Table Talk: Is Poker Fun Anymore?

Poker board

Former WSOP champion Joe Hachem isn’t in front of the poker media cameras much these days, but when he is, he certainly knows how to fire people up.

He was interviewed at the Aussie Millions and decided to speak on poker ambassadors and the state of the game. It was pretty clear that he is disillusioned by the game of poker these days.

Without the proper context of a question by the interviewer, Hachem begins speaking with this: “I’m very saddened. I met Ryan (Riess) today, er, yesterday – nice kid, very happy for him. I know Greg (Merson) – nice kid, very happy for him. Um, personally, if I’m going to be honest, I think between Jamie Gold and Jerry Yang, they destroyed the legacy of the world champ.” He goes on to say that every champ after them has been younger than 25 years old, still at the “heart of their passion to play and live it up.” He said that without the opportunity to have established a family, they aren’t ready to take up the role of poker ambassador as he, Greg Raymer, and Chris Moneymaker did.

Yang responded via an interview with PokerNews in which he admitted to being shocked by Hachem’s words. Despite not being able to play as much poker as some other previous champions, he claimed he has given more money to charity than any other in history. He also said that his tax issues were personal, as was his tax obligation to sell his WSOP Main Event gold bracelet.

I agree that Yang has been a positive champion in his charitable ways, though some in the poker media didn’t give him the credit he deserved for that. His philanthropy was overshadowed by several things, primarily his confessed financial mistakes and subsequent tax problems. He was widely criticized by media and fans for his play at the WSOP Main Event final table because he wasn’t as skilled as some of his competitors, and his praying for cards amidst the action made him the fodder for numerous jokes.

Meanwhile, Yang was always open about the fact that he wasn’t a master of the game, as well as his financial troubles. His honesty was almost unparalleled in the poker industry, though he didn’t get much credit for that.

The words from Hachem about his fellow champs were not so much shocking to me as it was hypocritical. While I know what he means about the young champions of recent years not being established in life, they are just as capable of being ambassadors as Hachem, Raymer, and Moneymaker.

In fact, Raymer had a run-in with the police just last year that involved a prostitution sting, and he is now looking for staking for an entire year of poker. This is an example to say that there are very few poker players who have squeaky-clean images who can represent poker in the best light every day and uphold the highest of personal standards.

This is unrealistic.

However, there are some points that Hachem made in his video interview with which I agree wholeheartedly.

I think poker is dying, and the reason it’s dying is that it’s no longer fun for people to play,” he said. “All these young geniuses at the table who don’t say a word, who bump out all the fish, as soon as the fish walks over to the table, the game breaks, whether it’s online or live now, I’ve witnessed both. The reason that poker is so enjoyable for people is because they go there and have fun. People have been losing their money to pros in poker for years, but they love doing it.

Hachem goes on to say that people don’t want to be intimidated at the table and made to feel like they’re no good. Things like check-raising range and other intricacies of the game are of no interest to the general public.

I agree. This is why the World Poker Tour continues to do well on television. Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten don’t go into great detail about the implied pot odds and ranges because it doesn’t keep the audience’s attention. Tony Dunst has a segment in which he goes into a bit more detail about a particular hand, and the rest of the show is a bit lighter. This is also why the professional players don’t tend to watch the WPT on television, but the general public does.

The movement of poker toward a complicated game of odds, ranges, VPIPs, and HUDs excludes the majority of people who enjoy the game at its core. Professional players who make a living from the game should, of course, use all of the information available to them, but others want to play the game for the camaraderie and the table talk.

Those who are very skilled at the game – or who think they are – often make more casual players feel as if they are ignorant. When casual players are berated for making plays without the correct odds or for playing a bit unconventionally, and it makes them not want to return to the tables. The game is no longer fun when the average player feels as if he or she is being scrutinized, analyzed, and criticized.

Many people in poker have said, “Don’t chase away the fish.” Not only is the advice not often heeded, but the mere use of the word “fish” can be intimidating enough to keep some people from playing.

The solution to the problem is not easy. However, the first step may be to embrace those who have fun at the game, especially if they don’t know what VPIP means.