Nicolas Levi
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Greg Raymer Interview: 'Have fun yourself, make it fun for everyone else, and it'll be a better game'

The RankingHero interview series continues with one of the most experienced and committed ambassadors of the game, 2004 WSOP Champion and our #WeeklyHero - @Greg Raymer.  He talked to Nicolas Levi about the past, present, and future of the industry and the role of professional poker players.

Hi, Greg. You played a big role in the poker boom yourself. Since then, the industry seems to be contracting. A lot of people are worried about its future. On the one hand you've got professional poker that's suffering hard, and on the other side, all the amateur world and the smaller poker leagues seem to be as strong as ever. Is poker as we know it about to die, or is the industry going to adapt?

Well, poker as we know it is going to die but that's true of every single thing in the world, everything changes. It's always different, but that doesn't mean that what comes next isn't better.

So having said that, I think there are going to be some big changes in poker and it is largely, I think, because players are so much better; you could make a living as a poker pro before the boom ten years ago and you didn't have to have advanced knowledge, you could do quite well beating live games with what we would now consider pretty weak poker skills. You can't come in as a novice anymore and become a winning player easily. It's kind of like other games that are more advanced in their knowledge, like chess...

In chess you have to work really hard for a long time. No matter how smart you are and no matter how much natural talent you might have for the game, you're going to work hard for many years before you are even close to being really competitive with the better players, and poker didn't use to be that way. It used to be that someone could come along and maybe just work hard for a few months and become a winning player.

The past decade has focused on the competitive aspect of poker and it has created, like you said, this generation of players that have worked really hard to become good. Many poker players have started to feel inadequate and quit. As a result, the game feels elitist. Do you think that's the root of the problem and can it be fixed?

No, I don't think that's really the problem, it just means that there's going to be a relatively small fraction of the players that can play and expect to beat the game in the long run, and to some extent, that's a lot more true online that it is live.

Live settings, live games still tend to be a lot more social, a lot more about people having fun and getting their entertainment and you don't see a high percentage of players in a live poker room who are there with the intention of making a living. Iin fact most of them, if they were honest with themselves, don't even really expect to win.

Before I won the Main Event I was a part-time pro and before that I was a serious amateur, and I was doing my best to win and I was working to improve my game and all those things, but I wasn't making a living. I was making my living as an attorney and I was trying to make more money as a poker player, not so much because I needed the money, but because it served to fulfill my competitive outlets.

And then I made the transition to full-time professional player after winning the Main Event, but of course you have a big advantage over the majority of players that you can make money without having to win it. I can get appearance fees, I can get endorsement deals...I can do these things that will allow me to make income without having to be a winner at the table for every dollar that I'm going to put towards my livelihood. And there's obviously only a handful of us that are lucky enough to be in that situation.

For everyone else, if you're going to make a living, you have to win that money at the table, and that's just harder and harder to do. It's not that much harder in a live game setting than it was before the poker boom, but it's harder, people are definitely a lot better. And it's harder to get in the kind of volume you need to make significant income.

Because now for every one pro who's going to play 30 tables he needs a hundred losing players to fill all the other seats and he has to share some of those with other pros like himself. It was kind of a commonly accepted wisdom before the poker boom that 10% of the players in the poker world were long-term winning players, and I think we've found with online we can measure it more exactly. I'm pretty sure the number would be a lot less than 10%.

Is there any trend that looks good from your insider perspective?

Well, I think it's going to get better primarily for a lot of the same reasons that around the world everything's getting better to a pretty significant extent.

I'm not saying that there isn't more improvement necessary, I'm just saying that things have been trending toward the better in most areas. Certainly if I'm dark-skinned in America today I'm a lot better off than I was even 50 years ago, when I was born. Life is a lot easier in terms of racial discrimination in this country than it was 50 years ago, and hopefully it'll be much better again in another 50 years, and the same for everything else...

I think attitudes and opinions are better despite us fighting for online poker against conservative Christian groups and stuff like that. In the US, I still think things are a lot more liberal in that regard, people don't seem to want the government to be imposing morality on society as much as they used to. So things will improve, it's just a question of how much, how soon.

What has been your main drive to play poker - beating your competitor or making money?

Well, it's the competition and then whether you win the game is measured by winning money, so it is certainly a big part of it for me. But I understand completely that for the vast majority of poker players that's not really it because if they're being honest with themselves they would know that they're not winning money, they would know that they're losing money. It is essentially entertainment.

And even though they lose, poker remains comparable to, or even less expensive than some other hobbies. If you're a guy who instead of playing poker once or twice a week, you buy a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and ride it around the countryside and that's your entertainment, I suspect buying the motorcycle, gasoline, maintenance, insurance etc, ends up costing you a lot more money than the average poker player loses when he plays poker.

Speaking of motivation to play, do you think social aspects and every sort of innovation around social can play a big part in making a positive experience for the players and making poker fun again?

It's obviously impossible for me to know but my guess would be that those things have a relatively high likelihood of being beneficial.

Simple things like volume, how many hands you have played or how many tournaments you have entered - awarding points or some distinction like a digital ribbon. I can see that being something that people would be happy about, and would like to brag about to their friends. And certainly, since it doesn't cost you anything as a site or a live room to warrant such things, you’ve got no downside really.

The big hurdle standing in our way everywhere, not just in the US, but in Europe and other parts of the world, are the problems with governments either wanting to segregate their country when it comes to online poker or outlaw it, or tax it at ridiculous rates.

I think our biggest issue is just dealing with politicians, whether it's the US, Europe or anywhere else in the world, make them want to stay out of our way or promote our business just like they would want to promote some other industry.

Maybe a good analogy is the guy who's making the Harley Davidsons and the sailboats - you don't need those… You don't have to have a Harley or any kind of touring bike, those are not bikes that are really used for transportation in the sense of getting to and from work or anything like that. They don't really have any value in a utilitarian sense. They are for fun.There's no difference between that industry and live or online poker, it's there for fun. So if you're going to promote one, why not the other?

What positive role could/should professionals play in supporting the industry? Are they doing it?

You know, Wil Wheaton is an American actor and author, you might remember him from Star Trek The Next Generation. He postulated a simple and universal rule which is now referred to as “Wheaton’s Law” in gaming culture: “Don’t be a dick!”

In other words, yeah, the game itself might be violent, you're shooting zombies and so on, but don't be a dick towards the other players. Don't say nasty stuff to them in the chatbox, don’t be abusive.

And I think poker players should follow that rule as well - ‘don't be a dick’. I mean, be a nice guy, whether it's online or live, treat people with respect. Don't be a dick, don't be a douchebag, don't be an angle shooter, make the game fun.

If you're playing for fun, then try to make it fun for everybody. If you're a professional trying to make money - well, you're making money because other people are coming to play for fun. Make it fun so they want to come play.

People who are deliberately trash-talking and being abusive to other players thinking they will put everyone on tilt so they'll lose their money quicker, are probably wrong. And even if they're right, they're being short-sighted because they will chase away the players that are going to lose to them. And so these guys make the game worse for themselves and for everybody else in the long run.

That would be my main advice to players: make it fun, have fun yourself and make it fun for everyone else, and it'll be a better game, whether you're a pro or not.

Greg, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for your insights and good luck at the tables!

Read on:

2004 WSOP Champion Greg Raymer Bio & Poker Profile

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