Lightning Rod On The Felt: Poker Night In America Takes A Gamble With Controversial Player

April 25, 2017
Lightning Rod On The Felt: Poker Night In America Takes A Gamble With Controversial Player

On the latest edition of “is this good or bad for poker?” we have Salomon Ponte and Poker Night in America. To say Ponte was a lightning rod during his recent appearance on Poker Night in America is an understatement.

The Poker Night in America experiment

Watching the “Hashtag King” insult, quasi-threaten, and take the art of self-embarrassment to new heights was tough to stomach at points. It was like watching performance art or a real-life Twitter parody account in action.

For some, it was a bridge too far and completely predictable based on Ponte’s history.

Matt Glantz, who is largely responsible for assembling the show’s lineups, and PNiA had a good idea what they were getting into when they booked Ponte for the show. After all, people didn’t tune in to see if he would be on his best behavior.

And people did tune in, about twice as many as usual. The spike could be explained as akin to how people watch trash TV like The Real Housewives or Keeping Up With The Kardashians, or how audiences hung on every twist and turn of the presidential election circus. There’s an audience for “cringe.”

It’s not my cup of tea, but neither are The Kardashians. Some watched this broadcast because they like train wrecks. But plenty of others tuned in to watch Ponte “get his.”

In the end, they weren’t disappointed. Ponte was not only felted, but he utterly embarrassed himself trying to pawn watches and phones, and even his passport, for a short-term loan to buy back into a poker game in which he was clearly outclassed.

For those who hate Ponte, his time on PNiA should have been quite satisfying — provided they never invite him back.

One poker show doesn’t change anything

What Ponte’s appearance didn’t do was make him a sympathetic figure. Nor did it have any measurable impact on the broader perception of poker or the possibility of someone buying in to a poker game.

People won’t show up at a poker table trying to emulate Ponte unless they were already like Ponte from the beginning.

Ponte isn’t the first person to resort to these types of antics — although he may have set a new bar.

Despite his high profile and the cameras following his every move, Phil Hellmuth’s often cringeworthy antics didn’t lead to a mass of people entering the poker world and adopting his persona.

In fact, most people went to the tables to be the anti-Hellmuth, to be the person who caused one of his outbursts or made him look silly. They understood that while it might make for good TV, it’s not the proper way to behave.

Similarly, people who tuned into the recent PNiA live stream won’t start acting like Ponte to get attention. Most people simply can’t act that way; it’s beyond the pale. And they won’t be scared away from playing poker because they might run into a Ponte.

Anyone influenced by the show will most likely want to be the person who felts him.

This leads into my second point: We have to recognize who is watching on what platforms.

Ninety-five percent of the live stream viewers are already poker enthusiasts. Too much is being made of what having a character like Ponte on the show means for poker.

In my opinion, it’s not much.

The poker base vs. reaching out to new audiences

Glantz has been under fire from certain quarters who see Ponte’s mere presence on the show as PNiA legitimizing his behavior, or even encouraging it.

Glantz sees it differently and explained his reasoning for allowing Ponte on the show:

On Twitter, I compared the new direction PNiA is taking the live stream to “firing up the base” in politics. The grudge match between Cate Hall and Mike Dentale wasn’t really designed to grab the attention of someone surfing the internet. It was meant to turn out the core poker audience.

It’s a different message than the one used in a 30-second TV ad to sway undecided voters.

The grudge match and Ponte’s appearance were the Republican (or Democratic) National Convention of poker, and in that way it fires up both bases from my analogy.

There is no place a Republican would rather be than in one of the convention seats, cheering the speakers and the state delegations. Meanwhile, Democrats will sit anxiously at home to see if things go off the rails.

And Ponte went off the rails.

To call the game a train wreck would be kind; it was extremely hard to watch at some points. To paraphrase the late Charlie Murphy, Ponte is a “habitual line stepper.” On PNiA he stepped over more lines than any Chappelle’s Show sketch featuring the exploits of Rick James.

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What the casual player will see on PNiA

Fortunately, for people whose first exposure to poker might be the show, Ponte’s antics will be (mostly) edited out. They’ll see a typical poker game with a hint of the underbelly, which is OK. I think most people can handle it.

As Glantz notes, running into the occasional Ponte is a reality of poker, just like there is the occasional person at the gym who smells or leers at people.

I’ve played with dozens of Pontes over the years, as has anyone who has put in any serious time in a poker room. We’ve all had to sit with someone who makes others very uncomfortable. Pretending such people don’t exist and trying to paint poker as some unblemished contest of skill isn’t going to drive people to poker tables.

It’s not as if poker is protecting some unimpeachable reputation.

Circling back to my first point about people looking for a little bit of “cringe,” some of poker’s most colorful and famous practitioners had quite a bit of “bastard” in them.

Ever heard of the 19th century card player Dick Clark? Chances are the answer is no, but Clark was considered to be the best poker player of his era, one of the few who didn’t die penniless in those days.

What about Wild Bill Hickok or Doc Holliday; ever heard of them? They were contemporaries of Clark, and by all accounts not the best card players in the world (especially Hickok). But they killed people and had violent and vile tempers.

How about Titanic Thompson? Amarillo Slim? We could go on.

At best, most of these people could be categorized as swindlers, and at worst they were liars, cheats, robbers and maybe killers. Yet, people were and are enamored by their exploits, real or exaggerated.

Part of poker’s appeal is its dark side and the nonconformist nature of professional players. At the end of the day, people want some type of drama; they want to see good pitted against and defeating evil. That is why a risk on showcasing a person like Ponte might be worth taking.

The HashtagKing doesn’t hurt poker

Now, in my opinion, Ponte is a bridge too far, but it was a calculated risk by the show, and in the end it didn’t do any real damage.

Despite the “cringe value” he brought to the show, people won’t hold it against the congenial and honest players.

Anyone in the know (which is whom the live stream is meant for) understands every card room is sprinkled with lowlifes and degenerates. If it has any impact at all, it makes the game a bit more interesting to the casual player or viewer.

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