Tragedy of the Community Cards

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When William Forster Lloyd distributed a pamphlet in 1833, he did it with the intention of explaining the problems that emerge when multiple individuals are allowed to use communal land to graze their sheep and cows. The thesis being that individuals will work for what is best for the individual and that often results in the ruin of the land. Someone will always add one too many sheep. In the 60s this was expanded to the broader environmentalist movement and specifically to sustainability. There has been plenty written about ways of getting around the commons dilemma as it applies to our green planet, but today I want to look at how(or even whether) the same principles are at work on the green felt.

This is a debate that crops up a couple times a year, but most recently has been brought to the forefront as a result of the Big One for One Drop. One drop is a charity organization with the mission of fighting global poverty by increasing access to clean drinking water. The World Series of Poker hosts the Big One for One Drop tournament. It has a buy in of 1 million dollars per player. The host casino forgoes the normal 10% rake and instead donates the money to the charity. This year 42 players entered, giving 4.6 million to One Drop and generating a 15.3 million dollar prize for the winner of the tournament. Daniel Colman won the tournament, and as soon as he did the problems started. He refused to talk to the media after his well deserved win. This act drew more headlines than the win itself.

What the two camps are saying:

Side supporting Colman’s decision: He paid to enter the tournament, played by the rules, and as soon as the tournament ended so did his obligations. He has the right to decide to do whatever he wants to and doesn’t owe the media or the blogosphere anything.

Side disputing Colman’s decision: Yes he has the right to decline an interview, but it makes the community look bad and hurts the reputation of poker as a whole. With anti-social players, how can we expect to attract new players to the game?

What the two camps actually mean:

Side Supporting Colman’s decision: Many people play poker because we love the total freedom of it. It is our money and we get to do what we want with it without having to worry about authority figures moving in on us, no set hours, no bosses, that’s how it works.

Side disputing Colman’s decision: We have to pretend we aren’t a misanthropic bunch because new players means new and inexperienced money. Pros can’t stay pros if we only play each other, we need bad players to enjoy the game so they don’t mind losing their money to us and convincing corporate sponsors to pump money into the scene wouldn’t hurt either.

Colman has responded to the uproar about his lack of response here[1]. I’m going to ignore his comments for now because they go into a whole separate realm of should poker be supported at all because of its nature as a, “very dark game.” You might wonder why a guy who views poker as so vampiric stays in the business, and you’d be right to ask. I want to stay focused on the overall poker community concept for this post though.

One of the other times I’ve seen this argument is back in June of 2012 when Mike Sexton(pro poker player and announcer for the World Poker Tour) made public statements saying tournaments should consider instituting dress codes:

I still believe that players should be presentable, but the most important thing is the players be responsible and aware of the image that they are displaying to the world. If corporate sponsors are watching and all they see are unshaven slobs in t-shirts, shorts and sandals, why should they spend their money on the poker industry?[2]

The same talking points were brought out then as well. I paid to enter the tournament so I should be able to wear what I want and no one can be my boss vs we have a community image to think of.

The phrase ‘don’t tap the glass’ is the embodiment of this argument for me. In poker, consistent losing players are called fish. Don’t tap the glass means don’t scare the fish away. The phrase in the poker world is used to tell people not to yell at the bad player when they get lucky and win a pot with a bad hand or bad play.

When a player who perceives themselves as good loses multiple pots against a player they perceive as bad there is a strong need to let off some steam. If this results in the ‘good’ player berating the ‘bad’ player and the bad player deciding to leave, then they take the money with them.

If the player really is a bad player then that is the last thing anyone else at the table wants. Losing players will get lucky and win on occasion, but if they are bad players they will lose the money back as long as they think they have a reason to stay at the table. Sometimes that reason is they think they are good and something it’s because they are having fun. Someone yelling at them that they are a terrible player ruins both of those reasons. The ‘good’ player got frustrated, tapped the glass, and scared away the fish. The good player added one too many sheep the meadow and now all the farmers suffer.

Is the player allowed to say anything they want at the table? Pretty much, if they bought into the game they are allowed to speak their mind. Does them speaking their mind actively cost me money? Yes it absolutely can and does.

You can tell me that poker is a game of individuals competing against each other and you’re right, but when your actions affect my ability to earn money when you aren’t involved in the hand at all, then you’ve crossed a line and I’m going to object to your behavior.

It is tough to draw as direct a line between Colman not giving an interview and me losing money, especially because of all the attention the lack of interview received versus a generic answer, “I have 110%,” set of responses. I just find it endlessly fascinating that a community can debate whether or not they are a community while often literally sitting at a round table with their money in single pot.

As always, questions, comments, and criticisms are welcome. Answers are guaranteed.





2 thoughts on “Tragedy of the Community Cards

    grizjohnson said:
    July 17, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    Seems to me there will always be two at groups of poker players. The elites and the non-elites (broadly). I would guess that elite players had to be non-elite before reaching their pro status. As a guy who enjoys playing poker for the sport and fun of it, I can appreciate why people dress the way they do. Even at the Main Event many people are there for the experience – and if they win that’s a bonus. I think the elite players should consider where they came from before making their millions. How you dress, talk, and play poker is part of the game. Many people remember how the players dress (think Ferguson’s hat, Raymer’s glasses, Negrano’s buttonups). I might argue (by inference, not evidence) that their distinct dressing styles have led to the blossoming and wild dressing styles of today’s Poker Players.

    Love your play off of tragedy of the commons by the way. There are many “commons” in the world, and certainly the grazing fields of the poker table is one of them.

      Reed Perkins responded:
      July 17, 2014 at 7:25 pm

      The elite players need to understand not only that they were once in the non elite category, but also that they need the non elite category to be around in order to keep funding the elite at the table.

      You make an excellent point about players becoming known for a certain style. I used to be a huge Ferguson fan before the Full Tilt scandal and his black clothes and cowboy hat were unmistakable. I brought up corporate sponsorship and then failed to tie in the players making their own brands.

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