Poker Pros Need to Knock Off the Cynicism and Effect Change

September 13, 2014

Sam Grafton wrote a thoughtful post on the hullabaloo that is Daniel Colman, and offered up a new perspective on why the poker pros of today may be reticent to oblige the media or promote themselves and the game that has made them famous.

Before I get into this, I want to make it clear that Grafton is not advocating this type of behavior, he is simply trying to explain the thought process behind it. Furthermore this doesn’t apply to all players, just a small group.

Grafton makes a lot of cogent points, but the general gist of his thoughts (that the current online generation of poker pros feel they are justified in their cynicism toward the plight of the industry they make their living from for example) are somewhat troubling.

I respect everyone’s opinion, but some poker pros often lose me when they start talking in these terms.

Whether they are talking up the merits of tournament structures or in this case, what is good for the growth of poker, or whatever the current issue of the day is. The reason they lose me is they often have a very narrow view of the situation, seeing things only through the eyes of a professional player, which translates to lots of talk about equity and mathematical formulas.

In other words, good for pros but not so much for poker in general.

The perfect example of this is Allen Kessler, as he thinks the majority of people actually care about a missing blind level in a tournament, when it’s only a very small group of professionals that do.

I doubt it’s intentional, it just comes from having a poker mind, and residing 24/7 in the poker world: a closed world where your views on the greater population become distorted. At some point you just assume everyone’s goals are the same.

For instance, when I used to work in a health club I was in very good shape (not so much anymore unfortunately) weighing about 195 lbs with a 32 inch waist and body fat under 10%. However, I always felt inadequate, whether it was the weights I was using, my body fat, or my overall size. This was completely due to the environment I found myself in day-in and day-out. There was always someone bigger, leaner, and stronger about.

Had I worked in an office somewhere I probably would have envisioned myself to be among the most in-shape people in the world, but event though I was likely in better shape than 99% of the population, it felt more like 75% based on my experiences.

Not only was my understanding of the overall health of the general population distorted, but so were my views on what motivated others to go to the gym.

The same holds true for poker pros.

It’s hard to understand what motivates the average 9-5 worker sitting in a poker game on a Friday night when your own motivations, and the motivations of most of the people you associate with are completely aligned.

Most don’t play to maximize their ROI. They don’t maintain a bankroll, They don’t go home and track my sessions or pore over hand histories. Wanting to win is still a factor, it’s more about enjoyment. They simply enjoy playing poker.

As Grafton explains it, online players play all day, talk to each other, study, and rarely venture out past their inner circle. Is it any wonder Colman thinks the poker world is “dark” and that people’s lives are being ruined by the game, one $10,000 buy-in at a time?

The reality is, it’s only a very, very tiny percentage of people that are losing more than a couple hundred dollars. But Colman doesn’t see this side of the poker world. He is ensconced in the cutthroat area where players are losing huge sums of money on a regular basis.

In this respect I’m reminded of the Nietzsche quote: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Poker Pros Are Simply Not Important

Because of this distortion, poker pros seem to overestimate their place in and their contributions to poker. Therefore, they also overestimate their own importance in the grand scheme of things.

As I said when Colman initially refused interviews, “who cares?” What would him talking change? What could he possibly say that would drive people to poker tables? How is his refusal to talk hurting the game?

As it turns out, him not talking was probably the best thing that could have happened for poker.

Pros see all players’ interests aligned, but as I explained above, they are not.

This is because the poker world has two customer bases: Poker pros and casual players. The latter group is extremely important to the ecosystem and makes up the bulk of players, probably 95%, but it’s the former group that is catered to and therefore sees themselves as the lifeblood of the game.

This may come as a shock to some, but poker pros are not only the lesser of the two groups when it comes to importance, they are almost completely unimportant.

Every poker pro in the world could disappear overnight and the games would go on, barely missing a beat.

On the other hand, if every losing player were to suddenly vanish, poker would find itself on the brink of death.

Poker became popular in 2003 not because of pros (99% of the viewers of the 2003 WSOP probably couldn’t name five poker players prior to watching the episodes), but because of the storytelling of ESPN and the drama of the game.

You Can Be Cynical If You Want To

I think my biggest issue with what Grafton’s article implies is the mindset of some of these young players. If someone wants to think they’ve made it in poker against all odds, opine, “what has poker ever done for me?” that’s their prerogative, but it’s simply a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

If this is the current zeitgeist poker is in trouble.

Feeling that everything previous generations of players had everything handed to them on a silver platter, while they themselves had to bust their ass and overcome adversity is a view almost devoid of reality.

If Grafton is correct, we seem to have a small but significant group of players with a distorted understanding of their significance to the game’s growth, filled with resentment towards the trailblazers who brought the game to its current standing (who, along with recreational players, they often openly mock), feel they alone have made it under the toughest conditions (the games are tougher, there are less rewards, etc.).

The fact of the matter is this would be no different than Lebron James laughing at Oscar Robertson’s athleticism or Michael Jordan’s dunking ability. Or modern physicists having disdain for Galileo.

Imagine the backlash they would receive if they openly stated such things?

It’s fine to think you are the best, or even say you are the best, but the mocking and disdain is distasteful. In every other field and endeavor people are able to look at the previous landscape and understand why the people that came before them were so great and how they created the current environment that is allowing them to thrive.

But not in poker.

In poker we seem to have a new generation that doesn’t celebrate the greatness of their predecessors, but instead celebrates themselves and all the adversity they had to face, as if poker simply sprang into being in 2003. It’s not overly surprising considering the selfish nature of the game, but the disdain often displayed is quite surprising.

At some point I am reminded of my grandparents and what they must have thought/think listening to their children and grandchildren complain about how difficult things are for them nowadays, and how older people just don’t understand the troubles of the modern world.

Do Something About It

More to the point, if you think things are so difficult in the modern poker world why are you not trying to effect change? Why the cynicism?

If you are unhappy with the current state of affairs  speak up, advocate, mobilize.

Alex Dreyfus has a really cool quote on his Facebook cover photo which reads, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”

Anyone in poker who thinks they owe the game nothing and the glory days are gone (the old, I need to look out for #1 attitude) would do well to dwell on this quote.

For instance, Grafton speaks of the stigma of poker players and how it has disenfranchised younger players:

“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.”

I’m sorry, but acting like a petulant child and using these obstacles as excuses isn’t going to change anything. Some of these players making huge amounts from the game may be satisfied with the status quo, but the rest of us who play poker for other reasons and aims don’t have to be and have just as much right to speak up as a millionaire pro.

You can keep your cynicism and continue to think that nothing will change, and the game will progress on as it is currently going (poker is becoming chess with less and less of player base) and you’ll simply have to work harder for less money as the practitioners continue to get better.

Then one day a new group of upstarts comes along and unseats you, probably laughing at you in the process.

Doing nothing isn’t going to make securing a mortgage any easier for you, or help explain to your family what it is you do for a living. If you don’t want to be denied a loan because you’re a poker player, then effect change.

You have the chance to be part of shaping poker’s future and do what you can to make sure, you, or the next generation of players, don’t have to rely solely on beating your peers in order to make money in poker. And that people look upon the game as a legitimate profession.

Maybe with the right amount of effort major sponsors will pour in and a Golden Age that will put the Poker Boom to shame will come to be.

It might not work, but as Larry Bird said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

If Grafton’s understanding of this new breed of modern poker players is correct (and he would know better than I) let’s just hope there are enough Sam Grafton’s to offset the cynics.

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