Cosa Nostra, or The History of an Illusion

the we has it

In Where the Red Fern Grows, we learn about the one great weakness of a wily and dangerous creature. Tormented by greed and curiosity, the ferocious, clever, ever-wild scavenger – and his desirable pelt – is defeated and captured by a terribly simple trick: a shiny piece of metal nailed into a hole. The raccoon happens upon the trap and grips the metal with his rapacious paw. Unwilling to let go of the precious debris, inhibited by his own nature, he is soon discovered and clubbed to death.

the fourflusher
Five Reels of Lively Action, y’all

Down goes an otherwise worthy opponent. The society of poker winners has also defeated their marks with stupendously simple tricks that make dupes of nearly everyone. The deck itself has been expanded over time to include more cards and suits, on the surface to enliven the game but essentially so that the fish have more to chase. Later, when “fourflushing” became a synonym for trying to swindle with the losing hand (among other things)– indicating that the structure of the game had been grasped – the professionals once again moved the yardsticks.

The modern gamblers soon started to perfect or, lacking a more moral intellect, find ways around, the deck itself. In other words, the winners of the coming generations continued to either pierce the logic of the game or perfect scamming people- you were either a Stu or a Puggy or a middling nobody. Later, the Stus continued to improve their strategy. Now you were a Brian Townsend, understanding the math in a newly precise way, and then a Phil Galfond or Tom Dwan, understanding actions and ranges, etc. – and so on, down to the latest circumspect tweet from M. Libratus, Esq.

One reason these edges have grown so slim is because many of yesteryear’s fish have joined the fat side of the table. A convenient development with a fun twist: because, the scammers now scam their fellow serious poker players more and more – don’t forget about the Puggies. Check out the official clearinghouse for scandal, named “Twoplustwo” for some reason, for more detail. (I guess it stands for “as obvious as,” or perhaps was taken.)

So, with the pool of suckers seemingly dwindling, today’s Stus and Puggies (and those damn middling nobodies, such as yours truly) have in larger and larger number all gotten together: we are now in the era of poker education. Open Source Poker. The ledger has been revealed. The spirit of the new flush cards for the riverboat gamblers, of Doyle beating even those who dared cheat, and of the first slack-jawed, acned masters of Pokerstove and Party Poker and Stack-a-Donk, is dead and buried forever. The modern poker era is over, probably with Black Friday being the point of no return.

Therefore, if you are reading this, you may feel you are in the midst of the race to the bottom of the poker story arc. Scientists are solving the near infinite number of decision possibilities, while closer to the oil-soothed and fraying felt, winning players who have carved out a hole in wall to hide in are spilling what they know for cash, like mobsters who know they can’t move up.

So Stu and Puggy’s present-day descendants are now fighting a two-front war. In a game of low information, there has never been more. Poker is in such a state that I’ve noticed one notable lifetime winner has started calling himself a gambler, and not a poker player as he used to. Why? Because he can see the writing on the wall and considers it important to not pigeonhole himself. (Well, also because he prides himself on not being a fish – think about that, too.)

Yet what if you have no such foresight? What if you have no skills, just an honest love of the game? What do the members of the herd do? What does your sixth-favorite forum poster MackerelKing123 do when the whale’s mouth approaches?

Well, first off, members of the school gather together for protection. In today’s poker environment – one where the ocean is so acidic the sharks are inviting the fish over for a chat about how bad it is– the herd instinct has never been greater.

And that (I am genuinely sorry for the incredibly convoluted wind-up, it seemed necessary during Syrah Uno) is why we hear from us so often.

-from the NYT Magazine, “We”, by Ben Zimmer

It is difficult to find the origins of poker’s obsession with what is usually known as the Royal We. It’s a special grammatical relationship, and a formal one that stands out – all the more so in the extremely casual English of the poker world. After all, most players struggle to put a coherent sentence together, and their mentors aren’t doing them much of a favor: I used to think poker books were so badly written because it was an intentional method of keeping secrets obtusely accessible.

Obstinate, almost bewildering misspellings and grammar litter the poker landscape. For instance, why do players always say they are “loosing”? If it were a joke, like the more clearly traced “it’s a tarp,” it is one so obscure that its origins have long since been forgotten and no longer explain the phenomenon of deliberate illiteracy.

Nevertheless, one poker communication phenomenon surpasses all of this in its breadth and assumptive power: the obsession with the Royal We.

While it is all too easy for my thesis to be that the mania of desiring to be among the winners drives the passion for the Royal We in poker, research into the dark origins of the favored pronoun yields mixed results.

If I go back in time to the first poker forums, the scandal clearinghouse’s origins, I find signs of sanity but premonitions of things to come. Much of the use of we centers on action at the table – the actual plural is nearly necessary, as in these first two samples.

Note this long paragraph where the poster certainly could have used the Royal We at any time:

A contemporary player would often write instead, “We are in the BB.” “We have AJ off.” “We likely have the best hand.”  “Should we have tried…”

Etc. A surface scour of these early days of online information sharing yields much more of this standard subject-predicate relationship.

Not always. This poster uses the Royal We interchangeably – dare I say transitorily? He starts off asking, “Should I bet that $200 on the turn?” However, soon he slips – in appearance – into the Majestic, as you can see:

The “Tommy” being directly addressed, by the way, is none other than Mr. Angelo.

What’s going on here? Why does this poker player speak this way?

On examination, he seems to be getting more emotional, more invested in thinking through this spot. He’s getting both more precise and less objective at once. Interesting.

The poster, it seems, swings from description to a state of wanting everyone in on his situation. Is the Royal We a sort of manipulation? Does the poker player want you entangled in his troubles?

With a little more digging, I find a more contemporary overdose of this same we:

Yet is it not reasonable here? He is speaking about humans as a whole. How should he write?

This is key. It turns out that it’s not the Royal We at all, but the Editorial We, that is being used. This is the we of Editors and Scientists, a pronoun which expresses a collective and authoritative observation.

When – and here is an example – we need to address a concept as a whole, the Editorial We comes into play.

This is the poker forum’s favorite pronoun, and corrects the misconception of which we is really being used.

But… I’m still not satisfied.

The reason is because poker players greatly abuse the Editorial We. Worse, it’s especially abused by those who don’t know what they are talking about. One sees this mostly in specific strategy posts and conversations. Someone will ask me, “What do we do here?” Or say, “We should always be…”

This is annoying. First of all, it betrays that you think that there is one strategy or a universal action that is best. Second, it implies that no adjustment is being made. Third, and most irritating, is that it shows that you think your strategy is mine.

I don’t want to play like you. There is no we, pale face.

Petty grievance of a cranky poker player? Perhaps, but there is actually more to it – especially if you are one of those players interested in strategy.

You see, if you are adapting tactics from other players, it will take a long time to fully smooth out and incorporate them into your game. You’ve experienced this and know exactly what I am talking about. Further, this idea is related to a profound point: everything you do affects everything else you do and everyone around you.

You, in other wordscan’t ever play like me. There is no us.

There is no we. It’s an illusion.

Strategy has a personal, philosophical, stylistic aspect that can never be entirely copied.

This is also key, and it’s not something most equity pushers ever get, being convinced of a platonic, universal strategy.

Let’s look a little further, though, and see what I can find in poker literature. After all, ideas are codified in books, and if the Editorial We is a true poker phenomenon, it likely should be found beyond forums and conversations, and possibly exist in its most important texts. Or, perhaps, it too grew into commonality.

However, a quick perusal of some well known books reveals the we to be nearly absent from lexicon – that is, until our present day, forum influenced, Open Source Poker era.

In David Sklansky’s 1987 The Theory of Poker, the Editorial We does not make much of an appearance. In fact, this august poker tome’s central piece – the Fundamental Theorem of Poker, speaks to the reader: it’s “every time you play a hand…”

Move up into the Rounders years and check out Harrington On Cash Games, Vol I. Now the we surfaces. At first it seems that Harrington is simply going to follow the lead of Sklansky – lots of second person singular – but a quarter of the way in, we find what we were looking for. The Metagame chapter suddenly changes voices. “Here we’re in the realm…” “When we play deceptively…” “In effect, we become investors…” The Editorial We seems firmly in place. However, just as it appeared, it suddenly disappears. Turn a few pages to Hand Evaluation and Stack Sizes, and the author goes straight back to addressing you. Another transitory moment? It’s not clear and a little mixed up. As I go through the book, there’s both first person, second person singular, and our target, the second person plural – the we.

In 2005’s Super System 2 (sorry, someone made off with my leather bound vol. 1, curses upon you), you will find you are being spoken to. There is also a lot of first person, too – I’m not going to get a data set. Over sections by different authors on Online, Caro, Niche Concepts, Limit, O8, Stud8, PLO, TD, I can scarcely find but a few examples of we. One guess at this style is the authors themselves. With the exception of Negreanu, these are old school players, even at the time.

The Mental Game of Poker is the seminal extra-strategic book of the poker world, and was published in 2011. This is late in the day – Black Friday approacheth. What voice does Tendler prefer? It’s clearly the second person singular – very little we.

At this point, I am beginning to suspect that forums and books are essentially different. The authorial voice really might not lend itself to the Editorial We. Maybe near-live communication is at the heart of the matter, or perhaps books keep us away from sermonizing to each other.  In any case, I want to check one more, a book that is hyper-modern and born of the Open Source Poker Era. I’m a little nervous, really – what voice will it use?

On reopening 2013’s Applications of No-Limit Hold’em, I am not sure what to expect. After all, Sklansky employed the you, Harrington couldn’t settle on anything, and despite that, maybe it’s all just Twoplustwo publishing guidelines and I am seeking something in vain. However, it’s settled in a heartbeat. Janda makes his prefered voice clear – it’s the Editorial We, a slam dunk for my shaky and unscientific thesis, but one that makes sense.

From the very start – “We want to emphasize playing hands which…” – to key explanations “we need to have two value bets for every bluff…” – to complexities buried deep in the guide – “if we bet .75 on the turn” – Janda speaks the language of the contemporary poker player. He’s talking from an authority we all are presumed to take part in – we. (Hey, and don’t forget the possessive adjective – “if our turn betting range is perfectly polarized…”)

The we appears in Applications as a function of both the authority and sweep of the work but also as part of the contemporary culture it came out of – the gathering of the herd needing a safe, right answer.

This is our voice today. We, as Joey would say, is GTO.

I have found my shred of evidence.

“This table is reserved for face to face communication. Please join in!”

At the café where I write is a a large table, a table so large, the owner gave it a name on a placard: the Community Table. The sign informs the clientele that here they must be social and that this space has been engineered for our betterment: they know what is best.

However, one day when I was there, the owner was working with a team. Papers, binders, even a crude plaster model of the what appeared to be a block of the neighborhood. Despite the half-whispers and guarded questions and answers, it was very easy to understand they were attempting to leverage local laws against developers, so his voice is quiet and grave. The members of the squad look at me: should this guy be in on it?

Who is we? Please join in and tell me.

Now, of course, our dressed up pronoun has plenty of purpose and use ahead of it, naturally. There will always be a place for the Editorial We in poker, as groups must speak. The collective voice is a useful one.

Yet little is more overblown these days than the cry for solidarity, so it’s bound to strike a nerve with repeated hammering. We is often the shriek for an undisputed, uncontroversial consensus that pleases everyone- the one answer that is the least likely to be true. We is the voice of Middlebury and its castrati enablers. We is the voice which shames those with dissenting views while simultaneously taking no responsibility by hiding behind the collective.

Though the stakes are much lower in poker, the same dull we gets a little tiresome, and a little wearing that I have to use it and see it hammering away at better modes of thought. Maybe in our little game, our weird niche of the world, one where we supposedly value free thinking, we can shake, oh, just a little of its pomposity off and re-purpose it to, what, our actual best interests?

(Damn. Maybe I can’t shake it.)

Ok, there we go. I’m free again.

(Wait. For f—‘s sake!)

Poker’s we is like a yawn – tired and catching at once.

All I’m saying is: we should avoid it when we can.

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