One of the most frustrating things about the poker world for me is that so many of those who reach the highest levels are miserable human beings. As much as I love the game, poker is, in it’s essence, a predatory endeavor where the strong feed on the weak, and this sometimes leads to the worst people rising to the top.
The higher the stakes, and the more people who are watching, the more the ugly side of the game creeps in. Bad players with lots of cash are treated like kings in person and behind their backs they are treated like lambs for the slaughter in ways that are sometimes hard to watch. And those who get the most press coverage are almost always those who are the most desperate for the attention.
This causes people who are really bad examples for new players to have the largest audience. Not all of the top players are bad people, in fact some of them are excellent. But in recent years many of the top money winners have been caught in cheating scandals and some of the most well known influencers have behaved in unacceptable ways.
And if they aren’t cheating, some of the other top players are simply not good people. But the predatory nature of the game, and fans who have little understanding of who these people really are, have turned being a jerk into a winning strategy. Such appears to be the case with Doug Polk.
If it feels like I’m piling on while everyone is hating Doug this week, that’s fine with me. Sure, I wish I’d done it earlier. But now is a really good time to talk about why a personality like Doug has become the biggest influencer in the world of poker. The game itself can be wonderful, but Doug is the perfect illustration of what is wrong with the media surrounding the game in recent years.
Polk’s online persona is almost laughably absurd. If he were a villain in a movie that came out next week, we would all laugh at the writers and wonder if they stole the script from an eighties movie set in a frat house or a ski chalet. I can just picture Polk wearing a sweater tied over his shoulders and dating a beautiful girl he doesn’t deserve. Sure, he played poker at an elite level, but the bad guy in The Karate Kid won the championship too and it wasn’t enough to get us to root for him.
As tired as the character may seem, this two-dimensional bully persona has developed an enormous following. And that’s not just Doug’s fault. It’s a culture problem. The same culture that has people taking selfies in the hallway of the WSOP with Chris Ferguson and Bryn Kenney or bragging about how they played craps with Chino Rheem.
It’s a quest for fame, something that I counsel my students against constantly. Televised poker made us believe that fame was the most important thing. That fame is better than money, that it often turns into money, or even more dangerous, that it turns into happiness. Now we think Nik Airball is someone we should care about because he can splash around with quantities of money most players will never see.
That love of stardom from fans of the game is the only way I can imagine that Polk has the following he does. I can not make myself believe that so many people, a large portion of poker fandom, would enjoy his antics if he weren’t already famous. The constant bullying, the shallow takes expressed with such arrogance, somehow entertain more people than they drive away.
No doubt, part of his success is his willingness to take that bullying into the business world. An approach that has been so successful for the likes of renowned basketball coach Bobby Knight, former president Donald Trump, and cheater who buried anyone who accused him of cheating, Lance Armstrong, shouldn’t shock me. If you’re not for them, you are against them, and they will attack you without mercy.
It simply works, if you can stomach it. It keeps a lot of people from speaking up against them out of fear that they will be the next target. That heartless approach, when combined with a little talent and charisma, has made countless millions in the business world.
I had hopes, as a naive young player, that poker was different, that it really was a meritocracy. I thought that those who studied hard, and stayed honest, would reap the biggest rewards. And sometimes that’s true. I worked hard and poker was quite good to me over the years. But I also saw too many people soar to stardom on the backs of cheating and bullying and predatory behavior or simply because they were willing to snuggle up to anyone who had more money than they did.
It’s time for poker to take a hard look at itself, because Doug isn’t just a bad apple. He’s a bad apple with hundreds of thousands of followers. It’s hard to imagine that someone who is a big fan of Doug Polk wouldn’t also be easily influenced by his behavior. Doug is one of the most influential people in poker, and he is the ultimate bad example.
Doug’s fall, if that is what this week leads to, should be just one of many if we want our game to have any respect. If Doug, and those like him, are what so many players look up to, the disrespectful behavior we see at the tables will just get worse. And the trend toward controversy on live streams is just as bad. If controversial figures behaving badly on a livestream is really what breeds success in poker broadcasting, we are raising a generation of crude, disrespectful, bullies who will leave poker a hollow shell of the game I fell in love with nearly twenty five years ago.
I know, it’s not just a poker problem. It’s a media problem. And people like Doug will always exist, there’s nothing we can do to stop that. We see it in our news media on both sides. Controversy and a complete lack of empathy for the other side is rampant in the race to the bottom in news media outlets because it gets the views. The ads on most websites are garbage click-bait headlines, not because they couldn’t come up with a better ad, but because they work.
In my naivete, I thought poker was better than this. The idea that talent and hard work are what made players famous, may have been a mistake on my part, or just an idea whose time has passed. Poker success is too vague and too easy to buy or fake. There are no famous sprinters or quarterbacks or chess players, or powerlifters, who achieved their fame by being the thousandth best competitor with the loudest mouth and the most money to throw around. I thought poker was like that. I think, maybe for a while, poker was like that.
And while I don’t play much these days, I really wish it was still the game where the best players were the names you knew. A game where blowhards and loudmouths didn’t get famous for their obnoxious behavior, they got ignored and uninvited.