Victoria Coren Mitchell - Writer, Broadcaster & Poker Player

No Politics At The Poker Table?

Sunday, 24 August 2014

  This is one of the most interesting poker debates I’ve seen in ages. At the televised final table of the EPT Barcelona High Roller, two players wore T-shirts reading, respectively, “Free Palestine” and “Save Gaza”. Robbie Strazynski, writing on his popular CardPlayerLifestyle blog, began tweeting that PokerStars and EPT Live should not have allowed these T-shirts to be worn, communicating with the live commentators on the subject. He then pressed PokerStars for a policy, inspiring them to reply with the announcement of a new rule for their poker tournaments: that “political statements” may not be worn or displayed.

  Robbie Strazynski’s (long) article about the case is here, and there is a strong counter-argument from poker media legend Nolan Dalla here.

  What an interesting and complex dilemma. It’s impossible to know anything at all about the history of the world and not be alarmed at the thought of political statement-making being banned. It also presents a practical difficulty: what constitutes a “political statement”? (As Daniel Negreanu said, “Save Gaza” is a pretty vague and open statement, selective but not necessarily political). It’s like asking “What is offensive?”

  Some people have asked for my view on the rights and wrongs of the case. My view is, basically: there are troublemakers at work here. They include players who would don statement T-shirts at the moment a TV broadcast kicks in, but they certainly include Robbie Strazynski as well.

  I don’t love the new rule, but the EPT was put in a very difficult position. It wouldn’t have been a big deal that these guys wore the T-shirts, if a media storm hadn’t blown up over it and the commentators and officials hadn’t been pressed for formal comment. But once it had, and they were asked to rule, their options were all awful.

- If they said “It is an absolute rule that players may wear any slogans they like”, they’d be opening themselves up to terrible risks from mischievous poker players; there are some bad people in the gaming world and PokerStars can’t give blanket advance approval to anything that might come up – no broadcaster could.

- If they said they had no problem with these particular slogans, people might consider “Free Palestine” to be a partisan statement with which the EPT is choosing to align itself.

- Whatever they said, the blaze of attention on the events at this final table created a strong possibility of future TV or internet broadcasts being hijacked by sloganeering, ruining the inclusive spirit of the game.

  So they opted for saying “no political slogans”, which I hope was a bit of short-term troubleshooting that will be quietly forgotten when the storm’s blown over. If not, well, it’s their tournament and they can make whatever rules they want, as long as players know them in advance. Their freedom to run their own tournaments how they like is not less important than an individual’s freedom to wear what he likes.

  To my mind, what should have happened, once the players had worn the T-shirts, is: people who thought they shouldn’t have worn them would express themselves freely in response, but without calling for bans and rules then going to the authorities specifically to request them. I’ve encountered all sorts of offensive types at the poker table, and can imagine things they’d wear that would qualify for that, but I’m free simply to conclude they’re a bit of a dick. On a bad day (or good day, depending on how you look at it), I’ve informed them of my conclusion. But I don’t try to ban them from anything. Even when a guy I played with regularly, back in the day, turned out to be a dispenser of neo-Nazi literature, I didn’t say he should be barred from the casino – I just chose not to sit down with him.

  Robbie Strazynski says that politics should not be discussed during a poker game, and I agree - that is an old, old unwritten rule of poker. No politics or religion at the table. The more people who have the sense and grace to abide by that, the happier the game. But “unwritten” is the key. Its beauty is the players’ choice to follow it. In the above CardplayerLifestyle article, Mr Strazynski is actually “calling on tournament officials” to “prohibit political statements at the tables.” Verbal ones?! How does he imagine this being policed? Will he lobby PokerStars to have someone standing at each table, listening to the conversation and barring anyone who expresses a subjective view?

  I work with PokerStars on Team Pro, so maybe I’m more sympathetic to their problems than your average bystander, but God help us all if that rule came in and players started testing the boundaries to see what happens. Besides, I bang on enough about how sad it is that so many modern players sit in silence or listen to iPods at the table; the game really doesn’t need any more disincentive to conversation. It’s not the Olympic 400 metres. It’s a social game.

  I can only hope Stars ignore this call for the “no politics” rule to be rolled out into table talk; floor managers already have the discretion to act on a case-by-case basis if arguments start, and that’s enough.

  Mr Strazynski is an admired poker writer. I understand his opinion and respect his right to express it; I hope that’s mutual, because I don’t mean anything personally. But this strikes me as an example of a common and ancient danger, which feels more prevalent than ever since the rise of social media: the failure to distinguish between thinking somebody shouldn’t do something and that they shouldn’t be allowed to do something.


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Ben Armitage at 11:23 am on August 24th, 2014

What consititutes politics? How about a Che Guevara T Shirt? A yes we can T Shirt (god forbid an ‘I agree with Nick’) slogan. Poker players dress code has always been questionable, I would rather ban dirty clothes than controversial ones….

Tony Turtle at 11:26 am on August 24th, 2014

All the EPT needed to do is to add a rider to the televised final that “Any political statements or logos do not necessarily represent the feelings of the EPT”.  Job done.

I don’t think that t-shirt protests work, people tune them out after a few minutes and a shirt saying “Thou Shalt Not Kill” or “Exodus 20:13” would that be called a “political statement”? 

Willie Elliot at 12:29 pm on August 24th, 2014

Hi Vicky

My view is this.

There are 2 issues here.

The poker tournament belongs to the players, we pay for it, the organisers work for us, they are our admin.  Anything interfering with player’s (legal) freedoms is unaceptable.  Anything interfering with the smooth & normal operation of the tournament, like removing players for fashion choices, that is unaceptable.

The tournament is broadcast (livestream & TV), in part for entertainment, in part for promotion of the PokerStars brand.  I’m brand loyal, I only play on Stars.  Every member of stars staff I’ve had the pleasure to meet have been brilliant.  They are the best in the game.  From dealers & TDs, to bloggers, to hosts, to team pros, to management, they’re a great bunch.  I like PokerStars and think they do a great job.

But…  The political statements are a problem for these broadcasts, they are not a problem for the tournament.  Political statements that might affect sensitive markets, I get that this is a problem for the promotion and marketing of the brand.  But the promotional/entertainment broadcasts should absolutely not interfere with the normal & smooth running of the tournament.

The integrity of the tournament is and should always be the priority.  Everything else is secondary including the broadcasts.

The integrity of the tournament is paramount.  Broadcasters issues should never interfere with this.

Removing players, and was suggested should have been done, removing both Busquet & Coleman from the SHR final table if they didn’t take off the t-shirts, that would breach the integrity of the game, and it is our game.  There is no game to broadcast without the players, we pay the costs to stage it, poker belongs to the players.  This needs stated loud & clear, especially in light of this ban.

Gregor at 12:35 pm on August 24th, 2014

“No politics” is however political, by the strict use of language. How can you enforce a rule that ultimately bans itself? (Regardless of how much of an expletive you would look arguing that one).

Vicky, your last sentence is an extension of the “professionally offended” class of person that’s risen over the last few years.

The best thing they could have done would have been make no comment, that would have killed any story instantly, and anyone trying to push it further would just start looking petty. They would also then retain the ability to make judgement calls on a case by case basis…

BeverleyMaca at 1:03 pm on August 24th, 2014

I think the ban is right. This was no place for these t-shirts. I found it a strange juxtaposition to see these 2 men smiling and laughing whilst purporting to care about the conflict in Palestine. Came across more like an attempt to appear cool than genuine concern. None of the other players seemed bothered by it but then there were no Israeli’s at the table, but had there been that could have been problematic. So I applaud Pokerstars for their quick and decisive action.

from Robbie Strazynski (by email) at 1:26 pm on August 24th, 2014

Of course I’m not mad at you Victoria! Heaven forbid. This is all about open and honest debate and stirring up discussion.

While I can’t say that I love being called a “troublemaker”, I’ve been called plenty worse, so no worries :-)

You write that “It wouldn’t have been a big deal that these guys wore the T-shirts, if a media storm hadn’t blown up over it and the commentators and officials hadn’t been pressed for formal comment. But once it had, and they were asked to rule, their options were all awful.”

I think an important point must be made:: Yes, unfortunately PokerStars was put in a tough spot. But I don’t believe this can be construed to be my fault. I was not the one who wore a T-shirt at one of their live events. I was also not the only one voicing my opinions via the live stream Tweeting, though perhaps I was the most persistent and vocal one.

Of course it wouldn’t have been a big deal if nobody said anything about the shirts. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it…

But the shirts were worn and thus Mr Busquet and Mr Colman opened the situation up to scrutiny and resultantly placed PokerStars in that predicament once viewers made a point about it.

Re: “being a troublemaker”, I’ll just reiterate what I wrote in my op-ed:

“In multiple tweets back to me yesterday (all of which, I am obligated to point out, have for some reason been deleted) one of the EPT commentators said, among other things, that I was the one bringing attention to the issue (as opposed to the players). Respectfully, again, I believe that’s part of my role as a poker writer. I’m not the one playing in the event and wearing a shirt with a political agenda.”

You say that what ought to have happened was that “people who thought they shouldn’t have worn them would express themselves freely in response, but without calling for bans and rules then going to the authorities specifically to request them.”

Respectfully, Victoria, how would that have been “expressing myself freely” if I were to prevent myself from calling for a ban? I do believe that I did the right thing by approaching PokerStars respectfully and politely to ask for their statement of policy. Yes, they seem to have been put in a very awkward situation and forced into a corner, but I’ll maintain that I just asked the questions - I didn’t wear the provocative t-shirt. This debate wasn’t sparked by me. The pilot light was lit by the players. I just made sure to the best of my ability that the world could see the fire they ignited.

I agree that my concluding statement wasn’t clear enough - thank you for questioning it Victoria. Obviously nobody can “police” what players do and don’t talk about. Let them talk freely amongst themselves. A shirt would be considered a public (i.e., beyond the confines of the table) expression of a political position.

Also, importantly, I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that about 12 hours ago I wrote a lengthy reply to Nolan’s post. Here it is.

Nolan brilliantly challenged me on a number of points, which I answered one at a time in my follow up op-ed.

Thank you so much for your kind, sweet words, calling me an “admired poker writer”. I’m truly humbled by that description and honored that the poker community is discussing so seriously what I have to say on this important issue. I will continue working hard to inspire constructive debate among all members of the poker community.

Specific thanks as well for mentioning me and linking to my article as well as Nolan Dalla’s. Sadly, not all websites are giving us equal footing - which is the issue I tackle at the end of my follow-up response.

Willie Elliot at 3:11 pm on August 24th, 2014

Hi Robbie ^^^^

If these t-shirts were worn mid tournament at an outer table, or on the final table of a non televised side event, there would have been no issue.

But they were worn during a televised/livestream broadcast final table.

Should the fact that a host wants to broadcast the event really interfere with the normal running of a tournament.  Specifically removing players from play for non poker related matters.

Should the integrity of the competition be compromised, just because someone wants to broadcast it?  Is that really justified?  Does the broadcast really take priority over the integrity of the players tournament.

And what they want to broadcast is these intelligent articulate compassionate people, who are comfortable making political statements through what they wear.

The Camel at 3:34 pm on August 24th, 2014

Mr Strazynski seems like he should find something better to do with his time than complaining about harmless statements on poker players t shirts.

If the shirts had stated “Israel is committing genocide”, then sure I can see why someone would be offended.

But I have seen way more offensive slogans on shirts walking around in Darlington town centre than these.

In short. Mind your own business sir.

Willie Elliot at 3:44 pm on August 24th, 2014

The Ban. (If this ban is legal in Europe, if it doesn’t breach Art. 10 of ECHR - freedom of expression).

What if a business that offers goods or services to the public on its privately owned premises, like a shop, or a bar, or a hotel, refused admission to someone wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ t-shirt, on the grounds their business is for the purpose of commercial selling of those goods or services, not for making political statements that may offend other customers. Is that right?  Is that reasonable?

What if that t-shirt said ‘I support Israel’.  Could that business really refuse them admission.


Willie Elliot at 3:50 pm on August 24th, 2014

What if that business refused entry to a Hasidic Jew or someone wearing a burqa or a turban, because they didn’t want overtly religous clothing that might offend other customers.

It’s a slippery slope when you start to infringe peoples freedoms.  History has taught us this.  Freedom of expression deserves to be defended even if it is uncomfortable, because the alternative is much worse.


Ken Gelber at 5:45 pm on August 24th, 2014

Victoria, your reference to “the history of the world” and your alarm is misplaced. Quite frankly you need not go back in history at all. To my knowledge there is no sports league of any repute anywhere in the world that allows competitors to wear anything that makes any kind of political statement. Therefore a ban on wearing political statements during a contested event is totally in-line with current worldwide sports policy.sports. Furthermore, I do not think anybody is suggesting that any competitor cannot only have an opinion but also have the right to state it publicly is NOT being questioned. Just not at the venue of and during the contest.

NickQ at 11:31 pm on August 24th, 2014

“....the failure to distinguish between thinking somebody shouldn’t do something and that they shouldn’t be allowed to do something.”

Reminds me of a quote by Tom Waits which seems appropriate - “A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn’t.”

Willie Elliot at 12:59 am on August 25th, 2014

^^^^ Ken Gelber

Poker is like no other sport.  Footballers, F1 drivers etc… they don’t have to pay to get into the stadium, they are paid to be there. 

Poker players pay and pay handsomly for the privilige of competing (sponsored pros are the only exception).

In that respect, poker players have more in common with the spectators in the crowd.  They may be in the line of sight of cameras and a ‘Free Palestine’ t-shirt might cause consternation to a viewer in Tel Aviv, or an “I support Israel” t-shirt might get a reaction in Hebron, but it is beyond the remit of the FA or of FIFA to say, you cannot wear that t-shirt in the stadium, because we’re televising this event and our sponsors have markets that may get upset.

seven2off at 6:55 pm on August 26th, 2014

Are you aware of a petition on set up by Gillian Thompson regarding the horrifying death of her brother David Clapson a former British soldier who died from starvation as a result of Iain Duncan Smiths barbaric and negligent reforms to the Social Security system…?

Perhaps you could take a moment to read her story and sign this petition calling for an independent public inquiry, unless you are unmoved.

If you do choose to add your signature perhaps you could mention having done so on your Twitter account…

People need to know about this.

Allie J at 12:14 pm on August 27th, 2014

I think it would be totally different if they were wearing the t shirts anyway and moved to a TV table. To put them on when the cameras started was, okay to look kindly they were looking for attention on an issue they care about, but in the end they will not solve the middle east crisis with t shirts at a poker table and it seems to me that all they would create is tension and awkwardness for the other people at that table.

Alan G at 2:31 pm on August 28th, 2014

I think the best line that Stars can take is similar to that of the WSOP.  They should reserve the right to reject clothing or slogans that are “likely to cause offence”, and the right for their representatives on the ground to make that call.  Those people can take into account context, such as where the event is and whether anyone has complained.

I think freedom of speech is incredibly important in public venues, and state control is dangerous, but private events are different.  I want poker tables to be free from anything that makes people uncomfortable, be it slogans, racist or misogynist table talk, etc.  This line still has scope for controversy at the edges, but it is better for Stars to avoid having to draw lines as a corporation.

Darren at 11:05 pm on September 2nd, 2014

Vicky, you nailed it!

Victoria Coren

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