Opinion: Why The Times is right for poker

January 31, 2020inPoker

There was a quietly notable moment for poker in the UK towards the end of last year. On December 4, the 235-year-old newspaper The Times published the first of a regular column about poker, promising readers of its popular “Mind Games” section a few hundred words every Wednesday on poker strategies and concepts, written by game-player and publisher Byron Jacobs.

Poker is typically a hard sell in the mainstream these days, particularly anything beyond the sensational “local man wins lots of money” angle. But Jacobs, the “B” of D&B Publishing who has worked with The Times puzzle section for many years, most notably on the subject of chess, eventually succeeded in persuading the editors to let poker in, having pushed the idea of a column for a while.

Poker is back in The Times

“We felt the time was right for something new,” David Parfitt, the editor of the newspaper’s puzzle section, said. “Poker is a game of great mathematical and psychological complexity, which lends itself to detailed analysis. This, along with its increasing popularity, especially online, made a weekly column an attractive option.”

Poker fans of all abilities should be very happy, even if they don’t necessarily rush out and buy a copy of the paper, or search for it online. (The Times has a paywall, but you can find the column in the puzzle section.) It is no secret that to keep the game flourishing, new players need to continue to discover poker, and any coverage in mainstream publications can only be positive.

That is doubly true when the game is presented as a test of mental dexterity, alongside chess, bridge and cryptic crosswords, rather than mindless gambling. Jacobs told me that one of his main aims for the column is to address the areas that are typically misunderstood about poker and steer readers towards a greater general understanding.

“I am hoping the column is of interest to people who know little more than the rules of poker so in a sense I am trying to keep it quite basic in technical terms,” Jacobs said. “However, I don’t want to dumb it down either so I am also discussing concepts that (hopefully) would be of interest to people who have poker as a semi-serious hobby and maybe play online a couple of times a week.”

He added: “I would say the most common misconceptions are that poker is either all luck or is all about who can make the ballsiest bluff. I am doing my best to crack these in the articles.”

The UK press has experimented with poker before. During the poker boom of the mid 2000s, there were weekly columns of varying prominence in all of The Independent (written by the founding editor of Poker Europa magazine Nic Szeremeta), The Daily Telegraph (by high-stakes pro Ben Grundy), The Sunday Telegraph (by novelist and keen amateur David Flusfeder), The Guardian (by journalist, TV presenter and first two-time EPT winner Victoria Coren Mitchell) and even The Times (written by yours truly).

Szeremeta’s was the first I remember reading, though he told me this week that he wasn’t the ground-breaker. “That honour goes to David Spanier,” Szeremeta said. “I took over right after he suddenly died [in 2000]. The Indy had a hole and asked Al Alvarez if they knew someone to fill it. He recommended me and I did it for the next 16 years, I think, twice a week for the latter part of it.”

Victoria Coren Mitchell was a mainstay among poker players and poker writers for many years

Coren Mitchell’s stature as a regular and successful tournament player, as well as TV personality and member of Team PokerStars Pro, made her column the best known of all. It ran from around 2006 to 2012, a period during which time she won her second EPT title as well as the vast majority of her documented $2.5 million in live tournament winnings. It allowed her to balance global poker news with first-hand tales from the tables, underpinned by some solid, winning strategy advice.

Before the new Times column, Szeremeta’s was the last in British papers, ending when The Independent went online only in March 2016.

My column in The Times was neither as durable as Szeremeta’s (it ran for about three months in 2006) nor brought me as much success at the tables as Coren Mitchell’s, but it comfortably occupied the biggest slice of valuable printed real estate. It took a full page in the Saturday sport section on to which we spread a 400-word column, an interview with a pro player accompanied by a photograph, three “News in Brief” items and a TV watching guide. It was all paid for by the banner advert that ran across the bottom third of the page.

Not what you want to see over breakfast

It was, and I can admit this now, probably overkill. Poker doesn’t really belong in the sport section, particularly when a paper has a puzzle page, and its sheer bulk meant that reporters covering football, cricket and other mainstream sports had good cause to complain when they were booted from the pages to accommodate my wittering.

The Times grandees eventually ditched it because they felt it didn’t quite fit with the tone of the esteemed newspaper, and feared they could be seen to be encouraging gambling. (At least that’s what they told me. It could be that my face staring out of a paper every weekend was putting people off their cornflakes.) The Mind Games section, where the column now appears, is a much better fit.

In some ways, the reasons given for booting the column back then demonstrated the durability of the common misconceptions about poker. I wrote regularly about basic strategy, and could not help but address the luck/skill debate. I was also keen to promote the best young players as clean-cut, whip-smart geniuses rather than deadbeat opportunist degenerates. Despite this, I never managed to convince the senior editors that poker was anything but an elaborate lottery for the maladjusted.

In my subsequent experience of pitching poker coverage to the mainstream, I have frequently encountered a reluctance among editors to commission something that they feel baffles them, or that they think might appeal only to a small section of the readership. As a result, I have frequently found myself writing articles in which as many words are spent describing the basics of the game as are used to address whatever is new, or whatever has prompted the article in the first place. It can be frustrating. The chess columnist isn’t required to explain every time that the bishop can only move diagonally, but if you write about poker, you’re still required to explain every week that a flush beats a straight.

I think the problem is that, in general, people almost know poker: they’ve seen it in movies and soap operas, but aren’t aware how unrealistic the depictions are. They’re still amazed when you tell them that people coach and study poker, or that top players might otherwise be stock traders or banking executives, but that poker proved more lucrative. The more often we see poker written about seriously, as an intellectual pursuit, the more chance we have of these preconceptions gradually eroding.

It’s also a mistake, I think, to believe that the only people who might read a poker column are regular players. It’s well known among people who write about the arts that many people will read a review of a film or a play, for instance, who have no intention of ever actually seeing it. Similarly, people might read about poker even without any a burning desire to rush to a casino or register for a quick Sit & Go on PokerStars. I have had several conversations with people on the rail at the World Series who have never played a hand of poker in their lives, and who often confess to not knowing the rules, but they enjoy watching the game on ESPN and come down to experience it first hand.

Mind Games in The Times

All of these are reasons why we should be happy to see poker back in The Times, particularly a column written by someone as experienced on the subject as Jacobs, and with a commitment to focus on the core concepts.

“One structure that I think works well is that I introduce a concept that is general to all gambling and then discuss how it applies in poker,” Jacobs said. “For example, in recent articles I’ve discussed EV (Expected Value), handling luck and the reasons to make (or not make) a bet.”

No mainstream column will ever hope to compete with the wealth of training videos and other online resources for the advanced player, but it’s useful for everyone associated with the game if everyone’s base knowledge can improve even a tiny amount. Here’s hoping for a long and successful stay in The Times for poker this time around.

*****

More than 70 newspapers in the United States run a poker column, syndicated through the Tribune Content Agency. The column started in the early 2000s and until 2011 was written by Steve Rosenbloom, a Tribune sports columnist. For the past four or five years, writing duties tend to be split between leading pro Jonathan Little and Poker News reporter and WSOP bracelet winner Chad Holloway.

Justin Simon, who edits the column for the Tribune Content Agency, told me: “Local editors tell us they hear that the hand illustrations are eye catching and likely lead to an increase in readership, especially amongst the non hardcore player. The columns are kept below 600 words for that same reason – to ensure the appeal to the casual reader.

“The target audience for the columns are the home game player, someone playing with his or her friends for a small buy in, or playing $1/2 at the local card room. Many of the strategy lessons may come from the 5k+ buy-in events, but the audience isn’t made up of players that would play in those events. The writers are instructed to write to that home game audience, so they are a little lighter on high level strategy than a column that might run on PokerStars or in CardPlayer would be.”

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