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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Monday, September 25, 2017

The Limits of Learning

Was talking with someone not too long ago about the various writing, editing, reporting, and teaching I’m currently doing, just about all of which continues to involve poker in some fashion.

On the side (when not on farm duty) I try to write a little fiction, hoping to gather a bit of early momentum toward a third novel. Took a long time for me finally to finish the first one, Same Difference, then another seven or eight years before reaching the finish line with Obsessica. But at the moment that sort of writing is only happening now-and-then. For the most part I am still writing and editing poker articles, still reporting on tournaments, and still teaching one college course per semester that concerns the history of poker and its relevance to American culture.

You must really be good at poker, then, right?

That was the question put to me by my friend, one I’d fielded many times before, though it had been a while. I imagine most who spend a lot of time covering tournaments or working in poker in some fashion or another get asked the same thing, perhaps often.

I’ve learned a lot while standing just a couple feet away watching others play poker, I replied, and it’s true. Observing others -- both incredibly skilled players and rank amateurs -- certainly provides a kind of ongoing poker education for those who are paying attention (a requirement when reporting).

Watching live poker is much different from watching the game as it is shown on television or even on live streams online, and not simply because of the lack of hole cards. It’s a little like the difference between watching a football game in person versus on television. You can see the whole “field” -- i.e., not just the part where the action is occurring -- and thus potentially can notice certain contextual elements that prove meaningful.

Over time and through repetition, the tableside observer also necessarily becomes familiar with certain patterns of play, much as someone might when playing. I’m referring to things like bet sizing patterns (both preflop and postflop), how certain board textures produce common postflop sequences, and how the preflop-flop-turn drama can relate to a river denoument (a final value bet, a big bluff, an anti-climactic check down, and so on).

That said, I have to admit my viewing of poker when reporting is often of the passive variety, albeit with a lot more attention to surface-level details than one experiences, say, when a person “watches” a television show or movie while scrolling through his or her feeds. The effort to chronicle the essential elements of a given hand or situation sometimes (often?) makes it challenging to appreciate all of those other meaningful though ultimately non-essential bits happening all around.

In fact, a lot of times it is better to shut out all that contextual noise, as it can get in the way of recording central “text” or narrative of the hand.

To continue the analogy, consider all that you’re able to see from the stands at a football game -- the backfield, both lines, the entire secondary, and then, once the play begins, the blocking scheme on a running play, how routes are run on a passing play, the type of zone or man coverage downfield, everything else happening away from the ball, and so on.

Then (let’s say) you’re going to be required to report only what the left tackle does on each play. Imagine you work for Football Outsiders or some other stat-crunching outfit that deals in “advanced analytics,” and that’s the narrow task you’ve been assigned. Easy enough to do (with a little training), but while you’re watching the left tackle you obviously can’t appreciate how well the receiver on the other side of the field is running his route. Or much else, really.

The same would likely be true if you were strictly required to report only the results of each play (say, for more traditional statistical purposes). You’d miss a lot else that might be relevant. So, too, does the reporter noting only stack sizes, positions, bets, board cards, and showdowns fail to take in everything else available to him or her.

There are limits to what those sitting at the table and actually playing the hands can learn, too, of course. The limits faced by those watching and reporting are more significant, though -- much greater than might be suggested by the short distance between observer and the game being observed.

Photo: “Brain 19,”

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Friday, September 01, 2017

New Album: Ex Machina

It was one year ago today I released my seven albums over on Bandcamp all at once. Or “rereleased” one could say, as they all had been floating around in highly obscure fashion as cassettes and/or compact discs since way back in the day.

The music contained on all seven was recorded from the late 1980s through the early 2000s. In other words, it’s safe to say even the newest tracks on the seventh one, Circular Logic, were all well over a decade old, with some of the earliest material dating back more than a quarter-century (sheesh).

Here they are (all available for free download, if you’re curious):

  • Daisy Hawkins (1987-1990)
  • Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose (1989-1991)
  • Perpetuum Mobile (1990-1991)
  • The Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator (1991-1995)
  • Imbroglio (1991-1993)
  • Welcome to Muscle Beach (1993-1999)
  • Circular Logic (2000-2003)
  • I describe each of the albums in a post here from last year. Clicking through to my Bandcamp page also gets you to more information about each album (and each track). Six of the seven albums are all instrumental, with my pop-rock opus Welcome to Muscle Beach the only one featuring songs with lyrics & my vocals. (It’s my Revolver, I joke.)

    The music was played on various instruments (guitars, bass, keyboards, pianos, percussion, keyboards and synths, and a midi sequencer) and produced using an old Tascam 4-track cassette recorder which I still own although is hardly in working condition anymore.

    These days with Garage Band and similar programs the work of producing such self-made music has become so much simpler to do. Indeed, the process of digitizing these old tracks and releasing it all on my own has become trivially easy today compared to what had to be done way back when in order to get your recorded music heard by even a small audience.

    Among the dozens of unrealized ideas I have laying about currently, one of them has been to create some videos to go along with various songs. In fact, I’d like to put all of it up on YouTube at some point -- I even have a dedicated YouTube channel for it -- but just haven’t gotten around to it.

    I’d also like to find a way to create new music, although again it’s a matter of reestablishing some sort of “home studio” in which to do some recording. Meanwhile, I have been experimenting with some of the older tracks (including some unreleased stuff), and from one of those experiments I came up with something interesting enough I’ve decided to release it as a new album today.

    The album is called Ex Machina and can safely be described as my first wholly “ambient” LP -- a single, almost 37-minute track called “Ex Machina (Redux).”

    For this one, I took the opening track of Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose -- a short loop of electric guitar and effects -- and slowed it down a lot (like 800 percent) which resulted in a much longer, still uncannily melodic piece. I then reversed that track and spliced the two segments together, added a few more treatments to it all, and the long piece is the result.

    Unlike practically everything else from the earlier albums, this one works pretty well as “writing music” (I’d suggest), for those who like to have something to accompany their scribbling. Or if you’re still playing online poker, it might work as a soundtrack for that, too.

    I’ve even made a video for this one, a very slow pan across a panorama photo of the farm capturing a fairly stunning sunset from a few months ago. Here it is:

    It’s probably hard to believe, but every sound you hear was made with an electric guitar. No shinola.

    Feedback plays a big role, of course. In fact that’s where the name of the track came from, as the primary melody was spontaneously generated from the feedback being manipuated by the effects rack I was using. In other words, while a human played the notes, a machine (or multiple machines, really) served as co-composers, to be sure.

    Speaking of feedback, let me know what you think! And if you like it, go ahead and download the audio over on Bandcamp.

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    Tuesday, August 29, 2017

    Safe and Sound

    Back on the farm now after a busy week-and-a-half in Barcelona.

    The turnouts for the big events (i.e., the ones we focused on the most on the PokerStars blog) of the PokerStars Championship Barcelona series were all quite big, which meant a lot of long days strung together. That in turn meant not a whole lot of extracurricular activity outside of the casino or hotel during my stay, although I did get out a couple of times.

    This was my fourth trip to Barcelona, and having spent some time sightseeing on earlier visits (including once with Vera Valmore), I didn’t feel too much urgency to get out this time, even if I had wanted to.

    The day before leaving I did manage to make the walk over to La Rambla, which would have been 10 days after the attack there that occurred the day before my arrival. It was a Sunday. A couple of police vans were parked at the end where I entered from the roundabout, the opposite end from where the attack began.

    As you might have seen on television, there’s a wide pedestrian walkway in the center with two narrow streets on either side. As it was the weekend, portable stands and tents were set up throughout selling paintings and other locally-produced art along with other souvenirs -- the Fira Nova Artesania flea market where tourists frequently pick up items to take home.

    There had been a big memorial at the location the day before, and a lot also happened at the site during the three-day mourning period the previous weekend. This Sunday, though, there was little evidence of what had taken place before. Life had gone on, as it does.

    Walking back out I saw a few the “human statues” getting ready for the day, including the first three featured in this video another visitor made a few years back. They weren’t quite set up for the day just yet, and as they readied themselves there was something uncannily business-like about their preparations.

    Walking back through the streets of Barcelona to the Hotel Arts for the last day of play, I found myself doing more people watching than usual, occasionally caught off-guard by short though intense bursts of melancholy over the cruelty and horror that had been perpetrated there (and elsewhere).

    That photo above (taken by someone else -- I am replacing my old phone soon, as the camera has been worthless for a while) shows where someone had written in Catalan on the base of a La Rambla street lamp “Tots som Barcelona” -- i.e., “We are all Barcelona.”

    Truth be told, the great majority of the human race is good and looking out for one another. They might be motivated and/or encouraged differently to feel that way about others, but I think most of them know (perhaps instinctively) that helping and loving each other is what gives our meaning. Perhaps the only thing.

    All ended well poker-wise. The Main Event winner Sebastian Sorensson, a Swede who was quiet and wrapped up tightly in a Miami Dolphins scarf throughout most of the tournament, turned out to be a gregarious (and hilarious) winner, delivering a fantastic post-even interview with Joe Stapleton that’s worth checking out.

    The trip back home was smooth and without incident. Was good as always to reunite with Vera and the several four-legged friends with whom we share this small, pie-shaped slice of the world where we all take care of each other. And where I’ll be staying put for a while.

    Photo: “Todos somos Barcelona - We are all Barcelona - El mundo es Barcelona - The World is Barcelona | | 170827-8851-jikatu” (adapted), Jimmy Baikovicius. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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    Saturday, August 19, 2017

    Morning in Barcelona

    “It could have been worse” is a phrase we’ve all heard and most of us have probably used. Usually after something bad happens.

    (Actually, as I try to start out on that foot, I can’t avoid noting how we have a president in the United States right now who appears intent on proving nearly every single day that yes, it can be worse. But I’ll avoid that digression just now.)

    Depending on the context, the phrase “it could have been worse” can have different connotations and thus produce different effects.

    In certain circumstances, it can be genuinely comforting to recognize that whatever bad thing has happened, it wasn’t as bad as other possible events. You leave your wallet behind at a restaurant, but when you return an hour later they’ve kept it for you and gladly return it. It could have been worse, you say.

    Sometimes, though, it feels trite or hollow to make such a remark, especially when the bad thing that happened is much, much worse than some mundane, easily handled inconvenience. That said, as I sit in my hotel room here in Barcelona this morning catching up with the latest details regarding the terrorist attack that occurred Thursday about two miles from here at La Rambla in the city’s center -- and the subsequent attack occurring in Cambrils about 70 miles away -- it’s hard not to shudder at the thought of how much worse it could have been.

    Still, like I say, that rings hollow. Such senseless, deranged horror perpetrated on so many innocents, and for no reason whatsoever other than to serve some mindless, indefensible, inhumane cause. (And frustratingly reprising several other attacks here in Europe, as well as another deranged and deadly decision made for similarly stupid reasons in Virginia a week ago.)

    You’re following the coverage, too, so I won’t rehearse all of the details I’m learning both through various news sources and via conversations here where I’ve come to help cover the PokerStars Barcelona Championship series already underway. Suffice it say, the circumstantial evidence strongly suggests more ambitiously cruel plans by the perpetrators failed to be realized for various reasons (including some swift action on the part of Spanish police).

    It was sickening to follow the story two days ago from the farm while I was packing for the trip, the chest tightening more than a little at the thought of my many friends and other familiar and friendly poker folks who were already here. Brad Willis provided a thorough and sensitive explanation of this feeling yesterday for the PokerStars blog in a post titled “On terror, fear, and perseverance in Barcelona.”

    That post includes a photo my friend and fellow reporter Alex Villegas took yesterday, as well as some by another friend and colleague, Neil Stoddart. (That's another of Neil’s up above.) Catalan officials have declared three days of mourning, lasting through the weekend.

    Alex arrived in the morning on Friday, and since our check-in wasn’t until later in the afternoon he spent that time over at La Rambla as we’ve done before on past visits to this beautiful, inviting coastal city. I came a little later (though still too early to get a room), and he and I spent much of the afternoon talking about various things, including those many memorials now dotting the pedestrian path.

    We begin work today, the first of what will be nine straight days of reporting. There is some cloud cover this morning, though the usual deep blue is nonetheless gamely starting to peek through up above.

    It’s my fourth trip here, and before coming I had plans once more to get out when I can to see the city and its people. I still plan to do so, and will likely get over to La Rambla at some point as Alex and Neil have already done.

    It’s good to be among my many friends who like me have been here many times. It’s also good to be among the always friendly and inviting people who live here. I’m glad to be back.

    Photo: courtesy Neil Stoddart / PokerStars blog.

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