Friday, March 09, 2007

Why Kreidler Wrote It (and Why We Should Care)

Some take offense when poker is described as a sportDid Mark Kreidler step into it or what?

Kreidler’s column, “D’Amato shows poker face,” has generated a lot of response since it was posted Tuesday afternoon. The column is itself a response (sort of) to an article in Monday’s New York Times reporting former senator Alphonse D’Amato had been tapped as the new Chairman of the Board -- and primary political lobbyist -- for the Poker Players Alliance. Later on Tuesday, Mean Gene wrote a smart analysis identifying several of the articles logical fallacies, as well as shaming Kreidler for a cavalier attitude toward research. Daniel Negreanu also weighed in with a careful rebuttal before the day was through. There has also been a mostly reasonable Two Plus Two thread on the article, and by this morning one can read close to 100 comments on the ESPN site. None of those comments is favorable, and many demonstrate more thoughtfulness than the article itself.

Kreidler’s column is indeed a feat of rhetorical inelegance. (Do check it out, if you haven’t already.) The most baffling question, of course, is why, exactly, Kreidler and ESPN thought it needful to publish such an editorial, particularly since ESPN has such a clear investment in the growth of poker’s popularity in America.

Can’t say I’m completely sure what ESPN was thinking. But I do have an idea about where Kreidler might be coming from.

When I first read the article, my initial response was to think that Kreidler saw an opportunity here to take a shot at D’Amato -- an easy target, frankly. I suspected that in the course of his career as a journalist, Kreidler might well have had occasion in the past to write about D’Amato in a critical way, and that here he saw an opportunity to revisit a former theme. Not really heeding how incongruous it might appear to bash poker on the ESPN website (in the “ESPN Poker Cub” section, no less), Kreidler let himself get carried away while trying to discredit D’Amato.

I thought about that, though, and decided that probably wasn’t it. Kreidler writes about sports, not politics. He’s also located on the west coast, and so probably hasn’t had much occasion to opine in print about the former New York senator. In fact, I now think he essentially borrowed the cynical view of D’Amato from the authors of the original New York Times article, which itself appears at several moments to be looking for ways to criticize the sometimes brash politician.

There must be something else going on here, I reasoned. I read Haley Hintze’s interesting theory that the decision to run Kreidler’s editorial might betray ESPN’s own views regarding online poker and its effect on the popularity of ESPN’s poker programming. Hintze suggests that one reason why ratings are down for ESPN’s poker telecasts is the preponderance of other poker shows on TV -- most of which are sponsored by online sites. Fewer online sites mean fewer shows to compete with ESPN’s loop of WSOP and WSOP Circuit events. Thus might ESPN benefit, albeit indirectly, from online poker’s demise.

This could well be part of the mix, here. But while that idea might help explain why ESPN’s editorial staff allowed the article, we’re still left with the question of Kreidler’s motivation. Why did Mark Kreidler write “D’Amato shows poker face”?

I’ll tell you why. Kreidler is a sportswriter, and he doesn’t like it very much when people talk about poker being a sport.

Early in the article, Kreidler mocks D’Amato for “hailing poker as perhaps America’s favorite sport.” Here he refers to the moment in the New York Times article when D’Amato indeed refers to poker as a sport: “‘It’s really a great sport,’ Mr. D’Amato said, perhaps the country’s favorite sport. ‘You don’t have 70 million people participating in baseball.’”

I’m going to venture to guess that this was the passage that most directly inspired Kreidler’s otherwise unfocused screed. Sarcastic references to poker as “his sport” follow, as do dismissive terms for poker players (“hold ’em junkies”). The most telling moment comes later in the article when Kreidler addresses the PPA’s argument that poker should be distinguished from other forms of gambling that are strictly games of chance. “As they [the PPA and its supporters] see it, poker is a game of skill and chance, which therefore entitles Al to call it a sport, which blah blah blah -- you can see where this is going.”

Kreidler’s “blah blah blah” confirms his impatience with those who want to rate poker alongside other competitive games like basketball or hockey. It could be that Kreidler is less than thrilled that ESPN appears to treat poker a sport. The network covers WSOP tournaments as though they were sporting events, and the website lists poker as an “additional sport” right there next to boxing and horse racing. He probably also doesn’t care much for the way poker columns have begun to occupy precious column inches in newspaper’s sports sections (e.g., those by McManus, Rosenbloom, Negreanu, etc.). Perhaps not quite ready or willing simply to write a column about why poker is not a sport, Kreidler instead communicated his stance via this awkwardly-posed commentary on D’Amato’s appointment.

So that’s why I think Kreidler wrote the piece. So what, right? Is there anything constructive we might take from the mainstream media allowing poker a brief (if not-so-welcome) cameo? I can see at least a couple of useful lessons here.

For one, let us note how Kreidler responds to the argument that the UIGEA is analogous to Prohibition. He calls the comparison “comically misguided” and jokes in a particularly uninformed way about the “unintended consquences” of prohibiting players from playing online poker. Two weeks ago I wrote a post (“The Frank Approach”) pointing out how the Prohibition argument is probably not going to convince a lot of people. I think Kreidler’s contemptuous response to it here clearly demonstrates its limitations. The lesson? Tread carefully when pushing the Prohibition argument, as those whom you are trying to convince are the least likely to see the comparison as meaningful.

The other lesson is aptly summarized in one of the comments to Kreidler’s article. After several dozen criticisms had been posted, a writer named “teag99” had this to say: “Readers and responders beware! It’s fine to call this article misinformed trash, but don’t fall into the common trap of chasing the fish from the table. We need people like Kreidler to continue jabbering so that we can better understand what we’re up against.” The writer correctly notes how people like Kreidler with little interest in poker tend to “take a simpleton’s view of the issue because they don’t have time to care.” The lesson? “KNOW YOUR ENEMY!”

I agree that it is helpful for us to “understand what we’re up against” and that Kreidler’s article does help us in this regard. The situation is, in fact, very much like facing a particularly untutored player -- a “fish” -- and having to adjust one’s style once you’ve figured out how your opponent is likely going to respond to your actions. You keep betting, representing a made hand when you’re only on a draw, but you see players like Kreidler just keep on calling you with their bottom pair. He doesn’t care what you’re representing. What’s that about Prohibition and civil liberties? He cares more about spring training and March madness . . . .

If we don’t adjust, in other words, their trash hands are going to win.



Blogger Michael said...

Excellent post, Shamus. I couldn't agree more with your thinking on this issue with Kreidler.


3/09/2007 11:03 AM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Nice take on the Kriedler article.

I can see why his article has caused a backlash with poker players.

When I read it, I found the sarcasm more amusing than anything. But I think that has to do with my apathetic stance on politics. Also maybe my reaction has something to do with me being more of a recreational poker player. But probably not so much as the latter.

I think Kriedler wrote the article to rile people. Sadly, writing controversial things is what will generate more buzz and attention. In this case it was poker players. And he succeeded in doing so, it appears. If he wrote a pro D'Amato article, no one would care that much, because the majority of non-poker players could care less about the state of online poker.

In terms of why ESPN posted the article or let it pass its censors, it is because it generates buzz and ESPN doesn't really care whether poker is a sport or not. It will make little difference to people tuning in to watch the WSOP or whatever.

I used to watch a lot of ESPN shows like Around the Horn, PTI, and Sportscenter. Also I've read articles by ESPN columnists.

Occasionally in these articles, they will discuss the state of sports, say football or basketball. A lot of the opinions are candid and sometimes make the sport look back. Like when there was the fight with the Nuggets and Knicks earlier this season, ESPN was covering it and had people discussing how this was ruining the state of basketball, etc. They talk about this because it draws viewers and readers. Though it is a double edged sword because that could lower ratings for their televised sports games. But not reporting the news is more negative to them.

In terms of his arguments you made good points about the prohibition. As did Michael who made a comment about that on my blog. For me I found D'Amato's prohibition argument weak because it sounds so absurd and exaggerated. He sounds to righteous by saying that. It's funny because he says that Congress should focus on more important issues like terrorism, but when he talks about poker, he makes the issue sound enormous. At least that's how it sounds to me.

That's my problem with D'Amato. It just sounds too much like politics and spin. Which it is, but that's why I'm so apathetic about politics.

3/10/2007 5:40 PM  

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