Excerpted from Chapter 2: “Loaded Knucklebones to Donkeys in Cyberspace” from Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker by James McManus. Copyright © 2009 by James McManus. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Paperback edition published in September 2010 by Picador. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all.
— Judge Holden in Blood Meridian
Nothing is more natural, or more essential to human achievement, than gambling— than risking something, taking a chance. It’s not just a matter of “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” though that is certainly part of it. The need to take risks is deeply embedded in our cells and emotions. For two million years, our brains have evolved by gene tic chance amid environmental uncertainty. In the twenty-first century, risk haunts and invigorates nearly every decision we make— whether or when to have children, fight or negotiate, invest in real estate or the stock market, cross the street or board a 787, enroll in an MBA program or go on the poker circuit. Those who accept risk and learn how to leverage or “play” it continue to have big advantages over those who do not.
Not only humans, of course. Every organism needs to manage a series of life-or-death risks. Ants and beetles, hyenas and monkeys all must maintain their physical safety while competing for nourishment and opportunities to copulate. When either of these pursuits could be lethal, especially to our earliest ancestors, the human nervous system made success all the more satisfying with the release of dopamine by the hypothalamus gland. Failure caused the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland to release more prolactin, too much of which causes impotence. Today, when we take a “sick” beat at the poker table, what we’re actually experiencing is too much prolactin, the product of both our genetic heritage and the coolly vicious laws of randomness. We somehow got lost in the shuffle.
In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins makes it wonderfully clear that as mammals compete, often to the death, for scarce resources, they “should give no inkling of when they are going to give up. Anybody who betrayed, by the merest flicker of a whisker, that he was beginning to think of throwing in the sponge, would be at an instant disadvantage… Natural selection would instantly penalize whisker-flickering and any analogous betrayals of future behaviour. The poker face would evolve.” And so it has, even if today it is often artificially enhanced by sunglasses, hoodies, and baseball caps.
The Harvard neurobiologist Steven Pinker explains the instinctual poker face by saying what it isn’t: namely, the countenance of a bald-faced liar. “Just as a poker player actively tries to hide his reactions,” he writes, “natural selection may select against features of an organism that would otherwise divulge its internal state. And just as it would do no good for the poker player to lie about his hand (because other players would learn to ignore the lie), selection would not favor an animal giving a false signal about its intentions (because its adversaries would evolve to ignore the signal).” Pinker concludes that “just as an adversary in poker will develop increasingly sensitive radar for any twitch or body language that leaks through— the ‘tell’— animals may evolve increasingly sensitive radar for any tells in their rivals.” Attention, poker loudmouths: the game naturally favors the expression of a sphinx, not the babbling of a congenital liar.
Our urge to compete and take chances developed along the following lines. Pleistocene hunters risked life and limb for the best opportunities to slaughter ferocious but protein-rich animals.
The closer they got with a chipped-stone spearhead to a scared, angry buffalo, the more likely they were to be trampled or gored, but the better chance they had of actually killing the beast. Courage and aggressiveness counted. Hanging back from the fray may have helped a risk-averse male survive the day’s hunt, but it wouldn’t have served him well otherwise. Hunters who took down fresh meat were lionized within the tribe. They received larger portions of protein and more opportunities to mate with nubile females. Meanwhile, the females were competing among
themselves— painting their faces, displaying their breasts and genitalia— for the chance to mate with the best food providers. Once copulation took place, protection became even more vital to the females who might become pregnant, so the sexual bounty was even more lavish for the hunters-turned-warriors who killed the most enemy tribesmen. By this means and others, a taste for bold risk taking was efficiently bred into our species. Perhaps the most obvious example today occurs when the prettiest cheerleader dates the star of the varsity team.
We may no longer hunt or fight with spears, but in every tribe and country today physical sports represent, and often attach whopping monetary value to, hunter and warrior skills. Since our ancestors depended for survival on the ability of elite males to run fast and wield lethal projectiles, it shouldn’t be surprising that modern male (and, lately, female) athletes mimic those feats in symbolic rituals, sometimes called games. The penetrative power of a golfer or fullback or pitcher, or the home-protecting prowess of a center or goalie or catcher evokes the life-and-death urgency felt on hunting grounds and battlefields a thousand generations ago. This is why so many of us have, without even placing a bet, such intense emotional interest in the outcomes of sporting events.
But at the higher symbolic level on which most modern humans also operate, cerebral games like chess, bridge, poker, Scrabble, and what we call trading or handicapping— betting on the performance of horses, humans, corporations, or currencies— mimic what scouts, hunting- party leaders, and tribal chiefs used to do and, nowadays, what captains, coaches, CEOs, generals, and presidents do. While our physical and mental skill sets are both still evolving, our competitive urge probably feels much the same as it did twelve thousand years ago on the Colorado plateau or Kenyan savanna.
While basic survival was the goal of ordinary cavemen and women, our most thoughtful ancestors also wanted to understand the nature of their perilous world, if only to divine the will of their war god or decide in which direction to send the hunting party. Lacking even rudimentary science, tribal visionaries looked for meaningful portents in the patterns of thrown sticks and bones, or by studying the entrails of eviscerated animals. Patterns in splashes of urine and piles of feces were also believed to be telling, if sometimes overwhelmingly pungent. It was high time, more than one feces decoder must have thought, to come up with a better system for divining what the gods held in store.