A Gambler’s Problem

Daniel Colman is a gambler with a problem. Make that two problems. You could make it three if you think that having almost everyone in your field believing that you are a jerk is a problem, but our concern here is his second problem.

The first one is the typical “problem gambler” problem. He’s just got to play. He loves it too much. In an online interview about a year ago, he was asked if he still woke up every morning “itching to play” poker. Part one of his reply:

 Yes. It’s a problem.

Perhaps it would be a bigger problem if the 24-year-old Colman was not one one of the best professional poker players in the world. Early last month he won the Big One for One Drop tournament in Las Vegas, taking down more than $15 million for himself and (mostly) his backers. But, like I said, he’s got two problems: the other one being that he has to live with himself. Part two of his reply:

It is still really good for making money currently for me; but as far as being a productive person with other goals, it is something I am looking to change.

It does not look like winning more than $14 million (the tournament had a million-dollar buy-in) has assuaged Colman’s concerns about productivity, or made him forget about his other goals. He seems to be as conflicted as ever. It’s enough to make you ask … “What would Jesus Ferguson do?”

This conflict within Colman does not reveal itself while he is playing. He was loose and smiling and feeling right at home at the poker table all throughout the last televised hour of the tournament (which Colman won on July 1st but was televised only a couple of weeks ago). It was only when it became clear that the tournament was ending and that his conflict would soon be on display – catch Colman’s demeanor immediately after the dealer throws the ten – that the second problem kicked in.

This was a big charity tournament benefitting One Drop, which provides clean water technology solutions for desperately poor third world communities. Prior to his interview after the big win, Colman insisted to ESPN that he would not talk poker, but wanted to comment only upon the charity’s great work. After doing just that, he left the building faster than Elvis in his amphetemine-fueled prime, blowing off all other interview requests. Since then, very little has been heard from Colman, but what has been heard is choice (and we will get to that shortly).

This unsmiling, hasty, largely silent exit did not to go over well at ESPN. The month-long post-production process not only edited out many of the boring parts of the tournament, but also added lots of snide and insulting commentary about Colman from the network’s witless announcers. They also piled on with critical comments about Colman’s silence from several others in what we will call – for lack of a better term – the professional poker community. But all of that was fairly mild compared to what Case Keefer had to say in the “Analysis” he provided to the Las Vegas Sun the day after the tournament ended. According to Keefer, our young Mr. Colman …

“… fled the scene with winnings of $15.3 million like a bank robber”

“… stole a chunk of aura”

“… (was) channeling a petulant child”

But Colman’s greatest sin, according to Saint Keefer anyway, was his failure to sell out.

“… it’s too bad he couldn’t have positioned himself for another easy windfall with a better attitude.”

If these and other professional poker insiders did not much care for Colman’s silent treatment, they took a harsh lesson in “be careful what you ask for” when the insouciant winner released a statement in response to all of their criticism. It is one of the most heartfelt examples you will find of a thoughtful and principled young man trying to navigate a world that does not seem too big on thoughtfulness and principles. Some of the choicer excerpts:

“To have a job where you are at the mercy of variance can be insanely stressful and can lead to a lot of unhealthy habits. I would never in a million years recommend for someone to try and make it as a poker pro.”

“It bothers me that people care so much about poker’s well-being. As poker is a game that has such a net negative effect on the people playing it. Both financially and emotionally.”

“As for promoting myself, I feel that individual achievements should rarely be celebrated. I am not going to take part in it for others and I wouldn’t want it for myself … If you get people to look up to someone and adhere to the “gain wealth, forget all but self” motto, then you can get them to ignore the social contract which is very good for power systems. Also it serves as a means of distraction to get people to not pay attention to the things that do matter.”

In other words, while Colman enjoys the game of poker, and gets some satisfaction out of being good at it, he does not think it should be confused with “the things that do matter.” Colman, who clearly stayed silent because he did not trust ESPN’s final edit to faithfully deliver his message, slow-played the network and his critics like, well, a poker champion.

Many of Colman’s critics find his stance hypocritical, since he is willing to make his fortune in the poker industry, even as he decries the human cost to the saps and suckers that he leaves behind in his wake. In his way, he agrees:

“And yes, I realize I am conflicted. I capitalize off this game that targets peoples weaknesses. I do enjoy it, I love the strategy part of it, but I do see it as a very dark game.”

Outside of that statement and some tweets (the wallpaper on his Twitter page states “You don’t need to be Muslim to stand up for Gaza, you just need to be human”), Colman has continued to keep a low profile. His mentor, good friend, and one of his backers, Olivier Busquet, was quick to defend Colman in an email to ESPN’s poker doofus Lon McEachern. Colman, his friend wrote …

… is extremely disturbed by out money-obsessed and celebrity worshipping culture. He doesn’t like the idea of celebrating many personal achievements, especially ones relating to financial success. He feels that it promotes hyper-individualism, consumerism and materialism and that those are overall pretty corrosive for our society. Finally he feels that many winners pursue the attention and glorification associated with winning out of self-centeredness and a desire to feed their egos. He has been actively trying to do the opposite of those things and this was an example of that.

If he ever does decide to give up professional poker, Colman would make for a very fine and polite horseplayer. He understands living and dying at the mercy of variance. He understands that his winnings are someone else’s losses. Given what he displayed in Vegas and in his statement, you would not expect any jumping up and down or “I’m the king of the world!” proclamations, even if he were to take down a carried-over Pick-6 all by himself.

Can racing take away any lessons from the Colman affair? After all, unlike most of the other casino games, poker is basically a parimutuel affair, where your winnings are courtesy of losses by your friends and neighbors, not by some anonymous “house”. While the advent of global horseplaying via ADWs may bring racing a little bit closer to the potentially addictive, non-stop siren song that is online poker and casino games, it says here that this is not today’s lesson.

By mocking and taunting him over his conflicted state (and remember, Colman became a professional poker player at the ripe old age of seventeen), ESPN probably only succeeded in bringing more bad publicity to an online “game” that has shattered many households and ruined more than a few college careers. [Colman divides his time between Montreal and Rio de Janeiro, where online poker, unlike in most of the US, remains legal.] The issue is not about the nature of parimutuel betting in the 21st century; it’s about morality.

Colman’s gripe is not with the game that he loves. His beef is with the television and advertising-fueled industry which encourages young sapsuckers that – against all odds – they too can become bracelet-wearing “kings of the world”. People, and the industries that people populate, do not like being told that their morals stink. They get defensive. And they protest too much. But in a land where animals are property, and ownership holds dominion, and the dollar is almighty: sometimes the morals stink.

If racing has a corollary to Daniel Colman, I’d say it is Michael Beychok of “Horseplayers” semi-fame. As many of you will recall, Beychok won the National Handicapping Championship and a million dollars in 2012 when a horse named Glorious Dancer got up by a nose in the last race of the tournament. A few months later, Beychok claimed Glorious Dancer for $6,500. She raced a few times before the champion eventually pensioned her to a life away from the racetrack. Why did he do it? He said it was because he wanted her to have a good life. But I’m guessing that what he really meant was, if that horse who won him a million dollars was to somehow slip all the way down the claiming ranks, winding up broken down, or reduced to meat waiting around a kill pen, well, he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself. When money comes in the window, love does not always walk out the door.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “A Gambler’s Problem

  1. Beychok squeezed every ounce of fame and endorsements out of his win.Colman and he are more opposite than similar.At least with what they did immediately following their “coming out” victory.

  2. Well done piece. Thinking people are well aware of these issues. I personally have no interest in card games, as there is really no beauty in it, no spectacle. Just a low takeout and a ready supply of suckers to fleece.

    I prefer the racing game, and have for over 4 decades, though the confiscatory takeout is an ever present thorn. A great player makes only a modest return , accordingly.

    ESPN? All about the fanboy, don’t expect any serious thinking about the real world from them.

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