Monday, October 11, 2010

Secret (and Not-So-Secret) Identities in Poker

Clark Kent is SupermanThe flesh-and-blood appearance of the young Swedish player Viktor Blom at the World Series of Poker Europe a few weeks back caused something of a stir in the poker world. That was because Blom, of course, is the player most believe to be “Isildur1,” he of the multimillion-dollar swings over on Full Tilt Poker that captured everyone’s attention during the latter months of 2009.

While the prize pools at the WSOPE pale in comparison to the stakes Isildur1 was playing a little under a year ago -- remember that $1,356,946.50 pot he lost to Patrik Antonius?! -- Blom had what some might consider a successful series, highlighted by a 16th-place finish in the WSOPE Main Event.

The £33,582 Blom won for that achievement (the equivalent about $52,000) would not have even gotten him to the flop in that big hand against Antonius last November. But still, his deep run got a lot of attention, especially when he and Phil Ivey -- one of Isildur1’s many big-name Full Tilt opponents -- were sitting one-two in chips at one point on Day 2.

This wasn’t the first time Blom has appeared at a live tourney. He was at the 2009 WSOPE as well as the 2010 EPT Grand Final in Monaco. He did bail at the last minute from playing in the televised Party Poker IV Big Game last spring, but has been out and about enough to become a recognizable figure (and the subject of a hilarious photoshop thread on Two Plus Two, from which comes that picture below).

That said, Blom had never before drawn as much attention as he did at the 2010 WSOPE. It was highly interesting to see how those reporting on Blom handled the issue of whether or not to identify him as Isildur1.

As far as I know, Blom still hasn’t publicly acknowledged that he is Isildur1. In fact, when asked directly by Bluff Europe back in December 2009, Blom denied it altogether. “I am not the one you are looking for,” said Blom to the magazine. “Keep looking.”

Viktor Blom as the 'ninja' character on Full Tilt Poker, the one used by Isildur1 (photoshop created by HillmanB on TwoPlusTwo)Thus are most commentators continuing to choose their words carefully whenever connecting Blom to his apparent online identity. It’s an awkward situation, but it’s also a very familiar one in the world of online poker. I’ve had the chance to report on both live and online events, and in either venue there is always some awareness of -- and varying levels of pressure or need either to refer to or not to refer to -- that other “world” in which the same actors are known to operate.

Sometimes the connection between a player’s “real” self and his or her online identity is wholly unambiguous and without controversy. Tom Dwan is durrrr. Daniel Negreanu is Kid Poker. Greg Raymer is Fossilman. The names are almost interchangeable, recognizable to nearly everyone.

Other times, there are legitimate doubts about whether this or that person can be linked to a particular username. Or not-so-clearly-defined guidelines not to “out” someone who doesn’t wish to be identified.

It’s that latter issue that is especially curious when it comes to poker.

The internet inherently introduces all sorts of challenges when it comes to identity, insofar as it all but requires us to create “virtual” selves in order to communicate. So part of what we’re talking about here isn’t specific to poker at all, but just part of what it means to interact on these here interwebs.

But when it comes to poker, “identity” is actually part of the game. Who I am -- or even better, who you think I am -- is of great relevance to how you are going to play against me. And vice-versa.

Thus might a player’s desire not to be “outed” become significant to the reporter, then, because to do so could be construed as influencing the game on which one is reporting -- something which no conscientious reporter ever wants to have happen. Even if the player hasn’t made such a desire known, I think most reporters are at least aware that it is probably best to exercise some prudence when publicizing such connections.

The Blom-Isildur1 case is obviously special. No one reporting on the WSOPE and referring to Blom as Isildur1 was passing along some previously unknown revelation that could be said to change the way Blom’s opponents approached him. (Although there was that one, odd story from the Main Event in which Ivey apparently was overheard asking someone -- perhaps with tongue in cheek -- “Who’s Isildur?”)

Is interesting, though, to consider how in professional poker -- now that the online game has grown so considerably -- we are almost always thinking in terms of these two distinct worlds, with nearly everyone, it seems, having one foot in each.

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