There’s No Room for Politics in Poker

Colman and Busquet

Colman and Busquet – Image courtesy of Pokerlistings.com

Yesterday’s European Poker Tour Barcelona Super High Roller event saw a final table that proved exceptional on a number of levels. PokerNews, as usual, produced an excellent recap of all the action at the table. Beyond the poker action, however, a much more far-reaching subject – politics – was allowed to take center stage.

The event’s eventual winner, Olivier Busquet, donned a shirt reading “Save Gaza” while runner-up Daniel Colman, who won this year’s Big One for One Drop event, wore a shirt reading “Free Palestine”. Upon firing up the live stream to watch, I was taken aback and appalled; not at the political messages Busquet and Colman were sending, but that the wearing of those shirts was condoned by PokerStars (which owns the EPT) in the first place. I have always maintained that politics should never be discussed at the poker table. Clearly, now is the time to elaborate on this very important point.

Also, be sure to check out our video on the politics in poker issue.

A Social Media Brouhaha During the Live Stream

I decided to make my voice heard via social media via a number of Tweets with the hashtag #EPT so as to try and draw attention to the issue.

In direct response to this, the commentators mentioned a statement on air put out by the PokerStars PR office to the effect of “viewers ought to take issue up with the players, not with the EPT”. I respectfully disagree. The players did nothing against the current rules so they can’t and shouldn’t be taken to task for their actions. In fact, Busquet just today Tweeted:  

In multiple tweets back to me yesterday (all of which, I am obligated to point out, have for some reason been deleted) one of the EPT commentators said, among other things, that I was the one bringing attention to the issue (as opposed to the players). Respectfully, again, I believe that’s part of my role as a poker writer. I’m not the one playing in the event and wearing a shirt with a political agenda.

Busquet and Colman are obviously highly intelligent and knew precisely what they were doing by donning those shirts, so they can’t plead ignorance. It’s telling that they only wore those shirts on the final day of the competition, at the televised final table.

Replying to My Many Critics

A number of people challenged me with a bevy of questions in direct replies to the position I took. I’ve honestly been somewhat overwhelmed by the deluge of responses, which is part of why it has taken me a full day to collect my thoughts and craft this op-ed piece. I want to be exceptionally thorough in my rebuttals to detractors’ claims, and this canvas is far better suited than the 140-character limits of Tweets.

So let’s start with this: one person said I was guilty of “selective outrage” due to the fact that I ostensibly hold pro-Israel positions (I live in Israel). Sadly, this accusation misses the issue entirely. While I may hold different views to those expressed by Busquet and Colman, my “outrage” existed because they were allowed to broadcast these views while playing in the event. Thus:

Further to that Tweet of mine, flags are an expression of national allegiance. Thus they’re absolutely fine. So, when Busquet claims this, perhaps he should have considered draping himself in a Palestinian flag instead. Slogans such as the type displayed on Colman and Busquet’s shirts are political statements.

Another person begged to differ with this, positing that “Free Palestine” and “Save Gaza” represent “humanitarian messages”.

I cannot fathom how “humanitarian” could be any less true. I also personally believe that Palestinians need to be freed – from Hamas – which has been labeled a terrorist organization by Australia, Canada, Egypt, the European Union, Israel, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and is banned in Jordan and whose charter calls for the elimination of Jews. BUT, I don’t and would never wear this message on a shirt while playing in a sanctioned professional poker tournament, and ought not to be allowed to do so even if I wished to. Messages do not get any more political than “Free Palestine” and “Save Gaza”.

And what of the contention that “poker players pay their own way”, with the implication that this affords them an additional measure of “freedom of expression”? To that I say “So what?” I fail to comprehend what that has to do with the issue or how that’s a counterpoint to the position I’m advocating.

I’ll just reiterate: If there’s no rule against being political at the table then it’s technically okay, so Busquet and Colman did nothing wrong. However, this doesn’t mean that a new rule can’t be written and applied to future poker events. Every governing body has the right to enforce their rules. Players, by the same token, have the right not to play in an event if they don’t like the rules. Once a rule is in place, “freedom of speech” doesn’t trump it.

Where Ought the Line to be Drawn?

Bryan Micon asked a very good question about the issue during a discussion about it on Facebook:

“So I’m supposed to sit quietly and watch what I see as evil, when playing poker with my fellow competitors for 12 hrs each day I should always avoid any conversation with politics or religion, just sit there and play and we can all poke our phones instead of discussing the world with each other… because the real world makes you uncomfortable? Who draws these arbitrary lines?”

draw the lineMy answer to this is a firm “yes”. Federer and Nadal don’t talk politics while playing in sanctioned professional events. Neither do NBA, PGA, MLB, etc. players. If you prefer the comparison of a mind sport, chess players don’t discuss politics either. When, for example, an Israeli and an Iranian compete against one another at the Olympics, they compete; they don’t talk politics. Away from the table, yes – on social media, in interviews, etc. – political discussion is great and should be encouraged. Should any poker player wish to use the prestige of their notoriety to advocate a particular political issue, it’s their prerogative. However, PokerStars and other governing and sanctioning bodies in poker ought to have a rule against politics at the table itself.

I will drive the point home once more and make “the line” as clear as can be: There’s an absolutely critical distinction that must be made between a what a poker player ought to be able to do during the actual competition (playing at the table) vs. the same poker player giving an interview before or after the competition or while play is on a break. I’d have no issue whatsoever with Bousquet and/or Colman using time they’d been allotted by an interviewer to make their views public (unless, of course, it becomes prohibited by a future rule). It might not be relevant to the questions they’d be being asked during an interview, but it’s then up to them to actively utilize the opportunity to speak out.

So Why Is Daniel Negreanu’s Public Pro-Israel Stance Okay?


Daniel Negreanu is arguably the world’s most influential poker player. He’s also one of the most politically opinionated. And that’s fine. Why? Simple: because he keeps those opinions away from the poker table.

Everyone, celebrities included, is entitled to their opinion – within the right forums. Daniel Negreanu would never wear a political shirt in a professionally sanctioned tournament. The bottom line is that during an event it’s a no-no.

So, should PokerStars be reprimanding or taking other action against their #1 sponsored pro?

Absolutely not.

Organizations have the freedom to sponsor or employ whoever they like as well as suspend dealings with anyone under contract. These organizations can define what types of behavior they deem to be acceptable or not, even including provisions to govern what their sponsored players and employees can/cannot say via their social media channels. Should someone sign a deal like this, they’d be obligated to act in accordance with those rules or else risk breach of contract.

Whether or not PokerStars happens agree or disagree with any of Negreanu’s opinions, unless there’s a clause about it in his contract (which I highly doubt), there’s been no breach and he ought to be able to say whatever he wants – away from the table. The moment Daniel – or any other poker player – steps away from the table (e.g., for an interview), politics are fair game.

Authorizing a Dress Code Would Solve Everything

dress codeFor argument’s sake, PokerStars and the EPT would be completely within their rights to make a rule forcing every player entered in a tournament to wear branded PokerStars shirts, or conversely, ban logos of all other competitor companies. This wouldn’t be a smart thing to do business-wise though and it would probably cause there to be far fewer players at their live events. Yet, this potential consequence doesn’t take away from their right to introduce a dress code of that nature should they so choose.

Mainstream individual sports like golf and tennis have dress codes while the big team sports mandate uniforms. If poker is aiming for more mainstream appeal, perhaps the biggest tours as well as the Tournament Director’s Association ought to consider teaming up to enact a universal code of dress for poker players playing in sanctioned tournaments.

If current provisions within the WSOP’s rules dictate the size of patches and logos that can be worn on apparel, something really ought to also be crystallized in writing to prohibit the exhibiting of political messages at the tables.

Giving PokerStars the Opportunity to Respond

I reached out by email to PokerStars, to see what they’d have to say about the issue. My letter to them was as follows:

“I’d kindly like to please request an official statement from PokerStars/EPT on their current policy re: political statements on apparel, etc. My question/request is in light of the issue stirred by apparel worn by Mr. Colman and Mr. Busquet yesterday at the final table of EPT Barcelona’s Super High Roller.”

Just a few minutes later a reply arrived in my Inbox, via PokerStars’ PR department, with a quote from Eric Hollreiser, PokerStars’ Head of Corporate Communications:

“Our tournaments are designed to promote poker and poker competition and not as a platform for political statements.  Players have many channels to express their views on world politics, but our tournaments are not an appropriate place. We will refuse entry to any player displaying political statements of any kind.”

I was stunned.

I immediately followed up with another email, asking the obvious:

“So how can that be reconciled with what was on display yesterday? The facts on the ground are clearly at disparity with Mr. Hollreiser’s statement. Is the statement a reflection of official company policy? I do not know of any official rule that disallows what the players did.

Furthermore, refusing entry is one thing, but clearly the players in question only made their statement once entered, and only on the final day of competition. In light of Mr. Hollreiser’s statement, it must be asked why tournament officials didn’t act or ask the players to change their garments.”

The answer I received from Mr. Hollreiser was unequivocally clear:

“In retrospect, it was a mistake to allow them entry.”

My takeaway from the email exchange? Better late than never.

As such, I would like to publicly commend the management team at PokerStars for having the introspective insight to recognize and admit that a mistake was made. It is clear to me that such a situation, of having politics present at the poker table, will never be allowed to happen again in a PokerStars-sanctioned event.

Conclusion

I call upon tournament officials to consider the issue of enshrining rules for a dress code as well as prohibit political statements at the tables. PokerStars has de facto now made their position clear. Other organizations that sanction poker events ought to follow suit.

Nolan Dalla has penned a great response to this post. Please check it out.

Please also be sure to have a look at my reply to Nolan.

  • Breezy

    The other thing that makes me scratch my head. Is at a online poker table and they try to correct your grammar. What in the world does proper grammar have anything to do with poker? lol Are we gonna be graded for a spelling bee? lol

  • The Bon_Scott

    Anybody who thinks this rule is “censorship” doesn’t understand
    censorship. “Free speech” refers to constitutional protection from
    government infringement on your speech, not a private
    organization/company’s right to determine its own policies that don’t
    violate the law. The EPT and PokerStars are as every bit legally entitled to
    establish dress codes as is a private employer/organization. An employer or private
    organization establishing dress codes for their employees or members is
    not censorship or a violation of your constitutional rights, period.

    Do
    you see any political messages on athlete’s uniforms as they’re
    competing? No. I’m not saying poker is a “sport”, but the principle
    and the law is the same. This whole issue has been overblown by people
    who don’t understand what “free speech” and “censorship” actually are.

  • cardplayerlifestyle

    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment here. It’s much appreciated.

  • Rick Gleason

    Robbie, your proposals are right on, for both a dress code and no politics. Is it any wonder poker fights a battle for mainstream acceptance with what we see that passes for “professionals” at the poker table?

  • cardplayerlifestyle

    Thank you so much for your comment Rick and I appreciate that you’ve read what I’ve had to say here. It’s nice that some people agree with my sentiments. I’d like to please encourage you to share articles about this discussion (like mine, as well as Nolan Dalla’s response, my response to him, Victoria Coren, Daniel Negreanu, etc). While PokerStars has made their decision, it’s great to see the poker community debating and discussing this important topic. All the best to you sir.

  • aschops

    Yeah, let’s pretend this is all about political statements – definitely not the fact that it’s just political statements the Jew author doesn’t like.