Hardly a week goes by in the poker community without someone doing something to set Twitter aflame. Sometimes it’s a cheating allegation, other times it’s an unpopular move by PokerStars or one of the major live tournament organizers. Quite often, it’s something Daniel Negreanu said. This week, though, it’s Mason Malmuth, owner of the TwoPlusTwo poker forums, and his response to a series of blog posts by an initially-anonymous woman going by “SeekingPlumb.”

SeekingPlumb’s beef with Malmuth

The three posts are all directed at and critical of Malmuth, though the topic of each is slightly different. In the first, she ridicules Malmuth’s “obsession” (her word) with Dr. Tricia Cardner, and expresses the view that his feud with her is rooted in sexism. Dr. Cardner is a psychologist and the author of Positive Poker, whose writing also features in Jonathan Little’s Excelling at No-Limit Hold’em and in several pieces for PokerNews. Malmuth has taken vocal exception to the increasing popularity of her ideas in the poker community, and his own recent book, Real Poker Psychology is in large part dedicated to attempting to refute her claims. There has been increasing friction between the two of them, with Malmuth challenging Cardner to a debate, which she refused on the grounds that it would be pointless, as he seems to reject the validity of psychology as a science.

In the second post, SeekingPlumb expresses disappointment with a series of interviews Malmuth gave with Joey Ingram, “Limon” and Rich Muny of the Poker Players’ Alliance (PPA). It was to the last that she took the most exception, feeling that Muny was not playing the role of a neutral interviewer, but rather feeding Malmuth the questions he wanted, and essentially agreeing with him every step of the way. Her feeling is that the PPA has an important role to play in poker as long as it can maintain its credibility, but that this credibility is undermined by Muny providing an uncritical platform for certain voices and ignoring others.

The third post is more personal, and has to do with SeekingPlumb’s own experiences on the TwoPlusTwo forums. She mentions the unchecked misogyny of the forums community, that she was banned for posting an overly-glowing review of a certain book (presumably Cardner’s Positive Poker), and that she feels Malmuth seems in general to crack down on users for expressing disagreement with his own pet theories and causes, but not for what she sees as more genuinely toxic behaviors.

Malmuth strikes back

Malmuth decided that the appropriate response to this series of posts was to post the links to his website’s News, Views and Gossip subforum (from which we at PartTimePoker draw most of our weekly “Forum Files” threads) and ask the users there to attempt to guess at SeekingPlumb’s real-life identity.

SeekingPlumb had not actually gone to much effort to hide herself – she uses the alias in many contexts, and has connected her real name to it in interviews which can be found via a Google search – but Malmuth felt that people who hide behind an alias “don’t like it” when they’re outed, and that somehow this sort of retribution was called for. Although most of the community responded to the thread with bored exasperation, a few Malmuth supporters seemed eager to turn it into a witch hunt, and the end result was that SeekingPlumb’s (outdated) address and contact info were posted to the thread, a “doxing” which caused progressive and feminist members of the poker community to explode with outrage on Twitter. Eventually, that info was deleted and the thread was locked, but by then the can of worms had been opened. More reactionary members of the community proceeded to leap to Malmuth’s defense, and things degenerated from there.

Now, I’m no big fan of Malmuth, or of the TwoPlusTwo community in general – I think that can easily be discerned by reading any of my Forum Files pieces – but neither do I care much for the tack SeekingPlumb took in her posts. Despite her insistence that they’re opinion pieces, they contain assertions I wouldn’t be comfortable publishing without fearing a libel suit, and read more like an open letter to Malmuth, only one phrased in the third person. There’s also unintentional irony in her persistent name-calling of Malmuth (“Mr. Has-Been,” “Daddy,” etc.) while such behavior features prominently among her complaints about him.

None of that really matters, though; I mention it only to establish that I’m not on anyone’s side. But regardless of how much or how little merit there is to SeekingPlumb’s gripes, or her approach to expressing them, there are a few important things that Malmuth and his defenders seem to be missing.

Sexism does proliferate on TwoPlusTwo

The poker community has a problem with sexism, and TwoPlusTwo is no exception. More and more prominent figures in the community are recognizing this fact and speaking out about it. There are still many who don’t see what the big deal is about, say, the World Poker Tour’s “Royal Flush Girls,” or Daniel Negreanu expressing the belief that the lack of women in poker has to do with a biological predisposition to risk-aversion. These are somewhat subtle issues, the real impact of which is still being debated, but much more clear-cut and egregious examples are not hard to find on Twitter and on virtually any poker forum.

Here, for instance, is an example of a TwoPlusTwo thread in which a question about the ethics of exploiting a drunk player immediately degenerated into multiple posters advocating for actual rape, according to the legal definition thereof, and ridiculing those saying they would not commit such an act. The thread was quickly locked, at the request of the original poster, but none of the offending users suffered any repercussions for their posts, nor were those posts deleted.

Malmuth has insisted that he is not, himself, sexist, and that it’s up to his moderators to determine where to draw the line and what action to take when posts are reported. Nonetheless, it is his site, and issues like sexism and other forms of bigotry are systemic problems, which means that those who stand passive and allow the status quo to maintain itself are in fact a part of the problem. Malmuth may not be “a sexist” (as if it were a binary concept), but by failing to instruct his moderators to take a hard line when it comes to overt misogyny, he is complicit in systemic sexism.

Retaliation is not an appropriate response to criticism

Retaliation is something one potentially does when one has suffered personal harm. Criticism, even very personal criticism, is not a harmful act. It is the nature of public discourse to give criticism and to receive it.

There are three appropriate responses to criticism: to ignore it, to refute it, or to accept it and apologize. Based on her tone, it doesn’t seem likely that SeekingPlumb really wanted a two-way conversation with Malmuth, and it’s clear that Malmuth doesn’t see any merit to what she has to say about him, so an apology was never on the table. Malmuth could have posted a response to the forums or elsewhere to defend himself, but even that would likely have been unnecessary. Nothing in SeekingPlumb’s rants would have convinced anyone not already anti-Malmuth, and in any case, she had little reach, as she has herself pointed out.

Malmuth should have just ignored her.

Now, as I said, there are a couple of points in her posts where SeekingPlumb ventures into territory that I could imagine Malmuth seeing as crossing the line from criticism into defamation. But if that’s the case, there’s also an appropriate response to that, which is to request a retraction and, if one is not forthcoming, either grin and bear it or call a lawyer, as Malmuth has done in the past to his great satisfaction.

Correction: The above paragraph originally implied that Malmuth has taken such legal action multiple times. He has clarified to us that it has in fact happened only once.

Women have greater reason to seek anonymity

Based on his response to the Twitter firestorm, and the fact that he thought asking people to determine SeekingPlumb’s real identity in the first place was a good idea, I can only assume that Malmuth doesn’t understand what a hostile act it was. From his perspective, it’s understandable that he’d think that someone hiding behind an alias is acting out of cowardice and doesn’t want to take responsibility for their own words, that this is why they “don’t like it” when their mask is removed. As a transparency advocate myself, I’m halfway inclined to agree, especially when it is a man who is choosing to remain anonymous.

However, the internet is a dangerous place for women, especially women who are vocal about their opinions, those who are critical of popular figures, and most especially those who do so within the context of a male-dominated community. If one has any doubts about that fact, I would invite them to read up on the treatment of Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu by the video games community; or, to remain within poker, just talk to someone like Cate Hall or Kara Scott about their experiences.

We’ve seen time and again what happens to women in these sorts of communities when they get “doxed” (that is, have their personal information posted publicly) in the midst of a controversy about their opinions; they receive death threats and rape threats, they and their families receive frightening phone calls, they have their various accounts hacked if possible and their dirty laundry posted all over the internet. In other words, they are subject to psychological, professional, personal and occasionally physical harm; actual, lasting harm, not the “some stranger wrote a mean blog post about me” variety.

A question of motive and intent

I don’t know what Malmuth’s actual intent was in starting the thread. When SeekingPlumb’s first name was initially posted to the thread, Malmuth admitted that it actually wasn’t who he’d had in mind when he first asked the question. Perhaps he thought she was Dr. Cardner herself, attacking him by way of a sockpuppet account, but whatever the case, he made no effort at that point to end the hunt and indeed called for it to continue and for her last name to be determined as well. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt that his plan wasn’t actually for any info beyond her name to be exposed, or for the forums’ more misogynistic denizens to begin a harassment campaign against her on his behalf. I also don’t know how much actual harassment SeekingPlumb received in this specific case – fortunately, the info that was posted was out-of-date.

All of that notwithstanding, whenever the call goes out for a woman to be “exposed” on the internet for her unpopular opinions, the very likely result is going to be cruel, dangerous and quite often criminal, because there are a great many men out there who do hate women, and who feel they can act with impunity behind their own veil of anonymity. However Malmuth may have felt offended or unfairly treated by her blog posts, subjecting or potentially subjecting someone to a crowdsourced harassment campaign is in no way proportional. So, if that wasn’t his intent, then I think Mr. Malmuth should consider his responses and their possible consequences more carefully in future, because things easily could have gotten much uglier than they did.

Furthermore, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in a little over a year writing about poker, it’s that a thick skin is indispensable in this community; negativity and frustration is pervasive, and no one is going to exist long as a public figure here without receiving criticism, some of it reasonable, some not, and much of it quite nasty. Having been around as long as he has, I find it hard to believe SeekingPlumb’s posts were the worst lambasting Malmuth has received to this point. And so, I can’t help but wonder why it is that he felt the need to retaliate in this case… but I think I’ll leave speculation on that front to the reader, lest I incur his wrath myself.

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