Friday, April 29, 2011

Online Poker in the News

Online Poker in the NewsPoker -- especially online poker -- is getting a lot of mainstream attention in the U.S. and elsewhere these days, thanks to the Department of Justice’s indictments and civil complaint versus the founders of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker/UltimateBet, unsealed just two weeks ago today. (Seems longer, doesn’t it?)

Among examples of such mainstream focus, articles by Nate Silver (“After ‘Black Friday,’ American Poker Faces Cloudy Future,” New York Times) and Matt Matros (“After the Dept. of Justice Shuts Down Online Poker, a Poker Pro Defends His Game,” Washington Post) have stood out for me as especially insightful analyses/responses to what has happened. Of course, both Silver and Matros are themselves online poker players, and thus perhaps especially well-versed to address the online scene.

But reports, profiles/features, and editorials continue to pop up all over. Here’s a list of just a few of the places where I’ve found myself reading about online poker and “Black Friday” over the last two weeks:
  • Prosecutions Turn Online Poker Into a Shaky Bet” (Associated Press)
  • Crackdown Could Limit Entries” (USA Today)
  • Full Tilt Poker defends itself and its CEO amid FBI crackdown” (L.A. Times)
  • Online Poker Players Face Big Life Changes” (Wall Street Journal)
  • Foreign Money Fuels Faltering Bid to Fuel Online Poker” (New York Times)
  • Online Poker Player Accounts Frozen as U.S. Indicts Operators” (Bloomberg)
  • Odds Aren’t Looking Good For Online Players” (Miami Herald)
  • How a Vegas Boy Bet the House and Lost It All” (Sydney Morning Herald)
  • U.S. Prosecutors Not Bluffing With Shutdown of Poker Sites” (Toronto Star)
  • Online Poker Raid Wastes Resources” (Washington Times)
  • Poker Players Protest Government Seizure” (CNN)
  • Yesterday came another such article, an op-ed by Kate Moulene appearing on The Huffington Post website provocatively titled “Can Poker Save the World?

    The piece isn’t necessarily the epitome of solid argumentation. It’s thesis is clear enough -- namely, that the U.S. should consider licensing and regulating online poker. But the supporting points are hit-or-miss in terms of their depth or persuasiveness.

    The organization of the article leaves a bit to be desired, too. Moulene cobbles together various references to the U.S. economy, the poor math skills of American children, studies about the potential revenue to be had from taxing online poker, the WTO case brought against the U.S. by the “Caribbean government” (?), Charles Neeson’s Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society, Chris Ferguson’s Ph.D., and the number of bracelets won by Phil Hellmuth to build her case.

    Sorting through all of that, she seems to be saying poker is a skill game played by smart people (and that makes players smart), and thus should not be prohibited, especially given the significant benefit to be had by the U.S. from regulating and taxing it.

    Reactions to the Huffington piece from folks within our little poker world were somewhat positive, though many pointed out how the piece was obviously incomplete and/or flawed. My sense was most seemed to think it was good enough to see a “pro-online poker” argument being advanced in a non-poker context, even if the argument lacked the sort of precision we’d like to have seen.

    Of course, I suppose it isn’t a stretch to say that the entire debate over online poker in the U.S. has been characterized by imprecision -- some intentional (i.e., politically motivated), some not -- by those involved.

    Which partly explains how we got here, I guess.

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    Thursday, April 28, 2011

    Five Years

    I am five years oldOn April 28, 2006, I published my first post on Hard-Boiled Poker, titled “What’s the Rumpus?” The idea to start a blog had come perhaps a week or two before. Not quite spur-of-the-moment, but close.

    There was no “five-year plan,” I can assure you. There wasn’t even a second-post plan, to be honest.

    I had brooded a while over what to call the sucker, and somewhere along the way thought up the Shamus character behind whom I’d sort-of-hide for the first part of the blog’s history.

    I’ve written before here about how I’d begun with an idea to write about poker -- primarily my own low-limit misadventures -- while employing the “hard-boiled” style of the detective novels I loved (and eventually tried to follow in my own novel). It only took a few weeks to discover I couldn’t keep firing out posts about gathering scratch and setting up patsies and running grifts while keeping a straight face. So, much as players eventually find the style that suits them best, I soon settled into a more reasonable “voice” with which to continue.

    The passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 in October also affected the direction of the blog. I’d scribbled some about the WSOP that summer and other items in the poker “world” not having to do with my own circumscribed experiences. But now there was lots else for a blogger identifying himself as an “online poker player” to consider.

    Shamus in VegasOn April 28, 2007, I was in the midst of publishing a series of posts about a trip to Vegas with Vera Valmore. Posts from that trip described (in absurdly comprehensive detail) some low limit sessions, meeting cool cats like Paul Seldon (one of the very first readers of HBP), Tom Schneider (who’d go on to become the WSOP POY that summer), Wade Andrews (of Hold’em Radio), and Howard Schwartz (proprietor of the Gamblers Book Shop), and an especially entertaining ride on the Deuce titled “What Happens In Vegas Gets Spread All Over the Internet.”

    It wasn’t the first time I’d been to Vegas, but it was still a place full of new experiences for me. Had no idea at the time that before long I would be spending entire summers there.

    Wasn’t long after those Vegas trip posts I got recruited by John Caldwell and Haley Hintze (then) of PokerNews to help out with some articles over there that summer while the first-string scribes were away to cover the WSOP. That association continued afterwards, and eventually led to my joining the team of bloggers at the WSOP the following year.

    On April 28, 2008, I wrote a post titled “Celebrating Seconds” in which I commemorated the blog’s second anniversary with an account of a runner-up finish in a “Saturdays With Pauly” PLO tournament.

    Looking back at that post causes me to think that it came at a time when I was probably enjoying playing poker more than I ever had before or perhaps even since. I was also enjoying writing about poker, and excited about the opportunities I getting to write more.

    On April 28, 2009, the blog’s anniversary came and went without my even noticing. My post that day was titled “Time Is Money; or, the Return of the Waiting Game.” (Maybe I was in a hurry and hadn’t the time for sitting around celebrating birthdays.) The post followed up an earlier, much-viewed one sharing a story from that year’s SCOOP involving Daniel Negreanu complaining about opponents stalling as the cash bubble neared.

    Shamus loosens tieOn April 28, 2010, I was just about to leave my full-time job to focus entirely on freelance writing. I’d made the decision many months before, but it would be a couple of days later (on May 1) that the move would become official.

    Not too surprising to see I was in an especially self-reflective mood on that day, as evidenced by the post “Detour: Four Years of Hard-Boiled Poker.” That one tells the story of the blog fairly well, if you’re at all curious about that.

    Speaking of telling my story, earlier this week I had the chance to do so in an interview with Mike Owens over on CheckRaze. And tonight I happen to be appearing as a guest on “Keep Flopping Aces,” the podcast hosted by Lou Krieger and Shari Geller. (The timing there is coincidental -- it was “Black Friday” and all that has happened since that I’ve been invited to discuss on KFA, not this here blog.)

    If you’re interested in hearing the show, it starts at 9 p.m. Eastern time tonight (Thursday, 4/28) over at Rounder’s Radio. You can listen live, and later the show will be archived.

    Events of the last couple of weeks had caused me to think about this fifth anniversary of the blog a little differently. I’ll admit I even had a moment -- a couple of days after “Black Friday” -- where I thought maybe this would be a fitting place to write a final post and move on to devote more time and energy to other, non-poker writing. Or perhaps to announce my intention to scale back and post less regularly. After all, I have posted every weekday here since January 1, 2008 (and on some weekends, too).

    But it seems after five years of this there’s more to write about than ever before. Even if, as an American with no money in accounts that haven’t been shut down by the feds, that “an online poker player” descriptor is currently inaccurate.

    So the scribbling will continue.

    Can’t begin to say how appreciative I am of everyone -- all of the way back to my buddy Paul who came on here back in June 2006 to say “Nice blog shamus. Keep up the good work!!!” -- who has spent time reading and responding to all these many “musings” over the past five years.

    As I was writing about earlier this week, the blog has led to a lot of interesting, exciting opportunities for me over the years. But most importantly it has been the means by which I’ve gotten to know countless people -- including many amazing, creative, funny, smart people I today unhesitatingly list among my closest friends.

    Thanks again, everybody. I’m so grateful this here blog enabled us to get together.

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    Wednesday, April 27, 2011

    The Show Must Go On: QuadJacks Live

    QuadJacks LiveI was, oh, 3,200 miles or so from where I am today. It was sometime early Saturday morning, around 3 a.m., I believe. I had just worked what I’d normally describe to have been a “marathon” of a day helping report on the LAPT Lima event. That’s when I first dialed up the QuadJacks podcast, the one I’d seen a few folks referring to on my Twitter feed among all of the other frenzied back-and-forthing happening on “Black Friday.”

    They’d been on since early evening, at least six or seven hours, I guessed. Then I tuned in the next night. They were still on. I’d tune in once more during the wee hours of Monday morning. There they were again. In fact, they’d never left the air.

    I started to rethink the significance of that term “marathon.”

    And aside from a few breaks here and there to re-air interviews or to relocate over on Justin.tv, the gang is still at it. Led primarily by “Agent” Marco Valerio and Zekda “Zekday0” Art, a rotating cast of co-hosts, “panelists,” and guests have incredibly kept the conversation -- about “Black Friday” and its aftermath, as well as just about everything else to do with poker’s current affairs -- going for nearly two weeks now.

    That first weekend the show felt something akin to a trauma counseling session, the kind of thing that might follow a natural disaster or some other calamity in which a large group of people are affected, with victims invited to call in and share their stories.

    What had happened was hardly a disaster. But the sudden news that those who ran the largest U.S.-facing online poker sites were facing federal indictments and thus the sites were closing their doors to Americans was nonetheless highly unsettling. And disconcerting, given all the uncertainty regarding consequences for so many of us for whose lives are affected one way or another by online poker.

    It was good to hear people talking about it all. Even if no one really knew much for certain about what was to come.

    QuadJacksBy the time I got back to the U.S. and continued checking in, the show had evolved into something different, perhaps even more constructive. I like how Zimba (of Cardrunners) explains how “with a mix of humor, outrage, education and community, QuadJacks created an uninterrupted forum for the poker community to react to the incredibly disrupting news.” Having moved beyond the initial shock, the show had emerged from those first few days to become a kind of meeting place to share news and opinions about the fast-changing story. And more than a few grins, too.

    Like many, I kept listening.

    Yesterday I spent some time trying to compile a list of people who have appeared on the show, enlisting the help of Kevin “Kevmath” Mathers to do so. Then I saw Zimba had already put together a comprehensive catalogue of the many poker pros, industry insiders, media types, legal experts, and others who have appeared thus far. Click here to see the list of more than 80 contributors. (I believe Zimba continues to update the list as more folks appear.)

    I’m a long-time listener of poker podcasts. Indeed, you could say the whole idea of starting this blog -- fifth anniversary tomorrow! -- was partly inspired by hearing Cincy Sean and Brent talk about blogs on the Lord Admiral Card Club show way back when. I’ve always thought podcasts provided something important to the poker community -- a uniquely immediate medium that served us in ways that were distinct from news sites, blogs, television shows, and other modes of communication.

    Thus was I perhaps more predisposed than most to like the QuadJacks radio show. But during this second week of the show -- by which it has now further evolved into a sort of an ongoing 24-hour poker news channel -- I’ve been especially impressed by the level of discussion often on display.

    I’m not saying every single time I’ve tuned in I’ve been thoroughly entertained and/or enlightened. But that has definitely been the case more often than not.

    Wombat PokerWhere will QuadJacks and the “Wombat Nation” -- named for Wombat Poker, an imagined utopia of a poker site where we all can play and no one can tell us we can’t -- next proceed? Who knows? My sense is whatever form the show subsequently takes, its further growth will not happen carelessly, but with thoughtfulness and care.

    For example, last night/this morning, the panel -- which included Zimba, Karak (“Lawdonk”), Mark Gahagan, SrslySirius, B.J. Nemeth, and Marco -- engaged in a lengthy discussion of the poker media and its various biases, most of which could be traced back to the advertising dollars of the online sites.

    As I’ve written here many times before, I agree such compromise is generally the rule when it comes to the productions of the “so-called poker ‘media’” (as the Entities over at Wicked Chops so call it). I also think there’s nonetheless still a lot of solid reporting being done by some of those who “write about people who play cards” (as Benjo describes what he does).

    All on the panel agreed that the relative “independence” of QuadJacks (at present free from advertisers) is preferable when it comes to the business of unfettered reporting and/or editorializing. But I liked how all didn’t therefore automatically dismiss all other efforts to report on the poker world as without value. And there was also a willingness shown in the discussion to rethink what QuadJacks is “about,” too.

    Such self-reflection at least partly explains how QuadJacks has been able to keep the sucker going this long, I’d say. Keeps me listening, too.

    Click here to listen yourself.

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    Tuesday, April 26, 2011

    Moving Forward (Not Starting Over)

    Moving ForwardWas listening yesterday to Change100’s interview over on PreGame.com, conducted last week just a few days after “Black Friday” smacked us all in the face like Teddy KGB holding aces full.

    Change shares a lot of insight throughout the interview. And foresight, too, especially considering she was talking so soon after the indictments and civil complaint had been unsealed and the sites’ shut their doors to U.S. players. There was one moment in particular, though, where I felt particularly connected to what Change was saying.

    Asked what she planned to do moving forward, she brought up Pauly and explained that even if the future is somewhat unclear for the two of them at the moment, one thing is certain -- they’ll keep writing.

    “Both of us are writers,” Change explains. “That’s our chosen profession. We've written about poker because we love it. And because it was this incredible, booming industry and we had an amazing run in it. And I got to see the world through poker, which is something I certainly wouldn't have been able to do if I was still stuck in an office....”

    Like I say, that kind of hit home for me in a few ways. For one, a change of careers is something I have in common with Change. I, too, had a possible future mostly spent inside an office from which I was steered away by poker.

    I also identified with that reference to the past few years and all of the opportunities that have come our way via writing about poker. Would I have ever gone to the Ukraine? To Morocco? To Peru? Not likely. Hell, even getting to Atlantic City might’ve been less of a priority for me, had I not gone there on an assignment.

    I like as well the reference to choosing to write about poker because of a love for the game. These other things -- the chance to travel, to get paid, etc. -- really are secondary for a lot of us. We love poker. And we love to write. And that’s where it all begins and ends, no matter where we go in between.

    Been thinking some lately about the blog and why I write it. “Black Friday” certainly got me contemplating (again) the whole idea of keeping a poker blog -- especially at this present moment when I’m not even playing poker! The fact that the five-year anniversary of the sucker is coming up on Thursday has also perhaps encouraged me to indulge in such self-reflection, too.

    Will I keep writing about poker? I think so. The game is too much fun and too damned interesting and full of stories for me not to.

    I’ll probably be doing other kinds of writing, too, including pushing forward more earnestly on the second novel. I see another poker player and writer, Matt Matros, talking in similar terms in his Washington Post piece from last Friday, a thoughtful defense of online poker worth checking out if you haven’t already.

    In that article, Matros speaks of how for him the sudden unavailability of online poker “almost feels as if I’ve been stripped of one of my college degrees -- as if a career skill I’ve been honing for all of my adult life is suddenly useless.”

    That’s not entirely the case, I don’t think. As Matros himself points out later in the piece, “Poker teaches life skills,” among them “logic, discipline, psychology, [and] mathematics.” I’m going to assume poker has also taken him many places, become the means by which he’s gotten to meet and know many people, and allowed him to experience many things he wouldn’t have otherwise.

    There really is no starting over.In other words, much like those college degrees and other life experience he’s gathered, poker has helped prepare him for what comes next. (Including the writing of that novel on which he is working.)

    Same goes for a lot of us.

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    Monday, April 25, 2011

    Bharara’s Hammer

    Mayor LaGuardia vs. the Mechanical pickpocketsThat’s a picture of Fiorello Henry LaGuardia, taken in September 1934 during his first year as mayor of New York City. Those are slot machines he’s smashing with a sledgehammer. “Mechanical pickpockets,” he called them.

    LaGuardia’s campaign had included promises to rid the city of organized crime, and indeed among his first actions upon taking office were to go after figures like Lucky Luciano and Luciano’s cohort, the gangster Frank Costello, a.k.a. “The Prime Minister of the Underworld.”

    When one looks at the history of gambling in the United States, it is an especially uneven narrative, full of fits and starts with periods of legalization and prohibition falling upon one another in a disorderly, non-linear fashion. After a lengthy period of prohibition of gambling, the Great Depression had inspired a resurgence in legalized gambling in the U.S. as a way to try to restart the economy. And along with that came a crackdown on illegal gambling, such as had been managed by figures such as Costello.

    After having rounded up 1,200 or so of Costello’s illegal slot machines, LaGuardia and a group of NYC policemen staged a media event in which they destroyed the machines before pushing them into the Long Island Sound. The whole scene was filmed and shown as part of a newsreel in theaters that fall. Click here to see that footage.

    As it happened, the crackdown on organized crime led by LaGuardia and special prosecutor (and later governor of NY and presidential candidate) Thomas E. Dewey would have significant influence on the subsequent history of gambling in the U.S. Most particularly, it drove many of those interested in the business of gambling to move out west, particularly to Nevada where most forms of gambling were legalized in 1931.

    Preet BhararaLooking back today at the newsreel footage of Mayor LaGuardia swinging that hammer, I can’t help but think of what Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, did when he brought those several charges against the founders of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker/UltimateBet, and others, charges that were unsealed 10 days ago on “Black Friday.” You could say that much as LaGuardia and the NYPD destroyed those slots, Bharara effectively destroyed innumerable poker “machines” with those indictments -- or at least has rendered them inoperable by U.S. players.

    The indictments include charges related to violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (counts 1-4) as well as the Illegal Gambling Business Act (counts 5-7). All of the sites have also been charged with conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud (count 8) as well as with conspiracy to commit money laundering (count 9). I lack the legal knowledge to discuss the charges or speculate with any specificity whatsoever about what might come of them if the defendants ever come to trial. I do not lack the humility to admit as much and thus avoid indulging in uninformed conjecture.

    I will say the first seven counts related to the UIGEA and illegal gambling appear somewhat sketchy, and from what I’m reading likely couldn’t withstand a court challenge. The last two seem more serious and harder to counter, although I’m intrigued by the observation that the banks were hardly “victims” here. (See F-Train’s recent post for more on that point.)

    I believe at present three of the payment processors who were charged have appeared in court, with two pleading not guilty and the other scheduling a date to appear again. The other defendants -- including the founders of the sites -- are all out of the country and will likely never be entering the U.S. to face the charges.

    In other words, it does not appear as though we’re going to see any real legal resolution of the charges against those operating the sites. Thus, the indictments -- like the UIGEA, really -- will ultimately have more symbolic than actual significance. Sort of like Mayor LaGuardia’s display there next to the Long Island Sound so many years ago. Isai Scheinberg, Ray Bitar, and Scott Tom aren’t going to prison for this. Nor will their non-U.S. companies likely be forfeiting $3 billion in assets to the U.S. government, either.

    But symbols can have real, tangible effects. Like the UIGEA, the indictments have forced the online poker sites -- the largest ones, in fact -- out of the U.S. And may eventually work to pressure the smaller, remaining ones out, too. Much as those running the games were encouraged to move westward in the 1930s, so, too, should anyone wanting to spread online poker shy away from the U.S. For the near term, anyway.

    Danger... Hammers in UseI mean, there are lots of other places in the world to go. Places where people aren’t going around smashing your machines with sledgehammers.

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    Friday, April 22, 2011

    The Hustler, the DOJ, and Online Poker in the U.S.

    DOJ breaks PS and FTP's thumbsA couple of months ago I wrote a short post about The Hustler, the great 1961 film starring Paul Newman in which the game is pool, but many of the lessons apply directly to poker. Such was David Spanier’s evaluation in his chapter on poker movies in Total Poker. The PokerGrump spelled out some of the ways the film applies to poker, too, in a post from a while back.

    I was reading through various posts and articles over the last couple of days concerning “Black Friday,” including the several written by Bill Rini, one of a few especially lucid commentators on the situation. One of Bill’s posts caused me to think again of a particular sequence in The Hustler.

    The scene comes a little over halfway through the movie. Eddie enters Arthur’s Pool Hall, a place where no one knows of his skills as a player. He plays a few friendly games for low stakes. Soon the other players all drop out, leaving just Eddie and the player who is presumably the best Arthur’s Pool Hall has to offer. Eddie is asked if he’d like to raise the stakes, he responds with a jokey comment (“I think maybe you’re a hustler”), and they continue playing at slightly bigger stakes.

    Eddie’s opponent wins a match -- Eddie is clearly letting him do so -- and afterwards decides to needle our hero a little. “You sure you don’t want to quit, friend?” he asks. Eddie turns serious. “Let’s cut out the small stuff, huh?” he says, then proposes they play 10 matches for $100 -- a significant jump in stakes. His opponent delivers another dig just before they begin, and Eddie responds angrily.

    “I don’t rattle, kid!” he fires back with a menacing look. “Just for that I’m going to beat you flat!”

    Eddie proceeds to win the next 10 matches in rapid fashion, not letting his opponent have a single shot. He then tells the “two-bit punk” to pay up. His opponent leaves the money, but also leaves Eddie alone with the other locals, none too pleased at Eddie’s display.

    Not so fast, Eddie“We got no use for pool sharks around here,” one says. Then they proceed to take the money back and rough him up, including breaking both of his thumbs.

    The lesson -- as PokerGrump points out -- is to show some reserve when beating an inferior player. When you win, keep quiet, or practice a kind of faux humility about it. Don’t trash talk. Don’t “tap the glass” and scare the fish away. You’re only increasing the likelihood that your opponent won’t want to play anymore, and then there’s no game.

    Eddie won a lot, couldn’t resist becoming very showy and arrogant about it, and suddenly found himself out of the game entirely.

    The post from Bill that caused me to think about this scene from The Hustler was one titled “Why Bodog Wasn’t Kicked Out of the U.S.” I was intrigued to read what he had to say, not least because I still have an account on Bodog. That account is presently empty, however, and so I have found myself thinking off and on about perhaps trying to put some dollars back in and play once more.

    “Will the DOJ come after Bodog or any of the other sites still offering U.S. gaming?” asks Bill. “Probably if they get too big,” is his answer. “Right now they’re small fish. If any significant U.S. traffic starts over there then they’ll come up on the crosshairs.”

    Thus, Bill goes onto explain, the processing of transactions will become more and more difficult for Bodog should their traffic increase significantly. Then they’ll find themselves in a similar position PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and UB/AP did before they apparently resorted to non-legal machinations to get money to and from players.

    Should I try to play on Bodog then? The fact is, I had stopped playing there over a year ago because the traffic had grown too slow. And it sounds like if the traffic were to increase, the likelihood that the site would become the next DOJ target would increase, too. Not encouraging.

    Eddie’s showy play and subsequent punishment might be compared to how PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker had become so huge and successful, and prominent, too, via constant advertisements on the web and our TV screens, that their status as “sharks” could no longer be ignored. And recent developments on the legislative front regarding online poker and those alliances with casinos (discussed in that “Some Rambling About the Rumble” post from 4/8/11) only served to increase the the sites’ stature further.

    As I. Nelson Rose has pointed out, when we consider the Department of Justice’s decision to pounce, “the timing is suspicious.” He sees the decision to act now as having been directly motivated by the increasingly loud “rumble” that had been created by the online site-casino alliances (e.g., Wynn and PokerStars) and the momentum being gathered behind the various legislative pushes to license and regulate online poker in the U.S.

    As Rose points out, the DOJ has been “waging a war of intimidation against Internet gambling for years, successfully scaring players, operators, payment processors and affiliates into abandoning the American market.” To keep an upper hand in this war, they couldn’t wait any longer, allowing legislation to pass or the sites to grow even stronger via various business alliances in the U.S.

    In other words, like the locals at Arthur’s Pool Hall, the DOJ had seen the sites run the table -- and perhaps be a bit showy about it as they did -- and decided they couldn’t just sit back and watch.

    You could say that part of what has happened here is the DOJ viewed the sites as having thumbed their noses at them for too long.

    So they broke some thumbs.

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    Thursday, April 21, 2011

    The Game of Outlaws: Poker’s Image in America

    Wild Bill HickokMy “Poker in American Film and Culture” class met again yesterday. I’d given them a little holiday just before the end of the semester so I could make that Lima trip. As it happens, our topics for these last couple of classes of the semester were already scheduled to be “legal issues” (one day) and “online poker” (another). No shinola!

    I knew when I made out the schedule that one day each for these topics would hardly be enough. And now, thanks to the events of last Friday, we’ve got ourselves a helluva lot more to talk about.

    To try to get the class up-to-date on at least some of what is going on, I have pointed them to Nate “FiveThirtyEight” Silver’s New York Times blog post from yesterday titled “After ‘Black Friday,’ American Poker Faces Cloudy Future.” Silver does an excellent job telling the story of the “rise and fall” of online poker in the U.S., beginning back in 2003 with the Moneymaker “boom” and ending with last Friday’s DOJ indictments of the founders of Stars, Full Tilt, Absolute Poker, and others.

    I like especially how Silver is conscious in his narrative of having a wide audience, thus making the article accessible to those outside of our highly-focused little world of poker players, fans, media, etc. That’s the main reason why I pointed my students to Silver’s article, since while some of them are online poker players and somewhat into the whole scene, most aren’t and thus weren’t even aware of “Black Friday” or its significance when they arrived to class yesterday.

    Black FridayIt will obviously take not just days or weeks, but months and years to sort out all of the consequences of the DOJ’s unsealing of those indictments last Friday. That is to say, the ultimate significance of “Black Friday” is not something we’re going to be able to come to any grand conclusions about before the semester ends. I think it is safe to say already, though, that as far as poker’s “image” or place in American culture goes, that obviously took a fairly huge hit last Friday.

    What is poker? A game of cards that involves betting. A game that unlike many other gambling games generally requires some degree of skill of players for them to be consistently successful. Poker thus provides a ready context to demonstrate all sorts of positive human traits including intelligence and creativity. The game additionally provides occasions to satisfy our desire for competition and social interaction. It also can be a damn lot of fun.

    However, as we’ve been discussing frequently in class, poker has long carried negative connotations, too. In part, such connotations stem from poker’s association with other gambling games, to which many object on moral grounds. But there are other factors which have made poker a special target for some.

    For one, poker has always been especially popular among gambling games, and thus tends to get more attention (and scrutiny) from those who don’t gamble. I also think that there are certain aspects of the game -- including the way it highlights both self-interestedness and deceit -- that might cause some not to like poker or poker players, although that’s an observation requiring more explanation than I want to get into at the moment.

    The Game of OutlawsOf course, poker’s “outlaw” status has been further heightened by its frequent association with other, more obviously opprobrious examples of human behavior. Ever since the early 19th century when the game began its spread from New Orleans up the Mississippi and eventually to both coasts, the story of poker has included numerous episodes of violence, cheating and robbery, alcohol and drug use (and abuse), the involvement of various people associated with organized crime, and other activities more readily marked as “bad” morally speaking.

    It was this latter aspect of poker’s story that came to mind for me when I first learned about the indictments.

    Sure, there were the charges related to the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 and the Illegal Gambling Business Act of 1970. Charges related to these two laws both need for poker to be classified as “illegal” or “unlawful” gambling -- a matter of dispute between the sites (who think poker is not “illegal” or “unlawful” gambling) and the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney's Office (who think it is).

    Regardless of how this particular debate might ever go in court (if it ever does), in the court of public opinion those wanting to defend poker can argue on behalf of their game by distinguishing it from other forms of gambling, or at least as not covered by the definitions of “illegal gambling” or “unlawful internet gambling” in the laws cited here.

    However, the indictments also include those conspiracy charges to commit wire fraud/bank fraud and to commit money laundering. While some are wanting to say that the unfair UIGEA set the stage for these violations to occur, most -- even those in the poker community most ardent to defend the sites -- are in agreement that these charges are much more difficult to counter.

    “Those things don’t have anything to do with poker,” said my father to me on the phone yesterday after I explained to him what the indictments included. He’s right -- they don’t. But as far as the current “image” of poker is concerned, we can all count on the phrases “bank fraud” and “money laundering” to come up frequently whenever the topic of online poker in the U.S. is brought up for the foreseeable future.

    'Thirty Years Passed Among the Players in England and America' by Joe Cowell (1844)But it’s always been that way for poker and poker players. Joe Cowell, an actor writing way back in the early 19th century, discussed card players and gamblers in his memoir Thirty Years Passed Among the Players in England and America (1844). Even then, associated stories of cheating and violence had created a prejudice in the popular mind that Cowell believed was erroneously applied.

    “After the actors there is no class of persons so misrepresented and abused behind their backs as the professional gamblers, as they are called,” wrote Cowell. “As in my trade, the depraved and dishonourable are selected as the sample of all.”

    Cowell goes on to defend the gamblers, saying how in his experience their “kindness of heart, liberality, and sincerity of friendship -- out of their line of business -- they cannot be excelled by any other set of men who make money their only mental occupation.”

    Despite such defense, the subsequent history of poker in the U.S. proves how the “depraved and dishonourable” would come to remain “the sample of all.” Or at least for most observers. And it seems the events of “Black Friday” will only further that trend.

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    Wednesday, April 20, 2011

    Going Through Withdrawal

    Going Through WithdrawalI suppose I’ll go along with the crowd and start referring to Friday, April 15, 2011 -- the day the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed its indictments of 11 individuals, including some of the founders of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker, and UltimateBet -- as “Black Friday.” My sense is most of those reading this blog, the great majority of whom probably have played a little online poker now and again, are going to know what I mean by the phrase whenever I use it going forward.

    On Black Friday, I had funds in only two online poker accounts: PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker.

    PokerStars was the first site on which I opened an account (in 2004). About a year later I opened one on PartyPoker, then soon after that I had a third account on Full Tilt Poker. Some might recall how back then one could use Neteller (where I also had an account) to transfer funds back and forth between online sites. Easy breezy.

    While I’ve always been a recreational player and never rose to a level stakes-wise to earn (or lose) a lot of money, I did well enough on Stars to start withdrawing from that account, and then eventually -- using Neteller -- I was able to use money I’d earned on Stars to open those other accounts.

    As I recall, I split time fairly evenly between the three sites before the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 was signed into law on October 13, 2006 -- that other “Black Friday” for online poker, as some of us remember it.

    I remember talking to a support person at PartyPoker by phone a few days after the UIGEA was signed, like the following Wednesday or thereabouts, to confirm that yes, as a U.S. player, I really was no longer allowed to play real money games on the site. I assumed all other U.S.-facing sites would soon be following suit. I recall a conversation with Vera at the time in which I told her how unfortunate it was that this hobby of mine was suddenly no longer going to be available to me.

    But as we all know, it didn’t quite happen that way. Stars and Full Tilt stuck around. And so the games continued, both at the table and beyond.

    When I started to play online poker -- first (for a good while) for play chips, then for real money -- I’ll confess I had little thought about its ever becoming a target of legislators. Sure, I was naive. I knew poker and/or gambling were pursuits to which some objected. But really, the game itself was much more interesting to me than was the larger significance of poker in other cultural contexts (moral, social, political, legal, etc.).

    In other words, I didn’t really care about the (seemingly inconsequential) legislative debates or following all of the related ins and outs. I was more interested in outs and odds.

    So I withdrew my funds from PartyPoker back into Neteller (which didn’t leave us for a few months), shipped that money back over to PokerStars and FTP, and played on. It was not longer after that I opened accounts on Bodog, Absolute Poker, and then (some time later) UltimateBet.

    When the AP cheating scandal first hit in the fall of 2007, I withdrew from both AP and UB. (Thus, I got out at UB before its scandal broke in the spring of 2008.) At Bodog I played fairly frequently, but over the last couple of years the games had dried up to the point I took my money off of there, too.

    Thus, like a great lot of us, I have funds on Stars and FTP only. We’re not talkin’ a ton of cabbage, but enough for me to want to get it out eventually.

    As far as getting onto another, still operating and available U.S.-facing site, I can’t say I’m all that anxious to do so. I wasn’t playing that often even before Black Friday. In fact, thanks to the Lima trip and other deadlines I was trying to meet, I had gone over a week without playing a single hand before I left the country last Tuesday. Would have to check my records, but that might be one of the longest stretches I’d ever gone without playing since first getting those accounts so many years ago.

    Thus, I am not really feeling any strong “withdrawal symptoms” or pains at present as far as not being able to play is concerned. I may eventually, but if poker-related writing opportunities dwindle (as they likely will), I’m going to feel that a lot more strongly than any unpleasantness caused by not playing.

    So I have gone through withdrawal before, i.e., withdrawing from sites and leaving them. It sounds as though at the moment there is some uncertainty regarding how the withdrawal process ultimately will go with Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars. We’ll see how all that goes. And like many others, I’ve experienced other sites withdrawing from the U.S., too.

    But as far as not being able to play is presently concerned, I’m not “going through withdrawal” in terms of feeling any particular symptoms or pains or what have you. Perhaps I will eventually, though I know already that if (or rather, when) my poker-related writing opportunities dwindle, I’ll be feeling that a lot more acutely than any unpleasantness caused by not playing.

    Still, there was a little melancholy associated with that last session I played. I sat down for a few hands of the 10-game mix on Full Tilt over the weekend while still in Peru, mainly just to see if I could. After an hour or so, the game dwindled down to just two of us, and when my opponent sat out I decided I would be signing off, too.

    “wait until more players,” typed my opponent just a moment before I clicked the button to “sit out next hand.” I sat a little longer, then thought I’d say something back before closing up.

    “have to go, time for bed,” I typed. Then, after a moment, I added “gg.”

    “ok gg,” came the reply. And the game was over.

    And I was asked if I was sure I wanted to leave my seat. And I clicked yes.

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    Tuesday, April 19, 2011

    Travel Report: 2011 LAPT Lima, Departure

    With my flight not leaving until around 11 p.m. last night, I had most of the day to explore Miraflores some more, something I wasn’t really able to do much of back in June.

    Lucky for me F-Train also had a late flight out, and so the two of us spent the afternoon and early evening doing a lot of walking and talking in and around Lima’s most upscale district.

    Miraflores means “to watch flowers,” so we did some of that, particularly at the park in the city’s center after having lunch at a sidewalk cafe. We watched other things, too.

    We watched dozens of shoe shines being given, while refusing multiple offers to have shoe shines of our own. We watched full service gas stations with long lines. We watched local produce being sold, including outrageously huge corn. We watched meat and fish being sold in an open-air market, swatting the flies to get a better look.

    We watched vest-clad figures with stacks of U.S. dollars in one hand and soles in the other handling currency exchanges right on the sidewalk. We watched a performer with a dummy tied to himself dancing about in front of cars at an intersection, looking for all the world like a manic fight had broken out right in the middle of the street. Then we watched as he successfully collected a few soles from the drivers for the show. Or dollars, I suppose.

    Eventually we wound our way over to the Inka Market and Indian Market, a couple of large, outdoor shops full of Peruvian wares of varying value where I picked up a few gifts. Then we spent a stretch at another cafe where we had Turkish coffee and talked about the past, the present, and the future. Was a very nice way to end the trip -- seeing more of Lima, and also getting to think further about things with a friend and colleague who knows his stuff.

    Mimes and Death at the CrossingNear the end of the day, we saw another odd street scene. Mimes as crossing guards, aided by a figure dressed as the Grim Reaper. No shinola!

    Again, as was happening to me all weekend, I was unable to avoid drawing analogies, looking upon the caped figure as indicating the sudden “death” of much of online poker in the U.S. Then I thought again of the poor fellow who’d fallen from one of the coastal cliffs to his demise, the one we’d seen on the drive in last Wednesday (mentioned here). Almost seemed like kind of an uncanny bookend, this.

    But the shutting out of U.S. players from these sites -- and even all of the other collateral damage and fallout -- is not life-and-death. It’s a big deal, but it’s not that.

    Mimes and Death at the CrossingMaybe it is more like a big stop sign, representing how a lot of us may well have to stop doing what we’ve been doing for a while. Or do it less or differently or whatever. But we’ll be moving back on down the road again, I think.

    Speaking of moving on, thanks for being patient and letting me stubbornly complete my little travelogue of my return trip to the southern hemisphere while the online poker world turned upside down.





    Travel Report: 2011 LAPT Lima, Arrival
    Travel Report: 2011 LAPT Lima, Pregame
    Travel Report: 2011 LAPT Lima, Day 1
    Travel Report: 2011 LAPT Lima, Day 2
    Travel Report: 2011 LAPT Lima, Day 3
    Travel Report: 2011 LAPT Lima, Day 4

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    Monday, April 18, 2011

    Travel Report: 2011 LAPT Lima, Day 4

    Kemal Ferri, 2011 LAPT Lima championWoke up this morning with another track from The Last Waltz playing in my weary noggin’. So many great ones on that soundtrack, many with possibly applicable lyrics or titles. But the one I was thinking of was the most obvious: “The Shape I’m In.”

    Am fairly well worn-out at the moment. F-Train, Pauly, Reinaldo, and I stayed up into the early hours, so am once again am going on less than adequate sleep as I write here in my hotel room.

    I’ll recover soon enough, though. Not in that bad of shape, all things considered.

    First F-Train and I completed our epic, two-day-long Chinese poker match in which the wiry one withstood my many comeback attempts to win 52-46 (scoring 2-4). To be honest, it would’ve been a significant upset if I had beaten him, given how badly I mangled setting at least a couple of my hands along the way. Then came Big Deuce with Pauly and Reinaldo. As the night wore on and dawn approached, the tallying became increasingly less reliable, but I’m going to guess Ray managed to best us there.

    Safe to say our decision to keep the games going as long as we did had a couple of causes. We weren’t all that anxious to say our farewells. To each other, of course. And to the whole tourney scene, too, I suppose, which even if we end up back on one of the tours again will probably never be quite the same. Nor are we looking forward to the various new stressors that are going to be associated with our newly affected careers. Or our perhaps starting different ones.

    So, yea, deal another, we said. Just one more. And then we said it again.

    Yesterday’s final table was entertaining, if not too remarkable. Had the lone remaining woman, Samar Hodali of Peru, managed to win, that might have helped make it more so. But after entering the final table in second, she finished fifth. The leader, Daniel Ospina of Colombia, actually bounced out in eighth, paving the way for Kemal Ferri (pictured above) to win the title for his native Peru.

    There was a decent crowd on hand to cheer Ferri on, although not as big or boisterous as the one I saw at the LAPT Lima last June. During the awarding of the trophy, amid the music, lights, and noise, we were startled by a small cannon going off right beside our stage-side location, raining shiny rectangles of confetti all over. Was appropriately festive, though, punctuating a well-run event that many enjoyed.

    Took Pauly and I some time to finish up the last of our posts and sign off, then the four of us went for dinner down at the Larcomar again before heading back for the card playing.

    The clean-upToday Pauly begins a journey to Machu Picchu where he’ll be seeking visions of his future. Meanwhile, I’ll be homeward bound. Probably won’t be sleeping on the plane. I never do.

    No, l have my eyes wide open, seeking visions of my own.

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    Sunday, April 17, 2011

    Travel Report: 2011 LAPT Lima, Day 3

    The Atlantic City Casino, Lima, PeruRelatively rapid day yesterday at LAPT Lima. As was the case on Friday, we were all mostly glad to have the distraction of covering of poker tournament to keep us from fretting too much about “Black Friday,” the “pokercalypse,” or whatever other scary signifier you might be inspired to hang on this here crisis for online poker with which we’re all still trying to come to grips.

    Took a little over six hours yesterday for the field to shrink from 24 down to eight. Several compelling moments along the way, including a dramatic, saving ace on the river to ensure the survival of Peruvian Samar Hodali, the lone woman left in the event, who today is only a few chips behind the leader, Daniel Ospina of Columbia. Would mark the first time a woman won a Main Event on the LAPT should she take it down, and given the local support that should make for a fun scene should it happen.

    Dr. Pauly, F-Train, our friends Shirley and Sos, and I headed down to Larcomar, the big shopping center situated on the cliffs along the Lima coastline, where we had an absolutely delightful meal at Restaurant Portofino.

    The atmosphere -- with the high-angle view of the waves crashing below -- was especially pleasant, and the food even more so. I started with the ronda caliente (a seafood dish highlighted by some scrumptious calimari), followed by the tournado pisqueno (scallops wrapped in bacon and soaked in lemon, garlic, and red pepper).

    The Larcomar Mall, Lima, PeruWe walked back through the mall area, through the streets of Miraflores, and were back at the hotel a little before midnight. A few dozen hands of Chinese poker later we were able to retire for the evening relatively early.

    Before hitting the hay, I did spend a little while checking in on all that has been happening, making a quick run through some of what is being written and said. Sort of like the hurried sampling of local sights and cuisine here in Lima -- that is, I’ve only had limited time to sample the reports and commentary thus far, never mind try to digest fully the indictment, the civil complaint, and everything else.

    Kevmath is collecting pertinent links in a sticky over on Two Plus Two. Pauly highlighted several as well in his Friday post, “Exile on Main Street Reprise.” They keep updating the story over at PokerNews with ongoing developments. And F-Train took time yesterday morning to be interviewed by our Dutch colleague, Remko, for an enlightening podcast.

    Bill Rini, as usual, has done a great job thinking it all through and looking ahead to the possible fates awaiting all of those connected in some fashion to the world of online poker in a post titled “The Fallout From The Full Tilt / PokerStars Pullout.” Along the same lines, Change100 has written a thoughtful piece that well articulates what many of us in the poker media are experiencing. And after perusing all of those items last night, I listened a short while to the live telethon-like show still ongoing over at Quad Jacks, too.

    Even if I weren’t in another country covering a poker tournament, it’d be difficult to keep up with it all. I’m sure I’ll be sinking into deep-contemplation mode soon after boarding that plane tomorrow night. I imagine I’ll remain in that mode for some time after I return home, too.

    Still amazing to consider, after being out of the U.S. for just a week, how utterly online poker will have changed there during the brief time I was away.

    We’re back at it today for the final table, which starts at noon. Yesterday Pauly sent out a tweet comparing us to the band playing aboard the Titanic as it went down. Is this the last gig for us? Who knows? In any event, I’m gonna play it as well as I can.

    F-Train and PaulyAnd I’ll say this, too. Sharing the stage these fellas here -- and getting to jam with all of those others over the last few years, too -- has friggin’ rocked.

    Check over at the PokerStars blog (yes, you can still access that site) today to see how Dr. Pauly and I play this one.

    Like I say, no ideer if this is the last waltz, but I’m nonetheless inspired to listen to one of my favorite apocalyptic jams as inspiration for today’s show. “It’s not like it used to be,” says Robbie Robertson as the clip begins.

    And then the band plays...

    Now I don’t mind chopping wood
    And I don’t care if the money’s no good
    You take what you need and you leave the rest
    But they should never have taken the very best...


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    Saturday, April 16, 2011

    Travel Report: 2011 LAPT Lima, Day 2

    Brazilian flag on Akkari's chairAfter a late night sitting up with Dr. Pauly, F-Train, and Reinaldo contemplating our collective futures in what appears to be a suddenly, sadly crumbling industry, I woke up early this morning, unable to sleep once the first hint of sunlight crept into my suite.

    I decided to order myself some coffee. I got out of the bed, wincing a little as the sunlight hit my face. I realized everything is suddenly appearing undesirably metaphorical.

    Our digs here in Peru are quite nice. Check out this short video Pauly shot soon after we arrived for an idea of what my room -- or, really, rooms -- look like. Two floors, actually, although if you watch that vid you’ll see how up top there’s an uncarpeted catwalk one has to traverse to get to the bed and back. It’s a bit treacherous, something you don’t want to move too quickly across in just socks or you could wind up falling 15 feet onto the kitchen table below.

    Ah, I thought. Bountiful, but hazardous. Makes me think of online poker....

    I decided to phone room service to see if I could just get a pot of coffee, and three minutes later I was drinking my first cup of the day. I remembered being in Atlantic City last month for the WSOP-Circuit event, where at Caesars I had tried to order just coffee but was told I couldn’t do that. Had to get a full meal for them to come up to the room. Here in Peru, there were no such restrictions.

    Ah, I thought. Certain things are more difficult in America. Makes me think of online poker....

    I drank another sip and decided I wasn’t going to let myself continue with such applesauce. We had found ourselves doing something similar last night. Oceans 12 was playing on the television, subtitled in Spanish, and a montage of arrests on screen made us think of the “Dirty 11” who’d been indicted. At one point Reinaldo had put The Cure on the music player while we played Big Deuce, and when “Boys Don’t Cry” came on Pauly had us all in stitches as he added lyrics to the chorus (“unless they have fifty grand on Full Tilt,” etc.).

    Even though it had been more than 12 hours since the news first broke, I suppose you could say we were still in an initial phase of response, using humor to deflect the unkind reality we all instinctively understand lies ahead. After just three hours of sleep, though, I’m feeling a lot less like laughing.

    I’m also not wanting to let all of the metaphor-making take over my existence. Not just now, anyway. It was an interesting day of poker yesterday at LAPT Lima, one from which I’d come away with an intention to tell one story in particular. And I’m going to go ahead and do just that.

    We learned the news of the indictments shortly after play began at noon local time yesterday, and reports of the subsequent fallout understandably provided further distractions as the day wore on and the tourney played down to the final 24. (Here is my initial, late night reaction to all of that.) The day, however, had already begun on a sad note when we learned just before the first hands were dealt that Team PokerStars Pro Andre Akkari would not be returning to play his 118,000-plus chip stack (good for the top 20 of the remaining 116). His father had passed away the night before, and he was traveling home to be with his family.

    Akkari's unopened bag of chipsAkkari is very well liked among the PokerStars folks and by many of the players here on the LAPT. All were saddened by the sight of his empty chair and unopened bag of chips. Soon after play began, João Neto was moved to Akkari’s table to the seat to the absent player’s right. Hailing from Brazil (like Akkari), Neto was in the top five in chips at the time, and I commented on the PokerStars blog that he’d likely be able to be more aggressive given that Akkari wouldn’t be on his left.

    Neto had brought a Brazilian flag to the casino yesterday, and he draped it over Akkari’s chair where it remained all afternoon and into the evening while antes and blinds were taken from his slowly dwindling stack.

    The top 48 players made the money in this event, and when the field had gotten down to 52 we noticed Akkari had 20,000 chips left. The blinds were 3,000/6,000 with a 500 ante, meaning he was good for no more than a couple of orbits. Suddenly three players were eliminated in rapid succession and hand-for-hand play commenced. Now it was looking like Akkari may actually cash despite not being here to play a single hand on Day 2!

    Akkari in 49th of 49But his stack was down to 12,000, and it appeared the next-lowest stack in the room was at 35,000 or so. All the short stacks had to do was fold and they were guaranteed to outlast Akkari. Then something remarkable happened.

    A hand arose in which Neto, who’d been opening nearly every hand on the cash bubble, raised again from late position. Then Roberto Brenes -- Humberto’s son -- reraised from the blinds, committing over half his remaining stack of 90,000 or so. Neto pushed all in, and “Robertito” called with his Js9s. Neto had pocket jacks, and despite two spades coming on the flop and a nine on the turn, Neto’s hand held up.

    Neto’s excitement at winning was a little bit uncomfortable, as Roberto -- and the whole Brenes clan -- is well liked and no one much enjoyed seeing him go out in 49th. I know I didn’t, although I wondered if perhaps Neto’s outburst was related in some fashion to his having ensured Akkari had made the money. (Akkari would ultimately wind up in 43rd place.)

    Akkari finishes 43rdIt was an odd, kind of eerie moment, and I’ll say at that instant I wasn’t thinking much at all about the U.S. Department of Justice. As much as everyone felt sympathy for Roberto for not cashing, all were equally glad Akkari did, even though we knew it would matter little to him.

    There are more important things than poker. We all knew that before yesterday, although sometimes we managed to distract ourselves enough with the game to forget it for lengthy stretches.

    Poker can do that. Something both good and bad about the game, I guess.

    Day 3 begins this afternoon. Check back at the PokerStars blog where we’ll keep covering it all until the last card falls on Sunday.

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    Friday, April 15, 2011

    Thunderstruck: The Day It All Changed for Online Poker

    DOJ seizes domainsAm sitting here in a hotel room in Lima, Peru with my fellow bloggers. Having finished our work at Day 2 of the LAPT Lima event, we’re now eating some dinner and discussing the implications of what has happened today.

    I don’t even have to say what, right? Each of us were getting messages all day, from all over, asking if we had heard.

    Oh, yeah. We did.

    Obviously everything has changed in a major way -- for online poker (both in the U.S. and elsewhere), for poker generally speaking, and, of course, all of the various fields that make up the industry of which we are a part. And for which we’re working here.

    Have only barely begun to start acquainting myself with details of today’s indictment of the founders of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker, and others, the U.S. government’s seizure of the domains (pokerstars.com, fulltiltpoker.com, ub.com. ultimatebet.com, absolutepoker.com), the subsequent shutting out of American customers from the real money games on these sites, the civil suit, and everything else.

    Scarlet Robinson gives a great rundown of the primary details on Pokerati, if you’re looking for such. There’s still so much for us to read and digest (including the indictment) as we continue to try to inform ourselves about it all.

    I found myself today thinking about the post I wrote a week ago titled “Some Rambling About the Rumble (Online Poker in the U.S.).” There I alluded to the several business alliances involving online poker sites that were being announced -- alliances which today are apparently no more -- as well as the various online poker-related bills being discussed on both the state and federal level.

    My conclusion was fairly non-conclusive, noting simply that it seemed that “something” was about to happen, probably sooner than later. I compared all of these machinations to “a distant storm -- a lot of noise, but still close enough that if something were to happen we wouldn’t be totally taken by surprise.”

    I avoided expressing optimism there, partly because I didn’t feel as though I understood enough of what was happening to do so confidently. But I won’t lie -- like many, I was hardly thinking of any such negative turn as what has happened today. And when I said we wouldn’t be “surprised” if something were to happen, given all the “rumbling” that was going on, I obviously wasn’t thinking of something like this.

    Which, it is clear, took just about everyone by surprise. Even if it shouldn’t have.

    We’re gonna think on this some more. You do the same.

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    Travel Report: 2011 LAPT Lima, Day 1

    Long, long day hustling back and forth on the second floor of the Atlantic City Casino, helping cover the first day of the LAPT Lima Main Event. Began mid-morning with various setting-up-shop type preliminaries, and it wasn’t until 3 a.m. that the last of the tasks had been completed and we could put the “closed” sign up for the night.

    All of which is to say, there ain’t a lot of time this morning for your humble gumshoe to sit back and meditate on the meaning of it all. So it goes. Much like playing in a poker tournament, you find yourself making decisions all day, constantly faced with puzzles to solve or situations to analyze. When it’s over, you might reflect on what it all meant, but there isn’t time for that as it’s happening. ’Cos there’s something else you gotta deal with. Like right now.

    I will say that I’m especially fortunate to be working with Dr. Pauly, alongside F-Train (who is here for PokerNews), and Reinaldo (the PokerStars.la blogger). That picture above is of the four of us, taken by Carlos, our photographer from Argentina.

    Between them, Otis helping us from afar from back in the States, and the always excellent LAPT staff, there’s a fantastic network of support here to help a jingle-brained sap get along. That they’re also a buncha cool, funny, smart cats helps a lot, too.

    Total field yesterday was 350, and after 10 hours of play it had been trimmed to 116. Playing down to 24 today, then down to the final eight-handed table tomorrow.

    Was a fairly typical first-day vibe yesterday, with mostly patient play early on, then many all-ins once the antes had begun to increase. And as was the case last June when I was here before, the atmosphere was mostly jovial with a lot of laughter and people appearing to enjoy themselves -- as I’ve noted before, a bit different than what you typically encounter at the WSOP.

    Might have ourselves a somewhat shorter day today. Actually, after the 15-plus hour marathon of yesterday, it’ll just about have to be shorter. In any case, do check out the LAPT Lima posts over on the PokerStars blog to see what we’re up to. And see also Pauly’s Tao of Poker and Tao of Pauly for more scribblin’ on our Peruvian adventure.

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    Thursday, April 14, 2011

    Travel Report: 2011 LAPT Lima, Pregame

    Huaca PucllanaGreat fun last night at the welcome party thrown by PokerStars to kick off LAPT Lima. While there was much food and drink to be sampled and lots of socializing to do as well with players and staff, the highlight was getting to learn a little more about Lima culture, circa 400 A.D.

    No, we weren’t given lectures or made to watch educational films. Rather, the party took place at the Restaurant Huaca Pucllana, located amid some truly stunning adobe and clay pyramids built by the area’s inhabitants some 15 or so centuries ago. Part ceremonial, part functional, the structures were built by the clergy both to further their authority as well as part of an extensive canal system drawing on the nearby Rimac river.

    The entire series of pyramids was apparently buried underneath hills until discovered relatively recently. Dr. Pauly, Reinaldo, Shirley, Sos, and I took a brief tour of the ruins, and our guide explained how excavation only began in 1981 and is still ongoing.

    “Pucllana” or “pucllay” means “game,” actually, and so “Huaca Pucllana” means a place for games or rituals. Like I say, the place apparently had both a kind of symbolic value, with various ceremonies (including sacrifices) helping further the religious authority of the clergymen who had the pyramids built, and was functional, too, by drawing on hydrological resources from the river. Was a place of trade, too, so the Huaca Pucllana was kind of an administrative center, too.

    Was an eerie scene, the quiet and dark contrasting with the lights, music, and voices emanating from the restaurant. We took our time, snapping pictures while marveling to each other about at the sheer magnitude of the structures.

    Huaca PucllanaThe pyramids are closely surrounded by modern apartment buildings -- indeed, we were told a good portion of the Huaca Pucllana were destroyed by developers. Made for another weird bit of discontinuity to see those buildings rising up beyond the borders of the (now government-protected) site, although there was a strange peace to be had amid the old being foregrounded and the new held off at a distance.

    Pauly took a short video of the scene. Take a look:



    Got back to the hotel at a reasonable hour and finally got some much needed snooze time. Have a few things to take care of this morning as we prepare for Day 1 of the event. Sounds like they’re hoping for as many as 400 this time around. I imagine much of our focus early on will be upon the returning champ, Jose “Nacho” Barbero, who came here last June and won his second straight LAPT title. I saw some references to that achievement among those reports that the amazing Vanessa Selbst had won the NAPT Mohegan Sun event last night -- a back-to-back for her, too!

    Dr. PaulyHead over to the PokerStars blog later today where Pauly (pictured at left) and I will be reporting on all of the action from Lima.

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    Wednesday, April 13, 2011

    Travel Report: 2011 LAPT Lima, Arrival

    Lima, PeruGood afternoon, peoples. I have safely wound my way back to the bottom half of the globe, returning once again to Lima, Peru where I’ll be helping cover the Latin American Poker Tour Lima Main Event over the next four days for the PokerStars blog.

    Was looking back a little today at the last time we were here, when Jose “Nacho” Barbero bested a field of 384 to win. While doing so I was reminded of a big hand that took place involving Barbero near the final table bubble when just 11 players remained.

    The Argentinian had opened with a raise, was reraised by the American Chris Conrad, then four-bet shoved all-in. Conrad tanked, then called with AcQd, forcing a sheepish Barbero to reveal the hand with which he’d gotten so randy -- and with which he’d now had put his tourney life on the line -- 8c4s!

    Sound familiar? Sort of resembles a hand from earlier this week that got some attention from the NAPT Mohegan Sun (at which the final table is ongoing right now). You’ve heard about that one? In which Vanessa Selbst five-bet shoved with 8-4 against an opponent who called with pocket aces, then fortunately rivered a straight to win what I assume was a largish pot. Same hand as Barbero’s, although Selbst was the one putting the other player all in. (Her hand was also suited).

    LAPTLike Selbst, luck was on Barbero’s side, too, as he spiked an eight on the river to double-up and then eventually go on to win the sucker, a back-to-back for Barbero as he had just won the previous LAPT event at Punta del Este, Uruguay. Interestingly, Selbst, too, is gunning for a back-to-back after her victory at the NAPT Mohegan Sun last year. (As I type, Selbst is still in with just three players left.)

    Speaking of coincidences, the trip to the hotel this morning featured a somewhat grim one.

    Last year we arrived in Lima shortly after news had broken that Joran van der Sloot, the prime suspect in the 2005 disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba, was suspected of killing another woman, Stephany Tatiana Flores Ramírez, here in Lima. He was caught over in Chile shortly after our arrival, and I believe is presently in a Lima prison. That murder took place on May 30th, the fifth-year anniversary of Holloway’s disappearance.

    On the cab ride in from the airport this morning, Dr. Pauly and I discovered death had preceded our arrival once again. As we drove along the western coast we saw some police tape and a dozen or so law-enforcement types circling a scene over on the left-hand side on the road. Some poor soul had fallen the 300 feet or so to his death, and the cabbie (whom we guessed might have been by the scene more than once already) noted that in fact two people had fallen.

    That picture above (which I took last June) shows how the steep cliffs run right up against the coastline. We aren’t that far from the ocean, but don’t worry... we have no plans to do any running around up there!

    'Dirty Spanish'Spent the afternoon hanging out with the always cool Reinaldo (of PokerStarsblog.la) and Pauly at the sportsbook at the Atlantic City casino. The three of us put a few soles apiece on underdog Tottenham Hotspur, then watched ‘em fight gamely but ultimately lose 1-0 to Real Madrid. The afternoon wasn‘t a total loss, however, as Reinaldo and I both learned a lot from this helpful Spanish phrase book Pauly brought.

    We stuck around the Atlantic City a little longer to reunite with several LAPT and PokerStars folks before heading back to our hotel to rest up a little. Indeed, I’m going on about 36 hours here without any real snoozin’ to speak of, so I think I might rest my peepers for a while before we head over to the welcoming party. More to come!

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    Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    Reflecting on Rounders

    'Rounders' (1998)Crazy busy today. Later on this evening I’ll be flying to Peru where I’ll be helping Dr. Pauly cover the LAPT event happening there this week for the PokerStars blog. It’s a return trip for me, in fact, as I was there last June, the last time the tour touched down on the west coast of South America at Lima. That was the event in which Jose “Nacho” Barbero won his second straight LAPT title.

    As a result, I have been taking care of various tasks before I go, among them finishing up the film unit in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class before giving them a short break here prior to semester’s end.

    Yesterday in class we discussed the last of our scheduled films, Rounders (1998). I included Rounders among our required viewings mostly because having shown a couple of older films (The Cincinnati Kid [1965] and California Split [1974]), I wanted to provide a bit of contrast by showing something relatively contemporary. I also thought the students would probably enjoy Rounders more than the older films, which indeed turned out to be the case.

    I know for some of the students they were simply glad finally to see some hold’em on screen. And I’m sure there were those among them who preferred the more familiar-seeming vibe of the production, at least when compared to something like Robert Altman’s much more challenging (even experimental) California Split.

    Mike and Teddy KGBIn fact, at one point in our discussion I pointed out that it was likely the case that a lot of poker on TV that has been produced since Rounders was probably influenced in certain ways by the way the poker is shown in the film. I don’t think this claim is too much of a stretch, really, and perhaps further underscores the historical importance of the movie as one that not only influenced a lot of players, but also the producers of televised poker over the last decade-plus.

    That said, I’ve always been kind of lukewarm about Rounders, a film that includes several strong elements, but also a lot of weaknesses that tend to keep me from championing it too much as a either cinematic achievement in general or a “great poker movie” in particular.

    I don’t have time today to spell out all of the problems I have with the movie, although I suppose I could collect them all under the general heading of “inconsistency” of which I think there are multiple varieties present in Rounders.

    One is an inconsistency with reality, that is, the extent to which we are intended to understand the movie to be “realistic.” If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about -- those head-scratcher plot turns or character decisions that seem to beggar belief.

    In class I alluded to one of my favorite examples of such improbability when I told the students if they ever thought about asking me for a loan of $15,000 (as Mike McDermott does his professor in the film), I could save them the trouble. (We shared a good chuckle over that.)

    But there are also what might be called “internal” inconsistencies that exist within the world of the film -- that is, elements within the film which seem self-contradictory (never mind the degree to which they seem probable or not). And to me such problems tend to make Rounders less of an achievement when compared to the other films we watched.

    'It's a skill game, Jo!'Just to give one example, we all remember the argument Mike has with Jo on the street about how poker is not, in his opinion, to be regarded as “gambling” but rather a “skill game.”

    Poker players love this scene, in which Mike makes the case for the legitimacy of the pursuit. “Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker every single year,” Mike says, exaggerating just a tad but we get his point. “What, are they the luckiest guys in Las Vegas?”

    No, obviously they aren’t. Luck matters, but long-term success in poker requires skill, for sure. You tell her, Mike!

    Why are they arguing in the first place? Because Mike -- after having previously sworn off poker as if it were a drug habit or some other ungodly vice -- had gone to play in a game with his buddy Worm, lied about doing so to Jo, and now is trying to defend his actions. He’s arguing that she’s mistaken to think poker is gambling, that it isn’t as morally objectionable as she seems to believe.

    But wait a second... what happened at that game Mike and Worm were playing in, the one with the rich trust-fund kids in which they cleaned up?

    Oh, right. They cheated. So no, it wasn’t gambling. But it wasn’t such an honorable pursuit, either.

    Mike exhibits other inconsistencies of logic and/or character in the film, too, that I think complicate the coherency of the film’s ultimate messages -- about poker’s significance as well as other issues.

    I’d say more, but the clock is ticking. Like Mike at the end of Rounders, I gotta plane to catch!

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