Weighing In On The Political Messages At The Poker Table Debate

Written By Steve Ruddock on August 27, 2014
Save Gaze Free Palestine Daniel Colman

Let me start this column by saying I don’t have a dog in the highly contentious political fight between Israel and Palestine, and hopefully by the end of the article you’ll say “I have no idea which side he is on.”

Frankly, this is a complex issue that most people, including myself, simply don’t have a full understanding of, and definitely not to the extent that I would feel comfortable offering up an informed opinion on who is right and who is wrong, and what level of blame each side deserves.

Second, let me explain right off the bat that I completely understand PokerStars’ right to ban whatever they want, and I have no problem with their decision. In fact, I’d like to see them go even further and implement a stricter dress code. I understand 1st amendment rights are limited to government controlling your speech, and that it doesn’t matter anyway since the tournament was held in Spain.

Finally, I really didn’t want to weigh in on this at all (hence the late response) as I respect the people who have already weighed in on both sides of this issue. I understand both sides’ arguments and find them valid. My one criticism is they have turned this into a bigger issue than it is, or should have become.

What’s at issue

So, apparently Olivier Busquet and Daniel Colman wore a couple of t-shirts expressing their support for Palestinians, and a small group of people went nutso on Twitter about it, both for and against their decision to make such a public display. It wasn’t just the people who were offended that turned this into a “feed the beast” moment, it was also the people cheerleading the shirts’ messages.

So far it’s spawned countless columns (including this one) and seems to have taken on a life of its own, most notably among the columns was a back and forth between Nolan Dalla and Robbie Strazynski.

There’s No Room for Politics in Poker

Political Censorship Has No Place in Poker

My Political Poker Debate with Nolan Dalla

Plenty of others have weighed in as well, including Daniel Negreanu, but the following link is the most thoughtful response I’ve seen so far, and the one I agree with the most: No Politics at the Poker Table, penned by Victoria Coren Mitchell.

There are probably at least a dozen more opinions on this topic if you want to do more reading and know how to use Google.

My problem with this “debate”

My biggest gripe with this issue/non-issue is that the messages emblazoned on the shirts weren’t all that provocative.

For me the simple messages displayed passed the common sense test of what is acceptable to wear on a shirt in public – a test most high school and college kids would fail miserably. We’ve all seen worse, a lot worse.

Nobody is going to stop you on the street and start screaming and threatening you for wearing either of those shirts. Nobody is turning to their friend and saying “can you believe the nerve of that guy wearing that in public!” when you walk past.

Yes, the shirts conveyed a contentious position, and hit upon a very sensitive topic, but it wasn’t done in an inflammatory or negative way.

In this case the message was simple, and whether you like it or not, it’s a stance supported by a large number of people (just like pro-life/pro-choice is widely supported on both sides). It’s not some fringe idea like neo-Nazism or the Westboro Baptist Church’s hateful crap.

The shirts did not say “Save Gaza from the Evil Zionists,” or “End Apartheid in Palestine.” To me this is where we go from a political stance to hateful / incendiary speech: Where you go from a show of support for a group to the demonization of the opposition.

Now here is the real point I want to make, the EPT already has a rule covering offensive shirts, “the blanket rule that they reserve the right to refuse service for …”

Instead of letting the EPT see if attire passes the smell test, what we have ended up with is overregulation in this area, basically imposing the poker version of a school’s zero-tolerance policy where kids bringing a Lego light saber to school are suspended for brandishing a “weapon.”

We should be able to differentiate between a political stance and hate speech without resorting to a blanket ban.

You know how you can tell they weren’t overly controversial? There wasn’t two minutes of hushed whispers throughout the assembled crowd when Busquet and Colman arrived. I bet the shirts probably got a second look or two, or an eyeroll, but the reaction wasn’t Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn showing up to their own funeral.

Furthermore, the shirts did not disrupt poker from being played at the final table. The tournament went on as slated, the players looked like they usually do and so on.

If the EPT felt the shirts were causing a problem or were in fact hate speech they could have asked them to be removed, and considering the highly competent staff the EPT has, I trust that nobody was offended on site.

It happens in sports all the time

I’ve also seen several statements of “this would not be allowed in other sports,” which is a bad analogy as poker players have to pay to play and are not employees, but more importantly it HAS happened in other sports. Sometimes the person gets fined other times they don’t.

Several pro athletes have refused to stand for the Star Spangled Banner (for a variety of different reasons), most notably Carlos Delgado and Mahmoud Abdul Raouf.

The Miami Heat wrote pro Trayvon Martin messages on their sneakers.

Tim Tebow often played wearing eye black with bible verses written on them.

More to the issue at hand, there have been several high profile incidents with football players displaying pro-Palestine messages.

The point is, there are often overt and covert political statements in sports and a fine to these multimillionaire players is akin to issuing a two-hand penalty at a poker table.

The slippery slope

I’ve asked this question to many of the principles on the “no political messages” side on social media, but nobody seems to want to give me a straight answer, so here it is again: Where do we draw the line?

  • Hillary 2016?
  • Ron Paul shirts?
  • I Support the PPA?
  • A shirt with a pot leaf on it?
  • Pro-Life or Pro-Choice?
  • A Gadsden Flag?
  • Che Guevara shirts?
  • Is a Star of David expressing support of Israel?
  • Free Tibet?
  • Benghazi?
  • Meat is murder?
  • The IRS are crooks?

By asking PokerStars to disallow Free Palestine and Save Gaza you are also forcing them to remove all of the above. The case being made is even though the shirts weren’t hateful or inciting violence, politics has NO place at a poker table.

The decision by PokerStars to ban provocative shirts is a perfectly sound one in my opinion, but a blanket policy (made in what appears to be knee jerk fashion) that extends to all political messages is a very slippery slope.

I’m sorry, but if “Free Palestine” is so offensive it is the reason behind the rule being needed, then every shirt listed above has to be barred to remain consistent.

The better policy is to either impose a strict dress code (no logos or writing of any kind), or stick to the old way, and look at it on a case-by-case basis – feel free to use my common sense test of “would this shirt get me punched in the face?”

In my personal opinion, short of vulgarity or advocating violence there is no reason to disallow clothing unless you have a specific dress code in place, and PokerStars and every other tournament already had vulgarity and violence covered with their “we have the right to refuse” blanket rules.

This new rule is simply unnecessary and far too broad.

Basically, it offers PokerStars and their staff no wiggle room if someone complains about a shirt so long as it can be seen as being even slightly political. The old way, where TD’s and staff had discretion, and could use common sense, was better in my opinion.

Although, now, because of the attention this has received, it would seem impossible for PokerStars to carry on with the status quo because certain people are likely to troll the televised tournaments to see what they can wear and get away with.

It seems PokerStars was put between a rock and a hard place, and my hope is they will relax their new policy down the road.

Photo Credit: PokerNews.com

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Steve Ruddock

Steve Ruddock is a longtime member of the online gambling industry. He covers the regulated US online casino and poker industries for variety of publications, including OnlinePokerReport.com, PlayNJ.com, USPoker.com, and USA Today.

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