What’s really “good for the game”?

Good and bad

Poker is rife with doublespeak, but I often wish we would be a bit more honest about some of the language we use. Specifically, I have grown weary of the repeated claim that this, that or the other is “good for the game”, when what the speaker invariably means is that this, that or the other is “good for me”.

I had a conversation with a member of tournament staff not so long ago, in which he talked through a few of the rule changes and structure adjustments he had been encouraged to make over the previous few years. “Whenever these guys say that something makes the game better, they’re meaning it makes the game better for them,” the tournament official said, referencing suggestions received from many of the high-profile pros, who tend to care the most about these things.

He went on to state what is pretty bloody obvious to everyone, that nobody in poker starts protesting for something that will reduce his or her chance of winning. Ergo, the top players want long levels and deep stacks, for example, which will allow their skills to shine, while the lesser experienced players would do better if everything was a short-stacked hyper turbo and they could set their chips racing time and again. The former group typically have the ear of the tournament staff, however, and their ideas tend to be passed. Heaven forbid anyone would want to block something that’s “good for the game”.

I thought about all this doublespeak, and the self-serving claims of what is “good for the game”, when I watched the latest Sheldon Adelson-funded TV spot, lobbying for a ban on online gambling in the United States. Adelson, as you no doubt know, is the most prominent voice in the campaign to block all online gaming in America, which includes online poker. The problem is that he’s not just some crackpot who can be ignored: Adelson is actually the eighth-richest person in the world, according to Forbes, and he has friends in the very highest places.

Adelson’s slick new production focuses on the perceived dangers presented to children by online gaming and depicts a young boy picking up his father’s smartphone to drain his bank account playing blackjack, roulette and (groan) poker. The general gist is that online gaming is an evil infecting the whole of society and Adelson has played the “Won’t somebody think of the children!” card right away.

But here’s the moment you’ll hear the irony klaxon sounding loudly: Adelson made his billions as the owner and CEO of a land-based casino group. Few people have profited from the American (and Chinese) public’s love of gambling more than this self-appointed guardian of our children’s well-being. Without the spinning reels of the slots and wheels of the roulette tables, there would be no Sheldon Adelson at all.

Albeit on a significantly grander scale, Adelson is engaging in classic poker doublespeak. Fearful that online gaming would hit his revenues, he is saying it should be banned because it’s bad for our kids, but he means it would be bad for him.

The dishonesty is one thing, but what frustrates me most about all this doublespeak is the way it drives a wedge between two (or more) sides and makes it difficult to have a honest discussion in a bid to find common ground. Nobody involved with the gaming industry, either in the online or the bricks and mortar world, wants children to be gambling illegally, and it’s insulting when Adelson tacitly implies a lack of rigour online. The online poker sites take this subject incredibly seriously and their security agents are arguably even more vigilant than the guards employed to check IDs in land-based casinos.

If the good of our children is really the prime concern—and why shouldn’t it be?—then Adelson should think about hosting a roundtable with executives from all the other casino chains as well as the online gaming operators. They could figure out effective ways of safeguarding the vulnerable rather than wantonly exploiting them, and all could learn a great deal from online poker’s example: about education, security and stop-loss.

Furthermore, only the poker operators would really know difference between the outright gambling of roulette or blackjack and the significantly more skill-based poker. Getting that distinction into the legislators’ heads would be a good start. It might even be good for the game.