A recent Joe Hachem interview in which he essentially took a pop at the younger generation of primarily online players (dismissing them as personality impaired drones that ordinary people couldn't relate to) has sparked a fair amount of reaction and debate, including in this thread at IPB. I was going to write a lengthy blog in response to it, but fair play to John O'Shea who basically made all the major points I was going to make (and much more succinctly than I would have managed) in his blog. So I will just make a few mainly tangential points on the debate.
Firstly, I fundamentally disagree with the viewpoint that the old school pros were all great fun, great characters, while the so called "hoodie brigade" lack personality diversity. They may look and sound alike, but when you take the trouble to get to know them, you quickly discover that as a group they are actually a lot more diverse and (in my opinion at least) interesting than the typical old school player, most of whom were middle aged blokes whose only major passion was gambling. Obviously this isn't true for everyone, but for me, given a choice between hanging out with Paul "uwannaloan" Delaney, Tim "timmmy" Davie, Tom "jabracada" Hall, Neil "hefs" Raine, Martin "moertelmu" Mulsow or Devilfish....well, Devilfish would be a very distant seventh (behind even "none of the above"). And yes, I have spent quite some time in Devilfish's company at poker tables, and can't say I ever really enjoyed his boorish racist chauvinistic macho shtick. However, I know there are many who do, and I'm not going to judge anyone for the company they like to keep.
In response to comments made by Lappin, Chris Dowling tweeted:
" the average guy who goes to a poker club doesn't know a bunch of people to real off hand history's to on skype, he is out to get away from the wife without going to the pub, maybe win a few bob & have a chat about the football while doing so and he couldn't give a toss about balancing his range versus a utg lag".
If this is true (and I have no reason to believe it isn't, at least for the clubs Chris started out in), then it pretty much illustrates the point that the so called "good old days" when there were lots of different characters never really existed. What did exist was a time when poker drew from a pretty narrow demographic of men of a certain age in less than ideal marriages who liked a bit of a gamble in the company of other men with similar interests (primarily footie). The game still appeals to this demographic, but also thankfully to other wider demographics. When I started playing live, it was immediately shocking to me how few young people and women played the game. Coming from running where you meet a genuine cross section of ages of both gender, live poker did really seem like the last old boys club. The culture and "banter" of the time also reflected this, mostly consisting of (to quote David Lappin) "smart ass old dudes recounting withered tales from their stockpile of anecdotes about the time they got one over on another fella". Diversity? I think not. Live poker was (and still is to a very large extent) such a male and macho culture that not only did most women not want to play, they didn't even want to be around it. My wife accompanied me to all my races during my running career. She enjoyed meeting the other runners we met. She enjoyed the camaraderie and banter unique to distance runners. She tried the same approach when I moved into poker, but quickly decided it wasn't for her.
Even if more young people are now playing live, it's a shame live poker is still so male dominated. Most of the females that I know who play poker only do so online, as they find the very macho atmosphere that surrounds live poker events in these two islands very off putting. So instead of yearning for a return to the days when it was all middle aged fellas complaining about the missus and talking about the football, I personally would rather see us leave them behind even quicker than we seem to be doing.
Essentially this debate resolves to a culture clash between two groups that have almost nothing in common outside of poker, and therefore will tend to dismiss each other as boring or one dimensional. On one side, you have guys like Joe Hachem who play maybe 30 live tournaments a year and therefore have to depend on other income streams such as sponsorships, ambassadorial roles and media work while they hope to run way above expectation again over a tiny sample. On the other, you have the young who have inherited the poker earth, or rather claimed it through a combination of smarts, drive and work ethic. Where poker used to attract lazy sods who didn't want to have to work for a living, it is now dominated by driven young geniuses who, to quote Nicky Power, play 30 tournaments every night. They have worked to hone their game to a point that far surpasses anything the old school ever achieved, and they are prepared to put in the volume to take luck (or variance as they call it) out of the equation entirely, rather than simply hoping to run good.
Whenever I hear old timers like Joe Hachem bemoaning the passing of the guard and berating the generation that took over, I am transported back to school, to the derision of the kids in the back rows who sneered at the swots and the nerds who paid attention in class and did their homework. It was childish and ultimately self defeating back then, and it still is now. It serves no other purpose but to give someone like Hachem the appearance of relevance in a world that has clearly passed him by. I would be willing to take his views much more seriously if they didn't come across as entirely self serving ("guy who makes his money from being a so called ambassador for the game talks about how important ambassadors are"), and if it wasn't for the fact that I have never met a single Aussie with a single good word to say about ambassador Hachem. Or, for that matter, anyone who has ever sat at a table and had to listen to him moan about beats and how bad he runs, something he is so famous for that the term for someone who displays a feeling of entitlement, also marked by a complete lack of perspective and a high level of delusion, that originates from running insanely good is "Hachem syndrome". I don't begrudge Joe his continued living from the game based on selling a fantasy of a time when the game was all about "characters", but please Joe, spare us the swipes at the young guys who work hard for their living. They may seem like swots and nerds to you, but if you took the trouble to get to know them, you might realise that they are a more diverse and rounded lot than you think. And you might start to understand why they now dominate the world of poker, both live and online.
People are holding snooker up as an example of how poker is going, citing a passing of the guard from "characters" to "driven drones" that they claim has reduced the popularity of the game. But it seems every "sport" has to go through the same development curve. Roger Bannister once explained how when he was training to run the first 4 minute mile, he did all his training in secret, alone, mostly in the dark. The reason? The prevailing English culture at the time lauded achievement without effort, an entitled world view that persisted from a Victorian era when the rich lived privileged lives for no other reason than they supposedly deserved it, while the lower classes toiled out miserable lives of servitude. In this culture, work was associated with poverty, and idleness with grace. English athletes looked down with scorn on Olympic champions like Emil Zatopek who ran more in training in a week than they did in a year as "journeymen", his unprecendented successes diminished rather than embiggened in their eyes by the efforts he went to to achieve them. English athletes eventually copped themselves on, as did English sports in general, and it was only when they came to see toil and training as noble rather than ignoble that they became a world class sporting nation. Yet this same view of lazy success being better than success that had to be worked for persisted longer in other sports like football (and clearly still exists in poker). As the Premiership transitioned from fat lads who liked a pint to sleek slim foreign pros who thought of themselves as athletes and lived accordingly, many fans bemoaned the loss of people they could identify with. Yet the Premiership survived and flourished through the transition, and now when they show old football matches on TV, what's remarkable is how out of shape, slow and unathletic the game used to be when it was heavy drinkers plodding around after a ball.
When I first read the IPB thread bemoaning the lack of personalities and characters in the game, I joked to the rest of the Firm on Skype that I wanted everyone to have developed a personality by the weekend. That's perhaps too much to ask, so instead I got my friend Willie Elliot to design a new group image for us. Willie never fails to deliver, and here's what he came up with based on a Snow White theme.
Willie is also emblematic of a shift in poker. Those who claim it's no longer social don't understand what social is these days. It's not just the same old jokes and withered anecdotes endlessly repeated at live poker tables. It's Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, blogs, forums, Viber, Snapchat, Whatsapp. Every day I interact with people like Willie, people I genuinely like and care about and share interests with rather than just random people I got drawn at a poker table with and have to find some way to put up with for a few hours. TrueIrishBaller tweeted:
"I have been berated more times by so called 'rec players' than I have by any pro. At least when the good players berate you they have substance. A high % of recreational players are horrible, degen scum that I want absolutely nothing to do with. #headphonesplease"
The view that the young online players are all arrogant pricks compared to the old pros who were all great craic and all about keeping the fish happy just doesn't hold up in my court. And as Baller rightly points out, a minority of recreational players are the absolute worst for berating other players at the table. As anyone who follows me on Twitter will know, one of the things I do to relieve the tedium of the online grind is to tweet chatbox abuse directed at me. It genuinely amuses me to see how worked up some people get when my ace queen outdraws their ace king. These people are always, without exception, recreational players. It doesn't bother me in the slightest, as I said I find it amusing, and if it makes them feel better about themselves to think that the only reason I make money from poker and the only reason they lose is luck, then I'm quite happy for them to go on believing that. But don't tell me it's just young pros who are abusing people. The worst verbal shellacking I ever saw handed out by a pro at a table was by an old school live pro (already named in this blog) who berated a girl after she successfully bluffed him using very ungentlemanly language that included the statement "the reason God gave women vaginas is to make up for not giving them any brains". What a "character".
And spare me the whining about how much camaraderie and banter there was in the good old days. The first time I played live poker, it was a most unenjoyable experience marred by the impatience of a bunch of grumpy old men with the new guy at the table who wasn't acting fast enough and was fumbling with his chips. Not a single player said a friendly or welcoming word to me all night, or tried to engage me in conversation. If I wasn't as thick skinned as I am, that would also have been my last ever live poker experience. Good old days? Trust me, there wasn't much good about them at all.