A watershed moment
One week ago, during a Twitter Space hosted by Will Jaffe, poker had a watershed moment of sorts when a passionate Charlie Carrel talked about how much Doug Polk’s videos had hurt him both professionally and personally, but mostly personally. It was an unexpected confrontation, utterly unrehearsed, a genuine and spontaneous outpouring of grief expressed by a person who had been misunderstood.
weaponized to the point of cruelty
Carrel holds some controversial views on an array of subjects, but when it came to one specific topic, a poorly worded tweet took on a life of its own, amplified by the biggest megaphone in poker, weaponized to the point of cruelty. Matt Berkey empathized with Carrel, but also made broader points, suggesting that the treatment that he received was emblematic of Polk’s more general modus operandi.
That accusation clearly affected Polk, who was moved enough to apologize to Carrel and remove the offending video a couple of days later. From there, the flood gates opened with others feeling like they could put their heads above the parapet, sensing that a safe space had been created to criticize Polk, to challenge him on what they deemed to be other indiscretions and unwarranted attacks.
The therapy ball was passed around
Spearheaded by Carrel, Polk’s feud and subsequent legal case with Fernando “JNandez” Habegger was discussed in detail during subsequent Twitter Spaces. It is clear that, regardless of the outcome in the courts, Polk genuinely feels like he was justified in going after Habegger on the grounds that his business was being adversely affected. That did, however, beg the question: why, then, would Polk think that it was okay to undermine poker coach Matt Hunt’s business?
In a video targeting Berkey and his Solve For Why training site, Hunt caught a stray bullet as Polk used him as the butt of a lame joke, diminishing his excellent and valuable work in the community.
Polk posted a video on May 4 and hosted his own Twitter Space to discuss the issues with him that members of the community were raising. The word “bully” was used over and over and to Polk’s credit, he admitted to adopting aggressive postures versus those who he believed attacked him or his business interests. He acknowledged how that response was likely part of a defense mechanism forged in childhood when he himself was bullied.
As the therapy ball was passed around, it felt as though different people were given the forum to speak their truths, uninterrupted and unhindered. There were breakthroughs, big and small, as the participants in these discussions actually listened to one another, empathized with one another and stopped seeing each other as other. The same sentiment spilled over to Twitter.
There would be no singing of kumbaya, however, as Phil Galfond added his voice to the conversation, suggesting bluntly in a lengthy piece entitled “The Elephant in the Poker Room” that Polk has always possessed a cruel streak and that he is driven to hurt people emotionally. He posited the notion that “the poker world is experiencing a shift in the Overton Window when it comes to bullying, and specifically, when it comes to Doug Polk.”
Polk responded angrily on yet another Twitter Space, calling Galfond a liar and heavily disputing how he had been characterized. The article was powerful and pulled no punches but it lacked balance at times, included some unbefitting historical comparisons and fell into the trap of treating Polk as the prime-mover in every conflict. There was also sometimes the conflation of fair criticism with bullying.
Polk’s videos and social media posts have certainly gone too far on several occasions and his feet should be held to the fire for that, but there have also been plenty of times when it was fair game for Polk to lampoon a person for something that they said or did. Denunciation is not bullying. Disapproval is not persecution. Offering a contrary opinion is not erasing the opinion of the person with whom you disagree.
Circle-jerk of victimhood
Since that article’s release, it feels as though the pendulum has swung too far the other way with other members of the community clambering for a moment of performative grief. Night after night, more Twitter Spaces have popped up and what began as an impromptu intervention, organic and perhaps necessary, like the lancing of a boil, is now in danger of becoming an indulgent circle-jerk of victimhood.
Laughably, Daniel Negreanu has now thrown his hat into the ring, casting himself as Polk’s “OG” victim. Showing up to speak at these Spaces, he has gone full Trump, crying about the times when Polk rightly called him out and castigated him for his horrible takes.
It was truly pitiful to listen to the “poor me” whines of a man who has always shilled for his company against the best interests of players, had sexual harassment lawsuits settled for him by his employer, has tried to sabotage the careers of others in the industry, never apologized for black-facing, called quieter and nittier players “a cancer to poker,” said that victims of abuse who are still affected by that trauma years later are choosing to be victims, said that adoption is “buying children,” and then told an adopted man who was hurt by those comments that his parents got a “hell of a good deal” on him.
Polk is a shrewd businessman, but he is also an entertainer, a satirist, a critic, and an advocate for change and there is a danger that, in the current climate, people forget that. Satire is the art of making someone or something look ridiculous, but there should always be an undercurrent of seriousness too, shedding light on important issues and commenting on corruption, hypocrisy, and incompetence.
the powerful have been challenged
Polk and his producer Thomas Keeling have always embraced that aspect. Through their brand of comedy, consciences have been pricked, the powerful have been challenged, and people of status have been knocked down a peg or two. It is also important to remember that Polk was not the Polk of today for much of his content. It has been a gradual journey to prominence and unlike the recent cheap shot at Hunt, there were plenty of examples of him punching up along the way.
Polk deleted the video about Carrel. That was a good start. He has also pledged to cut out the “bottom five percent” of his content going forward, alluding to his more salacious, click-baity, tabloid-style videos which cross the line into cruelty. There will no doubt be a period of atonement during which his every move will be scrutinized. That will be his penance, as is the loss of reputation he has suffered in some quarters.
If Galfond is correct about the shift in the Overton Window, then the poker community now has a lower tolerance of bullying behavior and that’s obviously a good thing. It would be a shame, though, if articulate and critical voices were to stay silent for fear of being labeled as bullies and it would be a disaster if people whose behavior warrants criticism were allowed to cry bully and never answer for their actions.
“Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.”
– Jonathan Swift