January 30, 2010

It's Not All About the Bracelet

“It’s all about the bracelet.”

It is almost a clich√© now, how poker players at the WSOP routinely aver that they are playing for the bracelet, not for the money. Joe Cada and Darvin Moon repeated the “all about the bracelet” mantra at this past WSOP final table. A quick Google search brings up dozens of more examples, including notable name players like Jeff Madsen, Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, Nick Schulman, and Phil Gordon. Two-time WSOP bracelet winner Howard Lederer probably states the bracelet party line as well as anyone:
"The WSOP is not just another tournament. And bracelets are not just another trophy. When a player dies, the first thing they report in their obituary is the number of bracelets won."

Reported by Michael Craig, FullTiltPoker.com (2/14/09).

Given this cult of the bracelet, the reaction this past week to news of T.J. Cloutier’s sale of two of his WSOP bracelets was predictable. Along with the usual snickering rumor-mongering about Cloutier’s supposed financial troubles (and legendary craps habit), the general reaction was astonishment. How near rock bottom must Cloutier’s situation be if he is resorting to such extreme measures as selling off these hallowed relics?

The Cloutier bracelet sale news occurred at the same time as the media hype leading up to the Super Bowl. So, for the past week, the sports media has treated us to a parade of former Super Bowl winners, wearing their gaudy Super Bowl rings, and waxing rhapsodic about how winning a Super Bowl ring fulfilled their ultimate dream. Sound familiar? What may also sound familiar, then, are the recurrent media reports of Super Bowl rings being pawned or auctioned off. This disposal of championship memorabilia isn’t even limited to poker bracelets or Super Bowl rings—the practice seems to encompass all of the major professional and college sports, as well as similar items like boxing belts, Olympic medals, and Heisman trophies. In fact, one online site is dedicated to the sale of championship rings, and offers rings from many major college teams (including my beloved Huskers), as well as from quite a number of Super Bowls and other professional sport championships.

Given the pervasive “all about the bracelet” or “all about the ring” mentality, it seems inconceivable to most fans that anyone would ever willingly part with a bracelet or ring except in dire circumstances. In fact, one prominent online broker asserts that most of his purchases occur because of “the three Ds”—death, drugs, and divorce—to which he now adds “the big E”—the economy. If the recurrent rumors are to be believed, in Cloutier’s case we might add the big G—gambling—to the mix. On the other hand, maybe it was all a publicity stunt, and Cloutier is sitting on a comfortable nest egg and laughing at the whole poker world.

Frankly, though, I could give a flying pig why Cloutier sold his bracelets. To me, the more interesting question is why we place such a high value on rings and bracelets in the first place. For players, the answer seems easy—the ring or bracelet reflects winning a title and being at the ultimate peak of one’s profession. The ring or bracelet also confers prestige, with success among the elite players being divided even more finely by the number of rings or bracelets, and in the case of poker, which bracelets (certain WSOP events carry more prestige). Finally, the ring or bracelet likely carries a certain economic benefit. In addition to the bonus money won by champions in most sports, or the prize money won by boxers and poker players, winning a ring or bracelet often translates into other economic opportunities—endorsements, appearance fees, book deals, and the like.

The thing is, all of those benefits from winning the ring or bracelet have nothing to do with the ring or bracelet itself. Instead, for a player, the ring or bracelet is just a symbol of achievement. Even if they pawn, sell, lose, or even give it away, their accomplishment still stands. They will still be introduced—or eulogized—as a “Super Bowl champion” or “four time WSOP bracelet winner.” So, when a player says, “I’m playing for a ring” or “All I care about is the bracelet”, what they are really saying is that they want all the things that come with winning. The actual ring or bracelet itself is rather beside the point. In fact, Phill Hellmuth, who is as famously obsessive about winning bracelets as anyone, has given away most of his bracelets to family and friends.

Since these rings and bracelets are really nothing more than commemorative baubles—a souped up version of a kid’s league trophy or ribbon—why do fans place such value on those items, caring so deeply that they are being sold, and in some cases, paying large sums of money to buy them? The collectors’ motives are fairly easy to guess. Although there might be the occasional shrewd investor who is simply looking to make a profit from a future resale, for the most part it seems most of these memorabilia purchasers buy these rings or bracelets to stroke their own egos and feel some of the reflected glory of an achievement they themselves will never personally experience. But, because they have money, they can get a ring or bracelet rather than settling for an autographed ball or framed team poster like the average fan. In a way, owning a ring or bracelet is just a variation on wearing a flashy Rolex or driving an exotic car—it’s the gauche byproduct of superfan syndrome and wealthy narcissism.

But if those who buy rings and bracelets are indulging their inner spoiled brat, the prize for epic tackiness goes to those who follow the reports of the sale of rings or bracelets with a sense of smugness. These are the people who righteously declare that they would never part with such an item if they had won it. These same people weigh in on comment boards, gleefully reveling in the tawdry details of another person’s financial woes. In a sense, the media coverage of sports memorabilia sales has a distinct tabloid feel, with sports fans lapping up every detail of a star player’s financial failings much like other folks follow the romantic breakups of their favorite actors and actresses. In the case of poker, the online discussion boards are fueled by rumors and speculation about which players are broke, almost as obsessively as the Hollywood tabloids speculate about which actors are secretly gay.* It’s schadenfreude on steroids.

If Cloutier in fact sold his bracelets because of financial problems, he wouldn’t be the first or last poker player to succumb to financial troubles, whether from gambling, drugs, bad investments, excessive partying, or even a bad run of luck. Likewise for other sports stars who sell off rings or other memorabilia. These folks may have won something most of us can only dream about, but off their chosen field of play, they are still just people with their own human weaknesses. Trading in gossip and cracking jokes at their expense isn’t funny, it’s ghoulish.

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* Actually, speculating about what stars are gay is one topic Hollywood and poker have in common.

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