Metaphysics and Online Poker
4 min read

Metaphysics and Online Poker

Natasha Dow Schüll’s “Abiding Chance: Online Poker and the Software of Self-Discipline” studies the peculiarities of playing poker online from the perspective of three players and the community as a whole through various blog and news posts. Through interviews with her informants and the supporting information from secondary sources, she reveals a a highly structured, digitally mediated world that reflexively enters the physical world with the players. She explores the techniques these players use to regulate their emotions and eliminate focus on short term goals, drawing comparison not only to religious practices from Buddhism to Calvinism, but also to the more philosophical side of day traders in international finances.

Schüll (2016) opens with a quote from a famous—live, she clarifies, one who plays in-person at a physical table—poker player: “I wish I was a robot” (564). Throughout the article, she discusses the tools that online poker players use to achieve a detached proficiency in order to avoid “tilt,” a heightened emotional state that these poker players find leads them to error. Through the software and practices of the players, they aim to achieve a robot-like state, digitally mediated by myriad pieces of software and reinforced through practices not unlike particularly Jesuit practices in religious self-accounting.

These tools themselves are detached from emotionality in the way that all statistics are. By converting data into numbers and ratios, the players, both themselves and their opponents, are also converted into “dynamic database[s] whose ‘real’ value[s] [are] emergent and impossible to assess without sufficient temporal resolution” (Schüll 2016, 578). They become detached (further) from one another and increasingly from their own selves. It is this very detachment, however, that causes Schüll to draw comparisons with religious practices from across the world and, in the end, complicates her informants’ own subjectivities mediated between the digital world of online poker and physical world of their existences.

Through these ritualized practices, performances and reflections, the idealized robot-state actually becomes an impediment. The chaos of the short term has to be accounted for and cannot be excised or overwritten by long term goals. Interestingly, it is one of Schüll’s informants who comes to this conclusion and implies the cascade of benefits from approaching the world with at least a sliver of humanity; it was, after all, a failed relationship with another person that caused him to reevaluate his dogmatic Stoicism.

However, Schüll’s own analysis leaves itself trapped by a similar dogmatism. She gestures at the metaphysical aspects of the techniques of the players, but these are nothing more than passing similarities or somehow more parseable examples than the intricate, statistic based software that the players use. It is this sort of flattening—for the players, between poker games and relationship, and for Schüll, between performance analysis and accountability before God—that situates it squarely in rational choice: “the economic approach does not draw conceptual distinctions between major and minor decisions,…” (Becker n.d., 7). Schüll’s thorough accounting of these players and their techniques, including the players’ own analyses of their techniques, peels back the layers of decisions to reveal the complexity of their decision making process; in this way, a series of exemplars for economic theory’s performance in human behavior. Interestingly, it is through Schüll’s interviews that, in fact, the players, contra to Becker’s assertion that “decisions units are [not] necessarily conscious of their efforts to maximize or can verbalize or otherwise describe in an informative way reasons for the systematic patterns in their behavior” (7), are aware of their efforts and strive for an idealized, economized state of play (and, as Schüll argues, being).

Taking Becker’s (n.d.) final argument, however, that “human behavior is not compartmentalized,…Rather, all human behavior can be viewed as involving participants who maximize their utility from a stable set of preferences and accumulate an optimal amount of information and other inputs in a variety of markets” (14), it seems as if the poker players are operating as intended…why the metaphysics at all? Is it that the players are able to over optimize? Did this lead to one of Schüll’s informants having a rationality crisis? Throughout Schüll’s (2016) article, tilt is referred to as “dreaded” or “feared” (564; 566; 578; 579), and yet the answer seems to be in allowing failure—the titular “abiding chance”—and to approach the edge of that uncertainty in order to perform; a level of suboptimal information is necessary.

This comes together in a community of practice that, at least tacitly, understands this:

“[the online poker players] worry that indifference, taken to its logical extreme, might squeeze out the possibility for decision making altogether. ‘If everyone uses these stats and uses them correctly,…then there will be no room left to have an edge—because everyone will have the same information, like we’re all bots playing each other’” (Schüll 2016, 585).

This is a concise awareness of the prisoner’s dilemma—“The paradox that individually rational strategies lead to collectively irrational outcomes” (Ostrom 2015, 5)—(and yet another feared or dreaded state) and has led to what is and isn’t socially acceptable in online poker games; the line is drawn at the use of actual bots, unequivocally a means of cheating. That which they first desire and then fear becoming they are not allowed to use; the optimal state, in the end, is undesirable, rationally or not.


  • Becker, Gary S. Introduction to The Economic Approach to Human Behavior, 3-14. n.d.
  • Ostrom, Elinor. “Reflections on the commons.” In Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Schüll, Natasha Dow. “Abiding Chance: Online Poker and the Software of Self-Discipline.” Public Culture 28, no. 3 (2016): 563-592.