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She Said/He Said: Controlling Emotions in Poker Doubly Challenging for Men
Written by Martin Harris   
Wednesday, 23 February 2011 11:32

Among the many culturally-prescribed boundaries suggested by “gender roles” -- those so-called “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics and behaviors men and women are often expected to exhibit -- are numerous restrictions regarding the public display of emotion.  

Such prescribed “roles” tend to limit women to the demonstration of what are sometimes referred to as “soft” emotions -- e.g., sympathy, vulnerability, kindness -- all often associated with ideas of femininity.

Meanwhile men wishing to appear masculine are generally discouraged from showing emotions at all, the exceptions being the occasional display of “hard,” masculine emotions like anger, impatience, irritation, and the like. To violate these expectations tends to elicit negative responses, with women who act too “hard” or “masculine” and men too “soft” or “feminine” frequently singled out for censure.

Not everyone agrees with the idea that such expectations are culturally-determined -- that they are in fact taught to us as children by our parents, peers, and others. However, the argument that conforming to such “gender roles” is somehow “natural” is a difficult one to prove. In any event, when it comes to poker and its special “culture,” there one also finds in place numerous “roles” or guidelines for behavior, including even more pronounced expectations for men and women.

Further complicating matters, poker is a game in which players’ success is often directly tied to their ability to control their emotions, with those who are the most able to exert such self-discipline most often emerging as winners. Thus one might say that poker doubly challenges men to suppress their emotions, most particularly the “soft” ones that might reveal any sort of vulnerability. The culture at large forbids such emotional displays as “feminine,” while the game itself also punishes those who are unable to hide what they are feeling at the tables.


We often hear new poker players instructed not to show “weakness” in their games. For men, such counsel goes beyond not checking and calling too much. It also often applies to one’s life away from the tables, too.

Earlier this month came an intriguing story involving two young poker players, Ashton Griffin and Haseeb Qureshi. The story concerned a significant proposition bet between the two men, and drew the attention of many thanks largely to Qureshi’s subsequent blog posts on CardRunners that described in detail the bet and its aftermath.

Ultimately the bet and Qureshi’s chronicling of it highlighted numerous issues and provoked a lot of debate over the nature of the bet, high-stakes gambling and “the world of poker players” Qureshi suggests might be in some way “unhealthy,” the public revealing of private information that occurs in the blog posts, among other points of contention.

One aspect of the story I found most intriguing, though, was how it involved male poker players expressing emotions, including the “soft” ones -- another point of contention for those who believe such is simply not done.

Griffin and Qureshi are high-stakes online players each of whom has enjoyed significant success at a young age. Griffin has additionally earned a few big live scores, including winning the NAPT Venetian High Roller Bounty Shootout in February 2010.

The prop bet -- widely-reported in excited fashion by a number of outlets -- required the 22-year-old Griffin, by most accounts a well-conditioned athlete who was once a college wrestler, to run a total of 70 miles on a treadmill during a 24-hour period. Ultimately Griffin gave Qureshi (his friend and roommate) 3-to-1 odds on a wager of $285,000, meaning if Griffin was unable to complete the task he’d owe Qureshi a whopping $855,000. Griffin booked an additional $15,000 with others at the same price, meaning all told he was risking $900,000 to win $300,000.

In the end, Griffin was able to manage the feat and win the bet, although Qureshi’s two lengthy posts -- titled “The Million Dollar Bet” (parts 1 and 2) -- report how the 24 hours turned into quite an ordeal for both he and Griffin as well as for numerous other friends and family.

The physical risk taken by Griffin is difficult to determine with any precision. Nevertheless, as the day wore on Qureshi seemed convinced that his friend was perhaps in danger of serious physical trauma or even death, something he’d obviously failed to consider adequately before committing to the bet. In the 10,000-plus words of his posts, Qureshi expresses a lot of self-criticism and regret, and for some perhaps violates expectations of men and/or gamblers by confessing he “felt uneasy” and “miserable” and that “everything felt heavy” and “all too much” for him as he waited to see how Griffin’s attempt would turn out

Qureshi may also have violated an assumed confidentiality by publishing his detailed account of the bet, although in a subsequent interview with PokerNews Griffin mentioned that even though he hadn’t given his friend permission to write about it, he was okay with the fact that he did.

Early in the account Qureshi describes Griffin telling him “I feel sad all the time,” an admission that becomes connected with the need for ever-higher action and what one assumes is a lack of satisfaction from playing and winning poker at the highest levels. Qureshi also directly and indirectly reveals himself in the posts as unhappy and discontented, which perhaps also spurred him to accept the risk -- financial and (for Griffin) physical -- associated with the bet.

As I say, the bet and Qureshi’s posts touch on a number of issues I am setting aside here in favor of focusing on the relatively unusual circumstance of men who are poker players displaying such raw-seeming emotion in public (Qureshi willingly, Griffin perhaps not). “I need to figure out some things about myself and my life,” Qureshi tells Griffin after the bet is done, his long, revealing posts clearly having been part of that process.

Amid the varied responses to the bet and Qureshi’s posts were some who were clearly bothered by the unrestrained display of emotion in the account. “Man the f*** up,” wrote one commenter on Qureshi’s blog. “You sound like a little girl.” Such is the risk men often take when they allow themselves to appear “soft” before others, most particularly in the “world of poker players.”

Soon after Qureshi’s posts appeared came another statement from a young male poker pro, the 2008 WSOP Main Event champion Peter Eastgate, in which he, too, revealed his emotions in an atypical way. Explaining his decision to come out of “retirement” and play poker once again, Eastgate openly admitted having struggled with his experience living the life of a high-stakes, high-profile pro.

“Sometimes in life a person can feel lost and wake up one morning not recognizing who he is,” said Eastgate, noting how “In the whirlwind that followed winning the WSOP I lost track of the most important thing in my life, myself.”

Such admissions of vulnerability by men are rarely seen in the poker world, but as Qureshi and Eastgate show, they are possible. And perhaps needful, on some level, since the game itself requires that all of us -- men and women -- try our best to control our emotions when competing.


See also: She Said:  Maybe There is Crying in Poker




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