Poker isn’t broken, so why all the fixes?

Cards of old style

I’ll come clean: I’m confused. Over the past few weeks, a visit to many poker websites has felt like stumbling down the self-help aisle in a bookshop. Every other article professes how to “fix” poker, from the grassroots to the Super High Roller events. If the proliferation of remedies is anything to go by, poker must be in utter ruin.

At the same time, however, I’ve been watching television coverage of EPT Barcelona, in which the breathless commentary centred on a race to assemble the biggest field in the tour’s ten seasons. (It fell a mere 12 players short.) Last week, the UK Poker Championship at Dusk Till Dawn comfortably reached its guarantee as 621 players showed up for a £1,100 buy in tournament. Amid all this, the World Series announced its schedule for 2014 in which the Main Event will pay its winner at least $10m, the largest prize it has ever awarded.

I don’t know if I’m just being bloody minded, am off the pace, or whether all these other folk are seeing something I’m missing, but I simply don’t regard poker as being broken. I don’t know why we’re so desperately trying to fix it.

The general fear, I appreciate, is that poker’s future prosperity cannot be taken for granted. Complacency and hubris claim plenty of victims in all industries and poker has certainly suffered its fair share of casualties to these evils, in addition to those it lost to plain greed. But it strikes me that many commentators have grown obsessed recently with some kind of abstract ideal for poker that is simply unobtainable. Poker appeals to a huge swath of the world’s population, with a demographic so diverse that one size will simply never fit all.

Meanwhile, I suspect that some people are claiming widespread discontentment when actually it’s only their specific preference that is not perfectly satisfied. They then provide an unsolicited personal manifesto as a “solution” to the exaggerated malaise.

Of course, not every poker-related endeavour has been a roaring success, and some companies, like plenty of players, have gone broke and moved on. But contrary to many fears, new players are still finding poker, many others are still enjoying life as a pro, and it is still the hobby of choice for millions of low-stakes amateurs across the globe.

One of the most common complaints recently is that poker has become too elitist and that the self-absorbed are either ignoring or, worse, openly berating and belittling less experienced players at the tables. Plenty of commentators have offered potential solutions, all apparently geared to making poker fun for the newbie again.

Although we can never legislate for people acting like dicks (and poker definitely has a few) I’m really not sure the so-called little guy needs any of these high-minded defences, and certainly not from other experienced players whose motives are themselves rooted in self interest. (Essentially: we need more bad players so that I, as a better player, can survive.)

At every major tournament I’ve visited since 2005, I have met several players competing in their first ever event. Many have found it really tough going, but not because they were being patronised or made to feel unwelcome. They have spoken openly about how they found it difficult to compete with the poker skills on display, but the overwhelming majority have said it only made them more determined to succeed. They have been thrilled by the experience, they found it exhilarating. They are, in short, poker converts.

Yes, yes, many have never been seen again. Of course not everyone is bitten by the bug. But I feel confident in claiming that countless more people vanish from the poker scene because they either can’t afford it or realise their skills don’t measure up than because they think they are being belittled. If we’re really going to look out for the little guy, then we should celebrate this kind of early epiphany. Buttering people up in order the fleece them slowly seems a little low to me.

At the other end of the scale, things are also apparently broken in the high roller camp, despite the ridiculous number of players in the nosebleed tournaments in Australia. This discord also seems to have been blown out of all proportion, mainly because if there’s any sub-section of the poker-playing populace powerful enough, and niche enough, to reason things out between itself, it is this small cabal of the very richest.

To be clear, I would be very sorry to see Dan Shak, the man whose comments have prompted a hundred “how to fix the high roller problem” articles, stop playing the events. He is one of the most respected and respectable men in poker at any level. But for as long as I can remember following poker, I have heard calls for there to be elite tournaments featuring the best structures and the highest buy ins, in order for the most skilful players to slug it out in a variance vacuum and without clueless punters getting in the way.

The Super High Roller circuit is precisely what players have been campaigning for for years and so it’s madness suddenly to decide that these events need to be limited. The argument that High Roller tournaments shine the spotlight away from the main events (featuring our beloved little guys again) also doesn’t hold much water, especially in a community conditioned to believe that any publicity for poker is good publicity for poker.

Perhaps I am being too simplistic and we do, actually, need drastic remedies for a problem I cannot see. If so, then I am all for prevention as the best form of cure. But if we take off both the rose-tinted and the darkened spectacles and look more closely at what poker today is actually like, we’ll see an industry in solid consolidation after many years of unsustainable boom followed by one genuinely seismic jolt.

None of this is to say poker is without its issues. It would certainly be nice if online poker returned to the United States, but I’m pretty confident there are a lot of people in very high places addressing this very situation. It would also be good if all the frozen player funds finally found their way back into their owners’ accounts, but similarly, I’m happy to hear of progress in this department too.

In the main, though, I think things are good. We may have reached a plateau in comparison with the growth of five or ten years ago, but we still occupy a spectacularly lofty perch.