Monday, October 31, 2016

Traveling Domestic

Made it back to the farm in decent shape on Saturday. Took the quick one from Malta to Munich, then only the most aggressive armrest bully I’ve ever faced in airline travel battle made the long flight back from Germany to the states less than ideal.

Was very glad to get home to the farm and be with Vera Valmore and our four-legged friends. I hated being away that long, and am not crazy about picking up again right away for another trip this week. But I’ll being staying put for a while after that.

I did follow the start of the World Series of Poker Main Event final table last night for a short while, although to be honest I didn’t want to spend my brief time at home between poker trips watching still more poker, so I only dipped in briefly to keep tabs on who was still in the sucker.

Today I’m heading back out to Atlantic City where I’ll be on hand to help cover the first PokerStars Festival, the newly-named tournament series that along with the PokerStars Championships will be replacing the regional tours starting next year. I’m actually writing from the airport, and since it is Halloween there are people wandering about dressed like Oompa Loompas among other things (see above).

It’s also the first time PokerStars has hosted a tournament in the United States since pre-Black Friday -- like just before Black Friday as the last North American Poker Tour event ended at the Mohegan Sun on April 14, 2011.

Am looking forward to this one both for the sake of curiosity and to be able to reunite with a lot of friends and colleagues, some of whom I haven’t seen in a while. Was realizing getting ready for the trip that I haven’t covered a tournament inside the U.S. or taken a domestic flight in about two years -- other than as a first leg of a trip out of the country, that is. Meanwhile I’ve gone on more than a dozen trips since then all over Central and South America and Europe.

No passport needed, then. Or adapters. Weird. Am I able to check a bag for free or what?

Talk more tomorrow from the Boardwalk.

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Friday, October 28, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 9 & Departure -- Blowing Through

The wind has been howling here in Malta the last couple of days. I know that’s an overused expression, but in this case it’s entirely apt.

The last two evenings I’m guessing the gusts have been in the 20-plus miles per hour range at least, which means at night there’s a constant whipping sound happening outside.

There’s also a soft whine coming in through the sliding glass doors of my room, which putting down towels and pillows doesn’t seem to lessen. I’m up on the sixth floor, and when I took up the towels this morning I could smell the salty sea on them even this high up.

This was my last day of helping report on the European Poker Tour Malta festival, and again I was on the €10K High Roller as it worked down to tomorrow’s finale. Things are moving along quickly both in this one and in the Main Event, which I imagine is probably going to make for a relatively short day for the fellas tomorrow. (I’m free to speculate this way without worrying about jinxing anything, since I’ll be on a plane and homeward bound.)

We made it back down to the Blue Elephant for another nice dinner, and afterwards a few of us went for a walk around the harbor out back and got knocked around by the wind which again was fierce. Could practically lean against it -- I’m not joking.

The whole trip ended up blowing by as well, perhaps because I was so busy throughout the entire time I’ve been here. I’m definitely ready to get back to the farm, though, even if only for a couple of days before I head back out again to New Jersey next week.

Flying back through Munich on Saturday, which will put me home late afternoon -- just in time to help feed some horses, I expect. Check the PokerStars blog to see who ends up winning these last two big events in Malta, and I’ll catch up with you again next week once I’ve ridden the wind back stateside.

Image: “KNOW MALTA,” Peter Grima. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 8 -- Quick Circuits

A quick post to describe a lot of things going quickly today in Malta.

First off, since I didn’t punch in until later in the afternoon to go help report on Day 1 of the European Poker Tour Malta €10K High Roller, I was able to do a couple of things I’d wanted to do since I got here over a week ago.

One was to take a quick swim in the pool. The skies were overcast but it was warm and there was not much wind, and so it was a refreshing 15 minutes or so splashing around for a few laps. I’ve had a couple of trips where I’ve managed to work in a short dip in the mornings after breakfast and before the workday begins. In addition to physical benefits, there are mental ones, too, as it gives that vacation feeling even in the middle of a lot of work.

Another was to take a quick cab ride over to Mdnia to the Ta’ Qali Crafts Village for a little gift-seeking. Whereas I’ve been staying over on the east coast of Malta, Mdnia is over in the central part of the island, so the drive was essentially due west. Got to see once again all of the building and construction happening all over the place, reminding me of the local joke that the national bird is the crane.

Once at Mdina I didn’t really get to explore all that much as my cabbie agreed to wait for me as I looked around. Mdina is well known for glass blowing and ceramics, as well as for lace making and honey. So it wasn’t too hard to find some nice items and get on back over in good time to get ready for the day of work. Another quickly-traced circuit by your humble scribbler.

After I got back Howard told me a little about how a number of films were produced in Malta, including Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) (a spectacular box office flop). Now there’s a whole Popeye Village in the northwestern part of the island. Would be something to explore, I think, on a return trip.

Okay, to review the poker quickly, too, where again I watched the chips and cards go round and round...

The High Roller (with a single re-entry option) attracted a decent number of entries -- over 130, with late registration still open until the start of Friday’s Day 2. Alexander Ivarsson ended with a big chip lead among the 73 surviving, with Martin Finger and Stephen Chidwick among the big stacks. Over in the Main Event they played down to 14 with Mats Karlsson of Sweden leading and Dominik Panka lurking with a big stack. Also coming back to short stacks will be Benjamin Pollak and Ole Schemion.

Only one more day working for me as I’ll be jetting off a little early to get some time on the farm before heading back out to New Jersey early next week. As always visit the PokerStars blog to follow along.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 7 -- Guess How Old

On Wednesday the entire focus was on the European Poker Tour Main Event, with everyone on board to help cover it. They played down to 30 today. Ismael Bojang (winner of the Italian Poker Tour Malta Main), Davidi Kitai, Frederik Jensen, Benjamin Pollak, Ole Schemion, and Dominik Panka are among those still in contention for this one.

Forgot to mention I played a little poker last night -- the media event. Wasn’t anything too special for your humble scribbler, the most interesting moment probably coming when I was dealt pocket aces and raised, then after a fold the next player looked down to see he had no cards. Thought for a second it would be a misdeal, but the dealer had only mucked his hand prematurely and the hand continued (and I doubled).

Didn’t quite make the final table, but my friend and colleague Stephen Bartley did and went on to win the sucker. Stephen, of course, has been reporting on the European Poker Tour since the very beginning, and now that the 13th (and last) season is winding down he noted to me this week how he’d been to 98 of these festivals, which means he’ll end on 99 after Prague in December. And I believe this was the first of these media events he’s won, so I was extra glad for him.

Speaking of camaraderie among the reporting team, after play ended tonight we were able to hurry over to an Indian restaurant not far away called Shiva’s and get a table. They were a little understaffed it appeared, and they warned us there would be a decent wait for our food. In fact the wait was kind of epic -- I imagine it was over an hour, perhaps even 90 minutes before we had our main courses.

We weren’t too bothered, though, as we played a strangely engrossing game without a name, essentially a celebrity age guessing game with some inspired rules allowing us to play head-to-head taking turns around the table. Stephen was the massive winner again, causing us all to believe he was on some sort of game-playing heater.

The game involved everyone taking turns proposing celebrities whose age others would guess. The oldest named was certainly Kirk Douglas (who is 99), while the youngest might have been Justin Bieber (22). It did expose a bit of a cultural gap between myself (the lone American) and the other five (all English), insofar as there are many celebrities I know that they don’t and vice-versa.

The game also often focuses attention on the fact that for most celebrities, the era of their fame comes when they are young adults (i.e., in their 20s or 30s), which therefore would provide the hint that would help with the age-guessing business. Such is true of the poker players we’re covering, too, for the most part (these days), although there are exceptions.

Had a good lamb curry dish (my second of the trip), and we got back to the rooms in decent time before 11 p.m. Back at it tomorrow, where I believe I’ll be moving over to the €10K High Roller. I go in late and so may try to make another excursion to see another part of Malta, if I can.

Don’t think I’ll have time to make it to any of the Megalithic Temples (some remains of which are pictured above), some of the oldest temples in the world, I believe, dating back to 3600 B.C. or even before. Or at least that’s the experts best guess, anyway. But I may get a cab over to Mdina to take a quick look around.

Meanwhile you kind look around on the PokerStars blog for coverage of both the Main and the HR.

Image: “The megalithic remains at Ġgantija,” Hamelin de Guettelet. CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 6 -- Star Turn

Day 2 of the European Poker Tour Malta Main Event played out today. There were 468 starters in the €5,300 buy-in event (including the few who late regged at the start of play today), and from that group 90 have made it through to Wednesday’s Day 3.

One player who didn’t get to tomorrow was William Kassouf. He started today at the feature table and garnered a bit of time on EPT Live, but busted relatively early in the day in a three-way all-in. Despite the involvement in the hand of another short stack, Vladimir Troyanovskiy, who was in there with pocket deuces, the hand nonetheless uncannily recalled Kassouf’s 17th-place bustout from this summer’s World Series of Poker Main Event, as he once again ran pocket kings into an opponent’s pocket aces (this time Brian Altman was the winner).

I’ve now had a chance to see this week’s ESPN episodes of the WSOP Main Event which carried things down from 21 players to the final nine, setting up the restart that finally comes this Sunday. Many here in Malta have seen them by now, too, or at least the end of Episode 13 featuring Kassouf’s knockout at the hands of Griffin Benger (who went on to make the final nine).

Heard some table talk about the hand and situation surrounding it today, and while it’s all just a tiny anecdotal sampling it does seem as though many are “siding” with Kassouf (if this must be set up as an either/or-type debate, which it shouldn’t be), finding his behavior not nearly as objectionable as that of some of the other players who played with him on that Day 7 this summer, Benger included.

I mentioned a few days ago meeting Kassouf and finding him a friendly, likeable dude. He’s certainly drawn attention to himself in tournaments here with his table talk and gregarious demeanor, but over the course of a long eight- or 10-hour day of poker the “Kassouf experience” it isn’t quite the same as the distilled, highlight reel version shown on ESPN. He’s silent for significant periods when not in hands, and frankly when he does talk it doesn’t seem all that remarkable other than by the contrast he provides with the majority of players who these days choose to remain silent when they play hands.

There was one funny moment late on Day 1b, I recall, when an older French player said to Kassouf that “each ante is... like a movie to you.” The table broke up in laughter, and Kassouf grinningly responded “and you are part of the production!”

Kassouf is obviously very comfortable in the spotlight amid this “star turn” he's found himself taking our strange little poker world. Others have made that observation to me this week, in each case punctuating it with some version of “more power to him” for doing so.

At the start of the ESPN episode that concluded with Kassouf’s knockout and the genuinely startling, emotional eruption by Griffin Benger that preceded it, Lon McEachern and Norman Chad in their introduction once again highlighted Kassouf as the central character of the drama. In fact the show started with a whole montage of Kassouf moments interspersed with an awkward-seeming sit down between him and WSOP Tournament Director Jack Effel.

“Will Kassouf is the most polarizing player of the 21 remaining,” said McEachern, and in his rejoinder Chad ticked off a list of adjectives to describe the British pro: “Too disruptive, too disrespectful, too distasteful, and too damn slow,” said Chad.

Once again making the disclaimer I’ve made before here that all we get is what we see in these sculpted, abbreviated versions of reality shown in each WSOP episode, I can’t say I agree with Chad’s list. Sure, in certain hands he’s been shown to have played “too damn slow.” Whether his play is “disruptive” or not is debatable -- as I’ve said, watching him perform here in Malta, that does not at all seem to be the case. Meanwhile “disrespectful” and “distasteful” seem even further off-base, although I suppose differing views can exist.

The Benger-Kassouf hand was incredibly interesting to watch, though, particularly because Benger had only briefly been covered at all during any of the episodes -- and never playing with Kassouf -- making his transformation in the hand from a silent statue to a raving maniac all the more astonishing to see. Kassouf’s reaction was fascinating as well, as was both players’ trumpeting before the community cards came that it didn’t matter how the hand ended, each felt as though he’d “won.”

If his pocket aces were to be cracked by Kassouf’s kings, says Benger, “it doesn’t matter -- he’s still miserable, I’m happy.” Meanwhile Kassouf says “you can’t take it... you let it get to you, you’re losing it.” Both knew the cards had essentially played themselves in the hand, but they were continuing on with another, different game in which the result of the hand wasn’t relevant.

If you haven’t seen it, someone has carved it out and posted it on YouTube. Even without having sat through the many weeks’ worth of previous episodes, it’s something to see:



In the end, I think neither of the two deserve much criticism here. It was an unusual moment for sure, and poker would be way too stressful to tolerate were it always played this way. But obviously it isn’t, which is why the hand was remarkable.

Back to business here in Malta for tomorrow’s Day 3. Check your privilege if you like, but also check the PokerStars blog.

Photo: courtesy Neil Stoddart / PokerStars blog.

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 5 -- Back to Valletta

Today on the European Poker Tour I moved over onto the EPT Malta Main Event to help cover Day 1b of that one. Had the late shift, though, and so had a chance early in the day to truck back over to Valletta with my friend and colleague Howard to explore a little more.

On my first day here I only walked a short way into Valletta proper, only really grabbing a bit to eat with Gareth and not exploring the area too greatly. So it was very nice to get back over and to do so with Howard who not only has been here before but has done some actual travel writing about Malta and so provided lots of information about everything we saw.

We took a cab over that let us off at the Upper Barrakka Gardens, and we initially stepped over to the Saluting Battery that looks out over the Grand Harbour. We were there a little early for the midday salute, but greatly enjoyed the view looking back across the water into the city. Howard explained some of the history surrounding the building of the battery by the Order of St. John back in the 16th century and the story of the “Great Siege” of 1565 when the Ottomans were famously held back there.

From there we took the short walk through the very crowded streets (especially for a Monday, we thought) to St. John’s Co-Cathedral where we joined hundreds of other tourists going inside for a look.

Built in the 1570s by the Order of St. John and dedicated to John the Baptist, the exterior doesn’t seem all that immediately striking, featuring a somewhat plain style. It kind of looks like the battery, really, and I’m reading that “fortress”-like appearance might have been intended somewhat as it was built just after the Great Siege. Step inside, though, and the interior’s dazzling decoration is quite stunning, with every inch of the carved stone walls, marble floors, and painted ceilings filled with artistic expression full of symbolism and/or contributing to various narratives.

The audio guide helped explain the certain aspects such as the painted vaulted ceilings, the tombstones in the floor, and the intricate tapestries hung all about. I took a few photos, though none are particularly great (that’s one of mine up above from the battery, which you can click to embiggen). Better to watch this short video that more or less replicates much of what I saw (with a soundtrack added and minus the huge crowd):



The highlight, though, were the paintings by Caravaggio, in particular the famous oil painting of The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist depicting his execution. (No photo/video allowed where those were, so they aren’t in the video.) It occupies the far end of the Oratory, taking up the entire wall and inviting the close study it deserves. Indeed, after a lengthy time looking upon it and discussing it, it was almost difficult to leave and look at other Caravaggios on the adjoining walls, it casts such a gripping spell.

We did leave, however, and after exiting the cathedral did some more walking. As we did I recalled how Caravaggio had also painted at least one work depicting card players, called The Cardsharps. I had that in mind because of having recently gone back over some of the history of Cassius M. Coolidge’s “Dogs Playing Poker” paintings for an installment of Poker & Pop Culture, for which some have suggested Coolidge modeled the canines and their holding of cards after Caravaggio (and some other artists).

Not far from the cathedral is the Casa del Commun Tesoro where Malta’s first post office was once located. In the early 19th century the British used the building for certain governmental administrative work, and as a plaque on the outside explained the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge worked there as the Acting Public Secretary from 1804-1805. That led me to discuss having in the past taught “Xanadu,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” some of the Biographia Literaria and other STC works, and studying still more like “Christabel” and “Frost at Midnight.”

If I’m retracing our steps correctly, from there we circled back through more busy streets in search of a lunch spot Howard remembered, but unfortunately was closed on Mondays, then proceeded back around to the Lower Barrakka Gardens and then walked back up the coastline to where we originally began. I may get one more chance to get out and about (have one other late shift coming up, I believe), but regardless it was a fantastic opportunity to get a look around and absorb even just a small bit of Malta’s rich history.

By the time we were in the cab heading back over to the Portomaso Casino we were already talking poker again, and the day provided some interesting battles as well, the most significant of which you can read about over on the PokerStars blog. No “Great Siege” mind you, but some spirited defenses and attacks nonetheless.

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 4 -- Bojang Brings It

Today’s Italian Poker Tour Malta Main Event finale was kind of wild, especially during the first 45 minutes when the six players who returned were suddenly carved down to just two. In fact, the four knockouts happened within about five hands, including one double-knockout (like on Day 3), which got us thinking it could be over within an hour.

Things did settle down thereafter, with heads-up taking a few hours before at last Ismael Bojang ended up winning the title.

No surprise seeing Bojang do well. Back at the start of this summer’s World Series of Poker I actually picked the German (who lives in Austria) as my favorite to win the WSOP Player of Year. He’d already gathered 32 cashes in four years and as player of mixed games always has a chance to gather lots of POY points. The title was ultimately clinched handily by Jason Mercier, although Bojang did manage to gather nine cashes.

Watching him during heads-up play I tricked myself into thinking occasionally that as a so-called “mixed-game” guy, perhaps Bojang wasn’t quite as dominating or sure of a player when it came to no-limit hold’em. But it didn’t take long to disabuse myself of that notion, as it became evident that pretty much every decision where the results were observable, he was making the right choices.

Bojang’s heads-up opponent, the Italian Francesco Leotta, also played very solidly, it seemed, although perhaps not quite as consistently well as Bojang. Still, luck played a significant role affecting the outcome, as both players were within one card of winning only to see the other draw out a fortunate river card to survive.

We did end up finishing up by around dinner time, so I motored over to help for a couple of hours with the first Day 1 flight of the EPT Main Event before signing off and getting back to the room at a decent hour. Had some other work to do and so actually spend the evening watching NFL football and sweating my Pigskin Pick’em picks, which was kind of nice even though the games that were shown were kind of dreadful (both blowouts).

Will be back at it tomorrow helping with Day 1b of the EPT Malta Main. As always, visit the PokerStars blog to follow along.

Photo: courtesy Manuel Kovsca / PokerStars blog.

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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 3 -- Double-Knockout

Another long-but-not-too-long day here as I helped cover Day 3 of the Italian Poker Tour Malta Main Event.

They played down from 31 to the eight-handed final table, but kept on going in order to get the tournament down to six for Sunday. The pace was relatively steady throughout the day and night, getting us to eight-handed in good enough time. Then came a lull, and with the stacks moderately deep it appeared it might take a while to get to the end of the night.

There was one short stack -- Filip Demby -- but he’d been folding for a long while and appeared ready to do so much longer until a premium hand finally came along. But suddenly another player, Daniel Portiansky, open-pushed his below average stack, and when it folded to Demby he kind of surprised us by calling all in.

There was still another player left to act, Alexander Lakhov, and after just a short bit of consideration he called. Having the other two covered, Lakhov tabled pocket queens while the all-in players each had ace-king. The board ran clean, and boom -- we were done.

That got us out of the tournament room in good enough time to take another dining trip, this time to the bottom of the Hilton Malta right next to the casino to a Thai restaurant called the Blue Elephant.

The food was fantastic. For a starter I had the fancily-named “Pearls of the ‘Blue Elephant,’” kind of a sampler of the best starters that included chicken satay, spring roll, Thai fish cake, dim sum, crispy paper prawn, and enoki seafood salad. Then for entree I had the Massaman lamb curry with coconut milk along with Thai sweet potatoes (with cashews), and rice.

To follow that earlier one that ended Day 3, dinner was another double-knockout. I wish I’d had two stomachs to eat it all a second time.

Of that entree, the menu said “this dish was described in a poem by King Rama II.” I’ll refrain from waxing too lyrical about it, using that precedent as an excuse to get on with other things. Still, the dish was as delish as one could wish.

Both Ismael Bojang and Dominik Panka made that final six. Check the the PokerStars blog on Sunday to see if either of them can grab the IPT trophy.

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 2 -- Back at It

My second day of reporting here in Malta involved my helping cover Day 2 of the Italian Poker Tour Malta Main Event, a €1,100 buy-in tournament that saw 775 enter and now just 31 advancing on to Saturday’s penultimate day of play. The work has really begun.

A decent number of recognizable folks still left in this one, including Dominik Panka, Rasmus Agerskov, Ismael Bojang, Stean Jedlicka, and Cate Hall. Ole Schemion, Martin Staszko, and Pierre Neuville were among those cashing today. I’ve mentioned before how the EPTs generally speaking often feature a high percentage of good tournament players, and such can even be the case in these relatively lower buy-in prelims or “side events,” even though this one is labeled a “Main” by the IPT.

There were a lot of semi-unusual hands (runner-runner saves, straight flushes, quads, etc.), as we highlighted a little at the start of the end-of-day recap. As happens with players, though, after many years of doing it’s hard not to look on such out-of-the-ordinary happenings with a somewhat clinical eye. Which is probably a good thing, from a reporter’s point of view, as you are better able to keep track of it all.

We got out early enough to take a stroll a couple of blocks over to have a fantastic dinner at the Lore & Fitch steakhouse here in Saint Julian’s. Had a filet mignon which was excellent, and my buddies sampled some Italian beer which they liked a lot. Have already experienced some way above average eats as well as some very hospitable service, too, which has made everything more comfortable.

Still, I miss being on the farm and find myself getting bit a little earlier than usual by the homesick bug. Maybe it’s all those cats meowing that I sometimes hear even up in my hotel room, making me think of our Freckles and Sweetie, both of whom like to meow a lot, too. Was a little frustrated over the last couple of days as well knowing I couldn’t be at home to help out with things when a little bit of trouble arose on the farm here at week’s end -- nothing too major, but felt a bit helpless being five thousand-plus miles from being able to do anything.

I sometimes will refer to whatever digs I end up in while on the road my “home away from home,” but that’s just a phrase. It’s never really “home” out here -- just more or less accommodating while I’m away.

As always, head over to the PokerStars blog to follow along with this IPT and the other events happening on this here archipelago.

Photo: courtesy Manuel Kovsca / PokerStars blog.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Day 1 -- Gambling with the Nuts

Day 1b of the Italian Poker Tour Main Event here in Malta was a busy one, with a big turnout of well over 500 players bringing the total field for the €1,100 event up to 775.

Work-wise the day was fun, highlighted by getting to reunite with the various folks who regularly help cover and run these European Poker Tour festivals. The Portomaso Casino is nice and the tournament room well arranged to make it easy getting around. We’re actually perched a couple of floors up from the players (see the shot above pointing up at the media section). That means we have some stairs to negotiate frequently, although escalators and an elevator help in that regard.

Not too much stands out as far as the poker goes -- it being a Day 1 flight, that’s typically the case. Probably the most memorable hand I saw involved William Kassouf getting knocked out when his pocket aces were cracked versus an opponent’s pocket fours, a four on the board doing him in.

“Gambling with the nuts,” he said (more than once) as a kind of punctuation mark on his tournament, echoing the phrase we’ve heard a lot during the WSOP coverage on ESPN.

I ended up talking to Kassouf sometime afterwards a little bit about the hand -- I’d caught part of it but missed a preflop step, and he patiently helped fill in what I’d missed. A friendly dude, as has come across at times on the shows and pretty consistently on the interviews I’ve heard.

As I was talking about earlier in the week, everyone is forming opinions about him right now, with most doing so on the abbreviated evidence of the ESPN coverage. Not to say my interaction wasn’t also very limited, but he seemed an amiable fellow.

Cutting it short as I’m still in catch-up mode as far as sleep goes. Go over to the the PokerStars blog to follow along with what’s happening in Malta.

Photo: courtesy Manuel Kovsca / PokerStars blog.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Travel Report: EPT13 Malta, Arrival -- What’s New, Pussycat?

Hello from the Mediterranean! I made it to Malta in one piece, once again experiencing some run good with my travels.

The overnight flight to Munich was quite comfortable. Flew Lufthansa, who have always provided a nice ride in my experience. Watched an old episode of Columbo (awesome, like they all are) and the recent film The Nice Guys starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling (inconsistent, but entertaining), so was happily locked in the 1970s with Same Difference-like crime stories.

Was another short flight from there to Malta. Got to my hotel by mid-afternoon and not too long after got up with my buddy Gareth who is here to play. We ended up taking a longish walk all of the way to Valletta where we grabbed a bite to eat. Really liked getting out and looking around, given that this is a new place for me.

I’m staying relatively close to the Portomaso Casino where the festival is playing out, near the Spinola Bay and looking out on the St. Julian’s Bay. Our winding walk down south to Valletta meant circling inland around the Marsamxett Harbour and a marina past all of the many hotels, shops, and restaurants -- two or three miles, at least (although I don’t know for sure as I didn't bring my Fitbit).

Along the way we chatted a bit about the drive over from the airport and how we both saw a lot of construction and less immediately impressive landscapes and architecture than is the case in the more touristy central region of the island.

Malta is an archipelago consisting of three islands, with the one named Malta the largest of the three. I was looking online to find the square mileage of Malta (122 sq. miles) is less than half that of the city of Charlotte, with about 450,000 inhabitants or so packed in that small area.

Speaking of, the sidewalks were fairly jammed with people all of the way to Valletta, the cloudy skies not keeping them inside. We parted after dinner and I walked back alone as night descended along with what ultimately became a fairly steady rainfall, and that didn’t scatter the crowds either. The scene somewhat recalled that of Punta del Este thanks to the close proximity of the water and the many boats and yachts, although Uruguay was a lot less populated last month during its off-season.

Lots of stray cats about, including these two at left relaxing of the hood of a car.

It was over in Sliema (on the way to Valletta) I spotted the 10-foot high cat statue pictured up top as dusk was starting to settle. Reading about the statue, it’s the work of an artists named Matthew Pandolfino who put it up there in the Ta’Qali National Park about seven years ago, and apparently other artists are invited to paint it over every couple of months. (You can click on the pics to embiggen.)

After I got back I took a quick trip over to the casino to reunite with some folks and get a sense of things. Gonna pack in early here as I need to catch up sleep missed last night while flying over.

Will be helping cover the second and final Day 1 flight of the Italian Poker Tour (IPT) Main Event, a €1,100 buy-in tournament that drew 219 runners for Wednesday’s Day 1a. There’s a €10K event going on already as well, with a number of other high rollers and the Main Event coming up over the next week-and-a-half.

Check the PokerStars blog for updates from the festival. And keep checking here for other stuff from my prowling about with the Maltese kitties.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

On the Move to Malta

Writing a quick one here from the airport where I’m waiting once again to begin another tourney journey. Heading to Malta this time for the European Poker Tour festival which has already begun there on the tiny archipelago just off Italy’s boot.

This’ll be a new destination for your humble scribbler. I’ll admit I don’t know a heck of a lot at present about where I’m heading.

Back during my full-time teaching days I had a colleague swing a year-long sabbatical to Malta, although I never really talked much with him afterwards about his experience. Of course, Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon is one of my fave reads, although that book has about as much to do with Malta as it does falcons.

In fact, toward the latter part of my detective novel Same Difference -- which is pretty deliberately meant as an homage of sorts to Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and other hard-boiled greats -- characters joke around a little about that novel’s story and how the Maltese falcon at the heart of it turns out to be a fake. (There’s a similar reference to the even more elusive postman in Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.)

We’ll see what comes of this new poker plot I’m embarking on, and will try to sort out the important from the trivial. As always, I’ll try my best to keep in touch here as it goes.

More later from the Mediterranean!

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Like a Boss

Been following those WSOP Main Event shows on ESPN, which have now dwindled down to the last couple of weeks prior to the “November Nine” (which actually starts October 30).

The pair of shows from Sunday (episodes 11 and 12) focused on the first part of Day 7, starting with 27 players and only getting down to 21. A ton of time was spent highlighting William Kassouf’s table talk and tanking, with the last hour in particular dominated by examples as well as the rest of the table getting increasingly upset about his “speech play” and very deliberate pace.

It’s a bit misleading, I think, to watch all of this play out in edited form as we are, although that isn’t preventing many from weighing in on Kassouf, the WSOP staff, and the other players. I will say that ESPN has managed to create a fairly compelling mini-drama out of it all, fashioning a kind of “villain” role for Kassouf (reality TV-style) over whom viewers can get animated as they take sides.

Knowing how things end up going for Kassouf later in the day, it’s hard not to foresee some sort of “karmic” climax to his performance (spoiler alert -- he runs kings into aces to fall in 17th).

The ganging up on Kassouf shown this week at times seemed every bit as bothersome as Kassouf’s own antics, but as I say, it’s hard to judge without having been there. Even being there, it would be hard to know for sure how to assess what was happening, given we can’t see players’ cards and thus can’t say with certainty whether or not they are playing their hands in “acceptable” ways (scare quotes deliberately added).

Nearly 10 minutes of the latter portion of this week’s shows were devoted to a single hand in which Kassouf opened, a player shoved a short-though-not-insignificant stack, and Kassouf had to decide whether or not to call with pocket treys. He correctly assumed he might be racing (the shover had two unpaired overcards), but his contemplation ended up getting interrupted and delayed further by other players’ objections plus a lengthy visit from floor staff.

It seemed a lot like Kassouf had successfully managed to get nearly everyone to crack -- players, staff, and perhaps some of those in attendance, too. Even Lon McEachern and Norman Chad humorously got in on it, with Chad acting as though he was being affected as well.

I’m not saying I’d have enjoyed being part of that scene, but from the outside (and through the heavily blinkered lens of ESPN’s edits) it sure seemed like Kassouf had everyone right where he wanted them, as though he were the one in charge of everything.

You know, like a boss (as Kassouf likes to say of himself). And we know how much poker players prefer to be their own bosses.

Image: “‘Like a Boss’ T-Shirt @Target LOL Spotted by Mike Mozart” (adapted), Mike Mozart. CC BY 2.0.

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Friday, October 14, 2016

Poker Hall of Fame: Carlos Mortensen and Todd Brunson Make 52

Saw yesterday how Carlos Mortensen and Todd Brunson had been elected as the 51st and 52nd members of the Poker Hall of Fame. Now’s the time for the World Series of Poker to create a commemorative deck of cards featuring pictures of all 52 members.

If I’d had a vote I certainly would’ve given support to Mortensen’s candidacy, though there were other nominees I’d have probably chosen this year ahead of the younger Brunson (though he’s certainly deserving).

Mortensen is a WSOP Main Event champion (2001), and I tend to have a bit of a prejudice in favor of that select group when it comes to the PHOF. With three WPT titles, nearly $12 million in career tourney earnings, and a near-miss to make a second WSOP Main Event final table in 2013 (when he finished 10th), he was a shoo-in. That’s not even counting the highly advanced chip stacking skills that further distinguish the Spaniard (originally from Ecuador).

Todd Brunson has won a lot in tournaments as well (nearly $4.3 million, including a WSOP bracelet in 2005), although he’s much better known as a high-stakes cash game player. His notable heads-up battles with Andy Beal -- including a $13.5 million win over two days (as chronicled in Michael Craig’s The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King), then another belated reprise versus Beal in early 2015 which Brunson is said to have won another $5 million -- are legend-making and probably enough to earn him serious PHOF consideration.

I’m going to guess he got a lot of support from the living Poker Hall of Famers, and perhaps not quite as much from the media who voted. Speaking of living PHOFers, he joins his dad, Doyle Brunson, as a PHOF member, which has to be fairly unusual as far as hall of fames go, generally speaking.

The only other father-son combo I can think of in any sports hall of fame would be Bobby and Brett Hull, even if Ken Griffey, Sr. and Jr. spring to mind (Jr. got in this year, Sr. isn’t a HOFer).

In any case, congrats to both. And if the WSOP is reading, feel free to steal that special WSOP PHOF deck idea!

Image: WSOP.com.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

The UIGEA: 10 Years Ago Today

Ten years? Ten? Hmm... can we even remember that far back?

A couple of weeks’ worth of dread preceded the president signing the bill into law. There’d been a few months of less specific fretting, too, as I recall, although few seemed genuinely concerned.

In July 2006 this blog was only three months old. A lot of my posts to that point had been about playing poker -- online poker, that is. Not unlike many of the other hundreds of poker blogs at the time. Occasionally I’d write about other things -- hard-boiled novels, for instance -- as well as other poker-related topics emanating from “the rumble.”

I did notice that month the passage of a bill in the U.S. House, something called the “Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act,” and wrote a post here at the time about it titled “Raising a Glass to the Return of Prohibition.” I can’t honestly say that when writing that post I was all that concerned about my ability to play online poker being curbed at all, though.

One reason why I wasn’t so worried was the fact that the bill the House had passed wasn’t the much harsher seeming “Internet Gambling Prohibition Act,” the one certain legislators had been working over for the previous decade or so. Rather the “UIGEA” -- the acronym some of us would become very familiar with (and others consistently screw up) -- was only focused on credit card companies and financial transaction providers, meaning playing online poker wasn’t a problem. And, well, getting money to and from the sites didn’t seem like it would be a problem, either, or at least all that seemed too abstract at the time to bother us.

Besides, the sucker still had be passed by the Senate, then signed by the president. And pretty much everyone in the poker world who’d actually been following these attempts at legislating online gambling were predicting that wouldn’t happen.

We made it to the end of September 2006, then woke up one Saturday morning to realize the unthinkable had happened. The UIGEA had been snuck onto another piece of legislation and passed through the Senate with hardly any resistance at all. I wrote a post that morning titled “Deals in the Dead of Night” remarking on the event, still naively occupying a position of only moderate concern.

I noted at the time how it was already a given that then-president George W. Bush would sign the bill into law, but could only muster the opinion that “then things should get more interesting” once he did.

I’m remembering the following two weeks. It was that Monday, October 2nd, that PartyPoker (now styled “partypoker”) announced it would be cutting off the Americans. Somewhere mid-week I remember having a phone conversation with Party support and having it confirmed that yes, indeed, I would have to withdraw my funds as I wouldn’t be able to play on the site once the bill became law.

Like everyone else I began to wonder if all the other sites would follow suit, but both PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker were quick to confirm they wouldn’t be pulling out of the U.S. It all seemed a lot more uncertain, then, as we got the news that week that the UIGEA would be signed by Bush the following Friday the 13th, a suitably ominous-seeming day for the event.

We got to October 13, 2006, and while sitting at a desk with a banner reading “Securing the Homeland” Bush indeed signed the “SAFE Port Act” into law. In his comments Bush spoke of how the law “will make this nation more prepared, more prosperous, and more secure.” He went on to thank various legislators, reiterate the importance of protecting Americans from terrorism and making our borders and seaports secure, and winning the “war on terror.”

In his comments Bush didn’t mention the internet at all, nor the UIGEA which had been sneakily appended to the bill before its passage. It seemed almost like he might not even be aware of it.

Some of us were aware of it, though. And gradually more and more of us would become aware of it, especially four-and-a-half years later when Black Friday suddenly occurred as a kind of a belated next step in the UIGEA’s “long game.”

And now, exactly one decade after the UIGEA was signed into law, all of us here in the United States who’d like to play poker online (as they do in much of the rest of the world) are necessarily aware of its consequences -- even if we don’t know the reason why.

Photo: georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Unpredictable Leader

Among the various, repeated themes of this year’s presidential election has been the unpredictability of the Republican party’s unbelievable choice for a nominee.

Ever since he announced his candidacy in mid-June 2015, observers have been focused intently both on his strange, highly unorthodox campaign and his penchant for saying and tweeting out odd, often unexpected comments and criticisms -- statements made all the more strange-seeming given his status as a candidate and eventually the frontrunner choice of his party.

I mentioned just a couple of days ago my Richard Nixon course and how the current presidential campaign does (or does not) compare to ones from the past. In the course we discuss some of Nixon’s poker strategy, something he himself talked about at length in a few different contexts. There’s one quote in particular from Nixon that we as a class tend to go back to frequently when discussing both his poker playing and the strategy he’d employ in campaigns and while in office -- a quote about being unpredictable.

The quote actually comes amid a discussion of how poker and politics tend to overlap, so the advice Nixon is putting forward actually relates to both. Speaking in 1983, Nixon complains about what he calls “the almost insatiable tendency of American politicians to want to put everything on the table. Their inability to know when to bluff, when to call, and above everything else, how to be unpredictable. Unpredictability is the greatest asset or weapon that a leader can have.... And unless he’s unpredictable, he’s going to find that he loses a great deal of his power.”

To be fair, Nixon was speaking primarily of a president dealing with foreign heads of state, although the observation applies not only to poker but to other areas of political strategy. Nixon frequently in his campaigns made big “moves” or “plays” that were unanticipated by many of his opponents. As president he also often would be unpredictable, and liked to use televised speeches to make genuinely surprising announcements about Vietnam, the economy, various policies and initiatives, his trips to China and Russia, and later on, Watergate.

I wrote a little about this quote and its connection to the Republican candidate earlier this year, responding to a pundit who was congratulating him for being “the best poker player in the Republican field” and in particular being very good at being unpredictable.

I’ve taught the Nixon course a few times now, and during our discussions of the quote we’ve tended to agree with the idea that unpredictability may well be a good campaign strategy. We can also readily see how it might be a favored trait when dealing with foreign powers, especially when in conflict with them.

However, we’ve also recognized that we don’t necessarily like our leaders to be too unpredictable with us. We need to be able to count on presidents not to say or do things that don’t at least conform with our idea of what we expect of them (never mind wildly oppose that idea). Even if they present ideas or courses of actions we hadn’t specifically anticipated, we need those ideas and courses of actions to fit with our earlier “read” of the person whom we’ve chosen to lead us.

That’s because even though it may be hard to remember when we think about our relationship to our elected leaders, we aren’t their opponents. At least we shouldn’t be.

The unpredictability of the Republicans’ current leader -- earlier heralded as savvy and strategic -- has become much less celebrated over recent weeks. It has also become a genuine cause of concern for those contemplating what his presidency might be like, including among many of those formerly enthused about his unpredictability.

What happens next? It’s hard to say. And yeah, that’s unsettling.

Image: “I wonder if #TheDonald reads every tweet about him” (adapted), Steve Baker. CC BY-ND 2.0.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Hail to the New Bubblebassador

This year’s World Series of Poker Main Event saw the top 1,011 finishers make the money. From a starting field of 6,737 for the $10,000 buy-in event, that meant the top 15% cashed. Those who made the minimum of $15,000 still realized a decent return, plus the not insignificant story of cashing in the world’s most famous poker tournament.

This year a fellow named Adam Furgatch was the player who late on Day 3 found himself finishing 1,012th, one spot shy of the money. All in for exactly one big blind with Q-9 versus Georgios Zisimopoulos’s A-7, Furgatch failed to improve and was out even before hand-for-hand play could begin.

The Californian was hardly in sour spirits, though. In fact, from his perspective, he’d earned a pretty neat story out of the deal, too.

I remember reading Howard Swains’s post about Furgatch’s knockout on the PokerStars blog back in July, where Howard noted Furgatch “actually seemed pretty delighted with the way things panned out.”

Knowing he was either barely going to miss the money or make that min-cash, Furgatch found a lot of silver lining in the result -- which also happened to include a free entry into next year’s WSOP Main Event (not a bad consolation prize).

“I was going to go out soon more than likely, with my chip stack,” Furgatch told Howard. “But now I get the experience of being the bubble boy.”

Marty Derbyshire talked to Furgatch for PokerNews as well, and he similarly told Marty how much he valued the experience of bubbling, noting that “the difference between that and maybe going out a few hands later for an extra $5,000... the experience may be worth $5,000.”

I was reminded of Furgatch this week when watching the new episodes of the WSOP Main Event coverage on ESPN. They’re up to Day 6, but for some reason decided this week to flash back to Day 3 and share Furgatch talking again about how interesting and worthwhile the experience of being the bubble was to him.

Along the way, this year’s 1,012th-place finisher jokingly invented a title for himself.

“I must say that I will take my duties as bubblebassador -- poker’s bubblebassador -- very seriously,” says Furgatch. “Because for everybody who plays for hours and hours and days and days and doesn’t quite get to the money... just never give up, never give up. Which I didn’t and all of a sudden something very strange and magical happened. So you just never know in the game of poker.”

Had to grin at that, as well as his concluding promise to “do my best to represent all... the poker bubblers everywhere.”

Just by inventing and assuming the “bubblebassador” title, Furgatch has already gotten his tenure off to an excellent start. Which is important, because bubblers tend to start better than they finish.

Image: ESPN

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Monday, October 10, 2016

Debate and Switch

I’ve mentioned here a couple of times how I’m once more teaching an American Studies class called “Tricky Dick: Richard Nixon, Poker, and Politics.” The class covers Nixon’s drama-filled political career, with a bit of emphasis (especially early on) on his poker playing.

We end up spending a fair amount of time in the class remarking upon how tactics used in campaigns and/or while serving in office often can resemble or at least recall poker strategies. The course additionally provides a detailed introduction to American political history from just after WWII to the mid-1970s -- the start of the Cold War era up through the end of the Vietnam conflict. And since during that period Nixon was a vice president for eight years, ran for president three times and won twice, and served as president for five-and-a-half years, there’s a lot of focus on the White House and the presidency’s centrality to American politics.

I’d never taught the course during a presidential election, and so had been looking forward to the chance to do so this fall semester. We’ve had some kind of uncanny moments already, such as when I happened to have assigned a viewing of the first debate between John F. Kennedy and Nixon the same week the of the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

There have also been opportunities to discuss some of the references to Nixon that have come up both in coverage of the campaigns and even from representatives of each major party. Of course, any comparison of a candidate to Nixon is understandably meant as a criticism, especially when the comparison comes from the Democrats or Republicans.

For instance, not long ago Trump was attempting to liken Clinton’s email saga to Watergate. Meanwhile Democratic VP candidate Tim Kaine compared Trump’s apparent encouragement to the Russians to hack the Democratic National Committee’s servers to the Watergate break-ins, too.

There have been other moments when we’ve been encouraged to bring up the current race when discussing things like Nixon’s early hard-fought campaigns (and their “dirty tricks”), the Alger Hiss spy case, the “fund crisis” and Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, and the ’60 campaign and election. (We’re only now getting to 1968.)

The whole “#TrumpTape” craziness over the weekend -- and rumors of additional tapes -- again somewhat evokes what became the major issue of Watergate, namely the revelation of the secret White House audio recordings and subsequent, protracted legal battle to force the Nixon administration release them.

But truthfully, most of the parallels tend to feel more than a little forced, I think. Why? Because thanks to the Republicans’ unbelievable choice for a nominee, this year’s presidential race is essentially sui generis, meaning any comparison tends to fall apart as we try vainly to pretend Trump even faintly resembles the weakest “real” candidate ever put forward by a major party.

As you might imagine, when my students watch and comment on the 1960 debate between RMN and JFK they are noticing many, many differences with what they are seeing today. Indeed, the contrast couldn’t be more stark, starting with the respect shown between the candidates, the civility of the proceedings, and the generally elevated level of discourse.

If you’ve never seen any of the four debates from 1960, go watch the first 10 minutes of the first one to see what my students are talking about when listing these differences. Then think about the unpleasant, badly moderated, stress-inducing and mostly useless ordeal a lot of us endured last night.

I mean, they call them “debates,” and for the sake of convenience I guess that’s what we have to refer to them as, too. But that’s obviously not what they are.

Future historians will inevitably point back to 2016 and show how what we ended up with this year could be traced back to that first televised debate on September 26, 1960, the night “style” began to challenge “substance” in a more vivid, conspicuous way than had been realized previously when it came to presidential politics. Might be easier to show the connection a half-century from now, although some are already working on making the argument, I’m sure.

Meanwhile for those of us living through 2016, it’s getting harder and harder to see any connection with the past -- never mind worrying about what the future holds.

Photos: “Presidential seal,” Ted, CC BY-SA 2.0; Kennedy-Nixon First Presidential Debate, 1960, JFK Library.

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Friday, October 07, 2016

The Matthau Line About Poker and America

There’s a much shared quote about poker attributed to the comic actor Walter Matthau that you’ve probably come across somewhere before.

Matthau’s career spanned nearly the entire second half of the 20th century. He appeared in 80 or so films along with dozens of stage and television credits. Among all those roles are relatively serious turns in a couple of my faves, Dr. Strangelove and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. He also starred in one of my top ten films of all time, The Bad News Bears.

Probably his most famous role was as the slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, both the play and the 1968 film (though not the subsequent TV series). That whole story is anchored by a weekly poker game, which is from where that image of him holding a hand up above comes.

Here’s the quote, which like I say you’ve probably heard:

“Poker exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great.”

I was thinking about that line a little today, one that often gets brought up without too much commentary as a quick reference to the idea that poker uncannily reflects American culture and society -- both the good and the bad. In particular the observation highlights how both poker and our economic system necessarily make us rely on each other while also (paradoxically) forcing us to compete with one another.

Matthau’s line gets quoted everywhere. For example, James McManus appropriately includes it in his history of poker, Cowboys Full, as meaningful support to his point “that poker and the United States grew up together” and that “the game is often said to epitomize American values” like independence, liberty, equality, freedom, work, entrepreneurial love of risk, and, of course, the central importance of money.

In his collection of essays Risky Business: People, Pastimes, Poker and Books, Al Alvarez offers to explain what Matthau means.

“Poker, he meant, is social Darwinism in its purest, most brutal form,” writes Alvarez regarding the line. “The weak go under and the fittest survive through calculation, insight, self-control, deception, plus an unwavering determination never to give a sucker an even break,” he concludes, evoking the 1941 comedy by W.C. Fields (another actor often captured on the silver screen holding a poker hand).

Anthony Holden likewise quotes it in his sequel Bigger Deal as a kind of punctuation mark to a lament about the post-“boom” commercialization of poker.

There Holden summarizes the scene at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino back in 2005, where, suddenly, a whopping 5,619 were playing in the Main Event when just 839 did two years before. Referring to the Gaming Lifestyle Expo with all of its poker-related products, Holden decides “the whole jamboree strikes me as acutely depressing: visual confirmation that the maverick, bohemian, once backroom game I have loved for so long has now turned into just another branch, logos and all, of corporate American capitalism.”

Then comes Matthau’s line, in this case positioned as a kind of judgment on poker having become something other than the game Holden had written about much more enthusiastically in his earlier Big Deal.

These are mostly serious reflections on the quote, though in each case the author is obviously aware of the humor it injects into the discussion. It’s very W.C. Fields-like, in fact, the way the quote kind of sneaks up on you -- beginning like some sort of sober truism and ending with an absurdist rim-shot (e.g., “The world is getting to be such a dangerous place, a man is lucky to get out of it alive.”).

The line acknowledges there’s something bad about the way both poker and capitalism pit us against one another. But it also celebrates such a flawed system (or set of rules) as having somehow, maybe even despite itself, produced something “great.”

The line also evokes both the love-hate relationship I think some (perhaps most?) players have with poker and the similarly mixed feelings a decent percentage of Americans often have about their country.

After all, whether we’re talking about poker or America, we find ourselves often having to acknowledge both the good and the bad. If we’re offering praise, we acknowledge shortfalls (even if we don’t articulate them). Similarly, if we’re being critical, we know there are positives, too (whether or not we include them in our commentary).

Image: The Odd Couple (1968), Amazon.

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Thursday, October 06, 2016

Helping Hands

I have been keeping up with the 2016 World Series of Poker Main Event coverage on ESPN. I never watch them live, only picking them up on YouTube later -- much better without the commercials.

They’ve been rolling out a couple of episodes every Sunday, having gotten through eight so far. The last one this week finished partway through Day 6 with 51 players remaining.

I marvel at how good Lon McEachern and Norman Chad continue to be with their commentary. They do especially well pitching things in such a way that different kinds of viewers -- from the most casual fans to hardcore strategy-nerds -- can find something to focus on and enjoy. They work in plenty of grins, too, and I find myself genuinely laughing out loud a couple of times per hour either at the more overt jokes or sly “inside baseball” references occasionally snuck into the proceedings.

The first episode this week (Episode 7) began with the start of Day 6 and an interesting situation involving the player Jason McConnon. Returning to a about 25 big blinds, McConnon had brought to the feature table a “cheat sheet” ostensibly offering guidance for when to push or fold a short stack with certain hands in certain spots. You know, kind of a helping hand (pun intended).

Kenny Hallaert was sitting to McConnon’s left and mentioned to McConnon before they started how he wouldn’t be able to use the sheets during a hand. (Hallaert, who went on to make the November Nine, is a tournament director himself, likely to know something about the issue.) Then during the very first hand McConnon picked up ace-queen offsuit and pulled out the sheets to take a look. That led to a visit to the table by Tournament Director Jack Effel and a ruling that McConnon had to put his notes away while playing his hand.

There’s an article over on PokerNews today reviewing the situation and highlighting some of the WSOP’s rules that are pertinent. It actually sounds like a bit of a judgment call, though just stepping back from this particular situation I prefer players not using notes or other helpers during hands. On the broadcast Norman Chad offers a similar take as a humorous rant (made even funnier when his teleprompter “fails” him as he’s trying to finish).

The situation reminds a little of my teaching days when it did happen (rarely, but now and then) that I’d catch students trying to cheat in various ways. I’m vaguely recalling a little joke I’d make whenever passing out exams. I’d say something like, “Put your books away -- all you need is a pencil... and your brain.”

Back when I was teaching full-time, I didn’t have to deal with students being constantly online with smartphones and/or laptops, of course. Now that’s become part of the reality of the classroom, greatly affecting many instructors’ approaches to teaching and testing -- changing the pedagogical “game,” so to speak.

Some teachers ask students to put away all their electronics, kind of reverting back to a more “primitive” or even exotic-seeming situation of just simply talking to one another, perhaps with a book open and a pen and pad nearby for note-taking. I’d kind of like poker to be played that way, too -- with the phones and iPads put away and players interacting minus such interference.

But that’s not our world anymore, so I understand as well those who wouldn’t want to play that way.

Image: “110725-G-EM820-800,” US Coast Guard Academy. Public domain.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Failing to Play Your Ace

I’ve been fading in and out of baseball this year, occasionally checking in here and there but mostly letting it all go by until these last couple of weeks.

Now the playoffs are here and I’m intrigued again to watch, with that one-game wild card between the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays providing a decent amount of excitement last night thanks to extra innings and a walk-off homer to end it.

Kind of interesting today how the discussion of the game is focusing less on the three-run blast by the Jays’ Edwin Encarnacion to clinch the 5-2 win for Toronto, and more so upon Baltimore manager Buck Showalter’s decision not to bring in their ace closer Zach Britton who was 47 for 47 in save chances this year with a 0.54 ERA.

No Britton at all last night -- not in the ninth, not in the 10th, and not in the 11th. He warmed up three different times, but never entered the game. If he had it wouldn’t have been a save situation. But instead he was the one being saved, and never used.

An article over on ESPN today serves as kind of an extreme exercise in second-guessing, going through no less than 15 different moments during the game when Britton might have been called upon to enter the game. Some are brought up and dismissed, and some are more serious than others, but each of the ones coming near the end legitimately belong to the woulda-shoulda-coulda category.

Last week I was writing about the use of poker analogies when describing the presidential race, and how in fact sometimes the references to cards actually evoke other games. Today the talk is about Showalter having failed to play his “ace,” which again sounds more like a trick-taking game than poker.

Then again, poker -- a game in which the timing of one’s “moves” often matters greatly -- provides plenty of other, similar examples supporting the maxim “he who hesitates is lost.”

Image: “Ace of clubs” (adapted), Ulf Liljankoski. CC BY-ND 2.0.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2016

A 19th-Century Poker Movie: Poker at Dawson City

Just a quick post today to share an interesting find I happened upon while doing some reading around for Poker & Pop Culture.

The newest installment of the series went up on PokerNews today, a fun discussion of a couple of paintings by Frederic Remington featuring poker games -- one about to break into the violence, the other one having already ended in bloodshed. Check it out: “Poker & Pop Culture: Frederic Remington’s Cowboys, Cards, and Carnage.”

While reading around for that one, I happened on another old, old, old poker-related film clip. A week ago in the series I wrote about the 1912 short A Cure for Pokeritis, a topic of earlier posts here on HBP. As I’ve noted here, it’s more or less the “first poker movie,” although there exists an earlier one from 1910 by D.W. Griffith called The Last Deal (something I mention in the column).

Well, there’s an even older “poker movie,” although again it’s hard really to count this one as it is merely a 20-second clip directed by James H. White, one of about 1,200 films made by the Edison Manufacturing Company studio during the last years of the 19th century and first years of the 20th.

The title suggests what we’re seeing takes place at Dawson City, a town in Yukon, Canada where the Yukon Gold Rush was attracting many at the time the film was made. However, the scene was certainly shot in New Jersey in Edison’s studio.

There’s no poker at all, really -- just a funny-to-watch brawl apparently resulting from some sort of argument caused by the game. Kind of a humorous, light version of the deadly scene depicted in Remington’s painting, A Misdeal discussed in today’s column.

Here’s the film, in its entirety -- neat to see:

The mention of Edison gives me an excuse to point out that one of the tracks on my pop album Welcome to Muscle Beach is called “Thomas Edison” and is about the inventor. In fact, the song features Edison himself!

Click here to visit my Bandcamp page to hear it. Then you might as well download it (and everything else from my seven albums) for free!

(And if you do listen or download anything, let me know what you think.)

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Monday, October 03, 2016

Fumbles That Hit You Right in the Feelings

Football season is in high gear, even if my Carolina Panthers are off to a woeful start.

Yesterday’s game versus the Atlanta Falcons was especially distressing, given how evident it was from the very beginning the defense wasn’t going to be able to stop Atlanta’s passing game. Reigning MVP Cam Newton going out in the second half after suffering a concussion just made things less pleasant.

The Panthers losing presents a specific problem for me in my Pigskin Pick’em pool (where we pick games straight up, not versus the spread), as I dislike picking against them. That bias wasn’t so much of an issue last year when they went 15-1, but it’s already earned me three “X” marks this year.

Otherwise I’ve done well so far with my picks, although yesterday got me thinking once more about the relative pain and pleasure that comes from various outcomes.

My buddy Robert Woolley, a.k.a. the “Poker Grump,” wrote a nice article for PokerNews recently titled “Mountains, Swinging, and the Fear of Loss in Poker” in which he shares some research regarding the way losing can hurt more than winning can feel good.

According to findings of the economist Robert cites in the article, the “loss aversion” ratio for most people is “in the range of 1.5 to 2.5.” In other words, for many it is somewhere either above or below being twice as painful to lose than it is pleasurable to win.

It was early in the NFL season last year I shared a hastily-created “pleasure-pain index” for Pigskin Pick’em, something I was reminded of by Robert’s article as well as by some of the results from yesterday. The index goes as follows:

  • most pain: making non-consensus choice (usually an underdog), being wrong
  • least pain: making consensus choice (usually a favorite), being wrong
  • least pleasure: making consensus choice (usually a favorite), being right
  • most pleasure: making non-consensus choice (usually an underdog), being right
  • After three weeks of following a relatively conservative path with my picks, I broke out of that yesterday somewhat by choosing a few unpopular dogs such as Jacksonville (who won) and the LOLJets (who lost). Those picks ended up evening out for the most part, although one game in particular -- San Diego’s miserable give-away of its game versus New Orleans -- got me thinking the index isn’t accounting for another factor significantly affecting the pleasure-pain measurement.

    I picked San Diego over Indianapolis in Week 3, a game in which the Chargers had a 22-20 lead and a 2nd-and-3 at midfield with less than three minutes left, but couldn’t make a first down and lost the lead on a long TD.

    The Chargers then got the ball back down four and promptly fumbled, then after getting it back one last time with almost no time left fumbled again. Indy won 26-22, with San Diego having gone from an 80.6% “win probability” (as ESPN is now measuring) with two minutes left to losing.

    Despite the pain caused by that failed pick, I chose San Diego again yesterday in their home game against New Orleans, and with just under seven minutes left the Chargers were up 34-21 with possession of the football. Win probability? 98.5%. But they fumbled, and the Saints got a quick TD. Then they fumbled again, New Orleans got seven more, and the Chargers lost 35-34.

    I didn’t actually see either game, save the last desperate minute yesterday when San Diego got the ball back one last time and lost 12 yards, then threw a pick. Reading box scores and play-by-play rundowns of the ends of these two games, the fumbles seem almost purposeful -- the surest way to lose the games. Bill Barnwell of ESPN even tweeted yesterday how San Diego was “trying so hard to lose this game,” and while I don’t actually think they were, it’s uncanny how efficiently they managed to let slip away an all-but-certain victory.

    I’m realizing the pain is heightened when being on the wrong side of these games, and is much greater than the pleasure of winning them, in my experience. I’m referring to games in which as a person trying to predict winners the game concludes in such a way that you cannot help but view yourself as being either “lucky” or “unlucky” when choosing either side -- you know, games decided by unlikely late turnovers, odd or incorrect calls by referees, missed field goals, and the like.

    I certainly like winning such games, but when that happens I can’t say I feel as though I’ve “earned” the check mark like I do when teams demonstrate less equivocally that I’ve chosen the right side (such as when I picked the Steelers last night and they crushed Kansas City 43-14). Meanwhile losing them feels especially bad, and even today I keep looking back and thinking how “undeserving” I am to have been rudely delivered that red “X” in the Chargers-Saints game.

    Each of the four categories above, then, could be split into four more subcategories -- the “lucky” win, the “non-lucky” win, the “non-lucky” loss, and the “unlucky” loss -- with the relative pain-pleasure calibrated for each outcome. Hmm... this is getting complicated. I may have to create a table or graph to represent it all.

    Silly stuff, I know. But the curious part of it is how what I’m describing is precisely the opposite of what happens (to me) in poker, where losing because of bad luck doesn’t hurt much at all, but losing because of my own poor decisions hurts significantly. Similarly, winning by getting lucky doesn’t bring as much pleasure as winning because of smart, skillful play.

    Will keep monitoring it all. And we’ll see if I can ever bring myself to picking the Chargers again -- or perhaps if I can start picking against the Panthers -- and what sort of pain and/or pleasure those picks will produce.

    Image: “fumble!” (adapted), Paul L Dineen. CC BY 2.0.

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