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.
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.