As the 2016 World Series of Poker heads to the home stretch with the start of the WSOP Main Event about a week away, I'm reminded of what a privilege and a pleasure it is to cover the events that unfold at the WSOP every year.
Tales of poker dreams come true, redemption and elation fill the pages of PokerNews daily as the events of poker's largest and most prestigious poker festival play out. The opportunity to see it all go down and write these stories is a true honor, and I continue to hope I can do them at least some justice on the pages of this website.
The poker-playing community is filled with some of the smartest and most accomplished people I've had the pleasure of meeting over 20 years as a reporter. They're also among of the most fiercely opinionated and strong-minded groups I've ever come across, and whether I agree with them on every issue the community faces or not, most have truly earned my respect.
1. Of Heroes and Heels
I suppose I'm going to have to accept that Chris Ferguson isn't going to talk to me on the record. I've asked him several times to make a public statement, address his involvement in the Full Tilt scandal, and say something to a poker community that feels it's owed at least that.
The last time we did speak he said there was a story that's not being told, and he was still considering going public with it. It has been nothing but silence since then.
The crowd at the final table of the $10,000 Six-Max No-Limit Hold'em Championship event was anything but quiet when Ferguson made fourth there on Saturday night, reigning down boos and jeers on a man who was once one of poker's greatest heroes.
Photos of Ferguson smiling through it all, his arms raised in victorious fashion, have made their way around the internet, and suggest he's chosen to embrace his new role as poker's heel. I suppose it's not surprising that the man in the black hat wants to play the villain. It's just disappointing that the same man who asked the poker community to buy into his legend, and buy whatever he was selling, doesn't have the stones to face that community, and face the music, after it all went south.
He's the bad guy now. The black sheep. And if the devilish grin on his face Saturday, and his commitment to staying publicly silent throughout his return to the WSOP are any indication, he's fine with that. I'm just not sure the poker community is, or ever will be.
2. People in Glass Houses Should Not Throw Stones
Cheers to the venerable Matt Glantz for pointing out the hypocrisy in a recent tweet by social justice warrior Cate Hall. Hall's remarks about three players 65 and up being replaced at her tournament table by notable pros were about as ageist as the many comments she's constantly rallying against are sexist.
Before poker's politically correct community jumps down my throat, let me be clear: Misogyny and sexism are real issues in the poker world and need to be dealt with. People like Hall shining the light on their own experiences and identifying these issues are a step in the direction towards solving the problem.
But there's a chance they can sometimes take things too far. Not every mole hill should be made into a mountain. Not every comment made is a blanket statement meant to perpetuate stereotypes of every member of a minority group. Watching ESPN's recent 30 for 30 series, I was reminded that the OJ Simpson trial wasn't a civil rights issue, no matter how much the activists of the day tried to make it one. Just like Jessica Dawley's recent words about some women sleeping their way to the middle of poker was not the disparaging statement about women in poker as a whole that Hall and others construed it to be.
People stopped listening to the boy who cried wolf and its a good bet they'll quickly tune out the vocal social justice warrior making an issue out of just about everything people say, whether they're right or wrong.
As Glantz mentioned, Hall's in a glass house throwing stones with that tweet, and although she's since apologized, if Hall wants her opinions on real issues like sexism and misogyny in poker to continue to be heard, she should pick and choose her battles in a more selective manner. Taking a little time off the top of the soap box wouldn't hurt her or other members of poker's politically correct police either.
3. A Minute to Learn, a Lifetime to Master
People say poker is the kind of game that takes few minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. In fact, once those initial minutes are up, part of the beauty of this game is that virtually anyone can win. You could be facing a legend like Phil Ivey in a hand, and if the cards fall your way, the pot is yours.
Perhaps it's true, that given an infinite number of hands, static blinds, and all the time in the world, skill would reign, and all your money would end up in Ivey's pocket, but tournament poker simply doesn't allow for that. Even employing the most basic of strategies, gleamed from watching the game on TV, web streams, or listening to poker podcasts, if you pick your spots carefully, and the stars align when you do, it's conceivable that you too could win a tournament, beating a field chock full of Iveys.
Of course, Ivey didn't play in the $1,500 Monster Stack event at the 2016 WSOP, but thousands of professional players and uniquely skilled amateurs were among the 6,927 entries that did. And in the end, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Arizona, who spends about an hour a week consuming poker content and rarely plays, outlasted them all.
Mitchell Towner took home the Monster Stack's $1.12 million first-place prize, proving once again, that anyone can win. It was the kind of thing dreams are made of, and before the professional poker community cries foul about how lucky Towner got, they should remember that these are the dreams the entire poker industry is built on.
4. Bad Beat, Bad Play, Bad Etiquette
Bad beat stories are everywhere. Everyone's got at least one. Even the most skilled get unlucky and want to share. A lot of people have heard so many that they've stopped listening. In fact, I know of a number of players and media types who'll stop you from telling a bad beat story before you start, having drawn a line in the sand long ago, refusing to hear you even begin to whine about your bad luck.
I don't really mind. I have empathy. I can identify with your plight and allow you to vent as you bemoan how bad things have gone for you lately.
What I can't stand is listening to players talk about how bad everyone else is at poker. It has really become an epidemic. Bringing others down has never been a good way to build yourself up, yet a plethora of players spend more time simply talking about how terrible everyone is at poker than they do considering how to adjust. They sound pretentious, immature and flat out ignorant as they group together, making fun of plucky amateurs trying to live out a dream and fellow professionals struggling with creative approaches to the game.
When you've busted out of your sixth tournament in three days as you brick your way through the entire World Series of Poker, can talking about how bad all these players are really help you get out of that rut? I doubt it. Why not try looking in the mirror once in a while, treating others as you'd want to be treated and learning a little respect. The good karma that comes from all that will likely be a lot more helpful.
5. Respect Due
You have to respect Maria Ho. Not just because she booked her 37th WSOP cash the other day, adding $87,487 to her now more than $1.25 million in career earnings at the Series, making fourth in the $3,000 Shootout. But because she had the humility, common sense, and keen understanding of the way the world works to dodge a question about whether she should be on the dreaded "best without a bracelet" list.
Instead, Ho took the opportunity to point out nobody deserves anything they haven't earned in this game, and vowed to keep working hard to get her piece of the pie.
After more than a decade playing poker at the highest level, on her own dime, Ho has proved she can hang, earning the respect of her peers, pundits, and just about everyone involved in poker. She hasn't yet earned a bracelet, and surely she'll keep trying to get one, but at the end of the day, maybe the respect she earns with her play and admirable attitude towards the game, is worth more than the jewelry — or it should be.
*Please note that the thoughts and opinions expressed in this article reflect those of the author.