Money for nothin' and chicks for free
Now that ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Lemme tell ya them guys ain't dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your thumb
-- "Money for Nothing" - Dire Straits
On June 21st, 2006, 4 gentlemen changed the world. OK, maybe not. Maybe they just put the nail in the coffin of the change already happening. Or maybe they put the period at the end of sentence that was the transformation of gaming. Or maybe it was a "boom! Headshot!"
Screw the metaphors: they're getting paid to game. $83,300 a year. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
I'm 11 years old. I've just started to really get into games. I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons, I've been playing all the wargames I can get my hands on. I've started what will become a lifelong admiration and personal-suck relationship with chess. This is when my grandmother decides I need some schoolin'.
"Let me show you a real game Julesy." She's an animated model of godzilla. She channels Julia Child. She enters the mothball-soaked living room and carefully sets down her Seagram's-and-7up on the coaster protecting the mahogany sideboard. The card table is well used, and has that "made in the '50s" air to it. She brandishes a backgammon board.
"Backgammon, Grandmom? It's so random." I turn my disappointed eyes to the clock. I've got two hours before my mother rescues me from the lair of the old woman. She smiles at me and picks up the doubling-cube--that odd die that always stays in the tray when we play. "Not with this it isn't."
She proceeds to explain to me the joys of playing backgammon for money. Apparently, in the days of yore, one could go to a casino, sit down with other friendly housewives, and play backgammon while the husbands played blackjack. The women, it would seem, were much more ruthless. She hands me 64 M&Ms. She takes 64 herself. We play. At least half the time when I feel cocky and double, she says "You got me, Julesy, I'm out." I feel like a god. We played off and on for years. It was a little secret we kept from my parents.
I never, not once, ended up eating any M&Ms. Then she taught me Mah Jong and it was even further downhill from there.
Games, when played for money, are no longer games. They are contests. They change the fundamental nature of the activity from diversion to "who has the biggest... um... car." The GamersWithJobs Sunday evening Half Life 2 toilet-toss deathmatch sessions are as fun when I'm losing as they are when I'm... OK, they're fun when I'm losing. The game itself, and the relationships with the players, are what make it entertaining, satisfying.
Backgammon, when played for money, is not like this at all. It becomes a vicious, angry game. One where the point is to beat your opponent into a position of submission, and hope they get the math wrong. Mah Jong, when played for money, transforms from "Gin Rummy with more rules and cool tiles" to one long, protracted, bluff-and-screw-your-neighbor cage-fight. Don't believe me? Go watch a money game in Chinatown some day. Solitaire--which my Grandmom swore she used to play for money at the Marlborough-Blenheim in Atlantic city for $52 in, $5 a card out--goes from being something you do during meetings to a nail-biting, mortgage-losing exercise in perpetual failure.
And then there's poker. Poker is, without a doubt, the most popular money game in the world right now. It is also the best. I had the luxury of spending two days in Las Vegas "studying" poker from a group of those-guys-you-see-on-TV. It was a charity thing. Once the initial "hey I saw you lose in that big poker thing last year" blush had worn off, I spent most of my time trying to understand how these folks see what they do for a living.
It's a job. For them, there's no gambling involved. One of the gentlemen with whom I played has lined the walls of his library with dozens of three ring binders. In that closely guarded collection he has a record of every major player he has ever played against, how they played, how he played, and how it all worked out. He could tell you with certainty that if, say, Howard Lederer has this kind of a hand in this kind of a situation, he will almost always play it a certain way. He spends his weekdays sitting in the office of his gated Las Vegas community studying, laying out strategies for different situations against the specific players he expects to be up against in whatever event is coming up next.
I asked a different player over dinner: "Why is poker taking off?" His answer was simple. "It's the best game ever invented." For him, I'm sure it's true; he's made a nice living off of it for 15 years. But I see his point. It's a game of skill, where the skill comes from two fundamental, diametrically opposed techniques. One is math, pure and simple. If you are going to play poker well, you need to know, with absolute certainty, what your position is at any given point in the game. The second is the fuzzy bluff-and-read. The ability to simultaneously send off signals of deception while ferreting out the tells and weaknesses and irrationalities of your opponents.
I'm no big-shot poker player. I find playing online dull. I find my local monthly poker game entertaining and social, but in reality it's less a game than a party. Nobody wants to win too much and make his friends feel bad. But when I've had the opportunities to play in casinos, or even better in tournaments, I absolutely love it.
But I don't love it when I lose. That's the downside of money. Sure, you might learn something. You might admire someone else's play. But there's just no enjoyment in leaving something on the table.
This is why the professionalization of video games leaves me conflicted. It's not like I spend Thanksgiving dinner at my in-laws' talking about how much ass I can kick as a commander in Battlefield 2. So I'm delighted for any shred of legitimacy this addiction can scratch out. On the other hand, moving into this wierd world of "pro" fills me with a sense of impending doom. I don't fire up Guitar Hero to make a quick buck. I fire it up to forget all the making of not-so-quick bucks that dominates way too many of my waking hours.
Money changes everything. I've spent more of my life trying to make money than not. I've spent time on the stock market, time bussing tables. I've spent time pretending to be gay in order to sell women's clothes. I've spent time hawking tech, hawking companies, hawking stereos. But in all those cases, I've been spending time to earn money. It's nearly the opposite of what I do here, in my gaming world.
Here I spend time and money. But I get something more important back.