Monday, February 28, 2011

Blom By One Big Blind? Couldn’t Have Scripted That

The Bears come up shortLast night the Oscars were awarded. Was a bit distracted, though I did manage to watch some of the show with Vera.

Was flipping back to that exciting Knicks-Heat game for much of it, while also following the Sunday Warm-Up on PokerStars for which I wrote a recap. (Infected a bit by all the movie talk, I had a little fun in the wrap by referring to a number of films that had won Best Picture over the years -- check it out.)

Early in the evening I also found myself keeping an eye on that latest “SuperStar Showdown” involving Viktor “Isildur1” Blom and the qualifier Attila “DodgyFish72” Gulcsik. Gulcsik had prevailed in an $11 satellite to win the right to battle the swingy Swede.

Whereas the usual format for the Showdowns calls for Blom and his opponent to play $50/$100 blinds and bring at least $150,000 of their own money with which to play, in this special version the game was played with $5/$10 blinds and Gulcsik was staked with $15,000. Gulcsik would win whatever he had left from the original stake after 2,500 hands versus Blom, plus any profits, if there were any. Also, if either player managed to win all of the other’s $15K, that player would earn an additional $10,000.

I had the four tables of heads-up, no-limit hold’em open for a while early on, watching as Blom surged to a more than $10,000 lead by the halfway point. I wasn’t watching as closely during the second half of the match, but noticed folks tweeting that DodgyFish72 was closing the gap.

As Change100 recounts in her recap of the match, a flurry of all-in hands mostly won by Gulscik had brought him within just under $2,500 with 200 hands to go. Then came a couple more $1K-ish pots that went the qualifier’s way, and suddenly the pair were nearly even.

On the very last hand -- the 2,500th played -- Blom open-shoved from the button over the top of the $1,600 or so Gulscik had at that table, and DodgyFish72 folded. As it turned out, the $10 big blind Blom grabbed on that hand turned out to be the difference in the match, as the final tally showed Isildur1 just $10 ahead.

After being ahead by more than 1,000 big blinds, Blom won the match by one?!? Incredible.

'The Bad News Bears' (1976)Maybe it was the Oscars -- or Change100’s recap, in which she refers to the way the match ultimately failed to adhere to the usual cinematic formula of the underdog winning in the end -- but when contemplating what had transpired in the Showdown I found myself thinking about one of my all-time favorite movies, The Bad News Bears.

Saw this one in the theater when I was a little leaguer myself. Loved it then, and still love it today. I remember my parents being a bit surprised at the language used in the PG-rated flick, but for me getting to hear the kids say those words was just one of the film’s many excellent attributes.

If you haven’t seen the movie before and want to, I’ll warn you now I’m about to give away the ending. (And by the way, I’m talking about the original 1976 film directed by Michael Ritchie and starring Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal, not the terribad remake from 2005 with Billy Bob Thornton.)

In the film, Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, an alcoholic and ex-minor leaguer who gets recruited (coerced, really) to coach the Bears, a squad made up of players not good enough to make the other teams in the league. In their first game they fall behind the Denny’s team (named the Yankees, natch) by 26 runs before Buttermaker forfeits.

Eventually Buttermaker brings in a couple of ringers to join the team, the hard-hitting Kelly (Jackie Earle Haley) and a girl pitcher Amanda (O’Neal) who is the daughter of an ex-girlfriend. Bolstered by the new additions, the Bears improve dramatically and make it all of the way to the championship game versus the hated Yankees.

Yankees 7, Bears 3A ton of fun stuff along the way, including a perhaps obvious (but no less important) lesson about adults being overly competitive when playing out their desires and needs through the kids. Along those lines, Buttermaker has a revelation of sorts during the championship game and near the end pulls the starters in order to give the scrubs some time on the field. The move causes the Bears to fall behind 7-3 heading into the bottom of the last inning, thereby setting up the film’s awesome climax.

The Yankees record the first two outs with little trouble, then a walk, a successful bunt, and another walk load the bases for Kelly. The Yankees actually try to issue an intentional walk to the dangerous Kelly (and give the Bears a run), but he lunges across the plate to hit one of the outside pitches anyway, driving it into the outfield and to the wall.

The music swells as three runs score, then Kelly charges toward the plate. But the relay throw arrives a moment before he does and... he’s... out.



The Bears -- like DodgyFish72 -- come up just short.

But as Change100 notes at the end of her Showdown recap, “even though David didn’t defeat Goliath, it sure feels like he won.” By film’s end, it is obvious that being a Bear is much, much preferable to being a Yankee. “Why are we celebrating?” asks one of the kids in the clubhouse as Buttermaker surprisingly delivers them beers from his cooler (no shinola!).

“Because you should be damn proud of yourselves,” explains the coach.

As should DodgyFish72, the one with whom -- like the Bears -- the great majority of us can identify with much more readily than with the other guy. Of course, while technically he “lost” he still gets to keep $14,990, a sweet consolation prize for sure.

I imagine he might use some of that to buy himself a beer or two.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Man Power: The BLUFF Power 20

BLUFF Magazine, March 2010Been looking over this year’s “BLUFF Power 20” that was released a few days ago. Always interesting to see who is being considered the 20 “most influential people in poker.”

Howard Lederer sits atop the list this year, his association with Full Tilt Poker the primary reason for his being handed the crown of “most influential.” The founder of PokerStars, Isai Scheinberg, is runner-up. And Ty Stewart, WSOP Executive Director and Caesars VP, is third. Click here for the full list as it appears over on the BLUFF site.

For more on the list, Dr. Pauly has offered some entertaining and insightful commentary on all 20 names. And F-Train posted recently about the list, too, noting suggestively how his ballot differed from the final one collectively created by the 101 voters. I say “suggestively” because F-Train, being the wise and judicious sort he is, doesn’t give up precise details of where he differed from the final vote.

I offered a few observations as well about the latest Power 20 over on Betfair today. This is the sixth year that BLUFF has published its Power 20 list, so I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how this year’s list compared the ones from 2006-2010.

By looking back at those earlier lists, I was able to confirm a hunch of F-Train’s, shared in a footnote to his post. “I’m not sure a woman has ever made the list,” F-Train suspects. Indeed, he’s correct -- if you look back at all of the Power 20s, not a single woman has ever been named among the top 20 most influential people in poker.

Was a little surprised not to see Annie Duke’s name pop up at least once on any of those previous lists. (F-Train says he had two women among his Power 20 for this year, and I think it is safe to assume Duke was one of them.) I suppose we’ll have to wait and see how this here “Federated Poker League” experiment goes in 2011, but if it proves even a marginal success in its first year, I imagine Duke would probably have to crack the Power 20 the next time it comes around, wouldn’t you think?

Do any other women spring to mind as possibly having deserved a spot among the Power 20 over the past six years? I can think of a couple, but like F-Train I think I’ll keep ’em to myself and instead give you a chance to ponder how you might answer the question.

1300Just noticed this is post #1,300. Perhaps another reason to cut it short. As I usually say whenever these milestones come up, that’s a damn lot of scribblin’!

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thank God? Or Thank God Mode?

I mentioned yesterday a few of the various “dramas” happening in poker these days. The last one appearing in my list -- the one regarding all of the renewed attention on the still largely-unresolved UltimateBet insider-cheating scandal -- is surely the most riveting of the bunch.

Interest in the scandals was revived over the last week by the surprise appearance of Travis Makar -- Russ Hamilton’s former “right-hand man” -- on the DonkDown podcast last Wednesday (the 2/16/11 episode). You might recall how back in August 2010, the Entities at Wicked Chops gave a bit of space to discussing Makar in their post “The UltimateBet Super-User Cheating Scandal, Part II.”

As the Entities describe, Makar had a few connections with Russ Hamilton and UB, as did members of his family (also linked to so-called “super-user” accounts). From his interview on DonkDown last week, it sounded like Makar was primarily a computer techie -- he owned a shop -- who was called in from time to time by Hamilton and other UB folks to service their computers. He also became involved with helping Hamilton and UB in other ways, too, such as by helping increase and maintain traffic by playing on the site and getting friends and family to open accounts.

As a result, Makar learned a great deal about the whole “super-user” scheme that was established at UltimateBet and from which many people -- Hamilton among them -- profited immensely over the course of (at least) four-plus years.

Makar called the DonkDown “Cold Call Show” last week after he found out his name had been brought up on a previous show in connection to the disgraced 1994 WSOP Main Event champion. The hosts, having gotten hold of Hamilton’s cell phone number, had prank-called him, pretending to be an attorney (“Alvin Finklestein”) and telling Hamilton that his former helper Makar was now in need of help from him.

Makar’s motivation for calling appears primarily to have been to try to clear his own name of wrongdoing connected to the scandal, as well as perhaps to address other related topics. An entire transcript of Makar’s conversation with Bryan Micon and Todd “DanDruff” Witteles has been posted over in the DonkDown forums.

In the wake of Makar’s appearance last week have come some equally interesting posts on various blogs and forums, including a couple of new entries by Haley Hintze in her “Just Conjecturin’” series covering both the Absolute Poker and UltimateBet scandals. Hintze also appeared on this week’s episode of the “Cold Call Show” which aired last night and can be found here.

Donk Down RadioAlso a guest on last night’s show was “Yukon” Brad Booth, a primary victim of the cheating at UB, who shared details of his experience and the devastating effect it has had on his life. And Makar called in again, too, to continue the conversation from the week before as well as to follow up on his meeting in person with Micon earlier this week.

At that meeting with Micon, Makar shared more information about the scandal and the efforts of some to cover up details. Micon summarizes their meeting here.

Again, a lot more of interest here, including the whole exchange from 2008 between current UltimateBet COO Paul Leggett and Zoltan “brainwashdodo” Rozsa who once worked in customer service for Absolute Poker. Details of the interaction between those two (including emails) can be found on DonkDown and in Haley’s last couple of “Just Conjecturin’” posts (Vol. 27 and Vol. 28). And Leggett has responded as well -- sort of -- regarding such on his UB blog here.

One item that Micon and Makar discussed in their meeting earlier this week was the method employed by the cheaters. I’d heard various descriptions of how it worked before -- and how it compared to what was used for the cheating that happened on Absolute Poker, too -- but hadn’t previously picked up on the fact that what was used was essentially just a special version of the UB software. In other words, it sounds like it was a fairly simple procedure to load the sucker onto your computer and with the needed login/username access everyone’s hole cards as you played.

Micon relates what Makar told him thusly: “The cheating program itself was much like the old UB client. If you had the program, you needed a special login and password and it would display any table you opened with all the hands face up. The program was referred to as ‘god mode’ and was frequently emailed to superusers after a UB update came down, sometimes with lol names such as ‘divinebet.zip’....”

Makar showed Micon three emails (with senders/recipients blacked out) to which the program had been attached. Makar is apparently in possession of quite a lot of material -- including hand histories (both doctored and undoctored, he says) -- which shed further light on what happened and who was responsible.

There’s a lot associated with this highly-complicated story that provokes astonishment, to be sure, but I was amazed once again to read about the “god mode” program getting emailed around this way. So incredibly casual, it seems, especially when one considers how much money was stolen, not to mention the degree to which many lives were affected and continue to be affected today (as Booth’s example vividly illustrates).

Such were the thoughts running through my head as I opened up this week’s issue of Card Player to see this advertisement for the “new” UB:



I mentioned seeing the ad on Twitter last night, to which @uscjusto cleverly replied: “Thank God mode for Poker.”

Whatever your beliefs -- about God, online poker, what have you -- I think we can agree UB works in mysterious ways.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Game of Partial Information, Played for Money

A Game of Partial Information, Played for MoneyOver the course of the first six weeks or so of my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class, we’ve been primarily tracing the game’s history and here lately delving a bit further into the “culture of poker” as well.

As we’ve wound our way through the Old West and Mississippi riverboats and saloons and home games and card clubs and casinos, we’ve frequently encountered writers attempting to define (and usually defend) the game of poker by identifying certain fundamental elements of the game -- elements which, you might say, are absolutely necessary to poker and help make it different from other games or pursuits.

Two such elements have come up time and again in our survey thus far. One is that poker, unlike some (but not all) other games, is a game of partial information. Usually it is chess that is evoked as a contrasting example, a game in which all of the pieces and every move can be viewed by all. Not so in poker. Regardless of the variant, poker always involves players not knowing with absolute precision what exactly they are up against.

The other defining characteristic of poker (according to many) is that it requires money -- that without it, say some, the game cannot be called poker. Not really. To quote from just one of our writers’ statements of the position (John Lukacs), “Money is the basis of poker... [and] poker becomes utterly senseless if played without it.”

While that first point about poker being a partial information game seems a hard one to dispute, the second one insisting that poker is “senseless” without money being wagered is perhaps debatable. I can imagine some arguing the contrary view, anyway, although I don’t think I’d agree with them. Rather am I persuaded to accept the idea and say that the wagering of real money is in fact an essential characteristic or “basis” of poker.

Been following the many different dramas in poker that have been popping up over the last week, and it struck me how all of them in different ways kind of go back to those two “premises” of poker (so to speak) -- that it is a game of partial information and it is a game played for money.

Almost sounds like a formula for drama, if you think about it. A contest for money which requires competitors to hide, to mislead, to deceive? Can’t go smoothly, that.

I’m referring to stories like the whole “PeachyMer” saga that has been playing out on Two Plus Two over the last week-and-a-half, John Racener’s recent charge that Sorel Mizzi tried to cheat him in a private Chinese poker game, and (of course) the latest, jaw-dropping revelations regarding the UB scandal that are being provided by Travis Makar (former “right-hand man” to Russ Hamilton) to the fellas over on DonkDown.

All of these stories are marked by a great deal of “partial information” -- both among the characters involved and for those of us curious to sort out once and for all what the heck happened in each. And all, of course, are also about money. Or, to put it another way, none likely would’ve occurred if money weren’t involved.

How it has always been with poker, I guess. A game in which all players necessarily have something to hide. And something for which to play.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Winning, Losing, Wanting to Be Great

'The Hustler' (1961)Yesterday I rewatched The Hustler, the 1961 film starring Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Piper Laurie, and Jackie Gleason that many consider to be one of the all-time best gambling films ever made.

Some even go so far as to consider The Hustler a great poker film, despite the fact that it really contains very little poker at all -- just a couple of incidental shots, really, of a game being played. The central game is pool, of course, and while I can’t say I’ve seen a ton of pool-related films, I imagine The Hustler heads most lists of the best films in which that game is central.

But the movie really does give poker players a lot to think about. In fact, in Total Poker (1977), David Spanier, in his chapter about “Movies,” idiosyncratically promotes the film as “the best film about poker” in his estimation for the way it depicts winning and losing and the struggles and challenges often faced at the tables. The Poker Grump did a nifty job a while back explaining the many “poker lessons” in The Hustler, too. Check out his post here.

It had been a few years since I’d seen The Hustler. Definitely a riveting, well-acted story with a lot of “hard-boiled” elements. And like I say, and as both Spanier and the Grump argue, the “poker” stuff is all there right on the surface. There were a couple of other elements of the film that stood out for me on this viewing, though. Or a couple of characters, rather.

Newman as Fast Eddie, Scott as the slimy Bert Gordon, Myron McCormick as Eddie’s partner, Charlie -- all are certainly great performances and well-wrought characters. But also compelling are Sarah, Eddie’s girl, played by Laurie, and, of course, Minnesota Fats, portrayed by Gleason.

Sarah reminds me a lot of certain troubled female characters populating novels by Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and the like. Her ailments, addictions, and neuroses seem to mirror Eddie’s own considerable flaws, a fact which I’m sure many who’ve analyzed the film have pointed out many times over.

Fats, meanwhile, stands in sharp contrast to Eddie, a man utterly confident, comfortable, and content. He represents a figure Eddie wishes he could be but cannot. For Eddie, “the Fat man” is larger than life, a kind of ideal player who has all of the things -- ability, style, and most importantly, character -- Eddie lacks.

But Fats is human, too. He can lose. He’s not really larger than life. We can (I think) “play” like he does, given enough experience and commitment to whatever game it is we choose to play.

Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats in 'The Hustler'I love Gleason’s look there during the final scene as he listens to Gordon and Eddie arguing with each other over both the money and the meaning of everything that has transpired. Been there. Done that. He’s Phil Ivey enduring a horrendously bad beat at the hands of an amateur. It’s an inspiring image, I think, upon which Eddie -- amid all of the emotions and disturbance of his argument with Gordon -- cannot help but comment before leaving.

“Fat man,” he says. “You shoot a great game of pool.”

It’s what we all want to do. We want to win, sure. And we don’t like losing. But really, more than anything, we all want to be great.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

David Hayano’s Poker Faces

'Poker Faces' by David Hayano (1982)David Hayano’s 1982 book Poker Faces: The Life and Work of Professional Card Players is different from just about any other poker book you’re going to come across. That said, you probably aren’t going to come across Poker Faces any time soon. The book has been out of print for quite some time, and while used copies are out there, they tend to be a bit pricey.

Unlike other poker-related narratives that highlight the game’s history and/or most famous characters, Poker Faces is a scholarly work written according to the standards and criteria one expects from serious academic inquiry. Hayano earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA during the 1970s, his dissertation focusing on the Awa and Gimi people of Papua New Guinea. He then took a position at CSU-Northridge, at which point he began work on his next study, this time focusing primarily on the card rooms of Los Angeles county and the behaviors of those who frequented them.

Using many of the same methods of data gathering he employed when studying the isolated Papuan tribes, Hayano meticulously examined the “world” of poker players of that time and place, drawing numerous conclusions about the make-up and “social mechanics of face-to-face confrontation” that characterized their existence.

However, as Hayano explains in the Preface, there was one big methodological difference between this new study and his earlier one. Whereas he might’ve been able to remain situated outside the “world” of the Papuans in order to observe them, Hayano recognized the need to join the poker games if he hoped to learn anything worthwhile about the subjects of his study.

“Poker... is not a spectator sport,” explains Hayano. “The real action in poker is concealed.... The observable movements of chips wagered and cards dealt do very little to reveal the genuine heart of the game.” As anyone who has ever tried to report on a poker tournament well knows, there is a great deal that happens at the table that simply cannot be fully understood from even just a few feet away. And so, in order to get a better idea of the “deep, invisible structures” present in the social interaction of the players, Hayano took a seat at the tables himself in order to improve his perspective.

Today I am not going to offer a full summary and/or review of the book, but rather just will share a few of Hayano’s observations so as to give a taste of what one finds in Poker Faces.

One is another interesting side note in that Preface in which Hayano explains that even just a few years earlier “this study of professional poker players might have been situated more appropriately in the sociology of deviance.” The very fact that someone could conduct a serious academic inquiry of poker in the early 1980s “reflects a change both in our society [with regard to its attitude toward gambling and/or poker] and in social science.”

During the first part of the book Hayano spends time sketching the scene in the card rooms as he experienced it, focusing in particular on describing the lives of the players and the “social organization” or hierarchy among them. He’s especially interested in the regulars, and with a lot of disclaimers ends up offering a typology of different kinds of “professionals.” He admits he uses that term a bit loosely, pointing out that in fact many of those whom he’s describing would not call themselves or each other “pros,” but would rather use terms like “hustler, player, rounder, or no special title at all.”

In fact, he means “professional” in a generic sense to refer to anyone who could be regarded as a regular inhabitant of a given card room (i.e., not a tourist or occasional visitor). He divides these players into “worker professionals,” “outside-supported professionals,” “subsistence professionals,” and “career professionals.”

The first two groups have other jobs which sustain them, with poker essentially being a more or less serious hobby for them, although profiting is not crucial. The “subsistence” pros derive their primary income from poker, yet still “do not many any firm emotional, self-identificational, or social commitments to full-time poker-playing.” Then come the “career” pros who both depend on poker entirely for their livelihood and have made that personal commitment to poker as their chosen “skillful trade.”

This picture is from the Monterey Club in Gardena, CA from 1954 -- a bit earlier than Hayano's book, but I liked the way it perhaps evokes Hayano's role as an observer. It is part of the excellent Life Magazine collection of photosThe book then goes on to offer some genuinely insightful observations about the various challenges these “professional” players routinely experience, including handling (or “controlling”) luck, dealing with winning and losing, satisfying the need for action, and more. Like I say, I’m not giving a full overview of everything Hayano writes about today, but I did want to share a few other points he makes in the book.

A couple come from his conclusion, titled “The Existential Game,” in which Hayano recognizes that “because of the relentless instability and uncertainty of day-to-day gambling,” players are constantly forced to reevaluate what they are doing and its significance and meaning. “If the life of the professional poker player were comfortable and predictable,” writes Hayano, “I do not think that such extensive and persistent self-reflection would be required.”

It is interesting to consider how “professional” poker players -- a group which for Hayano includes just about anybody who plays a lot and for whom the game is an important part of their lives -- are as a group an especially self-reflective bunch. Hayano pursues the point further, noting that one of the things that poker pros find themselves thinking about a lot is whether or not their lives have any special meaning at all.

“Many people, including poker players themselves, do not see card-playing as particularly productive,” notes Hayano, adding how this attitude adds to the difficulty (and to the “existential” worrying) of the life of the poker pro. Also, for many full-time players, “there is no finality of gain and no peak existence, except perhaps winning a major tournament.” The game just goes on and on and on, a situation that “manifests itself in an existential, if not socio-psychological, kind of imbalance.”

Hayano refuses to cast judgment on the players, though, suggesting at the very end that “perhaps it is unfair to question the ultimate meaning of any individual’s way of life.” Of course, the point he’s just made is that for many pros that is exactly what they themselves are doing all the time, namely, the questioning the meaning of their lives.

The last observation I wanted to share from Hayano’s book is just to note how he ultimately views the society of poker players, ca. late 1970s-early 1980s, as a closed-off, isolated “world” not unlike that of the remote peoples he previously studied in Papua New Guinea. Says Hayano, “In contrast to the Old West and riverboat gamblers, most professional gamblers today operate in a completely distinct social and legal environment.”

In other words, while the games of old (in saloons and on steamboats) might have encouraged a lot of interaction between regular players and “normal” folks, these games he’s watching and participating in are different. It’s a mostly closed-off society he finds himself in when playing in those games, “an abstruse, technical ‘small-life world’” that operates mostly independently of the larger one the rest of us occupy.

Some of Hayano’s findings about players and how poker was played when he studied it still apply today, although many aspects of the game (and its place in our culture) have altered considerably. In fact, I’d suggest this last observation about the “completely distinct social and legal environment” in which poker players once operated has changed a lot, with much more significant interaction occurring today between the poker “world” and the rest of society. Even so, there does still exist a lot of insularity in poker, with examples of some still immersing themselves entirely and shutting out everything else.

I’ve written more than I intended to here, but like I say I’ve really only highlighted a few of the many fascinating observations Hayano makes. Poker Faces definitely deserves to be back in print, I’d say. And we’re overdue for another, similarly serious academic inquiry into professional poker, too.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Hey, That’s My Name!

Dr. Martin HarrisThere’s a new movie that’s hitting theaters this week featuring a central character who just happens to share my real name. Not only that, the movie appears to be a thriller in which the hero’s identity gets stolen (or at least it seems that’s the case from the trailer). No shinola!

The movie -- Unknown -- has the tag line “Take back your life.” Seems like it might at least partly recall Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, a movie in which an ad exec named Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) gets mistaken for a certain George Kaplan, thereby finding himself unexpectedly enveloped in a complicated tale of international intrigue part of which will involve Thornhill fighting to get his identity back.

I’m just guessing, though. Could be this movie goes in a completely different direction. In any event, the trailer is exciting enough, with a lot of folks running around and plenty of urgent-sounding music to heighten the drama. Near the end of it, Frank Langella turns up to proclaim (creepily) “There is no Martin Harris. He doesn’t exist.”

Kind of thing gets your attention, particularly if you happen to share that name.

I’ve had a few people already ask me if I’ve heard about the movie which stars Liam Neeson. Perhaps more will start asking me about it if it turns out to be a hit. I guess I kind of hope it doesn’t. As I told my brother -- who’s getting a big kick out of it all -- “I don’t want this turn into a Michael Bolton situation.” (Those who have seen Office Space know what I’m talking about.)

Actually my brother got an even bigger kick out of a previous instance of my name turning up in popular culture. As it happens, there was a famous figure in the history of Mormonism -- one of the witnesses to Joseph Smith’s finding the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated -- who was also named Martin Harris.

Amid a fairly comprehensive satiric evisceration of the religion on an episode of “South Park” a few years back, there appears a song which includes the much-repeated refrain “Martin Harris dumb dumb dumb, dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb!” (The song turns up in this clip, if you’re curious.)

I suppose some viewers found the episode funny, others less so. Regardless, for reasons not intended by the South Park guys, my brother found it friggin’ hilarious.

The other day I was playing in one of Kevmath’s home games on PokerStars, which have turned out to be a lot of fun. Have gotten to play and chat with some folks I know, as well as with others who I’m just starting to get to know as we play.

Someone asked me during the most recent tourney about my name. Thinking the question was about my Stars username, I answered by explaining its origin. Then the person asked again, this time putting it something like “what’s your real name?”

I instinctively answered “Shamus” since I figured that would be the name that would be more readily recognized (which it was). Felt a little funny, though, to say that was my “real” name.

Because it’s not. I mean, I don’t think it is. Is it?

Uh oh.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

World Poker Tour Season 9 Debuts

WPT Season 9 debutsFinally got a chance yesterday to take a look at the much-hyped Season 9 debut of the World Poker Tour on the Fox Sports Network. Well, most of it, anyway.

Like many, I had a bit of trouble last Sunday night (February 13) locating the program amid all of channels associated with the Fox Sports Network. I finally did see on the schedule the one-hour episode, the first of two presenting the 2010 Bellagio VI event that took place last July as the World Series of Poker Main Event was winding down for the summer. It aired at 11 p.m. here, so rather than stay up I recorded the show to watch later.

When I did finally see the show I discovered some of it had been excised due to a basketball game airing just prior that had run over its allotted time. Didn’t realize this until halfway through the episode when there appeared a message saying that “due to time constraints, we now move ahead in our coverage on FSN.” (I think it is being rerun at various times throughout the week, though, so there are still chances to see the entire thing.)

I believe an interview with Faraz Jaka, the Season 8 WPT Player of the Year, got dropped out, as did perhaps a hand or two. There were quite a few lengthy commercial breaks as well, meaning that all told I saw almost exactly 32 minutes’ worth of the show, probably about 80% of it, I’m guessing. So take these few first impressions for what they’re worth.

Following a “Monday Night Football”-like intro, the first eight minutes or so were devoted to recapping the first four days of the $10,000+$300 buy-in tournament that ultimately drew 353 players. The sequence was necessarily quite rushed, with tons of quick cuts, sound bites from players, and hastily-shown entrances and bustouts.

World Poker TourThe frenetic quality of the sequence was compounded a bit by the graphics. For example, we were shown end-of-day chip counts for leaders and notables, but the lists appear on screen for only five seconds, making them pretty much impossible to scan. About halfway through this opening recap I additionally noticed the scroll on the bottom of the screen which continued throughout the program. There one found whizzing by in tiny type things like “Previous Champs,” “Prelim Winners,” “Day 1 Bustouts,” “Day 2 Bustouts” (and so forth), “Most Titles,” and Kimberly Lansing’s Twitter address.

The event featured a greatly-extended registration period, allowing players to buy in as late as Day 3. That fact was conveyed well enough here, but the uniqueness of such a format perhaps was not. During the minute or so devoted to Day 3, Erik Seidel is shown briefly registering. “Day 3, made it!” says Seidel with a wry grin, as if he’d accomplished something special. A pretty funny line, though I’m guessing the humor was probably lost on many, particularly those unfamiliar with how registration normally works for these events.

Like I say, the opening was kind of crazily-paced, even for a seasoned poker watcher like myself, and I can’t really say it oriented me all that well for the final table to come. There were a few interesting moments, though, such as seeing amateur Dan Stojadinovic folding a flopped set of fives on the money bubble and then talking briefly about having done so afterwards.

Following a commercial break the final table began, at which point we were shown (again very quickly) the current chip counts and payouts. The Australian John Caridad began the final table with a big chip lead, with Justin “BoostedJ” Smith and Phil Ivey his most notable challengers among the final six.

Four-color decks on WPTI ended up seeing nine hands altogether, with a couple of those joined after they had begun. Speaking once more of graphics, I kind of liked the use of four colors for the suits for the cards, especially since they are so small on screen. I thought Tony “Bond18” Dunst’s hand-analysis segment -- “The Raw Deal” -- was interesting and a decent addition, too. Dunst did kind of gloss over one element of the hand he discussed between Caridad and Ivey (i.e., the size of Ivey’s stack), but the segment was cool enough.

Of course, that analysis came after just the second hand shown, which was nearly halfway through the show. Was starting to get antsy to see some actual poker being played. Other detours to show Phil Hellmuth’s late entrance and early exit, to talk briefly with Melanie of the Royal Flush Girls about dating, and the like were all further distractions. Or at least they felt that way to me.

Ultimately the hands shown were only mildly interesting, with only a couple of difficult decisions being faced by players. Two players were eliminated, leaving Caridad, Ivey, Smith, and the German Moritz Kranich to return for the second and final hour of Bellagio Cup VI coverage next week. Not too much “character development” has happened, really, although Caridad has been portrayed as the least accomplished of the remaining four -- really the only player during this first episode to have made what appear to have been mistakes in the hands shown.

Kimberly Lansing anchoring the WPTKimberly Lansing’s “anchor” role seems pretty close to that of the previous WPT hostesses, actually, although she does appear onscreen more often and for longer stretches than the earlier hostesses did. Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten, both of whom I have always liked as commentators, seem to be doing their same thing as well, although their roles felt a bit diminished thanks to all the rushing back and forth that was going on around them.

Last weekend I happened to have watched some old episodes of “High Stakes Poker” on GSN, realizing while doing so what a long shelf life those shows seem to have. Even though I’d seen them all before -- some more than once -- the episodes were nevertheless thoroughly entertaining. Even Vera, who was watching with me and who isn’t necessarily a big fan of poker television, said she enjoyed the shows, primarily thanks to the way the personalities of the players were allowed to come through. Gabe Kaplan cracking wise also helped, too. (We’ll soon see how his absence on “HSP” during the upcoming season will affect the show.)

By comparison, this debut episode of Season 9 of the World Poker Tour (or what I saw of it, anyway) wasn’t nearly as interesting to watch the first time around. And really, I can’t honestly say I’d ever willingly look it up to rewatch it in the future.

The show reminded me a little of a favorite band who’d made a number of solid albums finally getting signed to a major label, hiring a big-time producer, then putting out an overdone collection of tracks in which the tunes had gotten lost amid a lot of expensive bells and whistles. There’s something good in there somewhere -- something I remember I liked about what they’d done before -- but whatever that was it isn’t really coming through.

That said, I wouldn’t rush to judgment on WPT Season 9 just yet, especially after only seeing one (or, really, part of one) episode. Gonna have to try to watch the show some more, first. Here’s hoping the ball games don’t run too long.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Breakfast and Poker

BreakfastGood morning, all. Sleep well?

We are presently moving through a unit called “The Culture of Poker” in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class. After talking about all the cheating that went on in the 19th century (and well into the 20th), then the relatively “square” games of the latter decades of the 20th and today, we’re turning our attention to the poker scenes in California and Las Vegas over the next few meetings.

One of our readings in this part of the course is a chapter from David Spanier’s 1977 Total Poker titled “Breakfast in Vegas,” a neat sketch of the scene there circa mid-1970s that also includes a brief look at Gardena, too.

Spanier provides a colorful, thoughtful portrait of Vegas in this brief chapter, focusing in particular on the morning, his “favorite time of day in Vegas.”

'Total Poker' (1977) by David SpanierThere are at least a couple of reasons why Spanier says he likes breakfast in Vegas so much. One is how the nonstop, 24-7 nature of the city produces a kind of wonder in the visiting Englishman who can “eat his breakfast, saunter through the door, and whamm! there are one hundred games going on all over town just waiting for him.”

Another reason why he likes the early morning hours in Vegas is somewhat less specific to the actual city, I think. It’s that feeling that we all have experienced upon first waking -- when the entire day lies before us -- that we still have time to accomplish a great deal, that the possibilities of the day are at their least limited.

Such a feeling gets accentuated somewhat there in the gambling mecca, of course, as Spanier explains:

“The gamblers sip their coffee, mentally run over the remaining dollar bills in their wallets, figure out maybe it’s not so bad after all. If the dice had just rolled a couple of times the other way, if they had doubled down a couple of times more, they would be back to almost even. Yeah! They take a second cup of coffee and begin to slide toward optimism.”

It’s a new day. A kind of rebirth, you might say. And anything can happen.

'Don't Listen to Phil Hellmuth' (2010) by Dusty Schmidt and Paul Christopher HoppeSpeaking of breakfast, I am also reading the new poker strategy book by Dusty “Leatherass” Schmidt and Paul Christopher Hoppe awesomely-titled Don’t Listen to Phil Hellmuth, which I’ll be reviewing soon over on Betfair Poker. Came across an interesting passage there in which breakfast and poker were linked in a different way.

As you might have heard, the book is organized around debunking a lot of commonly-repeated advice (some uttered by Hellmuth over the years), the purpose being to show how such bromides are either outdated, overly simplistic, misleading, or just plain wrong. A nifty idea for a book, and especially enjoyable for someone like me who has read a lot of the books that contain those ideas to which Schmidt and Hoppe are responding.

One of the “myths” or occasionally-recommended bits of advice the authors consider is the one that says “make all your preflop raises the same size” so as not to convey to your opponents any potential information about the strength of your hand.

You can imagine how Schmidt and Hoppe poke holes in this idea. I’m not going to rehearse all of their points here but will say they all serve the larger purpose of always keeping one’s mind open to alternate lines preflop. Rather than go on “auto-pilot” here (say the authors), think about the specific situation and what play might serve one’s purposes the best when planning the hand.

They end the chapter with a nifty simile, I think, that compares such active, critical thinking before the flop to starting the day with a nutritious, health-improving meal.

"Overly static preflop play can lead to overly static postflop play," they explain. "Before you know it, you can be auto-piloting ABC poker on all four streets. Starting your imagination and paying attention preflop is like eating a good breakfast. It gets your hand started on the right track."

Well put, I’d say. Hmm... think I’ll go fix myself a bowl of cereal and maybe eat a piece of fruit. The day awaits!

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Farewell to The Poker Beat

The Poker Beat (2009-2011)Without much fanfare and zero anticipatory build-up, The Poker Beat podcast posted its final episode late last week, culminating a little more than two years’ worth of solid shows. If you missed it, here’s the “Show Finale” (2/8/11) over on PokerRoad.

While I continue to follow a number of poker podcasts -- and now, online video shows like “This Week in Poker” -- there really are only a small number for which I try never to miss a show, and The Poker Beat was one of them. Indeed, it’s possible I might have been one of those who listened to all 95 episodes since the show’s debut back on January 29, 2009.

The Poker Beat was the latest poker podcasting effort of Scott Huff, primary host of the show and veteran of several previous poker podcasts including CardPlayer’s The Circuit, PokerWire Radio, and Big Poker Sundays. If I’m not mistaken, the first Circuit show dates back to late 2005, meaning Huff has been at this off-and-on (mostly on) for more than five years.

In other words -- I realize as I write this -- I’ve been listening to Huff’s podcasts a little longer than I’ve been keeping this blog (started in April 2006). Thus have I had several occasions here to respond to items discussed on his shows and commend his significant contributions to reporting on poker.

Unlike the previous shows, The Poker Beat was consciously modeled after those Sunday morning news programs that gather reporters to debate topics of the day. I think I remember Huff early on evoking ESPN’s “Around the Horn” as a possible analogue, too, which it indeed resembled (aside from the faux-game show stuff they incorporate into the ESPN show).

Huff’s “roundtable” most often consisted of poker media types like John Caldwell (a co-host for many of the shows), B.J. Nemeth, Gary Wise, Dan Michalski, and Jess Welman, with Joe Stapleton also contributing frequently with his “Tight Laydown,” a humorous postscript to the discussions in which he, too, commented on the week’s stories through a satirical lens. Other bloggers/reporters/media-types were invited into the discussions as well from time to time, too, including like Dr. Pauly, Amy Calistri, Matthew Parvis, among others.

Like I say, I don’t believe I missed an episode. Even if I was already very familiar with a news item being discussed -- perhaps having written on it myself or been present at the event under consideration -- I always looked forward to hearing what the group had to say. One big reason why I did was the relative independence (i.e., freedom from the influence of sponsors and other content-affecting forces) the show enjoyed when it came reporting.

As was the case on his previous shows -- and even “Poker2Nite,” the television show Huff co-hosted with Joe Sebok that was sponsored by UB -- The Poker Beat pretty much always featured a kind of editorial objectivity, at least relatively speaking. Some may want to disagree with me here, but the point I’m making is simply that while Huff certainly had his own opinions and predilections (as we all do), he never allowed his own P.O.V. to affect unduly the choice of topics discussed on The Poker Beat. And while his opinions on those topics were always his own (and thus, by definition, subjective), I never sensed they were shaped by sponsors or other external entities.

The same can be said for the panelists on the show, too, most of whom in fact also reported for other outlets that do depend on online poker sites and other sponsors that at times can affect coverage. However, on The Poker Beat it seemed (to me, at least) everyone spoke without constraint, with their opinions genuinely representing their own thoughts on the topics being considered.

Thus will the end of The Poker Beat leave a bit of a void in the world of so-called “poker media,” although there are other places where one can still find relatively unblinkered commentary and reporting on the poker world. The Two Plus Two Pokercast springs to mind (sponsored by PokerStars but nonetheless autonomous), as do some other sites and especially certain independently-produced blogs.

So thanks to Huff and all the others for two-plus years’ worth of The Poker Beat. And here’s hoping Huff returns -- as he intimated on that last episode he might -- with some other contribution to poker reporting in the not-too-distant future.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

The Poker Boom of 1957?

Herbert O. Yardley, 'The Education of a Poker Player' (1957)Was thinking some about Herbert O. Yardley over the weekend. He’s the fellow who wrote the highly-influential 1957 book The Education of a Poker Player. Part strategy guide, part memoir, Yardley’s book was a huge best-seller in its day. And for poker players looking for some sort of instruction in draw, stud, or other popular variants of that era, The Education of a Poker Player was pretty much the only book around for the next couple of decades, really, right up until Brunson’s Super/System and other titles started to appear in the late 1970s/early 1980s.

I was rereading Yardley’s book as part of my preparations for today’s meeting of my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class. I’m having the students read an excerpt as well as James McManus’s chapters about Yardley that appear in his 2009 history Cowboys Full. I don’t think it is that big of a stretch to suggest that the appearance of The Education of a Poker Player might well have helped spark a proto-“poker boom” of sorts nearly a half-century before the one we all remember taking place in 2003.

Heralding the book’s publication was an excerpt in the November 9, 1957 issue of the very popular weekly magazine The Saturday Evening Post, advertised on the cover as “How to Win at Poker.” McManus reports how that issue “broke its newsstand record by selling 5.6 million copies.” The book, appearing one week later, was a big commercial success too, while also drawing a lot of favorable reviews.

Yardley, in his late 60s when The Education of a Poker Player appeared, was already something of a known entity. As McManus outlines in his chapters on Yardley -- and as one can read about in David Kahn’s 2004 book The Reader of Gentleman’s Main: Herbert O. Yardley and the Birth of American Codebreaking -- Yardley had already had a significant and somewhat famous career as a cryptographer, having proven his skills as a code-breaker in the service of several different governments.

Near the end of World War I when the U.S. finally became involved, Yardley was enlisted in military intelligence, becoming part of the group known as MI-8, a.k.a. the “American Black Chamber.” Soon he was leading MI-8, and would remain in that position through the 1920s until the unit was dissolved following the stock market crash in October 1929.

In 1931, Yardley wrote his first best-seller, The American Black Chamber, a book that won him a lot of sales but also criticism for its revelation of various secrets regarding America’s intelligence activities. Created quite an uproar, so much so that a couple of years later when Yardley had a second book prepared on the subject its publication was suppressed thanks to a new bill signed into law by then-president FDR.

The gifted code-breaker ended up having to find other means to make a living. He wrote a few “hard-boiled”-type spy novels, none of which I have read (although I am curious to track them down). He was also a consultant in Hollywood on the 1935 WWI spy film Rendezvous starring William Powell, the story of which was based on Yardley’s controversial book.

Eventually, Yardley would get recruited by China to do some intelligence work for them, and he writes about those experiences some in Education. Canada would call on him too, just prior to WWII, though cut him loose after the U.S. and U.K. -- still miffed about Yardley having given up so much in that 1931 book -- pressured the Canadians to drop him.

'The Saturday Evening Post, November 9, 1957By the mid-1950s poker was no longer strictly a game played in saloons, on steamboats, or in other potentially nefarious locales, but had found its way into the homes of many of those middle-class readers of The Saturday Evening Post. It had also evolved somewhat from the “cheating game” of the 19th century (as McManus dubs it) into more of a “square game” in which knowledge of strategy really could help one succeed. “By 1957, the public was primed for a serious book about poker” says McManus. Like I say I do think if we looked into it more closely we could support an argument that a “boom” of sorts was taking place around that time for poker in America, with the appearance of Yardley’s book significantly contributing to it.

In any event, the book remains a fascinating read, full of colorful stories and even some useful strategy advice, too. If you’re curious, you can read my review for a fuller account of it, or check out this “Poker & Pop Culture” piece that also shares more about the book and its significance.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

In Favor of Small Stakes

John Blackbridge, 'The Complete Poker-Player' (1875)“No one ever abandons Poker that plays it on small limited stakes.”

So wrote John Blackbridge, a New York City lawyer, who in 1875 first published The Complete Poker-Player: A Practical Guide Book to the American National Game.

We read an excerpt this week from Blackbridge’s book in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class. Kind of a strategy guide that also includes general observations about the state of poker ca. late-19th century as well as some wonky stuff about probabilities and the math of the game (talkin’ draw poker, natch).

The excerpt we read appears in the 2004 anthology of poker writings, Read ‘Em and Weep, edited by John Stravinsky. It begins with Blackbridge noting many examples of the various forms of cheating that were rampant in poker games of his day, then segues into more general advice about dealing with losing -- what we would call controlling “tilt” -- and the virtues of playing for small stakes.

Blackbridge offers a few different arguments on behalf of sticking to the smaller games, one of which being his conviction that the cheaters tend to leave such games alone, choosing to sit down at the larger games instead. It’s a point we’ve heard brought up time and again in the context of possible instances of online cheating, where many believe (naïvely or otherwise) the microstakes games are the least likely targets of the colluders and other modern-day “sharps.”

But Blackridge also has a lot to say about the importance of playing within one’s means, which allows one to retain a “contented mind,” minimizing emotion and thus thinking clearly at the table. “No man can play his game well if he feels that on the turn of a card depends his solvency,” writes Blackbridge. He doesn’t use the term “bankroll” or speak of the importance of managing such, but that’s precisely the lesson he’s teaching to his readers.

Such, then, is another argument in favor of sticking to “small limited stakes.” In Blackbridge’s experience, “Nearly all Poker-players that eventually abandon the game do so because they have suffered by large play,” having been either beaten out of their money fairly or having been cheated by a sharp.

It’s an interesting point the attorney is making. Of course, there are plenty of folks who give up poker without ever rising above the smallest stakes. But I suppose Blackbridge is persuasive when he suggests that it is much more likely those who stick to the low-stakes games will continue to play, finding enjoyment in the game that perhaps is not directly linked to the amount of money won or lost at it.

Couldn’t help but think a little of Blackbridge’s observation this week when I heard the news that 2008 WSOP Main Event champion Peter Eastgate would be coming out of his so-called “retirement” to play EPT Copenhagen and in the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship in March. Not the first instance of a high-stakes player having announced he was “abandoning” poker. (Or of the player coming back, either.)

I wrote a little something about Eastgate -- as well as that Griffin-Qureshi prop bet discussed in yesterday’s post -- in a piece over on Betfair Poker today, titled “The Limits of Being Human in a No-Limit World.” Tried there to address the notion that these guys who play for the highest-stakes, while sometimes thought to be somehow greater than (or at least different from) us regular folk, are in fact as human as the rest of us.

And if you’re looking for something else to read, you can take a look at some of Blackbridge’s excerpt in this Google Books preview.

Have to pick up Stravinsky’s anthology to see the entire excerpt, I’m afraid. Or I suppose you could find an original copy of The Complete Poker-Player.

I’m gonna guess, though, that would be a bit too pricey for those of us who stick to “small limited stakes.”

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sick Bet: Griffin, Qureshi, and “the World of Poker Players”

Play at your own riskCreative, crazy, even dangerous proposition bets have long been part of poker. A few spring to mind.

Huck Seed once bet Phil Hellmuth $10,000 that he could float in the ocean for 24 hours without touching the bottom, though Seed forfeited the bet before making an attempt. Erick Lindgren won $340,000 from Gavin Smith, Phil Ivey, and others after he played 72 holes of golf in one day, shooting under 100 each round, in the 108-degree Vegas heat in June 2007. And this past summer, Ted Forrest won $2 million off Mike Matusow after managing to go from 188 lbs. to under 140 (138, to be exact) in the space of just two months. Forrest fasted the final 10 days straight to win that one.

Trumping them all, I suppose, is Brian Zembic, also a poker player though probably more of a blackjack/backgammon player. In the fall of 1996, Zembic won a $100K prop for receiving breast implants, the story of which was subsequently chronicled in Michael Konik’s 1999 anthology The Man With the $100,000 Breasts and Other Gambling Stories.

However much some want to argue that poker is somehow not gambling -- that its significant skill component allows one to approach the game as a strictly intellectual and/or psychological competition -- it is, in fact, a game that involves chance and is therefore a gambling game. Even if it weren’t, poker’s frequently close proximity to all those other gambling games -- usually just a few steps away in the casino (or a click away online) -- would probably increase the likelihood for action-seeking poker players to seek further opportunities to gamble. Especially when they are encouraged by fellow, like-minded “degens” as they are sometimes described, usually with a semi-serious mix of reproach and wonder.

You probably recently heard about another such prop bet, one involving a couple of young poker players, Ashton “theASHMAN103” Griffin and Haseeb “INTERNETPOKERS” Qureshi. Both have emerged over recent years as part of the latest generation of tough, successful online players, with Griffin additionally enjoying some big live scores including winning the $25,000 High Roller Bounty Shootout event at NAPT Venetian in February 2010.

Like Griffin, Qureshi has been involved in some of the highest-stakes online games, including being an early combatant of Viktor “Isildur1” Blom last year. His well-considered thoughts about those battles and their significance were shared by Qureshi on his CardRunners blog last fall (alluded to here).

Here the two roommates bet whether the 22-year-old Griffin, formerly a college wrestler and by most accounts well-conditioned athlete, could run 70 miles on a treadmill within a 24-hour period. The bet incorporated various provisions, and ultimately went off with Griffin giving Qureshi 3-to-1 on a wager of $285,000, meaning that if Qureshi lost he’d owe Griffin $285K and if Griffin lost he’d owe Qureshi $855K. Griffin booked an additional $15K of action with others, meaning he was risking a total of $900K -- not to mention the physical trauma of running nearly three marathons in one day -- to win $300K.

As reported on many outlets earlier this week, Griffin incredibly succeeded in the task and won the bet. Meanwhile, his friend Qureshi appears to have been affected by much more than having lost a significant portion of his bankroll. Yesterday and today Qureshi published a lengthy two-part account of the bet on his blog: The Million Dollar Bet, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2.

It’s a harrowing read, one that should give a great deal of pause to those eager to celebrate Griffin’s accomplishment and/or the undeniably fascinating culture that seems to produce such rash, risky behavior. Qureshi is highly self-critical throughout, recognizing the absurdity of the situation of his having bet on his friend’s body to fail him physically -- perhaps even irreparably. The experience seems to have been unrelentingly hellish for Qureshi (who turns 21 this year), and he writes with the self-awareness and perspective that belies his young age (and which he appears to have been lacking when he agreed to the prop).

Near the conclusion Qureshi speculates about “the world of poker players” in which he has lived for a short time, wondering if perhaps there is something “fundamentally unhealthy” present there of which all should be wary. It’s not a new observation he is making. But perhaps it is being made in a new way here -- and from a different perspective -- and thus might capture the notice of some it might not otherwise have gained.

People complain about the overuse of the term “sick” to describe risky maneuvers at the poker table or the awe-inspiring exploits of some of the games’ most celebrated “degens.” Qureshi’s account perhaps invites us to reconsider the term’s applicability to “the world of poker players,” including considering its possibly literal significance for some who inhabit it.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Changes at “High Stakes Poker”

High Stakes PokerWas hearing late last week some of those rumors about the upcoming seventh season of “High Stakes Poker,” set to kick off on February 26 -- a Saturday night -- on the Game Show Network. Most concerned a possible host change, with Gabe Kaplan, part of the show since its premiere in 2006, apparently not coming back either for this season or the next.

The guys on Ante Up! floated something about it on their show last week (the 2/3/11 episode). Quoting a “trusty source” -- possibly another ex-HSP host, A.J. Benza, who has been a guest on their show more than once -- they noted that Kaplan had been “fired” and replaced with “another funny a-hole.” (The quote certainly sounds like Benza.) After mentioning that tidbit on the show, they additionally included the news in their show notes afterwards.

Now we know for certain. When the shows begin airing later this month, Kaplan will no longer be at the mic commenting on the action and cracking wise. Rather, Norm MacDonald (“Saturday Night Live,” Dirty Work), another comedian, will be taking over the hosting duties. Kara Scott will be returning as well as a co-host, and apparently for those with 3-D televisions the show will be watchable in that format, too.

MacDonald is in fact a poker player, showing up at small events and satellites in L.A. and at the World Series of Poker over the past few years. He did a turn on an episode of “Celebrity Poker Showdown” once back in 2004. He also was one of the first guests on the Two Plus Two Pokercast back in early 2008 (episode 5), and gave one of the best (and funniest) interviews those guys have ever had on that podcast.

But his poker resume obviously pales in comparison to that of Kaplan, who was there playing at the WSOP way back in the late 1970s. A long-time cash game player (at times for high stakes), Kaplan’s tourney résumé is mighty impressive, too, and certainly helped qualify him for the commentator’s role.

I always enjoyed Kaplan on the show, so like many my initial response to the news that he had been replaced was not positive. Nor was I that enthused by the news that no Full Tilt Poker pros will be on Season 7, either, although I don’t mind seeing new faces. (See Kevmath’s Bluff piece for a full rundown of the players who will be appearing.)

The sorta-surprising news of Kaplan’s “firing” and MacDonald’s stepping in brought a couple of other, similar changes to mind.

Turd Ferguson -- It's a funny nameOne was from back in late 1997 when MacDonald, after having hosted the “Weekend Update” segment on “Saturday Night Live” for four years, was suddenly fired by Don Ohlmeyer, then president of NBC’s West Coast division. While MacDonald frequently appeared in other segments on SNL, including doing a hilariously-half-hearted Burt Reynolds (a.k.a. Turd Ferguson) impersonation on the recurring faux-“Jeopardy” spoof, he was best known on the show for anchoring the “Update” desk.

Somewhat controversial, that, and perhaps made even more memorable by MacDonald’s subsequent appearance as a guest on the “Late Show with David Letterman” on which Letterman offered a lot of pointed commentary about Ohlmeyer.

Kind of a similar scenario, I suppose, though on a smaller scale, with a much-liked host being suddenly yanked. Only this time MacDonald is the one stepping in rather than shipping out.

The other, similar change the story brought to mind was when “Monday Night Football” brought in Dennis Miller -- another comedian and “Weekend Update” alum -- back in 2000 to deliver color commentary.

Miller lasted a couple of seasons on MNF, though his frequent obscure references (a big part of his schtick as a comedian-slash-political commentator) didn’t land that often with the average sports fan and the entire experiment is generally viewed as having failed. In fact, last year TV Guide listed Miller’s stint on MNF among its “25 Biggest TV Blunders.”

Despite the title of the show, the stakes are much, much lower when it comes to “High Stakes Poker” and changes to its cast and format. Not really sure how MacDonald is gonna pull it off, to be honest, though as one of those who enjoys his humor I’m at least curious to watch how he does. And how the new cast of players do as well.

High Stakes Poker, season 7The fact is, while MacDonald’s contributions will most certainly affect the success of the show, it’s the players who matter most. And when it comes to attracting and keeping an audience that extends beyond hardcore poker fans (as GSN obviously wants to do), it’ll be the personalities of the competitors -- and whether they help create and maintain interest -- that’ll determine the show’s fate.

In other words, as much as I like Kaplan as a host, I think replacing Ivey, Dwan, Antonius, and the other Full Tilters will prove much more challenging here than will replacing Mr. Kotter. Here’s hoping all those non-FTPers on the Season 7 line-up -- all great players, obviously -- can prove successful at the game of entertaining, too.

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Beyond Belief: The Bellagio Bandit

Two 'cranberries'Have you been reading about the arrest of this “Bellagio bandit”? Stranger than fiction, that.

The arrest took place last Wednesday night, February 2, a little over six weeks after the crime was committed. The suspect, Anthony Michael Carleo, appeared in court yesterday, at which time a hearing was scheduled for February 23.

The article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal reporting the arrest from last week is interesting enough. For a more detailed, suspense-filled account, though, check out the arrest report, which reads like a decent “hard-boiled”-type police procedural.

The report begins by describing the robbery that took place at the Bellagio just before 4 a.m. on the morning of December 14, 2010. The thief drove up to the north entrance on a black motorcycle with no license plate. Leaving the bike parked outside of the entrance with the keys still in the ignition, the suspect walked into the casino -- still wearing his helmet -- pulled a handgun and yelled, filled his fanny pack full of casino chips, and left.

Later it was determined the thief made off with about $1.5 million worth of chips, including a number of $25,000 denomination ones, sometimes called “cranberries” because of their dark-pinkish color.

A little over a week later, on December 23, two fellows came into the Bellagio trying to cash a $25,000 chip and aroused suspicions. It would take some digging, but eventually it was determined that one of the them had been manning a Salvation Army collection bucket just before Christmas when a man had placed the chip in his pocket, telling him it was valuable. After being interviewed, the Salvation Army volunteer and his friend were released.

From Bellagio surveillance footageRight around then the police were contacted by someone else -- a dealer -- who had spoken with Anthony Carleo shortly before the robbery had taken place. Carleo had apparently told this person of his desire to commit such a crime, noting additionally that he thought he knew people who would purchase the stolen chips. Carleo also had mentioned to this dealer that his “parents were connected” -- referring to his father’s being a Las Vegas municipal court judge -- a fact which apparently made him believe he would have a better chance of escaping punishment for the crime.

The dealer additionally reported that he’d seen Carleo gambling at the Bellagio shortly after the robbery had occurred, thinking it odd since his impression was Carleo was busto. He saw him again on January 4 when he sat down in the poker game he was dealing.

Tipped off about Carleo, background checks revealed he lived at an address also associated with the purchase of some handguns, he owned a motorcycle, he had prescriptions for more Oxycontin than is usual, he had once filed for bankruptcy, and a few other bits of biographical ephemera. Carleo’s activities at the Bellagio were also researched, revealing that he’d lost more than $107,000 gambling there between December 14, 2010 and January 22, 2011.

The report goes on to uncover some other information about Carleo subsequently pieced together to support the case against him, including having spoken with others whom Carleo had contacted about possibly buying some chips. Most interesting is the revelation that among those Carleo was talking to was a fellow named Matthew Brooks, someone Carleo contacted via “a website named Two Plus Two poker forum.”

That’s right! Brooks, who goes by “provotrout” on 2+2, was contacted by Carleo who had created an account with the name “oceanspray25.” You read that right. Oceanspray25. Name kind of makes you think of cranberries, yes? If not, perhaps his listed location might -- “Cranada.” (No shinola.)

In fiction, authors will sometimes choose character names that evoke certain ideas they intend to associate with those characters. Gotta be careful, though. A lack of subtlety with such name choices might pull your reader out of the story.

But this isn’t fiction. It’s real life. And so the story continued.

You can see posts by both “provotrout” and “oceanspray25” in this thread about the robbery. And in a couple of other threads there appear posts by Carleo petitioning Brooks to get in touch with him via private message (here and here).

The report describes how Brooks did exchange some emails with Carleo, including some in which Carleo sent him photographs of stolen “cranberries.” That’s when Brooks contacted the investigators, a sting was subsequently set up in which Carleo unwittingly tried to sell chips to an undercover officer, and the arrest was made.

A note from the 'biker bandit'You can read more on Brooks’s involvement in the “Bellagio chip robber BUSTED (Judge’s son)” thread on 2+2, including some further info from Brooks himself regarding some of his exchanges with Carleo (including pictures like the one up top and at left) and his assistance with the arrest. (Some in the thread are expressing uncertainty about Brooks -- now a primary witness -- continuing to speak out about what happened, wondering if perhaps his doing so might compromise either the case against Carleo or the chances of his securing any reward money.)

From start to finish, Carleo’s actions appear quite desperate, perhaps making it seem as though he was expecting (hoping?) to get caught, though determined to live out an exciting few weeks before he did.

But that is really too rational of an interpretation, I think. The fact is, there’s a kind of irrationality present throughout that makes it difficult to empathize enough with the guy to comprehend his decision-making. Like that dude sitting across the table whose plays consistently fail to conform to logical explanations, it’s always possible even he didn’t know exactly what he was doing or what his “plan” ultimately was.

One does get the sense from the report, though, that Carleo himself believed he would somehow get away with not only the robbery, but with the spending and selling of the chips, too. It is somewhere in there that he loses most of us, unable to share such a belief.

'Ocean's Eleven (2001)Many have evoked the film Ocean’s Eleven when discussing the robbery, the plot of which revolves around an especially elaborate, complex scheme to rob several Vegas casinos simultaneously. Usually those references are to the 2001 remake (not the 1960 original), in which the Bellagio -- opened in 1998 -- serves as one of the thieves’ targets.

Even the police report includes reference to the movie when quoting that dealer who’d been in conversations with Carleo before and after the robbery. Upon hearing Carleo contemplating the possibility of trying to pull off such a theft, the soon-to-become-informant was incredulous.

“Dude you watch Ocean’s Eleven too much,” he told Carleo. “This is real life and that shit doesn’t happen.” “Oh, no, it’s not that hard,” was Carleo’s reply. “All you need is a black mask and a motorcycle and I have a motorcycle.”

Such a simple plan. Simple-minded, anyway.

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Monday, February 07, 2011

Placing Poker in American History

‘‘Green Berets’ at a poker game at outpost of Buon Brieng,’ Saigon, Vietnam, Nov 1964, photo by Larry Burrows, part of Life Magazine collectionIn my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class we’ve spent the first few weeks talking about the origins of the game as well as its development and history in the U.S. And the game’s place in American history, too.

We’ve read through the first two-thirds or so of James McManus’ Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker (2009), a couple of chapters of David Spanier’s Total Poker (1977), and a couple of other essays along the way, too. That’s brought us up past the mid-20th century and into the Vietnam era. That picture, by the way, is of Green Berets playing poker in Saigon in 1964, one of the many excellent poker-related photos in the Life Magazine collection.

Pretty soon we’ll be carrying the story forward to the present, which means we’ll be talking Vegas, California poker, and the WSOP. (See the list of readings here.)

The class has been a lot like a history course thus far. Soon it will turn into more of a sociology or even anthropology course as we talk more about the “culture of poker,” examining some of the different contexts in which the game is played and how individuals tend to behave in those contexts.

After that it will be a literature class for a few weeks (when we read short stories and a novel), then a film class (when we watch The Cincinnati Kid, California Split, and Rounders). Finally we’ll be talking psychology, cultural studies, and more when we address a miscellany of topics at the end (gender roles, morality, law, technology). By the way, if you want to read a bit more about the course and what it is about, Amy Zupko of Woman Poker Player did a piece last week on my class, titled “American Culture Through the History of Poker.”

One topic that has come up several times during these first few weeks has been the way our writers -- McManus and Spanier, primarily -- “use” poker to interpret history.

The first time I read Cowboys Full (back in the fall of 2009 when the book initially appeared), I remember thinking McManus every now and then seemed as though he might be forcing poker into the discussion a bit too impertinently. (Here is the review of the book I wrote for Betfair Poker at the time.) In other words, it appeared at times poker was really only a minor, tangential part of a given anecdote, yet it had been promoted to a place of utmost importance in the telling.

For example, one chapter relates in great detail the story of the life of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a tough, at times brutal soldier and leader. His story includes the fact that he played poker, and McManus makes a lot of the fact that “his military record suggests he was a poker natural” -- that is to say, his successes on the battlefield demonstrate for the author the sort of aggression and nerve that usually serve one well in a poker game.

I remember when I first read this chapter thinking McManus might be making too much of the poker connection. At one point he’s explaining how Forrest disagreed with the battle plans of his superior, General Braxton Bragg, who, as it happens, did not play poker. Forrest -- whom McManus groups with other “poker-playing regular fellows” -- is drawn as a more competent strategist, with his “poker-inflected stratagems” distinguishing him from the less effective Bragg.

While I’m inclined to buy the general point that poker can be an especially useful game to learn for military leaders (or presidents or others in power) -- a point that McManus, Spanier, and others make repeatedly -- I wasn’t utterly convinced in this chapter that the relative disparity between Forrest and Bragg’s knowledge of the game was as significant as I was being told it was. (Perhaps the fact that the racist Forrest would go on to become the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan made me even less inclined to celebrate his poker playing.)

In any event, as I go back through McManus’s book again with my class, I realize I’m appreciating more and more what McManus is up to. Obviously one can get carried away with this business of “seeing poker everywhere.” (We players do this a lot, don't we?) But as I go back through the book, I’m understanding a bit more readily the significance of many of the connections he’s drawing between poker and American history. And appreciating his book more as I do.

McManus’s references along the way to other historians like Shelby Foote (the great Civil War chronicler) and David Halberstam (author of The Best and the Brightest and other important works on Vietnam) and their frequent evocations of poker in their histories is also helping to convince me that the references are mostly appropriate. The fact that these guys tend to make a lot of the way the subjects of their histories play poker -- and “think” poker -- helps support what McManus is doing in his history.

And perhaps helps justify the idea that poker is indeed a topic worthy of consideration in an American Studies course, I might as well add.

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