Thursday, February 6, 2014

Old school, new school or back to school?

A recent Joe Hachem interview in which he essentially took a pop at the younger generation of primarily online players (dismissing them as personality impaired drones that ordinary people couldn't relate to) has sparked a fair amount of reaction and debate, including in this thread at IPB. I was going to write a lengthy blog in response to it, but fair play to John O'Shea who basically made all the major points I was going to make (and much more succinctly than I would have managed) in his blog. So I will just make a few mainly tangential points on the debate.

Firstly, I fundamentally disagree with the viewpoint that the old school pros were all great fun, great characters, while the so called "hoodie brigade" lack personality diversity. They may look and sound alike, but when you take the trouble to get to know them, you quickly discover that as a group they are actually a lot more diverse and (in my opinion at least) interesting than the typical old school player, most of whom were middle aged blokes whose only major passion was gambling. Obviously this isn't true for everyone, but for me, given a choice between hanging out with Paul "uwannaloan" Delaney, Tim "timmmy" Davie, Tom "jabracada" Hall, Neil "hefs" Raine, Martin "moertelmu" Mulsow or Devilfish....well, Devilfish would be a very distant seventh (behind even "none of the above"). And yes, I have spent quite some time in Devilfish's company at poker tables, and can't say I ever really enjoyed his boorish racist chauvinistic macho shtick. However, I know there are many who do, and I'm not going to judge anyone for the company they like to keep.

In response to comments made by Lappin, Chris Dowling tweeted:
" the average guy who goes to a poker club doesn't know a bunch of people to real off hand history's to on skype, he is out to get away from the wife without going to the pub, maybe win a few bob & have a chat about the football while doing so and he couldn't give a toss about balancing his range versus a utg lag".

If this is true (and I have no reason to believe it isn't, at least for the clubs Chris started out in), then it pretty much illustrates the point that the so called "good old days" when there were lots of different characters never really existed. What did exist was a time when poker drew from a pretty narrow demographic of men of a certain age in less than ideal marriages who liked a bit of a gamble in the company of other men with similar interests (primarily footie). The game still appeals to this demographic, but also thankfully to other wider demographics. When I started playing live, it was immediately shocking to me how few young people and women played the game. Coming from running where you meet a genuine cross section of ages of both gender, live poker did really seem like the last old boys club. The culture and "banter" of the time also reflected this, mostly consisting of (to quote David Lappin) "smart ass old dudes recounting withered tales from their stockpile of anecdotes about the time they got one over on another fella". Diversity? I think not. Live poker was (and still is to a very large extent) such a male and macho culture that not only did most women not want to play, they didn't even want to be around it. My wife accompanied me to all my races during my running career. She enjoyed meeting the other runners we met. She enjoyed the camaraderie and banter unique to distance runners. She tried the same approach when I moved into poker, but quickly decided it wasn't for her.

Even if more young people are now playing live, it's a shame live poker is still so male dominated. Most of the females that I know who play poker only do so online, as they find the very macho atmosphere that surrounds live poker events in these two islands very off putting. So instead of yearning for a return to the days when it was all middle aged fellas complaining about the missus and talking about the football, I personally would rather see us leave them behind even quicker than we seem to be doing.

Essentially this debate resolves to a culture clash between two groups that have almost nothing in common outside of poker, and therefore will tend to dismiss each other as boring or one dimensional. On one side, you have guys like Joe Hachem who play maybe 30 live tournaments a year and therefore have to depend on other income streams such as sponsorships, ambassadorial roles and media work while they hope to run way above expectation again over a tiny sample. On the other, you have the young who have inherited the poker earth, or rather claimed it through a combination of smarts, drive and work ethic. Where poker used to attract lazy sods who didn't want to have to work for a living, it is now dominated by driven young geniuses who, to quote Nicky Power, play 30 tournaments every night. They have worked to hone their game to a point that far surpasses anything the old school ever achieved, and they are prepared to put in the volume to take luck (or variance as they call it) out of the equation entirely, rather than simply hoping to run good.

Whenever I hear old timers like Joe Hachem bemoaning the passing of the guard and berating the generation that took over, I am transported back to school, to the derision of the kids in the back rows who sneered at the swots and the nerds who paid attention in class and did their homework. It was childish and ultimately self defeating back then, and it still is now. It serves no other purpose but to give someone like Hachem the appearance of relevance in a world that has clearly passed him by. I would be willing to take his views much more seriously if they didn't come across as entirely self serving ("guy who makes his money from being a so called ambassador for the game talks about how important ambassadors are"), and if it wasn't for the fact that I have never met a single Aussie with a single good word to say about ambassador Hachem. Or, for that matter, anyone who has ever sat at a table and had to listen to him moan about beats and how bad he runs, something he is so famous for that the term for someone who displays a feeling of entitlement, also marked by a complete lack of perspective and a high level of delusion, that originates from running insanely good is "Hachem syndrome". I don't begrudge Joe his continued living from the game based on selling a fantasy of a time when the game was all about "characters", but please Joe, spare us the swipes at the young guys who work hard for their living. They may seem like swots and nerds to you, but if you took the trouble to get to know them, you might realise that they are a more diverse and rounded lot than you think. And you might start to understand why they now dominate the world of poker, both live and online.

People are holding snooker up as an example of how poker is going, citing a passing of the guard from "characters" to "driven drones" that they claim has reduced the popularity of the game. But it seems every "sport" has to go through the same development curve. Roger Bannister once explained how when he was training to run the first 4 minute mile, he did all his training in secret, alone, mostly in the dark. The reason? The prevailing English culture at the time lauded achievement without effort, an entitled world view that persisted from a Victorian era when the rich lived privileged lives for no other reason than they supposedly deserved it, while the lower classes toiled out miserable lives of servitude. In this culture, work was associated with poverty, and idleness with grace. English athletes looked down with scorn on Olympic champions like Emil Zatopek who ran more in training in a week than they did in a year as "journeymen", his unprecendented successes diminished rather than embiggened in their eyes by the efforts he went to to achieve them. English athletes eventually copped themselves on, as did English sports in general, and it was only when they came to see toil and training as noble rather than ignoble that they became a world class sporting nation. Yet this same view of lazy success being better than success that had to be worked for persisted longer in other sports like football (and clearly still exists in poker). As the Premiership transitioned from fat lads who liked a pint to sleek slim foreign pros who thought of themselves as athletes and lived accordingly, many fans bemoaned the loss of people they could identify with. Yet the Premiership survived and flourished through the transition, and now when they show old football matches on TV, what's remarkable is how out of shape, slow and unathletic the game used to be when it was heavy drinkers plodding around after a ball.

When I first read the IPB thread bemoaning the lack of personalities and characters in the game, I joked to the rest of the Firm on Skype that I wanted everyone to have developed a personality by the weekend. That's perhaps too much to ask, so instead I got my friend Willie Elliot to design a new group image for us. Willie never fails to deliver, and here's what he came up with based on a Snow White theme.

Willie is also emblematic of a shift in poker. Those who claim it's no longer social don't understand what social is these days. It's not just the same old jokes and withered anecdotes endlessly repeated at live poker tables. It's Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, blogs, forums, Viber, Snapchat, Whatsapp. Every day I interact with people like Willie, people I genuinely like and care about and share interests with rather than just random people I got drawn at a poker table with and have to find some way to put up with for a few hours. TrueIrishBaller tweeted:
"I have been berated more times by so called 'rec players' than I have by any pro. At least when the good players berate you they have substance.  A high % of recreational players are horrible, degen scum that I want absolutely nothing to do with. #headphonesplease"

The view that the young online players are all arrogant pricks compared to the old pros who were all great craic and all about keeping the fish happy just doesn't hold up in my court. And as Baller rightly points out, a minority of recreational players are the absolute worst for berating other players at the table. As anyone who follows me on Twitter will know, one of the things I do to relieve the tedium of the online grind is to tweet chatbox abuse directed at me. It genuinely amuses me to see how worked up some people get when my ace queen outdraws their ace king. These people are always, without exception, recreational players. It doesn't bother me in the slightest, as I said I find it amusing, and if it makes them feel better about themselves to think that the only reason I make money from poker and the only reason they lose is luck, then I'm quite happy for them to go on believing that. But don't tell me it's just young pros who are abusing people. The worst verbal shellacking I ever saw handed out by a pro at a table was by an old school live pro (already named in this blog) who berated a girl after she successfully bluffed him using very ungentlemanly language that included the statement "the reason God gave women vaginas is to make up for not giving them any brains". What a "character".

And spare me the whining about how much camaraderie and banter there was in the good old days. The first time I played live poker, it was a most unenjoyable experience marred by the impatience of a bunch of grumpy old men with the new guy at the table who wasn't acting fast enough and was fumbling with his chips. Not a single player said a friendly or welcoming word to me all night, or tried to engage me in conversation. If I wasn't as thick skinned as I am, that would also have been my last ever live poker experience. Good old days? Trust me, there wasn't much good about them at all.


Could you not pick a less obnoxious scum bag old school pro then devilfish?to hammer home your point.

LOL. He was the first to spring to mind all right

I agree with you somewhat. But I think poker is so diverse (players wise)... with many eclectic traits of humanity...... that I think it is unfair to categorize based on age. I know lots of young guys who would easily slot in to the "bully/grumpy bastard" category and older guys who are cool calm and collected in all circumstances.

Your 100% right about the "old school" bulling that took place. When i started in the merrion I was the value all day long. For weeks I would dump off in cash games (started at crimbo... busy in work and used to head down at 2am+ so never played tournies). Hadn't a clue what I was doing but loved the game. One night I binked a few quid and got snide, insulting remarks thrown at me for the entire night. On that same night a young guy who did a bit of work for me decided to join me in the club (he liked a dabble at blackjack). I was up about 1k and the kid came down to me from upstairs and said he had done his tank in and was hungry. I wanted to stay (I was his lift) and said "here, there is a restaurant upstairs, grap yourself a sandwich". I flicked him over a €5 chip (the good old days) and immediately one of the "regs" snapped, went bananas calling for the floor, and told Mags that I had given him a €100 chip?? I told him instantly that I had not and that it was just €5 for him to get a sandwich. He called me a liar (yes, I was 3 heartbeats away from going ACOP on him) and the poor kid, out of pure shock, took out the €5 chip and turned his pockets out to prove he had nothing more.

As you said, weaker characters would not survive in these environments and it was the likes of these arses that kept poker (and still do somewhat)in the doldrums for so long with their bully boy mentality.

I take your point about the young guys being more "subtly" funny then people give them credit for... but I also point out that people like Parky, Scott G, Old man McC are a joy to sit with at a poker table and make 8-12 hours of 90% tedium a lot more tolerable.

Love the cartoon. The dress really suits you.

Lorraine makes excellent points. While not taking away in any way from the points made so very well by doke, speaking as a male, middle-aged (well, late-50's) married guy who plays live poker on a recreational, once-a-week basis, I'd like to think I am a fairly social, rational person who's not at all trying to get away from "the wife", but is merely taking a few hours a week to play a social game which I enjoy immensely -win or (mostly!) lose. Where I play (in newbridge in kildare mainly) there is a healthy mix of young guys and older guys (sadly not many ladies) and we do all get on very well most of the time. One does have to try and show example, and you'd be surprised how quickly a couple of good- humored, friendly remarks can change the tenor and atmosphere at a table. So, please, don't tar all us "poor oul fellas" with the one brush either!

Thanks everyone for comments.

@Lorraine/Phil: "I know lots of young guys who would easily slot in to the "bully/grumpy bastard" category and older guys who are cool calm and collected in all circumstances"

That's the point I was trying to make, that it can't be neatly divided generationally. There are assholes and nice guys on both sides, but Hachem and more particularly some commentators on his interview subsequently seemed to want to paint a picture that the problem is all socially retarded young guys. How many players down the years have been turned away by the bullying antics of old timers? My main point is diversity is good and should be welcomed, rather than nostalgically harking back to an era when the poker demographic was marrower. As fun as it is to sit at a table with one Phil Baker ("headphones please!"), a table of nine of them would be nightmarish.

@Gerard: I certainly don't mean to tar all us aul lads with the same brush. As I said, the poker demographic is more diverse than it was and that's a good thing in my book. Would be pretty self-defeating for me to suggest aul lads have no place in poker (since I'm one myself).

Speaking of aul lads, Mick McCloskey, thank you, but remind me never to share a prison cell with you :)

Interesting blog mate. Love the snow white cartoon!

I have found live poker fairly interesting and good craic in my LOCAL clubs (£40-£100 buyins with £1/£2 cash). Obviously there is still the 20-30% of players that never seem to be enjoying the game and moaning about everything but on the whole its usually a good social experience for a lot of the players.

At larger events where you don't necessarily recognise or know all the players at your table its a different story.
I would say less about 30-40% of random players on a random table will generally fall into the "no craic" category but thankfully its Ireland and there are usually 3 or 4 players that will make up for that, and if someone like Padraig is at the table you don't even need the other 3.
We all want to enjoy our work/jobs/experiences/bit of gambling or whatever poker means to you the individual but be-rating a player no matter what the circumstances is just terrible. No matter how bad they have played, its says a lot about you as a person not just as a poker player when you are ignorant and be-rate players, especially men be-rating women like that.

*by its Ireland I mean if its a tourny that isn't dominated by players from other shores.

I am a purely recreational low limit player. That being said, being older than Methuselah, I started playing online poker on planet poker and have never stopped. As an avid reader and internet user I have an impressive poker library, read poker blogs, view training videos, etc...I've played live in every major venue in Vegas and haven't missed going during the WSOP in over a decade. I played twice a week live for many years but that is now down to about once a month or so. I still suck, but I am what you might call a poker enthusiast.

This institutional knowledge comes in a middle aged woman's body and apparently, a cloak of invisibility at the poker table. If anything, the young hoodie crowd generally just ignore me and play against me like I am clueless, which frankly, is okay by me. I have never had a young player direct an unkind word directly to me. The ones who do engage in conversation tend to be personable and polite. (Perhaps because I could be their grandmother). I have some seen some young men engage in dreadful behavior at the table but it wasn't directed at me.

I cannot say that about grumpy old men, who have sworn at me, knocked over a chair (while swearing at me), and one who purposefully pitched his cards into my hands at every opportunity. I have to say that I find the older men to be much more a pain than the younger.

When people ask me how I handle bad behavior at the poker table I always say that I figure I must be having a good day because nobody every gets mad at me when I am losing.

Speaking as someone who is in between old school and new school, I agree with most of this blog. However, Hachem has a point not really addressed here and I don't think was meant as an insult (but has mostly been taking as such by the new generation). TV poker for the masses was much more palatable when it was the personalities banging heads with one another. Those same crumb bums and scumbags that used to populate the final tables who might make terrible table mates in live poker made great TV.
And sorry the sullen silent hoodie players make for terrible TV--that's a fact. Not for me, I mean I love watching great skilled players, even if done in silence, when they make great play after play but the average viewer (and potential future players) is lost and the announcers struggle to translate the quality of play. The ones with the knowledge to do so usually fail on the entertaining side.

Sorry, but the masses liked poker when it was reality TV. Nobody watches chess on TV and (loosely) that's what poker has become.

As for what you addressed, as I said mostly, true, but in my experience the old school players engage a table of fish far better than then new ones, but it apparently is different in your locale and I accept that. The kids around here talk about terms that over the heads of the people donating money, they analyse bad plays and shine a light on the fact their knowledge base is so much greater than average guy stepping in. Coupled with the fact, the guys with money to share are usually older and don't like some 23 year old showing them up--it's a heavier burden as it's more incumbent on the new breed to be even more gracious than the older guys.

It's not a universal truth, here, as some young uns are more proficient at stroking the egos of the fish then the old guys and make a great atmosphere that novices want to return to. You are right some of the old guys are cantankerous bastards nobody wants to sit with.

Regardless, selling poker on TV, is more important than splitting hairs about who's better for live games. The boom happened because of Sammy Farha, Phil Hellmuth, Chris Moneymaker, Sam Grizzle (a true bastard of bastards), and a collection of characters most people never see. They radiated danger and poker was a window into a world the general populace never saw, but wanted to dip their toes into.

Nowadays, the youngsters are cut from the same cloth, for the most part. However, they'd be wise to figure out how to market themselves better by creating personas and one day brands.

That said, I recognize a lot of this is trivial, because the game today is what is. Making multiple TV tables is rare, and my focus when I make one, would be on winning money not on providing ratings, so I forgive all the young'uns who do the same. Still, there is some merit to that particular Hachem point. It's narrowly applied to the those few players that are young and pop up on TV all the time, tank for days, and look like they are taking an SAT test (~is that called O levels for the Brits?) instead of playing a fun, social game.

Wild Bill
(glad somebody linked to your blog as it was a good read)

Thanks everyone for the commwents.

AgSweep: I really admire the few women who do thrive in this very male world, given the amount of additional shit you have to put up with. Love your attitude here: "When people ask me how I handle bad behavior at the poker table I always say that I figure I must be having a good day because nobody every gets mad at me when I am losing". I feel exactly the same when people mouth off at me in the chatbox online.

Wild Bill: You make a series of very good points. I made the following comments at IPB but I think they fit here too as further explanation of my view on this matter:
" I get that the people who were attracted to poker pre boom were attracted by the type of "characters" you mention. However, I think when we say "people" in this context, we are talking about a very particular (and narrow) demographic: essentially English speaking males of a certain age with an interest in gambling. Poker has never quite reached the level of a mass sport or hobby (except perhaps in the US), which is why Late Night Poker was on late at night. For all the appeal of characters like Stu and Doyle, they did not attract many females into the game, or general sports enthusiasts (as opposed to sports bettors), or any demographic other than the one mentioned above.

I also think there's a fair amount of nostalgic selective memory going on as to the characters and personalities of the so called Golden era. Lederer, Seidel, even Ivey....all big personalities with very little personality. There's no point comparing current stars whose careers are still works in progress to olden greats....the former is a Behind The Music special, the latter a highlights reel.

For all the supposed great characters and personalities there were, the real boom didn't start until an online qualifier called Moneymaker won the main event. I think the point many people are missing is that we have moved from a time when poker meant live poker through a period when it was mainly live poker and there was also this thing called online poker, to now. The current reality is that online poker makes up the biggest part of what we call "poker". Far more people play it and watch it than live poker. Unfortunately it doesn't make for great TV, and perhaps doesn't produce stars that do, but in the same way that more people watch Youtube and Netflix than actual TV these days, far more people "watch" online poker (online) every night than ever watched Late Night poker."

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