A reasonably perspicacious person might have predicted that the card game of poker should have become greatly celebrated and its players raised to high esteem in a Post-Modern age such as ours is. Post Modernism for the most part having ‘left behind’ the virtues which had been tied to Christian belief, although I believe these yet to be far saner values than Post Modern ones, it has embraced a worship of what Christians and Christ himself titled ‘the things of the world’.
The people now believing they have no God or Saviour to (have to!) worship; (‘Imagine there’s no heaven, and no religion too…’) feel themselves to have been emancipated from those constraints which Christ, as they understand him, places upon their behaviour. The gloves are off and a free for all is in progress and people are chasing after fame, money, power, influence, reputation and civic or popular honours. People are chasing these things because they appear to them to be good things, desirable things; which Christianity has until now held them back from fully appreciating and chasing after.
Christ has been a preventative; a halter on many people’s predilections; a restrainer and a moderator of behaviour; and thus have many of us baulked and chided under His Word; and thus have many of us taken opportunity right now that the times are so broken, to break free of Him and his constraints, to throw off his influence and his Incarnation completely; dismissing him and his life and his Divinity as old fashioned mythical superstition.
Here in UK far too many people either laugh at religious considerations; or else when they spot a believer they assume he/she is fair game for satire, or for exploitation commercially; or else will look at you with a puzzled pained face as if to say: ‘How can you still believe that old tosh?’.
The air of society here in UK and probably across the Western world is that we as a people have ‘moved on’ and have outgrown religion and Christ; we are now our own masters and we are able to take care of ourselves and to do pretty well without Jesus. We are 21st century people and ours is the present age.
Alongside this outgrowing attitude has emerged an ‘anything goes’ culture. In this culture of deregulation and of assumed greater personal freedom, anything which is not (yet) against the law is considered permissible as behaviour. Thus you are free to scam; to take (legal) highs; to resell for profit offering no greater service or enhancements; to advertise and so manipulate and convince by false arguments, to exploit and to build personal empires and fortunes on the backs of persons who have been fooled by you to part with their money to you.
The levelling of cultural icons has also happened; wherein popular music, bands and songs; dress codes; radio and TV shows and movies of pretty run of the mill calibre, are frequently set beside as equals with, even superseding them, the classics of literature and music and art in general. Thus this great art of the past is thought and felt to be too stuffy by many people today; and so their own dreary icons, in the perjured name of democracy, are elevated in society at large to a level above or equal to those held by the great masters. Democracy, as it is understood after this fashion of life I have been describing, has been elevated to a hallowed status and is in this sense considered sacrosanct; the will of the people is given a false legitimacy as being axiomatically always the correct course of action.
All this criticism of society as it is lived in today adds up to a sorry kind of Theme Park Life for many of us; wherein the answer to the question: ‘What is the first rule of good conduct?’ is ‘Have as much fun as you can’. Considerations for others, even for those whom society has taken pains to provide for; the weak, the poor, the sick, has lowered in scale and in its perceived importance. We are more insular and self-contained in our outlooks; considering ourselves less obliged than we in fact are to our neighbours for our, and their, continued well-being; money having become a means for a person not just to buy things a person wants, but it has become also a means of buying off obligation to those persons who supply our needs and who make or offer the goods and services which we consume. Money transactions have become solely ‘doing deals’ for which obligation between parties ends upon the exchange of money and goods/services. Thus for most things there is a price which buys them, and which also buys off the obligations which (used to) come with them.
Back to poker. One might easily begin to see how the game of poker has risen to such acclaim when one considers how society has moved on into the type of territory many of us find familiar nowadays.
With this elevation of power, fame, wealth etc to become the primary life-goals a certain brashness and even callousness of behaviour has become the dish of the day to be enjoyed and relished – not just as escapism in movies and entertainments; but these ills have themselves spilled over into daily transactions seen on the streets and in traffic etc in our cities. To be overcritical it seems sometimes that everyone fancies themselves on city streets as being ‘Dirty Harry’ or ‘John McClain’; and I mean women too.
And here we begin to come to the heart of why the card game of poker has taken such an adrenaline shot in the arm recently. It appears to me as if poker players are convinced they are whom they present themselves to be at the card table; and almost certainly carry over this supposed persona into their daily life in general. They seem pretty blinded to the fact that their outward-facing behaviours are constructs, of persona; a veneer, which has superseded and overtaken what ought to be a more grounded human consciousness. This is my view.
The first premise of a poker player – as I see things – is cultivation of and investment of overabundant confidence in one’s persona qua self. A poker player has to think well of him/herself – very well of themselves – too well of themselves. Poker is a game of competition – of cutthroat competition; and in this it mirrors the worlds and circles of the driven and single-minded men and women of big business and of finance houses.
Just as engagement in the worlds of high finance and big business for the top earners, who are these industries’ most manic protagonists, as it were drags forth an almost obsessive desire of self-focus on ever aiming for more and better, often at whatever cost to rivals, employees, competitors, even sometimes to customers; so that one is not oneself but a shadow of oneself and hooked up, wired into an unbearable leash doubling-up as one’s cattle prod. And this is just the same case in playing the game of poker; there is a drug-like dependency of its most engaged players which is at once a magnet and an incarceration for them.
Their being becomes almost wholly involved in how they are faring; how they are presenting themselves; how they succeed in their own terms of victory and dominion. In the game of poker or else in the heading up of a finance house or of a big business the game is the same. Life becomes knife-edge because so much is felt to be at stake; much more than mere money; although money is the trophy of this success; the means by which this success is measured and demonstrated – in poker as winnings – in business and finance in profits.
The logic of all this is simple. The guy who eats casually at Stringfellows when he might eat at a sensible price the same food of the same quality at one of hundreds of other cafes; he does so because;
a) He wants to be seen eating at Stringfellows
b) He wants it to be seen that he is rich and famous enough to eat at Stringfellows
b) He wants to hang out with others who can afford to be seen eating at Stringfellows
c) He wants to be amongst persons equally likely to be mobbed and feted in an ordinary bar, because these fellows at Stringfellows will not want to mob or to fete him. He can eat and drink in peace
d) Eating and drinking at Stringfellows is a Badge of Arrival for him – it is a Trophy of his Success
Here we have the game of poker and the heights of big business and of high finance made simple and laid out before us at Stringfellows.
c) is particularly important from a point of view of incarceration – the entrapment of riches and of the success of power and domination. Our Lord Jesus Christ when he was mobbed and thronged by adoring crowds retired to outside the city of Jerusalem and spent the night in prayer. Alone, awake and without high cuisine and exclusive company. The next day the crowds found him; and he went to a public place by the seaside to preach to them and later to break bread and fishes to feed them in great numbers; those who like ‘lost sheep’ had found their place of residence in his heart.
But Jesus was and remains a one-off – no-one else is like him in his splendour of selflessness and sacrifice. The rest of us fall short usually by large degrees.
This is the way in which Jesus avoided facing a life of entrapment by his ‘fan base’; by him giving those ‘fans’ what they were seeking; not just access to himself but the ‘very word of God’ on which man lives – as well as bread.
These guys in Stringfellows want the adulation and the adoration; the power, prestige and money which such things bring to their pockets; but they want them on their own terms, not on the terms of their fan bases. They do not want those adoring ‘fans’ around them when they go out for a drink or a bite. Hence there is but one choice for them and one only – to eat and drink at the likes of a Stringfellows.
The guy who is a Cool Hand Luke at poker faces and solves similar difficulties in much the same ways as do the guys who dine at Stringfellows. He has a reputation to upkeep; attached to an image he presents as his own Brand of himself. And so he has to be seen upholding such an image and thus maintaining such a reputation; regardless whether he feels under par that day or that his hands and bids are not going so well as they ought. He is forced, entrapped into being seen to be taking on the nose setbacks as breezily as he seems whenever he is picking up large pots and drawers. He cannot show a chink in the persona; in the image; in the reputation; or else it spells the end for him as a player.
Thus he is in a position whereby his cart is ever pulling his horse; what the world expects to see of him and hear of him is ever the premier thing for him; and the actual situation he is in and his state of mind or feelings have to be subordinated to these appearances of things. This means that in his heart of hearts he stands totally alone; wholly bearing this fabricated world on his shoulders for the sake of appearances. And for what appearances?
He hopes to seem impressive; slick; wily; smart; cool; and so being seen such he hopes to gain bucketsful of kudos; a kudos on the outside of things;a kudos which values and is valued by the people of the things of the world; thus the exterior is internalised as the prime and sole aspiration and hurdle to be conquered. Thus inside is likewise appearance and his life is lived wholly in terms of the things of the world; power, status, reputation, influence, domination, wealth. A mind wrapped up, suffocated, in paper money.
Our Lord Jesus says in John’s Gospel at the close of Chapter 7: ‘You are judging by appearances; open your mind and make a right judgement’. He says this to those who doubt him on the grounds of his origins which is supposed by them to be the town of Nazareth. These doubters are those who are bound by a literalism which says that one should ‘Search the scriptures; and see that no prophet comes out of Nazareth’.
Judgements on appearances; this is the whole stock in trade of the poker player; and he judges merely a world of shadows; of seemingly sos; of a facade; and so he becomes likewise facile and of no depth.
Thus is he trapped in a world of superficialities; of passing shadows and of moving images. It becomes his life. And he is thus diverted from the deeper and actual business of life; and so passes over the fact and actuality of life proper; is caught up in a febrile fantasy of how great I am (I appear to be).
The Christian message of loving God first and wholly and one’s neighbour like oneself; and the holy commandment of ‘go thou and do likewise’ is never taken up nor finds soil to root in, where only vacancy looms. Thus a half-life of playing games and of play acting is preferred; and the Cool Hand Lukes obliviously allow to happen that suffering in many lands and which is able to be alleviated.
‘The fields are ripe for harvest but the workers are few’; says Jesus. The workers are few because so many of our people in the developed nations are in an unreality of their playtime, carnival lives which fail to take any impact of the plight and situation of so many who have nothing of such absurdly surplus income, of gluts of goods and great range of spending and services; all of which we rich nations’ citizens accept as normal and as a right of ours.
Poker and its recent rise in popularity is an apotheosis of this theme park life we are living; as if we were people not quite right in the head. Many related topics critical of this theme park half-life of ours are unable to be raised or to get half an airing or a hearing; simply because so many of us are living lives which are gone so far down the road of deterioration that we have lost sight of where we once came from.
Worst of all, like the poker players we are so, so, cocksure we are right about ourselves and about the way we believe things are in actuality; we hardly give lip-service to questionings about our certainties; and so comfortable are we that we have the definitive handle on life and on its significance. Yet demonstrably we are all to cock, in a nasty, perilous and dreadful mess of our own makings; but yet still we go lazily, easily, negligently on, the same old song, reckoning that we can brazen things out against events and against nature and humanity, and somehow sidestep the implicit ways that things work out in history and in the physical processes of life and the world.
The world will end for each of us; no matter how many doors on the fact we choose to close and set between us and consciousness of it in our minds. Whenever one’s time comes, prayer is the only thing effectual. I pray for us all.