Monday, October 05, 2009

Lying and poker

My friend Shamus just put up an interesting post weaving together thoughts about the new Ricky Gervais movie, "The History of Lying," the soon-to-be-released James McManus book on the history of poker, and the role of lying in the game of poker.

These are the two paragraphs that primarily triggered the desire to comment here:

That said, notice how McManus characterizes “good poker” in the
above-quoted passage, which includes hiding one’s tells and knowing how to
bluff. You can’t play poker without lying, even when you aren’t cheating. The
game doesn’t work without it.

In fact, if you think about it, the ability to lie (and to suss out others’
lies) is pretty much what we’re talking about when we argue for the “skill” of
poker. Sure, as McManus notes, “calculating pot odds and value bets” is part of
“good poker,” too. But knowing those things is hardly sufficient. One has to be
able to lie, and lie well, to succeed.

If I'm reading Shamus correctly, he is categorizing bluffing as lying. He would hardly be the first. I've heard this said many times.

I've never felt right about it, though. I would certainly agree that one cannot succeed at poker without being deceptive about one's down cards. That sometimes involves convincing an opponent that one is stronger than is really true (bluffing), sometimes that one is weaker than is really true (slow-playing). But I do not think that this constitutes lying.

Standard dictionary definitions of lie, in the verb form, consistently involve speaking. See, e.g., here. This seems to me a little narrow, since one can obviously also lie in writing. In the noun form, the definitions mostly involve the word statement. A lie is a statement, whether written or spoken.

I think that's the source of my discomfort with the categorization of deceptive poker play as lying: There is no statement being made--at least not necessarily. I virtually never speak during a poker hand. Some people do, and of course I've heard players utter direct lies about their cards and their thoughts, both during and after a hand.

I don't do that. If somebody asks me what I had, I duck the question. I have several stock responses: "If I answered you, I'd just lie about it anyway" (which is basically true). "Sorry, I can't tell you that." "I think I'd better keep that to myself." Etc.

Two of my most common stock responses are, "Gee, now I can't remember," and "Aces, of course. I only play aces." Both are said with such an exaggerated tone of voice and facial expression such that it is unmistakable that the words are false. That is, the listener will know without a doubt that I'm not telling the truth. This isn't lying, exactly, since there is no intent to deceive, which is the sine qua non of a lie.

My point, though, is that not everything that is deceptive is a lie. I would go further and say that not everything that is deceptive is dishonest. Those who argue to the contrary (and I have had this exact conversation any number of times) usually say something like, "If you make a pot-sized bet when you have nothing, it's a lie, because you're telling your opponent that you have something that you don't actually have." I disagree. I don't think that is either the only or the most natural way to characterize such a bet. I think it can just as accurately be understood to be saying, "I don't think your hand is strong enough that you'll be willing to call a bet of this amount." That is an absolutely true statement, so if a bluff can be considered to constitute a statement at all (as necessary for it to potentially be a lie), it is not necessarily a false or deceptive one.

Similarly, checking the nuts could, I suppose, be considered a form of lie if that action is understood to say, "I have nothing." But surely that's far from the only possible message being conveyed. I think it is more accurate to understand a check to be saying simply, "I decline to bet right now." Again, that is an absolutely true statement.

Put another way, every check or bet is, by nature, ambiguous. Ambiguity is not lying. It is not dishonest.

Based on those considerations, I reject the claim that lying is a necessary part of good poker.

But let me take this opportunity to go beyond the question of whether betting actions constitute lying, which is just a debate about definitions and semantics, and talk more generally about the role of lying in the play of a poker game.

I have kind of a strange and, admittedly, not terribly consistent attitude about lying at the poker table. First, I virtually never lie about my hand or what I was thinking or doing--i.e., about what's going on in the game. As mentioned previously, I prefer to shut up about it, and dodge any questions directed my way. If I decide I want somebody to know what cards I had, I will show the cards. If I don't want people to know, I won't tell them anything. I suppose there probably have been a few occasions when I did tell an outright lie about what I had, but they are so few and far between that I really can't remember the last time it may have happened.

This decision on my part is, I think, an extension of how I see lying in life in general. I've told enough lies and gotten into enough trouble from it over the years that I've decided just not to go down that road any more. I lie very rarely these days, and I can't think of any life situation in which I tell a lie that has any significant consequences. On the rare occasions that I lie at all, it's most often to avoid unnecessary complications. For example, yesterday I stopped at a Walgreen's pharmacy to get a flu shot. Among the questions they asked was, "Are you taking any medications?" Well, the fact is that I am, but I know that none of them pose any problem or contraindication to getting the shot, and if I listed them, it would take more time, possibly lead to other irrelevant questions and diversions, while in the end not benefitting either me or Walgreen's. So I lied and said, "No." I would not give the same lie if the situation were, e.g., that I was about to undergo general anesthesia for surgery, in which case the need for the caregivers to know what's in my system has more potentially serious consequences, and is therefore worth disclosing.

I am not comfortable lying. It makes me squirm internally, though I probably have a good enough "poker face" by now that I'm better at disguising any associated body language than most people are. (There's a show on the Fox network called "Lie to Me," which stars Tim Roth as an expert human lie detector. I watched the first few episodes last season. It had some interesting stuff about how people behave when they're lying, but I thought there was too much sameness from one installment to the next. It's kind of a thin premise for sustaining interest over the long haul, it seems to me.) For the most part that feeling extends to the poker table. I don't like to lie. I'd rather not do it if it can be avoided without too much bother. When playing poker, it's usually easy to be able to avoid it, so I do--at least insofar as it comes to the poker itself.

But, like I said, I'm not completely consistent on this subject. Earlier this year I confessed here about the standard BS line I give people when they ask about my job. This is part strategic, but also partly because I just feel like my personal life is nobody's business, so if they go probing about things that they have no call to know about, they get what's coming, which is useless information and a distracting shower of verbal chaff. If I were perfectly consistent, I suppose I would handle this the same way as when asked about what my cards were, with a clear deflection. But social norms being what they are, one's career is generally considered fair game to ask about. It would therefore strike a discordant and antisocial note to tell the truth frankly, which would be, "None of your business." So I lie. It avoids complications and avoids social awkwardness at the same time.

There is yet another type of lie--at least arguably--in which I will engage while playing poker, and that is saying something like, "Nice hand" to a donkey who played horribly and got lucky. Obviously this is strategic, because I want him to continue playing that badly. I think this is less clearly lying than things like baldly naming cards other than what one really had when asked. That's because it's ambiguous: it could be taken to mean, "Nice outcome you got there," or, "Lucky catch on the river." In other words, it doesn't necessarily mean, "You played that well," which would be a clear lie if said in so many words. Again, ambiguity is not lying. If the listener understands from such a vague comment that he is being complimented on his play, well, that's an interpretation to be found only in his mind, not in my words.

So that's my somewhat complicated, odd, and admittedly inconsistent attitude about lying at poker. Others bring to the table a very different ethic. My friend Cardgrrl, for instance, openly admits that when playing poker, "I lie my ass off." (See here.) She has also mentioned a few times how during the latter portion of her most recent Vegas visit she adopted a new, experimental table persona, which involved a fair amount of lying about herself, her career, and her poker experience. (See here and here.) I don't suppose she would mind me revealing that she has also privately warned me that when we're playing together, I'm just as fair game for being lied to at the poker table as any other opponent. Outside of the poker room, though, I know that she is a scrupulously honest person.

A few weeks ago I told her about a situation in which a player I respected was leaving the game, and I took the opportunity to tell him privately about the only big hand in which we had confronted each other. I had raised, not sure whether he had a bigger pocket pair than mine or two unmatched overcards. He folded a higher pair face up. (I think it was queens to my 10s on an all-baby flop, but I no longer remember for sure.) He had been deeply curious about whether he had done the right thing, so as he was leaving I took him aside and told him the truth. I did so because I both liked and respected him. Cardgrrl, I think it fair to say, was at least puzzled and possibly even shocked by this. She told me she would have lied and told him he made a good laydown.

That's just not my style. It's rare that I will take an action such as I did with this guy (it has happened maybe three or four times in my three years here). Most often I will just leave people hanging, forever wondering whether their decision was correct or not. But if I'm going to tell him one way or the other, it will be the truth, not a lie.

I want to be clear that I don't condemn Cardgrrl's attitude here. In fact, I think it's undoubtedly the most common one among poker players. I've heard Daniel Negreanu, for example, say that he considers openly lying at the table, even to his best friends, to be just part of the game. I fully acknowledge that the prevailing view is that the poker table is a zone in which the usual social opprobrium about lying is suspended, and anything goes, on the truth/fiction scale.

I just haven't been able to bring myself to adopt that point of view and the conduct that would go with it. This isn't because I'm morally or ethically superior in any way. I just find it both personally uncomfortable and almost completely unnecessary (with the two general categories of exceptions I detailed above). What's more, I have a nagging fear that if I became more comfortable and free with lying during poker, it could easily start to spill over into other areas of my life--especially considering how much time I spend at poker. That's an outcome I'd like to avoid.

So, to wrap up a post that is already about five times longer than I planned when I started writing it, I respectfully submit my disagreement with my friend Shamus about lying being an intrinsic part of poker, both from the standpoint of whether betting actions constitute lies and whether it is necessary to tell lies verbally (though, in fairness, he didn't directly say anything about the latter).

Comments, as always, are welcome. And I ain't lying.


Michael said...

Interesting post, I don't have a ton to add, but love the discussion of lying as a whole, as in many respects it's a far more complicated process then it's defined to be. By focusing on the aspect related to poker it's a unique perspective of the ability and how it affects people overall even in cases where it's considered 'part of the game'. Well done on capturing some of the complication of it though, and the fact that many things are classifed as lies when in fact they aren't technically such a thing.

Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Hey, whatever helps you sleep at night. ;)

Actually, I agree with the distinction you're making here regarding lying -- by no means would I suggest it to be correct to judge (morally) the withholding of truth that happens at the poker table as equal to telling a lie. And indeed, as the examples in your post suggest, there are certainly degrees of goodness/badness when it comes to different kinds of lies, too.

In my post, I was mainly going along with the way The Invention of Lying appears to try to suggest all possible examples of being untruthful as lying. (Although the film isn't always consistent along these lines.) For example, in the world of the film, all movies are essentially documentaries with zero embellishment allowed, i.e., films of lecturers reading history texts.

Thus did I realize after the movie was over that a scene showing poker being played wouldn't really make any sense given the fact that players would have to be truthful with one another, and so even not showing one's hand would probably seem inconsistent with the world-without-lies the film was imagining.

There are some who call me... Tim said...

I agree with your unease with lying and poker. Bluffing or slow playing are no more lies than a football player who fakes to the left then runs right. Neither are a lie. If your opponent can figure out your moves, they'll beat you. If not, you win.

As to the "nice hand" comment - whenever I tell somebody that, I mean that the 5 cards they ended up making their hand with were nice.. nothing more, nothing less. I'll say "well played" if the hand was played well (or "hook, line, sinker" as I am pushing over my chips if played extremely well).

Pat answer for "what'd you have?" - "sorry - it's too embarrassing to show." No mention of which player would be embarrassed...

Anonymous said...

Superbly reasoned and written.