Poker is a unique community, and as such, the pressures within and without which form it are somewhat different from its seemingly parallel worlds. Even the beautiful tools of understanding cultures and societies are put to the test when explaining poker. It is in fact scarcely a “community,” drawing a high number of loners, gambling n’er do wells, and schemers who smile and draw each other in only in order to better take their money in an unessential economic act. It’s an adult game which borders on a ritual or cultural artifact, and so doesn’t correspond exactly with sports, which rehearse, inspire and prepare our young for public and private life. While arguably a “mind sport” and certainly an edifying and challenging pastime, it is subject to gambling legalities and correctly frowned upon by most systems of natural and moral law, as it is a distraction and secondary to the formation of the just city. So there should be room, is room, and always will be room in our game for troublemakers, charlatans, and criminals.
Poker, even as glamorous as it has ever been, with television and media coverage more sparkling than the floor of slots we players despise, is on the down low.
So when I heard about Joe McKeehen’s objection to a bitterly early new start time for some donkament somewhere, how could I help but smile? Joe McKeehen is a great poker player. He played well and ran well and is a deserving champion of the WSOP. Like Dan Colman, another notorious objector to what we might call Winner’s Decorum, he doesn’t actually owe anything to poker in a mechanical way. He paid for all his tournament entries or was staked, so that someone was paying. He’s free to speak his mind. I don’t really know his story and wish him well. Yet with the world on fire from terrorist extremism abroad and core liberties being threatened on every front by the most unhistorically imaginative and uninformed consensus yet to inhabit the public life of our country, our game’s champion is, even if he has a point, going to come off as a little immature. That’s just his dealio to own.
The more interesting question is, why does no one like it when the victor dismisses the competition of his triumph? The answer is right in the grammar. A surprising thing in life is that people really do end up needing heroes and role models. There is a purpose in keeping our sports clean, for instance. The position that whatever it takes to create the best human accomplishment in games is not a good one, because essentially, all games are rehearsals for public and private life. It may yield us a faster Tour de France or a quicker 100 meters if we find ways to enhance our performance, but the measure of our society will never be made in these fields. Sports are recreation, and we find our purpose and practice for the future in them. It follows that we want the best in our characters to come out, ironically, in activities that don’t necessarily matter. We can purify our recreations much more easily than we can purify our politics, for example.
Poker players on the whole, in other words, want to want to be Joe McKeehen or Dan Colman. That is the natural place of the Victor in the hierarchy: to be emulated. Their purpose is bound up in this, whether they know it or not. It’s like a scarcely visible robe they put on at the moment of their triumph, so discreet they forget that it’s on their body. Players see this Victor’s Robe and instinctively feel the need for these champions, these luminaries to behave like, well, luminaries: lights that guide and inspire. When Joe or Dan speak their mind, they are completely in their prerogative to do so but they have a new weight shifting upon them, the burden of which they may not have yet learned to manage or feel out.
And there’s the trouble. What do we make of the poker community, then, when it’s all seemingly heterogeneous troublemakers who won’t submit to the rules and play nice? Who forms the leadership when the leaders won’t lead? What do we do when our champion tells us not to play or comes off, even meaning well or exaggerating, as a whining prick? First off, we recognize that poker is still a community, but one that is merely more amorphous than most. In fact, the desperate need for communal space is highly reflected in what the players do, even absent a governing structure that makes any sense. After all, it makes absolutely no sense for poker players to wear poker gear, essentially paying for the advertising of their betters and cracking the age old dictum about tapping the glass, but they love to do it. Crave it. They want to belong. Look at the frighteningly bottomless forums, if you dare, of poker. Get deep inside the BBV4Life black hole, and you will find the intractable pull of the need for society in an anti-community community.
So outrage over Dan Colman or Joe McKeehen is going to be completely natural. These two start by disappointing the need for role models, outraging those who see themselves in their champion, and then finish by trashing the room from the inside by not taking part in their hierarchy’s betterment.
What do we do? Actually, we breathe a sigh of relief.
Because, all this means poker is in great shape. You see, the community’s outrage over their behaviors is a sign of its vibrancy. There is no “community” if there is no anger over this breaking of the unstated bond of the heroes. In a “community” of too much antithesis, too many troublemakers, in other words, the rabble rules, as it must. Poker leaders will be rare, and indeed, look around – who would you call one? Maybe Daniel Negreanu – he might actually be the entire list! Poker’s dead the moment no one cares about breaking these bonds of hierarchy, and then, after much chicken littling, the afterglow of the Poker Boom, which we are still enjoying, truly does go cold. When Dan Colman and Joe McKeehen can’t make the news, the game goes underground for real. The tournament scene dies.
No one complains about Joe McKeehen if he says what he said in 1979.
(Now, we can participate in the public shaming of these two while knowing it’s all theater. We’re a part of the structure. We know they have the right to speak their mind, and should do so. We, being good poker players, know we have to keep contradictory ideas in our mind some times without tripping over our feet.)
Which brings us to the money and the details. Tournaments are competitions. They are going to draw together the most enthusiastic and there has to be some rules. Poker players who want to play in a mass organized event will be subject to more onerous regulations than in a smaller one. The truth is, if it’s not earlier starting hours, it’s going to be something else. The “slavery” – his word, not mine – is built in. If you are tournament player, you are like the woman who is queried by the man at the dinner party. He asks her if she would spend the night with a stranger for a million dollars, and she says yes. Then he offers her $20. She says, “What kind of woman do you think I am?” “I know exactly what kind of woman you are,” he replies, “now we’re just bickering over the price.”
In other words, David Bass is right without Joe McKeehen being exactly wrong. Of course there are strictures. Of course it’s painful, but you gave up control when you decided to become a tournament circus animal, parading about for some pretty awesome peanuts. No one forced you to do this. As a cash game player, I can only say, ELEVEN? Who the hell plays poker at NOON? Get some sun, you dingbats. Then come see me later.
More rules doesn’t equal more money, of course, but cooperation with multiple powerful parties is a sign that something is being leveraged. More is being accomplished. The media is as guided by money as any other industry. More capital being diverted into poker? Seems like a good fight to take up, right?
It might be, and go do your best. Getting poker players a share of the media money is certainly a reasonable idea and Mr. Bass offers a compelling argument. The possible future of a quasi “unionized” game is intriguing and will certainly have the effect, if that’s what you want, of straightening out and punishing dissenters such as Dan and Joe.
However, Joe’s not there with you yet. That’s because the real translation of the Joe McKeehen’s commentary is that he doesn’t need more money. He’s not your ally here. Strange to you, but he doesn’t want your million dollars, and he’s definitely not taking your $20 bill. That’s his right, he’s earned it, this freedom. It’s not the a.m. hour that is at the heart of his objection, it’s his wish to create some distance between himself and the game. That’s the translation of his unwillingness, a natural obstinacy well suited to him and other Made Poker Dudes. You see them in the Victor’s Robe, and you want them to want more money, because that’s good for the game and the “community.”
Bad news: Joe doesn’t owe you that, because he’s at the top of a very loose pyramid scheme where we respect the individual a little more than elsewhere. He’s happy where he’s at. Don’t confuse his interests with the interests of poker itself, and don’t confuse our “community” with a more normal one. If there is a weakness in Mr. Bass’ plan, it’s that his vision of poker is just not based in the real poker scene as we know it, here deep in the down low of competitive gambling. As cleaned up and shaved as the tournament scene is these days, at heart it’s still got a lot of Joe McKeehen in it. The Olympics? Seriously?
So give Joe some time, and talk to him in a few years: I bet he changes his tune, faced with the need to wake up early and join a much bigger, more important community: life, family, politics, responsibility.. you know, the future.
Meanwhile, enjoy our strange little club called Poker. Have a seat. Our current President should be here, uh, soon, to greet you, maybe.