Saturday 21 November 2015

Sexism and Misogyny in Poker

There has been a great deal of debate about sexism and misogyny in poker swirling around Twitter and other social media platforms lately. Unfortunately, the fact that these issues are even prevalent in the first place is still being debated. It is an uphill battle for the small minority of women that exist in poker to have their opinions be heeded with appropriate gravity. I’d like to share some stories and female points of view that I believe show pretty clearly how monumental these issues are for women in poker. If you care about poker as an industry, it’s in your best interest to make the environment as welcoming as possible for new players, and that means we need to start listening to women.

Normally this would be the part of the blog post where I provide definitions for sexism and misogyny, but I don’t want this to devolve into a debate over semantics. As you read further, forget whatever definitions you have in your head, and keep only the following assertion of mine in mind before reading on: An inexcusably large percentage of male poker players treat women like shit.

It's More Real Than You Think

Since women make up such a tiny percentage of poker players in any given card room, it can be hard to appreciate the frequency at which these problems occur. Here are three true stories. Each one is about a different professional male poker player. All three are among the hundred most famous poker players of all time, and all three either have had or still do have prominent sponsorship deals with major poker sites.

Pro A is patently disgusting. I’ve had two separate girlfriends tell me they had their asses grabbed by this man. Neither girl had ever spoken a single word to him. Both instances took place in the Rio and occurred one year apart from each other. A masseuse I know confirmed this behavior and shared a few similar stories detailing how outrageously gropey he is.

Pro B is well liked. You would be surprised to hear that he was accused of repeated sexual harassment by a female in the poker world while representing his sponsoring site. I’m not at liberty to discuss the specifics of the outcome due to the lawyers involved, but it was not pretty.

Pro C was the one that surprised me most. A female poker player accused him of rape. Upon finding out about this, another female that’s connected in the poker world instantly spoke up saying she too had been raped by Pro C. His sponsorship contract was terminated the very next day.

I can only assume my credibility will be called into question since I have not named these men, but that is a decision for the victims to make, not myself. There are other factors at play as well (i.e. lawyers). The details are intentionally kept to a minimum, but this is all real.

And if we expand our search of inappropriate behavior to non-famous poker players, the stories only get more common and appalling. A female dealer I know was talking to a player about being hired for a private event in his hotel suite. She went to look at the room to discuss logistics and was slipped a date rape drug in a glass of water. Fortunately, her proverbial alarm bells went off and she was able to flee the room. She passed out seconds later in the elevator. A family friend of mine who is now retired from the Nevada Metropolitan Police Department strongly urged us to not say anything, both for legal and for safety reasons. This made us sick.

Keep in mind that none of the above is public information. These are just a few stories that I happen to know of because I am close with the victims. Imagine how many countless parallel stories there must be out there that we’ll never hear.

I’m sure virtually everyone reading this agrees that there is nothing even close to acceptable about the behavior in any of the above stories. My fear is that many readers will think, “No one I know would ever do anything that bad, so this doesn’t concern me.” I have two responses to that: 1) These incidents are far more common than you would ever like to believe, and 2) While these actions are on the extreme end of the spectrum, they are still on the same spectrum of male poker players treating women like shit.

A Few Female Perspectives on the Matter

For the day to day occurrences, it can be hard for men to fully understand how pervasive and problematic the microaggressions are. Rather than provide my distanced male observations, I’d like to share a few female perspectives that show how tiresome it is to have to deal with this stuff every day.

Professional poker player Danielle Anderson told me, “The pre-existing disproportionate ratio of males/females alone is enough to make walking into a card room an overwhelming experience for women. Throw any minority group into a situation where they are vastly outnumbered, and it can be very intimidating. Add to that equation the prospect of sitting in close proximity to someone who may make sexist remarks, unwanted advances, and even unwelcome touch (all things I've experienced firsthand countless times) and it's not exactly a welcoming environment for females.”

In this powerful video, Kristy Arnett speaks with tremendous candor and humor about a decade’s worth of experiences as a woman in poker. She describes what it was like to start out as a young, female video commentator: “Two weeks after I make my video debut in poker, there’s a forum called TwoPlusTwo… there’s a thread named Kristy Arnett. In this [thread] there’s ‘teeth crooked like she got kicked in the mouth by a horse. Did she get hit in the face with a frying pan?’ ‘Haha’ someone replies. ‘No, you mean a wok?’ Sexist and racist! I was 21. I was impressionable. I was naive. I was innocent really. These things went straight to the heart.” She added, “People on the internet were telling me that I didn’t deserve to be interviewing these poker players because I did not have big boobs.” And she describes the devastating effect this type of criticism had on her self worth.

In an extremely illuminating blog post, Cate Hall writes, “I can take a joke. I can take a compliment. But the amount of bullshit I contend with while playing poker — the incessance, the variety, the sheer volume of it — is totally exhausting...I have heard some male pros — I make no claim about their representativeness — take the position that this kind of behavior is innocuous, on the theory that it’s flattering or benign or exploitable. It can be all of those things in certain contexts. But by and large, it is instead irritating or unnerving or embarrassing. And it sends women a consistent signal that they are alien objects of curiosity rather than people who belong at a poker table.”

(As an aside, Cate is right in the middle of these discussions and is decidedly far more knowledgeable about all of this than I am. She is also extremely articulate and knows how to get straight to the point. I highly recommend reading the short blog post that the above quote is from.)

According to Alex Dreyfus, women make up four percent of the player pools in live tournaments and 9 to 11 percent in online tournaments. One study claims the contrast is even more stark, "Although women make up the majority (54%) of online gamblers worldwide, they represent only 26.2% of online poker players (eCOGRA, 2007)." (Source) You’d have to get extremely creative in order to come up with any conclusion from this other than, “the current live poker environment that exists is not as friendly as it could be for women.” Men, poker players, let’s look after our own best interests and work towards changing this. Let’s get more women in the door.

Why We Should Care

Most of us are entrenched in the poker industry, so I’m not going to try to rally us together in the name of some moral high ground like equality and justice for all. No, this is about pragmatism. This is about mutual interests aligning. This is about bringing more people into poker. This is about cultivating an environment in poker that makes new players want to keep coming back. This is about putting more money in our pockets.

Cate Hall concluded the above blog post by writing, “If the poker community wants more women to join the game — in other words, if it wants droves of inexperienced players with pristine bankrolls to sit down at the table — the first step is to listen to current female players when they say the environment in most card rooms is a problem. If we diehard enthusiasts are exasperated, try to imagine how women ambivalent about poker likely feel. Your livelihood depends on it.”

In a casual Skype conversation, Stephanie Stern eloquently and articulately summed up every issue at hand in just three words: “MEN ARE GROSS!”

She went on to say, “I have pretty thick skin and spend a lot of time with guys, but I don't like to play with them, which is why I play ladies events.” I can confirm that she has thick skin. She once fought off two muggers at night with her bare hands to protect a purse that contained absolutely no valuables. We gave her the nickname “Killer” for a reason. If Stephanie doesn’t want to play with us, what sane female would?

Even if you are resistant to finding any common ground on the issues of sexism and misogyny, surely we can find common ground on wanting to open the proverbial doors for the other 50% of earth’s population. Hell, even if you are a bit sexist and/or misogynistic, that could be all the more reason to want more women at the tables, no?

Men, seriously, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot here. Let’s do something about it!

Why Men Need to Get Involved

Before writing this, I felt it might be a bit hypocritical to “mansplain” sensitive issues like sexism. However, every single female I have gone to for advice on how to approach this, without exception, has encouraged me to voice my opinion. Why? Zoe Haxton told me, “When women talk about misogyny, they’re talking about their own experiences of it, even when they don’t want to be, even when what they want to be doing is talking about the issue as a whole, and it comes off as whining. When a man talks about it, it’s not personal, it’s topical.”

Cate Hall Tweeted, “It's so helpful to have men discuss these issues so it doesn't come off as just self-involved grousing.”

Professional poker player Jamie Kerstetter told me, “I think it's important for men to join (but not overwhelm) the discussion because of the fact that women are <10% of the poker community, so allies are necessary to effect any kind of change. I welcome meaningful contribution from anyone who has put a lot of time and thought into this topic, and just request that men listen more and talk less when it comes to women recounting their own personal experiences in poker.”

After all, if sexism and misogyny stem from the imbalanced patriarchy that exists, then it would most certainly be beneficial to have men involved in the process of changing the status quo.

So hopefully I’ve shown that there is a problem. And hopefully I’ve shown that it’s in our best interest to care. The next logical step is asking what we can do.

What Can We Do to Help?

As Cate and Jamie have already said in their quotes above, the first step is to simply listen. What else? Jamie also called forth for allies, so allow me to show some solidarity and publicly add my name to that list.

I would encourage anyone who feels up to the task to speak out when someone is being inappropriate at the table. Even if firmly taking a stance and loudly condemning someone isn’t your M.O., you can still send a powerful message with an innocuous, sarcastic remark like, “I’m sure women love it when you talk that way.” Those judgements linger in our memories, and it’s more difficult to be out of line when you no longer believe that your behaviour is universally accepted.

Perhaps the solution is as simple as abiding by the platinum rule - treat others how THEY want to be treated, a marked improvement over the golden rule. Maybe the momentum needed will come from education and awareness. Let’s encourage an open dialogue about this and let women know their opinions are being heard.

And that brings us back to request number one - to listen. I’m no expert on any of this, but fortunately there are many women around who are.

I'll attempt to lead by example right now. Women, what can men do to help? What is something that we might not realize we should never do? Is there anything in this post you feel that I got wrong or misrepresented? What would you like to talk about that I left out? Let's start a discussion. Please, leave any thoughts you have on this subject in the comment section below and/or on whichever social media outlets you prefer to use.

Sunday 7 September 2014

Burning Man

Is This Real Life?

Burning Man is the most incredible place on the entire planet. This is my feeble attempt to try to put its wonder into words, as well as explain what makes the experience possible and why it's not for everyone.

"What is Burning Man?" Is a tough question to answer. On the surface it's a week long 70,000 person flash mob in the middle of the desert full of hippies, drugs, parties, art, music, LED lights, and the craziest, most nonsensical things you can think of. However, to understand its energy, I have to go over the 10 principles.

The Temple

But before I go over the ten principles, I must first explain something. If I didn't, you'd probably think, "There's no way 70,000 people abide by and respect all the principles." Burning Man is a ten hour drive from the nearest major city (120 miles from Reno, but 15'000 RVs and trucks don't quickly zoom down a one lane highway). It has brutally rough conditions including extreme heat, extreme cold, conditions completely unsustainable for any form of life, flash floods, and severe dust storms and mini tornadoes caused by winds that can reach up to seventy miles per hour.  If you want water, food, electricity, or shelter, you have to bring it yourself. You can't buy anything, and the land provides nothing but endless sand, dust, and rock. For these reasons, only true Burners make it out to the Playa. No one that doesn't belong would ever subject themselves to these conditions. This is what makes the ambitious vision of Burning Man possible and maintainable even with 70,000 people.

The 10 principles:
Radical Inclusion
Radical Self-reliance
Radical Self-expression
Communal Effort
Civic Responsibility
Leaving No Trace

If you're a Virgin reading this, these probably just seem like buzz words, so let me illustrate a few.

Leaving No Trace: Burning Rock City is a legitimate city for one week of every year. There are 70,000 people, street signs, buildings, fire departments, and medical centers. If you go there at any other point in the year, you will literally find no trace of this. There is NOTHING left behind. It will take you hours of combing through sand if you want to find even a single piece of plastic. There are no signs, structures, vehicles, people... NOTHING (except endless sand, dust, and rock).

Decommidification: You are able to buy ice. All proceeds go to Burning Man. Private contractors are allowed to provide services to drain and refill RVs. Other than that, there is exactly one location where money is raised for charity by selling coffee and other hot drinks. Money is not spent on anything else, which brings us to...

Gifting: people set up pop-up restaurants, hold classes, provide music stages, but no one EVER asks, "how much?" If you share something, it's free. End of story. I had heard rumors of bartering, but that doesn't actually exist. You give and ask nothing in return. When you are offered something, you simply enjoy it and say thank you.

Gifting - Burning Man Style

As I say what I'm about to say, please keep in mind that Burning Man LLC itself provides very little. It lurks in the shadows, sets up street signs and fire departments before anyone arrives, and operates with the goal of invisibility. Virtually Everything else is provided by the people.

When you go out on the Playa at night for your first time, you won't believe your eyes. You can look in any direction in a full circle, you will see miles and miles of lit up spectacles. Walk a hundred feet in any direction and you'll run into a music stage, building, giant art piece, or camp site. You may stumble upon a fifty foot art car dressed up as a shark, or a 200 foot wooden box that may or may not have a purpose. Some groups that come will spend literally millions of dollars to provide an elaborate ten-story art piece that will be burned down after only one week of existence. Nothing I can say will do it justice. It is just endless amazement. Take what you see at a carnival, remove the provider of the features and somehow end up with 1,000  times as much to see or do. That is the Playa.

No Photo Could Ever Do the Playa Justice

Now I must attempt to explain the most important part of Burning Man: the people. We all have a similar spirit and mindset; that is why Burning Man works. I implore you: try to find a single person at Burning Man that feels the slightest bit of contempt toward homosexuality, or doesn't desire to fill their heart with more love, or wants there to be no nudity, or believes that atheists are evil, or thinks that drug users are criminal scum, or thinks that the Orgy Dome is scandalous and inappropriate. You'll be extremely hard pressed to find one. If you fit any of these criteria: stay at home, Burning Man is not for you. If you are open to all of these ideas, then please come. The Playa will be your new home.

Burning Man is a city of 70,000 of these beautiful, beautiful people. During the day they walk around half-naked adorning amazing, self-expressing costumes. There is no costume theme for Burning Man. You'll see it all from steam-punk, to Hello Kitty onesies, to the mythological shirt-cock (look it up if you don't know). At night, everyone is lit up in the most beautiful display of LED lights. Every person and bike must be lit for safety's sake, but aesthetics dominate the experience.

Now that I've touched just the surface of the mindset that makes up Burning Man, let me talk about the day-to-day. Burning Man is whatever experience you want it to be. If you want to wake up early and expand your mind and body with hours of yoga and meditation each day, you'll have plenty of options. If you want to learn about new topics, watch TED talks, and participate in discussions on novel ideas like compersion (beautiful word I learned at Burning Man), you'll have no problem filling in your daily schedule. If you want to do lots of drugs and dance the night away to whatever kind of music you like most, that certainly won't be a problem. Even if you just want to have copious amounts of sex with strangers, Burning Man is likely the place for you. And if you are an art lover, you will inevitably leave having seen less than half the art that exists in BRC. Keep in mind that everyone that comes to Burning Man is expected to add to the overall experience and never simply take-away. When you have 70,000 people all providing, the opportunities to take advantage of are practically endless.

The Embrace

Perhaps giving you a taste of what my virgin-Burn-experience was like will help give life to these concepts. I had many extreme highs as well as many extreme lows. I didn't get enough sleep all week, I had the worst experience of my entire life, I swallowed unfathomable amounts of dust, I got into an emotionally devastating fight with my girlfriend, our RV caught on fire, its toilet and sink were clogged and unusable the entire week, I failed at bringing a loved one back from a bad trip, and despite all that, I never want to miss a Burn while I'm still healthy enough and financially stable enough to go. It was the most amazing week of my entire life.

Some other things that happened: I had the best experience of my entire life (within two hours of the worst). I woke up in a place so fantastical that I went back to sleep waiting to really wake up, finally to realize that it was actually real life only after that fourth time I woke up. I met an internal-wish-granting-wizard that created tears of joy in my friends eyes after saving them from their personal burdens. I ate grilled meats that tasted like manna from the gods because my body had adapted to the environment I was in. I saw many amazing DJs, pieces of art, sunrises, sunsets, and unique rituals. I listened to talks about psychedelics and open relationships. I participated in an event on sensual eating, but left early in a lust-filled spontaneous trip to the Orgy Dome with my partner. I watched gladiatorial battles at the fire-filled Thunder Dome as spectators climbed to the top of the elaborate jungle gym, shouting and cheering for the warriors below. I visited an architecturally gorgeous temple dedicated to recently lost loved ones and then joined 50,000 others in a solemn dead silence as we watched for an hour as it burned to the ground. I ventured miles into the desert to the furthest lights I could see to find mobile dance stages and cream cheese hot dogs. I made many new friends and had wonderfully deep conversations with people whose names I never learned. I saw more penises than in the rest of my life combined. I saw sides of friends that I have never seen before that warmed my heart. I learned a lot about myself and grew as a person. I drank a vodka-cranberry at the cost of having my bare ass stamped/branded. I experienced the single greatest moment of joy in my entire life, and there's so much more that I can't even share for a variety of different reasons. Seriously, if the above is what I'm sharing, just imagine what it is that I can't share!

The Thunder Dome!

I'm not particularly inarticulate. I can explain most things accurately and sufficiently. However, you just have to believe me when I reiterate that no words I can write will do justice to just how fantastic it is out there. I've been many places around the world in my life, but no place holds even a candle to the amount of amazement contained in Burning Man. When 70,000 people actively and aggressively gift and participate to produce a creative, loving, vast playground, epically beautifully things can happen.

The Playa at Night

If you need ten hours of sleep each night, your macro vegan breakfast, thirty minute hot showers, weekly manicures and facials, and the ability to check your iPhone every five minutes, then Burning Man might not be for you. If you are willing to work hard, give to the community, and make large sacrifices in order to experience the most wonderful gathering on the entire planet, then make sure you don't miss the next Burn.