Hachem continues to tend the grave of Ambassadorial Age

Poker call

It won’t have escaped many poker fans’ notice recently that Joe Hachem, the former World Champion, has declared the game to be dead. Curiously, he did this during a video interview from the Aussie Millions in Melbourne, with a crowd of 668 players milling in the background. They were in the process of becoming the largest field at the tournament in three years and amassing a prize pool of $5.85m. After that, a record field assembled for both the High Roller and Super High roller events, contesting another $11.5m between them.

Hachem reminded me of Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun, standing in front of an exploding fireworks factory and insisting, “Nothing to see here.”

There are all kinds of reasons why I don’t really want to reply to Hachem’s assertions, and all kinds of reasons why I am unable to resist. Ordinarily I’d prefer not to generate even more publicity for this strangely confused observation, or leave it to people better placed to do so. (The Irish pro Dara O’Kearney’s blog is a good start, and Phil Galfond is always worth a read.)

However, Hachem’s comments seem to have led most people into the familiar discussion of “old school” versus “new school” in poker, and that’s a line I think is uniquely irrelevant in this case. Joe Hachem is actually neither “old school” nor “new school”, and doesn’t really represent either.

Hachem won the World Series in 2005 and never played poker when it was an underground game of outlaws, living by their wits and charm. Similarly, he never really found a place in the cutting edge, uber-modern era, where the mind-bending strategic and mathematical aptitude of the young whizzes is paramount to success.

Hachem instead was at his peak during a crucial yet brief era of poker, approximately from 2004-09, during which the prize-pools of many major tournaments were unofficially swelled by the prospect of a contract with an online poker site. Television producers and site representatives could demand players to smile obligingly to cameras on the tacit understanding that if they behaved properly, dressed smartly and binked a big one, there’d be a patch on their chest and a buy-in in their bank account for the next few years at least.

For want of a better expression, we could call this the “ambassadorial age”, a period in the game’s evolution during which any skills at the table were secondary to accumulated TV minutes and column inches. The lucky few who conquered variance during this specific period were rewarded with the closest a poker player has ever got to guaranteed fame and fortune, all on the understanding that they toed the party line—and presumably distributed platters of Ferrero Rocher as and when demanded.

There was an incentive here to act in an ambassadorial manner, and Hachem was good at it–perhaps better than he has ever been at merging his range in a five bet pot. But he has now confused the passing of the ambassadorial age with the death of the game itself, and rather ungraciously has accused Jamie Gold and Jerry Yang of precipitating the big bang that saw it off. It seems obvious to me that this era was an unsustainable and necessarily transient time, and was always likely to be over as hastily as it began. “Poker ambassador” is no longer a career option, which may sound a death knell for Hachem, but has precious little impact on anyone else.

It is also worth noting, of course, that poker in the abstract never employed ambassadors. The game is not a single business entity, and it is nonsense to claim anybody-—Hachem included-—has ever represented “poker” in any broad role. Brands, on the other hand, often employ ambassadors–and they still do, it’s just that their demands have changed significantly.

PokerStars, whose movements always represent wider trends, is now looking to established mainstream sporting icons to attract new players to the game (their poker skills are irrelevant) while poker world champions are no longer particularly sought after. Greg Merson told me at the PCA last month about the startling absence of endorsement offers he received after winning the 2012 Main Event.

Merson would actually make a fine ambassador, with a story of passion and determination overcoming some pretty bleak personal turmoil. But we’re out of the ambassadorial age now and Merson did not waste time lamenting what might have been. He headed to Macau with his friend, Tony Gregg, and started tearing up the cash games.

I think Hachem should simply be grateful that he prospered during the most lucrative era of the game. It has, however, passed and it is high time to dry the eyes.