John Gollehon Gets Cranky

I read this over at The Poker Gazette and thought I would give some play by play:

Much like Garrison Keillor’s fictitious schoolchildren of Lake Wobegon, all poker players think they are above average.

Obviously most of them are fooling themselves, or at least trying to, gambling author and publisher John Gollehon says.

“An element of arrogance exists in all gambling endeavors, but poker seems to bring it out the most,” said Gollehon, a prolific author of books aimed at recreational bettors. “Arrogance tends to congregate in the poker rooms.

“Many of these average players think that they are better than they are, and tend to rationalize losses as mere anomalies. They have no chance (at winning) until they look in the mirror and get square with themselves.”

Overestimating their skill is just one trap that can snag younger or novice poker players, Gollehon said. He has become wary of what the poker boom has spawned – including, Gollehon believes, an increased risk of addiction among teens.

“Through elaborate marketing, the game is catching the attention of all sorts of players,” said Gollehon, referring to a McGill University study that reported signs of problem gambling among even preteens. “Unfortunately, many of those caught in the nets should be thrown back, too young to play. But play they do.

“I’ve been uncomfortable with this for quite some time,” Gollehon said.

First, Mr. Gollehon, I would like to say “Don’t tap on the glass!” Good poker players make money off of people who think that they’re better than they actually are. :-)

The reason arrogance comes are part of the territory is because it’s a skill game. Mr. Gollehon seems like he’s never been inside a high school locker room. Yes, teenagers are immature and prone to overestimating their abilities. Their world is quite small and they’ve yet to had life kick them in the junk enough times. That’s part of the territory with being a teenager.

It’s also why many of them die in auto accidents. Their driving skills and experience are inferior and their arrogance lures them into doing stupid things behind the wheel of a two ton vehicle. The point is that arrogance, stupidity, and inexperience are the hallmarks of being a teenager. Contrary to Mr. Gollehon’s implications, poker isn’t making that way, it’s simply where they congregate.

I was also a little puzzled about his “elaborate marketing” statement. Television ads? Hell, other than the Full Tilt and Party commercials, most have the look and feel as if they were put together by rank amatuers. And don’t even get me started on the low quality of land based casinos outside of Las Vegas. Many of their ads are unintentionally comical.

It’s an unexpected turnabout for someone with such a rich background in gambling.

Through his Michigan-based company, Gollehon Press, Gollehon has published titles such as “Budget Gambling,” “Conquering Casino Craps” and “Casino Gambling for Boneheads.” His company has published 70 gambling books, with 35 currently in print and five others about to come back into print, Gollehon said.

His books contain advice that involves “stop-loss” limits, riding hot streaks and the like. They can be readily found in the gift shops of Strip resorts.

Clearly, he’s not targeting professional gamblers or aspiring pros as an audience, but rather tourists hoping to stretch their allotted bankroll. “We’re not doing (Doyle Brunson’s classic) ‘Super System’ here,” Gollehon said.

So you’d think Gollehon – who counts a couple of poker primers among his works and recalls playing against legends such as Johnny Moss, Jack Strauss and Stu Ungar in the 1980s – would be enthusiastic about major poker tournaments such as the World Series of Poker. After all, that’s where rank amateurs supposedly have a decent shot to cash in for big paydays against the pros.

Not so, said Gollehon. In fact, because his audience consists of casual rather than hard-core gamblers, “it makes me more sensitive to this issue,” he said.

Following is a sampling of what the author calls “Gollehon’s gambling gripes:”

# A glut of TV poker. Sure, most viewers watch televised poker purely for entertainment. “But many from the ranks of our gullible youth are mesmerized by the illusion of easy money,” said Gollehon, whose latest book – an inspirational novel called “The Finding,” written under the pen name J.R. Shannon – represents a departure from the gambling motif . “They seek out poker rooms, spending untold hours at the table, as long as (their) money holds out.”

# Appeals to youth, both in live games and on the Internet. “Many tribal casinos today welcome teens (18 and up),” Gollehon said. “There is little or no special effort to weed out minors.” And online, younger teens can play for money at poker sites using their parents’ credit cards, Gollehon said.

# The threat of addiction. Whereas video poker or slot machines don’t traditionally appeal to younger male gamblers, poker certainly does. “Now the live game (of poker) is dramatically impacting teens, particularly boys,” Gollehon said. “Studies show a marked increase in underage gambling, due primarily to the onslaught of live poker ¦ I don’t like the fact that there is no great effort being made to keep this away from kids.”

How many gullible youth are hanging out in casinos? Yes, the boom in poker has created a lot of younger players but when I go sit down at Commerce, The Bike, or Hollywood Park, the average age has to be north of 30. And that’s not even counting the 800 year old dude sucking down an oxygen tank.

I’m not even sure I understand the second gripe. If they’re 18, they’re no longer a minor. An 18 year old can get married, enter contracts, go sign up to fight and die for his country but god forbid he walk into a casino. The only thing an 18 year old can’t do in most states is drink. If you ask me, that’s the absurdity. I can operate a $20 million tank and am trusted with a gun but I can’t buy a beer to toast my buddies to celebrate the fact that I didn’t come home in a body bag from Iraq?

And if younger teens are swiping their parent’s credit cards to play online . . . uh, I think that’s a parental issue. If parents are concerned about their underage kids going online and gambling (and they should be) then all they have to do is take away the credit card. I’m always stunned at these types of arguments. There’s too much violence on television. Hey, you know what you might try? How about telling your kids that they can’t watch violent shows? If your kid is gambling online and you’re enabling his/her behavior by giving him access to your credit card, well your kid’s biggest problem isn’t gambling; it’s poor parenting.

The third gripe also has some credibility issues. For instance, according to

The American Psychological Association classifies compulsive gambling as a mental health disorder of impulse control. It is a chronic and progressive disease that is both diagnosable and treatable. About 2 to 4 percent of Americans have an active gambling problem.

The site also says that “teens are about three times more likely to become pathological gamblers than adults.” Now that might sound like point A supports point B but the site further states:

Gambling addiction expert Dr. Richard Rosenthal believes that three criteria are necessary for a person to become a pathological gambler:

* an intolerable feeling state, such as helplessness, depression, or guilt
* a highly developed capacity for self-deception, and
* exposure to gambling under circumstances in which it is valued

Physical or hereditary predispositions are also thought to play a role, though these links have not been proven or disproven.

So, really, what is being said is that the growing popularity in poker increases only one of three of the necessary criteria that lead to problem gambling. What troubles me is that people like Mr. Gollehon (and many of the folks supporting anti-gambling legislation) seem unconcerned about the other two. If you’re raising depressed kids who have developed a capacity for self-deception, well, chances are that kid is going to get addicted to something or another. It’s not a matter of if but to what.

Mr. Gollehon’s entire business is publishing books for people who aren’t gamblers but need an introduction to the subject. He publishes books that provide “exposure to gambling under circumstances in which it is valued.” Let’s say I’m 18 and I go to Las Vegas and I see all the games but I’m a little intimidated because I don’t know how to play any of them. I go to the gift shop in the hotel and see “Conquering Casino Craps” as I remember how much fun those people looked like they were having on the craps table. An hour with the book and the next thing you know I’m out there playing craps. If I already suffered from the first two pre-conditions, Mr. Gollehon has provided the trigger for the third. And I’m willing to wager that it’s a lot easier to get a copy of Mr. Gollehon’s books than it is for an underage kid to gamble in a casino, online or off.

Now, I’m not saying Mr. Gollehon has any sort of sinister motives by publishing his books. The fact that he’s concerned about teen gambling is a good sign he probably has a concious. I’ll even go so far as to give him credit for papering his books with warnings about the dangers of gambling even though I’ve never read any of his books and wouldn’t know if he did or didn’t. The point is, is that the WPT or the WSOP only do one thing; they present gambling in a positive light. His books do the same. His concern that WPT or other televised poker is creating problem gambling could just as easily be applied to his books.

I’m sure people like Mr. Gollehon have only the best intentions at heart but attempting to steer people’s behaviors normally doesn’t have the intended consuquences. Prohobition actually increased the number of people who drink. The percentage of the US population who engage in recreational drugs is up rather than down after decades of excellent advice like “Just Say No.” After banning beer and liquor ads from almost every known venue people still drink beer and liquor. What I’ve yet to see is a strong connection between poker and problem gambling. Yes, there are degenerate poker players but the vast, vast, vast majority of gambling problem horror stories you hear involve sports betting, black jack, and craps. A degenerate poker player is likely to get better at the game via his exposure to it. You can’t get better at craps. And interestingly, none of the core gaming that seems to lure in gambling addicts gets anywhere near the exposure and positive press as poker.

Conclusion: The real problem here is parents who fail to teach their children values, bounderies, and provide a healthy home environment. The beauty of minors is that they can’t have checking accounts, credit cards, or most of the other forms of payment that are needed to gamble online without their parent’s signoff. Nor does any legitimate casino allow them anywhere near a table (or sports book). If people are concerned about underage gambling they need to start working on the problem in the home rather than telling the other 98% of us who don’t have a problem that we can’t watch what we want to watch on television.

Bill Rini
Bill Rini is currently the Head of Online Poker for WSOP. He has been working in the online poker industry since 2004 and has held management roles at Full Tilt Poker and PartyPoker.