Monday, December 22, 2014

Gould, Segal, and Walsh Look Back at California Split 40 Years Later

I continue to include Robert Altman’s 1974 film California Split as one of the features I assign in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” course. I’ve taught the course for several years now and have been including Split among the assignments since the beginning (along with The Cincinnati Kid, Rounders, and clips from about a dozen other films).

As anyone who has ever taught before well knows, whatever it is that comprises the subject matter of a class becomes a topic of intense study for the teacher, too. I’ve had the experience before of teaching certain texts dozens of times over, practically memorizing them as well as the various themes or ideas discussions about them tended to evoke.

The first few times teaching a given text typically require a lot of rereading (or rewatching in the case of a film), with the lecture notes going through a few drafts along the way as points get added and dropped. Usually, though, after teaching something several times the general shape of the conversation settles into a familiar groove, and while students might introduce new ideas or carry the conversation into unexpected places, as far as the text itself goes I’ll know the sucker backwards and forwards.

That is to say, if I’m going to stand before a group of people and lead a conversation about some assigned reading or viewing, I want to know the assignment better than anyone else in the room. (This would be true even if I didn’t have this more-than-slight tendency toward obsessiveness.) So yeah, I’ve seen California Split many, many, many times by now. And unlike some other texts with which I’ve studied in similarly comprehensive ways, Split continues to remain interesting to me even after having essentially committed it to memory.

Thus was I intrigued last week when Dr. Pauly drew my attention to a new three-part interview with California Split co-stars Elliott Gould and George Segal and the film’s writer and co-producer, Joseph Walsh. Kim Morgan conducted the interview for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and it can be read by following these links: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

The interview is long and full of digressions, and in a prefatory note Morgan suggests how “the conversation is flowing almost like an Altman film,” which is a fair assessment. The trio swap anecdotes and trivia about various Hollywood personalities throughout, and in fact don’t even really get into discussing Split until the latter section of the interview’s first part.

Having read Walsh’s memoir Gambler on the Loose which includes some discussion of the making of Split, I knew some of these stories. And in fact one story Walsh shares about Amarillo Slim Preston he had told me a few years ago. But there are several items in the interview I’d never known before, as well as some genuine insight about the characters of Charlie and Bill (based in large part on Walsh and Gould) that goes beyond what we’ve been able to come up with in our classes when discussing the film.

I like very much an idea that Morgan tosses out during the first part comparing casinos to movie sets with each being “an enclosed world of playing, making money, losing, performing,” an analogy strongly suggested by the tenuous, risky circumstances under which Split was made. And the group’s discussion of the enigmatic ending is especially enlightening, I think, with the stories about how it changed as they were filming it making it all the more intriguing. (That discussion comes in Part II of the interview.)

The ending of Split actually makes it an especially good film for the classroom, opening up all kinds of questions worth discussing and thinking about. I feel the same way about The Cincinnati Kid‘s ending, which also inspires a lot of interesting response from students who are invariably surprised by it. (Meanwhile, the ending of Rounders, though satisfying in some ways, doesn’t necessarily invite the same depth of existential rumination.)

If you’re a fan of California Split -- and whether you’ve seen the film once or dozens of times -- check out the interview with Gould, Segal, and Walsh and think further about an especially interesting text to study.

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Friday, December 19, 2014

WPT Alpha8 Revs Up to 55

Was kind of marveling at the turnout for the $100,000 WPT Alpha8 event happening at the Bellagio this week.

I’d just been down to St. Kitts to help cover the last one where only 11 players participated with there being 15 total entries after a few of them rebought (including Antonio Esfandiari buying in three times). That small turnout was anticipated, though, as was a bigger field for the one in Las Vegas this week.

But I don’t think most expected quite as many to participate as they ended up drawing.

They made it a three-day event (starting yesterday), and kept late registration open until the start of Level 9 (a couple of hours into play on today’s Day 2). In the end there were 55 entries total -- I’m not sure how many unique players -- which means a total prize pool of $5,395,500. The top six finishers split the cabbage, with $2,104,245 going to the winner.

Those 55 entries crush the previous high of 28 for an Alpha8 event (from last year in St. Kitts), showing the benefit both of staging the tournament on the heels of a regular WPT event and putting the sucker on in Las Vegas. I guess for some the event represented an attractive last chance to earn a big score before the end of the calendar year as well.

Gonna have to follow both that and the WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic over on the WPT site today and this weekend. (Photo above by Joe Giron for the WPT.)

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Folding Their Way to the Playoffs

Haven’t been writing here too much over the last couple of months about the Pigskin Pick’em pool in which I participate, largely because I fell well out of contention by about Week 8 or 9 this year, and so haven’t really spent a lot of time thinking about my picks or the race.

I have goofed around a little with some fantasy football this year. I mentioned a few weeks back how I’d won some cabbage in a couple of freerolls on the new Fantasy Draft site, and have intermittently been playing with that money since then although not every week. They still don’t have NBA games up on the site, so I assume they are still in a longish ramp-up mode over there.

The fantasy sports thing has yet to capture my fancy much, I must continue to report. I find it intriguing in a theoretical way, much like I am very interested in the logistics of sports betting without really being too keen on actually placing bets. And I suppose I’m also a little curious about the business behind these daily/weekly fantasy sports sites and the decisions they are making as they try to build themselves up, but even there it’s only a marginal interest for me.

Meanwhile my Carolina Panthers have had a woeful season, yet still somehow find themselves alive for a playoff berth thanks to being located in the worst division in the NFL, the NFC South. Was hilarious during the day on Monday to see them 5-8-1 and leading the division until New Orleans won their game Monday night to go 6-8.

Had to joke on Twitter how it felt like the Panthers were trying to fold their way into the playoffs, since even if they do somehow manage to win the division and get there, they’ll surely get KO’d right away much as happens to the player who survives the bubble bursting with only a few chips.

Will still be watching and rooting, though. A min-cash is better than going home empty-handed.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Online Poker Today: VP$IP, PFR, and DDoS

Was writing a little last week about what appeared to have been a deliberate attack of the “DDoS” (Distributed Denial of Service) variety over on Carbon Poker that caused the site to crash repeatedly.

Most discussions of those crashes connected them to a user who found a means to cheat by casuing the site to crash, timing the shutdowns to come after the player had raised in a hand, thus guaranteeing others in the hand couldn’t respond and the pot would be slid his way.

Since then there have been more reports of such attacks on online poker sites, in particular those on the Winning Poker Network including during its recent $1 million guaranteed tournament last Sunday. WPN includes Americas Cardroom, Black Chip Poker, and about a dozen other sites. The CEO of the Winning Poker Network, Phil Payton, was on Twitch earlier this week delivering some apologies and commentary about the attacks.

The Equity Poker Network (which includes Full Flush Poker and a handful of other sites) has also been victimized by such attacks. It doesn’t appear the attacks against WPN or EPN have to do with efforts to cheat but rather seem motivated by other purposes.

All of these sites serve U.S. players. In other words, the risks taken by Americans depositing on these sites has become even greater. Not only are they having to avoid the various obstacles to depositing and withdrawing, but now the sites themselves are becoming less reliable in terms of simply being able to remain online and functioning thanks to the attacks.

I don’t know what kind of customer service these sites provide nor really anything about the experience of playing on any of them, but it appears as though it must be getting increasingly hard to endure. I heard a player on Americas Cardroom call in to Todd Witteles’ Poker Fraud Alert show this week to describe some of that frustration. Interesting stuff, and worth a listen if you’re curious to find out more about what has been going on.

We often spoke of the pre-UIGEA world of online poker as being like the lawless Old West, although those days seem tame relative to what some are enduring these days dodging virtual bullets on the “rogue” sites.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

One Decision After Another

Kind of back in spectator mode at the moment while following the tourneys currently in action.

As usually happens when I’m home and a European Poker Tour event is playing out, I’ve had the EPTLive stream on without interruption the last few days as EPT Prague has now worked its way down to a final table with just seven left to return for tomorrow’s last day of play.

The Frenchman Remi Castaignon is one of those still in the hunt, although he is now the short stack among the players who are left. He won EPT Deauville back in Season 9 (when I was there), and so aims to join Victoria Coren Mitchell in the two-time champs’ club -- a club in which she is currently the only member.

I’m also now dipping in occasionally to follow the updates over at the World Poker Tour site as the Five Diamond World Poker Classic at the Bellagio is now underway. Am thinking about last December when I was there for that one, always a big event which looks like it’s going to even bigger this time around.

Meanwhile today I clicked over to read an interview with Erik Seidel in which he discusses similarities between the challenges faced by poker pros and startups. Most of the points covered are pretty familiar, although I liked how Seidel mentions the performance of Martin Jacobson when winning this year’s WSOP Main Event.

“You could watch at home on ESPN and see how Martin Jacobson made one great decision after another and eventually that all added up to him taking home the world championship and $10 million,” explains Seidel.

That reminded me of Darrel Plant’s PokerNews article from a few weeks back in which he went through all 19 instances of Jacobson going all in at the final table in “Pushing His Way to a WSOP Main Event Title: A Look at Martin Jacobson’s All-Ins.” Even if Jacobson had to enjoy some good fortune to survive all of those all-ins to win, the article nonetheless illustrates just what Seidel is saying about how Jacobson proved himself as a great “manager” of his “business” at that final table.

It’s that constant stream of decisions -- many familiar, but all in fact unique -- players are forced to make that keeps poker interesting for me, both to play and to watch.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

On the Importance of the The

I was thinking this morning about a Wallace Stevens poem and a class in modern American poetry I had as an undergraduate.

Like a lot of what we read in that course, the poem was especially challenging for someone barely 20 years old to appreciate. The professor was fantastic, however, and successfully convinced me over and over why the problems these poets were exploring -- linguistic, artistic, historical, psychological, philosophical -- were worth considering. And were, in fact, often fascinating.

The poem I thought of is called “The Man on the Dump” and like a lot of the poetry we read in that course features a great deal of physical description, in this case of seemingly scattered shards of items in a trash heap. Besides a fairly constant feeling of befuddlement, the main, decades-later impression I retain from that course was the unending stream of stuff in those poems -- all of the descriptions of things like Eliot’s yellow smoke or Williams’s red wheelbarrow or Frost’s wall with a frozen-ground-swell erupting at its base.

I’m not going to pretend to possess any special insight about these poems. After being sincerely intrigued for a semester by Pound’s puzzles, Larkin’s larks, and Plath’s plight, I made a hasty retreat back to the 18th century in grad school to study long novels and satire instead. But as I say, a few of them stand out starkly for me, mostly because of those images like the withered flowers strewn among the dirt and tin cans and old mattresses in Stevens’s poem.

The real reason I thought of Stevens’s poem was because of the way it finishes. It ends with one of those weird poetic punch lines -- you know, like a question about telling the difference between the dancer and the dance. Coming at the end of a series of rhetorical questions, the speaker asks “Where was it one first heard the truth?” He then concludes with a two-word sentence that either answers the question or perhaps clarifies it somehow: “The the.”

No, that’s not a typo. The first “the” is a definite article, and the second “the” is (seemingly) a noun. That explains the grammar of the sentence, anyway. Meanwhile, to pinpoint what the the is referring to -- a physical location? a point of origin? objective truth? -- is hardly as simple a matter. As I recall we took the better part of an hour working on that problem in class.

Later I’d think back fondly on that discussion. The particulars of it have long faded, but I still get a kick out of the sheer audacity of spending that much time talking about a single word -- and perhaps the most mundane, pedestrian word in the English language at that.

The poem and the class rushed back to mind today after having had a quick back-and-forth with someone about whether or not to include the word “the” in something he had written. I liked that exchange. It proved something I already knew about both of us, namely, that we both cared about language and thought a word like “the” to be worth discussing.

After all, deciding to use the “the” takes a stand, to give a different, more particular status to the noun coming after the article. It’s a decision that shouldn’t be made casually.

It’s an all-in push. It’s the the.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Field Report; or, I Shinola You Not

Here on the farm we have a decent amount of land, including what are essentially three separate pastures in which our horses can roam and graze.

Two of the three already have adequate fencing, but the one in back -- the “back forty,” we jokingly call it -- needs some work on a couple of the sides. We’re going to do that over the next couple of weeks, getting some help putting wooden posts in to make that happen.

Meanwhile, we’ve been sectioning off part of the “back forty” with some temporary fencing and letting Sammy and Maggie hang out in part of that pasture. That’s me above wielding a couple of the plastic posts used to put up the temporary fence.

I tweeted that picture a few weeks ago, adding “I AM THE LORD OF TEMPORARY FENCING,” then following to say “WITH MY STEP-IN POSTS AND BRAIDED POLY-ROPE I SHAPE WORLDS.”

One response shared a warning about putting an eye out should I fail to temper my excitement adquately, to which I responded “GOOD POINT. PUN INTENDED.”

Speaking of puns, I was back out in the “back forty” today collecting some of the many prizes Sammy and Maggie had been leaving up there over the last week or so. If they were in a larger space it wouldn’t be so big of a deal, but in that makeshift paddock it’s good to clear things out now and then so as to ensure they don’t cover the whole sucker over with their land mines.

After filling a couple of carts’ worth, I found it hard not to think my task of collecting in poker terms. “Spending afternoon gathering lots of small piles into one big one,” I tweeted. “It’s basically a poker tournament.”

“I’m seeing lots of flops,” I continued. “Mostly having to muck. Actually glad to have a big rake.”

A little later I reported I “just scooped several more in this horse event. I have heaps! Gonna keep watching my step, though.”

Eventually the task was done, as was my punning. Afterwards the PokerGrump chimed in to remind me of a relevant piece of wisdom from one of our favorite poker writers:

“Remember Tommy Angelo’s advice,” he wrote. “Don’t play POOP (passively out of position).”

Good point. (And pun intended.)

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Browsing the Global Poker Index

During the World Series of Poker this summer one of my PokerNews assignments was to compile the weekly column reporting on the updated Global Poker Index rankings. I picked that duty back up back in September and have been delivering that news each week for the last several months.

Has been kind of interesting to pay a little closer attention both to the 2014 Player of the Year race and the overall GPI rankings.

The current standings show Daniel Colman leading in the 2014 POY race, a spot he’s held for six weeks running. Ole Schemion -- who won the 2013 GPI POY -- picked up a couple of big finishes at the Master Classics of Poker in Amsterdam recently to surge up to second behind Colman. With EPT Prague and the WPT Five Diamond Poker Classic still left to go, there ought to be more movement in that race before the calendar reaches December 31.

Meanwhile in the overall rankings Dan Smith has led the way for 16 straight weeks. He just lost some points, though, after his victory in last year’s WPT Five Diamond Main Event (which I helped cover) became more than 12 months old and thus now counts less for him points-wise. Schemion is number two in those rankings as well, now just a small cash or so away from surpassing Smith.

The GPI has been around since the start of 2011, and some may not even remember it was created along with the ill-fated Epic Poker League as a means to decide which players would qualify for EPL events. From the ashes of that dumpster fire arose the GPI, surviving as not only an interesting discussion-starter but also as an increasingly relevant part of the poker tournament circuit.

I was thinking today how the GPI should perhaps go back into the past and apply its formula -- or a modified version of it -- to pre-2011 tournament poker. Records are fairly complete for a lot of the tours going back at least into the early 2000s, making it possible perhaps to perform a kind of retroactive ranking of players and naming of POYs.

Obviously there are pros and cons to the ranking system as far as its worth as an indicator of players’ ability. I also understand well the cynicism of those who are not on board for the whole campaign to “sportify" poker (as the GPI rankings could be said to attempt to do). But the lists are still quite diverting and if anything help bring some publicity to a lot of players -- and the game, generally -- that might not otherwise happen.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Railbirding RAWA

A few months after I started this blog -- more than eight-and-a-half years ago, if you can believe that -- the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 was passed into law. Suddenly I found myself writing about a host of other topics besides simply playing poker, among them legal matters affecting my ability to play the game online.

As we’ve been reminding each other over and over again since the UIGEA was passed -- kind of like repeatedly relieving a bad beat -- that bill was snuck onto another one in the dead of night just before that Congress adjourned for the final push of campaigning prior to the ’06 elections. Thus did it become law without going through what many would rate a legitimate process of thoughtful debate and decision-making -- that is to say, via a process other than one in which our elected representatives would appear unequivocally to be representing the wishes of those who voted them into office (not that such an ideal is so often realized).

From there followed several years of mixing in posts in which I’d write about various legal developments that followed the UIGEA, including the long, drawn-out process of the regulations getting finalized by late 2008, as well as the many rival federal bills introduced by Barney Frank and others hoping to legalize and regulate online gambling in the U.S.

Then came Black Friday, which I might call a game-changer but in truth more or less stopped the game altogether, at least for most online poker players in the U.S. Before then, though, I remember somewhere along the way finding an analogy between poker and legal machinations surrounding the online game, the parallel having to do with both involving a combination of luck and skill.

That’s a generalization, but the point was that when it came to legislation regarding online poker, the process was in some respects controlled by the “players” (i.e., legislators, judges, lobbying groups, plaintiffs and defendants and those representing them, and so on) and also -- seemingly -- by what often appeared “chance” elements insofar as the combination of individuals and circumstances would result in lots of unpredictable outcomes.

Some “players” in the legislative game -- like in poker -- have a lot more influence than others, with money often making the difference in both contexts. Such is what we’ve been seeing happening over the last couple of years with Sheldon Adelson’s ongoing efforts to curb online gambling of all kinds. The CEO of Las Vegas Sands (parent company of the Venetian Macao Limited) is purportedly the 10th richest person in the world (as of this past summer), thus it hasn’t been difficult at all for him to toss chips various legislators’ way in order to lean on them to play his way.

The most recent orbit of this game has involved Adelson backing this new Restoration of America’s Wire Act (RAWA) first introduced in both houses back in March of this year. This federal law would rewrite the Federal Wire Act of 1961 (which the DOJ opined in late 2011 only applied to sports betting) to prohibit most forms of online gambling in the U.S., including making current state-regulated online gambling (in Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware) illegal. (Horse racing and fantasy sports would still get a pass.)

RAWA has gotten some co-sponsors but not huge traction this year, but during this “lame duck” session some surmised it could be tossed into this huge $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, with a lot of talk about how the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV) was being goaded by Adelson (and his money) into sneaking it in there in UIGEA-like fashion. You’ll recall how during an earlier lame duck session (in 2010), Reid was introducing a federal bill to license and regulate online poker while curbing other forms of online gambling. Well, now he apparently is sitting behind someone else’s stack.

During the day yesterday I noticed Rich Muny, Vice President of Player Relations for the Poker Players Alliance, noting how on his most recent webcast a former member of the House, Jon Porter, said it was “50-50” the RAWA would get added to the spending bill. The bill finally dropped last night without RAWA, and as one commentator in a Two Plus Two thread about the situation noted, “we went from about a 50% chance of being safe, to about... 85%.”

Again, just following the story makes it hard not to think of poker analogies. In this latest hand, those not wanting to see a federal bill outlawing online gambling across the U.S. were all in preflop with Q-Q versus an opponent’s A-K-suited, and now have faded both the flop and turn to have a big edge with one card to come.

The problem with those analogies, though, is that most who oppose RAWA aren’t even sitting at the table, never mind making decisions about pushing their stack in behind a premium hand. They’re on the rail, watching others with big stacks keep buying back in and playing the game on their own.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Crashing Carbon

In the post-Black Friday era, I was still playing online for a couple of years thanks to winning some cabbage in a freeroll over on Hero Poker. Those funds I had transferred over to Carbon Poker once Hero decided to step aside in December 2012, where I played a few months longer although sadly saw my small roll dwindle down to next-to-nothing.

I believe the last hand I played over there was probably sometime in the spring or summer of 2013, which now that I think about it had to have been the last hand of real money online poker I’ve played.

In any event, my memory of briefly goofing around on Carbon for a few months isn’t especially enduring. That said, I found myself trying to remember the games when hearing about this recent story of the site experiencing frequent crashes and disconnections, including some weirdness involving players subsequently logging back on and having access to other players’ accounts, having hole cards change on them in the middle of hands, and other oddities occurring.

It sounds like the site might have fallen victim to a hacker who figured out a way to crash the site (like a “distributed denial-of-service” or DDoS attack). You can read more about what’s known and what’s being speculated about it all in this article by Steve Ruddock for PokerUpdate.

Ruddock uses the story as an occasion to argue again for legalized, regulated online poker in the U.S. He’s right that in a regulated environment players are theoretically going to be protected from fraud, theft of funds, or other consequences of site-hacking, even if the regulated sites aren’t necessarily going to be immune to such attacks.

Meanwhile... that business of the hole cards changing mid-hand -- how many of you have had that bad dream before?

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