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How Poker Players Become COVID Conspiracists

How Poker Players Become COVID Conspiracists

In early August, this year’s World Series of Poker (WSOP) rules were published, including a note that the Rio casino, where the series takes place, reserved the right to remove players deemed to have returned a positive COVID-19 test or come into close contact with someone who has done so. 

Those original rules have since been tweaked. At the time of writing, competitors are required to have proof of vaccination before their first tournament registration, while an August 14 statement specified that those in close contact with an individual who has tested positive are no longer required to leave the tournament area “if they are fully vaccinated within the appropriate timing parameters and remain asymptomatic since the time of exposure”. Amid all the changes, though, some players still aren’t happy.

Alex Foxen and Kristen Bicknell – two players who have more than 20m USD in live tournament earnings, millions more online, countless wins in World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour events, and are regulars in tournaments with six-figure entry fees – are among them. Foxen responded to WSOP’s clarification by asking, “If I go deep without a vaccine you think I have any chance of not getting DQd because someone else ‘saw me near a covid carrier’?” Elsewhere, Foxen shared a video that repeated misleading claims about the number of deaths caused by the Pfizer mRNA vaccine and his partner – Kristen Bicknell – has tweeted: “I'm NOT anti vaccine! I'm ANTI SHAMING those who decide not to take the covid vaccine,” as well as, “The doctors trying to speak up are being censored.”

Poker pros are a demographic that, at least when switching on their poker brain, will know you shouldn’t accept a point of view that appears to sync with your existing biases without analysing it to make sure.

On the surface, vaccine hesitancy and poker don’t appear to go hand-in-hand. Professional players have serious attention to detail, putting in hours of research to separate the things that work from the things that don’t work, and are much more likely to study theory than rely on gut instinct. Think game theory and mathematical understanding, rather than “poker faces” or “reading” your opponent. Poker pros are a demographic that, at least when switching on their poker brain, will know you shouldn’t accept a point of view that appears to sync with your existing biases without analysing it to make sure. 

But as top poker pros engage in vaccine hesitancy, it forces a closer examination of the elements of the community that have embraced denialism and skepticism. It makes us consider whether we’ve missed something ourselves when only looking at the community in relation to how its members play the game, rather than also considering common themes away from the table. Was poker always likely to spawn such viewpoints due to the kinds of individuals it attracts, rather than how these individuals have come to play and study the game? And how do players plan on dealing with the rift in their community?

Step One: Don’t trust the authorities

Jennifer Shahade, a poker pro (and two-time U.S. women’s chess champion), suggests that there may be an element to poker players that unwittingly feeds into the skepticism and vaccine denialism we have been seeing.

“A lot of people come into poker because they don't like authority and they don't want to have jobs in which people are telling them what to do and when to do things,” she tells me.

The Department of Justice effectively shutting down some of the largest US-facing poker sites in 2011 has arguably helped entrench a distrust of authority or a libertarian sense of outsidership in parts of the community. This anti-authority element can be seen in how members of the poker community keep one another in check. Poker has long been a space of self-policing, with a history of deals being done on the strength of someone’s word and – with a few notable exceptions – surviving as an ecosystem with its own rules and patterns.

That self-policing aspect could indicate some ability in the poker community to question vaccine hesitancy. The issue, however, can be muddied depending on what is on the line for those attempting to do the policing. It’s easy to push back against dubious behavior when it directly impacts your bottom line or the bottom line of others – a poker player reneging on a bet, for example, or allegations of cheating at the tables – but there may be less of an inclination to wade into matters with less of a direct bearing on the world off of the poker table.

Step Two: Do your own research

Success in poker doesn’t require an individual to go through traditional avenues, either academically or in the workplace. Everything can be done remotely (many have made big money from online tournaments before ever stepping into a casino), and the concept of doing your own research has served people very well. 

This DIY stance can be seen in Charlie Carrel, who recently told his Twitter followers “I would strongly advise people read both sides of the argument in depth before making their decision.” 

Indeed, there’s an element of sidestepping mainstream media and learning through peers and YouTube videos, building on and going beyond previous generations’ expertise in the process, On top of all this, while poker has been home to notable collaborations in order for players to help one another succeed, there’s also a zero-sum aspect in the sense that there can’t be winners without losers, and this can prompt a preference to assure one’s own survival first and foremost.

Poker is a game where people put hours of research into strategy, poring over the smallest details for hours and hours in an effort to gain the most marginal edge.

Poker is a game where people put hours of research into strategy, poring over the smallest details for hours and hours in an effort to gain the most marginal edge, and benefit from doing so. David Lappin, a poker pro and host of the podcast The Chip Race told me how that autodidactic approach can get conflated with actual scientific research. 

“In a poker context your research can be watching some training videos or watching some sims, and you can kind of do it from home, whereas research in a scientific context just isn't that,” Lappin explains. “It has to be peer-reviewed, it has to be experimented and results taken and graphs created and multiple instances of the same thing seen and observed and agreed upon by a whole community. So when they say 'I did my research,' it's not the same as when a scientist says they've done research.”

Step Three: Know the odds

Shahade has been surprised by the pattern of players from both disciplines falling down anti-vax rabbit holes.

“On the one hand these are people who make their money from understanding risk and statistics better than their opponents so you would think that when it comes to situations like public health -– where they're not doctors and not experts but they have access to some data and some variety of sources - that they would understand the math behind things really well,” Shahade tells me. 

One of the most notable examples of anti-vaccine sentiment - as opposed to mere hesitancy – comes from the multiple WSOP bracelet winner Jeff Madsen. Now in his mid-30s, Madsen belongs to an older generation of players who came to prominence more than a decade ago, and has posted about – in his own words – “the obvious lies concerning covid/vaccines and the stolen election.”

Previous generations learned the game in a more ad-hoc sense – especially those who, like Madsen, rose to prominence in a pre-YouTube era. This is no guarantee that individuals won’t use the internet as their principal teacher now, but there are examples of minds being changed through interaction with one’s direct peers rather than those with whom you only interact online. 

Indeed, when game theory played less of a role in success, the element of convincing others to make the decision you wanted them to make was more of a factor in the game. Today, at the top level at least, there’s an entire industry of poker solvers – software that helps players determine the optimal decision in a variety of situations, while the volume of hands played (often running into the thousands per day, and sometimes many more) increases the importance of making plays with positive expected value and discourages results-oriented actions. But there are elements that still appear at odds with the logic and critical thinking - and even the mathematical approach - which can often bring success in poker.

“It’s interesting how poker players, for a tiny edge at the tables, would exploit the newest AI software technology available, the newest supercomputers and servers to try and find their edge, because they completely respect how the game moves in one direction positively, yet at the same time they're now skeptical of the best scientific minds in the world,” Lappin tells me. 

Shahade highlighted that contradiction to me. “One of the most direct overlaps of that is the anti-vaxxers who are really concerned with vaccine side-effects and bring up examples where there were adverse side-effects,” she said.  “This, I think, is something we can actually talk about quite concretely in poker terms.”

“They're looking at the examples...but then they're not comparing that to the very well-documented risks of COVID, especially if you're in certain risk categories in terms of age and health. They're basically comparing it to not getting Covid and not getting a vaccine, which is not really fair at all,” she said. “To me, there's a lot of great examples of that in poker - you can't compare it to nothing, you have to compare to the other life pathway, and that's something I think poker players should really get instinctively, and that's troubling to me.”

One example she draws attention to is the act of opting not to bet during a poker hand: while it might look like inaction to an outsider, those familiar with the game will recognize that choosing not to take an active step to bet is as much of a decision as choosing to take that step.

Raise, Call, or Fold?

Poker players will soon be returning to tables for the first time since early 2020. In some ways, this is similar to other communities readjusting to in-person interaction after months of only communicating online. That said, certain facets of live poker – dozens if not hundreds of players handling the same cards and chips, and spending hours together in the same (usually indoor) spaces – are more specific to this world.

One notable challenge, though, will come with the temptation to bring online debating points into the open. In the past, players have spoken to me about finding a balance between calling out someone for their political position and ensuring you can ensure placid, unargumentative surroundings in which you can play your best poker.

"The only way out of the rabbit hole is to come back up the way you came."

As such, there’s a sense that these debates can exist on social media alone, at least until in-person poker returns in the volumes it was at before the pandemic. Even then, one professional poker player I spoke to mentioned a reluctance to get into conversations about COVID around the tables, and they are unlikely to be the only one.

“What you really need to do is be respectful, and for the most part the community are engaging with people like Krissy and Alex, and that's very good to see, because the only way out of the rabbit hole is to come back up the way you came,” Lappin says.

The question now is whether, for some, the real-world impact of anti-vax sentiment is enough to tip that balance. 

Tom Victor is a London-based writer and editor, specialising in sport, culture and poker.

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