Poker Night in America stopped at SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia last weekend. The live stream was highly anticipated by the poker community, because in addition to the usual cash games, the show was to be the setting for the grudge match between Cate Hall and Mike Dentale. It was a showdown several months in the making, and had come to be referred to as “Mike and Cate Plus Hate” due to the ever-increasing bad blood between the two on Twitter in the meantime.

Fortunately, having worked out their differences over the felt, the two have since apologized for their mutual feather-ruffling online and have now become fast friends.

But I kid, of course. Actually, that is the opposite of what happened.

Foreshadowing IRL

Interestingly, the tone for the weekend and its aftermath was set during the first orbits of the cash game on Friday night, despite neither Hall nor Dentale being in attendance. Rather, the ironic sneak preview came by way of an debate that began between Shaun Deeb and Phil Hellmuth, but eventually involved most of the table, plus the commentary booth.

For the past year or so, Deeb has been outing people on forums and Twitter for non-payment of debts. The poker world being what it is, players deliberately scamming one another or going broke and being unable to pay a debt are both commonplace occurrences. In the past, these issues have generally been dealt with privately or semi-privately; although rumours are spread amongst players themselves regarding who owes what to whom, and it’s easy to determine someone’s reputation if you know who to ask, the general public usually doesn’t hear about it.

That has changed recently, and not only due to Deeb. Around the same time that he began outing his debtors, Phil Galfond penned a piece for PokerNews which was billed as an op-ed, but essentially consisted of him accusing Samuel Touil of an unpaid quarter-million dollar debt.

Hellmuth is of the opinion that the tactics adopted by Galfond, Deeb and others are selfish and short-sighted, and that professional poker players have a duty to give the game a respectable public image in order to avoid discouraging new players from trying the game. Most of the other parties involved in the discussion disagreed, with some pointing out that Hellmuth’s views made more sense from the perspective of the boom years. The extent to which various people disagreed with Hellmuth varied, resulting in some more nuanced discussion of how and when public call-outs are appropriate; Tom Cannuli, providing commentary in the booth, felt that it’s appropriate when someone scams intentionally, but not if they’re simply broke and unable to repay.

The Match and Aftermath

Hall won the series quite handily, 2 matches to nil. Although the consensus of most watchers is that Hall played the better game, there was never much chance that the outcome would settle the score, as everyone including Hall herself agrees that she received the better hands throughout. Dentale, of course, feels he would have won if the cards hadn’t gone Hall’s way, while she has said he should be “ashamed” of his play and that “a random number generator” would have played better than him.

It’s what happened after the match that produced the most drama, however. A user on Twitter – apparently connected to one of the dealers – shamed Hall for not having tipped the dealers after she won. Hall responded that because the event was a special freezeout format, the show was taking care of gratuities, not her. She was then informed that this wasn’t the case, and accused of having known this and lied about it.

Correction: The above paragraph originally stated incorrectly that Hall’s tweet had been deleted; in fact, it merely appeared that way in Glantz’s quote of the tweet, as she had blocked Glantz.

Since their first confrontations, Dentale has not contented himself with criticizing Hall’s game, but has attempted to assassinate her character as well, often on fairly petty grounds. Naturally, he was quick to latch on to this story and begin hammering Hall about it.

Hall insisted that she had really thought it was the case that the gratuities had been taken care of, and proceeded to complain that is was ridiculous they weren’t; she had, after all, appeared on the show for free (as is customary) and paid all of her own travel expenses.

Her slamming of the show naturally brought the show’s producer and well-known poker ambassador Matt Glantz into the fray. After they failed to sort things out privately, Matt waded in on Twitter. He is among those who believe that she knew she was lying at the time she claimed the tips were taken care of by the show, and painted her criticisms of the show’s policies as an attempt to tarnish the show’s reputation to preserve her own.

By this point, many others had waded in, some to defend Hall, others to slam her, but many simply to debate whether or not she has a point, that if the show is not paying players for their appearances, it should at least take care of their travel and tips.

Post-Hoc Rationalization is not Lying

On the issue of lying, let me just say that I think it’s extremely unlikely that Hall knew she was expected to tip, decided not to, and then concocted a lie to defend herself when called out. I say this simply because people tend to lie only when they think there’s some chance that the lie will be believed; making that claim publicly, on Twitter, in view of people involved with the show made it inevitable she would be contradicted.

I also don’t think she had actually thought about it at the time and decided that the show must be tipping the dealers. Rather, no one had said anything to her about it at the time and so she had probably just left the casino without thinking about it. Confronted later, she then figured that if she hadn’t been thinking about it, she must have believed it had been taken care of. This sort of post-hoc rationalization is a well-known feature of human psychology, and isn’t lying, unless you count lying to oneself.

Working for Exposure

The ethical issues surrounding the show’s policies are a whole other can of worms, and here I think it’s possible for rational people to disagree. What I will say is that it’s easy to see, from the outside, how both parties could feel the other is getting the better side of the deal. This is because both – actually, all three if we include the casino – are effectively “working for exposure.”

That’s a familiar – and frustrating – concept for freelancers like myself, especially those who’ve often worked with small businesses and startups. The entrepreneur, short on cash but convinced that his business will soon be a high-profile success, feels justified in offering the freelancer an “opportunity” to work for free. His rationale is that once his presumed success story is known, the value to the freelancer of having the work in her portfolio will exceed whatever she would have charged had he already been established.

Novice freelancers sometimes fall for this logic, particularly if they have some social connection to the entrepreneur in question. Anyone who’s been in the business for long knows that the value of a single portfolio piece is small, no matter who the client is, and that small businesses with big aspirations vanish far more frequently than they achieve those goals in any event.

In other words, everyone has a pretty realistic notion about what exposure is worth to them, but ego is such that they tend to overestimate by a huge margin what exposure provided by them is worth.

So, here we have a situation where the casino is providing the show the use of its space for free, in return for exposure. The show is then soliciting recognizable professionals to appear, for the sake of improving its own exposure. In return, it pays them in exposure, boosting their public image and earning them additional opportunities in future… many of which also amount to nothing more than additional exposure.

There’s very little money changing hands, then, just an exchange of time and services. On that level, it seems pretty equitable. Someone should be tipping the dealers, however, and which of the three parties that should be depends on who is benefitting the most from the exposure. In the case of the usual cash games, the game itself often amounts to additional compensation, as it’s rake-free and often contains some amateur players lined up by the show. In that case, then, it makes sense that the players tip; Hall may have a point that the situation is less clear-cut in the case of a pro-vs.-pro heads-up freezout such as she and Dentale played.

But Back to the Call-Outs…

The final question, to bring things full circle, is what purpose any of this served. The dealers did ultimately get tipped (by Hall, via Glantz), and that might not have happened if the matter hadn’t been made public. But following the initial call-out, this was a misunderstanding that could have been resolved quickly had there been more good faith between the various parties to begin with.

Beyond that, I’m not sure that anyone involved has improved either their financial situation or their personal brand by criticizing the others publicly. For me, that’s the critical point here. I don’t buy into Hellmuth’s notion that poker players have a duty to keep the game’s image clean. It’s not a pretty world by any stretch, and if anything, making it appear that way to lure in new players is more dishonest and unethical than it is anyone’s responsibility. But everyone naturally wants to look after their own self-interest, and in that regard, I think it’s important to consider one’s goals before taking a fight public.

Twitter is a tool, or rather several tools in one, depending on what kind of thing you’re tweeting and who is following you. When using a tool, however, it’s important to understand its function and make sure you’re using the right tool for the right job.

As social media goes, Twitter is great for reach, but very bad for nuance, context, or maintaining control over one’s content and the discussion it produces. If you’re going to use it in a hostile manner, then, the real-world weapon it most closely resembles is perhaps a hand grenade. You can certainly inflict a fair bit of damage with it, if that’s your goal, but the odds of collateral damage are high, and unless you’re well-covered yourself, there’s a good chance you’ll catch yourself in the blast as well.

So, before you tweet in anger, ask yourself: “Am I bringing a hand grenade to a knife fight?”

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