Victoria Coren-Mitchell and Dan Colman are bringing integrity and conscience to the poker table

By Eoin Molloy

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The game of poker has long been dogged by negative connotations. People who do not understand the game often dismiss it as nothing more than a dangerous form of gambling that can have serious adverse effects on people’s lives.

Sure, poker is addictive. You can lose a lot of money playing at the wrong levels. No-one forces people to play poker, but some people can’t help it. The same people lose a lot of money playing casino games like blackjack and roulette.

But a casino game poker is not. Since April 2010, it has been globally recognised as a mind sport by the same governing body that classifies chess and bridge as sports.

There is a decent luck component (which is what makes it so appealing to the masses), but poker is first and foremost a mind game. Described by Norman Chad as being like ‘nine-way chess with people who want to steal your money’, poker is an intensely-challenging game.

Recently, the world’s largest online card room, Pokerstars, was purchased by Amaya Gaming. Pokerstars is a world-wide brand, sponsoring celebrity poker pros like Boris Becker and Rafael Nadal to play at their site. Pokerstars.tv also has a huge following online, bring live tournament coverage from around the world to hundreds of thousands of spectators.

Amaya saddled the company in debt in order to complete the 4.9 billion takeover. To repay the debt incurred upon purchasing the company, Amaya has increased rake on the site (the amount paid by players to play). Amaya has also announced that it will bring in casino games as well as sports betting.

This news has caused Victoria Coren-Mitchell (the only two time European Poker Tour champion and Guardian columnist) to end her sponsorship deal with the site. She took to her blog to explain her decision:

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(Victoria after winning EPT Sanremo last year)

‘On Friday night, PokerStars.com announced that it will be rolling out online casino gaming alongside its internet poker. As a result, on Saturday morning, I terminated my endorsement contract with them.’

She continued:

‘I cannot professionally and publicly endorse casino games. Poker is the game I love. There is a huge difference between the essentially fair nature of poker, where we all take each other on with the same basic chance, and those casino games at unfavourable odds which can be (especially online) so dangerous for the vulnerable or desperate.’

Pokerstars reportedly assured Ms Mitchell that she would not have to promote the casino games specifically. She responded by saying that passively endorsing games that prey on people with addictions is not the way she wants to make her living.

Mitchell’s conscionable approach to the game is significantly refreshing, considering all of the negative press that poker seems to get. She is a poker pro, and she does not want to contribute in any way to people participating in dangerous casino games, where the odds are always stacked considerably in favour of the house.

Dan Colman is the bright new face of high stakes tournament poker. At just 24 years of age, Colman is third on the poker all-time money list, with 22 million in career earnings. The sick part of this is, Colman won 21 million of that in the first nine months of 2014. He has all but surpassed the lifetime earnings of all of the top pros in a single year, without so much as batting an eyelid.

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(barely a smile: Colman with his winnings)

Colman is intense and reserved when it comes to the media. Time and time again, he has refused to take part in any interviews that would contribute to the growth of poker. This is because he does not believe that poker, like smoking or alcohol, should be too widely advertised. Whether you agree with him or not, it is impressive to see so much emotional maturity in a young man who has achieved so much.

Some say that Colman is being hypocritical, seeing as he plays the game at the highest levels himself. Colman obviously disagrees. He won 15 million of his earnings in a single tournament, World Series of Poker event, the ‘One Drop’. This tournament had a buy-in of 1 million dollars, but 111,111 of each buy-in went to Guy LaLiberte’s charity, One Drop, which works to provide clean water for people in third world countries.

Many tournament pros like Phil Laak, Antonio Esfandiari and Philipp Gruissem do voluntary work for this charity as well. A group of professionals recently set up a charity called ‘Raising for Effective Giving’ or REG, which asks poker players to pledge to donate 2% of their monthly winnings to charitable causes.

Colman is obviously conflicted about poker. He realises that he profits from a game that preys on people’s weaknesses. People criticised him for not promoting the game of poker after his win at the One Drop. He told poker forum Two Plus Two that he ‘doesn’t owe poker a single thing.’ He said that the losers at poker lose more than the ‘winners are winning’. And he makes a good point. He expressed his dismay at advertising capitalising on people’s impulses to gamble away money they ‘can’t afford to lose’. Here is a snippet from his post:

‘As for promoting myself, I feel that individual achievements should rarely be celebrated. I am not going to take part in it for others and I wouldn’t want it for myself. If you wonder why our society is so infatuated by individuals and their success, and being a baller, it is not that way for no reason. It is there because it serves a clear purpose. If you get people to look up to someone and adhere to the “gain wealth, forget all but self” motto, then you can get them to ignore the social contract which is very good for power systems. Also it serves as a means of distraction to get people to not pay attention to the things that do matter.’

It is obvious that Colman loves the game, he is an immense talent. He also has a clear and mature conscience when it comes to world affairs. When he final tabled the 50,000 euro buy in EPT Super High Roller event in Barcelona, he and mentor Olivier Busquet wore t-shirts that read ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘Save Gaza’ respectively.

One thing is for sure, we need more people of integrity like Vicky Coren and Dan Colman in poker. They exist in a world of self-indulgence, of fast cars, drugs and Dan Bilzerians. Yet they manage to steer clear of all of that. They are an example for aspiring pros worldwide.

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