As a poker player, I always enjoy a healthy debate when it comes to poker strategy, bankroll management and hand play (especially of what is done live or on televised or reported poker tournaments), among other things.
Before the Internet, the only way to do this was through having a circle of poker-playing comrades who would sometimes pass along less-than-valid intelligence, but from whom you could occasionally glean a viable nugget. Coordinating a bunch of different people's schedules posed problems, so those discussions would only happen occasionally.
Since the proliferation of the Web, this hasn't been as much of a problem. Most poker-oriented sites, including PokerListings.com, have some sort of arena devoted to debating different issues in the poker community. In the beginning, these were dedicated to the same type of discussions that I used to have with my friends and acquaintances: reasoned debate of poker issues, and exchanges of strategy and information on upcoming tournaments or places to play.
Recently, though, I have noticed a significant erosion in the quality of poker forums that has led me to ask if they are necessary at all anymore.
Perusing forums on several sites I have bookmarked, I've noticed that what people are discussing isn't necessarily poker related and, in some cases, would be better relegated to the locker room.
If you search these forums, you'll find threads polling readers on the relative attractiveness of various female players in the poker community. They have nothing to do with assessing these women's poker-playing abilities; they review their physical traits and speculate about their sexual orientation and whether they would make suitable companions (and that's the bowdlerized version!).
Some forums have even gone further than that. With their off-topic (OT) subjects and even entire sections that are marked as not safe for viewing at work (NSFW), they are the equivalent of the section in mom-and-pop video stores that has a sign on the door stating that you must be 18 to enter.
It's definitely disturbing to see these things in forums that are supposed to be for enlightened poker discussion and thoughts on the game.
Even discussions that do stick to poker-related issues can be minefields. Perhaps because of the ability to hide behind one's monitor, a newcomer posing an innocent question often precipitates an all-out blitzkrieg of responses in which their mental abilities, their supposed proclivities and their right to use up oxygen are all called into question.
Such "flame wars" do not make these forums look very good. Frequently two (or more) people who do not agree on what color the sky is overrun a particular subject and fire endless diatribes at each other, completely unrelated to what the original poster (OP) brought up. Thus, serious questions that arise in forums are often lost in the white noise that blasts from various locales around the world.
Managers of some sites have tried to adjust to this by moderating the forums, most of the time with the help of posters themselves. This is better than nothing, but the moderators can't be there 24/7. Other sites lack even this degree of oversight and, to be honest, they are the worst offenders. There are ways, however, to encourage poker forums to return to a viable state.
Moderating is the key and, most importantly, this oversight must be vigilant and thorough. Admittedly, this can be difficult with multiple subjects on a board that can generate potentially more than a thousand new topics and responses in a day. Site managers could apply gatekeeping software that would reduce the potential for raunchy and/or completely irrelevant subjects to reach the boards. This would be an excellent start.
For both moderated and unmoderated forums, in the end it comes down to the posters themselves. Rather than acting like barely postpubescent teenagers, social misfits or out-and-out sociopaths, posters should have the decorum to think before their fingers go to work on their keyboards.
A good rule of thumb before posting a comment to a message board is to ask yourself, "Would I say this in public in a mixed social situation?" If you determine that you wouldn't, then potentially what you're about to write is better off left unsaid.
In terms of picking fights with other members of the forum, restraint is perhaps the best policy. People have had disagreements since the dawn of mankind; most of the time, they can "agree to disagree" and get along despite them. In the forums, though, exchanges sometimes become borderline slanderous or even involve physical threats.
Moderators should watch situations such as this and encourage the combatants to drop their animosity or risk expulsion. In unmoderated forums, it is up to the members to police themselves and act appropriately.
Finally, if you don't have a worthwhile comment to make on a particular subject, don't say anything at all. I routinely read strategy thoughts and come up with a pertinent response, only to find that someone else has beaten me to it. In that case, I normally will not even broach the subject.
There is no such thing as a stupid question (even if it is, "Did I play my pocket aces correct here?"); depending upon the experience of the person asking, they are attempting to become a better player and do not deserve ridicule for posing their query.
Poker forums are still one of the best ways to discuss the intricacies of the game. But the overflow - the verbal assaults and threats; the endless locker-room discussion of people based on gender or race or the posting of lascivious photographs - has to be stemmed. Only then will poker forums again offer something of substance instead of catering to Cro-Magnon mentalities as too many do now.