Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Past Catches Up Fast

This morning another entry in my “Poker & Pop Culture” series went up over on PokerNews, this one discussing a few connections between poker and the Cold War.

This new one will be the last politics-themed entry in the series (for a while, anyway), as the next several deal with much lighter fare. Here are the recent ones:

  • That Time Harry Truman Let Winston Churchill Win
  • Tricky Dick Talks Poker in the White House
  • Joseph McCarthy Overplays the Red Scare Card
  • Bluffing With Bombs During the Cold War
  • I’ve been loosely following a chronological structure with these, although at this point with the story having reached the 20th century there is going to be a lot of jumping back and forth as the columns are organized around various subcategories of culture. It just so happened that the last month has been taken up with stories about politicians and (in these last couple) Cold War confrontations involving the United States and former Soviet Union.

    In these columns I haven’t explicitly referenced anything going on currently involving the new administration and the fast-moving crisis suddenly consuming it (and us). I did mention the new president entering the White House at the start of one of the columns, but otherwise I have kept my focus squarely on the past while avoiding the present. I’ve had a couple of reasons for doing so.

    One is simply to avoid unnecessarily opening doors onto ongoing (and highly-charged) political debates raging on all sides at the moment. That’s not a goal of the columns, really, even if it could be enlightening now and then to draw connections between events that happened before and what is going on now.

    The other is that it’s just too darn difficult to make such connections succinctly, given how different the present is from the past I’m discussing in those articles listed above (which mostly range from the 1920s through the 1970s).

    As I mentioned here a little over two weeks ago in a post titled “The Maniac at the Table,” the instinct to compare the current crisis at the top with the protracted scandal that ultimately forced Richard Nixon from office has been irresistible to many. Lots of commentators are now evoking certain moments on the path that led toward the impeachment hearings in the summer of 1974, recognizing similarities that have already emerged less than a month into the current president’s tenure.

    But while there are certainly parallels, there’s a lot that is different, too, not the least of which being the strange, singular relationship with Russia the current administration has adopted and consequently tried to force upon the U.S.

    As you no doubt have heard, the president’s national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned late Monday night just a little over weeks after taking on the role. Ostensibly he did so because he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about conversations he’d had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. in late December regarding sanctions imposed on Russia by Barack Obama’s administration.

    Those sanctions had been imposed following multiple intelligence reports revealing Russia had attempted to affect the 2016 election via various “hacking” methods. “Russia’s cyberactivities were intended to influence the election, erode faith in US democratic institutions, sow doubt about the integrity of our electoral process, and undermine confidence in the institutions of the US government,” was the White House’s statement at the time as the Obama administration sanctioned Russian individuals and entities while jettisoning 35 Russian diplomats from the country.

    Russia quickly retorted they’d be taking similar action in response, with Russian President Vladimir Putin quoted having told reporters there was “no alternative to reciprocal measures.” That same day (it has been revealed), Flynn spoke to the Russian ambassador about the sanctions. The very next day Russia announced it would not reciprocate in any fashion, but rather wait for the new administration to take office.

    The president-elect then brazenly tweeted “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always new he was very smart!”

    As we all know, the current president’s natural mode is to attack and bully, something he has demonstrated almost without exception over the last two years -- during the campaign, after the election, and during these three-and-a-half weeks in office.

    He has been almost entirely indiscriminate with his criticisms, including targeting the nation’s traditional allies, high-ranking Republicans, U.S. intelligence agencies, and others whom even those who voted for him probably wish he’d refrain from vilifying. He’s also mixed in lots of knee-jerky attacks on television shows, media figures, particular businesses, and anyone else he believes has offended him.

    His attacks are also often delivered without regard to political implications, something his supporters appreciate. Indeed, he seems almost entirely unconcerned about appearances or what others are going to say about his outbursts.

    I keep repeating that qualifier “almost” because there has been a consistent, blatant exception to this pattern. The president not only resists criticizing Russia or Putin, he unwaveringly adopts an entirely uncharacteristic stance of passivity and non-resistance. Instead he commends, he celebrates. He acquiesces, always.

    It has been impossible not to notice this exception. It’s also impossible not to entertain what seems an obvious explanation for it. The U.S. president is seriously compromised, and so is much of the team surrounding him.

    The president himself might be hamstrung to speak or act against Russia because of his business interests (hidden in those undisclosed tax returns) or even past personal conduct (alluded to in that infamous dossier) or both. More definitively, he and many of those around him are unmistakably compromised by their communications with Russia during the campaign and the interregnum period between election and inauguration.

    The president cannot speak out against Russia, at least not directly. Nor can he act in the nation’s interests when Russia chooses to violate a decades-old arms control treaty by deploying a new ground-launched cruise missile as was reported yesterday. (The administration has not responded to this violation yet, stating that it “is in the beginning stages of reviewing nuclear policy.”)

    I’m recalling attending a presentation in September 2015 given by Carl Bernstein and P.J. O’Rourke, both of whom reported extensively on Nixon and Watergate as it unfolded more than four decades ago. The discussion was more about the then-upcoming campaign and election, and not so much about Watergate. There was one question, though, regarding how the earlier scandal would be covered today, what with the change in technology, the rise of social media, and so on.

    Bernstein declared that “the web is a fabulous reportorial platform,” adding that we live in what he believes to be a “golden age of investigative reporting.” O’Rourke was a little more measured, recognizing how hard it can be sometimes to sort out the wheat from the chaff amid all of the reporting being done. He also said that if Watergate happened today, it would have taken a lot less than two-plus years to unfold since “the conspirators would have been more leaky.”

    The current administration is especially leaky, that’s for certain. And when combined with the web’s rapid-fire “reportorial platform” things are escalating at a dizzying pace.

    I tend to believe that the exhausting blitz of executive orders, memoranda, statements, and actions of the new president upon taking office occurred not just because of his naturally agitated state, his insatiable hunger for the spotlight, and/or his neglect (or ignorance) of “normal” politics and procedures of government.

    I think the president and his team hit the ground running because they knew these things might well catch up to them, and quickly. That the power he enjoyed on January 20 was temporary, vulnerable to become eroded before such measures could be implemented.

    That the past was going to catch up to them, and perhaps sooner than later.

    Image: “Trump,” IoSonoUnaFotoCamera. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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    Thursday, February 09, 2017

    The Recap Writer’s Lament

    Many times when explaining to someone unfamiliar with poker tournaments what exactly I do when I go report on them, I’ll bring up sports writing as an illustrative analogy. It’s a handy reference point, and while it doesn’t provide a perfect parallel there are a lot of connections between the two.

    There’s the “play-by-play”-type reporting of hands and other aspects of a tournament’s progress that resembles sports reporters’ straightforward accounts of games and their results. There are also the profiles and features and player interviews and so on that go along with tournament reporting that similarly can correspond to how a baseball or football or basketball game gets covered.

    A short New York Times article appearing a couple of days ago reminded me of the connection once again, one by Ben Shpigel titled “‘Or So It Seemed’: Notes on Rewriting the Super Bowl.”

    The article relives the craziness of Super Bowl LI from the sports writer’s perspective. Shpigel notes how he’d written and filed a draft version of his report on the game early in the third quarter, when it appeared all but certain the Atlanta Falcons would coast to an easy victory. Then came the mad scramble to rewrite and amend once New England mounted what turned out to be a historic comeback to win.

    Anyone who has ever reported on the final table of a poker tournament can identify with Shpigel’s story. I’m referring in particular to being the one charged with the assignment of writing an end-of-tournament recap of the result highlighting big hands and/or other themes from the final table.

    Those who have done it have all been there. Trying to get a head start in order to publish your piece in a timely fashion after the tournament concludes, you’ll sometimes pick a potential winner to foreground, perhaps even writing an entire mini-profile of the player and how the victory fits into the larger picture of his or her career.

    The player holding a big chip lead to start heads-up play will often be the one so targeted. Sometimes even with four or five players left there might be one with both a large chip advantage and significant experience edge who the recap writer will be encouraged to make the star of the early-draft version of the story.

    Then comes the series of improbable double-ups and suddenly you’re hitting that backspace key. Speaking of, I wrote something for PokerNews this week presenting the Patriots’ crazy comeback as a series of all-in hold’em situations -- “Patriots Use Their One Time in Super Bowl Comeback.”

    Depending on how long the final table goes, sometimes multiple recaps get written, all of which get trashed but one. I remember at some point a group of us agreeing that it was bad luck to get too enthusiastic about prematurely selecting one player to win, since doing so necessarily dooms your pick.

    And never actually save a draft version naming a winner in the headline, a sure-fire set-up for future pain.

    Anyone who has been there will enjoy Shpigel grieving over the many unpublished, alternate realities he’s composed. That group will also nod in ackowledgment when Shpigel explains he is “not in the business of rooting for teams,” but that he does “root for good stories and for blowouts.”

    Tournament reporters will probably also like finding out the meaning of the phrase in the headline -- “or so it seems.” Check it out.

    Image: “IMAG0021 Backspace” (adapted), Tom Anderson. CC BY 2.0.

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    Monday, February 06, 2017

    The Patriots Are the Pick

    I’m no fan of the New England Patriots. Now that I think about it, I have probably rooted against them in every Super Bowl they’ve ever played.

    I suppose I was neutral on them up until 2004 when the Pats defeated my Carolina Panthers in that wild Super Bowl 38. Carolina lost 32-29 after a crazy fourth quarter that saw the Panthers score three touchdowns, New England two, and the Pats hit a game-winning FG at the end.

    That was New England’s second title in three years, so it was easy to root against them thereafter as they dominated season after season. It has never come close to rising to Duke-level dislike (deep and unchangeable in this Tar Heel), but it’s been a pretty consistent feeling of antagonism toward the team for me nonetheless.

    That said, I have one rule in Pigskin Pick’em I’ve (almost) unerringly followed for years. I always pick New England. No matter what.

    Last night Vera and I attended a fun Super Bowl viewing party, and just about everyone there was on the Atlanta Falcons side, too. Here in North Carolina most were either Washington Redskins fans or Atlanta fans growing up, as they were the teams always featured on regional coverage here up until the Panthers franchise debuted in 1995. Not too hard, then, for many around these parts to be leaning Atlanta’s way last night.

    It was pretty festive up through the middle of the third quarter as Atlanta surprisingly built that 28-3 lead. The largest comeback ever in 50 previous Super Bowl had been just 10 points, so a 25-point lead seemed more than insurmountable.

    Actually the party remained fun during the Patriots comeback. Everyone wanted Atlanta to win, but it wasn’t like we were Falcons diehards. The fact that the game got closer as the night wore on ensured the game remained the focus of everyone’s attention the entire way.

    If you watched, you saw how it all went wrong for Atlanta. You may not understand it, but you saw it.

    Bill Barnwell breaks it down step-by-step this morning in an article titled “Anatomy of a Miracle” over on ESPN. It was way more nutty than that Panthers-Pats finish 13 years ago. It was also much more improbable than the New York Giants’ unlikely win over New England in SB 42, or the Seattle Seahawks’ surprise gift to the Pats two years ago at the end of SB 49.

    It was a bit like watching a player with a 10-to-1 chip lead heads-up lose flip after flip to let victory slip away. There were several bad-luck plays for Atlanta, the incredible catch (and release and catch) an inch above the turf by the Patriots’ Julian Edelman on that tipped ball during the game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter the most memorable example. There were so many if-they-just-get-this-one-it’s-over plays in there, it was kind of like watching queen-six beating ace-ten over and over.

    But you’d have to mix in some self-inflicted wounds from Atlanta, too -- a costly turnover, very bad clock management (multiple fourth-quarter snaps with 15-20 seconds on the play clock), and blowing through what turned out to be needed timeouts spring to mind.

    Some questionable play calls in key spots do as well, most glaringly when up 28-20 with just under four minutes left and looking at a second-and-11 on the Pat’s 23-yard line. Atlanta went high-risk with a pass play, got sacked, then after another pass play ended with a holding penalty they were out of FG range, having to punt to New England (who still had their two timeouts) with three-and-a-half minutes to go.

    There’s no denying New England couldn’t have climbed back out of such a historically deep hole without some help from Atlanta. Nor could they do it without the “cards” falling their way, too. Before overtime began, someone at the party correctly predicted New England would win the coin toss and march down the field for a winning TD, and indeed, things bounced the Pats way again and he was proven correct.

    That said, the Pats were relentless from the midpoint of the third quarter onward -- like an almost flawless, “optimal” poker player who never seems to choose incorrectly. And when he does perhaps do something uncharacteristically risky (e.g., the pass into double coverage resulting in Edelman’s spectacular grab), it still works out for him.

    Am seeing this morning a best-to-worst ranking of the 51 Super Bowls already putting last night’s at the top of the list. I’d charge recency bias, but sheesh... a 25-point comeback? A team down 19 to start the fourth somehow pulling it out? That stands out.

    I’m still no fan of the Patriots. And I’ll still root against them. But I’m not picking against them any time soon.

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