April Fools’ Day is a special kind of holiday, a day when it’s okay for you play jokes on your friends. You’re allowed — encouraged, even — to be deceitful, to lie, and as a result to profit at others’ expense.
If you think about it, April Fools’ Day is a little like being at a poker table. In both situations it’s fine for you to try to trick others. In both you are also constantly on the lookout for others trying to trick you. And it’s all okay, permitted by the “rules” of the game (or day).
In a way, April Fools’ Day is all about bluffing — and bluff catching.
There are a few ways such joke-making could be said to resemble the different kinds of deception that inform poker strategy.
Our friend Joe Stapleton of PokerStars TV has been known to crack wise now and then while commenting on poker. I thought I’d ask him about how telling a joke can be like making a bluff.
“What I like best about both bluffs and jokes is that in both cases, it’s actually acceptable to lie,” Stapleton says. “Nobody is going to get mad at you afterward for lying. Well, not usually.”
He’s right. If you can pull off a bluff, well, that’s part of the game. Similarly, when you say “knock-knock” and someone answers “who’s there?” no one expects you to respond truthfully. It’s make-believe time.
As Stapleton points out: “No one ever says WHAT? You mean a priest, a rabbi, and a minister WEREN’T all in lifeboat altogether? F*** YOU!”
Knowing how to tell a joke isn’t that far removed from knowing how to play poker. In fact, the April Fools’ prank actually evokes a common formula for joke-telling.
As you surf the web on April 1, you might well come across a headline or three purporting to be real that is in fact a complete fiction. More than you usually do, anyway.
One of my favorite examples of this sort of thing was George Plimpton’s article for the April 1, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated about an up-and-coming pitching prospect for the New York Mets named Hayden Siddhartha “Sidd” Finch who could reportedly throw a fastball 168 miles per hour.
Some readers, missing the date, believed the story. After all, there were photos of the guy (or a guy) in uniform with current Mets players. And even though a lot of the details of Finch’s story seemed outrageous, there was no disclaimer suggesting any of it might be fake. Heck, baseball season was just starting, a time when baseball fans are more willing than usual to dream.
Mets fans in particular were thrilled.
Lots of jokes work in a similar way. If you buy the set-up, the joke has a better chance to land. Same goes for bluffing. If your opponent thinks your big bet is “truthful,” you’re more likely to earn the fold you desire.
“The more believable each one is, the more likely they are to have the desired effect,” Stapleton says. “This is why you laugh much harder at a ‘guy does into a doctor’s office’ joke than a ‘two dinosaurs were waiting in line at the DMV’ joke.”
“If not, I’d really like to play poker with you,” he adds.
So two dinosaurs were playing poker, and one of them check-raised all in. Problem was, he clearly had a drawing hand and no straights or flushes were possible. The story wasn’t believable, the other dino called, and the bluffer’s stack was suddenly extinct.
Bad bluff. Bad joke, too.
“If your joke or bluff isn’t believable, you don’t get paid off,” Stapleton says. “‘This is not a credible line’ could be used to describe both a bad bluff and a bad joke.”
Players who are consistently successful in online or live tournaments and cash games know the importance of building credibility before bluffing, be it over the course of previous hands or on earlier betting rounds.
The same goes for joke teller. If the audience doesn’t buy it — or (more often) isn’t willing to suspend disbelief — there ain’t gonna be any payoff.
So keep all that in mind, jokesters, when you slip on your poker face and try to bluff your friends and co-workers today. Lie proudly, make it believable, and get paid.