Kaleidoscope on Netflix: The poker player’s guide

Brad Willis
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Posted on: January 6, 2023 2:45 pm EST

Outside of random bear attacks and teenage love, I’m not sure anything can mash the adrenaline button quite as hard as being dropped in the middle of a foreign place in which your success or survival depends on having to learn as quickly as possible. That’s probably how I ended up playing poker. 

Sure, I love playing with friends. I love playing with the local regs. But, for my money, neither of those is as exciting as being sent to a random seat and being forced to learn people and their tells like my bankroll depended on it (which it often does). 

There are people other than poker players who do this kind of thing for a living. Law enforcement officers, major league baseball pitchers, bounty hunters….you get the idea. I’m too lawless to be a cop and my changeup sucks, so I’m not getting my jollies that way. 

Moreover, I don’t get to play poker as often as I like, and it’s not easy (outside of looking for bears in the Carolina mountains) to find a reasonable substitute to scratch that adrenaline itch. So, I seek out what I think of as “Quantum Leap” games and situations to sate my need for sussing things out on the fly. 

A while back, I stumbled on GeoGuesser, a game that randomly drops the player somewhere in the world via Google Street View. From there, it’s up to the player to walk around and use context clues to determine where they are in the world. The closer you are to your guess, the more points you get. It might be the travel nerd in me, but being able to guess within a half a kilometer of where I land in Argentina using only Google Street View for clues….well, that’s going to trump Angry Birds and Doodle Jump all day long. 

Last week, I discovered a new TV series that–while not a game–challenged my brain in much the same way. 

Pick a color, (almost) any color

Kaleidoscope stars Giancarlo Esposito (you will know him from his role as Gus Fring in the Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul worlds). At its core, the show is just another heist series with hints and homages of Ocean’s 11, Die Hard, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, the Thomas Crown Affair, The Italian Job, Heist, and the under-appreciated American Animals.

At first blush, Kaleidoscope seems like a gimmick show. And I suppose it is a gimmick, but it’s a good one. Here’s the concept:

All of the episodes of the series are titled with the names of colors. Alphabetically those episodes are: Blue, Green, Orange, Pink, Red, Violet, White, and Yellow. To play this non-game game in its purest form, you only need to follow one rule: watch episode White last. 

Other than that, watch in whatever order you want. You can look up how to watch chronologically, but I wouldn’t recommend it. When I watched, my wife picked a color other than White, and we watched whatever color she picked each time. If I’d had it to do again, I’d probably plug all the colors except white into Random.org and let it pick for me. 

I could tell you more about the show and how it operates, but that would likely take some of the fun out of it for you. The only additional information you need is this: each episode represents a particular time period in days, months, or years surrounding the central heist. 

A reasonable (if, perhaps slightly boring) person might ask, “Why bother with all this? Why not just tell the story chronologically?”

If you’re a fan of Pulp Fiction, you’re not asking that question. If you’re not, there’s still a reason to do watch, and it has to do with the power of observation, memory, and context clues. 

You know…like poker stuff.

You know nothing…yet

I happened to drop into Kaleidoscope during an episode that at first seemed like it explained nothing, had no role in the central plot, and might have been a throw-away. I still watched closely during every scene. I listened for clues to the future (and the past!) in the dialog. I tried to suss out the motivation in the character development and the writing. I looked for red herrings and MacGuffins. At the episode’s end, I found myself saying, “Okaaaaaayyyy…” because I didn’t know much, but I knew more than I did before I started the next episode. 

Each new episode was the same experience. More learning, more knowledge, both coming with attention to as much as I could follow. 

And I followed. Each episode was a new way to learn, adjust my thinking, confirm suspicions, and throw out bad information. 

While that’s cool, the way I learned everything in the show wasn’t something the writers of the series could predict, because they had no idea about the order in which I’d watch or how I’d process what I saw. While there are tropes aplenty in the series, they aren’t the kind of tropes that will give away the story because no matter how you watch it, you’re watching it in an unpredictable order. The writers counted on their talent to tell a story and counted on us to pay attention well enough to make their gimmick work. 

That gimmick is this: the exponential math is crazy, but if you follow the rules and save White for last, there are literally thousands of ways to watch Kaleidoscope. (If you break the rules and don’t save White until the end, that number goes exponentially higher, of course). There will be people out there who watched in the same order I watched, but I would have a hard time finding those people at the grocery store today. 

I came to think of each episode as the rough equivalent of an hour at a poker table full of randoms. You begin with nothing, you develop information, you’re introduced to new people, some people cash out, and the hours pass. The longer you sit, the more you know…if you’re paying attention. 

Just like in a random poker game, watching Kaleidoscope episodes in certain order will make it easier to follow than if you watched in another random order. Just like in a poker game, paying close attention to detail will make the experience more rewarding. Piecing together a small detail with something you heard three episodes earlier feels like spotting a tell.

Unlike poker, there is no reward for figuring things out faster than others. But then again, if you’re only playing poker for the money, you probably should have picked a different job, anyway. 

I, for better or worse, chose the poker industry because I can’t afford to be bored. In a world in an adrenaline drought, you can sometimes find a quick hit of the good stuff in unexpected places. I’ll take my fun where I can get it and with as few bear attacks as possible. Kaleidoscope fit that prescription just fine, no matter what color you pick.