We've all seen poker based programs such as Poker After Dark, Rounders, and High Stakes Poker, but have you ever spotted some of the more subtle similarities between poker and the big screen?
Dan O'Callaghan explores the boundaries between movies and tournament poker.
Big Screen Thrills at the Poker Table
Along with The Wolf of Wall Street, 300 has to be one of the best films ever. Sure, it may be a little bit gory, and yes, the quantity and calibre of six-packs might be a little intimidating to the less disciplined of gym-goers among us, but let's be honest, who cares?
Everything about it, from the slow motion shield-bash to the “this is Spartaaaa” bottomless pit-kick, is just as cool as if Phil Ivey and Liv Boeree were going head-to-head for the first time. The Achilles versus Hector fight from Troy offers the same, that universally satisfying, gore-geous cocktail that we can only enjoy when Brad Pitt levels of eye-candy meet slick fighting supremacy.
No matter how many times I watch 300, I'm always tilted by the ending. I know it sounds dumb since history tells us how the film ends before it's even started, but I still find myself frustrated by the Spartans' ultimate helplessness. It's the same when I watch Rocky. I sit there screaming at the TV, urging Rocky to block and defend himself. But he never does; how is it that with all the wonders of modern technology, we're still unable to communicate with fictional characters...in the middle of a boxing match....from the 80s...on a DVD? Unbelievable.
Try something for me: Fire up an appropriately huge bowl of popcorn, set your dimmer switch to 'snuggle', and watch a poker tournament as if it was a movie, you'll be amazed at how much MTTs have in common with Hollywood's finest.
Moreover, once you look beyond the bad beats and glory hunting, you may actually be able to learn from the experience.
The Battleground – This is Sparta!
One of the first things you'll probably notice is that a tournament works in exactly the same way as any cinematic battlefield; the same repetitive cycle of the strong overpowering the weak as the ill-equipped prove powerless in defending themselves against superior opposition. Oh, and believe me, watching this is as frustrating as Rocky's reluctance to block in... well... Rocky.
So, as long as you're not The Italian Stallion, understanding the need to defend yourself will probably be as obvious as the razor-blade abdominals in 300. Unfortunately, however, learning exactly how to effectively do so at the poker tables is more like what I'd imagine riding one of Xerxes' huge war elephants to be - way more complicated than it looks. I guess this is why you regularly see signs of some players slowly starting to boil as chunks of their stacks are stolen, time and time again, by what are quite simply stronger opponents.
What makes this blind-stealing massacre even more severe is that just like Ephialtes' anger-fuelled betrayal, or the Persian messenger's “not so” carefully chosen words in 300, this kind of emotional tilt almost always leads to pretty disastrous, “getting Spartan-kicked into the bottomless pit” levels of mistakes.
Of course, in a poker tournament, this usually manifests in one of two ways, with those players unclear about how to defend themselves well, either rolling over and dying (as they try to wait for a hand) or blowing up with some needlessly dumb A6o re-steal.
The 300 were doomed because they were outnumbered and betrayed, these tournament players are doomed because they are mentally and strategically outclassed.
The beauty of poker is that strength isn't physical. We don't need to have the guns of Leonidas, the agility of Achilles or the, well, the punch-proof chin of Rocky. We just need the desire, time and resources to improve.
Now, unfortunately, I can't help you with the desire part, but I can save you a little time and effort by encouraging you to keep your eyes peeled for my next article, which will be dedicated to blind defence. I just hope you guys will pay more attention to me than Rocky does. Man, I wish he'd block!
Generally speaking, there are also some pretty clear-cut structural similarities between poker tournaments and almost every other film. Now I use the word generally deliberately because I remember my media studies lecturer showing me some rather goofy, randomly structured, non-liner, multi-strand based doodahs that don't quite fit the mould. But for the most part, movies, just like a poker tournament, have a distinct, clear-cut beginning, middle, and end. As you might expect, each of these segments comes with a certain list of conventions and expectations.
Beginnings are all about introductions. We dig-in for the long-haul and prepare to discover the cast of our tournament epic, the Xerxes and Saurons that will be tying to vanquish us at every opportunity. We find out our characters' strengths, backgrounds and attitudes, profiling them so that we can ready ourself for the action-packed middle portion of the adventure.
The middle is where we see the bulk of the action, an abundance of battling for pots, squeezing, bluffing, value-betting, giant-slaying, perhaps even a little slow-rolling. We use what we've learned in the introduction to predict the plot, and we set our expectations accordingly. Just as we are when viewing a movie, we are at the mercy of structural plot twists; as helplessly speechless at the shock of an opponent's unexpected adjustment or suck out, as when we discovered Bruce Willis was dead in The Sixth Sense.
When the dust settles with the ending, we wipe our brows and rest our battle-weary mouse fingers, our wrists sore from the endless shuffling of chips. We discover the conclusion, the victor, and we look towards our next tournament soirée with the same hunger and optimism that we did with our last...
I just wish the hero didn't die as often at the tables!
Unpredictability and Adventure
Interestingly enough, the most intriguing similarities between tournament poker and film lie in their unpredictability. The first time we see a movie it represents the unknown, an opportunity to throw caution to the wind and escape the mundane repetition of the daily life (...unless you're a tournament pro, of course!)
Just as my main man, Ralph Waldo Emerson famously declared, 'life is a journey, not a destination'.
It's about embracing the precariousness of the journey, the thrill of the ride. I think this same sense of adventure and emotional mayhem is a huge part of why we play tournament poker. There are few avenues in life where you can go so quickly from salivating at the taste of victory one minute, to fighting for survival the next.
And, just as the fate of your hero is in the hands of the director, your tournament is often helplessly flipping in the hands of the poker gods.
Tournament poker isn't about the money – cash games offer a way more stable source of that – it's about the plot twists, the drama, the adventure. Just like The Green Mile or The Notebook, the turbulent emotional swings and intoxicating fragility of your 'tournament-life' will have you tearing your hair out. While the grossness of coolers and run-outs will leave you as nauseous and as angry as if Achilles had just dragged Hector through the dirt again.
We are as powerless when watching a movie as we are when we are all-in. It's this intoxicating sense of helplessness and lack of control that takes us on the beautifully twisted, emotional roller coaster that is both poker, and film.
V is for Victory
To me, these similarities between poker and Hollywood represent the sources of their greatness. Each is a key ingredient in a cocktail that has the power to take us on the most heroic of adventures; a struggle through trials and tribulations, as heroes battle a labyrinth of highs and lows in an ultimate quest to triumph.
V isn't for 'Vendetta', it's for Victory, and with each tournament registration comes another opportunity to step out of The Shire and embark on another epic journey.
Your very own battle for glory, for honour, for adventure, can easily be as exhilarating as any movie I've watched.