There’s no place for bullying at the poker table, says Dan O’Callaghan, unless it’s with your chips
As a gangly, 6ft4, socially awkward, teenage ectomorph, I was the target of my fair share of bullying at school. I probably got off a little lightly in truth. My twin brother was a little cooler than me and this kept me out of the firing line a lot of the time. But bullying has definitely affected my self-confidence.
Thankfully, as I’ve grown up, bullying has pretty much fizzled out. Workplaces and social circles don’t tolerate it, and bullies grow up and get a sense of perspective.
Nothing constructive comes from bullying. Victims can be scarred for life, and bullies develop no real-world skills from their antics. Most adults realise this. Which is why I was surprised and saddened to see what I thought was a clear-cut case of bullying at this year’s WSOP Main Event.
Like a boss
The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted me on Will Kassouf’s rail at this year’s Main Event on ESPN. I was there, checking my privilege, with a few other Brits as the fireworks flew and the Starbucks was spilled. I witnessed the animosity first hand and I think it’s about time I talked about it.
Since I flew straight home after my Level 3 bust out of the 2015 Main Event, this was the first year I was around to rail the final two tables. I was super-exited too as I had two friends still in, Andrew Christoforou and Kassouf. After eating a meal, a succulent Chinese meal (kudos if you get the reference), we rushed through the Rio for the final 18, Christoforou stressing about missing his first hand.
The atmosphere wasn’t what I was expecting. Instead of shoebombs and well-wishes, Will was greeted with murmurs and eye-rolls. From the seats behind me I heard talk of a ‘British asshole’, and, since I hadn’t made any dad jokes yet, they had to be talking about Will.
We’ve all seen the footage, so without labouring the point, it’s fair to say that Will ruffled a few feathers during the Main Event. Sure, tensions were high and the money was huge, but the way the crowd and players responded to Kassouf was both immature and destructive, and completely unacceptable.
The footage doesn’t show it well, but almost every pot Will won was greeted with some kind of a heckle. Insults were personal and harsh and, whenever he lost a pot, as many sections of the crowd celebrated Will’s misfortune as cheered for the victor.
He handled it fantastically. Even when trying to portray Kassouf as the villain, ESPN couldn’t hide how maturely he conducted himself. During a barrage of insults from both the crowd and the table, Will kept everything inoffensive.
I can’t speak for Will, his lawyer days may make him a little better in hostile situations than me, but even as a simple spectator I felt intimidated. There was a sense of hate in the air, and it felt as though everyone in the room was united against Kassouf.
My one supportive cheer was met with scowls and scorn. I’d bought nothing but positivity, but it was like a drop in the ocean in a room full of hate. I could feel myself shrinking and my stomach turning to stone. I was my 11-year-old self and I was back in the schoolyard.
Like a weasel
I couldn’t hear the table chat from where I was standing, but based on the ESPN footage, it seem that this was the case on the tables too. The commentators alluded to a ‘gang’ mentality and Vayo in particular acted like a brown- nosing weasel. Like the schoolkid that panders to the bullies to keep himself out of the firing line, Vayo stirred more shit than a Shakespearean witch. He routinely provoked the likes of Josephy and Bleznick who were more direct in their offence towards Will. To me, Vayo acted as spinelessly as he did playing heads-up. At least, that’s how ESPN portrayed it anyway.
There can be no place for this attitude in the game. Put yourself in Kassouf’s shoes… A load of people surrounding you (literally), circling like a pack of hyenas waiting to take a bite out of you at every opportunity. And a hostile rail. It’s hardly the environment someone new to the game would want to return to.
Life isn’t the lion king, we can’t rely on Mufasa to roar in and save the day (partly because he was trampled to death, but mainly because he’s a cartoon…). Now, more than ever, with the poker industry having to vault hurdle after hurdle, we must do what we can to make the poker tables as welcoming as possible. Iron out this kind of behaviour and let your chips do the bullying.
People aren’t made of stone, some of us are sensitive. I thought the mob mentality at the 2016 Main Event was disgraceful. It reduced my dreams of cheering a buddy to WSOP success to silence, and alienated a clever and innovative Kassouf.
There were two of us on Will’s rail (that I was aware of) and amidst the illogical Brexit-based insults and degrading chanting, we were invisible. We didn’t cheer – we couldn’t! We didn’t dare, and that’s a damn shame.
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