Poker and Silence

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Poker and Silence

Poker and Silence

The photo of Dan Colman standing sullen-faced behind a pile of fifteen million dollars seemed to provide a sad, strange coda to the poker boom years. The poker press were quick to contrast it with the images of a gleeful Antonio Esfandiari standing barefooted on his stack of cash just two years previously. For others it stands as an inversion of those images of Chris Moneymaker holding aloft his bracelet amid a heap of a million dollars in 2003. For poker fans and players the question it seemed to ask is have we really fallen so far? If this great game has made so many so rich and given such pleasure to so many why can the press can no longer coax a few words, or even a smile, from the man at the pinnacle of the game?

I wasn't at all shocked when I heard that the winner of One Drop had refused to give an interview. I didn't know much about Colman prior to the tournament but pros' enthusiasm for the long-exalted dogma of 'promoting the game' has been flagging for some time. There already existed plenty of pros I admired who refused or disliked giving interviews for reasons other than shyness, and it couldn't be too long until one of them won something big. It's just remarkable that the occasion of it happening was a million dollar buy-in event.

In my limited time playing the circuit I've always enjoyed giving interviews. The poker media's generosity if you are even slightly forthcoming is overwhelming. There can't be many forms of competition where talented writers expend so much energy on casting the participants in a positive light. Nonetheless at least in the present moment there exists a disconnect between the very talented, hard-working group of people whose job it is to promote the game and the similarly talented and hard-working group of individuals who play it.

I'd like to suggest that it comes as a result of the way in which the poker ecology is evolving and the context in which the current generation of pros have come to prominence. By making clearer the contours of the present poker landscape perhaps we can all move forward together.

Colman and the One Drop

Like most poker fans I watched the ESPN footage of the One Drop with great interest. The tournament culminates with a fascinating heads-up confrontation between Colman and Daniel Negreanu. Given the two players contrasting ages, playing styles and dispositions to the media it becomes a match-up replete with symbolism.

Colman is portrayed throughout the ESPN footage as the protean youth, callow and unprepared. Negreanu by contrast is depicted as the mature and respectable finished article. Negreanu even wears the Mike Sexton approved suit for the final table, whilst the audience is continually reminded of the casual nature of Colman's attire. The tale is framed as that of the young impostor verses the people's ambassador. This, though, is not a movie and it's Colman who will be triumphant. One can quite easily imagine the coverage including a comedic cutaway, as Colman wins the final hand, to a dozen producers and journalists flinging off their headsets in frustration.

The maturity of Colman's conduct and the brilliance of his play throughout the heads-up match belie the commentator's attempt to frame him as the immature youth. In my eyes the heads up match plays out symbolically not so much as a clash between the shallow internet wizard and the sophisticated ambassador, but as a match in which we witness the final death throes of the 'feel-player' in poker and the triumphant raising of the banner of Game Theory. Throughout the final Negreanu repeatedly bets rivers far too thinly and his undoing is a King high call down when he reaches the river with very close to the bottom of his range. At one point Colman even calls out Negreanu's exact hand on the river - the TV trick for which Negreanu himself became famous. Negreanu is a remarkable man who has served poker fantastically but this is Colman's hour and the line-up of pros whom ESPN deploys to subtly disparage Colman's silence can do nothing to take the shine off his victory.

Many were angered by Colman's refusal to do a winners interview but he offered the community a cogent and humble accounting of his choices on two-plus-two. He has done little since his win to suggest he's insincere or unthinking about his motivations not to promote the game. To have ambivalence about your place in the world, how you make your living and your own privilege seems like a marked sign of maturity. This, of course, being the very quality that Colman's detractors accuse him of lacking. What will be interesting is to see is if Colman's stance becomes a trend and how even the possibility of pros being uncooperative with the promotion of the game affects the status quo.

Poker Pros and the Media

Colman's silence caused such consternation throughout the poker industry because of the crucial and rarely acknowledged importance the visibility of poker success stories has for the poker economy. The visibility and indeed audibility of high-profile poker pros is essential to the poker industry because they act as living proof of the way that poker differs from other forms of gambling. The industry promulgates two rather contradictory narratives of how poker functions. The first centres on the idea that anyone can win a poker tournament. This is needed to encourage a constant influx of losing amateurs and enthusiasts that they too could claim a big pay-day. The second is that this is a game of skill where some players excel in a similar manner to great athletes. If poker tournament winners were just a random series of individuals the game would, of course, be no different to a lottery. This is something that few countries would be willing to sanction within their borders. So the second narrative, of which the poker-pro is the natural exemplar, is needed to emphasise the game's large skill component. It's because the poker pro is so central to pokers narrative of legitimacy that there were such strong reactions to Colman's silence amongst the game's stakeholders.

The pros that the industry utilised to promote this vision of poker during the boom years were certainly a varied and charismatic bunch. If it was a golden time for a player building a bank-roll it was also I'm sure a golden period for TV producers and magazine editors looking for a character. These pros, we should also not forget, were lavishly remunerated for their visibility. If today's elite poker players are less willing to be shoe-horned into the role of 'E-dog,' or the 'Poker Brat' it has much to do with the extent they and their peers share in the money generated by poker. The generation that preceded the online players were invested in poker and the success of poker platforms in a very literal way. They were either effectively paid a wage by them through sponsorship, or in the case of Full Tilt they were actual shareholders in the company. When this is the case, of course you are naturally more willing to partake in the hype and excess that helps to either grow the game or a specific company.

With the exception of Negreanu, Esfandiari and a few others the generation of live players who emerged in the white heat of the poker boom has passed by the way side. Many failed to keep up with the game and the Full Tilt scandal disgraced others. The internet generation now has centre stage entirely cleared for themselves; the spotlight is theirs. However, there seems a great reluctance to make use of it. The reasons for this are manifold. Elite players' recalcitrance to the gaze of the media is at least partially to do with the lack sponsorship and perks that were the norm in the boom years as I've already outlined. The robberies and home invasion of Duhamel and Jorgensen as well as the hotel break-ins in Barcelona season ten spring immediately to mind as additional disincentives for a player to publicise his or her winnings. The prime factor I would venture though is the context in which the contemporary pro has built their bankroll.

The Modern Poker Pro

Society remains passively hostile to those of us who make our living from a game of cards. The contemporary poker player has to deal with the distrust of banks and landlords, the antipathy of friends and family and frequently a government who see your income as illegitimate but tax it anyway. These are challenges that the generation of Brunson or Hellmuth likely also faced. However, unlike previous generations of players, mine has also had to deal with corporations such as Full Tilt and UB where fellow pros enriched themselves on our rake, while demonstrating a criminal recklessness with our money and the community's trust. Those poker pros who are emerging into the spotlight today have overcome all of this and built their bankrolls without the benefits of rake-back, deposit bonuses and soft fields which eased the entry into poker six or seven years ago. Given these circumstances it's certainly understandable if they are happy to take their share of the money and are reluctant to do more.

I personally hope that our top pros do not follow Colman's lead and retreat from the spotlight. The game on the felt is a test of individual prowess but there is almost no poker player who rises to the top as an autodidact. The spread and evolution of the game's strategies is a remarkable tale that will likely never be told. Poker strategy has developed and advanced with such remarkable rapidity because of the strong friendships and alliances formed between players. Poker knowledge develops and mutates via huddled confabs at live events, over Skype and WhatsApp, friend helping friend; innovation and experimentation creating a tapestry of human connection that has crossed cultures and classes. It is this remarkable web of learning and self-improvement that binds players together as a fraternity.

I don't feel that those whose hard-work and good fortune takes them to the top owe the rest of us anything. However, I'd certainly rather the smartest and most talented members of my community use the opportunities they've won to play a role in moulding the future context in which we'll all play poker. We have, for instance, a lot better chance of gaining control of re-entry tournaments, or preventing the breach of the long maintained firewall between poker sites and other forms of gambling, if poker's elite players use their position as a means of amplifying the community's concerns. To completely abandon engagement and collaboration with the companies and organisations which will shape poker futures and retreat into silence is to risk seeing a game which has brought great opportunity to so many of our community turned into an empty table game.

One Drop Reprise

I'd like to conclude by returning briefly to the ESPN coverage of the One Drop. Perhaps the most gripping hand of the entire footage saw Scott Seiver bluffing Tobias Reinkemeier off pocket aces with six players remaining. The hand holds the spectator in thrall for a number of reasons beyond the huge stakes being played for. It's absorbing to watch the way in which Seiver manipulates the two players rapport to achieve his desired outcome. A tactic which makes Scott's showing of the bluff seem all the more cruel. What is most remarkable is that despite the intense scrutiny under which Reinkemeier places Seiver he seems at a complete loss at how to proceed. As Reinkemeier writhes in his chair we see a great player's mask slip away and his vulnerability laid bare. In this way viewers witness something that could be justifiably categorised as a great sporting moment - its drama transcending the mere intricacies of a specific game and revealing something human.

As a poker fan I'm in awe of the elite players that create these remarkable moments and grateful that the media is there to convey them to myself and a wider audience. As pros, though, we have to be aware that if we vacate the stage as soon as the actions done the void left behind is filled with a narrative that we have no hand in shaping. We shouldn't quickly forget that the space left by Colman's silence was filled by a thousand images of a unsmiling young man looking almost contemptuous of the giant pile of cash he had just won. If pros themselves don't set poker's agenda then others will do it for us, often to our and our community's detriment.   

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