Andrew Barber on Poker, Economics and Ethics Pt. 3

Alex Weldon : August 11th, 2015

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This is Part 1 of a four-part interview with Andrew Barber, winner of this year’s World Series of Poker Event #63: $10,000 H.O.R.S.E. Championship. In Part 1, we discussed Barber’s issues with the selling of action at a markup. In Part 2, we discussed possible solutions to the problem, and Barber offered some advice for would-be investors. Here, we talk about the future, and the sort of poker economy Barber envisions.

Alex Weldon (AW): Let’s say the norms shift: investors start refusing to pay high markup and players stop trying to charge it. It’s very hard to make a living at live tournaments without playing lots of higher buy-in events, but very few players are bankrolled to play for $10,000 and up without selling action. Meanwhile, if you’re selling at no markup or very low markup, you’re not insuring your profits, you’re just lowering the effective buy-in for yourself, which doesn’t help. What kind of future do you see for tournament specialists and the poker economy itself in a low-/no-markup world?

Andrew Barber (AB): I’ve argued for a long time now that the poker economy is fundamentally unsustainable. There exists this delicate balance between players, the house, and those that work in the industry. Only when the balance is disturbed do we recognize the precariousness of this interrelationship. No one cared about rake until quite recently and the same can be said of dealer pay until this summer when dealer pay hit a record low.

Things like these are indicative, to my mind, of a fragile poker economy that has more money being removed than added. This is why selling action has become as big as it has. It’s also why tournament attendance numbers are down almost across the board, and why few of the WPT stops still have $10,000 main events. Poker players and those in the industry will do what they have to in order to survive, regardless of the sustainability of their actions. For players, making a living from markup is one avenue. For the house, it’s been re-entry tournaments. Both are money grabs.

I think the endgame, when things stabilize, is flatter payout structures, lower buy-ins, reduced ROIs, and fewer pros. The number of pros and their corresponding potential ROIs are functions of the first two variables, along with some of the other factors listed above. This is one reason why I suspect the number of pros in 2012 was much higher than it is 2015, even though both are post-Black Friday years.

AW: It seems to me that most people have a sense that the poker ecosystem is out of balance these days, in that there are too many pros and not enough amateurs. There are two ways that can be corrected, but no one’s really keen on the idea of some of the less profitable pros quitting the game – least of all the pros in question. The focus is therefore usually on what it would take to get more recreational players into the game. Do you see any possible strategies to grow the base of the ecosystem rather than trimming the top, or is that a lost cause at this point?

AB: Pros are removing themselves from the player pool all the time. I decided to go back to school in 2012 in large part because I saw the writing on the wall. Having legal online poker is the easiest solution, but aside from that we can lower buy-ins, flatten payout structures, and get rid of re-entry tournaments because all of these actions make things better for recreational players.

It might also be the case that there are just too many tournaments overall. It used to be that each tournament series was anxiously anticipated, but now there are multiple series going on around the country every day of the year. Alex Dreyfus of GPI has said we need to “sportify” poker, and I commend him on his efforts, but I am extremely skeptical that sportifying will improve the situation.

AW: “Sportification” is kind of vague as a concept, but having spoken to Dreyfus, what he has in mind is finding ways to monetize poker as a spectator sport, so that the money is coming in from outside the game rather than just flowing from weaker players to stronger ones. Do you think there’s any potential there?

AB: I don’t know the details of his plan, but I just don’t think the game lends itself to spectating. It’s a great idea in theory and it works for lots of sports, but given that poker doesn’t require much equipment (which lends itself to sponsors) and it’s not exhilarating for the fans to watch, it seems like trying to generate revenue from chess or bridge.

AW: Another common suggestion is that we need to broaden poker’s demographics, since the player pool is still mostly white and almost entirely male. Do you have any thoughts on why that is or what could be done to change it?

AB: Well, this is the awkward point where I say that I don’t necessarily believe we should be pushing more people into poker. To put that aside for a minute, I think it’s unfortunate that the current player pool lacks substantial diversity, but it’s not surprising that it does.

First of all, poker is not free, so there are going to be some socioeconomic factors at play. I personally have not seen too many players who didn’t come from money last long in this game. Second, with regard to the gender disparity, there seems to be some evidence that women are genetically predisposed to be more risk averse than men, but I think that is only part of the story. Anyone who is even somewhat active on Twitter has surely seen some of the toxic exchanges between female players and male chauvinists.

I won’t dignify the assertions made by these ignorant players by repeating them, but I’m sure things like that contribute to the lack of women in the game. Ladies’ tournaments and female poker site reps aren’t going to increase the number of women in the game as long as there are a few guys are spewing noxious B.S. on and off the table.

AW: I’ll get back to the ethical issues of marketing poker in a second, but just to digress for a moment, let’s talk about sexist behavior. Do you think poker’s particularly bad for this, or is it just the baseline societal sexism that arises whenever a group of strangers get stuck together? If it is a problem with poker, what if anything do you think can be done about it?

AB: I think that poker is one of the worst breeding grounds for sexism. That’s not anyone’s fault, per se. It’s simply a culture that is shaped by the predominance of males, especially “alpha males” in the game. I’m optimistic, though. Social change seems to be happening rapidly these days, and I see strong opposition to sexism in the poker world from a lot of well-respected people.

That said, the subtle stuff may take longer. For example, during the ladies event this year, WSOP tweeted the following: “Just 121 lovely ladies remain from 795 starting in the $1,000 Ladies Event.” On its surface, that seems pretty innocuous, right? Well, a useful thought exercise is to switch “men” for “ladies” and “handsome” for “lovely”. Would you ever in a million years see WSOP tweeting that? Of course not. Getting rid of that stuff is a change I hope to see some day, and the only way that happens is if we talk about it.

This concludes Part 3 of the interview. In Part 4, Barber and I discuss the fundamental ethics of poker and whether playing poker for a living can truly be compatible with altruistic values.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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