I once presided over a $2-$5 NLH game as manager of a poker room here in Phnom Penh when an unexpected whale from Thailand arrived. It was clear from the beginning that the gentleman just wanted to have a good time and that the money was not that important to him. So unimportant that he also put his girlfriend in to the game, who had even less experience than he did. The fun began at about 9:00 PM and over the course of the next 8 hours the whale and his girl dumped thousands of dollars to nearly every other player on the table. At about 5:00 AM he asked for two racks and began to rack up his chips in order to cash out. At this point nearly every other player on the table asked for a rack and also began to leave. Upon seeing this the whale exclaimed, "Oh I see how it is! The fish leaves and no one else wants to play." The players could not have made it more obvious what they were doing and a fish may be a fish, but he was not an idiot. I recently ran into this player a few months ago, back in the same poker room although I was no longer the manager. I told him that it was great to see him after so many years and to this he replied that he had been back in Cambodia several times, but that he just did not play in this room due to the incident I mentioned above. The point of me telling this story is to drive home the notion that poker players are often their own worst enemy. I can understand wanting to leave in an online setting or even in a casino where traffic is plentiful. But in a local's room full of regs, players such as this are hard to come by and everyone should have known to behave in manner that would have encouraged him to come back. The fact is he had three more days on his stay in Cambodia, but none of those were spent in this poker room.
The truth of the matter is poker is a dying game in terms of popularity. We have long passed its zenith and signs of decline are everywhere. In such a climate the question remains, who's responsibility is it to grow and cultivate the popularity of the game. The most obvious conclusion is perhaps to say that such a responsibility falls on the operators of the room. In most cases where poker is played we have to then discuss the role casinos play in the promotion of the game. But as many already know, casinos could care less about poker as it generates the least amount of revenue while housing the most number of staff and incurring the largest payroll of any department. I knew many poker room managers during my time in Las Vegas and one chief complaint that most of them had was how little support they received from the casino at large, especially when it came to money. Very little is spent by a casino towards the poker room in terms of marketing space both inside and outside the casino. Drive down the Vegas strip and you will see 50 advertisements for buffets and has-been 80's musical acts before you ever see a sign promoting poker. The best managers will do it on their own, creating mailing and contact lists, making sure that no player leaves the room without liking their Facebook page or by just posting on online forums to promote their room. But they often do this on their own time, with no extra pay and as mentioned previously without any support from the casino. The situation is even worse for a private card room as they do not even have a larger entity such as a casino to ignore them.
So how did this game get so popular in the first place? The poker boom started because of a perfect storm of events that will probably never be repeated. But once Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event of the World Series, online poker swooped in to provide the mechanism by which the game would grow. In a largely unregulated environment, literally hundreds of online poker sites provided for players easy access to real money cash games and tournaments. Players started to sign up and send in deposits in droves and this led to television networks picking up on the growing popularity of the game and making broadcasts of special events near ubiquitous on many stations. From airings of WSOP events to WPT tournaments and the Hollywood Home Game to Celebrity Poker Showdown, the game was everywhere. But this all came to a grinding halt once online poker was made illegal in the United States and domain names of popular sites such as Poker Stars and Full Tilt were seized by the FBI on that fateful day that we now know as Black Friday. Many speculate, and still do, that the casino lobby was largely behind this policy shift as they wanted a larger piece of the online market to eventually monopolize it for themselves. But I think something gets lost in this line of thinking, namely that the casinos would be completely fine if poker were to disappear altogether. There are other forms of online gambling that will prove to be more profitable and the waning popularity of the game would mean that they would not have to maintain a physical presence in their casinos.
Why am I discussing all of these things and presenting such a bleak picture? The purpose of this article is to point out the painful fact that the promotion of the game relies solely on the players. And this truth is painful because if one observes the landscape of the game today, it is filled with players who seem hell bent on destroying it rather than furthering its cause. From behavior such as the one I cited in the opening paragraph of this article to general douchey behavior on the table, players do everything and anything to repel the very players that should be encouraged to stay in the game. I have lost count of how many times a fish's play has been questioned or berated during a game, often causing said player to leave the table altogether. That is of course the worst case scenario, but even in the best case players often remain completely quiet while playing without engaging other players in the slightest. If one were to speak to a recreational poker player, it would be easy to realize just how badly they want to be good players themselves and how in turn they admire those who can win in this game. They speak about and discuss their favorite players, like one might of their favorite movie star or athlete. And just like athletes who may win over a fan for life by signing an autograph, so can poker players promote their game by engaging with their audience. But unfortunately many players often spend more time mocking such people and making fun of other players to leave any time to grow the game.
Let us consider those who have won the Main Event of the WSOP shortly after Chris Moneymaker's win in 2003:
• Greg Raymer (2004)
• Joe Hachem (2005)
• Jamie Gold (2006)
• Jerry Yang (2007)
Nearly every one of these names have been much aligned over the years when the truth is that they have done more for the promotion of poker than they are given credit for. Now consider the list of those who have won the ME since:
• Peter Eastgate (2008)
• Joe Cada (2009)
• Jonathan Duhamel (2010)
• Pius Heinz (2011)
• Greg Merson (2012)
• Ryan Riess (2013)
• Martin Jacbson (2014)
• Joe McKeehen (2015)
• Qui Nguyen (2016)
• Scott Blumstein (2017)
• John Cynn (2018)
• Hossein Ensan (2019)
Ask any poker player who won the ME of the WSOP in the first few years of the boom and most would recognize everyone on my first list. But ask the same question of those who won after 2007 and most would struggle to name half the list. There is a reason for this as whether by accident or design, these players represented the "every man" and they were true ambassadors of the game, either in fame or infamy. I actually met Jamie Gold on a few occasions as we were seated together on the same table during the L.A. Poker Classic at the Commerce back in 2010. I also played with him several times while he was ambassador for the poker room in the Tropicana casino the very next year. I have seldom met anyone friendlier on a poker table. And more importantly, he answered every question that players had for him even though he was trying to play in the event and not every comment nor question was all that friendly. But he did not shy from any of it and took the time to say hello, sign autographs and take a picture with anyone who asked. Every time a winning player stacks a fish on a table who has no idea what they are doing, they probably have one of the names on my first list to thank.
As poker has become a spectator sport to a large extent, I am encouraged by the new mediums in which the game is broadcast and promoted. As airing of poker on traditional television networks slows down, there seems to be an increase in alternative mediums such as YouTube and Twitch. This is important in that such sites trend towards a younger audience as many youths today do not even own a television set, but rather get all their media content online. I think it imperative going forward that more players make themselves available to the public in this manner, from broadcasting a vlog or playing an entire session live online. While I understand that many players desire privacy and do not wish to broadcast their life nor strategies for the viewing public, such is a tradeoff in the effort to keep the game not only alive, but to keep it growing. Social media personalities such as Doug Polk and Joey Ingram do much to promote this game in a fun manner and they should be lauded for their efforts. But there are countless others, while not as popular, but with thousands of followers themselves who deserve to be emulated and admired. I have a friend who recently started a Twitch stream along with a YouTube channel and how he is doing it should be considered textbook on how to promote the game of poker:
Engage your audience through honesty and storytelling, an often lost artform for those who stream on such formats; be an authority but don't speak down to your audience; offer players a desired lifestyle and provide for them a roadmap by which they can obtain it for themselves. This will especially be important as we move forward in a post-covid era, one in which the game has undergone drastic changes. Tournaments are being cancelled all over the world, Macau has shut its doors and even the venerable Las Vegas is down to just 29 poker rooms. Poker will be more difficult to find for the average person than ever before and we need a new generation of creative thinkers to reach out to the masses in order to engage a new audience and keep the game growing.
I once saw a poker documentary called "Bet, Raise, Fold" which chronicled the history of the poker boom and the rise in prominence of online poker. While most lauded the efforts of those who made this film, I came away from it with a different feeling. I thought to myself that if I were a novice player, I would never want to play poker again after watching this movie. The film came off as intimidating, talking about the technical aspects of the game and the use of software such as HUDS. Listening to the players in the film talk about their strategies, how they play 16 tables at once and crush their opponents, the entire thing sounded like a not so humble brag rather than a roadmap for how others could achieve their level of success. If my friend's new Twitch and YouTube channels is textbook in how to promote the game, what this film conveyed was exactly the opposite. But most of the figures I have discussed in this article are now long since gone and the game is ready for a new crop of players to take over the game and help propel it towards the future. Many can learn from the mistakes of the recent past in order to present this game to a new, younger and eager audience in a manner that enhances the ecology of the game of poker.
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Life in the Third World
Just a collection of random and not so random thoughts from my daily life here in Cambodia.