EPT12 Prague: The naked truth about poker

She's pulled up his shirt to reveal his bare back. He leans over the table as she pushes two strong hands into the muscles up and down his spine. He tries not to move, letting her do the work, waiting for the time to come when she pulls the lotion out of her bag and rubs it into his skin, anticipating the climax when she gets rough and pounds the sides of her hands into him with abandon.

There I stand watching it like it's my damned job, which, in effect, it is.

It's my job to stand and watch this woman in tight spandex leggings treat this man--this man I've never even met--like a piece of meat that needs tenderizing. It's my job to stand and pretend like there is nothing weird about watching this kind of intimacy happen in a room with several hundred other people who are also acting as if it's the most natural thing in the world.

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Andre Akkari (not the guy with his shirt pulled up...today, anyway)

The trick is this: it is the most natural thing in this world. There is an entire cottage industry built around the fact that people sitting in a chair for 12 hours a day need some professional help to relax. These therapists travel more than almost anybody you know, tracking players around the world and charging a by-the-minute fee to massage their bad beats away. If I hadn't been looking at it for more than a decade, I think it would seem weird to me, like lion tamer in a church or an exorcist in a snooker hall.

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But here I am some eleven years into observing a society that most of my family and friends can barely imagine. No one I know in the square world accepts that it can seem completely normal to wire tens of thousands of dollars to a foreign country with the express purpose using it to play a card game. At home, €25,000 (the amount several dozen people spent for a single day of action on Friday) is two years of mortgage payments. €5,300 (the amount all the people are risking today) is a good down payment on a car. And I'd bet few of them have watched a grown man get a half-hour, half-naked massage in a roomful of people who pretend like it's no big thing.

It's, I assume, akin to walking into a South American jungle and finding a society that knows none of your mores, none of your customs, none of your societal rules, one that has somehow thrived and grown beyond all expectation. With by-the-minute massages.

Even if you accept that this poker thing is a logical pursuit, and even if you accept that it's completely cool to have your naked back massaged by a woman in public, you still have to look at this other thing: there are people with TV cameras and boom microphones everywhere. They hover like buzzards in search of carrion, appearing out of the ether and recording these players during what will certainly be the best and worst parts of their day. Even if that seems normal, and even if you accept half the world has become masturbatorally obsessed with the idea of personal celebrity, this is still weird, because everyone just pretends like the cameras aren't there. No one acknowledges the hovering microphones or the producers whispering into their headsets. It's all just another part of the machine--massages and all--that powers this world the squares don't understand.

I don't typically sit around thinking about ways to get my extended family to understand this traveling circus. I don't spend my days hoping my neighbors will ask to see photos of the man getting his rubdown. And as much as it's sort of my job, I'm not going to go to a Christmas party and try to convince my regular-world friends that they should be playing poker.

But there is something here I wish everybody could see and understand. It's one of the several things up on my computer screen all the time.

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That's just a small piece of the list of players here today. More than 1,000 people played this tournament, and I picked this list at random. Do you see a pattern in the people?

Probably not, because there is none that I can see.

In a list of just a few of the dozens of tables in the poker room, you have people from the UK, USA, Germany, and Canada. There are Russian, Polish, and Austrian folks. As if that's not good enough, you'll find citizens of places like Montenegro and Azerbaijan. This event drew people from 75 different countries who speak different languages, live with different customs, and likely have friends and relatives who have no concept of what their life on the road is like.

And you know what? They're all getting along. They're not arguing about politics, foreign policy, or religion. The faces in the room have every shade of skin, every shape of eye, and every kind of hair.

Are they suspicious of each other? Well, yes, but not because they are afraid of one guy's culture or another guy's religion, and not because they think one of them wants to immigrate to his country and dilute his idea of what a society should look like.

No, they are only worried that the guy might be slow-playing pocket kings or setting a trap with a flopped set. They want to beat the other guy, but only insomuch as he wants to take his chips and then buy him a beer in the bar at the end of the day. (Stephen Bartley wrote a good piece on this earlier today: War, religion and politics. Your typical Day 2 conversation.)

This poker world isn't a perfect place. It has its problems, and it's not a place I would expect or even hope regular world people would visit too often. Nevertheless, for all the things that don't make sense, for all the weird massages and TV cameras, for all the rampant gambling degeneracy, for all the importance put on a silly game, for all the work poker still needs to do to respect the experience of women who enjoy the game, this world has one thing going for it: it exposes its people to cultures and people they would never know.

In a few days, I'll get on a plane to go back to America. Since I left, I've not watched a minute of television, and I've paid little attention to the news from home. I don't have to do either of those things to know what's going on there. It's the same thing that's happening in countries all over the world: xenophobia, racism, and people who persist in wallowing in willful ignorance, all of it the product of people who either by circumstance or purpose-driven isolationism have no opportunity to just sit with a bunch of people they don't understand and talk all day long.

A couple of days ago, right in the middle of the poker game, this hotel had an emergency evacuation. In light of everything that's happened in the world recently, it was something most people here took seriously. It was a false alarm, but it was interesting nonetheless, as all of us--people from dozens of different cultures and backgrounds--wandered out into the cold together.

It didn't matter if we were from the USA, Russia, or Nicaragua, it affected us all the same. Then everybody went back in and played poker.

Together. Like we were all part of one society.

How often do you see something like that?

So, when some guy wants a half-naked public massage, I guess it seems pretty normal by comparison, you know?


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Brad Willis
@BradWillis in European Poker Tour