In this week’s Pokerography series, Lee Davy finds similarities in the history of mankind and the evolution of poker players in Yuval Noah Harari’s classic Sapiens.
I can tell you that Quito is the capital of Ecuador within a millisecond of being posed the question. I can inform you that the song is History by The Verve just by hearing the first bar and can sing every word, but can’t recite the lyrics without the music.
And then there are things that I should know, but don’t know.
I can’t describe a verb, a noun, or an adjective. I’m not sure if the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa. And until I read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari I didn’t realise that all Homo Sapiens came from Africa.
I knew that Africa was our place of origin, but for some reason, I didn’t delve into the logic that our ancestors populated the entire globe from this starting point. Did I think they grew on trees? Did I think a supernatural being pointed to Australia and said let there be man? Of course not, I just didn’t think, period.
How did they manage to do that?
And why, as a member of that species, didn’t I care about asking more questions?
Harari brilliantly answers the first question in Sapiens. I was never a history fan, hence the block in my brain when it comes to such stuff, but his writing is absorbing and twists and turns in a way that makes history fun.
And as I was reading the early stages of the book – a chapter called The Cognitive Revolution – the internal and external journeys that Homo Sapiens made on their way to becoming the dominant species on the planet reminded me of the poker industry, and here’s why.
Hierarchy & Social Cooperation
Homo Sapiens began in small tribes fewer than 150 people. Today, Donald Trump is called The Most Powerful Man in The World as the head of approx. 320 million. How do you organise 320 million inhabitants to evolve from throwing sticks at Mammoths to sending rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) and then landing back on earth?
You make shit up.
The world evolved because Homo Sapiens had an incredible ability to make up imaginary worlds within worlds. The best example is the creation of religions. These creations and beliefs in deities allowed Homo Sapiens to form alliances. These partnerships helped accelerate the growth of mankind.
As Homo Sapiens made more shit up such as towns, cities, and kingdoms, they also created a social hierarchy. It’s at this time that we started to see different classes of people. Slavery began. There was the clear hierarchy of gender with men viewed as superior to women. Then you have racial hierarchies and the classic rich and poor.
And the poker community works the same way.
When I first learned poker, I felt comfortable playing with my class of people. We went to the pub on a Tuesday night and played until the sun came up (or the earth came down). We all felt comfortable. We all had fun with a sprinkle of angst, frustration and sheer anger.
When I started working in the poker industry, I realised that the community lived in a world that was similar to the imaginary world of JK Rowling. It was real, but I never saw it until I got on the right train. Most of the friends who I used to play with still can’t see it.
I call it the poker bubble.
The Poker Bubble
I found the longer someone was in the poker bubble, the more out of touch they were with reality. Like, are Homo Sapiens ancestors, those living in the poker bubble created social hierarchies.
I’m not talking about The Hendon Mob All Time Money List or the Global Poker Index (GPI), which are social hierarchies of sorts. I’m talking about the classes of people who play poker for a living and those that don’t.
Some people called the pros and semi-pros: sharks, and those who played for fun: fish. Today, when online poker brands refer to the latter (and an online poker brand is also a theoretical concept), they call them recreational players because the term fish is derogatory.
The first group of professional poker players I became friendly with called people from outside the bubble Muggles in parallel with the Harry Potter movies.
Harry Potter was a fish. It didn’t matter how much talent he had, he was never going to become a shark until he became a member of his real social hierarchy and that took him seven books, seven feature films, and seven years of David Vamplew’s life.
The sharks gelled by creating a language that the fish wouldn’t understand. They built large meeting places called Poker Forums where they could trade knowledge in their secret language, and at the same time pour scorn and ridicule on the fish. It was also on the forums where they cruelly dealt with sharks who did not follow the rules created by the visionary leaders of this social hierarchy.
Harari believed that the creation of language was critical to the evolution of Homo Sapiens, but not because of the perfunctory performance of speech, but for the need to gossip, and poker players love to gossip. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have a job.
The sharks would gather together in smaller groups of sharks and swim around the world meeting more sharks. The Internet allowed them to create cyber groups on Skype and Whatsapp where they shared more knowledge using their unique language. These smaller bands of sharks became even more dominant and were known as High Rollers.
And all the time this was happening, there was a problem brewing. As in all social hierarchies, those who think they are superior to the rest start treating people that way, and in every case, in history, something monumental happens. Even Harry Potter eventually learned to use his stick and fight.
Sapiens I was blown away by the ingenuity of our earliest ancestors. We don’t know how they managed to cross the great blue space and populate Australia, but they did. And when they reached those shores, over 45,000 years ago, it didn’t take long for the extinction of the megafauna that dominated that part of the world.
And it wasn’t only Australia where the arrival of Homo Sapiens resulted in the extinction of the vast majority of the animal life that existed there for millions of years before we turned up.
Fossil records show that wherever Homo Sapiens travelled, there was an extinction of the megafauna. All the way up to the Agricultural Revolution when we began our destruction of our climate by changing 2.5 million years of doing alright by domesticating a select few sentient beings and becoming a group of farmers.
And the same thing is happening in the poker bubble.
When the sharks openly chide the fish in public, it’s akin to placing their heads in stocks and throwing used tampons at them. It’s not direct in your face abuse (although sometimes it is), it’s in the eyes, the hand gestures, and the deep sighs.
Ridicule has poured down onto the fish from the forums. Anyone daring to venture on their to express an opinion is immediately beating into submission. And even in the group I first became friendly with in my early years there was an apparent mockery of the fish gliding underneath the surface of what seemed to be a welcoming bear hug.
Having been a victim of racial and social abuse, both verbal and physical, for the early part of my life, I found the poker bubble to contain an undercurrent of abuse that was just as palpable. If one of my fishy friends ever met a shark, the fish could smell the dissension a mile away.
And it’s a shame because the poker bubble is a great way for people of all ages, genders, and cultures to thrive. And they do thrive – if those ages, genders, and cultures are all sharks.
And now the online poker rooms are dying because of this social hierarchy that has evolved over time. The sharks have domesticated the fish and in doing so are slowly killing them. The ones that are surviving are fleeing the poker bubble in a bid to find more of their kind so they can be accepted and loved.
And the online poker rooms are catching on. When PokerStars decides to reduce Rakeback by as much as 85% they are sending a clear message to the Sharks: we don’t want you scaring away all of our fish.
One day, Homo Sapiens will get too big for their boots. They won’t be the dominant species. They will create artificial intelligence and lose control. They will experience what life is like down the lower rungs of the social hierarchy and won’t like it, and that journey has already begun, not in Africa, but on a poker table we created in an imaginary world called the Internet.