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We’ve Still Got Image Problems

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: May 28, 2014


Alan SchoonmakerPoker’s image has improved immensely recently, but it’s still a serious problem.

A fistfight in my game made me update an old article. I’ve seen some fistfights and countless nasty arguments.

I wrote, “Nobody Understands Us.” (Card Player, 4/25/2003). “Some people assume we are pathological gamblers… somehow depraved, immoral, or lacking character… Hardly any non-players think highly of us.”

Television dramatically improved our image. Top players became celebrities, and we’re all seen a little less negatively. But we still have problems with two extremely important groups:

• Lawmakers and law enforcers
• Our families and friends

Lawmakers and Law Enforcers

Many of them are our enemies, and our negative image helps them to hurt us. Most authorities are elected or are appointed by elected officials. They must all consider public opinion. If poker had a better image, the UIGEA and Black Friday might have been avoided or been less punitive.

The picture isn’t totally negative. We won some recent battles, especially Federal Judge Weinstein’s reversal of a conviction for running a gambling game. His decision unequivocally stated that poker is a game of skill, not luck. Unfortunately, a higher court reversed him.

A few state judges have ruled that poker is a game of skill, and others have decided it’s a luck-based gambling game. The decision usually depends upon how state statutes define “gambling.” Some define it as any game played with cards, dice or other devices where the outcome depends to any extent on chance. Dictionaries define it as playing any game for money or other stakes.

Preston Oade, a lawyer and poker player, said, “Everyone, but poker players, seems to accept that definition. I therefore think it’s unwise to try to change poker’s image by arguing that it isn’t ‘gambling.” I agree.

We owe our few legal victories to the Poker Players’ Alliance and a few researchers. Their evidence changed the opinions of open-minded authorities. Unfortunately, some authorities are so prejudiced that they twist the law. For example, federal prosecutors claimed that the 1961 Wire Act applied to online poker. They later admitted that it applied only to sports betting.

They always knew that it didn’t apply to online poker. They expected to get away with twisting the law because we have a bad image. If the public viewed us more positively, they wouldn’t have dared to take such an indefensible position.

The same process caused some local and state authorities to arrest and convict people for running or even playing in poker games and tournaments. In some places the same authorities allow bingo games.

Why? Bingo is pure gambling. It’s entirely luck, while hardly anyone would claim that poker doesn’t have some skill. But some authorities think bingo players are sweet little grandmothers, while poker players are degenerate gamblers.

The lesson is clear: If we improve our image the authorities are less likely to attack us, and, when they do, are less likely to win.

Our Families and Friends

Many serious players — certainly including me — resent our families’ and friends’ contempt for poker. Poker forums contain long threads about these feelings. They usually begin with a complaint, “My parents (wife, husband, children, brother, sister, or friends) criticize me for playing poker. They think it’s just gambling. How can I make them see poker more positively?” Then a few people make suggestions and dozens of others make similar complaints.

I’ve tried to explain why I love poker to my family and friends. You may have tried also, but we rarely succeed. Many just don’t understand us, and they may not even try. They cling to their negative stereotypes.

What Should We Do?

It won’t be easy to change our image, but a few steps will help.

Become more polite and considerate: Most other games don’t have as much nastiness. Bingo players don’t viciously criticize or punch each other. Every nasty incident hurts our image. Most poker rooms have rules about nastiness, but may not enforce them consistently. I wish they followed Card Player Cruises’ zero tolerance policy. If you get out of line, you’re gone.

We should welcome to new players; we need them to keep the games going. Instead, many regulars shoot angles, exploit and berate them. Linda Johnson wrote, “Are Poker Players Predators?” (Card Player, October 16, 2013) She urged us to play fairly and “not angle shoot…. I always have three goals … One is to make money, one is to have fun, and the third is to make sure that my opponents have fun.” If more players had her attitude, we’d have a much better image.

Tell the television people to be more accurate: Linda and Mike Sexton helped start the World Poker Tour. They wanted to delete the nasty incidents from the television broadcasts, but the TV people highlighted them to show “drama.”

Players quickly got the message: If they acted like jerks, they would get more TV time. So you’ll see more stupid over-acting on a short television show than you’ll see in a month in a poker room. Who pays for their childishness? You and me.

The public is television’s ultimate authority. Producers and advertisers constantly study audiences’ reactions. If enough of us tell them, “We won’t watch shows that glorify nastiness, or buy whatever they advertise” they may reduce their emphasis upon nastiness.
Publicize poker’s educational value: David Sklansky and I wrote, “Poker Is Good for You”. It briefly described many skills and personal qualities that poker develops, including study habits, math skills, logical thinking, concentration, patience, discipline, long-term thinking, realism, adjusting to changing situations and diverse people, avoiding racial, sexual and other prejudices, handling losses, planning, handling deceptive people, choosing the best game, conducting risk/reward analyses, focusing on the important subjects, putting things into context, and “getting into people’s heads.” Most educational institutions don’t develop many of these extremely valuable qualities.

You can improve our image by letting people know that poker is not “just gambling,” nor are serious players just predators. We’re smart, analytic people who work hard to master a challenging test of our skills and mental toughness. And these abilities help us to make other decisions.

Let them know that three consecutive presidents, FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower, were enthusiastic players. So are Bill Gates, Carl Icahn, and Kirk Kerkorian, three of the world’s wealthiest men. So was the late Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist and current Justice Antonin Scalia. And Peter Lynch, former manager of the spectacularly successful Fidelity Magellan Fund, once recommended that to learn how to make investments people should “learn how to play poker.”

Images change slowly. Every time you treat a newcomer politely or let someone know how poker educated you about important subjects, you help a little. If we just try harder, we will slowly improve the way the public sees us.

My next column will discuss one of poker’s educational values: It can help us to understand extremely important events such as Putin’s Crimean victory over President Obama. ♠

Dr. Al ( coaches only on psychology issues, such as controlling impulses and emotions, coping with losing streaks, and developing yourself. He has published five poker books, five books on other subjects, and is David Sklansky’s co-author for DUCY?