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Posted by on Aug 21, 2014 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Politics | 12 comments

Political Censorship Has No Place in Poker

 

 

free-palestine

 

At a major poker tournament recently held in Barcelona, Spain, two poker players ignited controversy by wearing t-shirts emblazoned with strikingly similar political messages.  Some observers considered the statements to be provocative.  A few spoke out and posted their own messages that these acts were wrong.  But there was nothing profane nor vulgar about either item of clothing.  Frankly, the t-shirts would hardly even be noticed on the streets of any cosmopolitan city.

Here’s some more background.  Oliver Busquet and Daniel Colman both participated in the European Poker Tour’s High-Roller Championship.  Ironically, they ended up finishing first and second, respectively.  While at the final table Busquet, the champion, wore a t-shirt with the message “SAVE GAZA.”  Colman, the runner up, wore a similar t-shirt with the message “FREE PALESTINE.”  At the time of this writing, it’s unknown whether this was a coordinated fashion statement between the two players who are known to be close friends, or simply a highly-unusual coincidence.  Not that it matters.

This leads to an interesting question, namely — is the infusion of politics into poker appropriate?  If not, then what should be done about it?  Should poker tournament organizers and/or casino management assume the role of Big Brother and become the game’s new fashion police?

Apparently, some misguided decision-makers think so.  PokerStars.com, which oversees control over the EPT, made a disturbing announcement immediately following the unusual incident in Barcelona.  According to Robbie Strazynski’s thought-provoking column posted at CardplayerLifestyle.com, Eric Hollreiser, Head of Corporate Communications for PokerStars (oddly, the same position I once held in the company) issued the following statement:

“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.”

Mr. Hollreiser then added, “In retrospect, it was a mistake to allow them entry.”

PokerStars’ ruling on this matter and their newly-concocted position blockading what for many poker players is an important individual right of free expression, is perhaps well-intended.  But it’s also terribly misguided and very likely to be fraught with future complications.  In fact, it’s a terrible decision which merits the strongest possible protest.

Before elaborating on my reasons as to why I believe censorship of one’s political views in poker is foolishly mistaken, allow me to dispel a few things and clarify others.

First, I’ve become a loyal fan of Robbie Strazynski’s writing and reporting.  His many contributions to poker are consistently top notch.  While I vehemently disagree with many of his (mostly political) views, nonetheless, I encourage him to speak his mind and share his opinions with all of us.  I am privileged to gain from his unique perspective on things (he resides in Israel), which I always anticipate with an open mind and willingness to learn more.

Second, my personal views on the Middle East conflict are already widely-known and nothing new to anyone who knows me or follows my writings.  My support of the players bearing messages which were clearly “pro-Palestine” are irrelevant.  My position of pro-expressionism would be precisely the same for any poker player wearing a “pro-Israel” t-shirt.  What I mean is — it doesn’t matter what the t-shirt says.  Players should be able to wear what they want, with any messages they wish.  This is especially true since players fund the tournaments entirely and have no obligations to the host.  So, unlike pro athletes which would clearly be forbidden to express themselves politically on their uniforms because they are paid and under contract, poker players are individuals who should be able to enjoy reasonable rights of free expression.

Mr. Strazynski asked on his Twitter account about so-called hypothetical messages, such as a swastika or some other disgusting symbol that would clearly offend the vast majority of witnesses.  For instance, what should tournament organizers do if someone shows up wearing a Ku Klux Klan shirt?  Once again, I stand by the contention that I prefer to see who the real bigots are out in the open.  If they’re willing to display such heinous idiocy publicly, then I’m all in favor of knowing mutant intelligence conveniently aided by the cretin’s own veracity.  In other words, thanks for letting us all know up front that you’re a moron.

However, I’m willing to make some concessions for the sake of common decency.  Mr. Strazynski certainly sees differences between overtly offensive symbols and political statements of free expression, doesn’t he?  He can’t be suggesting that a short catchphrase in support of the people who reside in Gaza or the West Bank is the really same thing as bearing a swastika, can he?  I mean, that’s quite a leap.  Most people including myself, would fully understand disallowing a player wearing an overtly offensive message or displaying such a symbol to play in any poker tournament.  Why?  What’s the difference?  Well, because those symbols are universally repudiated.  They are intended to promote hate.  Unless he’s mentally ill, the wearer of such a shirt knows this.

Free Palestine, or End Apartheid, or Obama 2012, or Vote Tea Party 2014, or Save the Whales, or I love Israel, or any other political expression is entirely appropriate in a free democratic society.  I’ve seen all of these shirts in poker rooms over the years.  Here’s some advice — if you don’t like what you see, then turn away.  If you don’t like the message or the person, then don’t talk to them.  But I certainly don’t want a giant corporation or some low-level tournament official making a decision as to what’s either political or offensive, particularly in a game with so many different kinds of people from so many nations around the world.  Let people wear what they want — we don’t need censorship.

Which brings up one final thought about the new rule, which bans political expression.  What about t-shirts from the Poker Players Alliance?  Or patches?  What about messages which support the legalization and regulation of online poker in the United States?  What about t-shirts that support candidates who openly support online poker?  Are these too, now to be banned?

Cruel irony, indeed.

Sorry, PokerStars — you got it wrong.  Embarrassingly wrong.  In fact, if more poker players were political instead of disinterested in current events, then perhaps idiocy such as the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIEGA) and Black Friday might never have happened.  Had a few more poker players stood up, spoke out, and even worn a few more t-shirts, the world’s largest poker site might actually still be operating in America, right this very second.

Frankly, we need more politics — just about everywhere.  We need more discussion about problems and possible solutions.  Not during poker hands, mind you.  But politics is every bit as appropriate as table chatter about a sporting event or a bad date that went wrong.  And there’s no way any misguided ruling is going to stop open dialogue between players.  Language and thought shouldn’t be guarded by anyone, let alone a corporation, and what appears on a t-shirt should be the last thing the organizers of a poker tournament should be interested in.  There are other things to worry about.

I commend anyone who takes a stand on important issues that extend beyond themselves.  We don’t need less of that.  We need more of that.  A lot more.

 

Note:  I will release a video tomorrow night which will go into greater detail on my views about why political censorship has no place in poker.

 

12 Comments

  1. Nolan,

    I am in favour of free speech and that free speech would include freedom to wear a t-shirt with “Free Gaza” on it, and freedom to wear an arm band with a Swastika on it. As if often noted, if one agrees with free speech they should agree with it for the views they despise as well as the ones that they champion.

    My disagreement with you is not on freedom of speech, but of freedom of association. It seems to me that it is you that is trying to restrict freedom of association not Pokerstars.com. A club or a society should be free to install its own rules as to who it allows as members and what standard of behaviour it allows. Hence, in London, where I live, a number of private clubs insist on a jacket and tie being worn. Those that do not like such rules do not have to join the club. That is not a restriction on that person’s freedom. A person who wishes to wear a t-shirt and not a jacket and tie is free to go to a different club that will allow them. The free market works well in this regard. And the free market should work in poker. If Pokerstars.com wish to insist on a dress code and that code include no political expressions on their t-shirts they should be free to do so. Players that do not like it do not have to enter Pokerstars competitions. I assume other poker companies host competitions. The free market can sort it out. Pokerstars, just like the private clubs in London, should be able to freely decide if it is in their financial or other interest to insist on a dress code.

    Don’t just support freedom of speech, support freedom of association.

    • Wow, you are both completely correct. The scary thing is that poker players tend to be a bit, well, selfish, when it comes time to sacrifice for, ” the greater good” look at the Venetian? While Mr Adelson is absolutely free to do with and say what he thinks, poker players could have already shut off the flow of cash and his public rants about the evils of on line poker. Players DO pay to make these tournaments happen, but, they need to work to keep their freedom. Unless their opinions are more important than missing a couple of tournaments, Poker Stars ( EPT) will never get the idea of who REALLY ( should) has the final say on important issues. We only get what we earn.
      Kevin

  2. Nice article and well written as always Nolan BUT I disagree not because of the t shirt message ( I do have issues with the entire Israeli-Palestinian situation) but because I disagree with your assertions in the article that a Pokerstars tourney is an appropriate forum for political and religious dissent and related speech.

    It is appropriate and NECESSARY for poker related businesses to appeal to the masses and its customer base and keep political, religious and controversial views out of ORGANIZED tourneys.

    Pokerstars is the SPONSOR and OWNER of its tourneys. Therefore it has the right and OBLIGATION to ensure that all participants are focused on poker in a friendly, competitive environment, not some political or religious controversy.

    The Pokerstars announcement is analogous to any organized sport league apparel rule. Do MLB, NBA, or NFL players have the right to tack upon their jerseys political or religious speech? Absolutely not. It is part of the contract of participation not only of the player but of the team contract with the league. It is in the economic interests and right of the respective leagues to restrict such activity.

    How far does one go to monitor free speech? What if the shirts instead said Death to all Kurds or Shia or Jews or Christians? What if Barry Greenstein was sitting in third place and he wore a shirt that said something derogatory about Palestinians? You might need security to hold the players back from each other, maybe not. But why risk controversy such as this unless it is the intent of Pokerstars to simulate the WWE and encourage rage and mayhem. Then the atmosphere becomes an ongoing joke unappealing to others who might consider participating, trumping (pardon the word :-)) the competitiveness and purpose of the event.

    Where does one draw the line? Pokerstars, to the best of my knowledge, has no relationship with the Scheinberg family anymore, ( I have no idea how many Israeli friends or other relatives may be still involved)so, although highly coincidental, this is not perceived by me to be a power play by an Israeli family. (As an attorney, I have a difficult time believing in coincidences and to believe the t-shirt statements worn by the participants in the tourney were not coordinated, is to deny logic, and similarly with the Pokerstars announcement to the extent it addressed the speech issue shortly after the tourney, not because of disagreement or agreement, for that matter with the underlying political message).

    Similarly, non tournament poker facilities have the right and obligation ( for purely economic reasons at a minimum) to ensure that its environment is safe and comforting to its customers and participants in the games. A Free Gaza tee shirt in a cash game location might be more acceptable and more easily ignored. But would a Kill Whitey t-shirt be acceptable? Who is to judge? Online would Pokerstars ban someone for typing “that Israelis are Nazis”? Although not privy to the Pokerstars operating manual, I would think that the participant would get at least a warning.

    I am as a big a fan of free speech as anyone but business organizations have an economic interest in its product and as all businesses must do, they must continuously endeavor to make its product appeal to ALL potential participants. Imagine Chris Kluwe wearing something on his NFL jersey during a game stating Equal Rights for LGBT Players.It is not happening and never will. He certainly did assert his right to say so away from the field and on his time when associated with non NFL activities.

    Pokerstars, as poker appealability is slowly growing again (and it obviously doesnt want to alienate any potential market), finds itself in the same economic conundrum. It absolutely has the right to limit what type of speech (including advertising if it so chooses) that may be worn or otherwise promoted during tourneys ( and speech online for that matter) which it owns and operates as long as such restrictions are applied uniformly.Pokerstars tourneys are not forums for political or religious or other types of controversial speech. The poker tourneys are a competitive enterprise to win cash. The players can go to
    Hyde Park in London on a Sunday and talk, protest anything (except bash the Royal family) if they want (actually it quite enjoyable to see the activity). If the players do not like the restrictions, they can not participate.

    I was very supportive of the free speech rights of the Nazi party to march in Skokie. I hated the message but I supported the right of the participants to assert that right to say it. However, such free speech was conveyed in an open setting where people were FREE to ignore the marchers or, if inclined attend the march and heckle the marchers or support the cause in a peaceful manner.

    Just think of the political turmoil that surrounded Chick-Fil-A due to the owner’s political views on LGBT rights. Notice the difference however,as these views were expressed by the owner and were not (hopefully) implemented at a company or store level (for business and legal reasons), yet people to this day boycott the company. Same goes with Target, BP, Walmart, Hobby Lobby and so on. Pokerstars correctly doesn’t want to be in the position of being wrongly associated with any political or religious viewpoint and desires to stay apolitical. Therefore, it is banning all such “free speech”. Free speech is only appropriate at certain times and under certain conditions (think yelling Fire in a movie theater).

    From a practical and business perspective, I totally support the decision by Pokerstars.

  3. Amen Nolan. Amen Chic. And therein lies the problem: I agree with both of you. These are the worst kinds of dilemmas – when everyone is making really good points.

  4. Sir, I could’nt agree more..

    Just one thing,
    in the article it says he wore a T-shirt with Free Gaza,
    but the print actually said “SAVE GAZA”

    Had to point that out to you, sir.

    Sincerely, Roland

  5. I love it when people like Chic argue against their own best interests. And I notice you mentioned a “Kill Whitey” t-shirt when Nolan made the point of mentioning a proponent of the KKK t-shirt: “Mr. Strazynski asked on his Twitter account about so-called hypothetical messages, such as a swastika or some other disgusting symbol that would clearly offend the vast majority of witnesses. For instance, what should tournament organizers do if someone shows up wearing a Ku Klux Klan shirt?”

    Hmmm, me thinks your selective choice reveals that either says you didn’t read the article or have some issues of your own to deal with).

    The tournament was NOT held in an establishment owned by Pokerstars, which makes Pokerstars no more than a renter in someone else’s establishment. Pokrestars owns its name (brand) – period. When its owner build a casino or poker room THEN they can tell people what to or not to where.

    If you still don’t get it, think of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships and their all-white attire on court… and think of why they can enforce such a rule. Now, think of Pokerstars holding a benefit tennis event at Wimbledon. Pokerstars says, “hey wear whatever color tennis attire you please!” You arrive at the Wimbledon Tennis Club and they will nicely let you know you can’t set foot on their courts. Period.

    Same thing applies…

    Oh and the yelling “Fire” comparison? It’s called a “false equivalency” and is just one of the myriad Fallacious Arguments too often used by people reaching a bit too far to make a point.

  6. Hate speech is criminalized in many venues. The issue of what constitutes hate speech is how it is perceived by the individual or groups it is directed at and whether it is motivated by a desire to do harm or incite violence. I have no problems with PS banning hate speech — let the lawyers figure out what T-shirt is on what side of the line.

    But, what I’d most like to see is poker players to stop dressing like slobs, especially when they’re on TV. This, methinks, seriously damages our reps with the non-poker playing world.

  7. Just a question, Norm…
    I am not disagreeing with your statements, but will the WSOP allow politically motivated T-Shirts at WSOP televised events? How far can one go with a politicized T-Shirt or Hat until it is appropriate to censor? I can think of many political statements that would be not only distasteful, but insensitive to the individuals involved. Would those be allowed? I guess I am asking is how far is too far, or is there no limit? You also mentioned the online poker site and the ban on those. Right now, does the WSOP ban anything on Hats or T-Shirts?

  8. Dear Nolan,

    I, as an American, understand and support the principle of free speech. However there is a difference between the concept as a foundation of a governing principle in a democracy and rules for participating in any private event. The management of the event could take the position, as is their right, that there will be no censorship or complete of political statements.

    Anything in-between can also be decided, as envisioned by your swastika analogy. However this becomes a problem because once arbitrary lines are drawn, they can be moved by pressure or a change in management, etc.

    The reason I support a complete ban is that it makes all of it a non-issue at the table. I believe this is most even-handed and calm approach to a volatile issue.

    I can disagree with your position totally and support your right to that position completely but it should not interfere with my poker.

  9. I couldn’t disagree with you more Nolan. As far as your claim to the players “right of free expression” goes, there are no such rights when one participates in a private organizations event such as the EPT. You’re a smart man and you should understand that distinction. To argue otherwise is pure folly.

    In similar fashion, your claim that “since players fund the tournaments entirely [they] have no obligations to the host” is also well off the mark. The hosts, as you clearly understand from your work at Binion’s, go to great effort to stage these poker tournaments, they do not simply happen because players show up with their entry money. I seriously doubt that when everything is tallied up the player entry fees alone cover the entire costs for the event. Yes, it’s a money making enterprise but nevertheless, like any business venture, there’s significant costs and risks to the organizers. Were it so simple, easy and inexpensive, then let the players put together these tournaments on their own and we’ll see how well that works out for them. The law clearly stipulates that the organizers DO have say over what circumstances they’ll allow players entry into their event. This is true of any event at any public or private venue whether with free or paid admission anywhere in the United States.

    Finally if you truly believe “Players should be able to wear what they want, with any messages they wish” then we will never see mainstream acceptance of this game we love with what we see today that often passes for “professionals” at the tables.

    Like Robbie Strazynski pointed out in his article, you are a huge contributor in the world of poker with a lengthy, impressive and stellar career. You deserve someday to be part of it’s Hall of Fame. But, if men with your influence do not understand the realities of situations so basic as these, and how it applies to the world of poker, I am sorely disappointed.

    Contrary to your position, I believe PokerStars did indeed get it right.

  10. Poker is a game of incomplete information, just as understanding Dan Coleman’s motivations both at the EPT and One Drop. To characterise him or Olivier Busquet as Anti-Semites or Anti-Zionist seems to me to be a epic misread.

    First, he was severely criticised in the poker media for not using his One Drop win as a forum to articulate his beliefs publicly on camera/in interviews.

    His reluctance (from what I have heard & read) seems to be down to his lack of confidence in his ability to articulate the force and depth of his beliefs cogently on camera. This cannot be a surprise for a man who has spent 40% of his life playing hyper heads up sit & go’s. Even though when he did speak about the One Drops charitable activity on ESPN he seemed more passionate & believable about it than most the other pro’s combined.

    Then a month or so later, in the second situation, he is criticised for then using the soapbox given too him for conveying publicly his beliefs. In a complete logic fail by both the twitterverse & PS is that this is not (in my view) a provocative political statement. Either pro Hamas or Anti Israel. It is his way of trying to draw attention the fact that civilians, normal people are being killed.

    Back to the poker analogy, my “read” on the situation is you have a young guy who understands how damaging gambling can be to people’s lives & understands (all be it in remote and disconnected way) the crushing & prolonged suffering of the PEOPLE of Gaza. A place where the metric of assessing property value is how likely it is to be shelled by Israeli artillery. A place where you always have a >2% hand. Given the over 50 to 1 death rate on the Palestinian side.

    The only thing he is guilty of is a well developed sense of empathy for suffering. And, that in my book is to be applauded.

    I look forward to receiving your shallow blinked vitriol…..

    P.S. If you would like get a broader viewpoint on the situation over there I highly recommend the documentary Five Broken Cameras.

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