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Language Communities

Language Communities: A Window into Poker’s Growth And The Rise Of Poker Training

There can be no denying that the landscape of poker looks immeasurably different today from how it looked on May 22, 2003 – the day before Chris Moneymaker beat Sammy Farha heads-up to win the WSOP Main Event, and kick-start the biggest participation boom in poker’s history to date.

The game has transformed, from a largely American phenomenon into a truly global one, and huge poker communities have sprung up worldwide in places where the game was unheard-of fifteen years ago.

This rapid growth has followed a number of specific pathways, but it has largely been facilitated by the breaking down of language barriers, and the proliferation of poker media consumption that goes along with it.

While the mathematical aspects of the game are inherent to its nature, poker is perceived, at its core, as a game of human psychology. Since human psychology is largely built on a foundation of linguistic understanding, people need to be able to communicate about the game in their own language in order to interpret the game’s true nature, and to engage with it on a deep level. Thus, the spread of poker into different language communities has played a huge part in allowing the game to grow across the globe.

The English-speaking world

While the concept of a deck of cards can be traced back to medieval China, and the card denominations we use today were primarily developed in France, the game of No-Limit Texas Hold’em is – perhaps somewhat obviously – an American invention. As a result, the game’s biggest growth spurt in the wake of Moneymaker’s WSOP victory came in the English-speaking world.

Players in the UK, Ireland, Canada and Australia were among those most easily able to embrace the nature of the game – thanks in no small part to the fact that English-speaking communities were the most instantly able to recognize the incredible coincidence of the name ‘Moneymaker’.

It seemed a story too good to be true – a unknown man named Moneymaker competing with the big boys and walking away with a big pile of cash. People even wondered if ‘Moneymaker’ was some kind of stage name.

The story translated easily to anyone who could read it. The heads-up match-up between the flashy, smartly-dressed Farha and the everyman with the coincidental name who qualified for $86 seemed more like pro wrestling than pro poker.

Moneymaker’s triumph and the poetry of the entire event made headlines as a true Las Vegas fairytale, and half the English-speaking world seemed to simultaneously realize that if he could do it, so could they.

While many players still perceived poker as a game of luck, some embraced the skill elements in the early days as they strove to emulate Moneymaker, and thus poker’s first online strategy-discussion communities and advanced poker training forums were born. The TwoPlusTwo forums rapidly emerged as the best place to discuss strategy – but of course, the vast majority of this discussion was done in English.

As a result, certain strategy concepts – ‘stealing’ the blinds, ‘continuation betting’, and others – had very specific definitions and usages applied to them consistently before anyone had really taken a shot at translating these terminologies to other languages in a way that could be said to be directly contextually appropriate.

It is perhaps for this reason that certain poker terminologies are rarely translated at all in non-English-language poker environments, while those that are, often experience a slight shift in meaning – for example, the French word used to mean ‘all-in’ is ‘tapis’, which means ‘carpet’ or ‘mat’ when translated literally.

Contextually it could be interpreted to mean ‘felt’, which in an English poker context would refer to winning someone else’s entire stack, or busting them out of a tournament. As a result, one could even say that when a French player goes all-in by saying ‘tapis’, they’re doing a slightly different thing to an English speaker – they’re offering to felt themselves!

Europe and Latin America

Undoubtedly, the growth of the game throughout Europe had a lot to do with the arrival of the European Poker Tour in 2004. It also followed a particular linguistic pattern – the European nations (excluding the UK & Ireland) that grew the most rapidly as major forces in the poker world were also the ones with the highest incidence of young people who spoke English.

Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands and Germany all have populations with a greater than 70% self-reported competency rate in English, and sure enough, those countries were at the forefront of the rapid growth of European poker in the 2000s.

While gambling and tax laws have complicated the issue in some cases, for the most part these European nations were the first ones to rapidly embrace online poker in particular, and nowadays many of the world’s best players come from these areas of the world.

With English competency rates of under 40%, Spain, France and Italy are at the other end of the scale. While several notable players such as Adrián Mateos, Antoine Saout and Mustapha Kanit have emerged from these countries in recent years, the isolation of online player pools coupled with a lack of widespread English competence (meaning players couldn’t easily digest English-language poker training content or media) meant that it wasn’t until the 2010s that these countries really began to make their mark on the poker landscape.

The lack of availability in Spanish-language poker training content – whether broadcast media or educational – also impacted the growth of poker in Latin America. The Latin American Poker Tour did not kick off until 2008, while despite the proliferation of online players listed as Mexican or Costa Rican in the years following Black Friday, the vast majority of these players were relocated Americans.

Which brings us to the curious case of Brazil – a country subject to many of the same economic and cultural influences as the rest of the Latam world, yet one that has become a poker powerhouse in recent years. What separates Brazil from the rest of Latin America? The answer is reasonably simple – Brazilians speak a different language, Portuguese.

Poker’s future: the BRIC countries

In the early 2010s, Portuguese-language poker training sites began to emerge. Brazilian coaches like Caio Pessagno and Felipe Mojave would make training videos in Portuguese, and teach what was at the time a very unique style of play to a new generation of young players.

With PokerStars also making a big marketing push towards Brazil by signing Portuguese-speaking sports stars such as Neymar Jr, Cristiano ‘CR7’ Ronaldo and Ronaldo ‘R9’ Nazario to their team during this period, poker’s popularity exploded in the nation. Tournaments were particularly popular, as the format appealed to the competitive psyche of players who grew up on a soccer field.

During the same period, poker enjoyed significant growth in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, with the emergence of Russian-language training sites and media content playing a similar role. As poker started to look like a good career option for young people in a country experiencing economic contraction, more and more Russian, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian pros began to emerge.

With Brazil and Russia both boasting populations of upwards of 150 million, and both nations having become part of the rapidly-growing BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economic bloc at the start of the new millennium, it would seem a large portion of poker’s future lies with players from these nations.

On the other hand, what of India and China? With a large number of English speakers, it would seem that India would be ripe for a poker boom – and indeed, many online poker sites are springing up in the country over the past few years. China is even better placed to benefit from a new poker boom, with gambling being such a popular cultural pastime.

However, if poker is to truly take advantage of these two new markets, it is important – perhaps even imperative – that the game invests in both media and training content delivered in relevant native languages.

While many may oppose the training aspect of this, claiming it makes players better and makes games tougher, there can be no denying the obvious need for greater linguistic accessibility on the part of those individuals who might be open to poker if they had a window through which to see it.

If the game wants to evolve, it will require individuals and companies from outside the English-speaking world to take steps to promote the game, and it will require those from within the English-speaking world to be willing to expand their horizons.

With the game’s scope within the native English-speaking world being limited to the populations of those countries – perhaps 500 million people in total – it seems clear that the game will eventually grow beyond this capacity, with India and China alone representing a market of roughly six times as many people.

As a result, anyone seeking to be in poker for the long haul should be willing to acknowledge the benefit of stepping outside their current cultural and linguistic paradigm. While the game may have begun in the halls of Vegas casinos, it has grown far beyond those confines – how far it may eventually go, is up to us.