A Blog Post
by Johnny Altomonte
Donning my suit, and putting on my big boy pants, i went off to my friend’s organized poker tournament to test my luck. Every friday, my friend’s cousin holds a small poker tourney with a bunch of friends, and whoever else wants to join. There’s usually a buy-in of around 500 pesos, but seeing as i wasn’t 21 yet, the rounds i played would be played without money. Bummer. Before we go any further, i’d just like to mention that i’m pretty darn good at poker. I’ve been playing it since i was little, care of my dad, so i know everything there is to know about the game’s fundamentals. One thing i’ve never done however, is play against a group of other people, and i was really curious as to how that would play out. I was also looking forward to making a couple of bucks in the process, but hey, you can’t have everything.
Coming into this event, i really had no idea what to expect. My only mental image of an event like this was the stereotypical dark room, illuminated by the single hanging lightbulb over the poker table. Walking into the actual room where we would be playing, and actually realizing that that was the room, took a while. Quite frankly, it was an ordinary dining room. Seated around the table were a bunch of ordinary looking dudes. I was dressed way too formally for this. Taking a seat at the table, i do my best Vin Diesel impression and crack my knuckles in what i hope is a threatening manner, throwing steely-eyed glances around the table. Hey, if i’m gonna come in in a suit, i might as well play the part.
After the chuckles subside, and the introductions are made, we get into the actual poker part of the night. A couple of hands later, i’m behind in the chip count. This isn’t right. I’ve never been down before! Playing against a group of people, it turns out, is pretty different from playing against your dad. I’ve got the fundamentals of the game down pat; if i played against a robot, i’d probably win. Playing against other humans though brings about a whole new sublevel to the game. You have to analyze each player individually, and on a physical level. His hand trembles when he bluffs. He talks more confidently when he has a good hand. There are all these little nuances you have to take into account when playing against others. Reading into the “tells” of the other players, and trying to conceal your own. It’s a game within a game. And it was exhilarating. I got lost in it. Hand after hand after hand, i played these little games, faking tells, playing into the “new player” stereotype and using it to work for me. A bunch of hours later, and if we had played with money, i would have made a total profit of four thousand pesos. Awesome. Except we weren’t playing for money. So i decided to sit out for a bit, and watch them pull out their wallets and lay some bills on the table.
Watching the game was almost as fun as playing it. Reading into all the little moves players make gave me a lot of insights i filed away in my brain for future use. With the introduction of actual stakes however, the tension in the room grew noticeably. Earlier, when they had played with me and with no money involved, while still pretty serious, it was far more easy-going and relaxed than the scene set now before me. People were on edge, and losing a hand usually resulted in a vast array of swear words. When one of the players lost a large sum of money, a lot of grumbling ensued, after which he pulled out his wallet and slapped a couple more bills in the table. It was a pretty scary sight, actually. I’ve only heard stories of people who got addicted to gambling, and lost their lives and fortunes to it, but it never really struck me ’til that point. Here, right in front of me, was an example of it. Sure, it wasn’t quite so serious, but it was quite visible how easy it was to fall into the gambling trap. It’s a good thing i wasn’t allowed to bet actual money. Winning a lot of chips earlier would have gotten to my head, and if i did end up losing money, pride would have kept me laying out bills until i had buried myself in debt. It was a terrifying thought, but being led to that realization before i could have fallen prey to it is great. Definitely one path i won’t go down.
1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
In my case, participation led me to see into this whole new sublevel of the game, and allowed me to understand it more. When i simply observed though, the adverse effects of the game, and to a larger extent, gambling, became all too clear. As a participant, i think i would have been too engrossed in the game to realize that i had just spent my week’s allowance in a fit of greed.
2. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
My friend played quite a vital role. His hints and tips helped in the actual game, but what was more important were his insights into the character of the people i played with. Not only did it help me read them during our game, but a lot of why they did what they did became a whole lot clearer.
3. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
pretty much everything. This event was the sort of thing that could only be really understood by taking part in it, and seeing and feeling everything on a personal level.
4. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
For studies that require hard facts, and simple data and numbers, an interview would be a lot more approrpratie.