How We Should Be Selling the Story of Poker

How We Should Be Selling the Story of Poker

Monday, 26 May 2014

By Alex 'Pickleman' Rousso.

One of the first things taught in journalism is that a story has an infinite number of angles. Simply put, an angle is a way of explaining an unfolding event. It’s not just telling a story from a certain party’s point of view, but the message to get across, the so-called “hook” – i.e. the thing that will grab the reader, and so on.

We’ve been telling stories in order to explain things for millennia. The Ancient Greeks believed that a flying ball is propelled by the air in front of it rushing around to the back and pushing it forward.

Beguiling though these stories may be, it’s very difficult to make a grand narrative from them. The explanation for the flying ball might be very different from the explanation for the running river, or the sparking flint. In short, you can’t make a science out of these narratives.
We know what happened to these explanations of physics. Over the centuries, observers took notes, tested ideas, created theories, tested them in turn, and slowly, a science of the material world was discovered. We now have Newton’s Laws of motion to explain the movement of the flying ball.

So what’s this got to do with poker? Well, I believe as far as explaining success in poker, we’re not quite there yet. If you look at the plethora of tournament updates out there, poker reportage is still very much at the “spinning stories” stage.

For sure, in monthly digests and opinion columns, there is still plenty of room for human interest stories. Even so, a few tropes are beginning to develop:

1. The internet kid who toyed with low stakes at uni, went pro, and before long was binking all over Europe.
2. The flamboyant businessman who can hold his own amongst the pros.
3. The battle-hardened, old-school road gambler who bemoans the new generations of hoods and headphones, and talks of the need to keep the fish happy.

We’ve been told these stories many times. Worse still, half their subjects turn out to be complete donkeys six months later. Randomness not only gets the better of them, it gets the better of us, as consumers of poker news stories.

In my opinion, that’s a problem. There should be a more scientific representation of poker. For a start, we’ve got statistics other games would kill for. Statistics get gobbled up by sports fans. But they certainly should not look like this:

Pickleman May 14

Second, despite the randomness, poker is clearly a skill game. The problem for poker reporters is that the randomness factor is large enough to make even medium term predictions confoundingly difficult.

Third, so much of what goes on in poker – what makes a construct for the science of poker – goes on inside the mind. Each nuance of a hand has so many contributing factors: a minor tell, some table dynamic the reporter is unaware of, perhaps a hand three years ago the two players were involved in that one remembers and one doesn’t, and so on.

It’s quite clear from the books, forums and videos that a science of poker exists – albeit a fledgling one – but how do we report about poker in a way that is more scientific? I don’t have the answer to this question, but I do have ideas for some principles we could follow:

Educate the fan with baby steps. The science of physics wasn’t created overnight. What was PhD thesis material a hundred years ago is common knowledge now. The presentation of poker to the masses is hampered by the false belief that it’s too complex to explain to everyone. We have to go for the human angle, the razzmatazz, the big prizes, or lose our audience. That’s nonsense. Baseball has hundreds of millions of followers and has a highly sophisticated language associated with it. Fans who couldn’t calculate an ERA or an RBI if their lives depended on it still know the difference between a good ERA and a bad one.

Make statistics interesting, relevant and challenging. Either the reader already knows that A-A v J-J is about 80%:20% or they’re not interested. Statistics should tell the fan something they don’t already know. Did you know that a player with about 40% of the chips in a tournament has (skill differences aside) about a 40% chance of coming first? Seemingly many pros, let alone poker reporters, do not.

Bridge the gap between the stats and the stories. As mentioned, there’s a place in poker for human interest stories. And stats in poker are bandied about a lot – albeit poorly and boringly. The real science of poker is the bit in between these two extremes, and it’s that bit we have to populate with more and better content. The use of high stakes pros to commentate on the WSOP Main Event final table was a start. Sure, some players were idiots, but some came up with some really interesting and high level analysis. We can improve on this. Think Andy Townsend versus Gary Lineker.

Come clean about the randomness element of poker. There’s a pervading belief in poker that if we admit to ourselves that it’s the randomness factor which produces a different champion every time, even a different POY every time, we’ll consign poker to the “dark side” of gambling. If it’s gambling, it’s not family fun, we’ll get swallowed up by the regulators and we’ll never get the advertising dollars of the Gillettes and Gatorades of this world. I’m afraid you only have to look at the conversations about poker going on in US politics right now to see that that horse has already bolted. Plenty of sports have plenty of randomness. It just might be the giant-killings in football which make it such a popular sport. Sure, we have more randomness in poker than most, but that just means that the skill level needed to rise above it – even if it has to be over the very long run – is absolutely phenomenal. For example, some of the thoughts going on in the head of a player like Chris Moorman could be the stuff of gaming legend. We need to celebrate that. We can only do so if we admit how much randomness it takes to produce such excellence.

My overall conclusion is that we need to be bold. We need to tell the story of poker the way it really is. The recent evolution of poker has been marked by its attempts to legitimise itself in the minds and hearts of the general public. All the while, it has shunned the science, taking a lowest common denominator approach. In that sense, it’s become bland and formulaic – all sizzle and no steak. That’s exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. Source the best meat, cook it to perfection, and the sizzle will take care of itself.

Tags: Alex Rousso, Pickleman, statistics