February 11, 2011
Randolph Duke: Pay up, Mortimer. I've won the bet.
Mortimer Duke: Here, one dollar.
Randolph Duke: [chuckling] We took a perfectly useless psychopath like Valentine, and turned him into a successful executive. And during the same time, we turned an honest, hard-working man into a violently, deranged, would-be killer! [laughs]
There has been a lot of chatter in the poker world this week about a prop bet between two young online poker players, Ashton “theAshman103” Griffin and Haseeb “InternetPokers” Qureshi. Essentially, Griffin laid 3:1 odds that he could run 70 miles in 24 hours. Qureshi took the bet to the tune of $285,000, while another friend took $15,000 in action, bring the total wager to $300,000 against Griffin, to Griffin's $900,000 if he lost. Griffin won.
The response in the poker community has been predominately "Sick!" Unfortunately, that's "sick" as in "awesome or amazing", not "sick" as in "morally reprehensible".
Qureshi wrote a lengthy blog post (Part 1 & Part 2) explaining the bet from his perspective. Shamus at Hard-Boiled Poker notes the moral implications of the bet, but lets Qureshi off the hook for his behavior:
It’s a harrowing read, one that should give a great deal of pause to those eager to celebrate Griffin’s accomplishment and/or the undeniably fascinating culture that seems to produce such rash, risky behavior. Qureshi is highly self-critical throughout, recognizing the absurdity of the situation of his having bet on his friend’s body to fail him physically -- perhaps even irreparably. The experience seems to have been unrelentingly hellish for the 21-year-old Qureshi, and he writes with the self-awareness and perspective that belies his young age (and which he appears to have been lacking when he agreed to the prop).
—"Sick Bet: Griffin, Qureshi, and 'the World of Poker Players'”, Hard-Boiled Poker (Feb. 10, 2011).
There's no question Qureshi's post is well-written—it's a well-written, self-serving non-apology filled with superficial moral musings and self-pitying personal reflections. But let's let Qureshi speak for himself.
First, we learn that Qureshi moved into a house with Griffin and another young poker phenom, Daniel "Jungleman12" Cates (a/k/a "Jungleman").
I was a lot more mature than the two of them. Both Ashton and Jungle respected me. They would call me the "papa bear" of the house. I looked after them.
So, Qureshi knew Griffin looked at him as the mature, responsible person in the house. Qureshi also knew Griffin wasn't mentally or emotionally balanced, based on this conversation between Griffin and mutual friend (and co-bettor) Doug (a/k/a "WGCrider") while out drinking the night before the wager:
Ashton replied "Well, thanks... You know... I feel sad all the time."
Doug looked at him.
"I feel anxious and depressed, and I haven't been happy in a long time."
So, if a friend tells you he's fighting depression and anxiety, should you help him get family support or professional treatment, or should you make a near-million dollar prop bet with him? Tough call, but Qureshi figures out a way to rationalize it, repeatedly:
As I was looking at him I thought to myself... I've been in this situation before. I've seen Ashton make lots of silly prop bets. I've seen him get scammed, burned, taken advantage of countless times, and I've also seen him offer a lot of silly prop bets that weren't in his favor. Every time I've refrained from taking part; refrained from having anything to do with it. I know that he fucks up a lot, and I know that he's a degenerate sometimes. I've known Ashton for years and I've watched him travel down his road. Many times along the way I've tried to stop him, to advise him, to pull him out of harm's way, but ultimately he finds himself there again and again.
I had come to realize that I can't stop Ashton from doing these things. I knew that no matter what I said or did, he was determined to do this prop bet. I know him, I know the frustration and anxiety he's been feeling, and I know the look in his eyes and the resolve in his voice. I thought there was no way that he could run 70 miles. The way I saw it, he was ready to grab a handful of his money and throw it into the wind. I can't save him. I can't stop him.
I thought to myself, he's giving money away. He's not going to stop until he sells off all of that action and puts up 900k of his own money. If I know he's going to throw 600k into the wind, what difference would it make if it were my hand that caught it instead of somebody else's?
We protested. No, I said, he was going to do this anyway. I couldn't stop him. He was going to do it anyway. I was helping him wasn't I? I was worried about him wasn't I? I was watching over him wasn't I? What difference did it make whether it was my money or someone else's?
Look, if you play poker long enough with friends, you will be confronted with the situation where one of your friends goes on uber-tilt, whether because of a bad run of luck, drinking, or stress from family or work issues. You watch this friend burn through a couple extra buy-ins because he simply is emotionally out of control. In most cases, you keep playing, winning some of his cash. In a way, the losses likely serve as a good lesson for your friend once he steps away from the game, and might prevent similar blowups in the future. But this only works if you know the losses are not significant to your friend, that his mortgage and utilities will still get paid, and his family's lives and relationships will not be adversely affected. When a friend spirals out of control with gambling, and does or threatens to do something potentially harmful to himself or his family, you have a moral choice to make. You can try to help your friend, but if he refuses, it's simply wrong to rationalize that he will gamble anyway, and take his money yourself. That's not being protective, that's profiteering.
Here's a thought. If you are ever confronted with the moral question, "Everyone else is taking advantage of my friend, why shouldn't I do it too?", the correct answer is, "Because he's your friend."
Now, it's also important to note that the initial wager was only for $70K. Then, Qureshi and his friend Doug did a little research to determine how difficult the task would be, and discovered, not surprisingly, that it would be a daunting, physically draining experience. At this point, Griffin contacted Qureshi to see if they could up the wager, and Qureshi eagerly agreed, based on this rationale:
At that point I thought that if all these people think Ashton can't do it, then there's no way he can win. He thinks he knows his body, but you can't know how your body would respond to that level of physical and psychological stress if you've never been there. He can't know. He can't know what three back-to-back marathons would do to his calves, to his knees, or to his heart. He still had alcohol in his system and had gotten almost no sleep, and I knew that he was feeling anxious. I figured this is Ashton standing in front of the railroad tracks again - this is him sitting at 500/1k heads up against Phil Ivey with his roll, desperate to have something change, for something to rile him up, to feel alive and meaningful again.
My, how noble. Making a physical endurance bet with a friend you know is hungover, sleep-deprived, and "feeling anxious". Showing no regard for the serious physical effects the wager might have on your friend's legs or heart. Yup, what a pal. Definitely shows Qureshi was "looking out" for Griffin.
Now, it's true that the initial wager might have been made with only a vague idea there might be a remote chance of serious physical consequences to Griffin's health. But when the bet was only a few hours old, Qureshi not only knew that the prop bet had a significant chance of being dangerous to Griffin's health, he actually admits he was betting on a serious health issue to arise in order to win the bet:
At around 8PM, I spoke to a friend of mine who had some experience in running marathons. I told her the entire story, about how Ashton was feeling out of it, how he was unable to sleep, and that he'd been drinking heavily the night before. She told me with an unexpected graveness - "You guys need to be watching him constantly." I replied, "Well, we're checking up on him every half hour or so, bringing him food and drink and stuff." "No, no, you guys need to be there in case something happens. If he collapses or gets a heart attack, he'll need immediate medical attention. Somebody needs to be there. Like, right now. The likelihood will only go up the longer that kid runs."
Slowly, the realization settled in. I know Ashton, and I know how much heart he has. He's a beast. He'll keep pushing and pushing until the brink of his physical limits. The question was never whether Ashton had the force of will to win this bet, but whether or not his body could withstand it. In reality, I knew that Ashton wouldn't give up. The bet I was making was that Ashton would be physically incapable of going any further. I was betting that Ashton would either: pull a muscle and be unable to run, collapse from exhaustion, damage his joints, or have a heart attack. There was no other way that he would lose.
Like most folks who play poker or enjoy gambling in general, I've made prop bets with friends over ridiculous challenges or for silly stakes. In fact, I even have a running challenge going this year against two poker-playing friends. But the idea of making a bet where the health or safety of one of my friends would be placed in jeopardy, even if the most severe consequences were somewhat remote, is utterly unfathomable to me.
Qureshi's story takes an interesting turn when Griffin's parents arrive, understandably worried about his physical and mental well-being. Griffin's mother confronted Qureshi:
"No Haseeb, you two aren't his friends. It's all about money isn't it? That's what you guys want right? That's what you're here for, that's why you're making my son do this?"
No, no. No...
Ummm, actually, yes, yes. Yes. It was all about the cash. If not, why hadn't the bet been called off after the parental intervention? Nothing prevented Qureshi from simply telling Griffin's parents, "Hey, you're right. This is crazy. Let's cancel the bet and go talk to Ashton about why he's been acting so recklessly, and figure out how to help him." That's what a friend would do.
Of course, Qureshi had no interest in canceling the wager; he wanted to win! When Griffin's parents were unable to convince him to unilaterally drop out of the challenge, they began watching over him at the gym where he was running on a treadmill. As for his "friends", Qureshi and Doug?
Doug had been coming down with a cold all that day, and his cough was getting noticeably bad. I told him that he should get some sleep and drink lots of liquids. There was no point in him staying up if the parents are going to be watching Ashton all night. I'll make sure everything's all right, I told him. He agreed and went upstairs to get some much-needed sleep.
What a pal! Making sure your buddy gets his rest when he's coming down with a sniffle. Never mind your buddy who's possibly running himself to death because of your prop bet ...
Qureshi then caught several hours of beauty sleep himself before heading over to the gym to watch Griffin. But, after only a few minutes, Qureshi found himself imagining his friend collapsing on the treadmill, letting him win the bet; who of us hasn't wished physical harm to our friends for a few bucks? Unable to deal with his guilty conscience, Qureshi fled the gym, and called two friends for confession and absolution:
"Fuck, fuck Rachel. What if he has a heart attack? What if he goes to the emergency room? How am I going to even know? His parents aren't going to tell me. I was sitting there on that fucking bench, imagining him falling over... what kind of a person does that make me? What kind of fucked up person am I that I'm imagining him getting hurt? What's wrong with me?"
Of course, his friends assured him he wa not to blame, but rather Griffin was fully responsible for the wager.
"Listen, Haseeb. Nothing's wrong with you okay. This whole thing is just mad. He's a madman, and he's brought you into a mad situation, and it's making you go mad too. Nothing is wrong with you. Calm down, okay?"
What happened to "Papa Bear" Qureshi who would "look out for" his buddy Griffin? Suddenly Qureshi is just an innocent victim, caught up in Griffin's maelstrom of madness? Griffin is really the person responsible for Qureshi's moral angst? At least the Catholic church makes you say a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers before giving such a moral whitewashing.
Having salved his guilty conscience, Qureshi dragged Doug off for a relaxing breakfast. While at the restaurant, Griffin called Qureshi to let him know he had completed 60 out of the 70 miles, with three hours to go. Griffin offered Qureshi a buyout for $200K of the $285K wager. Obviously, Qureshi and Doug were so concerned with their friend's health that they jumped at the offer, right? Not exactly.
"Man... there's no way I can take that buyout. To pay 85k to have a shot at a million dollars? I need less than 10% chance of winning to stay in. The last ten miles have to be the toughest. We knew that going in, that it would get exponentially more difficult the further he went on. Ashton has a point at which he can't run anymore, everyone does. He's never done this kind of endurance running before. The only question is whether his body will hit its limit at 69 miles or 71 miles. I can't take this buyout. "
Doug agreed. We told him no. He asked if I was sure, if I really believed that this wasn't cake for him. I said I couldn't take that buyout. We didn't hear back from him.
Yup, despite the extensive hand-wringing and conscience-wrestling, when push came to shove, money still talked, friendship walked.
Before we left the restaurant, I dropped $5 in a charity collection.
Well, you've got that going for you, which is nice.
Of course, in the end Griffin pulled it off and won a rather ridiculous amount of money, more than many American families will earn in five years of full-time work. Now, we're all supposed to chuckle at those silly kids and their "balla" lifestyle, and ignore the moral implications of these kinds of prop bets. Several poker commentators have pointed to Qureshi's post-wager musings as somehow delivering a meaningful insight into poker culture:
Something that I've come to think about is that perhaps there's something about the world of poker players that's fundamentally unhealthy. This generation of online poker players and its culture has existed for less than ten years, yet I've always had some assumption lodged deep in my psyche that if I'm not finding happiness through poker that it's just something wrong with me. And yet, there are so many people at every level of poker who are so deeply unhappy. It leaves me wondering.
And perhaps that's what really is the most difficult challenge for this generation of poker players. To infiltrate a world that is at its root, deeply unhealthy and imbalanced. To grab this bull called poker by its horns and to try to tame it for as long as we can. We hold on, and the bull bucks and tries to throw us into the droves of insanity around us. Some hold on, some don't. And maybe some are being dragged along the ground by this bull, and think they're still okay because they haven't let go. I remember writing over a year ago that as much as we learn about the game of poker, nobody really teaches us how to live as poker players. Nobody teaches us when we're supposed to let go of the bull.
Pardon me while I call "bullshit" on this pseudo-philosophical blather. Poker is a game. Poker is not a proxy for life. Nobody needs to learn how to "live as a poker player". All you need to learn is how to live as a decent human being. It is entirely possible to live a morally grounded, responsible life and also be a poker player. If you are fabulously wealthy and living a lifestyle where you prioritize conspicuous consumption over meaningful friendships, if partying and prop bets are more important than people, then your problem is not poker; the problem is your character.
The poker community has turned this prop bet on its head. The only "sick" thing about this wager was Qureshi's conduct.
 For the moment, let's simply whistle past the fact that Griffin has been lionized in the poker community for winning and losing millions of dollars while legally underage. Laws? Who needs them? But, no matter how you parse it, $900K is serious money for a prop bet.
 I've been a lifelong distance runner, running as much as 50 miles per week in my younger days. I've also completed a marathon in under four hours, but that was after three months of training added onto a good fitness and running base. Even so, the final six miles of the marathon was one of the more grueling physical experiences I've ever completed, and I physically had difficulty walking the next day, and couldn't run for more than a week. Although Griffin is a young, athletic guy (college wrestler) who had run as much as 22 miles in one outing, there is a world of difference between running 20 miles in one day, and running 25 or more miles. Trust me, the extra miles become exponentially more physically demanding. Even allowing for regular rest breaks to allow muscle recovery doesn't change the daunting nature of the challenge. Except for the rare folks who train for ultramarathons, running 70 miles in one day is likely far beyond the physical abilities of even most reasonably fit, athletic people.
 Frankly, the poker media deserves some criticism for glamorizing these physically dangerous prop bets. In the past, ESPN's WSOP broadcasts have focused on other equally dangerous stunts: Erick Lindgren playing four rounds of golf in 100°F heat, losing ten pounds in the process; Ted Forrest running a marathon in 110°F heat, injuring his feet in pursuit of cash; and Ted Forrest (again) winning $2 million with a weight loss challenge, losing over 50 pounds (accomplished only by fasting for the last ten or so days). Yes, prop bets are part of the poker culture, and probably deserve coverage. But having the media treat them as amusing entertainment without any acknowledgment of the attendant serious risks only exacerbates poker's public image as the refuge of degenerate gamblers.
I would note, however, that Dr. Pauly did have a more sober take on the moral implications of these kinds of prop bets:
The human body can do wondrous things. Poker players often do bizarre things. When you add the two together, you're flirting between absurdity and extreme moral hazard.
The remainder of his thoughts on the subject are worth a read.
 Several commenters on Qureshi's blog, the Two-Plus-Two forums, and Shamus' blog post suggest Qureshi's tale should be made into a movie. Seriously folks?