Keep politics away from the poker table

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The facts. Last Wednesday, Olivier Busquet and Daniel Colman decided to sit at the final table of the EPT Super High Roller event in Barcelona wearing two t-shirts with the slogans “Free Gaza” and  “Free Palestine” on them.

Soon after:

a)   the founder of CardPlayer Lifestyle Robbie Strazynski criticised their choice on Twitter;

b)   PokerStars decided to rule against the display of political statements at their live events;

c)    Strazynski wrote a story to explain why he believes that “there’s no room for politics in poker“;

d)  Nolan Dalla joined the debate with a post titled “political censorship has no place in poker;”

e)   I wrote a story for PokerNews to inform people about what was going on.

After all this, the debate went on and a good majority of those who decided to comment on that didn’t seem to be too happy with PokerStars’ decision.

My take.  Although I know that some (also) in the poker industry don’t like this attitude too much, when I write my stories, I like to stick to the facts. And that’s why I preferred not to include any of my thoughts in the story I wrote for PokerNews.

However, this does not mean that the whole debate about politics and poker left me completely indifferent. Because, as Victoria Coren-Mitchell puts it, “this is one of the most interesting poker debates I’ve seen in ages.”

Let me put it straight: I love politics.

I graduated in political sciences, I have left my own country to study European politics somewhere else, and for some very different reasons I am sure that the articles I wrote about politics still outnumber the ones about poker.

Yet, trust me, the part I like the most about this debate, is that it offers me a chance to say that I agree with those who believe that politics does not belong to the poker table.

Why I think Robbie Strazynski is right 

As someone who loves politics and who is unfortunately particularly sensitive about it, I often get the chance to get involved in political discussions in the most inappropriate places.

Let it be because I find the usual chitchat extremely tedious and difficult to handle, or because since when I moved to Estonia the weather became less of an option for casual conversations, but talks about politics are extremely common for me.

I also have to admit that over the seven years I have spent around the poker industry, I have actually discussed about poker quite often. And most of the times with people who were happy to get a chance to express their opinions on something different than the hand they had just played.

Do you need any example? Well, I remember a very nice talk with André Akkari about socialism and the role poker can have to shape Brazil’s society right from the EPT London.

I also remember the pleasure to sit at a poker table with no less than Mike Sexton and discuss about Vietnam, as I have enormously enjoyed going through the impact of Putin’s policies in today’s Russia with Ivan Demidov.

And these are only few of the names I could make, because other players as Eugene Katchalov could also probably tell you how annoying I have been when I decided that I wanted to get him to talk about the situation in Ukraine already in January.

However, this inclination to talk about politics doesn’t always end well.  Because,even if I am not exactly a child anymore, I sometimes fail to remember that we all have different ways to look at the world and very different historical backgrounds.

Which means that yes, I sometimes  fight about politics. Verbally, ça va sans dire.

Let me tell you a story.

Years ago, I moved to Prague to study lobbyism.

The course was interesting, the beer was amazing and I remember how impressed I was to find myself at the same table with students coming from places as Yale, Harvard or the London School of Economics.

You know, for someone coming from a small and pretty unknown university like mine, those kids and their universities were like gods coming from god-land.

Yet, years later, the only one of those gods I still remember, is an arrogant Austrian dude with a belly at least twice bigger than his fat wallet, who would constantly use politics to push my buttons.

“How is our Berlusconi?”

He would ask me loudly enough to make sure that the others would all hear and laugh.

“Oh, shut up. You are Italian, you have Berlusconi,” he would tell me at least a handful of times a day. To discredit me; to simply tease me and oblige me to get all serious and find a way to explain why I had very little to do with the small man that I believed was slowly putting my country to sleep.

And, boy did he piss me off.

Now, imagine this at the poker table.

Imagine a pretty unknown kid, who joins an enormous event like the European Poker Tour and for the first time in his life, he finds himself surrounded by all those faces he has seen on TV and on the poker magazines he reads.

That’s what we want for poker, right?

Well, now imagine that right while he tries his best to be part of a world he has always dreamt of…he is suddenly forced to smash his face against the poker-version of my Austrian kid.

Is that still the poker we want?

Do we really want to allow someone to pollute the poker world and bring to the poker table such a divisive topic as politics?

True, the poker community is full of great people who would never abuse of the freedom to talk about politics or display any political message once at the table.

But what happens when someone decides not to play by the (unwritten) rules but to do his best to piss others off?

What happens if someone starts to tease the others talking about why “the P.I.G.S. should be kicked out from the European Union because they are full of lazy asses?”

What would we do if someone would sit at the table with a t-shirt saying “I (heart) Bin Laden” or “No Gaza, No Cry?”

Do we really need to leave room to troublemakers looking for the right buttons to push in order to piss their opponents off?

A game of poker is a psychological war, that’s true. But also wars have rules, and those who are in it – need to respect them.

However, what Busquet and Colman did is understandable.

Let’s take this episode out from its very specific context and let’s pretend it didn’t happen during an event organized by an international corporation as PokerStars.

Two people, well aware of the importance of the event they were going to be part of, decided to use it to support a cause they believe in.

It sounds legitimate, doesn’t it?

Well, it isn’t. Because taking things out of context does not make any sense here, and because it would be wrong to pretend the episode did not take place during the European Poker Tour, Europe’s most important international poker event.

As Robbie Strazynski intelligently puts it:

“Federer and Nadal don’t talk politics while playing in sanctioned professional events. Neither do NBA, PGA, MLB, etc. players.

(…)

When, for example, an Israeli and an Iranian compete against one another at the Olympics, they compete; they don’t talk politics.”

Which can also be read as: “If you are trying to get poker widely recognized as a sport even by those who are not playing it, if you support the (enormous) work guys like Alex Dreyfus and other are doing to bring poker to a new level – deal with it. And play by the rules.”

Victoria Coren-Mitchell, who believes that PokerStars was not particularly wise when they decided to rule against the display of political statements at their live events, wrote:

 “No politics or religion at the table. The more people who have the sense and grace to abide by that, the happier the game.”

However, she also says:

“unwritten” is the key. Its beauty is the players’ choice to follow it.”

Now, I would love to agree with that.

I would love to live in a world where obvious points as “no politics and religion at the table,”  (as well as “no sex with kids,” or “no discriminations against minorities,” and so on) would not need to be defined by written rules – but unfortunately that is not the world I wake up in every day.

And that’s why if two lines on a piece of paper are going to help things to get “unnaturally” better for the game and keep the atmosphere safe from useless noise, well – that’s good for me.

Smart players as Victoria Coren-Mitchell, André Akkari, Eugene Katchalov, Daniel Negreanu, Olivier Busquet, Daniel Colman and many others will always find a chance to express their political views and get their message heard through Twitter, Facebook and talking to the media.

No one is going to censor them because, as Nolan Dalla brilliantly puts it:

“We need more politics — just about everywhere .We need more discussion about problems and possible solutions.  Not during poker hands, mind you.”

Yet  – and here I am allowing myself to be arrogant enough to dissent from Dalla –  when we sit at the table, let’s just play poker and let’s do our best to all work together and make sure that everyone  enjoys every single second spent playing the sport we love.

Let’s leave politics out. Let’s all care a little more about making the game enjoyable for those who are sitting with us and for those who are at home, dreaming to get the chance to join us.

Because that’s only by doing this, that we will convince everyone that poker really is a sport like all the other ones. A sport worth being discovered and played. Again, and again.

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