The art of trash-talking in online poker.

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Aug. 3 2006 3:12 PM

"I Remember My First Beer, Too"

The art of trash-talking in online poker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

If you're hankering for some schoolyard name-calling, you could watch Yo Momma on MTV, or you could play a little online poker. At any given moment on most major poker sites, more than 20,000 people are playing—and half of them spend as much time calculating the pot odds as they do telling you that your mother's so ugly she makes blind kids cry. Whereas in real life calling someone's mother a terrorist whore might get you a head butt to the chest, online that same comment will be met with a round of "lol"s (laugh out loud) from the other players at the table, and a possible challenge from someone named "Harry Krak" to play heads-up poker. In other words, there aren't too many consequences.

In live poker, talking is a small but forceful component of the game. Many professional and amateur players keep their mouths running in the hope of rattling the other players. The comments can be pointed and direct ("You can't play with me"), jocular and teasing ("Show this man some love. I'm killing him."), or take the form of a running commentary, as if a jockey were calling the race he's in ("I'm taking this table down. You can't beat me. Look at these cards! I'll show you my hand and still win. King-10? Good hand, but nothing compared to my ace-King. I'm going to have to just go all in with these cards.").

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Blocking the banter out can be difficult, if not impossible. Poker, at its core, is a complicated game of bullshit. Players lie and lie again, and the more upset you are by trash-talking, the less likely you will be able to read your opponent. In a live card game everyone is doing something physical to disguise or expose a weakness. There are those trying to hide their "tells" with a combination of aloofness and distraction (headphones, hats, and sunglasses), and those trying to prey on a rookie player with a thinly veiled peacock dance (rifling chips, flipping their cards across the table, long, stern stares at an opponent's eyes). Online, what possible advantage can you have over your competitors? They are represented as computer animated figures on poker sites—the old lady with the pink purse; the stiff-backed man in the tuxedo; the goateed, tanned man in the blue tracksuit and gold chains. These pixels don't have a revealing eye roll or a betraying cough.

When playing online, you can try to keep tabs on the other players to learn their habits, but with thousands of people moving in and out of various tables, all with names such as Acebuster44, TizShowtime, and TopTitty19, it is almost impossible to fix on a weakling. If you sit in front of your computer and fidget and slump and cough and sneeze and cry, no one will notice. If your hands shake uncontrollably before hitting the 'raise' button, it won't make a bit of difference. So, how do players identify the easy money? They use the few fleeting seconds between cards and bets to be as nasty and as immature as possible to try to draw you out.

Because you have space for no more than half a dozen words, and the bets move quickly around the table, trash-talking is usually brief and uncorrected. This often causes snide remarks to have the quality of coming from a 12-year-old dyslexic with a mean streak: "Get a life, dubmass." If you play your hand poorly, you may get called a donkey or a fish, as in you went fishing for cards. Check-raise someone and get "bitch-slapped." Verbally, of course. Mothers and grandmothers are fair game, as is your place of employment—more often than not it's Taco Bell. While it's common enough to be handed the conciliatory 'nh' (nice hand), which requires a polite 'ty' (thank you), if you slow-play the table out of all their money, the abbreviations may turn to curse words.

For all the nasty talk, there's a kind of shared fraternity in the underlying suspicion that not everything is kosher in the online poker world. Pull a straight on the river, and someone will begin blaming the Web site for all their woes. Complaining about the cards you received, are about to receive, or should receive is de rigueur. Everything is a fix, unless of course you outplay your opponent, in which case you're just a genius, and "Losermcgeek" to your left "plays poker like two-bit garbage man."

Because everyone who trash-talks online comes across as a whiny adolescent, a good response to being teased and prodded is to ask, "Does your father know you're using his account?" or "I remember my first beer, too." Poker players may hate to admit it, but online poker's popularity is reminiscent of the hordes of nerdy boys playing Dungeons & Dragons in the late '70s and early '80s. Snappy remarks—"You will submit to my poker greatness"—have the ring of a 20-sided die. And when it's followed by six or seven other people writing "lmao" (laughing my ass off), there's more than a faint resemblance to Revenge of the Nerds.

Some players clearly pride themselves on their ability to type clever insults, but trash-talking online is of dubious value. One press of a button will block another player out. You also don't need a set of headphones to smother the noise, or a cool resolve to ignore suggestions about your sexual orientation. The attacks are often more humorous than scathing and end up scrolling down the screen and disappearing anyway. Although you may never think of your mother the same way again, wading into the virtual world of Internet poker is like stepping into a tub of stingless jellyfish.

Jacob Lewis is the managing editor of The New Yorker.