So What Really is 'Good for the Game'?

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. 


James Atkin said...

"Poker being named a game of skill would be terrible for players if that resulted in winnings becoming taxable"


Barry Carter said...

Lol, this and Stars getting rid of SNE are your two biggest fears in life right?

(no RT for this btw?)

Jeff Mcintyre said...

Nice Post Barry

There is a general mindset that financial gain is the exclusive source of value for being a "competitive" poker player. People invest substantial amounts of money on other sports and hobbies like golf for instance, without feeling silly about not being "world class".

The club level Golfer will never recoup his financial investment in his game, but his pursuit of improvement will never be perceived as being foolish.

An extremely small percentage of poker players are winners. IMO refining your poker strategy knowledge is not restricted to aspiring pro's only. Improving on one's poker strategy has other benefits then just winning money. I think the influential people of the poker industry (book authors, marketers, poker room managers etc) need to initiate a shift in this mindset.


victoryv111 said...

All fair comments but the main feature for poker is making more interesting favourble formats of the game that benefits more players ie the majority who lose, so they have a better chance to win ..ive craeted a new game satt format that will be very enticing to players and lucritive to poker rooms ..but the red tape involved is crazy..im going to try and get it licensed any legal help out there please contact me direct. victoryv111@gmail.com

Jamie 'MrJayOMG' Mortimer said...

I'm surprised you neglected to mention 'Facebook' or Zynga poker. I think this is great for the game, already a player base of 30m+ these are the future player pool, be it by converting to a Stars/Full Tilt site or by becoming a real money player on Zynga if the business model made the decision convert.

Bill said...

Good points though I'm not sure it's so black and white. Raymer being "good for poker" does not mean that Hellmuth can not also be "good for poker."

It's sort of like saying that Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan is not good for the entertainment industry. Hellmuth is a character. He gets attention. Raymer is a good role model but he doesn't generate press like Hellmuth.

Barry Carter said...

Thanks guys,

Jamie - Great point, Zynga and any other free poker platform is the future of poker, particularly any linked with social media.

Bill - yes, that was actually the point I was trying to make, perhaps I came off a little too much for the side of razzamatazz and hype because thats my own preference to air towards.

nhggfu said...

excellent post barry. good 4 the game = cliché stuff these days indeed.

"good for the game" IMO = 100% transparency (RNG auditing, knowing who REALLY owns which poker company...), and of course the USA opening up for online poker again (good for business/economy - and bigger games / more game selection).

Kim said...

Hey Barry,

Should have posted this days ago, but never got around to it. Great theme for a blog post.

My opinion is fairly simple.

What is good for the game is whatever is good for the playing experience of those customers a supplier has chosen to attract.

If everyone played their niche to perfection, the total sum market would grow and every player would be able find a home that suited their playing needs.

Bur for that to happen, business models must adapt and companies must start caring as much about game mechanics and game immersion as they do about stock charts and shipping their profits to affiliates.

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