There Are No ‘Foreigners’ at the World Series of Poker

  • The 1970 World Series of Poker featured seven Americans but it has since grown into its name
  • There have been WSOP events all over the world and Main Event champions from ten countries
  • Travel limits have meant that WSOP 2021 has a larger-than-usual concentration of Americans 
  • Allen Kessler is under fire for controversially criticizing a ‘foreign’ player at his table
  • On November 8, travel restrictions will lift and more Europeans will descend on Las Vegas
WSOP table
Poker pro Allen Kessler has sparked controversy this week for making negative comments in regards to ‘foreign’ players at WSOP 2021. [Image: PokerGO.com]

The World Series of Poker

In 1969, an invitational poker event called the Texas Gambling Reunion took place at the Holiday Hotel and Casino in Reno. It was won by Poker Hall of Famer Crandell Addington. The next year, Binion’s Horseshoe Casino was the venue for a similar gathering, with Addington joined by Amarillo Slim Preston, Doyle Brunson, Sailor Roberts, Puggy Pearson, Carl Cannon, and Johnny Moss. 

This time, the event was billed as ‘The World Series Of Poker,’ a curious name given it consisted of seven American men in an American casino playing 5-Card Stud, 2-7 Lowball Draw, 7-Card Stud, Razz, and Texas Hold ‘em. Now I’m not saying that Americans think that their country is the whole world, but there is a precedent for such hallmarking. 

guilty of perpetuating one of sport’s greatest myths

If you ask most people why the postseason series between the American League and National League baseball champions is called the ‘World Series,’ they will tell you that it was named after the New York World newspaper, which supposedly sponsored the earliest contests. The thing is… they’d be wrong, guilty of perpetuating one of sport’s greatest myths.

Both baseball leagues crowned their victors ‘champions of the United States,’ so it was felt that a more grandiose name was required to describe their big postseason showdown. It was originally billed as ‘Championship of the World’ or ‘World’s Championship Series,’ eventually shortened to ‘World’s Series’ and finally to ‘World Series.’ Moreover, the New York World never claimed any connection with postseason baseball. It was a tabloid rag, rather given to flamboyant self-promotion, and there isn’t a single mention of it ever sponsoring the competition. 

The WSOP grew into its name

To be fair to the WSOP, it did eventually grow into the grandiloquent name it gave itself in 1970. By the 1980s, there was a sprinkling of international talent attending the Series, notably Irish poker legend Donnacha O’Dea. In 1990, Iranian Mansour Matloubi won the Main Event. In 1999, Irishman Noel Furlong took down the big dance. In 2001, Ecuadorean Carlos Mortensen emerged victorious from a record field of 613 entrants. In the twenty years since, seven non-Americans have won The Main Event.  

There is further evidence that the WSOP is a global brand. In 2007, the event expanded outside of Las Vegas for the first time with the first WSOPE held in London. In 2010, the broader WSOP brand expanded to South Africa where it held a Circuit Championship. In 2012, the Series launched an Asia-Pacific edition of the event, held in Melbourne, Australia. Since then, the WSOP’s International Circuit has had stops in Europe, Asia, Africa, Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

The 2019 WSOP Main Event was the second-largest field in WSOP history and the most international. It drew 8,569 entries from 87 different countries. A total of 6110 Americans representing all 50 states and DC did battle with 420 players from Canada, 414 from the UK, 151 from France, 117 from China, 105 from Germany, 104 from Brazil, 91 from Australia, 79 from Russia, and 979 players from 78 other countries.

Foreign Players at the WSOP

This year, due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, the WSOP has understandably seen a drop-off in international players, meaning a larger concentration of Americans in every field. Some have expressed openly their preference for fewer Europeans, citing their remembrances of excessive tanking and rowdy rails, behaviors that they associate with players from across the Atlantic. In fact, a growing number of verbal altercations have taken on a xenophobic flavor with some of the ‘foreign’ players who have managed to get themselves to Vegas chastised at the table, berated on social media, and even given send-offs after busting. 

Allen Kessler took umbrage with one such ‘foreigner,’ going as far as to celebrate his bust out:

Noah Carbone, assistant general manager at Palm Beach Kennel Club, pointed out the problem with what Kessler had said:

Some people sympathized with Kessler, defending his behavior, but it’s fair to say there was a lot of criticism too.

During one exchange, Kessler said: “The truth is they are more likely to be serial tankers. That is a fact. Not prejudice or bias on my part.” The problem is even using the word ‘they’ in this context is revealing. He is succumbing to negative stereotypes about people who are not from his home country. 

Everyone on their own merits 

At this point, I want to put this into the proper perspective. Is Kessler a bad guy? No, apart from his disgusting penchant for plain oatmeal. Does his charged language constitute a scandal? Absolutely not. However, it is a disappointing thing to hear from a very visible player in the game and a stalwart of the poker community.  It’s even more disappointing when the same sentiment is shared by other American players. Earlier in the Series, WSOP bracelet winner and 2010 November Niner Joseph Cheong playfully foreshadowed Kessler’s sentiment:

The point I’m trying to get at here is if an individual behaves poorly, then they deserve your ire, but lumping in a group of people who are from the same place cannot be justified. The US has always been a nation of ‘foreigners,’ but it is also a nation suffused with xenophobia, a fear or hatred of those same ‘foreigners’ that can be easily stoked by divisive language. 

It is always better to take each individual on their own merits. Did the person in question tank egregiously over every decision, as Kessler said? Probably. Is that cool? No. Should it be called out? Sure. But is where he comes from relevant in any way whatsoever? No, and in any case, there are no ‘foreigners’ at the ‘World’ Series Of Poker. 

The Olympics of Poker

The WSOP is a lot of things. For some, it is a chance to pit wits against the game’s elite in the hopes of glory. For others, it is a lottery ticket, a long shot but still a shot at beating the pros in a game that they only play as a pastime. It is also a spectator sport, the Olympics Of Poker, something for fans to rail on TV or live streams, a celebration of excellence in all the variations of their favorite card game. 

one of the beauties of the festival is that it is inclusive

In 1970, the goal of the very first ‘World Series’ was to find out who was the best poker player in America. It has come a long way since then. Whatever the WSOP means to you, one of the beauties of the festival is that it is inclusive. The questionable 86ing of some individuals aside, the festival is welcoming of all comers, regardless of race, creed, orientation, or nationality. If the WSOP does see color, then that color is green. 

Travel restrictions lift on November 8th, just in time for the last two Main Event Day 1s and a deluge of European players are expected to make the last-minute trip. Like it or not, the World Series Of Poker is about to get a lot more cosmopolitan. Hopefully, by then, the temperature will have cooled and a week from now, all the ‘Yanks’ and ‘Euros’ will be round the campfire singing Kumbaya as each of their World Series Main Event dreams go up in flames. Because, if nothing else, that is what unites us all, except that one lucky person, for whom our collective hate will be completely justified.