There has been a great deal said and written in response to Joe Hachem's interview at the Aussie Million. Two pros whose opinions carry a lot of weight - Daniel Negreanu and Phil Galfond - have both responded at length and there have been numerous other articles and blogs inspired by the points Hachem made. This is because people genuinely seem to have concerns about whether the current crop of elite players have the ability to inspire future generations of poker players, they have concerns about younger pros conduct at the table both live and online, and they have concerns over the future growth of poker if the culture of the community doesn't change. These are some of my thoughts on the subject.
Hachem, Negreanu, and to a lesser extent, Galfond, all seem to agree that the old school pros who starred in High Stakes Poker and early WPT coverage as the poker boom exploded were more interesting and exciting than the generation that succeeded them. I'd like to take issue with this idea. I'd argue that many, if not all of the habits that the internet players are disparaged for have been taken from the best players of Hachem and Negreanu's generation. Indeed, a whole generations demeanour is modeled on exactly the behaviours they observed in the most successful pros of the poker 'boom'.
Let's think back to Phil Ivey, wearing a black hoody, rebluffing Paul Jackson with just Q high in the 2005 Monte Carlo Million. Wasn't it his ruthlessness, his control, even his quietude that set our pulses racing? He, like the internet kids that would try to emulate him, played from a very early age. He famously entered casinos on a fake I.D. and played out such long sessions he became known as 'No Home Jerome'. He didn't bring a colourful life story to those early years of WSOP coverage - how could he when his formative years were spent perfecting his craft? The importance of an almost monastic dedication to the game was part Ivey's bequeathal to those that came after him. Moreover, the black hoodie that Ivey wore while playing in Monte Carlo, alongside the emergence of Phil 'The Unabomber' Laak, was instrumental in creating a vogue for wearing hoodies at the table that is only just fading now. We still seem to be learning from Ivey to this day, with a number of top young pros imitating his trademark stare down, for a long time mocked of as a form outmoded theatrics, in order to intimidate opponents and acquire information.
Phil Hellmuth too displayed many of the traits that are supposedly the invention of the internet generation. Like them, he start at a very early age and was perceived as a precocious kid. He certainly talked strategy at the table (something Hachem claims the internet geniuses invented) and Hellmuth even went so far as to use his superior technical knowledge as a verbal club with which to attack weaker players. Similarly Chris 'Jesus' Ferguson, now of course a pariah in the community, was once the darling of the poker media exactly because of the qualities people find so objectionable in our contemporary notables. No one thought to attack his slow and analytical demeanour. Rather, praise was lavished on him for an approach that signaled to the wider public that poker required concentration and thought and could therefore be thought of as a type of sport.
The point I'm trying to make is that the stars of a decade ago didn't have traits that were somehow more marketable than those of the current generation. It's simply that their behaviour isn't being processed by the media in a different way. We made a hero out of Phil Hellmuth being fiercely competitive, supremely talented and occasionally petulant - does this not sound like Vanessa Selbst? Phil Ivey was intimidatingly robotic at the table whilst turning out results with unfathomable consistency - could this not be Mike McDonald? We have Kyle Julius, Tim Adams, Jake Cody, Melanie Weisener. These guys are huge characters and if this not being conveyed to the public it's a failure of the poker media and the site's marketing departments, not that of the player. A strange inversion has taken place where the current crop of stars and emerging players are being told to fit a certain model of behaviour that the public supposedly want. What needs to be emphasized is that it's the role of the poker players to be themselves and the role of the media and the corporate marketing teams to convey what's inspiring about them. It may well be that our excellent poker journalists need more time, money and resources to make this happen, but it can be done. Pokerstars frequently seem to want to bypass the pros altogether and take the seeming easier step of paying Rodger Federer six-figures to play a couple of high profile sit and go's. This I think is a mistake, one that in all likelihood is being made by a marketing executive who has never touched a pack of cards. You can't simply import the star power of Roger Federer, that won't excite people. On the court he is a god, but at the poker table he is no more remarkable than if Esfandiari were to don a pair of shorts and step onto a tennis court.
We need innovations in the way poker is marketed and investment in the people that do it. The videos focusing on the individual members of Pokerstars Team Online perhaps provides a model to follow. The media needs to go to the players and show their lives in all their complexity, not just how they play pocket tens from under the gun. Kristy and Sarah do a great job for Pokernews, and Marco's interviews in the hallway are great, but they can only convey a tiny fraction of what is happening at the WSOP through the summer. The Rio is absolutely overflowing with stories and personalities, but as a fan you get very little sense of it. I mean you can't even find how many chips your mate has when there's 18 left in a 5k let alone what's going on anywhere else.
High Stakes Poker is often seen as a high water mark of poker on TV and it certainly one of the things that got me into the game. What was so great about it was that it was a group of people – many of whom knew each other well – and the cameras followed them into their own setting. What I'm saying is that the TV company went to the players themselves, identified what it was that was unique and interesting about them as a group, and conveyed it to the public. Current TV models, most notably 'The Big Game' and 'The Shark Cage,' seem to be doing largely the opposite. They take poker pros out of their natural context and trying to turn poker into a glorified quiz show.
It's clear to anyone who competes in the modern game that the current crop of professionals can be as inspiring to the public as those that have preceded them. I am inspired by world champions like Pius and Greg, I'm inspired by Polish, Russian, French, and Lithuanian online pros who, like me, are trying to build a future for themselves in this game, and I am inspired every time I meet the warm and welcoming human being that exists behind an online screen name. Poker inspires me. We're as remarkable a subset of humans as you'll find in any sport. If we work together as a community and as an industry, and if we are truly open to each others' experiences, then poker can be bigger than we ever imagined.