What if there existed a game of poker in which players’ survival in the game literally ensured their survival?
That is, a game in which players didn’t just play as if their lives depended on it, but in which losing one’s chips really did mean losing one’s life.
Such a scenario was discussed recently among poker players following this year’s WSOP Europe. The idea was also dramatized in the sci-fi film In Time starring Justin Timberlake released late last year and currently making the rounds on cable.
Big Roger Opines on Existence
A few weeks ago, WSOP Europe bracelet winner Roger Hairabedian created a bit of a stir thanks to some comments he made in an interview with PokerListings. Strictly a live player, “Big Roger” has a dim view of the online crowd and wasn’t shy about sharing his opinions in the interview.
“For me, online poker is to live poker what a town’s public school is to Harvard,” commented Hairabedian while characterizing the online game as an “ersatz” or artificial version of the game.
Then, while referring to the WSOPE events, Hairabedian offered the following observation:
“There’s a whole bunch of Internet players who qualified. They didn’t exist before, and they won’t exist afterwards,” he said.
Hairabedian was speaking figuratively, of course, and perhaps even with a little bit of tongue in cheek. In any case, his meaning was clear enough.
Since many of the players against whom he played in Cannes a few weeks ago probably won’t be turning up at his tables again in the future, for Hairabedian they will no longer “exist” -- at least within the scope of his own future experience as a player.
Literally Preserving One's "Tournament Life"
Hairabedian’s words predictably provoked some reaction among the online poker community, with some taking offense to Big Roger’s stance. The online pro Mickey “mement_mori” Petersen responded in a different way, however, in a Twitter conversation about the quote.
Answering a tweet by Jen Shahade in which she quoted Hairabedian’s “they didn’t exist... they won’t exist” line, Petersen -- whose online name in fact alludes to a Latin phrase about remembering one’s mortality -- offered the following:
“Imagine playing a tournament knowing that when you bust you will simply cease to exist,” tweeted Petersen, adding that such a prospect would be “one of the scariest things I can imagine.”
The conversation continued, with another online poker star, Ben Wilinofsky, chiming in.
Exhibiting the bravery of his online moniker -- “NeverScaredB” -- Wilinofsky encouraged Petersen to overcome his fears and watch a scene from the movie In Time in which the very scenario Petersen describes is in fact part of the story.
As Wilinofsky suggests, the film does indeed present the viewer with a situation in which the story’s protagonist finds himself in a poker game in which busting would in fact mean that he’d no longer exist.
While hardly the most successful use of poker in film, the scene does at least illustrate the idea Petersen envisioned.
Time is Money for Justin Timberlake
Written and directed by New Zealander Andrew Niccol, In Time is set in a future world in which humans have been genetically engineered to live only to the age of 25, at which point the aging process halts and each is afforded but one more year to live.
A person’s remaining time ticks down in a green-LED readout inside his or her forearm as a constant reminder -- a “memento mori,” in fact.
However, there exists the possibility of extending one’s life by obtaining more time, earning extra days, months, or years by working for it or by other means. In other words, in the world of In Time, time is money -- literally -- a kind of currency of which everyone is constantly aware.
Class conflict thus manifests itself via the unequal distribution of time, with the poor working day-to-day (again, literally) and the rich enjoying such an abundance of time they essentially are above having to worry about dying.
The hero Will, played by Justin Timberlake, comes from poverty. Aged 28, he’s spent the last three years working feverishly in a factory to keep himself and his mother alive.
Time can be transferred between two people by physical contact, kind of like an instantaneous bank transaction. It can also be banked and transferred via small metal devices that in fact Will helps produce as part of his job.
Early in the film Will is surprisingly given the gift of 100-plus years from a suicidal stranger. The stranger also vaguely suggests to Will something about a fundamental unfairness between the classes, and Will subsequently takes it upon himself to use the extra time he’s been given to fight to rectify the situation.
A Timely River Card
Will then travels to a higher-class “time zone” where he checks into a swanky hotel that costs weeks per night (if you follow). Soon he finds himself at a casino across the street involved in a game of Texas hold’em in which players are wagering with the only recognized currency -- their remaining time.
It goes without saying the game is no-limit. Thus to bust really would mean losing one’s life.
We only see part of one hand played between Will and his opponent, the ultra-rich Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser). Unfortunately, the hand is fairly preposterous, even by cinematic standards.
In fact for poker players the hand might well destroy whatever suspension of disbelief they were willing to give to the story.
We join the hand in progress. The turn card is being dealt, with the pot already up to 600 years. The board shows 7Q5J. We see that Philippe holds QQ for top set. We also see he has over 10,000 years with which to play.
Philippe makes a relatively small bet of 50 years. Will has apparently been winning up to this point, as he still has just over 250 years left. He calls the bet.
The river then brings the 6. “Raise you two centuries,” says Philippe -- incorrectly, as he’s only betting, not raising. After some theatrics Will calls the bet, leaving himself just seconds to spare.
Philippe shows his set of queens, and Will turns over his hand -- 84. He’s filled a gutshot draw to a straight on the river, and just moments before expiring collects the pot of 1,100 years.
He survives the hand. And so, he survives.
“Well played,” says Philippe afterwards without a hint of sarcasm. It’s clear we are supposed to imagine Will really did play the hand well. “That was some risk,” adds Weis.
“It wasn’t a risk,” says Will. “No offense... I knew I was going to win.”
Absurdity abounds here. Even novice poker players could quickly envision better combinations of hands both to exploit the time-as-currency conceit and to increase suspense (surprisingly absent in the scene).
However, we are made to understand Will really is supposed to be a good poker player. Later on comes a brief strip poker scene between Will and Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), Philippe’s daughter, in which Will’s supposed skill at cards is again emphasized.
Later in the film we also learn of a different type of gambling that exists within the world being depicted, a variation of arm-wrestling called “strong arm” in which combatants grab arms and by force of will try to take each other’s time away.
Will describes what is apparently a successful strategy for “strong arm” in which he initially allows his opponent to take nearly all of his time. Then when his opponent becomes distracted when looking at his dwindling life-clock, Will seizes the advantage.
It is possible Niccol was trying to show Will pursuing a similar tactic in his poker hand, with the river suck-out perhaps analogous to his “strong arm” strategy of letting his opponent take a big lead before Will storms back from behind.
Yet the need for an especially lucky river card largely negates the cleverness of the strategy in the context of the poker hand.
It's About Time for Another Good Poker Film
There are other problems with In Time that likely cause even non-poker players to disengage or become less invested with the characters’ plight. Still, it’s a somewhat inspired story idea, and in the hands of someone better versed in poker the scene might have proven more successful.
Timberlake has a chance to redeem himself with poker fans as he is co-starring in the poker-themed Runner, Runner, currently due out in the fall of 2013. And with Rounders writers Brian Koppleman and David Levien handling script duties, the likelihood for more plausible poker obviously increases.
Whether or not we’ll see anyone literally playing for his life in that film, however, remains to be seen.
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