Big Gamble for the Big Game

I’ll admit it.  When I ended up waling into the set of “The Big Game” yesterday, I was kind of hoping it would be the Jared Higgins episode.    For those who may not know, Higgins is a bit of an internet sensation—a down on his luck kid trying to get back on his feet after busting his roll.  It is a charming story, though I have not read the entire Higgins oeuvre.

The idea came up to get Higgins on PokerStars’ The Big Game.  Petitions circulated, he applied, and he even made it fairly deep into the process before getting cut by producers.  Cue TwoPlusTwo melee.  The forums lit up, claiming Stars had no idea what they were doing and had to be crazy for passing up on such a great story.

And this is the point where I came in and just heaved a big sigh.

Before we return to Higgins and The Big Game, here is a story from my past life in the world of Hollywood:

A friend of mine worked in production at a new show called “Deal Or No Deal.”  During the initial round of episodes, the casting directors found all sorts of compelling stories—couples in need, young kids trying to get their life together straight out of college.  I even bet there was a former homeless guy in the line-up.  It was a recipe for success.  And it turned out to be a disaster.

You see, these couples or young kids got a call from the banker offering them $20,000 and they snatched it up in no time.  Can’t blame them.  I would too.  You see, when you put people with genuine financial struggles on game shows, there isn’t a lot of gambling.  The producers dangle a carrot in front of them and they say “Thanks” before heading on their merry way.

With the Deal or No Deal debacle in mind, I was far from surprised to see Higgins rejected.  The producer side of me that refuses to die thought the likelihood he nits it up or plays conservatively has to be high.  Plus, I can’t imagine Standards and Practices loving the idea of giving a guy being depicted as homeless $100,000 and forcing him to gamble with it. 

There are other concerns with Higgins as a Loose Cannon.  How is the poker pro who potentially busts the guy going to look when he beats him in a pot?  What if he is not a very entertaining TV persona? 

Most importantly, how will a casual poker fan react to this scenario?  What TwoPlusTwo often forgets is that this show is not for them.  It is for soccer moms, dads with white collar jobs, and retirees with disposable income.  It is a show designed to appeal to people who are notionally intrigued by online poker and might be swayed to open an account once they see people like them having a ball on the show.

Call me crazy, but a guy who theoretically exhibited some less than stellar bankroll management to get into the predicament he finds himself in is not the ideal candidate to bring skeptics over to the online cause.

Then the unthinkable happened.  Stars changed their minds.  I have no idea whether the pressure of 2P2  was the sole reason they included Higgins on the show, but I can only hope that isn’t the case.  It is one thing to be upset that the horse you were rooting for didn’t make it.  I understand, I was devastated when Kevin didn’t win Top Chef: Las Vegas.  It sucks.

What I didn’t do was write a scathing review to Bravo TV informing them that I know more about television production than they do.  Because I don’t.  And neither do you TwoPlusTwo.

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I would write up my WPT Invitational experience, but I explain it pretty well in this episode of Jess and BJ.  If you don’t have 14 minutes on your hands, my night starts around the 3:40 mark.

“Not only is your fly open. There is a pencil sticking out of it.”

“Good day to you sir.”

Jack Donaghy (Alex Baldwin) and Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) on “30 Rock”

A Crisis of Conscience

When I look at my strengths and shortcomings, I readily admit one of my greatest faults is that I am lacking when it comes to self-discipline.  I have never been that great about pushing when I feel resistance, continuing when the only thing holding me back from stopping is me.  This shortcoming is frequently in display at the gym after a good four and a half minutes on the elliptical machine.

Still, while I may lack self-discipline, I like to think I have heart.  I can plow through intensely long work days if it is a project I believe in.  If there is someone or something I really care about, it is virtually impossible for me to give up on them.  When it seems like a task that is worth accomplishing might be impossible, I am not one to give up hope without a fight.

To me, having heart and possessing self-discipline or drive are not one in the same.  Yes, at times you will find these character traits in the same individual, but having one is not equitable to having the others.  To more clearly delineate the difference, being disciplined or driven is pushing through when times are tough and refusing to give up even though it might be very easy to do so.  Having heart is pushing through when something matters, when something that is worth fighting for is at stake.

Which brings me to Ashton Griffin.  This kid has some serious drive and unrivaled self-discipline, but I feel a little uneasy when people call him a hero or say he has heart.  Maybe $300,000 is something worth fighting for to some people.  For this kid, who has the luxury of rather sizable income and bankroll, I am hard-pressed to believe that is the case. 

If you’re wondering about the situation I am referring to, you can read a personal account of it in two parts, found here and here.

I look at the situation he was embroiled in and I see nothing heartfelt about it whatsoever.  From the outside, with the limited information I have to work off of, I see a persistent kid who has a hell of a lot more problems than the aches and pains that follow 70 miles on a treadmill.

And that is why I am having a crisis of conscience about my livelihood for the first time in two and a half years.

It concerns me, gravely, to see the actions of Griffin glorified in the press and in the forums.  Certainly everyone is titled to his or her opinion and some might fashion him a prop betting hero.  I am not one of those people.  Reading the expertly written and heart-wrenching account of Haseeb Qureshi’s side of this story, I see nothing positive about this situation at all.  I see a guy who more than likely has a serious gambling problem.  I see a group of college-aged kids who got in over their head in a prop bet spun out of control.  I see people out for themselves, who have trouble drawing the line where the game ends and friendship begins.

The poker media has taken to reporting prop bets alongside tournament results, cash game action, and the major business dealings of casinos and online poker sites.  We treat them as important.  So, in a way, I can’t help but feel partially to blame.  

I first started feeling uneasy about my role in this epidemic last summer during the infamous Ted Forrest weight-loss prop bet.  Bets to motivate people to lose weight are far from uncommon, but this one took the notion to a different level.  Forrest went from an average-sized guy to completely emaciated, employing extreme weight loss tactics to drop weight at a rapid rate and put his health at risk.  As he tells it, he ate virtually nothing for ten straight days.

And people called him a hero.   Some said he did it to prove some sort of point to a friend about the impossible being possible.  Rumors were it had to do with the friend being sick, perhaps cancer.  I am no cancer survivor, but as someone who lost a parent to the disease, I couldn’t help but think of my father when the point came up. 

Not to veer too far off topic, but my dad’s cancer was particularly fast-spreading with very little hope for a cure.  He spent the last weeks of his life fighting a fight that everyone else, save for his family, had given up on.  That, my friends, is heart.  And if my dad were alive to see this, I don’t think a man who truly understood how precious life was would feel much love and support from a guy who willfully put his own life at jeopardy under the guise of solidarity and for an opportunity to make a few dollars.

Sure, Forrest was perseverant and disciplined.  But let’s not pretend his cause was noble. 

I don’t blame Griffin for taking the bet.  I blame the community for romanticizing it as some meaningful gesture, when really it was reckless gambling at its absolute worst.  I blame the fact that we live in a tl;dr world where Qureshi’s absolutely devastating story seems to have fallen on deaf ears.  And, I blame myself.

I defend what I do to people who don’t understand the world I live in.  I spout diatribes about poker being a skill game and the virtues of responsible gambling.  I tell my Catholic family that I don’t play with money I can’t lose and offer stories of my poker playing friends who are successful entrepreneurs on the side to convince them my career path isn’t worthless and that I am not wasting my life.

Reading Qureshi’s story today, I am beginning to wonder if I tell these stories to appease them or to convince myself that those of us who write about poker aren’t glorifying a game that has destroyed lives and will continue to destroy lives.  We’re schilling a lifestyle where the word “degen” has cultural capital and when someone disappears off the circuit, we write them off with a simple, “Confirmed. Busto.”

I love what I do. Otherwise I wouldn’t have 15 jobs and travel 65% of the year. And most of the time, I don’t feel like I am schilling anything.  The people in this industry are fun.  Watching people make wagers involving tattoos and physical challenges comprise some of my favorite moments on the circuit.  But today I am beyond grateful to Haseeb Qureshi for reminding me that there is a point where the credit card roulettes and wagered games of racquetball become six-figure swings where life literally hangs in the balance.

Sure, Griffin survived his 70-mile quest, but that doesn’t mean his life isn’t still in danger.   As Qureshi explains, Griffin wanted to be the hero.  He didn’t run for the money, he ran for the thrill he so craved when he reached his goal.  And we gave it to him.