So now that it’s been a week or two since I stopped doing this–we fell off–I feel like I can comment a little more on this short burst of behavior.
For a furious month, a friend of mine, one who had recently moved across the country, played one on one poker via text message almost unceasingly. It was an obsession. A constant lunge after that thrill of hitting a perfect pocket pair, or playing just right, or getting absolutely, unequivocally lucky.
I remember driving my dad’s truck on Christmas, going from my sister’s house to my parents’ house, stopping for gas, and playing a hand while the pump ran. I thought about static electricity, then, hoping for no explosions.
I remember a day with my wife’s family where I mostly ignored the Q9 off suit I had so I could pay more attention to the toddlers running around the bread recipes I was trying not to screw up. And I was trying not to be too distracted from real live people by some device.
I remember him visiting and us still playing on the way back from the airport and at my house hanging out with friends and going to a bar and thinking about how weirdly different it felt to play the game when we were in the same area. And not even just that I’d forgotten that part of the whole thing was that I couldn’t let him see what cards I had. More that there was a body and a person on the other end of every single poker hand I’d played over the previous month. Real live thumbs were raising and checking me into oblivion; I lost more games than I won, probably partly because I managed to keep forgetting that.
When I first thought about writing something about text message poker it was going to be about the weird, beautiful, wordless subjectivity we had fostered over digital communication. Aside from an “LOL” here and there, we hardly said anything, but I spent more time thinking about what my friend was thinking than habit and daily life typically encourage. That felt good and close.
It was an odd thing to wake up to a time zone lagged poker play every morning, a friend softly saying “I don’t believe you hit the straight because of everything I know and can interpret about you so far.” It felt connecting over distance, even if we didn’t say anything and I had no idea where he was or what he was doing as he played any given play.
Surely that’s in there. Connection over distance. But the way we played kept reminding me of all the cues I couldn’t see. Another old friend who moved away and who I talk with less and less used to stack his chips a certain way when he thought he had you beat. I’ve even got a picture to remember that by, up above. I lucked out and hit a straight flush on the river, the only time I’ve ever gotten a hand that good. He had no way of knowing, so he stacked his chips just so and went all in. Someone else called because they had the Jack high flush. And then I called because I knew that no one had me beat.
In-person and with amateurs, there’s always a moment right after hand is over, during which everyone does the calculations in their head: I’ve got a flush, he’s got a flush, he’s got a… And then usually there’s quiet acknowledgement and the game moves on, unless the hand is so rare that your friends tell you that you have to take a picture to remember it by (a picture you only find again and remember on accident because you’re testing the machine learning capacity of an online photo storage tool). Then you all yell in excitement and no one’s mad that they lost and you’re all just together in a garage around a table and smiling.
When we were in the same room playing the text message version, the game felt rangier, more ecstatic, more like the garage. We could run around the room in celebration of a lucky turn, and we could watch each other run.
I can spend all my time and energy focused on the subjectivity of another being but I can’t make ESP real. I spent a lot of time looking at the screen telling me to wait for my opponent.
But technology trains us to think a certain way. Text messages flatten speech into a rut that belongs only to text messages. Email, to email, and so on. Poker introduced a wobbling wheel, a rumble strip, maybe, lots of time spent thinking about what someone else was thinking and what they thought I was thinking, and maybe that widened the rut, but it’s still a rut and it still runs circles back and forth between major cities. But at least it’s rumble strips and not a smooth slide off the shoulder.