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Super Deaf Poker Event: Silent But Deadly

by Rebecca McAdam |  Published: May 01, 2012


One thing you can’t say about the poker world is that it’s predictable. Working in the industry, and indeed playing, means there is always something interesting going on and new experiences to be had. Not that you’re always better off for these experiences, but every now and then something comes along to make you look at life, and indeed our beautiful game, from a different perspective. This is why the game doesn’t get old or boring — just when you thought you had seen it all, you learn something new.

Recently I had the opportunity to take part in a poker event like no other I had before. The Irish Deaf Poker’s Super Deaf Poker event took place late February in Dublin’s Citywest Hotel and mixed in among the field were 31 hearing players, including myself. The event was sign language only with the rule that if any player at the table had live cards in front of them, sign language must be used, and only when there were no cards in play at the table was talking allowed. Repeated offences would get a penalty such as a €5 donation to the Ethiopian Deaf Charity box.

Of the 101 who attended the event (including 40 international deaf players) were players who were either deaf, hard of hearing, or friends of deaf and poker players who could sign. There was a lot of interest from hearing players in the event and including them meant that numbers could be bumped up, hence making it more worthwhile for players to travel to. Many of the hearing players did not know one word, or should I say one sign, until the week or so leading up to the event when Irish Deaf Poker released a video in an attempt to teach those like me a thing or two to help get them by. It included all the vital terms like “raise”, “how much”, “call”, plus must-haves such as “What are you &*$#% doing?” and “You’re a fish”. I made a point of learning as much as I thought I would use as not only did I want to make an effort to communicate, but I was slightly worried that I was also about to be a fish out of water.

My thoughts going into the event were that I would let my game do the talking — poker is a universal language, I don’t need speech play, and so on… However, it quickly became clear to me that it’s only really the majority who see this as true, and with the shoe on the other foot, I no longer felt as included or confident as I always do at the felt.

The other players at the table signed about previous hands and asked each other questions; unfortunately my humble understandings of the language meant I eventually gave up trying to read what was going on. For some of the time it was a little like playing one table online at home alone, where you could easily make mistakes out of needing a distraction from yourself. I missed the social element of regular live play, found it hard to stay focused and difficult not being able to relate to people. Yes, poker has a universal language but there is so much more to it than cards and terminology.

Out of my comfort zone, I knew what I had to do. I felt like a visitor in Paris about to practice my French on a local for the first time. Would I make a fool of myself? Would I indicate something rude by accident? I began signing more confidently and trying to engage people in conversation, as small as it may be. The first table I was at, the player to my right was very active, constantly three-betting and calling down light. He seemed to always catch what he needed by the river and I could see the agitation in the other players’ eyes. I didn’t mind, I was just waiting for the right time to strike, but before I could get revenge for the hearing and non-hearing alike, he sucked out on me… badly. I had a healthy enough stack early on and still had a chance so I decided to make light of the situation — I laughed, turned to my opponent, and in front of the others signaled “You’re a big fish”. The entire table burst into laughter and from then on I was part of the group as much as I could be, even down to players writing on a sheet of paper so we could communicate further.

The standard of play, in my opinion, seemed to be either very, very good, or terribly bad, and most of the players I came into contact with ticked the “loose aggressive” box in terms of style. Every table had a couple of hearing players on it, who tended to talk awkwardly across the table to each other in between hands — No one wanted to be fined for talking when they shouldn’t be. Although there were the odd few who totally ignored this rule and got away with it, €135 (including donations) was collected for charity by the end of the night.

The pace was super fast with the first player hitting the rail in the very first hand. I hit the rail around the 40th mark, having walked into a few bruisers, but was generally happy with how I played. To be honest, I had made one pretty sweet call, which had made the entire tournament worthwhile. Working in poker, I don’t get to play as much as I would like any more, and sometimes all it takes is one well-thought out, nicely played hand to rebuild your confidence in your gut instincts and your thought processes.

By the 16-player mark, there was a balance of eight hearing and eight deaf. The final table of 10 players also had five deaf and five hearing and lasted almost three hours.
The field balanced out once again when fourhanded, and the heads up would follow the same pattern as hearing player Eric O’Callaghan took on deaf player Kabwe Kabosha Dubliner O’Callaghan had 850,000 in chips while the Zambian-born Englishman entered the heads up with 250,000. Two hands later it was all over as O’Callaghan made his move with Q-6, Kabosha called for his tournament life holding A-K, and a 6 on the flop kept the trophy on Irish soil. Kabosha was the last deaf person standing which meant he earned €300 on top of the €1,580 he received for second place, plus the first-place trophy which was set aside for the top deaf player. Despite winning the event, O’Callaghan took home the second place trophy, but the first place prize of €2,330.

The event was an extremely unusual experience and one that challenged me to find different solutions and approaches to problems. It made me focus more heavily on the things I could understand like body language and bet sizing, and highlighted how complacent one could get at the felt. I realised poker is not as all-embracing as I thought it was; If you don’t speak English or you’re hard of hearing, a major live event is going to throw obstacles at you (depending on where the event is). However it’s what you do with these obstacles that determines how long you’ll stay at the table, and in what fashion you’re going to hit the rail!

Card Player caught up with Irish Deaf Poker chairperson Julianne Gillen to discuss deaf poker and what it’s like to be a deaf player in mainstream events.

Rebecca McAdam: Tell me about Irish Deaf Poker.

Julianne Gillen: Irish Deaf Poker (IDP) started in 2007, the poker boom had hit the deaf community but only a couple of deaf players were brave enough to enter the clubs. The boys used to meet up in each other’s houses for games, which started getting bigger by the week, so Ciaran Maloney decided to set up a deaf poker group in the deaf club and IDP was born. IDP is a non-for-profit club run by a committee made up of volunteers; any profit made goes towards buying tables, chips, equipment, and free tickets for the bigger tournaments run once or twice a year. Over the past two years, like the poker clubs, IDP has felt the pinch of the recession with our numbers dropping but the show still goes on!

RM: Are there many deaf poker societies around the world? If so, is Irish Deaf Poker in touch with them?

JG: Oh yes loads! There are five or six individual clubs in the UK plus the overall UK Poker Series group; three or four in Sweden; one in Austria; two in Spain; two or three in Australia; there’s a Ukraine group, a huge online Winamax Deaf Poker group, plus nearly every state in America has a deaf poker club along with the ‘National Deaf Poker Tour’ that runs festivals 2-3 times a year. We all keep in touch via Facebook, spamming each other with details of our upcoming games of course.

RM: Do you think that deaf poker players can sharpen their other senses, for example to pick up on body language during a game?

JG: Yes and no; some deaf players do have that aggressive edge that they use really well over other players to control the table but it’s not necessary a deaf thing. We have a good mix of ‘sharks’, ‘rocks’, ‘LAGs’ and donkeys in IDP too! Some deaf players actually play way better against hearing players than against other deaf players; they don’t have the same distractions of chit-chat or speech-play at the tables and tend to sit in stoic silence merely observing other players, picking up subtle clues, and using that to their advantage.

RM: Do you think not being able to hear is a disadvantage in the game?

JG: At times yes; sitting at a table for hours in silence just waiting for a hand as other players chit-chat around you is tough going; missing out on vital clues in speech play; going deep in a tournament and holding on to that patience, resisting the urge to play more hands just because you are bored… It’s harder being deaf playing the mainstream games. Most deaf players prefer playing with other deaf players for the camaraderie more than anything else.

RM: From my experience at the event, I noticed I did feel a little excluded as I couldn’t “speak the language”, is this generally how deaf poker players would feel in a mainstream event, especially those who can’t lip read?

JG: Oh no matter how good you lip read, you are still at a loss sitting at a table of hearing players unless you are the dealer controlling the table. Only in the dealers seat are you in position to see each player; every other seat has at least one blind spot on the table. If the one player controlling the conversation or playing the most hands is in that seat, you are in for a very long day and can easily make mistakes. I once had the clock called on me unaware. When the TD realised what had happened he allowed me an extra minute to call or fold… Cringing moment!

RM: Do you have any suggestions on how mainstream tournaments could be better run to suit everyone involved?

JG: I like to see dealers speaking the action more clearly. Dealers are the one person in full view of every player at the table. I know most of them do, but sadly some of them don’t. This is usually not intentional, especially if English is not their first language, or they are engaged in a conversation with players at the table or trying to catch the attention of the floor etc.. Since IDP started, there are a few deaf players playing regularly on the circuit, this has lead to more awareness among the poker community, and some of the dealers and the players are now signing for the benefit of the deaf player, which is brilliant.

RM: What is your experience of poker as a female and a member of the Irish deaf community?

JG: Poker is a sexist game I don’t care what anyone says — I see scant-all equality for women at the poker table! I get far more respect from the players when I sit down to deal than if I sit down to play. I am very conscious that as a female player I’m automatically seen as an easy target, but I can use this to my advantage no problem.

As a deaf person playing the mainstream circuit, well, as someone pointed out recently I’m not your ‘typical deaf player’, I do sign but I talk well and can hold a conversation one-to-one, I still try to use my deafness as an advantage — tuning out the risqué table talk and ignoring the distractions, but it only really works properly when I switch my hearing aid/implant off! [Laughs] ♠