Op-ed: what poker can learn from Brené Brown’s ‘Braving the Wilderness’


An opinion piece inspired by an interview with Las Vegas cash game resident, and VLOG star, Marle Cordeiro, focusing on the lessons poker can learn from Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness.

The word “Stripper,” bayonets a neuron.

op-ed-what-poker-can-learn-from-brene-browns-braving-the-wildernessI’m in the ‘Red Room’ as we’ve christened it. It’s a restaurant for VIPs in the Maestral Resort and Casino in Budva, Montenegro. Marle Cordeiro, host of the Triton Poker Super High Roller Series in Montenegro, sits opposite me, dictaphone amongst knives, forks and wine glasses; window ajar allowing the acrid stench of expensive cigar smoke to leak into the world; the Adriatic Coast beating up the shore.


Marle tells me about the VLOG that caused quite a stir.

I’m Brené Brown crazy at the moment. I’ve read ‘Gifts of Imperfection’, ‘Daring to Lead’, and am in the midst of a book club reading of ‘Braving The Wilderness’.

After I had finished interviewing Cordeiro and had slipped beneath the sheets without waking my wife and daughter, I switched on my Kindle, and read a few chapters on ‘Inclusive Language’, ‘Using Words as Weapons,’ and ‘Dehumanisation,’ and the thoughts and feelings that emerged through bibliography kept me awake.

I wanted to put thoughts and feelings into words but felt uncomfortable. Fear from partly not understanding fully what I want to say, but more appropriately the fear of judgment, and the shaming that will inevitably follow – and that’s what I believe is at the core of what I want to share, today – shame.

“Gypped” Anyone?

In Braving The Wilderness, Brown, shares a story about teaching a course on shame, when during the break, someone came up to her, and said, “I can’t tell you how much you hurt me this morning.”

The woman said: “Your work has changed my life. It saved my marriage and shaped my children. I came here today because you are an important teacher in my life. Then fifteen minutes after you start, I learn that you’re an anti-Semite. I trusted you, and you’ve proven to be a fraud.”

The point of anger for the woman was Brown’s use of the word ‘gypped.’ Brown thought she had misspelt the word, so confused was she as to why the woman was so angry. The woman explained that the word ‘gypped’ is an anti-semitic term that degrades gypsies.

Brown started to cry, and the woman realised her heroine had no idea that the term ‘gypped’ had such an anti-semitic connotation. The pair hugged, and Brown became the woman’s most important teacher in life, once more.

It reminded me of the time I wrote an article about Kevin Hart dry-humping a poker table in the wake of eliminating someone in a high stakes event. I wrote something to the tune of ‘had anyone other than Kevin Hart done that they would have been lynched.’

I received an email from someone I respect, shocked that I had used the word ‘lynched’ in an article about Kevin Hart. I looked at my Twitter account and could see a stream of people suggesting there was a racist undertone in my piece, or at the very least, an idiotic use of the word.

Growing up in the UK, we use the word ‘lynched’ to describe the trouble that follows a misdemeanour. I asked my American wife what she thinks of when I use the word in association with Kevin Hart, and the term ‘slavery’ came up in our conversation.

Now it made sense.

I could see why people were upset.

Like Brené Brown, I should apologise and move on, right?

I didn’t.

As someone who was racially abused and subjected to xenophobic slurs all through my childhood, I couldn’t accept the flashes of lightning aimed in my direction. I refused to apologise, and even worse, I began defending myself.

Words as weapons

I know that words can be weapons. In my position, as a writer and an interviewer, my words, written or verbalised, can hurt people (as they did in the Kevin Hart case). Brown covers this in her book, and these two quotes summarised how I was feeling at the time.

“When armoured up, I would rather be right than connected and invested in my relationship. I want to win. I love being right. The need to be right is magnified when we feel we’re in hostile territory and under attack.”

After writing the piece on Hart, and reading the feedback, I felt attacked, and I find the poker communities Twitter environment extremely hostile territory.

So, I want to apologise to anyone I offended back then. Words are weapons, and I can see how using the word ‘lynching’ in the same context as an African-America (I am even afraid to write the word ‘black’, there I have just done it), can anger some people. It wasn’t my intention. I didn’t apologise because I felt ashamed – not of the piece, but of being attacked.

Inclusive language

Cordeiro’s ‘Stripper’ VLOG shows her pretending to be broke, scrounging on street corners, pretending to take a job in Spearmint Rhino and to prostitute in the Bellagio bathroom.

Taking a gander at her work on YouTube, you can see she puts a lot of effort into what she does, and her brand is well thought out. The videos are humorous and inventive, but most importantly, try to avoid the path of least resistance, carving out her own path. Cordeiro is brave. Brené Brown would say that Cordeiro has stepped into the wilderness. Her fans would agree, all 24,000+ of them.

Some circles of power in the poker industry didn’t appreciate the ‘Stripper’ VLOG, and there are circles of power within poker. You can’t talk about power without mentioning status. The status of a professional poker player rises and falls via a myriad of ways, but two are results and respect.

‘Status’ doesn’t only exist within the professional poker playing ranks; it also exists within the poker ecology as a whole. As a writer and interviewer, I have felt professional poker players use their status when in conversations with me, and I saw it reading through the comments relating to Cordeiro’s ‘Stripper’ video after Joe Ingram had retweeted the video back in November.


Why raise it now, and not back in November?

Poker’s Twitter universe has become so toxic I rarely use it. I was unaware of the incident at the time (and didn’t know who Marle was until a few days ago). I felt the need to write about it now, after interviewing Marle as it was clear that she intended no malice when creating the video, certainly didn’t mean to marginalise a particular group to hurt them, and felt ashamed in the aftermath of the feedback.

In her book, Brown talks about the rise of the ‘Inclusive Language’ movement. If you’re unfamiliar with that term, it’s a piece of communication that doesn’t discriminate against groups of people in the community.

You could argue that both Marle and I did discriminate against groups in my writing and her VLOG, but what Brown says next should not be dismissed as a mere defensive posture.

“What’s tough about the inclusive language movement is when people turn using the right language into a weapon to shame or belittle people.”

When Brown felt ashamed for using the word ‘gypped,’ she was able to deal with the incident presently because the ensuing conversation with the person portraying the victim was face-to-face.

It rarely works like this in poker.

Rarely does anyone tell me to my face that my writing offends them. Instead, people use social media, and in a shaming and belittling way. And, when this comes from a source of power (our best players, company leaders, etc.), it’s even more hurtful. And I’m not talking about Twitter DM, email, a phone call, or one-to-one conversations during live events or via Zoom/Skype. I’m talking about full-on shame mode to the whole community. I am also a culprit, using my writing to shame people – something I want to change immediately.


Brown talks about dehumanisation, how it’s becoming more prevalent in society, and how it begins with words and ends with images. I feel the word ‘dehumanising’ is a little harsh, but I will use it because the sentiment behind the word applies here.

Brown says that dehumanising behaviour is biological, and points to David Smith, the author of Less Than Human, as her source on this one.

op-ed-what-poker-can-learn-from-brene-browns-braving-the-wildernessFrom Braving the Wilderness:

‘We want to harm a group of people, but it goes against our wiring as members of a social species to actually harm, kill, torture, or degrade other humans. Smith explains that there are very deep and natural inhibitions that prevent us from treating other people like animals, game, or dangerous predators. He writes, “Dehumanization is a way of subverting those inhibitions.’

Michelle Maiese, the chair of the philosophy department at Emmanuel College, is referenced in the text declaring dehumanisation as a process.

“It’s the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment.”

Someone pisses us off, and so we create the internal narrative that they’re the enemy. We might even share these thoughts with our closest allies, who more than likely, agree with us, thus strengthening the narrative. As the story grows, and more of our friends back us up, so we lose our ability to communicate and listen. Then once you start hurling 280-character mortar bombs across Twitter, and armour is adopted, it becomes a challenging practice to develop an atom of empathy.

There isn’t a week that goes by without a debate busting out on Twitter within poker circles, where you see ‘status wars’ in full effect. It reminds me of the class-wars in the Red Rising Series (thanks to Lex Veldhuis for the tip). Nutshell – humans are created (carved) into subcultures based on colour: pinks for sex, reds for manual work and the Golds are the Gods.

There are Golds in our community who believe people are morally inferior when shredding them to pieces using words as the razor. Good versus evil. Me versus you. Better. Better. Better.

Brown shares a Maiese quote in Braving the Wilderness:

“Once the parties have framed the conflict in this way, their positions become more rigid. In some cases, zero-sum thinking develops as parties come to believe that they must either secure their own victory or face defeat. New goals to punish or destroy the opponent arise, and in some cases, more militant leadership comes into power.”

Maiese calls this behaviour, ‘moral exclusion’.

“Groups targeted based on their identity—gender, ideology, skin colour, ethnicity, religion, age—are depicted as “less than” or criminal or even evil.”

We’ve seen Twitter debates on racism, sexism, etc., in poker. What goes unnoticed are the subsets of groups targeted by our class structure. One of them is the poker pro who falls into the arms of a PokerStars or a partypoker because they have an incredible brand presence, and not because they’ve won multiple titles, or crushed the highest stakes cash games (I can agree that this behaviour could be subconscious).

People like Marle Cordeiro.

During my first visit to the World Series of Poker (WSOP), I stayed in a house with a bunch of UK pros. I learned the term ‘Muggle,’ to describe someone, not of the poker community. You don’t hear the term used to reference someone working in the poker industry (lower down the pecking order), but the sentiment exists.

If someone creates satirical content that offends someone, and a person with higher status within that community publicly shames or belittles them on social media – don’t we have the beginnings of moral exclusion?

Brown thinks we all need to look in the mirror.

“The point is that we are all vulnerable to the slow and insidious practice of dehumanizing; therefore we are all responsible for recognizing it and stopping it.”

So how do we stop it?


The world’s greatest poker players reach the top by making more mistakes than the people below them. Tom Dwan once told me that although he fears making mistakes; his fear is nowhere near the levels that arise when he considers not taking action because of fear.

We need to be allowed to make mistakes.

Poker players.





We need to have emotional safety, and as Brown states in her book, it doesn’t mean “I don’t have to listen to any point of view that’s different from mine, that I don’t like, that I think is wrong, that will hurt my feelings, or that is not up to my standards of political correctness.”

If dehumanising starts with words, then that’s where rehumanising begins. I vow, from this point onward to be hyper-careful when it comes to the power of my words both verbally and typed, and I urge people to at least think before sending out a tweet, or writing a blog post, or creating a Vlog.

“Would it be better if I sent a PM, instead of tweeting this to a million people?”

I’ve spent the past week and a half talking to the world’s best players, and a lot of them won’t use Twitter because it’s -EV to have your views thrown back at you in the form of a hand grenade. Social media is the perfect platform for dehumanising and morally excluding people. There is no accountability and often complete anonymity.

Had Cordeiro’s or my haters been in the same room at the time the ‘Stripper’ and ‘Kevin Hart’ pieces went out, undoubtedly, a civil but uncomfortable discourse would have taken placed bookended with hugs, understanding and empathy.

I will leave you with the wise words of Brené Brown, not because she is smarter than me, but because if you don’t agree you can hurl abuse across her Twitter account, leaving me alone (and that was a joke, by the way).

“Dehumanizing and holding people accountable are mutually exclusive. Humiliation and dehumanizing are not accountability or social justice tools; they’re emotional off-loading at best, emotional self-indulgence at worst. And if our faith asks us to find the face of God in everyone we meet, that should include the politicians, media, and strangers on Twitter with whom we most violently disagree. When we desecrate their divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.”​