Folding A Winning Hand

winning hand

This is quite a difficult blog to write. I think I’m about to slate one of my poker heroes. Based on just about any measure you care to use, he is the number one poker player in the world. I currently rank 9,000th in the world, so I may not be best qualified to judge him. I talk of Daniel Negreanu.

I started watching poker in the late 90s on Channel 4. Late Night Poker, a darkened smoke filled room with dodgy looking characters straight out of an east end gangster movie. I was hooked pretty much straight away even though I didn’t know the rules. As the years and series passed and various new poker shows were made & broadcast, these ‘characters’ became familiar faces. The top British & European players mixed with the top Americans.

Like a lot of sports, you soon get your favourites. I was particularly fond of a young pretty girl called Vicky Coren and a witty, chatty, fun loving American called Daniel Negreanu.

Poker can be very unforgiving. Poker stars who shine bright tend to fade away very quickly. There have been more people launched into outer space than there are people who were winning at poker 15 years ago who are still winning now. The game develops at such a pace, this has been exaggerated with the growth of online poker. If you stand still ability wise, you are left behind.

Vicky Coren Mitchell became the first 2 time EPT winner last year. This is an achievement I rate higher than any of the multiple WSOP main event winners, partly because of the bigger fields she faced, but more importantly, the standard of opposition has never been higher. The average WSOP main event player of the 70s 80s & 90s would not compete vs the average EPT player of the 2000s & 2010s.

Similarly Daniel Negreanu, Kid Poker, this year he moved himself to the top of the all time money list and last year he won the WSOP player of the year title for the 2nd time.

These two buck the trend, alongside Ivey & Hellmuth and a very few others, no one else who was winning at poker 15 years ago is still winning today. The current crop of winning players are simply technically better and there are so many of them. Those who failed to adapt and improve have fallen by the wayside.

That I chose Vicky & Daniel as ‘MY’ players just shows what a great judge of character I am.

Amongst the many changes announced by PokerStars, the latest is the addition of Casino Gaming & Sports Betting.

Announced here –

This was followed shortly after by an announcement from Vicky that she is to leave PokerStars Team Pro over this launch and her principled objection to combining poker with other more “dangerous” forms of gambling.

She wrote “I know in my heart that continuing in my current role could risk helping to send people to a place where they would encounter something I think is dangerous. That’s not the way I want to make a living”.

Her full statement is here

Each Team Pro has their own deal, the only figure I’ve actually had confirmed was for a lesser known pro who had a playing & expenses budget in the region of 6 figures. At the very least Vicky has given up a deal which over the years would have been worth millions.

I can’t imagine, nor would I want to bring any pressure to bear on any other member of Team Pro to take the same stance. The current climate in the poker economy is a difficult one. There are very few sponsorship opportunities for the up and coming batch of young players. If you have a deal, whatever your view is, it’s in your best interests not to express any critical opinions.

Vicky Coren Mitchell did not do what was in her best interests, but she comes out of this with almost universal praise for her principled stance. It is rare these days to see such an obvious display of integrity. I was genuinely shocked by her announcement. Saddened too, because she is a 1st class ambassador for our game and I just adore her.

Here’s where my blog gets tricky. I’ve always considered Daniel Negreanu one of my favourite players. I based my own playing style & table manner on what I saw him do. And what he does is talk and talk and talk. He enjoys himself at the poker table and it’s fantastic for the spectators & viewers. His engagement at the table and speech play maybe won’t work too often on experienced pros who will make maths based decisions and won’t be moved from the correct play even if Daniel is telling them their exact 2 cards and goading them to call his river bomb. I was sat 3 tables away from Daniel at EPT London 2013, and in a room of 500 people, I could follow the action of every flop turn & river from his table. He was constant. I can imagine it tilting all but the very strongest of characters.

He blogged his own response to Vicky’s announcement here –

I’ll paraphrase what he said into ‘why is it okay for winning players to exploit losing players at the poker table, but it’s not okay for the house to exploit players in casino games’. A fair point but one that’ll I’ll address once I’ve explained my own filtered perception of Daniel.

As I say above, I always liked Daniel. The entertainment value he provides to viewers is second to none. The work he has done to promote the game, second to none. His place in the history of the game, second to none. He is the number one poker player for a good reason.

With Dan Colman’s recent attack on Phil Hellmuth in mind, where I feel in almost complete agreement with Colman on most opinions he’s expressed, his decision & reasons for not giving an interview after his one drop win, his ‘Free Gaza’ t-shirt at an EPT event final table. His attack on a legend of our game. I thought the attack was justified, Hellmuth has unanswered questions about the Ultimate Bet cheating scandal.

But here’s the thing with Hellmuth. He’s one of the guys who worked tirelessly to promote poker. His ‘antics’ as the ‘Poker Brat’ made it entertaining for a wider audience. His ability to still compete 25 years after he won the WSOP main event. For me, that gives him a pass. He’s earned the right to have made huge mistakes and still get respect and acknowledgement for his achievements.

My admiration for Daniel Negreanu has waned for a few specific reasons. Daniel as a vegan (I’m vegetarian for reasons of animal welfare) and someone I consider as a caring & compassionate human being, a philanthropist. I admire these qualities greatly. Yet during the recent conflict in Gaza, Daniel tweeted his support for Israel, at a time when it was known 2,000 civilians, 500 of them children, had been killed by the Israeli Defence Forces.

“For the record I’m 100% pro-Israel defending themselves against terrorist groups like Hamas and you aren’t going to change my mind on twitter”

In fairness to Daniel he engaged with people on Twitter and debated with them, myself included, and with mutual respect signed off with a desire for there to be peace and no more killing.

I’m aware I’m subjected to a media that is more sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians than Daniel is. American politics is unambiguously sympathetic to Israel and this gets reflected in the US media. It’s tough to form views that contradict the constant stream of propaganda. Daniel also stated he’s had discussions with an ex Israeli military friend. It’s easy for me to say, well that’s obvious bias, but I don’t live in Tel Aviv and I’m not subjected to the acts committed, desperate attempts of desperate people to achieve statehood and recognition for their plight. I have more sympathy for the Palestinians because they appear to be suffering much more than their Israeli counterparts. But Daniel isn’t killing anyone, he’s just expressed a sincere opinion about who his sympathies are with. I’m disappointed and I feel his humanitarian credentials are lessened, but I respect his right to have a different opinion, and I appreciate that he is engaging with people who are appalled by his opinions.

Next up is Daniel defending the recent changes in rake and charges for currency conversion.

More than defending it, I felt Daniel was cheerleading the changes. I can understand an employee who is required to reflect changes to his companies’ terms & policies, but to say these are good things for the poker community, that we are better off for the price increase in poker, I found this disingenuous. Again I appreciate him engaging with followers on Twitter, myself included, but this led to Daniel making some appalling statements. It clearly showed to me that Daniel is a company man. He is more concerned with the interests of PokerStars than the interests of its players.

“the goal of an online poker company is increased profits. The ROI of it’s winning players doesn’t enter into the equation”

“when pros left UB (Ultimate Bet) what remained was awesome games for any pros who took the gamble with them”

I thought these tweets were incendiary. That PokerStars doesn’t care about its winning players, even though they are the highest volume players on the site and pay more rake than anyone. Talking about Ultimate Bet & PokerStars, making comparisons. The most shameful site in the history of online poker, who literally cheated and stole from its players, that this was a good site to play once all the sensible grinders left because it was only fish left. And to have that site compared to PokerStars because it’s driving away the sensible grinders with its price hike.

I didn’t engage on these points because I like Daniel. I don’t want this blog to be about the worst things Daniel has ever said and lets all hate on him.

As with Hellmuth, Daniel gets a pass. He can say things I disagree with, he can side with a company who seems not to care about the health of poker and are only interested in their own profit margins. He gets to do this and say these things and still get my respect, simply because he is still around. Longevity. You’re not supposed to last this long in poker. Very few have, and those that do make it, they get a pass from me, even if what they’re saying is kick the ladders away from underneath me, lets damage the poker economy so fewer and fewer people can make it to my level because we’re damaging poker in the hope of increased profits for my sponsor.

The introduction of casino games & sports betting. Putting these services on the client alongside poker. This can only result in there being less money in the poker economy. PokerStars own press release announcing this even confirmed there will be “a negligible impact on poker spend”. That is an announcement telling us all how great it will be acknowledging there will be less money in the poker economy as a result. This is a bad thing, the poker economy is already shrinking, making changes that will shrink it even more is not the solution to improve the game.

I’m fortunate enough to know a few of the top poker players in the UK. As good as their poker skills are and the edge they have over the average player, I’m aware of some who love the thrill of the gamble. I have seen them wager huge amounts on casino gaming. They know and every sensible poker player knows, these games are for losers. It is not possible to beat casino games long term. Anyone with a basic sense of maths & odds knows this, yet some with addictive personalities are attracted to them. The thrill, the swings, the occasional high, but the inevitable lows, these games are not beatable, but those with weaknesses will play them.

Adding them to our poker client is an abomination. I was fortunate enough to see the damaging effects of problem gambling at a young age. Enough so that it put me off for life. As Daniel points out, how then can I rationalise that obvious exploitation of the casino, the house, over the ‘mug punters’, with the same exploitation that winning players have against losing players in poker? Well, I can’t easily. I recognise poker is a pyramid where those with most ability will rise to the top, those with least ability will eventually lose their bankroll, leave the game and need to be replaced to keep the pyramid topped up to pay the elite.

I find myself to be one of the top 4 or 5 earners in Scotland in 2014, but I’m aware this has more to do with good fortune than overall ability. I recognise my place in the food chain. My results over the past 18 months online and live show a healthy profit, but that profit comes out of only 4 tournaments. Without those I am an entirely break even player. Those 4 games represent my top 0.5% of results. I suspect my stats & ROI won’t look too bad Vs any player if you remove their top 0.5% of results. But I know I am a lesser able player than the very best and I’ve had good fortune to get results beyond my level of play. I’ve also found myself having to speak to friends who are losing players. I’ve not told them to stop playing, as they enjoy the game, but I’ve advised them to play at lower buy in levels where they will be some of  better players playing at that level and the rates of losses are more sustainable. Some have taken my advice, some have not.

If you are a bad poker player, your hobby will cost you money, but I rationalise that with other hobbies which have a cost attached, golf, go karting, 5 a-side football. There is a cost to participate, but the social interaction, the fun element, the challenge to be overcome, those have more value than what it costs in financial terms. This is just the same with poker as long as those playing are doing so within their limits and enjoying the experience, it is a perfectly good pastime to take part in. The winning players will win more often and get their wage from it, but most of us know our own ability level and consent to this. Sometimes getting to play with players much better than ourselves is the thrill.

Daniel points out he doesn’t need any more money, he won’t be able to spend the money he has already won in his lifetime, therefore that’s not why he plays poker. Similarly, I don’t rely on poker for an income, but I do rely on it to fund further poker adventures. My ability to continue to play poker relies on getting a return often enough that it funds future buy ins. So far, all good, I get to play the games I want with no detrimental effect to my finances.

Playing poker gives me a challenge to overcome and it gives me social interaction. I value the challenge and I’ve risen to it often enough that it’s been profitable for me. The social interaction is why I prefer live poker to online. I genuinely want it to be a pleasant experience for the people I’m playing with and for myself. I talk to my opponents, engage with them, I’m interested to hear their stories and their opinions. I’ve made many friends with complete strangers I’m randomly assigned to sit down and play with for 8 or 10 hours. For me this is the beauty of poker, other human beings, part of a community, playing with billionaire hedge fund managers and playing with those who empty bins, accomplished winning professionals and guys who have won entries through satellites for $10. We all come together on an even playing field and we compete against each other in a battle of wits.

This community we’re part of. There isn’t an equivalent in the casino gaming world. There aren’t forums where we discuss roulette strategy and evolve a thought process, interact and improve our roulette ability to a place where we can beat the game. We will always be mug punters in roulette. Poker is unique & distinct as a form of gambling. PokerStars decision to include these games on the poker client, to tarnish our ‘skill’ game by association with these exploitative long term losing games, where the house will always win. To raid our poker economy so they can take a bigger cut for themselves with these games. To knowingly damage & shrink the poker economy, meaning less money will make it into poker prizepools by shunting people & their deposits off to routlette, blackjack & slots.

PokerStars revenues will not decrease, but the poker economy will. The money available to gamble with is finite, PokerStars seems intent on ensuring it takes a bigger & bigger share.

My perception of Daniel is diminished, Israel comments, rake increase, casino games. His voice is that of his corporate masters. He speaks for them and not for his community.

But his place in poker is set. He is the number one. And even from this position he has always been generous with his time on twitter responding to comments and engaging with people. I give him great credit for this. He doesn’t have to speak to us, he doesn’t have to open himself up to the abuse he sometimes takes. But I would also say, he doesn’t have to be a cheerleader for every negative change being implemented. Other Team Pros have managed a dignified silence.

Vicky managed to get universal respect and admiration for her stance. PokerStars not only lost a two time EPT winner, they also lost a level of respectability and class that Vicky brought to the brand. A portal direct to the UK celebrity classes who saw poker through Vicky as a respectable game played by intellectuals. An accomplished author, broadcaster & wit, lending her good name to our disreputable game. We’ve been very lucky to have her and she’ll be a huge loss to PokerStars.