Poker’s Shining Moment
A Personal Note: The 2017 World Series of Poker begins this week. This will be the first WSOP in 25 years which I don’t plan on writing about, or attending. With poker becoming a faint glow in my rear view mirror, this seems like a suitable occasion to clear out some personal files and post a few (previously unpublished) articles that were written up last year, but never posted. These next few days, I’ll post some behind-the-scenes leftovers of my final series.
There was a time not too long ago when Ryan Laplante might have faced ridicule, and even hostility inside a poker room.
Because he’s an openly gay man.
Years ago, before being who you are was acceptable to many, the shackles of unwavering expectation sired a strict conformity. If being gay was widely viewed as unacceptable, then being out about it was downright scandalous within many social and business circles.
It took a while, far too long many would insist, but the poker community became an unlikely coadjutor in the broader at-large struggle for gay rights, and in some peculiarity even progressively far ahead of other arenas of society, especially male-dominated sectors, like sports. This wasn’t at all expected, and was surprising even, given poker’s jaundiced past where one’s masculinity was once tethered to a cowboy hat, a smoky cigar, and a dirty joke.
But poker turned out to be a most welcoming scene for those considered a little different. Just about anyone and everyone was permitted to sit down and play — male or female, black or white, gay or straight — so long as the minimum buy-in was posted and no one tried to impose themselves on the competition. Sure, unrestrained prejudice still burgeoned systematically away from the tables outside the poker room, but was muted once the cards were dealt. To its credit, poker has acquired a startling egalitarian quality.
This seemingly odd kinship between serious-minded poker players and disparate subcultures which have been the targets of varying degrees of discrimination, including the gay rights movement, came to pass by means of the shared common experiences of society’s outcasts. Like gay people, poker players too, were once cultural castaways, often viewed with suspicion and mistrust. Perhaps it’s the ability to identify with those who have historically been excluded from the traditional mainstream. Perhaps this is what makes serious poker players of today generally more tolerant and accepting of others different from ourselves. Poker players would be among the first to challenge the old adage that being normal is no virtue.
Indeed, we must accept our differences. That is because so often, we play, we work, we socialize, and we engage is so many activities with others who are not like us. Sometimes, they are even the opposite of us, and oppose the very things we believe in. Welcoming those who are different from ourselves isn’t just good for poker — it’s the right thing to do.
Getting here was a rocky road.
There was the time not long ago, July 2007 to be exact, when Rep. Barney Frank made an unlikely appearance at the World Series of Poker, held in Las Vegas. At the time, Rep. Frank, who represented a congressional district in Massachusetts was the only openly gay member of Congress. He was also a tireless advocate for legalizing online poker in the United States. Although Rep. Frank didn’t play poker at all, and knew very little about the game, he viewed our cause as his own. And so, Rep. Frank became arguably the most unlikely proponent for legalizing online poker. He introduced pro-poker bills in Congress. He appeared frequently in media and often went out of his way to bring up initiatives supported by the Poker Players Alliance (PPA). His appearance at the biggest poker event of the year seemed to be an ideal setting in front of a friendly audience.
What could possibly go wrong?
I was there, that afternoon, when Rep. Frank — joined by other dignitaries at the Rio — took the microphone to say a few words to rally public support, just before giving everyone the customary tournament opening, “Shuffle Up and Deal.” However, when Rep. Frank was introduced by name, the crowd’s reaction turned out to be an embarrassment. About half the room containing a few thousand players, completely ignored the introduction. Only a few clapped. Others booed. A few hecklers hurled shameful insults at Rep. Frank.
I was standing near one particularly boisterous section of the crowd, positioned next to Rep. Frank when I heard someone yell out — “faggot!” Right there, I nearly lost it, and yelled something profane back into the crowd. That didn’t help the matter, of course. It was just my gut reaction.
I was so angry afterward that I had difficulty staying in the same room among so much indifference and hostility. Desperate for an emotional sanctuary, I walked back to the main casino at the Rio with Rep. Frank. Along the way, I made a feeble attempt to explain that this wasn’t truly representative of the way most of us felt about what he was doing for poker and the players. “Don’t worry about it,” Rep. Frank replied. “I’ve been hearing shit like that all my life.”
Years later, a young poker player named Jason Somerville made his first appearance at a WSOP final table. That’s a really big deal, especially to a player who has serious aspirations of making poker a career.
Before the finale began, it was customary to introduce each player to the crowd and the viewers watching on the live stream. It was pretty simple, really. We normally announced the player’s name, hometown, occupation, plus a tidbit or two provided by the finalist via something called a “Player Bio Sheet,” usually completed the night before. Some players used this rare occasion of making a final table to call out their friends and supporters. Others listed interesting things about themselves. Pretty standard stuff.
Somerville decided to use this occasion to send an important message. On his bio sheet, Somerville wrote that he was an openly gay man and was active in the fight for equal rights and protections. He hoped that this public acknowledgement on a major stage would encourage others who were watching, particularly those who might still be comfortable about disclosing something still viewed as controversial at the time.
We customarily followed the wishes of each player, unless something written on the bio sheet was terribly inappropriate (which alone might make for another good column, someday). After all, this was Somerville’s time to shine under the public spotlight. If he wanted to acknowledge something personal about himself, then who were we to censor his wishes?
Unfortunately, the announcer didn’t honor Somerville’s request on the bio sheet. It was simply ignored and the occasion was mostly forgotten. Somerville never made an issue of it. But the incident did stick with me, long afterward. I thought we made the wrong judgement call that day by not following the player’s request. Then again, at least we avoided a possible repeat of the Barney Frank episode from four years earlier.
One can never predict quite how a crowd will react — especially a poker crowd.
[Reminder: This previously unpublished article was written June 14, 2016]
Ryan Laplante won the largest non-Hold’em tournament of all time at the 2016 WSOP, defeating a field of 2,483 players in the $565 buy-in Pot-Limit Omaha event, good for a hefty payday of more than $180,000 — plus his very first gold bracelet.
Then, he woke up Sunday morning to the news of a terrible tragedy.
The worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 took 49 lives when a madman stormed into a popular Orlando nightclub and gunned down more than four dozen people, mostly young gay men. Since the attack occurred very late on a Saturday night, most of us didn’t hear the news until the following day.
The scimitars for poker and the real world do not often cross. It’s as if what goes on outside the highly-competitive, almost circus-like arena of the WSOP stands as some kind of island or desert mirage apart from the rigors and ritual of reality. I recall that a major tournament was even played on the very afternoon of the morning right after the events of 9/11, a disgraceful decision by tournament organizers made considerably worse by the callousness shown by the dregs of humanity — those morally-bankrupt poker players who bothered to show up to play, all while the towers of our national identity were still smoldering in ashes.
The Orlando shooting was certainly shocking, as all terrorist acts are, but to most of us — it didn’t touch us personally. The deranged gunman who targeted people just for being gay wasn’t personal for me (or others) in the same way it was so very personal to Laplante, and presumably many others.
On what should have been a day of celebration instead had become something far more surreal. Laplante had been scheduled to receive his gold bracelet on that Sunday, barely 12 hours after the Orlando murders. Moreover, as was the custom on occasion, I was to be the fill-in emcee privileged to award Laplante his poker amulet. As horrific images of the Orlando nightclub shooting aftermath were being shown on televisions throughout the poker arena, we were about to award an openly gay man with poker’s supreme honor.
One of the perks of working in an executive position at the WSOP is the occasion to take something to a whole new level. Indeed, this was a time for elevation and we owed it to ourselves to aim especially high.
That morning, during my drive from home to the Rio, I pondered the unprecedented quandary of just how to handle the upcoming daily gold bracelet ceremony. This wasn’t just any day. This wasn’t just any winner. This wasn’t just a typical five-minute ceremony, with no lingering afterthought. This was a celebration blunted by a terrible tragedy, fronted by a remarkable young man of courage and conviction fully prepared to use this occasion to educate us, heal us, and make us all better. It was about making the event bigger than just himself, bigger than all of us.
When I met with Laplante just moments before he was to take the stage and receive his gold bracelet, it became instantly obvious he’d been thinking the same thing. Gleefully standing upon a stage and going through the usual routine in light of terrible events just didn’t seem appropriate. What did seem fitting however, was to have Laplante’s fiance, Chris Katona standing on the stage with him to present the bracelet in front of the poker world. Typically, this honor is reserved only for poker legends and sometimes the relatives of players, mostly wives and parents. Having two men in a committed relationship onstage together in celebration would be a poker first. Stung by the tragedy, but also empowered by the occasion to do a pubic good, Laplante agreed with the alternative plan.
At about 2 pm during a tournament break, I took the microphone. I introduced Laplante as the latest poker champion. Then, the stage was all his. No one knew what he would say, nor what to expect. No one knew how the huge audience — comprised almost exclusively of poker players and tournament staff — might react.
Once Laplante took possession of his gold bracelet, next he stepped up to the podium. Few players opt to speak at these events. I think I understand why. Public speaking can surely be scary. Many players don’t really have much to say. Besides, no one comes to the WSOP to hear a speech. Everyone wants to play poker.
This time, the room fell silent.
Rather than post my recollections of the speech given my Laplante, instead I’ll let this short video clip (provided by Card Player) speak for itself:
After the speech ended, everyone in the audience rose to its feet and applauded simultaneously for what seemed to be the longest duration in anyone’s recent memory. The memorable occasion didn’t make up for past sins, the ill treatment of Rep. Frank or the refusal to acknowledge people for who they are. The cheers weren’t some false notion that everything now is okay. But it was a big step in the right direction.
June 13th, 2016 was was very good day for poker. It was a day to be proud, not because we are, or we aren’t gay. It was a day to be proud because we’re human.
Note: Special thanks to photographer Antonio Abrego for the photographs.