Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Change for Good

Saw Marco Valerio (formerly of QuadJacks) this week proposing what I thought was an inspired idea.

Having gotten an email from Ultimate Poker informing him he’d be due a whopping $0.18 upon the closing of his account there in Nevada, Marco thought about how he probably wasn’t the only one cashing out for a small amount from the site. As I recall, when the news broke that UP was closing up for good there was a tweet from them confirming they had something like 25,000 player accounts with funds in them, then a follow-up noting how a lot of those accounts had only a dollar or less (I think). (Can’t look it up now as UP has already deleted its Twitter account.)

In any event, being a licensed and regulated site UP couldn’t make like Full Tilt Poker 1.0, UltimateBet, or Absolute Poker and just not bother returning funds, so everyone is getting his or her cabbage back, even if as with Marco it’s only a few pennies.

Marco’s idea -- delivered over Twitter a couple of days ago -- was to suggest players who were interested could pool those piddling returns to make something more substantial, then they could donate whatever amount that turned out to be to a charity. I don’t think a specific one has been picked out as yet, although Marco mentioned hoping maybe to collect “a hundred bucks to buy a child some toys” in an early follow-up tweet.

Within a couple of days the idea has already picked up a lot of momentum, with many chiming in wanting to donate to the cause. I told Marco I’d like to as well, even though I never deposited anything in my UP account. Now it looks like he’s already had more than $1K pledged altogether (including some “matching” pledges by some).

Anyhow, I thought it was a neat thought and Marco a good person to have had it, considering his well-connected place within the web of poker people. Here’s a webpage he’s set up describing both the idea and how things are progressing thus far that includes info about how you can get involved, too, with this “spontaneous act of poker kindness” ideer if you wish.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Poker and Other Gambling Games

Recent developments with online poker have inspired conversations (again) about poker’s relationship to other gambling games, especially other casino games.

When I first became serious about poker and broadened my knowledge enough to appreciate first-hand its strategic complexity, it wasn’t long before I found myself becoming similarly serious about wanting to distinguish poker from other types of gambling which I was much less inspired to pursue. Most who come to poker not via those other gambling games but by other routes (as I did) probably experience something similar, if they become at all serious about the game.

I have to admit I feel differently today, though -- still convinced of why poker is distinct from those games, but much less energized by any special need to point out the significance of that difference.

When the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was suddenly sprung upon us a little over eight years ago, responses from the poker community included a lot of hopeful talk about “carve outs” and how poker somehow shouldn’t be considered “a game subject to chance” (to quote the UIGEA) -- even if, of course, it is. That “skill argument” continues to invigorate some including the Poker Players Alliance, the lobbying group created in response to the UIGEA, despite the fact that legally speaking the argument that poker isn’t entirely “subject to chance” hasn’t really had any major influence.

Sure, there have been occasional rulings by judges sympathetic to poker’s skill component, including that one from August 2012 in which a federal judge maintained poker “is not predominantly a game of chance” while throwing out a conviction for illegal gambling of someone who’d run a poker game out of a Staten Island warehouse. But a year later the ruling in that case was reversed, and it doesn’t seem any occasional declarations in courts acknowledging that it takes a little more know-how to win a hand of poker than to hit your number in roulette has ever mattered all that much as far as the law is concerned.

Meanwhile in Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware came the passage of online gambling laws that have made it possible for players within those states to play poker against each other (“intrastate”) while allowing for casino games, too. We in the poker community focus more on the poker side of things, but just like in live casinos, online poker is operating right alongside online slots, online craps, online blackjack, and so on. And relatively speaking -- also like in live casinos -- those other games are earning significantly more revenue than poker, to no one’s surprise.

Other recent developments with regard to online poker sites operating outside the U.S. have perhaps served to emphasize further poker’s connection to other gambling games, and I’m not just alluding to PokerStars recently following other poker sites to offer other casino games.

Games like the Jackpot Sit & Go tournaments on Full Tilt Poker and the Spin & Gos on Stars are still poker, of course, though incorporate elements from elsewhere in the casino like slots or the “wheel of fortune.” (Wrote a little about Spin & Gos here last month.) There are plenty of examples of video poker available online, too, a game that might be considered even more of a hybrid of poker and slots. Meanwhile something like live dealer casino holdem at Paddy Power actually changes poker into more of a blackjack-type game -- still incorporating some strategy, though it’s a game fairly distinct from traditional poker.

Makes me think a little of how you’ll often find dice wedged in there next to decks of cards inside a poker chip set. What are they doing there? Well, for one thing, they’re reminding you of traditional notions of poker being just another gambling game.

I still think it’s worth pointing out (when relevant) that poker is different from most gambling games, especially those in which you’re playing against the house rather than other players. But the game’s place in various cultures -- in the U.S., in other countries, and online -- has always been very closely aligned with other forms of gambling. And whenever poker gets pulled away from those games, it seems like it can never be for long before it gravitates back toward them again.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Catch That Catch?

After cashing in a couple of freerolls over on the new Fantasy Draft site -- winning some “Fantasy Bucks” which I cannot withdraw but with which I can enter real money games -- I jumped in one NFL contest this weekend and ultimately bubbled the money.

I’d built a decent roster and picked up some unexpected points from players like Cleveland Browns’ rookie running back Isaiah Crowell who scored a couple of TDs against the defensively-depleted Atlanta Falcons. But others who I’d expected to produce didn’t -- guys like the Colts’ Reggie Wayne and the Pats’ Rob Gronkowski, both of whom caught passes but didn’t reach paydirt -- and so going into the Sunday Night game I was already essentially doomed to finish outside the “Payout Zone.”

I did have one player left on my team, though -- Odell Beckham, Jr., the New York Giants receiver -- who I’d included as my “flex” player. And yeah, even though I was a bit too far out to make a run at the cash, he made things interesting.

Indeed, he even made it seem for a while like I might even get there. I mean, after that catch, anything seemed possible.

With two TDs, 10 catches, and 146 yards receiving, Beckham earned more fantasy points than anyone yesterday. He also earned a permanent spot in all NFL highlight reels going forward.

The play reminded me a little of Bob Beamon’s record-shattering long jump, something I’ve written about here before, mainly because of the way Beckham quickly hopped up and walked around afterwards as though he didn’t find anything especially surprising or unexpected in what he’d done.

Of course, the big difference was how Beamon (and most watching the ’68 Summer games) actually didn’t initially realize his achievement, in his case breaking the world record for the long jump by more than two feet. With Beckham’s catch everyone knew instantly it was something extraordinary, thus making his subsequent nonchalance all the more entertaining to see.

Folks quickly began passing around video clips of Beckham making similarly eye-popping one-handed grabs in other contexts such as receiving a kickoff or in warm-ups, though none amid such duress as was the case during the second quarter last night.

Those clips might’ve helped demystify the catch a little, but only a little. They made me think a little of watching a card trick, like Beckham had some secret knowledge about how to pull something off that had been previously hidden to the rest of us.

Super slo-mo replays from every angle likewise helped explain what couldn’t be appreciated live and at full speed, but that, too, didn’t take much away from the continued astonishment -- the surprise at being still surprised -- with each viewing.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Reading the Leaves

Vera and I recently purchased a leaf blower, kind of a heavy duty model designed for large yards. Never needed anything like that before, especially when living at our old place where we had exactly one small tree in the back yard. Now, though, with all of these acres and trees leaving their scattered piles all about, something must be done.

Wasn’t too hard figuring out how to assemble it, mix the gas, and set the sucker going. I pulled the straps over both shoulders and fastened the snap in front, then started moving about the perimeter of our largish front yard, moving tentatively at first as I tried to decide how exactly to begin.

At first it seemed kind of a futile pursuit, with the achingly slow moving of the first few leaves seeming to represent an aggravatingly trifling start to what was going to be an impossibly large task to complete. Eventually I found a “technique” of sorts that involved working with the wind, discovering the most productive patterns for waving the long plastic tube, and recognizing when a constructed wall of leaves had become too substantial to try to move further.

Another part of my self-tutelage was realizing early on there was simply no way to corral all of the leaves, not with the blower alone, anyway. With every pass a few were always going to remain stubbornly clinging between blades of grass underneath, a fact of physics that simply had to be accepted.

Perhaps even remarking that is a way of admitting to some latent obsessive-compulsive tendencies. In any case, for me the job started to become characterized by an inescapable feeling of compromise -- by the foreknowledge that being “done” wouldn’t necessarily mean utterly completing the idealized task of ridding the yard of every last crinkled leaf but rather reaching a state at which it would be at last acceptable to abandon further hopes of achieving such.

I was at it for hours and hours, long enough for the mind to wander and become convinced by the emblematic nature of what I was doing.

It was like a long writing project, messy and marked by fits and starts, with each circle about the yard another unfinished draft.

It was like a political campaign, full of urging and persuasion in an attempt to unite a hopelessly unwieldy and discordant group as one.

It was like a poker tournament, the gathering of those first few chips only a tiny step toward the ultimate and seemingly unfathomable goal of collecting every last one.

Eventually I stopped for the day, feeling as though I’d struck a deal with the yard allowing me to take off the harness for now. I walked back to the house, noticing the wind blowing as I did -- signaled, of course, by the leaves rustling and breaking free from branches overhead.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Charting and Graphing the 2014 WSOP Main Event Final Table

Darrel Plant who writes the Mutant Poker blog has a couple of nifty items over on the PokerNews Strategy section this week to which I wanted to draw your attention.

One is a post detailing all of the many times 2014 World Series of Poker Main Event champion Martin Jacobson pushed all in on the first day of the final table (when they played down from nine players to three).

If you recall, Jacobson entered the final table eighth in chips out of final nine, and thus had few options early on besides open-shoving or reraising all in. Even after he’d accumulated some chips, he slipped back down under 10 big blinds again at one point and so had to revert back to a push-or-fold strategy.

Darrel goes through all 19 instances (!) of Jacobson going all in on that first day of the final table, sorting out what his equity would have been every time had opponents called (which by and large they did not). Check it out: “Pushing His Way to a WSOP Main Event Title: A Look at Martin Jacobson’s All-Ins.”

Darrel’s other piece this week is a groovy graph showing chip movement throughout the 328 hands of the final table, complete with annotations highlighting knockouts, double-ups, and other important moments along the way.

That’s a small version of the graph up above -- to see the big one in all its colorful glory, check out “Graphing the Changing Chip Stacks at the 2014 WSOP Main Event Final Table.”

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

WSOP Final Table Ratings

Saw over on Wicked Chops Poker today a short piece about the TV ratings for last week’s Main Event marathon on ESPN’s networks.

Interesting to read how the ratings on Monday night were actually up from a year ago and down only marginally on Tuesday when they played down from three-handed to a winner.

As the “Entity” notes for the second night it was kind of a “worst-case scenario” as far as the U.S. audience was considered with a Swede, Norwegian, and a Dutchman comprising the final trio, although I’d guess numbers wouldn’t have moved too markedly even if an American had still been in the hunt.

Also interesting to read how both the World Poker Tour shows (which I sometimes catch) and the Heartland Poker Tour ones (which I don’t know if I’ve ever seen) are doing okay, too, in terms of maintaining their audiences. WCP believes all of this points to greater promise for TV poker, and that “over the second half of this decade, there will be more, not less, poker on TV.”

I don’t know if I’m quite as optimistic, but I’d certainly like to see such a future play out. Also wouldn’t mind seeing a little more variety with poker TV, if possible, which may or may not figure into a strategy for maintaining or increasing viewship.

In any event after losing interest and becoming distracted from the whole run-up to the November Nine, I did enjoy the comprehensive coverage of the finale (as I mentioned last week), and so am glad a decent number of others appear to have, too.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

My Fill of Phil

Phil Hellmuth recently appeared as a guest on Rounders co-scriptor Brian Koppelman’s “The Moment” podcast which is part of the Grantland “pop culture” category of content.

I’d heard something about the appearance, but hadn’t got around to listening. Then after all of the ruckus regarding Daniel Colman’s comment in a Two Plus Two thread about the show calling Hellmuth -- or, at least, “people of his attitude and character” -- “a cancer to this world,” I decided to dial it up, perhaps to listen and weigh in here about it.

Hellmuth is no doubt a fascinating character in poker. He’s also one of a very few in the game known to non-players or casual observers of the game and its subculture.

Occasionally I’ll get asked about him by those who’ve seen his antics on television. “Is he really such a jerk?” the question usually goes. I can’t really answer without lots of qualifications. Yes, I’ll say, he’s awful at the tables. But those who know him best insist he’s a “good guy.” And he’s also highly diverting for those of us who report on tourneys, always adding an extra layer of entertainment (for better or worse) to what can sometimes be plodding proceedings.

I don’t go deeper into Hellmuth’s troubling association with UltimateBet or other possible marks against him. Or for him, for that matter.

I’ve written here before about my ambivalence toward the Poker Brat. A couple of years ago there was a lot of talk following his 13th bracelet win (in the WSOP Europe Main Event) that perhaps the WSOP would be signing him up in some capacity to represent the brand and/or the (then still-to-come) online site.

Some seemed weirdly enthusiastic about such a possibility, but I wasn’t. Referring both to his UB/Cereus past and consistently poor behavior at the tables, I concluded “the WSOP could do much, much better than to hire the world’s whiniest winner and poker’s poorest sport” as a representative.

All of which probably explains why I couldn’t even get through the first half-hour of Koppelman’s podcast, during which Hellmuth…

  • shares details regarding his extensive charity work,
  • suggests that he’s earned everything he’s got in poker without being backed,
  • insists “the only place to measure poker greatness is by bracelets won,”
  • brags “I’ve crushed people in the mixed games” and “I’m the biggest winner on Poker Night in America,”
  • notes how everyone respects him and he gets along with everybody,
  • laments how he missed out on a big contract with an online site worth $20 million-ish when Black Friday arrived,
  • drops names (including Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton),
  • reports “I’m under siege for autographs everywhere I go,”
  • and also -- repeatedly -- explains that he’s never cheated on his wife despite having had opportunities to do so.
  • Koppelman does gamely try during that opening blast to dig beneath the surface a little, and perhaps he gets there later on. But I found it too much of a struggle to give another moment to “The Moment,” having heard enough PR from PH to last a while.

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    Monday, November 17, 2014

    UP Goes Down

    Sour news to end last week with the announcement from Ultimate Poker they were folding for good. Brings to mind how often it seems those players who show up early for tournaments and get seated first end up being among the first to be eliminated.

    I’m looking at the website this evening the front page of which doesn’t even reflect the fact that UP is done. There’s the notice to New Jersey players, first posted less than two months ago to announce Ultimate Poker was leaving the Garden State, but one has to dig around a little to learn that the Nevada games ended today, withdrawals can be made as usual for the next week, and any remaining player balances will be refunded by check thereafter.

    The New Jersey pull-out had seemed primarily consequent to the troubles of Trump Taj Mahal Associates, the land-based casino with which UP had partnered up. Details of “multiple breaches” of their agreement on the part of the Trump group -- not the least of which being TTMA’s owing UP’s parent company some significant cabbage -- all colored that move as unsurprising and not necessarily indicative of Ultimate’s shutdown being imminent.

    That said, the prospects for Ultimate in Nevada were hardly rosy. The front page of the website not being updated to reflect the latest news seems kind of emblematic, in fact, of the feeling of stasis that has characterized Ultimate Poker pretty much from the get-go.

    The news caused me over the weekend to look back at what I posted here on April 30, 2013, the day Ultimate Poker dealt its first hand in Nevada. Seems hard to believe that was only a little over a year-and-a-half ago, but as often happens in “poker time” things move quickly. And for UP, it all moved much too quickly, and mostly in the wrong direction.

    In that post I was hopeful for UP, if not overly optimistic. My main concern then was that the site successfully operate “minus the scandals and other problems that became such a conspicuous part of our previous experience with online poker here in the States.”

    It did that, I suppose -- the fact that the funds in all of the 25,000 NV accounts with money in them will be reclaimed (as the UP account tweeted) is a kind of faint silver lining. But as the tweets and forum posts have been spelling out in bits and pieces, while there was an adherence to the regulations that permitted the site to serve U.S. customers, the company’s management perhaps wasn’t quite as disciplined.

    Terrence Chan’s thoughtful “post-mortem” video blog provides insight along those lines. Posts by “Union of the Snake” on 2+2 (here and here) provide some interesting reading as well, with the points made corresponding closely to those made by a “wise man” on a certain podcast just a few days before, one regular listeners know more often than not opens with an ’80s ear worm.

    The slow-moving story of Online Poker 2.0 in the U.S. will continue pretty much as it had even when Ultimate Poker was still sitting short-stacked at a table full of short stacks. But the inauspicious launch and fall of the first to the table can’t be much of a source of encouragement for those still in the game.

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    Friday, November 14, 2014

    Newhouse’s Ninth (Second Movement)

    Back in mid-July when I was churning out preview articles during the World Series of Poker Main Event, I noted before the start of Day 4 how of the 746 players remaining, the only November Niner from 2013 left in the field was Mark Newhouse.

    I made a reference in that day’s preview to Dan Harrington’s back-to-back final tables in 2003 and 2004, stubbornly suggesting the possibility that Newhouse could be the first since then to achieve the feat despite his being 131st of the 746 in the counts. I was as amazed as everyone else to see him sticking around through the next three days’ worth of poker -- even leading at the end of Day 5 with 79 left -- to make it to the final table again.

    In 2013 he was eighth of nine to start the final table, and so his ninth-place finish wasn’t too unexpected. This year he was third in chips with nine to go, encouraging most to expect a deeper run.

    On Monday night he’d suffer a setback in Hand #44 versus Andoni Larrabe. In that one Newhouse held pocket eights, but lost after Larrabe turned a set with his pocket fives -- a hand nicknamed “presto,” also the tempo performance direction of the second movement of Beethoven’s ninth.

    As it would happen, Newhouse would choose a speedy pace thereafter in what would prove his final hand.

    Newhouse would get back what he lost to Larrabe and then some right away, chipping back to 23.7 million (47 BBs) just a few hands before his showdown with William Tonking in Hand #56.

    I’d been following the updates on PokerNews beforehand, and so knew when watching the hand develop what was about to happen. Was still suspenseful to see play out, though, in that oh-no-don’t-go-in-there-that’s-where-the-boogeyman-is kind of way. Particularly during the 10-second interval between Tonking’s river check and Newhouse’s fateful shove.

    Newhouse had another middle pair -- pocket tens -- in the hand, and would bust in ninth when Tonking called his shove holding pocket queens. As it would happen, Martin Jacobson would be holding two tens as well in the hand that won him the bracelet a night later.

    Jonathan Grotenstein has written an entertaining account of the final table for All In that touches on Newhouse’s story (among others). He notes the contrast between the extensive preparation of the other Niners over the last four months and the hiatus from poker taken by Newhouse, a time spent “doing his best not to think about anything at all.”

    Speaking with several non-poker playing friends the last few days about what happened in the Main Event, Newhouse’s story is the easiest one to foreground. That would be true even if he weren’t from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, making his story kind of a “local” story, too.

    Chapel Hill’s Mark Newhouse stunned after early elimination at World Series of Poker” went the headline in The Charlotte Observer. The article describes him as “the man who said he wanted to finish anywhere but ninth,” though doesn’t mention that incredible-in-retrospect tweet from Newhouse from back in July (see left).

    I tell my friends about how remarkable it was for Newhouse to make the final nine of 6,352 one year then do it again in a field of 6,693 the next, never mind to finish ninth both times. Searching for analogies to help describe going out first at the final table both years, I reach initially for the Buffalo Bills’ four straight Super Bowl defeats, another example of an incredible achievement ending in defeat. Or the Patriots going 18-0 and then losing Super Bowl XLII.

    But neither seems quite right as a comparison. Newhouse’s second straight ninth-place finish in the WSOP Main Event is a unique feat, a wonder highlighting poker’s capacity not only to provide us with a head-spinning number of possible outcomes but sometimes also to produce the one result that would seem the least likely of all.

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    Thursday, November 13, 2014

    2014 WSOP Main Event Final Table Hole Cards (Complete)

    As I did in 2012 and 2013, I’ve once more gone through the final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event to chronicle all of the hole cards shown during ESPN’s broadcast. Unlike in the past, you can find this year’s list over on PokerNews in a handy table form with the added bonus of links to each of the hand reports. I have also added the players’ positions, something I didn’t do in past years.

    Here it is: “Complete List of All Hole Cards Shown During the 2014 WSOP Main Event Final Table.”

    This year ESPN handled the hole card thing a little differently, although some may not have realized it. In the past they’d only show hole cards after a hand completed, and only of the players who were still in the pot at the very end. This time they’d show cards whenever a player entered a pot voluntarily from the start of the hand.

    Thus there was no guesswork when watching the hands regarding what cards players held, which changed the nature of the commentary quite a bit. I saw a lot of divisive commentary on Twitter on Monday and Tuesday nights about Antonio Esfandiari’s analyses. While I only listened to it in bits and pieces as I gathered hands today, I’m gonna say he, Lon McEachern, and Norman Chad all acquitted themselves just fine once again on that front -- a very challenging task, really.

    While there could be errors in my list -- there were 328 hands all told -- I think it’s likely more accurate than my lists from the past two years, in part because I was able to use both my DVR recording and some backup from WatchESPN online to help with a few hands my recording didn’t catch. If you can believe it, I actually used an old school VCR before, which made putting the list together a lot more taxing.

    Anyhow, I hope the list will be of use to some looking to analyze more deeply the play at the 2014 WSOP ME final table. Excuse me now if I step away from the keyboard for a while, as my fingers are tired and brain is a big bowl of mush at the moment.

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