The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter – often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter – in the eye.
-Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
The debate on whether to ban sunglasses and headphones has been raging on for literally decades. Some are vehemently opposed to them, many in favor of, and many more simply indifferent. And while I lean slightly toward the opposition camp, I namely wanted to outline the benefits and detriments that each cause while at the table.
Much of what I say here will overlap with thoughts I have expressed in previous articles. Certainly this particular one blends some ideas with the article on table talk. Headphones, hoodies, and sunglasses could easily each have their own column of discussion, but I feel they are so similar that it best to group them together.
In my opinion sunglasses, at the poker table, are worn for two reasons. To shield one’s eyes, which are perceived to be the biggest reflection of one’s hand strength or thoughts (indeed they say eyes are the gateway to the soul). And to look, well, cool. I think the majority of players who wear sunglasses do so because it makes them feel (even subconsciously) more confident and less exposed at the table. And if sunglasses look good and feel good, then what’s the problem? If sunglasses are banned, amateur players might be taken out their comfort zone and stop playing as much. This is of course bad for the game. In addition several name players have certain looks and personas at the table for which sunglasses become iconic. Joe Hachem, Greg Raymer, and Bertrand Grospellier are three players that immediately come to mind for whom sunglasses are part of their image, and I don’t think we should rob them of that.
That being said, there are a couple of downsides to allowing shades at the table. For starters, specialty sunglasses can be used for cheating – to see certain marks or stains that the human eye cannot pick up. However, I have to believe that this happens only a fraction of a fraction of a percent when sunglasses are worn. I feel that the biggest detriment that sunglasses have on the game are when they are present on televised tables. Human beings emote chiefly through contours of the face, particularly our mouths and eyes, and denying audiences those reactions makes for far less captivating television. On the ‘PokerStars Big Game’, players were prevented from wearing sunglasses, hoodies or headphones. This created truly better television. The players were forced to emote. Forced to look at each other. And as a result, behaved in more humanistic ways: They engaged more frequently and naturally with each other, and it was refreshing to see the interactions between players like Bertrand Grospellier, Phil Hellmuth, and Phil Laak – players who are almost always hidden behind shades.
Headphones are in the same ballpark. They give the player the benefit of putting him or her “in the zone,” so they can have a good session “peacefully grinding” without interacting with their tablemates. Headphones can block out irritating table chatter and annoying strategy talk. Yet on the same hand, they prevent said player from picking up verbal tells and prevent them from picking up general information about their chatty opponents: finding out their profession, general wealth, backstory and whatnot. Again, the good comes with the bad.
As they peripherally shield your face and look somewhat ominous, hoodies, in my opinion, add to the cool factor to the average player. They can once again bestow confidence and comfort to the player, but on the other hand can be intimidating, alienating and off-putting to players new to the game.
I believe a recent re-emergence of hoodies and headphones can really be attributed to the online player entering the live arena. Players from a strictly online background weren’t used to having to stare down their opponents and weren’t used to having to be concerned about tells – both reading them or giving them. So I feel it only natural that many chose to cover their faces as much as possible, and thus sunglasses and hoodies and headphones took over. They transformed live poker so that it was closer to the atmosphere of online – one of no tells, just avatars.
And while that is absolutely more profitable for the online player, it doesn’t create a very positive environment for recreational players. And it certainly doesn’t make for good television.
This isn’t to say that sunglasses and hoodies are intrinsically bad. Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson, regardless of his fall from grace, was essentially the original sunglasses and hoodie guy. He was nearly impossible to read, but that didn’t make him any less entertaining to watch. He was still a character who viewers wanted to see.
Televised poker suffers enough already from the recent lack of characters and the monotone personalities and playing styles. If all the players are covered up wearing sunglasses and listening to music, then it makes watching the game on television or streamed online even less entertaining. Darryl Fish once said poker players also need to think of themselves as entertainers. He’s absolutely right. The best poker players need to make playing against them a unique and rewarding experience (even if it’s not a profitable experience), so that recreational players will come back for more.
To briefly summarize – while I don’t think any of the aforementioned accoutrements should be banned from card rooms, I do feel they likely create an unwelcoming atmosphere to players new to the game. More so, they lesson the humanity in televised poker – a medium already desperate for excitement. So would a blanket ban of sunglasses and headphones make poker any more or less enjoyable? I don’t think so. Would the numbers change at all? Again, doubtful. People are gonna play poker sunglasses or no. However, I do feel removing them from televised or streamed final tables can only help the ratings and appreciation of the game. The presence of sunglasses, headphones and hoodies have an impact on the amateur, and the poker community should always have the sensitivities of the recreational players at the forefront of their minds.
Thanks for reading, guys. As always let me know any thoughts or feelings you have on the matter. I can’t imagine this article will meet up with too much resistance, but if it does I’m happy to get the conversation started. Thanks for reading, and good luck out there.
Keith Woernle is a writer, comedian, and semi-pro poker player based out of New Jersey. He was a producer for season 10 of the World Poker Tour. He won a WSOP circuit ring in 2011. He likes poker a lot. Follow or contact him on twitter @WoernlePoker.