Monday, May 27, 2013

On Winners and the Image of Poker

Was somewhat diverting last week to see how that $25K World Poker Tour World Championship played out and all of the surrounding hubbub concerning the deep runs of Erick Lindgren (the eventual runner-up) and David “Chino” Rheem (who won the sucker). I actually barely followed the tournament itself, to be honest, but I couldn’t help but overhear some of the hooting and hollering that resulted from that particular pair making it to heads-up.

Both obviously occupy interesting, similar places in the poker community at present. Lindgren’s story is perhaps somewhat better known thanks to a recent BLUFF feature discussing his significant gambling debts and even a stint in rehab, as well as the openness with which his many creditors have reported on sums owed.

Rheem’s story might be a little less well known, although that absurd-in-retrospect judgment placed upon him by Epic Poker’s Standards and Conduct Committee back in August 2011 broadcast his reputation for failing to pay back debts a little more widely than had been the case previously.

Recall how the EPL placed its first Main Event winner on probation “in order to effectively monitor the personal conduct of Mr. Rheem as he works to meet his personal financial obligations as required under the Players’ Code of Conduct”? Provides a chuckle today, that, as we now understand the extent of Epic Poker’s own significant financial obligations, and the way Federated Sports + Gaming weaseled out of those obligations by taking the bankruptcy route. Heck, some of us are still receiving legal notices helping us monitor that, too.

Both Lindgren and Rheem provide a lot of forum fodder, obviously, and their performances in the WPT World Championship created another occasion for further judgments, jokes, and conjecture about the players’ backing arrangments as well as the possibility of certain debts getting settled thanks to their large scores ($1,150,297 for Rheem and $650,275 for Lindgren).

My initial reaction upon seeing those two in the top spots heading into the final table and then learning they had finished 1-2 was to think back to what I was writing about a week ago regarding “The Shifting Place of the WPT World Championship.” There I was noting how the event has become much less central on the poker calendar over the last several years, both for players and for fans.

One idea I had in mind when writing that post that I didn’t really discuss explicitly was the way the $25K WPT World Championship seems to have evolved into an event reserved for only a select few -- namely, those who can afford and/or be backed for the $25K buy-in. Thus my initial thought about Lindgren and Rheem both playing and coming away with the top two prizes was to think how that result seemed to confirm such an idea that the tournament is kind of segregated from others on the schedule, something only for those like Lindgren and Rheem who even with their debts (or perhaps because of their debts, and, of course, their skills as players) can get backers and play.

But then I had a different thought about it all, partly inspired by the EPL’s fretting over its image once Rheem won that first Main Event. I thought about how curious it is that people place so much importance on who wins a poker tournament and the way the story of that person’s triumph might reflect on the game itself.

The NBA playoffs are currently down to four teams -- Miami, Indiana, San Antonio, and Memphis -- and some commentators are already talking about how the upcoming finals will probably fail to earn high television ratings because of the absence of “big market” teams (e.g., from New York or Los Angeles). But no one is worried about the state of the game itself being negatively affected by who ends up winning in the end. Or affected at all, really.

Meanwhile in poker, discussion about how winners are perceived both within the community and beyond often forms part of the post-tourney response, particularly in the case of the highest-profile tournaments.

Such discussion always surrounds the WSOP Main Event, of course. Remember the first year of the “November Nine” (2008), when all of the talk was about how the final nine featured a bunch of nobodies? Coincidentally -- or ironically -- it was Rheem alone who initially stood out among that group as the only “pro” among them, thus causing a lot of uncertainty about whether or not the whole delayed-final table experiment was ultimately going to be “good for poker” if no one knew the players involved.

Such has been the case ever since the WSOP Main Event started to attract notice by those outside of poker. I’m thinking of the end of The Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez in which he reports on the 1981 WSOP. Alvarez describes one player, Bill Smith, drinking heavily throughout the tourney on his way to the final table, and quotes an unnamed poker pro worrying “If Bill ends up beating all of the nice guys, like Bobby [Baldwin], it’s going to set the image of poker back ten years.”

Smith ended up busting in fifth, leading Alvarez to say (with tongue clearly in cheek) that “the new, clean-living image of poker had been spared for another year.” That Stu Ungar would go on to win that year -- an amazing character, to be sure, though obviously not exactly a wholesome representative of the game -- perhaps provides yet another one of those hindsight-producing ironies here.

In any case, this whole idea of assigning such significance to the winner’s character or identity and its ultimate effect on the “image of poker” is curious to say the least. After all, the game attracts such a wide variety of people, and the very nature of the game -- with chance a significant element -- makes it impossible to exert any sort of control over who is going to win and thus be perceived as representing the game going forward.

Looking back, I’d say that was one of a few impossible goals the EPL was striving for during its brief, quixotic existence, i.e., to try to exert some sort of control over who the winners in poker were going to be, ensuring they be both skillful and of acceptable character. (Wrote a little on that idea way back in early 2011 when the EPL was first announced in a post titled “A League of Their Own.”) But in truth, it is foolhardy to suggest the fate of the game depends so heavily on outcomes.

So Rheem wins and Lindgren almost does. So what? Poker endures.

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