The Center Cannot Hold

In 1998’s Shut Up and Deal , Jesse May told you all you need to know about the poker world. My book, 2006’s Broke: A Poker Novel, was an afterword. In his June 1 blog, “Poker is going back to the Wolves”, Jesse said, “I looked around the room yesterday at six pm and it was nothing but lifers as far as the eye could see. Just a big group of all those with life sentences in poker and no other prospects and no contemplation that something else might come along if things go bad.”

As a Full Tilt pro, I have to contend with the fifth paragraph in Jesse’s blog:

“Many lifers showed up without patches, and their message was clear. I belong here, they said, you all know I do. Top drawer or case money, I’m a poker player first and last, in 2011 or 2054. One man, however, showed up wearing his patch and squeaking his high voice, and that was not cool. You’re supposed to leave your gang colors off at funerals, weddings, and when you’re behind on the rent. Anything else is just provocation, especially when there’s a satchel under your bed stuffed with sweatshop jeans made by 18-year old indentured grinders that you gave minimum wage. It was no wonder that tempers got raised.”

I think this is harsh. I expect to wear a Full Tilt patch during most of the Series. I’ll do this not because Full Tilt tells me to (indeed, Full Tilt sent out an email to US pros that leaves all US deals in an ambiguous standing) and not because I have a self-interest in doing so. Obviously it’s more convenient not to wear a patch on any given day, given the scorn and media interest one might receive, and certainly one doesn’t expect financial benefit from wearing a patch (my deal, for instance, only awards money if the patch is shown on TV, but one is not allowed to wear poker site logos on feature tables this year).

I’ll wear a patch more out of loyalty, because I know and like the Full Tilt guys, and I trust them to do the right thing. Along with everyone else in poker, I’m devastated by the fact that the poker world is being ripped apart, and I’m horrified by the fact that Full Tilt hasn’t been able to meet its obligations in the short-term.

I’ll also be wearing a Full Tilt patch out of fear. Like Jesse, I also see poker going back to the wolves, but, unlike him, I view this as the worst thing imaginable. Many of the best people I’ve come across in poker are associated with Full Tilt, and, in my mind, rightly or wrongly, if they fail to do the right thing and Full Tilt goes down, then poker will have gone fully back to the wolves.

Why the fear? Shut Up and Deal is the best poker novel because Jesse May recognizes, without coming out and saying as much, that a world ruled by addiction and self-delusion can never look anything like the normal world and will never play by its rules. This is a point missed by most posts in the blogosphere, the twittersphere, and the poker forums.
Poker is a lifestyle masquerading as a career path. And as lifestyles go, it’s not a particularly healthy or sustainable one (But is a lot of fun). The online poker sites sort of successfully sold the idea of poker as a career path (obviously it was in their interest to do so), and now many people look at poker as almost like a normal industry, something that with a little effort they will be able to understand and comment on.

The thing is: poker doesn’t work that way. After being around poker for a very long time, I can tell you that it’s all shadows, blue pills, and unpealed layers. You always think you understand, but you don’t.

My fear is simply that, if Full Tilt can’t hold it together, poker will enter a dark phase.
It’s notable that since Moneymaker’s win in 2003 and the launch of the golden age of poker, there have been relatively few instances of violence in the poker world. Arguably, this has a lot to do with the legitimacy brought to the poker world by the major sites, and with the flood of money that the sites channeled from the outskirts of the poker world to the center.

To me, the threat of violence in gambling is the reason that we need regulation to hit the poker space as soon as possible. People have lost sight of the reasons why violence and gambling are natural bedfellows. First, gamblers are often sick and tend to run up debts. Since these debts are hard or impossible to collect using normal channels, force is often used. The gambling world tends to evolve over time towards people who use force (or are friendly with people who use force), for the simple reason that those are the people who get paid first. At present, many online players are entering the live world — I am sure they will win millions, but at the end they will have little hard coin and a lot of IOUs. Second, cheating and other angling is rampant in gambling, and the only protection is the threat of force. Third, because gambling is a cash economy that intersects with other, more dangerous cash economies, gamblers not protected by the threat of violence are open targets for extortion and theft.

The poker world rightly praises Pokerstars for its extreme efficiency in funding US withdrawals. I’ll admit that Pokerstars is, in a certain way of looking at the world, the perfectly run poker organization. It’s the most efficient and ruthless rake gathering machine ever created. I can admire that, I guess, but my heart is with Full Tilt. They’ve made amateurish mistakes at times, but Full Tilt is an organization run by poker players, with sympathy for the wellbeing of the overall poker community.
If Full Tilt does not pay back its players in the near term, they are worthy of scorn — we cannot excuse that. But I believe that they deserve just a little more patience in their efforts to overcome management mistakes and a government seizure.


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