Saturday, January 26, 2019

Oh Danny boy....

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying
'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.

I entered the work force in the mid 80s after graduating from college. It was a bog standard office in a software company that I realized over time was mundanely typical. One of the standard guys I worked with was Ed. Ed was the mildest mannered person you could ever meet, except when he was drunk. Then Ed turned into an obnoxious loudmouth, berating everyone who didn’t like it as “no fun”. In drunk Ed’s world, he was fun, and nobody else was. Sober Ed seemed to have no recollection of drunk Ed, but had heard enough about him over the years to realize he needed to apologize to everyone next day at work. When pressed for details on what he was apologizing for, he’d respond with a sheepish grin and a shrug. 

“You know. The usual”

Sober Ed was a nice enough guy that everyone was willing to tolerate drunk Ed, even if they didn’t want to be in his presence. Over the years as I moved around, I realized that almost every office had an Ed: someone who saw themselves as the life and soul of the party, but was seen by everyone else as the office bore. 


In the late 80s I worked for a while in Singapore. The economy there was booming (they were one of the original Asian tigers). When I was there they used to run these weird TV commercials where the most miserable kids you could ever imagine were dragged to a park or a playground by some adults. At first I thought it was a public safety warning about child abductions, but then I realized the adults seemed to be the kids' parents. So I asked a Singaporean work colleague.

“Oh. They’re the commercials for the mandatory Government child block parties”
“So the parents have to bring their kids to these parties?”
“Apparently expert client psychologists say our kids don’t know how to have fun”
“And this is an attempt to force them to have fun?”
“Does it work?”
“No. The kids usually leave more miserable and confused. They dread these parties”


Before I ran well in poker, I ran. As long time readers will already know, I spent most of my thirties as a mediocre marathon runner before blossoming in my early 40s into an elite ultra marathoner. This transformation was massively assisted by my training partners. Distance training is a long and boring process consisting mainly of long slow runs. Companionship is vital. The group spurs the individual to greater efforts and heights. 

Runners, like any random group, are a mixed lot. You have your characters, your jokers, your extroverts, your raconteurs and your observational comedians. And you have your quiet introverts, your thoughtful introspectives and your outright shy. Any reasonable sized training posse will have a mix of all types. My experience was runners not only tolerated personality differences, but they embraced and welcomed them. The introverts would laugh at the extroverts' jokes. The extroverts appreciated the audience and the more thoughtful perspectives of the introverts. One thing I never saw was the extroverts berating the introverts for being too quiet, or too shy, or no fun, or bad for running. If they wanted to hear more from their shy training partners, they tried gentle probing conversation rather than confrontation. More often than not it worked. And if it didn’t, it didn’t. If someone didn’t feel like talking, they didn’t have to: somebody else just took the airtime.

Recently we interviewed Lithuanian online player Merfinis for the Chip Race (the interview hasn’t aired as yet). One of the questions we touched on was the whole idea of table talk. Merfinis, who also runs and if he’s in a training group I’m pretty sure is one of the thoughtful introspectives who doesn’t say much but when he does it is always interesting, said he didn’t think anyone should feel obliged to talk at the table if they didn’t want to. He suggested that the notion often posited that pros have an obligation to talk to amuse the recreationals is basically extroverts trying to bully introverts to be more like them. As soon as he said it, I flashed back to my running days, and how differently the extroverts and introverts of that world seemed to interact.

Daniel Negreanu is a poker giant. He has loomed large for two decades not just by virtue of his results and achievements but also by sheer force of his personality. He has been poker’s biggest star and as such primary ambassador for longer than anyone else. I still remember the frisson of excitement I felt the first time I saw him in the flesh at the WSOP.

“Wow, that’s Daniel Negreanu”

I bought his book. I watched him on TV. I followed his career and his pronouncements on the game. When other sites absconded with player funds, I applauded him for calling out the culprits in public. 
Over time, I got less and less starstruck every time I saw him. By the time I played in Monte Carlo a few years ago, I didn't even bother to turn my head to look when I heard his distinctive voice and laugh at the table behind me. Partly because I was annoyed that he was still unapologetically shilling for a company that had basically robbed so many of my Supernova friends, but mostly because I was far too engrossed in a conversation with an online player I was meeting in person for the first time.

Don't get me wrong: Daniel was still a big name at this stage, arguably the biggest in poker. A stream of people were coming up for selfies, and he was only too happy to oblige. After a while, I did look round as selfie number countless was in progress.

"It never ends, huh?"

My conversational partner considered his response.

"No. That's a very different type of person right there. We'd lose our minds getting that sort of constant attention, but he clearly loves it"

There was no judgement or sense of superiority in that statement: just an acknowledgement of different strokes for different folks.

Like most stars, Daniel’s fell. When he felt contractually obliged to defend his sponsors after they effectively stole from their most loyal clients, he lost a little credibility. When he tried to justify nonsensically that more rake was better for recreationals, it fell further. More recently, he’s tried to poke fun at critics and pros, suggesting that they are "bad for poker". 

I get a little nervous when I hear that phrase. It feels kinda like poker's equivalent of "enemy of the people": a Doc-boot whistle to Fascists to signify that certain people need to be eradicated from the body of society like a cancer.

Maybe Daniel is genuinely trying to be funny, as he apparently was when he went blackface. The problem is that Daniel just isn’t funny. His attempts at humour always come across as smug and sanctimonious and patronising. He has lost almost all his credibility as a spokesman for anyone but his paymasters, yet he insists on preaching to the rest of us as to how we should behave. If we don’t comply with his narrow definition of an acceptable personality type (basically his own: in Daniel’s world it seems the more like him the better you are, and the less like him the worse you are to the point he regards you as a cancer). This is an incredibly intolerant position for someone who claims to self identify as a liberal to hold.

There is a culture among the old school in poker to berate the new school as lacking in charm and personality. Whether you agree with that or not, it seems to me that berating someone for not having the type of personality you want them to have (which happens to coincide with your own) is not the way to go. Don't get me wrong: like most introverts I am capable of enjoying the company of out and out extroverts. I'd happily spend the rest of my life at the same table as Neil Channing listening to his stories, poking fun at the foibles we all have as humans (Neil included), or Jennifer Tilly, or Mustapha Kanit. But I wouldn't want the whole world to ape the personality of any of those great characters. Diversity rules.

The title of this blog is the well known folk song much beloved by Irish Americans, and I started this blog with the first verse which appears to be a lover or perhaps a parent (a loved one in any case) bemoaning the absence of the titular Danny boy. The people who move us most in life are the ones whose absence we mourn the most, whether that absence is purely physical, or a result of the person changing. When a loved one disappears forever, it's a tragedy, but when they reappear or transform into the opposite of what they once were, well that can be a bigger tragedy. The disappearing hero at least leaves good memories and a legacy, but the one who lingers long after their heroism has disappeared to the point of embarrassment is far worse. Negreanu's journey from genuine ambassador to pure corporate shill is a sad road perhaps paved with good intentions, but there is now a generation of players who know no other version of Negreanu than the one who says whatever his corporate paymasters tell him to say. More rake is better. Nits are a cancer. Make poker great again.

So if you are one of the extroverts of poker, and you find yourself at a table of introverts, ask yourself who you want to be. Do you want to be drunk Ed, tediously berating everyone for not having the same personality as you? Do you want to be the Singaporean Government instructing everyone to have fun? Do you want to be Danny boy telling them they're all enemies of the people, or a cancer on poker? Or do you want to be the friendly distance runner, telling jokes and stories and asking questions that prove you are genuinely interested in the person you are talking them and not just trying to butter them up so you can steal their money?


A few people have asked or questioned why I chose to use the Negreanu blackface photo to promote the blog. The short answer is I didn’t: all I did was choose to use it in the blog to illustrate what I meant in the sentence:

“Maybe Daniel is genuinely trying to be funny, as he apparently was when he went blackface.”

The longer answer is that my process for writing blogs is write the text, proofread the text, choose one (or usually more) photos to illustrate. Some blogs are easy (like trip reports where there will be lots of photos to choose from), but opinion pieces like this are the worst. I read through the text once and nothing popped out as an obvious photo spot. On second reading I decided the term “blackface” might not be known to every reader (particularly those living in non English speaking countries) so went with that. I didn’t really see it as a big deal or a cheap shot given how easy it is to find (which was a blessing at 3 am), and it was originally posted by Daniel himself.

The way Blogspot works, the first photo on each piece is used in the preview on the front page of my blog. The way social media works the photo gets added as preview when I post the URL to the blog without me clicking anything.

To be honest I didn’t see using that photo as provocative anyway since Daniel originally posted it himself and it’s widely available already and it’s a long time ago, but had he or his representatives got in touch and explained it was something he regretted, had apologized for and didn’t want to be reminded of, then I’d obviously have removed it. However, he went straight to head in the sand Twitter block mode. It’s also not clear that he has ever properly apologized: when asked by Andrew Brokos and David Lappin he said he would send them a link, but he hasn’t as yet. His supporters have also repeatedly said he has apologized but none of them have been able to provide a link to prove this either.


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