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Is There a Place for Politics at the Poker Table?

(C) PokerStars/ Neil Stoddart

(Editor’s note: The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of FlushDraw or its publishers.)

Poker has had its fair share of controversies over the years. The Ultimate Bet superuser scandal, the revelations about Full Tilt following Black Friday… the list is pretty much endless. So I was surprised to see such a backlash against two rather tame “political” statements worn on t-shirts at the final table of the Super High Roller event of the PokerStars European Poker Tour’s 100th stop in Barcelona. This follows on from recent Twitter comments from Daniel Negreanu on his thoughts and beliefs about the current Israel/Gaza situation, which resulted in a big backlash and political discussion on both social media, and poker forums. In a world where “politics” is considered a dirty word, are poker players the right people to be starting the conversation? In short, is there a place for politics at the poker table?

Yesterday saw a pair of close friends, Dan Colman and Olivier Busquet, wearing plain white t-shirts with “Free Palestine” and “Save Gaza” printed on them in large letters. Neither player really elaborated on these statements, but some of the reactions sent to the EPT Live commentary booth via Twitter were less than complimentary. The comments against the statements made at the table were split between those against the statements made, and those saying that political statements have no place at the poker table. I’ll leave those who responded to the statements for another day, and another venue, but those saying politics have no place in poker are another matter.

During this furor, several people, (including myself) tweeted for calm, and to respect people’s right to express themselves, and I’d like to show two of the tweets from yesterday to illustrate two of the opposing positions in this argument.

I tweeted something designed to calm the situation, while still supporting the players right to express their views:

 

To which fellow poker writer, Robbie Strazynski, responded with his position:

 

The comments that large sporting tours ban political comments are true. The PGA, ATP and other such organisations do have rules banning political statements on clothing and during official interviews. I’m not sure that there is a valid comparison here though. Poker players are usually unsponsored, and having to pay for all of their expenses, including the buy-ins for the tournaments they are competing in. The EPT had no dress code or policy barring players from expressing views during the action. The question is, should there be?

I am of the view that politics is a major part of everyday life. I was raised in a political household where politics were part of the daily discussion at the dinner table. I really can’t understand why people are afraid of talking about such politics more. It’s as though people are unaware that political decisions impact the average person’s life in a massive way.

Organisations such as the PGA and ATP are beholden to a diverse range of sponsors, some of which engage in political funding. This appears to be a major influence on them banning political expression while players are under their watch. PokerStars, as the main sponsor and owner of the EPT, have little outside pressure applied to them to influence their decisions. So it was rather disheartening to me to read a statement to PokerFuse made by Eric Hollreiser, Head of Corporate Communications at PokerStars’ parent company, The Rational Group.

“In retrospect it was a mistake to allow them entry,” He said “Our tournaments are designed to promote poker and poker competition and not as a platform for political statements.

Players have many channels to express their views on world politics, but our tournaments are not an appropriate place,” Hollreiser announced. “We will refuse entry to any player displaying political statements of any kind.”

Eric Hollreiser, Head of Corporate Communications at PokerStars'
Eric Hollreiser, Head of Corporate Communications at PokerStars’

I think this is a copout by PokerStars and the EPT. The coverage was barely impacted by the shirts, the commentators were very clear that it was a personal statement, and nothing to do with the position of either the EPT, PokerStars, or any of the partners of the broadcast. The whole storm in a teacup was over really quickly, and only resurfaced when the two players in question went heads up, and was again quickly dealt with.

What it has done is open debate amongst poker fans about the current situation in the Middle East, which given the polarising media coverage is, to me, a good thing. Politics is not a dirty word, it’s a major part of modern life that people have been turned off from do to a lot of media partisanship, and political elitism and corruption.

The thing is, poker is currently slap bang in the middle of a political debate in the United States. PokerStars is one of the major lobbying interests in this debate, and they are currently up against a co-ordinated front headed by a man with more money than sense (in my opinion). Shutting down political interaction with the EPT seems to be counter productive in attracting viewers who may be supportive in this endeavour, either now or in the future.

Poker, and sports, are not separate from the rest of life and politics have just as much impact of them as they do on the rest of life. Muzzling the participants of these events only helps keep politics out of the spotlight. There are no significant downsides to allowing political discussion in unusual forums like these, as long as companies that wish to are allowed to distance themselves from the political states as the EPT did on the livestream. However, the upsides could be massive. Democracy only really works when the electorate are informed. Engaging people to investigate about a subject such as the Middle East has to be one of the first steps in resolving the ongoing violence. If the mainstream media are failing in this task, maybe poker and sports should look to start that discussion?

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