As is often the case with any successful poker event, secondary social media debates have crept into the conversation.
This time around, photos of Christoph Vogelsang from this week’s PokerStars‘ Players Championship, who is seemingly preparing for a ski run, have rekindled the topic of facial coverings.
There are many threads to the debate, but the gist is how covering one’s face resonates with recreational players. Some of the trains of thought include:
- Does it intimidate them and scare them off?
- Is it antisocial and annoying?
- Should the Tournament Directors Association take action and install rules against certain facial coverings?
My answer to all three of these questions is yes.
My poker experience
I started taking poker seriously in the late 1990s and played professionally until 2007. During that time, I occasionally wore a baseball hat, but never wore sunglasses or headphones at a poker table.
I eschewed donning these items for multiple reasons:
- There was no need to draw attention to myself.
- People were more friendly and talkative, which provided me with reads and information that I otherwise wouldn’t receive.
- I enjoyed the social interaction and remaining engaged, which made my job more enjoyable.
Underpinning all of these reasons was that I felt to be a professional player, my primary goal was to create a good gambling atmosphere. I wanted to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for the other players at the table.
If I did that, I would never have an issue beating the game. However, if a player cannot accomplish that goal if half of his or her face is covered — but off in his or her world wearing headphones — the player is not interacting with the rest of the table.
There is no consensus about this issue in the poker community
On the other hand, players, like Vogelsang, may say their priority is to maximize their advantage at the table at all times.
There is some logic to that line of thought. It would seem as though squeezing out every nickel of equity during every session would be the proper strategy.
In reality, it actually makes winning money progressively harder. Yes, a player may incrementally improve his or her short-term win rate by hiding. However, in the long run, he or she is doing irreparable harm to him or her selves.
I’m not the only poker player who held that belief.
Like Chip Reese, I’ve seen very good games dry up because of a person’s poor behavior. If you’re the reason the fun players won’t play, you lose out in the long run and you’ll stop getting invites to good games.
I consider myself to be a fun player, so I know that a covered face isn’t going to call me back to the poker tables. Someone who refuses to talk, who wears headphones and is disconnected from the rest of the table discourages the atmosphere in which poker is most profitable.
The poker ecosystem is extremely fragile
New players are simply not joining poker at the same rate they were during the poker boom. Considering the current attrition rate of casual poker players in the modern poker world, it’s a major problem if these antics turn off even 1 out of 20 people.
For example, look at the trajectory of entries for the low buy-in Colossus at the World Series of Poker:
With 22,374 entries, the 2015 Colossus was a massive success. Though attendance dipped a little at the 2016 Colussus, 21,613 entries were still very strong.
Then, attendance fell off a cliff in each of the next two years. The total number of entries declined by 16 percent in 2017 and 28 percent in 2018.
So, what happened?
I believe that casual players who wanted to play in a WSOP event took their shots in 2015 and 2016. Unfortunately, many probably weren’t overly enamored with the experience.
Instead of drawing repeat customers, it would appear that Colossus was a one-time thing for many. The idea of plunking down $500 and paying for a trip to Vegas to play against silent pros wearing scarves and headphones isn’t at all appealing.
Should poker’s powers-that-be get involved?
As much of a problem as I think this is, I’m not sure there’s a viable solution.
Consider the introduction of a reasonable rule like, “a player cannot cover his or her face above the chin or below the eyes.”
Such a rule would undoubtedly lead to debate, controversy and individualized house rules. There would be religious reasons to consider. Medical masks could never be disallowed, regardless of the player’s health condition.
And, of course, a tournament director could never ban a player from hiding his or her face in his or her arms. So, a rule from the powers-that-be is not the answer.
Instead, the solution rests with the players themselves. Quite simply, players have to realize that whatever tiny bit of equity they might be giving away in the present will more than offset by softer games down the road.