Salomon Ponte Is Why Poker Needs To Get Responsible About Problem Gambling

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Pawn shop sign
Even though the game was played last month, people in poker are still talking about Salomon Ponte and his memorable appearance on Poker Night in America (PNIA).

For those unaware, Ponte came on a livestreamed cash game at Choctaw Casino in Durant, OK. During the appearance, he berated fellow players and their families, then eventually lost his buy-in.

Ponte claimed he was rebuying, but just waiting on a wire. The Canadian eventually tried to pawn his phone, watches, and passport in order to obtain a loan to buy back in.

The appearance caused a stir among poker players and fans. People condemned his opinion towards women, his foul mouth, and his demeanor. However, one subject glaringly missing from the discussion was responsible gambling.

If poker wants to be taken seriously, it needs to take itself seriously

There are plenty of issues about Ponte to discuss, but problem gambling seems to be getting the shaft. There are almost no conversations about why someone without the money to rebuy was allowed near the table. Though PNIA did not issue an official statement on the incident, the archive of the stream was taken down. Additionally, producer Matt Glantz said on Twitter that none of the footage would make the televised show.

When another streaming show, Live at the Bike, cancelled Ponte’s scheduled appearance, the show did issue a statement. But the issues were more to do with his character:

If you think about pretty much any other major industry, issuing some sort of statement or flashing a hotline number is par for the course. Look at the reaction to the lack of warnings in the recent Netflix teen suicide show 13 Reasons Why and you get just one example of how much caution other industries exercise on mental health issues.

Blacklisting Ponte is not the answer either

Casinos and poker shows justifiably banned Ponte from their property and events as these incidents arose. That does not mean the problem is solved though.

Identifying people who might be playing with money they can’t afford to lose is an important part of the gambling industry. Removing Ponte or other people who exhibit a lack of self-control when gambling is a necessary step too. The point of casinos is to entertain and have fun. Ensuring people are doing so in a fiscally responsible way is essential.

One way to correct that perception is to more openly discuss how to identify people who are struggling and being aware of the resources at their disposal to get help. Additionally, while these poker programs deserve credit for distancing themselves from Ponte’s rhetoric, leaving him completely out in the cold with no help does not seem to be the answer either.

For the record, the National Center on Problem Gambling has a 24/7 chat line. Additionally, people can call or text 1-800-522-4700 if they feel like their gambling is out of control.

This past week, Ponte surfaced in a video on WorldStarHipHop, a video aggregator, allegedly unable to pay his restaurant tab. He gets in a verbal altercation with the owner, who is calling the police.

Social media chatter on the video inevitably led to a lot of jokes. It isn’t funny anymore though. This is clearly someone with a problem who needs help. If we as an industry continue to give him the spotlight only to poke fun at him, we are at fault too.

Poker Night missed an opportunity to have an important conversation

It is entirely possible Ponte does not have a gambling problem. His behavior on the show does exhibit signs that he possibly could though. The Mayo Clinic description of problem gambling symptoms includes (among others):

  • Being preoccupied with gambling, such as constantly planning how to get more gambling money
  • Trying to get back lost money by gambling more (chasing losses)
  • Asking others to bail you out of financial trouble because you gambled money away

Arguably all three of these symptoms were on display during the stream. That does not mean he has a problem. But it does warrant a discussion. Oftentimes, poker players exempt themselves from problem gambling discussions because they are playing a game of predominantly skill over chance. Risks are calculated and the gambling element of the game feels diminished.

It is true that there should be a larger discussion about “the pit” and problem gambling related to table games in the poker industry. Erik Lindgren is an example of someone who went on the record about his gambling addiction away from the poker tables. He still has financial issues, but productive conversations resulted in the wake of his interviews.

What does not get openly discussed in the poker world much is the massive amount of make-up staked tournament poker players can rack up over the years. Nor do many people talk about the emotional toll the stress of that make-up can have on a person.

To be clear, poker players deserve privacy about their financial transactions. The public clearly does not know or understand the full scope of how money travels in the high stakes poker community, nor should they. When these moments play out in public though, this is a chance to educate poker fans and non-gamblers alike about the ecosystem.

What could be done to encourage responsible gaming?

Certainly Ponte’s decisions at Choctaw were entirely his own. This situation needed to be handled differently nonetheless.

Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, explains why:

“When an invited guest on Poker Night in America began acting in a wild and disruptive manner–whether it is just for the cameras, evidence of some more serious behavioral health problems, a mixture of both or something else entirely—Poker Night in America staff on site and ultimately the Choctaw Nation Gaming Commission had responsible gaming and customer service responsibilities to him, the other players, and viewers to address his behavior.”

For example, the show could mandate a cooling off period for anyone who busts the cash games and does not have cash on hand to rebuy. In this instance, Ponte did leave the table for an extended period of time voluntarily. Nonetheless, having a rule in place to encourage good, deliberate decision making reinforces responsible gaming to viewers and customers.

Commentators could have started a discussion about the pawning situation. The production team should have a list of talking points and resources at the ready before every filming session.

If escrowing property and loaning money is common in high stakes cash games, explain why. Take time to explain the difference between what takes place in these cash games and someone pawning their watch for a $1/$2 buy-in. Because in Choctaw, it looked like the same thing.

Take responsibility about problem gambling

There are countless examples of poker players who treat their job like a business and practice good money management. Several have been featured on PNIA. The show does a good job of featuring a wide range of poker players, good, bad, and indifferent.

We can be frank and honest about the poker industry and still endorse good decision making. It is not necessarily a bad thing Ponte and his antics got some time in the spotlight. Because now there is an opportunity for us to talk about it productively. Don’t let it pass us by.

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About

Jessica Welman has worked as a tournament reporter for the World Poker Tour, co-hosted a podcast for Poker Road, and served as the managing editor for WSOP.com. A graduate of Indiana University and USC, Welman is not only a writer but also a producer. She can be found on Twitter @jesswelman.

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