[3 November 2010]
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.
As humans evolved, their systems for reading portents grew more intricate. Archaeologists tell us that astragali, the roughly cubic hucklebones (also called knucklebones) above the heels of goats and sheep, began to be widely used several thousand years ago as tools of augury. The bones were cleaned and dried, then marked with crosshatching or drilled with holes that were either left empty or, ominously, filled with lead. With different values ascribed to each side, they were tossed across a flat surface, then tallied. Whichever sides landed faceup were believed to indicate, for example, where a herd of antelope would be grazing the next morning. In other words, it was assumed by some tribesmen that the hunting god spoke through those bones. But for others, such tosses amounted to wagers— to determine, for example, that the lowbrow guy grunting the Neanderthal version of don’t come owed the shooter a couple of flank steaks by sundown. Those who were best at guessing, or fixing, which side landed up the most often could wolf down extra protein and have some to share with a woman. Among those with a dominant risk-taking gene, the step from divination to wagering contests was probably a short one.
Long before they had words for such concepts, some of these early bonesmen imagined hucklebones to be conduits of chance or fate, while others believed them to be oracles of one god or another. Still others must have thought they were both. David G. Schwartz surmises in Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling that one hunter might have said to another, “If the bones land short side up, we will search for game to the south; if not, we look north.” In another scenario, after the hunt, they might have “cast bones to determine who went home with the most desirable cuts. If ascribing the roll of the bones to the will of a divine presence, that would be divination; if the hunters simply rolled and hoped for the best, they were gambling.” Whether the gods or the odds were believed to be speaking, very few things were more intimately connected to one’s fate than the emotions stirred by tossing those primitive dice. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine one of humankind’s very first prayers being hopefully uttered as a couple of hucklebones tumbled across a flat patch of earth.
Yet because of variations, inadvertent or otherwise, in their shape or lead content, astragali were inevitably “loaded,” which must have led to some hairy exchanges among people with inch high foreheads to go with their spears, clubs, and questionable hygiene. Grinding down irregular edges would have been one obvious improvement. An even better one would be carving artificial astragali that yielded more random results. Eventually, four- sided dice shaped like pyramids were sculpted from nuts, wood, bone, and soft stone. Such advances occurred earlier in some places, later— or never— in others, depending on myriad factors. What is certain is that thousands of years before Roman numerals, before numbers were introduced by Arabs and Hindus, an arrow, a trio of dots, or a four- pointed antler on the surface of a die indicated to our ancestors what the future might hold— or, less grandly, who had won a bet.
As agriculture developed and early civilizations emerged, brainpower began to take precedence over muscle, and the appeal of ever more intricate games began to assert itself, at least among the urban elite. The more possible moves, the more elaborate the rules and scoring, the better they liked it. By 3500 bce, Sumerians and Egyptians were tossing pairs of dice to determine how many spaces a piece should advance in complex, warlike board games. Such games became so important that the gods were believed to play, too. Thoth, the great god of science and writing, was believed to have defeated the moon god, Sin, in a game much like checkers. Thoth’s prize was 1/72nd of each day, which he combined into five full days and added to the 360- day lunar year to create the first solar calendar.
When casting four-sided dice, the range of possible outcomes could be squared by rolling two at a time. To satisfy the craving for even greater complexity, the next stage of gaming R & D yielded six-sided dice. Precisely carved from ivory and wood, cubic dice appeared in Mesopotamia around 3000 bce, along with painted wood objects resembling backgammon boards.
A game much like backgammon is under way on a famous Greek amphora painted by Exekias around 530 bce but depicting an earlier epoch. Holding two spears in one hand, fingering markers or dice in the other, the black figures of Achilles and Ajax compete across the surface of a low, legless table during a break in the ten-year Trojan War, which occurred sometime between 1230 and 1180 bce. Their shields are leaning close by, at the ready. Achilles, on the left, in his tall plumed helmet, calls out, “Four!” while Ajax pleads, “Three!”
Homer’s Iliad tells us that Patroclus, when young, in a wrathful act worthy of his future lover (or close friend) Achilles, had once killed a boy with the eyebrow-raising name of Clitonymus while “quarreling over a dice game.” Forced into exile by this murder, Patroclus sought refuge in the house of Peleus. It was there that he met Achilles, the demigod whose rage and lethality would soon doom the Trojans, his friend, and himself.
Romans upped the ante by betting on gladiatorial contests on the floor of their Coliseum, the oval design of which both concentrated the butchery and allowed bloodthirsty spectators to view it up close— and may have inspired the shape of modern poker tables. Roman artisans also made tesserae, dice exquisitely carved from ivory or bone. These led to games in which four dice were rolled across a board. The worst possible throw, in which all four sides came up 1, was called canis, the dog; the best throw, venus, which meant charm or beauty, showed four different values.
Dice figure prominently in the works of Tacitus, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Goethe, Molière, and other European authors. Shakespeare’s King Richard III was speaking for a long line of existential risk takers when he said
Slave! I have set my life upon a cast, And I will stand the hazard of the die.
Yet two thousand years before Shakespeare wrote these lines, the great Hindu epic Mahabharata told of dice carved from nuts being used for both divination and gambling. Sanskrit poems even more ancient tell of the god Shiva throwing dice with his wife, Parvati, and their sons. The thirty- fourth hymn of the tenth mandala of the Rig Veda, a collection of religious hymns dating back to 4000 bce, is known as the gambler’s hymn.
These dice nuts, born of a lofty tree in a windy spot, which dance on this gambling ground, make me almost mad. These nervous dice intoxicate me like a draught of soma from Mount Mujavant.
Without any fault of hers I have driven my devoted wife away because of a die exceeding by one. My mother- in- law hates me. My wife pushes me away.
In his defeat the gambler finds no one to pity him. No one has use for a gambler. He’s like an aged horse put up for sale.
Whether or not a losing gambler is like an old horse, or his mother- in-law and wife are both nags, modern Indians who fail to place at least a small wager during Diwali, the Festival of
Lights celebrating Shiva and his family, are believed to be reincarnated as donkeys. Today’s online poker players may also thank Shiva that making such wagers became dramatically easier in August 2001, when the Bengali software whiz Anurag Dikshit (pronounced Dixit) launched the platform he wrote for Party-Poker.com. That site quickly became the world’s busiest by enabling tens of thousands of players in twenty-four time zones to compete for pennies or serious money at thousands of virtual tables. The religious dimension of wagering also seems weirdly confirmed by the fact that playing pitifully at one of these tables, whatever the stakes, is to risk being labeled a donkey.