with Oscar where he is confronted with his challenges and the camera captures his turmoil. We’re not spared the bad news of what he has done and continues to do. The drive in the car, which nicely echoes actual poker vlogs but hits so much harder, is a real moment anyone who has lost a meaningful bankroll can empathize with. Further, the rage you should feel at Oscar’s intransigence is deliberately cultivated by Travis Lindner’s direction; that’s just good camera work, good production.
Oscar hints at his fundamental issues with a mistaken idea of what makes poker a great game, focusing on the possibility of variance allowing you to overcome a more skilled opponent. This is obviously a fallacy; over time, variance, as Berkey himself has pointed out, is just another fixed variable. (That’s why it’s all time and “sample sizes” for anyone that knows anything about the game, as obnoxious as they can be.) It’s the competitive decision making process that emulates the natural jungle of life that draws (especially) men to the game. We are reenacting life, ironically with money, because the stakes are actually far lower in poker, but the symbology far more concentrated: poker is not a sport, but a ritual. Oscar’s decisions within the temple and without, however, are often bad, and that is why he is a subject and why this is the film. This shouldn’t be challenging as an idea or as material, and wouldn’t be in another industry, but it is, for the exact reason that the chat pros wanted to see a documentary on Landon: everyone craves idols when the failure rate is so high. The trick is, excellence is often boring. It’s also often selfish: Oscar wins a settlement and instead of throwing it on the tables, he takes care of his sister and her family. This isn’t the story of a Pio-hugger who hasn’t left the nest or Discord for years. This is a sacrifice, and not the ones poker demands, which are work and precision and self-discipline. The struggle to reach that philosophy when you don’t have it is always different and personal, unfortunately. Happy families, blah blah blah.
There’s also a lot of wise commentary from guest poker players, the experts who have lived out the poker dream and nightmare. The weaknesses in the film begin right there, however, as the Pigtails writing team of Lindner and Justin Tyrrell spends far, far too much time on moralizing from poker elephants, including Berkey himself, who would be really best cast as the supervising ghost of success, the god on Olympus, rather than the weary narrator available to shake his head and sermonize. Instead of digging in and capturing the visual ugliness of Oscar’s world and truly following him everywhere, we spend a lot of time on interviews and found footage and docu-tropes, montages that faint a little from their own smugness. We certainly don’t need cultural elites like Maria Konnikova, a life winner on multiple fronts before ever being touched by the goddess Fortuna in some tournament, lecturing us and Oscar on what is, translated from the literal into the visual, survivorship bias, cultural advantage, and life continuity. Here the film’s coherence splits, as the moral voice overcomes the visceral struggle of the main character and his driving themes. The playwright has forgotten that the gods don’t make the play, but look down in envy at mortal passion.
Passion means struggle, and that’s what we need: Oscar living. Yes, Oscar at the table, but also Oscar shopping at the Bergenline, Oscar paying for gas with the crumpled bills of his bankroll, Oscar arguing with his family, friends, acquaintances, anyone who will listen to his resentful self-sabotage. Does he ever visit a church? A counselor? Is there true despair or only the sullen misery the Lindner captures a little too well and too often? In other words, To Be Determined needs more of Oscar visually fleshing out the real life of a real man; it only took Poker Bunny a few minutes and a single image to accomplish this same task. Pigtails is a fine film company, no doubt, and have helped make S4Y a premier training site on production value alone, but they too falter a bit into the need for deceit and self-deceit in our media. The documentary’s weakness, thus, is that it is too clean, when, as the Marxists say, it’s the material conditions of Oscar’s life that really matter and would make for what is valuable and ultimately engaging. In more theatrical terms, the urge to tell, and not show, must be overcome with creative vigilance and a little more discipline – sounds like poker itself.
On the other hand, Lindner is doing more than subtext with these cameos and montages. He sets up a parallel structure where the modern game is introduced and explained as a backbone and a scenery for the North Bergen grinder. He’s aiming for a tour-de-force, a home run. However, nothing is that simple. As mentioned, the seminal financial event in the main character’s story is a windfall from a car accident settlement. Berkey, and by extension, Lindner, and all the Konnikovas talk about calculated risk, but what is more important than taking care of his family? Is the underlying message that Oscar actually made the right choice, or was the safe, moral play the wrong play? Berkey at one points almost snorts that it’s “noble” that Oscar did this: the master is pitiless in his analysis, as the student of the game before him has inhibited himself through his sacrifice. This is one of the more interesting questions TBD raises, but it is never really addressed, except in the near deus ex machina of the conclusion, where Oscar is suddenly succeeding. Still, Berkey again tells Soto he’s only really doing well because Oscar is “comfortable” – did they stake him? Did the wage slavery of Uber really give him a bankroll, or was it a behaviorial change? I think the answers are there, but the plotline drowns in all the goddamned interviews and talking heads delivering their aw-shucks clichés from the mountaintop.
At one point, Oscar and Soto recap an argument where sensitivity to criticism is the issue. It’s the way Berkey wants it, however, as the formidable master has passed this harshness down in the Solve for Why household; I’ve seen Soto flinch from some of the things that come out of Berkey’s mouth. In some sense, Oscar is simply too soft for the life of a pro, and is dodging success. This is, at least, Berkey’s point, but it’s one that is applicable to many young players, or let’s be real, young men. The vision is becoming manifest: it’s always been Berkey’s wish to create not an academy for poker, really, but a whole life academy. Yet he seems a little wary of Oscar and the reality of helping someone, as portrayed in the film, at least at first. Only later, when the (somewhat) softer touch of Soto has truly run its course, does Berkey take the time to lay into the miserable Oscar. Berkey in fact spends a lot of time on his training material on mental game, where a soldier’s mindset is critical, and shades of Goggins and the maniacal world of self-improvement world appear. “The toughest challenge we as coaches will have is him checking his former knowledge at the door.” Berkey emphasizes that this game is tough – because he knows Oscar, for all his Jersey cred, isn’t yet.
From this mentorship angle, really Oscar could be doing anything, and that’s a problem. Oscar acknowledges not having changed anything in his life since high school. He’s not really anything more than another young man speeding through his twenties aimlessly and fruitlessly. He’s having a hard time, yet Berkey sees through the bullshit and ingeniously describes Oscar as “coddled” by his own limitations, which feel both safe and necessary. It’s sometimes hard to get your mind around the cliché that one can be “afraid of success” but psychologically, it’s fair. Of course, why is anyone like this? This is another hidden theme of TBD: where’s the father? Berkey, more than most, has his finger on the pulse of a sad cultural trend. The problem is, few of the real sub-themes are explored, in favor of the recap of modern poker that no one in the community really needs. (No doubt the real purpose of this arc is to allow TBD to be screened at film festivals, to be fair.) The writers are ticking boxes on documentary must-dos, when what is also ticking off are lost minutes of revelatory footage.
Nevertheless, that is probably too harsh, all things considered. Compare To Be Determined to what the poker industry has given us overall: endless duplicative podcasts, aping vlogs, poorly directed cash game streams, Joe Stapleton. Natch. The truth is, budgets are limited, and access is, too: post-production filler is more the rule than the exception for these reasons alone. Further, how Berkey creates and pays for all his media projects should be itself a subject of a vlog or something; the man is an unacknowledged and underappreciated poker content legend. Just look at the shameless comments on Youtube asking, even demanding, more: what is wrong with people? To Be Determined is one of the best poker documentaries ever made, a story of a poker player’s relationship with determination and his fortunate brush with poker father figure Berkey. Find it on Solve for Why or PokerGo.
I usually pick out a completely uncovered vlogger, and just in time, one arrived on my screen and saved me the search. The first vlog of this new voice shows a lot of promise. Yes, we start with the elevator music so beloved by vloggers, but subtle signs point to a satisfying if straightforward creative future.
Justin’s framing of his images struck me right away: through nature or accident, the images are well focused, placed and linger for the right time. Continuity in the opening cuts is strong as he sweeps the scene. He uses brief titling effectively. Jokes aren’t cloying. All these well-covered basics are probably no coincidence, as when he reveals his face and character, he appears solid and likeable, probably a family man who lives a good life and is (at least somewhat) beyond bullshit. He uses too many transition types, which is typical for a novice, and the disclaimer of “lol” here (or anywhere) is childish, but these drawbacks are forgivable on a balance sheet with so much to the good.
Strategy via poker vlogs is an interesting subject. Justin mentions his plan to get in AK all the time; either he’s at heart a tournament player or not much of a winner – some improvements could be made. Yet playing less than stellar has nothing to do with the importance of vlogs, which are a grass roots movement. Brad Owen, Andrew Neeme, The Trooper, and Ethan “Rampage” have probably done more for poker than all the greats combined have accomplished for us over the last few years; consider how Berkey’s incredible work rate and his documentary, no matter how complex and interesting, just don’t cut it with the public. It’s a curious state – the game of poker is very strong at the bottom, but trembling at the top. Our economy has inversed part of itself, and we have all these vloggers to thank. Despite the inherent deception of our new media paradigm, the good exists, too, as it always must.
At the end of this first episode Justin says, starting to ramble and getting a little confused, that the vlog might help him in a world that’s hard on everyone. No, the vlog won’t make things easier – but it is a challenge with its own rewards, another path through the there. We’ll see if Justin has the determination to stand out and continue this interesting wrinkle in the ongoing development of all that is poker.