Poker Rewards Enthusiasm, but Punishes Innocence

Alex Weldon : April 7th, 2016

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In a piece I wrote recently for OnlinePokerReport, I made the point that even the most optimistic voices in the poker media were reacting with concern to the recent rake increases at PokerStars. As an example, I chose Robbie Strazynski, an ordinarily enthusiastic poker writer who nonetheless penned an op-ed for Cardplayer Lifestyle imploring PokerStars to reconsider this latest round of changes.

Although I paint a rather bleak picture for the future of online poker in the article, it seemed to do pretty well and the feedback I’ve received about it has been largely positive. However, James Guill at PokerUpdate took exception to my characterization of Robbie as the canary in the coal mine for online poker, and in particular to a dig I made about Robbie’s articles reading as if they’ve been written on a rose-tinted keyboard. James – who I hope doesn’t mind me referring to him by first name, for consistency – took that comment as a condemnation of Robbie’s perspective on the industry, and decided to come to his defense with an op-ed of his own, titled Poker Needs More Rose-Tinted Keyboards.

The point of contention

There’s no disagreement between any of us – Robbie included – as to his general personality and attitude towards poker. James feels, however, that I’m faulting Robbie for his enthusiasm, which is not the case. James argues that the poker world needs enthusiastic people to survive, and that compared to the boom years, the current social climate feels plagued by bitterness and negativity. On these points, I’m actually in full agreement, but I feel that James got some of the nuances of my article wrong, both in terms of the spirit in which it was written, and what I was actually pointing out about Robbie’s perspective.

I think that there’s an important distinction to be drawn here between enthusiasm and innocence. Enthusiasm is one of the few personality traits I would go so far as to call universally positive. It’s easy to think of situations one might not be enthusiastic about, but hard to come up with anything that one is actually better off approaching unenthusiastically. Furthermore, although sometimes people are bothered by the enthusiasm of others, I think that in those cases, the real problem lies with the one who is bothered. Enthusiasm lies more or less at the intersection of passion and drive, and those are qualities that are necessary to excel in any field, poker most definitely included. It can also be contagious, to the benefit of everyone involved.

Innocence, on the other hand, is an easy trait to enjoy or even admire in others, but one that does not always benefit the one who possesses it. Poker is a predatory game, and the terms players use to describe one another – “sharks” and “fish,” among others – make that abundantly clear. In theory, that cut-throat culture is supposed to be confined to the felt, but one thing that’s struck me in the time I’ve been writing about poker is how thoroughly it has seeped out and permeated all other corners of the poker world as well. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to succeed in poker while behaving ethically away from the tables, only that it is a recipe for disaster to assume that others are equally trustworthy.

No slight intended, none taken (probably)

As regards the specific sentence James objected to – about Robbie’s rose-tinted keyboard – I was definitely ribbing Robbie, but I’d warned him in advance that I’d be doing so when we were originally discussing his piece. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I know Robbie very well, but we’ve chatted several times online and I felt that we’re on good enough terms that I could get away with teasing him a bit without it being taken as hostile. I’d readily apologize if Robbie himself took exception to what I wrote, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I think perhaps James just hasn’t read very much of my writing – for which I don’t blame him, since there’s far too much poker writing for anyone to keep up with it all – and isn’t familiar with my sense of humor, which I’ll acknowledge is almost always on the dry side. A bit of gentle (or not-so-gentle) sarcasm, quippy expressions and wordplay are all par for the course with me.

‘Enthusiastic criticism’ is not an oxymoron

Although I certainly wasn’t trying to insult Robbie, James is right that there was an element of criticism to what I was saying. After all, I was making a point about media literacy, and how it’s important for readers to understand the biases and general perspective of a given writer in order to take their opinions in context. In politics, a radical environmental activist, a left-wing academic economist, a corporate CFO and a hawkish political candidate may all have valid points to make on a subject, but your understanding of the issue is going to be much deeper if you not only read all four opinions, but also make sure you understand where each is coming from. The same is equally true in other fields, including poker.

But just as enthusiasm isn’t the same thing as innocence, taking a critical view isn’t necessarily the same thing as being negative, and I feel the need to defend myself in that regard. The one part of James’s piece that I disagree with strongly is towards the end, where he claims that there’s a Catch-22 inherent in people’s expectations, that you’re “not supposed to be negative,” and yet here I am (in his view) bashing Robbie for being enthusiastic. I think this line of reasoning suggests that James sees enthusiasm and criticism as diametrically opposed and incompatible.

The truth is that I’m enthusiastic about poker; I wouldn’t be able to produce articles on a near-daily basis if I wasn’t. I’m also critical of poker, as anyone who reads those articles knows. In fact, you could even say I’m enthusiastic about criticism, because I want to improve on the things I love, and identifying and analyzing problems is a critical step in making things better.

‘Responsibly enthusiastic’ is not an oxymoron, either

The reason I’m somewhat critical of Robbie, despite sharing his enthusiasm, is that he does seem to get carried away by it at times, and as I’ve said, the poker world is a dangerous one in which to let one’s guard down. While I’m not in the camp that believes that there really are “no nicest guys in poker,” I do think it’s important to realize that it’s a world in which likability is far easier to come by than honesty. That’s not to say that I think Robbie is entirely naive, but he doesn’t seem to have the same reflex to question everyone’s motivations that I’ve come to expect from veterans of the poker scene.

I don’t want to harp on that point too much, but it’s important that both Robbie and his readers recognize that while trusting others is a healthy tendency overall, it’s something you need to be careful about in dealing with poker players and the poker industry.

Another of my own tendencies is to use analogies to make my points, so let me finish here by likening poker to mountain climbing. Mountaineering is a wonderful endeavor that plenty of people are very passionate about, but it’s also not one that you want to take too lightly. Approached with a healthy sense of caution, it can provide beautiful, fulfilling and thrilling experiences, but at the same time, it’s a world with no shortage of cautionary tales of climbers who took on too much, went in underprepared or took the weather for granted, and ended up paying a heavy price.

So, in one sense, James is right. Poker needs enthusiastic people. But that enthusiasm needs to be tempered with canny skepticism, or those same people the poker world needs won’t survive very long in it. The mountain is there, and it’s great to be excited about climbing it… but whatever you do, know who you’re climbing with and don’t forget to double-check your ropes.

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

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