Q&A with Ole Bjerg, author of ‘Poker: The Parody of Capitalism’

by Shaun Manning on December 13, 2011

Bjerg_finalFrontThe popularity of poker is on the rise not just in the United States but throughout the world. A number of guides and strategies have been published to help players navigate the complexities of the game, but there are few studies of how poker functions as a game and its meaning both to players and the broader culture. Ole Bjerg’s new book, Poker: The Parody of Capitalism represents an intriguing new scholarly perspective on poker, capitlalism, and the surprising ways one relates to the other. Bjerg is a sociologist and associate professor at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy at Copenhagen Business School, and we spoke with him briefly about Poker, available now from the University of Michigan Press

University of Michigan Press: To begin with, I’m hoping you can talk a little about how poker functions as a “parody” of capitalism. Briefly, what do you mean by this?

Ole Bjerg: The notion of parody is a concept that I have found in Baudrillard. The idea is that games in general and poker in particular seem to simulate features of the ordinary or “serious” non-game world. I demonstrate that the way money circulates in No-Limit Texas Hold’Em, which is currently the most popular form of poker, is comparable to the way that money circulates in contemporary financial capitalism. However, the difference between capitalism and poker is that the former comes with a whole ideological system of explanation and justification while the latter makes no attempt to justify itself. Poker does not pretend to be fair, efficient, or productive. It just is. This means that the parody shows us the mechanisms of the system but without the ideological superstructure.

Your book considers poker as an expression of culture, along the lines of art and literature. What does poker tell us about the people who play it and the cultures to which they belong?

My research has shown that different people have very different reasons for playing poker. This is one of the faschinating features of the game.

It enables people to play with very different emotional investments.

Some play just for amusement. Some play because the dream of being professionals. Some are professionals. Some play because they are compulsive gamblers. And even the ones that are compulsive gamblers have different attachments to the game. However, if there is one thing that all players have in common, I think it is the sensation that there is something in poker which transcends the ordinary life outside of poker.

People who do not play poker themselves often tend to think that poker players play to win money. This is much too simple. People play poker to play poker. One of my favorite quotes from the reservoir of poker folklore is by Nick “the Greek” Dandalos: “The next best thing to gambling and winning is gambling and losing.” I think that sums up beautifully what poker is about.

Continuing the analogy, can there be a “great work” of poker, which I would think would amount to an extraordinarily well-played hand?

Yes, certainly. “Great works of poker” come into being precisely at those moments when the game seems to transcend life itself. Poker provides the player with the opportunity to test and display character.

Great works of poker come into being when the player has the courage and wit to become one with the game in a way that makes it seem as if the game itself is on his side. Similar moments may happen in music when the musician becomes one with the music.

The phrase “casino capitalism,” which we hear a lot in the midst of our financial crises, is meant to denote a perverted form of capitalism. But you suggest in Poker that the phrase might instead demean or misrepresent casinos. How does that work?

First of all, I believe that contemporary capitalism has very little to do with roulette, slot machines or other casino games. In this sense the metaphor is misleading. If we want to compare capitalism with gambling, poker is the game that most emphatically captures the logic of the system. Second, I believe that contemporary financial capitalism does not even live up to the ideals of its own free-market ideology. The idea that financial markets serve to distribute surplus capital to those companies in the productive economy that are most efficient does not hold true. Financial markets today oftentimes have the complete opposite effect by disrupting the smooth functioning of the underlying economy.

In this sense, poker is much more honest. It does not pretend to be just, efficient, or productive. It does not pretend to have any function or purpose that extends beyond the game. And, contrary to financial capitalism, the game comes with an acute awareness that the perpetual production of losers is an inherent consequence of the game. There can only be winners if there are losers. The free-market ideology of financial capitalism, on the contrary, would like to have us all believe that once the system is perfected, we are all going to benefit from it, that we can all be winners at the same time.

In your book, you start with the framework of “imaginary-symbolic-real,” as proposed by Slavoj Zizek. What makes this a useful or interesting way to consider poker?

I use Zizek’s ontological triad of real-symbolic-imaginary to capture and work with the three dimensions of poker: chance, calculation, and psychological reading/manipulation of the opponent. The point in Zizek is that the three orders never coagulate into a stable and fixed structure. The same holds true in poker. The rhytm of the game is determined by the oscillation between the three dimensions. You never know if the next hand is determined by sheer calculation of probability, by a bluff, or simply by chance. The triad also allowed me to map out different types of poker players depending on their approach to the game. ‘The Sucker’ plays poker more or less as if it was a game of pure chance. ‘The Grinder’ is very calculating and logic in his approach to the game. And ‘The Player’ is very strong in reading his opponents and also varying his style of play as to manipulate the opponents.

Your book takes a multidisciplinary approach to the study of poker, bringing in history, philosophy, economics, psychology, and more. What were some of the advantages or challenges of this approach, and how do you feel it all comes together into a complex picture of the game?

The major challenge of working with this approach was to retain a coherent image of the reader to whom I was writing. This is a book for poker players, Zizek scholars, cultural theorists, scholars in gambling studies, and people who would like to hear a different account of what is going on in contemporary capitalism. Writing the book, it was sometimes difficult to imagine a reader that would incarnate all of these interests at the same time. And I think that different readers will feel that different parts of the book speak directly to them, while they probably feel more estranged by other parts. Editors always tell you that you should never write a book for several audiences.

Nevertheless, this is what I have done.

The advantage was that it has been great fun. From a scholarly perspective, poker is virgin territory. This means that I have felt very free in my way of approaching it. I am currently working on a book about money and philosophy, where I am using Zizek to understand money. While this is also interesting, I often feel overwhelmed and inhibited by the vast amount of literature that already exists on the subject. I recall the process of writing the poker book as much more playfull and enjoyable. Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of moving from the play world of poker into the serious world of capitalism.

I am not sure that the book comes together as a coherent picture of poker. However, I would argue that this is in complete consistence with the phenomenon itself. You can never master the game completely. This applies if you are playing the game but it also applies if you are an author trying to analyse and understand it.

Poker: The Parody of Capitalism is available now from the University of Michigan Press.

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