Monday, July 21, 2014

Colman May Not, But I Owe Poker Everything

This is what it feels like to win $15 million!
This is what it feels like to win $15 million!

First off, I owe poker everything. I didn’t weigh in on the Daniel Colman debate during the 2014 World Series of Poker $1,000,000 Big One for One Drop mainly because I came down with pneumonia, and by the time I recovered, the WSOP had moved on. Even so, Colman’s actions and words have stuck with me, and I’ve finally found some time to write down my thoughts.

For those who may not be familiar with the situation, it basically boils down to this: The 23-year-old Colman won $15.3 million by taking down the Big One for One Drop, which is a tournament designed to benefit the One Drop Foundation. After winning, he refused to give the media interviews and had to be talked into doing a winner’s photo, one that will go down as perhaps the most pitiful in history.

Amid the backlash, which included being called an antihero by noted historian Jim McManus, the author of the poker classic Positively Fifth Street, Colman took to twoplustwo to explain himself, though he starts by saying, “I really don’t owe anyone an explanation, but I’ll give one.”

I respect Colman’s right to do as he likes, but I don’t respect the choice he made. The reason is simple, I am admittedly biased. It’s impossible for me to see his point of view because simply put I owe poker everything.

I don’t want this to become a Colman bashing piece. When I was in my early 20s, I was conflicted on many things, and Colman admits that he is conflicted when it comes to poker. I wish he would have smiled for the camera for fives minutes, gave a couple of boilerplate statements for the charity's sake, and the whole thing would never have been an issue; in fact, he probably would have gained the same enigmatic status that has made Phil Ivey such a superstar. Anyway, Colman didn’t go that route, and one day he may very well regret it.

Like Colman, I have “been fortunate enough to benefit financially from this game, but I have played it long enough to see the ugly side of this world.” He’s absolutely right when he says that pros aren’t “always happy and living a fulfilling life,” but it bothers me that he questions why “people care so much about poker’s well being” and that poker has a "net negative effect on the people playing it. Both financially and emotionally.”

I think I speak for everyone in this picture when I say we owe poker a lot.
I think I speak for everyone in this picture when I say we owe poker a lot.

Surely poker does have that effect on many players, but not everyone. As I said, I owe poker everything. Before I found this game and my place in it, I was wandering aimlessly through life. I graduated college, but from there I had no idea what I wanted to do. First it was law school, which lasted a year, and then it was on to teaching high school (what else was I going to do with a history degree?). Neither of those paths appealed to me, I just thought there was no other path (I'd have been terrible at both). Fortunately for me, poker showed me a different way to go.

Now my position is a bit different. I no longer play for a living (I did for awhile though), but rather work in the industry. I am a Senior News Editor for PokerNews, so my livelihood is directly tied to “poker’s well being.” That is why I care so much, Mr. Colman, and I'm sure dozens of my colleagues feel the same way.

On a personal level, poker has afforded me the vast majority of highlights in my life. I gained freedom from the nine-to-five workday, found a niche that I love, and have been able to provide for my family and friends. If not for poker I would never have been able to take my mom on a poker cruise of the Bahamas, marking the first time she’d ever seen the ocean. If not for poker I would never have been able to afford to take my dad on his dream whitewater rafting trip out west, nor helped him keep our family house. Such examples go on and on.

Thanks to poker, I’ve gotten to experience Europe, Australia, South America, Asia, and all sorts of places across North America. I’ve met wonderful people that I will count as lifelong friends at each and every one of the stops I've visited. In 2013 I had the experience of a lifetime when I was fortunate enough to win a WSOP gold bracelet while my friends and colleagues cheered me on. I didn’t win anywhere near $15 million, but the $84,915 that I did take home (actually less than half that as I was backed 50/50 and swapped 5% with a friend) certainly helped a lot.

Poker can be a dark game, but only if people make it that way. Personally, I’ve had the privilege of watching poker positively influences other people’s live on many occasions. One that sticks out in my mind is when poker helped raise money for a seven-year-old boy named Weston Keeton, who was awaiting a heart and double lung transplant. Unfortunately Weston passed, but poker financially helped his parents, Julie and Adam, and his six siblings in truly dark days.

I know what you mean when you say poker is a "dark game" – it still does tilt me, ruins my diet, and causes me to engage in self-destructive behavior from time to time – but there is a bright side. Unfortunately we don’t hear about it nor care about it as much as we should, though that's not specific to poker.

Case in point, my article on Weston Keeton currently has 3,047 hits. PokerNews’ articles on Germany’s Ali Tekintamgac cheating has 20,946 hits, Phil Ivey’s alleged Borgata cheating has 48,414 hits, and Christian Lusardi’s counterfeit chips at the Borgata Poker Open has 77,071 hits. Those numbers make me feel sad and conflicted, and that is a part of poker I hate. Like all news, the negative stuff his what people flock to, and while my job requires me to write such pieces, it doesn't stop stop me from writing charity and uplifting pieces, even if I know people won't read them. At the very least I feel like I am giving a little back to the game that’s given me so much, and it helps remind me why I fell in love with poker in the first place.

Again, the point of this post isn’t to bash Colman. As far as I’m concerned people can do whatever the hell they want. I just wanted to stand up for poker, because I owe it at least that much.


  1. I didn't follow the controversy at the time either. No disrespect to your profession at all, but I tend not to follow the poker community/culture too closely. (I have kids. 'Nuff said?).

    Anyway, if I were to play devil's advocate for Coleman, I think I'd go in the direction of pointing out that your position and his are really not in opposition. While it might be true that, in a strict sense, Coleman "owes poker a lot" (roughly 15 mil to be exact), and hence the fallout following his flippancy, I think that he would hold that pointing to other instances of individuals who have benefited greatly by the game would not detract from his position. That is, his position (or how I'm interpreting it) can absorb these instances, even assumes them.

    Coleman's malaise seems (to me) to stem from the innate pyramid involved in the game, and his pubic gesture seems aimed at the unspoken rule about addressing it too overtly.

    Sure he's benefited, you've benefited, and countless others. But you've done so on the backs of those who did not. (My apologies, that phrasing sounds so loaded. I don't intended it that way. I simply mean the degree of success the successful in this game have is directly tied to the quantity low skilled labor operating on the tier beneath you.)

    In sum, I don't think Coleman means to deny the benefit, but rather means to call attention to the preconditions that make it possible, and to point to a larger effect (perhaps both on a personal, and on a larger, social level) that an environment where those preconditions are operant has. (So not to get too nerdy with the analogies or anything, but in the same way that an Austrian or Conservative Economist would point to the negative social affects of the zero-sum mentality assumed by Keynesianism, so too here Coleman can surely grant the benefit of the few while bemoaning the effect on the masses... which seems to me to be what he's doing.). Dead money and demand-side economics are bedfellows

    Let's be real. There's a culture in poker. In large part it consists of fairly bright young folks all walking, talking, breathing poker strategy with one another (and wearing those stupid little skinny backpacks). It's hip, it's heady, and elitist. Hence the reason that so many of us, betrayed by the promise of higher education in one way or another, have found a home there.

    However - and here is the point - this culture is a facade. I don't mean it's not real. And I don't mean to deny the sincerity or significance of the relationships forged in it. What I mean to deny is that this is the true "wellspring" of Poker. Rather, it's a Potemkin village. It's not the bread and butter. The bread and butter is the noob, the rube, the donk. Not the wonk. And it seems possible to me that, despite the coarse manner in which he expressed it, underpinning Coleman's quip(s) is a somewhat sensitive social nerve that has been pinched between this appearance and reality a little too tightly, and is therefore flaring up.

    I'm taking some liberty, perhaps, in elaborating Coleman's position. I do so because in some ways I'm sympathetic to it. In many ways, the reaction to Coleman's antihero antics proves the whole point. After all, why would the "community" be so so upset with his posture unless it was... bad for poker? And what does "bad for poker" mean if it does not mean "dissuades new people from playing"? Everyone knows, and grants, that that's what it means. And I just think that, perhaps, Coleman has perhaps - in his own mind - traveled a long way down the road of extrapolating the effects of that mood/mentality that forms the true backdrop of the game, worries about its larger social significance, and wanted to take a golden moment that he was given in which to poke a hole in it.

    Alright, button's back around. Gotta play this hand. Thanks for letting me pontificate.

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