Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Challenge to Look at Ourselves

Warning... Challenges AheadOne reason why poker is such a fascinating game is the way it challenges us to look at ourselves. Relentlessly.

When we play poker we are forced to acknowledge that others’ perceptions of us actually have significance. Voluntarily or otherwise, we make impressions. We communicate ideas about who we are to others by our play, our demeanor, our talk, and in countless other ways. These ideas may provide genuine indicators of who we are. Or they might not, as we purposely or even unintentionally give off false signals to our opponents.

In any event, we know others are looking at us and trying to figure us out. And whether or not we try to deceive them, we are made to think about (1) who we really are, (2) who we are perceived to be, and (3) the relationship between the reality and the image.

In other words, it is a most self-conscious thing to play poker. And to play poker seriously is to be willing to accept the game’s challenge to look at ourselves. Relentlessly. As Anthony Holden smartly noted in Big Deal (1990), “Whether he likes it or not, a man’s character is stripped bare at the poker table; if the other players read him better than he does, he has only himself to blame. Unless he is both able and prepared to see himself as others do, flaws and all, he will be a loser in cards, as in life.”

Yesterday the poker pro Jason Somerville published a post to his blog titled “Real Talk” which begins with a simple, direct statement: “I’m a poker player.” Somerville then proceeds to share with his readers in a more detailed way another truth about himself, namely, that he is also a gay man.

Those of us who’ve watched Somerville play poker over the past few years and witnessed him amass over $1.7 million in tourney winnings, including picking up his first WSOP bracelet last summer in a $1,000 NLHE event, all knew about the first statement. That is, we all knew he was a poker player. And an above-average one at that.

I’ve covered Somerville in a few WSOP events, the most memorable probably being Event No. 35 from 2010, the $10,000 Heads-Up No-Limit Hold’em Championship in which he made it to the semifinals before finally losing to the eventual champ, Ayaz Mahmood, in a well-contested match. That event stands out for me as including what might have been the longest day-slash-night-slash-day of blogging I’ve ever experienced, with my partner Tim Duckworth and I going for 18 hours or something while covering the event’s last three rounds (and still not finishing!).

Few if any of us, however, were aware of the other revelation Somerville makes in the post about his sexual orientation. As he points out, other than Vanessa Selbst, he himself has never met a single openly gay professional player. He also mentions how, at present, “no man who is a well-known pro in poker is open about it.” And so there’s something noteworthy in his having decided to share this information about himself.

Jason Somerville after winning Event No. 20 at the 2011 WSOP, a $1,000 No-Limit Hold'em eventFinding the situation somewhat “archaic” while also professing a desire to be open about who he is and perhaps close the gap between reality and image a bit about himself, Somerville tells his story in a thoughtful, well-considered, and even inspiring post. It’s a personal statement written with goals and intentions that are in part wholly specific to Somerville. But it’s also obviously a public statement, too, written with a constructive purpose to help others as well as to affect the culture of poker in a positive way.

A few thoughts came to my mind when I read Somerville’s post, including some that are in fact on the personal side. I’ve had friends who’ve gone through similar trials to the ones Somerville describes in his post, and even once found myself involved in helping a friend discover a way to make his story known to a wider community. I’ll keep those thoughts to myself, though, and instead just share some other, more general ideas Somerville’s post inspired.

One was how poker resembles other sports, where the subject of sexual orientation continues to be avoided and/or treated in an “archaic” fashion (to use Somerville’s term). The number of men who play professional sports who have come out as gay is very small, and as far as I’m aware the few who have (at least here in the U.S.) all waited until after their careers were over to do so. Just take a look at this ESPN story from not that long ago about former NBA player Don Amaechi’s post-career coming out to get an idea of how mightily the professional sports world struggles with the issue.

As is the case with football or basketball or other sports, the culture of poker has long been especially male-dominated -- or, one might say, chauvinistic or sexist or outright intolerant of those failing to recognize it as a “man’s game” in which all of the traditional ideas of masculinity mustn’t be challenged. So all the forces to keep talk of male homosexuality out of other sports are in place in poker, too, perhaps even more so.

But poker is different from other sports, too, as Somerville notes early on in his post when he characterizes the game as especially inviting to all types and the poker community as being inclusive to just about all comers. “It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, Christian, Jewish, a woman, physically disabled, a foreigner, a felon, or smell terrible, we’ll make room for you at the not-necessarily-proverbial table and let you play,” writes Somerville. Thus is Somerville hopeful that poker will be able to handle and accommodate another type of diversity, too.

And there’s that other thing about poker, what I was mentioning at the beginning about the way the game forces us to look at ourselves and become aware of how others look at us, too. That relentless challenge the game offers. Which can be difficult, but which I think most of us who play the game realize is worth the effort. And from which often comes rewards that go beyond the money we might win.

Instinctively most of us know it is good to look at ourselves and think about who we are. That’s something poker forces us to do. As has Somerville’s post.

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