Anyone who mixes in poker circles quite a lot is probably starting to get sick of the phrase “Good for the Game”. Poker has been under scrutiny for a number of years across the world, the legality of poker varies from country to country, so people consider it immoral, some consider it pure gambling, and large parts of the industry are in decline. So we often find ourselves framing things in the sense of whether they are good for the general health of the game or not.
So when Hellmuth makes a crazy entrance at the WSOP, it’s good for the game. When Boris Becker signs for PokerStars, it’s good for the game. When Full Tilt announce a $250,000 buy-in tournament series, it’s good for the game. When PokerStars host a 100,000 runner tournament, it’s good for the game. When poker gets recognised as a mind sport, it’s good for the game.
But what is really good for the game?
I hear so many contradictory arguments about what is good for poker and what is not. For example, people were shocked when Greg Raymer was let go by PokerStars because he is a great ambassador for poker and an all-round nice guy, i.e. good for the game. Yet someone like Phil Hellmuth can have a temper tantrum on TV and generally behave like a child, but you know for certain he will never get dropped by his future sponsor.
Likewise when someone clearly superior in the skill department goes on a hot streak, let’s say Phil Ivey making the main event final table and winning two bracelets in 2009, we say it’s good for the game because it is proving that poker is a game of skill. But in equal measure someone like Jamie Gold luckboxing their way to a fortune is seen as good, because it encourages new players to take up the game by making poker look easy.
Poker players feel a real sense of injustice when a non-poker celebrity gets sponsorship, arguing that it would be better for the game if a hard working talented pro got endorsed. But it’s the celebrities who promote the game to a much wider audience and get new blood at the tables. Surely that’s better for the game?
Some people think that ridiculous buy-in events like the Onyx Cup are good for the game because they guarantee ready-made Ivey/Negreanu/Durrrr dream final tables, which TV audiences will want to see. However some think they are bad for the game, elitist and a way of maintaining the status quo. The counter argument is that good value, affordable, large field events like the UKIPT or the IPO are much better for the game because everyone can get involved.
The debate over whether poker is skill or gambling is often one of the most misguided areas where the ‘good for the game’ debate rears its head. Poker recently got recognised as a Mind Sport and in some countries it’s considered legally a game of skill, in others it’s even been given the status of sport. The natural reaction for most players is to think this is about as good as it gets for the game.
I’m not saying it isn’t, but there is plenty of reason why poker staying considered a form of gambling is actually great for the game. First of all, I live in the UK and right now it is in every poker players interest for poker to remain a form of gambling – because we don’t pay tax on gambling winnings at the moment. Poker being named a game of skill would be terrible for players if that resulted in winnings becoming taxable. Obviously in other countries, being considered a game of skill could actually have tax benefits, so what is good for poker in one country is not the same in another.
But the other reason why we should be cautious to cast off the image of gambling from poker is that we may chase away new players. So many poker rooms make the mistake of aiming their marketing towards skilled players (By offering big rakeback deals, multi entry tournaments, claiming to be full of fish, and allowing tracking software) when they should be finding new ways to allure new players.
It’s the fact that anyone can win that makes poker so enticing, love it or hate it, variance is the reason we are all here. I have always thought the best way to market a room like Full Tilt would be to show one of their usual cool excerpts of Phil Ivey looking like the Tiger Woods of poker, listing his accomplishments and accolades to demonstrate why he is the best in the world, then all of a sudden show my Mum beating him heads-up and doing a victory dance. Because of the gambling element in poker, you can beat the best in the world – that’s a message that’s great for the game.
Personally I think what is best for the game is most of the things that go against my own poker snobbery instincts. I think celebrity poker players are good for the game, I think that shallow stacked TV poker with big personalities like Tony G is good for the game, I think that the gambling element of poker is what makes it so enticing and therefore good for the game. Anything that gets new players playing and thinking that poker is a piece of cake is good for the game – it’s good for sponsors, good for seasoned players, good for new players, good for poker staff types like myself and good for the poker economy in general.
Before you decide something is good for the game, first think about what the game needs first.