Monday, October 31, 2011

A Lifestyle-and-Death Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, October 28, 2011

That Other World Series

Matt Holliday and Rafael Furcal of the St. Louis Cardinals collide during the fourth inning of Game 6 of the 2011 World SeriesThree weeks ago -- the morning after the last day of the Major League Baseball season -- I sent a tweet referring to the many wild endings that had occurred in several of the games the night before, all of which had playoff implications riding on them.

“Has anyone looked into Buffalo Wild Wings’ possible involvement in last night’s MLB games?” I asked.

Was making a jokey reference to those commercials in which crowds at BWW sports bars who are enjoying the games are able to order the games fixed to continue into extra innings and overtime, thereby allowing them to continue their fun evenings. Saw more than a few folks alluding to those commercials again last night during the latter stages of that wild Game 6 of the World Series.

You know what I’m talking about, right? That other World Series... of baseball.

What a game, eh? Lots of head-spinning, crazy-ass back-and-forthing at the end, including a couple of instances where the St. Louis Cardinals were down to their last strike only to get a needed hit to tie the game. By the time the bottom of the 11th rolled around it almost seemed inevitable that St. Louis was going to score and snatch it away from the Texas Rangers to force tonight’s decisive Game 7.

I’ve been a baseball fan since I before I can remember, playing little league from the age of six, collecting cards, and watching the “Game of the Week” back when there was only one game on each week. I think I’ve confessed here before how I was geeky enough to score games at home while I watched -- one of those early, formative activities that could be said to have distantly foreshadowed my eventually becoming a poker tournament reporter.

May 17, 1980 issue of 'The Sporting News'Like many young boys, I spent endless hours carefully studying The Sporting News and all the box scores, playing Statis Pro games, and memorizing all of the important stats and records.

The other day when reading about how the St. Louis Cardinals had experienced a couple of snafus in Game 5 while making phone calls from the dugout to the bullpen, I saw the article writer referring to the fact that they were relying on technology (the telephone) invented the same year the National League had been founded.

I knew before finishing the sentence the year in question -- 1876. And that the American League came in 1901. And there was no World Series in 1904. And so on. All that is still wedged somewhere in there along with other vital stuff like our old phone number in the house where I grew up, my grandparents’ birthdays, and other important numbers like .367, 56, 755, and 4,191.

Some immediately described last night’s game as one of the best if not the best in World Series history. Funny, because prior to the ninth inning it was shaping up to be remembered as one of the sloppiest-played games ever, with five errors between the two teams. (I think the WS record might be six -- that’s one stat I never did memorize growing up.)

Other goofy decisions and mistakes made both on the field and by the managers further complicated matters. But all that of course made the game even more compelling to watch. And then came some real heroic stuff in the form of those big two-out, two-strike hits by the Cards late.

Despite not having a dog in this fight, I was thoroughly entertained right up until the last pitch and after. Made me think how all of the errors and high fastballs hung over the plate and other missteps added both to the fun and to that sense that the players -- as incredibly talented as they are -- are all human, too.

Error on the shortstopIt’s mistakes and “human” foibles that help make poker more interesting to watch, too. Am looking forward to some high caliber play at the WSOP Main Event final table (just over a week away!), but I’m also anxious to see the out-of-the-ordinary stuff, too -- i.e., the unorthodox play and/or “incorrect” move that throws an extra, unexpected wrinkle into the story of the tourney’s final act.

Speaking of, one last act to go for MLB tonight. Haven’t been this interested to see a baseball game since I was a kid. Might have to get some chicken wings. Maybe I’ll even score it.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

On the WSOP Ratings

On the WSOP RatingsSpent a little time this week snooping around the web for Nielsen ratings for the WSOP broadcasts on ESPN. Not a simple thing to do, actually, although numbers can be found if one looks long enough.

I’d heard the overall ratings were down this year, and thus wanted to try to get some idea just how far they’d fallen. Main Event coverage began back in mid-August when they picked things up on Day 3 rather than start with the Day 1 flights as in past years. That means we’ve had 11 weeks’ worth of shows thus far, with next Tuesday’s shows carrying things up to the 10th-place elimination of John Hewitt, setting the stage for the almost-live November Nine coverage starting Sunday, November 6.

I wasn't able to find Nielsen Ratings for every single week, although by looking at a couple of different sites I did find a lot of them. Looks like in terms of total numbers of viewers the WSOP shows are tending to average somewhere between 550,000-600,000 overall. It looks like the audiences were a little bigger early on when the shows were coming at 8-10 p.m. (now they are usually airing 9-11 p.m., and sometimes later).

By comparison, nearly twice that many viewers (usually at least a million, often more) are routinely watching “Pardon the Interruption” earlier in the day. And of course ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” airing the night before -- frequently the most-watched weekly show on cable -- tends to draw something like 25 times as many viewers than does the WSOP.

The most-watched hour of WSOP programming I'm seeing from the weeks where I was able to locate numbers was the second hour on August 9 (9-10 p.m.) when 827,000 tuned in. The least-watched came a couple of weeks ago on October 11 when only 399,000 saw the first hour (9-10 p.m.).

(Like I say, there are some weeks I didn’t get the numbers, so there could’ve been higher peaks or lower valleys. If anyone can point me to better, more comprehensive numbers, please do.)

Incidentally, for those live WSOP telecasts back in July the average viewership was said to be 415,000 (for the ESPN2 shows), with the couple of primetime hours’ worth of coverage they showed on ESPN on July 19 drawing 615,000. Those numbers compared favorably to ratings for other mid-July shows and by most accounts helped make the case that the live (or almost-live) type programming was a successful experiment as far as attracting viewers was concerned.

So how do the 2011 WSOP ratings compare to 2010? Well, the average audience for the first seven weeks’ worth of shows last year was reportedly 737,000, so we’re definitely talking about a decent-sized decrease this year -- like by around 20% or more. Incidentally, that figure from last year was itself down about 16% from what they were getting in 2009.

I heard Dan Gati of Poker PROductions on this week’s Two Plus Two Pokercast talk about the upcoming coverage of the final table as well as what we’ve seen thus far. Addressing the dip in numbers, Gati suggested that one cause could be Black Friday and the fact that a lot of potential viewers aren’t tuning in because, well, they aren’t playing poker themselves.

There are no doubt other factors contributing to the decline, but that seemed like a reasonable assumption to make. There are a lot of folks who after a long time of playing poker online many times a week -- if not every single day -- have now gone six-plus months without playing at all. And there’s probably a good portion of those folks who’ve found other hobbies and recreational activities to replace poker, making the watching of others play poker a less likely option for them, too.

Of course, ESPN has called an audible here regarding the November Nine and their plans for covering it, deciding to forgo the planned-for two-hour final show and instead present many hours of almost-live coverage. (See here for details.)

Last year’s final “November Nine” show saw a big dip from 2009, with 1.563 million tuning in last year compared to 2.1 million the year before. If ESPN had stuck with the plan and done something similar this year with its finale, I think it would have been a safe bet that the figure would’ve slipped once again, perhaps dramatically.

As is, it will be interesting to find out just how many folks dial up ESPN and ESPN2 to watch the coverage of all the hands on Sunday, November 6 and Tuesday, November 8. And whether increasing hype over the event helps build a significant audience when things come to a climax on Tuesday.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Floating an Idea About Poker and Risk

OverprotectedBeen going back over the testimony and discussion from yesterday’s House hearing, the one conducted by one of the subcommittees of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, titled “Internet Gaming: Is There a Safe Bet?” Lots of interest, there.

Probably one of the more curious moments during the hearing came during the testimony of Dr. Kurt Eggert, the law professor who teaches at the Chapman University School of Law. Eggert teaches classes in gambling law (among other courses) at the California university. He also identified himself as an expert on consumer protection during yesterday’s hearing.

In the context of discussing various ways to protect online poker players -- or, as Eggert refers to them, “consumers” -- in a newly regulated online poker environment, the law prof brought up the need to inform players exactly what they are risking when they sit down to play.

Since “the greatest danger to their bankroll comes not from the online casino itself, but rather from other players,” Eggert suggests there exists a special challenge with online poker when it comes to informing players of their level of risk. He understands that sites can and should make known what the rake is going to be, but he also believes that not knowing just how significant of a “danger” those other players are to a person’s bankroll represents a problem in need of fixing should online poker become regulated.

Reading through his testimony, it is clear that Eggert has at least a rudimentary understanding of how poker is played and even how the “poker economy” works, explaining himself how in these “financial ecosystems... most of the money brought into the system by recreational gamblers, who often are willing to lose money in order to obtain the recreational value of gambling.”

So Eggert understands, I believe, that in poker you have to have losers. I also think he is aware of the fact that there are probably going to be more losers than winners in poker’s “financial ecosystem,” however it might be arranged. All of that Eggert accepts. What is problematic to the law professor, though, is the fact that all of these “consumers” who are losing aren’t being informed adequately ahead of time what exactly their level of risk is when they sit down at the tables.

There exists a very simple answer to the problem, I think. In fact, it is so simple it suggests this isn’t even a problem at all. But first let’s look at the solution floated by Eggert yesterday.

Kurt Eggert, Professor of Law at Chapman University School of Law“One possibility that government regulators could investigate would be requiring Internet poker sites themselves to track and list ratings for Internet poker players, much like the ratings used in the chess world,” suggests Eggert. “In chess, a player’s rating is determined by a player’s win and loss record and the strength of the competition, so that a win against a higher rated opponent provides a bigger rating boost than against an equally rated opponent. To convert this system to online poker, it would be necessary to factor into the ratings how much money was at stake in the game, so that big wins or losses would count more, and so that players could not intentionally reduce their ratings by trying to lose numerous very low stakes games. Therefore, a players’ rating would increase if he or she won money, and the amount of increase would depend on the amount won compared to the amount wagered, as well as the rating of the player compared to that of his or her opponent.”

Anyone who has played poker even for a short period of time realizes at least a couple of obvious, fundamental problems with Eggert’s idea. It’s an excellent example, really, of an academic who has been seduced by a theory that sounds great up in the office but would utterly fall apart if put into practice.

One problem, of course, is the fact that the amount one wins or loses doesn’t really work as a measure of how good or bad a player one might be. Whether we are looking at a single session or a much larger sample size, one’s bottom line might suggest something of one’s skill level, but cannot be used seriously as meaningful indicator by which to judge skill level. In fact, saying “big wins or losses would count more” when calculating such ratings only makes things worse, since we all know players of wildly varying skill levels play for a variety of stakes -- high, middle, and low.

A second obvious problem is that making such judgments about other players is, in fact, part of the game. The further Eggert explores his idea, the more he reveals a lack of appreciation of that fact.

“By providing the ratings of each player at the site,” Eggert continues, “poker sites would alert recreational gamblers when they are facing a player with a much higher rating, and so one likely to win against them, whether that opponent is a poker ‘bot,’ a data mining professional, or simply a much better poker player.”

From there Eggert goes on to imagine the benefits to all -- the players and the sites -- that would result from his plan to rate players. He also realizes some might not want to play games in which such information is shared so freely, and so suggests that sites could host “ratings-free rooms” where nothing about players’ relative successes and failures at the tables would be made available.

To be fair, Eggert’s concern about datamining as a “consumer protection” issue is worthwhile. Even his worrying about the “bots” coming to get us is fine, too, although I think most of us know there are still significant limitations to bots’ effectiveness, not to mention genuine means to police against their use. When building this sucker from the ground up, these are both issues that will have to be dealt with among many others when constructing a newly regulated, U.S.-government-approved online poker environment.

But talking about trying to find ways to protect less skillful players against more skillful ones is an unneeded distraction here. The fact is, some (most, really) of the “consumers” have to get consumed. And everyone -- fish, sharks, what have you -- who wades into the player pool should know that when doing so he or she necessarily risks getting eaten.

I said earlier there was a simple answer to the question of how best to identify to players exactly what they are risking whenever they sit down at the table. It’s not a hard calculation to make, really, and it follows the same formula regardless of the player and whether one is sitting down with a bunch of unskilled yahoos or a table full of top pros.

What is the risk when sitting down at an online poker table? The amount for which one buys in. No more, no less.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

House Hearing on “Internet Gaming” Shows U.S. Online Poker a Complicated Game

U.S. House Committee on Energy and CommerceAs you’ve probably heard, there was a hearing this morning in the House of Representatives where the prospects for licensing and regulating online gambling were discussed. The meeting was of one of the subcommittees of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and was titled “Internet Gaming: Is There a Safe Bet?”

I’m not going to offer an exhaustive summary of the meeting as I have occasionally done in the past for these sorts of things. You can watch the hearing yourself online over at C-SPAN here. Also, over on the Energy and Commerce committee’s site you can find much of what was discussed in the meeting, including a background memo, the opening statement delivered by Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), plus the prepared statements of all of the witnesses.

Those witnesses were as follows (the links are to the statements): Parry Aftab (FairPlayUSA), Ernest Stevens (National Indian Gaming Association), Keith Whyte (National Council on Problem Gambling), Alphonse D'Amato (Poker Players Alliance), Kurt Eggert (a law professor at Chapman University), and Dan Romer (Adolescent Communication Institute). If you don’t want to wade through all of that, Michael Gentile has provided a nice summary of all of this testimony over at PokerFuse.

Overall, the hearing struck me as much more focused and potentially constructive than many of the others that have taken place, including those held to discuss matters related to proposed bills such as the ones put forth by Barney Frank.

Poker players like to make fun of non-poker folks’ use of metaphors, but I kind of liked Mary Bono Mack’s opening statement in which she used the stages of a hold’em hand to outline the meeting’s purpose:

“In many ways, the debate over legalizing Internet gambling is a lot like Texas Hold’em poker,” she began. “Three cards are dealt face-up. Is the further expansion of gambling in the United States a good bet? Can online gambling be regulated effectively? And what role should the federal government play to protect American consumers from ‘sharks’? This is the ‘flop’ we’ve been dealt for today’s hearing.”

Rep. Mary Bono MackShe continued: “Then there’s the ‘turn’ card: with billions of dollars sitting on the table, can Congress afford not to get involved? And, finally, the ‘river’ card: what impact would legalizing Internet gambling have on American consumers and the U.S. economy? Clearly, the stakes are high, and a ‘showdown’ is likely on Capitol Hill in the months ahead.”

I liked the way Mack’s metaphor clarifies how there are most definitely multiple stages left in this process. A “showdown” or ultimate vote on some proposed bill is still quite a ways away, for sure. So it made sense for her to characterize today’s meeting as coming relatively early in the “hand” -- a chance to explore ideas and perhaps begin talking about the logistics of having licensed and regulated online poker in the U.S.

I say “online poker” and not “online gambling,” because it seemed as though throughout the hearing that the focus was really more so on poker than not. The title of the hearing was generic (“gaming”), but the statements by the witnesses and most of the discussion afterwards primarily concerned the idea of setting up poker games online in which players can compete against one another as they have in the past.

There were a few moments along the way that stood out for me.

Joe Barton (R-TX), who has of course proposed his own bill (the Internet Gambling Prohibition, Poker Consumer Protection, and Strengthening UIGEA Act of 2011), emerged as a useful voice in the discussion thanks to his understanding of poker, including the online version.

Barton also talked about poker being “an all-American game” and alluded to his having learned it in the Boy Scouts. These observations are all sort of tangential, but the fact is poker is a significant part of American history and culture and thus references to this fact aren’t altogether irrelevant.

The Alphonse of SpadesD’Amato made a few interesting observations, but I remain somewhat unsure of his status as a representative for U.S. players wanting to play online poker. The former senator certainly still carries some political clout, though, as perhaps was indicated by the compliments sent his way by some of the committee members.

D’Amato alluded a lot to the problems an unregulated environment can cause, on several occasions referring to the Full Tilt Poker situation as an illustration. He also provocatively noted how despite the UIGEA, Black Friday, and everything else, U.S. players can still play poker online, noting how John Pappas -- I presume the PPA’s Executive Director, not the similarly-named poker pro -- had recently opened a cash account on Bodog. (Rep. Barton alluded to folks still being able to load up on Bodog as well.)

Speaking of the PPA, late in the hearing D’Amato was asked point blank if the group took contributions from off-shore online gambling sites and D’Amato answered that they did not. A more honest answer would’ve mentioned how up until very recently such sites were primary contributors to the PPA. Kind of weird at times to see D’Amato holding up Full Tilt Poker’s rogue ways as exemplifying the need for regulation after the PPA had been so closely linked to FTP for so long. Indeed, it was just a few months ago that both Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson were on the PPA’s Board. (EDIT [added 9 p.m.]: See this Forbes piece from later on Tuesday that specifically explains FTP’s prior status as an indirect contributor to the PPA.)

Finally, a lot of the latter part of the hearing saw witnesses and Congress members uncertainly discussing bots, collusion, tracking software, and other elements that make online poker different from the live game. Some folks were better informed than others here, and so a few howlers escaped along the way revealing some of the discussants’ lack of understanding of online poker.

Still, these sort of issues have to be discussed at some point. As Scarlet Robinson was explaining to me the other day, we all have to realize that any kind of licensing and regulating of online poker in the United States is going to look much different than what other countries have come up with, as well as what was the case previously in the largely unregulated (or sorta self-regulated) environment.

The U.S. is going to have a lot of concern with various issues -- e.g., “anonymous” play, all transfers of money, consumer protections, etc. -- that were either of only limited concern previously or not important at all. In other words, things like tracking software and bots will be part of the discussion, although hopefully Congress will be able to bring in folks who know more about it going forward.

The “river” is still a long, long way away, though. Never mind the “showdown.” Indeed, we may see the proponents of some sort of licensing and regulation having to fold a few hands before it ever gets that far.

No, we really haven’t even reached the “flop” yet in this complicated game.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Reports from the Department of Redundancy Department: Full Tilt Poker’s Ex-Employees Speaking Out

RedundancyWas diverted somewhat over weekend by these new threads popping up over on Two Plus Two in which ex-employees of Full Tilt Poker (or, rather, Pocket Kings Ltd.) are answering questions about their experiences working for the company.

Apparently close to 200 employees were finally let go from Full Tilt Poker last week -- their positions having been deemed “redundant” -- after several grim months of what sounds like reporting to work and doing nothing. (For a snapshot of the scene from the Dublin offices circa late summer, check out this melancholic post by another employee from August 25 by “solongdue.”)

All of the layers of secrecy and subterfuge surrounding FTP’s operations make these revelations from ex-employees -- even the minor ones -- a bit more intriguing than they would be otherwise. Of course, there is a lot of, well, redundancy going on here, with much of what is being said merely going over ground that has already been well covered over the last few months.

Still, it’s kind of absorbing. And there are a few tidbits in these threads that are not entirely old news, including at least one item that I think qualifies as altogether new (at least to me).

(I should add as a disclaimer that we’re assuming all of these posters are indeed who they say they are -- i.e., recently let-go employees of FTP. Evidence and in some cases corroboration in the threads seems to confirm one can assume as much.)

The first of these “Q & A” threads that I became aware of was started by a poster named “AnyQuestions” early Saturday. (EDIT [added 10/25/11]: This thread was eventually deleted; see bottom of post.) Within 24 hours he’d posted over 100 times to respond to others’ questions, and the thread continued to have momentum until late Sunday night when the questions finally stopped coming.

A lot of AnyQuestions’ thread involves him confirming things either suspected or known, such as that there are many players with “seven figures” locked up on the site, that employees started to become aware of the company’s massive (and increasing) shortfall late in December 2010 or January 2011, and that morale has been understandably low around the Dublin offices over the last few months.

Oh, and that Ray Bitar and the board members seemed to eat a lot of lobster. But we’d heard about that.

This office will not tolerate redundancy in this officeAt one point AnyQuestions notes that after last week’s layoffs there are now less than 200 people left with the company. He does not sound very confident the Bernard Tapie deal will go through, and believes if it doesn’t the company will be done by January.

He speculates about the possibility of players getting paid (possibly in part) even if the sale doesn’t happen. There are other items in there regarding security, customer service, and various trivia, with AnyQuestions’ earnestly answering all questions as well as he can while not naming names.

Another ex-employee actually started a thread earlier (on Thursday), although he did so over in the Brags, Beats, and Variance forum rather than NVG and so I didn’t notice that one until the weekend. That poster -- “Amphitryon” -- appeared to have worked in security at FTP.

Amphitryon is a little less forthcoming about the behind-the-scenes stuff than AnyQuestions, but is more explicit with his expressions of disappointment with the company, at least early on in the thread. But the level of conversation over there is mostly less serious and more given to joking around about FTP’s many follies, and by Sunday morning it had evolved into another funny photoshop thread before pretty much petering out.

Amphitryon does provide a few minor insights into how security operated, though. He also notes how over in security they had no idea beforehand that anything like what happened on Black Friday was about to occur. Both he and AnyQuestions sound as though they sincerely loved their jobs with FTP, repeatedly expressing variations on the “good while it lasted” theme.

Now hiring nowA third ex-employee, who alluded to the manner in which he lost his job by taking the name “Redundo,” then started yet another thread on Sunday morning, which after several hours was deleted from the site by moderators after the poster expressed regret for starting it. In fact, the same “Redundo” started a similar thread over on HighStakes.db where his post has not been removed.

While Redundo also stated he was ready to answer questions from 2+2ers, he clearly wasn’t as interested in doing so as were the other two thread-starters. He only came back into the thread a couple of times afterwards, and then only to ask that the thread be deleted. Rather, it looks like he just wanted to share a few pieces of information and express some frustration.

In that initial post (which as I say, can still be read over at the HighStakes.db forum), Redundo addresses a number of topics that were being discussed in the other threads. He, too, expressed pessimism about FTP’s future prospects (“it is sad to say but full tilt is gone”). He also suggests he believed players’ chances of getting their money returned was slight (“i don’t think it will happen”).

Then, during the next part of his post, Redundo showed a much greater willingness to name names than is the case with either AnyQuestions or Amphitryon.

He confirms that “FTPDoug” was still part of Pocket Kings (something being discussed in AnyQuestions’ thread). He then mentioned how Gil Coronado, the company’s Chief Financial Officer, has largely managed to avoid censure or legal trouble to this point despite being “probably number 2 guy in whole company” behind Ray Bitar and “largely responsible” for the current situation.

He next speaks of two others among the company’s management team -- Deirdre O’Shaughnessy and Caroline Lynch. O’Shaughnessy’s a co-director with Bitar at Pocket Kings (and at several other of the companies they set up), while Lynch heads Human Resources. Redundo largely absolves O’Shaughnessy (“i dont think [she] knew just how badly coronada and bitar ****ed up”) though is critical of Lynch (whom he called a “snake” and a “not nice person”). (That post by “solongdue” referenced above also includes comments about these two.)

Help stamp out and abolish redundancyRedundo then notes how Phil Gordon and Andy Bloch were more heavily involved in decision making than many realize. (AnyQuestions confirms in his thread that “to the best of [his] knowledge” Gordon’s involvement was substantial, and that Bloch is a major shareholder.)

Additionally -- and perhaps most notably -- Redundo briefly shares details of a “secret project” called “Project Coyote” that Full Tilt Poker had been working on that involved an agreement with the Facebook folks in Dublin to try to get an FTP game up and running on the social networking site.

The game would “connect to the back end of full tilt play money games and make the network really big,” the idea being to have the biggest site in the industry in terms of player base. “Then they woiuld [sic] try to convert to real money players,” Redundo goes on to explain, an idea he says “could have fixed the shortfall of funds if it didn’t get so many bugs and was delayed so much.”

Presumably, such a move represented part of the company’s plan for “global domination in the poker world” (a line from Ray Bitar that AnyQuestions quotes in his thread). Later in his thread, AnyQuestions acknowledges -- without going into specifics -- that the Facebook idea was indeed in the works.

It was the sharing of this news that led to Redundo’s thread being deleted. Two Plus Two moderator NoahSD (of Subject:Poker) had chimed in to point out how the Project Coyote stuff was perhaps better left undiscussed, Redundo agreed, and thereafter he asked that his thread be removed.

Interesting how one of the few non-redundant items to appear in any of the threads would raise ethical concerns about how much ex-employees should be willing to share. I suppose there are still some who think the “FTP on Facebook” idea -- which sounds like it might have been relatively close to happening prior to Black Friday -- still has some significance at this point as a bargaining chip for FTP with the Tapie group. I can’t see it mattering much now, though. After all that has happened this year, how could Facebook possibly be interested in working with the site going forward? (Besides, several others have already started down the Facebook road by this point, yes?)

Warning Road Sign AheadThere’s another ex-employee (or, perhaps, current employee?) of FTP who started doing something similar over in a Swedish poker forum a few days ago, too. A 2+2er has translated a lot of the Swede’s responses and posted his translations here.

The Swede is offering more specifics regarding how the remaining employees are working in preparation for a relaunch, although people are quitting, too, and it appears that given who’s left the company probably would be quite challenged to handle a relaunch should it occur.

Like Amphitryon, the Swede notes how Black Friday and its aftermath took him by surprise. He says Chris “Jesus” Ferguson -- whom he finds most culpable along with Bitar and Howard Lederer -- is still hanging around the offices there in Dublin. He also suggests the alarming possibility that Full Tilt Poker never donated money it collected from charity tournaments set up to deliver aid to Haiti and Japan. (Dealing in speculation here, obviously.)

Like I say, all of this was quite interesting to read through, even if relatively speaking there wasn’t a ton of new information to discover. It’s also interesting to consider the possibility of others speaking out, including those with more extensive knowledge of the site’s management -- in other words, people who might start providing information that isn’t so redundant.

(I believe the great Firesign Theatre were the first to create the Dept. of Redundancy Dept. -- on their 1970 album Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers -- although I know Monty Python slipped it into a “Flying Circus” sketch somewhere in there as well.)

(EDIT [added 10/25/11]: The AnyQuestions thread had continued throughout the day on Monday with many more questions about Full Tilt’s operations being answered. However, as Mr Glich notes in his comment, the thread was deleted from the 2+2 site after AQ was apparently threated with a lawsuit. Here’s the new thread in which the removal of the original thread is discussed.)

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Friday, October 21, 2011

On the “Industry”

Charlie Chaplin in 'Modern Times' (1936)For those of us who find ourselves somehow committing to poker as a more than just casual pastime, our relationship with the game moves through certain, commonly experienced stages. Not unlike other kinds of relationships, really.

There’s that first recognition of interest, followed by an initial period of spending time with the game. Somewhere early on we realize we like poker. We might even rush headlong into loving it, if you’re not too shy about using such a word with reference to a card game.

In any case, for a lot of us there’s certainly that early romance-like stage in which we find everything about the game fascinating and can’t get enough of it.

From there the relationship often moves into a different phase, one that either deepens our connection to poker or perhaps signals a break-up might be about to occur. From that first crush to something more... I don’t know... grown up.

Those who stick with the game find their relationship to poker “maturing” (so to speak) into a less manic, more comfortable kind of coexistence. Such a scaling back is probably necessary for the relationship to survive, to move forward into something that remains positive and worthwhile for us to pursue.

Perhaps because of all that has happened over the last six months in the wake of Black Friday, I found myself thinking about this progression through which so many of us go with poker and the parallel “rise-and-fall”-like progression the game itself has gone through over the last decade-plus -- one marked most heavily by the emergence of the online game and the whole “boom” furthered by televised poker, and now more recently by an “implosion” of sorts (to borrow Pokerati Dan's term for what’s happening).

Somewhere in there -- well before Black Friday -- a lot of us stopped talking about how we got “into poker.” Rather, we began to refer to our connection to the game in a different way. We started talking about getting into the “industry.”

By the “industry” I suppose I’m referring to all sorts of things, all of which have in common the ability to earn money from poker without actually playing poker.

Those employed by online sites found a place in the industry. Folks like me who managed to land opportunities to write about tournaments and other aspects of the game are also part of the industry. As are sponsored players, the online site affiliates, those who stage and publicize tournaments and other events, and any one else who, one way or another, has found a way to make poker profitable without actually buying in and taking a hand.

I’m not criticizing this development, just remarking upon it. And thinking about how for many of us the growth of the “poker industry” has occurred at roughly the same time we individually experienced that move from a romantic conception of the game to a more realistic or mature one.

Many never bother exploring this industry of poker, continuing simply to play and more or less enjoy the game on its own. But for those who have, the game has evolved into something else -- perhaps something less like “play” and more like “work,” although I’m not really sure that’s the analogy I want to make here.

A better contrast would probably be the one between “business” and “pleasure.”

We first play because it gives us pleasure. Then (for some) the game evolves into a business. For those of us who find ourselves getting involved with the industry, our romance with the game might continue into that second phase. But probably not for long, especially if the transition involves a gradual diminishing (or disappearing) of that initial pleasure.

I still find it all quite fun and diverting, though. Both the playing and all the other stuff. Enriching, too, in a way. Was just realizing, though, how instinctive it has become to refer to “getting into the industry” rather than “getting into the game.”

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Refreshing Reading: Following the WSOPE Main Event Final Table

Refreshing ReadingSpending today following that World Series of Poker Europe Main Event final table over in Cannes, France. Once again, I’m thwarted by that damn ESPN3 applesauce, since my internet service provider isn’t listed among those who get to access anything on the site.

I’m sure the arrangement is handsomely profitable for all involved and I don’t begrudge anyone trying to make an extra buck if they can. Nor am I whining about not getting something for free (although I do pay a satellite company a decent amount per month to view the other ESPN networks).

Is a bummer, though, to be shut out. Makes me wonder about closing off what is really niche programming to a decent-sized percentage of one’s audience.

All is not lost, however, as I am refreshing the updates over at PokerNews as well as Jesse May’s terrific live blog of the Main Event final table over on the Poker Farm site.

Of course, in some ways reading about poker can be more entertaining and enlightening than watching it. Especially if the accounts are being delivered by talented scribes.

We happen to be reading The Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez this week in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class, that highly literary, richly drawn account of the 1981 WSOP. Referring to the book, James McManus once wrote that “Alvarez demonstrates once and for all that an understated prose account of poker action is quite a bit more exciting than watching the game in person, or even on television with hole cards revealed.”

I tend to agree with McManus, particularly when we’re talking about a talent like Alvarez. While watching a live video of the 1981 WSOP would be certainly be intriguing, I can’t imagine it matching the depth and insight of the Englishman’s wide-ranging narrative.

Not unrelatedly, in his live blog Jesse May just now digressed to opine a bit about the trend toward live or sort-of-live streaming coverage of poker, such as will be happening in less than three weeks with ESPN’s coverage of the 2011 WSOP Main Event final table. (See his entry at 17:40.)

There all of the action -- with hole cards -- will be shown on a 15-minute delay. May invites us to imagine that gap closing even further, with hole cards being shown “immediately following the conclusion of every hand, all the hands are revealed on the screen to both players and audience alike.” It’s a logical conclusion May believes we are heading toward.

“Perfect information after every hand,” adds May. “Now every player will know exactly what his opponent had, showdown or not. Every bluff revealed. And each player will have to react to every hand both to his opponents and the audience. Now we’ve got banter, now we’ve got history, now we’ve got levelling. Now we’ve got a spectator sport.”

An interesting prospect to consider. And a wholly different game, really.

Still, wherever this all leads, there will remain a need for the post-game reflection -- “the understated prose account” that can yield still more insight or edification than can ever be delivered even when watching live.

Looks like Jake Cody just busted. Which means at the moment six remain over in Cannes, with the American Elio Fox leading the way.

Back to my reading.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Republican Candidates’ Cards on the Table

GOP presidential candidates as playing cardsHappened to catch that debate of the Republican presidential candidates last night on CNN. Seems like they’ve had about 10 of these suckers already.

Last night’s debate, dubbed the “Western Republican Leadership Conference (WRLC)/CNN Debate,” was held in Las Vegas at the Venetian, and thus it wasn’t surprising to see the opening montage search the setting for metaphors to introduce the show.

Check out the first couple of minutes:



Was kind of uncanny, actually, to switch over there and during that opening sequence hear all of those echoes from my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class.

We’ve spent much of the first half of the semester learning about the history of poker -- and American history, too. Thus we have discussed at length how the game spread westward, kind of absorbing and illustrating all of those “American frontier” themes that the country’s expansion out west in the 19th century often evokes. And we’ve also talked some about the many U.S. presidents who were poker players, and how some have argued the game actually offers a genuinely meaningful proving ground for would-be leaders.

In fact, media/political commentator Jeff Greenfield made that latter point after last week’s debate in which the candidates actually sat around a circular table. “Next time, have the moderator deal cards,” said Greenfield “Then watch them play a few hands of poker. (Not Texas Hold ’Em—unfair advantage to Texas Gov. Rick Perry.) Few better measurements of shrewdness and temperament than how someone plays cards.”

From the earlier GOP debate (10/11/11)I missed Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” making a similar poker reference in his breakdown of last week’s GOP debate, but B.J. Nemeth told me on Twitter last night how Stewart had said it looked like “the world’s most boring poker game.” (That pic is from that 10/11/11 debate; last night they were at podiums again.)

In that opening montage last night, there were initial references to the western U.S. as “the American frontier” and how the west represented “a historic land of opportunity.” Then came the Vegas-related references, “a city where dreams are made... and crushed.”

There was the Stratosphere and the “Welcome to Vegas” sign and a roulette wheel providing predictable imagery. Then, when the seven candidates were introduced, we saw cards and chips and what looked like a poker table.

GOP presidential candidates as playing cardsThe narration referred to a “dramatic reshuffling of the pack” pushing Herman Cain up among the “leaders of the pack” with Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. Meanwhile Newt Gingrinch, Ron Paul, and Michele Bachmann were characterized as “wild cards,” while Rick Santorum was “eager to beat the odds.”

The candidates’ faces appeared on the cards themselves. When I noted on Twitter that the debate was being introduced via poker metaphors, Oskar Garcia who covers gambling/Vegas for the Associated Press responded to say the imagery also evoked other gambling games such as blackjack or baccarat. A good point, but I’d bet those compiling the little sequence (and most viewers) were probably thinking poker.

Poker actually was evoked by the candidates themselves at an earlier debate during an exchange between Romney and Perry. When the subject of Texas’ relative growth during Perry’s tenure as governor came up at that debate, Romney suggested Perry had been dealt a good hand, so to speak, and thus had succeeded more because of luck than skill.

“If you’re dealt four aces, that doesn’t make you necessarily a great poker player,” said Romney of Perry. I wrote about that exchange in one of my “Community Cards” columns over on the Epic Poker blog, if you’re interested to read more.

So we keep hearing about poker at these debates, with the many references further proving the point of my class that poker is, in fact, an important part of American culture. But despite the hopes of some in our little poker community, the game itself -- particularly the topic of possibly legislating online poker -- isn’t really being discussed.

No, poker itself isn’t being addressed, although the game keeps providing metaphors and symbols that others -- and even the candidates themselves -- are using to try to distinguish them from one another.

That said, they all mostly still seem like a pack of cards.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Crashing the Free Games

Playing on South Point PokerYou might have heard something about two weeks ago about how the Las Vegas-based South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa had started an online poker site where they planned -- among other offerings -- to run some freeroll qualifiers to next year’s World Series of Poker Main Event.

I looked into the site a little last week prior to its official launch yesterday. It’s actually on that same Zen Entertainment Network on which one finds Rise Poker, UFC Poker, WWE Poker, the National League of Poker (NLOP), and others. That meant that since I already signed up for a Rise account before, I didn’t need to again in order to log into the South Point Poker software.

All of these sites not only share player bases but the same software, too, so I really didn’t need to download the South Point Poker client at all as the only difference between it and Rise was “SP” on the backs of the cards. But I did, anyway.

Last night I noticed some tweets about South Point Poker finally going live and that first WSOP ME satellite freeroll happening, and so I ended up registering and playing. Was kind of fun for a while, then more than a little frustrating. But the frustration part was mostly on my end (I explain below).

I’d played a little on the Rise Poker site before. Also earlier in the evening, before the tourney started, I messed around on the South Point version, too. I chatted with players to discover they were logged in via Rise. So I was already somewhat familiar with where things were.

Those of you who’ve taken a look at the Rise site know that it’s not the greatest interface, especially when compared to what a lot of us are used to. But it is somewhat manageable. The ads around the sides of the table aren’t really that distracting to me, nor are the commercials they run during breaks. (Sucker does seem to use a lot of computing power, though, when compared to the PokerStars client or others.)

The slider for betting is a little awkward to use, and it is actually hard sometimes to tell how much others have bet. Particularly for the player sitting in the seat on the left side of the table, near the “Rise” logo (which appears even with the South Point client).

Can't see amountFor instance, here’s a shot of a bet in which the total was obscured by the logo. You can kind of count the chips here, but there was one hand later on last night when this design flaw posed a genuine problem for me.

I had opened with a raise from middle position and it had folded back to a relative short stack in the big blind who like this guy reraised all in, and I could not tell how much his bet was for. The total pot amount is displayed at the top of the table, so I guess I could have done some math to figure out the total of the shove, but I didn’t and just ended up letting the hand go.

Speaking of this whole freerollin’-ZEN experience, I mentioned a few months back that I knew someone who had a lot of fun playing on the NLOP site. She’d won a couple of tourneys and had checks for $10 or $20 mailed to her, which added to her enjoyment. I could see perhaps spending more time on the network and exploring a bit more, especially if the software were more palatable.

This is making me think a bit of the posts Kim of Infinite Edge Gaming is currently working on regarding the “de-gamification of poker.” I was reading through his latest installment in the series last night prior to playing in the South Point Poker tourney, including looking at the very cool and informative presentation by Sebastian Deterding called “Pawned. Gamification and Its Discontents” which Kim recommends along the way.

I don’t want to sidetrack this post too greatly, so I am not going to get into everything Kim is talking about. Also, I am still pondering Kim’s observations about the way those who have run online poker over the last decade gradually managed to take the “game” out of the game and make it something else. (Read his posts -- Part 1 and Part 2 -- and maybe that last sentence will make more sense.)

But I did want to note that I think Kim is onto something... both in his analysis of what has happened in the past with online poker and his ideas regarding what should happen in the future when the whole industry is remade here in the United States. As Kim notes, the game has to be fun, despite the fact that more than 90% of those playing aren’t going to be consistent “winners.”

Which brings me back to last night’s tournament. Like I said, it was free to play. Or actually, it “cost” 500 pts. to play, but you get 1,500 or something just for signing up. (And it isn’t hard to win more points, if you need them.)

And there was a real prize there at the end, an expense-paid trip out to Vegas next month to play a live one-table satellite the winner of which gets a seat in the 2012 WSOP ME. By the way, the freerolls are continuing nightly all week -- click here for more details.

South Point PokerAlso, folks finishing in the top 120 or so did win points that can be used in other tourneys and sit-n-gos on the network. I’ve played a few of those before. There are a number of free events one can play, but more that “cost” points with prizes consisting of either more points or even actual cash. And, of course, if you get the $20/month thing you are allowed to play even more events with real money prizes. (Upgrading like that also allows you to change your avatar and do other stuff, too, I believe.)

The tourney had a fast structure and we only began with 1,000 chips, so as might be expected it was super-gambly early on. Took me a while to realize play was eight-handed, not nine. I hit a couple of hands during the first few orbits, then kept chipping up before winning a big one. I’d opened with Td8d and had a couple of callers, then the big blind reraised small and we all called. The flop brought three diamonds and all three of the others were happy enough to put their stacks in with me. My hand held, and just like that I was first with 800 players left.

I was either first or second over the next hour or so as the field got trimmed down to less than 200. Then I finally fell back a little to the bottom of the top 20. That’s when my computer -- a desktop PC running Windows Vista -- shut down unexpectedly on me.

I say “unexpectedly” because there is no warning beforehand the shut down is going to occur, but I have experienced the problem occasionally in the past. I am pretty sure it is a driver-related issue -- in fact, I think it began not long after I bought a new keyboard some months ago. Could also be a temperature thing, but I’m not really sure. (That will be one of the puzzles I try to solve today.)

In any case, I rebooted and rejoined the game, played a few hands, and had another shut down. Went through the same sequence and by the time I was logged back in I found I was 33/74. It happened a couple more times, though, and so eventually I fired up another desktop we have, installed the client, and got back in just in time to play two more hands with what had become a less-than-3BB stack. Finished 31st, for which I won a few thousand more points with which to play other tourneys and sit-n-gos.

Zen Entertainment Network tourney schedule screenSetting aside my computer troubles, the tourney was fun enough, especially for that short stretch where it looked like I might actually be positioned to make a run at winning the thing. Might have to take another shot in one of these WSOP ME sattys. And like I say I think I am reasonably intrigued enough to try to negotiate that schedule of tourneys and sit-n-gos to see what else might be on offer.

Would love to be able to play on my Mac laptop, though. That thing always works.

(EDIT [added 10/25/11]: Feel obligated to add a note here regarding those crashes I experienced while playing at South Point Poker. I’ve noticed others referring to the Zen Entertainment client using a ton of computing power, with some also reporting encountering the dreaded “blue screen of death” while playing. While I have no idea whether my problems were entirely related to running the SPP program, I eventually had to replace my hard disk as I could no longer run anything without the crashes occurring. I may have just had a hard drive go bad on me, but I am now somewhat reluctant to load the Zen program back onto my newly installed hard disk.)

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Monday, October 17, 2011

LOL Americans

Get a brain, moransI was playing online over the weekend over on the Hero Poker site. While some of the Merge network sites are now allowing U.S. player sign-ups, I believe Hero is one skin that is not letting any new American players jump in. They are, however, allowing those who currently have accounts there to continue to play.

It is pretty silly, all of the different restrictions and what not. Not to mention the many hoops through which American poker players presently have to go in order to play online at all. And of course our prospects going forward remain dim as far as the near future goes, although perhaps down the road we may have some sort of legislation to allow us back online to play what Al Alvarez once called “the American game.”

Am seeing some funny usernames around the tables at Hero, stuff like “FTPTookMyMny” and “FtheDOJ” the like. On Hero you can see what country a player is from, and it does seem like whenever I check that a lot of my opponents are from the U.S.

Was playing against one guy on Saturday, though, who wasn’t from the U.S. but from Germany. He had a funny name, too -- “LOLAmericans” -- with a smirky Sarah Palin pic as an avatar.

A little later another player lost a decent-sized pot after getting it in good versus “LOLAmericans” only to be sucked out on. The loser -- a U.S. player -- got a little fired up in the chatbox about it afterwards, referring to the player’s nationality once or twice in the process. I think the username might have tilted him as much or more than losing the hand.

I had to laugh a little, both at the situation and the “LOLAmericans” name. Made me think of a couple of different stories coming out over the last few days regarding non-Americans doing a bit of trash-talking about the relative poker-playing abilities of American players and the rest of the world.

There was that story involving 2010 WSOPE Main Event winner James Bord and Matchbook.com opening up betting on who will be this year’s WSOPE Main Event champ. You might heard how Bord (who is from the U.K.) has said he will be refunding all losing bets if an American wins the ME.

A pretty bold offer, really. By the way, this year’s WSOPE Main Event at Cannes attracted a record-smashing total of 593 players. (The previous high for a WSOPE ME was 362.) Just eyeballing the list of entrants, I’m seeing 107 Americans listed in the field, meaning a little more than 1 in 6 players are from the U.S.

All of the seven WSOPE bracelet events drew big fields, in fact. Incidentally, among those first six prelims three Americans won bracelets (Steve Billirakis, Tristan Wade, Michael Mizrachi).

The other America-versus-the-rest-of-the-world story from over the weekend involved the always needling Tony G. The G decided to do a little boast-posting on his blog after getting asked by Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier to join the European team in the upcoming Caesars Cup that starts on Wednesday. That’s that team event pitting a U.S. team versus a European team that was started back in 2009 as a kind of postlude to the WSOPE. (Sort of poker’s version of golf’s Ryder Cup.)

A picture of a guy who looks like Phil Hellmuth riding a giant hot dog on waterBy the way, Phil Hellmuth is captain of the U.S. team this year. I am certain Hellmuth will bring the needed gravitas to help the Americans avoid any further ridicule. I mean no one ever makes fun of him.

Tony G’s post was titled “Bring on the Americans!” and there he offers some more mostly playful-sounding vitriol directed toward the U.S. players, concluding with a somewhat confusing call to “reignite the cold war.”

He also noted there how he was betting $20,000 at 5/1 on Matchbook.com that he’d make the money in the WSOPE Main Event. After drawing a straight flush on his first hand to crack Barry Greenstein’s pocket aces, Tony G remains in the running at the moment with about 240 players left. (The top 64 cash.)

Those side bets on the online betting exchange certainly can spice up things a bit for players and fans alike. For everyone but Americans, that is, since we cannot place bets on Matchbook.com. (LOL.)

Making fun of Americans is a worldwide sport in and of itself, really. In fact, Americans themselves tend to enjoy it as much as anyone else.

How do Americans compare to the rest of the world as poker players? Historically speaking, the U.S. had a big head start versus the rest of the world with regard to poker. But I think it’s safe to say that whatever general edge Americans once had has been essentially closed over recent decades.

And given the way we’ve closed ourselves off from the online game at present, I suppose it won’t be that long before we might have to admit the U.S. will be playing from behind (generally speaking) when it comes to “the American game.”

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Every Hand of 2011 WSOP November Nine To Be Shown on ESPN/ESPN2 (With Hole Cards)

2011 November NineOn Friday I was lamenting the cancellation of one of the more popular poker shows on the television schedule, the “NBC National Poker Heads-Up Championship.” However, today I wake up to positive news regarding poker on the teevee. For this year’s 2011 WSOP Main Event final table (a.k.a., the “November Nine”), every single hand will be shown with hole cards on ESPN and ESPN2. No shinola!

The sucker happens just three weeks from today. Kind of snuck up on us, hasn’t it?

I say that because there hasn’t really been much hype at all regarding the weekly ESPN shows, the ratings for which I understand have fallen off considerably. The extensive live and sorta-live stuff from July might be one factor having caused the drop in numbers. Meanwhile the change in production companies (from 441 Productions to Poker PROductions) and subsequent “new look” of the shows might possibly have turned off some viewers as well.

Nor has there been a heckuva lot of buzz about the nine players, other than perhaps Ben Lamb finally clinching that 2011 WSOP Player of the Year yesterday when Phil Hellmuth busted from the WSOPE Main Event on Day 1a. Matt Giannetti (currently third in chips) actually won the WPT Malta event a few weeks ago, but there was relatively little fanfare surrounding that.

Indeed, I was just thinking this week about how little has been said about this year’s November Nine, as well as how the ratings for the final table show were probably doomed to experience a precipitous drop this time around. But I think this news might change that.

Play will begin at 11:30 a.m. Vegas time (2:30 p.m. ET) on Sunday, November 6. Instead of playing down to heads-up, they’ll be stopping at three players this time. Those three will then come back on Tuesday, November 8 at 5:00 p.m. local time -- which’ll be 8 p.m. or prime time in the east -- to play down to a winner.

Every single hand will be shown on ESPN or ESPN2 on a 15-minute delay with hole cards. (Get ready for those debates about players learning of each others’ holdings as the final table plays out.) For those outside the U.S., it will all be additionally streamed online at WSOP.com. It’ll be streamed on ESPN3 as well, although I don’t know if folks outside the U.S. can see that or not. (Indeed, not many of us inside the U.S. can.)

This wasn’t the original plan, I don’t believe, the 2011 WSOP Media Guide having suggested we were just going to get the usual two-hour Tuesday night package as in past years. Cool stuff, eh? Have to say this announcement got my attention this morning, not to mention has revived my interest in seeing how the tourney will play out.

By the way, here’s how the stacks are looking for the final nine:

Seat 1: Matt Giannetti (U.S.) -- 24,750,000
Seat 2: Badih Bounahra (Belize) -- 19,700,000
Seat 3: Eoghan O'Dea (Ireland) -- 33,925,000
Seat 4: Phil Collins (U.S.) -- 23,875,000
Seat 5: Anton Makiievskyi (Ukraine) -- 13,825,000
Seat 6: Sam Holden (U.K.) -- 12,375,000
Seat 7: Pius Heinz (Germany) -- 16,425,000
Seat 8: Ben Lamb (U.S.) -- 20,875,000
Seat 9: Martin Staszko (Czech Republic) -- 40,175,000

There will be a little over a half-hour left in Level 36 when play resumes on November 6, with the blinds 250,000/500,000 and a 50,000 ante.

Yes, I think I might just have to miss some football that Sunday.

(EDIT [added 10/18/11]: The schedule has been updated slightly since first making the announcement. Now the scheduled times are to begin with the November Nine coverage at 3:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, November 6, then start with the final three on Tuesday, November 8 at 9:00 p.m. ET. The plan remains to show all hands [with hole cards] on a 15-minute delay on both ESPN2 and ESPN3 [online]. I assume from the earlier announcement coverage can be still viewed on the WSOP.com site as well.)

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Another One Bites the Dust: NBC Nixes Heads-Up Championship

NBC National Heads-Up Poker ChampionshipLike a teeny, belated aftershock to the earthquake that was Black Friday, NBC announced this week it would not continue with its popular National Heads-Up Poker Championship next spring. Thus ends a seven-year run for the annual event, sort of poker’s version of “March Madness.”

In the days following the unsealing of the indictment and civil complaints against PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker/UB, there was much talk that most televised poker would likely soon be disappearing thanks to those sites’ heavy sponsorship of many shows.

While no one was particularly thinking much about the 2012 NBC Heads-Up event back in mid-April, if asked then most would’ve probably assumed the show would be a casualty thanks to the fact that both PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker were prominent sponsors, not to mention that the sites likely handled entry fees for many of their pros who were selected to participate.

A few sidenotes: GoDaddy had sponsored the NBC Heads-Up event for the last couple of years of its run, but the web-hosting service has moved over to the WSOP now. Also, a few weeks ago NBC stopped airing the Full Tilt Poker-sponsored “Poker After Dark” following the release of the DOJ’s amended complaint that included new allegations against Full Tilt and some of its pros. Going back to April, it was just a little over a week after Black Friday when the Fox network cancelled PokerStars’ “Big Game” and “Million Dollar Challenge” shows, although I know at least new “Big Game” shows continued to be produced and can be viewed over at PokerStars.tv.

While the heads-up tourney did fill a gap there in the poker calendar, often generating a lot of buzz both over the selections and the matches themselves, I don’t think too many are going to fret too greatly over the loss of the NBC Heads-Up. And while winning the sucker was something of a feather in a player’s cap, usually the win would subsequently only be mentioned in support of some other, more substantial success when rattling off a poker player’s résumé.

Of course, it was a show that tended to capture a number of non-poker folks among its weekend audience, which Wicked Chops notes achieved ratings high enough to make it “consistently the game’s top rated program.” Thus when looked at from the broader “good for the game” perspective, it may well have helped expand poker’s appeal beyond those of us who are already immersed in the game.

Hellmuth loses to Dwan in 2008 NBC National Heads-Up Poker ChampionshipI enjoyed the show. Brought us more than a few memorable moments, including that 2008 first round match between Tom “durrrr” Dwan and Phil Hellmuth that ended in a flash when Dwan spiked a set of tens to crack Hellmuth’s pocket aces.

So it goes. As that hand demonstrated, disappointment is part of life. That said, we’ll probably forget about this little footnote soon enough, which will probably rank outside the top 30 disappointments in poker in 2011. One of several moments symbolizing the end of an era.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Five Years of the UIGEA

Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006Today marks the fifth anniversary of George W. Bush signing into law the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. Or as many call it, the Awful Internet Gambling Act.

It was a Friday, as some of us remember -- an unlucky Friday the 13th for online poker players all over, but especially here in the United States.

What then-president Bush actually signed was something called the Security and Accountability For Every Port Act of 2006, a.k.a. the SAFE Port Act. There were a bunch of similar bills in Congress at the time designed to strengthen security at U.S. ports. A lot of that had to do with the fact that a few U.S. ports had been sold to a company in Dubai earlier that year, causing some to fret over whether or not national security might be put at risk.

Yeah, I know. What does online gambling have to do with that? A lot of people were wondering the same thing at the time.

Of course, fears about terrorist acts on U.S. soil had remained on a high level for more than five years since the attacks of 9/11. And so the SAFE Port Act -- like other legislation pushed through just before the 109th Congress closed up shop there at the end of September 2006 -- was viewed by many as "must pass" legislation.

We all know how Bill Frist, the Republican from Tennessee who was then the Senate Majority Leader (and who harbored presidential hopes as well), managed to tack on the UIGEA as "Title VIII" of the SAFE Port Act just before it was rapidly rushed through both houses literally minutes before Congress had finished its legislative business.

Today I found myself thinking back to that sequence of events from five years ago, and how many hadn’t necessarily expected to wake up on Saturday morning, September 30, 2006, to discover the damn thing had actually been passed.

UIGEA steamrollerFrist had tried just a week before to attach H.R. 4411 -- a UIGEA-like bill that the House had voted on and passed back in July 2006 -- to a defense spending bill, but several senators had stopped him from doing so. That I think gave a lot of us reason to believe such shenanigans weren't going to work should they be attempted once more.

But by the end of that week we were starting to hear some rumblings that Frist might try something similar again, perhaps pulling a "midnight drop" and adding the sucker to a bill at the last minute. The guys at Up for Poker were on to it, with Luckbox posting about the possibility during the day on Friday.

It was close to midnight that night when the SAFE Port Act was pushed through with almost no opposition. The vote was 409 to 2 in the House. Meanwhile over in the Senate they just affirmed it via a procedural maneuver. Such is the sketchy, not-always-fair-or-even-rational-seeming process by which bills can become laws.

Like I say, I think a lot of online poker players were surprised to learn of this development. I wrote a post that Saturday titled "Deals in the Dead of Night" describing both how I'd played a ton on PokerStars the night before and how the signing of the UIGEA into law had given me a bit of apprehension about what the future might hold.

Please Vote Against Online GamblingBut really, at the time we had only a faint idea of how what was to come. Over the next couple of weeks we studied up on the UIGEA. I wrote three posts as a kind of initial attempt to try to sort it all out (Part I, Part II, Part III). I had only started the blog a few months before, having no idea when I did how much time I would end up spending trying to parse bills and other legislative jargon.

In any case, while we still weren't too sure about it all, we knew it wasn't good.

That is to say, by the time Friday the 13th rolled around we knew that the UIGEA was kind of a BFD.

Some of us soon became further convinced of this fact when we were made to cash out from our PartyPoker accounts. I remember having a phone conversation with PartyPoker support sometime the following week, and the two of us kind of lamenting together how our relationship was coming to an end.

It really looked as though PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and everyone else might follow suit shortly thereafter and leave the U.S., too. But as we know that didn't happen. Indeed, nothing really happened for a long time, as it would take until mid-2010 for the UIGEA's "final regulations" to be established and compliance finally be made mandatory.

That’s when, of course, things got especially tricky for the sites that had chosen to continue to serve U.S. customers. Then came all those extra-curricular maneuvers by the biggest sites to keep Americans on board, including the bank fraud and money laundering that became part of the Black Friday indictment along with the allegations about violating the UIGEA and the Illegal Gambling Business Act.

I guess I still feel like we might not have seen the U.S. government go after the online sites for the UIGEA alone. That is to say, the bank fraud and money laundering charges gave the DOJ plenty of leverage to proceed with the indictment and civil complaint. But that’s hard to say, really.

UIGEA hammerYou could say the UIGEA is being challenged on a couple of fronts at the moment. Just last night the Merge network of sites reopened its doors to U.S. customers. While not every Merge skin is on board here, it sounds like many are, and so we’ll see whether the DOJ will be moved to try to bring down the UIGEA hammer again or not.

Also, a couple of those indicted back in April -- Chad Elie (a payment processor) and John Campos (Vice Chairman of that bank in Utah that processed payments) -- recently filed to have charges that they violated the UIGEA (and the IGBA) dismissed. As some had pointed out before, the UIGEA's vagueness about what exactly is unlawful (a "game subject to chance") is being highlighted by these two as grounds to absolve them. (See Subject:Poker’s report on their challenge for more.)

Might be sooner than later, then, for us to see how the UIGEA will continue to affect us going forward. Safe to say, though, that it has had plenty of influence during its first five years.

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