Friday, April 17, 2015

Jacob on Jeopardy!

Tuned in tonight to watch Jeopardy! in order to see Alex Jacob, the poker pro (or former poker pro) who is currently enjoying a massive run on the show.

Most in the poker world first met Jacob nearly a decade ago when he won that United States Poker Championship in Atlantic City in 2006, an event that was televised and thus got him some notice even though he’d already made final tables at the World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker by then.

He’d continue to collect cashes up through 2012, earning over $2.6 million total. I feel like he never was a full-timer on the circuit, though, and over the last couple of years has been even less conspicuous, perhaps having stepped away entirely.

In any case, you’ve probably heard about him popping up again on Jeopardy! where he’s been crushing. Going into tonight he’d won five times in a row, winning $129,401 total with mostly dominating performances. At the start of this sixth try, host Alex Trebek noted how Jacob had gotten to Final Jeopardy four of five times with leads of greater than double the nearest competitor, meaning he’d already clinched the win.

I did watch the end of one of those shows and laughed at the end when during Final Jeopardy Jacob appeared to push “all in” by moving his hands forward when his final betting amount was revealed -- $0, actually. At the start of tonight’s show Trebek introduced Jacob as a currency trader, so I’m not even sure they’ve discussed his poker background at all.

Hearing about some of Jacob’s strategies -- e.g., not going top-to-botton with categories but jumping all around the board with his clue selections, and usually betting everything on the Daily Doubles -- I thought back to that fellow from about a year ago, Arthur Chu, who also got a lot of press and poker players’ attention during a run of 11 straight wins on the show.

Chu became known as the “Jeopardy Villain” because of both his unorthodox strategy and his humorous baiting of folks over Twitter during the time of his reign. Chu would also pick clues out of order and routinely go “all in” on the Daily Doubles. Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings wrote an article for Slate at the time discussing Chu, explaining how that latter decision to go for “true Daily Doubles” was correct.

“Like a poker player trying to increase the size of the pot when he has a good hand,” Jennings wrote, “Jeopardy! contestants should maximize their upside when the odds are in their favor.”

There was one other quirk Chu exhibited during Final Jeopardy. When leading but not having more than twice the “stack” as his nearest foe, he’d bet exactly enough to tie should his opponent bet everything and both players answered the clue correctly.

For example, if Chu had $12,000 and his opponent had $7,000, Chu would bet exactly $2,000 -- not $2,001, as some tend to do -- to end with $14,000 if he were to be correct and tie with his opponent if that player bet everything and was correct as well. In fact, one time that’s what happened and after tying both he and his opponent were able to return for the next show.

That strategy, as I understand it, makes it just a tiny bit less likely Chu could lose should his opponent happen not to bet everything but a lesser amount. In the above example, for instance, if he bet $2,001 and was incorrect he’d end with $11,999, and if his opponent only bet $5,000 even and was correct that player would have $12,000 and win by a buck.

I noticed someone retweeting Chu commenting on Jacob, in fact, interestingly bringing up his own poker playing as he did.

Getting back to Jacob’s performance tonight, Trebek introduced things by alluding to Jacob’s recent run, advising Jacob’s opponents Nikhil and Scott to “get him early, and then try to get him late, too.” Jacob ruled during much of the first round, though, quickly building a big lead before the others finally were able to buzz in and start notching some correct answers.

Then Scott got the Daily Double and with just $600 -- several thousand behind Jacob -- he surprisingly bet only $5. The questioned turned out to be an easy one for him and he won the $5, but it felt a lot like a player too timid to bet without a sure thing.

By the second round Jacob was well in front and in fact went a long stretch without buzzing in at all while the totals of other two went up and down. Scott got another Daily Double, and this time said “Alex is too good, I gotta do it... true Daily Double.” Alas for him he got a tough one about an Italian painter and lost his stack.

A little later Nikhil got the other Daily Double at a point when he had $4,200 and Alex $7,200. Betting it all and being correct would put him in the lead, but he chose only to bet $2,000. The category was “In the Dictionary” and the clue “Fittingly it means ‘Empty Orchestra’ in Japanese.” Nikhil guessed “What is kabuki?” but the correct response was “What is karaoke?” and Jacob’s lead increased again.

There was a clue about “Manhattan prosecutor Preet Bharara” -- he of Black Friday fame -- that perhaps got poker players’ attention. It got Jacob’s attention, too, as he finally buzzed back in to guess correctly that Bharara had vowed sweeping reform of Rikers Island.

Jacob then rattled off a few more correct answers, seeming at one point to pause unnaturally after buzzing in to answer an easy one about a Halloween TV special featuring a character who instead of candy gets a rock.

“Who is... Charlie Brown?” he said, and for a moment I thought he might have been stalling a little as the round was winding down. But he immediately picked back up the pace thereafter, and the trio was able to complete the entire board with Jacob sitting with $17,400, Nikhil $10,200, and Scott $3,600.

The Final Jeopardy category was “Book Reviews” and the clue was an easy one (I thought) -- “A 2008 review of this novel, later filmed, compared it to ‘Battle Royale’ & said it’s ‘a future we can fear.’” -- although I guess it might not have been easy if I hadn’t read The Hunger Games.

Nikhil missed it, though, while Jacob got it correct. He bet $3,001 -- meaning he did not choose the Chu approach -- and ended with $20,401 to bring his six-day total close to $150K.

To be honest, while it’s probably safe to say Jacob is using some of the same skills and strategic thinking he honed at the poker tables while playing and winning at Jeopardy!, there wasn’t that much in his play that obviously recalled his poker background. In fact, it was the timidity of the other two players that made me think more of poker, as well as a kind of “tell” from Scott when he declared he didn’t like one category as he was selecting it.

I guess, though, at the very end of the show I was reminded again that Jacob played poker. “Smile, Alex... smile!” said Trebek to Jacob who remained stoic even as the audience applauded his victory. He reminded me of a seasoned player who has just won a big pot and who has trained himself not to show emotion afterwards.

Jacob may be a “currency trader” now, but he still has that poker face.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Turn and Face the Strange

Poker’s a great game for helping a person realize how resistant we can be anything new. When something works for us once, we try it again. And if it works again, we try it a dozen more times. Then when it doesn’t work it takes us twice as long to get away from it and accept the idea of changing our ways.

Back on April Fool’s Day -- actually I think it might have been the night before -- ESPN changed the design of its website for the first time since 2009. The site had obviously been tweaked a lot over those six years, but that’s still a long time to go between overhauls for one of the most visited sites on the internet.

I read the article over on ESPN announcing the change, then clicked to see the comments afterwards. One of the changes made to the site, in fact, is that you have to click to read comments in a pop-up now, rather than just scroll down -- kind of makes comments less conspicuous, I’ve discovered, which I’ve also realized ain’t a bad thing.

It was kind of hilarious to read what was clearly a loud, angry concensus of negative reaction. Absolutely no one seemed to like the new look of the site which besides having a brighter look now conforms more closely to how people experience the site on tablets and smartphones than before.

The most “liked” comments at the top were uniformly critical. “Change it back, the new site sucks.” “This is a mess.” “Can you please go back to the old format, this wasn’t what anyone wanted.” “Perfectly awful new design.” “Daily user for 10+ years. Am completely blown away by how bad the new site it.” And so on and on and on, with plenty of April Fool’s references peppered in along the way. Everyone commenting seemed to hate the new site.

This week Norman Chad -- whom poker fans are used to hearing on ESPN quite a bit (where, now that I think about it, WSOP coverage hasn’t experienced that much change over the last decade-plus) -- chimed in with his own negative review of the redesign in his weekly “Couch Slouch” column for The Washington Post. “There’s just too much going on — it feels like I’ve walked into a pinball machine,” writes Chad amid a characteristically funny rant that concludes with a self-deprecating admission that “the problem is me, not them.”

When I first loaded the site after the redesign, I, too, was vaguely annoyed at not being able to find the things I usually sought out. But to be honest it only took a few more visits to realize the new design is much, much better than what had been there before, with most of it being very intuitive and easy to navigate.

All of this is pretty subjective stuff, though. The overwhelmingly negative reaction at first seemed to suggest something meaningful about the culture as a whole. In his column Chad noted “I hate change in general,” and the chorus of comments appeared to confirm that most people feel similarly.

The reaction also perhaps says something about the subset of surfers who bother to comment on articles -- there, too, you’re often much more likely to find comments to be critical than praising. Then there’s that other echo-chamber phenomenon that often occurs online whereby the first responses get repeated ad infinitum, especially when there’s a easy target for everyone to point to with their downward thumbs.

That said, I’m hardly one to dispute the idea of being resistant to change. It took me about five years, I think, to change this site’s background from brooding black to grim gray, and it’s almost been another four years since (never mind having stuck with essentially the same layout throughout the run).

Gonna go think about how to change this sucker into a pinball machine.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Fade to Black (Friday)

Today marks four years since “Black Friday,” the day the U.S. Department fo Justice unsealed its indictment and civil complaint targeting the world’s three biggest online poker sites, temporarily seizing domains and subsequently shutting the U.S. out of the global online poker game.

Was looking back today through the last few posts noting anniversaries of the occasion.

One year after Black Friday I was marking the date by looking back, revisiting the story of my being in Lima, Peru when everything went down (like, really went down).

Two years after Black Friday I was covering a tournament in nearby Cherokee and was thus distracted from writing about the occasion, belatedly turning to it a week later and already starting to think about how it seemed “the great majority of the recreational or part-time U.S. online poker players have now moved on from poker entirely.”

Three years on I was stepping back even further, talking about some of my various trips abroad where I’d get to experience vicariously other countries’ “online poker cultures” and be reminded in a vague way of the one I used to experience on a daily basis.

Today, four years later, I saw a few fleeting references to Black Friday in my Twitter timeline -- when I fleetingly checked it, that is, as I’ve now adopted a policy not to keep the sucker open all day as I used to do. But I didn’t see too much deep thought about it.

We’ve all more or less moved on -- some literally, most of us figuratively. Seems like much, much more than four years ago now, the memory of it (and what came before) having nearly faded to black.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

“Imagine You Have Pocket Aces,” Says the Caddy

Was listening earlier today to an interview with Michael Greller, the former sixth-grade math and science teacher who is now the full-time caddy for Jordan Spieth, winner of the Masters over the weekend.

Greller’s story is interesting, in part because he isn’t necessarily someone with a traditional background of those who caddy for the game’s top players. He has experience, though not as much as others who serve in that role. During the interview (on the Dan Le Batard Show) he explained how circumstances led to him getting involved with Spieth and ultimately becoming not just his full-time caddy but a trusted friend as well.

When asked about what kind of advice he gave to Spieth during the final round, Greller interestingly brought up poker as a game both he and Spieth like to play and as a source for ideas from which to draw upon to help him guide Spieth on Sunday.

“What I told Jordan all day Sunday, he’s been playing probably better than anybody in the world for a little while now. And I said -- he had a four-shot lead -- and I said... we play cards a lot on the road with each other, [so] I put it into poker terms.”

“I said ‘You’ve got pocket aces, you’re playing better than anybody in the world... [and] you’ve got the chip lead.’ He just wanted to build that chip lead. We talked about that a lot on the golf course.... He wasn’t thinking about the other guys; he was just thinking about getting to 20-under. And that was the goal all day Sunday.”

Analogies between poker and golf are endless. I’ve written about them before here many times, including in the context of the Masters which always seems to inspire that kind of thinking. So it wasn’t surprising to hear Greller bring up playing cards, although it was kind of interesting to think of the two of them chatting about poker during the endgame, one during which Spieth never was challenged much by the field as he was able to keep them at a safe distance right to the end.

Greller really combined two different analogies -- one comparing leading a golf tournament to having the best hand (pocket aces) and thus a necessary edge over one’s opponents, and the other comparing that to leading a poker tournament. Both emphasized Spieth playing from an advantageous position, either in terms of his “cards” or his “chips,” with the resulting lesson being to use that edge smartly by pressuring those with “less strong cards” or “shorter stacks.”

Of course, such advice is only going to be helpful if the recipient knows something about playing from ahead, as Spieth -- who raced out to a big lead after the first round and led wire-to-wire last week -- clearly does.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Morality in the Muck?

I recently reposted an interview here with the poker writer, commentator, and player Jesse May, reading through it once more as I did and enjoying a lot of the insights May shares as he discusses his novel Shut Up and Deal, the origins of Late Night Poker, and other poker-related topics.

Meanwhile I’ve been working further on another project which just so happened to carry me back to David Apostolico’s interesting 2005 book Machiavellian Poker Strategy: How to Play Like a Prince and Rule the Poker Table. I remember first reading Apostolico’s book right about the time I interviewed May, in fact (about four years ago).

In the past I used to teach a Great Books class which included The Prince -- taught it many times -- and so I remember getting a kick out of all the many connections Apostolico was able to make between poker strategy and theory and Machiavellian principles of leadership and government.

Looking again at Machiavellian Poker Strategy, I happened to notice kind of an interesting contrast between something May says in the interview and a point Apostolico makes early on in his book. It probably isn’t fair to either of them to isolate the quotes as I’m about to do, but the difference between them was so stark I thought I’d share if only to invite others’ consideration.

In Part 1 of the interview during our discussion of Shut Up and Deal, May more than once talks about the issue of morality in poker, in particular noting how the game in fact presents a significant challenge to players’ moral sensibilities, or at least did back during the 1990s when he played (and when his book is set).

“One of the things about poker, especially back then, is that you are faced with so many moral choices,” says May. “I think that’s what excited me about the story more than anything else. Just because of poker’s nature, the decisions that you have to make every day... you are constantly testing out your own morality. And other people’s, too. You find out a lot about what lengths they’ll go to, what depths they’ll sink to, really who they are as a person. Poker reveals so much about people’s personalities because the ethical dilemmas -- the gray areas -- they come so fast and furious.”

If you’ve ever read Shut Up and Deal, you know exactly how what May is talking about applies to the complicated network of relationships in which his main character, Mickey, finds himself entangled. Or if you’ve lived the live of a full-time poker player and/or gambler, you may also know what he’s getting at with regard to the moral challenge the game provides.

In any case, I had that observation in mind when rereading the following passage occurring early in Apostolico’s book:

“Since poker can be an unjust game, you must do everything in your power to ensure that you succeed,” writes Apostolico. “So long as you play within the rules, you can and should use every means at your disposal to beat your opponent. Poker provides a forum for you to implement guilt free the most ruthless of Machiavellian principles. It is your opportunity to be a Prince.”

That passage reminded me of discussions with my classes about Machiavelli’s recommendations to would be rulers not to let questions of good or bad interfere with governing successfully and above all retaining power. The Prince advocates throughout practicality, the importance of appearances and being able to manipulate the masses, and setting aside anything not directly related to winning and/or having power over others. (In other words, it describes modern politics, more or less.)

Meanwhile the passage seems to run counter to what May is saying in the way it suggests poker exists as a kind of morality-free zone rather than an area in which moral questions are of utmost importance.

I think, though, I could be drawing a false comparison here. May is talking not just about the strategy of playing a hand of poker, but about living the life of a full-time poker player, while Apostolico is focused more narrowly on the way Machiavellian principles relate to succeeding when playing a zero sum game.

Then again, maybe the two aren’t in disagreement at all, and both are talking about how poker (in a sense) challenges each player not to care about others’ welfare as it necessarily affects your own in a negative way -- a challenge to which each player’s response is necessarily going to be personal.

I thought that was an interesting enough juxtaposition to share while also giving me a chance again to recommend both Shut Up and Deal and Machiavellian Poker Strategy: How to Play Like a Prince and Rule the Poker Table.

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Friday, April 10, 2015

Jesse May Interview, April 2011 (Part 2 of 2)

Here’s the second part of that interview with Jesse May, conducted just about four years ago in the spring of 2011 (Part 1 here).

In this part we focus more particularly on the story behind Late Night Poker, the first series of which appeared in 1999. That picture down below of the two of us, by the way, comes from this year’s PokerStars Caribbean Adventure where I had a chance to interview Jesse once again for the PokerStars blog (photo by Neil Stoddart).

* * * * *

“The Betfair Poker Interview: Jesse May, Part 2”
[Originally published at Betfair Poker, 8 April 2011]

This week we present the second half of my conversation with poker player, author, and commentator Jesse May. After focusing primarily on May’s 1998 poker-themed novel Shut Up and Deal, we turned our attention to the early days of Late Night Poker, the groundbreaking show that debuted in the U.K. on Channel 4 in the summer of 1999.

Short-Stacked Shamus: Late Night Poker is one of those shows I’ve always been curious to learn more about. A lot of fans of poker on television -- especially those of us over here in America -- don’t necessarily realize how important and influential Late Night Poker really was when it comes to televised poker. What are some of your memories from the show’s early days?

Jesse May: I remember the whole thing very well. It was one of the most formative things in my life, really.

I was invited as a player for the first series. I had become friendly with Nick Szeremeta. My book [Shut Up and Deal] had been out, and I was spending more time in Europe around that time. I had recently gotten married and was trying to get some gigs as a writer, and Nick was getting me some work.

Nick had been contacted by Rob Gardner [the show’s original producer] to help get players for the show. In fact, they’d had a lot of trouble getting players for this first series of Late Night Poker. Most people turned them down. At the time I was on the way to going broke. After about five years I was kind of at the tail end of my professional poker career. And the action had been drying up a little bit.

SSS: What was the buy-in for that first series?

JM: The buy-in was £1500. It was a massive, massive buy-in (laughs). At that time there might have been three tournaments during the entire year with a buy-in bigger than £1500. And I had about £1800 to my name... that was it! And I can’t remember why, but I felt like I needed to be a part of this.

And as it turned out, most of the people who showed up at that first series of Late Night Poker had the same sort of idea. In that first series there were maybe three or four legitimate pros -- Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott, Surinder Sunar, and a couple of others. There really weren’t many, a lot of the pros had turned it down. Everybody else, we were all just kind of chancers in a sense. But for some reason I felt like I had to be part of it.

SSS: So they taped all of the heats for that first series at once.

JM: Yes, it was in Cardiff in the spring... it must have been April. I remember I played in the very first heat. Back then, all the players who had bought in got a free hotel room for the week, which was quite a big bonus (laughs)! [That meant] everyone showed up and stayed all week.

So I played in the first heat, and I embarrassed myself, basically. I didn’t know anything about tournaments -- I probably hadn’t played 10 tournaments in my life! I ended up getting third in the heat. I got knocked out after going all in with something like 9-3-offsuit... it was pretty embarrassing. People were giving me pretty awkward looks as I walked out the door (laughs).

So then I had the rest of the week to hang out, and I had those thoughts: “What the heck am I going to do next?” I thought I might be back to selling storm windows or something.

SSS: But then you ended up being brought in to be a commentator on that first series.

JM: Yes. In fact, the original idea for Late Night Poker was that there would be no commentators. They filmed it thinking that the table talk was going to carry the show. Today that might work, but back then nobody had been on television before. Everybody just froze up! Aside from maybe the Devilfish there might not have been ten words said during the entire tournament. So the producers were panicking a bit and they decided they were going to have to have commentary.

And I volunteered to do it for free. I said I’d be happy to do it, that it sounded like a great idea. I was just thinking, really, at least I can try and give some explanation for being such an idiot -- you know, maybe I won’t come across so badly (laughs). And [I was also thinking I would] maybe get a chance to promote my book or something, although I didn’t really even think that through. Who knew at the time that would actually turn into a career for me!

SSS: The show really was pioneering. When it first aired in July 1999, we were still about four years away from the World Poker Tour debuting and Moneymaker’s WSOP victory being shown on ESPN.

JM: The thing about Late Night Poker that most people don’t realize, it wasn’t just the first poker TV show. I mean, it was that. And it was the first to use the under-the-table hole card cameras. But if you go back and watch those first few series, what made it great and the reason it took off was because of the way it was edited and the way it was filmed.

Rob Gardner was the producer of the first three series, and Rob really understood that it wasn’t enough to just show everything. He knew that what was going on here was a mini-drama, and it was filmed and edited to show that. I’m talking about the shots, the way they used to reveal the hands, the way they used to show the decisions being made... plus the atmosphere! The shots of cigarette smoke and looking up at the players from under the table... the fact that they used the under-the-table cameras -- and still do, in Europe, for a lot of the stuff, while in America they use the hole-card cams and put the graphics on afterwards -- that shot of the camera from under the glass, with the person’s cards and then his face, was such a new and exciting and dramatic type of shot!

SSS: You’re right, that low-angle shot looking up at the player, who now has the knowledge of the hole cards -- a secret that we now know, too -- it’s very cinematic, really.

JM:: Yes, and it all would be worked into [the telling of the story]. And when it took off, most of the people who watched it didn’t know anything about poker. They were drawn in by the natural drama of the TV show.

Later when the World Poker Tour started -- and I think the WPT and Mike Sexton are great and majorly responsible for the growth of poker -- it was really so much different. What they were really capitalizing on was the big money that they were playing for, and the “all ins” and things like that. It was not at all like what Late Night Poker had been doing.

SSS: Well, it definitely works. Even going back and watching those old shows today, they definitely hold your interest.

JM: Rob’s background is kind of interesting -- it was actually in dance. He was a modern dancer with a dance troupe or something like that, and didn’t know anything about poker. He was hired by Presentable Productions to come up with new ideas for TV shows. And he just came up with the poker idea out of the blue, and got in touch with Nick Szeremeta and it went from there.

They sold it to Channel 4 in the U.K. which back then used to do some very, very out there kind of stuff, especially late at night. They used to have this thing called “4Later” or something like that when they would air these shows. It was the kind of idea that would never, ever get sold today. But they took a flyer on it and it just went from there. But Rob was really a driving force behind that.

Rob passed away three years ago and the European Poker Awards set up an award in his honor. It was originally called the “Rob Gardner Poker Innovation Award” and I think now has been changed to the “Poker Personality of the Year,” perhaps because there aren’t enough innovators in poker anymore.

[Speaking of,] there was a lot that came later regarding Henry Orenstein having taken credit for having invented the hole card camera...

SSS: The “lipstick camera.”

JM: Yes, the lipstick camera and how Orenstein had come up with the idea of showing hole cards. And nothing could be further from the truth. It upsets me, obviously, to see Rob denied this because I was such good friends with him.

Henry Orenstein was a poker player, of course. I used to play with him in Atlantic City. He was also an inventor and a toymaker -- he came up with the Transformers, I think -- and had many patents. And to get a patent on an idea, all you have to do, basically, is write three sentences on an A4 and get it through the committee. I think you can find the patent [for the hole card camera] online, and if you look at it, you’ll see it’s not even an idea. It basically just says “What if you could see the players cards when they are playing poker?” or something like that. And that’s it.

And so Rob knew nothing about Henry Orenstein when he came up with the idea for the under-the-table cameras for poker. But later on, when there was talk of putting Late Night Poker or something like that on in the U.S., all of a sudden Henry Orenstein found his patent and said “I own this.” And later when Steve Lipscomb got the idea for the WPT, even though it was expressed a bit differently, the idea was completely based on Late Night Poker.

SSS: The show found an audience right away. In For Richer, For Poorer, Vicky Coren refers to its debut and how “more than half a million people [were] tuning into this cultish new programme, broadcast after midnight on Channel 4.”

JM: It was an amazing time. I remember when the Devilfish won the first series of Late Night Poker, there was no question that he was the greatest winner of all. Nothing could have been better for poker or for televised poker than having the Devilfish win -- because of his personality and the fact that he really was a good player.

Right after he won they threw a big party in the hotel at Cardiff, and everybody was there. Devilfish bought a couple of cases of champagne for everybody, and basically, besides the Devilfish, of the 40-something people who had played in this, at least 39 of us were dead broke (laughs)! We’d all gone broke in this tournament! Guys like all the Hendon Mob and myself and Mad Marty [Wilson]... we had gone completely skint.

Yet there was such a fantastic feeling that night in the bar about what we had done. There was a real idea that something special had happened there. It was a great experience. I mean, we hadn’t seen the show and had no idea what kind of response it would get, but we just kind of felt that people were going to see what we loved about poker so much -- which is what ended up happening, really. It was a slow-burner, really, but it ended up growing, and there are so many people who got into poker through Late Night Poker. And I really give all the credit to Rob not only having the idea but being able to execute it.

I think a lot of poker television, especially in America, has gone backwards in the sense that they’ve forgotten what makes the game interesting. It’s not that there is just too much poker TV and people have gotten bored with the game. It’s that they are not creating formats and they are not filming them in a way that conveys the natural drama of the story.

SSS: I think about this issue in tourney reporting a lot, actually -- the challenge to find the “story” of the event. There’s kind of what might be called a “functional” approach to tourney reporting -- and this happens in TV shows, too -- where it is really just about delivering data with very little attention being given to the importance of creating characters or plot or something for the reader or viewer to be able to identify with on some level.

JM: Yes, and in many cases you’re facing a much tougher task now than people used to, because there is no story! I mean, there is a story -- someone is going to win a million dollars -- but that story is completely uninteresting. That happens now 365 times a year in poker. So that’s not the story. Is the story something about trying to find out who the best poker player is? No... for a lot of reasons people aren’t convinced that’s the story, either. Is the game exciting? Well, a lot of people aren’t even sure that’s the story. The fact is, there’s a lot of trouble with the narrative right now in the poker world.

SSS: Like you say, the editing and choice of shots and atmosphere are all important, but as a commentator you had a hand in the shaping of the story, too. Tell me, when you did the commentary for the first series, where did the idea come from to use a pseudonym -- to take your character’s name [from Shut Up and Deal] and be “Mickey Dane”?

JM: Well, we got in there and were doing the commentary and they said it was going to be awkward if you’re commentating on yourself, so why don’t we just pretend it’s somebody else?

SSS: I guess you weren’t talking too much at the table, then, so there wasn’t a situation where viewers were going to say “Hey, that guy sounds like that guy?”

JM: Right, it just worked out. It never really came up, because I didn’t last that long anyway (laughs). There was so much care taken with Late Night Poker. Nowadays a lot of commentating will be done live, but this was all done in post-production, and you could really be a perfectionist back then.

And there was a real camaraderie among those guys, too. No one was really making money at poker back then. Everybody was trying to survive as well as they could, but it still two or three years before people really started to think they could do well at poker. You know, once online poker started and sponsorships came and so forth. It was a special time.

* * * * *

Thanks again to Jesse for this one! Check out as well his memories of Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott over at PokerNews.

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Thursday, April 09, 2015

Jesse May Interview, April 2011 (Part 1 of 2)

The passing of Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott earlier this week brought to mind his significant role on the first series of Late Night Poker. That in turn reminded me of a lengthy interview I was able to do a while back with Jesse May, another person who was there at the start of the groundbreaking poker TV show in the late 1990s.

This was another of those Betfair Poker interviews that are no longer available online, and I realized now might be as good a time as any for me to repost the interview over here. Took me a while to find the sucker, actually, but thankfully I did.

I’ll repost it here in two parts, just as it originally appeared on Betfair Poker in early April 2011 -- right before Black Friday, actually, which is kind of interesting to consider when reading some of the discussion of the state of poker at that time. The first part primarily focuses on May’s 1998 novel, Shut Up and Deal, while the second (which I’ll post tomorrow) delves into the Late Night Poker story.

Thanks again, Jesse, for the interview!

* * * * *
“The Betfair Poker Interview: Jesse May, Part 1”
[Originally published at Betfair Poker, 1 April 2011]

When it comes to poker-themed novels, Jesse May’s Shut Up and Deal (1998) stands out as an especially accomplished entry, a book that brings alive the unique and fascinating world of the cash-game grinder of the mid-1990s.

May’s narrator, a young poker pro named Mickey, relates in episodic fashion the story of his ongoing struggles both at the tables and elsewhere, exploring in detail the many challenges faced by himself and others as they all separately strive to “stay in action.” Full of memorable characters and set pieces, I highly recommend May’s novel as both an entertaining read and an insightful exploration of poker’s many highs and lows.

In addition to his poker writing, May is well known for his contributions as a commentator on numerous poker shows, a role that has earned him the nickname “the Voice of Poker.” For May that career began shortly after the publication of his novel with the first season of Late Night Poker (in 1999), a show that would come to have great influence on televised poker a few years later with the launching of the World Poker Tour and expansion of coverage of the World Series of Poker on ESPN.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with May about both Shut Up and Deal and the early years of Late Night Poker. This week I’ll share the first part of our conversation in which we focused on May’s novel, and next week will present the story of May’s involvement with Late Night Poker.

Short-Stacked Shamus: I know Shut Up and Deal is based somewhat on your own experiences playing poker in the late ’80s-early ’90s. To what extent is Mickey’s story comparable to your own?

Jesse May: First of all, the story is true in the sense that I think truth is stranger than fiction. When I was writing it, I wasn’t worried about it being true, but I think that when it comes to a lot of gambling stories, you find that you could never make this stuff up. That’s been the case, I think, for every moment I’ve been in the gambling world.

Like Mickey, I did start playing when I was in high school. With a couple of other guys we all got obsessed with poker at the same time, then went out to Las Vegas -- four of us, all underage, like 17 or 18 -- and there discovered Texas hold’em (limit). Soon after that it became kind of a more serious thing for me. I used to go to Las Vegas quite a bit back before I turned 21, spending summers there trying to play poker. I dropped out of college twice, and after I turned 21 I ended up in Vegas and really tried to make a go of it.

Obviously it was during that poker explosion, and so as far as the places in the book go, they did kind of coincide with where I was. I spent a lot of time in Las Vegas. I was in Foxwoods within a month after they opened up [in 1992] and stayed there the better part of a year. I was in Atlantic City the very day they opened poker [in 1993], and stayed there about a year-and-a-half. Those were really interesting times as far as poker goes, because it was so new. There was no internet, obviously, back then, and all the action was there. I think the world had never seen anything like those two major openings -- Atlantic City and Foxwoods.

SSS: In a way the novel kind of chronicles this interesting and important moment for poker. For a lot of people who only came into poker post-Moneymaker, they might not realize how significant that earlier “explosion” really was for poker.

JM: That’s true. Also, it was interesting... at the time there were some poker texts, but most people really didn’t have access to them. So it was a combination of there being so few people who played poker -- not even well but just marginally -- and there being so much money around.

It was incredible, because it required such a different skill set to become a poker player then -- a professional -- than it does today. The skill sets then were really about money management and surviving in that hustling type of world rather than sitting around talking about hands. People didn’t sit around and talk strategy then. You talked about who was cheating and who owed you money and that kind of stuff (laughs). And I loved that world, and so for me it was a great time.

SSS: It’s funny, the world your describing was really much more similar to what came before -- even stretching back to the 19th century -- than what the poker world has become over the decade.

JM: It’s true. I look at a guy like Amarillo Slim [Preston]. You know -- throw out all the personal controversies that he’s had -- people have been very critical of his game, saying that he’s essentially not a poker player. And to some extent that’s true, but the fact is that in his time, and even when I would play with him a little bit back in Foxwoods, he was representative of a guy who was a great professional as far as poker went. Because he knew everything else. He knew how to get a game together, how to get an edge... he knew all that stuff. And I always had a lot of respect for him.

It was people like that -- like the Bart Stone character [in Shut Up and Deal] -- who really were able to thrive back then, and who wouldn’t be thriving now. And it really was, as you’re saying, the tail end of that era where that sort of “road gambler” was able to succeed.

SSS: So what led to your decision to write the novel?

JM: The book itself was written as a catharsis, really. Back when I was playing, you got such a strong response from people when they found out you were playing poker. You kind of continually felt yourself defending your lifestyle to others and to yourself and trying to make order of it.

I used to take a lot of breaks when I played poker, and this particular time when I had the first crack at writing the novel, I had been playing in Atlantic City and took off nine months to travel in Asia. It was during that period I wrote the bones of the novel, writing every day.

SSS: So the places and chronology of the novel roughly correspond to your own experiences. The characters -- Bart Stone, John Smiley, Uptown Raoul -- I assume they, too, are somewhat based on people you knew and with whom you played?

JM: Yes. Actually there were some liability issues with the publisher that made it very important for me to go through and change certain things -- ethnicities, physical qualities, names, things like that. But a lot of times [with a given character] there was some person I had in mind, and sometimes characters were compilations of different people.

The Bart Stone character, for example, was probably as close to real as you could get [i.e., the person on whom he was based]. He was such a strong personality, you couldn’t exaggerate him. His life was so amazing... he really was one of the true road gamblers. He was a guy who had a church-going wife and completely lived this sort of “picket fence” existence for three weeks out of every month, then for one week he’d get into his car to some town -- just start driving -- and find a town, find a game, and find a way to get the money.

He had this saying. He said he’d go into a town and first he’d try and beat people on the square. If that didn’t work, he’d try and cheat them. And if that didn’t work, he’d just pull out a gun and rob the motherf*ckers. That was his philosophy of life!

SSS: You actually start the novel with Bart Stone -- with a sketch of his character and telling the story of him cheating others. It’s interesting, because I think by starting the book that way you kind of indirectly introduce Mickey as a contrasting figure -- a “good” guy, that is, who looks at Bart and expresses a kind of awe because he could never live that way. But then he weirdly admires Bart, too. And Mickey, as we come to find out, isn’t without flaws himself.

JM: I guess it’s kind of flattering to hear you say that. You know, I recently just read Vicky Coren’s book. I don’t know if you’ve read that.

SSS: Oh, yes -- For Richer, For Poorer. It’s terrific.

JM: Yes, I quite like it, too. And I think the reason I like it so much is that unlike a lot of these “tell-all” poker books or whatever they are, Vicky never tries to make herself into sort of an elite. She throws herself in with the poker players -- they are her peers, and she’s not trying to pretend that she’s not as bad or as good or as sick or as addicted or anything as any of them. And I always thought that was kind of important in the poker world as far as keeping your own order together was concerned -- that if you do think you’re different or better than everyone else, at least recognize that you’re a hypocrite (laughs)!

One of the things about poker, especially back then, is that you are faced with so many moral choices. I think that’s what excited me about the story more than anything else. Just because of poker’s nature, the decisions that you have to make every day... you are constantly testing out your own morality. And other people’s, too. You find out a lot about what lengths they’ll go to, what depths they’ll sink to, really who they are as a person. Poker reveals so much about people’s personalities because the ethical dilemmas -- the gray areas -- they come so fast and furious.

SSS: There are several themes present in the novel. One seems to be the way people tend to view poker either realistically or they romanticize it -- that there’s a “reality” of poker that some get, and there’s a “romance” about the game that others prefer to see.

JM: I’ll buy that.

SSS: A related theme in the book -- and this is interesting because you’ve already used this phrase a couple of times with regard to the writing of the novel -- is this idea of “making order” of your life. Mickey is constantly trying to do that himself in the book, and struggling, at times, between being “realistic” and being “romantic” about his life as a full-time poker player.

JM: I think that for people who play poker professionally today, that “order” is so much more readily available. And it’s an order that is very similar for all of them. They’ve identified profitable ways to play, mistakes their opponents make, and all of the numbers involved that they can see with the tracking software and things like that -- the order is there. I think it was much harder before, but believe me, they still have a lot of chaos in their lives, because the nature of poker and gambling is obviously based on the streaks of winning and losing. That stuff throws off your sense of balance.

Then there’s the “moral” order of setting up rules for yourself, which obviously is a whole other thing. The order of believing that what you’re doing is the right thing to be doing. To me that’s always been the major theme of gambling -- not just poker -- that you’re always making up new rules for yourself. Maybe it’s like that in life, too, you know, something works for a while and then something throws it off and you have to go back to the drawing board. But it’s very important for people to have a sense of order, and I agree that’s something that Mickey struggles with in the book. As everybody in the poker world does.

I think everyone takes this little, sort of vicarious pleasure in seeing someone who’s completely on top of the poker world run bad. You know, when somebody like Brian Townsend is writing that he’s questioning everything and going back to the drawing board. You recognize that the poker world can be as chaotic for them as it is for the rest of us.

SSS: I think you’re right about it being a different situation today than for players in the ’90s, not just in terms of being able to track results and see “order” that way, but when it comes to the moral questions, too. Poker still isn’t completely accepted today, but -- to go back to what you were saying earlier -- poker pros aren’t necessarily having to defend what they do as much today as before.

Okay, one last question about the novel. What writers -- poker and otherwise -- would you list as ones you admire and might consider as having influenced you when writing Shut Up and Deal?

JM: As far as poker writers are concerned, I love Al Alvarez (The Biggest Game in Town), of course. And Jon Bradshaw, I love the way he profiles people in Fast Company. Also, Damon Runyon, to me, is one of the great writers of all time when it comes to creating the characters of gambling. I feel like he is so underappreciated, although now that I think about it I probably never read any Runyon before I wrote the book. And Mario Puzo’s Fools Die...

SSS: You allude to that one in Shut Up and Deal.

JM: Oh, that’s right. You know Puzo was a big gambler. To me, Fools Die was the greatest book on Vegas that had ever been written. There are a couple of scenes in there in which he describes Vegas that I think heavily influenced me.

For other [non-gambling] stories, I used to read Somerset Maugham quite a bit. I love storytellers who are happy to tell the details they want to tell, you know? Writers like Hemingway or Djuna Barnes... who show that it doesn’t have to be a [linear] sort of narrative where you say “he said” and then “she said” but that you can just relate what strikes you about people. I always felt like that at the poker table, but essentially there you are just watching people, which I love to do.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2, covering the early years of Late Night Poker.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott (1954-2015)

Sad news this week regarding the passing of Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott who succumbed to cancer just a couple of days after his 61st birthday.

Ulliott occupied a meaningful place in poker lore for many players, especially those who came into the game just before and during the “boom” of the mid-2000s and most especially for players in the U.K. who watched him star in (and win) the first series of Late Night Poker back in 1999.

As detailed in Des Wilson’s Swimming with the Devil Fish (2007) and Ulliott's autobiography, humbly titled Devilfish: The Life and Times of a Poker Legend (2010), Ulliott had a colorful life including tales of safe-cracking, robberies, fist fights, and prison time as a younger man, and lots of gambling and poker dominating his story thereafter.

He’d win a World Series of Poker bracelet (in 1997) and come close several more times. He also had success on the World Poker Tour (winning an event during Season 1), helping make him a familiar character to American poker TV viewers as well.

I can’t say I had a great deal of interaction with Ulliott, although I did cover him in many events at the WSOP. The most vivid memory of came in 2011 when at the $10,000 NLHE Six-Max event Ulliott pulled out a harmonica during the early levels of Day 1 and played it for a few minutes before tournament staff made him stop.

Soon after he’d pulled a guitar from a case and began playing a blues riff, getting part of the way into the first verse before being stopped again. “Was someone complaining?” deadpanned Ulliott, to which the TD responded “You just can’t have a guitar at the table.” (Here’s a short report of that moment.)

I remember after that him picking the guitar back up during breaks that afternoon to serenade passersby. Such center-of-attention antics were the norm for Ulliott at the tables, inspiring a lot of positive memories on the forums and over Twitter this week and a few not-so-nice ones, too.

Of course, Ulliott’s willful seeking of the spotlight was one of a few crucial elements of that first series of Late Night Poker -- along with the under-the-table hole card cams, Rob Gardner’s production, the commentary of Jesse May and Nic Szeremeta, and others’ contributions -- ensuring himself a significant role in chapters about latter-day poker’s history.

Visit The Telegraph for a more substantial obituary covering the highs and lows of Ulliott’s colorful life and career.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Some Moments Are More Important Than Others

For those of us in the anti-Dook Blue Devil camp -- and there are a lot of us, with UNC-Chapel Hill alums like me just part of a subset -- last night’s championship game in which the Devils beat the Wisconsin Badgers 68-63 was a bit agonizing.

So, too, was it a painful one for the Wisconsin fans who saw their team sitting pretty up nine with 13 minutes to go and both of Duke’s big men, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, on the bench in foul trouble. That’s when Duke frosh Grayson Allen -- who averaged four points a game this year -- scored eight in a row while the Badgers only scored three, and suddenly all was in doubt again.

It was a game full of such surges, and in truth it felt all along like whichever team happened to be on the high end of the see-saw as they entered the endgame was likely to come away with the win. That’s how it turned out, albeit with a few key calls down the stretch that helped the Devils, all involving Winslow.

The first came with just over nine minutes left when Wisconsin was up 54-50. Duje Dukan (who seems like he should have been playing for the other team with that name) was called for a blocking foul after colliding with Winslow in the lane, one of those to-MAY-to/to-MAH-to judgment calls that always looks a certain way depending on the team for which you’re rooting. Okafor had just been benched again after collecting his fourth foul, and a charge would’ve meant four on Winslow, too. But it went Dook’s way and after Winslow sank two free throws the lead was down to two.

The second occurred after the Blue Devils had moved in front by a point, 59-58. With about three-and-a-half minutes to go, Winslow grabbed an offensive rebound and then appeared to step on the endline, but the refs missed it. Okafor would score on that possession to make the lead three. Bad break again for the Badgers.

The third one then came a little after that, not long after the Blue Devils had pushed out ahead to lead 63-58. This one involved an out-of-bounds play that occurred with just a little under two minutes to go, with the on-court call being Dook ball but with enough doubt for the refs to review the replay. We watched, too, and this time it was obvious -- Winslow was the last player to touch the ball (that’s a freeze-frame of the play above; click to embiggen). But somehow the refs didn’t see it that way, Dook retained possession, and seconds later hit a three-pointer to push the lead to eight.

Even so, the latter was one of those calls (or non-calls) that like the previous two can also be put in the category of “variance” -- i.e., like other manifestations of luck that occur in the game, the whims (and occasional failings) of the refs also have to be considered similarly. Still, since all three of these came at such potentially tide-turning moments, it’s hard not to assign them extra signficance.

A couple of weeks ago a long, interesting profile of poker pro Brian Rast by Chad Holloway was posted over on PokerNews, and the article included the story of Rast’s victory in the $50K Poker Players Championship at the 2011 WSOP. Recall how that tournament ended with Rast battling Phil Hellmuth heads-up, a duel that involved not one but three huge “coin-flip” type events, all of which went Rast’s way.

Hellmuth had built a 4.5-to-1 chip lead when the first happened, one in which Rast was all in with A-K on a ten-high flop versus Hellmuth’s flush draw, and neither the turn nor the river brought the flush. Then came another hand in which Rast flopped top pair versus another Hellmuth flush draw, the chips went in again, and Rast’s hand held a second time.

The third time it happened, Hellmuth was the one all in on the flop -- again with a flush draw -- and this time Rast had flopped even more strongly with a straight. For a third time Hellmuth couldn’t complete the flush, and Rast won.

All three weren’t exactly coin flips -- Rast’s edges were about 52%, 60%, and 63% in those hands when the money went in -- but to win all three was certainly fortunate for him. Just as having all three of those moments go Dook’s way was fortunate for them.

In both last night’s game and the Rast-Hellmuth finale, those moments were only relatively small instances within the larger competitions, though their effect on the final outcomes was much larger than was the case for all of the other instances. The players weren’t in control of how those moments played out in either case, but that can’t be a complaint -- because that’s how the games are played.

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Monday, April 06, 2015

Nixon Was a Five-Card Man

My “Poker in American Film and Culture” course includes a couple of readings I’ve written about here on Hard-Boiled Poker before -- a 1932 short story by the humorist James Thurber called “Everything Is Wild” and a 1963 essay by the historian John Lukacs titled “Poker and American Character.”

The Thurber story I discussed once in a post titled “Hold’em’s History Makes a Good Mystery.” The story involves a “dealer’s choice” game in which a few different variants are called -- including some made-up ones -- and one of them suggests elements of hold’em which led me to share that as an early, not necessarily reliable bit of evidence regarding hold’em’s origins.

I also many years ago included “Everything Is Wild” in Episode 13 of the Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show, if you fancy hearing a reading of the very funny story.

Meanwhile the Lukacs essay received lengthy treatment in a couple of different posts, which if you go read them kind of add up to my lecture about the article. Here’s Part 1 of that discussion, and here’s Part 2.

All I want to say about the readings today is to point out a parallel between the main character in Thurber’s story, Mr. Brush, and Lukacs, both of whom express distaste with any variant of poker that diverges from what Lukacs calls “classic” poker.

In the story, Brush gets stuck playing a game in which others all want to play variants involving wild cards, and he “hated any silly variation of the fine old game of poker.” In the essay Lukacs also complains about poker being corrupted (in a sense) by the introduction of wild-card games, in which (he says) “the human factor is weakened and the factor of chance is correspondingly increased.”

Both Brush and Lukacs see wild-card games as indicative of bigger problems with society, in fact, with the way they tend to favor luck over skill suggesting a kind of immaturity among the thrill-seekers who favor them. Lukacs explicitly links wild-card games with a more general “erosion of the American national character,” something you can read more about, if you like, by following those links above.

Richard Nixon was another one who favored “straight” or “classic” poker over any variants including wild cards or anything diverging from traditional games. Five-card stud was his favorite game, and the one he played the most while taking thousands off fellow soldiers in the Pacific during WWII -- money he in fact would use to help fund his first Congressional campaign in 1946.

Many years later on September 7, 1972, then President Nixon had some visitors stop by the Oval Office just before noon -- the former governor of Texas John Connally (at the time heading up the “Democrats for Nixon”) and John and James Roosevelt, sons of FDR. The meeting was recorded, and while the audio is choppy and at times indistinct, Nixon’s disdain for wild-card games is nonetheless clear.

Nixon tells the Roosevelt sons about the home he owns in San Clemente, the famous “La Casa Pacifica” he bought from the widow of financier Henry Hamilton Cotton in 1969. Speaking of FDR, Nixon notes how “Cotton was a great supporter of his, of course” and how FDR even stayed there one night, something the sons sounds as though they might not have known.

“There was a rumor they were all supposed to play cards or something one night... poker, probably” Nixon continues animatedly, well knowing that FDR was a card player just like himself. “What did he play?” he asks John and James of their father. “Did he play five-card or did he like wild cards?” Before they can answer, Nixon declares his position on the issue: “I’m a five-card man, I like it.”

One of the sons -- it’s hard to tell which -- says something about how “once in a while one or two of the others would want to go play a wild game.” People are talking over one another, with other ambient noise making it hard to distinguish every word being spoken. But you can hear Nixon’s response pretty well:

“Wild cards is not poker,” Nixon says. “When you’ve got five cards, you know just what the odds are.”

It isn’t surprising to hear Nixon -- like Mr. Brush and Lukacs -- voicing a negative opinion regarding wild-card games. It also isn’t hard to think of Nixon when Brush spitefully invents his own wild-card games in Thurber’s story (e.g., “Soap-in-Your-Eye”) -- games for which he is making up the rules as they go and thus his opponents cannot possibly win.

Makes me think of the old sketch from the National Lampoon Radio Hour in which Nixon plays Monopoly (the 1/26/74 episode):

RMN: “All right, Bebe. You get Baltic Avenue. Now I’m the banker so give me $500 for the deed.”
Bebe: “But Mr. President, Baltic doesn’t cost $500. It’s only $60.”
RMN: “Ha.. well, Bebe, let’s just ask Chuck and Fred Buzhardt here. Fellas, what do you say? You’re my advisors...?”
Chuck & Fred (in unison): “The President’s right, Bebe. Give him $500 for Baltic.”
RMN: “Now... my turn...”

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