Monthly Archives: April 2016

Poker Dealers and the value of observation

If a regularly employed poker dealer works at his/her job for long enough, they see thousands upon thousands of Texas Hold’Em hands, and from their observation many can’t help but become better at reading everyone at the table… even if they can’t see the players’ cards unless the hands are shown down after the river. A lot of these dealers, after a while, can tell you who has what hand by the river of most pots, despite not seeing anyone’s cards, just based on how they played the hand… similar to how legendary poker star Daniel Negreanu can tell opponents what cards they have despite not seeing them.

Those dealers watch the same betting and playing patterns play out so many times that it’s akin to Mick Napier watching improv students or auditionees get a suggestion, and knowing exactly what they’re going to say or do to open a scene.

This isn’t some psychic or mentalist skill, so much as it’s the development of understanding the one thing common to all humanity: Behavior patterns. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we tend to follow similar behavior patterns in similar situations. Even when we deviate from the norm, we still fall into some sets of behavior patterns. And from learning those patterns, we also recognize deviations from those patterns, and can clue in to what they indicate.

What does this have to do with improv? Obviously, with poker, a deviation from a player’s normal pattern of betting, checking or folding can indicate a difference in the strength of one’s hand. It can indicate a bluff, or a monster hand, and an astute player can read into this observation and either call down a bluff or weak hand… or fold and avoid losing money to a stronger hand.

In improv, the benefit of watching a high volume of shows is that you recognize the patterns players fall into, what happens to the show when those patterns are followed, and can read into whether deviating from those patterns can benefit or harm the show. I’ve practiced a lot of improv, but I’ve also watched a lot of improv. I’ve heard of students who took time off and just watched shows without any expectation of participating… then came back to improv much better performers. Having seen time and again what works and what doesn’t, the player (even if rusty) has a better sense of what drives a fun and entertaining scene.

I’m not about to say that an experienced poker dealer can walk into the World Series of Poker and crush it, any more than a long time compulsive improv viewer can walk into Second City and kill it on the Mainstage. You still must practice and gain practical experience and ability, then work on demonstrating improvement.

But the road to get better becomes easier to follow when you spend extended time watching how others get there.

Revisiting ruts (and how to get out of them)

I had a friend mention being in a rut. I wrote about this almost a year ago, and a lot of that stuff is true. But since then I’ve found that a lot of the following activities I’ve learned are also helpful:

– Start the scene with a basic statement. Then respond to the scene partners’ next line by restating that statement in a different way. Notice how you restated the point, what words you used, how you said it, and follow whatever patterns emerge in how you subsequently respond to the scene. This is a Mick Napier exercise that often is quite fun.

– Be ridiculously specific. What will usually happen is that you will merely come across as specific to your audience. This is because we tend to be vague in our improv scenes. Forcing ourselves to go over the top with specificity makes our choices specific, and thus interesting.

– No one cares about the plot or narrative. Be okay with the scene being about nothing. Instead, find something (the other character, something in the room, a task) to focus on or filter the scene through, and do so to a ridiculous degree, much more so than is necessary.

– An old Kevin Mullaney exercise: Try to respond without any gaps in the dialogue. As soon as the other person finishes speaking, immediately respond off the top of your head. This is very Meisner Technique inspired, and it works. It gets you out of your head and present in the scene, because you don’t have much of a choice. And the dialogue flows the way a normal conversation would flow, which engages the audience.

– Decide immediately, the moment before you begin the scene, that you have a POV about your scene partner’s character. You love that person, you hate that person, you’re hiding something from that person’s view, you can’t get more than three steps away from that person, etc. Do the scene from that perspective and filter everything introduced through that. This is one example of what some improv schools call a “game”. You give yourself a game and then filter everything that happens through it.

– A Farrell Walsh exercise: Take a suggestion, or perhaps a word or phrase from the end of the previous scene. Quickly think of a personal memory that evokes some sort of emotional sense memory in you. Obviously don’t overthink it, since you have a split second to get in the scene, but find that emotional state and begin the next scene with that state of being. For example, I hear “greyhound” and quickly think of a horrid cross country bus ride I once took where the large dude next to me fell asleep on top of me. I remember how constricted and shitty that felt, and begin the next scene from that place.

– Declare a point of view that you believe to be true or an opinion on something you can talk about. “Nachos are always better at a Mexican restaurant” or “We should tax the rich 50% income tax with no deductions” or “The Mariners should probably play Dae Ho Lee more often.” Or take the opposite view of what you believe. Immediately make a statement about that and do the scene from that place. I sometimes start scenes by making some sort of statement I believe about some inane subject. Everything that comes after is filtered either through whatever I stated, or whatever character qualities I exuded when I started.

– Finally, and while I hope this goes without saying for many, it is crucial: Do not under any circumstances drop whatever the hell you came in with. Find a way to fit it into the scene, because that’s going to go way better than changing into whatever you think the scene is supposed to be about. If you come in thinking you’re a gruff cop, and the others in the scene establish you’re all kids on a playground, it’s way more fun for you to act like a kid who acts with the quality of a gruff cop, or maybe a cop who wants to be a kid again, or whatever. Commit hard to what you brought in while accepting whatever reality is created, and the resulting scene is probably going to be real funny.


I think any or all of this can be quite helpful for working through and busting out of an improv rut.