The Leftists Standing Alone in the World of Professional Poker

The cutthroat game of poker seems directly at odds with socialist principles — but that hasn’t stopped a handful of the game’s best players from vocally endorsing them

Back in 2016, when Bernie Sanders was competing against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, he received a hedged endorsement that pointed to leftist politics’ unique relationship with the world of professional poker. It came from Daniel Negreanu, a household name in the world of poker and one of a handful of figures in the game to have any sort of mainstream crossover. (Go on, speak to your friend who briefly got into poker around 2005. They’ll remember “the old Texan guy,” “the guy who always complains” and “the guy who won’t shut up but can guess everyone else’s hands.” Negreanu’s the third one.) 

“I wish I agreed with more of Bernie Sanders’ positions [sic] because I would be happy to call him president and think his intentions are pure,” Negreanu tweeted. As a Canadian who merely spends a lot of his time in the U.S., his words have an illustrative quality that outflanks any more direct political value. 

Poker has long been a profession whose principal appeal has been the freedom it offers those who choose it as a career path. This is an industry where, to have any sort of longevity, you need to be both lucky and good, with a larger skew toward the latter the longer you stay at the top. It’s a game that’s attracted Ivy League alumni and chess prodigies, day-traders and high-powered lawyers, all drawn to being able to operate outside the system while remaining able to consider themselves the smartest person in any given room. However, as the coronavirus pandemic has a direct impact on poker at a surface level with the temporary closure of casinos, an unseen consequence is the way in which it’s helped entrench political divisions, which had already become visible around the game, and which may have lasting consequences. 

Although the game of poker has certain egalitarian qualities, they’re often only superficial. It’s true that unlike in professional sports, there’s no barrier to your average Joe walking up with a buy-in and sitting down in a public game against one of the big-name pros they normally watch on TV. Additionally, however skilled you are, there’s a chaotic element of luck which can, in any individual hand, level the playing field. But when you speak to some poker players, socialism can still feel like a bit of a dirty word: It’s a game founded on principles which, at least on a surface level, appear to be unflinchingly capitalist — the aim is to win as much money as possible in any given tournament or cash game, and some struggle to square this overarching element with support for measures such as wealth distribution.

However, as anyone who has lost a hand with pocket aces will remind you, unlikely and impossible aren’t the same. Both in the U.S. and the U.K., left-leaning candidates have won support from the poker world, and the players at the intersection have faced some interesting conversations as a result.

Cards on the Table

“There’s something about poker that breeds a sort of outside-of-the-system type of logic or worldview,” says Dani Stern, a pro who was part of an early wave of online poker wunderkinds, winning more than $3.5 million in live tournaments and seeing his online exploits brought to a wide audience in a documentary called 2 Months 2 Million. While he retired from poker in 2017 (he tells me he hasn’t played a single hand in a professional environment since), the New York native remains friends with a number of high-level pros and keeps an eye on their results, even if he’s no longer spending time playing the game himself.

“A lot of people got into poker because of the independence and the separation from the normal way of making a living in this country, or in any country, really,” he says, suggesting that, on an anecdotal level at least, he wouldn’t be surprised if poker has a higher proportion of libertarians than the general population. “That probably has a correlation with certain politics and certain ways of feeling about things. In terms of when you play higher stakes, obviously you play super high rollers and stuff like that, you get a few pretty wealthy businessman types and, believe it or not, they’re not usually socialists!” Stern adds.

Indeed, this is an arena where it’s been possible, in the last two years, to pay a couple of thousand dollars and find yourself playing in a tournament with Republican Party donor Cary Katz or British Conservative Party MP Zac Goldsmith, and hold the same amount of chips when the first hand is dealt. And yet, amid all of this, Stern’s left-leaning politics haven’t wavered. Indeed, as other current and former poker pros tell me, the state of affairs in 2020 has served to highlight the polarization of political views among those with ties to the poker world, just as in the wider world.

Going All-In on Bernie

Despite poker’s surface-level existence away from political structures, the current and former players I spoke to have interpreted the current political moment through the prism of their favored candidate’s policy areas. Such a response can’t be separated from the fact that those who rise to poker’s summit do so by making clear efforts to check their own confirmation biases and refusing to be results-orientated; similarly, approaching politics in the “right” way is still intensely valued, even if it doesn’t produce immediate electoral success.

In the latest political cycle, Stern put his weight behind Bernie Sanders, donating to the Democratic candidate’s 2020 campaign and admitting the current cycle marked “the first time I’ve ever really believed in a candidate,” and is firm in his belief that “I don’t think [professional poker and socialism] are in conflict, really.” 

“I’m not a communist — I don’t believe there shouldn’t be markets at all, I don’t believe in seizing private property, things like that,” Stern continues. “I think everybody has the right to make a living as long as it’s not in an immoral way, basically, and if that happens to be playing poker then I support that.”

This has brought a particular frustration when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, where, as in poker, the “right approach” can count for nothing if one’s timing is even a fraction off. “The timing of this is so infuriating,” he says. “I can’t imagine a more perfect scenario for a popular movement to move dramatically left on issues such as health care than during a national health crisis, and yet the Democratic candidate is against Medicare for All. It’s just incredibly frustrating, but here we are.”

However, for all Stern’s balance and justification of his stances, he hasn’t been able to shield himself from criticism on social media, as others don’t share his belief that his politics and his former profession are compatible. “I always get the comment like, ‘Oh, a poker player’s talking about politics.’ But who’s allowed to talk about politics? Do you only want politicians to talk about politics?”

Stern’s viewpoint isn’t held in isolation. Justin Bonomo — second on poker’s all-time money list, with more than $50 million in lifetime tournament earnings — is among the other high-profile names to make public their support for Sanders. Like Stern (who reassures me, “If I only had 10 [Twitter] followers, I’d be tweeting the same thing”) Bonomo has been prepared to stick to his guns when others within the poker world (including Negreanu, with whom he has engaged in debate throughout the current election cycle) remind him he holds a minority outlook within his profession, and has been able to explain his position from a place of recognizing where other poker players seem to lie on the issues.

Left of the Dealer

This marriage of left-leaning politics and high-level poker isn’t restricted to the U.S., either. Jamie Burland’s professional poker career spanned much of the same period as Stern’s, running from 2009 until 2018, but he hasn’t cut all ties with the game. Indeed, it was thanks to a colleague at the gambling company where he now works as an analyst that he found himself canvassing for the Labour Party ahead of the 2019 U.K. general election.

Burland lives in Brighton, where the Labour conference took place earlier that year, and his support for the party had a good amount to do with the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. He has voted for Labour in every election he could, with one exception — he lives in a city where the local MP has belonged to the Green Party since 2010, and voted Green in 2015 — but cites Corbyn’s “Green New Deal” as a big factor in his renewed support. “When Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader, my father called me up and said, ‘It’s nice to have a socialist as the leader of the Labour Party again,’” the 35-year-old tells me. 

In the two weeks before the election, Burland took time off work to effectively devote himself full-time to knocking on doors and getting the vote out. “I’ve always received the challenge from friends who aren’t in poker, or perhaps friends who are just interested and know I’m a supporter of the Labour Party or a supporter of left-wing politics, but see I’ve spent most of my youth playing poker. That actually causes a little bit of a conflict and raises questions,” he says. “One thing I do get asked by people is, if you spend a lot of time thinking about and believing in policies which are, to quote Jeremy Corbyn, ‘for the many not the few,’ then how does that conflict with the idea of poker, where the aim is to win all the money in the middle that other players have put in? In its nature, it’s a really capitalist model of game and a really self-serving game as well. That obviously causes conflict with broader politics, but for me, it’s always been, ‘This is a game I play with these other people who I hope can afford to be playing at this table, and while we’re playing on this table together, the reason I play is because I want to win. But I also hope that everyone playing is happy and healthy and isn’t playing with their last bit.’” 

Keeping Your Cards Close to Your Chest

There’s an audible frustration when Burland moves on to the topic of the pandemic, and the way in which its initial outbreak was addressed by the U.K.’s Conservative government. Indeed, some of this may harken back to his poker career, in which he was continuously forced to make micro-judgements on the capabilities and intelligence of those sat across the table from him, determining whether what he was witnessing was genuine confidence or just bluster.

“You start to see people who won’t budge an inch just because [Chancellor of the Exchequer] Rishi Sunak is on the other team, if you like, but then there’s also people who get a little bit too hypnotized by one Tory doing the right thing and finally doing things we’ve been championing on the left for decades, and it takes a global pandemic to make these reasonable adjustments,” he says.

The biggest shift, as Burland sees it, is arguably as much toward polarization as toward any specific political stance. He cites the tendency for those in the center to consider themselves “politically homeless” as the gap between right and left grows. The Englishman can still remember noticing a large number of MAGA hats in Las Vegas during the 2016 World Series of Poker — the first time he was forced to confront the reality of the poker community being unafraid to nail their political colors to the mast. But broadly speaking, a lot of the fiercest arguments and discussions involving poker players will often happen away from the table.

“It’s more that people will have discussions about politics at the poker table, but they’re far more likely to handle those discussions in a way that really diffuses any confrontation, like, ‘Oh, concentration camps for children, that’s an interesting point-of-view, maybe I’m going to try and win all your chips now because you’re an arsehole,’” he says. “It could tie into that whole game theory dynamic of, ‘Okay, I’m in this seat for X number of hours and I don’t know how long X is, and I don’t know how many people are going to think I’m an arsehole if I challenge this guy.’ Broadly speaking, you want people to think you’re alright, so they’re not going to try and bluff you on the river every time you put some money in.”

Poker is, after all, a game of incomplete information, where part of your goal as a player is to fill in some of those gaps in your head. Anything you can glean from political conversations that helps you reach your end goal of improving your bottom line is, by definition, beneficial. But beyond that, you have elements of meta-game, where carefully cultivating the image you present to the other players around the table can allow you to better predict how they might react to how you play.

Challenging Compatibility

While the profession of “poker player” might attract those seeking a career outside of the system, this doesn’t make the world in which these players operate entirely immune to outside forces. Indeed, the current casino shutdown isn’t the first time we received a reminder that the microclimate in which the game exists isn’t entirely independent of the world-at-large.

Ever since some of the world’s largest poker sites were taken out of the U.S. market following a 2011 Department of Justice opinion — an event known colloquially as “Black Friday” — many have been forced to move overseas to make a living online, or focus their attentions on live games in American casinos. In contrast, European countries have led the way on regulated online games, with many of the sites who operated in the U.S. before 2011 continuing to lead the way across the Atlantic. It can feel natural, then, for the legalization and regulation of online poker to act as an entry point for those poker players who had previously operated almost outside the wider political landscape and had some freedom to ignore it. And so, when Democratic primary candidate Andrew Yang announced in October that he intended to federally regulate online poker, it resonated with a large section of professional players who had been left in limbo for the best part of a decade. 

However, for many, the political awareness didn’t end there. California-based poker player Kelly Kim is one of this number, though his support for Yang goes far beyond the candidate’s relationship with poker. Kim, best known for making the final table at the World Series of Poker Main Event in 2008, doesn’t remember chatter about Barack Obama’s election — which took place the same week — as an especially big point of discussion among his opponents at that time. Now, though, he considers himself more politically aware. He describes Yang as “the logical choice” and doesn’t share British ex-pro Burland’s outlook on poker and socialism being, if not natural bedfellows, then reasonable ones. 

“I haven’t put too much thought into it, but in a quick response, I’d say yeah, it’s incompatible,” Kim tells me. “This line of work that we choose, we prey on the weak, we prey on the less skilled and people who have money from other avenues who come into our arena. We’re in a dog-eat-dog world, and we’re in a game where you have to be ruthless and cut-throat and you have to go for every edge. You have to study, and you have to do things to be better than your opponent. It definitely goes more in tune with a capitalistic society where the better you are, the better prepared you are, the better you’re going to do. I don’t really see how being socialist and playing poker for a living would make sense.”

In terms of Kim’s attraction to Yang as a candidate — and he trusts that his popularity would be greater if and when he runs in 2024 — he sees the poker factor as a symptom of a wider connection, rather than a direct cause. “Naturally, his logic trickles down to my arena, but it’s the big picture,” he says. “His core messages resonate more in terms of humanity and in terms of this society and us being in one of the most developed countries in the world, but not having Medicare for All and our medical system being flawed.”

Poker is a game which, at some level, has the power to ignore crises in the wider world to still at least give an impression of health. However, as Kim recognizes it, it has shared peaks and troughs with dominant economies, enjoying a boom in the early part of the 21st century and reaching a point where, in his words, “when people don’t have disposable income to lose at the poker table, it becomes harder to make money because you’re playing against winners.”

We could soon reach a stage where the benefit of hiding political allegiances at the table — namely, that by listening rather than speaking you can glean more information — becomes less important than having your views known about what matters. And even if not, the analytical mind of a poker pro hardly needs to go into overdrive to recognize politics is something which, by definition, affects the lives of everyone at the table.

Whether or not poker is the hyper-capitalist parody that some see it as from the outside — a game in direct competition with leftist politics — we may have reached a moment where enough is at stake for political alignments to tower over everything else, even for professional card players. And when that happens, the question of whether your past or present profession lines up perfectly with your politics begins to look like something you can look beyond pretty easily.