Scott Wellenbach has been the subject of an intense amount of press attention since taking third place in the PCA Main Event in January. But that doesn’t mean he’s gotten used to it yet.
Speaking on a sunny afternoon here in Monaco, Wellenbach was amid his latest flurry of attention — largely my fault. First he faced an on-camera interview in the players’ lounge for our friends in public relations, focused mostly on the topic he’s discussed with numerous publications around North America and Europe: his practice of giving away his poker profits to charity. Next up was a photo shoot in front of Sporting Club Monte-Carlo, where he was asked to tilt his head one way and then another, to look at the camera and then away from it, and to pose himself this way and that.
Both of these diversions are a far cry from his “so-called normal life,” as he puts it a few times during our chat, where he spends much of his time at his computer with dictionaries and online resources to translate ancient Buddhist texts.
That’s something he’s used to. But this new-found attention, not so much. “It’s so novel that I feel not very good at it,” he says of the media spotlight as we walk the grounds near Sporting Club and Monte Carlo Bay, where he’s been staying all week as part of the EPT Main Event package he won on PokerStars. “I feel out of place and wish that I could be more articulate. Sometimes after the interview’s over and I’m falling asleep that night I go, ‘Oh shit, I wish I had said blah-blah-blah.’ I imagine with experience, like anything else, you learn how to do it.”
At least within the context of major live tournament festivals, Wellenbach is far more comfortable at the poker table. However, even that comfort level is a little lower than it was about a decade ago, when the fact that cell phones were mostly used for making calls meant they were banned from most tables.
“I’m not one for imposing restrictions on human beings,” he says. “But if people weren’t allowed to have phones at the table, I would personally enjoy the game more.
“Sometimes you come to these tournaments and you feel like to talk to the person next to you is an intrusion. I mean, no one’s that mean — if you ask them a question they’re usually take off their earphones and pay some attention. But I feel like you shouldn’t have to go that far, to inflict yourself. It’s like we’re gathered together here, and of course the focus is going to be the card game, but while we’re in this card game we could be interacting. I think there would be a lot more of that and it would become much more natural.”
A more natural feel would be welcome in part because Wellenbach finds himself drawn less to online poker than to its live counterpart, which offers the kind of human interactions that he just can’t get on the internet.
“Somehow online poker doesn’t have the same social dimension,” he says. “One of the things I’ve enjoyed about poker, whether it be one of these tournaments or the local card room, is that you sit down and you’re just talking with whoever ends up next to you from whatever walk of life they may be, and it’s really interesting. I was playing poker [on the U.S. east coast] and there was this guy who had been a professor in ancient Greek philosophy. He gave me a whole course on Plato’s Symposium while we were between hands.”
An online chat box, on the other hand, is a little less philosophical in tone. “Sometimes it can be very aggressive,” he says. “It’s people trying to get under one another’s skin. It’s not just conversation around the table.”
I suggest that outside of home-game-type settings or small-field, high-buy-in tournaments where the players all know each other, people tend not to see their opponents as real people. They feel free to say whatever want in a way they would never feel in person.
Wellenbach agrees. “You know, weird shit happens at a live poker table in a card room, but much less [than online]. Because it is a human being. You know that. You may be an asshole that day, but you’re probably going to be less of an asshole than online.”
Not that online poker is all bad. After all, online qualifiers are the reason Wellenbach is able to play in tournaments like the PCA and EPT Monte Carlo Main Events. In fact, he even suggests that online poker could be the long-term solution to the problem of the massive consumption of resources required for hundreds of people to travel to live tournaments all around the world.
Besides, as long as he keeps winning in those tournaments he’s qualified for online, he can also direct his profits to good causes — just as long as he remains prepared to roll with guys like me putting a recorder in his face.
This is only a short extract of a longer interview with Scott Wellenbach that will appear on PokerStars Blog in the coming weeks.