The poker dream, they call it, although no one is quite sure what they mean by “dream” anymore. Contests of intelligence for prizes? An insecure and unsteady wage? Retirement at twenty-nine? Endless scams and bullshit personalities? An easy way to make a hard living?
What does it mean to you? For me it was about being outside the normal industries and careers, ones I wouldn’t accept.
One thing is certain – the old dream is winding down. Poker is not a wild if sordid life led by maladjusted, half-cool hustlers, instead, poker is a wild if sordid life led by maladjusted, half-cool hustlers who make content.
Can we live with that? Can we find exceptions? Where is the excellence in poker in 2023? And what about us, the content watchers?
Today we look at two contrasting media, each with inspiration, lessons, and drawbacks, all with an eye, as always, beyond the small world of poker and toward the bigger picture.
Dreamers, by Tom Wheaton
Toward the end of Ryan Firpo’s Bet Raise Fold, Tony Dunst is desolate. Sinking sadly into his spacious sofa, Dunst laments what could have been. He’ll write a memoir, he says, possibly, possibly not, crossing his legs with a listing fever. Shadows fill the screen and the languid framing implies time and reflection and bittersweet regret. There’s a one shot of his sadly unoccupied computer chair – what is a man without his occupation? What is his country? Where is his dog? Cue Arlo Guthrie.
Of course, what is Tony at this point, twenty-six?
Most of poker media is of course like this: fun, exciting, and mildly comical at heart. The lack of life-affirming depth and serious inspiration in current poker visual media is curious given its infinite potential for story and character, but one doesn’t have to look very hard for the reason why, aside, of course, from the more primary challenge of making the moving image into art. Poker as an industry is uncomfortably obsessed with promoting itself, or really, just the idea of promoting itself – see every poker podcast and commentary known to gods and men – while also wanting to remain a racy, unique adventure.
No one, for instance, had to tell Mike McD about the lessons he’s about to learn and the money he will win: that’s already the whole point of an exciting underworld of competition.
In other words, in the current poker world, the sales team seems to have more control than the director. In many ways, that is fine: the positivity and love of lightness is normal and healthy. Similar states of affairs work but also have consequences, such as in Hollywood (ahem) and many other American industries.
Focusing on promotion as the growth-driver leads to a continuous if not terminal lack of perspective plaguing both the self-appointed and the earned leaders of poker. We are constantly bombarded by, among other things, blabber not only about “what’s good for the game” but about one’s fruity and fungible “poker journey.” (Imagine Teddy KGB discussing his life lessons on the felt and you see how much foolishness, or cringe, as they say now, that poker content comprises. Currently, in the Twitter Spaces, some humorous fool is going on about “a new Hollywood” for poker on the novel conference-call app. Another sternly advises finding muneration for these avid consumers with their weeks of expertise under the belt. Another watches tournament attendance and reports seeing gold in the rivers of lines. Above all, everyone chants community, Hari Community, Grow Community Krishna Krisha.
Is there a dream behind the sales pitch?
We Do it Ourselves Now…
Flash forward from Bet Raise Fold ten more years, and much of the generative, story-telling aspect of poker has shifted to the players themselves: the Vloggers, Streamers, and Social Mediaites combine to create the majority of poker content. The vloggers, as we will see, court potential aspirants, rather than sell to the pool, effectively. Are they telling the story more truly than the old guard did? Have the characters indeed come alive?
Yes and no. We get more and more first-hand accounts, but they too are slave to the templated journey storyline: we rarely see anything that isn’t celebratory, and the lows of poker vlogs are mostly confined to licking wounds after a loss, rather than the cost of life choices, the drama of moral choices, and the strain of love choices. We are of course lucky to have first movers Brad Owen and Andrew Neeme for the grassroots branding brigade they inspired, but it seems we needed Mr. Firpo for the story all along.
As BRF unfolds, Danielle serves customers at the felicitously named Rounders Bar; as portrayed her plight doesn’t seem very genuinely serious and Cannes is not going to be calling, but in comparison to the vlogs and streams it absolutely kills as moving image and story: is it not strange that the new approach, such a supposedly personal, domesticated, and democratic medium has remained so impersonal and repetitive? Vlogs make Firpo’s heavy-handed sentimentality look positively fascinating in comparison, even while many content stars have taken to praising themselves as “creators,” if not “artists.”
Does this change the dream?
…but the Spectacle is Ourselves…
One thing that has changed in poker media (and all media) is the breadth of the popular visual forms – work is being done all over. In this sense, poker media has never been stronger. One trend among many is that poker is moving to more and more honed productions, paralleling a general public that also wants incredibly short and clever content, much of which paradoxically requires an entire cultural background to fully grasp. Think of all the TikTok trends you don’t fathom – I can assure you that someone else does and that nothing comes from nothing.
The flip side of this, however, is that we really are the society of the spectacle, as one nearly forgotten theorist described: we are metaphorically becoming the image. For instance, are you even part of the “community” if you have no media projection? Would Puggy Pearson, expert, cheat and scoundrel, have a Twitter account and a vlog today? You better believe it, but then, so would everyone else from those days, each on their own “grift” or grind, as they understood the hustling nature of our game better than we do.
Content is creating a patchwork world, yes, a sort of community, of images and image makers distinct from the physical felt and its oily reality. Doyle’s death signifies not so much the end of the road gamblers but the end of the unmediated poker individual; his son even Tweeted him out from beyond the grave: communication with the world is now more primal than ever, outstripping privacy and even dignity as first concerns. Think of all the wild revelations and characters on social media that embarrass themselves over and over again, barely penalized.
It’s not just the streams vying for eyes with ever-fresher, higher quality visuals and bigger games with smartly curated lineups. Led by the likes of Jaman Burton, Caitlin Comeskey, Jon of Slow Poker, and of late, the Pyzza guys and many others I doubtless am not aware of, the standard vlogger template developed by YouTube workhorse The Trooper, and later sharpened to algorithmic appeal by Andrew and Brad, is surpassed and grows stale. In its place, the visual content game continues to spill over its pre-Covid boundaries. It’s only normal that we would expect more and more imaginative stuff, clever shorts, comedy, high-definition streams, interactive promotions, and who knows what is next. Further, all of them understand the required tone: fun, exciting, and mildly comical at heart. Ryan DePaulo might be the perfect poker Youtuber, if not “vlogger,” aesthetically, but all of them show what’s going on and do it effectively.
The image is information, and itself is at an all-time high for poker and for the world at large. Is there a cost to this? What is the cost?
Where there was once too little, now there is arguably too much. Whether it is free coaching on social media, endless cards-up footage on stream, or the ubiquitous training sites themselves, the basic poker arts are everywhere. The mystery of what makes a good player is nearly gone. Billy, the oldest of old schoolers, is now a stream hustler, effectively a poker educator and maitre’d of pokertainment. This is not changing any time soon: only VR is left to proffer a yet more immersive world to experience and sell the challenge, given the amazing tech we already employ. A new generation will be more ready for this poker development than ours, one which will explore new edges in a game with less and less to be discovered. Ultimately the dream will be fully digitalized.
…and a Spectacle is a Party
Moreover, there is a direct line no one talks about, an intersection of content creation and media usage that naturally leads to more and more tournaments, because the tournament is the ultimate poker novelty, the festival, the convention. Media exposes, and tournaments are the structural exposure of the game. We are all in and run it out glglgl, sir ma’am shmam. The tournament is a celebration of outlasting mathematically destined failure. It is the selfie stick shot over the waterfall on the skyscraper on the wing of the plane. All the maths are clear, the stacks are short, the sky is blue.
Tournaments promise Bounties and Prizes and Guaranties; the WSOP literally passed out a participation trophy to mark the Main Event record attendance. Hurray!
Cash, on the other hand, is the ugly grind, where your best bet is staying unknown, keeping the secret to yourself: the mystery of poker still lives there. We overbet the turn, desperate not to run it out, to show no one what we have, to avoid the river card because we play bigger than we should. Cash promises some food comps, a few dumbs sports bets, and a thug waiting for you in the parking lot, all while the Ambassadors of poker desperately try to make this experience harder in exchange for your clicks and fawning. (At least Jlil is selling something to feed his family; Galfond gives out far more valuable poker strategy just to be loved.)
The poker age of media is the poker age of the rebuy tourney because it promises less risk, more fun, and all the right people see you. Jeff Platt, won’t you celebrate my thin value bet at the 5/10 game with me? No? Wanna join my PLO6 app game with uncapped rake?
Who can blame today’s players from gravitating to where the safe, publicly celebrated action is?
Still, the shift to tournaments is troublesome for those who expect to profit from the more accessible, shrinking ring games. And why aren’t you making bank at these tournies – who is really winning? How hard can we push the novelty until it breaks and breaks us? The tax, rake, and concentrations of dollars that tournaments create put pressure on the poker economy and dry up local action. When we merge poker and training with the multi-dimensional training and performance capabilities of the coming new tech, does it finally disappear?
A scare-imaginable replacement game for poker is in the offing, if that is the case, and many of us will have lived to see both The Boom and The Bust.
Nihil Novem Sub Sole
The good news is that not only is that day unlikely to arrive, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as the games shrink, still remain beatable, and will continue to be, older forms of media remain viable and even necessary. The poker documentary itself has a busy history; just run through YouTube for days of great viewing on poker days past. On the surface, Dreamers is one of a batch of such products, one which includes, For Love or Money, Grinders, and Last Call. Even the Hollywood fiction machine will soon capture the angle of Phil Ivey’s darker side with L.A. stream player Julie Yorn’s The Baccharat Machine.
Frankly, the new Dreamers is a fine bit of poker agitprop the voters will enjoy but is a bit much of an obvious and straightforward promo for the talent agency Above the Felt to take too seriously; excavating it would be heavy handed. (Apparently that rarely stops me.) Above the Felt, through Dreamers, aims to place its contracted talent with work, as any other agency would. Tom Wheaton, the agency’s goofy founder and director, is proving effective – you will be seeing more and more of these Mssrs and Mmes, if you have not already noticed his successes. Even as I write this, new developments – the Galfonds, presently pressing their own media advantages, have joined the stable. Expect Felters & Friends at Ted Talks, tournament desks, corporate gatherings, and other platitudinal ambos near you.
Tellers Shake, Movers Show
Dreamers is firstly the project and projection of the excellent people who think marketing is the way. These are the people that believe the public is best appealed to through direct manipulation rather than alternate means, such as example or drama or personality or exclusivity. That’s fine and normal: marketing is a clumsy, classic but sympathetic approach, of course. To the opening questions, Dreamers offers us a circus tent bursting with the clichés of hype and positivity and personal development and even some heart-felt advice. Thus, we see a straightforward structure: the incomplete and sugar-heavy bios of selected poker personalities that Wheaton believes in as “ambassadors,” cast against their World Poker Tour Championship series ambitions in December of 2022.
It must have been quite the race to put the documentary out so quickly (this probably explains some of the low-end post-production choices, the yawner music) and attempt to capitalize on the very positive communal memory of the successful event. There is something amusing about this capitalization, analogous to the bizarre ways players ask if the table is good, right to everyone’s face: hey do you all suck? The effort was worth it: the players in action serve the purpose of story and example all documentary requires, even if the director seems a little eager to cover up the lack of deep tournament runs. There is, behind the scenes, a rush to be relevant that transfers regrettably to the screen.
As the aspirational monologues hypnotize the viewer, it’s worth pausing to consider the life coaching, personal development aspect of poker hype. The idea that poker is nourishing and enriching is not entirely wrong. However, it is obviously a bit more than just a white lie and borders on dangerous exaggeration; one of Dreamer’s most integral stars, Matt Berkey, was not coincidentally tied up in an argument online with another industry professional over what is possible for the aspirant. What they are all dancing around is that poker is simply too much of an anti-community whose actual economy consists of the upward flow of money from amateurs to professionals and finally to poker related businesses, to ever replace “real” community. (And why should it?)
The player soon finds, to his chagrin, that he is the consumer as much as the brave competitor, just as the sucker for the aspirational lifestyle advice is the client. All serious poker players inevitably worry about rake and time and opportunity cost, and so the coupon cutting begins for the industry’s primary target early.
However, before that day of disillusionment, we want to see and love the poker story. We do have a lot to choose from: the best of poker media is strong, because poker, if not its propaganda, is pretty good at showing and not just telling. Noted poker films like Rounders and Molly’s Game and California Split are demonstrative, for all their faults, and interesting even to the greater public.
However, for much of the poker community and the American culture model, the answer to the problem is equally that we tell everyone how great we are and how tall you can be with us. Think of the world stage at the moment, with much of the developing nations now moving against us, with BRICS and cryptoculture upsetting the vaunted dollar; our appeals work in part because we have a stick. Yet for poker, with almost no stick of celebrity or other strong cultural compulsion, the direct appeal has no evidence of doing anything more than what natural appeal and word of mouth already offers.
This is one reason why poker is or was best understood as a scheme, an illusion, a hustle: there has to be confidence in the scheme that you too will get rich.
It’s a nice coincidence, then, that one of the business’ successes of the last few years is the Hustler’s stream, one which relies on almost no advertising: the product sells itself, even surviving a potential cheating scandal. It’s no game changer, but it did turn the dumpy Hustler room into an L.A. player.
This functional product contrasts with direct appeals to behavior being made to suspiciously universal acclaim. Phil Galfond, the Jimmy Carter of poker, has asked us for a kinder community – and, yes, for twenty-four hours, the direct appeal seemed to work. What happened? You know the answer before I even finish asking the question.
The Celebs of Poker Shake It
Meanwhile, the art of the sale or the deal is a lot more storied and interesting than such simple observations. Even the language itself of hierarchy and persuasion is cryptic and interesting here in the heart of liquid capital and its natural game of choice. We Americans occasionally and bizarrely call upon a “czar” to fight ugly things, such as drugs or rats, yet a czar is really a hereditary and terrible tyrant who has no place in the land of Hamilton and Jefferson, and probably not in poker, either: how strangely normal that the popular imagination valorizes the dictator as the man for a job no one really wants or wants done.
In fact, poker echoes the voting public, which if you believe social media means anything, seems to be primarily composed of the rather normal, approval seeking and success-by-association personality types. The craving for all sorts of czars is noticeable in public life, all part of the eternal push and pull between disgust and libertinism, between the intolerant and the decadent; and so here in poker we care what Doug, Phil, Daniel, Joey, and the rest think to such a degree we demand they show themselves on the balcony at any and all moments of impasse. “Investigation!” the first idiot races to out himself – and sometimes, he’s right: it’s often the best process we have, as silly as relying on these people is. Further, even the most egregious behaviors by some of them are overlooked, overturning the imaginary paradigm of the “rugged individual” immediately; real individuals have no time for these obnoxious prattlers and panderers.
Instead, poker players, and the contemporary mind, love the “czar” and the sense of authority he and produced media bring; there is no truly successful poker podcast or Twitter Space without their blessing. Note even the rebellion against Eden Rocks, who struggles absurdly to punch above his weight, or the absolute death of poker journaling from hoi polloi. Why keep this blathering idiot down? Where are the contrary opinions? What’s the point? Eden and others should be encouraged, but the czars, even when they are not jealous, benefit from our bizarre jealousy on their account. We stand up for poker celebs in the same idiotic way we race to protect sports figures and politicians who are “disrespected” by any detected drop in the enthusiasm of media slurpage. They are us.
Just as with the impotent rebellion against Elon, it turns out, rather pathetically, that we wanted our gatekeepers all along, and that no one really benefits from tearing it all down. Thus, the “Spaces” – literal and figurative ones – are insane and emblematic. Within, the group-think hierarchy even encourages community interlocuters to not allow “randos” to speak, as that would interrupt Fatso McChixinfringers debt arb issue from 2009. We’re willing to pretend that Joey was not threatening beloved court jester Norm, in order to keep order in the universe, just as we pretend Trump didn’t really threaten the electoral process and let him run one more time: it’s too consequential for us to take responsibility for stopping him. The obnoxious Poker Karen account is right to question Toby Lewis, if only as a matter of the rule violation, yet the czars say nothing under the principle of no harm, no foul: rules and ICM are for the poor.
In other words, the Wild West of poker, gold, guns, and land is long since over, with celebrity satisfying our own craving for authority and a return to order. We are all tournament players now. Tell me when to pee.
Still, there are other modes of diplomacy besides authority. Every subculture also calls for some form of “ambassador.” (Sports usually tend to call for a similarly mistakenly named “elder spokesman,” usually a thirty-year old who has mastered the camera-ready clichés and ends up saying nothing yet especially effectively.) Phil G. certainly fits in here as well, he is as sweet and thoughtfully empty-headed as they come, unable to parry even basic attacks from Wolverine Doug. That’s fine, though, because ambassadors in the real world are mere messenger-men, the tools of statecraft, but of a serious and nationalistic intent. Ambassadors party and know a cravat from a tie not because they are frivolous but because the stakes are so high that no detail of respect can be omitted. In other words, Ambassadors are about the simple message: take me seriously, take us seriously. But what do they say, what is the message?
Each year the WSOP champion is anointed as another “ambassador,” a sort of “Ms. Poker Universe,” yet I can’t think of much successful “ambassading” from the reigning luckbox; moreover, his bracelet (even diluted as they are making it) does all the talking to the community within; he is a titleholder more than a leader.
Just leave him alone. Poker is itself subculture of gambling, and does emulate, at its best, a certain brotherhood of Paul Fussell’s X-class, the people even the Marxists despair of: the lumpen, useless to the future and serving no particular class interest (that is why they are the best people in the world, naturally). What unites Rob Yong and Lynne Ji and Tony Bigcharles, in other words, three entirely different lumpens, is not merely love of poker, but the fact they cannot help but be outside the general economy – no matter how much they may or may not wish this were the case. That’s poker, that’s poker culture, something to be happy about.
Because of this, our characters speak mainly speak to us. The greater culture does not listen to anyone here, aside from the inexplicable Phil Hellmuth, of course! Instead, the dream exists more as a lure, a Siren call that wise sailors ignore.
The Real Movers of Poker
There is another class of actors, a far more effective one, however, that is both very 2020’s and is a successful factor on behalf of the game. We have now added “influencers” to the scene, people who actually seek to be noticed rather than being the best models of behavior – we would have called them “courtiers,” or “clients” in the Roman fashion, in centuries past, in relationships we would not be familiar with but would understand all too well. It is odd that we refer to those who wish to be seen as influencers, as they but sell to us exactly what we demand, but celebrity itself is a fascinating diversion.
Now, influencers are not ambassadors; they do not stand for us but actively interact, mill with the bustle of the marketplace, and exchange their power for subcommunities and the top rung of a micro-economy: think app games and MUGs in poker, merch and subs and egirls and chess starlets and jock-huggers and entertainment icons in the bigger world. The vloggers and training site content producers fill this role, and they do it better than the other missionaries of the game.
The courtier rung is having its day, even though, admittedly, it is sometimes hard to place who is what. Phil Hellmuth is hard to place, exactly: he may have broken the commercial ceiling with a few giant bites, but has he ever brought anyone to poker or is he a sort of court eunuch everyone already trapped with him is delighted by? Well, he did break the New York Times Best Seller list at least twice – that’s big. Yet when he leaves a game early, glowing with humiliation, is his overall effect positive or negative – no one can really say. The things he sells have no relation to his life or to ours as poker players – who has even tried his Tequila or his coins, and who cares? No one.
Still, it should be obvious that of our ambassadors and czars and courtiers only the latter are actually likely to have our interests at heart given they service least of all the transfer of wealth that poker embodies and is. The best of this courtier group– Brad, Andrew, Alexandra, and all the top vloggers and game runners and twitchers and trainers – did their most effective work as independent actors within and without the poker economy, rekindling enthusiasm as genuine clients of the game and its managers. Now, as this class moves up and become owners and members of management, it’s less clear who they appeal to. They will most likely decline in influence, while others rise in hopeful imitation. The courtiers are like consumers that come alive; many can learn from their agency and will.
Dreamers wants to be in this game but finds itself mainly promoting white lies about poker. And that is one of the key points: Dreamers is not for poker players, it is for the public. It is ambassadoring rather than courting. Courtiers are in the crowd in the way lobbyists really do wait in lobbies; you can buy a beer for Billy before you take his money, Andrew still plays two-five here and there. They regularly put their stupid hand histories up: they are with us, the strugglers.
Ambassadors like Negreanu or the Dreamers aren’t above this sort of thing – they are all just players, after all, and this “Lords” metaphor is really tiring – but their approach is to drop platitudes like cluster bombs. “Poker,” Dreamers tells us, apparently unlike anything else, “is all about taking a shot and changing your life” so “faced with adversity, champions rise up” but you “can’t be results oriented.” Yadayadayada o nothingness – don’t make me suffer it again to find all the examples. The courtiers show with their hands, so to speak, what to do, while the Dreamers feed us memes and inspirational compost.
Fair enough – they’ve earned it. Isn’t success your chance at the microphone? Is success really just the best revenge?
The Shift to Tournaments and the Decline of Grinder Culture
Further, is the heart of poker the gentrified and family friendly tournament scene Dreamers valorizes? Poker is changing, and so its character and promotion must change with it. At the heart of Dreamers is this impasse: the new poker world, its QVC codes and talking heads: MSNBCPOKER. There are fewer and fewer Dennys and Gavins and Stealthmunks, for good or bad, and even our own Jimmy Carter has to work out and look like a character on the WB and drop free strategy tidbits to stay relevant.
In Dreamers, for instance, we don’t really talk about any strategy, but merely the mental persistence of persisting as its own necessity. We have Maria Konnikova, sunrunner of sunrunners, whose first coach was Erik Seidel and her second Dan Harrington lecture us humorously about luck. For the outsider, it is thus natural that you can just be given the most luxurious attention in the world; for the regular poker player, it is an unheard-of fall into the butter, and not the only one Dreamers celebrates. In fact, one major sub-theme of Dreamers is the deliberate separation of poker playing culture from poker media culture. This is a half-departure from the half-success of To be Determined, which tried but failed to ultimately stay focused on its actual subject: the faintly beating heart of poker we still call the grind.
In fact, Maria really hits the nail on the head in a recent interview. Stay away from grinder culture, she tells us, for they are doing it wrong. Indeed, compared to the Dream cast, almost anyone playing poker is. They aren’t happy, they should not be playing, she tells us.
Right – if the bread isn’t working for you, why not try the cake? Still, it’s not the worst argument – Marie Antoinette was certainly misunderstood. Why is so much of poker culture miserable and what should you do to be happy? Well, the problem is, not everyone can be a comfortable amateur and enjoy only the best of poker. There must be the grinders, just as the stadium can’t only have box seats – that’s just not how economies work. There’s not enough cake and bread for everyone at any one time because we are all different, with different lives, different priorities, different resources. Utopia is nowhere for a reason.
The rise of Tournament Culture is key to understanding the new paradigm. Tournaments were and are a novelty of the main game, yet now they are almost the driver of action. This has occurred for several reasons. Firstly, the cash game has grown harder. Limon laments the ten tables of 10/20 at his beloved Commerce having shrunk to one, but he doesn’t as flippantly address why – the game itself just doesn’t support gambling as well as it once did – it’s not the WSOP’s fault. “I hate pot control,” Gabe Thaler absolutely fumed to Bart, startling with his passionate understanding of the end of an era – and that was ten or more years ago, never mind what we can do now at the table with a few months of study.
Tournaments, on the other hand, force nits out by their very structure and incentivize risk-taking tactics. Tournaments have essentially stolen the prestige of cash games in the same way MMA has borrowed the prestige of Boxing. They coexist, were never meant to be equals according to the culture, yet now they uneasily are. A year-round major tournament calendar is increasingly fleshed out – its skeleton is already in place – one that will keep the money always out of your local game and in the hands of the czars and ambassadors.
Second, tournaments are also conventions – festivals as Limon put it – so they require immense staff and planning and so draw liquidity to their splendor. The tournament director is the central planner of the poker sphere, the bureaucrat and his army of subordinates. They are not the casual affairs that the anonymous cash game is. Thus they tend to, really must, concentrate more money – in turn creating the social reward of tournaments, fame and fortune – while the cash grinder wins only hatred or a bit of respect to go with his meal-money. It only gets worse: we want content now, and tournaments provide more content, less privacy, more reputation, more social currency than does knowing how to grind out a few big bets per hour.
Tournaments, streaming, and content are thus, perhaps counterintuitively to those who think in the cliche of rising tides and boats, the curtailing force of poker as a grind, for good or bad, and instead signal the reconstitution of the game as a more social, but stratified industry. When we invite Alexandra Botez to speak for us, we gain adherents but change our nature, just as we change our market when we join a trading bloc and operate under new rules. Systemic risk is hard because it is complex.
The Pig Doesn’t Put the Lipstick on by Itself…
The Dreamers, aside from visionary Matt, don’t worry much about any of this, and that is part of the film’s message and of the new world of poker as content space. After all, the Dreamers are a mixed bunch of very different players. Ethan Yau, better known as Rampage, is, on the surface, a truly amazing courtier for poker, a hero for our community. He gambles big and fast, and tells the Dreamers white lie, much as Maria does, that you too could be hobnobbing with Nick V. and Doug and Erik Seidel with a little effort and a better attitude.
However, just like Maria’s story, Ethan’s is theater, too. The reason Ethan shoots up from the minors so quickly is not merely his channel – that is in fact more of a grind than you’d like, but from his extremely lucrative pay as an app agent and his absurd record of runs at tournaments, where short-term variance essentially decides careers. The industry of app games has provided much of the mysterious stream game wealth – consider just why Ryan Feldman and others even have all the money to throw at barely profitable streams. Rampage was part of a large app union which has transferred so much wealth from the gambling public its chief owner has had trouble even finding places to put the money, Breaking Bad style. It is suggested that these agents and gamerunners risk unsegregated funds to pad their buy-ins and bankrolls. His rental of the most expensive suites and entry into the biggest games in the world is one way he pushes funds upwards to the casino and to voracious private game runners and players, the subfleet of even greasier Andrew Robls who all arrived in poker at the right time and have Paul Pierce’s name in their DMs.
Dreamers certainly doesn’t have much to say about all that.
So what’s interesting is that Ethan’s game is not just tied to content, he is a product of content. He embodies it. Even Berkey himself, a man above most of the poker world in terms of integrity and breadth of knowledge, has had to have experienced the kind of incredible break you almost never hear of: a true grinder and hard worker, somehow his talent was recognized by Bob Bright or some such mover and shaker, and so a cycling 5/10 LAG suddenly has a credit line for 100/200. (Of course, he is criticized for this absurdly, as if talent should not be rewarded. Jealousy is as primal as sex, it seems, to anyone who studies culture and politics.) Berkey is a dedicated and good man, but the dream of being lifted up by some unlikely force is the real theme of these people: no wonder they have that name, for they were in fact lifted Above the Felt.
So, what are we really celebrating when we celebrate the contemporary poker dream? It’s not the grind exactly. The Dreamers derides as much as celebrates the grind, and the pool of content “creators” agree in emulation – pick me, they say. (Some are even buying followers, apparently, not waiting to be picked.) The point is that Dreamers, unlike To Be Determined, Sessions, important books in poker, or other serious work, tells a new story of a new, specific dream.
…But No Lipstick, No love
Take for instance, a peculiar coincidence of the timing of Dreamers: the story of Tony Big Charles, a real hero in poker who the Dreamers never would let darken their doorway.
Tony is an autistic poker journeyman, a gambler who has no real skills and is not fit for much of society. Yet on his own he takes care of himself and is a burden to no one. He will have left you, the poker community, with his blog, an interesting and ridiculous and tragic and entirely complete record of our game that is not entertainment, is not a transaction or a massaging of the algo. Although his opinions and behavior may annoy, it is truly remarkable that few recognize him for what he is, a standby of the felt in a world not of falseness – whores are very real, not fake – but of people and players who simply don’t tell the full story of the game.
Now, just as Dreamers is premiered, Tony is losing nearly half his roll, and even (reportedly) destroying his laptops so that he won’t degen his money away online, all while realizing he can’t write his story without the computers. Where’s the Gofundme for Tony or his laptops, the free shit we hand to the latest tournament hard-lucker, the latest terminal cancer warrior, this week’s marginalized marginalista? Nowhere, of course, because we’re talking about reality now, not social media avatars and the spectacle of self-soothing. As Billy of Sessions reminds us, the game is not happening on the screen, it is happening in the casino, where players really are fighting it out, even now in 2023.
Well, maybe it still is being fought. He and few others are very much On, and not Above, the felt. By 2020 I thought that everyone in the poker community would want to have thrown five dollars Billy’s way, to this archetypal slave and master of the game, this emblematic sailor tied to the mast of his late nights, and so touch our own Wailing Wall or slide a finger across John Harvard’s shoe before the exam.
Instead, our house of worship is elsewhere, one that passes out receipts and some GPI frequent flyer points.
Tournaments versus Cash
Dreamers isn’t doing us a disservice by selling us the bill of goods, however – that would be too moral and simplistic – because it’s not selling that bill of goods to us, but to the public. Dreamers – and many other poker media – are doing us a favor by also conveying and reinforcing a giant misapprehension of what the community is. Dreamers doesn’t show us the cash game, traditional heart of the poker economy, but the tournament as the vehicle for promotion, carrying on a tradition that has confused amateurs and made for a better supply of fish. In this way, Dreamers serves the community as propaganda for poker as a sporting freezeout, a March Madness for the unathletic and savvy. It is the flattery you give to the fish; Dreamers tells you Nice Hand and taps the table. Poker is Fun for Everyone.
Here, instead of completing the story To Be Determined didn’t complete, we go full PR and aim for inspiration. The problem is, most stuff like this is inspiring in the way too much ether at the dentist is inspiring. The New Yorker, although it has collapsed one lung through partisanship and bad personnel choices over the last twenty years, is still an editorial oasis and has the cash for investigative journalism. Instead of tiresome, Kanneman-light discourses on luck, where is the Maria Konnikova investigation into the true economy of poker? What drives the poker market on a regional, national, and global basis?
I promise the answer to that and the people who make it happen are far more interesting than that next trite lecture on sample size and the importance of believing in yourself.
What Content Is and Is Not
But then, that’s the difference between art and content, and the key fact of our social media age. Content puts you to sleep, content is what you relax to, content is the watercooler, content is the voice of the servants and constables of the system. Content, however good it is, in other words, is not art.
Blockhead’s tweets don’t comfort or sedate, but challenge and horrify. Sessions is losing patrons as Billy more and more effectively communicates his anger and his despairs and his feelings; he literally drives away support as he achieves more and reaches for harder feelings. Charlie Wilmoth’s meditations force you to rethink your most convinced poker positions. Even Luke Vrabel’s ridiculous Twitter account has more life in it than most of the dreamers’ obligatory bios and clichés combined.
Dreamers – and by that, I mean all content like Dreamers – doesn’t aim for appeal through excellence, it simply aims for appeal. Dreamers is that which worries about who will like it. Dreamers is the music in the elevator before the client call.
Now, Dreamers states and restates all this itself – I’m not being rude. Content is simply too powerful an addiction, it is a drug, the latest opioid when the old consolation really has been ripped away, despite the promises and efforts and words and wishes. It’s not a big deal, not really, though, for if we in poker suffer a minor addiction to content, imagine the world at large.
Excellence, on the other hand is appealing and forbidding at once, because it doesn’t serve our fatigue and need for mindless release, but our need to understand, our need to resolve, our need to aspire, our need to love and hate. Sure, content is something we desire– who could deny that – but it’s easy easting, mass consumption. Content is the crispy chicken sandwich with the thick layer of mayo and a loin cloth leaf of lettuce, satisfying between actual meals. Content brings little heart, less balls, and certainly no truth or mystery. And that is ultimately the problem with productions like the entire culture of content and the worship of some of its most airy people and their airy thoughts. Their endless sparring and jawing and idiocy does amuse; content creators and influencers and personalities are often not really the heroes they think they are, though, but simply the midgets King Consumer Joffrey hires to amuse himself.
As the greater American society experiences its second real decadence, so does poker; how could it not? How could society not be reflected in its subcultures?
Content Consumes as Much as Is Consumed
This is why, by the way, the poker scene is absolutely littered with publicly settled feuds at the moment. Attention, rather than intensity of life at large, and in poker, its play and players, is currently rewarded at the greatest of rates. You almost do not exist unless you are in the public eye, is the lesson of the latest and not greatest generations. Think of our mass shooters – it is a ritual, not revenge, an appeal to the gods. The simple killing of enemies no longer enthralls. Murder is private, school shootings are public: there is a profound historical regression to the panopticon and its ancient sacraments which only count if ministered before the congregation.
Yet the most electrifying aspect of the new regime is not the proliferation of content, but the transformation of people into content. The midgets dancing for Joffrey have never been more important. This is the uncomfortable heart of Phil Galfond’s otherwise laudatory essay on kindness. It is a persuasive appeal, but it offers no real argument, it has no steel of incentives, no stick. We all agree, and in fact, the Twitter accolades for his work were figuratively countless. Similarly, think back to Charlie Carrel’s original pedophile tweet. Of course any sane person recognized that he was not praising the criminal passions; I remember the very day, driving around, liking his tweet and forgetting about it. Yet only years later, under the sway of content creator interests, was he defended by those who actually matter.
What this means is that the next tweet needing nuance and understanding will be visited by the same cynicism that Doug, who understands incentives, brought to bear. This is the cycle of democratic public discussion and discourse in action, which never seems to quite hit the mark or solve any of our problems. The demos and the market never follow principles, only hunger and consumption.
The Split Between the Game and its Culture
Looking at fault lines, as we are here between showing and telling, the dream and the grind, tournament prizes and cash dollars, helps us understand what is going on. Dreamers emphasizes another sort of split as well: the split between poker the game and poker the culture. The excellent Jamie Kerstetter, who was a breakeven at best 2/5 player from the northeast and Atlantic city, straddling the tournament scene as hopefully but also as hopelessly as anyone else from that rambunctious scene, came into her through content: she is unusually witty and it’s wonderful that this on its own got her everywhere her poker would not. The Above the Felt team is again, and again, a success story not of poker, which is what Rob Kuhn got right.
The dream is not the poker, the dream is of poker culture. The dream is talent, not strategy. Only purists complain about this; it was probably inevitable in any case. So, Dreamers persists in its mythology, “ambassading” the culture, over and over, because the money is there as much as in the game. The issue is, it’s only fair that now we must point out a far bigger myth if the Dreamers want to dabble in illusions.
The illusion that Chris Moneymaker created a boom is one of modern poker’s founding myths; one thing that is interesting about Dreamers is that it reveals he himself believes it. The reality of the boom is that conditions of the game and society were ripe. Technology. Distribution. Economy. Moneymaker is not particularly interesting and probably wouldn’t even argue that he is; that he actually beat the interesting players, Sammy Farha and Phil Ivey for the title, is part of his charm but theirs never rubbed off on him.
The idea that anyone can win is what he embodies, which, means, he basically could have been anyone, is a cold truth our superstitious community resists and in the larger sense, our world accepts, worshipping minorly talented actors, stuffed suits on screens and braying voices on radio. (We Americans have never been that smart, what we have, as much as dreams, is hustle and a continent of restless opportunity stretching before us.) What he did was be there at the right time, and having done basically nothing since then other than be himself, is all you need to understand. Yet he has lived a full life in poker, can’t we hear about his actual story, one of being overrated and coming to terms with his absurd idolization? No, it’s all just more smoke and mirrors for the Dreamers crew, who have little to say of interest and would seem to think the air is warm because it’s not cold.
The real interest in Mr. Moneymaker, the real Chris Moneymaker, is lost to his illusion – we make ourselves sick on our own need for fun lies. In fact, as the publicity glow of Dreamers runs already cold, Poker.org releases an equally thin documentary on the twentieth anniversary of Monkeymaker and his win. This slapdash vid features many of the same faults; its style down to the toy music starts out meaningless yet somehow grows bizarre as an excitable ballet score is chosen to animate Chris’ recollections; it’s almost a joke by the editor on the producer: this what you want, buddy? And all Chris does is talk, it seems, but the film interrogates or explores nothing that he says, about which, as with all lives, could have been interesting to do. One can only wonder, why bother? It’s still a lot of work, why do it so poorly? Of course, at one point Moneymaker explains, “I won the Main Event because I started check-raising, my whole strategy was to play in position.” Never meet your heroes.
Yet what happened to Phil Ivey – what shocked him so and changed him? We never hear more than the most intriguing whispers, something about something. Was it being cheated? Was it the quasi cheaters of Europe, the early solver players who leaned on tech to mess with his head? And why is Farha such a nutcase? These are the real stories of poker, not Tom Wheaton’s latest card product and people products. The illusions distract us from more interesting stories – stories that would likely drive more interest than the illusions. The devil, enemy of man, brings the light, remember; Prometheus, thief, has to steal fire from the gods; Sisyphus, of the burden, is being punished for his pride: our heroes are not who you think they are. As Robert Kennedy said when he learned what had really been going on with his brother, the schemes, the mafia, the endless crimes, the electoral malfeasance, the anti-communist fear and frenzy, “I felt like I had seen reality for the first time in my life.”
The Courtiers and Ambassadors at Work
Celebrity is intoxicating in part because of its associative quality. My favorite anecdote of all my tournament writing time was with a new writer, a hottie brought on to fill out the video frames and augment the reporting staff. On a shift, she asked me what my priority was, and I told her I like to focus on locals. She said she would be talking to the “notables.” When I asked her who was notable in the tourney, she said “the people I know” in one of the most deliciously unintentional jeu d’mots I’d ever heard.
The point being, the circle of “friends” in Dreamers have to be measured by what they do for bringing people in. In the end, realism has all the answers. Dreamers has nothing to do with growing the game, and is in fact already forgotten as media: this is about speaking engagements and sponsorships for the gang.
That’s fine, I just wish I didn’t have to find out about these things and be caught in the marketing. The more I play, the more important I see the game differently. Think local. Make your game better. Help your room run. Gamble with the fish. Help the people around you. That’s what the courtier class, the vloggers, really do at scale, and is why the courtiers work far more effectively than the ambassadors and their marketing approach. Dreamers isn’t going to move many into poker, but it will encourage cash players to find their heroes at the rebuy festival. That’s not really good for anyone.
So, for anyone genuinely working in the “community,” it is often hard to listen to the Dreamers. Maria even openly disparages the players we know too well: “It’s good that we are not grinders, that we have something else… all of us bring something” For those of us immersed in poker and not dabbling from Manhattan comfort, that’s both too true and too arrogantly insulting at once. Nor can any normal human listen to Landon “cook” for one second longer, his false authority on anything but six-max frequencies and constant, machine-gun meme-brain drivel is just too off the charts. Our betters often think we love their voices as much as they do, instead of realizing that their platform is simply serving the imprecision of the market, its need for order and hierarchy. Marketers can never entirely know who or what will respond, but someone, basically anyone, can and must sit in the chair in front of the camera.
Appropriately then, we hear the least from Darren Elias, who is the most “genuine” player of the group. He’s even appropriately stiff as Wheaton hams it up and lionizes him at the table, uncomfortable with Tom’s loud mixdown of mild insincerity and general obliviousness. Elias, and maybe the S4Y crew to a degree, is the exception: these are content “creators” first, and poker players second. The best in the world, Doug and Phil, literally spend hours a day information dumping in order to capitalize upon what is left of the destroyed mid-stakes cash culture and exchange that for engagement and loyalty and a promise of a better day which cannot be. The sleazy, easy soul of the game is transmuted and was a long time ago.
When the festival and the Dreamers leave town, not a single new game develops at my favorite casinos. At least no one’s pregnant.
If the Poker Dream is Tied to its Content – is Content the Dream?
So, what is the poker dream or what is left of it? It’s clear that it is now tied into content creation, to being lifted out of the grind by the content or casino industry. This is the change, the shift. Of course, there is no bootstrapping and you didn’t do this, in Poker Obama’s more hated but truthful formulation, but the mechanism has now changed. Secrecy and the grind are reduced, tournaments with mystery bounties and photo ops and vlogger’s nights and starfucking are the path. It’s this mainstreaming, for good or bad, of that talent identification and reward process, the gelding of poker, that Dreamers and allies celebrate.
Dreams are not just dreams, however, they are also illusions, and for most players, poker is not about the dream but the shattering of the dream, of seeing not only their hopes dashed, but of seeing humanity and being shocked by it, just as Robert Kennedy was by history’s revelations about his brother’s secrets. Yet shattering is not a tragedy, for the shattering is also learning. There are many poker works that portray and capture this higher realization of humanity, this path of deromanticization – even the simplest vlog may- but Dreamers is not really one. Like a voracious diner at a buffet or fast-food station who will eat and eat against his own wishes, becoming fat and ill, content demands more content; feed him one actually good piece of food, and he is suddenly satisfied.
So go we through the video market of dreams, subsisting on illusions until we learn to love the real thing enough to find it again.
Of course, none of this means we can simply change the channel and find something better; everything is limited and everything subject to fluxes in quality. For instance, unlike the Dreamers’ pep and spin, the Poker Nomad vlog is almost too comfortable in its uncouth straightforwardness. With less than two thousand subscribers at the moment, the Nomad is in the unusual position of being one of the best poker vlogs but still in its undiscovered, or at least, underappreciated phase.
The theme here is one version of the poker dream, but it’s not one that the Dreamers would endorse: this is the grunge of the low stakes reg, this is Maria’s antithesis in action. The Nomad’s issue is that his vlog, like the well-built brick house with the broken windows down the street, may well remain undiscovered by a community which loves its dreams and window treatments too much to love its realities.
James, the Nomad, doesn’t seem to care, and nor should he: frankly, he’s busy. There are so many episodes – nearing five hundred in just a year and a half – that it is already approaching impossible to see or appreciate them all. They are produced and dropped quickly and without much regard to graphical interest: often it’s clear he is doing them late into the night, then hitting YouTube before dawn. The episodes are unnumbered and undated outside the verbal narrative, but the channel organization mostly works. All the viewers really want is simple linearity: the story.
There are a few screen names to sort out, as he’s gone by El Diesel prior. He possibly has coached poker, although I don’t see a shingle or evidence anywhere; maybe it’s buried in the Twoplustwo archives.
James is a natural at documentation, so the spree of episodes makes sense. In fact, the Nomad is, above all, a lover of records and record keeping, capable of making whole episodes about tracking results. He uses this skill to live frugally and document it: he enthusiastically challenges himself to all sorts of money-saving ventures and designs series of videos around his discipline and accounting skills.
His channel or name occasionally takes the odd title Rice is a Spoon Food. This turns out to be an esoteric reference to thinking outside the box. It’s an enthusiastically told anecdote, but it also says something about our youth and about those who go into poker. Rice isn’t really supposed to be eaten on its own, as it is in the repulsive outro where our vlogger noisily scrapes the bottom of a vat of it with his utensil – it’s all starch and basically useless for the body outside some fiber and silica – so if you are cleverly filling up on it, as you would the equally empty poker dream, you’re going to end up with some weird thoughts. This is one of the essential differences between the Dreamers who play the game, and the nomads who play only the poker, each fooled by a different ‘randomness,’ so to speak.
So, we are talking about polar opposites in poker media. James, the Vegas Poker Nomad, is as advertised, all spoon, even in the butter knife fight that is the live poker grind and the content battle. There are any number of gimmicks and gaffes he could use to grow the subscriber base, but he demonstrates little interest in them. Occasionally a thumbnail took some work, or a shot is clearly an intentional set-piece.
That’s a good thing. What matters is that the Poker Nomad vlog and its viewers benefit greatly from a basic, stripped down to essentials approach to visual content. It’s a massive relief that James dodges the copy-cat instinct and opts for simplicity. Capable of releasing an episode almost daily, James returns the viewer to the origin of the “vlog,” which is a mutation of “blog,” one which itself derived from “web log” otherwise known as the diary. The diary is traditionally the work, we have forgotten, of the young girl. She diaries – from dies or diurnal, the day and its engagements and “thinginess” (ary) – overwhelmed by the world that surrounds her and its pressing interest in her blooming. A log is different, more masculine in nature, associated most of all with military ventures which need memory, but the combination of both the log and diary with the internet has created a mode where we share ourselves with the world. Simple, truthful, compelling: the best intention of the vlog format.
James isn’t exactly blooming, but he’s certainly not old or wizened or washed up. Stone bald, he covers his head mostly in a vacuum-tight, rigid baseball cap with the brim riding steeply upwards, a look which often makes him look like a baby in a bonnet. When he isn’t sporting this small town bro facade, his impressive beard and pate make him appear to be a vigorous Tolkenite extra, his eyes long since captured by the gold in the depths (or just the depths) and oblivious to many more normal, mortal concerns. He proudly takes us to his favorite gas station or follow his flight to a baseball game in another city, but the inquisitive mind is only stumped by his obtuse interests. Who does he love? Where is his family? What the hell is up with this drifter with all the stories but no character arc that really makes sense?
For the viewer he wants and imagines, though, the Nomad gives it his all with one of the most impressive rates of content in all of poker vlogging. The depths he mines are parking lots, shitty casino carpets, the awkward social life of the low stakes, and his favorite landmark, a destroyed and eviscerated shack (and I don’t mean Canseco’s) somewhere in the wastelands. The Nomad’s best years, best thoughts and best looks are happening right now, yet he is consumed by this lonely wreckage like a pallid British writer examining a photo from his youth, investigating it with genuine naivete and enthusiasm, in another pure echo of the diary’s origins. This is honesty, a humiliating honesty and the opposite of Tom Wheaton’s promobrain wormfood.
The Nomad, it should be said, isn’t entirely alone. Many episodes feature a quiet and gargantuan sidekick, a sort of poker Lenny, named for a hip local restaurant that the pair doesn’t visit much, who attempts to corner feral Vegas cats. Don’t squeeze too hard, bud.
The girl and her diary lose their explanatory power for the vlogger’s work quickly, of course, and in this case because the Nomad and other young grinder types make us think about contemporary social issues. Young single men, being unmitigated by their natural counterpart, are often socially backward. This observable fact doesn’t always make purposeful logical sense – youth has a high incentive to fit in, especially the drone of the species. Kierkegaard thought the single, lone man was the greatest danger to society because he was a free agent, unsedated and unmediated by the greatest and most important of games. Yet the enforced poverty and the fascinatingly unproductive freedom of the grinder strikes more worldly men with a certain echo of their youth: nostalgia.
Is this the poker dream? Are we nostalgic for something this unviable? So do we come all too quickly to the heart of the low-stakes poker lifestyle in the Poker Nomad vlog: does the Nomad’s life really work for him? Ironically, it’s Berkey the Dreamer who used to dream of guiding exactly the people like the Nomad, and so these two opposite forms of content briefly meet in theme and theme only.
In poker, we have to import a lot of healthy things, and if we don’t, we end up stagnant and strange. Mark Ari, The Trooper, TBC, and to a great extent The Poker Nomad inhabit or inhabited this potentially disconnected and key role of the poker monk, the lone lover of the game who knows the busy rooms and their best exits too well. The croaking insincerity of Johnny Vibes, with his shitty NFTs and garbage merch, or the glossy middle-class caprice of Brad Owen, girl and cat in hand, are not found in these barely composed digital diaries, images so on-the-spot and untouched that the Nomad sometimes appears to be an eyewitness or his own kidnapper.
I’m not sure the Nomad imports enough meaning into his life but he seems alright. First off, I don’t see much danger in his choices, only questions and answers about the relative value of freedom. Traditionally, the young have wandered fruitfully: think of King Henry or of wanderlust or of rumspringa. Of course, living on nothing and beating the smallest games around can seem liberating for a time, but with only a modicum of perspective, what gains has the spoon made over the fork and knife? The small rooms, the frugality, the vie de prisonier, it’s all a far more serious box, and no spoon will get you past its keyhole or its bars. The Poker Nomad, in other words, shows us the real life of poker, unadorned in flagrant comparison to the false promises of Dreamers, with its mishmash of players who never had to beat 2/5 (and some of whom still can’t).
The Nomad therefore brings a bit of the shock treatment to the comatose poker audience, lulled into sleep by ambassadors and their soothing lies. In other words, this is good stuff and the antidote to a lot of poker’s content problems. There is a certain mirth, a childlike aspect to the Nomad’s journey, having committed to this poker monk’s life. He celebrates stories and people without bitterness or irony; he is more than a monk, he is often even the good Samaritan on the poker road, or at least a character to rejuvenate the bumpy road of youthful freedom, a man who fits in on Desolation Row with all its amazing and colorful cast. If the Nomad solves a murder case, we’ll write a whole series of stories based on him.
In fact, that’s kind of the hidden point: what’s remarkable about his vlog is how light it is in tone and content. That’s unusual among poker vlogs, which are usually full of striving and bathetic attention seeking – perhaps you don’t notice it under all the distracting, cliched music and regurgitated set-piece monologues about where we’re going and who we are and let’s fucking go, blah blah blah. (The real, eternal formulation is show us.) The Nomad needs no music to set the mood, because the form is its own mood as every actual creator knows.
My favorite images of the Nomad are his relaxing closures, on a rooftop, no one around, a moment any real player knows all too well. He sits or leans on a still-warm balustrade to enjoy a cigar. He looks genuinely happy – and that is an immensely satisfying feeling for the viewer, one which removes all the doubts we have about him and our choice to play poker. This is very important to poker and to any microculture.
There are things to worry about. Much of the nomad’s work is strange to the more aspirational vlogger audience, the one that loved Brad and Andrew and now loves Ethan and Mariano, because James often struggles to see the forest through the trees. His efforts to gain each comp, to max every bonus, show a major disregard for the real prescription to the one-two player: move up to where more money is liquid and available. One-two is literally the lowest public stake, the stake of novices, and beating it is not exactly rocket science. Where does James’ brain power go instead? To every freeroll opportunity, to every free Gatorade, to every pizza deal and Smith’s special. There is always room at the bottom, and as much as one wants to root for James, apparently, we are rooting for him to stay where he’s at. Dreamers, at least, tells you to aspire to more.
Poker badger don’t care. In fact, James lays out in more than one video and with some precision his case for not moving up. To him, everything in his life makes sense. Sure – for now. That’s where you need your friends to help, and I’m not sure Lenny, who is equally a sort of Silent Bob, offers much help. What James does have in his corner, some of the time, is the amazing group of vlog viewers that compose the Las Vegas Vlog thread.
The vlog watch community on Twoplustwo is, perhaps with a grain of salt, one of the most passionate, committed groups in all of poker. The thread’s posters write so much that they have defined characters and familial banter. They interact in their thread constantly, to the point of being nearly unfollowable by volume. The river of posts overwhelms the mods at several points and get the thread reopened through their sheer insolent demand. Vloggers themselves come in occasionally for a beating or a compliment.
One of their posters laid out his own apologia of sorts for why he tracks the Trooper’s every move, in a genuinely thoughtful confessional moment; maybe it was a joke, but it was good whatever it was and caught me by surprise. As a whole, they criticize and snipe, lament and howl, addicted to the screen: they are a true audience, one worth reading if you are a vlogger. DGAF, of course, is notable for hating that others have spirited observations or opinions on media, calling them “judgements” which essentially upset the self-empowerment of the creator by potentially contradicting his world view. I sympathize of course but there is, I am sorry to say, no avoiding the world and its reactions to you when you ask the world to listen. So, while the vlog thread crew seem to be turning a bit on the Nomad, puzzled by his commitment to the monkish side of the grind, I think it’s their passion, not their negative or positive stances, that matter. (Can’t help but wonder what they would make of Dreamers, but again, no cares about it already.)
These poker monks have issues, though. In a very real way, James loves the simultaneous discipline of poverty and impoverishment and its pure freedom. James has little interest in what you might call psychology or even in his own story, oddly. He never interrogates himself as Billy does, but explains himself; so it makes sense that James is a lover of anecdotes and meaningless interactions, of frustrating hand histories and auto-didactic opinions. The Nomad rattles off bad beats and misplays and player anecdotes with an odd equanimity; it’s all just the life, the grind, the details of the disconnected flagellant of the species. He applauds creative thinking but if you wear a hat your nickname is instantly Hat Guy. He poo-poos his past law school and learning, preferring the inspiration of hunger in order to show us how to survive on budgets even actual homeless people exceed. He spends whole episodes showing how you too can join him in quasi-poverty. He is content.
The monkish poker life abounds for Rice is a Spoon Food. Lonely rooms and parked cars are a staple of vlogging, but the audience knows the score all too well – does the author? “Fight, fight the dying of the light” is not merely about age. There is levity, however, even in sordidness: James’ cooking is unintentional comedy; episodes focusing on making bachelor fare in his hotel room are rubber-necking fun. Of late, he has committed to watching all of the Trooper’s videos, which is quite a task. While few will follow him in this labor, a real point is made: while poker is not really a community, it is a culture, and the Nomad is in the thick of it. That someone cares this much about a vlog channel points, in other words, to the vivaciousness and allure of that culture.
The downside of this sort of bloggish honesty is it is no bildungsroman, the classic template of the character’s expansion and understanding and reconciliation with the world: he, we, it, go nowhere and learn little. Now, the public loves the bildrungsroman and thus the general vlogger story, if not format, for a god damn good reason: it’s the story of life itself. (Dreamers taps into this love, if not the form.) Yes, the episodic nature of the Nomad’s wanderings keep things real, but also keeps them really unknown and underappreciated. And that is kind of the point: maybe it doesn’t have to be this way, but it is for the Nomad, and that’s a kind of honesty that a viewer can rely on: the upside of the episodic life. The poker world is in massive denial of these kinds of players and people as there is little coverage of actual poker in the world of the Dreamers and their tournament rake festivals.
The bigger questions for society remain. Who is to judge or deny why so many men forego typical lifestyles now? Poker is at the forefront of this question, because it is often an alternative for those without clear life paths. The issue is that there is little love in the post-sexual revolution landscape, it is all trades and transactions, compromises and concessions, and no one experiences that more than the poker player; there is no community that I have belonged to who experiences so much loneliness. Meanwhile, the young talk chillingly of their “body count,” in the language of crime and death; even the last few adult generations understood this needed to be kept quiet if only to be unmasked when it was too late. The bought and sold e-girls seem to become disturbingly younger and younger and invade the ugly “for you” section of our Twitter as the daft algo puts together a comically vulgar portrait of our lives. Worse, some of our braver youth whole-heartedly embrace the cynicism of being unloved and unlovable, only a realization away from understanding the real purpose of integrity, physical and otherwise. Where vloggers exist on this spectrum is unclear but a better version of James’ vlog and other players’ vlogs address all these things seriously, because the hunger for life never ends, even in lazy vlog viewers.
I think the poker culture needs more of James, or maybe more accurately, more of his humble grandiosity and joy in just being but without lying about it. Of living episodically – because that’s what’s mostly happening in gambling and poker, if not the world. For every Limon, there are twenty grinders and even a few Mark Aris who won’t make it. Of course, the problem is, in 2023, joy and not lying just don’t go together often; social media is designed for lies and turns us into content. Vlogs are akin to all social media and primarily projections of the self, avatars for the gullible. So, while I’d like to say no one real believes your emoji-laden tweet about “your best life,” they do, by god, they do believe you.
To get back to the sunlight, take one careful step at a time. And maybe things in vlogs don’t have to be so dark or repetitious. Perhaps, metaphorically, we could do with fewer dirty intracasino walks, though, even if they are the more sordid truth of our lives in poker. We know them, we see them all too well. In fact, much of a poker player’s life is traversing ugly, false “resorts” – imagine inviting people to come to a park you can’t sit down at – under the spell of baleful Disneyiac tunes, decrepit house electronica and the Pavlovian bells of the slot machine soul vacuums. It’s darkly funny that so many worry about the dangers of AI when so many Americans slowly kill themselves with can-opener tech.
The slots spin, the lights flash. So too does the cartel of casino corporations, poker czars, ambassadors and courtiers spin and flash their distorted dreams of happiness, happy illusions that border first on boredom, then on nightmare. To get through it all, to tell the real if not factual story of the poker grind, to leave our mark on the wall of the prison with the open gate and yet still find its humor, we need the dreams of the Nomad and all the other nomads unlike him.