Higher Love

The play is for the higher ground.

I four-bet AQ massive. Too big. It’s deliberate. Still a mistake, just not the one you think it is: I should have moved all-in.

I’m not grousing. I’m surprised myself at how this is right, and how right it is. It’s new to me all over again, this revelation of one-spot precision, dedicated to one special action player. It’s like relearning poker.

There’s more. Bankrolls aren’t infinite, despite all the akschwawlie this line costs you two tenths of a bb per hundred midwit stuff: I have to win, must win. In fact, I just bet-jammed AK on J10x for 170 bbs into 40, knowing exactly what he had and how he would fold it.

One for one. I can’t afford to mess up these days. That cute variance calculator they love to cut and paste from isn’t going to soothe me right this moment, with financial pressures like a compactor around my trash life.

So I know the answer before I ask the question: it’s because I didn’t take the higher ground.

One for two.

The superior posture, the authoritative position. It’s what everyone aims for in everything, everywhere but here in poker strategy, it’s especially rare, and so all the more valuable.

The standard play, on the other hand, is more of a self-serving compromise, an accounting of possibilities. The true best move has no middle ground at all. Instead, it is the rarity, the maximal exploit, the one-time that never comes again. It’s so good it even sometimes looks like… cheating. Or maybe just expertise: not everyone seems to know the difference these days.

Either way, one for two isn’t enough for me.

I’m at home when the latest poker scandal – one almost scheduled, it is so obvious it is about to happen – reaches me. When I look at the split screen and see this woman, as full of life and the love of it as one might reasonably expect, holding her smile with only a bit of pain but now growing sullen, my attention quickens.

What is happening to her?

The simple truth is – mostly nothing. She’s talked for hours; he’s talked for hours. It’s an interview, I guess, but how little they say. It’s a babble I recognize, though: the sweet strategic whispers which encircle and ensorcel. We are hearing the signals which tell us how we’re to see and feel the speaker. To affirm their self-creation. To influence.

They’re fighting for the higher ground.

It’s a drag before it blows, but I get the feeling no one is supposed to tell the emperor and empress, at least while the parade is all kazoos and cheers and negative positivity and affirmatory fuck-yous. Joey is a fun aspect of poker culture, of course. Constantly smoothed out on gummies, piquing in pitter-pater nonsense patois, his social media stream is our culture’s epicenter of gossip and personality preening. He’s our Today Show host, our Oprah. Berkey the Pale, however sharp and researched, because he’s sharp and researched, is a mere try-hard, comparatively – he is simply not the baby in the sun the poker infants want to see; even the excoriated will pick him to vent upon, absurdly.

Joey made his bones being a friendly public confidant for high stakes watercooler talk, the chatpro’s chatpro. He’s all flash and formula, the general of “GTO” headquarters, precinct captain at the “RTA” station. Of late the branding for his social media gossip club is of “investigator,” although he never goes anywhere or finds anything, preferring to relay the work of the churning poker community in endless interview stream tell-alls featuring our z-list betters and bettors. Instead of being the chatpro’s avatar, now he is their curiosity, their host with the most. (The apotheosis of his style will be an amazing Jungle vs. Berk vs. Beanz throwdown where Berkey’s simple logic can’t penetrate anyone’s skull, leading to some of the most fun and wild poker content in weeks.) There’s even a hysterical cartoon of our Sherlock Homie “solving” things in Scooby Doo motif – image is everything.

Image isn’t a joke, though. The idol gathers, consolidates, draws in and focuses the powers that be. Joey moves the conversation, he sets the tone. Joey gets away with speculations that doom his competitors; he is fluffered and lionized. Above all, he’s fun when the others are not. What’s also fun is you might not even know which scandal I’m talking about.

All interviews are relationships. The one I’m watching is interminable and uncomfortable, like a marriage slowly revealed as mistaken, the man and the woman finding contempt after having outlived their pressing desires and fears. Our loveable bro and tournament angel tell us that he and she are “friends.” Maybe so; poker and Hollywood have a lot in common. However, friends don’t need seven-hour struggle sessions to account for their mutual behavior. Insta affidavits and Twitter accolades are not even hard vouches with money and blood behind them. These things are called performance, content, media. Actual friendship is slow, unremunerated, untallied. It is there without an audience; in fact, friendship protects one from the audience.

Friendship is immune to the higher ground.

However, everything can be converted into the appropriate posture at the right temperature. You can melt even friendship into a position, a weapon, if you need to seem important, loved, appreciated, good at poker, an alpha hottie. It’s the basis of social media, this corruption of relationships, of the social bond, into emotional advertising. Social media is pornography for the business day, which is why it arrests us so fervently, why it’s so profitable, and why no one thinks to stop or to stop it. For us poker players and our unusual twenty-four hour life, it’s all the worse. The office is always open late, the nightingale always singing us to dance, click, fap.

And that’s just the first or second one, the scandals already under the bridge, the failure past. No, I didn’t shove, didn’t make the perfect play, and so he continues with seven-three and shoves his flush draw over my bet; I call while ahead and am drawing dead on the turn. No, your wife doesn’t go on stream dressed like an out-call if the marriage is working; no, you don’t share the Zoom channel if you respect her or him; no, you don’t play under other players’ accounts or avert your eyes when your coaches are ghosting your horses; no, you don’t write notes in other people’s names to keep the spotlight heated.

These are mistakes. Mistakes happen in the fight for the higher ground.

I remember taking a photograph of Ebony on my tournament gig: sweet and beaming, so obviously accustomed to the camera already in young 2017, all resistance and avocado toast and Dua Lipa. How could it be that she was on food stamps then – the time frame is right – when her hair and future were fuller, and her mind less made up, in the confusion and excitement of youth? Who was hurting her then? And who did she hurt?

The higher ground betrays.

To survive, we make compromises that fail to max out our EV all the time. We raise to the right amount, lose, but St. Peter and St. Marx and all the lords of the world, our Orangemen and Brandons, all the false-hearted judges who enumerate our beginnings and our ends, mark us down for our social Sklansky dollars. You did the right thing, child, comrade, friend – take this and drink from it.

It only costs a word and a smile to take the higher ground.

While Robbi is a mystery, she is transparent, only an artificial moon around the origin of it all, her web-spinning husband, huckster of narrative, promoter, charlatan, coin merchant, dream twister and social climber. He is the victimizer and victimologist, a covid profiteer and rising star of Los Angeles, the red-hot meridian of American pop culture and lies. He is both ominous and cowardly, his words threatening and subservient – he knows how to make friends. How she must have worshipped him, once, he a high-flyer, her his co-pilot. What led her to this state? What brings you into gambling, the dice den, the baccarat ritual, the Rip’n Beanz Show? Poker is so small, our problems so trivial, yet will our little circus tent of hole-card monte in fact bleed over into reality because of Garrett’s pride?

Charles knows the higher ground better than anyone. He is a prime Jokerman. Buckle up, he warbles. Don’t fear him because he knows the law – no one knows the law – but because he has more important people than you do. Friends. We know him well, because we poker players are of the same tribe. Are you a friend.eth? (Beanz is upset his bidness is out in public, thought he was friends with Berk after that six-hour sesh.)

Then Charles disappears: the higher ground is an illusion.

Left to her own devices, Robbi is unmoored. She is logicless and logorrheic. She makes offers to play anyone, everyone. She shouts down her detractors and the persecutor within. In place of Ebony’s contrived and fragile poise, Robbi is haughty and deranged, false as her insides. She is L.A. incarnate, desexualized by her transparent biological exaggerations yet unsatiated by the world’s response to them. Her invisible twin sister is her ravenous id.

Yet she’s no criminal, and she’s not the only one. Robbi is a denizen of a metropolitan culture so dense and complex its own government has control in name only. Her police are brutal, drugged, afraid of their impossible duties; her politicians are matinee stars for the evening news and national click-bait ideologues. The endless L.A. sunlight doesn’t expose corruption, it hardens everyone and everything into serving corruption. Los Angeles has always been explosive, ready for its restless and overfed beasts to bridle and bust out in fire and protest. To find her center is to make Robbi Jade Lew disappear and find Rabia Hussain, immigrant and aspirant, just a normal girl on the game show where you get thrown off the building. Spurned wives, peripatetic husbands, immigrants of a thousand tribes including plain old hungry Okies escaping the dust, all crouch and mill in this capitol for garbage and gold. (Ultimately the scandal will disappear because we need the economy back underground, the home and app games, the real story no “investigator” will ever touch, need fish from the stream, the spice must flow.)

So, Robbi will be gone from our minds soon enough, because the higher ground is always only temporarily occupied.

It’s a little disturbing, how we flirt with being dangerously wrong in order to be right. I’ve spent years teaching myself, then my students, the superior EV of the raise, not the ridiculous shove, obviously. Even that goes awry. Recently, one of them did some napkin-math and concluded my net coaching hourly, so reasonable on paper, is in fact what is delicately called the minimum wage. I scoffed at the idea, but should I have been so sure? I made her go through the rough figures, noting all the extras, the prep time and meetings and examining homework. She was closer than I thought.

Now why would I do that to myself? Where was I going? But I already knew the answer.

Yet the ground had already shifted beneath me, until I no longer knew where I stood.

Joey’s back, more himself for the big one, firing off gringo Spanish like an FM radio jockey, a cartoon pimp. He’s less and less Oprah as the scandal plays out, no, he’s Jerry Springer, and he’s lining up the guests for the gauntlet of cheers and boos. The cowboy dirtbag lover-cum-staker comes on and we laugh with him. Go, Jerry, go. Joey tells Marle he doesn’t know enough about dick sucking for stakes, while she pauses, wondering if he just implied what he just implied. Does he even know? He fires off words unconsciously, phrases unwittingly. His words don’t even have to make sense: he praises BIll Perkins for his “brain frequencies.” Haralabopulous is cutting and snarky, he’s Rodney Dangerfield on less donuts but all the lines. Tweaker Tom is on; never meet your idols on crack, as they say. When Joey has the inspiration to put Robbi and Julie together, he can’t imagine what might happen when the cat and dog are dropped in the same cage. No one pays attention because it happens too fast, it’s all attitude, smoke, jokes and jokermen. Cash them outside.

So, a lot of comedy, but… it’s working.  Joey or someone like him is critical to poker. This is how the market responds, how a small town solves its crimes. Joey is your Curious Cathy who knows everyone’s business and finds out who stole the flour, who takes the cake, who killed the cat. Berkey and the rest of the poker hall monitors, bumbling after him, were right when they brought down Postle and are right again – this is our model, one that rewards the click-seeker fairly for his labors. Penetrate the culture, protect its institutions, keep shedding layers of skin, keep forgetting what poker is, keep the gravy train chugging.

The higher ground is entertainment.

No, the comedy never ends, because the search for authority never does. Joey bristles when reminded he is a gossip columnist and gladhander by poker crank Norm. Berkey valiantly sticks his thumb in the dam over the stream while a billion dollars passes unregulated on the little green river app. Alex tells us he is “literally” the last hero on “Team Robbi.” Charlie catalogs some fingers. Everyone uses the scandal as an excuse to lose their minds, while I desperately restrain myself from saying anything, from contributing to the hysteria.

I do admire Garrett, even if he is wrong, even though I know he is a slippery L.A. beast, too, a man of the mirrors, ambition with a smile. He protected himself as best he could, kept his head on a swivel, even managed to get some money back from an inexplicably guilty player. Maybe it wasn’t ultimately the righteous thing, even if it felt right, but the same people who issue their percentages every day should be wise enough to recognize Garret took his odds, too, and without their hindsight. Condemning him post-hoc is an act of bad faith for anyone who makes decisions for a living, but It’s still not my place to issue a million tweets on it, not if I value my own opinion, paradoxically. These people aren’t my friends, and they’re probably not yours either.

Friends don’t take the higher ground to feel good.

What if you’re right, though? When you finally do hit a target, when your posture is right, are you even a hero? Joey’s questions, which were easily swatted by a more fastidious accused, Bryn, convulse poor Ebony, our darling and combustible bad bitch and sensitive soul. Yet no one wanted this, Bryn was the quarry. We don’t want Ebony immiserated, we don’t want Robbi suffering. We want our idols smiling and happy, their eyes glowing. However, no one can keep them from doing all this to themselves. They were exploding from the beginning; their illusions are a lit fuse.

Few can hold the higher ground for long.

In the end, Joey and Ebony disagree mainly for the reason that their English is not particularly strong – neither makes a good or good faith interpretation of what they or the humorously home-body moderator was saying. Then, even Joey is briefly outbabbled for once by Robbi and her retinue of weirdos and biotech toothpaste money shufflers and Covid-sponsored craps table dollar store buffoons; hang with the losers and become one yourself. Listen to them long enough and start to think like them.

The higher ground is hypnotic.

Robbi is escaping the net because all of it was natural to poker, her crime, if there even was one, was not even exactly a crime, especially not for the Angelenos. It’s just another fun cosmopolitan evening, another adventure for the lols and Instagram. The chips arrive at the table because she is Robbi, not because she needs to pay for them: she has no idea why anything happens, why do you think you can teach her now? She doesn’t even seem to understand her interlocutors on a grammatical level; put to the test, she answers a final yes or no question with “maybe.” Julie would need sign language and a skit to demonstrate why you put down the toilet seat down to Robbi, never mind to explain gambling culture nuances. She is a teenager who screeches when denied and who cries when scolded. She has never been truly told no, and so she remains an adolescent in a near forty-year-old body sculpted into thirty. Above all, she constantly regrets having no sex tape in place of her more mediocre and likely accidental scandal.

Two for three, maybe better. Nice work, Papi.

The higher ground is hard to keep, because it was never what was right that mattered. We’re awash in opinions, an endless tsunami of foolishness, a hurricane of lies that expends itself only upon solid land, exhausted by turning pixels into faces, lies into truths. Freedom may be just around the corner, but the higher ground and all the words of the jokermen are already here, drying, calming, tempting. Believe me and go to sleep.

The podcast people holler and whoop for blood, but that is not justice. The idea of punishing people on any side of the struggle, whether Kade, Bilzerian, or Kenney, for taking Nagy’s money, for watching poker streams but demanding the participants all file quarterly with the IRS and salute the flag, is on its face preposterous. Where does the money come from, after all? What feeds the beast? Yes, it’s from you, from the players who support everyone they shout down. From every scummy tournament grinder that ever chased down the dragon, every self-medicated bum-hunting buzzard, every upstanding bot-owner who avails himself of the ACR watering-hole. From every chatpro, every Twit, full of dread, who slavered over some outclassed woman abused by everyone else for some unknown and brief personal putsch.

Public stream games exist because the economy has a gray zone: who do you think benefits, who is finding games, who is advertising their eligibility for the games that really matter? And who runs those games?

So I don’t want the higher ground. Not anymore.  No, the more I think about it, I don’t want a piece of this action.

We do look up at the stars, even if it is to the rather second tier lights of our little poker “industry.” We look up, we are forced to look up, to Garrett and Robbi and Joey and all the party goers. Must I take what is given? Where’s my hush money? I want to be done. I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world

I’m not sure I can escape poker, though. We – I – need its artificiality, I fear. We need a Papi and CBD toothpaste, we need those lips like a grouper’s and a groupie’s. “I wouldn’t wife her,” the late-night game master tells Limon, among a hundred hard truths, the head on a swivel talking to the master swiveler, “but I’d fuck her every day, week, month, three-hundred sixty-five days a year.”

At first I just couldn’t figure out why we need them, but I can see now the higher ground isn’t a mountain. It’s an island, a trap. I can’t go home, but I can’t stay here, to rephrase the bartender.

The higher ground mesmerizes.

Still, people grow and change in front of us. Joey grows and improves. Where was this independence and cynical spirit when he had his slew of guests of greatness? Now he wants to stand tall, first to Bryn but now to a once shy and sweet woman, who just wants the higher ground, who wants to sell us a sob story to agree on, to avail herself of the admiration so many live upon? To do what is allowed to everyone else? Ebony jabs him furiously in one spot, nearly flooring the audience, if not Joey, with a nice reference to his slinky pal Rug Doug on the Coin Wash episode. Robbi bites and snarls but he is placid, laughing… professional, you might say.

Joey has something better than the higher ground now. He has pushed through, creating a better version of himself.

People create each other, too. There is this horrible reg where I’m at. The reg sits down and immediately has something shitty to say to some other reg. He’s on his phone, and stands up in irritation, scouting out other tables. When he misses the flop, arriving with backdoors and ace high, which could have cbet under some price or continued, he flips it face up to show how bad he runs and how good he plays (which is to say, badly). He clanks the chips in irritation, jumps up, looking for fish, desperate to find the right table. Not involved, he calls clock on someone with their stack on the line.

I left one thing out: he is a she.

Actually, that’s wrong, too. What really happens is that poker turns women into men if they let it. Nasty, selfish, loutish. Poker can turn you into a limit crab, an old man who will start a fight over a missing ante. Your eyes get suspicious, your hair loses its shine, you don’t stand up, your ass drops.

The higher ground changes you.

I’m squirming through all of it, though. I want a new way. I don’t need to hear another influencer’s sophomoric laments or their sad little –ism that comforts them. Their micromind fetishes are boring, today’s chance of cheating is no longer interesting to me or anyone. A new path where I can laugh at everyone, but politely, empathetically: I know you have to behave like this and it’s fine.

Can I reach out to find some empathy that arrives unseen, not in a heartless world, because it is not heartless as the man mistakenly warned us, but just the opposite: the world is a jungle, strong and desperate and vivacious, sobbing, a pounding in the ears that sends the weak into spasm and corners, unable to find that one feeling, that one word we all need.

In poker what is most frustrating is dealing not with creeps and criminals – the wise understand that is the normal state of things – but with the ugliness they leave behind, with the pure ugliness of all the behaviors. The world was once beautiful, and this place is not. It is a thousand strip malls, a television where there was a field, a painted fish lipped idol where there was once a woman, a vibrator where there was once flesh.

How do you escape the higher ground?

Maybe if I can see through it but not run from it. Maybe if I can look at the full face of those seeking adulation, who look into the camera to be seen and to see themselves: to accept the content and its decivilizaton. We are all babies wanting to see a baby in the sun, after all. So let me be more like them and near to them, let me have empathy for the reality stars, sympathy for these minor and likeable devils. Let me place a finger upon the screen and find not glass and tech, but the reality we all need, the deep, underscoring need and the one word no one can say enough. Let our entertainers be who they want to be, immortal, young and still untouched by the tragedy of giving up, of that which loosens and tires before it lays to rest.

I and others without influence or importance have fallen to the seafloor of our lives, but has it revealed the outline of a door, a hatch, an archway we were not capable of imagining until the fall? Or is there no reality, only illusion, only agreeing with everyone? Do we each need to fight for our parcel of the higher ground? After all, I chose this island, this “community,” as the fish say. 

You’re forty-six percent sure she was cheating? You think price controls will solve inflation? Cancellation will fix opinions? Central control will fix the atmosphere and save the world? These are my people, it seems.

Is there no escape from them, no secret garden here at the end, no Atlantis for those who held their breath the longest?

Is there no other game in town but the higher ground?

Vertucci is on with Berkey now. He can’t answer a single question and for some reason Berkey is suddenly too scrupulously polite to prod him, but soon I’ll be reading about what a great conversation they had, their sixty-minutes of posturing for the higher ground. Then I’ll be told I need to embrace the optics of the scandal over the reality of it. “You’re at fault, don’t you see, sure “technically” the game would be safer if you did that, but the image is important because…”

Am I only leaving the higher ground for another posture?

Perhaps. Skies are slippery gray. I want to go, not backwards, but into the galaxy, into its darkest, heaviest place, to feel the stretch of the event horizon and report what is not sucked up by all the mistakes, all the loss, all the time and energy cubed into nothing, and to make sense, not for long, but for enough time to remember and feel that one word, the only word once more. To be not in agony, but still ready to be dismantled, perhaps for a new life beyond me and beyond all this. To find new images to worship, better images than these, ones I can stand and fight for, the way within the way, in the world and not of it, on my own higher ground, not far from but right here, right here in the turbulent space.

3 thoughts on “Higher Love

  1. ” the spice must flow” – readers might have missed this reference coming from Dune. If we take that phrase in another direction, it can mean that we as a society are pot committed to corruption, evil, fakery, low ground masquerading as high ground, social media and its ills… ok that’s the direction and the drift of the entire piece. All of these evils are self-perpetuating, bottom-feeding and thus must continue to flow and multiply. There is however grace elsewhere, even in our humble home games with some non-fake friendships and relationships that extend to real life. Hopefully we can build on that.

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