Kevin Mathers

How to Misunderstand the Concept of Poker Journalism Ethics

It’s nice to see a member of the poker “media” who’s deserving of greater reward suddenly receive an unexpected surprise.  That’s what happened this week when Kevin “Kevmath” Mathers, one of poker’s most valuable individual news aggregators, was unexpectedly staked into the ongoing World Series of Poker main event.

Mathers, who is currently employed by Bluff Magazine as a “Manager of Poker Information,” was working at the WSOP when he was approached by a handful of big-name players who decided to raise the $10,000 to put him into the ME.  The group was led by Daniel Alaei and included Daniel Negreanu.  The deal was similar to a standard staking arrangement, with Mathers able to keep 30% of his winnings if he bucked the long odds and made it to the money.

kevin-mathers

Kevin Mathers (pictured) received a free Main Event buy-in as a thank-you for years of unpaid work supporting poker players. Amazingly, another writer took him to task for it.

To get that part out of the way, Mathers didn’t make the money (nor even come close) as he busted on Day 1.  He busted just in time to be able to check out for himself a ridiculous op/ed penned by erstwhile poker writer Earl Burton, written for a small Nevada poker affiliate site, which blasted Mathers for accepting the buy-in as a violation of the poker world’s journalistic ethics.

The poker world’s reaction, including that of this writer, was, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

While there’s always the chance that this was an intentionally stupifying rickroll of a piece designed both to antagonize readers and draw extra Web traffic, the piece was stunning in its misapplication of all the principles involved.  (You’ll notice we’re not honoring it with a hyperlink.)

First, Mathers didn’t ask to be staked.  He was approached by the major pros involved.

Second, Mathers checked with his bosses at Bluff, who not only approved it, but had a little fun in the form of a feature on it.

Third, Mathers was being acknowledged by the staking pros for his years of ongoing free service to the poker community, rather than his more recent paid gig at Bluff.  Mathers has been providing his personalized information service to tens of thousands of poker players for about seven years, best as I can remember, including his own Twitter account (@KevMath), which has offered tens of thousands of useful poker-related tweets during that span.

Fourth, Mathers doesn’t even write op-eds for Bluff or any other news outlet, so there was never any “journalistic integrity” to be compromised.

Fifth, poker media members participate in tournaments all the time.  Sometimes they’re sponsored in, and sometimes they pay their own way.  There was nothing exceptional about this instance.

So, when Burton writes the following, one has to examine the greater context:

Journalists from any field aren’t supposed to accept gifts such as this which they could profit from. They aren’t supposed to accept gifts that, in an unfortunate circumstance in the future, would bias their coverage in the future. They aren’t supposed to become PART of the story, they are supposed to report the story.”

That’s as noble-sounding a pile of horseapples as I’ve seen in quite some time.

There is a spot in poker for hard-hitting journalism, such as we often offer here at FlushDraw, but there is also a spot for trade-press coverage, which tends to be fannish in nature.  That’s generally what WSOP and other live-tournament coverage is all about.  Even that distinction might offer grounds for a legitimate complaint, if only Mathers was somewhere, somehow doing any sort of reporting on the handful of players who paid his entry.

But no.

Burton even acknowledged receiving a $1,500 WSOP event buy-in from his then-employer (I believe PokerNews) back in 2006.  And so what, despite the disclaimer?  There was nothing wrong with that either.

Another small secret of this whole little mountain-out-of-a-molehill story peeks out from just under the intro to Burton’s piece:

“One of the major complaints about poker journalism has been that the journalists who cover the game are too ‘close’ to the subjects that they cover. This criticism exploded over the Absolute / UB ‘Superuser’ scandal of the mid to late 2000s all the way through the collapse of the original Full Tilt Poker in 2011.”

Oh, the would-be irony.  All things regarding poker and journalistic ethics tend to go back to the sordid tales of the AP and UB scandals, and how several major media outlets saw the signs, then ran like hell in the other direction.

It’s also true enough, as noted in the first version of this piece, that the Burton piece appeared at a site once owned by poker affiliate Jeremy Enke and his Poker Affiliate Solutions entity, and it was Enke who was one of the leading defenders of Absolute Poker back when the first serious evidence of insider cheating at that site emerged.

(Update: Contrary to current domain information, the author has confirmed that Jeremy Enke is no longer with PAS or FourCubed, the company’s parent.  In a post-publication conversation with the author, Enke ruefully acknowledged the old AP/UB op-ed while confirming that the listed domain info is outdated. — hh)

That was a bad time, when the affiliate world was split in two over what to do about the insider cheating, and exactly who or what to believe.  Enke’s site, along with another prominent site, PocketFives, served as outlets for bogus stories issued by Absolute Poker’s ChipLeader affiliate entity, written by ChipLeader’s own Peter Barovich and Danielle Burrows, that adamantly denied any cheating had occurred at AP.  The use of these sites as the purveyors of such messages showed full well how bastardized and beholden an industry can become when few or no real watchdogs exist.  That said, this isn’t an attack on Jeremy; he wasn’t alone in his opinions at the time, nor did he have any responsibility for what the real crooks at AP and UB were doing.

Anyhow, Enke bought into the corporate line, which people protecting their income streams are often wont to due.  (More famous example: Joe Sebok.)  He followed the faux AP pressers with his own editorial proclaiming that the claimed cheating at AP was as likely as the moon being made out of green cheese, based on the presumption that since pre-UIGEA online poker was such a license to print money, no one would cheat or steal.  Argument aside, the problem there — the journalistic-ethics sin — is that casual readers would have had no way of knowing that Enke was a marketer, not a journalist, despite appearing as one in that piece.  (These things really –ought- to come with disclaimers, don’t you think?)

Even then, Enke’s piece wasn’t that out of bounds regarding marketing practices; it’s just that marketing and journalism go together like oil and water, and to outsiders, it can be hard to see the separation.  A couple of years later, Enke went back and quietly deleted the piece, and today laughs while admitting he was waaaaaay wrong about UB and AP.

But that’s poker.  And that’s the Internet.  And that’s a whole lot of other things as well.

It’s likely that whoever owned the site was probably unaware of the impact of the Burton piece, or why it’s so wrongheaded.  Yes, poker media is often bastardized to the point of irrelevancy when it comes to media ethics.  And this is the perfect wrong example to attempt to illustrate it.

Affiliates aren’t the problem, either.  It’s a cause and effect that comes naturally to any single-topic or trade-press media outlet.  Eventually, they are all sponsored to some extent by the very industries they cover, and that must cause conflict.  I have no particular expectations that all affiliates will promote anything beyond their financial interests. Some do and some don’t, and as a writer I’m happy to work for those that respect their readers, and understand that the reading audience is something more than just an exploitable resource.

Along that line, a greater discussion of poker journalism ethics would make a lovely, lovely book on its own, but I’m not sure the world could stand the blood and carcasses.  Another time, perhaps.

The opening days of the WSOP Main Event and the couple of soft scheduling days immediately preceding them have long been recognized as poker’s silly season, when random bizarre happenings and thoughts occur.  Call it the World Series of Stupid: Every year seems to bring about a couple of these random trips into the Land of Time Wasted, whether it’s this or the recent Greg Merson idiocies, as explored elsewhere.  This bogus KevMath complaint?  It’s just the latest entry.

Frankly, it was good to see Mathers rewarded in such a manner, and as long as it’s as clearly delineated away from ethical compromise as this example was, there should be more of it.  If there’s been a sin regarding Mathers’ work, it’s that he had to provide thousands of hours of free labor to a major discussion forum without proper [any!] recompense in order to build his reputation.  He’s not the world’s greatest writer, doesn’t pretend to be a journalist, but he is a valuable commodity to poker.  It’s nice to see him have a few hours of fun on poker’s biggest stage.

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