The Other Side of the F-Bomb
One would probably think that I'm fanatical about the Mansion Poker Poker Dome show, having luckboxed my way onto the program last summer. Not true. In fact, I've only watched one complete episode of the show, and that's not the one I was on, which I have the DVD of but have never been able to bring myself to view.
So it was a bit of a surprise to find out that a hubbub broke out over the unfortunate occurrences that took place in Episode 41, the very last of the 'quarterfinal' episodes. The winner was decided because of not one, but two, abusive-language penalties that saw the Finnish player who held a commanding lead at the start of heads-up play eventually blinded out, to the delight of his Canadian opponent, who pocketed the $25,000 winner's check by acting as quickly as possible during the five minutes called for by the penalties.
I didn't see the episode, and in fact a week passed before I learned of it, only encountering the story when I saw the posts that the show's tournament director, Matt Savage, posted on the topic. The first of these was put up on rec.gambling.poker (link via Google), and the second was a running commentary of about 100 posts over at 2+2, where Savage also commented. There may be others; I haven't checked.
In reading through the posts, what's been most amazing to me are the number of posters willing to villify Savage for taking the action that he had to, given the circumstances. It sucked that the player uttered the bombs, even as accidental exclamations, but I can verify that everything Savage has laid out as being explained to the players is true.
The people who seem willing to pillory Savage --- for not somehow ruling in the "spirit" of the law, rather than the "letter" --- ignore the fact that he had no other choice, given the contractual circumstances as he's explained them. I'd even go a step further and say that the folks doing most of the bitching in general are players who just have a problem with f-bomb rules in general... and I don't agree with them. There is no reason why organized, competitive poker should not be able to establish a baseline for acceptable social standards, and constant f-bomb uttering, despite the accidental occasional exclamation (as happened here, unfortunately), is a part of that standard.
Let's face it: Constant f-bombs (rather than the rare, unintentional exclamation) are often just a cheap, adolescent attempt to intimidate a table.
But back to Matt Savage and the Poker Dome tale of woe. I'm sure this is the first time that any televised event has been settled in this manner, and Savage himself emphasizes how sorry he was that he felt compelled to enforce the rule. Instead of being slammed for it, he needs to be applauded... simply because, in the heat of the moment, he remembered the importance of existing precedent and acted accordingly.
Here's what a lot of the people slamming Savage are forgetting to include: The Poker Dome was designed to put people off balance, to put them under unusual pressure, and see how they react. It's an experimental format that is built within the framework of a poker game, but is really something more of a reality show. The no-swearing rules are a part of that format, an additional burden placed upon the player to see how much stress he or she can take.
I cracked under the stress; I made two clear mistakes, one when I didn't trust an obvious tell and another when I mis-spoke a bet, which happened after the action really heated up. (The excessive on-set heat was one of several contributing factors.)
The point is that this is what the show is designed to do --- to quickly force situations where people play subpar poker. That subpar performance can occur in many forms, and in the case of the Finnish player, it emerged in the form of unexpected (and forbidden) utterances. It's unfortunate.
It's also true that the show's bigwigs (including Savage) underestimated just how Draconian the penalty would be if it occurred during late-stage play. They've quickly made changes to the format for the remaining shows (actually, now just "show"), to bring it more in line with what some pure concept of "fair" would be.
Perhaps it's an unfortunate coda to the Poker Dome experiment. My guess is the show will go away after this season's run, but that's due to the impact of the UIGEA, not to the success or appeal of the show itself. If nothing else, though, the recent f-bomb episode may have a lasting impact on the way this type of penalty is administered throughout poker.
Matt Savage has a very high reputation among tournament directors as well. I'd heard of him long before I stumbled onto the Dome....
Untold anecdote: On our first trip downtown to the Neonopolis (the show's studio locale), we waited around for some time through a sorta-kinda-press conference stretching into eternity... then were escorted down into the set to be shown the layout and to conduct the seat drawing for the next night's taping. Our tour guide/nanny handed us over to the set producer, and that person introduced this second man, there in a t-shirt and jeans: "This is Matt Savage, the tournament director."
That was my second biggest jolt of the weekend, following my wandering upstairs in the Caesar's labyrinth of business suites and walking smack-dab into Tony G. As Savage came around to greet each of us in person, I said something like, "Matt Savage! I'm pleased and honored to meet you!"
And Matt said, "No, I'm pleased and honored to meet you, Haley." Which was nice. (Thick, too, in the way of a great PR guy.) Matt had certainly read all our bios, and on mine was the information that I was a fledgling poker writer, but at that point my list of paid poker credits was pretty miniscule. These days I have a few more, but Matt played it up in style, and we were all there in Tony's shadow, anyway.
Matt then gave me the honor of drawing the first seat card, which was the three, and we got around to the other business at hand. During the taping of the show, Matt would pop in behind us during breaks, looking rather dapper but still affected a bit by the heat, like the rest of us. He'd encourage us to chat it up a bit, as I did with Tony once or twice during the show. And then he'd melt back to his post at the left-rear of the set, from the audience perspective.
So much more, so many strange, surreal things. Do I regret not playing better? Of course. Do I regret going through the experience? Not for a minute.
That's maybe why this latest Poker Dome episode is so noteworthy. The concept pushed the edge, creating unforeseen circumstances and situations where no one really quite knew, going in, what the result would be.
Poker quality aside, that willingness to push the edge isn't a bad legacy for the show, come what may.