Monday, October 31, 2011

A Lifestyle-and-Death Story

DatelineLate Friday night -- while a lot of us were watching St. Louis win Game 7 of the World Series -- NBC’s “Dateline” took the opportunity to share the sordid tale of professional poker player Ernest “Ernie” Scherer III. Was another instance of poker turning up in the mainstream in a not-so-flattering light, I suppose, although I’d hope most who saw the program wouldn’t take Scherer as representative of poker players as a whole.

I actually flipped over a couple of times on Friday during the commercials to catch some of the show. Then over the weekend I had a chance to watch the whole thing online.

I’d heard bits and pieces of the story beforehand. Scherer had been a minor character on the pro poker circuit for a few years, known by many of the players but not a guy the average fan would know about.

As far as tourneys are concerned, Scherer’s career peaked in 2006 and 2007 with a handful of WSOP cashes, including one final table in ’06 in the $3,000 limit hold’em event won by Bill Chen. That’s Scherer in the Full Tilt Poker cap on Chen’s right in the picture below (a shot repeatedly shown during the “Dateline” show). According to Hendon Mob, Scherer racked up nearly $340,000 worth of winnings from 2003 to 2008.

Scherer was found guilty of killing both of his parents in their Pleasanton, California home in March 2008. He was arrested in February 2009, tried and found guilty in early 2011, then sentenced to consecutive life terms for the murders.

Introducing the story, “Dateline” host Lester Holt set up the program by referring to the murders of Ernest Scherer, Jr. and his wife Charlene Abendroth, then introduced Ernie as a possible suspect. The opening immediately connects “poker” with a certain “lifestyle,” delivering what sounds like an implicit judgment on what it means to be a pro player.

“Their son, it turned out, played poker for a living,” says Holt. “Could that lifestyle have had something to do with it?”

from NBC's 'Dateline' (10/28/11)The angle subsequently taken by the show -- titled “The Player” -- was to present the story of the murders and investigation mostly from the perspective of Adrian Solomon, a woman who’d had a two-year relationship with Scherer from early 2006 until early 2008 (i.e., until just prior to the murders).

Thus a lot of the show consists of correspondent Keith Morrison interviewing Solomon. While visiting Las Vegas on business, Solomon met Scherer and became romantically involved with him, their mostly long-distance relationship eventually progressing to a point where they were talking about marriage and children before they finally broke it off.

Scherer is introduced as from a Mormon family and college-educated. We also learn he was an Eagle scout, a detail I found kind of interesting. You might recall how last week Rep. Joe Barton mentioned in that House hearing he’d learned poker in the Boy Scouts. Inspired by that comment, I ended up looking into a few other connections between poker and scouting, writing about it for my next Epic Poker “Community Cards” column (which will appear tomorrow). (EDIT [added 11/2/11]: Here is that column on poker and the Boy Scouts.)

Anyhow, Solomon notes early on how it seemed a little odd that Scherer would be a professional poker player with such a background. In other words, being educated, having some sort of religious upbringing, and becoming an Eagle Scout all seem to contrast with the image of someone playing cards for a living.

Scherer represented himself as a successful player to Solomon, although as the show eventually spells out he was losing a lot more than he was winning. He was also lying to her about just about everything else -- including the fact that he was married and had a child. In fact, it turns out he had a few different mistresses in various locations.

Sticking with Solomon’s P.O.V., we learn with her about the especially brutal double-murder of Scherer’s parents, then leave her for a while to follow the detectives’ initially unsure investigation. Later in the story we hear about Scherer trying later on to revive their relationship, telling Solomon he “was thinking of changing his lifestyle, quitting poker” if she’d take him back. But by then detectives have told her about his wife and child and she’s not interested in any such reunion. She’s also struggling to figure out how her “read” of Scherer had been so far off.

It takes a while, but investigators eventually are able to come up with a motive for Scherer. They’re also able (more or less) to place him at the scene of the crime the night of the murders.

from NBC's 'Dateline' (10/28/11)Scherer was deep in debt, something like $150,000 in the hole between credit cards and what he owed to casinos. He’d also borrowed $616,000 from his father to buy a house. He couldn’t get a loan, it is explained, because banks had become “not quite so sanguine anymore about the security of poker player’s income.”

Scherer had missed a payment to his father just before the murders. Also, it was determined that he stood to inherit half the parents’ considerable estate on his 30th birthday, just a few months away at the time of the killings. “‘His house of cards was collapsing before his very eyes,’” the prosecutor would say later when making the case against Scherer.

Eventually the detectives are able to produce a few different pieces of evidence that together appear to put Scherer at the home on the night of the killings, too. Scherer’s wife tries to get him to confess in a recorded phone call, their conversation described as involving her working a “bluff” and the two “playing” each other like poker players. That doesn’t quite elicit anything damning, but there’s a ton of circumstantial evidence that ultimately proved persuasive enough to get the guilty verdict.

It sounds like Scherer’s status as a poker player didn’t help him much, either, when it came to the jurors’ consideration of the case. In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of the story was how the prosecutors, the defense, and the jury all understood that Scherer’s “lifestyle” was being judged along with all of the evidence and argumentation regarding the actual crime.

“He is very proficient at misinformation and disinformation,” explained one of the investigators, alluding at once to Scherer’s poker playing and to his allegedly having planted some misleading evidence at the crime scene.

“‘It goes back to him thinking ‘I’m at a table and there’s all kinds of chips in the middle,’” says another, characterizing what he believed to be Scherer’s thinking while on the stand. “‘I’ve bluffed some of the best,’” he continues, “‘and these 12 people, they’re nothing compared to some of the poker players that I’ve bluffed so I’m gonna give it my best.’”

The defense apparently made much of the fact that prejudice against his “lifestyle” was clouding over the fact that the physical evidence connecting their client to the murders was all circumstantial. Morrison alludes to that argument near the end when interviewing a couple of jurors, saying how the defense lawyers were “claiming it was his lifestyle the prosecution put on trial.”

“Somebody should,” cracks one of the jurors in response, adding that “all other things being equal, his lifestyle counted against him.”

from NBC's 'Dateline' (10/28/11)These “Dateline”-type shows can be engrossing sometimes. One of my all-time favorite films is Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, the 1988 documentary that kind of provided the template both in form and content for all of these procedural-slash-true crime news shows. But I don’t really think this one would’ve grabbed my attention if it weren’t for the poker connection. In fact, it kind of felt like there were a number of details about the actual case that got glossed over in favor of promoting Solomon’s story and her tangential involvement.

Just as there was no “smoking gun” in the actual case, there was no explicit charge against poker as being to blame for what happened. I guess, though, it’s possible some who watched might feel there’s some “circumstantial evidence” suggesting as much. The image of poker or poker pros presented by the show certainly wasn’t favorable, and the show pretty much ignored the possibility that there was such a thing as a poker pro living a healthy “lifestyle.”

Solomon did note that being a poker player hardly made one more or less likely to be a murderer, although it was suggested throughout that his ability to deceive at the tables characterized how he related to her and others elsewhere, too. Another woman -- another of Scherer’s girlfriends -- was also shown explicitly saying “that’s a very far jump from being a poker player to murdering your parents.” But even she was speaking of poker as a strike against him, something that had to be forgiven, so to speak, along with his many other liaisons of which she was aware during their relationship.

That said, I don’t necessarily fault the producers for using poker and gambling as they did here. Truthfully, while the great majority of us can only speculate about what ultimately motivates a killer, the “lifestyle” of reckless gambling and accumulating significant debt wasn’t without significance in this particular story.

And really, there’s a lot worse here to be sorry about than poker’s image taking yet another hit.

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Blogger NT said...

"He is very proficient and misinformation and disinformation,” explained one of the investigators"


(should be "proficient AT misinformation" I think).

10/31/2011 12:10 PM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...


10/31/2011 2:56 PM  
Blogger Steve Gupta said...

I am an Eagle Scout and a poker player. Aside from integrity and camaraderie in Scouting, there are few experiences that overlap for me.

10/31/2011 6:06 PM  

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