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March 10, 2009 |

By Michael Murray | Film | March 10, 2009 |

“Who are these people, these faces? Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used car dealers from Dallas, and sweet Jesus, there were a hell of a lot of them at 4:30 on a Sunday morning, still humping the American dream, that vision of the big winner somehow emerging from the last minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino.”

—Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

For a couple of years, I was a regular in a pretty dodgy poker game. There was actually one night when two of the players threw-up. One guy was able to make it to the bathroom in time, but the other one wasn’t so lucky, and he ended up heaving into a bowl of potato chips that grabbed from off the table.

Witnessing this was a truly awful experience, I think that the worst thing about it was that we actually finished the hand. Mark, who puked, put the bowl underneath the table, and insisted we continue, as he thought he had a killer hand. You might think that the two guys who vomited had eaten some bad sushi or something, but that wasn’t the case, they’d just gotten absurdly hammered.

These games were characterized by a ridiculous amount of booze and dope, and as I tended to only have a couple of beers while playing, instead of getting prom-night obliterated like everybody else, I usually won a little bit of money. This made me think I was a pretty swift player, but the truth was that the only reason I had been winning was that I was the sole person who knew what was going on. Unbeknownst to me, I was a sort of chaperone, the guy who he got paid a fifty-dollar fee per game to shuffle the cards and manage the game.

I only realized this once I started to lose, which took place at almost the exact same time that poker moved from basements and garages, and onto TV as a spectator sport. Slowly, the guys I had been playing with started watching shows like “Poker After Dark.” The result was that after learning a few strategic rudiments, they were able to beat me week after week, even if they were wasted out of their minds.

The title “Poker After Dark” implies that the audience is being granted access to an exclusive and sleazy precinct where the action is stripped of artifice and pretense. The truth, of course, is pretty much the exact opposite.

What the show does is takes a handful of contextually well-known poker players and place them in a studio, where for the benefit of a televised audience, they pretend to be playing an insider’s game of cards. The game, of course, is the ubiquitous No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em, and over the course of five one-hour shows, the last man standing is awarded $120,000.

Sadly, poker, like the lame-o reality show “Big Brother,” does not gain dramatic momentum as the field narrows, but gets increasingly duller. Eventually, instead of having multiple personalities and an almost infinite array of possibilities emanating from any one hand, we’re left with two people, both wearing promotional Full Tilt baseball hats, folding hand after hand after hand.

No matter, we’re compelled to watch it anyhow, because, well, it’s on, and at two in the morning, when NBC airs “Poker After Dark” often, that’s enough.

The show opens with shots of various star players waxing philosophic about the nature of cards. There’s the venerable Doyle Brunson, who now on the slippery side of 70, is beginning to resemble a bullfrog in a cowboy hat. The myth we’re sold is that he’s an old-school cowboy who uses his guile and experience to defeat the robotic armies of Internet players who are now infesting the pro ranks. To support this depiction, we hear Brunson speaking in his slow, Texas drawl, saying things like, “Courage don’t necessarily mean the absence of fear” or ” We don’t stop playing cards because we get older, we get older because we stop playing cards.”

Unhappily, this is about all the wisdom and charisma that Brunson brings to the stage, as he otherwise affects an either somnolent or irritated demeanor. The show has about two dozen regular players that they rotate in and out of the variously themed tournaments, and for the most part they’re all keen on trying to exhibit some personality, as they imagine it will help secure them endorsement deals and walk-ons in Hollywood films.

Listening to them banter with one another is not such a great experience. They’re not witty and interesting people who’ve led diverse lives of adventure, but are obsessive gamblers—a bunch out of shape men who spend all of their time indoors. Not one of them looks like James Bond, and it’s probable that at one time or another each one of them dressed up as “Star Trek” character for Halloween. They’re math geeks, and their personalities are so warped by their poker obsession, that to listen to them chatter away is to step into a small, dark room and shut the door. They have nothing other than gambling to talk about.

However, this is leavened by the occasional presence of a celebrity. Although not particularly fashionable right now, poker was cool about ten years ago, and as such, you see semi-celebrities infiltrating the ranks of pro poker players. What this suggests is that many actors have an abundance of time, money and ego, and that they’re only too happy to squander this capital at the gaming table, especially after their career has gone to pot.

I suppose it’s possible that it you could make an argument that actors, in order to ply their trade, must observe the subtle behaviors of people, and are thus able to read bluffs and such with great accuracy. However, in watching “Poker After Dark,” celebrity players who’ve joined the pro ranks like Gabe Kaplan (“Welcome Back Kotter,” 1975-79) and Jennifer Tilley (Bride of Chucky, 1998), don’t seem preternaturally observant, just studious and good with numbers.

Regardless, they liven things up a little bit. Tilley, who is all cleavage and giggles, goes out with Phil Laak, a pro poker player who frosts the tips of his hair. They seem to fancy themselves as a kind of Brangelina of the poker world, regularly engaging in the sort of self-love that will make you want to, well, throw-up into the potato chip bowl.

The fascinating thing is that the poker geeks, who presumably all grew up on the outside looking in, desperately want to be welcomed into the celebrity circle. They want to hangout with the beautiful people and get invited to the cool parties. Similarly, the stars want to be recognized for more than just their celebrity, and crave the approval of the pro players, and so you have a weirdly competing sycophancy at work whenever the two tribes meet. Each side tries to curry favor with the other, but at the same time, they’re also trying to humiliate them and steal their money. It’s incredibly weird and complicated, and it’s the sort of thing that could only happen in Las Vegas, an ersatz city that calls people across the desert to synchronously acquire, and lose, the American Dream.

Michael Murray is a writer, genius and fantasy baseball force. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto with his lady, where he plays floor hockey on a team named The Jesus Cobras, and is known throughout the league for his courageous shot blocking. If you want to hire him for absolutely anything, you can, but you should know he has very little upper body strength and gets out of breath very easily. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.

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