I believe poker rooms and tournaments and their organizers should not place themselves in the problematic position of censoring players or silencing their political beliefs.
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 that 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” is 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 upfront 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.
This 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?
The 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.