Monday, August 6, 2018

Girl power and Queen Rules

"It was very inspiring having Molly Bloom there for the Queen Rules. She talked a lot about empowering women and supporting each other and believing in ourselves" 
~ Daiva Byrne (Unibet ambassador)

The idea that we control our destiny is a dangerous childish notion parents sometimes plant early in the heads of their kids. As we mature and realise just how little control we actually have over all but the most minor details of our lives, it's easy to despair. Acceptance that we can't control what happens but can control our reactions and responses is an idea central to existentialism, Buddhism and sports psychology.

Molly Bloom is sometimes touted as a successful female role model in the poker world, and a poster girl for empowering women. At first glance it's difficult to see how. She is not a poker player. Her major role was to identify and attract rich successful men to play in a private (and ultimately illegal) high stakes game she ran day to day. She may talk a good game about empowering women and supporting each other, but there were no women in the game which made her name. At her trial, her (male) lawyer told the (male) judge that she deserved leniency because she had been ordered to run the game by her (male) boss. In the course of running the game, she ran afoul of (male) mobsters, one of whom broke into her home and put a gun in her mouth. She was ultimately brought down by a (male) US State Attorney. This was no poker queen, but a poker pawn moved by powerful sinister male fingers. This is not the kind of empowerment I (or any father) would wish for his daughter. Her story to the point she leaves poker puts the POW in empowerment.

She left the poker world deep in debt, her reputation and life in ruins, and a (suspended) prison sentence and community service. Her sentence would have been much harsher had the judge not accepted her lawyer's argument that she was but a pawn, a bit player, a powerless minion of powerful sinister men.

Poker has a desperate need for heroes and heroines. Maligned by the mainstream as degenerate gambling, it does itself no favours however in many of the heroes it chooses. It seems all a villain or a cheat has to do is go on a heater or win a big tournament to jump straight into the heroes camp. Past indiscretions and dodgy ethics get swept under the carpet in the rush to acclaim financial success. A seventeen second half-assed apology can be all it takes to wipe away past financial indiscretions. Having met Molly, I had mixed feelings. She is undoubtedly a formidable character but I just don’t see why she should be lauded in poker.

Molly's subsequent success really has nothing to do with poker or the unsavoury illegal underground branch of it in which she operated. She ultimately triumphed through her dogged response to abject failure and personal ruin. She spurned offers to write a sensational name-all book, and eventually found a publisher willing to let her tell her own story on her own terms. When we interviewed her in Bucharest for The Chip Race, my cohost David Lappin asked her how long it took after she published  the book for Hollywood to come knocking. Her honest and refreshing reply was that they didn't: she was the one who knocked. She chose Aaron Sorkin to transpose her story to the big screen because "his numbers were good". His proven track record to deliver at the box office and award shows sealed the deal for Molly. It was her journey and decisions after poker that promoted Molly from a poker pawn to a Hollywood queen.

Her transformation from poker pawn and spectacular failure to writing and movie success is an inspiration to many women and more than a few men. David and I were tickled to discover just how big a fan the normally inscrutable world class tournament director Nick O'Hara is: he was literally breathless at the sight and sound of Molly (okay, the poor guy had bad asthma but that simply added to the amusement). When Molly told the gun in the mouth story to a shocked press conference, the stunned silence in the room was broken only by an "Ah Jaysus" from Nick. At the end when Unibet Live events manager Nataly asked if anyone wanted a selfie with Molly, Nick bounded forward shouting "ME ME ME".


(Photo courtesy of Tambet Kask)

During the press conference, David asked her if she had been sent to prison for ten years (as she would have been had the judge not been lenient), would she have felt she deserved it. She turned the question around asking David what he thought. In the interview we did for The Chip Race, David asked if her whole career in poker could be seen as a sort of entitlement tilt response to have her dreams of being an Olympic skier crushed. She downcast her eyes and gave a very interesting response (which I won't spoiler here: you'll just have to listen to the interview).

On The Chip Race, David and I are always keen to promote gender equality in the game in any way we can. One way we do this is by positively discriminating towards female guests who are genuine role models. We will forever be grateful to Jennifer Tilly not just for being our first genuinely world famous guest (which afforded us enough credibility to attract other world famous guests) but also helping us behind the scenes get several other big (male) names. To my mind Jennifer is a supreme example of an empowered woman, not just directed by but also directing the actions of powerful men. We also recently interviewed the fiercely intelligent Jennifer Shahade, and as I told Jason Glatzer from PokerNews recently that one of my favourite guests ever is poker sensation and best selling author Maria Konnikova. Other firm favourites include influential industry insiders Kara Scott, my crazy wonderful friend Clodagh Hansen, the indomitable Kat Arnsby, Unibet's Nataly Sopacuaperu and Rebecca McAdam.

If my daughter were interested in poker, and asked me for a role model to aspire to, I personally would look no further than Daiva Byrne. Daiva works tirelessly to promote women in the game and the game to women. At every ladies event she hosts she pulls out all the stops to make everyone feel as welcome and as comfortable as possible. A uniquely friendly atmosphere characterises all her events. It may have been Molly giving the speech at the start, but it was Daiva who hung around afterwards to talk to every single participant after they busted. In less than a year she built a Ladies Facebook group from scratch to over 2000 members. She combines this with a successful marriage to John, and a dedication to working hard at her own game to continue to compete at the top level. In so doing she earns the admiration and respect of her male peers not just for her supermodel looks but also her technical ability. She often provides expert analysis on livestream commentaries (as she did this weekend on a couple of occasions alongside me).  She frequently contributes to the strategy section of The Chip Race (usually to discuss some hand where she outplayed David Lappin), and is someone I run hands I'm unsure about by.

That, to me, is real girl power that should be recognised and celebrated. In chess, the most powerful piece is not the king but the queen (the king is essentially a weakling not much stronger than a pawn whose strategic role is to be protected by the queen and other pieces). Unibet are trying to transpose this to poker with the Queen Rules where the queen outranks the king. They have found the perfect ambassador to promote this initiative in Daiva, a queen who rules.

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