Haseeb Qureshi

Cologne, Germany

I’ve been having these recurring dreams lately. In these dreams I am a child again, and I am causing trouble against authority figures for no real reason. I’ve never been a big fan of dream analysis, but it’s been on my mind. Maybe it’s my psyche trying to tell me that this little exodus, this attempt to rebel against what by now is my nature, is pointless and childlike. Maybe it’s telling me that deep down, I’m no different from the scared little kid throwing a tantrum in sunday school so he gets thrown out, expecting his parents come to rescue him. Lately, I am oscillating between hating and being at peace with myself.

I am thinking too much. This has always been a problem of mine, but never has it been so fatal as now. I am on the train now; we have just left Brussels and the train is heading toward Germany, where I go next. In Cologne, I will be alone. There is no one I know there. Several people invited me to stay with them in other cities in Germany, but I decided that although the hospitality of the people I met in Paris was wonderful, I should be alone for a while.

I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question. This question is one that only a very old person asks. My benefactor told me about it once when I was young, and my blood was too vigorous for me to understand it. Now I do understand it.

I will tell you what it is: Does this path have a heart?

All paths are the same, they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long, long paths, but I am not anywhere. My benefactor’s question has meaning now. “Does this path have a heart?” One makes you strong; the other weakens you.

Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan

I remember sitting with Adrien in the Basilisque du Sacre Couer, looking around at the awesome chamber in which we were sat. I imagined what it would be like to hear a sermon in that very seat 400 years ago.

Adrien was telling me about his childhood. Adrien was born in Tunisia to a Tunisian father and French mother, but he moved to Paris when he was young. His parents had a messy divorce, and so he became very distant from his father. He told me, “It is important to know why you play poker. Otherwise it becomes a means without an end. For me, I began to play poker because I wanted to make money to win the approval of the father. I thought, when I am a millionaire, I will return to Tunisia to visit him and he will respect me.”

He ended up traveling to Tunisia two years ago to visit his father, but he wasn’t a millionaire yet. Nevertheless Adrien had made quite good money from his career in poker. He was no longer playing, as he had returned to his studies in philosophy. I remember him turning to me and asking me, “Why do you play poker?”

I didn’t have an answer. I garbled something together about being young and being bored when I began. I felt very strange not having an answer to what seemed like a simple and ordinary question. Why do I play poker? I don’t know. Why do I want money? I don’t know. What thing do I want to acquire?  Who am I trying to prove something to? Who do I want to notice me, to love me? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

In the Sacre Couer, big signs read “SILENCE s’il vous plait.” A couple of dark-skinned security guards were shushing the bustling tourists. Adrien and I stared at the pew before us. It was a hot, sweaty day. He offered me a handkerchief, but I declined it.

“You know,” he told me, “when I was playing poker, I was very good at it. But it gave me no pleasure. As a job, it made me feel like I was prostituting my mind. Did you ever feel this way?”

I told him that I had never heard that turn of phrase, but I could understand what he meant. He continued, “in poker, you take great and beautiful minds and you devote them to learn how to beat people in cards and make money. Poker makes your mind smaller, not larger. You learn more to become further away from the world. It is like how a prostitute makes money, she must disrespect her sexuality. A young man must disrespect his mind to become a professional poker player. Have you ever felt this way?”

I didn’t have a real answer for him then. The poker world has taught me that when somebody affronts poker, you either defend it, or you stay quiet. It is in fact the duty of every champion of a small thing to defend it when it is inevitably mischaracterized by the ignorant “others.” A great lover of Go, or of polka, or of anything else uncommon and charming will rush to its defense if you dare to disparage it. It is the place of poker players to defend poker, and I have learned how to do it.

But the truth I have always known is that in poker, you do not create any value. You do not help anyone. You do not change even the poker world for the better. In poker, some of the brightest young minds in the world come together to try to make money, and then to try to prevent others from making money. This has never occurred to me as something inherently bad – it’s clearly true, but the same can be said of many other things.

But Adrien had a point that I couldn’t deny. There is something about devoting your mind to poker that is in some way, disrespectful to it. The poker culture is very different from other subcultures, like the chess culture or the tennis culture even. It is a world where everyone is summarily motivated by preventing the spread of knowledge and the success of others (at least, until the point at which the spreading of that knowledge helps the individual him or herself). It rewards the ethos of selfishness. In fact, it doesn’t consider this selfishness the natural state of being – it considers it the perfected one.

It then begs the question – why does the poker community exist at all? In a world that not only incentivizes a free-for-all, but even prides itself on the value of selfishness and the exclusiveness of information and success, what made these people come together in the first place and create a cohesive culture?

You could say simply that it is an anthropological impossibility for so many humans to come together, do the same thing in common, and not create a culture around it. But I think there is a more interesting point to be made. I think that poker inherently drives people apart, isolates individuals, and withholds emotional rewards. When you win a giant pot from someone, there is no trophy, there is nobody to pat you on the back or congratulate you. There is only the person you won it from, who has just lost what you have won and, with all likelihood, wants only to deprive you of twice what you have taken from him. And as poker players, we are taught again and again that money is not important, to be desensitized to money, to treat it only as the means to an end.

Then really, it is only through the poker world that people can get a feeling of accomplishment out of poker. It is through the acknowledgement of other people that a 6bb/100 winrate or an amazing hero call, or being the biggest winner at $2/$4 for a month has any real reflection on your ability as a person. What humans need first and foremost is actualization. Through the poker world, the work of poker players is actualized. This is why the poker world exists. Through the poker world, a bare monetary reward is transformed into accomplishment, into something laudable, even noble. The poker world needed to exist, otherwise poker would become meaningless.

Why is it that the poker world doesn’t acknowledge all of the arguments against poker? In my five years of playing the game and being in the community, i have heard the same counter-arguments echo again and again. Inevitably, they are framed as coming from the mouths of Christian stepmothers, of blubbering politicians, of self-righteous acquaintances. But I have never heard any convincing counter-arguments saying why they are wrong. I think the reality is there is no good counter-argument to the most simple of these accusations. And really, there is a truth somewhere in the mistrust your mother or cousin or grandfather has about playing poker for a living. But if the poker world were ever to acknowledge that, it would no longer be able to sustain itself as a structure that imbues poker with meaning. If poker stops becoming okay, how can it be meaningful? How can we reward it? In a way, things are exactly the way they have to be. Those outside of it distrusting poker, and those inside of it laughing them off.

The relationship between degeneracy and the poker culture comes to mind. There’s a lot that I could say about the way the poker culture views and treats degeneracy, but this post is running long, I am starting to ramble, and there are clearly not enough pictures. So here’s a photo (that somebody else took) of the cathedral just outside Thalys station in Cologne.

Will write more soon.

  • Interesting post – I’d love to hear more about what you think defines the poker community when compared to other competitive arenas. There’s also some interesting parallels between this and the “brain drain” of Quantitative Analysts in the engineering world today, where many will complain the brightest minds of the generation go to figure out the best ways to exploit the stock market instead of “making something” with their lives. There’s the same arguments of not contributing society, or doing work that isn’t enjoyable, or maybe some moral code somewhere condemns it. In the end, though, I don’t think I can blame smart (implying rational) and ambitious kids for taking the path that gives them the highest expected utility. And really, even if the government shuts down poker or puts limitations on high-frequency trading, humans are remarkably good at figuring out ways to irrationally give away their money – and there’s always going to be people willing to take it from them.

  • It’s funny how this blog-post, and even the above comment from dustice, applies to me; I am a former poker player turned Quantitative Analyst – right now as an intern for a high frequency, algorithmic trading desk. I feel like I am “prostituting my mind” here. I am working 10 hours a day trying to figure out how to make money for a huge company.

    I have decided that this is not for me, and I will return back to playing poker and traveling after my internship. I simply can not do a job where you have to think for somebody else all day and, as such, I feel like Adrien’s question is very important for me to answer – originally I stopped playing poker because it wasn’t satisfying mentally and intellectually but after working “in the real world” I can now see why poker is for me: I can use poker as a means to an end. I can think about things that interest me (as opposed to what interests my boss or my company) and I can read what I want, when I want. I used to think of myself as “a poker player”, with all the both good and bad connotations that follows (some of which was mentioned in the blog post), but actually I am just using poker as a means to an end. I am not just a poker player. I am a philosopher, a student, a gambler, a traveller. And first and foremost, I get to choose myself what I think about in the very limited number hours I have each day in the very limited number of days I have left.