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Perils of Personality

March 8, 2010

After spending the past three days covering the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship with my buddy F-Train, I’ve developed some new thoughts about the pros and cons of becoming a poker “personality”.

With that said, let me also make it clear that these are problems I’m never likely to face so my opinions on this topic are nothing more than the musings of an observer. If, by some sheer stroke of luck I do somehow rise above my current obscurity, I reserve the right to modify or outright change these opinions based on whatever new circumstance I may face. Unlikely that, but still, I’m just saying.

It seems to me that many of the top-tier (or most recognizable, if more appropriate) players have the same issues that celebrities face in any other field, whether it be acting, sports, or politics. The sheer hint of fame, no matter how deserved or fleeting it may be, serves to paint an indelible portrait in the eyes of those who observe them. This means, first impressions are vitally important, whether you’re a top-ranked cash player or some lucky amateur who somehow final tabled the WSOP. If you come across as likable, you’ll most likely be viewed in a positive light unless you do something really stupid. If you come across as a douche, well, you’ll probably always be a douche.

Take Jamie Gold, for example. When he burst onto the scene during the 2007 WSOP, he came across as a brash, angle-shooting hustler. And, in many ways, he is. Hell, Hollywood agents aren’t known for being wallflowers, are they? So, imagine my surprise when I had the opportunity to meet Gold in person and spend several hours with him at a $2/$5 table. He couldn’t have been nicer. He joked with the table, provided useful insights into the game and, generally, came across as a pretty good guy. Still, despite what I was experiencing first hand, there was still a thought in the back of my head telling me “This guy is a schmuck.” Like I said, first impressions count.

Take another player that people love to hate, Annie Duke. Over the past few days, I watched as Annie played some tremendous heads-up matches and got to see more than a few sides of her personality on display while she battled her way to victory at the NBC National Heads-Up Championship. At times, she was the Annie Duke that most people recognize and, honestly, dislike. Gruff, scolding, opinionated, even bitchy. But at other times, when she let her guard down, you saw sides of Annie that don’t come out that often. For example, her genuine emotion when Erik Seidel won his heads-up match to advance to the final or her utter amazement at her own victory.

Sure, she’s media savvy and knows how to say the right things about her opponents and their skills during her post-match interviews, but there were also times when you could tell she actually meant what she said and wasn’t just throwing out the usual clichés. The fact is though, most casual poker spectators won’t ever take the time to look beyond the surface with someone like Annie because they’ve already made up their minds about her. She’s Annie Duke. UB spokeswoman. Anti-Christ of the poker world. What more do you need to know?

While I’m the first to admit that Annie isn’t always my favorite person to chat with on the circuit, I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. I don’t claim to know Annie well (she knows me just well enough to know that she should recognize me when we meet), but I know that there’s a lot more to her than what we see on TV or the tournament table. Does that mean I’d like to spend large amounts of time hanging out with her? Maybe not, but she’s certainly someone with whom I’d be happy to share a meal or a drink because I’ve seen enough of her to know that somewhere beneath that tough exterior lies a smart, interesting and even friendly person.

Does that make me any better than the hundreds of casual players and observers who immediately write her off as a bitch because their opinions of her are based solely on what they’ve seen on TV? Probably not. It just means that I’ve been able to get past my first impression of her (which, I grant you, wasn’t positive) and allow for the fact that like with many people, there’s more to Annie than what you first see.

The fact is, poker is no different from any celebrity-driven culture. There are the good guys (Ferguson, Phillips, Sexton), the bad guys (Gold, Hellmuth, Men) and thousands of different personalities in-between. Everyone, it seems, has a role to play and whether you like them or hate them is up to you.

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