Fedor Holz vs. Alex Dreyfus and Doug Polk vs. Ben Tollerene: a Drama in Two Parts

Alex Weldon : September 6th, 2016

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Those who’ve been following my writing here at PartTimePoker for long enough may have noticed that the Forum Files – which I had taken over from Dustin Gouker when he left last summer – has more or less ceased to exist. The reason is that, although I approached the column with snarky humour, exposing myself to that side of poker was taking a real emotional toll.

It’s with gritted teeth and a beer in hand, then, that I bring you the details of the latest soap opera unfolding on TwoPlusTwo’s infamous News, Views and Gossip subforum. The story is actually two separate stories, related only in that one began as a derail of the other before being moved to its own thread. The debate has expanded into the Twittersphere, where I first caught wind of it, but it’s hard to piece together the story from people’s 140-character hot takes on the subject, so I’ve waded through the two threads (~1100 posts in all) so you don’t have to.

When’s a swap not a swap? When it’s a loan

The story which started it all is also the simpler of the two. It involves Mediarex CEO and Global Poker League (GPL) founder Alex Dreyfus, and three poker players, Hendrik Latz, the pseudonymous “BBVisBadForMe” and Fedor Holz, that last of whom is of course one of the star players in his league, having been the first draft pick of the Los Angeles Sunset.

Latz and BBVisBadForMe were invited by Dreyfus to the recording of a live-in-studio GPL match in Las Vegas this summer. Later, Dreyfus asked Latz to exchange some currency for him: Latz gave him US dollars in cash, and Dreyfus said he would transfer Euros to Latz at his earliest convenience. When Latz checked his accounts a month or so later, he noticed that the money had never been sent, and asked Dreyfus about it; the latter said that things were not going as planned with the GPL and he was having cash flow issues, but would pay back the money with interest as soon as he was able.

Dreyfus did in fact make good on that promise at the end of August, but in the meantime, Latz had compared notes with others, including Holz, only to discover that his experience was not an isolated occurrence. Although Holz also got his money back around the same time as Latz, the fact that the same scenario had played out for both indicated, in their eyes, that Dreyfus had intentionally been “borrowing” money from them under the pretence of an immediate swap.

Whether or not this is the case, and if so, why Dreyfus would not have just asked for a loan if that’s what he wanted is up for debate. He has confirmed the basic facts of the story and apologized for what he calls a mistake, but has declined to make any further public comment.

Some posters in the thread don’t see why such a big deal is being made of the story, or why Latz and Holz felt the need to go public with it, given that both received their money and a relatively generous 5% on top. However, slow payment – particularly without forewarning – is generally considered a warning flag within the poker community, as it can indicate deeper problems, such as someone “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

On the other hand, the generous view to take is that there’s an element of culture clash at work: Although Dreyfus is an entrepreneur operating within the poker world, he’s not a poker guy himself, and startup culture differs from poker culture in its attitudes towards money and business relationships. For instance, anyone who has freelanced for many (or any) startup entrepreneurs knows not to expect immediate payment on issuing an invoice; cash flow is such a ubiquitous problem in that world that nothing could get done if people weren’t willing to accept some degree of slow payment, however grudgingly.

Is it possible that Dreyfus could have spent this long building a business within the poker world without understanding the importance poker players place on prompt payment? Well, it’s certainly not impossible, but I leave an assessment of the probability thereof to the reader.

You can return money, but you can’t un-coach yourself

The second, more bizarre story spun off when high-stakes online cash player Ben “Ben84″ Tollerene jumped into the thread to blast Dreyfus for claiming he had “legitimate” reasons for being unable to pay on time. This caused Doug “WCGRider” Polk to jump on Tollerene and effectively call him out for hypocrisy, alluding to a NLHE-for-PLO coaching swap the two of them had agreed upon, which Tollerene had apparently failed to make good on.

The ensuing drama quickly overshadowed the Dreyfus controversy, leading a TwoPlusTwo mod to separate Polk’s post and all responses on the topic into their own thread, which has since ballooned to several time the size of the original. In appears that Polk’s beef with Tollerene is quite long-standing and complex, but a simplified timeline of Polk’s version of events is as follows:

  • Polk met Tollerene in early 2013. He looked up to and somewhat idolized the latter, and wanted to form a relationship with him that would be part friendship, part business. Ulimately, this led to them living in condos in the same building in Vancouver.
  • Their business relationship began during a period on Full Tilt when 400/800 NLHE games were running daily due to the presence of “as Asian fish.” Polk participated, but ran bad and lost nearly a million dollars, whereupon he looked for staking to continue playing, which he got from Tollerene. He didn’t make all of his money back, but some of it, and turned a profit for Tollerene in the process.
  • Polk leaves Vancouver for a while, then comes back to play a heads-up challenge against Ben “sauce123″ Sulsky.
  • The idea is floated that because Polk is a heads-up NLHE specialist, and Tollerene is a PLO specialist, the two could stand to learn a lot from each other. A deal to swap coaching sessions is agreed upon, which Polk is very enthusiastic about, as his reputation has become such that finding high stakes heads-up action has become difficult for him and he needs to find a new direction.
  • Meanwhile, Viktor “Isildur1″ Blom approaches Polk for a $150,000 loan. Tollerene provides part of the money, in return for a piece of Polk’s action whenever the latter plays against Blom. A couple of minor disputes arise regarding exactly which games this applies to; according to Polk, they worked it out, but the resolution in both cases was in Polk’s favour.
  • Once Polk has given Tollerene a significant amount of NLHE coaching, he decides it’s time for the latter to give him the promised PLO coaching. Tollerene at this point reveals that much of what he knows about the game was learned with the help of proprietary software he’d developed with the help of an unspecified third party, and that he needs permission from the latter to disclose anything to Polk. He claims that his friend is “leaving poker” and therefore assumes he’ll have no problem with Tollerene sharing their secrets, but the friend apparently refuses to give Tollerene that permission.
  • Tollerene is unable to coach Polk, but makes no attempt to provide alternate compensation for the NLHE coaching. Polk decides not to make a big deal about it at the time, but is very unhappy about the situation.
  • Despite these disputes, the two remain friends until some time later, when they get into a drunken argument over personal matters, and Polk decides the following morning that he’s received enough abuse from Tollerene and pulls the plug on the friendship.
  • Polk wants to cancel all outstanding deals between the two of them and asks Tollerene what he wants to do about it. Tollerene responds that he “can’t deal with this right now,” which Polk decides to take as confirmation that the deals are off. Tollerene later accuses Doug of unilaterally backing out of said deals.
  • Six months later, Tollerene attempts to play Polk 50/100 CAP NLHE, but the latter sits out. Polk claims that their last strategic talk before the falling out was about this game specifically, and believes that Tollerene was attempting to use the information so-gained against him, adding insult to the injury of never having fulfilled his half of the coaching deal.

All of this is summarized in a video posted by Polk to YouTube, which you can watch below if you hate yourself enough to do so, or are nostalgic for the high school drama movies of the 1980s. The first half of it deals with the facts of the story, as recalled by Polk and as summarized by me above. After that, however, we get to find out what it’s really all about: a clash of egos between two guys who evidently allowed the development of their emotional intelligence to fall by the wayside when they each made their respective decisions to dedicate themselves to poker full time.

There are several facets to the personality conflict between the two, all of which seem absurdly trivial in a story where “I lost maybe close to a million dollars over a few days” is an introductory aside. Tollerene was picked on in high school, and Polk reminds him of the people who were mean to him. One time, Polk and his friends stood Tollerene up at a bar, because the line outside was too long. Polk didn’t like the way Tollerene talked about other top players. Tollerene told Polk his sample size was too small when the latter was boasting about his win rate.

These, apparently, are the sorts of slights which are relationship-ending, in a world where unpaid six-figure debts are personal matters to be resolved without involving the public or the law. Perhaps the correct comparison is not with 1980’s high school dramas, but with something a less-articulate Jane Austen might have written. In any case, there’s a definite sense, listening to what is and isn’t a big deal for Polk, that he does not inhabit the same world as the rest of us, which may prove to be a problem in his attempts to market himself and his Upswing Poker brand to the aspiring-professional crowd.

How to save poker: monetize irony

As is the case with most poker dramas, the unintentional irony is as rich as the people involved. Back when the Vanessa Selbst/Jason Mercier saga was unfolding at this year’s World Series of Poker, I felt like drawing a single-panel comic on the subject, though I was too busy and/or lazy to do so. It would have consisted of a field full of wolves standing about, all dressed up as sheep. In the foreground, one has pounced on another, and is in the process of biting her leg off.

“I thought we were all sheep here!” she cries.

I almost laughed, then, at the point in his video where Polk casts about for a word to describe Tollerene, and comes up with “vulture.” The animal metaphors used to describe winning poker players can vary – predator, scavenger, parasite – but image ultimately conveyed is that of a being which feeds on others. That is, after all, what the game is about: enriching oneself at the expense of those lower on the food chain.

Naturally, it takes a certain personality to decide to dedicate one’s life to that and be happy with that decision. What’s incredible to me is how commonly it seems to be the case that the same people who spend their lives on the lookout for weaknesses to exploit in others end up surprised when those swimming in the same circles take similar advantage of them when their guard is down. Is it that they’re in denial about their own basic nature, or is it surprise at having lost a game at which they thought they were the best?

Polk initially jumped on Tollerene because he felt the latter’s condemnation of Dreyfus was, as he put it, a case of the pot calling the kettle black. He goes on to say that he first had misgivings about Tollerene because of the latter’s ego, and the way he would talk badly about other pros. Yet the trigger for their ultimate fallout was Polk’s boasting about his own win rate over other top pros, and Tollerene taking exception to that. What does that make Polk, then? A frying pan? A barbecue grill? I’m not sure, but we had better hope that no other nosebleed professionals join the fray, or we may rapidly find ourselves running out of soot-stained metal cookware to compare them to.

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

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