When PokerStars.net’s The Big Game first appeared a few months back, Daniel Negreanu released a blog in which he talked about how excited he was for the new show. One subject in that blog seemed to garner a lot of attention and eventually sparked a controversy:
“One thing I love about our show, is that FINALLY there is a rule in place where you can't hide like a chicken behind sunglasses,” Negreanu said. “I swear every TV producer should ban sunglasses entirely from any televised event. They are so bad for poker on so many levels. Poker wouldn't be on TV if everyone wore hoodies and sunglasses to hide their eyes.”
With that, Negreanu set off a debate in the poker world: Should sunglasses be banned from the poker table? Sunglasses and poker have went hand in hand for well over a decade beginning with Stu Ungar who wore his now-iconic pair of blue sunglasses on his way to victory in the 1997 World Series of Poker. There are many different positions on the topic, and lines have been drawn among the poker community.
Personally, I wear a pair when I play, at least most of the time, and I am not alone. Aside from the dozens of amateurs who don shades at the table, top pros like Phil Hellmuth, Mike “The Mouth” Matusow, David “Devilfish” Ulliott, Chris Ferguson and Annette Obrestad are known to sport sunglasses when playing. They do this for a variety of reasons, of course. For instance, Ferguson admittedly wears a pair to hide tells. Devilfish does it to be stylish. And Hellmuth does it because, well, it fits his image. Me? I wear shades for two primary reasons, both of which I believe advocate the use of sunglasses at the table.
First, I wear sunglasses to hide my eyes from my opponents. I'd rather they didn't notice me looking at them. Of course, I want to hide any tells my eyes might reveal, like Ferguson does, but also, I don’t want my opponents to know exactly what I’m looking at, for example, if I’ve picked up a tell involving their hands, If they do, they’ll likely realize I’ve found a tell and act accordingly. In essence, sunglasses allow me to gather information without being detected. Furthermore, I don’t want my opponents to know when I’m daydreaming and not paying attention to the game, which can often be determined by looking at someone's eyes. With sunglasses, my eyes are hidden so I can be napping and my opponents wouldn’t be any wiser. Indeed, if I'm wearing sunglasses, my opponents must assume I’m deeply watching the action and their every move — even when I'm not. Granted, I should be doing that all the time anyway, but hey, sometimes I get bored.
Second, I wear sunglasses because they boost my confidence at the table. As someone who isn’t used to staring down others and who tends to shy away from eye contact, I find that wearing sunglasses puts a barrier, or filter, between me and my opponent that allows me to stare without flinching. By wearing sunglasses, I grew comfortable staring down my opponents, built confidence, and can now hold a stare even when my face is bare. Without the use of sunglasses as a training tool, I doubt I would have ever accomplished this. Sunglasses make some people feel more comfortable at the table, as they did for me, and that opportunity shouldn’t be taken away from them.
However, I understand that wearing sunglasses isn’t for everybody. In the book, Deal Me In, even the great Phil Ivey touched on the subject: “People tell me I have an intimidating stare. Sure, I look at my opponent when I’m trying to figure him out. And I don’t wear sunglasses. I know that bothers some people, but if they can’t deal with someone looking at them with big money on the line, then they shouldn’t be there. If they have tells, it’s their responsibility to hide them. Lots of top players don’t wear sunglasses. I tried to wear them once at the WSOP and misread my hand. I did not hesitate to toss those sunglasses in the trash,”
Likewise, Negreanu pointed out that most of the top cash-game professionals choose not to wear sunglasses: “I'm so happy when I see online guys like Tom Dwan, Patrik Antonius, and Phil Galfond man up by not hiding behind shades. The majority of the best players in the world DO NOT wear sunglasses. One of the biggest differences between live and online poker is the ability to see your opponent. Eyes and all. Doyle Brunson doesn't wear shades. Phil Ivey doesn't wear shades.”
Back to the question of whether or not sunglasses should be banned from events as Negreanu suggests. I have offered a few reasons that argue against such a ban; however, I readily admit there are valid arguments on the other side of the issue. Mainly, sunglasses have the ability to compromise the integrity of the game. In other words, sunglasses make it easier to cheat, mainly through the use of marked cards. This is one of the points Negreanu addressed in his blog.
“Let's just say that guys like Russ Hamilton would oppose such a ban. I heard Durrrr say it on High Stakes Poker last week and he is absolutely right. You should always be uncomfortable playing high stakes poker against someone wearing sunglasses. I'm not making this up, it's just a fact. Banning sunglasses helps to protect the integrity of the game against cheating. For that reason alone, they should be completely outlawed from poker. No other sport or organization would allow competitors a device that makes it easier for them to get away with cheating.”
While I agree that sunglasses can enable cheating, I don't believe this is grounds for a ban. Instead, rules ought to be established to address any concerns. For instance, poker-floor staff, whether in tournaments or cash games, should have the ability to examine a player’s sunglasses, upon request. If they check out alright, then they can wear them; if not or if the player refuses to allow an examination, then they give up their right to use the sunglasses. This would be a fair compromise between allowing the full benefits of sunglasses, respecting a player’s choice, and eliminating the risk of dishonest use.
For the sake of compromise, I would grant that shows such as PokerStars.Net The Big Game should be free to ban sunglasses if deemed fit. I don't deny that a “no sunglasses” rule makes for better TV, so if a TV show wants to ban them to make the program better, then that is the show's right. After all, shows are private affairs that are “invite-only.” However, I don't believe shades should be banned from open tournaments and cash games.
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