One time I decided it would be good to learn to play poker. I had probably learned to play some form of poker a couple of other times before, and forgotten. One way to play a game a lot is to play it with a computer rather than other people. An iPad turns Agricola from one of the slowest games that casual board gamers might still be bothered to play to something you can play a few quick rounds of over lunch. I downloaded some kind of poker app, and began. It was maybe 9pm, and I was maybe sitting on my bed, in maybe Berkeley. My memories are pretty unclear. The app was green I think, like some kind of casino table.

In the app there were a series of tables with increasing stakes. The first one was ‘your grandmother’s table’ or something, at which you needed almost no money to play, and were given a lot of advice about what to do. If you won several games there, you could afford a single game at the next table up, and so on. If you lost enough that you could no longer buy in at your higher table, you would drop down, and if you could no longer afford grandmother’s, then you could transfer American dollars to the app-maker in exchange for more fake poker money, and keep going.

I got the hang of the rules and began to play fast. And I got the hang of not losing and bought my way into higher tables. I played faster. I didn’t pause. The ends of games got the same reflexive flash of choice as any other part of the game. Time passed, and lots and lots of games. My mind started to wander, even while I played. It wandered to a memory of long ago, more vivid and detailed than memories that come when I call for them. How strange. I played very fast. And more memories appeared, intense against the smooth background of mindless poker. I don’t usually remember things for pleasure—recollection is a neutral activity, if not about something particularly upsetting or nice. But these were somehow pleasing. Not because they were about anything that would usually inspire happiness—they were mundane scenes, like a road that I crossed once to get to a gas station, and the look of the gas station, and the feeling of the sky and the car and the other passenger waiting and the afternoon (not a real example necessarily; I forget all of the particulars now)—but in their mere pungent existence, they felt somehow satisfying. I drifted between them and frantic yet peaceful poker. Hours passed. I often wondered what I had just done—what cards I had played, or why—and realized that I had no explicit recollection. More hours passed, and more scenes from younger years projected fragrantly into the flickering virtual cards. I don’t think I consciously explored the strange mental landscape, transfixed as I was by the irresistible torrent of poker moves to be made. I took action after action definitively, yet lived dreamlike above it. After nine hours, with morning beginning to establish itself, I stopped.


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I like this style of emotional description of an experience.  It's VERY different from the time I got really into poker, which lasted about 20 years, but I felt some of the same dissociation and mental wandering.

I probably played about 50,000 hands in casino cash games and tournaments between 1991 and 2012 or so, and read and discussed (on Usenet rec.gambling and then, pre- and early-internet).  I made close friends at the table and electronically (meeting in Las Vegas annually for part of it), many of whom went pro, some of whom created online sites at the start of the boom times.  It was my primary hobby and obsession for probably 10 of those years, and a side-gig and area of study for all of them.  

I definitely reached the "mindless poker" stage, and had similar days (and nights; after work until ~1am was my normal play time) of daydreaming/hallucinating/drifting that I simply don't remember any specifics about.  One thing about live poker compared to computer simulations - it's SLOW.  If you can get 25 hands an hour, you're in a good game (well, a fast game - a good game is one with incompetent opponents, who are often the slow ones).

It's similar to the zone I get into while coding some non-complicated-but-still-necessary parts of a program - my consciousness checks in every few minutes, I suppose, but it feels like irrelevant daydreaming, at the end of which I need to figure out why my unit tests don't work.

What made you stop in the end?

Mostly the rise of online poker - I live in a US State that makes it very risky to play online, and I didn't enjoy it much when I played while traveling.  But it made me realize that I didn't enjoy the live games much anymore either - they're generally filled with dumb people talking about sports and politics.  The interesting game-theory, math, and psychology gets pretty well learned in the first decade of serious play and study, and in reality don't matter much - the best games to play are filled with idiots, and you just have to avoid egregious errors.

That seemed like a pretty wild experience. Have you tried doing poker in an app again, to see if you can recreate this experience at will, or were you too spooked to touch a poker app ever again?