If you’ve been away from your television for the past few days, then you’ve missed the latest in uproars in the poker community. On this week’s edition of Poker Night in America from the Choctaw Casino in Durant, OK, the poker world was introduced to arguably the vilest creature that has ever been seated at a poker table. Going by the name Salomon Ponte – but loudly and crassly telling everyone to call him the “Hashtag King“ – this stain on the poker condition hit the felt in the PNIA cash game, a $25/$50 where the usual minimum buy-in is around $5000. Before he left, he had made a dubious impression on the program.
Over the course of an hour of play, Ponte proceeded to insult pretty much every player that was at the table, which included Shaun Deeb and Doug Polk. This wasn’t your garden variety, Mike Matusow “you’ve got little balls, I’ve got big balls” needling, these insults went into areas that no one should enter (hell, even professional basketball players KNOW NOT to do these things). Ponte proceeded to insult Deeb’s WIFE, saying “I’d rather be dead than have your fucking wife,” said that Deeb was a “fucking retard” and said Polk was “one of the biggest bitches in poker.” It was particularly sad to see Ponte, after spewing his vitriol, try to borrow money from the people he had disparaged (like they were going to give him money?).
Congratulations, poker world, we’ve finally found the point – poker doesn’t need more “characters” like Salomon Ponte.
Looking over the history of poker, there have been men – and some women – who have contributed to the game because of their larger than life personalities. You don’t think that the riverboat gamblers who traversed the Mississippi River during the 1830s and 1840s didn’t have a colloquial charm about them? What about such men who conquered the West as “Doc” Holliday, Wyatt Earp, “Wild Bill” Hickok and scores of others? The ladies were well represented by “Poker Alice” Ivers and Lottie “Poker Queen” Deno (born Carlotta Thompkins) in the late 1800s. Even into the 20th century, there were men like “Titanic” Thompson and, yes, even the man considered the “Godfather of Poker” Doyle Brunson. These people were THOSE personalities that made the game better and, as an added benefit, helped their wallet get fatter.
As the latter part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century began, however, those “characters” became fewer. Potentially because of the effect of online poker, the visage of the soulless hulk of flesh, sitting at a table in a hoodie with headphones clasped around his head, sunglasses removing the last vestiges of humanity, there are few players who capture the attention of those casual poker fans. The aforementioned Matusow attempted to carry the banner (taken out by a bad back that limits his sitting time), as did Antanas “Tony G” Guoga (taken out by becoming a married man and a politician).
Since there is a dearth of entertaining personalities in the poker community, the poker programs in existence have little but (gasp!) skillful poker play and educational and technical points to be able to talk about during their broadcasts. They really want to talk about the art of poker and the psychological battle that is going on in front of those with a rudimentary knowledge of the game, but they also want to see the blood sport, the sparring, that one gets with mano y mano showdowns for huge piles of money. Thus, these shows try to create a “bad guy” for the fans to hate.
ESPN and the World Series of Poker have been the worst offenders in this field. Going back to Matusow in 2004 against eventual World Champion Greg Raymer, each year there’s been that “player you love to hate.” In 2006, Jamie Gold all but twirled a moustache at the final table as he won the World Championship; 2007 brought the “bulldozer” that was Hevad Khan (and who brought about the “Hevad Khan Rule” against overly exuberant celebrations at the WSOP); just last year, it was William Kassouf and his incessant table talk that drew the ire of the community.
But there was a difference in these famous “bad guys” that separates them from the embarrassment that Ponte was at the table. For the most part, there was no malevolence (Matusow? OK, maybe questionable there) involved in their actions. They were stretching the rules of the game of poker, seeing just how far out on the edge they could go while they garnered attention from either the poker press or (perhaps more importantly) the cameras of ESPN.
In Ponte’s case, there was venom in the words he spoke. This wasn’t an attempt to get into someone’s head while at the table, this was verbal assault that could have gotten out of hand and become physical. There’s no place for that at the tables and the producers of PNIA should have put the kibosh on Ponte’s actions before they got out of hand. The problem is that Ponte wouldn’t have given a damn; he was later ejected from the Choctaw Casino and, over Twitter, proudly stated he had been kicked out of about a dozen casinos, not something to wear as a badge of honor (really, how shitty do you have to be to get tossed out of a casino?).
Maybe it’s time the poker community learned something. You don’t have to be a dick to be a “personality” at the tables. You just have to be able to halfway carry a conversation, maybe be a little self-deprecating, and ensure that the people playing against you – and those watching on whatever outlet – are entertained. THEN you’ll be asked to every event where a telegenic personality is needed.
Sure, poker needs to have some colorful characters in its mix. Sometimes they even need to have the proverbial “bad guy” to get the fans riled up against. What we don’t need in the game are people like Ponte, who is simply a punk off the street who happens to have a bigger mouth than a bank account and no idea how to handle either. To put people on the air like that is a huge mistake and one I am sure that PNIA has learned from. Hopefully the poker community has learned from it also.