My Weekend with the iPod Hold’em App; or, In Search of Lost Time

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Last week I came into possession of Apple’s Texas Hold’em app for the iPod, a rare first-party title for Apple. (Seriously, who actually works for Apple in internal game development?) I already know I have serious problems controlling my appetite for both a) gaming and b) gambling, so maybe I should have treated this new acquisition more cautiously.

Only a timeline could express the full horror:

Saturday, 10 am: Credit where credit is due: it’s a well-designed little app. Especially pleasing is its natural fit with the touchscreen interface. When you muck your cards, you flick’em towards the dealer, just the way you would actually do when getting your ass beat at an actual casino. Similarly when you go all in, you literally push your chips into the center of the table. Just the way you actually would when you’re the short stack at the table and you’re staring at rags and mentally cursing Odin.

Saturday, noon: I notice a disturbing but familiar sensation. I recognize it from a Star Trek episode where the characters are randomly shifting and slipping forward in time. Little hunks of my day are disappearing. I also recognize this sensation from the 6 months when I kept a copy of NetHack on my Palm. The time is disappearing into Hold’em, without a trace.

Saturday, 5 pm: I am becoming over-invested in the game’s backgrounds. The conceit is that you’re working your way up through a hierarchy of poker venues. You start with a garage. You can actually see in the background that the artist has filled the garage with obsolete Mac models. Classics, iMacs, etc. I think one of them’s a Lisa. There’s even a poster for the disastrous round hockey-puck mouse. Cute. You can work your way up to other venues — the aquarium, the cruise ship, etc. — with higher buy-ins. But to do that you have to win, and if you lose at a higher level you fall back down to the beginning. So I’m spending a lot of time in the garage.

Saturday, 6 pm: I think I’m getting better. I’m not a great poker player, or a particularly outstanding math talent, but then again Hold’Em isn’t that complicated. I’m learning some discipline. I’m not getting overexcited about suited connectors. I’m not throwing good money after bad. I’m actually paying attention to the other players’ betting habits.

Saturday, 7 pm: If you touch your cards once, the game highlights a section of the border around them. The more of the border it highlights, the better it rates your hand. Man this thing loves suited connectors. Why? I vow not to consult the hand-rating feature any more.

Saturday, 7:30 pm: I am desperately pounding the hand-rating feature.

Saturday, 10 pm: I’ve gone from tracking the other players’ betting patterns to developing personal feelings for them. They filmed actors playing the different characters, see, and each one does a little canned routine every time they bet or fold or get busted out. If you tap them you can read the characters’ bios — where they’re from, how old they’re supposed to be, etc. There’s one dude whom I always try to bust because he reminds me of my girlfriend’s ex. Conversely there is one woman whom I have come to think of as “my girlfriend,” even though we have never met, and she doesn’t exist, and anyway I have a real girlfriend in real life. But I try to keep her in the game anyway.

Saturday, 11:30 pm: When you win a hand the dealer gives you a smile and a quick manly (but still professional) thumbs-up. We’re bonding. I feel that he is my friend. My winning makes him happy. Maybe should hang out sometime. You know, not in the game. Get a beer or something.

Sunday, 2 am: [deletes app]