Poker is reveling in its current popularity. Turn on the television and you can see a multitude of World Series and World Poker Tour events, along with the made for television tournaments on the Game Show Network and celebrity poker as well. Enter the bookstores across the United States and poker books are everywhere. Several poker magazines sit prominently next to other sports publications. If you don't see it in the stores, you can find other poker related merchandise as quick as a mouse click away on any computer. It truly is the glory days of the sport.
There are a few things, however, that could bring it all to a screeching halt. All it would take would be one significant scandal, one ill-advised and publicly known gaffe that would undo all of the advancements of the past five years. If we make some changes in the way poker is played at the tournament levels, we may be able to avoid some circumstance that could ruin the prosperity that currently exists.
One thing that could be the fly in the ointment may well be a chip dumping scandal in a major tournament. If one player intentionally pushed off a major stack of his chips, for one reason or another, and it became known to the general poker fan, it would reek of a scandal. I believe, however, this is not the thing that we need to worry about.
At the major tournament level, with television cameras surrounding the players and the lipstick cams that capture the player's hole cards, it would be basically impossible for players to get away with a chip dumping scheme. The people at ESPN and the WPT would see what was going on and, more than likely, put a stop to the activity at some level or another. It would be difficult for either organization to put on a product that they knew was inherently wrong due to the influences of some players.
This isn't to say that there could be those occasions where players make what appear to be illogical moves being involved in some nefarious plot. That is perhaps a gray area that no one could touch, because there is no way to know what is in the mind of players as they compete for millions of dollars. So many things factor into the mindset of a player who, to be honest, has been playing in most cases twelve hour days of poker for almost a week that it is possible that fatigue forces some of the decisions we see made at the felt.
One area of focus has to be on the area of players buying shares of other players in events. This is the area where a scandal could emerge. All one has to do is look at other major sports and see that this is something that shouldn't be done.
Does New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner have a ten percent share of the fortunes of the Boston Red Sox? Is Malcolm Glazer, the owner of Manchester United, also owner of another Premiership team? The answer to these questions is no, because it would have an effect on the competitive outcome of events, if the case warranted. All one has to do is to look to auto racing to see this.
For decades in Formula One, it has been status quo to have two car teams. In many cases, there is one star driver and a second, up and comer who is directed to give up his position so that the "star" driver can maintain points in the World Driving Championship. Even NASCAR has seen this possibility come up. Veteran driver Mark Martin is part owner of teammate (and former champion) Matt Kenseth's team. Former NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon is the part owner of his teammate Jimmie Johnson's ride. This has led for calls to eliminate such arrangements as this in NASCAR, so that a points dumping scandal or other improprieties doesn't rear its ugly head.
The same thing applies when you look at the high-stakes world of professional tournament poker. If one player owns a percentage of one of his competitors, would it be out of the question for him to maybe ship chips to his "horse" in a critical situation? If a staker is close to being eliminated, wouldn't it make sense to make sure that his player was the benefactor of his elimination? If situations like this arose and became public knowledge, then the resulting avalanche of bad press would force many newcomers from the game. Those new players would think that nothing has changed from the backrooms of old and that the game today is the same crooked game of yesteryear, just under glitzier surroundings.
There is a way to prevent this, however. Because the practice of staking players has been around since the dawn of the game, why not make these practices open? If it was readily known who was the backer of whom, then the game could commence with little or no improprieties available. If the backer and his "horse" both were on the way to making it to the final table, then the easy option is for the backed player to return the backer's stake (after all, now they have both made a tidy profit) and eliminate any inappropriate actions at the tables.
Poker is on its way to becoming the next big worldwide sport. In many ways, it can be like golf, which also had a questionable past before exploding onto the mainstream. To reach that level, however, there must be a way to eliminate the possibility of an outrageous scandal destroying the game that we love. When you pull back the shadows, only the light remains. Maybe by eliminating the possibility of scandal can poker find an even brighter ray of light.
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