Tuesday, June 28, 2016

That Time I Learned That Jesus Didn’t Love Me

I think any of us who work long enough “in poker” -- as players, staff or tournament organizers, agents, promoters, reporters and “media,” or in other capacities -- end up collecting quite a few stories that we can’t really share, for a variety of reasons.

Some of the stories can’t be told because they involve “sensitive” information never intended to be publicized. Others have to remain hidden because they might endanger a person’s current employment. Still more are kept quiet because they reflect badly on either the one telling the story or others who for whatever reason are judged not to deserve such treatment.

I know over the ten-plus years of this blog I’ve “self-censored” a number of times, although to be honest I wouldn’t suggest any the stories I’ve suppressed were all that scandalous. One of the stories I consciously chose not to tell before I’m gonna share today, as it seems both a little timely and at this far remove fairly innocuous.

My first time covering the World Series of Poker was for PokerNews back in 2008, and as I’ve written about here many times before during those first couple of summers everything seemed especially interesting and exciting thanks largely to the novelty of it all. The interest remained even by the fifth or sixth summer I was there, even if the excitement had waned a bit by then.

Chris Ferguson -- a.k.a. “Jesus” (a nickname I tend not to employ anymore) -- was of course one of the more recognizable “poker celebs” back then. One of the early events I helped cover in 2009 was a $2,500 buy-in pot-limit hold’em/pot-limit Omaha event, and Ferguson played. While at the table he had out his phone and was playing Chinese poker, and I remember writing a live update in which I mentioned this fact.

It was kind of a novel thing back then to see someone on a device playing a different poker game while at the table -- not nearly as ubiquitous as it would soon become -- making for a bit of color worth mentioning amid an otherwise not-so-exciting Day 1. Kind of thing wouldn’t deserve being pointed out even a year later, I’d say, but at that time it was curious enough to include. I seem to recall making a joke in the update about two games not being enough, since the tourney featured PLH and PLO and Ferguson was playing a third game on his phone.

Anyhow, in my next “travel report” post here on the blog, I retold that story and a few others from the day. When referencing Ferguson, I said something about peeking over his shoulder to see him playing Chinese poker, taking a bit of poetic license in the way I described the scene (as though I had captured a little “inside dope”). Truthfully, there was no reason to look all that closely to see what he was playing. In fact, he was talking about the game with Andy Bloch who asked him about it.

In that post I also mentioned an “Approved Electronic Device Rule” the WSOP had in place that year which was not being enforced at all. I explicitly said I didn’t care one way or the other about players being on phones or other devices while playing, but I did note it seemed inconsistent to have a rule that no one heeded and that no one seemed interested in requiring anyone to heed.

There was a short sequel to the story -- this is the part I haven’t told before.

The next day I was back at the Rio where I first heard from a fellow reporter, then from the head of the team something about Ferguson not being happy with my posting about his Chinese poker playing. It was never 100% clear to me whether the objection concerned the live update or my HBP post (it seems like it was the latter, actually), but apparently “Jesus” was concerned enough to have spoken to then-WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack about it.

This is all very vague in my memory, I’m afraid, but I have a fleeting recollection of Ferguson having said something about how the WSOP shouldn’t allow the reporters to nose around in private business, with there even being some suggestion about credentials being revoked. However severe his objection really was, Ferguson was eventually told whatever he needed to be told, and the matter went no further. Meanwhile I was assured I’d done nothing wrong -- either in the live updates or on my blog -- and not to worry about it.

I also remember being told how Ferguson and I would probably get along quite well -- that we have similar personalities and interests, and seemed like we’d hit it off. Needless to say, I never sought out meeting him to find out if that were true.

I didn’t tell the story at the time partly because I was a little embarrassed by it, even if I shouldn’t have been. As a reporter, I didn’t like being noticed at all, never mind in a negative way. And if given the choice, I would have much rather reported that Ferguson liked me than that he had been made upset by anything I’d done.

I thought about the story again after Ferguson made his inglorious return to the WSOP earlier this month. When asked by PokerNews if he had anything to say regarding his absence since 2010 and/or his feelings regarding what had happened with Full Tilt Poker, he repeatedly responded “I’m just here to play poker.” It was a little like back in ’09, when he didn’t like anyone reporting on his doing anything other than playing in an event.

Ferguson has cashed seven times already this summer, including finishing fourth in an event over the weekend. His appearance at that final table created a bit of a stir, as PokerListings described in detail. He was asked again about whether or not he planned to apologize to the poker community, he responded “What are you talking about? No comment” before walking away.

Howard Lederer has also returned to the WSOP, the prospect of which I wrote about here back in May following his apology (which seemed at the time an unsubtle prelude to his returning). I mentioned in that post how his playing in any events would be a bit like men playing in the ladies event, necessarily producing a lot of unpleasantness and ill will, especially should he be successful. The same obviously goes for Ferguson, and it sounds a lot like that final table scene over the weekend confirmed that prediction.

Of course, while Lederer’s apology caused us to wonder about his sincerity, Ferguson seems unequivocally sincere in his non-avowal of responsibility for what happened at Full Tilt Poker.

No, people aren’t really loving Ferguson very much these days, and his success in WSOP events only seems to be adding still more negativity to a poker community he and others damaged so greatly already. Can’t say I’m that bothered, though, given how I found out long ago “Jesus” didn’t love me.

Image: “Jesus eyes the next table, Matt Waldron. CC BY 2.0.

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Monday, June 27, 2016

Messi’s Miss

Feel a bit for Lionel Messi, the footballing legend from Rosario who missed a penalty kick in last night’s Copa America finale for Argentina, with his team subsequently losing to Chile for a second straight Copa final.

Following the match, Messi announced he’d no longer be playing for the Argentinian team, a bit of a surprise even if (apparently) there might have been other reasons for his decision besides last night’s outcome. Still, if they’d won, it doesn’t seem likely he’d have made such an announcement so soon after the match (within an hour of its ending, I think).

I ended up watching the match quite closely, which seemed a bit chaotic with the refs’ control appearing tenuous for much of the way. Argentina clearly seemed the better side -- and I think all agree Messi was the best player on the pitch -- but Chile battled gamely to get it to PKs, and ended up making one more than Argentina to secure the win.

People compare the mental challenge of a penalty kick to other sports-related tests like hitting a free throw or making a putt in golf. Not really sure if the three are all that like one another, to be honest, but I can see why the comparison is a tempting one to make.

I’ve read online that the average success rate for PKs tends to be around 75%. That’s very close to the league average for free throws made in the NBA, which has been right around 75% for the last 15 years or so. That same 75% figure applies to putts of around six feet or so among PGA Tour players, who naturally make a lot higher percentage from closer in and a lower percentage the further out you go (with eight feet marking the point where they start dipping below 50%).

I suppose for Messi you’d expect a higher percentage of makes, and certainly a higher percentage of PK shots that at least would be successful if not for a goalie’s defense. (Messi’s shot cleared the crossbar last night.) Still, it more or less comes down to a higher pocket pair-versus-lower pocket pair scenario -- about a 4-to-1 favorite -- meaning it’ll happen, and not all that rarely, that there will be a miss.

Just like some poker hands, though, some shots are more important than others, and are thus remembered more vividly and recounted more often.

Image: “Messi 10” (adapted), Francisco Javier Gutierrez Zuñiga. CC BY-ND 2.0.

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Friday, June 24, 2016

Coin Flip Falls in Favor of Leave

Woke this morning to discover the result of the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum -- a.k.a., “Brexit.” A majority (albeit a slight one) of Brits voted “Leave” and now the United Kingdom will no longer be part of the European Union, leaving the other 27 EU countries behind. Adding further to the uncertainty, Prime Minister David Cameron (who supported “Remain”) has said he will be stepping down, letting his successor handle the consequences.

I’m not even going to try to offer any sort of comment about the result. Like many over here in the U.S., I only became aware of the vote relatively recently. I had heard about it a couple of months ago, but only began reading about it a couple of weeks back. And while I can’t help but react to the reactions today, many of which are quite earnest and passionate, I wouldn’t dare pretend to pull together and advance some hastily-discovered evaluation of the result (or to venture to speculate about what may come next).

There are a couple of items related to Brexit that stand out as remarkable (from this great distance). One is how quickly the referendum appeared, even if it were the result of many years of debate over the issue of the U.K.’s membership in the European Union. Reading around, it seems to have first surfaced in a concrete way about a year ago (mentioned in the Queen’s Speech in May 2015), then the voting date was announced in February.

The other aspect of the vote that stands out is how close it was (about 51.9% to 48.1%), a result highlighting the fact that only a simple majority was needed to decide something so momentous. Given such a close margin, whichever way the vote might have gone, it was destined to create a huge internal divide.

I’d compare it to a close vote in a U.S. presidential election, although the result there isn’t necessarily the same. If you look at the popular vote (and not the Electoral College) for elections dating back to 1960, you find that many times the percentage difference between the top two presidential candidates in those races has been smaller than the 3.8% difference in the Brexit vote: 1960 (0.17%), 1968 (0.7%), 1976 (2.06%), 2000 (0.51%), and 2004 (2.46%). (Actually in 2000 that difference is in favor of the loser, Al Gore, who had the small edge over George W. Bush in the popular vote, but lost in the Electoral College.) In the most recent election in 2012, Barack Obama got just a little more of the popular vote (3.86%), percentage-wise, than did “Leave” in the Brexit vote.

However, as I say, those results don’t really provide a good analogue at all. The closeness of those elections certainly meant the winners didn’t have a “mandate” going forward. But those presidents still had power, as did the opposing parties that retained plenty of representation (often majorities) in the legislative branch.

In fact, Brexit almost feels more like a “coin flip” in poker -- an even money proposition, in which the winner takes all.

Image: “Brexit,” Christopher Michel. CC BY 2.0.

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Summer Slowdown

With the NBA season over and the NFL’s first regular season game not scheduled until September 8, sports fans are facing a long summer.

Baseball, tennis, and golf can occasionally work as a stop-gap. The conclusions of both the Copa America and UEFA European Championships will also provide some diversion for those with an interest. And of course the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, set to play out from August 5-21, will be welcomed by sports fans, too.

But for the majority of sports fans -- in the U.S., at least -- these are the super-slow months, with none of these options necessarily presenting too much that tempts.

Meanwhile the World Series of Poker continues. Poker fans are already following what’s happening out in Las Vegas this summer via updates and the various reporting sites. But once again -- as I’ve thought before right around this time of year -- it seems like there’s an opportunity perhaps being missed.

I mentioned yesterday how I’ve dipped into the live streams now and then on WSOP.com this summer and have been impressed, particularly with the stud games where they’ve discovered a method to handle the graphics in what seems to me a viewer-friendly way.

I don’t really think any of these preliminary events necessarily warrant a larger platform, although I found myself imagining half-hour recaps of key final table moments being shown on one of the many sports networks. WSOP.com is already doing something similar at times when showing highlights/bustout hands from past final tables while waiting for a new stream to begin.

I do think, though, that ESPN could well do something with the Main Event in July to fill a week’s worth of otherwise slow summer nights, sports-wise.

I know there’s the long-standing argument that ESPN wants to avoid potentially affecting viewership negatively for the weekly edited shows -- that tend to air opposite NFL games, actually -- by showing Main Event coverage in July. If memory serves, 2011 was the only year they did try some July shows from the Main Event, to mixed reviews.

Unfortunately, not only won’t there be anything like that on ESPN in July, but there won’t even be any live streaming of the Main Event either. Ah well... there will probably a baseball game on somewhere.

Image: “Blue Skies & Hot Sun” (adapted), Michele Frazier. CC BY 2.0.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Hurdle Removed

In case you haven’t heard, it looks as though WSOP.com has removed from the site a requirement for users to login via Facebook or Google+ in order to view live updates, chip counts, and results from 2016 World Series of Poker bracelet events.

The login “gateway” only worked on some browsers and there were several easy ways to go around the hurdle rather than jump over it by signing in, but now anyone can access the updates right away without having to share any personal information (or made-up info associated with a dummy account).

I’m pleased the decision was made to remove the login requirement. I won’t rehearse the many reasons why I disliked it (a few of which are alluded to here), but will just say instead I’m pleased the requirement is no longer there. Hopefully those who visited the site before and were disinclined to login will get the news and return.

So far Jason Mercier’s incredible streak last week to win a $10K event, take runner-up in another $10K, then win the next $10K he played has easily been the most intriguing WSOP story to follow, made even more intriguing by all of the bracelet bets including the much-discussed one with Vanessa Selbst that go so much coverage last week.

I had tossed out a prediction at the start of the series over on PokerNews that there would be three multiple-bracelet winners this year, and in fact there have been three already. Over the weekend Ian Johns joined Mercier in the two-timers club, then Benny Glaser won his second of the summer last night.

So now everyone is less hamstrung to follow updates. I will say the live streams (which didn’t require the login) have been fun so far, and I’m a little wowed by the graphics on the non-hold’em games -- probably as good as I’ve seen before for those.

Check out those streams here, and if you’re curious, follow them updates, too -- they’re just a click away.

Photo: courtesy PokerNews.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

An American Nightmare

I have now made it through the five parts of ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America, all seven hours and 44 minutes of it. I suppose watching and playing in poker tournaments -- or maybe it’s all those transatlantic flights I’ve taken -- has made sitting through nearly eight hours of anything seem a lot less remarkable than it was before.

The reviews of the film, directed and produced by Ezra Edelman, have been consistently glowing, and I, too, thought it very good and compelling throughout. Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) is an obvious influence (narrative pace, music, editing, interview format), and as I greatly enjoy Morris’s films and storytelling style that ensured I was hooked from early in the first hour.

I knew a lot about Simpson’s background, though the film presents numerous details that were new to me (and to most viewers, I’d imagine). Much of what was presented concerning the murders and trial was very familiar, while some of the participants’ reflections were interesting to hear articulated for the first time.

The civil case (in which Simpson was found responsible for the murders) was mostly familiar ground as well for those who followed it when it happened. Meanwhile the entire post-trials sequence detailing Simpson’s downward spiral into decadence and his eventual arrest, conviction, and imprisonment in Nevada for a different crime was mostly new to me.

The film clarifies in a comprehensive way how studying the complicated legacy of race relations both in southern California and Los Angeles in particular and in the nation as a whole adds considerably to our understanding of why the trial played out as it did. It also sheds light on Simpson’s own strange, frighteningly-destructive psychological makeup, which helps explain -- as much as is possible, anyway -- how exactly he had become a person able to perpetrate such horrors.

“There was nothing ever, ever in the past that would indicate would be capable of doing what he’s doing right now” says Al Michaels on air during the Bronco chase, articulating the position of the great majority of the public at the time who thought they knew Simpson but really did not. The film helps make it clear that not only was Simpson capable, but predisposed to commit such acts.

Probably the most affecting part of the entire documentary (for me) was the creeping, mounting, chest-tightening dread that builds toward the end of the second part when all of the many, many instances of abuse and other loud forewarnings build upon each other -- both saddening and maddening. I also was affected during the discussion of the Rodney King beating, trial, and the L.A. riots, as they triggered some anxiety-filled memories of that time. (As well as some trepidation about how such a situation might play out today, nearly a quarter-century later.)

In the end, I appreciated the lengthy exposition (i.e., the first two parts) a bit more than the narrative of the trial and its aftermath, probably because the latter was on the whole both more familiar to me and tended to be overwhelmed at several points by the incredibly sensational aspects of the murders and trial.

As I say, the argument that race relations was a key component to America’s “making” a figure like O.J. was persuasive and thorough. But when it was over I was thinking also about other influences upon attitudes and values -- namely, sports, celebrity, and money/class -- all suggested as well by the film, but not explored as fully. Of course, that might’ve carried the film another couple of hours further, as it didn’t appear there was much included that didn’t seem to belong.

I’ll finish with one last observation about the documentary. Early on it is established how Simpson not only avoided drawing attention to race and the many injustices marking race relations as his personal fame and cultural stature grew, but overtly defended his right to pursue self-interest. The position is uniformly opposed by others in the film, and indeed Simpson’s lack of interest in any larger community is made to appear monstrous -- another piece of evidence presented to explain Simpson’s narcissism and lack of regard for anyone but himself.

As that case was being made, though, I found myself thinking -- how unusual is that position, really? Especially today. We’re surrounded by others adopting the exact same approach to society at large and their place within it, not feeling any responsibility at all to the “community” and appearing exclusively and unembarrassedly motivated by self-improvement.

It’s a not uncommon type, and also -- to an extent -- “made in America.”

Image: ESPN.

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Monday, June 20, 2016

Goals and Outcomes

Cleveland finally did it. Was a highly entertaining finale to the NBA season last night.

LeBron James gets the hero title, of course, even if Kyrie Irving was the one hitting the game-winner. Meanwhile the Warriors couldn’t find a hero of their own despite a valiant effort from Draymond Green to play that role. I want to say relying on three-pointer necessarily invites the sort of variance shown last night (GS hot in first half, cold in second), although the way the Dubs shot from the arc this year they seemed to challenge that oft-cited claim to the point of making us all doubt it actually applied to them.

James’s streak of going to six straight finals (four with Miami, two with Cleveland) and winning three is remarkable. The whole going-back-home narrative is intriguing, too, no matter where you happen to stand on “King James.”

Speaking of going home, looks like the Cavs hit Vegas last night on their way back to Ohio. That’s where I was the last two times the NBA Finals featured a Game 7 -- in 2010 and 2013 -- so it was fun to be able to sit down and actually watch such an event this time around.

Incidentally, Jason Mercier’s last seven days in Vegas have been something else, too, with the two bracelet wins a runner-up, and his securing added bounties of all those many side bets. It feels like this summer the side action is in some cases overwhelming the main prize pools, creating some added storylines.

Looking back at my post from Friday, I made a few predictions for Game 7, although most were non-specific enough to have a better than average shot of being accurate.

There’s no doubt the Warriors suffered a most ignominious conclusion to their record-setting season, becoming the first team to lose a 3-1 lead in the finals.

I also said the Cavs wouldn’t be as consistently brilliant as they’d been in the previous two games (they weren’t) and the Warriors wouldn’t be as consistently bad (they weren’t either). Suggested there would be evidence of some nerves, too, especially at the start and the finish, and that’s exactly what happened as the game started very slowly, then both teams had trouble scoring during the endgame (with GS incredibly going the last four-and-a-half minutes without scoring a point).

In a way all of these predictions were a little like “side action,” not unlike prop bets or inventing other in-game contests to up the interest level.

My “hot take” on Friday was to suggest there’d be a controversial call (or non-call) that many would highlight after the game as having affected the outcome, but I can’t really say that happened. There were a few missed calls and questionable fouls during the course of the game, but on the whole the refs did an admirable job, I thought, and I noticed nothing especially egregious down the stretch when it really was a situation when a single whistle could’ve changed everything.

In fact, the only example I can think of was Andre Iguodala’s block of LeBron James’s layup with exactly three minutes to go in which Iguodala got mostly hand and little ball.

As it turned out, it was over at the U.S. Open where it looked as though a ruling really would inordinately affect the outcome. I won’t go into the whole story of the delayed one-stroke penalty assessed to eventual winner Dustin Johnson -- you can read about it here -- but will say it seemed a terrible example of the rules and the mechanism of enforcing the rules potentially overwhelming the players’ control over the competition.

Can’t say I had much of a rooting interest in that one, although like most I was glad to see Johnson overcome what seemed an unfair circumstance to succeed. Didn’t really have a rooting interest in Cavs-Dubs, either, which I realized I was glad about as the fourth quarter was winding down.

I was flashing back both to this year’s Super Bowl (where my Panthers fell) and the NCAA final (where my Heels lost a heartbreaker). It’s much less stressful watching without such intense feelings about how the sucker is going to turn out.

Makes it easier, too, to be less critical of the refs. Without a focus on perspective-altering goals, outcomes can be more clearly assessed.

Image: “Basketball Net” (adapted), Akash Kataruka. CC BY-ND 2.0.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

A Game Seven Hot Take

So the NBA Finals has turned into some kind of weird, twisty-turney soap opera with six fairly non-competitive games resulting in a 3-3 tie between Golden State and Cleveland. Even if Game 7 results in yet another blowout, it will nonetheless provide an intriguing climax to an unexpectedly gripping series to punctuate the season.

One sure-fire prediction -- whoever loses the game will be forced to endure an incredible letdown. For the Warriors, it would mean failing to cap a record-breaking regular season with a title. The Cavs would similarly suffer greatly with a loss, coming one step shy of completing a never-before-accomplished comeback from 3-1 down in the finals to lose in the finals a second straight time.

I’ll add a few other predictions I’m less sure of, but in which I’m still reasonably confident. The Cavs probably won’t be as consistently brilliant as they were in Games 5 and 6. Neither will the Warriors be as consistently bad. Both will likely show some evidence of nerves, too, especially early in the game and perhaps again near the end (depending on the closeness of the score).

But here’s a less obvious prediction I’ll throw on top of the bonfire of “hot takes” that’s already starting to build, will grow higher by Sunday night, then disappear like so much ash in the wind once a result is determined. This one is probably contingent on the game being close at some point beyond the start -- i.e., in the second half, either early or late.

Here’s the “hot take”...

From the referees there will be a judgment call (or non-call) that will be agreed upon afterwards by most viewers to have affected the game’s outcome.

Every sport adjudicated by human beings involves some degree of error. Happens in poker, too, when rulings based on partial or even incorrect evidence sometimes occur, or even incorrect rulings based on clear and complete (and misunderstood or misinterpreted) evidence occasionally arise.

Over the course of an NBA basketball game, refs collectively make hundreds of decisions. They never make it through an entire game getting every decision correct, although generally do hit the mark on most of them. I’m not predicting (necessarily) that there will be an incorrect decision that will affect the outcome of Sunday night’s game; rather, I’m suggesting that some judgment call (which may or may not involve bad judgment and thus an incorrect decision) will be considered by most watching as having inordinately affected the outcome.

I guess my prediction itself involves a kind of judgment, although I’m saying most of those watching will come to the same conclusion that a key call (or non-call) more or less decided the game. It’s a prediction partly about the game and partly about how it will be discussed Monday morning, and it’s based both on the way the NBA games currently are officiated and tend to play out and the way games are scrutinized and discussed today.

Within a minute or two, the call (or non-call) will be a Vine, delivered instantly like an outlet pass starting a fast break all over the web. And many will be hot, hot, hot about what they are sharing.

Image: Emojipedia.

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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Someone Is Writing About You on the Internet

Visitors of the blog may have noticed I haven’t been writing here about the big tournament series happening in Las Vegas like I did for the 10 previous summers. Or not. In any case, there are plenty of other places to read about what’s happening out there just now, so I trust I’m not creating any sort of void here.

That doesn’t mean I’m not supporting the efforts of the many who are reporting all summer from Las Vegas, including the official live updates team. I have a number of friends playing various roles in that group, and have been chatting with several over the last couple of weeks as they’ve started down the long, winding road that doesn’t end until mid-July.

Haven’t been on the road myself for about a month. But I was reminded again of the travails of the tourney reporter today, including the occasional marathon days-slash-nights-slash-early-mornings they end up having to endure. A couple of times, actually.

The first was early this morning, when I realized Mo Nuwwarah was still reporting from the iNinja World Championship at Planet Hollywood for PokerNews. And in fact he would be another six hours or so, making for what I think might have been around a 20-hour final day in that event.

Then in the afternoon I read a blog post from my friend Darrel Plant (a.k.a. “Mutant Poker”), one of those reporting from the Rio this summer. I had to read it. After all, it had a tremendous title: “Damn you, Martin Harris!

Sure, that’s some very specific click bait. But it worked!

As I have done here many times before, Darrel’s both reporting on tournaments and chronicling his adventures doing so on his blog. Click on that above link and find out why he’s out there cursing me while he does.

Image: PanicPosters.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Running Into Cactus Jack

For a few different reasons -- including this new “Poker & Pop Culture” series of articles I’m writing for PokerNews -- I’m finding myself burrowing deep in digressive, distracting paths after uncovering this or that historical nugget about people in the past playing poker.

Recently there came one such distraction as I called up a copy of the September 1, 1934 Reading Eagle, the daily newspaper of Reading, Pennsylvania. In that issue appears a review of a new poker strategy book called the Stud Poker Blue Book by George Henry Fisher that had first been published three years before.

I was scouting about for information about Fisher’s book for yesterday’s column, the focus of which has to do with the introduction of stud in the nineteenth century and the relative dominance of draw poker among cultural representations of the game thereafter (even while stud gained in popularity). Here’s that one, if you’re curious:

  • Poker & Pop Culture: Following Draw, “Stud-Horse Poker” Gallops In
  • The review of Fisher’s book -- written by Westbrook Pegler as an installment of his regular column, titled “Fair Enough” -- is a positive one, ending with a few almost tongue-in-cheek complaints about bridge having come to rival poker in popularity.

    “For some reason bridge has claimed rating as the gentleman’s game and is considered to be desirable nowadays as a part of the social equipment of young officers of the army, along with dancing, tennis and the etiquette of the seven-fork formal dinner,” writes a derisive-sounding Pegler.

    “There is yet time to reestablish stud poker as the old army game,” he continues hopefully. “Possibly Vice President Garner, who is one of the great American experts in stud would help to install Mr. Fisher’s Stud Poker Blue Book as one of the official studies at West Point.”

    Amid the kidding, I had to follow-up the reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s then-VP, John Nance Garner. FDR was of course an avid poker player, but I’d never thought much about Garner or his playing, so it was intriguing to see a casual reference to his stud expertise dropped here at the end of Pegler’s review.

    Hailing from Texas, “Cactus Jack” (as he was sometimes called) served in the Congress for three decades including as Speaker of the House for a couple of years, then was FDR’s VP for his first two four-year terms from 1933 to 1941. Though very active in Congress, he wasn’t so much as VP, and is famously quoted afterwards as having referred to the office of Vice-Presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” (The source for that quote isn’t clear, actually.)

    Like most politicians he had both proponents and enemies, and among the latter group belonged the famous labor leader John L. Lewis. Once while testifying to Congress in 1939, Lewis referred to Garner as “a labor-baiting, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, evil old man” because “the majority of people will feel that anyone Lewis can’t control is all right.” (So reported Time magazine.)

    From what James McManus says about Garner in Cowboys Full, he actually “had grown up playing high-stakes draw” before becoming the stud expert (as Pegler calls him). McManus also points out how Garner wasn’t invited to FDR’s poker games, with their relationship deteriorating to the point that Roosevelt instead chose Henry Wallace to run with him as he won a third term.

    Incidentally, Garner would live to a ripe old age of 98. His 95th birthday happened to be November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Kennedy phoned Garner that morning at his home in Uvalde, Texas to wish him a happy birthday.

    Dan Rather -- then normally stationed in New Orleans -- was in Uvalde that morning to film a short piece with Garner, and had carried it to KRLD in Dallas where he dropped it off. Without an assignment for the rest of the day, Rather stuck around to watch the Kennedy motorcade. Shortly afterward he was among the first to pass along the news JFK had died, his report being picked up and shared over CBS radio even before Walter Cronkite’s famous pronouncement.

    There’s more to Cactus Jack’s poker story, I’m sure, though I’ve yet to dig further. Perhaps he was just too good of a player for FDR to want hanging around. In any case, that nickname suggests he was probably considered a bit prickly by others, too.

    Image: John Nance Garner, public domain.

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