Is Daniel Colman, poker's new heavyweight champion, an adolescent narcissist, happy to take people's money on the felt but unwilling to help improve poker's image as a game of skill or a vehicle for philanthropy? Or is he an anti-huckster hero amid a swarm of endorsement-happy pros, greedy tournament presenters and the journalists who fawn over them?
After refusing almost all interview requests after winning the $15.3 million first prize of the Big One for One Drop -- a tournament that benefits the One Drop Foundation, which provides water-management systems in drought-stricken countries -- the 23-year-old Colman became even more hostile and self-contradictory on the online poker forum Two Plus Two:
First off, I don't owe poker a single thing. I've been fortunate enough to benefit financially from this game, but I have played it long enough to see the ugly side of this world. It is not a game where the pros are always happy and living a fulfilling life. To have a job where you are at the mercy of variance can be insanely stressful and can lead to a lot of unhealthy habits. I would never in a million years recommend for someone to try and make it as a poker pro. … In a perfect world, markets are based on informed consumers making rational transactions. In reality sadly that's not the case, markets are based on advertising trying to play on peoples impulses and targeting their weaknesses in order for them to make irrational decisions.
He went on:
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. … 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. … I realize I am conflicted. I capitalize off this game that targets peoples weaknesses. I do enjoy it, I love the strategy part of it, but I do see it as a very dark game.
The reaction was polarized. As one poker fan, known as @djm182, wrote on Twitter: "For the record, if I won a poker tourney and claimed $15.3M for doing so, I'd take 15 minutes and talk to the media. #colman #child."
Poker pro David Peat had the opposite take, saying "hats off" to Colman for following his decision and adding that they don't owe the Rio anything. "They are predators taking enough from poker."
Aaron Brown, the author of "The Poker Face of Wall Street," agreed, but for a different reason. "Not only do I fully support Dan Colman in refusing to play the desired part, his actions are what make Dan Negreanu's graciousness meaningful," he told me, referring to the wildly popular star who came in second to Colman in the tournament and was much more affable in defeat. "Poker champions have a choice, unlike Misses America or NFL players with PR contract clauses and commissioners to obey. Poker is still an honest game, to the annoyance of the people who prefer pretty hypocrisy. Poker is real and will be around long after sportainment conglomerates have fallen."
Negreanu himself also weighed in on the controversy. "I respect Daniel Colman for having empathy for those people that may be jaded into thinking they can easily become a poker superstar and make millions," he wrote, adding that "it's difficult to take the position he does, and actually still profit from the game, and the weaker players he exploits."
Presumably Colman doesn't alert his online adversaries that he's a professional and they're likely to lose, Negreanu continued. And the One Drop tournament, after all, is about something larger: It raised $4.6 million for a good cause.
As for Colman saying "I don't owe poker anything," the man long known as Kid Poker wrote:
You don't owe poker anything, sure, but poker has given you a lot. The camera crew filming the event, the dealers, floor staff, Caesars, the WSOP, ESPN, PokerStars.com for giving you an opportunity to support yourself, the players that came before you and did spend time promoting a game you would have likely never heard about. You don't owe poker, or me personally anything, much like when a waitress brings your order, you don't owe her a tip or even a thank you. It's just a gracious custom, much like doing a winner's interview.
Negreanu also noted that if Colman has an issue with the morality of being a poker pro, he needs to make a choice: "If I may make a suggestion, why not continue to do what you love, empower others, educate others about the dangers of this lifestyle, and use the money your talents allow you to earn, to make a difference in the world?"
A fair question.
Charitable poker tournaments have long been a highly effective means of raising money to help the unfortunate, but their general cause isn't helped if the winner of the biggest one uses the occasion to emphasize that people lose money playing poker. Grownups lose money in a thousand different kinds of investments. Understanding that going in is part of being a grownup.
Online poker, the version Colman has thrived in, is under relentless attack in legislatures across the U.S., nowhere more so than in Washington. The forces aligned against it are now led by Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas Sands chairman who has reaped many billions from skill-free casino games in which the house is guaranteed to win in the long run. Much of Colman's statement will be music to his ears.
Young Mr. Colman has the luxury of being able to leave the country (he has lived in Canada and Brazil) to play his favorite game of skill. Most Americans aren't so lucky.
To contact the writer of this article: James McManus at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Timothy Lavin at firstname.lastname@example.org.