Tuesday, April 30, 2013

U.S. Online Poker 2.0: Ultimate Poker Deals First Hand

You’ve no doubt heard the news already -- real money online poker is being played within the United States at this very moment, with the Ultimate Poker site in Nevada suddenly springing to life this morning to deal its first hand. The site went live just about an hour ago at 9 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, noon here on the east coast.

Like you, I awoke to the news that UP was going to be going live today. Kind of surprised, actually, that there wasn’t a lengthy roll out or even any real advance notice beforehand, although I guess we all knew the launch was going to be soon. I went ahead and registered with the site, even though I’m in North Carolina and cannot play as yet. I will be in Nevada this summer, however, for the World Series of Poker, and so might well get on there to play a bit while I am there.

That said, there are other issues presently in the way of my playing on Ultimate Poker besides not being physically located within Nevada.

My cell phone carrier is Verizon, and apparently that’s going to exclude me right now as well. In order to play on Ultimate Poker, one must have a cell phone in order to use the site’s “location services” function. In order to determine that a player is in Nevada, the player has to respond to a text message sent to his or her cell phone, which theoretically confirms for Ultimate Poker that the player is within Nevada’s borders. (Easy to imagine folks scheming to work around this method of confirmation.) Anyhow, apparently Verizon customers are out of luck with regard to this system, and so cannot presently get verified to play.

Another hiccup for me is the fact that there really isn’t a good option for Mac users to play at present. There is a workaround, apparently, but it’s more than I want to deal with, especially as I’m not even in NV.

Hopefully both of those issues get resolved before mid-June when I get to Nevada with my Verizon phone and Mac laptop. Not going to get too worked up over the various snags as yet, though, as I think it is only fair to let the site get up and operational before any judgments can be meaningful.

I watched the first hand being dealt on Ultimate Poker a while ago. A $4.55+$0.45 turbo sit-n-go appeared in the lobby at the top of the hour, and after about nine minutes or so the nine spots were taken and the single-table tourney got underway. Check out the Hand ID# in the top left corner:

The player chazman then knocked out prognostic on the very first hand of the SNG after the latter flopped top pair then chazman turned a spade flush and they got it all in on fourth street with prognostic drawing dead. In the end, chazman finished third for $8.45, jharrington took second for $12.50, and a player simply named Ken won the sucker for $20.

Shortly after that SNG began the lobby began to fill with many other sit-n-go options with buy-ins ranging from $0.25 up to $100. Cash tables appeared in the lobby as well, with limit hold’em games ranging from $0.05/$0.10 up to $10/$20, and NL games from $0.01/$0.02 to $3/$6. All games are hold’em right now, as well.

Not too much is happening as yet, though. At the moment it looks like only seven players are sitting at the cash tables. Meanwhile there haven’t been enough players to get a second full-ring SNG going, although two have started a $5 heads-up one.

Of course, as I mentioned, it was only hours ago that most even heard the news that Ultimate Poker was going live, and given the hoops those who are in Nevada presently need to go through before being able to deposit and play, I wouldn’t expect the site to get too much traffic during these first few hours or days.

It could be that part of the thinking behind surprise-springing the launch in this way was to prevent having too much business right off the bat, thereby enabling those running the show to ease into things a little more carefully. A better explanation, though, is that Ultimate Poker simply wanted to be the first to deal real money hands, period, as the benefits of being the only option in what is necessarily a small marketplace are obviously huge.

Will be curious to see how things progress from here. Am really, really hopeful it all goes relatively smoothly as it is obviously important for the reintroduction of online poker in the U.S. to play out minus the scandals and other problems that became such a conspicuous part of our previous experience with online poker here in the states.

In other words, I sincerely hope the rush to be first doesn’t mean any unforeseen (or yet-to-be-dealt-with) issues arise to create problems going forward for U.S. Online Poker 2.0.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

Put Your Funds on Lock Poker (And Throw Away the Key)

Like most American online poker players -- particularly those of us who were fairly dedicated prior to Black Friday -- I’ve remained aware of the ever dwindling options available to us for the last two-plus years. And like many in that group, I’ve been wary about sending money to any of the so-called “rogue” sites serving U.S. customers during that period.

I had a conversation with someone a week ago about online poker, a person entirely unfamiliar with its history as well as all of the recent legal machinations here in the U.S. He couched his questions to me within the very reasonable skepticism a lot of people have had about any form of online gambling.

“Is it really safe?” he asked.

People asked the same question before Black Friday, thinking about all sorts of potential issues that gave them pause when it came to online poker. Indeed, they asked the same question even before the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 came along to force all of us to start adding certain disclaimers when arguing for the relative safety (or legality) of our favorite game.

There was a period prior to the emergence of the insider cheating scandals on Absolute Poker (news of which first broke in October 2007) and UltimateBet (which surfaced soon after, finally acknowledged by the site in March 2008) when I think most of us would answer such a question defensively. “It’s totally safe,” we quickly retorted, noting how cheating was unlikely -- why cheat when so much money can be made without doing so?!? -- and how depositing and cashing out posed little problems, if any.

Sure, after the UIGEA the business of moving money on and off sites became slightly more troublesome than before. But few harbored much concern about the games being safe to play.

The scandals certainly introduced seeds of doubt, but even then -- from early 2008 to early 2011 -- most of us continued to play without much fretting, some even on Absolute and UB. There’d be occasional problems with certain sites when it came to moving money, with those issues starting to multiply considerably during the last months of 2010 and first part of 2011. But few players felt too much concern, and indeed, there existed thousands of American players who were secure enough with the situation to consider themselves full-time online professionals.

Thus was the shock of Black Friday made all the more intense (for most). Going forward, nothing seemed certain about playing online poker from the United States, even if the many smaller sites continued to operate without interruption. Indeed, for a short period -- say six weeks or so -- it almost felt like a few of those tiny sites might soon be moving up to claim the spots formerly occupied by the giants who’d been suddenly struck down and driven from the U.S. market.

A lot of us spent those first few weeks exploring those other options, including the Merge sites (especially Carbon), Cake, and Bodog (yet to become Bovada).

It wasn’t always simple, but some of us managed to get some cabbage onto those sites and continued playing. I personally looked into it, found the whole process less than inviting, and quickly gave up. However I did win some money on a freeroll over on Hero (a Merge skin), and so kind of kept my hand in that way playing for nickels and dimes without having to deposit.

Lock Poker was then part of the Merge Network, too. Lock had first launched back in late 2008 on Cake, and not too long after signed noted pro Eric “Rizen” Lynch as a representative who I believe also had a position as a VP in the company. They also signed about a dozen more players to sponsor in 2009, then in April 2010 made the move over to Merge.

By 2011, Lock had become slightly better known thanks in part to sponsoring the BLUFF Online Poker Challenge (starting in 2009) which got the site some extra publicity. Not all of that attention was positive, however, especially when one of the players allowed to participate in that initial challenge was noted multi-accounter Josh “JJProdigy” Field. Previously Field had been caught and prohibited from playing on other sites, then went on PokerRoad Radio (in early 2008) to say he couldn’t promise he wouldn’t find a way back onto the sites from which he’d been banned.

But Field ended up not partaking in the challenge after all once “a situation” arose regarding possible account-sharing on Cake. In any event, by the spring of 2011 that’s pretty much all I knew about Lock Poker. Then a few months later came that whole ugly “Girah” saga on the site, another negative story partly concerning a site-sponsored competition that seemed to show the site failing to act responsibly in response to a cheating scandal.

All that was more than sufficient to reduce my interest in possibly playing on Lock Poker to nil. Actually for a brief period in there (from around June 2011 to October 2011), Lock wasn’t even accepting new U.S. signups. But they did begin taking Americans again, and during the last year-and-a-half I noted in passing the site gradually building a large roster of nearly 30 sponsored pros, among them Lynch, Michael Mizrachi, Chris Moorman, Paul Volpe, Melanie Weisner, Casey Jarzabek, Brett Jungblut, Matt Stout, and Annette Obrestad.

It was just about a year ago that Lock popped back up on the radar a bit, right about the time they signed Obrestad. That’s when the whole brouhaha erupted between Lock and the Merge Network involving the canceling of the LOCKOPS series and Lock bolting from Merge altogether to buy up Cake and start their own Revolution Network.

Now the situation at Lock has apparently taken an especially unpleasant turn. Complaints from players facing lengthy cashout delays -- as in several months -- have recently come to dominate all current news about the site. And after a long time simmering, that situation presently appears to have reached a kind of boiling point with reports of players being informed they can no longer cash out funds received via player-to-player transfers on the site.

The sudden introduction of the new ban on cashing out transferred funds -- the news of which was delivered to players via an email last week -- considerably heightened already significant player concerns about the money currently sitting in their Lock Poker accounts. You can read some details of the current situation over on 4Flush. Haley Hintze has a story on it for Pokerfuse as well (although you can only read the first half of that one without a “PRO” account).

Skimming the various 2+2 threads concerning players’ present predicament, it sounds as though there were a decent number of full-timers in the U.S. who had found themselves ultimately choosing Lock Poker as a current option for playing significant volume and at meaningful stakes. Weighing all of those risks discussed above, a number appear to have stubbornly taken to Lock and tried to treat it as a replacement for Stars, FTP, Absolute Poker, and/or UB.

Considered in a vacuum, a prohibition against withdrawing funds that have been obtained via transfer is not unreasonable. I remember once long ago getting paid for an article I had written via a transfer on an online poker site, and when I tried to withdraw the money immediately I was informed that I could not do so without first playing a certain number of hands.

I understood the purpose behind the policy. The site felt obligated not to allow willy-nilly transfers and withdrawals as though it were a financial transaction provider -- not to mention one with zero transaction fees -- and not an online poker site. In fact, even though the exchange of funds between players has always been a significant part of poker, generally speaking, I’ve always thought it would be perfectly within reason for sites not to allow player-to-player transfers at all.

Such a prohibition certainly seems like it could be in the sites’ interest from a legal perspective, as talk of money laundering and other questionable practices that sometimes get associated with sites would become less applicable. It also would probably help lessen problems with collusion, multi-accounting, and other terms-and-conditions-defying behaviors if swapping funds back and forth between player accounts weren’t possible.

I’m not entirely up on how the regulations have been drawn up in Nevada (or where they are headed in New Jersey), but I am guessing player-to-player transfers aren’t going to be an option when it comes to Online Poker in America 2.0. (Perhaps someone better informed on this can let me know what to expect along those lines.)

That said, this new policy move by Lock is not happening within a vacuum, but within a full-blown crisis, it appears, when it comes to the site being able to facilitate withdrawals. For the American online poker player who wants to play full-time and try to earn a living, this last, desperate example of the impossibility of doing so should provide a kind of ultimate deterrent, I’d think. To go back to my friend’s question (“Is it really safe?”), the answer these days for those of us here in the U.S. -- when it comes to the offshore, U.S.-facing sites, that is -- is most assuredly that it is not.

As I say, I was never too tempted by Lock to try them out, but I can’t imagine anyone would be today. Thinking back, the name of the site probably turned me off right away.

I mean, sure, I might have been able to figure out how to get some funds on there. But was I ever going to be able to withdraw money from a site called Lock?

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Seven Years of Good Luck

Just a quick note to mark the occasion of the blog turning seven years old today.

“You’d be in second grade by now,” says Vera.

Yesterday I spent a little bit of time bringing all of the archive pages up-to-date once again. I usually keep adding the new items to those pages as I go, although will sometimes fall behind by a few weeks.

If you scroll down and look on the right-hand column, you’ll see pics with links to the five different categories of posts -- “On the Street,” “The Rumble,” “Shots in the Dark,” “High Society,” and “By the Book” -- which take you to the pages to which I’m referring. (Or just click the links in this paragraph.)

There I’ve listed links to every post I’ve written on Hard-Boiled Poker, all 1,917 of them (including this one). I remember when I started building the archive pages, I would add a sentence to each summarizing what the post was about. That proved too much of a hassle after a while, and so all you get are the clickable post titles.

The largest category over the years has become “The Rumble,” which really ought to have been a couple or three categories. That’s where I have placed any post having to do with “how poker is presented & discussed in various media,” and so usually any hard-to-categorize post (like this one) ends up in that box.

Vera has been suggesting to me that I should think about collecting some of these posts and perhaps put them out as ebooks or in some other fashion, and I’m starting to edge closer to doing something along those lines. Not all of the posts are worthy of such treatment, of course, but some are and I think it would be fun to try.

Despite the high volume of posts, I’ve always tried to include at least something worthwhile in each one to reward those giving a few minutes of their day to reading it. It’s tough sometimes -- especially continuing with this at-least-once-every-weekday schedule as I do -- to remain inspired. But as anyone who has stumbled onto this blog well knows, the poker world seems to provide an inexhaustible supply of stories and characters about which to scribble.

Thanks again, everyone, for coming around and further inspiring me to keep this sucker going. I feel especially lucky to have had readers all this time, not to mention fortunate when I think of all the places the blog has helped take me over the years. And, most importantly, I’m grateful for all of the great people and friendships I’ve been privileged enough to enjoy thanks in part to our finding each other here at HBP.

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Friday, April 26, 2013

Poker and the Boy Scouts

A couple of summers ago, Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) introduced a House bill that aimed to license, regulate, and tax online poker in the U.S. While the poker community gave it some attention, it didn’t really earn much elsewhere. However the bill was referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce who a few months after the bill’s introduction had a hearing to discuss “Internet Gaming: Is There a Safe Bet?”

While that hearing was nominally about online gambling, generally speaking, much of the talk focused more specifically on poker and the prospects for federal legislation regarding online poker in the U.S. Nothing would come of that discussion, and the bill went no further. Meanwhile some states have moved forward on their own, most notably Nevada and New Jersey.

I found Barton’s comments in the hearing interesting, though. I remember at the time sharing them with my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class that semester. I wanted to give the students an update on how Congress was then talking about poker, but also I wanted them to hear Barton make reference to some of the stories and ideas we’d been discussing in the course.

“Poker is the all-American game,” Barton began. “President Richard Nixon financed his first Congressional campaign partially with poker winnings from World War II. Our current president, President Obama, is reputed to be a very good poker player. I learned to play poker, believe it or not, in the Boy Scouts. So if you learn something in the Boy Scouts, it's got to be a good thing, right?”

The stories of Nixon and Obama’s poker playing are both fairly well known, especially that of “Tricky Dick” reportedly taking $6,000 off his fellow Naval officers during a couple of months in the Pacific, then using that money to help fund his first successful Congressional campaign in 1946. Indeed, we’d read about both Nixon and Obama and their poker playing in the class already.

But the story of learning the game in the Boy Scouts was something we hadn’t really encountered. We certainly had talked a lot about poker being played by soldiers in all branches of the military, but nothing about Boy Scouts playing poker. I decided to investigate further.

As Barton was implying when sharing the story, his having learned poker as a scout is not unique. Many who have participated in the Boy Scouts of America learned how to play card games, including poker, along with the many other activities that form part of the scouting experience.

I was a Cub Scout for a few years, and remember making it to Webelos and perhaps even getting the Arrow of Light, although I didn’t continue on into the Boy Scouts. I do remember playing card games as a scout like “War” and “Navy,” and while it’s possible I learned about poker hand rankings back then I don’t have any clear memories of playing poker back then.

Many others do, however, have memories similar to Barton’s. Among professional players, Andy Bloch has noted in interviews how he first learned to play poker as a Boy Scout. WSOP Circuit regular and ring winner at the 2007 WSOP-C Tunica event Robert Castoire has likewise noted that he first learned the game in the Boy Scouts.

Indeed, many who learned how to build a fire, pitch a tent, and other lessons for life in the Boy Scouts similarly found themselves learning to bet their big hands, not to chase inside straights, and that accurately anticipating an opponent’s move is another way to apply the Boy Scouts’ motto to “Be Prepared.”

I dug a little further. As it happens, poker and card playing form part of the story of the origins of the Boy Scouts of America.

William D. Boyce, a newspaper publisher from Chicago, first founded the BSA in 1910. Boyce was himself an avid poker player, and his wife, Mary Jane, was said to be a good player, too. A highly successful entrepreneur, the 51-year-old Boyce was already a multi-millionaire when he started the BSA. In fact, some have even speculated that Boyce’s financial well-being might have been significantly bolstered by his poker playing, although no evidence exists to support such a conjecture.

As it happens, the very first edition of the Boy Scouts Handbook published in 1911 does contain a reference to card playing, although there the activity is presented in a somewhat negative light.

The reference appears amid a sequence of stories and essays about American wars, politics, presidents, government, the military, and other matters falling under the heading of the chapter’s title, “Patriotism and Citizenship.”

Among the stories told by the chapter’s author, Waldo Sherman, is that of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and the British. Interestingly, rather than provide an account of the war itself, Sherman focuses instead on the story of a 10-year-old boy, David Glasgow Farragut.

Farragut would go on to make a name for himself fighting for the Union in the Civil War, but he was just a boy in 1812. Nonetheless, when his father (a naval officer) was sent to New Orleans to help fight off the Brits, young David was taken along to serve as a cabin-boy. Sherman shares some of Farragut’s memories of the trip.

“I had some qualities that I thought made a man of me,” said Farragut. “I could swear like an old salt, could drink as stiff a glass of grog as if I had doubled Cape Horn, and could smoke like a locomotive. I was great at cards, and was fond of gambling in every shape.”

However, David’s father was less than pleased with his son’s precocity, and thus following dinner one night confronted him with a question: “David, what do you mean to be?”

David’s answer was that he wished to be like his father and “follow the sea” as a navy man. But his father objected, telling the boy “you will have to change your whole course of life if you ever become a man.”

Young David understood the implication of his father’s words, and from that point made a resolution. “I’ll change my life, and I will change it myself” he decided. “I will never utter another oath, never drink another drop of intoxicating liquor, [and] never gamble.” Telling the story years later, Farragut was able to proclaim that he had “kept these three vows to this hour.”

The implication, of course, is that by setting aside the card-playing -- a vice here associated with drinking, swearing, and other activities to be avoided by civic-minded citizens -- Farragut did successfully grow into the sort of man that boys reading his story might well take as a model to follow.

As an organization designed to build character, foster citizenship, and improve physical fitness (among other goals), the Boy Scouts of America has never officially included poker as a scheduled activity. Even if over the years it has been proven time and time again that a game of cards has repeatedly proven an inviting option when sitting around a campfire.

Thus there is no BSA merit badge for poker. Except, of course, for the spoof badge created by the same folks who came up with merit badges for making popcorn, snoring, belching, and outhouse tipping.

That said, the idea of there ever being a real poker merit badge perhaps became marginally less far-fetched when the BSA not too long introduced a new merit badge for chess. Among the requirements for earning the badge, scouts must learn the rules and scorekeeping, chess notation, play in a tournament, organize a competition, and teach someone else how to play chess.

Who knows? Perhaps these stories of Boy Scouts learning poker might become even more common, especially if the decision is made to create actual poker merit badges.

After which point, the scouts could then play for them.

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Poker Miscellanies

Kind of a down time, poker-wise, these days. Sure EPT Berlin is happening, plus other tourneys around the globe (as always). Still, it feels more like the poker world is in resting up mode at the moment. Some are readying for the Spring Championship of Online Poker on PokerStars in May, while most are already planning for the World Series of Poker which is now just a little over a month away.

Of course, here in the U.S. a lot of us have been in what might be called “resting up” mode for a long time now. Or perhaps more appropriately, “wait and see.” Looking forward to the second part of the year when some of the Nevada sites start going live (for real), and perhaps even something starts to happen in New Jersey, too, before the year is out.

The items coming over the news ticker this week are arriving a little more slowly than usual, although there were a couple of odds and ends that caught my eye over the last few days.

Joe Sebok, as photographed by B.J. Nemeth at the 2009 WSOPThat story out of Los Angeles about Joe Sebok, nude photos, email hacking, and an extortion attempt was kinda-sorta surprising to see. You probably heard about that one. Coupla dudes had already pleaded guilty to trying to extort Sebok and on Monday were back in a U.S. District Court to be sentenced for their crimes.

Sebok offered testimony to explain how the extortion attempt affected him, including negatively impacting his ability to work in poker. “I was no longer able to maintain my then-current level of participation in the poker industry, representing the brands that I had been previously, as well as greatly destroying my ability to do so with new companies moving forward,” Sebok told the judge.

The attempted scheme began in November 2010. Of course, by mid-April 2011 other factors arose quite suddenly also to negatively affect Sebok’s ability to represent the brands he had been previously. And by having associated with those brands, he had already more or less destroyed his ability to work with new companies in the poker industry moving forward.

There was another item from yesterday that I couldn’t help but click through to read about, a so-called “poker card murder” in China. At first I thought of that CSI episode from a couple of months ago, the poker-themed one I wrote about both here and over on PokerListings in which an actual playing card really is used as a murder weapon. I also thought of that “Killer Cards” story I’d read about not too long ago and shared here, the one involving a prisoner making a pipe bomb out of playing cards.

But reading this story, it appears the connection between poker and murder was entirely incidental. Rather the murderer had sealed up his victim in a carton box into which a few playing cards had accidentally fallen, thus igniting lots of misplaced speculation regarding the possible significance of the cards -- which, in fact, had nothing at all to do with the crime.

Even so, the story was kind of interesting insofar as it illustrated the deepy-rooted symbolic value of playing cards that transcends many cultures.

Finally, I’ll share one other, much lighter item, a National Public Radio segment in which actor, comedian, children’s book author, and hilarious Tweeter Michael Ian Black appeared with poker player Matt Matros on the show “Ask Me Another.”

The show is one of those live quiz shows performed in front of a live audience. Black and Matros were pitted against one another in a trivia game in which all of the questions were about poker. Black appeared multiple times on the old Celebrity Poker Showdown show, winning a couple of times, which I suppose partly explains how he ended up talking poker on the show.

As fans of both guys -- I wrote about Matros here once last summer -- I enjoyed the segment, which concluded with a Jonathan Coulton performance of Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler.”

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

More on Mario Puzo

Not long ago I spent some time reading (and rereading) a few titles by Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather (1969). One consequence was a new Pop Poker piece over at PokerListings that just went up yesterday that focuses primarily on Puzo’s most famous novel and some of the reasons for its appeal to poker players.

Once upon a time while a graduate student I served as a teaching assistant for an especially interesting class titled “American Bestsellers and Their Movies.” We read bestselling American novels going all of the way back to the early 19th century then watched film adaptations, and I got to lead a discussion section and even lecture some. Among the titles we covered were James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place, John Grisham’s The Firm, and a few others, including The Godfather.

It was a fun course to take and to teach, insofar as the novels helped shed a lot of light on American culture thanks to their status as bestsellers, and the films also gave us many ways to explore narrative and the various methods of telling stories. I found it all fascinating, and ended up trying to employ some of the ideas I gathered regarding plot construction and the creation of commercial art when I came to write my novel, Same Difference, which has yet to reach bestseller status or be adapted into film, but I remain patient on both fronts.

Of all the films we watched in the course, The Godfather was easily the most accomplished and probably the only clear cut example of a film representing a greater artistic achievement than the book on which it was based. I always appreciated Puzo’s novel, though, as extremely effective in its plotting and filled with memorable characters and scenes.

There are a couple of needless digressions and other indulgences in the book (all dealt with smartly by the film, actually), as well as other small issues I complained about here and there in the margins of my copy. But overall the book is definitely a triumph of commercial writing and the influential place occupied by the Corleone family in American culture cannot be questioned.

Anyhow, the main reason why I ended up going back and rereading The Godfather was because not long ago I’d picked up a copy of his 1977 nonfiction book Inside Las Vegas. Kind of curious, actually, to think about how Puzo chose not to start churning out sequels to his blockbuster -- and one of the bestselling novels in history -- and instead make his next published title a kind of “coffee table” book in which he explored his fascination with gambling, casino culture, and that adult playground known as Sin City.

Of course, Puzo did stick pretty closely to The Godfather over the next several years, with the breakthrough success of the book profoundly altering his writing career. Soon he’d move from Manhattan to Hollywood where he’d work in an office at Paramount as he assisted director Francis Ford Coppola with the screenplays for both the 1972 adaptation and the 1974 sequel, the latter of which extended the story beyond the scope of the original novel.

From there Puzo then became involved with screenplay writing for other films as well, including co-scripting the first two Superman films. In fact, it would be nearly a decade before Puzo would publish his next novel, Fools Die, which is in fact partly set in Las Vegas.

I ended up writing a lot of additional material about both Inside Las Vegas and Fools Die for the Pop Poker piece, although in the end we decided just to stick with a discussion of The Godfather over there. Meanwhile, for those who are curious, I thought I’d share some thoughts about the latter two books here today.

Going Inside Las Vegas

As I say above, Inside Las Vegas is really a “coffee table” book filled with hundreds of color and black-and-white photographs taken in and around the casinos of Las Vegas from during the mid-1970s. Interspersed along the way are chapter-length essays by Puzo which detail the history of gambling, offer some behind-the-scenes stuff about Vegas casinos and how they run, and also occasionally explore humans’ seemingly innate need to take risks.

The book also contains some highly personal anecdotes about Puzo himself, revealing him to have followed the footsteps of one of his favorite writers, Fyodor Dostoevsky, to become a problem gambler. He even admits in the introduction that he was likely chosen to write the book “because I have the reputation as a degenerate gambler.”

The stories he tells about himself confirm this reputation, showing that he lost so much gambling he basically had reached a point at which he was forced to swear off it altogether. Having become immensely rich from The Godfather book and films, he realizes that ironically he could no longer afford to gamble now that he possesses real wealth.

“Now for the first time in my life, making more money than I have ever made in my life... now I have too much to lose,” he admits.

Like The Godfather, Inside Las Vegas defends gambling as a “natural” vice, “one of the primary drives of mankind.” But Puzo also recognizes its destructiveness, and characterizes the casino games of Las Vegas as eminently unbeatable. “Sure, you may win on some trips,” writes Puzo. “But eventually you will get wiped out.”

Poker was not nearly as popular in the 1970s as it has since become, so it is not surprising to read of Puzo playing nearly every other game in the casino except poker. Thus does he repeatedly succumb to the house’s percentage edge, coming away with the conclusion that while Vegas is great fun, one can only (ultimately) lose while there.

The book provides a subjective, loosely organized study of Las Vegas of the era, with Puzo’s anecdotes populated by a large collection of character sketches of casino managers, pit bosses, floorwalkers, boxmen, stickmen, croupiers, dealers, shills, hosts, junket masters, collectors, and call girls.

I’d recommend it without qualification for the photos alone, but the essays by Puzo add further insight and are quite diverting for those of us with an interest in gambling, casinos, Las Vegas, and/or the 1970s.

People gamble... and Fools Die

At last in 1978, Puzo’s next novel Fools Die would appear, which like The Godfather is a sprawling story with a large cast of characters whose stories intertwine over the course of a couple of decades and five hundred-plus pages.

There’s more sex and less violence in Fools Die than in Puzo’s previous novel, although the overall tone is similarly dark. And this time Puzo more directly explores the culture of gambling, beginning and ending his novel amid the adult-themed excesses of the Las Vegas that captivated him so.

Some of the anecdotes and characters from Inside Las Vegas find their way into Fools Die, with the story focusing initially on a group of gamblers thrown together in Las Vegas, then separating as the story narrows to concentrate upon one of them -- Merlyn -- whose life most obviously parallels Puzo’s own.

Like Puzo, Merlyn is a novelist who eventually writes a best-seller before getting involved in movie-making. He’s also a losing gambler, although avoids the debilitating losses Puzo experienced. Again, poker isn’t really given much prominence in the book, although the baccarat games are sometimes described in terms that resemble the dynamics of a poker table.

While not as carefully plotted as The Godfather and even somewhat experimental in places -- including frequent shifts between first- and third-person narration -- the book offers much of interest to gamblers and poker players. There are numerous quotable lines about gambling throughout, too, including one frequently delivered by the casino owner Gronevelt who wields Don Corleone-like power over his casino, Xanadu, and beyond.

“You have to get rich in the dark,” Gronevelt says, the point being that like was the case with the Corleones in The Godfather, he’s determined it best to operate outside of externally-imposed “systems” if one hopes to get ahead.

I was fairly energized by the first third or so of Fools Die, but to be honest found myself less and less enthused by the latter chapters. Those indulgences and digressions I mentioned popping up in The Godfather happen again in this novel, and while I did find some of them interesting after a while they caused me to become less engaged and not terribly motivated to discover the ultimate fates of Merlyn and the other characters.

There’s a ton of stuff about Hollywood culture and its artist-killing influence, and in fact at times the novel seems to read like a roman à clef-type exposé of particular figures as well as the general corruption of the studio system. And while the introduction of a Norman Mailer-like character, Osano, sparks interest about halfway through, he -- like Mailer -- gets tedious after while.

All of which is to say while I certainly recommend Inside Las Vegas -- especially to readers of this blog -- I’m a little less quick to do so with Fools Die. I’ve yet to explore too much else from Puzo, although I know he’d return again to the topic of Las Vegas in The Last Don, the last of his novels to be published prior to his death in 1999, the story of which explicitly examines mob ties to the origins and growth of Vegas casinos.

For those who have read this far, thanks for permitting me to be like Puzo and indulge in these digressions from that Pop Poker piece. And if you’ve read any of these books (or other titles by Puzo), I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about him, too.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Duke on Decisions

Yesterday a reporter named Sonja Sherwood who writes for the Philadelphia Business Journal published a piece describing her experience attending a 40-minute talk given by Annie Duke at World Cafe Live sometime last week. Sherwood’s report is titled “What Annie Duke can teach you about decisions.”

I know... the sort of headline that is practically impossible for anyone involved in poker over the last several years to read without an exaggerated eyeroll, followed thereafter by a quick click to move on without reading further.

Hooked me, though, and so I kept going.

It’s an earnest report from Sherwood, aside from her occasionally tipping her hand regarding what seems like gushing fandom of Duke. She explains early on how the theme of Duke’s PowerPoint presentation was to explore the reasons “why most people -- gamblers, brand marketers, business owners and employees -- fail to learn from bad decisions, and how companies can counteract that.”

We learn in the article that over the last year Duke has “put poker on the back burner” in favor of such speaking engagements. The audience for this one was about 65 professionals, most of whom Sherwood pegs as venture capitalists or techies.

It’s a curiously pitched piece, actually. Sherwood shows she has knowledge of Duke’s educational background and career as a player, at least up through 2004 when she won a WSOP bracelet while also earning that $2 million score in the invitation-only, 10-player WSOP Tournament of Champions. But if she has any awareness of UltimateBet/UB or the Epic Poker League -- the contexts for some truly poor decision-making by her subject over the last decade -- she doesn’t let on.

Sherwood shares some of the persuasive analogies between business and poker included in Duke’s talk, such as the way people often believe their successes come primarily from skill and failures the result of luck. Duke also passes along the very practical advice that “you have to be willing to admit the possibility that you’re a bad decision maker, but that’s very painful.”

It’s impossible to read such ideas and not think about the myriad bad decisions made in association with the EPL debacle, or about Duke’s involvement with UltimateBet/UB all of the way through its scandals and up until the very end of 2011 -- i.e., the very precipice of the site’s final, Black Friday-hastened implosion.

Duke mentions some companies encouraging employees to address publicly the process of decision-making by having actually “created a prize for the stupidest idea or biggest failure of the month.” An interesting idea, although again one wonders if Federated Sports + Gaming (the EPL’s parent company) had such a contest -- and to think that if they did, how incredibly competitive it must have been!

To Duke’s credit, following the talk she did share with Sherwood a little bit about her own missteps with regard to Epic. “I had a business go into chapter 11 last year,” she tells Sherwood. “I think I made pretty good decisions along the way, but when I look back I realize, oh, I should have seen this and I should have seen that and I was overconfident here, and I really believed in my own idea too much in this place....”

Is Duke following her own advice? Is she admitting the possibility that she was a bad decision maker? Perhaps, in the most delicate way possible. I can’t help but think of the interviewee who upon being asked to name a greatest weakness can only answer “I work too hard.”

Sherwood says “that seemed like a good place to end our conversation,” articulating exactly the opposite thought that most of us from the poker world would have when reading the article. Indeed, for a good number of us that seemed like a good place to start the conversation.

It’s sort of interesting to step back and think of Duke’s new career as a public speaker and how it perhaps can be understood as an extension of a career in poker.

In 2005 Duke published an autobiography titled How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker. (In fact, reading Sherwood’s piece again, it almost feels like consulting that book represents the extent of the author’s research into her subject.) Duke is no longer raising and folding, but I suppose one might say she is bluffing her way to more modest sums at the moment. Maybe flirting, too, some, I guess.

Like I say, ironies abound here. I’m tempted to end with a snarky one-liner about people attending a talk about learning from one’s mistakes coming away having decided not to attend such talks again. But to do so would ignore another irony.

After all, I just read an article titled “What Annie Duke can teach you about decisions.”

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Monday, April 22, 2013

On Black Friday, Belatedly

DOJ seizes domainsThe second anniversary of Black Friday came and went last week. A few folks here and there marked the occasion, although there was not nearly as much focus on the events of April 15, 2011 and their aftermath as was the case a year ago.

Last Monday I was busy helping cover the final table of the WSOP Circuit Main Event at Harrah’s Cherokee (while also being considerably distracted by the bombings at the Boston Marathon). Jeff “yellowsub86” Williams was there railing the final table -- he’d finished 37th in the event -- and I remember at one point overhearing him and one of the remaining players casually noting to each other how it was April 15th. Was just a brief reference to the anniversary in passing, with no further conversation other than to acknowledge it.

Just nods of recognition. I remember I, too, felt myself nodding as I overheard the exchange.

I realized at the time I hadn’t really thought much at all about the date having come around again. Nor did I have much urge to write about it or make any pronouncements about the significance of two years having passed since online poker had been more or less erased from the poker landscape in the U.S.

Things have always moved hyperfast in poker world, particularly when it comes to online poker where the accelerated pace of the game mirrors the always shifting, always evolving contexts in which the game has been played during the decade-and-a-half or so of its existence.

The growth of online poker was blindingly fast, and the soon-to-follow scandals and legal crackdowns kept the situation in constant flux. And, of course, the suddenness of the shutdown two years ago came as quickly as running kings into aces to be hastily bounced from a tournament.

It’s probably safe to say that the great majority of the recreational or part-time U.S. online poker players have now moved on from poker entirely. Some occasionally find themselves in live rooms now and then, but most have no doubt moved on to other hobbies and interests.

There was that exodus of a select few full-time grinders to Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere to keep their careers alive, although in truth the numbers who did make such moves were relatively small. And I know there are some still figuring out ways to play surreptitiously from the U.S., with that group most certainly even smaller (and necessarily hiding in the shadows so as not to advertise their doings).

Poker remains, of course, and continues to fascinate many here in the U.S. The turnouts at Harrah’s Cherokee last week most certainly proved something along those lines, and as WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla mentioned to me in a short interview while there, the “myth about how ‘poker is dying’” is most certainly being disproven time and again at various venues around the country.

But the game has most definitely faded from mainstream culture’s consciousness in America. The occasional appearance of shows such as the conclusion of the NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship last weekend barely registers in terms of ratings or reaction. (Did you watch the big Phil Hellmuth-Mike Matusow finale on Saturday? Neither did I.)

I know the online game is in the midst of returning to the U.S. in a fragmented, chastened way via individual states. But we’re definitely on the other end of a particular phenomenon with a beginning and an end.

It’s interesting to step back and think of poker as it existed (and persisted) in America before the online game came along. Then came the period when the two (live and online) existed in competition with one another. Then suddenly both were entangled in a complicated collaboration for several years leading up to 4/15/11, influencing one another and existing as a continuum along which everyone moved freely back and forth.

But online departed, and in the two years since the live game has pushed forward alone having been changed by the experience.

The intermingling of the two will occur again soon -- is starting to occur -- as the casinos will be driving the newly-furbished online poker machine in the states. And given how quickly things tend to happen in poker, I imagine much will be happening between now and the next April 15 to distract us even further from thoughts of anniversaries and what once was.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Poker in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The plot of John Cassavetes’s gritty crime drama The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (first released in 1976) hinges on a poker game, presented in a brief though important scene early in the film. While the game’s result ultimately leads to the violence suggested in the film’s title, the scene also signals other themes that come to be explored further as the story subsequently unfolds.

The scene also perhaps tells us something significant about poker, too -- namely, how not everyone plays for the same reasons.

Like all of Cassavetes’s films, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie employs a challenging, distinctive narrative style, employing lots of unconventional editing and camera work, other documentary-like or “cinéma vérité” elements, not-always-linear plotting, and a consistently improvisational feel despite the fact that his films were often carefully scripted (by himself).

Sometimes likened to other independent “auteurs” who also produced their best work during the ’60s and ’70s, Cassavetes’s films are not for everyone, but for some offer wholly absorbing examples of cinematic storytelling, often punctuated by remarkably realistic performances from his actors, several of whom he used repeatedly.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie represented something of a departure for Cassavetes. Unlike his earlier ensemble-driven, almost experimental domestic dramas like Shadows, Faces, and A Woman Under the Influence, here the director chose to work within a particular, established genre -- the updated hard-boiled noir in which peers like Martin Scorcese (Mean Streets), Francis Ford Coppola (The Conversation), Roman Polanski (Chinatown), and Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye) were operating at the time.

Also unlike some of his earlier films in which several characters receive detailed examination, here the focus is squarely upon a single individual, the strip club owner and inveterate gambler Cosmo Vittelli, memorably portrayed by Ben Gazzara.

While it is clear Cosmo’s gambling habit is an important part of his character -- and indeed, is the primary cause for the film’s central conflict -- he is in fact shown gambling only once early in the film when he visits a mob-run casino to play poker.

By the time Cosmo makes his visit to the poker room, we have been introduced to him and his struggling L.A. strip club where the dancers -- whom he calls the “De-Lovelies” -- engage in cabaret-like performances along with a somewhat morose singer-host with magic-markered-on eyebrows and mustache named Mr. Sophistication. By then we’ve also witnessed Cosmo paying off a loan shark, finally settling what appears to have been a long-standing debt presumably accrued because of his gambling.

In fact, the trip to the casino to play poker represents a celebration of sorts by Cosmo for having finally gotten out from under his creditor’s thumb. Thus to mark the occasion, Cosmo takes three of the De-Lovelies along with him -- including his girlfriend, Rachel (Azizi Johari) -- the group traveling via limousine and drinking Dom Perignon on the way.

Before discussing the scene, a word needs to be said about the different versions of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The original film released in 1976 ran a lengthy 134 minutes and proved a box office failure. Cassavetes then re-edited the film for a second release in 1978, the new version lasting 108 minutes. Unfortunately for Cassavetes, the second version didn’t fare much better commercially, although the film has been highly regarded by critics, some of whom rank it alongside the director’s best.

While most of the edits involve the removal of lengthy strip club routines, some significant differences are introduced thanks to the way Cassavetes reordered the sequence of a few scenes, truncated some others, and even introduced previously unused material into the shorter version. Some have noted how the portrayal of Cosmo and our response to him is significantly affected by the changes, turning what had been an unsympathetic, undisciplined loser in the earlier version into a more likable and understandable character in the latter.

The poker scene did survive the cuts, although it is abridged in the shorter 1978 version, probably the one those coming across the film over the last three-plus decades are most likely to have seen. (Both versions are included in a Criterion Collection compilation of Cassavetes’s films.)

In the longer version of the film, the casino visit is preceded by a personal invitation from one of the casino’s proprietors, Mort Weil (Seymour Cassel). A repeat visitor to Cosmo’s club, Mort tells him about the casino being “a place where you can go and play poker, you know, and nobody bothers you... [and] nobody cheats.”

The invite includes a slightly ambiguous reference from Mort about how “everything’s on us.” Mort is referring primarily to the “excellent cuisine” and “good wine,” although Cosmo’s response suggests he might be hearing something else. “Everything’s for free?” says Cosmo, and Mort says yes. “Except the gambling,” adds a grinning Cosmo.

The original, longer version also draws more attention to the limo ride over in which Cosmo and the De-Lovelies drink champagne, as well as to the awkwardness introduced at the poker room when Cosmo has to order staff to find chairs for the ladies so they can watch him play.

It is here that the shorter version picks up the scene, with Cosmo playing what appears to be five-card draw. Clearly distracted by the women, he has to be told when to bet and how much. He calls an opening raise to $50, then the pot gets raised and reraised to $850 total when the action is back on him.

With a nonchalance suggesting he’s much more concerned with the ladies’ welfare than with the fact that he’s down in the game, Cosmo interrupts the hand to tell a staff member he needs more credit. When he is refused, Cosmo is taken aback. “What are you trying to do, embarrass me?” he says. He then demands to see Mort Weil.

“The man said I could have unlimited credit,” adds Cosmo.

The staff member reacts animatedly, saying he’s never heard of such a thing, the response eliciting laughter from Cosmo’s opponents. Here the shorter version of the scene ends, but in the longer version the negotiation between Cosmo and the staff member continues, with Cosmo finally managing to get him to accept a personal check for $2,000.

As he writes the check, Rachel leans forward to interject, but Cosmo snaps at her. “Darling, don't do that, it irritates me” he says and she leans back. “It’s all right,” he adds. “It’s only money.”

From there we move to a meeting between Cosmo and the casino owners where we discover he’s somehow managed to lose not only the $1,000 he brought with him to the game, but a whopping $23,000 more on credit.

In the longer version of the film we first witness another player who has also lost money on credit nervously dealing with the scary casino owners before Cosmo’s meeting. By contrast, Cosmo appears calm and without worry as he confesses that he doesn’t presently have money in the bank to pay what he owes. “All the money I make, I put back into my business,” he explains. Before leaving, he signs documents acknowledging his debt and intention to settle.

One can see how even with this brief sequence the edits affect how we might view Cosmo. In the longer version, he appears selfish and self-destructive, recklessly putting himself back into a financial hole after having just climbed out. In the shorter version, he’s appears more a victim of circumstance, with the scene involving the other debtor making us sympathize more greatly with Cosmo than with the intimidating casino owners whose money he’s lost at the table.

Cosmo does not repay his debt as quickly as his creditors would like, and soon they pressure him into agreeing to kill a rival, the “Chinese bookie” of the title. They characterize the man to Cosmo as a small-timer, although later we discover the target is in fact “the heaviest cat on the west coast” -- that is, a highly prominent crime boss.

After efforts to settle the debt in other ways fail, Cosmo agrees to the plan. He appears utterly in over his head, having unwittingly fallen in with an especially dangerous crowd. Just like in the poker game, where Cosmo clearly was ill-equipped to complete with the other players, here he seems likewise outmatched. And making things worse, he doesn’t even realize his “opponent” is much more formidable than he’s been led to believe.

The film does not, however, necessarily play out as expected here. Cosmo, like all of Cassavetes’s best characters, turns out to be a much more complicated figure than we might suspect from these opening scenes. He’s better prepared to handle the ensuing challenge than we might have thought him to be. And despite his seemingly self-destructive gambling habit, Cosmo is genuinely motivated by a personal philosophy -- “to be comfortable.”

“You gotta work hard to be comfortable,” he explains to his employees at the club late in the film, his oration to them resembling the kind of monologue a character from a Dostoevsky novel might deliver.

“A lot of people kid themselves, you know. They… they… they know when they were born. They know where they’re going. They know whether they’re gonna go to heaven, whether they’re gonna go to hell. They think they know that. They kid themselves. But the only people who are, you know, happy are the people who are comfortable.”

As mentioned, those watching the shorter version of the film are probably more likely to understand Cosmo’s thinking here, even to agree that his actions throughout have been in line with this desire to seek comfort. It might seem strange to suggest that losing thousands in a poker game in any way increases a person’s comfort level, but not if we understand that for Cosmo having money doesn’t necessarily figure into his comfort or happiness.

Another of the characters -- one of the mobsters -- notes at the end of the film how “that jerk Karl Marx said opium is the religion of the people,” humorously mangling the quote. He then offers a revision that kind of unwittingly references the German philosopher’s theory.

“I got news for him,” he says. “It’s money.”

Cosmo, however, doesn’t desire money as possessing it does nothing for him in his constant quest to be comfortable. Rather, what Cosmo wants is “unlimited credit.” Thus does he continually reinvest in his struggling strip club where he serves as a kind of father figure to a most unconventional “family.” Such selflessness perhaps contradicts his obvious narcissism, but that’s what makes his character so interestingly complex -- what makes him human.

Despite the fact that many insist poker is all about the money, I think a lot of players might be able to understand Cosmo’s way of thinking -- that, really, what many of us are playing for is not to win money, but to be comfortable. And therefore, happy.

And while winning or losing certainly affects the comfort level of some, for many of us money is not our “religion” or the sole reason why we play. Such is one of many ideas Cassavetes’s film invites us to consider.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Poker Geography

A few weeks ago, Full Tilt Poker introduced a new variant called Irish poker. So, too, did PokerStars roll out Courchevel, another variant most poker players probably weren’t familiar with prior to its introduction.

Both games introduce variations to Omaha. With Irish poker, players are dealt four cards, then after seeing the flop and completing that betting round they discard two before continuing. From there the game plays like hold’em.

With Courchevel, players are dealt five hole cards, then the first flop card is dealt after which comes the initial round of betting. After that the next two flop cards come and another betting round follows, then comes the turn and river. Like in Omaha games, players have to use exactly two of their hole cards and three community cards to make a hand.

There are both high-only and high/low versions of Courchevel (fixed and pot-limit), while I believe Irish poker is only being spread as a high-only game (no-limit or pot-limit).

Hearing about these games got me thinking about poker variants named after particular geographical locations, with the coincidence of Full Tilt Poker’s Irish connections somehow making it an appropriate site for debuting Irish poker occurring to me as well.

From reading around a bit I know Courchevel was indeed named after the French ski resort where it was first thought to have been introduced. I’m not so sure about Irish poker and where it originated. (Indeed, maybe on second thought it isn’t a coincidence that FTP rolled it out.)

While historians have variously disputed Texas hold’em’s origins, it most certainly first gained its greatest popularity in the Lone Star State before spreading across the country. The Texas state legislature even officially acknowledged the small city of Robstown to have been the birthplace of hold’em.

Omaha, meanwhile, appears to be a misnomer of sorts, with the game likely not originating in Nebraska. Rather most accounts place Omaha’s origins in Las Vegas in the early 1980s, with the name simply being introduced as a way to distinguish between “Texas hold’em” and “Omaha hold’em.”

As Bob Ciaffone explains in Omaha Poker, a variation of Texas hold’em was introduced and first played at the Golden Nugget in 1982 that required players to use both hole cards to make a hand. He doesn’t spell it out, but it sounds like someone had the idea to pick Omaha as a place close to Texas, just like the game was close to the version of hold’em everyone knew in which you could also just use one or neither hole card.

Anyhow, eventually the idea of dealing four cards was brought in as well (using two of them), with the Omaha part of the name sticking and the “hold’em” part going away.

So some of these poker variants named after places are indicative of where they were actually introduced and/or played, while others are not. I don’t have time today to try to produce an exhaustive list of such games, but after brooding a bit and searching just a little online, I can start one:

  • Caribbean stud
  • California lowball
  • California high/low split
  • Chinese poker
  • Courchevel
  • High Chicago, Low Chicago
  • Cincinnati
  • High San Francisco, Low San Francisco
  • Irish poker
  • Kansas City lowball
  • London lowball
  • Manila Seven-Up
  • Mexican stud
  • Mississippi stud
  • Omaha
  • Oxford stud
  • Polish poker
  • Russian poker
  • Russian Roulette (stud game)
  • Texas hold’em
  • There’s got to be a ton more -- dozens, probably -- including a couple of obvious ones I’m probably overlooking. (By the way, I am talking about just poker games... there obviously a multitude of non-poker card games named after places, too.)

    Incidentally, while snooping around I stumbled on an example of a town named after a poker game. There’s a place in the eastern part of Arizona called Show Low, the name of which was said to have been inspired following a lengthy poker game.

    Apparently a couple of men playing in the game were each vying to claim the settlement back in the late 19th century. They decided to gamble for it, basically just drawing a card from a deck with the one drawing the lowest card winning.

    “If you can show low, you win,” one said, then the other drew the 2c, replying “Show low it is.” From there came the town's name, and in fact the main street is called Deuce of Clubs.

    Now I’m curious about other towns whose names were derived from poker.

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    Wednesday, April 17, 2013

    To the Victor Go the Spoils

    These last two weekends I’ve been away at the World Series of Poker Circuit stops, helping report on the Main Events (at Foxwoods and at Harrah’s Cherokee) for PokerNews. Thus was I mostly distracted from all of the happenings down under at the World Series of Poker Asia Pacific which came to a close on Monday.

    We did call up the live stream right at the end of the WSOP APAC Main Event on Monday, seeing Daniel Negreanu finally finish off Daniel Marton to win the title. Kind of uncanny to think of Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth winning the last two non-Vegas WSOP Main Events, although the fact that they did kind of highlights how different those MEs are from the one that plays out at the Rio each summer. So far -- and likely for the foreseeable future -- WSOP Main Events in Europe, Australia, or elsewhere are necessarily going to feature smaller fields and more “name” pros.

    I wrote a little last week about “Bracelets and Rings” and the whole debate over trying to discover ways to compare and relate the achievements of those who win WSOP events, wherever they happen to take place.

    While at the WSOP-C Main Event at Harrah’s Cherokee, we couldn’t help but make note of the fact that the prize pool there ($1.284 million) exceeded that of each of the first four bracelet events at WSOP APAC. And how the winner John Bowman took away a first prize ($250,380) that was more than what any of those bracelet winners had won, in fact nearly five times what Ivey got for his victory in the $2,200 (AUD) mixed event.

    The debate over bracelets -- as well as the WSOP POY race, in which the WSOP APAC results count -- gets amplified a little thanks to Ivey and Negreanu having each succeeded in bringing another one out of Australia. Negreanu picked up his fifth bracelet, and first since 2008. It was also his first no-limit hold’em bracelet, incidentally.

    Negreanu’s also already pretty mindful of the POY race, tweeting out a link to the standings yesterday. Greg Mueller tweeted congrats to Negreanu in response, but added “Its kind of blown [sic] being 400 points behind before event #1 at rio.”

    Meanwhile Ivey’s racing Hellmuth now, his nine still well behind the Poker Brat’s 13. Kind of weirdly, none of Ivey’s bracelets have come in hold’em events. By the way, F-Train has provided an interesting breakdown of Ivey’s WSOP performances over the years for Flushdraw.

    As a fan of tournament poker and someone who at times likes to follow the big tourneys as though they were sporting events, I can’t help but be a little intrigued by the various ways of marking achievements -- bracelets, rings, points, etc. The players are clearly motivated by such extra rewards, too. Bracelets and rings possess some tangible value, while POY points may or may not have any at all. (I’m not even sure the WSOP POY wins anything anymore.)

    I’m reminded of a funny exchange at the final table of the WSOP-C Main Event at Harrah’s Cherokee. It came at a point when Kory Kilpatrick and Hugh Henderson were both battling with short stacks while Weaver was leading with more than twice the chips of anyone else.

    Kilpatrick asked Weaver what he was going to do with the first-prize money, and Weaver said he’d put it in the bank. Then Henderson asked if he was at least going to buy something nice first, and Weaver said he wasn’t interested in doing so.

    “No,” he said, “I just want the ring or the bracelet... whatever they have here.”

    That led to some more funny banter, including Kilpatrick and Henderson saying they’d gladly let Weaver have the ring if they could have the money. But that wasn’t really Weaver’s point, I don’t think. He wasn’t saying he only wanted the jewelry and wasn’t interested in the cash, just that he wasn’t eager to spend whatever money he might win on material goods.

    It was one of several humorous moments at that final table, some of which frankly stemmed from the not-always-perfect communication happening between the elder Weaver and the others. It kind of highlighted, though, all of the different reasons why people play the tournaments, and how the various rewards more or less figure into everyone’s thinking, although not uniformly so.

    No, just as money has different significance to each individual, so, too, do other spoils like rings or bracelets or points or even the intangible benefits of challenging oneself and competing with others all signify differently, depending on the person.

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    Tuesday, April 16, 2013

    Travel Report: 2012-13 WSOP-C Harrah’s Cherokee Main Event, Day 3 -- Expectations

    With about 20 players left in the 2012-13 World Series of Poker Circuit Main Event at Harrah’s Cherokee, my blogging partner Rich and I took a look at the remaining field. Quickly we decided upon three of the players as kind of standing out from the others, and agreed that the eventual winner would likely be one of the trio.

    The three we chose were all younger (early-to-mid 20s) and had already shown enough competence and skill to distinguish themselves. And having covered so many tourneys between us over the years, we felt we had a decent feel for how this suckers usually go.

    When writing about the WSOP-C Foxwoods trip a week ago, I’d mentioned how the eventual winner Kevin “BeL0WaB0Ve” Saul had already stood out well before the final table as the player to beat, and as it happened he’d go on to win. Had kind of a similar feeling this time about the ones we had picked.

    As it happened, we were wrong with our guesses. Expectations thwarted, you might say. Kind of like when Rich and I were at Paula Deen's Kitchen a couple of nights before, and Rich found out the vegetable of the day was brussel sprouts.

    The field at Cherokee this week likely included a number of first-time tourney players, or at least folks for whom the $1,675 buy-in event represented something special to them after years of home games and (much) lower buy-in tourneys. Such is one of the fun elements of the WSOP-C, namely, the way even the Main Event can bring in players who don’t necessarily participate in the other, higher profile tours or go to the WSOP in Las Vegas.

    And I suppose, such is also the cause for the occasional surprise, too, when it comes to the way WSOP-C events sometimes play out.

    As it would happen, none of the three we’d pegged would win, although one -- Daniel Weinman -- did finish runner-up. Speaking of Weinman and that Fossilman story from yesterday, Rich told me Weinman tweeted to him today “I forgot to get my rock back,” and it sounds like Rich will be returning it to him at another WSOP-C event stop.

    Rather it was John Bowman, a 30-year-old amateur from nearby Hickory, North Carolina who won. Apparently (so we heard afterwards) he’d only played in his first tournament a few days before.

    I liked Weinman, but I was still glad for Bowman and his excited buddies afterwards, despite the fact that Bowman sported a Duke shirt. Rich took some winner’s photos, and had me laughing pretty hard when he got everyone to deliver a boisterous “HELL YEAH!” for the camera.

    But it was 69-year-old Raymond Weaver that had us raising our eyebrows time after time yesterday. Neither of us had thought he’d have much of a shot on Day 3. But he not only made the final table, he had an especially active first couple of levels that saw him chip up to more than 6 million at a time when no one else had even half that.

    Weaver still had a big lead when three-handed began, but soon lost a hand to Bowman in which the latter doubled through Weaver, then quickly slid down before losing the last of his chips to Bowman to land in third.

    Weaver definitely exhibited a lot of the familiar signs of older, amateur players, limping and calling a lot and occasionally going into super-tight mode at times when he might’ve been better off remaining aggressive.

    But unlike Rick Hensley on Day 2 -- the player who managed to go from first with 201 left to elimination before they’d even gotten down to 150 or so -- Weaver had some good instincts and played relatively well. And his making the final table wasn’t such a fluke, we’d discover, as he already made one other WSOP Circuit Main Event final table last year (at Tunica).

    So Bowman and Weaver surprised us, and all in all it was an interesting and entertaining final table to follow and report on, even if we were more than a little distracted by the news from the Boston Marathon from early in the afternoon. Talk about upsetting expectations. Reminded me of covering the Sands Bethlehem tourney back in December on the day of the Newtown shootings. Indeed, much of what I wrote on that day applies again here. Again it felt odd to be locked in that poker tourney cocoon while such terrible things were happening outside of it.

    The tourney ended just in time for Rich and I to make it to the Ruth Chris in the casino before they shut their doors, and after rewarding ourselves with late night filets we finally got a decent night’s sleep before I carried him to the Asheville airport this morning. Had a fun visit with PokerGrump and Cardgrrl afterwards, both of whom now live in Asheville, then motored back home.

    Am pretty spent after the last spell of traveling and working, but it looks like I’ll get to stay put for a while, perhaps even until June when I’ll head back out to Las Vegas for the WSOP. Was glad to have been there at Cherokee for this event, and from the looks of things the WSOP-C will most certainly be returning after what turned out to be a successful series that exceeded everyone’s expectations.

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    Monday, April 15, 2013

    Travel Report: 2012-13 WSOP-C Harrah’s Cherokee Main Event, Day 2 -- Giving Away Chips, Rocks

    Just one day remains in the World Series of Poker Circuit Main Event at Harrah’s Cherokee. After a couple of relatively reasonable noon-to-midnight days for the first two Day 1 flights, we had our marathon session yesterday in order to ensure a reasonable final day today.

    There were a total of 856 entrants, from which 201 players made it to Sunday’s Day 2. They managed to play all of the way down to just 11 players yesterday, pushing through 10 one-hour levels then two more 75-minute levels to get there.

    Was a long grind, with play starting at noon and not concluding until a quarter to three. Rich and I got there an hour early and left about an hour after play concluded, and there was only a half-hour dinner break in there, too. So we basically stuck close there in the Event Center, eating hot dogs, sandwiches and other snacks at our desk to sustain ourselves throughout the day.

    Poker-wise, the quick exit of start-of-day 2 chip leader Rick Hensley was easily the most out-of-the-ordinary aspect of the day. Hensley began Day 2 with more than 400,000 at a time when the average stack was around 85,000. He’d knock out an opponent on the second hand of the day to push up even further to about 460,000, then he somehow managed to lose all of those chips before we even made it to the first break of the day (after two hours).

    Hensley’s rise the night before had come almost as quickly, as he’d gone from about 120,000 to 401,400 pretty much during the final hour of play. But he’d gotten those chips by gambling big and hitting several hands in rapid succession, and the same strategy -- which included lots of limp-calling and check-calling, no matter how big the bets -- would fail him to start Day 2.

    I came upon one hand in which he’d lost close to half of his stack to an opponent who held pocket aces, eventually learning that he’d called an all-in shove on a 2-3-4 flop holding but 7-6. When he finally busted, he sort of jovially said “Hensley’s out!” before leaving, reporting his own exit before we could. Sort of seemed a little like someone sitting down at a blackjack table, determined to play until he ran out of money, no matter what.

    Just one woman made the money -- Claudia Crawford (who finished 36th). Greg Raymer cashed as well, getting knocked out in 29th by Daniel Weinman, one of those who has made it to today and who looks capable of winning the event. As is his custom, Raymer signed and dated the fossil he had been using as a card protector, then gave it to Weinman before leaving. But Weinman didn’t seem overly fazed by the gesture.

    “This dude just gave me a rock,” he told a friend on the rail after. He then gave it to Rich.

    With 11 left, some of the shorter stacks aren’t too much ahead of what Hensley had at the beginning of play yesterday with 201 left. Unsurprisingly given the makeup of the field, there are a few older players who’ll be making the final table, although again the younger guys who are left -- especially the big chip leader, Hugh Henderson of South Carolina -- have to be the favorites to have the best shot of winning the $250K-plus first prize today.

    The ESPN guys have arrived, including Bernard Lee, and so they’ll be live streaming the final table with commentary over on the WSOP site and perhaps ESPN3 (if you can access it). I know the poker world is mostly attuned to Melbourne this morning -- or this evening, in Australia -- as Daniel Negreanu leads the WSOP APAC Main Event final table and appears on the verge of winning. But when that wraps up in a few hours, click on over to PokerNews and/or check out that live stream if you’re curious to see how things play out at Cherokee.

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    Sunday, April 14, 2013

    Travel Report: 2012-13 WSOP-C Harrah’s Cherokee Main Event, Day 1b -- Vegetable of the Day

    “You writin’ a story about me?”

    Said the elderly gentleman sitting in Seat 7 to me as he noticed me standing just a few feet away from his table. It was the first level of Day 1b, and while there was another player at his table I’d recognized and was checking in on, I didn’t know him as yet.

    “I’m writing a story about everyone,” I replied, and he nodded with a grin.

    The second Day 1 flight at the WSOP Circuit Main Event at Harrah’s Cherokee drew a bigger field than Day 1a, with 502 players including a number re-entering after busting on Friday. That made the overall total 856 entries for the event, making for a prize pool more than $1.28 million and a first place prize of just over $250K.

    I think some had hoped to have gotten 1,000 for the ME, but most seemed very pleased at that turnout, which actually makes Harrah’s Cherokee the fourth largest WSOP-C ME this year out of the 17 that have been played thus far.

    We’ve been looking in occasionally on the reports from the WSOP Asia Pacific that is reaching its climax this weekend with the Main Event and that non-bracelet High Roller event finishing out. Kind of marveled a little at how the first prize here at the WSOP-C Main Event ($250,380) is greater than the first prizes at each of the first four bracelet events at WSOP APAC. And, of course, dwarfs the $51,840 (AUD; i.e., not quite $55K USD) Phil Ivey earned for winning Event No. 3 down under (the $2,200 mixed event).

    Yesterday went reasonably well from the reporting side of things. Less crazy for us when the two Day 1 flights are actually played on separate days rather than all on one day (as was the case in Foxwoods), although that’s dictated by the expected turnouts. In terms of hours, it’s still a long haul, but a tad less chaotic in terms of following everything and presenting it in the blog. Thus even if the hours are about the same, we feel less like vegetables at day’s end.

    Speaking of not feeling like vegetables, we made it to dinner break in decent shape and decided to walk over to the other side of the complex and eat at Paula Deen’s Kitchen. You pass through a large gift shop in order to reach the entrance, filled with endless cookbooks, bakeware, cookware, kitchware, keychains, pastel-colored t-shirts with “Hey Y’all” written in glittery cursive, and more. Most items featured conspicuous Paula Deen branding, including pictures of her smiling face.

    As we waited in a short line to be seated, Rich commented on the scene.

    “There’s too much Paula Deen going on here.”

    Upon being seated, we ordered our meals. Rich had a moment with the waitress that reminded us both of Dumb and Dumber when Jim Carrey’s character asks what the soup du jour, is told “it’s the soup of the day,” and responds “mmmm... that sounds good, I’ll have that.”

    “Would you like the vegetable of the day?” the waitress asked Rich. “Yes, I would!” said Rich eagerly, adding “What is it?” “It’s brussel sprouts,” she responded. “No, I would not!” he said with equal enthusiasm.

    After tweeting that exchange, our buddy Eric Ramsey tweeted back the funniest response: “Too bad you weren’t there on Wednesday when the vegetable of the day is butter.”

    I ended up ordering a “low country” combo plate that featured fried shrimp, fried flounder, fried chicken, a baked potato with butter and sour cream, and hush puppies to follow the “cheesy biscuits” they’d brought us. Probably ate about a fifth of what was on the plate, and even after that was still moving slowly as we walked back.

    Then Nolan Dalla supplied us with huge enormous chunks of locally-produced chocolate fudge on our return, which seemed a fitting postscript to our meal.

    Post-dinner poker was dominated by Rufus “Rick” Hensley of Morganton, NC who went on a wild heater to go from about 120,000 up to just over 400,000 chips to end the day. Only a couple of other players have more than 300,000 at the moment, and only those in the top 10 have 200,000-plus.

    But 201 are left, and so there’s still a lot more poker to be played. And walking around for Rich and I. Click over to PokerNews today to see how the story continues.

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    Saturday, April 13, 2013

    Travel Report: 2012-13 WSOP-C Harrah’s Cherokee Main Event, Day 1a -- Southern Hospitality

    Hello from the Carolina mountains, where I write on a brisk Saturday morning from Cherokee, NC. My home-away-from-home for the next few days isn’t that far away, in fact, as I only had to travel a few hours west in order to help cover the World Series of Poker Circuit Main Event at Harrah’s Cherokee for PokerNews.

    Hopped in the car and drove over to Asheville first in order to pick up my blogging partner, Rich, who has ties to the region as well as a graduate of Elon University. Teeny airport that I can’t remember ever having visited before, and we joked about trying to find the car in the parking lot which is only slightly bigger than the Food Lion one where Kung Fu Grandpa sometimes practices his nunchucks.

    Rich and I took the winding path to Cherokee, found our hotel just up the road from Harrah’s, then went to explore a bit and have what turned out to be a nice dinner at the Brio Tuscan Grille. Also enjoyed a kind of hilarious conversation with our waitress there who spontaneously engaged us with her thoughts about poker players and gambling culture, generally speaking.

    “Don’t they know their chances are SLIM to NONE?” she explained, and we nodded amiably. “It’s a game of chance,” she continued, then shared further thoughts about the folly of wearing sunglasses indoors and being overly preoccupied by smartphones and iPads.

    We stopped by the handsome-looking poker room briefly to see 20-plus tables, many occupied by players, then hoofed it up to the Event Center where the tournaments are being played. It’s a great space for it, with the surrounding balcony up above -- from which people looked down on the action throughout the day -- adding positively to the atmosphere and making it all seem like more of an “event” than might be the case in nondescript ballrooms.

    Seemed like Rich and I kept encountering lots of characters on Thursday, folks opening up and joking around with us constantly as the waitress had, and we found ourselves laughing a lot after some of the exchanges. We’re both used to the whole “southern hospitality” thing having spent time in NC, but we still found ourselves enjoying all of the friendly banter at seemingly every turn.

    We got back to the hotel and settled into our adjacent rooms, then a little later the lights tantalizingly flickered on and off before shutting off altogether. We sat in silent darkness for a short while, then ventured out into the hall, realizing we were in fact the only inhabitants of our entire floor.

    Was starting to feel a little like a horror movie. Weren’t those original Evil Dead movies filmed in North Carolina? We found our way down to the lobby.

    Soon we discovered it wasn’t just our hotel, but all of Cherokee that had suffered a power outage thanks to a passing storm. We gazed out the front windows up Paint Town Road to discover the large Harrah’s complex had gone dark, too. The lady at the front desk gave us candles, and we hung around for a while before heading back up in the darkness.

    Power did return a couple of hours later, and by morning the bright sun filled the little valley in which Harrah’s Cherokee sits as we rode in for the first day of play. Have to confess I was feeling a little added anticipation heading in. As I’ve mentioned before, having been born here and lived most of my life in the state, I have added curiosity about this event and harbor hope that it goes well and will encourage more events here in the future.

    Ken “Teach” Aldridge delivered the “shuffle up and deal” yesterday, and he prefaced the call with a few remarks about poker’s popularity in the state and region. Aldridge won a WSOP bracelet in 2009 in a $1,500 six-handed NLH event and has cashed every year since, including making a H.O.R.S.E. final table in 2010 where he finished fourth in an event won by Phil Ivey.

    Aldridge actually owns a car dealership in Burlington (Ken’s Cars), and I grew up in nearby Elon. I’ve had a conversation with my Pop about him and I believe they either know each other or have mutual acquaintances. He busted in the afternoon yesterday, but I imagine we’ll be seeing his signature bright yellow jacket and cap sometime today as players who have been eliminated can re-enter for Day 1b.

    Ended up running into and talking to other players from Elon, Burlington, and the surrounding area yesterday as well, which made the day more interesting. Just glancing at an early, incomplete list of yesterday’s entrants, it looked like around a third of those who came out were from North Carolina, a little less than a third were from Georgia, and around 10% each were from Tennessee and South Carolina.

    The field probably skews a little older than the typical WSOP-C crowd, although I haven’t sorted through the DOBs. I say that both because of my general impression walking through the tables yesterday and because of how things played out in other events prior to our arrival, including a largest ever field for a seniors event here. A total of 648 played in the non-ring $250 buy-in event, won by 62-year-old Tennessean David Moersdorf who then went on to win one of the ring events, too (a $365 NLH one).

    The day went well and we were out by midnight, with 83 players making it through to Sunday’s Day 2. Again we encountered several characters at the tables, many engaging us throughout the day as we passed to and for with our notepads. Probably the most interesting hand of the day came relatively late when I happened on a table where all nine players limped in to see a flop. Couldn’t resist calling the post describing the hand “Southern Hospitality.”

    A few names standing out among those making it through thus far. The leader at the moment, David Nicholson, is a three-time Circuit ring winner. Claudia Crawford (“Roll Tide!”), Kyle Cartwright, and Greg Raymer all bagged up big stacks, too.

    There were a total of 354 who played yesterday, which I think undershot some expectations a bit as folks had been thinking the tourney would draw as many as 1,000 entries. That seems a little out of reach after Friday’s number, although the current buzz is suggesting we’ll see a bigger field today. At least that is what Stewie thinks.

    Click over to PokerNews today if you are curious to follow how things are playing out in Cherokee.

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