Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sexism, poker, and growing the game.

  As I’m sure most of you know, there has recently been a lot of discussion about the prevalence of sexism in poker, why this is a problem for the community, and (to a much lesser extent) how we can effectively combat behavior that makes women feel unwelcome at the poker table.  Some people believe that if we could reduce the amount of harassment women are subjected to down to zero, it would open the floodgates to a whole new demographic of players who could help grow the game and it’s economy. 

  My friend Justin Bonomo wrote a blog about the subject and highlighted a few examples of male poker players treating women in ways that should be beyond unacceptable to anyone with a moral compass that hasn’t been shattered to pieces. I have heard of a few cases of this myself over the course of the last few years, each time finding myself disgusted that ANYONE could behave this way, let alone someone I consider a peer. I don’t think these types of occurrences are at all reflective of the community at large, and unfortunately there are a lot of assholes in the world, so I imagine there will always be a few of them who slip through the cracks no matter how tightly we seal the door.

  Another friend, Cate Hall, wrote a very articulate piece on the topic, (using some words I admittedly had to google) and doing a fine job of explaining some of the ways in which this problem exists. I agree with her on much of this, as I have certainly witnessed men saying some really rude things to women at the table, and in a few cases I’ve seen them inappropriately touch a woman (hand on shoulder, unsolicited hug, etc), and this stuff is not cool. Additionally, I requested that the WPT Royal Flush Girls not be part of the final table photos in Montreal this week, as Cate and I totally agree that the idea of having female models walk around as eye candy for the sex-starved men who fill poker rooms is one that perpetuates the objectification of women, and makes poker look like a man’s game. I think gender specific marketing has no place in poker, and rather than portraying it as the extremely fascinating and fun game that it is, it cheapens it.
However, when Cate suggests that eradicating sexist behavior at the tables would bring "droves of inexperienced players with pristine bankrolls”, two things immediately came to mind:
  First of all, if there is a battle to fight against the mistreatment of women in poker, shouldn’t the intention be based on morality, not the idea that we can fatten our pockets if we make the game more appealing to women (especially if they are equally capable of learning to beat the game)? I understand that perhaps this is an easier way to motivate certain people into actually doing something about it (which again, we haven’t really heard what that is other than not be assholes ourselves), but I don’t think it is a very noble motive if the goal here is simply gender equality. 
  Second, I would be absolutely dumbfounded if this new influx of female players would come anywhere close to doubling the number of of people who sit down and play. I believe poker, much like golf, fishing, or chess, just happens to be one of those activities that doesn’t appeal as much to women as it does to men. Women comprise around 22% of golfers, 35% of Fishermen, and a whopping 3% of chess players! I don’t see anyone leading a crusade against sexism in those arenas, yet they each have a very disproportionate number of female participants. Is it possible, then, that poker is simply more appealing to men due to natural biological reasons, wage inequality, or as a result of gender role conditioning we’ve been subjected to over centuries of social evolution?
Of course, this does not mean that we shouldn’t seek to provide an equal opportunity for anyone who wants to sit down and buy-in, I simply don’t believe doing so would necessarily induce the next “poker boom'. 

  I would assume that almost all of the men who read blogs like Cate’s (which was posted on a site who’s audience is primarily women) or Justin’s (who’s following I’d imagine mostly consists of high level players who have some social skills and decency about them) probably already understand that they should not be disrespectful of women (or men, for that matter). So while it is great to talk about issues and try to change the way people act, it is important that the message is delivered to the right people, and I’m skeptical that this one is.

  I have played a fucking ton of live poker over the past 10 years, and though my memory is far from perfect, I would confidently bet that the number of times I have witnessed physical sexual harassment at the table to be less than a handful. I’m sure I’ve seen many cases of verbal harassment, and while disturbing, I don’t think there is a whole lot we can do about it other than speak up in defense of the target, which often just exacerbates the confrontation. 
Also, verbal harassment at the table is not exclusively targeted at women. I have seen men get into nasty verbal altercations more times than I can count. I have heard men say terrible things to other men. I have seen young men threaten old men. I have seen old men actually HIT young men. 
Besides, even if we did manage to teach every man who currently plays poker how to properly speak to a lady, there would continually be new men entering the arena, mostly coming from a world where, sadly, misogyny truly is a monumental issue. 

  If you ask me, guys wearing hoodies and headphones at the table and acting like robots rather than engaging with their fellow humans is a MUCH bigger issue in terms of repelling players from the game or drawing new ones in. I have seen countless recreational players (men AND women) leave a cash game because they were sick of how much some kid was tanking on every decision, or they got bored because nobody was making conversation. I’ve also heard many losing cash game players say they won’t play tournaments because they will deal with even more of the this type of behavior. 

  Recreational players are looking for just that, recreation. They are looking to have a good time, be entertained, socialize, meet new people, and in many cases feel like they are part of something more exciting than the boring, monotonous life they’ve settled into. If you were a 40 year old businessman who showed up to have a few drinks and play some poker, only to find yourself seated with a bunch of silent 20 somethings who are clearly focused on taking your money, do you think you’d find yourself eagerly wanting to come back again and lose more money? The answer is a resounding NO. 
 The job of a live professional poker player is as much an entertainer as it is an actual player. While being a math genius or having powerful intuition is great, it won’t get you very far if everyone you play against is on nearly the same level of understanding. If we want poker to thrive, it is paramount that we provide an environment where people of all ages, races, industries, and yes, genders, can feel comfortable and have a good time playing a game with other human beings.

  I don’t mean to overshadow the clear fact that the poker community needs to do a better job of making women feel welcome, and I’m completely open to any suggestions on how to do that, or how to stop random men from being complete douchebags. Poker is in many ways a microcosm of the real world, and sadly things like sexism, racism, and all around shitty behavior are very common in our society. I just want to add the perspective of what those of us who aren’t douchebags actually can do to help grow the game we all love, and I think we can all lighten up a bit and be a little more considerate of other people, men and women alike.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Epic slowroll, or epic misunderstanding?

As most of you probably heard/saw, there was a hand that took place today at the final table of the Irish Open that has caused quite an ruckus in the poker community. In case you somehow haven’t seen it, here is the hand in question:

I’m guessing the first thing that came to your mind after seeing this was something along the lines of “wow what an asshole!” or “oh man what a brutal slowroll!” etc. Clearly, the commentators (who, in my opinion, were out of line with their remarks) and the rest of the players at the table thought the same thing, as we can clearly see him being chastised from all angles. Poker is supposed to be a gentleman’s game, and the slow roll is considered one of the dirtiest and disrespectful moves one can pull, right behind angle shooting. As such, it is easy to understand the harsh criticism recieved by Andreas, as slow rolling should be discouraged and frowned upon. 

Now, I want you to put yourself in Andreas’ shoes for a moment. You are an amateur poker player at the final table of a major live event. There is a crowd of people watching, a live stream of the action, and big money at stake. Every hand is crucial and one error in judgement could cost you tens of thousands of dollars. You have the shortest stack and the anxiety of being the next player to bust out is overwhelming. You are incredibly nervous and all you can think about is how desperately you need to double up. A solid player opens for a raise and you look down at KQdd in the small blind. You know you can’t afford to wait for a better hand, but since you are very short stacked, you fear that if you go all in before the flop you might get called by a weak ace. You decide to call and see a flop, and it comes Ad6d8d. You flop the nuts! Suddenly you are overwhelmed with emotion. You check and Donnacha puts you all in! This is amazing, you waited patiently and finally got what you waited for! Now you will have some chips to work with unless you get really unlucky, and you have a decent shot at outlasting a player or two, or who knows, maybe you will catch a couple more lucky breaks and win the whole thing. Your heart races as dopamine floods your nervous system and you can’t help but get a bit lost in the moment, which is most likely the biggest one you’ve experienced in your time as a poker player. Oh, right, the hand isn’t over yet, you still need to call and your hand needs to hold up. You take a deep breath, regroup, and push your chips in the middle…

Ok, you can put your shoes back on. Clearly, in the described scenario, you were completely present in the moment, unaware of time as it passed. Feeling a combination of nervous, anxious, and excited, the last thing on your mind was malicious intent. If someone told you that you did something wrong, you wouldn’t begin to understand why. From your perspective, you played a hand, flopped the nuts, took a few moments to fully realize and enjoy what was happening, and got your money in the middle. 

This is where the concept of subjectivity comes into play. While we might all be looking at the same thing, we are looking through different lenses. This is why one person can look at a painting and find profound meaning, while another person can look at the same painting and be completely uninterested. The classic idiom, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, is based on this idea. This also explains why a professional poker player might look at Andreas' behavior in this hand as completely disrespectful, while Andreas might feel completely innocent. It is important to understand that people have different ways of seeing things, depending their unique life experience. Before we judge someone’s actions, we should take into account their perspective and see if it can allow us to be more understanding. 

Does this mean I would encourage anyone to behave like Andreas did in this hand? Of course not, as this kind of behavior can cause unnecessary frustration for everyone else involved, while wasting precious moments of time as the blinds inevitably rise. However, does this mean I should be angry at Andreas, or chastise him for getting caught up in an whirlwind of  emotions? Again, the answer is no. He is an amateur who is presumably going to be losing money in the long run, thereby contributing to the expectation of the winning players. It is very possible his lack of awareness is attributable to his inexperience, which should earn him a bit of leeway when it comes to the nuances of live play. Experienced players should be expected to know better, and should aim to set an example of how to behave in the best interest of the other players and the integrity of the game. 

Since I don’t know Andreas personally, I can’t say with 100% certainty that my assessment is accurate, but after watching the video (particularly his reaction to the river) a few times, my read is that his “slowroll” was nothing more than a case of an inexperienced player struggling to compose and prepare himself for a moment worth thousands of dollars in equity. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen an old man deliberately count out his chips before calling all in with AA pre flop, and almost never do I think “wow what an asshole”, because I know that in his mind there was no ill will intended. If by some chance I’m wrong, and Andreas intentionally slow rolled, then he is by all means the asshole everyone basically called him, but if my read is right, I think we should be a little more understanding and should be more hesitant to harshly criticize a paying customer who was simply having the time of his life. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Envisioning a Better World

Hey friends! Quite a bit has happened since my last entry, and after returning from my most recent adventure, I am feeling inspired to share some of the things bouncing around my brain box.

Right after getting back from Holy Ship, I went to Playa Del Carmen Mexico for the BPM music festival. I had been feeling long overdue for a visit there, as quite a few friends have made it their new home over the last couple years. After being there only a couple of days I quickly realized why so many people had decided to live there full time. Playa is a vibrant city with so much cultural diversity that it hardly even feels like Mexico. Between the beautiful beaches and the huge night life scene, there is always something to do, and though I tend to have fairly high standards for restaurant food, almost everywhere I ate impressed me a great deal, while also being cheaper than the American counterparts. As if these aren't ample reasons for spending time there, the BPM festival had parties going round the clock at a variety of venues. From beach clubs to discotheques to my personal favorite; a bonafide treehouse in the middle of the jungle, there was something for anyone looking to dance the night away. If you've considered making a trip to Playa, get down there, I'm sure you won't regret it!

Between Holy Ship and BPM, I had taken what was the longest break from poker in my entire career. As a full time grinder, it's rare to find even a couple days of downtime without at least logging a few hands here or there or talking strategy with friends. If you want to stay with or ahead of the curve, its pretty crucial to stay sharp, and time off can mean losing touch with the current metagame, which can be a major deficit. That said, I've found that its vital to have balance in life, allowing time for play or to focus on other passions. When I spend time away from the game, the excitement builds, and I am more able to be present and stay focused the next time I sit down at the table. So, needless to say, I was really excited for the tournaments that followed this break, and was fortunate enough to string together a couple of deep runs, including my first major live victory in the WSOPC main event in West Palm Beach. Having played the live tournament circuit for many years, this was a monkey off the back, not to mention a major confidence and bankroll booster. While it may not have been quite the massive massive victory I've been thrilled to witness some of my friends have over the last couple of years and that I am still in pursuit of, it felt relatively massive after having experienced a major low point just months earlier, and gave me a sense of both relief and motivation that is hard to describe.

Before any of this happened, I was already planning on taking a trip to Costa Rica for Envision Festival. This event is unique from other festivals I've attended in a few ways. While music is definitely a big part of the event, there are also a variety of classes(yoga, meditation, tai chi), workshops and presentations by accomplished authors, artists and visionaries. Also, rather than staying in hotels or apartments, the vast majority of the attendees set up tents and camped on site, creating a very intimate atmosphere and encouraging the cultivation of new friendships with your neighbors. Certainly not least of all, it is held in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Between the dense plant and animal life, the lack of industrialization, and the laid back attitude of it's inhabitants, Costa Rica is an amazing country and it's hard to imagine a better environment for connecting with both nature and people.
Now, imagine a place where if you smile at someone they smile back and say hello rather than simply looking the other way, where strangers hug simply because it feels good, where the food is all made from locally sourced organic ingredients, where people are eager to let you ahead of them in line, where women can walk around topless without feeling like a thousand sex-starved men are staring at them like pieces of meat and where there is a sense of respect, empathy and compassion shared by the thousands of people around you. Sounds pretty amazing, right? That is the setting at Envision, and after what I witnessed this past weekend, it is also what I believe can some day be the setting of life on Earth if we as a species can wake up, un-learn all the destructive behaviors we've developed since the dawn of modern civilization and learn how to truly respect each other as well as the other life forms we share this planet with.
One of the days, Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible did a presentation that really resonated with me. He talked about how life is based on stories, and that in order to create a better world we need to abandon certain stories. Stories we've become very comfortable with even though they are leading to our downfall. There is more to life than the cookie cutter story of "go to school (to pass tests), go to work (to support the system that's destroying us and make money to buy material goods), get married (to attach to a single family unit and detach from the collective)" which tends to ignore the importance of creative expression, play, and selflessness. Stories of religion, politics, and nationalism are all ones which divide us when our true potential lies in unity. Moreover, our blatant disregard for plants and animals is creating a story that certainly does not end well for humanity.
Of course, it can be quite overwhelming to think of the problems of the world and how we as individuals can make a difference. I've often thought to myself "what can I do to make a difference, I'm only one person and the world and it's problems are so big". Imagine if every raindrop thought this way, there would be no rain would there? Well we are like the raindrops, and if we all do a little bit every day; be it supporting an eco-friendly organization, volunteering time for a good cause, helping out a friend in need, forgiving someone who angered us, making mindful decisions, telling someone we love them, or simply smiling at a stranger, I believe we can eventually create enough rain to wash away the evil in our world and clear the sky for a brighter tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Holy Ship!

Hey guys! I want to start by expressing my gratitude to you for reading this blog. These days we live with such an abundance of ways to spend time so it means a lot that what I have to offer is (hopefully) worth a few moments of yours. This is my first of what I intend to be many entries, and I hope that some of the thoughts and experiences I share from my heart will resonate with you, and if I can inspire even one person to think about things a little differently or make positive change in their life, then the time it takes to write this will have been very well spent.

We just started a new year, and although what day or month or year it is need not necessarily dictate our progression in life, this still tends to be a particularly retrospective time for me. I find it helpful to look back at the past year, evaluate how I spent my time, who I spent it with, and what I learned from the experiences I had. This time around, I feel like I had the most important year ever in terms of inner growth. At the end of this years WSOP, I felt like I'd hit rock bottom. A stretch of negative variance combined with some less than conservative bankroll decisions left me dead broke and without a place to call home. For the last few days of my hotel reservation, I laid in bed depressed and with no idea as to what my next move would be. Fortunately, some loving friends offered to take me in for as long as it took for me to sort things out. Their unconditional love and emotional support, together with a couple profound experiences with psilocybin mushrooms (more on that later), completely shifted my perspective and helped me see that times of adversity are not only something we all deal with as a natural part of life, but they serve as opportunities to learn and grow.  I sucked it up, turned off my ego, and started grinding low stakes with a sense of motivation I hadn't felt in years as a professional. I reminded myself that money doesn't correlate with happiness, and just how lucky it is to play a game for a living which allows me to live freely, outside the paradigm of modern culture which I believe prevents the majority of people from truly living. Ever since that shift in consciousness, I have let go of my expectations, stopped comparing myself (and my results) to others, and just let life happen. As a result, events have been unfolding in ways so surreal that I sometimes feel like I need to pinch myself to see if I'm living in a dream state. I haven't had any big poker results or financial windfall, but just little things here and there to remind me that everything is perfectly fine.

Now, back to the mushrooms. In today's society, the word "drug" is used very liberally to describe a myriad of substances which, in some way or another, have an effect on the body or mind. I personally find it ridiculous that we use the same word to describe naturally growing plants such as Marijuana or the Psilocybe Cubensis (one of the more common species of "magic mushroom"), which have proven to pose little or no danger to human health while having a variety of medicinal benefits, as well as substances like heroin or methamphetamine, which are obviously very hazardous while having no real positive effects. Even more baffling, is that alcohol and nicotine, which are available legally on nearly every major street corner, are hardly even thought of as "drugs", even though they are by far the most detrimental to society. As a result of both stigmatic terminology and a great deal of propaganda, we find ourselves with a drug policy which is essentially the complete opposite of what would be in the best interest of human health. We are practically encouraged to drink beer and smoke cigarettes, while getting caught with enough MDMA or LSD for you and some friends to have a good time can land you in jail for a year or more. I could go on forever about how preposterous all of this is, but most of you probably already know, and if you don't there are more knowledgeable sources than me. I have witnessed first hand and can say with absolute certainty that psilocybin mushrooms (as well as other psychedelic "drugs")can have a tremendously positive impact on people, as they were largely responsible in helping me do away with neuroses that were holding me down. Under the right conditions, aka set and setting, they can allow you to look deep within your own consciousness, diminish or destroy the ego's ability to control your thoughts, and perhaps most importantly recognize the connection between yourself and other people, which brings me to my next point.

I just got back from a cruise that is oh-so-appropriately named "Holy Ship!" It is essentially a 3 day electronic music festival held on a giant boat. With unlimited food and drinks, and some of the best (in my opinion) DJ's in the industry playing nearly around the clock, it was easily one of the most unique experiences I've had. The trip was highlighted with a beach party on a private island, which featured a wonderful yoga class and a pirate ship for a DJ booth. Now, to some people, this might all just sound like a bunch of kids getting fucked up and listening to bad music for a few days, but to me, it represents something much more meaningful. While there was of course plenty of substance use, most prominently MDMA or "molly" (which makes you super sensitive to the vibrations of those around you), there was also a wide range of demographics being represented. From older hippies to middle aged couples to millenials and kids who just recently turned 21, everyone was there with the same goal in mind; dance to some music, forget about the monotony of day to day life, leave all judgement at the door, and feel connected to everyone there. The community refers to itself as the "shipfam" and it's full of PLUR (peace, love, unity and respect; the fundamentals of festival culture). I went with three pretty close friends, and I know we all came away from the experience feeling closer than we did going in. Having now attended EDC in Vegas the last two years in addition to this event, I have noticed a consistent theme: non-judgemental adult play. It is vitally important that we allow ourselves to let loose and be silly even as we grow older, and these festivals encourage people of all different ages, races and creeds to come together and feel comfortable being themselves. Whether it be dressing in crazy costumes, tripping your balls off, or simply dancing like nobody's watching, its all good and nobody is judging you for any of it. You can be yourself and not feel like society is pointing and laughing at you for being different. And that's just the thing, although we are connected, we are all unique. We are like one long string of lights, and each one of us is a different color, that's what makes life so damn interesting. This year, I urge us all to look within and try to find who we really are, to express ourselves without fear of judgement, and to be kind to each other. Happy new year!