Recently a friend of mine sent me a photo he had taken of poker's favorite villain. "I didn't say hi," he mentioned.
No, it wasn't Phil Hellmuth.
Chris Ferguson is who I am talking about. Now smiles fade. The former owner, together with Howard Lederer, of Full Tilt Poker, not the most popular and prestigious site - an acclaim once clearly held by the now adulterated Pokerstars - has returned, again, to the World Series. Full Tilt has a special place in poker history, having been home to not only amusing, quality software, but more importantly, is still a significant sentimental favorite of poker's finest years. Easy low stakes money isn't everything people miss, after all. The great battles that took place in Rail Heaven not only astonished and entertained, they inspired a whole generation of players to pursue glory on the virtual and real felt. Everyone wanted to see the avatars of Dwan, Ivey, Antonius, Galfond, Blom, South, and many more names than I can remember or even know, trade body blows and fortunes.
Dreams were born.
As part of a sweeping fraud and money laundering investigation, Ferguson's Full Tilt was shut down: Black Friday, 2011. That was just the beginning. With player accounts frozen or revealed to be lost across the major sites, a storm of revelations and accusations followed. Mismanagement. Incompetence. Dishonesty. Crime.
It therefore is something of a wonder for many players that Ferguson somehow now sits at World Series tables, that famous head and hat still, if not high. Frustrated and wounded by the seizure of their funds and the news that their accounts had been abused in near Ponzi scheme fashion, outrage has never left the poker world. Threats against his personal safety, while lacking follow-through, have been common, and confrontations have certainly occurred.
This encounter from last year is particularly telling. Andrew Brokos, noted poker writer and podcaster, was thunderstruck to find Mr. Ferguson at his table. After some surprisingly light banter between Ferguson and a player at the table, Brokos came out of his shock:
That was the final straw, but it was also the icebreaker I needed. “I don’t agree with that, for what it’s worth,” I declared to the table at large. “Anyone else here have money on Full Tilt Poker?”
No one responded. I didn’t know whether the answer was no, or whether I was just speaking so agitatedly that they couldn’t understand me. I locked eyes with the guy who looked most like a former online player. “Did you have money on Full Tilt?”
He removed his headphones. I asked him again. “No,” he told me. I could feel my face reddening. Ferguson still hadn’t said anything, but I certainly had his attention.
“I had $60,000 locked up for over two years,” I said.
“And did you get it back?” Ferguson asked me, as though that would make everything OK.
It is not hard to sympathize with all those who lost money, time, and toil because of the Full Tilt mismanagement. Yes, we all take risks, and depositing funds on an online poker site isn't the wisest investment. Players should know and accept this; certainly many do now in the post-Black Friday era and are far more scrupulous and communicative in their research and choices. After all, they are loading the account in order to duel in an indifferently regulated sector of the marketplace, one with a small onus of depravity and a larger stigma of non-productivity.
Poker dreams are dicey.
I wonder about their attitude toward Ferguson, though. Live poker is the great, equalizing social meeting ground for so many. We want, like the players online, to take each other's money, but at the physical table we feel even more of the instinctive, human social pull toward each other - this is why all the cruelest words in poker happen in chat boxes. All end up being welcome and a spirit of healthy competition emerges on a regular basis. I wonder, for instance, how many murderers and rapists and con artists I've taken money from or lost to. Yet we easily welcome these parasites to our table, and it's not all about their wallets. There is something else going on.
I worked at a church for a long time, and among other things, I noticed that as spat upon as many believers are in our secular and pragmatic culture, the temple of God is a daily beacon to all the lost and wayward. I would look out from the balcony behind the baldacchino and see all kinds of sufferers and confused people, from dusk until dawn, appearing and reappearing. They were in need of something that was not being given to them. Not the shallow solidarity of identity groups and interests and agendas and entitlements, but the solidarity of the conscience, where many lives' trajectories are truly at stake in a profoundly personal way: the need for meaning when the next step seems impossible. They needed to know somewhere, something, somehow, is looking out after them, even if they cannot look after themselves or meet their given challenges alone.
Our tables are open and (mostly) fair, too. All those murderers and rapists and con artists are never barred from play, just as they would not be barred from the church. There would be an unseemliness in proscribing our worst and lowest because we intuitively understand the nature of the institution, temple or game. We poker players so easily overlook the wayward among us and give them their manly right to compete and be a part of the great enterprise. After all, should the WSOP ban Chris Ferguson and Howard Lederer, what next? Who are now good enough to play at the poker table? And who is good enough to decide?
The dream of a just society protects us by protecting them.
Well, in fact, if the Committee for Purity in Poker is founded they might ban me, too. I've hurt and disappointed so many people, affected their lives, including my own, in ways I regret, that if we are starting to make exclusions, then I might have to sign myself up before the commissars find me. (Isn't it outrageous how the police push the arrestee's head down into the vehicle? A truly redundant indignity.) Now that means many, many will be sent away with me - both worse and better individuals lost to our community game.
However, it's never really an issue, is it? No one wants to ban me. Why, the first thing an incarcerated man I know experienced was his welcome back to the tables. And that's just someone whose story was known. The rest we quietly fold into our game.
Just like the sufferers in the pews dreaming of peace.
The issue with Chris Ferguson is that he isn't some random sinner: he has appeared to sin against us. Now our response is indeed different. The community of players can let many, many things go as long as others are the victims, but when many of us are hurt, now we take great offense and umbrage.
I'm in no position to know the full details of the Full Tilt debacle. What did the president know and when did he know it is beyond me in this case. But I find something very interesting in Ferguson's return to the Series.
“That was $60,000 I couldn’t access for two years. No interest.”
“Sorry about that. But you got it back?”
Finally, someone else chimed in. “I had over $9000 in bonuses that I never received,” he said.
“But you got the balance back?” Chris asked.
“No,” I interrupted. “You asked whether we got paid back. The answer is, we got some of what we were owed.”
We just stared at each other for a few seconds after that. There was nothing more to say. I sat back down. My hands were still shaking, and my face was burning, but it was a relief to say something to him.
I want to look into Ferguson's words. He issues an apology - eager to be sure of the limits of harm caused - for a financial inconvenience Brokos suffered, but it's not what the blogger and coach wants. What he thinks would soothe him is a public confession - a full disclosure of guilt and acceptance of penitence - yet this is where Ferguson fails him.
A few orbits later, he jammed 6BBs UTG, and I was in middle position with ATo. This, I decided, was a call. Not a spite call, just a good call. I called.
The Ace came right on the flop, and it was still good on the river. I’d busted Chris Ferguson. He tapped the table, looked me in the eye, and nodded at me. “Good luck.”
Here is what I find most fascinating. Ferguson cannot apologize the way Brokos and so, so many, want him to. However, I see in his behavior a man in conflict. His dignity, pride, and well being have been likely shattered by his great fall, guilty or innocent or somewhere in between. It took a lot of time for Ferguson to come back to the game he loves - to a demi-hallowed convention space where every May someone must attach a giant poster of his finest hour to the rafters of idols. His behavior here with Brokos, similar to what I have heard recounted elsewhere, is his compromise. I can see this whether he is guilty of all accusations or not, because he would have protested his innocence or fallen on his sword if he had made a full commitment to explaining himself.
But this nod at Andrew and his deliberate tapping of the table speak volumes. He is trapped by himself and may never be able to come out of the situation. It is possibly too much to explain, too much to admit. Perhaps his world would fall apart and he is hedging disaster. His anxiousness to affirm that Brokos and others got their money back is all he can share, and his politeness is all he can offer.
For most, it's not enough. I understand. We want restitution and to be made whole. But this will never happen. The time lost and the money held and its consequences can never be returned. If we are strong and honest, we can look at this fact directly. But if we are that strong, we can also see that this man put himself in a hard place. Things will never be the same for him, and that may or may not be just. And if he is holding onto guilt, he will suffer the living hell of having lost his integral self, one that is only repaired through contrition.
However, since he is trapped in this state, there is one thing we can do for him and for ourselves: Consider forgiving him.
I won't need to argue the pragmatic effects of this. Our growing human wisdom knows and has probably proven in the field of psychology that this is ultimately better for the victim. After all, in many cases, it is not - the thirst for justice can be a natural and healthy response to an affront of grave consequence and no other remedy.
However, time has passed, the machinations of the law creaked along in our favor, and what we get from Ferguson is this: a tap on the table. A look straight in the eyes. Acknowledgment in place of apology. The mouth that opens to speak one word but speaks another.
If we are strong enough, perhaps, we can decide this can be enough. If we consider forgiving him, even slightly, the weight of his affront may loosen enough for him to give Brokos and all the Broki out there what they truly want to hear: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
Forgiveness is misunderstood. Forgiving someone does not mean you must slap them on the back and tell them everything is the same again. Nor is the nature of every type of forgiveness equal. Forgiveness is the acknowledgment of our human weakness and an extension of just a little grace on its account. The same people who can let the Full Tilt fiasco go can be the same people who never speak to him again.
It is as hard to do right by our fellow man as it is to ourselves, as we are never as meticulous as we should be. I worry that my poker students are getting what they need from me, and occasionally some attempt to take too much. Yet I will tell you that as pleased as I am at their successes, the one coaching job I am truly proud of had nothing to do with sick graphs and texts of chip porn and ambitious bootcamps. When I was first coaching, I was contacted by a fellow from deep in the south in a small town I'd never heard of. His story disturbed me, as he was somehow supporting his family on a $4,000 bankroll, playing 2/5 under the thumb of a mysterious staker who was also the biggest winner in his area's only casino. He'd lost a great deal of money recently and was desperate for help. I suggested he look for other work but his passion for the game was undeniable: I understood this need, as I was in the grip of it myself, and so we were both determined to make it in poker. I took him on scholarship, as I couldn't charge any amount that made any sense for his straitened circumstances.
However, whatever knowledge I tried to impart, it simply would not take. I'd talk concepts, he'd talk Ace Queen. His results were bad. We'd have long Skype conversations that seemed to solidify one idea but cloud the last. As his roll diminished we had to get deadly serious. I started parceling out his buy-ins and instituted a short stack strategy: catastrophe. I wanted to save his career and life but nothing worked. Then, the truth came out. He showed me the transcript of another coach's assistance. I could read the exasperation and need to be done with the conversation in this coach's chat. I saw that my scholarship student was a serial free coaching seeker, a kind of problem studied player. In the end, I urged him to listen to all the advice given to him, but also to take a job, if only to not have to spend the last of his money. I stopped responding to him, and the chat soon stopped.
Months later, dread. His name popped up on my Skype screen. Was it all starting again? This time I'd have to pass. However, good news: he was in a great mood, and just wanted to let me know he'd finally taken my best coaching advice - he had started as a delivery truck driver and given up the tables. He'd gotten in touch to thank me.
God, as the greatest of all literary mystics said - one hidden from us by abridged translations and cultural misunderstandings - is conscience. Therefore if our consciences are clear, we are strong. We can afford what Mr. Ferguson might not be able to spend: to look beyond ourselves, and so see, under the hat and sunglasses, the struggle that we all share.
It is striking that no one ends up punching or harming these villains in poker. A lot of talk, for sure, and easy talk, too: no one is more lionhearted than a forum poster. But life itself is not an argument: there are real boundaries that we instinctively do not cross because our conscience holds us back. It might have been braver, indeed, had someone risked injury and illegality in punishing him. Yet this will not happen - this kind of bravery is foolhardy and all those who consider it know this in their hearts. That is why he can walk into the series and play.
But this is interesting, because it means we are compromising - just like he is. We are sitting on our hands, waiting, waiting for him to do something, just as he is sitting on his hands, waiting for something to break his way.
We can do better, because we can be even braver than violence or retribution:
We can decide to go further than he is capable of, and offer him some small forgiveness, opening the door just a little. And when we do, I think you'll find that we might finally hear what Andrew and everyone like him, shaking and flushed and confused and indignant and angry, has dreamed of hearing for too long.