Friday, March 31, 2006

My Underwear as it Relates to the Inevitable Destruction of the Poker Industry

As if I didn’t have enough to irrationally fear: the bird flu, religio-fascism of various brands, Vice-Presidential buck shot. It’s a scary world out there. And apparently to add to all this I now have to worry that my sole source of income will be completely eradicated. Lately it seems that every other month there’s a new rash of mainstream headlines assuring me that the poker industry is going the way of $0.99 gas and Lawn Jarts.

This doesn’t make me all that happy. Among the many things that the poker industry has done for me over the years there are two that are paramount. It has allowed me to live in Manhattan without government assistance, and it has made me even more unemployable than I might otherwise have been. Now, I’m not saying I haven’t learned anything from poker. I’m just saying that I don’t know how the lessons I’ve learned would look translated into black and white words on a resume. I mean, I’m sorry, but I don’t know how many HR people are going to be so blown away by my ability to not overplay Ace-Queen under the gun.

So naturally all these Casandraesque headlines were a little disturbing. Luckily though I took the time to read one of the actual articles the other day and I feel a little better. Apparently, these "Dismal Outlook for Poker Industry" articles were talking not about poker players but rather the people who rushed in to exploit poker players. It turns out that, surprisingly enough, there is not quite the market for Hold ‘Em branded car seats that some people thought there would be.

As it is with many issues, I think my underwear might help to elucidate things. A while back Christi, as she is wont to do, bought me some underwear. In particular "Texas Hold ‘Em" boxers. I’ll try to keep this rant to a minimum because I’ve posted similar sentiments before, but it’s just that I still find this mainstreaming of poker fascinating.

I remember the first time I found Doyle’s original Super System in a Barnes and Noble. Since you used to have to call up the Gambler’s Book Shop in Vegas to find it I was pretty surprised. And the first time I saw an entire 11 book Poker display prominently placed near the checkout line I was blown away. Then it just started to get strange.

I walked into a local grocery store a Christmas or two ago. Standing among the various tomatoes and Twinkies there was a large display with exactly two items. These two items had nothing to do with groceries at all. If you’ve ever been to a local Manhattan grocery then you know how tiny and cramped they tend to be and what a premium there is on space. Yet the owner of the store had figured that if there were any non-food items in the world that he might be able to hawk it would be these two: the new Harry Potter novel and of course a set of Texas Hold ‘em poker chips.

Unfortunately, due to technical issues I can’t post the picture I took of that display. Also currently undisplayable is the picture of the poker cologne set I took at J.C. Penny. I guess nothing says sexy odors quite like poker players do. But of course nothing says inappropriate over-branding quite like the one photo that I can display, the Hold ‘em gum ball machine. Not since the creation of the candy cigarette has there been as clear a statement on responsible marketing.

What does this have to do with my poker branded underthings? Well, in this case it’s not so much how responsible it is as just how sloppy. Whoever designed these boxers either has a wonderfully dry sense of humor or is an idiot. If you look closely at my undershorts you’ll notice that it’s populated entirely with power hands like the King Fiver, and the Jack Seven off. Not quite the iconic celebrity hands, the Ace-Ace or even the Jack-Ten suited, that one tends to link with Hold ‘em.

Now, as it happens I would love to live in a world were I could believe that the designer of this garment wanted to show the actual type of poker hands that you will most often see and by extension was making a deft statement about the less compelling negative space that lies between the rarer moments of excitement that make up our lives, a reflection on the sheer volume and therefore the existential importance of the mundane. However, this may be a bad read.

Possibly more likely, I would imagine a designer who has no concept of poker at all and asks his boss to explain what the eff Texas hold-them is. "I don’t know, it’s some game where you get two cards. And I think the two cards sometimes burst into flames and/or sprout wings. Just run with it."

And I like to hope that it is this type of gratuitous over-branding that is getting people into trouble. Poker as a fad more than poker as an industry, the idea that if I include the word "poker" on my cologne I can sell more. Reaching a saturation point in mainstream penetration is not actually the same as a complete industry wide collapse.

There was a period in the late 90's when CNBC became like ESPN, with throngs of unfinancial-type people following and betting on their favorite stocks like they were sports teams. At the time this may not have done much for the stability of the stock market. But while there were a few post millennial corrections there actually is still a stock market and some of the smart people still do make money.

For better or for worse I think we are stuck with poker for a while. I mean people still haven’t gotten bored with golf and I don’t believe that that’s a bad analogy to draw.

Now don’t get me wrong I am still quite confident that a harsh rain’s a-gonna fall. The poker correction is coming. I’m already hearing anecdotal stories of parents getting calls from Vegas requesting a plane ticket home. Hindsight might show dropping out of college and moving into the Orleans as possibly not the single most farsighted career plan ever.

I don’t think that anyone in the know believes the current environment is completely sustainable. Obviously the majority of truly bad players have to either become better or become broke. But the total apocalypse may still be a while off. And one way or another I still can’t wait to see what the Poker Lifestyles Expo will bring to us this year.


jane said...

Dear Mike May, I am a little jealous, for while I cannot play poker well at all, you can write a commanding essay. Should you lose the ability to make your living playing poker, surely you'll find someone who pays by the word.

Ingrid Weber said...

Hey Mike!!
I just discovered your blog - great post and great underwear. I have a bottle of Poker Player cologne also. You mentioned yours was a "set" (3 bottles perhaps?). Mine is in an ugly green box and has that cheap boy-cologne smell. I bought it over the 'net. I don't know if you are supposed to wear it and get lucky or wear it and offend other players.
Nice seeing you at Foxwoods