All is Equal on the Green Felt: A Poker Tale

Filed in Other by on December 10, 2010

One of the great frustrations in my life is my inability to comfortably wear a scarf. I own many fashionable scarves but never once have I been able to wear one safe in the knowledge that I am sporting it correctly and in a manner generally accepted as decent by those who understand style. I lay much of the blame for this on those who can wear scarves with style and grace: they are a secretive lot and whenever advice is sought they speak in generalities before quickly changing the subject. Just like The Colonel keeps the eleven secret herbs and spices guarded, those with knowledge of how to wrap a scarf rarely give anything away. The mere mention of knots or loops or length and the fashionable scarf wearing set are struck down by a vicious stomach bug or have to immediately fly interstate on a matter of the utmost secrecy. Freemasonry for the fashionable, I’d imagine.

Of particular concern is a thick, woollen, hand-knitted scarf that should keep me warm in these cold Melbourne winter days. I have no idea what to do with it other than to let it hang loosely around my collar, the splayed ends and my cold neck mocking testaments to my failings as a scarf wearer. Do I use a knot? A loop? Do I fold? Do I wrap? Tight? Loose? How many times? It is too thick to wrap twice but once just seems silly. How long do I leave it? What do I do with the ends? Over the shoulder? Out front? Both?

So many questions and not nearly enough answers.

I once held the belief that it was critical a graph be developed to indicate what should be done with each scarf, the horizontal axis providing for the weight of the scarf and the vertical axis the length. The graph should be accompanied by a thesis-like document explaining in minute detail how the scarf is to be worn with an array of pictorial instructions to assist. Whoever developed such a comprehensive guide to scarf wearing would be revered as the Edison of scarf wear, the Copernicus of fashion. It is a shame Karl Lagerfeld is to busy being pretentious and weird to help the common man out. Such a document won’t ever be produced though. Cynicism has taken over and I now am firmly of the belief that the great secrets of scarf wearing will never be revealed, at least to those of us whom Darwinism has decreed the weak in terms of neckwear and woollen accessories.

My scarf frustrations rate second only to the aggravations relating to my natural failings as a sportsman. Like most heterosexual Australian males, the dream was always to play sport professionally. On hot summer days with sweat pouring from the forehead and grass-stains on the knees, the dream was always to bat first drop in the Baggy Green with the flair and fury of a Dean Jones. On frosty winter lunchtimes, with footy cards in the schoolbag and the Steeden in hand, the dream was always to wear the blue and white number six that Terry Lamb had made his own. With each passing year, however, those dreams faded into nothingness for most of us. The life as a professional athlete was a difficult dream to attain and most of us fail not out of want but out of genetics and the market: only a minute few can call themselves a professional sportsman and those who make it have usually been born with unattainable gifts like blistering speed, exceptional hand-eye co-ordination or freakish height. You learn how to bat and tackle and shoot a jump shot but unless you are born with the genetic gifts that make an athlete you simply aren’t going to make it to the level where you are paid to play sport. The market only allows for a select few to make it and those people are usually the ones who have started with a genetic advantage.

Professional sports, at least in a participatory sense, are unreachable to the vast majority despite the fact it is the dream of many. Even someone who plays only one NRL match or is selected in the last round of the AFL draft or who plays thirty seconds of junk-time in one NBL match or who rides one race as a jockey or who is chosen to bat eight in one domestic fifty-over match has made it further than 99.9% of those who dreamt the dream.

It is the same the world over. There are few tall jockeys and few short basketballers. There a few slow footballers and there are certainly none who lack courage. There aren’t many professional soccer players who are bad with their feet and there aren’t many cricketers who aren’t at the top end of the scale for hand-eye co-ordination. The market weeds out most of us and fills the limited positions available with those genetically suited.

It is true for all professional sports. All sports with the exception of poker.

While poker may not technically be classified as a sport- it certainly isn’t an athletic pursuit- in a wider sense it is. There is competition, money, fame, heroes, villains, and a large spectator base that follow the game passionately. Many of the characteristics that define sports can be found in the world of poker.

The reason for poker’s rise in prominence over the last decade is almost exclusively the inclusiveness and accessibility of the game. Unlike football or cricket, basketball or baseball, anybody can be a star on the poker table. You can be a sharp minded computer nerd, a fat cowboy from a sheep station near Broome, a Hollywood movie producer who has struck his fortune in porn, a Danish wrestler, an Indian mathematician who can recite pi to the 212th decimal or an incandescent former soap star. Hell, you go to Las Vegas at the right time and you can see Johnny Chan seated at the same table as Gabe Kaplan (television’s Mr. Kotter from Welcome Back, Kotter) with Shane Warne on the button, a 21 year old college dropout to his right and Gen Y online poker whiz listening to his IPod on his left. Its accessibility in terms of participation at the highest level is the game’s greatest selling point and it has seen poker grow from a backroom game played by degenerate gamblers and old time hustlers to a legitimate multi-billion dollar industry that is covered by all forms of media and is now as popular as any sport in the Western hemisphere. Television and the internet helped to popularise the game but without the accessibility to major events like the World Series of Poker and other major tournaments, the poker explosion of the last decade would never have happened.

In Rounders, the quintessential poker movie, poker tragic and main protagonist Mike McDermott says “First prize at the World Series of Poker is a million bucks. Does it have my name on it? I don’t know. But I’m gonna find out”. That single line sums up the inclusiveness of poker. Anybody can play and they can play at the highest level. All you need is a bankroll or the skill to win your way in through a satellite. The game is open to all.

Joe Citizen, for the most part, can’t play in the NRL Grand Final against Darren Lockyer or the AFL Grand Final against Gary Ablett, the Super Bowl against Tom Brady or in the soccer World Cup final against Ronaldinho. But he can play in the World Series of Poker and he can tangle with the likes of Phil Hellmuth and Phil Ivey and Doyle Brunson with a legitimate chance of besting them.

Opportunity is always equal on the green felt and participation is encouraged. It is the essence of the game. That is the great calling card of poker and explains how the game now rivals soccer in terms of worldwide popularity.

This week an old cricket and poker buddy flies out to Vegas to chase the poker dream. Tim Napper, an eccentric old socialist with a penchant for knee injuries whom I met on the cricket field many years ago, built up a roll playing online and in Macau and will hit Las Vegas with stars in his eyes and hope in his heart.

Napper and your author weren’t always on the best of terms. We got off on the wrong foot, as they say, straddling different outposts of the political divide. Our first game together was in 2004 and John Howard had just led the Coalition to electoral glory. There was plenty of excitement among the intelligent members of the Eastlakes team and Napper, a died-in-the-wool red, seem less than impressed by our political bent. “How can be play with these fascist pricks?” he asked another bleeding heart Eastlakes legend before we had even taken the field.

Political differences were soon overcome by the poker ethos, however. We regularly played in the same games. We both cleaned up in home games: Napper with his textbook style and your author with his hyper aggressive, action-loving ways. We played in dodgy skate warehouses and at the finest of casinos, drafty garages and on the old pool table situated at Bennett’s place, won in some long forgotten bet about a girl. Napper was one of the chumps that folded when I flopped my one and only royal flush, leaving me with only the small blind. There is still lingering dislike over that one. Napper, though, has loved poker and speaks about it in the same gushing tones most men use when discussing Winnie Cooper, the standard-bearer that all girls are measured against.

This weekend he will fly to Vegas and will soon be seated at the Rio chasing the riches and legend that comes with the World Series. He will play in the Pot Limit Omaha Hi-Lo and will try to win his way into the Main Event via satellite. The odds are against him but once he sits down at the table, all will be equal. Ceteris paribus. It is certainly a concept that appeals to his socialist ways. He will be up against the poker elite but he will also be up against his fellow travellers, the new breed that took to poker in the last decade and honed their craft and built their roll’s online just as Napper has.

This author won’t ever don the blue and white of Canterbury and won’t ever wear the Baggy Green of Australia (not that I would play under the Rat King Ricky Ponting anyway). The likelihood is I will never even learn how to wear a scarf stylishly. These dreams will remain just that: dreams. For the passionate poker player, however, the dream can become reality. And that is why poker, the most egalitarian of all professional games, will be the number one sport in town for many decades to come.

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