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No bluff: televised poker is a perfect modern theatre

The popularity of televised poker – especially televised poker as watched on YouTube – has seen a jump in the past two weeks, as a particularly dramatic hand in the World Series of Poker became a viral sensation.

The tournament, which concluded this week in Las Vegas, has been televised on ESPN, but the vast surge of interest and commentary on the game has happened because of a scene that played out earlier in the summer and only recently was uploaded to the Internet.

The drama and its resulting analysis – literally hours and hours of it – demonstrate how perfectly adapted this game is to the Internet and, once again, how watching the Internet is increasingly more exciting than watching television or movies. Poker could be the perfect Internet entertainment.

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If you are at all interested in poker, you have watched this scene now probably more than once, because once it went online in late September it was circulated and posted and then discussed on every social media platform.

It was a tense hand at an advanced stage in the tournament, played on July 18 of this year, between the British player Will Kassouf and the Canadian Griffin Benger. Both are young men, unavoidably overdosed on testosterone and adrenaline.

Kassouf was needling Benger with "speech play," an aggressive patter that aims at eliciting a reaction from someone who is playing with a poker face. Kassouf was trying to decide whether to call an enormous bet. (The stakes are indeed high: The winner of the tournament received $8-million U.S. and each player at the final table got at least $1-million each.)

Benger lost his cool and started shouting at Kassouf that he was being abusive. The audience started shouting, too. Officials moved in apprehensively. Benger ended up winning the hand, and Kassouf was eliminated. (Benger went on to the final table of the tournament and was eliminated in 7th place.)

Both players gave post-game interviews to ESPN about who was right and who was wrong, and those interviews were attached to the footage uploaded to the cloud.

Poker fans around the world, who had been tending towards dislike of Kassouf for his taunting style, slow play and general arrogance throughout the tournament, turned pretty much en masse, uniting in their scorn of the Canadian, who really didn't need to react the way he did.

Benger's upset, and the strange, vaguely leftist language he used to attack Kassouf ("Check your privilege!" he shouted nonsensically, as if he were at the back of a first-year gender studies class at UBC) exposed him to accusations of being generally not tough enough for the game. It is a game that values toughness, and the insults that rained on the sensitive Benger were predictably sexist and homophobic.

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The whole tournament had been tense like that: Kassouf had previously been disciplined for intimidating a female player, and opinions were divided even among experts as to whether he had merited the penalty. Another Brit had had his cheat-sheet taken away from him, on television, after another player had called for a ruling on fumbling with papers under the table. And Kassouf was not the only player who caused irritation with too much amusing chatter (a massively bearded, loquacious American called Keating was the bane of his table-mates for a while, too).

What makes this game so incredibly exciting to watch on a screen? First, the technology that has enabled us to see the cards that the players can't, so that we can understand all the psychological struggles going on. Second, the psychological acrobatics of the game, its emotional complexity, its extremely high stress and high stakes.

Then there is the fantastic language: a completely foreign language, entirely made up of slang and jargon. If you don't like phrases like "flopped a gutshot" then you are dead to poetry.

But most of all, it is about the personalities. Which are giant. Each game is a piece of theatre acted by people who are apparently there to be as stereotypically colourful as possible. They wear ridiculous jewellery and hats, they hide their faces with glasses and bandanas like hoodlums; they have accents from every corner of the earth. There are sober professors of economics going up against fish-and-chip shop owners.

National stereotypes are invariably carefully emulated. The Germans are cold and steely, the Russians large and hairy. In the case of the Benger/Kassouf showdown, one could not have had more broadly drawn national caricatures. The bantamweight, cocky, speed-talking Kassouf has a cockney accent and a chav taste in sequined T-shirts. He was even filmed striding the casino's corridors shouting "Oi, oi, oi!". He is knowing, showy, worldly. He knows how to say "Like a boss" (his trademark taunt) in 10 languages.

Benger, the more handsome of the two, is a bearded jock in a Blue Jays cap. He is the illustration in the encyclopedia beside the entry "Earnest Canadian." He was completely lacking in big personality until his indignant and embarrassingly moralistic meltdown. When he started pacing around yelping that he would be happy even if he lost because he knew he was a good person, he sounded like a guy who had spent his whole life in a sensitivity-training seminar (an unusual characteristic in a poker player). When arrogant Brits roll their eyes about dull Canada, this is what they are making fun of.

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Will Kassouf is a television producer's godsend. He is the kind of belligerent character that will make an entire reality television series. No matter what decisions are made regarding aggressive speech-play in future tournaments, he has singlehandedly raised global interest in the game as spectator sport.

And where better to watch it but online, where it is the perfectly contemporary spectacle: a form of stylized interpersonal drama involving real competition that can be instantly annotated in multiple media. All accessible at once, on your phone.

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