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Schleger: “Everyone is a Functioning Drug User to Some Degree”

Shane Schleger may be transitioning out of the poker world but he’s never been more prominent thanks to a controversial piece he wrote about drug use for Slate Magazine.

In the article, titled “Fifteen Years of Smoking Crack,” Schleger openly discusses his life as a drug user and detailed his off-and-on relationship with crack.

It's an eye-opening journey for anyone unfamiliar with high-functioning drug users and likely a relatable story to anyone hiding his or her own habit.

Schleger also co-hosts a new podcast called Dope Stories with Pauly “Dr Pauly” McGuire (of Taopoker fame), which they tag as “A rational discussion about drug use.”

The podcast constantly crosses over into poker territory and the most recent edition even featured former world champ Greg Merson, who struggled with addiction in the past. Schleger was kind enough to talk to us about all his new projects and even a little poker.

Shane Schleger

Shane Schleger at the 2012 WSOP.

PokerListings: How are you finding the transition from online poker to writing and podcasting?

Shane Schleger: Fun and interesting, but scary! Sort of like when I started out in poker and thought I had potential but not many results.

PL.com: People seem to be responding to Dope Stories in a very positive way. Is that rewarding?

It's very encouraging. I feel we're at the beginning of a project that is still marked by some uncertainty, so it's meaningful to hear positive feedback, and it keeps me going. Again you could look at it like poker: Right now we are still grinding it out and trying to improve our game. The "rewarding" part hopefully comes down the road when we've proven we have a bigger sample size and better results.

PL.com: The obvious question everyone asked when they heard your story is “Did you ever smoke crack and play poker?” You said on the podcast the answer is no; that the two just aren’t conducive to each other. Do you feel there are drugs that are conducive to playing better poker (eg Adderall, weed etc)?

Conducive to playing poker, yes, conducive to playing better, it's hard to say. I've never heard a cogent argument for how smoking cannabis could improve your poker play in real time, but I know plenty of players who enjoy being high on weed when they play. Some might argue it helps with emotional aspects of playing like tilt control or general enjoyment of one's time, but as far as overall performance enhancement, I don't know.

My understanding of Adderall is that it's a pharmaceutical version of methamphetamine and I figure the positive benefits people get from speed (alertness, a feeling of a burst in creativity) could transfer over to poker play. Don't have much personal experience with it, though.

Shane Schleger

PL.com: Drug use is pretty ubiquitous among the traveling poker crowd, with weed being the most prominent perhaps. But there are countless other industries – action sports, finance, entertainment, etc – where drug use is equally accepted/commonplace. As a career, would you say poker is any different than the norm when it comes to drug use?

That's a tricky question to answer, but I think the poker world is a representative sample of human nature, we just wear our addictive issues on our sleeve more obviously than most, maybe because poker attracts the type of person who cares less about perception.

And a lot of it is a matter of perception, too. Writing that article, I learned that many people outside of poker still look at professional gambling as inherently corrupt or dubious way to make a living. To me, our profession doesn't seem much different than many other kinds of investing or banking or game-playing that are considered within the norm of society.

Similarly, society accepts the idea of a 2-cup-of-coffee-a-day drinkers or the person who has a few glasses of wine at lunch but someone who smokes a joint with that first cup of coffee or does a line of coke after dinner isn't likely to be accepted so readily. I don't think it has much to do with toxicity, just the way it's viewed.

PL.com: People like to romanticize the old days of poker but surely a general acceptance of booze/drugs/degeneracy is part of poker’s past.  Do you feel like your open conversation about a drug-friendly lifestyle is being received in a different light given the time and substance of choice?

I really wasn't arguing for a "drug friendly lifestyle” per se, although I think you've already identified the fact that poker is sort of a de-facto “drug friendly lifestyle.” I was arguing that an honest and objective conversation about drugs — vs. the traditional method of suppressing certain ugly realities — is our best chance at getting in touch with our behavioral issues.

In the poker world, you see the potential for a lot of behaviors, not just drug use but food and gambling and sex, to get out of control. I don't think we do ourselves any long-term favors by denying those realities.

Haralabos Voulgaris

Former Shaniac backer Haralabos Voulgaris

PL.com: Haralabob tweeted that he used to be one of your backers and just found out about your ongoing crack use. Even though you never used while playing poker does it feel somewhat duplicitous/significant your backers were unaware?

As I explained to Bob privately afterward, I knew he considered me foolish for smoking cigarettes, so I didn't know how to broach the topic of this one highly stigmatized drug.

Speaking of Bob specifically, it's worth noting that hard drugs were rarely in my life during the time I worked with him. It would have been like informing him of some deviant behavior I participated in somewhere between 1-4x a year that I regarded as having a negligible effect on my consciousness. I don't think I hid other aspects of my drug experimentation from him, so in my heart I hope I wasn't betraying him. Then again, knowing that he felt somewhat betrayed or deceived, I would choose to tell him if I could do it again, so I did at a minimum commit a sin of omission.

Looking at last year, when I acknowledge that I did smoke too much coke, I think my backer from that time looks at my actions as a whole and doesn't make judgments when it comes to the decisions I make in my personal life. I assume he'd support the impression that using too much drugs didn't cause me to act badly in the realm of professional poker.

PL.com: You talked about a middle ground between rock bottom and pure abstinence that doesn’t get talked about much or can’t be talked about without it devolving into the typical drug addiction spiral. What’s everyone missing the most when they can’t consider the possibility of “functional drug use,” to some degree?

Maybe that everyone is a functional drug user to some degree or another. That's why I draw parallels between coffee and weed and crystal meth and Adderall.

We are severely held back in our thinking by stigmas that don't advance the discussion. Evidence of that partly being how my piece was misinterpreted as being in favor of using crack. It's a struggle to express a shade of gray in a world that still thinks in black and white about drug use.

PL.com: The reaction to your Slate piece was pretty strong and, as you said on the podcast, pretty polarized. Did you read most of the comments and what was one that stood out as being something you hadn’t considered before?

26 Dr Pauly

Schleger's partner in crime Dr. Pauly.

I didn't consider the degree to which I'd be vilified by some commenters and have my personality evaluated in light of the stigma of crack cocaine, when of course my intention was to have the stigma re-evaluated in light of my personality. I think many people in the poker world understood the more nuanced aspects of my message, because we have already battled stigmas before in the form of having our profession understood by outsiders.

PL.com: People in poker really like to jump to histrionics, throw out terrible accusations etc when things like this come out. Has that been the dominant response or has the reaction among a closer poker circle been more positive?

I think this was perceived by poker players in a mostly open-minded and empathetic way. For a couple reasons, including the aforementioned dynamic about professonial gamblers having fought stigma already.

PL.com: Rehab/12-Step programs are pretty standard default mechanisms people say you should consider when dealing with a drug habit or “addiction.” Do you see any validity to them for you? Can poker players (typically) just see too much variance/gray area in life for it to be that straight forward?

Anything that helps someone achieve a healthier lifestyle has validity as a support system. As I said in the piece, I see a lot of value in some of the wisdom you find in “the rooms” I just dislike the framework that it's only useful for people who have hit a bottom and must achieve complete sobriety to recover. I don't see a place for myself in those programs, but I still think I deserve a voice in the discussion of addiction and treatment.

PL.com: Do you see yourself playing much poker in the future? Were you satisfied with what you accomplished in the game?

I think I'll play poker as a hobby, hopefully forever! I'd like to keep my game sharp and play occasionally for fun. I want to get back in touch with what made the game enjoyable and not “work.” I want to fit poker into my life rather than trying to fit life around a full time poker career.


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