Friday, March 30, 2012

More Thoughts on All In: The Poker Movie: Building a “Boom”

Manufacturing a BoomNot too much time for scribblin’ today, but I did want to share just one thought that’s been banging around in the noggin’ over the last week or so.

I mentioned last week how I’d had a chance to see the new documentary All In: The Poker Movie and liked it quite a bit. You’ve no doubt started to see lots of reviews and other articles about the film. I imagine it will continue to have some momentum, especially within the poker community, all of the way up to the start of the World Series of Poker in late May and even after.

The limited theatrical run for All In will continue over the next month or more, then it will become available online and via DVD, which will ensure more viewers. You can get details about all of that on the film’s website.

If you’ve seen All In or even just read about it, you know how it was in production for several years, and in fact the makers were gearing up to finish everything when Black Friday suddenly arrived last April.

Our buddy Jeff “PKRGSSP” Walsh interviewed director Douglas Tirola on his show last week, and Tirola talked about how they were actually readying for a July 2011 release when the DOJ unsealed its indictment and civil complaint, effectively shutting down online poker in the U.S. Thus it became necessary to shoot some more interviews and refashion the film’s narrative a bit, which now begins and ends with Black Friday and positions that against the larger story of poker’s growth and importance in America.

A lot of attention has been given to the interviews with Howard Lederer and Chris “Jesus” Ferguson in the movie, both of which (I believe) were done not long before Black Friday. I think in the interview Tirola mentions the one with Lederer having been very close to April 15, what Tirola believes to have been the last real interview he did (aside from perhaps discussing a tourney with someone) before the DOJ hammer fell.

The many clips from the interviews with those two are of course quite provocative, and as I said in my review over at PokerListings I think the film does a good job handling all of the unintended irony surrounding the pair’s championing of Full Tilt Poker and other comments they make about poker.

One of the interviews conducted post-Black Friday was with Alexandra Berzon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Wall Street Journal who covers Las Vegas and who wrote articles about Black Friday and its aftermath.

In the film, Berzon talks about how the WSJ reported on the Black Friday story, in particular the Full Tilt Poker fiasco, explaining how they approached it as “not about cheating but about bluffing.” That is, referring to the way FTP had lied and misled players regarding the security of their funds, the whole enterprise was ultimately revealed to be a kind of “bluff” unexpectedly called back in April of last year.

Alexandra BerzonShe also makes what I thought was an intriguing observation about the explosion in popularity of poker over the last decade, a “boom” most (including the makers of All In) attribute in large part to the overlapping influences of Chris Moneymaker, the rise of the online game, and the growth of televised poker.

“If you look at it, the [online] poker companies created the poker boom and had a huge amount to do with it on television,” says Berzon. “And so, was the poker boom a real boom or was it a manufactured thing by these online poker companies?”

Here Berzon is setting up another question -- “Can it outlast PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker?” -- regarding whether or not any “boom” can continue in the U.S. without the sites’ considerable efforts to keep it going. This is where the film kind of ends, with speculation about poker continuing to remain popular in the U.S. and a kind of hope that it will, indeed, survive this significant setback.

But the first time I watched All In I found myself contemplating that idea that the “boom” was in fact “manufactured” or at least accelerated in a kind of artificial way by the sites and their substantial marketing campaigns, ca. 2003-2011.

For those of you who came into poker post-Moneymaker, think about what the game seems to represent to you. What pleasures or values do you associate with poker? How does poker compare to other activities, pastimes, even professions? What does poker signify, ultimately?

Now, try to think whether any of those ideas have occurred to you independently from ideas or suggestions made by the online poker sites, either directly or indirectly.

I’m not implying anything nefarious here, just remarking on how pervasive the influence of Stars, Full Tilt, Absolute/UB, and other sites has been over this period of poker’s greatest growth in the U.S., with all of the sites’ efforts to ensure poker’s continued popularity having proven so obviously successful in terms of helping get people into the game. And more than just casually committed to it, too.

The film doesn’t pursue the implications of Berzon’s comment specifically, but rather just tosses it out as an idea worth contemplating. Which I guess I’ve been doing since I first saw All In.

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mega Madness

How to Play the Mega MillionsMy dad is a retired physics professor. I’ve mentioned him before here, including once in a post titled “Physicists & Poker” in which I pointed out how when I was a kid watching Road Runner cartoons, he couldn’t resist stepping in whenever Wile E. Coyote ran off of a cliff and hung for a moment in mid-air before plummeting downward.

Dad could never allow such a blatant disregard of the law of gravity to go by without making sure his kid understood the folly of what he was seeing. I was exaggerating just a little with that story, but it is nonetheless indicative of how matter-of-fact Dad is. I mean really, he’s a very grounded guy. (Rimshot.)

As such, Dad has little patience for the lottery. Our state (North Carolina) was pretty much the last one on this side of the country to give in and allow its citizens to play the lottery, like around 2006 or so. If asked, Dad will proudly point out he’s never once bought a lottery ticket. Actually he’ll occasionally point that out even if not asked, if something inspires him to do so.

“A tax on the dumb,” he calls it, knowing that it’s never a +EV game to play. And while he’s not really a poker player he appreciates the huge difference between a game like poker in which one really does stand a chance of winning -- especially if one is skilled -- and the guessing game that is the lottery.

Was thinking about Dad this week as I read about the Mega Millions, the big multi-state lottery, having grown to its largest jackpot ever. Actually, we’re now talking about the largest lottery in the history of the U.S., with the Mega Millions having rolled 18 times since it was last won back in January.

The next drawing is tomorrow (Friday) at 11 p.m. Eastern time. Right now the estimated prize is about $540 million, crushing the previous all-time high of $390 million split by two players back in March 2007. It sounds like the winner could either take a single payment of $360 million or so or get $19-20 million a year for the next 26 years. (Those figures will probably go up over the next 36 hours, I imagine.)

I read with interest an article tweeted by my buddy F-Train yesterday in which a computer science researcher broke down the relative expected value of a Mega Millions ticket, showing how it changes as the jackpot grows. The article was penned back in January 2011 at a time when the Mega Millions had also ballooned large enough to get the attention of lots of folks.

Expected value of a $1 Mega Millions ticket, according to jackpot sizeAccording to the author, Jeremy Elson, the expected value of a $1 ticket actually peaks right around the point that the jackpot hits the $420 million mark, then slides back down again from that point forward. He’s taking all sorts of factors into consideration, including the possibility of multiple winners, non-jackpot prizes, taxes, and so forth. In other words, we’re already on the downslope of that graph now that the jackpot has pushed up over $540 million.

However, even at its peak the expected value of a $1 ticket only reaches 69.3 cents according to Elson. “Thus,” he concludes, “Mega Millions tickets are never a rational investment, no matter how big the jackpot grows.”

He adds a disclaimer concerning professional poker player friend of his who plays the lottery and then declares the cost of tickets as tax-deductible. For him, the peak point of the graph actually sneaks up over $1 for a time, but Elson kind of dismisses that as not too terribly significant to the larger point that the lottery is no way to invest your cabbage.

In fact, he ends on an anecdote that sounds a heckuva lot like one my Dad likes to tell, the one suggesting your chances of getting killed driving to the store to buy a lottery ticket are much, much greater than your chances of buying a winner.

“That’s why I plan to walk,” jokes Elson as a final punch line.

I’m kind of thinking I might just walk up to the corner and get one myself. However, I’ll be looking up as I go, you know, to make sure there aren’t any genius coyotes falling from the sky.

Wish me luck. Also, please don’t anyone tell Dad what I’m doing.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Trivial Pursuit: Black Friday News

Trivial Pursuit: Black Friday NewsAfter several months of unsuccessfully trying to get their cases thrown out of court and other gestures suggesting a readiness to fight the charges against them, two more “Black Friday” defendants -- Chad Elie, a payment processor, and John Campos, the SunFirst Bank Vice Chairman -- have decided to avoid trial and enter plea agreements with federal prosecutors.

That means six of the 11 named in the original “Black Friday” indictment have now been dealt with, aside from the sentencing which for all is pending. All six have admitted guilt to certain charges while bargaining for lesser punishments and not having their cases addressed in court. We’re talking about Campos, the four payment processors (Elie, Bradley Franzen, Ryan Lang, Ira Rubin), and Brent Beckley who was an original co-owner of Absolute Poker and handled their payments, too.

Meanwhile the “upper tier” figures -- Isai Scheinberg (PokerStars founder), Paul Tate (Director of Payments for Stars), Ray Bitar (Full Tilt Poker CEO), Nelson Burtwick (Director of Payments for FTP), and Scott Tom (Absolute co-owner) -- have yet to answer the charges against them.

Looking back at what everyone has pleaded guilty to thus far...

Franzen started out pleading not guilty in the days following Black Friday, but then a month later admitted to three of the counts related to bank fraud and money laundering. Later in December, Beckley admitted to conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud.

In January of this year Rubin pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges having to do with bank and wire fraud, money laundering, and illegal gambling. Then last month Lang pleaded guilty to violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 plus three other counts.

Now Elie has admitted to conspiring to commit bank fraud and operating an illegal business, and while we’ll get more details regarding Campos’ deal soon, he, too, is likely admitting to something similar.

The deals struck by Elie and Campos came just days after we’d heard that Daniel Tzvetkoff, the Aussie payment processor turned “supergrass,” was scheduled to appear as a prosecution witness in the pair’s trial. It was Tzvetkoff whose 2009 arrest for violating the UIGEA, bank fraud, and money laundering ultimately led to the feds gathering enough evidence to proceed with the Black Friday indictment and civil complaint. In other words, he’s made a deal, too.

Seemed pretty clear during that first week or two following Black Friday that the chance of seeing any trials was going to be slim. The avalanche of counts against defendants pretty much guaranteed deal-making would be happening for those who chose to answer the charges. And for those who have chosen not to it is no surprise to see them steering clear of the U.S. and other places with extradition agreements.

This week’s guilty pleas might well be the last we’ll hear about Black Friday for a while, aside from the occasional blip about the relative brevity of the prison terms I assume most if not all of these cats ultimately will be getting.

There will be a lot of hubbub marking the one-year anniversary in a couple of weeks. And I suppose as long as that new documentary, All In: The Poker Movie, remains part of the general dialogue about poker, the symbolic worth of Black Friday will remain foregrounded given how the film highlights the significance of that day’s events, almost personifying the date as a villain threatening not just poker, but so-called “American” values like freedom, liberty, and so on.

Funny to think how the actual indictment and civil complaint and the fates of those targeted largely functions as trivia to most of us. Sure, if someone charged with violating the UIGEA actually made it to court and somehow beat the rap via a some sort of successful challenge to the law, that would be meaningful. But it certainly doesn’t appear something like that is going to be happening anytime soon, if ever.

So we Yanks skim the stories about folks pleading guilty and move on. It’s all other people’s business. Pretty much like online poker itself, at least for the time being.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sports Talk: Reality and Romance

Sports Talk: Reality and RomanceYesterday in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class we had once again reached the point in the semester where it was time to discuss Al Alvarez’ The Biggest Game in Town.

Last year around this time I wrote a series of posts here about one chapter of Alvarez’ book (chapter 3), focusing on different themes that come up. One of those themes is the tension or conflict between a “realistic” and a “romantic” view of poker, the kind of thing anyone who has played the game and thought about it at all seriously has probably been inspired to contemplate.

In the chapter one finds Mickey Appleman talking about how “there can be no self-deception for a poker player” and how “you have to be a realist to be successful.” Interestingly, before the same long quote is over Appelman describes himself as a “romantic” and how for him “gambling is a romance.” He goes on to talk about how when he is at the table he doesn’t think about how he plays for “real money.”

It’s a curious passage, and fun to talk about with students as I ask them to try to reconcile what appears to be a kind of contradiction. I wrote at length about this in one of those posts from last year, and so won’t repeat the discussion other than to say I believed it was possible for poker pros to be “realistic” about what they were doing while also enjoying the “romantic” freedom from the “straight world” or “system” the life can provide (for some).

Anyhow, I bring up this “reality vs. romance” idea again because when I was driving into school yesterday I dialed up the local sports talk radio station to hear the discussion of the NCAA games from the weekend. Most of the talk was about UNC failing to overcome the injury to their point guard, Kendall Marshall, and thus losing to Kansas in the regional final.

It was a close game until the final few minutes when Kansas went on a run and UNC went cold, kind of a classic example of a team collectively falling apart just when things became most stressful. During the game’s most crucial moments when the team most needed to focus and execute, the Heels had failed to do so, the Jayhawks had made plays, and thus Kansas had prevailed.

I realized listening to the sports talk guys that almost everything they were saying concerned intangibles like “heart” and “desire” and “believing” and so forth. No UNC player had stepped up to “put the team on his shoulders” at the end, they explained, and thus they lost. I realized it was an entirely vague discussion of what had happened, full of clichés and faux analysis, the kind of stuff any non-expert could come up with if forced to discuss a given game.

Let’s say you knew nothing at all about poker but were forced to write a report on the final table of a tournament in which one of your assigned tasks was to analyze the strategy employed by each player. How would you do it?

Well, you could talk about “heart” and “desire” and how one player just really, really wanted it more than the others and “believed” in himself and as a result ended up winning. Right? Of course, such a report would immediately be dismissed as useless by most who read it, a group I’m assuming would consist of people with at least a marginal understanding of poker.

Always Give 110%Those readers would know that a more informed analysis would look at what actually happened in the hands the players played, noting the approaches they’d taken with various holdings, how they’d sized their bets and raises, used position, interpreted the betting patterns and other information gleaned from opponents, and so forth as having led to the actions they took. The luck element would be addressed, too -- e.g., a suckout on the river coming to snatch reward away from a well considered play. In other words, a real analysis of how players performed would necessarily deal with concrete evidence, smartly weighed.

But when it comes to basketball and a lot of sports reporting, this sort of non-specific applesauce about “desire” and such seems not only to be tolerated, but makes up most of what passes for commentators “breaking down” a game.

As I listened further to the sports talk guys repeating each other with their fuzzy back-and-forthing, I realized they were adding precious little to the understanding of anyone who’d actually watched the game. Nor would what they were saying be that meaningful to someone who hadn’t watched it, either, other than to indicate in a very general way that the winning team had somehow tried harder than the one that lost.

At one point one of them actually started going on about “it” and how a certain player just didn’t have “it.” You know, that purposefully ambiguous pronoun that is supposed to represent some quality that cannot be named, yet is necessary to succeed. “I mean you look at him on the court and you can see right away he just doesn’t have it,” went the commentary.

Some insight, there. I finally said “sh” to the talk of “it” and put on some tunes.

Since I was already thinking about the whole “reality vs. romance” idea from Alvarez’ book, I found myself characterizing this way of talking about a sporting event as essentially romantic, not giving much attention at all to the reality of how plays were run, shots were made or missed, defenses were effective or failed, and the like.

I don't mean to suggest these “romantic” ways of looking at sports aren't meaningful, nor that there isn't a place for talking about a player's “heart” or “will to win” or whatever. But one has to understand how limited that sort of discussion necessarily is, depending largely on evidence one cannot really support with observable facts.

The truth is, real analysis is hard. It takes effort and understanding to break down how a game was won or lost -- I mean really break it down. Just like it takes effort and understanding to play a game well. And without such hard work, a lot of these so-called analysts are doomed to fill the air with a lot redundant-sounding noise.

No matter how much heart and desire they pour into it.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

A Meteoric Rise, NCAA Pool-Wise

A meteor strikes“The thing about NCAA brackets is they result in an unhealthy number of people basically praying for several precision meteor strikes.”

So tweeted @absinthetics late yesterday afternoon as the last of the regional finals was playing out to set up next weekend’s Final Four. Kentucky will play Louisville in one semifinal next Saturday, while Ohio State and Kansas will meet in the other with the winners vying for the title on Monday.

I identified strongly with the sentiment expressed in @absinthetics’ tweet. I mentioned last Monday how I’d mostly stumbled through the first two rounds in my pool to find a spot near the bottom of the bunch. However, I did make it through those rounds with a shot at getting six of eight correct in the regional semifinals, and all four of my Final Four teams were still alive as well.

“I’m not sure if I’m mathematically eliminated from winning the whole thing or not,” I wrote. “Gonna guess I probably am, although if somehow I’m not I assume I’ll have to go perfect from here on out.”

As it turned out, I was still alive to win the sucker, although essentially was praying for something along the lines of what @absinthetics was describing. As the games tipped off Thursday night, I mentally noted I was beginning what amounted to a 13-game parlay, needing all six of the Sweet Sixteen games I had a shot at to go my way, then all four of the Elite Eight ones to break correctly, then somehow get the two semis and championship game correct, too.

Damned if I didn’t get lucky and get all six of my Thursday/Friday picks, and then somehow all four over the weekend, too. No shinola. Pretty sure it is the first time I have ever nailed the entire Final Four in one of these things.

Put myself in an uncomfortable spot late Sunday, being a lifelong UNC fan and having picked Kansas over UNC in that last regional final. (“Emotional hedge” was my explanation of that one when asked.) I’m considering my getting that pick correct a consolation prize following a bummer of a season finale for the Heels.

Now I’m tied for the pool lead, and have a shot at winning the sucker, although I will need Kansas to beat Ohio State in the semis for that to happen. Even then I think I’ll come up short if Kansas wins and then beats Louisville for the title. (I have Kentucky beating Kansas in the championship.) There are a bunch of different scenarios to sort out. I think I make the cash (top four) in most of them, but there might be a combination in there that will cause me to bubble.

Am actually near the leaders in Phil Hellmuth’s ESPN pool, too, in which 1,351 entered. However, there I don’t think I have a shot at winning.

Much harder to defend this sort of thing as a “skill game” when compared to poker. No matter how informed the decision-making might have been a couple of weeks ago, too many goofy plays, strange calls by refs, and other weird bounces have determined how it all has gone thus far.

Never mind the fact that like with those meteor strikes, we have no control over how any of this goes.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

All In: The Poker Movie Premieres Today

'All In: The Poker Movie' (2012)Readers of this blog have likely been hearing about this new documentary about poker that finally gets its official premiere today, All In: The Poker Movie. Check out the film’s website for details about where to see it as well as other background info related to the making of the film.

I had a chance to see an advance screener of it and wrote a full review over on PokerListings, if you’re curious to see my take. I very much enjoyed the film and in fact was pleasantly surprised at how engaging it was for me.

To be honest, I thought that having kind of lived all of this stuff for the last several years, never mind teaching my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class, I half-expected to find the movie a bit tedious since I was destined to be very familiar with just about everything it was going to say.

But I was basically riveted by it, sincerely engaged by all of the connections made between poker and American culture, the overview of Rounders (covering its conception, the making of the film, its lukewarm initial reception, and its ultimate influence on a generation of poker players), the telling of Chris Moneymaker’s story, the discussion of televised poker coming into prominence, and the overview of online poker’s sudden rise and spectacular fall (at least here in the U.S.).

In my review I noted how the movie has what appear to be a couple of agendas: (1) to tell the story of poker, emphasizing its connection to American culture and history; and (2) to defend the game against its detractors, chiefly legislators who would like to limit or prohibit our playing of poker. In my review I said I thought the film did a nice job as far as telling the story of poker went, although I wasn’t too sure the film would actually change any minds among the anti-poker crowd.

Have been reading others’ reviews this week, including a number in mainstream publications like The New York Times, Variety, and so forth, and have noticed a lot of mixed or even negative response to the film’s attempt to champion poker and criticize the U.S. government’s various efforts to keep people from playing, especially online. I did a survey of several reviews for Betfair poker today, if you’d like to get a taste of what people are saying about All In.

One reviewer -- John Anderson (Variety) -- characterized the film as “preaching largely to the converted” as far as its pro-poker argument went, and he’s probably right. Others kind of echoed that sentiment while also expressing broader cynicism about romanticizing poker as some sort of emblem of the “American dream.” I understand that response, too, and can see how those who aren’t interested in poker or invested in the game might grow impatient with a film that keeps hammering away with its pro-poker message for more than 100 minutes.

But for those who are invested in the game and the “subculture” surrounding it (as another reviewer characterizes it), All In: The Poker Movie is definitely worth checking out, if you get the chance to do so. And if you do, let me know what you think, too.

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Kind of a Big Deal Kind of Banned

Daniel Negreanu promoting the iSeries event on his latest video blogSorta followed that hubbub yesterday involving Daniel Negreanu and his battle to link to his latest video blog over on the Two Plus Two forums. That Kid Poker actually received a temporary ban from the mods over at 2+2 added some fuel to the fire, causing the flames to rise high enough to be seen from further away than would have otherwise been the case.

If you’re genuinely curious about all of that, check out Negreanu’s own explanation of what happened (according to him, natch), as well as Haley’s overview of it all over on Kick Ass Poker. You could wade through various threads over on 2+2, too, for info, if you had even more time to kill.

The crux of the biscuit was the fact that in his latest video blog -- or “weekly rant” -- Negreanu used the first several minutes to advertise the new live-betting iSeries poker series in which he’s participating in Ireland next month.

The series involves poker tourneys shown live (with hole cards) online, with the players being sequestered and viewers being given opportunities to bet on the outcome as well as a host of other prop bets along the way. All but the Americans, that is, who are summarily excluded from participating in anything of this nature because we can’t be trusted to make adult decisions on our own.

It sounds like the first event is going to feature a 10-person, £10,000 buy-in, winner-take-all sit-n-go involving Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Faraz Jaka, Marvin Rettenmaier, Tobias Reinkenmeier, James Dempsey, Devilfish Ulliott, Carlos Mortensen, Maria Ho, and Eoghan O’Dea. Later events will feature bigger fields, although the overall concept will remain the same with viewers getting to bet on who they think will win, who will be the first to bust, where players might finish, and so on. Here are the live betting odds over on Paddy Power, if you’re curious.

One wrinkle of significance is the fact that the participants will be receiving a cut of the juice taken on bets placed in which they are involved. Thus Negreanu does stand to benefit from advertising the iSeries event and getting bets placed on him.

iSeries odds at Paddy PowerThat appears to have been what bothered the powers that be at 2+2, as what had previously been just a weekly video in which Negreanu opined on various topics had this time literally begun with a commercial promoting iSeries followed by Negreanu’s further explanation and endorsement. Kind of funny the temp ban of Negreanu would come regarding a video in which he appears wearing a t-shirt that says “I'M KIND OF A BIG DEAL” (an Anchorman quote).

In Haley’s article she speaks of Negreanu’s video blogs as having “jumped the shark” after only a few weeks, with the iSeries promotion evidence to support that evaluation. I’m not as bothered by it, although it is tedious to have to sit through someone selling you something you either aren’t interested in or cannot buy at all. Kind of felt the same way in a previous video blog of Negreanu’s in which he drew us in with some poker talk, then included an anti-meat, pro-vegan segment.

That said, just as this is my blog and I get to decide what I post here, Negreanu can include whatever he likes in his video blogs, and if people don’t like it, well, they don’t have to tune in.

I get 2+2’s impatience with the spam-like nature of the video, although it’s also clear the forum benefits tremendously from Negreanu’s willingness to participate over there. That may well be a thing of the past, however, given the way Negreanu has reacted to his temp ban.

As far as the iSeries concept is concerned, in his video blog Negreanu talks about the current state of televised poker, noting that it is in need of something to rejuvenate it as a spectator “sport.” He likens poker to football and other sports on which betting is done, and suggests it is time for poker to offer something similar.

He may be right, although listening to this line of argument from within U.S. borders doesn’t really provide much cause for enthusiasm. We’re having a hard enough time over here getting our goverment to let us play poker at all, let alone bet on the successes and failures of others playing it. For us, this simply is not a road down which our over-protective overlords will allow us to wander.

So to address the iSeries in “big picture” terms, I’d say I hope it doesn’t make too big of a splash, if only because it further associates poker with outright gambling or sports betting, and thus makes it a harder sell to legislators on this side of the pond. That said, it could well prove something of a shot in the arm for poker in the ROW (Rest Of World).

In any event, I’ll probably be watching. Just as I’ll probably look in on Negreanu’s next video, too, in which I imagine he will be returning to rant mode once again, with 2+2 a likely target. I mean I gotta do something with all this extra time while I’m not playing, right?

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What You See Is What You Get

I visited the eye doctor last week for an exam.I visited the eye doctor last week for an exam. Had been too long since my previous visit, like three years or so. The last time Vera Valmore and I went to the movies I noticed things were perhaps a little fuzzier than they should be, and so scheduled the appointment.

Sure enough I was in need of a new prescription, and so I ordered myself a new set of lenses to go in my frames. A couple of days ago I was told the new lenses were ready, and so I dropped off my glasses at the office here in town in order to have the lenses switched.

They have another office where the lens-switching business actually happens, which meant I could either drive there or wait a couple of days for them to carry the frames over and back. Since I had another pair I could wear in the interim, I just dropped my current pair off and today am awaiting the call to retrieve my glasses with the new lenses.

Unfortunately, I’ve discovered the back-up pair isn’t the same prescription as the pair I’ve been wearing the last three years, but rather an older pair with lenses that were current maybe five years ago. Which means things are even more fuzzy for me with this pair. They also kind of pinch a little, making me even more anxious to get them off my face and get my newly-updated, well-fitting glasses back.

My eyesight isn’t so bad, really. Am a bit nearsighted is all, although like I say I definitely need the specs to see a movie screen or even to watch television or drive. Wearing the old pair is demonstrating for me how my vision has weakened just a touch over the years. And besides giving me a slight headache, it is also making me think about how one’s perspective changes over the years, too.

Since I had another pair I could wear in the interim, I just dropped my current pair off and today am awaiting the call to retrieve them with the new lenses.In poker, going back and reviewing an old session is always revelatory. We constantly learn things, and thus it is almost always going to be the case that we’ll see our former play differently given the experience and knowledge we’ve gained in the meantime.

Of course, unlike one’s vision, which necessarily degenerates over time, one would expect to “see better” when looking back at past decisions made at the poker table. I’m not just talking about “hindsight” being better but rather the fact that playing hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands more hands necessarily gives one a wealth of experience and (hopefully) understanding that positions a person to give a better evaluation of the decision-making one made before.

But even as you read me claiming that, you’re probably thinking how it doesn’t always work that way. We don’t always learn from our mistakes. In fact, a very common theme among many players who’ve put in a few years’ worth of study and play is to say they actually feel less clear about the game than they did at an earlier point in their careers. Like my vision, their understanding actually seems to have worsened over time rather than improved.

In some cases, this apparent decrease of understanding is clearly happening, such as when a player fails to keep up with changing strategies and the game “passes him by.” Other times it is really more about a lessening of self-confidence, with doubts about one’s decisions becoming significant enough to have detrimental influence on one’s results.

In any event, this sort of “rise-and-fall” trajectory whereby a player fails to recapture earlier levels of success seems incredibly common in poker. I suppose we all have our “peak” moments in whatever endeavor we attempt, but in poker so many of us keep on playing well after that moment has passed. Doesn't it seem like for most of us that day when we saw everything best -- that day when we really felt like we “got it” -- is way back somewhere in the hard-to-recover past?

Then again, I could be wrong. Perhaps I’ll think differently about all of this once I get my glasses back and can actually focus.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

PokerStars Zooms Ahead

Short-Stacked Shamus tries out Zoom Poker on PokerStarsIt was mid-January 2010 that Full Tilt Poker first launched what it called “Rush Poker,” that online poker variation which let players join large pools and get reseated at new tables after every hand, allowing them to “quick fold” if they liked and move on without waiting for a given hand to complete.

There was a lot of hubbub when Rush Poker was first unveiled, and many players took to the format immediately, loving how it utterly eliminated between-hands down time and enabled them to keep in constant action.

Another cool thing about Rush in the early going -- in my experience, anyway -- was how soft the pot-limit Omaha games were. Never in my online poker career did I win at so fast a clip as during those first couple of weeks playing the Rush version of PLO on Full Tilt Poker. Things eventually settled down, though, and when the fish finally left the Rush pools I left soon afterwards, too, eventually heading back to the regular ring games.

Looking back at my little black book, I see I didn’t play any Rush at all from about May 2010 onwards. In fact, I didn’t play much on Full Tilt Poker period for the rest of 2010 and early 2011, preferring PokerStars. Then came Black Friday and like everyone else I cashed out my Stars money, but my roll of a little less than three hundy over on FTP remains inaccessible.

Now, just over two years after Rush Poker was introduced, PokerStars has brought out its own version of the format called Zoom Poker. Still in beta, the first real money Zoom games began to be offered on Stars late last week.

I’ve fiddled some with Zoom and the game play experience seems at first glance to be very much like Rush Poker in most respects. Players fade away and reappear rather than zip off to the left and fly in from the right. There’s an added option to sit out the next big blind, something I don’t believe Rush Poker had. And the overall game play is smoother-seeming, too, although I have always liked Stars’ client much better than FTP’s (and never could figure out why people were so often claiming FTP’s superiority in that regard).

Oh, I am playing for play chips, natch. I mean I am a play money millionaire on Stars.

Zoom Poker represents another feather in PokerStars’ cap, and will likely further enable the site to continue to distance itself even further from all competitors. Was reading about Zoom over on Poker News Daily and noticed a reference to Stars' dominance with regard to online poker. Using PokerScout’s numbers, it was pointed out how Stars has more real money traffic going than the next 13 rooms/networks combined. No shinola.

The Rush-slash-Zoom variation represents a genuine innovation, something that could only be done in online poker, and for that reason it is necessarily intriguing for those of us who’ve dedicated a lot of time playing and thinking about the online version of the game. It’s interesting as well to think of Stars usurping this idea from Full Tilt Poker, perhaps the single-most valuable thing FTP had going for it at the time of its demise.

For some, if the day ever did come when Full Tilt Poker relaunched (as a few seem to think may actually happen one day, maybe sooner than later), the option to play Rush Poker might’ve been the only draw. But with Zoom now on Stars, that no longer gives Full Tilt something unique to offer.

Doesn’t matter, really. I mean given how long we’ve all been waiting for some resolution regarding our tied-up funds, most of us disassociated the word “rush” from Full Tilt Poker a long time ago.

Hey, I see this here is post no. 1,600 on Hard-Boiled Poker. Zoomin’ along myself here.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

Breaking Down My Broken Bracket

NCAA BracketAfter a bit of hemming and hawing I did submit a bracket for Dr. Pauly’s annual NCAA pool. I came close not to doing it at all, having so little faith in my picks. In fact, after many, many years of filling out brackets and participating in pools I’d taken the last few years off from doing so.

I’ve written here before about how I don’t generally go in for a lot of sports betting, only occasionally doing so for fun in low-risk, low-cost ways. In fact, a few years back I wrote a post right about this time of year talking about why I don’t normally sink money into NCAA pools.

I decided to play this time, though, in part because I somehow managed to win Pauly’s Pub NFL pick’em pool this past year and thus had a few extra bucks with which to play.

Was a fairly mediocre couple of rounds of picking games for me, although I still have my entire final four intact as well as six of my elite eight picks. Only hit 20 of 32 in the round of 64 games. I picked the higher-seeded team in all but four of those Thursday-Friday games, a pretty damned conservative sheet now that I look back at it. Only got one of those upsets right, meaning I missed out on the other nine that happened. By the time the round of 32 began I could only possibly get 10 right and hit nine, so felt reasonably okay about that result.

Each subsequent round is worth double the points of the previous one, so I’m not sure if I’m mathematically eliminated from winning the whole thing or not. Gonna guess I probably am, although if somehow I’m not I assume I’ll have to go perfect from here on out.

If you think about it, filling out these brackets -- sorta like playing a 63-game parlay in which you aren’t even sure who’s playing who after the first 32 games -- is kind of a weird way to compete. The only more gambly way to go is to pick a team out of a hat, another type of March Madness-related gambling that is quite popular in offices around the country.

I much preferred the NCAA pool I used to play years ago, one into which I was recruited by a faculty advisor in grad school (no shinola). There we picked each round as the tourney went, with the rounds gradually being worth more and extra points awarded for correctly picking so-called “upsets” in which a lower-seeded team wins.

I might not be remembering it perfectly, but I think the scoring went as follows:
  • 1 pt. for a correct round of 64 pick
  • 2 pts. for a correct round of 32 pick
  • 3 pts. for a correct round of 16 pick
  • 5 pts. for a correct regional final pick
  • 7 pts. for a correct semifinal pick
  • 10 pts. for a correct final pick
  • bonus pts. for upsets = subtract seeds and add total
  • Thus if somehow you’d brilliantly picked Lehigh (a #15 seed) to beat Duke (a #2 seed) in the first round, you earned one point for the pick and another 13 points for the upset. Even getting a game like N.C. State’s win over San Diego State (an #11 over a #6) would earn you a nice five-point bonus to add to your first-round total.

    Made for some interesting strategic decisions, including encouraging some to pick upsets in later rounds so as to try to make up points and catch the leaders. The other thing the format ensured was that pretty much everyone still had a shot at the sucker even after a bad first couple of rounds.

    I think the best I ever did in that one during several years’ worth of attempts was a single min-cash, doubling my buy-in once by finishing eighth or something. But every year I felt like I’d gotten enough enjoyment out of it all to make the expense worthwhile.

    And really, while some may argue -- or even really believe -- that gambling and/or poker is strictly about the money, there are a lot of other reasons why most of us get pleasure out of such risk-taking games.

    Speaking of finding pleasure in pain, I also wanted to pass along this photo I created after enduring that godawful Chevy Malibu Eco ad repeatedly over the last four days, one of what seemed like four or five commercials they had on a constant loop during the coverage of the NCAA games.

    You know the one, in which a driver up front turns down that cringe-worthy Spandau Ballet crooner “True” and the dude in back complains. (By the way, I read somewhere that guy in the back seat is actually one of the Geico cavemen.) Like anyone in history has ever gotten upset at someone turning down Spandau Ballet. I mean I remember rushing to turn the channel about a couple of hundred times back in the ’80s when this thing kept coming back over and over again like some sort of incurable rash.

    Feel free to use this in forums whenever a particularly absurd comment warrants an inexplicable non sequitur in return:

    That's Spandau Ballet, man!

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    Friday, March 16, 2012

    Talking “English Only”

    Where English is spokenWas following those MicroMillions tourneys on PokerStars yesterday. Last week I mentioned the new series of events geared toward those who play lower limits or the “micros.”

    The buy-ins for the 100 events go from $0.11 to $22, with most on the lower end of that range. Setting aside the rebuy events in which one can theoretically spend more, all but a dozen of the tournaments are less than $10 to play, with most of those around $1-$5.

    Would’ve loved to participate in this one, but as an American I’m necessarily on the outside looking in. The lack of U.S. players is hardly hurting the turnouts, of course, as we’ve seen time and again on PokerStars, still the biggest online poker site in the world by far.

    The seven events that took place yesterday drew a total of 215,380 entrees. The buy-ins were as low as $0.11 (Event #1, a rebuy event) and as high as $10.50 (Event #5, an NLHE knockout tourney). Altogether, the prize pools for the seven events added up to $762,607.33!

    Event #2, a $1 no-limit hold’em event with an extended rebuy period (90 minutes), had the largest prize pool of the seven with 44,741 players contributing a whopping $217,456.33. There were a couple of things that stood out for me with regard to that particular event.

    One was the wild story of Kenny “SpaceyFCB” Hallaert of Belgium who ended up finishing runner-up behind waterbee174 of Russia. Earlier in the day on Thursday, Hallaert finished 49th in the EPT Madrid Main Event for a €9,000 cash (worth something like $11,800 at the moment). Then in the MicroMillions Event #2, Hallaert actually had a bigger score of $12,562.45! (More on the event here.)

    The EPT Madrid event cost Hallaert €5,300 to play, while it only took a few bucks at most him to participate MicroMillions Event #2. Wild stuff.

    English onlyThe other thing that stood out to me was something I noticed as the event was winding down. With 21 players left seated around three tables, I happened to catch chat happening at all three tables, and in each case the chat wasn’t in English. On two of the tables I saw a moderator hop on to remind players of the “English only” rule. One might have done so on the third, too, but I didn’t see. In any case, the chat essentially stopped all around from that point forward.

    I noticed on one of the tables a player piped up to say something (in English) along the lines of “we’re outnumbered,” which led me to peek at the countries from which the final 21 players were. Russia had the most players left by a long shot with seven. Belgium, Germany, and Slovenia each had two players. And the other eight seats were filled by players from Belarus, Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Romania.

    Indeed, while English speakers live all over the world, the only country among that list with English as an official language (along with French) is Canada. The Netherlands, where a mix of languages are spoken, also has a couple of regions in which English is a “recognized” (if not official) language.

    The “English only” rule is something we find in live poker, too, such as at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, a rule designed to prevent collusion. There are a lot of countries -- more than 50 -- besides the U.S. that list English as an official or “de facto” language. If there is going to be a rule confining players to a single language in their chat while playing online poker, English remains an obvious choice. (That map at the top of the post shows where in the world English is most prominent.)

    Still, it seemed curious to see a tourney in which almost everyone playing -- aside from perhaps a couple at the last three tables -- were non-English speakers being told to confine themselves to English.

    If they were going to speak, it would have to be in a language that was not their own. Just as the currency with which they all entered the tourney and were trying to win wasn’t their own, either.

    The game sure is, though.

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    Thursday, March 15, 2012

    Luck and Exploitation

    Lester (or Leo) shows Jerry the bad newsIn one of the last “Community Cards” columns I wrote for the Epic Poker blog back in February -- the now-seemingly-ill-fated Epic Poker blog -- I talked about the first four episodes of the new HBO show Luck, focusing in particular on the way the show was using poker.

    Kind of interestingly -- or weirdly, some in the poker world might say -- the show appeared to be reversing a formula with which a lot of us in poker are familiar. Instead of showing a skilled poker player losing his money by gambling it away in games where his edge is less (e.g., casino games, sports betting, etc.) such as we were talking about just a couple of days ago, Luck has a character, Jerry, who is a brilliant horse racing handicapper take the money he makes betting on horses and recklessly blow it at the poker tables.

    In fact, when it comes to showing truly “degenerate” behavior or “problem gambling,” those first episodes really confine it to Jerry’s lousy decision-making against a poker nemesis, an Asian-American named Lester in the first couple of episodes, then in what I assumed was a continuity glitch called Leo thereafter. Jerry runs into some bad luck in hands against Lester/Leo, but for the most part he’s simply a poor player, one whom even luck can only sustain temporarily.

    HBO's LuckFor more specifics about hands Jerry plays and the way poker represents his “leak” against the backdrop of horse racing/betting, you can read my post, titled “The Pull of Poker in HBO’s Luck.” There I focus mainly on the subplot involving Jerry and his friends who in the first show manage to make a huge score at the track, winning a pick-six by following Jerry’s selections, with Jerry subsequently starting to run through his share at the loot by losing at poker.

    There are about three or four other threads started in those initial episodes which I don’t get into in the column, nor do I really provide a lot of evaluative commentary on the show as a whole as I was mainly focusing on the way poker was being portrayed in those episodes.

    I found the show somewhat engaging if a little slow-paced and overly complicated, plot-wise. Indeed, I couldn’t really imagine someone picking it up a few episodes in and wanting to watch, actually, except perhaps to see some familiar faces -- Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina -- inhabiting roles in another “high end” HBO drama that didn’t seem to compare favorably to obvious precursors like The Sopranos or The Wire.

    The horse races were majestically shot and probably provided the only truly gripping moments during those first few episodes, other than brief ones when Jerry was butchering another poker hand, perhaps. Of course, I watched those scenes knowing already there had been two horse fatalities during the production of the show -- horses had broken legs during “races” and had to be euthanized -- which added another layer of anxiety when watching those scenes. One had died during the shooting of the show’s pilot back in 2010, and a second last year while they were making the seventh episode (which just aired for the first time last Sunday).

    AHA disclaimersAs is the case for all films and television shows involving animals made in the U.S., the American Humane Association was on hand during Luck’s production. Interestingly, the usual disclaimer at the end of the pilot mentioning the AHA’s involvement omitted the usual “No Animals Were Harmed” statement. (Those are screen shots from the end of the first two episodes.)

    In fact, near the end of that very first episode a horse in the show breaks its leg near the end of a race and has to be put down, a most unpleasant scene to watch in which I really felt Luck had swiftly edged over into exploitative territory.

    I say that not just because of the context involving the actual death of horses during the show’s production, nor because I happen live with someone who owns horses and who has strong, negative feelings about the way horse racing often exploits them. It just seemed cheap to me, especially coming so soon in the series. In other words, at a point in the series well before any emotional investment had been made by the viewer, they opted to try to grab us with an utterly affecting scene of a horse being put down. Even setting aside the fact that a horse actually died while making the pilot, to be manipulated so brazenly didn’t endear me much to the show.

    Having completed the initial nine-episode season, the show had already been picked up in January for a second season. However, this week came news of a third horse fatality on the set of Luck, and the response this time has been to shut down production altogether.

    Poker players weren’t too happy with the way Luck seemed to be exploiting our favorite card game to help give one of its characters a dark, self-destructive side. I can understand that, but still was willing to go along with its “using” poker this way.

    Jerry sees the bad newsAs we all know, people really do play poker badly, and it is a game in which bad players often do fool themselves into thinking they’ve got an edge when in fact they’re huge dogs. It’s okay, then, for a character in a drama to be similarly self-deluded, even if it might make poker seem a less noble pursuit than some of us might like.

    But there’s simply no good rationale to support animals being harmed in the production of movies or television shows. Luck’s tagline -- “Leave nothing to chance” -- has an ironic ring now, given the risks that were taken during the show’s production. Am glad such chances won’t be taken going forward.

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    Wednesday, March 14, 2012

    Humble π

     3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510...Am seeing references this morning to today -- 3/14 -- being “Pi day” or “π day.” You remember π, right? The ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, something we learned of in geometry way back when and most of us have forgotten about since. Also useful in computing the area of a circle, which can be figured out by multiplying the square of the radius times π.

    All of the π talk reminds me of Kate Bush’s outrageous song “Pi” in which she sings the number to more than 100 decimal places. It’s one of the tracks I like most on Aerial (2005), actually, as I’ve had difficulty getting into her later discs despite all the critical acclaim that has been showered on them. Still think her 1985 LP Hounds of Love is one of the best arty-pop suites ever pulled together, which has kept me from giving up entirely on the more recent, slower-paced stuff.

    The song begins with a preamble introducing a man obsessed with numbers -- in particular π -- then comes the long sequence of Bush singing the number itself although apparently she omits a few digits in the sequence along the way, which I suppose is something the man she’s singing about might notice.

    Like the man in the song, I’ve always been fascinated with numbers, although by the time I tried a second semester’s worth of calculus in college it was obvious to me that I had a better shot at success with the study of words.

    Indeed, when the textbook pages started to be populated more and more with symbols like π and ∑ and e and i and exclamation points and so on and the discussions started including references to numbers that were irrational or imaginary or transcendent... well, that’s when I realized I was much better off trying to get meaning from a poem or a novel than the mostly mysterious-seeming problems and exercises I was being assigned.

    In other words, count me among the many conquered by little old π.

    Poker is, of course, a great game for those who love words or numbers or both. I would assume most who gravitate toward the game have at least some interest in math or probability -- enough to keep the calculating of odds or bet sizes or other poker puzzles from causing too many headaches, anyway.

    Something satisfying in numbers like 52 or 13 or 4, I think. Or 1,326 or 169 even. Or your chances of flopping a set or two pair or the relative strength of ace-king versus a pair of queens to be best by the river. Or knowing there are eight outs to fill your open-ender, or nine to fill your flush, and by putting your outs with the unknown cards being able to rate your chances of success and weigh risk and reward.

    I never much liked the way π eludes us, receding into the distance like that.I say Kate Bush’s song is “outrageous” because it starts something we know cannot be finished. No, I never much liked the way π eludes us, receding into the distance like that. Although I know for some that’s precisely why it interests them.

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    Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    Hero Call

    Super GusI had already decided on both the topic and title of this post when I saw the latest cover of BLUFF Europe featuring Gus Hansen as some sort of superhero (the March 2012 issue). Kind of a funny image, made more so by our knowledge of the many wild ups and downs Hansen has had as a player over the years, especially online.

    Speaking of ups and downs, most readers of this blog probably at least heard something about Erick Lindgren’s troubles of late with regard to gambling losses. He became the subject of a much viewed and discussed thread on Two Plus Two in which some to whom he owed money called him out, then others joined in to form a loud chorus of voices that together effectively drowned out echoes of former praises sung over the years for the charismatic and talented poker player.

    With over $8 million in tourney winnings, a couple of WPT titles, a WSOP bracelet, and a deep run in last year’s WSOP Main Event (finishing 43rd), Lindgren has well established his credentials as a top tourney player. Winning those WPT titles in 2003 and 2004 helped ensure him landing a central spot amid the cast of new poker celebs featured during the “boom” and heyday of televised poker, making him a star in our little poker world.

    Those following either the thread on Two Plus Two or other reports about Lindgren’s considerable gambling debts are familiar with that story’s main theme, namely, that while E-dog had successfully crafted a very likable image of himself to the larger public, those in the know understood the reality much better, including his degen tendencies to gamble it up big and apparently not consider paying off debts a very high priority.

    Probably the most compelling and thoughtful contribution to the hubbub came from Haralabos Voulgaris in a post detailing his six-year quest to get Lindgren to settle debts owed to him. There Voulgaris notes how Lindgren not only owed (and still owes) him money but also owes “a bunch of people spread all around the gambling world.” The amounts and number of people owed have increased over several years, the result of Lindgren’s being (in Voulgaris’s estimation) “basically allergic to paying his debts.”

    Also worth noting is Phil Galfond’s latest blog post, “Lindgren, Loans, and a Little Advice,” in which he steps back and provides a lot of great food for thought regarding the poker community as a whole and the complicated, mutually-dependent system by which it sustains so many.

    Hearing about Lindgren’s troubles reminded me of his WSOP bracelet win back in 2008. It was early in the Series, a memorable $5,000 Mixed Limit/No-Limit Hold’em event in which Lindgren outlasted Justin Bonomo heads-up for the win. I believe it was the first final table I’d ever covered at the WSOP, with Steve Horton and I reporting every hand for PokerNews.

    Erick Lindgren after winning his first WSOP bracelet in 2008Looking back, I see I wrote a post here afterwards noting the “genuine sense of joy and even a kind of weird camaraderie in the arena as everyone seemed to share in Lindgren’s triumph.” Most did seem to pull for him to win and thus shed the “best-without-a-bracelet” tag, and while I didn’t necessarily care one way or the other, his being there and winning the sucker did make for a fun, exciting story for a new WSOP reporter to tell.

    So yeah, I guess remembering that night did make this recent story a tad more disappointing to hear. Indeed, one aspect of the story of Lindgren’s gambling debts that has cropped up is how it parallels what seem to have been a number of “falls from grace” that have occurred among that generation of TV poker stars with whom we all became familiar during those first couple of years after Moneymaker’s 2003 Main Event win. We could quickly construct a lengthy list of once-revered pros who over the last few years have been involved in various controversies, some much more serious and image-damaging that others.

    Got me thinking a little about the whole idea of “heroes” in poker. I can’t really say I ever thought of any players in such a way, although perhaps that says more about me and my (modest) aspirations as a poker player than anything. I’ve heard some players -- serious players -- talk of other players as being “heroes” to them and I don’t doubt their sincerity when they do. But while I’ve been fascinated by certain characters and their stories, I can’t really name any player whom I’ve thought of in that way.

    Was writing yesterday about poker being in part an “antisocial” game -- in other words, a necessarily self-interested endeavor in which the idea of having friendly attitudes toward others or even just admiring or respecting them is diminished. That may in part help explain why the idea of a poker “hero” is hard for some of us to imagine. The best, most obviously-skilled players all have their haters, too, right?

    Where, then, might we find heroes in poker, if we can’t simply choose among the game’s biggest and most consistent winners? Probably among those who are best able to promote and preserve the game -- the “ambassadors” or others who actively work to keep the game going (so to speak) for the rest of us.

    Certainly easier to imagine villains than heroes in that regard, too, I’m afraid. That is, it is easier to think of people who have clearly hurt the game of late than to list the helpers. But there are a few whom we might say are presently trying to improve things, in different ways.

    Perhaps this rash of less-than-heroic seeming actions and characters that have given us so many negative stories in poker recently might inspire more to start acting in ways that help poker rather than hurt it.

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    Monday, March 12, 2012

    Poker, the Antisocial Social Game

    Poker, the Antisocial Social GameOne of the readings I’ve been assigning in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class has been an essay by Barbara Connors written for Maryann Morrison’s 2007 anthology, Women’s Poker Night. The essay is titled “Power Play” and does a neat job discussing differences between and men and women and how those differences potentially play out at the tables.

    I reviewed the anthology here long ago, if you’re curious to read more about it. There are several good pieces included in the collection, in fact, and while the book is primarily targeting women readers there’s a lot of interest to men, too, I think.

    Earlier versions of my class have concluded with a “miscellaneous” unit where I collected a few different topics, including readings focusing on women in poker. This time the schedule didn’t really allow time for that unit at the end, and so I had to omit a few items but kept the readings about women, moving them to an earlier unit in the course called “the culture of poker.”

    Like I say, I like how Connors addresses the topic and agree with her overall point that despite politically correct calls suggesting otherwise, men and women are different -- both in our nature and (of course) in terms of how we are differently influenced by the culture, too.

    I was rereading the essay this morning for class and came across another interesting point about poker that Connor makes, one that’s related to the discussion of men and women though can be addressed as a separate idea altogether.

    One difference between men and women that Connors emphasizes is how men tend to view “poker as war” while women are more inclined “to see poker as just a game.” That contrast leads Connors to make what I think is an intriguing point about poker, generally speaking.

    'Women's Poker Night' (2007), ed. Maryann Morrison“Really, it’s just a game,” Connors says of poker, but it’s “a unique game that’s at once social and antisocial in its nature.”

    She goes on to suggest that while men “focus more on the antisocial, antagonistic aspect of the game,” women are more apt to “focus on the social, friendly side of it.” The reasons for this difference of emphasis are many, explains Connors, and importantly include how boys and girls have been taught by parents and the culture about their different “gender roles.”

    As you might imagine, Connors is pointing out how viewing poker as antisocial often translates into being more successful, and thus suggests women might need to “unlearn” some of their “cultural training” in order to think differently about poker (as not “just a game” but “warfare”) and thus improve their chances at the tables.

    Reasonable people might well disagree over the points about men and women being different and/or having different attitudes or approaches to poker. In fact, that’s why I like teaching the essay in class, since it tends to inspire some meaningful debate among students.

    But this time through I’m additionally appreciating this broader point about poker being both “social and antisocial in its nature,” a point with which I imagine most who’ve ever played the game would likely have to agree. Kind of fascinating to consider how poker can be both at once, and how our relative success or failure at the game can be determined in part by how we negotiate those two aspects of the game -- the social and antisocial.

    It’s interesting as well to consider how this paradox in poker could be said to parallel other aspects of American culture, most obviously the conflicting values that stem from capitalism and notions of “free enterprise” in which we espouse each person’s equal right to compete while at the same time constantly look for ways to take advantage of each other to tip the balance in our favor. A culture which, one might say, is at once social (or supportive) yet also antisocial (or combative).

    Also explains a lot, I think, about the many controversies and conflicts of interest we constantly see in poker -- not just at the tables, but in the “industry” as a whole -- when we remember how the game in fact requires us to be both social and antisocial with one another.

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    Friday, March 09, 2012

    Poker in Africa

    WSOP AfricaWith all the other scandals and brouhahas dominating poker news of late, there wasn’t heck of a lot of attention given to that World Series of Poker Circuit series of events that took place in South Africa during the last week of February.

    It was actually the second trip by the WSOP to the Emerald Resort and Casino in Gauteng, South Africa. Back in October 2010 came the first, with just two tournaments held, a $1,000 buy-in PLO event in which 37 entered, and a $5,000 NLH Main Event which drew 188. This time there were six events, four of which were low buy-in (less than $1,000), a $3,300 Main Event, and a $10,400 High Roller tourney.

    They drew 20 for the High Roller, with Rob Fenner winning the ring and $97,000. A total of 218 played in the Main Event which was won by Joe-Boy Rahme -- apparently no relation to 2007 WSOP Main Event third-place finisher and fellow South African Raymond Rahme -- who took $158,595 for the win.

    Meanwhile, the first preliminary event, a $350 buy-in NLH tourney won by Gauteng’s own Gregory Ronaldson, drew 324 entrants, a total which represents the biggest poker tournament ever held in Africa (in terms of field size). Ronaldson actually made the final table of the Main Event, too, and was thought by most to be a favorite to win it once they’d reached the final nine. Not only was Ronaldson second in chips with nine left, it was just a couple of months ago he was the talk of the Crown Casino in Australia when he won the $5K Heads-Up event at the Aussie Millions, knocking out Faraz Jaka on his way to defeating Sorel Mizzi in the final.

    Ronaldson has also posted some decent results at the WSOP over the last couple of years, including a 198th-place finish in last year’s Main Event. He wasn’t the best finisher from South Africa, though, as Kosta Mamaliadis came close to making that international-flavored final table before getting knocked out in 13th.

    The Emerald Casino in Gauteng, South AfricaRonaldson would come up short at the Emerald last week, however, going out in fifth. Still, he took over $60,000 away from the series, and from his interview over on PokerNews it sounds like he’ll not only be returning to the WSOP this summer but showing up at other stops on the tour as well.

    When interviewed after his Main Event win over on the WSOP site, Joe-Boy Rahme talked about how poker has grown in South Africa over the last five years since his namesake’s deep run in the 2007 WSOP ME. “We’re sending more and more players to Vegas for the annual WSOP each year and they are having great results,” he noted. “We play mostly in home games, but casinos are starting to recognize us and more games are becoming available.”

    It’s interesting to contemplate Africa’s increased involvement in poker, a continent with 56 countries and over 1 billion inhabitants. South Africa is by far the country where the most poker is being played in Africa with something like 45 casinos, although like in the U.S. the online game has met with resistance, with a law passed in 2010 strictly prohibiting all forms of online gambling.

    The game is also quite popular in Morocco (where I had a chance to go to WPT Marrakech in late 2010) and Egypt. Tiny Swaziland -- which South Africa surrounds -- is a poker hotspot, too, it seems. In fact, if my cursory pass around the intertubes is to be trusted, it looks like over half of the countries in Africa have casinos.

    The WSOP Circuit event in South Africa did award rings but didn’t count toward the 2011-2012 WSOPC points leaderboard like the tourneys at the other 17 circuit stops in the U.S. do. I assume this year’s healthy turnouts means the WSOP will head back to Gauteng next year for another series. Meanwhile, we’ll have to keep an eye out for Ronaldson, Joe-Boy Rahme, Jarred Solomon, Darren Kramer, Mark Vos, and other South Africans this summer at the WSOP in Vegas.

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    Thursday, March 08, 2012

    Using Visuals To Help Us See

    Kirk Goldsberry map of shots taken in the NBA from 2006 to 2011Earlier this week I was momentarily mesmerized by this graphic included in a short piece that appeared on Slate’s culture blog. The image appeared atop an article by David Haglund called “What Geography Can Teach Us About Basketball,” and the piece alludes to yet another way increasingly sophisticated analytical tools have become part of how sports are studied as well as the basis for strategy.

    The picture represents a map of shots taken in the NBA over the previous five seasons (click to enlarge). Darker cells represent more shots attempted, and the color-coding shows the relative efficiency of the shots. Cells yielding the most points per shot are shaded red and orange, while the least “potent” cells are shaded blue and violet.

    The chart was devised by a geography professor named Kirk Goldsberry using techniques he’d applied to study things like traffic patterns or how access to nutritional foods can differ depending on where someone lives. The study is titled “Court Vision: New Visual and Spatial Analytics for the NBA” and was presented this week at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

    As Haglund points out in his brief summary of Goldsberry’s work, the map shows what most basketball fans already knew, mainly that the most point-rich areas of the court are right around the basket and just outside the three-point line. That yellow strip up the middle also shows how players tend to do better shooting straight on than from either side.

    Rajon Rondo's shots from 2006-2001The study includes images plotting out the shooting for particular players, and Haglund additionally asked Goldsberry to show him what Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo’s map looked like. The image plotting out Rondo’s shots appears to the left (again, click to enlarge) and curiously shows how when it comes to three-pointers Rondo has a kind of “sweet spot” there to the left of center where he is much more effective than he is when shooting from the right side of the court. Notice how that halo around the hoop leans to the left for Rondo, too, which is interesting since Rondo is in fact right-handed.

    Reading the study and looking at these maps got me thinking about some of the analytical tools that have been used to track online poker play such as PokerTracker and Hold’em Manager and how they, too, can yield interesting information about patterns of play both generally and individually.

    Once upon a time I was studying my PokerTracker stats fairly intently in an effort to learn more about what was working and what was not in my play. Early on I saw and became accustomed to the fact that everyone tended to make more money from the button and late position, as well as to lose the most from the blinds. And, of course, premium hands routinely yielded the most profit, too -- not just for me but for everyone else.

    I recall noticing a few idiosyncracies for me as well, things that might be said to have corresponded to Rondo’s “sweet spot” where he hits a high percentage of threes as well as those rough areas where he misses the most. I remember once realizing I was probably losing more than I should with small pocket pairs. Overlaying my stats with everyone else’s would’ve told me more specifically whether I was outside the norm in that regard, although I don’t remember pursuing my study far enough to make any conclusions.

    Not really tracking my play much at all anymore, I’m afraid, other than to note wins and losses in my little black book. Definitely worth doing, though, for those who are serious about the game and looking to improve. Just as I think this sort of analysis could probably benefit NBA players, too. Have to imagine Rondo, now in his sixth year in the league, has been shown his map, too, yes? And if he has maybe he will start passing up shots from those blue areas where he’s often cool, opting instead for the hot spots in red.

    Where are your red areas or “sweet spots” at the poker table -- that is, spots that may uniquely fit with your skill set to bring you greater profit than most? And which areas make you more blue than most?

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    Wednesday, March 07, 2012

    A Bitar Taste

    A Bitar TasteLate yesterday PokerStrategy posted a very brief interview with Ray Bitar, one of Full Tilt Poker’s founders and CEO of Tiltware, the site’s software and marketing company. Or its “shell” company, we might more properly say.

    Bitar, of course, has become a much-reviled figure in the poker community thanks to his close involvement in the exceedingly poor management of FTP. Indeed, many single him out as a primary fall guy for the site’s many misdeeds, which include activities resulting in the site becoming the target of an indictment and civil complaint by the U.S. Department of Justice in April, further violations resulting in the loss of its license to operate and full shutdown in late June, and its apparent wasting away of the $350 million or so players thought they had in their accounts when the site went dark.

    Amid “the rumble” we’ve lately been hearing several calls for Bitar, Howard Lederer, and/or Chris Ferguson to break their collective silence and say something about what happened to their popular online poker site. While Bitar was listed among those initially targeted by the DOJ’s indictment and civil complaint back in April, Lederer and Ferguson’s names were added as well in September to an amended version of the complaint.

    It’s not really clear why those calls for these three to speak have become louder over the last few weeks, although I suspect the nearing of the one-year anniversary of Black Friday has something to do with it. I have said before here how I thought the petitions weren’t likely to be answered, as there seemed no reason now for Bitar, Lederer, or Ferguson to say anything at all given their considerable legal problems.

    My initial thought, then, on hearing that Bitar had given an interview was to be surprised. Then I read the piece, another “exclusive” that recalls some of those we saw on PokerStrategy last fall when news of the possible purchase of FTP by Groupe Bernard Tapie first arose. I remember surmising then that perhaps FTP was settling some debts with its biggest affiliate by granting such traffic-heightening pieces.

    Sort of feels like the same purpose has been served by this Bitar interview, which offers practically nothing of tangible value to FTP players but does certainly generate a lot of hits over on PokerStrategy, a site whose own CEO, Dominik Kofert, was recently voted as the 12th-most powerful person in poker on BLUFF’s Power 20. No slight to Matt Kaufman (he of the witty though now apparently erstwhile Poker Smell comic) who conducted the interview, but it’s pretty obvious there wasn’t much chance Bitar was going to offer much if anything for us to chew on.

    Kaufman appeared on PKRGSSP’s show last night to give a little bit of background about the interview. It sounds like Kaufman had been bugging FTP attorneys (including Jeff Ifrah) to get an interview with Bitar and they’d long refused such requests. But this week they had “a change of heart,” saying “they wanted to do something.”

    PokerStrategyKaufman did allude to PokerStrategy’s significant affiliate-relationship with FTP as likely not unrelated to the site landing such “exclusives.” The prominence of the news and strategy site outside of the U.S. likely also encourages Full Tilt’s wish to deliver their messages there, since so many of those who could possibly play on a new version of FTP (if it were ever to be relaunched) are likely familiar with PokerStrategy.

    So Ifrah requested the interview and asked for questions to be submitted -- which were then vetted -- and answers were emailed back to Kaufman with no chance for follow-ups (obviously). The questions that were chosen were all of a very general nature, asking Bitar why he hasn’t spoken before, what he’s been doing since Black Friday, and “is there anything you would like to say?” And the answers were all very general as well, stating essentially that Bitar still hoped to get players their money, that he also hoped Full Tilt would somehow survive this mess in some form or another, and that he was sorry.

    There is a lot of redundancy, too, among the responses. Even though his three answers only total about 450 words, Bitar managed to repeat the declaration that he is working toward getting players paid and keeping Full Tilt Poker alive no less than six times.

    Bitar says that he has “been working every single day since Black Friday to ensure players are repaid,” which he calls his “top priority.” His also says his “primary focus has been and continues to be... the repayment of the players and the survival of the company.” And again, he mentions he is “doing everything possible” to make these things happen.

    “I spend a good deal of my time making sure that FTP survives and that the players get paid,” Bitar goes on to say. “I continue to work on these issues, day and night until we resolve them,” he adds. And, in case we missed it before, he once more reminds us his “entire focus is on obtaining a successful resolution for the players.”

    Alas, it’s hard not to be cynical and call the Bitar interview a weak echo of one of those FTPDoug “updates” that strung us along last spring and summer. Even the phrasing directly recalls those spoonfuls of poorly-conceived PR applesauce in which the mouthpiece informed us time and again that FTP “has worked tirelessly” and are “absolutely committed” and “we have been working around the clock to get this done” and so on. Recall as well how those updates often concluded with statements -- again, like Bitar’s -- that “it has not been easy to stay silent and watch the damage being done to our company brand.”

    Ray BitarSo while I was surprised Bitar spoke at all, it isn’t that much of a surprise to find him sounding a lot like FTPDoug, since we all knew FTPDoug wasn’t speaking for himself, but just passing along what the higher-ups -- including Bitar -- told him to report. (At least he didn’t repeat another of FTPDoug’s infamous statements -- highlighted by the DOJ in the amended civil complaint in September -- that “your funds remain safe and secure at FTP.”)

    Thus, as I say, there’s nothing tangible to take away from Bitar’s bite-sized blurbs. But really, why would we think he’d feed us anything? We already knew the shell game had ended long before. And that there wasn’t a single pea under any of them.

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