Thursday, December 31, 2015

Tracking Travels

The year is nearly done, and I’m again recalling other end-of-year posts including many from the first several years of the blog that spent a lot of effort measuring (or at least summarizing) what had happened over the previous twelve months.

Anyone happening by here who happens to scroll down and look along the right-hand column will notice how I’ve been scribbling away on a constant basis since April 2006, meaning I’m more than halfway through a tenth year of all this chronicling of my poker-related thoughts. And thoughts that aren’t necessarily poker-related, yet I’ve found a way to relate them to poker, anyway.

One personal benefit of having carried on at such length with a blog is the way it helps me remember details of things I myself have done, as well as sometimes helping me track down particulars of various stories or events from the poker world over the last near-decade (if, of course, I happened to have written anything about them).

For example, to highlight a personal item, I was trying this week to recall how many poker-related trips I’d taken in 2015. Given enough time, I could probably do so on my own, but a quick check through all my “travel report” posts here helped me find the answer a lot more quickly.

I took six trips altogether -- to the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure in Nassau, Bahamas, LAPT Chile in Viña del Mar, the EPT Grand Final in Monte Carlo, LAPT Peru in Lima, EPT Barcelona, and the LAPT Grand Final in São Paulo, Brazil. It’s a good number for me -- enough to be out and about a lot, but not so many that I’m away from the farm more than I’d like to be.

I know in previous years I’ve had more trips. And of course those years when I’d go to Vegas all summer for the World Series of Poker I’ve been away from home more days total, though for the last couple of summers I’ve stayed home.

I’m suddenly mindful this week of this sort of counting exercise -- and of exercise, generally speaking -- thanks to Vera Valmore’s mother giving me a FitBit for Christmas. The stats I’ve been most intrigued by so far have been the ones related to my sleep (how long I’m sleeping, how restless I am, and how many times I’m waking up), what my heart rate is and how it goes up and down during the course of a day, and the number of steps I’m taking and miles I’m covering each day.

There’s more I could be tracking with this sucker, and perhaps I will eventually. Reminds me a little of the endless stats produced by PokerTracker and Hold’em Manager when playing online, measuring and tabulating every last movement you make.

It’s also making me remember how sometimes I’d become conscious of all the measuring going on, knowing whenever I would three-bet (or perform any other action) how that would affect the percentage for the session. So, too, with the FitBit it’s easy to be encouraged to walk a few extra steps to reach a particular number and the like.

Meanwhile, I’m starting to think about my next trip when I’ll be going back to the Bahamas next week for the 2016 PCA. Kind of curious to see how many steps I take and miles I cover in a typical day of tournament reporting. Yet another way to track my travels.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Play the Cards You’re Dealt

The advice to “play the cards you’re dealt” is one of those many poker clichés you’ll hear come up in non-poker contexts. In fact, now that I think about it, you probably hear the phrase uttered more often away from the poker table than at it.

After all, it seems kind of superfluous to remind each other while at the table you have to play the cards the dealer delivers to you. But in other situations, that recommendation to be realistic (or content) about what you can accomplish with whatever resources you have is perhaps better served by the poker metaphor.

The phrase occurred to me today while reading about the Philadelphia Eagles letting go of Chip Kelly just a game shy of the end of his third season with the club. The article I was reading appears on the ESPN site and is called “Why the Chip Kelly experiment didn’t work.” That title highlights the way the head coach who eventually also became the team’s general manager (and thus controlled personnel) has always been regarded as a kind of iconoclast who deliberately deviates from usual strategies when it came to managing and coaching NFL teams.

I remember writing a blog post here discussing Kelly way back at the very beginning of his tenure with the Eagles, one in which I was complaining about my Carolina Panthers’ conservative play-calling and drawing a contrast between them and Kelly’s team. Kelly had brought his no-huddle hurry-up offense from college to the pros, winning his first game in splashy fashion and making teams like Carolina suddenly seem sluggish and unimaginative. (Funny now, of course, to think of how differently the next three years would go for both clubs.)

Going without a huddle was just the most conspicuous of many against-the-grain methods Kelly tried to employ at Philadelphia, and the ESPN article breaks down in detail other aspects of his “system” and why it ultimately didn’t produce overwhelming success. (It didn’t exactly fail, either, as Kelly went 26-21 during his almost three years at the helm.)

Some of the other areas in which Kelly didn’t necessarily play “by the book” (or tried to write his own) had to do with reducing the number and complexity of offensive plays, introducing different practice schedules and routines, involving a “sports science program” to help with conditioning, and “an enormous emphasis on measurables” when it came to filling out a roster. That latter point somewhat curiously refers to the physical size of players (“Cornerbacks had to be a certain height. Defensive lineman had to have the proper arm length.”), and not to the statistics produced on the field.

All of it suggests a kind of stubbornness that saw Kelly trying to make certain players fit into predetermined roles and “schemes.” “The word Kelly constantly harped on was execution,” goes the article. “But players are not robots.... When players fail to execute, it ultimately means they are not good enough or the coaches are not doing their jobs.”

I’m sure this summary simplifies what actually happened when it came to game-plan creation and calling plays. But the impression remains that Kelly had ideas about what a winning strategy was -- a theory -- that when put into practice failed to realize the goals of that strategy at least in part because of the personnel Kelly had. And after he became GM, he assumed responsibility for that, too, and thus a certain measure of culpability when the players he’d chosen failed to execute the plans he’d made for them.

The poker equivalent would seem to be a player having certain ideas about, say, position and stack sizes, yet not appreciating the importance of the cards, too. That is to say, a player who didn’t necessarily agree with the idea that you should “play the cards you’re dealt,” choosing instead to play the same way regardless of his hand. Which can work sometimes, but sometimes does not.

As GM Kelly could to a certain extent choose the “cards” he could then play, but only according to the limitations of current player availability and salary considerations. It does seem clear, though, that he sometimes found himself playing his “cards” in unusual ways, a consequence of his “system” or method of playing that didn’t necessarily appreciate the limitations of his “hand.”

Whatever the case, the Eagles finally decided they had one Chip too many.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Talking Nixon, Movies, Sports & Horses On the Thinking Poker Podcast

Quick post today to report the latest episode of The Thinking Poker podcast is now online (Episode 154), and your humble scribbler is the guest. No shinola!

After the usual strategy talk comes about an hour-long conversation between myself and co-hosts Nate Meyvis and Andrew Brokos. We ended up covering a number of different topics, starting out with my two college courses “Poker in American Film and Culture” and “Tricky Dick: Richard Nixon, Poker, and Politics.”

Since I just wrapped up teaching the Nixon class for the first time, I talk for a while about Nixon and his poker story. Donald Trump came up in there, too, along with some discussion about how politics and campaigning has changed over the last half-century or so.

Then we moved over into discussing in a more general way poker’s place in American culture before circling back to the “Poker in American Film and Culture” course and some talk about A Streetcar Named Desire, The Odd Couple, and John Wayne movies.

Toward the latter part of the hour we focused a bit on sports and the rise of analytics, moved over to chat about horses and farm life (and parallels between dressage and poker), and then I espoused the much underrated virtues of cleaning stalls.

If you’re curious, get started on those New Year’s resolutions early and go for a walk or jog, and while you do give the show a listen. And if you do, you can let me know what you were thinking when listening to the Thinking Poker Podcast.

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Monday, December 28, 2015

Games, Grins, and Meadowlark

Was sad to read this morning about the passing of Meadowlark Lemon, the famous Harlem Globetrotter and North Carolina native. Spent time this morning reading about his interesting life, then remembering the time when as a kid I had a chance to see Lemon and the Globetrotters in the late 1970s.

It had to have been one of Lemon’s last games with the team, as I’m being reminded today he left the Globetrotters in 1978 after 22 years with the barnstorming group of riotous roundballers. They played the Washington Generals, natch. And beat them, natch. Lemon sunk a hook shot from half-court, tossed a water cooler full of confetti on spectators in the first row, and shot a free throw with rubberbands attached to the ball so it sprung back into his hands.

As a kid I recall that the distinction between the Globetrotters and other basketball teams -- i.e., “real” ones such as in the NBA -- wasn’t exactly one hundred percent clear. Eventually I figured out their games were more like highly entertaining exhibitions than actual competitions, but I don’t think I understood that to be the case that night at the Greensboro Coliseum when I saw them.

Of course, the Globetrotters were always about making audiences laugh and have fun, with basketball serving as a kind of unique comedic medium in which to perform their specialized brand of theater. That Lemon was inducted into both the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the International Clown Hall of Fame is fitting, given how his contributions were equally significant in both realms.

I often write about poker being about more than simply winning money or even competing, but like other games (and sports) also about enjoying others’ company and also perhaps participating in a kind of “show” in which the players are the performers. Poker also obviously brings together people of disparate backgrounds, providing a context to interact and even create communities among themselves. Basketball (and other sports) function similarly for many as well.

Doyle Brunson was also a basketball player, and in The Godfather of Poker he writes a bit about other parallels between the sport and the card game. There’s also a chapter in there near the middle where Brunson describes a kind of crisis of faith he endured following the death of his daughter, Doyla. In the early 1980s he got reacquainted with Christianity and even for about a year-and-a-half helped organize some “Bible studies” among players in Las Vegas. To make things more interesting, he’d bring in celebrity speakers and Meadowlark Lemon -- who’d become an ordained minister in 1986 -- was one of them.

One other thought comes to mind when searching for connections between the Harlem Globetrotters and poker. As the Globetrotters became more and more popular during the 1970s -- a true pop culture phenomenon -- they helped make basketball more popular, too. Many point to that moment at the end of the 1970s and start of the 1980s when the NBA really took off (with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and a little later Michael Jordan), saying how the Globetrotters had kind of set the stage for that explosion in popularity some respects by having brought b-ball to larger audiences in the preceding years.

The Globetrotters played what might be called an “exaggerated” version of the game, a somewhat distorted image perhaps which -- as I mentioned before -- as a kid I didn’t necessarily realize was all that different from “real” basketball. Poker kind of underwent something like that, too, with the “boom” of televised poker in the 2000s and a presentation that introduced poker to many in a kind of “exaggerated” fashion that wasn’t exactly what most poker really was (or is).

I guess there’s something about that image of the Globetrotters in a circle, passing the ball around as “Sweet Georgia Brown” whistles along as the soundtrack, that resembles a poker table, too.

Except it’s chips we’re passing back and forth, not a ball. And perhaps doing a few tricks with as well.

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Friday, December 25, 2015

Handling the Unexpected

Happy Christmas, all.

We’re sticking close to the farm today, where it has gotten up to an unexpectedly balmy 70 degrees during the afternoon. Sunny skies, too, for much of the day early on, although clouds have drifted in over the last couple of hours in advance of some more rain. Or so the forecasters are saying.

Speaking of things getting cloudy, the last few days have included some unforeseen “crises” that might’ve made the holiday season even more stressful than it usually is. Started on Sunday with a horse-related emergency, something I was referencing earlier in the week when talking about being pulled away from that Panthers-Giants game. Everyone is fine, but for a short while we were worried it might not be.

Then on Tuesday night we discovered a possible issue regarding our electricity for the house and barn, which when we got an electrician out here Wednesday morning we learned was potentially very serious (and dangerous). I’ll forgo a tedious rehearsal of the details, but suffice to say that, too, could have been a lot worse had we not gotten things looked at and remedied when we did.

Yesterday then provided us with another bit of unanticipated misfortune -- a flat tire coming back from a visit with family. Things were made even more complicated due to the lack of an available spare (and the fact that it was Christmas Eve), but we were able to work things out well enough and got back home to wake up here and spend the day with our four-legged friends.

Added all together, all of that kind of put us in a weird frame of mind here this Christmas day, feeling both a little put upon after the sequence of misfortune but glad as well that we avoided even worse luck.

Before all that happened, we had a fun surprise visit from the poker pro Alec Torelli and his wife, Ambra, who ended up swinging by a week ago while in the middle of their own adventures in travel that involving unplanned-for detour. They ended up spending a few hours with us on the farm last Friday, with Ambra getting a first-ever horse riding lesson while they were here. Was a ton of fun from which we all got to take a away a neat memory.

Earlier this week Alec shared a new “Hand of the Day” video on PokerNews involving a hand someone had sent to him. In the hand the player had gotten himself into a tricky spot having to play a big pot out of position. A not-so-great decision early in the hand coupled with a little bit of misfortune afterwards put the player in an awkward position. While discussing the hand, Alec pointed out how even after we find ourselves in unfavorable circumstances we still have to try to make good decisions going forward (and not worry too much -- or really at all -- about how we got there).

It’s good advice, I think -- to make the best of things regardless of the luck you’ve encountered or the mistakes you might have made. Play each hand well, and enjoy yourself, too, if you can.

Hanging out with Sammy and Maggie (pictured at left) and Shakan (up above) makes it easier to remember that stuff. They’re all three pretty laid back, for the most part.

They don’t seem to mind this unexpected weather too much, either.

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Hearthstoned

I’ve become vaguely aware of the way some in the poker world -- especially those in the hardcore online crowd -- are now taking up another game called Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.

Saw something last month about Team PokerStars Pro Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier getting signed as a “Hearthstone Pro” for something called Team Liquid. Then yesterday an item came over the transom that Full Tilt had partnered up with G2 eSports’ Hearthstone team, further suggesting a kind of link between poker and this relatively new card-based game. (Or perhaps furthering the disassociation of Full Tilt from poker, the site having dropped the third word of its original name some time ago.)

Still in the dark about it, I went to Wikipedia to find out a little about the history behind Hearthstone and an introduction to how it is played. Got quickly bogged down, I’ll confess, by the second paragraph of the section on game play, which begins as follows:

Hearthstone is supported by micropayments for booster packs, Arena Mode entries, Adventure Mode wing access and alternate hero skins. Unlike other card games, Hearthstone does not use a trading card system and instead allows players to ‘disenchant’ unwanted cards into ‘arcane dust’ resource, which can then be used to ‘craft’ new cards of the player’s choice.”

One reason why I couldn’t get much further along in my introduction to the game was the fact that I found these sentences so intrinsically humorous to read, with the scare quotes around those key words adding greatly to my amusement. And my disorientation, the effort needed to imagine the “Hearthstone universe” almost verging on the hallucinatory.

I believe there are a total of eight items in these two sentences for which I have almost zero idea what they signify, although for each I know I could speculate down a path that would surely lead me to an erroneous conclusion about each -- a conclusion that would likely seem just as humorous to the knowlegeable Hearthstone player.

I suspect an acquaintance with Magic: The Gathering or other similar games would likely make Hearthstone seem less opaque to the novice. Would also help to have both an intellectual capacity for such games and an inclination to learn them. As you might guess, I’m limited in both respects, so I have to confess that I’m still pretty clueless about all of the different game modes, how matches work, and the game’s 698 different collectible cards (!).

That passage above made me think about how just about every game has its own set of lingo, rules, scoring, etiquette, and other elements that seem like utterly alien bits of arcana -- or “arcane dust” -- to the uninitiated. Poker is certainly like that. Even games like tennis or baseball can be hard to explain to those without any prior acquaintance either as an observer or player.

Anyhow, looking forward to my next game of 2-7 triple draw when I plan to disenchant unwanted cards into the arcane dust before crafting new ones to add to my hand.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Panthers Playing the Big Stack

I’ve was in the Charlotte airport a couple of times near the end of November. It’s my home airport, and one of my favorites thanks to a variety of reasons. Of course even if it didn’t have all the amenities and weren’t as easy in which to get around, I’d probably like it on some level simply because it’s home.

When you go home, there’s a kind of comfort that comes with the familiar. Many will be reminded of just this feeling over the next few days while reuniting with family and friends for the holidays. I’ll admit after traveling abroad I like hearing English again, and hearing it spoken by some in that Southern accent I’ve been listening to for the majority of my life to this point.

One thing I noticed when hearing those voices these last couple of times through CTL was a lot of talk about the Carolina Panthers. They were 10-0 on my way out, thumped Dallas on Thanksgiving, and so were 11-0 on my return. Now they’re 14-0 -- only the fourth team in NFL history ever to go so deep into a season without a loss. And the Panther talk is getting even louder.

Now people are starting to talk about the team outside of western North Carolina, too, not least because of that crazy New York Giants game last Sunday. Between the Giants huge comeback, the fantastic finish in which Carolina snatched away the win, and the Odell Beckham-Josh Norman sideshow it was quite a spectacle on its own, never mind the context of the Panthers trying to stay undefeated adding an extra layer of drama.

Besides the prospect of going 16-0, there’s still something on the line this Sunday when the Panthers go to Atlanta, as they haven’t quite locked up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Some of the talk, though, has already turned toward the question of whether or not the team should rest starters heading into the playoffs.

While obviously an injury to a key player at this point would be a gut-punch, I’m hopeful Carolina will be playing to win not just against Atlanta but when they travel back home to play Tampa Bay in the regular season finale.

I remember being disappointed back in ’09 when Indianapolis got to 14-0 then rested starters during the season’s final two games, losing both. Not that I was a Colts fan (although I did live in Indiana for several years and rooted for them then), but it just seemed a bummer of a way to punctuate what was otherwise a very special season. (The Colts made the Super Bowl that year where they lost to New Orleans.)

“Our approach these last 14 games is going to be the approach that we’re going to have these next two,” says tight end Greg Olsen in a soundbite ESPN is running. He’s echoing what everyone else is saying, too, although it remains to be seen how exactly the Panthers proceed.

I’m reminded a little of that situation in poker of accumulating a big stack -- whether in a tournament or a cash game -- then having the urge to tighten up or even leave the game (if it’s cash) in order to preserve what you’ve got. I addressed this phenomenon, something I confess to be a leak of sorts in my own play, in a strategy article for PokerNews a couple of weeks back titled “Leaving to Lock Up a Win? Don’t Get Up from a Good Game.”

In football we often see a manifestation of the same principle within an individual game -- the so-called “prevent defense” designed to take away long passes, but give up short ones so as to force a trailing team to use clock while trying to catch up. “It prevents teams from winning,” goes the clichéd joke regarding the prevent defense. So, too, does the suddenly tight-playing big stack sometimes find it difficult to avoid losing chips after gearing down.

The Panthers will be big favorites in these last two regular season games versus losing teams. The playoffs will be different, though, with a number of opponents within Carolina’s conference at least the Panthers’ equal if not better, even if they’ve dropped some games along the way this year.

It’s a nice problem to have, being the big stack (so to speak) and having all the options available from which to choose. Hoping the Panthers play it well and don’t start feeling too comfortable, kind of like we feel after coming home.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Reunion with Blackjack

Was looking over this PokerStars Caribbean Adventure schedule coming up in January. I’ll be back at the Atlantis again this time after having gotten there a year ago, and am looking forward not just to getting back together with lots of colleagues and friends -- the PCA really is like a yearly reunion in that respect -- but also to checking out some of the more intriguing side events on the schedule as always happens at the PCA and on the EPT.

There are over 100 numbered events crammed into less than two weeks (a total that includes about a dozen satellites). One non-numbered event has caught my eye, a $500 buy-in single-day blackjack event with a $100,000 guarantee.

I have a blackjack playing friend who I’ve been telling about this one. He’s a skillful player, I know, and I’ve been saying to him I imagine he’d do well in this event given the fact that it’ll probably attract a number of poker players who may not be as well versed as he is on standard blackjack strategy.

Of course, the cost would be a lot more than five hundy for him were he to take a shot. Whether he plays it or not, I’m going to be curious to see who does take part and what kind of turnout they get.

The whole idea of inserting a blackjack event in the middle of a poker festival makes me think of where poker was some 15-20 years ago -- that is to say, before the “boom” and the effort exerted by many online sites to try to distinguish poker from other casino games. The result was a whole generation of new poker players for whom the thought of mixing their beloved poker with, say, blackjack was made to seem a kind of anathema.

Before that mass education occurred, poker and blackjack overlapped a lot more readily in the minds of many. It still does, actually, in particular among those who only casually play one or the other or who don’t play at all. I remember writing something here a few years ago about that common “mistake” people make asking poker players about “counting cards,” a kind of evidence, I suppose, that for a number of people the games aren’t that distinct from one another.

As I say, it’s an unnumbered event and thus I suppose not officially considered part of the PCA schedule. Still, should be interesting to see players doing something different with their two-card starting hands in this reunion of sorts between blackjack and poker.

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Monday, December 21, 2015

The Instinct to Not to Look

Yeah, I heard about Steve Harvey’s mistake, misreading the card and mistakenly announcing the runner-up as the winner at the climax of last night’s Miss Universe pageant in Las Vegas.

Saw that being passed around Twitter moments after it happened, but I didn’t click through to see any video or explore it much further. Such screw-ups can certainly be funny to watch. And in fact one of my first thoughts upon hearing the story was how on a couple of occasions I’ve watched Harvey hosting Family Feud and genuinely laughed out loud at what were basically people saying dumb things and/or screwing up (with Harvey’s wry responses accentuating the humor).

But for whatever reason I often have a hard time getting much enjoyment out of watching others fail, especially in big, conspicuous ways. Maybe I’ve built up some empathy or something after decades spent speaking before groups and/or writing for an audience, knowing how unpleasant making mistakes can be, even small ones. Whatever the cause might be, my instinct seems to be not to look. The opposite of “rubbernecking,” if there's a word for that.

Speaking of looking away, earlier on Sunday I was riveted by my Carolina Panthers delivering a thumping to the New York Giants for most of three quarters, building up a 35-7 lead while turning Giants’ star receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. into a complete basket case. I saw Beckham respond to things not going his way by picking up three personal fouls, including once obviously trying to injure Panthers cornerback Josh Norman with a helmet-to-helmet hit away from the play.

I was right on the verge of getting a little irrational myself watching Beckham’s antics when I got pulled away from the game thanks to some unavoidable business to tend to here on the farm. As a result, I missed the entire fourth quarter that saw the Giants come storming back to tie the game, with the villain Beckham actually being the one to catch the TD pass that made it 35-all.

Thankfully the Panthers were able to tack on a winning FG to win the game and preserve their undefeated season for another week. And perhaps even more thankfully, I avoided the stress of watching all of that play out, as I’m sure that like Beckham I would’ve turned into a basket case myself.

Whereas with the Harvey gaffe I looked away intentionally, with the Panthers-Giants finale I was made to not to look by circumstances beyond my control. Both examples make me think a little of how back in the day when playing poker online I’d sometimes find myself looking away from the screen during all-in situations as the board filled out street-by-street. It wasn’t superstition -- rather, it was merely a defensive gesture designed to minimize the stress of having to fade another’s outs or root for my own.

I guess it happened a few times as well that I’d look back in time to be momentarily confused by the result, thinking I’d won -- “wait, wait, wait... my straight got there! ohhhh, he’s got the flush” -- when in fact I had lost.

You know, like poor Miss Colombia. Or the Giants. Or Harvey, for whom the night’s best moment turned out to be the worst.

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Friday, December 18, 2015

Another Alpha8

Was reminded a couple of days ago about having spent a week in December at the Bellagio just a couple of years ago. Was there helping cover the World Poker Tour Five Diamond World Poker Classic, which I believe was the last time that particular event had Doyle Brunson’s name on the sucker.

There were 639 entries for the $10,400 buy-in event this time around, making the prize pool close to $6.2 million. That’s up from 586 entries and a $5.68 million prize pool last year, and way up from the 449 and $4.36 million prize pool in 2013 when I was there.

Meanwhile there’s a new $100K buy-in WPT Alpha8 tournament starting today, also at the Bellagio. This one kicks off the third season of the Alpha8. A year ago they managed 55 total entries for this same event (including re-entries), the most they ever were able to get for an Alpha8, so it should be interesting to see if they manage to match or exceed that total.

Funny to think how it wasn’t that long ago that a $10K event was something relatively unique, while today even a $100K one fails to register as something all that unique. It’s still an exclusive, “boutique”-type affair, however, as indicated by the small fields and the fact that the player pool tends to be largely the same with each one that takes place.

Showing that event $100K isn’t enough for some anymore, the WPT is in fact putting on a $200,000 super high roller just after the new year as part of the WPT National Philippines Festival in Manila. There was a presser a week or so ago saying they’d already had a dozen players confirmed for the event.

Wonder how many they’ll ultimately draw. One thing for certain -- the player pool will likely include several businessmen and others we haven’t seen on the super high roller player lists before.

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Ensan is the Man

Enjoyed once again following the many days’ worth of coverage of the European Poker Tour Prague Main Event over on EPT Live this week, in particular yesterday’s final table and the lengthy heads-up match between Hossein Ensan and Gleb Tremzin, eventually won by Ensan.

I knew of Ensan before, though not specifically because the 51-year-old German (orginally from Iran) had previously made two EPT Main Event final tables, finishing third at EPT11 Barcelona and sixth at EPT11 Malta. I remembered him more for having won two silver spades in prelims at the EPT Grand Final in Monte Carlo back in May where I was helping cover side events.

He’s up over $2 million now in live tournament earnings, all won since 2013, with several wins and final tables. All that helps suggest his skills as a player, although I think anyone watching the live stream yesterday also would appreciate his creativity, too, with a number of interesting, unexpected decisions made in hands that obviously put his opponents on the defensive.

Heads-up in particular included a number of intriguing hands to follow, with Tremzin also providing some worthy opposition in terms of making plays and taking risks. What stood out, though, was the good sportsmanship displayed by both, evidenced in particular both in the deal the pair struck and in one particular hand that came afterwards.

There had been some deal discussion at four-handed, though nothing was agreed upon then. Then after Ilkin Amirov was knocked out in third, the remaining two discussed a deal with Ensan ahead in chips with about 17.5 million to Tremzin’s 13.8 million. Despite his lead, Ensan was fine with an even split of most of the remaining prize money, with each player getting €724,510 and €30,000 left for which to play.

I’ve written here before about the EPT not just allowing deals (unlike the WSOP), but also letting spectators and viewers at home follow along with those discussions, and once again the deal talks were interesting to watch. It was also nice to see how agreeable the pair were in the discussions, with Ensan being so amenable and not being too bothered to push for more thanks to his chip lead. Perhaps all of his cashes over the last couple of years made it easier for him to make that choice, but for those of us on the virtual rail it perhaps inspired a slight rooting interest going forward.

Heads-up was kind of wild, with the lead changing several times and as I already mentioned a lot of interesting postflop play. The two players ended up playing 122 hands, and it was on the 84th one of heads-up another moment arose that resulted in Ensan showing himself to be an especially likable character.

Tremzin had a small lead to begin the hand which started as a limped pot followed by a checked flop, then the turn brought a check-call from Ensan. The river then saw Ensan lead with a bet, then after a short pause Tremzin made a hefty raise.

Watching on a delay, we could see that the board had run out TcAh5d2h6h and that Ensan was betting with a lowly pair of fives as he held Qh5c. The reader had only picked up one of Tremzin’s cards -- the 8s -- which had made it curious to see him put in a big raise (what could he have?).

Ensan then only took about 20 seconds before making a big reraise back -- also interesting to see, and a good example of his boldness -- doing so wordlessly by pushing the needed chips forward. Tremzin immediately said “good call” and began to show his hand. Meanwhile Ensan could be heard saying “You call? You win,” having decided that if he were called there, his fives couldn’t possibly be good.

The miscommunication became apparent when we saw Tremzin had complete air with 8s4d. He’d said “good call” -- not “I call” (as Ensan thought) -- having missed the fact that Ensan wasn’t just calling his raise but was actually reraising.

Discussion followed, with Tremzin explaining what had happened and adding “of course I’m not calling” with the hand he held. It took a little while for everything to become clear to all, with the TDs also listening and appearing as though they were on the verge of making a decision in the matter.

The problem, of course, was that Tremzin had used one of those “action” words -- i.e., “call” -- which when used in spots where one’s intention is different than the action the word indicates can lead to problems. Robert Woolley wrote a good article for PokerNews about this issue a while back titled “You Can Say These Words at the Table, But Be Careful When You Do.”

“Okay gentleman... it’s okay,” said Ensan, interrupting the discussion while making a thumbs-up gesture. “I don’t want more,” he added, echoing the position he’d taken during the deal-making.

The TDs actually still had to rule on the matter, but they went along with Ensan and decided to rule Tremzin didn’t have to call the reraise, as he obviously didn’t intend to with the hand he held. The players retook their seats and continued to talk about the hand as the dealer readied for the next hand.

“Next time, don’t bluff,” Ensan cracked. Tremzin grinned as he responded, “But you bluffed also.”

“I had five... I was good!” replied Ensan, getting a big laugh from both Tremzin and the rail. Tremzin clapped his hands as well in acknowledgment of the inspired quip.

It was a fun moment to watch, and again made it easy to root for Ensan going forward. Tremzin, too, was understanding and easy-going in a spot that it was easy to imagine could have been a lot less amiable, say, with different players involved or in a different tournament. The combination of good sportsmanship and skillful play made it an especially enjoyable match to watch.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Force

I remember the first three Star Wars films appearing in theaters. While those films appealed then (and still today) to a very wide audience, I was pretty much perfectly aged for them, given that all three were out by the time I was a freshman in high school.

I only dimly remember going to see each of the films in the theater. I know I liked them, but really in just the same generic way kids and preteens tend to like just about anything that is entertaining (and popular). My younger brother collected the action figures, I recall, and also had replicas of the Milleneum Falcon and some other fun stuff. I was more into sports and music and other things, though, and so never got caught up in any of that.

In fact, I can’t remember rewatching any of those original three films after having seen them in the theater, not even on television. Wait... I take that back. I helped cover the World Poker Tour Five Diamond Classic two years ago -- which just happens to be going on again right now -- and once B.J. Nemeth played The Empire Strikes Back on his iPad as a kind of ambient background for a late night game of open-face Chinese. Pretty sure that was the first time in three-plus decades I had seen it.

Perhaps it was college and grad school and marriage and other life stuff distracting me, but when the second set of Star Wars films began coming out in the late 1990s, I was actually a little surprised by how central the whole cultural phenomenon had seemingly become. Everyone was somehow interested in it, with nearly everyone expressing disappointment in The Phantom Menace, it seemed. (I never saw those films.)

Now with the franchise being revived once more this week with The Force Awakens, everyone is talking Star Wars again. And of course with the web and social media being what it is today, every available detail of the film’s production and marketing have already been chronicled and scrutizined endlessly as will shortly be happening with the film itself.

When considering the kind of “spell” the whole sucker seems to cast over so many, the title almost seems self-referential in a way, as though referring to the cultural “force” the franchise wields being revived once again.

Had a conversation with a buddy not long ago about it all. He was trying to convince me I needed to give myself over to the force -- or, rather, that I should sit down and watch all of the films and experience the kind of enjoyment and pleasure he and so many others have. I listened, but you can imagine how hard a task my friend had.

But then there are other things that exert a kind of force over me -- like poker, for instance -- for which it would be difficult to, well, force others to try.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Developing Story: Who Owns the LVRJ?

I tend to read a lot of poker and/or gambling news each day, mostly because I myself am often writing about poker, but also thanks to the people I follow on Twitter linking to articles sharing such news on a regular basis.

Among the sites to which I find myself clicking through now and then is the Las Vegas Review-Journal, more often than not because I follow Howard Stutz who covers the gaming industry for the paper, and he’s frequently sharing articles he’s written and other items appearing in the LVRJ.

I’m pretty sure it was through Stutz I learned the news that the paper had been sold a few days ago. Here’s the story he wrote along with Jennifer Robinson reporting on the sale, which is actually the second time this year the paper has changed ownership. The interesting part of the story this time, though, is the fact that the new owners have not yet been identified, only described as “undisclosed financial backers with expertise in the media industry.”

Some who write for the LVRJ (including Stutz) have already begun voicing discomfort over the fact that the new owners are remaining anonymous. All that is known is that the News + Media Capital Group LLC bought the paper, and that they paid a hefty $140 million for the paper, way more than the $102 million price tag it had back in the spring when bought by the New Media Investment Group.

It’s unusual, since most major news outlets -- those that seek to be accepted as trustworthy and non-biased in their reporting, anyway -- are typically more open about who ultimately is responsible for the publication/dissemination of the news they are delivering.

“The new owner’s decision has put Review-Journal staffers in a tough spot,” writes Michael Calderone for the Huffington Post. “They could inadvertently create conflicts of interests by reporting on the undisclosed backers of their businesses. And Review-Journal reporters seeking more openness from government and the business community will have to contend with questions about lack of transparency in their own shop.”

The latter point is just one reason why keeping the owners’ identity hidden can be problematic. Meanwhile the point about writers unknowingly reporting in ways the owners might not desire doesn’t have to be a problem -- at least in theory -- if the new owners were to stay out of the way and let them report as usual.

Indeed, in the LVRJ story about the sale, the CEO of the subsidiary that operates the paper is referred to saying “no changes are planned in the current operations of the newspaper.” And the paper’s publisher is also in there affirming that the sale won’t “change any of the newspaper’s strategic plans for 2016.”

However, apparently this very report on the sale already might be reflecting some editorial influence being exerted by the new owners. Missing from the original story are four short paragraphs which focused on the owners’ not being identified, including a quote from LVRJ Editor Michael Hengel highlighting the omission. Those paragraphs imply underlying ethical concerns with the owners remaining unknown, but while they appeared in the print version and on the original web version of the story, they’re now scrubbed.

With the reporters themselves starting to grumble louder and louder about the situation, now others are speculating about who the new owner might be. Today POLITICO reported outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid indirectly suggesting online gambling opponent, big time GOP donor, and Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson to be the LVRJ’s new owner.

“We have a few rich people in Las Vegas, one of whom is well known, so we’ll see,” Reid is quoted as saying, adding how “he owns newspapers in other places.” Burgess Everett, author of the POLITCO piece, points out that Adelson does own other newspapers in Israel.

Fortune also weighed in just a short while ago with more Adelson-related speculation. This would mark an interesting twist given how the LVRJ -- like other news outlets -- has reported in sometimes critical fashion on Adelson. That the Republicans will be having their last debate of presidential candidates tonight at Adelson’s Venetian perhaps will bring a little extra attention to the situation as well.

Definitely feel for the LVRJ writers caught in the middle here. In any event, I know I’ll be curious to learn more about this story as it develops. And to see how it gets told.

(EDIT [added 12:00 a.m., 12/16/15]: Just saw this new item over at LVRJ addressing increasing speculation about the newspaper’s owner, in particular whether or not Adelson was indeed the purchaser. The article also shares the position of The Society of Professional Journalists as well as many on the LVRJ’s staff that there is “‘no excuse’ for the newspaper’s owners to hide their identities.” Interesting stuff.)

([EDIT [added 6:00 p.m., 12/16/15]: It looks as though Adelson is indeed the new owner of the LVRJ, as Fortune reports, although CNN talked to Adelson who interestingly is denying that he did.)

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Dialing Up Some Poker Podcasts

Was writing a little last week about the Thinking Poker Podcast, which got me thinking once again about poker and podcasts (natch) and which ones have moved up to the front of the queue for me of late.

To be honest I no longer listen to any single one regularly, although the Thinking Poker Podcast is one I tend to catch fairly frequently. It’s a good mix of strategy discussion and “lifestyle”-type discussions prompted by the guests Andrew Brokos and Nate Meyvis have on the show.

While the strategy sessions can be kind of intense (with a single hand occasionally being enough to encourage a half-hour’s worth of discussion or more), I very much like the way the show allows guests to stray over a wide range of topics, with poker being kind of a jumping off point for all sorts of interesting discussions.

The European Poker Tour Prague stop is nearing its conclusion and I’ve been tuning in again to EPT Live as the Main Event is now down to just three tables. That puts me in mind of the EPT Not Live podcast, which comes around about once a week in between EPT events (and during them, too, I think).

I’m a huge fan of James Hartigan and Joe Stapleton and the shows feature them being their usually humorous selves along with an array of guests. This “Best of” episode from near the end of the summer might be a good place to start with the show, if you haven’t heard it before.

Another podcast I find myself listening to almost every week is Todd Witteles’s Poker Fraud Alert. Sometimes I’ll listen live if up late on the night he’s doing a show, while other times I’ll find shows in the arCHives (to which the above link goes). Those of you who’ve listened know how Witteles’s shows are usually made up of lengthy segments in which he responds to various poker and gambling news of the week, as well as other topics of interest to him. He has co-hosts occasionally, although often is on his own for what can become marathon episodes lasting five or more hours.

Witteles is a thoughtful guy and nearly always adopts reasonable positions on various issues of the day. His show also provides something kind of unique in poker as far as its editorial freedom goes. He provides show notes for each episode, so you can skip ahead and find topics of particular interest if you like rather than listening the whole way.

Also on my list of regular listens is the Remko Report over on PokerNews where my friend Remko Rinkema similarly takes his time interviewing guests from the poker world with each show usually taking an hour or so. It has been a few weeks since I’ve listened, but some relatively recent ones I’ve enjoyed have included his interviews with Talal Shakerchi, Martin Jacobson, and Joe McKeehen (a couple of weeks before his victory).

I’ve written here before about Remko’s enthusiasm for poker and how infectious it can be if you spend any time at all around him, something listeners of the show surely pick up on as well, I imagine, via his often inspired questions. You can find the Remko Report among other PokerNews podcasts by clicking here -- I also often enjoy the regular “PN Pod” and this fall have dutifully listened to (and enjoyed) the BookieSmash SuperContest shows as well.

Finally I’ve only lately started tuning into to Joey Ingram’s Poker Life shows, which like Remko’s often are focused around lengthy interviews with a single guest. He does his live over on YouTube, so there’s a video component with the shows, although you can get to ’em via iTunes as well. Most recently he had on both Daniel Negreanu and Dani Stern to discuss the PokerStars VIP changes, one of a few instances of late of the show jumping on a hot and trending poker-related topic to provide something interesting for those following the stories.

I’ll still dial up the Two Plus Two Pokercast now and then, usually depending on whether or not there’s a guest I’m interested in hearing. I mentioned House of Cards here not long ago, too, as one to which I sometimes listen. There are others, too, I’ll happen upon now and then. If you are curious to see what all is out there, PokerFuse keeps track of many poker podcasts as they appear on this page.

You still listen to any poker podcasts? If so, which ones do you like?

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Thomas Mallon’s Watergate

Finally got around to reading Thomas Mallon’s 2012 novel Watergate, an exercise in historical fiction that manages to pull together most of the details of the complicated and fascinating political scandal that cut short Richard Nixon’s second term as president. As the genre allows, Mallon adds a number invented details as well, including significantly fleshing out a few characters and their backstories and introducing a couple of new figures (both love interests) not actually part of the real-life saga.

The book is highly engaging and aside from its literary merits actually could work as a decent introduction to the story of Watergate for those unfamiliar with it. I say that somewhat hesitantly, though, and in truth as I think about the college course I’ve been teaching this semester -- “Tricky Dick: Richard Nixon, Poker, and Politics” -- I realize I probably wouldn’t want to assign the novel as the fictionalization disturbs the historical truth just enough to create too many complications.

It’s hard enough trying to relate what actually happened, I wouldn’t want to give myself the additional task of sorting out where Mallon has creatively filled gaps -- in some cases quite literally, such as when he reveals what was said on those missing 18-and-a-half minutes (as well as how it got erased).

There’s much I like about the book, including some of the small, deftly chosen details like the reference late in the book to the “Watergate centrifuge,” at once evoking the maelstrom of the scandal and the unique, swirling shape of the complex (pictured below). Many have noted before how the actual story is “Shakespearean” in its scope with a “tragic hero” at the center of it falling in the end, although Mallon’s book is actually often more comedic and even light than tragic and dark.

Nixon himself recedes into the background for much of it as a minor player, in fact, portrayed somewhat sympathetically as having been led down a difficult path only partly of his own choosing. Mallon gives a lot more attention to others, including two important ones from the actual story -- Howard Hunt and Fred LaRue. He also cleverly highlights the fascinating octogenarian Alice Roosevelt Longworth (daughter of Theodore) who was friends with Nixon throughout his career.

The presentation of Hunt’s crazy life including the plane crash death of his wife Dorothy is quite effective (I shuddered a little at the relation of that event, as I think any frequent flyers might). Mallon also delves deeply into LaRue’s past and the death of his father in a hunting accident, thought perhaps to have been the fault of LaRue himself. Mallon actually allows that mystery to muscle its way into the becoming the novel’s primary plot, particularly during the latter half of the book, strangely making the mysteries of Watergate secondary. (He does, however, create a neat -- maybe too neat -- connection between LaRue’s backstory and the later scandal that serves in a way to present an invented “cause” for how Watergate got started.)

I mentioned my course, the title of which suggests that while the focus is Richard Nixon’s life and career, we use poker as a kind of guiding metaphor throughout. Nixon himself was an avid player, particularly during his young adulthood, and had much to say about the game later on, including about the many parallels between poker and politics. I’ll admit this interest of mine blinkered my reading of Watergate somewhat, causing me to hope for more talk of betting and raising and bluffing and folding than actually turned out to be the case.

My hopes that poker might actually be a kind of thematic motif in the book were raised right away during the Prologue. Mallon makes an early reference to Nixon’s decision after having renewed bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong to mine Haiphong Harbor just a couple of weeks before the first Moscow summit at the end of May 1972. The move is described as having put the whole summit at risk, and when it wasn’t cancelled Nixon is said to have arrived in Moscow “with a stronger hand” as a result.

The prologue then ends with Nixon in Moscow having a brief daydream about his days winning at poker as a Naval officer while waiting out the end of WWII in the Pacific. As it turns out, this will be the only poker reference in the book that explicitly refers to Nixon’s actual playing of the game.

“But something in the dream was wrong,” goes the description. “He was winning too much; he had too many chips in front of him. He didn’t know how he’d gotten them, but he knew he had to get rid of them fast. But how?”

Coming just as the story was starting, I thought perhaps Mallon was setting himself up for later references to Nixon sitting behind an imagined stack of chips, eventually switching over into a mode of trying desperately to preserve them as opponents attacked him from all sides. And once Watergate began to evolve from a minor irritation to an “affair” to a full-blown scandal, we would see Nixon bluffing madly as his “hands” got worse and worse.

That doesn’t happen, though. There are a few more incidental references to poker here and there, as well as some passages that a biased reader like me might argue imply something of the poker-politics parallel. But poker isn’t really part of this attempt to tell the tale.

A couple of weeks before the 1972 election, Nixon writes a letter to Alice Roosevelt Longworth in which he notes “I know, as you do and your father did, all victories are temporary, but we’ll soon be celebrating together -- not just the election, but a peace agreement.” Then after Nixon wins he feels a letdown, in part because by winning what was necessarily his last election “it meant, after all, no more politics.” “But he didn’t suppose there was much logic in giving thanks to politics to putting an end to itself.” Such references make politics sound a little like poker, with Nixon here having managed to beat a final opponent to leave himself alone at the table (temporarily, anyway).

A little later it’s inauguration day (January 20, 1973), and Nixon is shown talking with White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman about ways to spin the story of the burglars having tried to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The old story of Lyndon B. Johnson’s adminstration having bugged the Nixon campaign airplane in 1968 is mentioned, though tempered by LBJ’s increasingly grave health (he’d be dead two days later). “I don’t know if it would be worth it or not to play the plane card once he’s gone,” Nixon says to Haldeman.

Another character (LaRue) is later described as pondering “the love of the game” of politics. He later refers to his own role in Watergate (as the bagman), saying “Money may have been my whole part in it, but you can’t name me one other political scandal where nobody had money as his motive, at least at the start.” Again, poker is well in the background here, only barely suggested by the many connections between poker and politics (money).

Later in July 1973 Nixon is in the hospital with pneumonia and his new White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig comes for a visit. Just a few days removed from Alexander Butterfield’s revelation of the secret recording system during his testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee, Nixon and Haig discuss the idea of destroying the recordings, something Nixon would never quite bring himself to do despite the encouragement of others, among them John Connally who’d been Nixon’s Secretary of Treasury and who after heading the “Democrats for Nixon” during the ’72 campaign had recently switched over to the Republican Party.

“Inertia would win,” writes Mallon, articulating the president’s thoughts regarding the tapes. Nixon wouldn’t destroy the tapes, but rather “he would fight for them in court, however hopelessly, rather than trigger a vast convulsion -- and maybe impeachment -- by their destruction.” He then goes on to bring up a characteristic of Nixon I’ve always linked with his poker playing -- his love of surprising, dramatic moves or what in poker we might call the “fancy play.”

“He himself had always loved the big play, the bold move” writes Mallon, “but he didn’t have the courage to light Connally’s bonfire.”

The passage reminds me of what Nixon once said in an interview when talking about his poker strategy. “If the odds are great against you in a small pot, get out,” he explained. “But while you should be cautious in the small ones, be bold in the big ones. Be willing to risk all to gain all.” Again, though, I’m forcing these connections into the text somewhat, as the novelist himself is making no explicit reference to poker.

Another character is later described as “eager not to overplay her hand” when meeting with Howard Hunt. The embattled Spiro Agnew is once described as a “bluff, manly character” as he is about to be ousted as vice-president.

Pat Nixon is one of the more likable characters in the novel, and while I’m not too sure I like one choice Mallon made when adding an invented detail to her story, I think he does well to make her come alive in the book. That said, he does have her deliver a short speech to Nixon that sounds less like actual dialogue than a kind of pale version of a Shakespearean soliloquy given to a minor character as a way of telling the audience something important about the tragic hero.

“I hate your enemies, but you love them,” she says. “You love their existence; they’re what gives you your own.” Again, one could talk about the existential crisis of a poker player who needs opponents in order to survive.

By the spring of 1974 it’s clear Nixon’s presidency very likely is going to be cut short, and Pat is made to think how “she and Dick and Rose and all the rest of them had spent their full allowance of life and now could only bounce checks against the past.” In early March the “Watergate Seven” are indicted with Nixon also named as an “unindicted co-conspirator,” that latter bit of information described as “a card that Jaworski” -- i.e., Leon Jaworski, the new Special Prosecutor -- “can play how and when he wants.”

Near the end in June and early July 1974, Nixon would make final trips abroad to Europe, the Middle East, and once more to the Soviet Union. While never weaker at home, he ironically is received especially well at many of those stops, something he’s shown anticipating in the book when he tells Haig that each of the countries would have “the red carpet out for him.”

“The region was suddenly a casino,” adds Mallon (narrating Nixon’s thoughts), “and he was running the table.”

The line is well placed, but totally misses the chance to circle back to the poker metaphor that would have special meaning for Nixon. In fact there’s something almost jarring here about the line’s recalling other casino games (e.g., craps). Even so, we have Nixon at the end of the chapter “thinking how the game might still be won,” even if the Supreme Court ruled (as it would) he’d have to give up the tapes.

The Watergate story ends with the resignation and pardon, then the novel includes an epilogue govering the next several decades. We get one last scene with Nixon during his final months after Pat’s death and just before his own. Here we get one last internal monologue that includes another accurate observation about Nixon’s character, but one more missed opportunity (I think) to have reprised the poker motif.

“He massaged his left temple and reflected upon a tendency to see only bad luck, never good, operating in his own life. Bad luck was the source of his defeats, whereas his achievements had come from his own skill and nerve.”

This sentiment does reflect how Nixon often spoke and wrote about his career, and fits well inside this final scene before Mallon’s character drifts off to sleep (and out of the story). It would have been nice to connect that talk of skill-versus-luck with poker, noting how what was really kind of a blind spot for Nixon (i.e., his overvaluing of luck when losing and skill when winning) might have been traced back to those days playing poker on Green Island.

Sure, he won a lot off his fellow officers -- many thousands (and enough to help fund his first Congressional campaign). But how much of it was skill and how much having been dealt some fortunate, well-timed five-card stud hands? Nixon tells a story from those games of once being dealt a royal flush -- it’s the most memorable hand he ever played. That could’ve come into Watergate somewhere, I’d think, perhaps even here at the end.

These are small quibbles, though, here idiosyncratically shared by a person with a special interest in Nixon the poker player. I enjoyed the novel greatly, and would recommend it to anyone wanting to be guided through this incredible real-life political tragicomedy.

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Slow Down… Brad Willis Has Some Stories to Tell

We’re already a week-and-a-half into December. Wait a minute... it’s already December!?! I guess so, as we’re careening toward the holidays and the new year and wherethehelldoesthetimego?

I got back to the farm from Brazil on the last day of November, but in truth I feel like I’m just looking up now to see we’ve reached the 10th already. In fact, here in the kitchen I’m realizing we haven’t even turned the last calendar page up yet on November. Gotta take care of that next time I pass by it, if I have time.

Part of it is just getting older, I know. It happens to all of us that with each passing year our temporal awareness (for lack of a better way to refer to the concept) alters by another degree or three. Could be because each new year necessarily represents a smaller fraction of our lives, or maybe it has more to do with the brain refusing to keep growing once we reach a certain point not long after young adulthood.

Then there’s “poker time,” with which I think most reading this blog are plenty familiar. So much is happening all at once, the weeks and months tend to fly by as a result. I was just recently tasked with making another one of those “top poker stories” of the year lists, something which I swear feels like I was just doing.

That said, there are little pockets here and there within the poker world -- and the world at large -- where we really can slow down and think a little more deeply about what is happening. During these first 10 days of December I’ve found a couple of them, both connected with my friend and colleague Brad Willis who heads up the PokerStars blog.

Brad is in Prague at the moment with the EPT festival, producing (as usual) interesting features related to the events that have happened thus far along with Nick Wright, Stephen Bartley, and Howard Swains.

Speaking of features, after getting back from Brazil I finally had a chance to read through Brad’s lengthy four-parter he wrote for the Bitter Southerner website titled “BUST: An Insider’s Account of Greenville’s Underground Poker Scene.” It’s a gripping narrative -- really a novella -- that takes as its starting point a relatively peaceful underground poker game in South Carolina from 2010 interrupted by a police raid and some jarring-by-contrast violence.

Brad tells that story while also filling the broader context of poker’s past and present in the Palmetto state, and by extension the game’s often paradoxical place in American culture, generally speaking. He weaves in stories of other poker players of varying levels of ability and dedication, and toward the end also incorporates his own life in poker, kind of taking a seat at the table himself among the characters he has sketched for us.

It’s an enlightening tale, and one well told, too. For anyone with an interest in poker (and good writing), it’s worth slowing down for a while and enjoying. I’m realizing how it could actually could fit on my “Poker in American Film and Culture” syllabus, and in fact I might slip it in there the next time I teach it as it complements (and builds upon) some of the ideas we discuss in that course.

I also found some time last weekend to hear Brad appear as a guest on a recent episode of the Thinking Poker Podcast hosted by Andrew Brokos and Nate Meyvis. They’re all the way up to 150 episodes, which is quite an achievement, and I’ll admit to vainly enjoying the memory of having appeared on TPP way back on one its very first shows more than three years ago. (Wait a minute... three years -- already!?!)

If you don’t already know Brad, listening to the show will work as a good introduction, I think, although even though they talk for over a half-hour there’s obviously a lot more to his story. Besides sharing a lot of common interests with Brad (poker, reading, writing, music), I feel another kind of affinity with him thanks to the parallel way his life took a detour from a “normal” job (as a news journalist in television) to become a “poker guy.” When he describes how he experienced that change on the show, you can imagine I’m doing a lot of nodding in agreement.

Thanks to Andrew and Nate’s thoughtful questions, Brad also delves into nature of poker reporting as it has evolved over the last decade or so, giving listeners a lot to think about when it comes to the reasons why a lot of us came to love poker in the first place.

Check out the show to hear what he says and decide for yourself if it is indeed the people and the stories that make poker a special game. And if you agree, definitely read Brad’s story on Bitter Southerner and get to know how poker shaped the lives of a number of interesting people (including Brad himself).

And if you don’t think you have time... well, try to figure out a way to slow things down a bit and enjoy these stories, anyway.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Hoops and Streaks

Growing up in North Carolina right along “Tobacco Road” (as they called it), basketball was my first favorite sport. We always had a hoop up in the driveway, I played on teams all of the way through my teens and then again later in graduate school. In fact, when I think back I realize several of my favorite memories from childhood are basketball-related, either playing or watching.

Having that hoop in the driveway, I probably spent just about every day from ages six through sixteen shooting hundreds of shots. Like poker players who after playing tens of thousands of hands necessarily absorb fundamentals that become second nature thereafter, so, too, did I develop a decent shooting eye through all of those many hours practicing.

In fact I remember often shooting 100 free throws each day, always trying to beat my previous high. I know I managed 90 a few times, and occasionally would run up streaks hitting 20 or more in a row. I feel like my best was 30-something, but I can’t remember for sure.

One of my favorite books as a kid was the Guinness Book of World Records, and among the records I memorized was Ted St. Martin’s for “Most Accurate Shooting.” In June 1977 he hit 2,036 free throws in a row, a number I filed along with other ones like .367, 17-0, 50.4, 56, 61, 755, and 2,130.

(Incidentally, I remember finding out some time ago that St. Martin had broken his own record during the 1990s, hitting 5,221 free throws in a row over a seven-and-a-half-hour stretch. No shinola!)

On the next page began the NBA records, and a couple of pages after that was listed the entry for “Most Games Won, Consecutive.” The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers had that one, having won 33 in a row over the course of a couple of months early that season. That team, led by Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West, would set another record by going 69-13 that year (and winning the title). Since then the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls eclipsed the latter record by going 72-10.

All of those records have now moved back to the foreground for basketball fans following the incredible run of the Golden State Warriors who have come off their title last year to start this season 23-0. Having won their last four regular season games last year, that puts the overall streak at 27, putting them just a half-dozen away from the Lakers’ mark.

Like all hoops fans, I’m enthralled by how good the Warriors are, and feel a little bit of an extra connection with Stephen Curry who also grew up in North Carolina shooting hundreds of shots every day. I remember following the career of his dad, Dell, who was also a tremendous shooter, but Stephen has developed into something out of this world. Ted St. Martin-esque, you might say.

We were living in Davidson when Stephen was starring for the Wildcats. But while he was great fun to watch then, it didn’t seem possible the six-foot-three guard could be more than a very good player at the next level, let alone transcend the entire league as he has.

I’m rooting for the W’s to keep it going, eyeing that Christmas game versus last year’s runner-ups, the Cleveland Cavaliers. If they avoid losing before then, they’ll be going for a 33rd straight win that afternoon, which’ll make the game a nice present for basketball fans like me. And perhaps a fun memory for younger basketball players to look back on down the road, too.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Checking in on Cherokee

The latest World Series of Poker Circuit stop over at Harrah’s Cherokee in the western corner of the state just completed its 12-event run yesterday. Found it interesting to see that Daniel Weinman, the Atlanta-based player who took second in the very first WSOP-C at Cherokee (which I helped cover), managed to win the Main Event this time around.

Weinman topped a 1,010-entry field to win the ring and a $280,260 first prize. Back in April 2013 there were 856 entries in the event when Weinman finished runner-up. In April 2014 there were 665 entries in the Main, in December 2014 there were 797, then in April 2015 there were 786, meaning this latest field was the biggest Main Event field so far in the five instances the WSOP-C has come to North Carolina.

I remember Weinman well from two years ago thanks to a funny story involving him and Greg Raymer at that year’s Main Event. I shared that one here in a post titled “Giving Away Chips, Rocks.”

After the 2004 WSOP Main Event champion -- who incidentally lives in Raleigh -- was knocked out in 29th by Weinman, “Fossilman” followed his custom and gave his vanquisher the signed fossil he’d been using as a card protector. After Raymer departed, Weinman said to a friend on the rail “This dude just gave me a rock,” then gave the memento to my buddy Rich with whom I was reporting on the event.

I seem to remember later on Weinman asking Rich for it back over Twitter. In any case it was a funny moment amid what I recall a very entertaining tournament and final table, made so in part because of Weinman’s deep run.

I had actually been eyeing this WSOP-C stop earlier this year, thinking maybe this would be one for which I’d be making the drive up into the mountains myself to take a shot in a prelim. But the Brazil trip ran into the first part of the series and I knew I wouldn’t be up to it after getting back.

The good news is Cherokee has proven popular enough for the WSOP-C to keep putting it on the schedule twice per year, and indeed there’s a return engagement scheduled next April. Something to file away.

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Monday, December 07, 2015

What’s the Line in This Game?

Watched a decent amount of football over the weekend, including enjoying seeing the Carolina Panthers get to 12-0 in a nail-biter versus the New Orleans Saints.

More than most games (I think), football includes many unpredictable elements that make it relatively improbable even for a dominating team to make it through a full season without a loss. And while the Panthers have a lot of weapons and are relatively strong all around, they aren’t a truly dominating team. They’ve had some fortunate bounces, though, along with playing well, and thus the streak continues.

Speaking of the luck of the game, the conclusion to the ACC Championship in Charlotte the day before ended in somewhat dismaying fashion for UNC fans when a blown referee’s call -- a “phantom” offsides on a successful onside kick -- ended the Heels’ hopes of completing a comeback versus top-ranked (and also still undefeated) Clemson.

Unlike pass interference or unnecessary roughness calls which can often be debatable, this one seemed a lot more cut-and-dry. None of the Heels’ players had broken the plane of the line of scrimmage when the ball was kicked (see above), but for some reason the referee immediately threw a flag for offsides, nullifying the play.

I heard one sports talk show host today say it was the kind of call that makes you wonder immediately -- and conspiratorially -- “What’s the line in this game?” (If I recall correctly, Clemson was close to a touchdown favorite.) The question had a kind of literal significance, too, when looking at that replay and seeing the uncrossed yard line being highlighted in yellow.

I believe refs have to discretion to pick up a flag if they determine a penalty to have been incorrectly called, but here the ref was adamant that he was correct (apparently even telling the UNC coach he could have called offsides on multiple players). But despite the seemingly unambiguous evidence in the replay, offsides is apparently a judgment call, too, and thus not reviewable. And so it stood.

To be honest, I wasn’t especially bothered by the call, thinking both how there remained a lot of uncertainty about what might have happened next (UNC was down eight with just over a minute to go) and recalling that crazy Miami-Duke finish from a little over a month ago that ended with a series of blunders by ACC refs ultimately resulting in a Hurricanes win.

Writing about that one, I talked about being a biased observer (a UNC alum and Duke hater), about the silliness of some clamoring for the result to be overturned or for Miami to forfeit after the fact, and also about the way sports has come to exemplify our increasingly litigious culture wherein there always seems another chance to throw the challenge flag or file an appeal.

Like I say, the blown call was dismaying, but like a flukey bounce simply part of the game. The Heels set up and executed the play well -- like playing a poker hand as effectively as possible -- but got unlucky, with the dropping of the flag like a dealer accidentally exposing a card to ruin the chance at winning a pot.

Which we might not have won, anyway.

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Friday, December 04, 2015

The Game Without the Game

Not get overly abstract here on a Friday afternoon, but I was mulling over this kind of half-formed idea this week and thought I’d share it before signing off for the weekend.

With poker -- and many other games and sports, for that matter -- you often hear references to the “game within the game.” You can think of specific examples of what I’m referring to; most of them will probably fall under the category of “metagame” considerations whereby players think in broader terms about setting up future plays, cultivating and then playing off of table images, and so on.

Certain recent discussions about poker and in particular the online game got me thinking about how poker itself operates as a “game within a game,” and that in some ways the “outer” or “contextual” game actually resembles poker itself. (I warned you I was going to become abstract.)

Online sites obviously want to attract and keep players, ideally encouraging a significant percentage of them to continue depositing the money which serves as a key element to the games themselves, and which importantly helps contribute to the rake taken from every cash game hand played and the fees charged for every real money tournament. The rake and those fees ensure that more money is lost than won overall, which thus helps ensure the rooms profit.

Theoretically speaking, it doesn’t have to be the case that more players lose than win. It could work out in such a way that a smaller percentage of players actually contribute most of the money that goes to the site -- that a higher percentage of players actually profit by playing.

But in practice that isn’t how it tends to go. I recall studies from several years back (during the “boom” years) pinpointing that in fact only something like 7% of online poker players tend to be profitable. Even if it were considerably more than that, it seems more likely than not that most who play do end up losing money they deposit rather than consistently profit and only withdraw. And that some percentage of those who lose are encouraged for various reasons to deposit again.

Stepping back from all of this, it’s hardly that insightful to point out that online poker sites are not unlike brick-and-mortar casinos where the effort to encourage gamblers to play games in which the players’ actually have a negative expectation. Some players will win at those games, some will lose, and in the end the casino will earn a profit. The same happens in poker, but the game’s skill element tends to influence who is doing the winning and who is doing the losing (more often than not).

Think for a moment of the pool of online poker players homogenously -- that is, as a single player rather than a bunch of individuals. As a group, they’re going to lose money and the room is going to profit. The more they play, the more they’ll lose and the more the room profits. The room, then, is trying to encourage this group -- this entity, if you will -- to do something that isn’t really in their interest (collectively speaking, that is).

As I say, it’s not that far removed from the way a casino tries to get players to play roulette, or a state tries to get its citizens to play the lottery.

There’s a “game,” then, going on between the sites and players, one that involves things like image, bluffing, “representing,” and other forms of indirect communication and/or deceit (depending on your point of view). The parallel from poker itself would be a player doing whatever is necessary to get an opponent to do what is not in that player’s self-interest -- e.g., checking or folding when holding better cards; calling, betting, or raising when holding worse cards.

Just something that occurred to me amid discussions of late about sites’ relationships to players, and the sometimes challenging to decipher “game without the game.”

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Thursday, December 03, 2015

Cards from Coast to Coast

Had a chance not too long ago to have a fun conversation with poker player and author Ashley Adams. He has been writing about poker for some time including authoring a couple of strategy books and contributing some strategy articles over at PokerNews. He also hosts the House of Cards Radio podcast, a weekly show that often features interesting guests. In fact just last week he had WSOP Main Event champion Joe McKeehen not long after his big win.

Ashley has been playing poker for over half-century. Since the early 1990s, he’s been especially dedicated to the game, having played in many different countries and all around the United States. About a decade ago he realized he’d played in more than half of the states in the U.S., and soon thereafter made it a goal to try to play in all 50 of them.

About a month ago Ashley achieved that goal, with Oregon being the last state in which he managed to play America’s favorite card game. At the very least he’s tied a record, for certain. A couple of weeks later he and I had a conversation about his journey, and you can read the interview over at PokerNews here: “An American Odyssey: Ashley Adams Completes 50-State Poker Tour.”

Our conversation covered a lot of ground (pun intended). I asked him to comment on different playing styles in different areas of the country, kind of half-anticipating some generalities about “east coast” and “west coast” games. But interestingly he pointed out how the game has been somewhat “homogenized” over the last decade or so, primarily because of the “boom” and spread of televised poker, as well as the overall increase in knowledge of strategy.

Ashley has plans to write a book about his poker journey, which I think is a great idea. I also can imagine making use of such a book in my “Poker in American Film and Culture class,” where we learn a lot about how poker was played in the past in a few regions -- in particular New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Nevada, and California, and a little bit of New Jersey -- but don’t necessarily get too much into contemporary poker culture including home games (an area in which Ashley perhaps has a more varied experience than just about anybody).

Check out the interview for more.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Season of the Witch

Sometimes in all-in situations, say, when there’s one last river card to come, players will entertain themselves by calling out specific cards a beat before the card is revealed. “Eight of diamonds!” will shout a player, enacting a kind of prognosticator’s freeroll that gets promptly ignored if wrong, but celebrated if somehow the guess proves correct.

That celebration is usually forgotten fairly quickly, too, as it should be. But it still can add up to a fun moment for those involved, the way it goofily suggests the gambler’s dream of extra-normal powers of perception.

Last week while in Brazil, I was chatting with Reinaldo on Wednesday about the upcoming NFL games. He and I are both in the same Pigskin Pick’em pool and while we’re both far out of the running overall, we’re neck-and-neck with each other, and so are having some fun going back and forth about which of us will end the season with more correct picks out of the 256 total NFL regular season games.

My Carolina Panthers played on Thanksgiving, and somewhat hilariously were an underdog to the Dallas Cowboys despite Carolina being 10-0 going into the game while Dallas was 3-7. The reason for the line, of course, was the fact that Dallas starting QB Tony Romo was back in the line-up, and so far during the year Dallas had lost exactly zero games when he’d played (three) and won exactly zero when he hadn’t (seven).

Laying on a little bit of fan-fueled hyperbole, I pretended to express outrage about the Panthers being somehow disrespected by such a line. But in truth I knew the Panthers outmatched Dallas, even with Romo. “The Panthers will roll tomorrow,” I told Reinaldo. “In fact, they’ll knock Romo out of the game.”

As I mentioned last week, we were able to keep tabs on the T-giving games while at the tournament, and so I greatly enjoyed watching Carolina fulfill my prediction as they jumped in front of Dallas, then continued to pull away as the third quarter neared its close. It was about that time I shot my buddy Rich Ryan a message.

“Saw this coming all the way from South America,” I boasted. “I’m just surprised they haven’t knocked Romo out of the game yet.”

Less than a minute after I hit send, Romo was sacked hard by Thomas Davis, reinjuring his collarbone and having to leave the game. Indeed, his season is over.

“Sick timing brah,” replied Rich before I could even fire back an “ahem” to punctuate the uncanny coincidence of the message.

Reinaldo was impressed as well, and after asking me what the male equivalent of a witch is, promptly called me a warlock. (That picture up above, by the way, is one of your humble scribbler from long ago, one Vera coincidentally found while I was gone.)

Even though I have no particular feelings about Dallas, I’ve always liked Romo. And even if I didn’t, I obviously was not glad to have seen him get hurt. Even so I’ll admit to having experienced the momentary, frivolous pleasure that comes with guessing correctly.

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