Friday, April 21, 2017

Absolute Anticlimax

There was an item of news in the poker world last week, the sort of thing about which I might have written several blog posts had it occurred five or six years ago. After all, it was about an online poker site -- two sites, actually -- and cheating and scandal and illegality and all sorts of things your humble scribbler used to spend lots of time and energy opining about back in the day.

It has taken me a whole week even to acknowledge the story, though. Probably because it doesn’t affect me directly at all, and for those it does affect it has come so late as to make it seem we are in a place almost entirely distinct from where we all were when the story began.

It’s like one of those way, way, way late sequels. Or when a band who after shining brightly when young get back together many years later to try to reignite things with new material.

One of my faves, Robyn Hitchcock, actually has a new album out today (and the tracks I’ve heard are terrific). His old band, the Soft Boys, did one of those reunion records in the early 2000s about two decades after they’d split, and in an interview once he referred to it as “a bit of reactivating the undead by bringing back” and reanimating the band for that one-off.

That’s kind of how it feels writing about Absolute Poker and UltimateBet again, this time to report that almost six years after “Black Friday” -- the anniversary for which just passed -- players who had funds on Absolute Poker and UltimateBet and never were able to withdraw them are finally getting a chance to get that money back.

This has to be the slowest of any slow play in poker history.

For those keeping score, there were three sites named in the indictment and civil complaint unsealed on April 15, 2011 by the Department of Justice -- PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker -- with a fourth site, UltimateBet, then part of the “Cereus Network” along with Absolute, similarly affected by the DOJ’s action.

All four sites were subsequently prohibited from allowing players from the United States to continue playing on them. PokerStars shut us off right away. It took Full Tilt Poker an extra couple of days, but soon we got the stop-you-can’t-go-any-further pop-ups over there, too.

Both of those sites also made agreements with the feds right away to get back their domains (after they were momentarily seized). Those agreements involved ensuring funds went to the Americans, something PokerStars did immediately, but Full Tilt Poker never did, having shamefully squandered everyone’s money.

Eventually that led to the DOJ amending the civil complaint in September 2011 with further charges against Full Tilt Poker and new names added, and branding the site a “ponzi scheme” in an accompanying presser.

It took AP and UB a couple of extra weeks to make a similar agreement with the DOJ. Meanwhile, the sites blithely continued to allow U.S. players to play more than a month later (without their having any means of withdrawing). Finally both sites totally shut down -- not just to U.S. players, but the “ROW”-ers, too (rest of world) -- and as was the case with FTP no one was able to cash out a cent.

During the summer of 2012 PokerStars managed another deal with the DOJ, paying a big settlement that included acquiring Full Tilt Poker’s assets and making available outstanding FTP balances to U.S. players. Stars then reopened Full Tilt in November 2012 (outside the U.S., natch). Last year the two sites’ player pools were merged as one.

The reimbursement process was lengthy. I took part in it, finally getting my Full Tilt Poker funds in June 2014, more than three years after being shut out of the site.

(Incidentally, I’m convinced that by going through the withdrawal process which required me to submit bank account information to the DOJ in order to receive my funds, Fifth Third bank chose to close my account without warning and with zero explanation, very likely encouraged to do so by a DOJ initiative called “Operation Choke Point.”)

Anyhow, to get back to those rogue Cereus sites, Absolute Poker and UltimateBet, up until last week it appeared as though anyone with funds on those two sites at the time they went offline were never going to see that money again. Suddenly, though, came an announcement that a process similar to the one by which Full Tilt Poker players were able to recover their funds had begun for those who had money in accounts when Absolute Poker and UltimateBet closed up their respective scam-sites.

Am glad for those affected, although truthfully I can’t say I’ve had a lot of empathy for them during their six-year-long plight. That’s because not only did I not have any money on either AP or UB, I’d withdrawn from both at the first whiff of the insider cheating scandal on one of them (Absolute) in October 2007.

For those coming to all of this well after the fact, you can search this blog for “Absolute Poker” or “UltimateBet” and find plenty. This post from February 2008 links to a lot of other articles about the Absolute scandal, while this one from May 2008 is an early one among many relating details of the even bigger scandal that erupted on UB.

Also, if all of this is only vaguely familiar to you or if you aren’t up at all on the story of “Black Friday” and its aftermath, I wrote an article a year ago for PokerNews describing a lot of it in detail: “Black Friday: Reliving Poker’s Darkest Day Five Years Later.”

Just prior to Black Friday, UltimateBet in particular had somehow crept its way back into the limelight by signing a lot of “team pros” some of whom did work to rehabilitate the site’s post-scandal image. As it soon turned out, whatever the spokespersons’ intentions might have been at the time, it was all incredibly damaging to the poker community and, truthfully, to the subsequently dim prospects for online poker in the U.S.

This news regarding Absolute Poker and UltimateBet and the unveiling of the website where claims can be made by players (through June 9, 2017) took many by surprise, and I noticed a couple of articles describing it having come from “out of nowhere.”

I also saw some attempts to connect the DOJ’s decision to start the process with Preet Bharara’s headline-grabbing dismissal along with a number of other U.S. Attorneys by the Trump administration last month. Bharara, for those who don’t know, was the one who brought the charges against the founders of the implicated sites (and others) that were unsealed on Black Friday. He was also the one who called Full Tilt Poker a “ponzi scheme.”

Truthfully, it seems more likely that the news is more directly connected to Absolute Poker founder Scott Tom -- one of those named in the indictment and civil complaint -- having finally returned to the U.S. in February to face the charges against him. (Tom pleaded not guilty.)

Whatever prompted it, I’m sure the players are glad about it. To me it’s all the faintest hint of a whisper of an echo of a story finally lumbering, zombie-like, toward a much-belated anticlimax. And like Robyn Hitchcock was saying, it feels a bit like reactivating the undead to write about it.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Heads-Up and Humility

Wanted to share a short thought I had related to that Masters championship that concluded on Sunday. Actually the thought was inspired from both an impression of the ending of the golf tournament and after following the last live updates from the PokerStars Championships Macau Main Event final table, also taking place on Sunday.

I say the latter took place on Sunday, although in truth while it was Sunday morning and early afternoon here, it was Sunday evening and Monday morning in Macau, as the tournament didn’t conclude until around 2 a.m. their time. That reminded me of my lone visit to Macau back in late 2012 and the very long and late final day of the Asia Championship of Poker.

That day play didn’t end until around 3 a.m. I’ll skip over the details -- all recorded here in a blog post written after I’d gotten back -- but what followed was a kind of mad scramble by me afterwards to make my plane out of Hong Kong that morning. In fact, I didn’t make my flight, but things worked out in the end.

Much like happened back in 2012, heads-up lasted an inordinately long time at inaugural PSC Macau Main Event. In fact, it lasted about twice as long, as the final two in my tournament went about six hours while the final two last weekend -- Tianyuan Tang and eventual winner Elliot Smith -- went something close to 12 hours before finishing.

I followed the updates while chatting online with some of the fellas there reporting. I also noticed some of the talk on Twitter, with a few judgments passed along here and there about the heads-up skills of the final pair.

Televised coverage of the final round of the Masters began just about the time play ended in Macau, and as you know that ended up with a kind of protracted “heads-up” finish between Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia. By the last few holes those two had broken ahead of the chase pack, then both missed some big putts down the stretch before Garcia managed to take it down on the first playoff hole.

Heads-up is hard, man. No relaxing. No matter if it lasts a few minutes or hours and hours.

Garcia’s a poker player, as many readers of this blog probably know, regularly playing at the Bahamas each January and also turning up in tournaments in Spain. Has even cashed a handful of times, including in the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event once a few years ago, although I’m not aware of him ever making it to heads-up in a poker tournament. (He does have a third-place finish, though.)

When Garcia and Rose were battling at the end -- and especially after each missed big pressure-packed putts -- there was also some censure of their play. I’m remembering someone describing the play as a “disgrace” and comparing some missed putts to what amateurs might do when playing a round for $20. That’s part of the fun of following major sporting events, though -- the armchair quarterbacking and coaching, I mean. Adds a lot to the overall entertainment.

Anyhow, the combination of these two “heads-up” matches and the crowds of onlookers made me think a little bit of my own experience, in particular that recent poker tournament I played in which I made it to heads-up and with dozens of people watching and cheering came up short of winning the sucker.

I’ve gotten to heads-up in poker tournaments plenty of times before, winning some and losing others. That might’ve been the first time there was a significant rail, though. I remember thinking afterwards that I’d played heads-up okay for the most part, though obviously second-guessed a few decisions and concluded I could’ve handled it differently. I might have thought as well for just a moment or two about what others might have thought about it all, but didn’t waste a lot of time with that, to be honest.

I’ve watched countless number of players going at it heads-up to conclude tournaments before, and I know it’s always very tempting to cast judgments as an observer. Sometimes it’s obvious enough when a player makes a mistake or poor play. In that case, criticism is essentially going to be objective and informed. A lot of times, though, it’s harder to know from the outside all the variables making up the context of each decision and/or action.

Over what is now approaching a decade of reporting on poker tournaments, I’m a long way away from having the judging instinct when watching and reporting on hands. There’s always more information than can be understood or appreciated by a spectator, even when you know the hole cards.

All in all, I’ve become less quick to jump on even the more obvious mistakes competitors will make to betray themselves as less than graceful under pressure. Especially when they’re heads-up.

Image: “one on ones,” Jurgen Appelo. CC BY 2.0.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Ceiling Is the Roof

Carolina played terribly. Gonzaga also wasn’t good. And the refereeing nearly suffocated the life out of the second half, making everyone miserable.

But I enjoyed it.

Somehow my alma mater, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, managed to play two of their worst games all season on Saturday and Monday and still won the men’s basketball national championship. Saturday’s game was particularly nonsensical, with the Heels missing four consecutive free throws at the end yet still managing to secure a one-point win over Oregon. Last night’s final versus Gonzaga was similarly nuts throughout, with only a lucky break or three during the last couple of minutes swinging things UNC’s way in the end.

That post title, of course, comes from Michael Jordan’s funny, tripped-up-and-tangled sign off to a halftime speech he gave at the last regular season UNC-Duke game this year in which he was referring to the football team’s prospects.

“I wish you guys nothing but the best,” said Jordan. “The ceiling is the roof. Let’s make it happen.”

By the next game UNC students and fans were wearing t-shirts acknowledging the phrase. And as the NCAA run continued, so, too, did the “meme” created by the absurdity. And frankly, given how absurdly some of the games went (including last night’s), it felt appropriate. A goof that turned out all right.

Having grown up on Dean Smith’s disciplined teams that always seemed to be thinking a couple of steps ahead at any given moment, these last few seasons of UNC basketball have provided quite a contrast. This year in particular, the games have been especially chaotic thanks to a style that mostly shuns set offenses in favor of fast breaks and first-opportunity shots.

The ability to rebound (they led the nation in that stat) made up for a lot of deficits for UNC this year, enabling them to win despite poor shooting and/or game management. Still, for most of the season -- and particularly the last few games of the NCAA tournament -- I couldn’t help thinking of the poker-related term “high variance” whenever watching them play.

It was like watching a nonstop series of preflop all-ins, with UNC winning just enough of them to keep from going broke, then ultimately winning the last one to take down the tournament. Most were “coin flips,” although Carolina got it in bad plenty of times and won (and got it in good sometimes and lost).

Last night there were banked in three-pointers, crazy loose-ball scrambles resulting in momentum-swinging buckets, missed free throws galore, and oh-so-many bad shots. Both teams ended up having hit just over one of three attempts for the game, with Carolina an incredible 4-for-27 from three. Just brutal, with all that clanging of balls off rims and backboards introducing a ton of randomness into the outcome.

So, too, did the refs, who were unbelievably whistle-happy, inconsistent, and just flat-out wrong on many occasions. There were 22 fouls called in the first 12 minutes of the second half, not too far shy of one per possession. That upped the variance even more.

All that said, after the previous games I’d already resigned myself to pulling not so much for good, solid play from my team, but merely for us to get lucky at the end -- as happened against Arkansas, Kentucky, and Oregon this year, and as failed to happen for the Heels in the title game against Villanova a year ago.

I remember 1982 (with Jordan) and 1993 vividly, and while 2005 and 2009 were nice, they haven’t stuck with me the same way. I think 2017 will, though, if only because of how uncanny it felt watching games with such an incredibly high level of uncertainty for such extended periods.

Last night’s game wasn’t so much like ace-king versus two queens (over and over). It was more like jack-four versus ten-nine suited. Still a thrill for those invested, and damn I’m glad things fell the way they did.

Photo: Ytravel.

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