I spent most of the last two days watching the end of the Main Event at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure on Twitch, thanks to some timely front-page placement. It was a fascinating look into the psychology of a deeply complicated game being played at the highest levels.
I should note that I’m nowhere near being a poker expert; I’ve played a bit over the years, but never for money, and the sum total of hours spent playing in my life could be easily counted on one hand. I also intentionally didn’t write about poker in my Guide to the Cardpocalypse, because I feel it’s much more of a game about psychological one-upsmanship than it is about the actual pieces of pasteboard, and watching the PCA in some ways confirmed and in other ways weakened that argument in my head.
Early on I was rooting for “the old guy,” Scott Wellenbach, who seemed laid-back and conversational in comparison to everyone else playing. Turns out he was the only amateur that made it to the final table, and he ended up placing a respectable third, winning over half a million dollars for charity. The winner, Chino Rheem, was ahead both days and never lost his lead, so it mostly felt like everyone else was jockeying for second. That was probably unfortunate from most people’s perspective, but it sure made the psychological side of the game shine.
In particular, Rheem effectively took the role of the “heel” in wrestling parlance, pushing around everyone at the table with big raises and keeping the pressure on even when he had garbage hands. It helps that he’s naturally a very gregarious player, and also apparently quite notorious–something of an actual bad boy in the poker circuit–which matched well with his particular persona in this tournament.
There’s a natural tendency to root for the underdog, and in particular one so natural and forthcoming as Wellenbach–the man is donating his winnings to charity, for Buddha’s sake–and that feeling grows even stronger when they’re up against an opponent who comes off as arrogant and pushy. It made for great TV (well, streaming, whatever), and I honestly couldn’t look away.
The gods’-eye view that modern poker play provides the viewers is both a blessing and a curse. You know exactly what everyone has, and the graphics automatically update with winning percentages… but of course the players don’t know the details, and so you see people make decisions that seem horrible in the view of omniscience but obviously make a lot more sense on the ground. If anything, it adds to the sense of the mind games that are clearly going on at the table. Someone raises big when they have utter garbage… but everyone else’s hands suck, so no one calls them on their bluff. How did they know? How did they know?
Wellenbach got burned not once but twice on the river; the first time he had a 95% chance of eliminating the eventual second-place player, Daniel Strelitz, and somehow the exact card Strelitz needed showed up on the flip. The second time cost him the game. Sometimes the hero you want to win doesn’t, but you have to be proud anyway.
I don’t think poker is likely to become a regular part of my media consumption diet, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching the gears turn behind the eyes of a bunch of high-level players–and one heroic amateur–for the better part of two days. And I was strongly reminded that I should never, ever consider playing poker for realsies. I wouldn’t be a hero or a villain; I’d be the mook bleeding out in the corner ten seconds into the first fight scene.