The Exponential Death Spiral of Pokerface


The basic premise when playing poker is that one never knows what cards the other players are holding. Indeed, 'calling one's bluff' in a gambling-style poker competition essentially amounts to one player 'paying for the right' to look at the opponent's hand, to reveal the card values for the other players in the game that had been to that point occluded from full view (ie. cards in 'the hole').

Given the big data set that emerges from a televised professional poker tournament, on the other hand, with all of the hands dealt, the corresponding recalculations of probabilities after each card turned over and each bet made, the running tabulation of betting pot values, and the presence of the 'hole cam' that shows the TV audience everyone's hidden cards, lies the fact that the televisual-AI apparatus of the event knows everyone's cards before the outcome of each hand is concluded (a handy and trivial AI exercise in image recognition), thus making possible, at least in part, a quantitatively actionable science of human bluffery.

hole cam

This is why the Face — which is dissimulated in the human-to-human communication of game play by being completely devoid of expression, servomechanimistic, through wearing sunglasses or a low-brim hat, etc, so as not to give away 'a tell' that indicates one is bluffing — becomes obsolesced in determining said bluffery, insofar as the human-to-machine communication is concerned: a large enough data set that can recognize and process statistically-anomalous betting decisions vis-à-vis card values around the table doesn't require faciality in its retrospective digestion of the event — 'tells' will be determined by econometric modeling instead.

And yet it remains that these professional poker events take place in real life, in person, in the flesh. The Face still matters in this immediated context as a guarantor of bluff authenticity: there is a qualitative difference between this sort of live, in-person gambling play, and the sort of play that occurs on poker web sites with avatar stand-ins; it is a different sort of affect. Consider the former as a truth marker for how humans act when they are together, trying to deceive one another: the truth of the Pokerface as a guarantor of the false swirls and spirals helically with the false of the Face as an indicator of the true.

Approaching High Noon

Courtesy of Kirk Goldsberry

Kirk Goldsberry has mapped every shot taken in the NBA over the past five years,
in order to create a statistical baseline "average" profile of shooters in the league.

"We can see right away that Deron was good from his right and actually had a pretty off night from his left where he is usually pretty good. However, given his shot tendencies over the last few years, CourtVision would predict Deron Williams would end up with 30.2 points from Sunday night's constellation of shots. My models predict the average points per attempt from every player in the league, from every shot location, so I can plug in these 29 locations and predict an expected success for Deron from these locations. CourtVision predicted 30.2 points; Deron ended up with 36. So, Williams made 2 or 3 more shots than he would have on an average shooting night. In other words, he was +20% from the field that night" (Goldsberry).

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The rise of econometric analysis in professional sport makes explicit shifts that are taking place for working classes across a spectrum of industries. From now on, two figures will shadow every labourer whose output may be measured by some quantitative analytic: the Average and the ExpectedValue. As the econometric models continue to improve — or tighten — the length of the ExpectedValue shadow will continue to shorten, as if the klieg lights and fibre optics were approaching high noon.

Permutations and Constellations

Football: the world's most represented sport. Allow us for a moment to misrepresent, to follow a few ruptures suggested by those individuals who understand representation in a different light: the artists.

Rupture: Layer
In Deep Play Harun Farocki makes explicit the political and economic forces governing world class football. Put differently, there is a process of unlayering that reveals hidden layers that inscribe a purportedly free-flowing, improvisational football match and presents them as an unlayering of sorts. The layer of play is continually in dynamic form. Farocki's gesture is to split or tear the flow of athletic bodies into the various mappings and tracings that condition its emergence.

Courtesy of Harun Farocki

harun farocki
deep play
installation view

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Rupture: Space
In Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno effect an approximate synchronization by having multiple cameras all track the same figure — Zidane — throughout the course of the match. Rather than following the ball as the true catalysis of play, as per usual on television, the cinematic experience tears this spatial privilege by focusing instead on Zidane. With sports television we have a contemporary transformation of cubofuturism — at least for the production director, who reduces the multiple surrounding perspectives and times to the flat linear narrative of the screen view. As we move to Gordon and Parreno's cinematic version this cubofuturism has been even more slowly considered to give us this portrait from the 21st century — a study of darting eyes and curved lines of approach, stillnesses bursting into intense flights of effort, economies of movement that must baffle an optical tracking systems approach as with that shown by Farocki.

Courtesy of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno

douglas gordon and philippe parreno
zidane: a 21st century portrait
still from video

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But we know these two works well, shiny objects in the Sport constellation of the art market. Allow us instead to triangulate between these two stars to approximate the position of a third . . .

Rupture: Time
In Accumulated Football, the Brazilian/Swedish artist Isabel Löfgren composes a football field by sampling and overlaying screenshots of television frames at regular 30-second intervals, a uniform, rhythmic gesture that opens up a plenitude of diversity within its program. In so doing, she makes explicit the forgotten fact of televised football: for the viewer at home the pitch is not 100-130 yards in length by 50-100 yards in width, as mandated by the world governing body FIFA, but rather exists in luminescent resolution at a standardized 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratio. The field of view is always a cropped version of the live action, whose precise representational dimensions depend on a calculus between maximizing the number of players on the pitch at once and showing each athlete in as much visual detail as possible. It is always a framed subset of the genuine article — flattened, dulled — that is constituted as the visible for the gaze and touch of remote consumers.

Courtesy of Isabel Lofgren

isabel löfgren
accumulated football (detail)
photographic print
225 x 45 cm

Modern television production sidesteps this calculus somewhat by adding camera perspectives to the mix, cutting back and forth between various angles and focal resolutions — such as the approach described earlier with the Zidane film. But Löfgren sticks resolutely with the main wide-angle shot, for her interest is less concerned with space than with time. She extracts time from the moving television image to (re)constitute the match anew as a still photograph: layering, transparency and saturation are presented as strategies for compressing and composing time.

Courtesy of Isabel Lofgren

isabel löfgren
accumulated football (detail)

As such, the field becomes populated by uniformed spectres that dart along different movement vectors, blurring into betweenness and foregrounding frame rate — apparitions of the multiple body as it moves within time. None of these bodies are necessarily true or false but rather exist in ternary logic: perhaps yes or perhaps no. They suggest alternative retrospective codings to those revealed by Farocki in Deep Play.

And not surprisingly, this compression of time effects a corresponding perceptual dilation of space in turn: the football field simply feels longer than usual, as if "breaking out" or reaching beyond the horizontal boundaries of the television frame has stretched our normal understanding of matter(s). To flip the relation, Accumulated Football perhaps offers a cogent reminder of precisely the box in which we somatically exist, static in both senses of the televised word.

The Affective Computer

(a slow paper pounce, a floating lazily down an amsterdam [channel] … )

Toward a Fleshy Architecture of Baseball

Baseball is a game of discrete operations. Or, as McLuhan used to suggest, the industrial assembly line economy perfected in its sporting form.

And yet, despite the pastoral sense of time it still retains somewhat in our contemporary society of the instant, baseball is a game that never quite comes to rest. Whether in terms of a subtle and syncopated rhythm of athletes continually in motion on the field of play, or of code that circulates endlessly through the folding networks of sporting actors producing the event, baseball is always already in excess of the formal play and its discreteness.

Two Out, Men on First and Second (2010)

two out, men on first and second
sildenafil citrate, blister packaging
6.5 x 5 cm

So while the architecture of baseball could be considered a computing architecture — that is, one that performs rational, linguistic calculations in order to achieve particular end goals as efficiently as possible — it is a computing architecture already in excess of its formal logic and discrete operations precisely because of the fleshiness of its moving components. Put differently, we are describing a baseball computer whose affects are precisely what allows for the functioning of the system and its switches.

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keywords: catcher, errors, sabermetric programming languages, sildenafil citrate, agency

Thrownness, or the Zone of the Artwork

Courtesy of Jackson Pollock

Through the drips and flips of his painting technique, Jackson Pollock removes touch from his process — the touch of the arm+hand+brush against the canvas — but this is not to suggest a disappearance of the tactile. Though Pollock moves away from the plane of the rectangular frame, he is still connected to the work proper by the trajectories and fluid dynamics of paint falling to the surface. As such, it is his gesture that comes to the forefront of the work — the whole movement of the painterly body as it expressively sends coloured pigment to the canvas.

We stay in America™ but move from abstract expressionism to baseball. Here, the strike zone constitutes the canvas upon which the pitcher crafts his athletic artwork. Fastball, curveball, changeup, slider are each part of the process, with the knuckleball perhaps most closely approximating the gesture of Pollock's drip technique. Each pitch in the zone counts as a marker of success on the scorecard: when the pitcher most expresses virtuosity he is said to be painting the corners; at other times he is just outside. But a pitch on or off the canvas is not simply a matter of success or failure, for being outside the zone can sometimes be considered a strategic move.

Courtesy of Sportvision

As the baseball catcher will point out, it can be advantageous to spend a certain allocation of gestures in such a way as they are not to hit the canvas; that is, to call for balls to be thrown out of the strike zone so as to modulate the posture of the opposing hitter and throw him off balance. She cannot make such a strategic decision too often, however, since four balls equals a walk and the beginning of the run production process for the offensive team. Further, the pitcher's skill is such that a particular called pitch will not be executed with true delivery every time, and balls called by the umpire will occur. While gesture is where athletic poiesis may be located, the game is still played in the frame.

Of course he and she can as easily be she and he (and everything in between). The point is not so much the singular biological body that performs the role of catcher, but rather the catcher's affective modulation of pitching, hitting and adjudicating bodies through a proximity of flesh resonance that we have come to identify as the feminine — expressed in the signal of the called pitch. Ronell's figure of the switchboard operator looms present in this context, though the linguistic signals of telecommunication have been replaced, at least in part, by a more subtle consideration of co-resonance with these three other performing bodies.


This is not to deny the catcher a body of her own. For she feels the game in her body: the aching rotator cuff is a lifetime of throws to pick off a doubting runner at second; the lump from a roughly healed clavicle the ossiferous knot archiving the collision from a stand taken at home plate; the deep stiffness in both knees signifying the cyborgian gesture of the positional crouch as it makes minor adjustments in tango with the hitter at the plate. Her embodiment stands as both a fleshy, visceral living-through of every inning played and practice pitch thrown, as well as an incomplete archive of these switchboard modulations. Pain remembers pain, after all.

Courtesy of Namuth and Pollock

Pollock teaches baseball that the poiesis of the thrown ball remains in the gesture itself, rather than any archive or record of the work (and its subsequent capture by econometric modeling). In turn, baseball perhaps suggests to Pollock that the artwork consists not just of those splatters and drips of paint that eventually find their way onto the canvas, but also those that miss the zone completely. It suggests that these are not errors for the artist, nor wasted pigment, but rather strategic omissions from the act of inscribing, manifest with each gesture as an abstract expression of affective choice from the embodied memory of thousands of like movements. As such, they should be understood as part of the total artwork.

But who is Jackson Pollock's catcher? Is it Pollock himself? Is it the work of art? Is it Lee Krasner? Peggy Guggenheim and the art market? An open-ended relation? Is it Dasein?

Is this why Pollock was allegedly so rattled by Hans Namuth's documentary Jackson Pollock 51, in which the photographer captured the gestural process of Pollock's technique by shooting up through a clear pane of glass? That in staring through the zone of the artwork, Pollock's catcher-switch was revealed to himself as the archive of the archive, visibly apparent as the technological gaze of the movie camera?

(happy birthday to the switch, and many thanks for calling a good game)

Scientifically Framing the Artwork

Courtesy of Ted Williams

"My first rule of hitting was to get a good ball to hit. I learned down to percentage points where those good balls were." — Ted Williams, The Science of Hitting, 1970

"And not only shouldn't we look to technique or the economy for the secrets of the code; it is, on the contrary, the very possibility of industrial production that we should look for in the genesis of the code and the simulacra. … [T]he entire order of production is in the process of tumbling into operational simulation." — Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, 1983