Friday, October 31, 2008

Poker in the Mainstream: 60 Minutes Segment Set for Nov. 9

60 MinutesI suspect most readers of this blog are aware of the latest regarding that impending 60 Minutes segment on the Absolute Poker/UltimateBet cheating scandals. Was at one time set to air last Sunday, then apparently was rescheduled for Sunday, November 9th -- the day the final table of this year’s World Series of Poker Main Event will finally recommence.

Interesting timing, eh? When they are playing the final table (which begins at 10 a.m. Vegas time on Sunday the 9th), do you think they’ll stop and watch the stopwatch? Hehe, probably not. Of course, I’ll be following the FT coverage on PokerNews that day (no way am I waiting to see it on ESPN), and yeah, I probably will take a break when 60 Minutes comes on that night.

Sounds as though there will be a substantial write-up in the Washington Post appearing on that day that will also cover the scandals. Serge “Adanthar” Ravitch, one of those who along with Nat Arem and others was involved in much of the detective work uncovering the scandals, will be participating in an online Q&A session for the Washington Post on that day, too.

All of which means when the segment finally does air on CBS that Sunday night, there will be a bit of follow-up nationally as other papers and outlets report on the report. Might be substantial, might not. In any case, those follow-up stories will no doubt also make reference to the fact that the WSOP ME winner is being determined on Monday the 10th, and ESPN will air its hastily-produced final table show on Tuesday the 11th.

Some are suggesting the 60 Minutes story and its immediate aftermath may in a kind of odd twist gain the ESPN final table show even more viewers. As Pokerati Dan suggested this week, the 60 Minutes show “will be great promotion to non-poker people of ESPN’s final table broadcast.” I don’t know if the indirect promotion of the ME final table will be “great” or not, but Dan is right to say that the show will draw the attention of many non-poker people to what is going on at the Rio and on ESPN around that time.

Dan also refers us to an interesting article by Wendeen H. Eolis over on the Poker Player Newspaper website regarding the upcoming 60 Minutes piece. Kind of difficult to get to the full article just clicking around the Poker Player Newspaper website, but if you click here you can see it in full.

Eolis discloses early on that she has a business relationship with CBS, and thus has some contacts within the network who “have provided various off the record information and comments” that helped her write her article.

She then describes the presence of the 60 Minutes crew and Steve Kroft (the lead reporter for the segment) at the WSOP last summer. Eolis perhaps exaggerates (a little) the anxiety felt at the Rio as 60 Minutes sought out possible interviewees. (I remember when they were there, and I also remember it was mostly business as usual.) Nevertheless, at least one Harrah’s executive told her “It was not a comfortable situation” during those couple of days when they were there.

She goes on to discuss an earlier example of 60 Minutes investigating cheating in poker, with the focus having been live games in California and Washington state. A team had been sent to investigate, and many hours were devoted to compiling information for a story, but “higher-ups slowed down the process” and ultimately the segment was nixed. Such an example proves Eolis’ point that the entire sequence of coming up with a segment idea, investigating it, producing it, and (ultimately) convincing the “higher-ups” to go with is “a laborious process in which vetting the extensive information obtained in an investigation is one part of it and analyzing potential interest by the mainstream public is an important second part.”

I find that last observation quite intriguing, insofar as the decision this time around to go forward with a segment about the online poker scandals clearly represents a different status for poker and its relationship to “the mainstream public.” Today there are quite a few famous poker players with whom even non-poker fans/players are familiar thanks to advertisements (mostly for online poker sites). Eolis notes how many such “poker celebrities” were interviewed for the segment.

She concludes by characterizing the scene at this summer’s WSOP as a kind of poker game, with the poker players and others trying to “play” 60 Minutes in such a way as to benefit poker in general and/or the online sites they represent. Writes Eolis, “It is not yet known whether Kroft’s on-camera interviewees outplayed their host so as to turn potential bad press into a golden opportunity for advocacy of congressional legislation that will allow online gaming in an appropriately taxed and regulated environment.”

As I say, an interesting take. I still think the segment represents an overall good -- insofar as it succeeds in exposing the utter unfairness of the cheating scandals (and their handling) at both AP and UB, giving those scandals coverage that goes well beyond what relatively little attention they’ve gotten thus far. The bottom line is, people -- especially those thinking about opening their first online poker accounts -- need to know there is a huge difference between AP and UB and other, better-managed, more respectable (and safe) sites.

I’m less sure about further effects of the 60 Minutes segment, such as its possible impact on future legislation or even its gathering that many extra viewers for ESPN’s final table show. Those effects are certainly worth looking out for, though.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Question Mark

Question markWas talking to Vera Valmore yesterday about a hand I’d played -- another one of those “Hand of the Day” conversations -- and she said something at the end that made me laugh out loud. Not sure if I’ll be able to reproduce the story in a way that will be as funny -- probably a “had to be there”-type tale. But I’ll try.

This story is a little like the one I told last week, in which the “Hand of the Day” actually involves two hands. And again, in the first one I lose a small pot, then that hand appears as though it might well have affected how the next one went.

Was playing six-max., pot-limit Omaha ($25 max.) and had been at the table for a half-hour or so, chipping up to $33.95. It folded to the cutoff, GLTirebiter, who limped, and I limped behind with Tc2h6cKh from the button. Both blinds stuck around. The flop came 9h5cKc and when it checked around to me I bet 95 cents to try to claim the orphaned pot. The blinds folded, and GLTirebiter called. The turn was the Jh and when GLTirebiter checked I decided just to check as well, although given my multiple draws, I really should be betting again there.

The river was the 7d, and when GLTirebiter checked I decided he didn’t have much and so bet $2.20 -- just over three-fourths of the pot. He called and showed TsKs4sAc. Like me, all he had was a pair of kings, but he had the ace for the better kicker.

As the $6.95 pot slid his way, I was compelled for some reason to type “?” in the chatbox. Just a question mark. Not sure why I typed that, other than the fact that I genuinely was a bit surprised he’d call so light there. Once I’d typed it, though, I realized how ambiguous that question mark really looks in the chatbox. Am I questioning his play? (I guess, a little.) Am I confused? (Sure, sure.) Am I just a moron who doesn’t understand what a kicker is? (Who knows?)

Anyhow, I’d explained that hand to Vera, including my inconsequential musings about The Great Significance Of The Infinitely Interesting Question Mark, then came the real “Hand of the Day.”

It was the next hand, and I picked up the very nice 8sKc7cKs in the cutoff. GLTirebiter limped in, and I quickly raised to $1.00, hoping perhaps it looked like I might be steaming. The big blind called, as did GLTirebiter, and the flop came Js3hKh, giving me top set. Both of my opponents checked, and I hesitated about five seconds before betting pot ($3.90). The big blind folded, but GLTirebiter called, obviously holding some sort of draw.

The turn was the 8h, completing a possible flush. GLTirebiter checked, and I waited a bit before checking as well. Wasn’t really sure what I’d do on the river. Probably fold, unless I improved, as I was reasonably sure my neighbor had a flush.

Luckily the river came the Jd, pairing the board and giving me top full house. GLTirebiter surprisingly bet $8.75. I lingered for a long time, then pushed all in for $25.65. He thought about it for a few seconds, then called, leaving himself just a buck behind). He showed KdQd9hAh for the nut flush. I’d won a $60.20 pot.

As I wound up my self-congratulatory narrative to Vera, I said “To his credit, he typed ‘nice hand’ afterwards.” That’s when Vera cracked me up.

“Did you type a question mark?” she said with a smirk.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Hard-Boiled Poker Interview: Dennis Phillips

Dennis PhillipsI’d heard Dennis Phillips interviewed before on at least a couple of different podcasts, perhaps more. I know I heard him on Phil Gordon’s The Poker Edge as well as Gary Wise’s Wise Hand Poker. Those of you who also have heard him interviewed -- or perhaps seen him on these last few episodes of ESPN’s coverage of the Main Event -- already know he’s a pretty likable sort, whose self-effacing humility and good-naturedness perhaps distinguishes him a bit from your typical poker player.

When I recently was given an opportunity to interview the current chip leader of the 2008 World Series of Poker Main Event, I thought it would be fun and interesting to get to know him a little better. We chatted yesterday afternoon for about twenty minutes via telephone.

I started out introducing myself, explaining that like him, this summer also marked my first ever trip to the WSOP. I told him how I’d helped out with the live blogging for PokerNews, and had written up at least a couple of his hands. I mentioned one in particular, a hand he had played against Lisa Parsons shortly after he had shared some Altoids with the table. She’d won the hand, and I’d cheekily titled the post “And I Just Gave You Candy.”

“I remember that one!” said Phillips, pointing out how he had been following the coverage. “Lisa Parsons is a very good player,” he added, noting that her game was “very respected” by many of the other players. He said he’d been surprised to hear that she’d gotten knocked out when she did (in 76th place).

Knowing Phillips is a baseball fan, I asked him if he happened to be following that other World Series. “As much as I can, but I have been tied up with things and haven’t been able to watch,” he said. We chatted a little further about the rain-suspended game 5, then I got on with the poker questions.

Running Hot and Staying Cool

I liked the questions cheer_dad had suggested on yesterday’s post, so I started with those.

I read the first question verbatim: “Dennis Phillips seems to be a very likeable guy, who is truly in awe of the people with whom he got to play against in the WSOP. How does it make him feel to have others now looking up to him and what he has accomplished thus far?”

“That’s a difficult one to answer,” said Phillips. “I’m still shocked I get recognized by people around the casino, and people wanting to have their picture taken with me. I’m just not used to it at all. Hey, I’m a 53-year-old truck driver just having some fun and playing some poker! I mean it’s great but . . . it’s kind of wild.”

I asked cheer_dad’s follow-up: “Also, nothing seems to agitate him, and he appears to just ‘be happy to there’ but was there anything (or anyone) that really got on his last nerve during the Main Event, or at least what we've seen thus far?”

“No, not at all,” said Phillips without hesitation. “There were a couple of times when some young guns would come to the table and try to have some fun, shall we say, with their conversation. Like there was one who was calling me ‘Grandpa’ and was saying things like ‘Isn’t it time for me to go to sleep?’ Whatever. I took a pot from him later on and said ‘Don’t worry, son, I will come up and tuck you in’ [after you bust out]. I’m not going to let somebody throwing crap around at the poker table bother me.”

The Big Picture

From there Phillips began to talk about being a little older and having experienced the world a bit -- kind of anticipating a later question I had for him -- and thus being at a time in his life where a little table trash talk isn’t likely to faze him. There are more important things in the world to worry about, he was saying.

That point led him to share a few details of his recent trip to the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. to visit some wounded soldiers who’d returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. As he spoke, I remembered reading something about this trip not too long ago in Card Player. Phillips mentioned how the visit was a “sobering and humbling experience,” and that it was the sort of thing that really helped put “poker in perspective.”

“Can I share two quick stories?” he asked. (Of course, I replied.) He told about meeting “one guy who’d lost a leg who was with his eight-year-old son, and they were talking about how when his new robotic leg was finally constructed he’d actually be three inches taller. They joked about how that meant the son was going to have more growing to catch up with him.” Phillips mentioned how he’d marvelled at their laughter and how it demonstrated such remarkable fortitude.

The other story involved an injured soldier who had been driving a truck when it had been bombed and who had instinctively pulled to the right so as to protect his passengers. “Sends a shiver down your spine,” said Phillips, remarking on the courage demonstrated by these men.

We’d get back to the whole issue of experience how it perhaps helps one deal with stress at the poker table. Phillips had made his point quite effectively, though, that there were more important things in the world than some needling at the table.

Speaking of, I then asked him a question that had been forwarded to me by friend Tim Peters: “What do you think of the kind of crap that Phil Hellmuth, et al., engage in?”

“Not a big fan of it,” answered Phillips. “That’s definitely not me. I realize people do things to get on television, but that’s not me. I’m just there to have fun and play poker. A lot of that stuff [such as Hellmuth’s antics] is just playing for the camera. That’s all it is.”

The Education of a Poker Player

I told him how I mostly play online (being stuck in a part of the country with no casinos), and asked him if he ever played online. “Some, but I prefer live play. For me poker is about having fun, relaxing, the camaraderie.... I mean people try to play seriously and take each other’s money, but we can go have a beer afterwards and talk about it and have fun. I do have a mathematics background and know the probabilities and everything, but [when we are playing] I want to see your face.”

I then asked him if he had any favorite poker books. “I never read a poker book,” he answered somewhat sheepishly. “I probably should have, but I just never have.” That made me think to ask about how things were going with Oracle Poker Consulting, the group he hired in early September to help coach him during these weeks leading up to the final table.

“I’m working more with Joe McGowan than Roy Winston right now,” he said, speaking of two of the three principle figures behind Oracle (the other being Michael Binger). “It’s nice to talk at a level of poker that is ‘above the normal’ shall we say. Do you know what I mean?” I agreed that it was helpful to touch base in this way with gifted peers or colleagues. “He’s not trying to change my game at all, but we’re looking at some of the intracacies, even small things like tells I might have or even the way I’m stacking my chips.” He paused, adding “McGowan is an extremely knowledgeable person in the world of poker.”

155 and Counting

I asked him about how much coverage he’d been getting back in St. Louis where he lives on the east side (Metro East). “In St. Louis I’ve been interviewed by channels 2, 4, 5, 9, and 11. Every news and radio station has interviewed me. The St. Louis Post is going to send out its Sports Editor to cover the final table. And tomorrow morning I’m doing a talk show, so the coverage has been extensive.”

Other folks have been interested in Phillips, too. He noted to me that he’s been keeping track since July, and our interview marked his 155th overall.

Ready to Party

I had just one last question for him, one that kind of harkened back to the earlier discussion of being a little older and thus perhaps seeing the world a little differently than do the younger players. Two of Phillips’ final table opponents -- Ylon Schwartz and Darus Suharto -- are in their late 30s, and the rest are all in their 20s. I wondered what the 53-year-old chip leader had to say about the significance of the age difference, both in terms of poker playing and just simply dealing with the entire spectacle of the WSOP Main Event, the “November Nine,” and everything that went along with it.

“When you’ve seen the world a few times, it’s easier to keep emotions in check and not let things bother you,” Phillips replied. “These guys are going to have a real, real hard time putting me on tilt out there,” he added. “They haven’t had the experience or the relationships those of us with a little gray on top have had.”

“As far as the negatives go, with the Main Event there was the drudgery, the day-after-day twelve-, fourteen-, sixteen-hour days that certainly give the younger guys the advantage. That’s eliminated now [with the final table delay]. Now we’re all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to party.”

Sounded like a terrific attitude to be carrying into the final table. I thanked Phillips for his time.

I didn’t end up asking him the old “ambassador of poker” question, as in, “If you were to win, how will you approach the responsibility of being the ambassador of poker for the next year?” Kind of a presumptuous question, really. And frankly, I don’t think these guys who manage to win the WSOP Main Event owe the rest of us any particular responsibility in that regard.

Even so, after chatting with Phillips and discovering him to be every bit as likable as he appears to be, I’m reasonably assured his winning the sucker wouldn’t be a bad thing at all for the rest of us.

Special thanks to Dennis Phillips for taking the time, and to PokerStars for making the interview possible.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

World Series Interruptus

Pause (then go like hell)Had the World Series on last night -- the baseball one, not the poker one -- and watched the Phillies and Rays play through that hard driving rain for an hour or more before the umps (or whoever was in charge) finally decided enough was enough. Seemed a little sketchy, frankly, the way they waited until Tampa Bay had tied the score 2-2 before suspending play in the sixth inning.

Later this morning I plan to read what Phillies fan Hoyazo has to say about all of this. I cannot imagine he is pleased. If they had stopped things a half-hour earlier -- say, the bottom of the fifth when Philadelphia was ahead -- the Phillies would be world champs right now.

Of course, as I’m reading over on the ESPN website this morning, there has never been a rain-shortened game in the history of the World Series. Seems amazing, but I guess it is true. And this was apparently the first-ever suspended game. They’ll pick it back up tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time.

Also picking back up tonight will be the last two hours of coverage of that other World Series. This will be Day 7 of the WSOP Main Event -- the last day of play this summer. ESPN will show them playing down from 27 to the final nine during these two hours of programming. Expect hour one to culminate with the ouster of Tiffany Michelle (third in chips when the day began) in 17th place, then the second hour to end with a couple of hands in which Craig Marquis takes all of Dean Hamrick’s chips to land Hamrick in 10th.

I was there that night, not reporting but sitting in the stands watching the feature table with my buddy who’d come to visit during the last days of the WSOP. We stuck around until they’d gotten down to 11 or 12 -- something like 11 p.m. or so -- as we both had an early flight outta Vegas to catch the next morning.

It had been a long, exhausting summer. Had been there from the very start, seeing the UNLV Marching Band play “Viva Las Vegas” and Doyle Brunson tell everyone back on Day 1 that “We’re in for six solid weeks of poker.” (I made a joke then that Brusnon -- perhaps pointedly -- did not say we were in for “six weeks of solid poker.”) For the couple of hundred or so who were huddled there in the far corner of the cavernous Amazon Room watching those last moments play out, the whole scene was an odd mixture of commotion and comedown. Or amusement and anticlimax.

The few players who’d survived the starting field of 6,844 to be there for those last moments we’re probably experiencing a whole host of other emotions as well. This afternoon I’ll be interviewing one of them, Dennis Phillips, the fellow who has been chip leader longer than anyone else in the history of the World Series of Poker. Hell, in the history of tournament poker in general, probably. When play ended that night, Phillips was in first place with more than 26 million chips. And there he remains today, some 100-plus days later.

As I say, barring any snafus, I’ll be talking with Phillips later today. My plan is to write up a post tomorrow describing our chat. It’ll be a brief conversation, so I’ll have a limited amount of time for questions, but if you have any suggestions about what to ask Phillips, feel free to pass ’em along.

Meanwhile, we’ll all sit and wait just a little while longer. At least the Phillies and Rays will be able to get back at it tonight and not have to wait ’til February to finish up.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Fail Better

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
--Samuel Beckett


Had a late one Friday, and so ended up hitting the hay relatively early Saturday evening. So I didn’t see what they pulled on Saturday Night Live this week (or how they managed without Amy Poehler who was having her baby). Nor was I able to keep up with B.J. Nemeth’s World Poker Tour updates of the next-to-last day of action at the Festa al Lago at the Bellagio.

I had been checking in most of the day. Some interesting names in the final dozen, including PokerRoad co-founder and PokerRoad Radio co-host Joe Sebok. Sebok had held the chip lead with ten players remaining when I signed off, and so I was a little surprised (and disappointed) to find out the next morning he’d hit the rail in ninth, missing yet another WPT final table.

I was one of those who started listening to the old Circuit shows back when Matusow was co-hosting them with Scott Huff. That show started way back in December 2005, and I think I first picked it up sometime during the spring of ’06. I remember hearing Sebok do some guest spots in there somewhere, then reading a couple of his pieces in Card Player for which he wrote a regular column from May 2005 to June 2006. Liked his humor and self-effacing wit right away, and have basically been keeping up with his audio adventures fairly closely ever since.

We’ve interacted a few times via email, but just in passing. Had a couple of chances to talk to him this summer at the WSOP, but it seemed like every time he showed up I was feverishly working a final table and thus unable to stop long enough to introduce myself. I’ll try harder next time. He’s definitely one of those dudes that strikes me as very good for poker, adding a great deal to a lot of folks’ enjoyment of the game via his podcasting efforts at what he’s managed to pull off thus far with the PokerRoad website.

Suffice it to say, I was pulling for the Cub to break through this weekend. So were a lot of folks, it seems.

Yesterday I listened to the 10/25 episode of PokerRoad Radio on which Sebok and his fellow co-hosts Ali Nejad, Gavin Smith, and Court Harrington discussed Sebok’s bustout, then for a change of pace they let Sebok take a turn as the guest and interviewed him. He talked about growing up the son of a poker legend (Barry Greenstein), his college days at Berkeley, his stint in the dotcom world, and some of his experiences prior to becoming a poker pro, such as a lengthy, months-long cross-country trip he embarked upon alone.

Throughout Sebok repeatedly talked about how important it is to him to challenge himself. The cross-country trip, for instance, represented a significant test from which he firmly believes he benefitted greatly. Have to admit I found myself identifying pretty strongly with some of the points Sebok was making. Hell, my decision to go out to Vegas last summer to help cover the WSOP for PokerNews was just such a challenge -- one I’m especially glad I accepted.

Near the end of the interview, Sebok talked a bit about why he played poker, and again brought up his primary motive to seek challenges. He especially likes giving himself “projects” (the PokerRoad website being an example). “To me poker is a project,” he added. “And it is a project that is ongoing.... I’m not trying to elicit sympathy, but I still consider myself a failure in poker, because I haven’t done any of these things that I still want to do.”

That reads a bit more desperate-sounding than Sebok intends, I’m sure. His reference to “failure” simply stands for the notion that, in his mind, when it comes to poker, work remains to be done. A frankly healthy attitude, I’d venture to say, whenever we’re talking about an endeavor for which one shouldn’t be too easily satisfied with one’s modest successes. (In other words, anything worth doing.)

Sebok’s co-hosts were quick to provide encouragement, and Smith shared what I thought was an interesting analogy to describe tournament poker. Sounded like the sort of thing that has likely been around for awhile, but I can’t remember hearing it before.

“Poker’s a funny thing,” said Smith. “You can feel like you’re not being successful, but poker is a lot like a hole-in-one.... It’s great to get it. [But] that’s not skill to get a hole-in-one. The skill in the hole-in-one is getting the ball close. It goes in? That’s where the luck comes in. And that’s the same in tournament poker, you know? The skill is knocking on the door and getting there, and eventually you’ll walk through.”

A little mixing of the metaphors there at the end, but you get the idea. Skill keeps you in the fairway and/or gets you on the green consistently, but to sink that tee shot on a par three certainly also requires a bit of luck. Doesn’t happen often, though it’s damn sweet when it does.

But then you have to tee it up again. And fail. Again.

Which is good. ‘Cos that’s how you know it was worth trying.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

The Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show, Episode 9: The Case of the Poker Murders

Nick Carter, Master DetectiveFinally have a new episode of the podcast up today. Sorry for the longish delay. I’d like to try to have a new show at least every 3-4 weeks or so, but various factors conspired to make it a little harder to get to it here recently. As I’ve said before, these suckers always take much longer to put together than I expect them to.

Episode 9 features two separate old time radio shows. both from the 1940s. The first is a short one (about 8 minutes) from a series titled Calling All Detectives. The episode is titled “Stud Poker.” I was reading around about this radio show and discovered that when it was first produced (in Chicago, I believe), they would actually stop the show just before the crime was solved, then call up people at random -- just picking names out of the phone book -- and ask if they could figure out whodunit. Since they’d often reach folks who hadn’t even been listening, they eventually scrapped that idea and instead had listeners send in postcards with their names and numbers. They’d draw one of the cards and ring ’em up. Hence the name of the show.

The whole thing was a big hit, it sounds like, but then the show became popular enough to get syndicated nationwide and so they had to forgo the live call-in segments. When I play the show in this episode of the HBPRS, I thought it would be fun to simulate the idea, so what I do is play the first 6-7 minutes of the show, then stop it and invite the listener to think about who the killer might be. Then I play the conclusion.

The “main feature” this time is an episode of the Nick Carter, Master Detective radio show called “The Case of the Poker Murders.” Like most of the regular old time radio shows, this one lasts about a half-hour.

Nick Carter was a pretty slick show, and so should be fun for those who like to listen to these old programs. The poker angle is kind of tangential here, with the villain going by the name of the “Ace of Spades” and all of his minions similarly styling themselves after playing cards. Some good fun, though, including some corny card-playing puns here and there.

For more on the show, you can check out the show’s blog where you’ll find show notes for all of the episodes. You can also subscribe over in iTunes, if yr into that sort of thing.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Living to Work or Working to Live

Working in a Coal MineThere’s a thread over on Two Plus Two that was begun six months ago and popped up again this week. Begins with a post provocatively titled “Poker sucks the life out of you” in which the OP makes several interesting points about what he believes to be poker’s negative effects on a person’s psychological well-being.

As the post title suggests, he’s mostly critical of poker as a detrimental influence. After identifying himself as a losing player -- a detail that frankly derails most of the subsequent discussion -- he explains how even when he wins he can’t seem to enjoy himself, constantly asking himself “why, why, why am I doing this, especially when it can be so up and down?” He goes on to use words like “unfulfilled,” “unhappy,” and “empty” to describe his poker-playing experience. He understands and acknowledges the allure of money, but appears to have concluded that money isn’t enough to make poker worthwhile (for him). “The money is what keeps people around,” he says, “and without that, or if we realise there is more important things than money, the bottom falls out.”

Reading back over the post again yesterday, I was reminded of one of the Poker Grump’s “Poker Gems” from earlier this week, a quote from David “Viffer” Peat, a cash game pro who frequents the $50/$100 and $100/$200 no-limit hold’em games in Vegas.

The quote comes from the very end of an interview with Peat that appears in the latest issue of Card Player (the 20th anniversary issue). Peat mentions there how he’s discovered that for him the life of a poker pro is “not fulfilling,” yet he keeps at it, since “The money keeps me playing.” According to Peat, “Poker leads to a lonely life, and you never get a sense of accomplishment. The only fulfillment for a poker player is winning money, that’s it.”

Pretty grim stuff, and seemingly evidence strongly supporting the Two Plus Two poster’s thesis. Of course, the comments on Poker Grump’s post as well as many of those responding in the thread belie the notion that poker “sucks the life out of you.”

Whenever one encounters such pronouncements, one instinctively compares the views they express with one’s own experience. I’m a recreational player, and always will be. Even if I were to luckbox my way into some huge score, or if circumstances evolved to a point where I somehow managed to make more money playing poker than from any other endeavor, playing poker would never become a primary occupation for me. Thus, I cannot (nor will I ever) be able to address from a personal perspective the specific quandary faced by Peat and others, namely, the way poker can be unfulfilling for some of those who make it their primary job.

I can, however, relate to the idea of doing a job that is somehow less than rewarding, a job for which the “only fulfillment” is the relatively hollow one of earning a bit of cabbage. I think most of us can.

Dorothy L. SayersI’m reminded of that much anthologized essay by Dorothy L. Sayers called “Living to Work” (written during WWII and first published in 1946). The British-born writer was best known for her terrific series of crime fiction novels, most written during the 20s and 30s and featuring the amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey. She also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Sayers begins the essay by “dividing people into two main groups, according to the way they think about work.” The first group, “probably the larger and certainly the more discontented -- look upon work as a hateful necessity, whose only use is to make money for them.” These are the “working to live” folks who “feel that only when the day’s labour is over can they really begin to live and be themselves.”

The second group instead “look on their work as an oppportunity for enjoyment and self-fulfilment.” These are the lucky ones who “only want to make money so they may be free to devote themselves more single-mindedly to their work.” They are “living to work.”

She goes on to analyze each group in greater detail, making the important point that while we might find discover certain types of employment producing more members of one or the other group (e.g., artists and scholars may well be more likely to “live to work”), what we’re really talking about here is a “fundamental difference of outlook” that doesn’t necessarily depend on the type of job one has. That is to say, anyone can potentially land in either group depending on a variety of circumstances, some externally-produced and some coming from within.

As you might imagine, Sayers doesn’t list “professional poker player” as one of the job types under examination and so doesn’t offer any opinions about whether the poker pro is more likely to “work to live” or “live to work.” It would be an interesting question to consider, I think, given the special, direct significance money has to the poker pro as an unambiguous measure of “success.”

So which group do you belong to? And where does poker fit into your ideas of work and leisure?

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Joseph Walsh’s Gambler on the Loose

Joseph Walsh's 'Gambler on the Loose' (2008)A while back I picked up a copy of a book called Gambler on the Loose by Joseph Walsh. Walsh wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman’s 1974 film California Split, probably one of the best films around for portraying the gambler’s mentality. Also a lot of fun for the way it gives us a documentary-like glimpse of live poker in the early 70s. (For more on Split, see here.)

I had heard Walsh interviewed by Howard Schwartz on the Gamblers Book Club podcast back in July (the 7/12/08 episode). I keep recommending Schwartz’ podcast because it is one of the best ones out there right now, generally jumping to the front of my podcast queue whenever a new show gets delivered (every 2-3 weeks or so). Schwartz interviewed Walsh during the WSOP and they discussed his new book, and I eventually got myself a copy.

Gambler on the Loose is essentially Walsh presenting his own story, although the way it is written it doesn’t really conform to narrative expectations for autobiography. He starts back in the 1940s when he was a child actor, quickly getting into how he became interested in sports betting as a teen, then carries the story up through the making of California Split and into the 1970s. The book is presented as a series of anecdotes, many of which are built around various “lessons” or more simply observations about what it means to be a gambler.

The writing is infused with a kind of manic energy -- it is as though the wild, irrational impulses that sometimes drive the inveterate gambler are being exhibited by the author as well (he’s a “writer on the loose”). The result is a kind of homage-slash-diagnosis of the gambler, identifying all of his many neuroses and flaws without necessarily offering any real advice for overcoming them, but rather suggesting (repeatedly) this is how we are.

“Pressing your luck is something inherent in your DNA,” writes Walsh (using the second person, as he often does). “Basic intelligence has very little to do with this, and is very seldom called on. It only gets in the way of your fun.” That comes from a chapter titled “Willing Victims.”

I’m not going to write a full-fledged review of the book here. I will say the book is most definitely a fun read and even had me laughing out loud during certain stretches. I especially liked one passage in particular where Walsh tries to explain the difference between a gambler watching a sports event on which he’s placed a bet and “normal people” who watch simply as fans. Seems particularly appropriate to share on this day, with Game 1 of the World Series (of baseball, not poker) happening tonight. So you gamblers, take note.

“If you gamble, you cannot watch a game with a roomful of normal people,” explains Walsh. “Show me a man who prefers to watch a sporting event with a house full of guests and I’ll show you a man who is not one of us.” Rather, the non-gambling sports fan “is a frivolous human being willing to be carefree and have a good time, totally irresponsible to what it takes to pull the game in, which is worry, emotional outburst, face contorting, and basic begging.... He ranks right along with the man who doesn’t drink and is thrilled with himself. Neither one of them can be trusted.”

Walsh goes on to talk (only half-jokingly) about how such people “never experience true life.” Then comes what I thought to be one of the funniest passages in the book where he describes having to endure the very hell he is warning us all against.

“[T]he simple face of the whole thing is,” he explains, “watching a key game with a roomful of people [who aren’t gamblers] is very bad health-wise. I’m not just talking about the pellagra, scurvy or spinal meningitis that might be running rampant in that living room. I’m talking about the good primal scream of pain that has to be stifled on these occasions. Do you know what your insides go through because you’re not willing to share this terrifying sound with the guests? How many of them, do you think, have stifled the big one for you? When you start to understand how little these people have done for you, and how much you have done for them, the need for separation becomes clear....”

If yr curious about the book, here’s a website with more. Meanwhile, for those of you with something riding on the Phillies-Rays series, be certain to keep well clear of the “normal people.”

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Still Waiting (for the WSOP Main Event final table)

PatienceStill three weeks until ESPN finally airs its coverage of the 2008 World Series of Poker Main Event final table. Anybody out there care anymore?

The final table actually begins on Sunday, November 9th. According to the WSOP site -- not the easiest thing to navigate, frankly, when searching for such info -- it looks like they plan to start the final table at 10:00 a.m. (Vegas time) on that Sunday and play down to the final two, at which time there will be another delay before the last two get back together to play heads up on Monday night, starting at 10:00 p.m. (also Vegas time).

ESPN will then broadcast its two-hour edited version of the final table on Tuesday, November 11th from 9:00-11:00 p.m. (Eastern time). Usually these two-hour programs manage to show around 25 hands altogether, so expect a bustout every three hands or so (i.e., about one per commercial break).

Between now and then, we have two more weeks’ worth of coverage of the WSOP Main Event. I assume tonight’s two hours will be devoted to Day 6 (when they played from 79 players down to 27), then next week will cover Day 7, the last day of play this summer. Expect a lot of Tiffany Michelle this evening, as she wound up Day 6 in third place out of the 27 survivors. She also spent a lot of time at the feature table that day, as I recall.

Having signed off on my last day of blogging for PokerNews on Day 5, I stuck around those last couple of days to watch some of the action with a friend of mine who’d come to visit and check out the WSOP. I remember hanging out in the Milwaukee’s Best Light No Limit Lounge some on Day 6, actually forcing down a couple of foul-tasting cans of the Beast with the Poker Brat’s mug on the side as we watched him finally lose the last of his chips to finish 45th. (Cheers!) I think eventually we worked our way down to the bleachers for a while that night, too. I know we were back in the bleachers on Day 7, surrounded by family members of the dozen or so players still alive.

After these last two weeks of regular ME coverage, on November 4th comes the one-hour final table preview show (scheduled for 10:00 p.m. Eastern time).

I realize in this age of DVRs, TiVo, and online tube-watching, folks generally don’t plan their TV viewing according to when networks actually air their programs. I suppose ESPN plans to repeat that preview show a few times on its various networks during the week leading up to November 11th. I hope they do, anyway. If they don’t, no one will see it. And I mean no one. Why?

’Cos it’s friggin’ election night, that’s why. And I think that might have already been on the calendar back in early May when the ESPN schedule was first announced.

I might be the last person in the country not to have TiVo or the like. I still have an old VCR hooked up to the teevee, but never use it to record programs. Can’t say I’m all that intrigued to watch the final table preview show, anyway. Three-and-a-half months of foreplay kind of takes one out of the mood for still more preliminaries.

I’m certainly intrigued to see how the whole thing turns out, having followed the story from 6,844 players down to nine as closely as I did. But I have to admit I remain fairly cynical about the whole final table delay idea. To be honest, I’m not even that interested in the two-hour final table show (although I’ll definitely watch). I’d much rather watch something like the live pay per view of the entire final table that was done the last two years than a two-hour highlight reel. And I’d much rather it all have taken place in July, back when the rest of the tourney was played.

I understand there have been certain marketing benefits for the players, and perhaps ESPN has also realized some sort of benefit related to its vision for how best to present the WSOP. But as a dedicated player and fan, I’m still not seeing any compelling reason to like the delay.

But that’s just me. I suppose we’re all being reminded here how patience is a big part of poker.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Hand of the Day

Hand of the DayWhen I started this blog I had a few half-formed, mostly vague purposes in mind, one of which was simply a desire to talk poker. Like most folks who primarily play online, I’m somewhat isolated when it comes to poker, not having a home game or regular circle of fellow players with whom to talk strategy, share triumphs and/or miseries, or break down hands. So I started writing about such things here, participated in a few forums, and somewhat fulfilled that desire here.

There’s one person, however, with whom I’ll regularly share certain highlights from online sessions, the lovely Vera Valmore. Vera doesn’t play poker, but has watched enough with me on the tube -- and in Vegas this past summer -- to know more about it than yr average audience. She also has a lot of patience with my sometimes obsessive-sounding recountings of “hand of the day.” It’s certainly fun -- and more than a little helpful -- to try to explain to Vera what the hell I think I’m doing at the tables.

It’s “hand of the day” because after a while we kind of mutually agreed that while she wants to be accommodating, it becomes difficult to remain supportive if I’m going to go on and on about multiple hands. So I pick one, usually a hand that seems somehow representative of the session as a whole, and swiftly break it down.

Of course, we all know that while describing a hand in isolation might be interesting and somewhat revealing, doing so hardly tells the whole story. There are a host of contextualizing factors that are usually needed to explain every hand, and as a means to handle this truth I’ve gotten into the habit with Vera of providing a quick summary of those factors as a customary lead-in to “hand of the day.” In my effort to achieve a kind of functional brevity, I (somewhat generally) describe just three of those factors so the subsequent hand “makes sense”: how I am playing, how my opponents are playing, and how the cards are going.

As I type that, I’m remembering writing a post a long time ago about limit hold’em in which I described something similar as “A-B-C,” suggesting then that the three main factors affecting a given session were the player’s overall Ability, how many Bad players are at the table, and the Cards one gets dealt.

Here I am sort of saying something the same thing (referring mainly to pot-limit Omaha), although being a little less mechanical about it. By “how I am playing” I refer to how effectively I’m reading other players’ tendencies and hands as well as the quality of my own decision-making. Since I’m not a robot, such things vary, including being regularly affected by the other two factors. By “how my opponents are playing,” I refer to what I can tell regarding the quality of their decision-making (their bet sizes, hands they’ve chosen to play, their awareness of position, etc.). And by “how the cards are going” I refer what I’m getting dealt, what others are getting, and how those hands are working (or not) with the community cards.

In any event, having gone over those three factors time and again with Vera, I’ve started to recognize more and more how they relate to one another, and also how the right combination among them tends to produce a winning session (and the wrong combination a losing one).

One sure-fire combination for producing a winning session is to have all three of those factors working for me -- i.e., I’m playing well, my opponents aren’t, and I’m catching cards. Hard not to win under those circumstances. Had a quick-hit session on Saturday in which that was the case. Built up a ridiculous stack in a very short space (tripling the buy-in in just 50 hands), then left to go take care of other, non-pokery business, including going for a walk with Vera.

During that walk came the “hand of the day.” I told Vera how I was reading the six-handed PLO table well, how others weren’t really demonstrating a lot of care in their decision-making, and how I’d been catching some nice cards. I didn’t choose one of the bigger pots as the hand I’d tell about, but rather a small one near the end of the session as somehow more representative of how things went.

I cheated a little and summarized an earlier hand before getting to the real “hand of the day.” The way I told it to Vera, I simply said I’d been caught trying to make a smallish bluff. Since yr a poker player, though, I’ll go ahead and give you the unabridged version.

I had been dealt TcAdJs2d in the big blind. One player limped, the small blind completed, and I checked my option. We all checked the 4hKc9h flop. The turn was the 8s. The SB bet pot (75 cents), I made a loose call with my straight draw, and the other player folded. The river was the 9s, pairing the board. The SB checked, and I waited a moment before betting $1.25 (a little over half the pot). The SB thought for several seconds, then called me with 8c7cQdKd. His kings plus the nines on board won him the small pot.

I liked seeing him call me so light there. I’d been winning way more than my deserved share of pots at this table, and knew that while my opponents were largely passive they were also starting to get fed up and wouldn’t continue to let me steal pots the way I had been doing. Just two hands later, a hand came up which seemed to demonstrate how my busted bluff – a mere $1.25 investment -- appeared to have paid larger dividends. The “hand of the day.”

In this hand I open-limped in from the button with 2cTdQhKc and was up against just the two blinds. I might have raised, of course, but as I had been open-raising a lot from the cutoff/button I decided not to this time with my drawing hand. The flop came AsJc9d, giving me a very nice wrap draw -- a great flop with which to get aggressive, especially from late position. The big blind made a meek minimum bet of a quarter, and I raised to $1.00. The SB folded and the BB called.

The turn was the Th, giving me my straight (and also making flushies impossible). The BB checked, I bet $2.50 (nearly the size of the pot), and he very quickly called. The river was the 5s, changing nothing. He checked again, and this time I value bet $3. He again called right away, turning over Qc7sAdQs -- just a pair of aces. I’d dragged the $13.10 pot.

I’m reasonably certain he isn’t calling me there with such a weak hand if it weren’t for my earlier bluff. Thus does the story of that “hand of the day” make more sense -- to me and to an audience -- after having gone through the contextualizing stuff first. I’m playing well there, and my opponents aren’t. And I’ve caught cards, although I’m getting paid more than I should on that one thanks to them other two factors.

Thanks for yr patience, Vera. And everyone.

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