What’s really wrong with poker?

joe-hachemIt’s been an interesting week in the world of poker to say the least. Bluff Magazine’s Thomas Keeling kick started an old but never resolved debate in poker, thanks to a terrific and candid interview at the Aussie Millions with 2005 WSOP Main Event champ Joe Hachem. In the interviews Hachem called out two of his successors as well as the younger players as part of the reason “poker is dying.”

Watch Hachem’s interview

Since appearing on the Internet Hachem’s remarks are making all kinds of waves. A subsequent interview with Daniel Negreanu, and a response from Jerry Yang, as well as dozens of people chiming in on social media sites, has the entire poker world now debating former champions’ merits, poker’s future and the path the game is currently is on. While I don’t think poker is dying, and I don’t think Yang or even Jamie Gold are anything more than a negligible reason for poker’s woes, I do see some underlying issues that are keeping the game from growing to its full potential.

Don’t forget it’s still a game

You often hear athletes talk about how lucky they are to make millions playing a “game.” That they have the chance to become rich and famous doing something most people do for free (or actually pay to do) because it’s fun. This seems to be forgotten by a lot of poker players.

Poker is a game.

If you are fortunate enough to derive a living from poker this doesn’t mean you have to take the game 100% serious. It’s not like you’re working on a nuclear reactor and need to be 100% focused on the task at hand all the time; as Sergeant Hulka would say, “Lighten up Francis.”

Yes, you need to take your job seriously, but you can also enjoy your work and create a good working environment for yourself and your peers. Now, if you’re just in poker for the money that’s fine, there are athletes who brush-off their fans and don’t care about winning so much as cashing their checks.

I don’t begrudge anyone for doing what they think is right for them. But, I would ask every professional poker player to ask themselves if they are “just in it for the money?” If you’re not, and you actually care about the game and the legacy you leave, ask yourself the following questions: Am I doing my part? Can I do more to make the game fun without sacrificing too much?

The pond is being fished out

I understand you don’t want to lose any “value” by acting too quickly, or by talking to the person sitting next to you, but by putting on your headphones (bad for the game), playing Open Faced Chinese Poker on your iPad (bad for the game), donning your sunglasses and hoodie (bad for the game), and taking the poker equivalent of pleading the fifth (also bad for the game) you are actually making these extreme measures necessary.

*Maybe some of these things are the types of issues the TDA should be looking at instead of proximity to your seat and what you can and can’t say on the river? Why can’t we ban headphones, sunglasses or headgear in some reasonable way?*

People don’t play in a softball league to sit in the dugout with their teammates who are all wearing headphones or playing Angry Birds on their phones and being 100% serious. And people don’t join a basketball league to be belittled by the best player on their team.

If these things did occur the league would never last, people would simply stop playing the following year and find a league that is FUN.

This is precisely what a many poker players have done to the game; they have zapped the fun out of it, making it only appeal to skilled practitioners and enthusiasts who are in it to win and for the competition. What this does is make the games tougher, and forces you to go to extremes like counting to a predetermined number before you fold your hand; think about that for a second, for some people playing “good” poker has come to the point where you have to count before you fold your 25 offsuit!

Sure sounds like Fun City to me, where do I sign up! Now imagine how your typical casual player feels seeing a game of paint drying poker?

Do you think this guy who came to the casino with $1,000 in his pocket is going to lose it to you, or playing pit games? What we are doing is essentially fishing out the poker pond. By trying to push every edge and squeeze every last nickel out of the game, instead of doing what fishermen have known for years: You throw back the small fish and let them proliferate and grow.

Sure it would be nice to have those extra pounds added to today’s haul, but in the long run it’s better for everybody to let them go. It will be better for the entire poker economy if you to give up the miniscule advantage counting before folding affords you; or the perceived value in never talking. And if it’s good for poker it’s good for winning players –that means you.

What we can do to self-correct

If poker players would only act in a timely manner, engage their fellow players, and turn off the electronics, their win-rate and EV would likely increase because more and more new players that want to have fun playing poker would actually have fun playing with you, win or lose.

Remember, people go to the casino knowing the odds are stacked against them, so they expect to lose whether it’s roulette or poker; just like people pay to join a softball league. They do it because it’s the price of admission to have an enjoyable time.

By creating a good atmosphere you might leave a couple big blinds of value on the table every session, but that’s a small price to pay to keep the game going and keep the casual players interested in poker and coming back.

Now, I understand we aren’t all Antonio Esfandiari or Daniel Negreanu, but even if you aren’t a social person is it really that hard to be affable? Is it too much to ask of you to treat the players at your table with a little respect and courtesy?

Think of a game of poker game like its dinner with your future in-laws: You may not like them at all, but you’re still nice. You may be bored out of your mind, but you’re still attentive.

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