Time To Up The Reporting Game

Reporter holding mic

It has been a sad summer for poker, despite the excellence of all those in Las Vegas and some startling industry news that perhaps promises the online game a bright future across the world.

In little more than a few days at the end of June/beginning of July, the German poker pro Johannes Strassmann was found dead after an accident in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and Chad Brown, the prominent American player, succumbed to cancer after a long fight. Strassmann was 29 years old and Brown hardly an old-timer at 52.

Tragedy tends to bring out the best and worst in people, and news of the two losses prompted many genuinely moving tributes among a handful of other mawkish moments. Both Strassmann and Brown were popular, kind-spirited men, and there were repeated appeals for the “poker community” to draw together to honour them, putting aside the kind of petty squabbles and one-upmanship that is inherent to poker, and yet is widely condemned whenever we receive a jolting reminder that this pastime is not quite life and death.

Perhaps one way in which we might certainly learn a thing or two from the sadness of those days is by a quick examination of the way in which the two deaths were reported. There were pretty stark examples of best and worst practice in this respect.

In the case of Strassmann, the poker media, and Poker News in particular, did a fine job of keeping a measured tone as what began as a missing persons enquiry went through the harrowing stages of conjecture and speculation, then the discovery of a body and, ultimately, positive identification. The reporter Giovanni Angioni remained in contact with a police officer in Slovenia, as well as a Facebook group set up in response to Strassmann’s disappearance. He delivered only the verifiable facts in a timely manner, despite the usual wild theories populating the forums and social media.

This was proper journalism — accurate and reliable — but much of the good work was undone later on the day that Strassmann’s body was identified when reports began appearing of Brown having died. Doyle Brunson, who has more than 400,000 followers on Twitter and is unparalleled in his respect and influence in the game, tweeted that he had heard of Brown’s passing, and this quickly became the sole source for a “story” that went viral.

The lubricated channels of social media were rapidly awash with sadness and mourning and RIP messages, coaxed along by senior figures in the media apparently corroborating the story. It gave the unfortunate, but not unexpected, reports a degree of authority, but it soon became evident that no one had actually checked the veracity of what Brunson had inferred from a poker-room conversation. The sentiments of all the tributes may have been genuine, but they were certainly premature. (Brunson, of course, is not a reporter, but he was happily cited by people who claim to be as the authority on this matter.)

Vanessa Rousso soon found herself  with the task of informing the poker world that her former husband was still alive—a dreadful requirement for somebody already living with the knowledge that the end of a loved one’s life is near. By the time Rousso was able to deny the reports, their prevalence was such that even her word was doubted in some quarters, and her correction, lacking in the sensation of a death notice, struggled at first to gain anything like the traction of the earlier erroneous dispatches. (Even now, the tweet that prompted the media flurry is still on Brunson’s timeline, with 65 retweets and 72 favourites.  His correction has 23.)

Mistakes happen in journalism, particularly in the digital age, where there is a seemingly unquenchable thirst to be first with news, accuracy be damned. But mainstream reporters are largely aware now of how influential their words can become, and how quickly a small error can snowball. They now redouble their efforts to get the “Who?”, “What?” “When?” “Where?” “Why?” and “How?” of their stories correct before committing to press because the alternatives can be so profoundly unfortunate.

And yet this basic understanding of some of journalism’s fundamental tenets is where poker reporting is still horribly deficient.

One of contemporary poker’s common preoccupations is its attempts to be regarded as akin to a sport, with a reliable ranking system, crossover television coverage and, maybe one day, corporate sponsorship. But if this is ever to become anything more than a pipe dream, some dreadfully amateur tendencies among those who administrate and report on poker must be addressed.

It is still absolutely common practice for reporting on poker to feature accounts of hands in which the players are not identified by name. Although it may often seem irrelevant whose flush draw lost to Daniel Negreanu’s top pair in a small pot, a reporter’s complete lack of interest in filling in the gaps breeds this casualness with respect to crucial information. Without names, the hand reports lack accountability and it resultantly becomes completely normal to accept approximations of the truth. Poker reporters, who are often young and inexperienced, never get in the habit of seeking only precision, and instead begin to believe that the general gist will suffice.

Indeed, in a number of solipsistic articles written recently, the subject of the greenness of the “poker media” has become a central theme. I have read articles by salaried reporters in which they express with some kind of weird pride that they actually don’t know how to report or write and don’t much care about it either. I’ve read claims that all poker reporters are failed players and that spelling and grammar is overrated. This is irrelevant nonsense.

I’m a pedant, but even I can excuse commas in the wrong place every now and again, or the incorrect deployment of a semi-colon. What I cannot forgive, however, is the belittling of a reporter’s duty to little more than hanging about in the bar with the players, then spewing out some ill-informed opinion punctuated by clumsily recorded conversation.

Reporting is about a lot more than that. It is about observation, enquiry, integrity and accuracy. It is about balance and neutrality. It can often be about finding new stories and breaking them, or putting new slants on old tales, but in the absence of a scoop or a moment of devastating drama, it is perfectly adequate to stick to the basics and do a job reliably and without fanfare.

It is, to bring us back to the point, about not reporting that somebody is dead unless you know that is actually the case.

It is bizarre that it has come to this. Poker playing, which was once the archetypal recreational pursuit, is now dominated by professionals, who take preparation seriously and study their craft to ensure they put in an optimum performance at all times. Meanwhile, the media room, from where the players’ exploits are being projected to the outside world, is increasingly filled with amateurs on a beano, proudly leaving no corner uncut.

Some of the most sensationally inaccurate reports from the robbery at EPT Berlin came from over-excited members of the press corps who should have known better. Similarly one of the worst cheating scandals of recent years – Ali Tekintamgac’s system of peeking at hole cards – employed someone posing as a reporter as an accomplice. That this criminal could pass as a journalist all but unquestioned is a very sad indictment on the role.

It’s all very well telling players that they need to dress smartly and unplug their headphones and be available for interviews at all times, in a bid to attract mainstream interest. But if the people who might be interviewing them can’t be relied upon to get their name right, or represent them accurately, then I can understand the reluctance.