Lee Davy sits down with poker writer Alex Weldon to talk about the current state of poker media, his views on games, and much more.
I have a confession.
I don’t read many poker articles.
Alex Weldon is different.
I read Alex Weldon.
Unafraid to express an opinion, beautifully sounding and always scattering those beautiful sounds on a page before shaking them.
I love the way they fall.
When the Poker Hall of Fame inducted Jennifer Harman and John Juanda we wrote.
Alex Weldon inevitably wrote it better.
Who is Alex Weldon?
Just a dilettante trying to find his place in the world. I studied astrophysics at university, but after getting my bachelor’s, decided academia wasn’t for me. I went off to South Korea and taught English for a couple of years, then came back and have been drifting between disciplines ever since, mostly as a freelancer. The only real constants in my life have been a love of games and being an opinionated loudmouth.
How did you become such a good writer? Describe your milestone writing moments.
Writing’s about three things: having things you want to say, organizing your thoughts, and then the technical stuff. Having things to say has never been a problem – having an opinion on everything is in my nature. The technical stuff was also pretty easy for me because I learned to read quite early and never stopped. As far as organizing thoughts goes, I think that’s largely due to being an introvert and spending a lot of time inside my own head.
There’s also an element of often feeling frustrated when either I explain something, and the other person doesn’t get it, or someone tries unsuccessfully to explain something to me and I realize later that they were saying it all wrong. In those cases, I spend a lot of time thinking about how it could have been stated better, to get the message across. This kind of thing was also what drew me to teaching. But dwelling on that kind of stuff is ultimately good practice for writing.
I’m not sure I have many milestone moments to speak of; the current gig with PartTimePoker is the most successful I’ve been as a writer. I guess you could call it a formative moment when I realized, back in my high school English classes 20 years ago, that you didn’t necessarily have to know what you were talking about as long as you wrote it well enough.
How do you react to criticism?
Much better than I used to, though probably still not as well as I should.
What could the collective poker media be doing better?
I think that’s a really hard question to answer within current economic realities. Most internet content, including poker media, would be of vastly better quality if it were still itself the end product. But, since the public has been conditioned to expect things on the internet to be free, that means that site traffic is the actual product, and content is just a step in the manufacturing process, so to speak. Most of the problems with the internet in general stem from this, but it’s hard to see what can be done about it until people themselves demand better and are willing to pay for it.
What are the collective poker media doing very well?
Some sites are much better than others, but one thing that’s fairly consistently positive in the poker media is advocacy for the recreational player’s perspective. The people on the business end of things are looking for feedback, but recreational players aren’t nearly as vocal as pros. Although many pros understand the importance of the overall poker economy, the nature of their job requires a certain degree of self-interest. In the media, we just want as many people playing poker as possible, so I think our criticism provides some balance to the overall perspective. That’s why it’s important to be critical of the industry, even if our paychecks mostly come from their advertising dollars.
When you look at the poker community what do you see?
A lot of negativity, a lot of ego. Also a lot of intelligence, of course. And many people I get the sense feel pretty conflicted at times, but maybe I’m projecting there.
The way poker is being consumed is changing so much, do you see poker media also changing and if so how?
I’m not sure what the landscape will look like in a few years, to be honest. From a writer’s perspective, it would certainly be nice if something like the GPL worked out, as a sports-like format more readily lends itself to producing narratives than what we have now… but that may be wishful thinking. More pessimistic possibilities occur to me too. We’ll have to see.
What great idea do you have to change poker in some way but have never moved forward with it?
I like inventing poker variants, but just finding people willing to test them is hard, let alone trying to look for a way to get them out to the larger poker world.
What was the greatest game you played when you were young and why?
I played tons of games as a kid. My parents liked to play cards and sometimes I’d be allowed to stay up and play with the grown-ups. Sometimes penny-ante five-card draw, but more often a family card game called Oh Hell, which is a trick-taking game in the same vein as stuff like Whist. My dad also had these old “bookcase” board games by Avalon Hill, which were all too complicated for me at that age, but I’d pull them out and just invent my own rules.
Same question today?
Assuming you’re talking about physical games, I actually have a whole shelving unit full of those, but as the parent of a toddler I don’t have as much chance to play them as I used to. If I had the chance to play something tonight and had my pick, I’d probably pull out either Urban Sprawl – an economic game about city planning and corruption – or Thunder Alley – which is surprisingly elegant adaptation of NASCAR into a board game format. I play digital games too, but I’m kind of “between genres” at the moment and having trouble finding anything to spend much time with.
Jane McGonigal believes that gaming can change the world…what’s your view on that?
That’s a hard question to answer, because my definition of “a game” is both different from and narrower than how she uses that word. Probably “change,” too, although I would hope we’d agree on “world.”
Personally, I think the main value in games – as I define them – is as an entertaining way to exercise your brain, the same way sports are an entertaining way to exercise your body. Certain types of games have more specific educational benefits, too. For instance, war games based on real-world conflicts can be an excellent way to learn about history, while auction games can make you realize things about economics. Finally, games – like sports – are a good way to indulge our biological impulses towards aggression and conflict without being awful to others in real life.
What’s your opinion on the latest eSports craze?
As I alluded to just now, I think digital “games” have confused our idea about what a game is, so separating out some games as “eSports” is a positive move just in terms of how we’re thinking about things.
There are at least five different things in the digital space that people tend to call “games”: puzzles, sports, toys, stories, and of course what I would call actual games. I’m probably missing some things, and there’s certainly some blurriness between those categories, but I think the distinction is real and important. We wouldn’t consider a chess set, jigsaw puzzle, football, dollhouse and picture book as being categorically the same in the real world, but digitally, that’s still where we’re at.
Anyway, what I’m saying is that I see the eSports phenomenon as a first step in differentiating those and, ultimately, becoming better designers as a result. And it’s nice, in general, to see games being taken more seriously and not just as a way to kill time.
What book from your childhood had the biggest influence on you and why?
Depends on where you draw the line for childhood. As a really little kid, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are produced strong memories, and I currently enjoy that one a lot with my own son. A bit older, maybe Redwall (Brian Jacques), or The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien, obviously)… young adult fantasy stuff like that. I probably would have read the hell out of the Harry Potter series if it had existed at that time. In terms of non-fiction, Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh and Douglas Hofstaedter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach were both pretty seminal in how I’ve ended up seeing the world as an adult.
Same question brought forward to modern times?
Much easier answer: Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I can’t say why, because that’s the kind of book it is. I think most people who read it feel like it was written just for them, but probably the reasons why are different for everyone and equally unexpressable.
What does fear mean to you?
Waking up at 4 AM and realizing that I share the planet with seven-plus billion other humans, many of whom are horrible to each other. The darker parts of my own human nature. Making irreversible decisions. Missing opportunities because I couldn’t make a decision. Staying the same.
I used to joke that what I wanted on my tombstone is just “IT WASN’T MY FAULT.” I think that kind of sums it up.
When I say, “Peppa Pig” describe emotions and memories.
“I should probably do something with my son instead of leaving him in front of the computer.”
Peppa Pig was never a part of my own childhood, but my son is crazy about it. I think it’s a brilliant show so I feel less guilty about letting him binge-watch it than other screen time.
Who is the person you learned the most from in life and why?
My mother. Although most of what I consciously believe is self-taught and based on my own experience, I’ve been realizing of late that my fundamental values and the direction of my moral compass come from her example, even though (probably because) she never tried to force them on me.
Who in poker would you most like to share a sauna with and why?
Whoever’s willing to run out and jump into a frozen lake with me. I love that Nordic hot-cold thing, though sometimes I wonder if it might actually stop my heart.
What is the single most important thing you have ever learned and why?
No one can teach you anything, but you can learn anything you want. Look things up. We’ve got the internet now, there’s no excuse.
If you had 10,000 hours to learn anything what would it be and why?
Give my teenage son some advice.
Do things. If they don’t work out, do different things. Don’t be afraid of regret; if you don’t regret anything it means you haven’t learned anything.