Is it valuable to know where we are in the hierarchy, whether we are the metaphorical king or knave? Something in between? As young people, we often made lists of the things we liked, to tell us and to tell others who we were and who we wanted to be; definition is important when we could be anything. Later, we might think we’re over such literalism, but it always returns to us, however disguised or mercantile.
In entertainment, this passion for lists and finding out where you are on the totem pole is endemic and almost necessary, as it creates order and opportunity in the marketplace. We seek out easy answers – clickbait and reviews and listicles – as well as easy opinions – social media – to tell us where things stand. I’ve spent years engaging with and tracking podcasts in a now 25,000 words summary of much of the scene, yet when I see what people click on, it is effectively never any podcast outside of the top ten list.
In vlogging and streaming, the trump card is views. Views, subs and clicks. Smash that like, the dude tells us, but what if we are seeing something more than content, something that is not merely a visual good, something that matters – is it subject to democratic or market principles? Does excellence exist or only popularity? Must a passion for beautiful things diminish because of the mob?
In any case, I get back to the vlogs after a long absence. As trivial as our community’s video content might seem or be in the world at large, we can and should learn about ourselves from all sources, and more importantly, from our own neighborhoods: nothing, in this sense, is unimportant. It seems to be these two entirely different and entirely twin poker vlogs, both started two years ago in different corners of the country, have much to say about culture and how content at large works.
Nubby, fleshy, just beginning to whiten but still vivacious and rangy, Yale (an oddly valedictorian and belying name) Greenfield is the self-anointed Live King of Poker. I didn’t bother with his stuff, a strong poker vlog with about twenty episodes, for some time, put off by this preposterous designation and the comical logo, where he appears as a kind of editing-floor Disney character or forgotten fast-food chain mascot. However, unlike many vloggers, Yale has persisted and could become a staple of the scene.
Given his life and choices, that should not be a surprise. Yale is reportedly pushing eight years of making an income out of poker (professional, as anyone with a wit of sense knows, is the nearly always the wrong word for this life), which puts him in the tiny minority of consistent, serious winners. In fact, it’s a minority so small that most of the group seems to know each other. Yale’s pals include a number of notable names in the West Coast scene, some with their own media projection and all of them increasingly overlapping stream and poker ed institutions. So not only does he clearly know something about this game, he knows something about delivering and repeat performances.
Still, it’s not clear to me why Yale started this vlog, despite a prologue. Instinctively, vlogging is a younger man’s game and the hero’s template is discovery, resistance, and mastery (bookended, of course, with a lot of parking lots). Well, we know that our instincts on this are somewhat wrong: the Trooper was no spring chicken when he first asked what’s up, and Mr. Neeme was already going to seed when he started his tour of the squishy live mid-stakes that would essentially define the genre. So Yale’s gift to bring to us is mastery; does he feel he needs to show something else to us that other vloggers can’t? It can’t be just to demonstrate to his family what he does, as he claims: doubtlessly true, but that’s just not enough and rings hollow. Finding the underlying reason for a thing is part of enjoying the thing, after all: it’s ultimately the fringes and the questions and colors which make for interest, not the sales pitch.
A fairly full review of twenty episodes reveals most things in Yale’s vlog to be pretty standard, and moreover, suspiciously standardized. Every episode is uniform in structure and style. Camera is high definition for the poker table shots. In other words, although no one is credited, it’s pretty clear Yale is getting editing help as the sound balancing is very clean, the hand history template too smooth, et cetera. (This also eliminates a creative urge as the reason for the vlog.) The narration is standard, too: Pots “brew” in old-folks home English; strong hands make him “love life”; the “poker gods” shine or don’t shine upon him; the word ironic is abused, well, unironically. The music is mostly weak sauce casino dance arcade.
However, Yale actually picks up sound from the table or uses sound roll in more than one blog. While it’s buried under the pedestrian soundtrack, it gives the vlog real life, and is a great touch that many vloggers regrettably omit; I guess credit the editor? Issues like this point to the importance of self-direction, if not self-production, in these things: in ars veritas.
Further, for all the clichés, Yale is excited and a good storyteller. Even switching to third person, which would normally be odd, seems to fit the medium and his style well; maybe I’ve been broken in by all the idiotic editorial and royal “we” that poker plebs love. When he gives us an editorial on behavior, he is at his most authoritative, real, and charismatic: the live grinder cometh.
An interesting theme of the Live King vlog is expenditure and luxury vis-a-vis poker income. Yale seems to spend a suspicious amount of money on eating out, and unlike many players, seems to know his way around a menu. Yale’s hungry hippo physique and Gila monster posture gives the impression of him having an absolutely ravenous appetite; I wouldn’t want to fight him for the aged ribeye or the naan pork sandwich leftovers. I can easily see him running a food themed show once he bores of poker vids, it’s a genuine opening for his skill set, personality, and presentation style. His taste seems cultivated, worldly and still comfortably down-home; even most of his edits don’t bother foolishly lingering on the dishes in bad (Instagram style) ways as in other vlogs. Yale seems entirely concerned with their eating quality (his eyes widen at a tasty dish in several shots) rather than as fruity influencer pablum; it’s the love affair of an otherwise ascetic and even forlorn channel.
On Vlog 4, Yale appears on an early episode of the Hustler stream and gets himself into some classic L.A. poker multiway pickles. (It’s an amusing aside, but Billy, who hates the term block bet, uses them all the time and suggests one correctly that may have saved Yale a rough fold.) It’s a fun review and Yale should return to more of this. The game was too large for him at the time, but it’s important to capitalize on a weak showing – especially when you know you can do better, as Yale and his audience doubtlessly know. However, he does make it clear that much of his strategy is reliant on knowing other players; a stream game is tough on this tendency and not everyone gets this advantage on the regular. Of course, his new association with LATB might keep him off the Hustler; who knows how deep that sort of stuff goes.
As we catch up to more recent vlogs, Yale promises to be more unfiltered. In fact, he keeps using the word, over and over, leaving the viewer uncomfortable, wondering if there really is much else to say; the rule of opposites never fails. The thing is, it isn’t particularly necessary. The main theme of the vlog, is of course, not kingship or tell-it-like-it-is fool’s gold, but the hard work of a true blue-collar player who knows his craft far better than almost any other vlogger. Why should he say anything of note? (Yale does garner a little attention in razzing sage game-selector Lex O at one point, but then, so many people already hate Lex already, it’s not really much of a call out.)
No, Yale’s opinions and thoughts are clearly not the focus of the vlog. What is, again and again, is Yale making sound poker decisions, the decisions of someone who needs to win and is not there to entertain or splash. There is an artisanal, not artistic, quality to his play. He shuts down without overthinking in one spot with AQ where continuance is nearly futile. He plays a weak top pair without risk and maximizes, drawing a river bluff. He watches stack sizes and rarely veers from classic fundamentals. When he does end up with four high, even though he knows his bluffs should be rare, he knows this is the spot, the rare time. In another bluff, he turns marginal SDV into a killer steal that leaves the table utterly convinced. The hand goes into the muck, unshown. He’s not perfect or a wizard, that’s far from the point. His major captured errors, such as thinking his opponents are uncapped in the 98s hand, turning what should be a raise into a fold, come out of an abundance of caution that the live pro, never mind king, must demonstrate or be soon sweeping the streets he thought he owned.
Yale doesn’t seem to labor over strategy the way many of the current vloggers do (let’s start a drinking game for when the next vlogger explains what happens to the number of value combos on paired boards). He makes good choices over and over, as if, like Billy, he once put in a lot of time and is now living on muscle memory. Or maybe he just has the natural knack for the game which, alas, can be imitated and is a circular observation. What can’t be imitated, however, is the ease in which he executes it. There is thus a bit of Richard Shiels aka GingePoker, about him, although Yale is less light-hearted and prone to biting, a bit of a wolverine around the watering hole compared to Richard’s lackadaisical lion’s presence.
You might think, therefore, that Yale is a hero to the community, but instead he is mostly unknown, the heel. At three thousand subscribers, a little acerbic and greying, his place in the poker pop chart is both fixed and not likely subject to significant growth, barring some new, well, wrinkle. That is real life, too. Compare him to ‘Rampage’ Ethan Yau, an engaging and extremely likeable young man, whose smile and personality light up the poker scene, but who is actually quite the poker villain, given he only has money for his wacky plays because of the outrageous rake income he draws from his ungoverned rip off clubs (the one he is an agent for is so wealthy its owner has trouble even finding ways to spend it; 87,000 agents cometh). Ethan sells shitty merch, hawks the worst poker “art” one can find, and has button-clowned his way to a fist of meaningless equity lottery knuckle dusters, yet it is his popularity that is uncapped, a hero for the naïve and the “poker growth” crowd alike. Ethan’s great, and great for poker because he is a pleasing illusion for people who live and love to be deceived, and thus the hero we deserve. Is Yale, this reg’s reg, the hero they don’t?
The thing is, it’s never clear for the true grinder where he stands, not in the shifting sands of the poker scene and hierarchy. In one moment, right after blathering about all the filters, Yale says, “I’m not sure what I’m doing with my life,” and looks down. Is that what was being filtered? A bit obvious, but it’s a most human and touching moment in a vlog full of robot music and dry poker talk. It’s what we need more of, what poker is really parched of. Yale’s ruddy, mid-northern skin, already marked by rosacea and other signs of self-medicating food and wine excesses, tells stories that a hand history template and a crack editing team committed to repeating the hits never will.
Yale tells us he doesn’t whine as part of his self-image, but he is notably angry in many spots. That is the real deal: actual players playing for money care about results, obviously. Sometimes the mental game Fishspeakers cause infections and players, under the spell of their sickness, forget they are allowed to feel their feelings. It’s not always pretty, of course, nor is a vlog itself a particularly self-reflective instrument, especially not an overproduced one. Reports reach me of Yale being bluffed out too easily or him making overly conservative decisions in spots other regs and online trainees know to take, but I think they may miss the forest for the trees. Yale is a sort of survivor and is playing at stakes where many bankrolls go to rest, given that we play far too big in live poker to make up the lack of volume. Many of us, including myself, have retreated from constant exposure to the big games, but Yale goes hard, plugging away. He’s going to have to whine here and there, in some form, as we all must.
Still, it’s funny: how far we have come in poker that the fish and whales are the heroes, and the grinders the villains. However, that is not a complaint: the wisest in poker always knew this was ideal; they knew the score and then some. For example, speaking of Billy again, as a commentator he constantly overhypes the ability of the players in such a droll way that even people around him think he is serious; it’s all part of the grand game, the show.
So, the Live King will likely continue his small-estate reign, but his kingdom is not the vlogosphere or the happy games where influencers splash and smile. No, Yale’s court is the grimy L.A. table, vacuumed too little and splashed upon too often; his kingdom is not the casino, but the hot and lifeless parking lot outside where he rehashes his wins and losses, and which, in beautiful symmetry, the shitvloggers, eager for clicks and eager to quit, love to film their enthusiastic entrances.
That’s fine, because these people are his, from the try-hards who buy in for sixty bigs to the real estate lotharios with six hundred: all pay their fractional homage to him and other pros in chips, not respect, not clicks. The Live king thus fades, mostly unnoticed, into the California day and the internet desert, one that is dusty, dry, and thin as a hand history. He’s survived the game and avoided the agony of being devoured by yet better players, but where does it go? Where does he go? More food? More lucky “friends” for “wisdom”? Showing us this winning but thin reality, this celebration of the incomplete, for all the production, all the meals, and all the victories, must have been the simple, nearly transparent purpose all along: I’m alive, I’m still here, let’s fight.
Starting in the other corner of the viable poker scene, the damp and dreamy clusterfuck of Florida, Lex O has followed the trajectory of the heavyweights of vlogging. Lex is physically a type similar to Yale but likely ten years younger and a serious athlete. From small games to lucrative streams, Lex has ten times the subs of Yale following his adventure. What is Lex’s deal, how does he differ from Yale and others, and will he go higher?
Unlike Yale’s polished products, squeaky clean from day one, Lex O has taken a more typical path of finding his form and stride. It appears that he does the editing himself or receives minimal (and minimalist) help. Lex’s vlog plays with the intro style, the delivery, the hand history template well into his run of episodes. He struggles with the hand history graphics in the early episodes.
Of course, marketing is not so simple as to reward this struggle or not reward it, but I and others do like the self-made aspect of it, which separates the true “poker vlog” from the “lifestyle short” that influencers peddle without the integrity of their product, but the desire to be seen being their form of honesty. There are many variations on this essential theme within content, including in poker. One can think of Matt Berkey’s amazing run of short poker films that he tried to smuggle, with incredibly disappointing results, into the vlogging space – polish and simplicity are often at odds; Matt and Pigtails understood their medium but not their media, so to speak. His current gross-out, highly repetitive talk show is light years ahead in popularity from his best work. Or consider yet another counterexample: Lynne’s vlogs, which are smooth happy back-end specialties where she is just as curious about how they turn out as the audience is. I’m just glad freelance video editors are getting so much work these days.
Of course, what a run Lex has had – in the same two years of vlogging, Lex has five times the videos of Live King. In fact, with so many episodes, 1) it’s easy to forget how new Lex is to the vloggers, and 2) I’m a little unclear as to how he does it and without help. He promises at one point up to two videos per week, and seems to have over delivered, if anything. The athletic background and pure ability to grind is in play here. While the vlog lacks The Live King’s production quality, clearly Lex is doing something else right. With over 40,000 subs, Lex is established and well-known, whereas the superior player, Yale, with a cleaner, more refined product, remains unknown. What gives? (Don’t ask me about buying subs, I’ve heard things about other vloggers doing it, even the seminal ones, but I can only take the numbers at face value without better information.)
Like a stock, we could analyze the technicals, but we will do so only quickly. Obviously, the pure number of drops Lex offers, along with pincer movements from Insta, well-publicized stream appearances, and now Twitter, give Lex a boost when it comes to market share. Maybe that’s all it takes – but I doubt that is the entire explanation. Yes, audiences can be manipulated but nothing is that easy and even the most cynical attention-seeker must have likeable qualities to succeed; the glove must fit or the viewers quit.
Many poker vloggers actively try to drive away their viewers in a similar manner to how loud, unfriendly, and desperate casinos drive away customers by removing the aspect of relaxation from their premises; everything is noise, no seat is free, every turn requires the wallet to be opened. The first rule of travel writing is to skip the airport, but the vloggers just love giving us their parking lots and crammed driver’s seat warm-ups: blunder. Lex, while dabbling in this approach, omits just enough of this throat clearing by keeping his parking shots brief and getting into his monologue, in the car or out, very quickly. He’ll open with some establishing shots but usually they are over within ten seconds. This matters: the viewer must be engaged, a truism in film and certainly in streamed short form where literally a million other options are a click away.
In vlog eight, there is an unusual quiet period outside where we hear the wind: there’s some of that relaxation, unintended perhaps, but is a space to breathe both for creator and viewer. There is not enough of this in vlogging, oddly, which, after all, is a subgenre of travel writing. Secrets are often best kept in public: Neeme made this his signature, giving us the drone’s view and settling the mind on the beauty, or at least, interest, of the locale from the peaceable and grand perspective. Neeme drank beer to simulate and stimulate the senses and fool the viewer into relaxing; what a great job he did, yet people then started copying all the wrong things. To this day, instead of this helpful visual and thematic roominess, most vloggers prefer to sensory deprive us, waterboarding the audience in cheap music and disorienting, shaky-cam walks through dingy casinos that are all the same and teach us nothing except to respect a smooth stride.
Again and again, Lex’s vlog is so simple it avoids much of this distraction. This doesn’t make his vlogs shorter than anyone else – his table action and hand history section is among the longest around, probably a bonus for many. Lex’s vlog still has some fundamental issues, of course. Sound levels, at least in the early days, are all over the place. So, it’s amateur hour, but the truth is, it kind of should be. The audience is extremely forgiving of these things because the vlog is really a diary, a way through, a story, not a S4Yesque over-production, not at heart. So, the number of episodes really matter, and not entirely in the way one thinks: even if the story is scant, at least the series is full. This is what people like of course, not always perfect templates – the mesmerizing effect of the story. We are hungry for the story.
After several episodes I realized the importance of the quiet. Combined with Lex’s school teacher voice, the simplicity yields a sort of Mr. Roger’s effect. This seems central, if subtle, to what Lex offers, especially when compared to Yale or others. It can either be very easy listening, if you are genuinely here for hand histories and session experiences, or it can feel tedious if you are expecting more.
Lex tends to close with an excited recap or news – this is likely infectious enough for many viewers. Lex explains his life earnestly, even giving a full backstory at one point. His dad is on the phone calls him Honey. The viewer knows Lex is loved, perhaps not as much as Brad with his cat and family, but the element is there. He is, to a mass audience, therefore, a good emotional investment – no matter what else we consciously think or what he does online to fuck things up.
Things change in most vlogs. By episode 32, the sound is a lot better than it started, and Lex surprises me by sticking to the effective quiet during the hand histories. Of course, this misses the “live” effect Yale goes for, but maybe that is natural, as Lex’s audience clearly wants to learn more than Yale’s needs to. The teaching effect is far stronger with Lex, even if he is a simpler player. We can deduce a few things about the audience and why they are here from these details. It’s great that two different effects and approaches can both be positive and yield good results.
The vlogs I’m reviewing this week make me think a lot about their nature and what people (not what they say but what they really) want. No one in their right mind would choose to listen based to Lex’s helium voice on its own, yet he has tens of thousands of subscribers. There is always more going on, more to the story no matter who you are, knave or king or queen. The rise of Lex is the plot, not overly explained but experienced in the almost visual ascension in status through chips, locales, clothing, faces. Live King, for all his more intestinal appeal, spins his wheels, a grinder in the unflattering sense, peeling out in parking lots, lecturing to cars and trees, skilled but plotless and so less beloved: the audience will not take the journey along with him as much, no matter how many times we are in the car together nor how much more interesting he might be to ride with.
However important that is, there is also something deeper with more explanatory power. When we consider the prototypical vloggers in any market, they allow the audience to cheer for them by allowing themselves to be blank slates, to have less personality than one would expect from a fictional character. We only need think again of Brad Owen, who has stated plainly how boring he thinks he really is, but whose fans find him fascinating: a powerful lesson there. Brad even made his best joke ever at the GPIs about it. Of course, when I dared point this out to a few people in a relatively heterogenous chat group, they basically lost their shit explaining how wonderful Brad is, missing the point entirely but demonstrating to me the principle of projection upon the hero all the more. I think that Lex benefits from this more than Yale. That quiet, Mr. Rogers teaching hour, the straightforward hopes and opinions, the utter formal simplicity of the vlog perhaps make Lex a little boring but simultaneously more likeable to more people.
In other words, boredom can be purposeful and have import. DFW proven right, once again. Boredom has a meditative quality. While I never read his IRS novel, which was supposedly him coming to grips with boredom and repetition, I am one of the few to get through his best-known masterpiece, Infinite Jest. For all its wonders, much of IJ predicts such a venture as the IRS thing. We read through long, long stretches of an absolutely dull contemplation of things that matter only to a few people – yes, boredom is there. (Of course, I don’t want to be misunderstood: actually boring vlogs – you won’t struggle to find them – are different from those having a shading or element of this quality.) Content is king because it relieves pain, and tells us, much like advertising, that our problems are acceptable and small. Everything is okay. You’re okay, in Mad Men parlance; you are Entertained, in DFW’s.
The simplicity of Lex’s vlog’s is not striking or deployed for minimalistic effect, it is merely straightforward. Here in a recent one, we see really only three essential images: a dog, the tables, a beach. Other than the crappy dance intro, the music and sound are restrained. It may be controversial or frustrating to many, but people are learning poker, for good or bad, from the vloggers, and Lex makes it easy on the viewer to try this tack. Lex would seem, in so many ways, to be the knave, and is mocked in many corners, but hidden underneath the voice, the serial episodizing and annoying social media chatter, is a modest and reasonable version of poker, and one that Lex has made a life of. The knave, in the literature, sometimes outlasts the king.
Now, many people have chosen to dislike Lex O for reasons outside his vlog. I phrase this deliberately, because there is little that is rational about the motivations of their contempt. The main point is he has a few opinions that aren’t liked, which is going to be true for anyone. You should distrust people who edit themselves for your approval, but that’s still a lot to ask from our fellow feces-throwing post-primates. Lex, always awkward, uningratiated himself with the thin-skinned when he made a pretty spectacular and risky joke on the on the She’s a Ten meme. Now, of course, if Louis CK or Bill Burr had made this joke you’d be giggling or saying OH BILL or whatever it is that weak-minded hypocrites do to help make comedians millionaires for saying what they won’t. The knave may say the unsayable, in other words, only when he agrees to be pathetic or ridiculous a priori. Or to flip it on its head, we do not like to accept negativity or judgement from our fellow royalty because we are all feigning that we are not fragile in order to maintain our fiefdom. Thus, our endless calls for positivity and conformity but our busy market for darkness.
The groupthink aspect is interesting when considering audiences. The same kind of person who would chide Lex, then go on a stream and tell us how they don’t like some poor woman’s shape or some poor commentator’s style is clearly not an entirely sane or reliable human. Our clicks and subs and followers, in other words, are a darker, more terroristic bunch than you’d first think. You might, therefore, not “join” so much, as the first step in the only liberation that matters, just as you might wonder about why so many or few people seem to care about your media self-projections.
In closing, what creates success is not always initially clear. While story is always king, even seemingly negative qualities such as a willingness to be simple or to even bore the viewer can counterintuitively be at the heart of what is working. Perfection risks nothing, as has been said in various ways. This dialectic is endemic to the content game, with its seemingly arbitrary and conflicting datapoints. Your frustration, if you are a creator, is warranted. To be king, you must often play the knave.
However, trying to fix your content really might only lead you to the darker deep, for underneath you and your work lurks another, far more slippery figure: the audience, that mad and unpredictable monster which seeks nothing but distraction from itself, a hydra who demands that you put it to sleep and can only be killed with a mirror.
Keep an eye out, kings and queens.