Friday, June 15, 2018

#pokerpopculture

Starting a short while ago -- a little before I shared here the big news of my new book, Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game, which will be coming out via D&B Poker next summer -- I had an idea for something fun to do over Twitter as I continue to work on the book.

I’ve mentioned here how I’ve found it hard to post on the blog since most of my time and energy has necessarily been going toward the manuscript. But I also find I want to share certain “poker & pop culture”-related items I’ve encountered (or that I’ve discovered and explored before, in some cases long ago) without writing entire blog posts about them.

I’ve started sharing those items over Twitter, using the hashtag “#pokerpopculture” whenever I do. I’ve delivered about 20 of those tweets so far -- here are a few of them:

As you can tell, the connecting thread here between the tweets are the way all highlight mentions of poker in the “mainstream” that help highlight connections between the game and American history and culture, generally speaking. That’s a primary thread of my book as well, although there the items are all presented in their appropriate contexts -- hopefully in ways that are both informative and entertaining.

Anyhow, you can follow me @hardboiledpoker and when you do click on #pokerpopculture for more.

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

For the Book

When I last checked in I mentioned a new book in the works, one focusing on poker and popular culture that will be bringing together a lot of the poker-related writing I’ve done over the last decade-plus both here on the blog and via other outlets.

As I’ve mentioned, the book will be called Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game. While it discusses the history of the game it will primarily focus on cultural representations of poker -- i.e., “mainstream” depictions of the game that also tell the story of poker’s significance and attitudes toward the game.

As I continue to work on the book I’ve come to realize every time I think about posting something here on the blog, I’m better served not doing so and instead saving it “for the book.” Truth be told, it isn’t true that everything I might write about here belongs in the book, but I’m still at an early enough stage where I’m more inclined to include more than exclude when it comes to envisioning Poker & Pop Culture.

It’s great fun, let me tell you, thinking about what I want to include and still sitting here at a point where most of the different possible versions of the book still happily co-exist in my jingle-brain.

That said, I know that way of thinking about the book isn’t going to last much longer, as the book will, in the end, be of reasonable length. I remember interviewing James McManus back in 2009 shortly after he’d published Cowboys Full and him telling me how his original draft had been around 1,000 pages. I’m quickly realizing how if I included everything I could end up with something similarly unwieldy, and so am already in the process of trimming back as I expand.

I guess I’m also saving “for the book” my finite supply of energy for writing about poker, which I’m also continuing to do elsewhere as part of my regular workload. I additionally keep teaching my poker-related American Studies courses every semester at UNC-Charlotte, which also takes away from the time I might have spent on here scribbling over here.

I’ll keep checking in here, though, when I can, and promise once the manuscript has been submitted to do so more often, particularly as we get nearer to publication.

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Sunday, April 01, 2018

Book Announcement: Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game Coming 2019

I have some fun news to share, and for some reason April 1 felt like a good day to share it. This one is a long time coming, something I’ve hinted at here on the blog a few times before.

The “poker & pop culture” book is happening. No foolin’! (And no shinola.)

The book will be published by D&B Poker. After many years of publishing strategy books, D&B Poker has widened its scope a bit to include other poker-related titles like Tricia Cardner and Jonathan Little’s books on psychology and poker, as well as autobiographies by Mike Sexton and Phil Hellmuth.

You’ve probably heard as well about Lance Bradley’s book due to appear this summer titled The Pursuit of Poker Success: Learn From 50 of the World’s Best Poker Players that features Bradley interviewing many of the game’s best known and most successful players. You can preorder Lance's book now either via D&B Poker or Amazon.

My book will be titled Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game. Ordered somewhat chronologically as a history of the game, the book primarily will focus on poker’s prominence in American popular culture or the “mainstream.” In other words, I’ll be examining the game as it has been discussed and portrayed over the last two centuries-plus not just at the tables, but in newspapers, magazines, letters, memoirs, paintings, fiction, drama, radio shows, music, film, television, and elsewhere.

The book will additionally highlight poker being frequently evoked in politics, business, economics, warfare and diplomacy, business, economics, sports, and other “non-poker” contexts, with all of those references furthering the argument for poker’s importance to U.S. history and culture.

Such references to poker popping up day-to-day American life also tend to foreground links between certain ideals and values considered “American” -- things like individual liberty, self-reliance, the frontier spirit, egalitarianism, the “pursuit of happiness,” the ideologies of capitalism, and so on -- and so that obviously will be part of the story, too.

The idea of doing some sort of poker book probably began for me way back during the early days of the blog (begun almost 12 years ago), at some point not long after I picked up the habit of writing about poker on a regular basis both here and then soon after for a variety of different sites and publications.

For a few years that was mostly just an idle thought encouraged by the fast-growing number of Hard-Boiled Poker posts. However, once I developed and began teaching my “Poker and American Film and Culture” class in 2011, the idea began to take on a more concrete shape as I envisioned creating a book that might serve as a kind of textbook for the course.

Then in 2014 things got even more specific when with the help of an agent I began shopping book proposals and developing blurbs, detailed outlines and annotated tables of contents, sample chapters, and the like.

That process evolved into a year-and-a-half long mini-adventure that was interesting for me though less so for others, I imagine, so I’ll gloss over the details. Instead I’ll just skip ahead to the happy ending of D&B Poker entering the picture. I’ll be spending most of this year writing and rewriting as I get the manuscript together, with the 2019 World Series of Poker being the current target for the book to hit the stands.

I’ve written a book-length disseration and two novels before (Same Difference and Obsessica), and so I have had some experience planning and completing long-term writing projects. As in poker, patience is a big part of seeing such things through and having something to show for it in the end.

But this will be something different, a new and different kind of writing challenge. And I expect it ultimately to be a lot of fun for your humble scribbler and (hopefully) for some of you, too.

I’ll keep you updated on the project over here as well as on Twitter. Meanwhile big thanks to everyone who has read posts here and other articles of mine, and whose support and feedback encouraged me to keep writing. I know already the list of people I’m going to want to mention in the Foreword will be a long one.

Image: A Friend in Need (1903) by Cassius M. Coolidge, public domain.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Return to Macau

I have made the long voyage to Macau again, my first visit there since late 2012. Made it all of the way back, too.

The first time I went was to cover the Asia Championship of Poker. This time I was there to help out covering the Asia Pacific Poker Tour Macau series (both for PokerStars). The previous trip was to Taipa and the Grand Waldo, while this time the poker happened at the City of Dreams on the Cotai Strip and I stayed nearby in the Sheraton Grand Macao.

I was just looking back over my entries here from 2012, in particular the last one detailing what was a stress-filled trip back home that included me missing an initial flight from Hong Kong. That was a foggy day, as evidenced by a picture in that post, and in truth the memory is a bit foggy, too.

All told, the traveling part of this trip went much more smoothly, and while I had a good time there before, the reporting side of things was a bit more fun, too, as I was part of a team this time rather than working on my own. A lot of the new building on Macau of late has happened on Cotai, too, which meant we had a chance to explore several of the new hotel-casinos nearby and be suitably dazzled by the views, both day and night.

For some time now I've been filing an "Inside Gaming" column over at PokerNews that requires me to look in on Macau quite frequently given its influential place in the casino industry landscape.

Thus have I been aware of the significant revenue slide for gaming in the Special Administration Region lasting more than two years (from mid-2014 to mid-2016), and the more recent recovery. The slide followed Xi Jinping coming into power as the President of the People's Republic of China in 2013 and then subsequently instituting restrictions that among other things limited VIPs' ability to move money back and forth to the SAR.

I've also been aware of the new building of late on Macau, including Studio City Macau (opened 2015), the Parisian (2016), Wynn Palace (2016), and MGM Cotai which just opened last month. Heck, Sands Cotai Central (where my hotel was) only went up in 2012 just before my last visit, although I didn’t make it over to Cotai then.

Below are shots of Studio City, the Parisian, and the MGM Cotai. Click all of the photos in this post to embiggen.

It was interesting, then, to see and visit these massive new hotel-casinos I'd been reading about (and occasionally writing about). In between work we had a chance to explore many of them, including sitting down for meals at a few. There were crowds in the casinos here and there, although strolling through the malls the shops didn't seem all that populated.

We even had the chance one afternoon to play a round at the Grado Mini Golf course at the Venetian Macao, a sprawling 18-hole course on the seventh floor affording a pretty cool view of Macau.

The poker was fun to follow and report on, with an exciting Main Event finale in which Team PokerStars Pro Aditya Agarwal just missed winning the sucker, being a card away from sealing it before ultimately losing to Lin Wu of China. The City of Dreams poker room is especially nice, taking up a big portion of the second floor with lots of good restaurants nearby.

Still reeling a bit from the travel -- something close to 30 hours door-to-door, I think, to get from my hotel room back to the farm. Despite the long haul Macau is definitely a fun destination, though, to which I'd like to return and explore even more.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Humans and the Bots

Had a thought today about the world in which we currently live. It was poker-related, too -- in fact, online poker-related -- so I figured I might share it here.

Post-Black Friday my online poker playing essentially dwindled to some half-hearted noodling on a couple of the small, remaining sites, then disappeared entirely save the occasional play money game on PokerStars.

Not long ago I got an account on this new site called Coin Poker. It went live in November, and I believe it was sometime in December or maybe early January when I hopped on there for the first time. The site is “powered by blockchain technology via Ethereum,” and in fact the games are played with a newly invented cryptocurrency, “Chips” or “CHP” (now listed on a couple of exchanges).

The site had an ICO (Initial Coin Offering) -- actually a “pre-ICO” and then two stages of ICOs -- in which a good chunk of these CHPs were sold for Ethereum. Meanwhile the site has been conducting tournament freerolls to give away the rest of the CHPs. There were a lot of those early on, though the schedule has thinned a little lately.

It’s through the freerolls that I won some CHPs and began a modest “bankroll” on the site, something with which to play in the “cash” games. I haven’t explored where exactly things stand as far as depositing and withdrawing are concerned, and don’t really anticipate doing so soon (unless perhaps I were to run my small total up significantly).

Playing on the site has been diverting, though, and for the first time in several years I have found myself genuinely invested in the games when playing poker online. I’ve even revived some of those earlier online poker memories of pleasure and pain associated with wins and losses, to a lesser degree of course.

When I first started on the site, I’d join the freerolls which like all the games on the site are played either four-handed or six-handed. Very frequently there would be players at the table shown as sitting out, something I grew accustomed to quickly. At a six-handed table there might be three or four seats occupied by the non-playing entrants, and occasionally at four-handed tables I might be the only live one there just scooping up blinds and antes until the field got whittled down.

At the time I assumed the site was filling the empty seats with these “dummy” players just to make the freerolls last a little longer, or perhaps to foster the impression of more traffic than there really was. Whatever the reason, I haven’t noticed the sitter-outers as much lately, or at all, really. As the site has grown a bit more popular, I imagine if there were such a strategy employed before it has now been withdrawn. (I’m only speculating.)

I wasn’t bothered too much by all the players sitting out, although the presence of all of those silent “zombies” at the table did cause me to recall the controversies and occasional hysteria surrounding the use of “bots” in online poker. Coupled with some of the news from the past few weeks (and months), that in turn has made me think about the significant influence such software applications running automated tasks or scripts online now have upon our lives.

It’s an enormous subject, but in particular I’m thinking about those indictments handed down last Friday by Special Counsel Robert Mueller that charge 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities with conspiracy to defraud the United States via their attempts to meddle with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. If you’ve read through the 37-page document spelling out what happened (or heard it summarized), you’re familiar with some of the methods employed by these agents to manipulate news and opinion consumed by Americans during the campaign, especially via social media.

The report describes in detail how a Russian company called the “Internet Research Agency” (a name sounding equally generic and sinister) employed hundreds to help generate content published via fake accounts with invented personas on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, content that was in turn disseminated far and wide “via retweets, reposts, and similar means.”

The network has been characterized as a “bot farm” and even this week there was evidence of the network or something similar continuing to operate via the rapid spread of various messages (including false ones) in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Lakeland, Florida a week ago.

One of the more curious aspects of the “disinformation operation” (as some have described it) is the way invented news and opinion gets picked up and further distributed by unsuspecting social media users (i.e., Americans not involved with the operation). The indictment describes “unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters” of the campaign the Russians were supporting as having performed such work along with others “involved in local community outreach, as well as grassroots groups.”

In other words, certain messages and information “campaigns” begun by this Internet Research Agency were initially promulgated by a vast number of fake accounts with programs or “bots” helping extend their reach and influence. Then actual, living and breathing humans receiving those messages (and unaware of or unconcerned about their origin) passed them along as well, increasing their audience and influence.

Setting aside questions of legality and jurisdiction (and ignoring entirely the many other areas being explored by Mueller and his team), I just want to isolate that phenomenon of an automated message sent via a “bot” being received and then resent by a human. The fake accounts being directed by the scripts are simply executing commands. The humans who then receive and resend those messages do so consciously, although they, too, act by rote in a sense, simply hitting “like” and “retweet” in what is often an uncritical fashion. (Bot-like, you could say, depending on your predilection for irony.)

When playing against the “dummy” non-players in those freerolls, I could comfortably bet or raise against them every single time, knowing full well that even though they might resemble “human” players sitting there at the table, they weren’t going to play back at me. They were programmed simply to fold every time the action was on them. If you’ve ever played against “the computer” in crude games (including poker games), you’ve probably similarly been able to pick up on the program’s patterns and exploit them to your favor.

Of course, increasingly sophisticated programs have been created to run much more challenging poker playing “bots,” including those powered by artificial intelligence. These programs can in fact exploit the tendencies of humans who often find it very difficult to randomize their actions and thereby avoid detectable patterns. It’s much harder to know what to do against these, as some of the more recent efforts in this area have demonstrated.

Many of those who forwarded along memes, photos, articles, and other bot-created content during the 2016 presidential campaign weren’t aware of the original source of that information (were “unwitting”). They were -- and are, still -- being exploited, in a way, by others who know how they tend to “play” when using social media.

The “game” is getting a lot harder. As far as social media is concerned -- and news and politics and everything else in our lives that has now become so greatly influenced by message-delivering mechanism of social media -- it’s becoming more and more difficult to know who is human and who is a bot pretending to be human.

Especially when the humans keep acting like the bots.

(EDIT [added 3/19/18]: Speaking of CoinPoker and bots, there’s an interesting new article on PartTime Poker sharing some research regarding the site’s unusual traffic patterns. The title gives you an idea of the article’s conclusion -- "CoinPoker’s Traffic is a Farce.")

Image: “Reply - Retweet- Favorite” (adapted), David Berkowitz. CC BY 2.0.

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sliding Back

Back on the farm today after a week-and-a-half in the Bahamas for the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, so I thought I would slide back in here for a quick check-in.

It’s called the “PCA” again after that one-year trial by PokerStars with new names and different branding, and I know many are pleased we’ll soon be talking about the “LAPT” and “EPT” once again. I suppose down the road those results from 2017 tournaments will all be referred to as part of the distinct histories of each of those other tours.

Vera got to accompany me for part of this one as well, which made the trip all the more enjoyable. There were a few cloudy days in the Bahamas this time around, although for the most part the temperatures were warm and skies relatively clear. Much different from back on the farm where we’ve had some of the coldest days and nights all winter, as well as a big snowfall yesterday.

On the last day before leaving, I went back to the waterslides at the Atlantis for the second time during my stay. Before I started going to the PCA a few years ago, I can’t even remember the last time I went on a waterslide -- probably as a pre-teen. But now it has become a kind of annual ritual for me to jump in a tube and go every January.

When staying at the Atlantis, riding the slides is included, which means guests can go as many times as they wish. Technically there are what they call “River Rides” and “Water Slides.” River Rides are like long, multi-day, multi-table tournaments, winding around large sections of the resort. Water Slides are like single-day turbos, tending to produce more adrenaline but over quickly.

Of the River Rides, I prefer the one called the “Current” which has a few rushes here and there to keep you engaged. (The “Lazy River,” by contrast, is a bit too lazy for me.) Vera and I took a turn on the Current while she was there.

Of the Water Slides, the Leap of Faith (a single 60-foot drop) and the Challenger (a similar straight drop on which you can race a friend) are okay, but I prefer the longer ones -- the Abyss (starts with a 50-foot drop, then 200 more feet of twists and turns, some through dark tunnels) and the Surge (also starting with a big drop followed by a twisty finish).

The Drop is fun, too (and a little scary, as you drop through a dark tunnel), while the Serpent Slide (pictured above) neatly shoots you through a clear tunnel submerged in a shark lagoon, putting you in uncanny proximity to the predators.

The farm is covered with snow today. We live on a sloping hill, actually. Hmm... I wonder if I could build a course starting at the barn and twisting around the house down to the creek.

Photo: Atlantis Bahamas.

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Friday, December 29, 2017

Poker and Bluffing in Alas, Babylon

We’ve had a pretty good month here on the farm. Elsewhere, too, as earlier this month I made another trip over to Prague for the latest PokerStars tournament series.

As you might have heard, after a one-year trial with the different branding they’re bringing back the old “EPT,” “LAPT,” and “APPT” designations in 2018. Next month I’ll be back in the Bahamas as well where they’re going back to calling it the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, or “PCA,” which should be another fun trip.

Meanwhile the holidays were good and I’ve had a chance to do a little reading for pleasure.

I’ve had about three different novel ideas fighting for space in my jingle-brain these last few months, all of which could be referred to as “near future sci-fi.” As a result I’ve been reading (and rereading) some older SF, including some post-apocalyptic fiction imagining various civilization-concluding events and the aftermath. One of my ideas would involve something analogus to that type of story, although I’m finding myself a little overwhelmed by the idea of constructing something on that large scale.

One book I’ve enjoyed here lately is the famous post-apocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank from 1959, one of those overt “cautionary tales” of the Cold War that tries to depict the consequences of nuclear war.

Frank was primarily a journalist, I believe, who wrote for a number of newspapers while also doing some consulting for some governmental bureaus. In terms of fiction he wrote some plays and a few novels, including another Cold War thriller called Forbidden Area (1956). He also authored a nonfiction manual called How To Survive the H Bomb And Why (1962).

Frank is quite gifted (I think) when it comes to creating believable characters and situations, and if you like stories in this vein Alas, Babylon is an easy book to recommend.

There’s a well-managed episode early in the book in which Frank incorporates poker into the story as a way both to introduce a minor character and rapidly provide some context for a brief conflict. The scene involves the book’s protagonist Randy Bragg and a banker named Edgar Quisenberry.

Randy’s brother Mark, a colonel in the Air Force, has given Randy advance warning that the Cold War may be about to turn hot. Mark arranges to have his family stay with Randy down in Florida, away from the base in Nebraska which would be one of many likely targets of a Soviet strike. Mark also gives Randy a check for $5,000, thus necessitating the visit to the bank.

We’re told the banker Quisenberry bears some sort of grudge against the Bragg family, a tidbit that adds suspense to Randy’s visit as we wonder whether or not Quisenberry might find reason to refuse to cash the check. Then comes the explanation for the grudge -- the brothers’ father, a politician referred to as Judge Bragg, once humiliated Quisenberry following a hand of pot-limit five-card draw.

Frank describes the hand well, one involving Quisenberry folding three aces after a pot-sized raise by Judge Bragg following the draw. Desirous to know if he’d been bluffed, Quisenberry grabbed the judge’s mucked cards and turned them over to find he’d had three sevens.

“Don’t ever touch my cards again, you son of a bitch,” the judge says very quietly in response to his opponent’s etiquette-breaching behavior. “If you do, I’ll break a chair over your head.”

Not only did Quisenberry lose the hand, but he lost face, too, with Judge Bragg adding some salt to the wound with an end-of-the-night parting shot in which he called Quisenberry “a tub of rancid lard” and “a bore and a boor... [who] forgets to ante.”

Years later, the banker tries to exact some revenge by making Randy twist a bit before cashing his $5,000 check. But Randy manages to make Quisenberry eager to cash the check after saying that “Mark asked me to make a bet for him,” thereby leading the banker into mistakenly thinking Randy is about to share a horse racing tip with him.

Once Randy has the money, he reveals the bet isn’t on horses, but on something else. “Mark is simply betting that checks won’t be worth anything, very shortly, but cash will,” Randy explains obliquely before leaving.

Unwilling to believe in any impending threat to the country’s financial structure, “Edgar reached a conclusion. He had been tricked and bluffed again. The Braggs were scoundrels, all of them.”

There’s something very nimble about the inclusion of the scene and the use of poker. By that early point in the novel, chess had already been mentioned as a kind of an analogue for nuclear brinksmanship. But by then it’s already clear as well that the “game” being played between the superpowers involves a lot bluffing, too.

Indeed, at that point in history, many others were making the same point about Cold War being like a poker game in various ways -- see “Chess vs. Poker in the Cold War: Planning Ahead vs. Reacting to the Last Hand” for more discussion along those lines.

Reading a little more deeply, the way Quisenberry loses the hand and is subsequently shamed could be related to Cold War diplomacy, too. After all, a big part of such interactions concerned finding ways for an opponent to “lose” a pot without losing face -- the Cuban Missile Crisis a couple of years later would be a most dramatic example of that.

As I say, I’m not sure about whether I want to try to stage a large-scale post-apocalyptic story or not. Of course, Frank’s example with Alas, Babylon shows how it’s very possible to tell such a tale while narrowing one’s scope to focus on just a few relatable characters -- kind of like how a single hand of poker can become emblematic of an entire session (or player, even).

Meanwhile, if you got an Amazon gift card for Christmas and are looking for something to use it on, consider my last novel, Obsessica, available both in paperback and as an e-book.

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Different “Chris Ferguson Challenge”

When I started this blog in 2006, blogs were much more of a “thing.” Heck, so was poker, especially online poker.

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was still a few months away from slithering into our lives in the dead of night as a surreptitious supplement to another, unrelated bill. And it would still be nearly five years before Black Friday came along to raze the online game down to the felt (here in the United States, that is).

I’d been playing online for some time before I started the blog. I was also eagerly consuming other blogs, books, magazines, podcasts, forums, and everything else related to the game. Like some (or most) of you, I’d guess.

For a number of years I probably played at least some poker practically every single day. I also spent nearly every spare moment reading about poker -- studying strategy, learning about the game’s long and colorful history, and reading news about players and tournaments.

I was as fascinated as anyone by all of those “poker celebrities” of that “boom” era, too, and early on got a kick out of the idea I was playing the same game they were. Full Tilt Poker’s long-running “Learn, Chat and Play with the Pros” campaign was a good one, encouraging many to get involved and even believe they, too, could improve their games and move up to bigger and better things -- not unlike the pros with whom they learned, chatted, and played.

One of the many, many promotions Full Tilt Poker ran way back around 2009 or so was called “The Chris Ferguson Challenge.” If you played the micros back then you surely recall it. It involved Ferguson, one of the site’s founders (and one of the core “red pros” representing FTP), embarking on a nifty “challenge” in which he tried to build a bankroll of $10,000 from nothing at all.

He started out with freerolls and won entries into small buy-in events, then by following strict bankroll management guidelines (and continuing to win, of course) he did after busting a time or two manage to built that $10K roll which he then donated to charity.

In 2011, the whole idea of “The Chris Ferguson Challenge” took on a different connotation following Black Friday, and especially after the later amendment to the civil complaint that added Ferguson (among others) to the list of those accused of wrongdoing.

Allegations against Ferguson were ultimately dismissed several months after PokerStars bought out the site, paid the DOJ an enormous settlement, and also managed to get funds back to FTP players after years of uncertainty regarding whether or not the money in those accounts might be lost forever.

The dismissal swept away the issue of legal culpability for Ferguson and others, but the ironic juxtaposition remained. “The Chris Ferguson Challenge” provided a lesson in how to turn a little (nothing, in fact) into a lot. Full Tilt Poker meanwhile provided a lesson in how to turn a lot into a little (into a lot less than nothing, in fact).

After the last of the FTP-related settlements were finally completed in 2016, both Ferguson and Lederer turned back up at the World Series of Poker after a six-year absence. Most with any memory of the Full Tilt debacle were less than delighted.

The pair then came back again this summer, even boldly playing a tag-team event together. While Lederer has yet to cash once since returning to the tables, Ferguson has thrived, cashing 10 times at the 2016 WSOP, then a record 17 times at the 2017 WSOP. (John Racener also cashed 17 times in Las Vegas at this year’s WSOP.)

That success inspired Ferguson to continue a quest for WSOP Player of the Year in the recently completed WSOP Europe series in Rozvadov. There he managed to collect six more cashes including a bracelet win to clinch the award.

Back in 2016, Ferguson responded to questions about his return with a curt non-response: “I’m just here to play poker.” After winning his bracelet last week and clinching Player of the Year, he noted how the prospect of winning POY presented a kind of challenge he wished to attempt: “I was just trying to sneak in... just advance a little bit; trying to get a couple more [POY] points. And it’s just kind of happened. It’s the best way,” he said.

Ferguson’s new challenge -- and his meeting it with success -- managed to be the central story of the WSOPE, stealing attention and headlines away from others like Niall Farrell and Dominik Nitsche (who each won high rollers) and Main Event champion Marti Roca.

Again, many were less than enthused by such a turn of events. Indeed, while the original “Chris Ferguson Challenge” was genuinely inspiring, this new one kind of has the opposite effect.

Photo (adapted): PokerNews

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Down the JFK Rabbit Hole

Over the last several years I’ve spent an unexpected amount of time rooting around the John F. Kennedy assassination rabbit hole. As have many, and as many more will continue to do for a long, long time.

It could’ve only happened one way, right? There’s a single, unequivocal reality down in that rabbit hole somewhere. Has to be, even if I don’t expect there’s enough time in this lifetime to dig deep enough to find it.

I became piqued in part because of a growing curiosity about Richard Nixon’s life and career, an interest that necessarily had me also wanting to read and learn more about U.S. politics and government from the end of WWII through the mid-1970s. That meant learning more about Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and, of course, Kennedy.

The 50th anniversary of the assassination further ignited my inquisitiveness, in particular with all of the media coverage of the event (a lot of which got renewed attention in late November 2013). You can more or less relive the entire sequence right through the funeral in dozens of different ways now via YouTube, if you like. Additionally, it’s not hard at all to find most of the contemporary reporting on the event in newspapers, magazines, not to mention those first few books that began to emerge in the following years.

I’ve done enough reporting of my own (both about poker and otherwise) to be fascinated by the challenge journalists faced to report on the assassination as it was occurring, as well as what followed (including Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing by Jack Ruby). And as most know, the reporters themselves became a big part of the story during those four days in Dallas.

I’ll admit that by now I’ve become so familiar with all of the reporting and the early shaping of the story of the JFK assassination it has become like a song I’ve heard hundreds of times. Additional deep-diving has me in the position of being acquainted with a lot of the supporting cast in the crazily complicated story, although I wouldn’t claim to possess the sort of granular level of knowledge of those who’ve spent lifetimes studying-slash-obsessing over the event.

I’ve read The Warren Report, a.k.a. The Official Report on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It’s an amazing narrative, actually, one that reads a bit like a faith-based text deliberately designed to reassure and comfort.

Along the way hundreds of complications arise that potentially challenge the Commission’s central arguments that (1) Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, that (2) he fired three shots (one missing, two inflicting all wounds on Kennedy and Governor John B. Connally), and that (3) the Commission found no evidence of a conspiracy involving Oswald and/or Jack Ruby and others. However after each such challenge is acknowledged it is immediately declared invalid or inconclusive, which has a reassuring effect upon those inclined to agree with those central arguments while agitating those who are not.

I’ve also read the Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations of the U.S. House of Representatives that was produced in 1979 following a couple of years’ worth of study and investigation. Whereas the Warren Report has the effect of putting one’s mind at ease, the also flawed and incomplete HSCA report has precisely the opposite effect, inspiring suspicion and doubt about the Warren Commission’s conclusions without really offering anything concrete to serve as an alternate explanation of the assassination.

The HSCA report’s finding that “the committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy” is a frustrating one. I’m no fan of adverbs, generally speaking, but to throw a “probably” into a pronouncement like that is almost maddening. As it happens, that finding is based on another, less equivocal one having to do with an examination of acoustical evidence (from which it was determined four shots were fired), which was swiftly shown by others to be less than reliable.

Indeed, the HSCA report was so derided from all sides (including by some who worked on it and subsequently maintained the report didn’t reflect their findings) it has faded from the collective’s memory. Many still overlook that latter effort made by U.S. lawmakers to try to get to the bottom of the assassination, continuing to point back to 1964 and the Warren Commission’s conclusion as the government’s “official” and ultimate conclusion on the matter.

I was up on it all enough to know a long while back that the release of these new “JFK files” was coming last week, so I wasn’t surprised when the date approached and stories about the assassination again began to appear. (Nor was I that surprised the current administration appeared to bungle the release despite the date being known for 25 years, but that’s another matter.)

I’ve only heard bits and pieces about what is in the released files, but I’ll be intrigued to find out more. I’ve found myself coming around to a point of view that largely coincides with the one Edward Jay Epstein has articulated especially well (I think). As a young man Epstein published the first book raising some questions about the Warrent Commission, titled Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth (the first of several books on the assassination he’d eventually write).

Epstein’s book came out a few months before the bestselling Rush to Judgment by Mark Lane who I’ve always thought to have been much less admirable as a scholar, though nonetheless a compelling and important character in the early blossoming of the JFK conspiracy industry.

Epstein has written many times about what he thinks happened on November 22, 1963 with his thoughts scattered through many books and articles. If you’re curious, you can hear him summarize his view in a fairly succinct way on a podcast recorded in 2015 for The New Criterion, one titled “Edward Jay Epstein on the mysteries surrounding the Kennedy assassination.” You can search around online for more thorough versions of his argument, shared by Epstein himself and by others who have presented and commented on his analysis.

I won’t rehearse Epstein’s entire argument, although even a highly abbreviated version takes a little while to get through. It begins with an assertion that while Oswald was most certainly the lone shooter that day, he certainly had made some interesting and meaningful contacts with others, in particular with both the Russian and Cuban embassies in Mexico in late September-early October 1963.

Epstein notes how failed attempts by the U.S. to remove Fidel Castro from power (including by assassination) had understandably gotten the attention of the Cuban leader. On September 7, 1963, Castro gave an impromptu interview to an AP reporter in Havana in which he shared his intention to respond to attacks both against the country and himself, and a couple of days later an article including some of Castro’s quotes appeared.

A couple of days later an article including quotes from Castro was published in various newspapers, including in the Times-Picayune in New Orleans where Oswald was (and assuredly read the article). Castro speaks out against the U.S. aiding rebels’ attacks in Cuba.

“Prime Minister Fidel Castro said Saturday night ‘United States leaders’ would be in danger if they helped in any attempt to do away with leaders of Cuba,” the article reports. “Bitterly denouncing what he called U.S.-prompted raids on Cuban territory, Castro said, ‘We are prepared to fight them and answer in kind. United States leaders should think that if they are aiding terrorists’ plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe.’”

Differently edited versions of the AP article appeared in other places, and in fact the versions showing up in The New York Times and Washington Post didn’t include the threatening line from Castro, which meant most Americans weren’t aware of it. In fact even after the assassination few were attaching much significance to the statement (including the Warren Commission who didn’t reference it at all).

Epstein suggests Oswald, already a Castro-supporter, might have been inspired by the threat. While the specific purpose for Oswald’s Mexico trip is hard to pinpoint, he surmises it was motivated in part by Oswald’s desire to offer his services to support Castro and Cuba. Included in there is Oswald apparently making explicit his willingness to kill JFK, perhaps even delivered in the form of a threat. Such a threat was delivered to officials in the Cuban embassy and was passed along to Castro. The CIA may or may not have been aware of Oswald’s threat as well, since they periodically monitored conversations there. The FBI knew about it, too.

Meanwhile Epstein spells out a parallel plot to assassinate Castro playing out, and in fact on the day of the JFK assassination a meeting occurs in Paris between a U.S. representative and a confidant of Castro’s named Rolando Cubela to advance that plot. The U.S. thought Cubela who had close access to Castro and could pull off an assassination was working with them as a double agent, but in fact he was reporting back to Castro about the plot. (In fact Cubela was the source of knowledge from which Castro was drawing when making his statement about U.S. attempts to kill him.)

The parallel plot is fascinating, and relevant to speculation about whether or not Oswald was acting at the direct behest of Castro and Cuba when he killed Kennedy. In that podcast I link to above, Epstein leaves that as a somewhat open question, saying that Oswald could well have still been acting on his own (though inspired by Castro’s obvious motive), or perhaps Oswald could have misinterpreted statements from Cuban officials in response to his stated threat.

All of which is to say I’m fairly convinced both that Oswald acted alone and that there were many different entities -- including Castro and Cuba, the Soviets, and American intelligence agencies privy to Oswald’s pre-assassination actions and statements -- who had knowledge of and/or contact with Oswald beforehand and thus motive not to publicize that knowledge and/or contact afterwards. In other words, there were plenty of actual “conspiracies” surrounding the assassination, though I believe they likely had more to do with covering up potentially compromising-looking relationships and connections after the fact than with planning and executing the actual event.

I don’t think anyone is expecting anything definitive enough to convince everyone of a single, unequivocal narrative to explain what happened. The newly released files may shed some additional light on Oswald’s Mexico adventure. They may also include something more about those who knew about the trip when it happened and afterwards.

Even so, I imagine it’ll remain quite dim way down the JFK rabbit hole.

Image: z161 from Zapruder plus view reenactment, public domain.

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Monday, October 09, 2017

Short Trip Report

I was in Maryland last week helping cover a World Poker Tour event, the WPT Maryland Live! one in Hanover (near Baltimore).

In contrast to most trips I only had to take a short flight up from Charlotte for this one. Indeed, the flight took less time than did my drive from the farm to the airport. Was great fun reuniting with some of the WPT crew with whom I’ve worked in the past, and I very much enjoyed making some new friends in Brittany Paige and Matt Clark alongside whom I worked and reported.

Also got to reunite with and meet several players, too, as will happen. Andrew Brokos (of the Thinking Poker Podcast) went out just shy of the final 30, and Ari Engel a little after that, and it was nice to chat with each of them again. The friendly and gregarious Kenny Nguyen made it to eighth and kept us all entertained the entire way.

I additionally got a chance to meet the winner Art Papazyan, who in fact was claiming his second WPT title in about five weeks after having won the WPT Legends of Poker in late August where he outlasted Phil Hellmuth heads-up. (The photo above is from the last stages of the tournament, just before Papazyan won.)

Papazyan had some funny stories about playing against Hellmuth, and while he insisted he isn’t a “tournament pro” (being more of a cash game guy), the two victories in close succession probably ensures the California player will be participating in a few more tournaments going forward. They definitely ensure he has a lock on the WPT Player of the Year for this, the tour’s 16th season.

There were five days of poker, all but the last one quite long. Following the second one I was up into the wee hours handling some administrative stuff when I saw the first tweets regarding the shooting in Las Vegas. I clicked through a link one on of them to hear the chatter on the police scanner sharing reports of multiple shooters at several different casinos.

By the time I went to sleep a couple of hours later, there was still a lot of confusion on the scanner, on Twitter, and on cable news (which I’d turned on) about what had happened. Or was still happening (no one was sure). The toll of the violence perpetrated by what turned out to be a single individual wasn’t known yet, either. That didn’t come until Monday.

I got back to Las Vegas last summer for the WSOP Main Event, my first visit there in four years.

I’d never want to live in Vegas permanently. In fact, the 16 consecutive nights I spent at the Rio in July probably represents a maximum possible stay for me at this point in my life. That says more about me than about Vegas. I’m always going to be more small town (or small farm) than big city, regardless of local legislative predilections regarding card games and such.

But I’ve spent enough time in Las Vegas over the years to have developed a meaningful connection to the place and to many people who do live there, a connection that compounded the heartache caused by yet another senseless act of violence.

Can’t say I have anything especially profound to add right now to the discussion about what happened or even to larger conversations regarding gun violence in the United States. Some (not all) lawmakers are saying the usual things about future action, but none of it is very assuring. Nor does it seem likely that even this horror will move those who can perhaps do something to help lessen the likelihood of future acts of violence to do so. Like some others I’ve been thinking a little about the shooter’s background as a gambler and as a result unavoidably considering connections as part of an impracticable attempt at explaining something that resists rational explanation.

But that’s mostly just the intellect vainly trying to distract the emotions.

Back home now for a while until the next trip. Glad to be here helping take care of everybody.

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