Friday, September 19, 2014

Talk About Table Captains

There’s a short compilation of stories about U.S. presidents playing poker today over at the N.Y. Times, pulled together Michael Beschloss. All of the stories are quite familiar to anyone who has looked into the subject before, but for those who haven’t it serves as a quick introduction to some of the highlights.

Actually anyone who’s read James McManus’s 2009 history of poker, Cowboys Full, will be familiar with almost of the stories in the piece, so much so that I’m kind of surprised Beschloss doesn’t at least acknowledge McManus (a former NYT columnist) in his article.

For example, when rehearsing the story of the pre-Iron Curtain speech game of poker involving Harry Truman and Winston Churchill (something I’ve written about here), Beschloss includes all of the same details and even implies the same connection McManus does between the Americans’ good showing in the game and Churchill’s declaration of alliance with the U.S. in his speech the day after.

He also echoes McManus’s connections between cold war politics and poker, although the discussion of the Kennedy-Khrushchev showdown over the Cuban Missile Crisis (and its interpretation as a poker-like confrontation of high-stakes raises and bluffs) has been explored by many other writers as well.

The article-concluding anecdote about former Secretary of State George Shultz comparing Ronald Reagan’s bargaining with the U.S.S.R.’s Mikhail Gorbachev as “the highest stakes poker game ever played” is the only one included that is not mentioned in McManus’s book. Meanwhile, no mention of Barack Obama’s poker-playing seems a strange omission in the NYT piece.

Anyone with an interest in presidential politics will find these stories interesting, though. Those interested in poker will, too. And if you’re like me and interested in both, you can’t get enough of this stuff, even if you’ve read it all before.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

NFL Under Review

I write here off and on about NFL football, of which I’m an ardent fan. Even though I grew up playing and focusing a lot more on baseball and basketball -- and continued to play hoops well into my adult years -- I now find football and specifically the pro game my most favored sport to watch and follow.

Trying to pick the games each week in the ESPN Pigskin Pick’em contest adds considerably to my enjoyment, giving me a rooting interest in each game. And I’m a devoted fan of the Carolina Panthers, not quite living and dying with each game but being at least as invested as your average fan.

Like everyone else who follows NFL -- and now many who don’t, too -- I’m now also following all of the off-the-field crises that are happening with regard to the criminal behavior of several players and the very poor handling of various cases by the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as well as by the teams involved.

I was scrolling through the top NFL stories on the ESPN app yesterday and saw how the first six were about these cases involving Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Jonathan Dwyer, and Greg Hardy (of the Panthers), with a couple more after that focusing on Goodell and other related issues.

It reminded me a little of several years ago when I first started this blog to write about a game I loved to play, then a few months later the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 was made law and I found myself farther and farther afield when it came to my chosen topics. The actual game quickly receded into the background amid all of the legal wrangling, and then became even further obscured by the many controversies that cropped up soon afterwards involving cheating scandals at prominent online sites (Absolute Poker and UltimateBet).

The stories of domestic violence, child abuse, drug infractions, and other offenses dominating the NFL coverage these days have risen to such a crescendo that even to try to talk about or focus on the games can be interpreted as imprudently neglecting the problems at hand. Some less committed fans are already turning away from the game, while the diehards are nearing the point of having to defend their continuing to stick with the league.

In any case, the observation I wanted to share regarding the situation was just a small one, but something I hadn’t necessarily seen others making.

I’ve complained here before about how the reliance upon replays had turned the experience of watching NFL games into something altogether different from what it had been even a decade ago. With every play potentially subject afterwards to being challenged and thus “under review,” there’s a hard-to-escape feeling of what I can only describe as distrust when watching a game live.

That is to say, the spectator is better served not to get too excited about anything, because everything has a chance of being disallowed. “The NFL has turned into a game of do-overs and didn't-counts,” I tweeted a couple of years ago when watching a game full of penalties and overturned plays. “No play ever is as it appears.” Such remains the case today.

An underlying pattern marking the NFL’s inconsistent responses to the recent series of off-the-field incidents, arrests, and legal proceedings has been kind of similar, really, with a lot of “do-overs” and “didn’t-counts” marking their attempts to rule. Players have been suspended, not suspended, and had their suspensions and/or status changed by both the NFL and the teams involved, with each change in course seemingly made in response to the level of outrage being delivered over social media regarding each case.

Just like on the field, it seems with these off-the-field issues “no play is ever as it appears.” The league’s lack of clarity and consistency regarding its efforts to legislate the conduct of its players has greatly damaged both Goodell and the previously carefully-managed image the NFL had maintained as an important, valuable contributor to society.

I remain a fan as well as someone who actually believes sports -- including big-time professional sports -- can contribute something worthwhile to our lives. But I suppose that’s under review, too.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

You Downloaded, Too?

The U2 force feed via iTunes of their latest, Songs of Innocence, has been kind of humorous to read about of late. Saw something saying 33 million users had already downloaded it (for free), which sounds like a heckuva lot in terms of traditional album sales (or “sales”), but less remarkable when compared to, say, the 500 million who downloaded Candy Crush Saga last year.

The humorous part is related to people now wishing to delete the album. Apple has even developed a special site and tool for doing so.

I was writing last week about my old iPod -- the “classic” that has now been discontinued. In fact I got myself a new one, deciding I’d become attached enough to the sucker to want a replacement.

I’ve actually never had a U2 album loaded on there. I do own a couple of the old LPs, and in fact during that nostalgia tour of Live Aid I mentioned recently I stopped off to watch their performance of “Bad” which I think was probably a high point of their career and maybe Live Aid (aside from Queen, natch). I’m a huge Brian Eno fan, which gives me a tangential interest in the band, though not enough to have bothered tracking down much post-Unforgettable Fire. My comment on Dr. Pauly’s post about Rattle and Hum from last year pretty much sums up whatever else I might say about the band.

So no, I didn’t download this new one. And yes, the thought even crossed my mind that the expense of effort it would have taken to do so -- and to listen after that -- was more than I wanted to spend. Kind of a faint echo of the old model of music consumption that has been thoroughly eradicated, the one which required a more conscious and thorough decision to purchase and listen.

The offer actually made me think a little bit of downloading new online poker sites, something I haven’t done in a long while though used to do with great frequency. While I only ever played (for real money) on around a half-dozen sites, I’d guess I probably downloaded at least 15 or so over the years, maybe more. Kind of recklessly, too, given how some could be a great drain on CPU power or provide other kinds of unwanted bother to our systems.

That was early on, though. Then as the online poker era proceeded we became more wary with our “purchases” -- be it with money, time, mental energy, or anything else that mattered to us that we’d have to trade away in order to play.

Less innocent, I guess you could say.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

It’s Something

A quick post-post-post-postscript tonight to a long tale most have forgotten about.

Federated Sports & Gaming, the parent company of the ill-fated Epic Poker League, announced its intention to file for bankruptcy on February 29, 2012. By then the EPL had staged three tournaments open only to eligible tourney players ranked highly enough to enter them according to the newly-created “Global Poker Index” (which managed to survived under new guardians post-EPL).

It was an uncertain, poorly-conceived attempt to create a semblance of a “professional poker league,” a place “for the best players in the world to compete against the best players in the world,” as EPL Commissioner Annie Duke put it early on. One incentive to players participating in the high buy-in ($20,000) events being a $1 million freeroll to come after the completion of the fourth scheduled tournament.

Alas, during its short existence expenses outran revenue at such a rapid clip the bankruptcy announcement came even before that fourth tourney could be held, and the freeroll never materialized. In the end the FS&G owed something like $5 million to numerous creditors (more than a hundred, I think).

Those interested in a longer rehearsal of the FS&G/Epic story might read through a couple of older posts here -- “We Are Sorry, www.epicpoker.com Cannot Be Found” (August 2012) (which also contains some links to other folks’ reporting on the final days of the EPL) and “Epic Anniversary” (March 2013).

It’s a sorry story. Your humble scribbler ended up involved in a tangential way as one of a handful of folks recruited by the EPL to write occasional columns for their website (which, as noted, cannot be found today). Since I had one invoice covering a few columns in the system at the time of the bankruptcy, I got included as one of the creditors in the subsequent bankruptcy case.

I wasn’t owed much, a small enough amount that after the first few months’ worth of mailings regarding the case I became thoroughly ambivalent about the prospects of ever seeing any of it, although continued to feel misgivings about a few friends of mine owed a heckuva lot more.

I was surprised, then, to receive a letter today from the FS&G that wasn’t just another court summary, but note describing an enclosed check representing my share of the “Final Distribution” -- roughly 10% of the owed amount. Gotta cash this sucker soon, too, I’m advised, “preferably no later than 30 days after receipt.”

“This will be my final communication to you,” concluded the “Plan Administrator” who had delivered to me this small slice of cabbage.

I mean it’s a far cry from feeling my being turned with instinct and intellect balanced equally by the love that moves the sun and stars. But it’s an ending.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Technical Difficulties

We did end up making it out for a few hours’ worth of fun at Farm Aid on Saturday. Turned out to be a nice, mild day weather-wise with plenty of cloud cover and a lot of good tunes. Felt a little uncanny to hear “Seven Nation Army” on a Saturday afternoon and not be at a football game, but rather watching Jack White perform it.

Got back to our own farm on Sunday where I spent a lot of it camped in front of the teevee for more football while also following various stories online.

As any football fan well knows, the daily (or weekly) fantasy sites have kind of exploded in popularity of late, with two in particular -- DraftKings and FanDuel -- having emerged as the current Coca-Cola and Pepsi of “DFS.” Commercials for both are dominating sports radio and television these days, meaning even non-participants are becoming more and more aware of their existence.

I couldn’t help but see from my Twitter feed during the hour leading up to the 1 p.m. kickoffs on Sunday that the FanDuel site had crashed, no doubt due to the heavy volume of folks entering contests and changing their line-ups at the last minute following injury announcements and other game-related news. I also noticed DraftKings swooping in to offer bonuses to the FanDuel folks should they want to transfer their balances over.

Later in the day there was a similar theme being sounded in my timeline when partypoker’s New Jersey site froze up during the $200,000 guaranteed Main Event of its Garden State Super Series. I believe there were more than 700 players in the $200 tourney -- meaning there was a decent overlay -- when the problems occurred and all the ongoing tourneys had to be canceled. “Technical difficulties” said the site in their explanation afterwards.

Both FanDuel and partypoker acted swiftly when it came to reimbursing players. I’m not sure exactly how FanDuel handled it, although I did see them tweeting to their followers that affected players could email them for refunds. Meanwhile I believe partypoker instantly paid back its players and then some according to their already established tourney cancellation policy, and from the comments of some who were affected it sounded like all was handled as well as it could have been.

That said, just like FanDuel has DraftKings to worry about, the New Jersey partypoker site is bracing itself for a formidable competitor as well as word is PokerStars is coming to NJ sooner than later via its new owners, Amaya.

Customer service is often more complicated than it looks, with the technical just-make-sure-everything-works side of things being as important (or more so) for a lot of people as being prompt with responses to queries, complaints, and the inevitable hiccups. The “online poker 2.0”-era in the U.S. has been a rocky one to say the least. Those who have tried their hand have been earnest with their efforts, I think, but have run up against many challenges that have worked against them.

It’ll be very interesting to see if that changes soon.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

On the Farm

Have been feeling under the weather for the last several days, and so haven’t too much energy to give to this end-of-week post. Also distracted a little because Vera and I are gearing up for a quick trip up Tobacco Road to Raleigh to watch Farm Aid tomorrow where we might find ourselves under some bad weather there.

The concert will be happening all day and night at the Walnut Creek Amphitheatre, an outdoor facility where all of the seats are uncovered. We aren’t planning to take in the full 11-12 hours or so, but we may end up having to set aside going at all should the heavens open up tomorrow as predicted, especially if I’m still fighting off whatever it is that’s given me this sore throat and the sniffles.

The headliners will be playing during the evening -- Jack White, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, and Willie Nelson. Each performer has an hour blocked off to play. The sucker will be streaming live at FarmAid.org, too, in case you want to look in on it. I mentioned our going to the concert a couple of weeks back when sharing that video of the nifty card trick performed by Willie Nelson (who is known to enjoy a poker game now and then).

Kind of randomly, I was just reading about the original Live Aid from 1985, as well as watching a lengthy BBC documentary about it. I remember watching a lot of that on MTV as a teen. The event exists as a weird, complicated time capsule today, with lots of footage on YouTube and elsewhere.

It was at Live Aid -- which raised funds to help with famine relief in Ethiopa -- that Bob Dylan controversially brought up the subject of American farmers needing help, too, during his set. The Farm Aid website misquotes Dylan saying “Wouldn't it be great if we did something for our own farmers right here in America?” when in fact he actually only spoke of giving some of the money being raised -- “one or two million, maybe” -- to help with farmers’ mortgages.

Stirred things up a little at the time, but that’s what Dylan does. Anyhow, the origins of Farm Aid (which first came together later that same year) are traced back to the comment.

I imagine we’ll probably go for at least some of the show, no matter what the weather is like. Even if we don’t get there, though, we’re not at all sorry about contributing some dollars to the cause. Now that we own some land ourselves and in fact live right next door to some actual farmers, we’re thinking a little more concretely these days about what it takes to run a farm.

No, rain or shine, the work never ends on the farm. One of our horses is named Maggie, but she’s a lot more fun to work for than that other Maggie.

(Click the pic to see a bigger rainbow.)

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Poker Hall of Fame Idea

The 10 finalists for this year’s Poker Hall of Fame have been announced. No more than two will be voted in as the 2014 class from this group: Chris Bjorin, Humberto Brenes, Bruno Fitoussi, Ted Forrest, Jennifer Harman, Bob Hooks, Mike Matusow, Jack McClelland, Huck Seed, and Daniel Negreanu.

Negreanu just turned 40 and is thus in his first year of eligibility, and seems an utter shoo-in to get voted in. Being at least 40 (the so-called “Chip Reese” rule) is one of the criteria for selection, along with playing against top competition, playing for high stakes, gaining peers’ respect, standing the test of time, and (for non-players) contributing to the game’s overall growth.

With the others it is hard to say who among them might earn the needed votes this year. Bjorin, Brenes, Harman, Matusow, Seed, and McClelland have been nominated before, while Negreanu, Fitoussi, Forrest, and Hooks are on the ballot for the first-time. Now a panel comprised of current PHOFers and poker media (totaling around 40 folks) will be casting votes to determine who makes it in.

The public nominates individuals for the PHOF via the WSOP.com website, then a group comprising the Poker Hall of Governing Council goes through the list to choose the 10 finalists. Current PHOFers also can write in candidates to be included among those 10, although I’m not exactly sure how the Council goes about both choosing from the public’s nominees and working in the written-in nominees.

In any event, as happens every year there are the usual calls to revise the criteria, the nomination process, and the system for voting. And as usually also happens, those calls are accompanied by references to those omitted from the ballot who some believe should be nominated. This year Carlos Mortensen, David Chiu, John Juanda, and Gus Hansen are among the several players folks are mentioning in this regard.

Negreanu was one mentioning Hansen as a candidate in a blog post this week, with the Dane also in the news for having crossed the $20 million-mark in online losses at Full Tilt Poker. Talk about contributing to the game’s overall growth!

Among the comments I saw scrolling by on Twitter as folks debated was mention (again) of creating some sort of physical “hall” or location for the PHOF. There is none, of course, nor would I imagine there really be much of a demand for something like that. Even so, seeing that mentioned again gave me an idea about the Poker Hall of Fame.

The WSOP could create some kind of temporary PHOF display each summer to show during the nearly two months that the World Series plays out in Las Vegas. They could set it up in the hallway at the Rio, making a literal “hall of fame” where players and the many visitors who come to rail the WSOP could get a look at photos of the inductees with attached bios. They could roll out the display again in November when the Main Event final tablists and others return and the ceremony for the new inductees takes place.

It would at least make the Poker Hall of Fame better known among those who play and attend the WSOP. And probably spark still more debates, too, in the Rio hallway.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

iPod Ode

Heard some of that rumble today related to Apple announcing a new phone and some other products. Not the most interesting thing to follow for me, although over time I have found myself gravitating over to using a Mac for almost all my computing, and I also have an iPhone and iPod.

Like I say I wasn’t really paying too much attention to the new phone and whatever else, but I did take note at some of the articles noting how the so-called “iPod classic” was being discontinued. “Apple Quietly Says Goodbye to the iPod Classic” went the headlines, referring to how the product which has been around in some form for 12 years was being “unceremoniously killed off.”

Shows how fast everything is flying about, that “classic” doesn’t seem odd at all to apply to something just over a decade old.

I remember Vera giving me an mp3 player -- not an iPod -- about eight or nine years ago. At the time I was actually uncertain I’d ever really get any use out of it, but before long I was listening to it every day. I remember during the early years of poker podcasts routinely downloading them and putting them on the sucker (it would still be a while before we listened to them on our phones). Actually, because I listened to those shows that way, I still have some of those old podcasts tucked away on hard drives here and there.

It wasn’t too long after getting that first mp3 player that I bought myself an 80 GB iPod. That must have been at least five years ago, perhaps longer. Thing has held up ever since, despite my using it practically every single day, too.

I still stick with the LP format, almost always putting tunes on there an album at a time rather than singly. That goes against the grain of how music is generally consumed today, but I can’t get away from preferring leisurely listening to a long-player rather than shuffling about from song to song.

I might just have to grab another iPod before they disappear. Not that this one is showing any signs of giving up, but I think I’ve arrived at a point in the way I listen to music where I don’t want to be without it.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

Made it through that first week of the NFL season hitting a decent percentage of winners in the Pigskin Pick’em pool -- 11 of 16 correct (picking straight up), putting me one game back of the leaders who got 12.

I much prefer picking games straight up than against the spread, not because it is any easier, but because it doesn’t twist me into what to me is an uncomfortable position as a fan having not to root for one or the other team to win, but rather for a certain, amenable final score.

It’s the same reason why I still can’t bring myself to get involved very much in fantasy sports. As much as I love both sports and numbers -- a pair of predilections that I’ve always thought directly informs my love of poker, too -- I just can’t interest myself in the statistical tsunami of fantasy football.

The start of the season reminded me of last year. For the first three weeks of the NFL season, 16 games are played each week (then the byes kick in). Last year I’d gotten 10/16, 10/16, then 9/16 for a so-so start of 29 out of 48.

I was already eight games behind the leader, and thus ended up spending the entire playing catch-up. By the end I was scrambling, picking lots of upsets in a desperate attempt to close the widening gap and ultimately finishing with just 156 of 256 correct (about the same percentage I’d hit during those first three weeks).

That was way, way behind our group’s winner who picked 178 of 256 games correctly for the season (an impressive 69.5%). Meanwhile there was one genius out of the hundreds of thousands who played the game on ESPN who correctly picked 191 of 256 last year (74.6%). No shinola.

In 2012, I hit 166 of 256 (64.8%), good enough to bubble the cash. The year before I also hit 166 of 256, which won me the pool that year.

I was chatting with a friend yesterday who was showing me the results of picks made by the Football Outsiders over the last few years, including how they did picking games straight up. They’ve improved every year over the last six in that category, getting 171 correct each of the last two years.

That’s getting just about exactly 2 out of every 3 picks right, a good line to shoot for. Getting 11 of 16 just barely beats it. Harder than it looks, though.

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Monday, September 08, 2014

Anyone Can Win… Except Not Everyone Can Win

Over the weekend I had a chance to read poker pro Sam Grafton’s excellent post on the RunItOnce site inspired by his viewing of the “Big One for One Drop” coverage on ESPN. Titled “Poker and Silence,” Grafton’s article deftly covers a number of overlapping issues currently of relevance not just to the world of poker players but also to those who cover them. He also offers many thoughtful observations about poker’s current cultural status, his comments marked by a thorough understanding of poker’s history -- both long-term and more recently.

Indeed I could almost imagine assigning the post to my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class as a smart introduction to the current state of affairs for poker. For part of the class we do address the idea of the “poker professional” as it is described in some of our reading assignments, in particular David Hayano’s Poker Faces (from the early 1980s). Grafton offers a nice update to that discussion when he describes “the modern poker pro” and the various challenges and/or responsibilities that come with such a role.

Incidentally, by contrast consider again that Newsweek screed by Leah McGrath Goodman from last month concerning the threat posed by online poker. On the one hand a writer who lives fully outside of the world she’s describing cobbles together a haphazard feature regarding it, trying to build an ethos upon conversations with a sampling of individuals many of whom also aren’t part of that world (and who also are mostly dimly informed about it). On the other a writer speaks of a world in which he has lived for many years, having gained not just an understanding of how it operates but retained the perspective of how it appears and functions to those on the outside.

It’s no surprise one article obscures while the other illuminates.

In any event, I don’t intend to summarize the entire piece -- read it yourself and be enlightened by such intelligent commentary on our favorite game. I did want to point to one idea he shares, however, one of those obvious-yet-often-overlooked points that is in fact crucially relevant to anyone hoping to “sell” or “market” or “make acceptable” the game to those who aren’t already fans or players.

The point concerns what Grafton calls the “two rather contradictory narratives of how poker functions” often advanced by those wishing to promote the game. “The first centres on the idea that anyone can win a poker tournament,” writes Grafton. “This is needed to encourage a constant influx of losing amateurs and enthusiasts that they too could claim a big pay-day. The second is that this is a game of skill where some players excel in a similar manner to great athletes. If poker tournament winners were just a random series of individuals the game would, of course, be no different to a lottery.”

That second narrative -- that to win at poker requires skill -- Grafton then relates to the idea of the “poker pro” who most obviously exemplifies that idea for those wishing to distinguish poker from other gambling games. Yet the first one suggesting “anyone can win” is also essential when it comes to making the game inviting to new players. Who would want to venture into such a world were there no hope of succeeding?

Sure, there are ways of reconciling the paradox -- e.g., to speak of “short term” versus “long term,” or perhaps even to argue that anyone can develop the skills needed to succeed (unlike, say, in most sports where physical limitations necessarily make success at the highest level unattainable). But the paradox remains. One of many in poker, in fact.

Go read Grafton’s piece, which has a lot more to say than that.

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