A few notes on going all in

July 2013

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As regards the “poker” one might see being played by professionals at televised tournaments, my understanding is that none of the players ever really go “all in.” That is, while the announcers often, and with a kind of hushed excitement, use that expression, and while the players often push all their chips into the center of the table, seemingly betting everything on a given hand, it’s not their money. A professional by definition is never all in. These players are at most risking losing a given tournament, exiting in second or eighth or fifteenth place or whatever, and with whatever prize money has been promised for such a finish. Among other things, it might be argued that these players are not in fact playing poker, as an essential feature of the game we call poker is that the players are risking their own money. Without this, a tactic such as bluffing, for example, becomes hollow. It is easy enough to pretend to be someone you are not when it is no great loss to be found out.

Immigrants used to go all in, boarding ships with all the belongings they could carry and no thought that they would ever see their old homes again. The new homes they made were made on this basis: all in. And we could say, too, that when people decide to have a child they are going all in, and perhaps whether they realize or accept this or not. When one or another of the parents, or all of them, starts ducking the responsibilities, the awesome responsibilities, of the role, they may say or think to themselves that they were not really all in or that they don’t have to be. “It’s not a life sentence, parenting.”

Wittgenstein started whispering in my ear in the first paragraph when I used the word “essential” in the context of defining a game. There are no essential features of any game or of any noun or any thing, action, God, etc. There are lots of people, now and in the distant past, who are playing or have played a game they have called poker (or parenting), and lots of them have played this game without seeming to risk much of themselves. Was Rousseau any less a parent when he abandoned a series of his and Thérèse’s children on the church steps (where these children joined, in being abandoned by their parents, almost half the children being born in France at that time)? In what sense were any of these parents—or a high-income twenty-first century parent who spends long hours at the office, on business trips, smartphone apps—“all in”?

We imagine a god looking down on them, on us, a bit like a croupier in roulette, sweeping up our chips and quietly rewarding us for our winners. Our piles grow and shrink and grow, and more than one of us stumbles away from the table in a daze, completely bankrupt. Why was I so unaware of the risks? we might ask ourselves (or be asked). Why did I stake so much on that particular woman (or man), that job, those particular pleasures? (We might ask, too, as regards God: Did S/He ever—say with the Big Bang—go all in? Is God that which is simultaneously all in and not in at all?)

Lovers, we would like lovers to be all in, and I think that at the height of love they are. You might say that this is one of the ways that life is not like poker. In love you shove all your chips in the middle of the table and would have the other player take them all and let you pick up hers or his, let you feel them in your fingers, the ridges and smooth surfaces, let you admire the different colors, shapes and sizes, subtle perfections. And then as love fades you may begin, subtly or not, withdrawing chips or pushing the other’s chips away.

I often find myself impressed by how marriage involves throwing one’s lot in with another person. For some reason, most often when I think of this it is an economic sense, though economics are, presumably, only a part of marriage. In the olden days a woman married a man and if his career went well she lived comfortably and had social status, and she might do all she could to help or goad him to “succeed.” And so it was said, too, that a man’s success could depend on whether he married well or poorly. Now of course—with the liberalization of attitudes toward divorce and of divorce laws, and with women having so many more opportunities to make their own careers, earn their own livings and live on their own—the commitment of a young bride and groom is hardly so great as it once was. And yet I still have this feeling of the two people combining all, or many, of their cards and chips. Their hopes too.

We are reminded of this when a prominent politician or fancily-tailored businessperson gets caught in some kind of frowned-upon relationship, or caught committing one of the crimes that people employed in banking and investing seem rather routinely to commit. There is the spouse standing by her man as he talks to the media, or holding his hand as he walks into the courtroom. Presumably she, he or his or her advisers have carefully chosen what she is going to wear and what she is going to say or not say so that her husband and she can get through this unfortunate turn of events as best they can. And, of course, it is the insider trading, defrauding clients, colluding to drive up prices, the selling of products known to be toxic, etc., that bought their beach house and paid the catering and landscaping bills and the cost of the helicopters and limousines to get to the beach and back. Both husband and wife were all in. You might say that breaking the law was both inevitable and incidental. They didn’t know what else to do with their lives except go all in.


Source, Final Note and Credit

In Jean-Jacques Rousseau–the Quest, Lester Crocker reports that by 1772 the number of children abandoned yearly in Paris was more than 40 percent of the total number of births. “No less than two-thirds [of these children] died in their first year; fourteen out of a hundred survived to the age of seven. Of the five out of a hundred who reached maturity, almost all became beggars or vagabonds.” The statistics regarding children in New York in the nineteenth century are no more heart-warming, and how many children nowadays are in one sense or another abandoned, or partially abandoned, and become beggars, vagabonds or prostitutes (in or out of business and politics)? Setting this down here I feel a kind of swirling, a swirling around senses of human potential and human behavior and what it means not to go all in, but to be all in, your back against a wall, be it a wall of penury, shame, mortality, self-respect. This reminds me, too, of the older use of the words, to be “all in”—very tired, worn out.

Image is from the New York Public Library’s “Digital Gallery.” The photograph is titled “Hungarian mother and child.” The source is “The Pageant of America” Collection, volume 5: The epic of industry (unpublished photographs); Immigrants and immigration.

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