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.   

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