Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Great Garry Gates

When you have a friend playing in the World Series of Poker Main Event, a $10,000 buy-in tournament considered the most prestigious event in all of poker, you don’t expect your friend to make the final table.

I mean thousands play the sucker. These days, to make the final table means making enough correct decisions and being lucky (and avoiding being unlucky) enough times to survive seven long days of poker -- more than 70 hours of actual play.

Like most years, I knew a few dozen folks playing the Main this time around, and among them could count several good friends. A few were still in there after three or four days. One of them -- Andrew Brokos -- even got all the way to the end of Day 5 (again!) before bowing out.

When Day 7 started with 35 players left from the 8,569-player starting field, I still had one buddy in there. And after another crazy, long, dramatic day and night of poker he’s still part of the story as one of the nine with a chance at the $10 million first prize.

Garry Gates has made the final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event. My friend is one of the final nine. No shinola.

As a poker fan, I’ve followed the World Series of Poker for many years. When I started writing this blog in 2006, the WSOP was a frequent topic about which I couldn’t help but write, including that summer when the Main Event drew 8,773 entrants, the most in its storied history. (This year they nearly eclipsed that mark; next year, I think they will.)

Soon I unwittingly began what would become a full-blown second career as a freelance writer focusing on poker, and during the 2007 WSOP I was writing articles and doing some work from afar for PokerNews to assist them as they provided live updates for the first time. The following summer I was in Las Vegas and reporting on the WSOP myself with the PN team.

Since I was writing every day here on Hard-Boiled Poker and the blog therefore serves as kind of an obsessively-detailed diary recording all of these events, I can read about everything I experienced during the 2008 WSOP. For the entry posted May 28, 2008 and in the midst of several posts mentioning people I was meeting for the first time who would become some of my closest friends, I note how I first met “Garry Gates, PokerNews’ Tournament Reporting Manager and cool guy.”

Garry led the team again the following year 2009, then some time after that moved over to work with PokerStars where I once again had the chance to collaborate with him in various ways. He’s had a couple of positions within PokerStars since then, both as an events manager and as Senior Consultant of Player Affairs, which means we’ve been able to work together many times since that day we first met.

Garry is a cool guy, incredibly friendly and outgoing. Back in ’08 he made things very easy for me as I made what was frankly an abrupt and unusual transition from teaching and writing at home to tournament reporting.

Ask anyone who was part of that group back then, Garry was a tremendous leader, supporting us in numerous ways at every turn. There was one moment in particular during 2009 when I remember Garry having my back when a certain poker player apparently objected to something I had written -- not for PokerNews, but here on my personal blog. I didn’t tell the story until many years later, and when I did I didn’t mention Garry by name, though he was the one who made it clear to me I had zero to be concerned about with regard to the situation.

Here is the post, the title of which gives you a clue regarding the identity of the player involved: “That Time I Learned That Jesus Didn’t Love Me.”

I remember thinking then how much better Garry was as a “boss” than were those in the administration at the school where I taught full-time (and would eventually leave primarily because of that unpleasant work environment). I didn’t always know there whether those above me would support me if the need ever arose, but with Garry there was never any doubt.

I use scare quotes around the word “boss” because Garry very deliberately minimized the idea that he was “managing” us -- rather, it was the reporting he managed, and he did it well. (In fact, Garry exerted significant and positive influence over how tournament reporting would be done going forward.)

As I say, Garry has remained a great friend and colleague ever since. I’ve written about before how those experiences reporting on tournaments can be especially formative. Even working a single event with someone can create a meaningful relationship that lasts well beyond the few days you spend with each other. In my book Poker & Pop Culture, I have a very long list of people I thank in the acknowledgments (Garry included) who helped inspire my interest in poker. I listed a lot of those whom I’ve worked over the years, because those experiences meant a lot to me and I continue to appreciate having had them.

Garry has always been a serious poker player, even if he has only played part-time since having (like me) gotten himself into the “industry” in a full-time way. I remember how in 2011 he played in several WSOP events, and even made a deep run in the Main to finish 173rd.

I specifically recall talking to Garry after he busted that year and what he said to me when reflecting on the experience. The best part about it, he said, was getting to share the fun and excitement with others. It really was as much about everyone else as it was about himself. (Garry cashed two more times in the Main Event in 2015 and 2017.)

You might’ve heard about how Garry was at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas when the horrific shooting took place where 58 died and more than 800 were injured. Six months later Garry opened up to Lance Bradley about it for a piece titled “Garry Gates: One of the Lucky Ones.”

I messaged Garry afterwards, and he let me know he was doing okay. I remember thinking then how Garry was the sort of person who was likely better equipped to handle such a trauma, given the way he instinctively focuses so much on others’ welfare. You learn that in the interview with Lance. For Garry, letting family and friends know that he was okay (and thus lessening their stress) was an immediate focus, and soon after he was finding ways to help others affected by the event.

You’re hearing a lot of people sharing similar sentiments about Garry over the last few days, many of whom are associated with poker in a variety of ways. Garry Gates? Great guy, they say. They were saying that before this crazy run, of course, and will continue to do so after, however things ultimately play out.

I’m starting to imagine watching Garry and the others begin the final table tonight. In one way, it doesn’t even seem real, like some sort of weird “sim” constructed to divert us all. Like I say, no one expected this.

Then again, it makes perfect sense to see Garry in this position, representing (in a way) so many of us who play and love poker and whom he has helped and supported in countless ways.

My friend is playing in the WSOP Main Event. Still!

I’m loving it for Garry. Loving it as well for all of us, too.


EDIT (added 7/21/19): Garry ultimately made it all of the way to fourth place for a mind-boggling $3 million cash. I wrote a bit more about Garry and his run for the PokerStars blog here: “Gates, Moneymaker, and how poker brings us together.”

Photos courtesy Neil Stoddart (upper) and Joe Giron (lower), PokerStars blog.

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Friday, June 07, 2019

Book News: Poker & Pop Culture Now Available!

Checking in again to let everyone know my book Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game is now out! No more preordering and waiting... order it today and you’ll have it right away.

I received some author copies a short while back, and earlier this week I got a copy of the e-book from D&B Poker as well. Here is a short video that provides a glimpse of both -- take a look:

Valerie Cross also wrote a nice piece about me and the book for PokerNews last week. Check it out: “Martin Harris Shares Inspirations for New Book ‘Poker and Pop Culture.’

Right now you can order the paperback from Amazon, and I imagine the e-book version is going to show up there soon as well. Meanwhile both the paperback and e-book can be ordered at the D&B Poker site. In fact, if you get the e-book from D&B, we’ve added a special bonus “appendix” that includes a list of “The Top 100 Poker Movies” with summaries, memorable quotes, and links to the films’ IMDB entries. (The appendix won’t be included with the e-book if you get it on Amazon.)

Also coming in the near future will be an audio book. Last month I spent many hours in a studio recording the book, and before too long that ought to start showing up as well both on the D&B site and Amazon.

Here are some places online where I’ve found you can buy the book:

  • D&B Poker
  • Amazon
  • Apple Books
  • Books-A-Million
  • Barnes & Noble
  • Book Depository
  • Target
  • ThriftBooks
  • Poker & Pop Culture is also on sale right now at the D&B Poker booth at the World Series of Poker there in the halls of the Rio. I’ll be heading out there next week for a visit, and I’ll surely spend some time hanging out there at the booth, too.

    As I say in the video (and have talked about here on the blog), the book provides both a history of poker and a history of how poker has been represented in American popular culture -- i.e., movies, television, music, fiction, drama, plays, literature, and so on. Thus the book not only tells you when and where and how poker has been played over the last two centuries, but also when and where and how poker has been portrayed, too, and how those portrayals have influenced opinions about poker and the game’s significance to America.

    There to the left is a picture of the list of the book’s chapters. It took me a while to settle on this way of organizing the book, and in fact once I did I had this piece of paper posted by my desk -- kind of a way to keep that “bird’s eye view” before me as I wrote.

    As you can see, each chapter covers a particular place where poker can be found, with that idea being applied broadly to refer to locations in history (e.g., the Old West, the Civil War, etc.), in media (movies, television, music), in society (business, politics), in time (the past, the future) and in literal locations (homes, clubs, casinos).

    The book is roughly chronological, starting with poker’s origins and ending with discussions of the game in contemporary contexts. But what I’ve really tried to do is create a kind of “geography” for poker with each chapter highlighting a different place for the reader to visit where poker exists. That includes real places, made-up ones, and many combining fact and fiction.

    It’s a pretty complicated story, really. One theme that emerges fairly quickly in the book is how poker occupies this very paradoxical place in America as a game both beloved and condemned. There are just as many examples in popular culture of poker being romanticized and celebrated as there are examples of it being censured and demonized.

    I’m not really an unrelenting “cheerleader” for poker in the book, having chosen instead to try to be somewhat objective as I chronicle and interpret all of these examples of poker from American history and culture. That said, I think just by writing a book like this I’m obviously taking the position of someone who thinks the game is worth studying and of historical importance.

    It’s definitely satisfying to have reached this point in the book-making process. Of course, there’s also that difficult sense of “letting go” while knowing I might have said more, or said things differently -- something akin to ending a poker session knowing that while you did your best, there were still hands in which you might have made different (and possibly better) decisions. (To mitigate that feeling, I hang onto the idea of a revised, expanded edition down the road.)

    Thanks to those who have picked up the book already, and thanks in advance to those who plan to do so later. And to you, reader of Hard-Boiled Poker, who inspired me more than you realize to take this interest in the game and writing about it in this direction.

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    Monday, April 15, 2019

    Poker & Pop Culture Now Available for Preorder!

    As I’ve shared over Twitter and Instagram, my book Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game is now complete, and in fact has already been sent to the printer in time for publication around late May-early June.

    You can preorder either the paperback or e-book right now from a number of different outlets. (There will also be an audio version of the book coming soon as well.) Ordering from the publisher, D&B Poker, is the most direct way to get it (and the place I’d advise you to go) -- here is the site for that.

    Looking elsewhere, you can also preorder the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, and probably other places, too, that I’ve yet to discover. No matter where you go, if you buy it now it will be delivered to your doorstep right around the first of June. If I understand correctly, you also won’t be charged until it actually ships.

    I delivered the completed manuscript back in early January, but after a decent amount of editing and additional work I truly didn’t have the sense the book was “done” until a couple of weeks ago. As visitors to this blog have probably surmised, a great deal of my poker-writing energy was poured into that project -- a primary reason why I’ve been scarce over here for a while.

    I’ve appeared on a few podcasts lately to talk about the book. If you’re curious, you can listen to those to get a bit of a preview:

  • House of Cards, Episode 574 (January 20, 2019)
  • Thinking Poker Podcast, Episode 284 (4 Feb. 2019)
  • The Chip Race, Season 8, episode 5 (11 Mar. 2019)
  • There is an extract available over on the D&B site that includes the beginning of the book and part of the chapter “Poker in the Movies.” It also includes the table of contents, which gives you an idea of the book's scope.

    On those podcasts and in other situations, I have been describing the book as having a couple of primary purposes. One is to share the history of poker in America, starting with the very first reports of games and carrying the narrative all of the way to the present. Another important purpose is to tell the story of how poker has been presented in popular culture -- e.g., in the movies, on television, in music, in paintings, in literature and drama, in magazines and in a host of other contexts -- along the way showing how those representations of the game have importantly shaped opinions about poker.

    Regarding the latter (poker in popular culture), a lot of the focus in the book is on poker popping up in “non-poker” contexts. For example, in the chapter “Poker on Television,” I do spend some time talking about “poker television” -- i.e., the WSOP, the WPT, and all of the other “poker shows” that helped increase the game’s popularity, especially during the “boom” years of the 2000s. But I spend even more space describing poker being portrayed in TV westerns, dramas, and comedies -- i.e., not actual poker but fictional poker -- and talk as well about how those portrayals of the game have encouraged certain ideas about poker’s meaning and significance.

    Another way of describing the two goals of the book would be to say Poker & Pop Culture tries to share the true story of poker’s origin, development, and growth while at the same time provide a comprehensive overview of fictional portrayals of poker. It’s a lot to cover, which is one reason why the book is more than 400 pages long.

    When it comes to the true history of poker, a lot has been necessarily hidden, which requires writers like me to dig deep and sometimes be forced to settle for speculative answers to questions about the game’s history. Meanwhile, the fictional portrayals of the game might be a little easier to chronicle, but the “texts” nonetheless require some interpretation in order to figure out just what they are saying about poker and its place in American history and culture.

    I’m very happy with how the book has turned out, and how it kind of represents a culmination of the nearly 3,000 posts I’ve written here on Hard-Boiled Poker as well as all of the other poker-related writing I’ve done over the last 13 years. (The cover is pretty awesome, too.)

    Speaking of, eight years ago today -- April 15, 2011 -- if you had asked me whether I thought I’d still be writing about poker in 2019, let alone publishing a poker book, I’m pretty sure I would have said no. As many of you well remember, that was “Black Friday,” the day playing poker online was essentially removed as an option for American players. In fact, it still isn’t an option for most of us.

    I was in Lima, Peru that day, helping cover a poker tournament for PokerStars. I remember how disorienting that day was, and how a few nights later my friends and I gathered to enjoy each other’s company and contemplate the future, each of us thinking how we’d somehow reached the end of something.

    As it happened, aside from no longer playing online, the changes weren’t nearly as dramatic as we thought they might be. I was able to continue going on such “poker trips” to other countries and around the United States, too, and still do today (though not as frequently). And by continuing to write about poker, the seeds were planted that eventually grew into Poker & Pop Culture.

    In a later chapter the book does cover “Black Friday” and the wild “rise and fall” of online poker in the U.S., a topic that could certainly take up an entire book of its own. Indeed, many of the chapters are like that, in my opinion, capable of being expanded greatly into much longer studies.

    In any case, I’m super excited the book is coming out soon and to be able to share it with everyone. Feels a little like I’ve been dealt a premium hand and am now just waiting -- a little anxious, very psyched -- to see how things develop from here.

    You may be wondering whether or not it is “positive EV” for you to go ahead and purchase the book now or wait until later. I’ve actually studied this situation, and it turns out buying Poker & Pop Culture falls well within your preordering range:

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    Wednesday, July 18, 2018

    World Series of Poker Main Event Final Table Tips

    The 2018 World Series of Poker Main Event is history, with all 78 bracelets having been won. The final table was entertaining from start to finish, although that final night with the marathon heads-up was quite a test for viewers.

    Being able to see every hand including hole cards is of course quite educational for poker players. So, too, were these strategy tips reflecting the changing dynamic that occurs as the table goes from nine-headed to heads-up.

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    Friday, June 15, 2018


    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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