Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Being Human

Human BeingVictoria Coren wrote a neat, short Guardian piece yesterday titled “How do you find the best player in the world?

There she reflects briefly on the recent International Federation of Poker event in which teams from 11 nations (plus a team from the “virtual” nation of Zynga) completed against one another using the duplicate poker format. I wrote a little about the IFP event, though not so much about duplicate poker, in my Community Cards column for Epic Poker this week, “Poker as a Sport.”

Coren’s succinctly-made point yesterday was to point out how difficult -- really, impossible -- it is to rank poker players according to any utterly unambiguous scale. “I rather like the impossibility of naming anyone ‘best,’” writes Coren, adding that “the ensuing, unceasing argument is so human.”

I rather like Coren’s choice of adjective to conclude that thought. It is “human” to attempt such futile tasks. And it’s our being “human” that helps contribute to the impossibility of objectively ranking poker players.

She ends her column with a quote from the last page of Richard Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid, a book I wrote about here some years ago. The quote is in fact presented in the novel as an idea Christian (Eric’s girlfriend) tries to impart to the Kid. “For every number one man there is a number two man,” goes the idea, “and because of this a man cannot retreat from life.”

'The Cincinnati Kid' by Richard Jessup (1964)Then comes a pronouncement about the seemingly unbeatable Lancey Howard: “The difference is that the number one man is a machine and the Cincinnati Kid is not, and was not, and never will be a machine.”

The implication that Lancey is “a machine” sounds an ironic note when we recall his nickname -- “The Man.” Another implication, of course, is that being human means being capable of losing. That no “number one” can ever continue as such without being challenged. Not if he’s human, that is.

All of that talk resonated strongly with me today as we just happen to be reading and discussing “poker bots” and online poker in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class. Our readings consider recent efforts in artificial intelligence to create poker-playing computer programs -- i.e., to make machines more human-like -- as well as how online poker might have the effect of making humans more machine-like.

All of these items -- artificial intelligence, poker bots, online poker, the fictional character Lancey Howard -- encourage us to consider the significance of the human element in poker. And how it is our flaws and our efforts to exploit those of others and suppress our own that make the game interesting and meaningful -- not a “retreat from life,” but an expression of it.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Poker’s Stick-to-it-iveness

Spider-Man, caught in a webNot surprisingly, Tobey Maguire decided to settle out of court in that poker-related lawsuit involving the famous “Hollywood home games.” You’ve heard that story, haven’t you? The other one in which “poker” and “Ponzi scheme” both keep coming up?

The lawsuit had been brought by the victims of Bradley Ruderman, a corrupt hedge fund manager who bilked clients out of millions via what has been described as a Ponzi scheme.

Ruderman had participated in the Hollywood poker games for about three years (from 2006 to 2009), losing consistently with his clients’ money. While it is probably impossible to say exactly how much Ruderman lost in the games -- the precise details of which have mostly remained closely-guarded -- most reports suggest his losses to have exceeded $5 million.

Maguire has long been rumored to have been a big winner in the Hollywood games, perhaps even the biggest. In fact, Mr. Name Dropper himself Phil Hellmuth once said on a 2007 episode of “Poker After Dark” that Maguire had won at least $10 million in them.

Ruderman was finally nabbed and pleaded guilty to wire fraud, investment-adviser fraud, and failure to pay taxes. He’s now in prison, serving a 10-year sentence, and has also been ordered to pay back more than $27 million to his victims.

Back in the spring, lawsuits were filed against something like two dozen different individuals, all of whom were said to have won money from Ruderman in the games. Those targeted included Gabe Kaplan, Nick Cassavetes, Rick Salomon (of “1 Night in Paris” notoriety), and others.

Some -- including Kaplan -- have already settled out of court, usually for a fraction of the amount sought. In Maguire’s case, the suit claimed he’d taken over $311,000 from Ruderman at the tables, but the settlement was only for $80,000. A judge will still have to approve the deal in court next month, but odds are the Spider-Man star will successfully wiggle free from this entanglement.

While the legality of the home games is being questioned in the lawsuits -- see this Hollywood Reporter feature for details -- it’s unclear whether these efforts to sue players to recover money they won in the games would succeed if the cases went to trial. What is clear, though, is that folks like Maguire aren’t interested in seeing their names continuing to be highlighted in tabloids in connection with things like “fraud” or “lawsuits” or “Ponzi schemes.”

Or, one might as well add, “poker.”

Recall how Maguire shunned the spotlight at the World Series of Poker back when he was regularly playing in events, including in 2007 when he went fairly deep in the Main (finishing 292nd)? No, the celebs generally don’t want to be linked with the game, even those who are somewhat dedicated to it like Maguire. They just don’t want “poker” following ’em around. Thus are these cases being settled out of court.

I guess in the end Maguire probably views the $80K as hefty rake taken from whatever he’s won from the games. But I suppose there’s another “rake” when it comes to poker, a risk to one’s status among those who view the game as an objectionable pursuit or pastime.

That’s thanks in part to poker’s legacy as a game for outlaws, giving poker a reputation that has long been kind of, well...


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Monday, November 28, 2011

The Chris Ferguson Challenge

The Original Chris Ferguson ChallengeThose tourneys on Carbon I mentioned last Friday both turned out well for me. Both had $5 entries, but I’d won free entries by answering questions posted by the @CarbonPoker account over on Twitter.

The “Fat Stack” tourney featured starting stacks of 1 million chips (with 25,000/50,000 blinds to begin) and 10-minute levels. A total of 50 entered, which I liked because Carbon has a kind of odd payout schedule whereby only the top five spots cash if 30-49 players play, but the top 10 make the money if 50-99 play.

Thus with exactly 50 registered, that meant 20% of us would cash. While I certainly wanted to win, even a small cash would be fine by me, helping me start a tiny bankroll. As it happened, I did make it all of the way to a seventh-place finish, at which point my pocket aces were cruelly cracked by a player holding 6-6. Good for $12.50, that.

I chipped up early in that one and was sitting on 30-35 big blinds for much of the time, so there was some play pretty much until the very end. By contrast, the other one, the “Slim Stack” one, was just about entirely chance-based, essentially an “all-in-or-fold” tournament in which we began with 10 chips and 0.5/1 blinds, then saw increases every two minutes.

Only 15 entered that one, which meant only the top three spots paid. Again, though, we were looking at 20% of the field cashing.

On the third hand I shoved with A-8, got called by A-J, and spiked an eight. Tripled up soon after that with A-Q (I believe), then survived to finish third and score another $15. In other words, I made more in the crapshoot than in the one requiring some genuine decision-making.

I mentioned Friday how I had a penny in my account there before, so that makes my total roll on Carbon $27.51.

Once again, then, I get to contemplate how best to turn a little into a little more. For those of us who were playing online poker several years ago, this whole “zero to hero” scenario automatically recalls “The Chris Ferguson Challenge” in which the pro succeeded in building a bankroll of $10,000 from nothing, starting his journey by winning a pittance in a freeroll, then practicing sound bankroll management from there.

Ferguson’s rules included never buying into a cash game or sit-n-go with more than 5% of your total bankroll, never buying into a multi-table tourney with more than 2% of your total, and leaving a cash game if you ever worked the money on the table up to more than 10% of your total worth.

He allowed exceptions for the micro limits. You could buy into any cash game or SNG for $2.50 or less, or any MTT for $1 or less, regardless of your roll. I think he may have busted at least once and had to start over, but eventually he did reach the goal, then donated the $10,000 to a charity.

That whole story reads much differently today, of course, thanks to the “Black Friday” indictment and civil complaint that targeted (among others) Full Tilt Poker, with the civil complaint later amended to include Ferguson among those being accused of various wrongdoing.

Chris 'Jesus' FergusonThe amended complaint (made public in September) alleges that “Defendant Ferguson” was the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Tiltware LLC as well as a part-owner of the company, and that he was among those who were paid large sums out of player funds, thereby helping create a situation in which Full Tilt owed players something like $390 million worldwide while having less than $60 million on hand (in late March 2011).

According to the amended complaint, “Ferguson was allocated approximately $85,161,305.88 in distributions,” although records indicated only about $25 million had actually been transferred to Ferguson’s accounts “with the remaining balance characterized as ‘owed’ to Ferguson.”

Shortly after the amended complaint dropped in September, Ferguson’s lawyer, the excellently-named Ian Imrich, responded by refuting the whole “Ponzi scheme” characterization made by U.S. attorney Preet Bharara. A couple of days after issuing the amended civil complaint, the DOJ moved to seize funds from FTP board members’ accounts, including Ferguson’s.

A week later Ray Bitar filed a claim against those seizures, and a couple of weeks after that (in mid-November) Ferguson likewise filed a few motions with the Southern District of New York, including some against seizures of funds from his accounts. One of those motions lists a couple of different FTP companies (the Kolyma Corporation and Vantage Ltd.) having the rights to $98,276,540 in several accounts seized by the DOJ. Another speaks of Tiltware, and that one Ferguson claims his right to $196,553,080 worth of funds in several different accounts.

The argument -- if I am following it correctly -- is that some of the funds in those seized accounts were “in the process of being returned to Full Tilt Poker players” (to quote from one of the motions). Indeed, I’ve thought since I first heard of those “FTP Insider Accounts” that the moving of big sums into the owners’ personal accounts probably wasn’t unrelated to an effort to keep the money squirreled away somehow and not necessarily evidence that the owners were simply taking the money for themselves. Then again, I think some of that was probably going on... who knows, really?

Of course, the status of all of this has likely changed with the apparent deal between Groupe Bernard Tapie and FTP (“brokered” by the DOJ) to effect the sale of the company to the French group as well as the return of funds to players, including funds seized by the DOJ.

A curious contrast, isn’t it, between Ferguson's careful management of money in his “Challenge” and his apparently less-than-cautious handling of things at Full Tilt Poker?

In any case, I'll consider Ferguson's bankroll advice as I try to manage my little roll on Carbon, realizing as I do that it’s hard to refer to something called “The Chris Ferguson Challenge” anymore without recognizing all of the new possible meanings the phrase evokes.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

A Matter of Perspective

A Matter of PerspectiveNFL Picks went well yesterday. Three for three. I mean it was a good day, but small stuff big picture-wise. A ways to go yet.

Will now relax for a couple of days to enjoy some college ball (both football and basketball) before focusing anew on those pro picks on Sunday.

Meanwhile, I scored a couple of free entries into tournaments happening on Carbon Poker later today, more chances for me to build a bankroll there without actually depositing.

We Americans can deposit onto Carbon if we want to, though it takes a little effort. We can withdraw, too -- an important point -- although that also requires some patience. But as I’ve been expressing in various ways here over the last seven-plus months, I’m with that large crowd of can’t-be-bothered recreational players unwilling to make the effort to go through the extra steps needed to stay in action.

I'm not sure of exact figures, but I think it’s probably safe to assume that when Black Friday came -- that other, one, on April 15, not today -- probably more than 90% of Americans who played online poker for real money played entirely on PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker, or UltimateBet. (At the time, I only played on Stars and FTP.)

And of that group of players, I believe it's still a super small percentage who have since found their way over to the Merge sites, Bodog, Cake, or the few other tiny ones still taking Yanks. I’d be interested to know exactly how the number of real money players in the U.S. today compares to that of early April.

I am still piddling about some with the money I won in a freeroll over on Hero Poker. And like say, perhaps I can win me a little over on Carbon, too.

Technically speaking, I do currently have money on Carbon. Exactly one penny (no shinola)!

Some time back I won a $1 ticket to a sit-n-go on Carbon, finished second there to win $2 cash, then ran that up to more than five bucks playing micro cash games and a few $0.11 SNGs. But alas, a bit of run bad compounded by bad bankroll management knocked me back under a buck, then all of the way down to the $0.01 total I have today.

Will see, though, if these tourneys work out and I can try again over there. One is a “fat stack” tournament in which players start with 1 million chips, with blinds beginning at 25,000/50,000. The other is called a “slim stack” tourney. In that one, players begin with just 10 chips, with blinds beginning at 0.5/1.

In truth, both tourneys start relatively shallow (20 BBs in the “fat“ one, 10 BBs in the “slim”), although the “slim” will feature turbo-style blind increases every two minutes, as opposed to the 10-minute levels in the “fat” one. Will be fun to see how players differently respond to starting with a million chips as opposed to just 10.

Kind of a psychological test, I guess, these two tourneys. Of course, the whole year has been a similar challenge for online poker players in the U.S., where once it seemed we had a ton of chips (and play) left, but at present very few.

I guess that explains why I’m sorta looking forward to my little freerolls today. ’Cos you know... they look different than they would’ve before.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011


Kicking BackLooking at a day full of football and food here. Am already settled into my favorite spot on the couch, from which I don’t plan to move very much at all for the next several hours.

I continue to battle in that Pigskin Pick’em league. Three interesting games today in the NFL, all winnable by either team, I’d say. Makes the picking more interesting, since not everyone will be going the same way on every game.

I have also now gotten an account over at Draft Day, the new fantasy sports site started by some CardRunners guys and others to fill the void left here in the U.S. following Black Friday. (And to step through that little carve out for fantasy sports crazily existing in the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006.)

I entered a freeroll over there and so will be keeping my eye on how that goes this week, too. The site is expertly set up, by the way, with super simple depositing options if you happen to be into the fantasy thing.

Meanwhile, the eats will comprise the usual -- ham, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, and apple pie. Vera and I are taking this one in together, staying off the roads and saving the traveling and visits for December. A lot different from last year for me, when I spent the Thanksgiving holiday down in Marrakech, Morocco with the World Poker Tour.

We are already starting to hear some reflecting on the fact that 2011 has been one of the more interesting, tumultuous years poker has seen. Certainly is ending much differently than it began.

But a few things have remained the same for me since a year ago. I remain thankful for all of the opportunities I’ve had and continue to have in a wildly interesting field. And most importantly, I’m thankful for all of the great people I’ve gotten to know and build friendships with both through this blog and in other areas of the poker world.

Thanks again, all.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Barry Tanenbaum (1945-2011)

Barry TanenbaumI noticed a few days ago that Lee Jones had started a thread over in Two Plus Two reporting that Barry Tanenbaum had fallen ill. Sadly, the Card Player columnist, author, and friend to many in the poker community passed away yesterday.

Recent Poker Hall of Fame inductee Linda Johnson has written a nice piece on the Card Player site about Tanenbaum. There you’ll find one of Tanenbaum’s many friends sharing details of his endearing personality and his talents as a poker player and teacher.

He was a winner. In many respects.

As someone who only barely knew Tanenbaum, I haven’t a lot to add to Johnson’s remembrance, although I do have one small story to share.

Like many, I got to know Tanenbaum through his articles in Card Player, of which there are well over 100. For a long time I was primarily a limit hold’em player, and since his pieces were always focused on LHE I routinely turned to them whenever a new issue of the magazine arrived. I also always enjoyed his appearances on podcasts, including Lou Krieger’s Keep Flopping Aces. Thus was I especially glad to see him bring forth a book collecting his wisdom in late 2007, Advanced Limit Hold’em Strategy.

It was Tanenbaum’s second poker strategy book, technically -- he’d collaborated before with a couple of others titled Limit Hold’em: Winning Short-Handed Strategies -- but this was the first solely devoted to his own ideas and thinking about LHE. I read the book from cover to cover, then reread to absorb further the advice it contained. Looking back at my records, this was actually my most profitable period playing online, and I know it wasn’t a coincidence I was spending a lot of time then with Tanenbaum’s columns and book.

It wasn’t long after that I began to review poker books for PokerNews, and when I proposed writing a review of Tanenbaum’s book to my editor, Haley Hintze, she said she thought that was a good idea.

It was a challenging book to review, given that its primary audience were the middle- and high-stakes LHE players against whom Tanenbaum often played. Indeed, the book begins with disclaimers about it not being for beginners, and while I wasn’t that, I was hardly one who could reasonably sit down at those $30/$60 and $40/$80 LHE games (or higher) and expect to succeed.

'Advanced Limit Hold'em Strategy' (2008) by Barry TanenbaumBut I knew I had gotten a great deal from the book, and so in my review explained how I believed it was of value to players of all stakes. I also tried to get across this central idea that Tanenbaum wasn’t so much teaching players a particular style but rather was trying get them to understand (and improve upon) whatever style they already played.

As Tanenbaum explains, his intention wasn’t to write a how-to book that told players what to play when, but rather to teach LHE players how better to think about the game. “I am trying to improve your game, not give you one,” he writes.

You can check out the review for a full summary of what the book covers as well as other ideas I had about what Tanenbaum is up to in Advanced Limit Hold’em Strategy.

Sometime after the review went up, I received a very nice email from Tanenbaum thanking me for it. We ended up exchanging a few messages in which he complimented me for having understood the book and successfully gotten its message across in the review.

As I mentioned, I’d been a little apprehensive about writing the review. It was among the first I had written for PokerNews, actually, so I was especially grateful to get such feedback from the author. (I’d continue to review books for PN until the summer of 2009; they’ve since gotten others to write reviews for them.)

It will happen from time to time that after reviewing a book I’ll hear from the author, but rarely do we get beyond a simple thank-you-and-you’re-welcome. But with Tanenbaum our exchange was more substantive and meaningful -- something I suspect most who knew him would say was the case in their interactions with him, too.

I think it was the following spring (2009) that Vera and I visited Las Vegas for a dressage show, the big World Cup that used to come to LV every other year. I remember talking with Tanenbaum a few times over the phone during that visit. His wife also rode horses, and I think we had an extra ticket to one of the sessions and were talking about perhaps giving it to her, but the plan fell through.

Tanenbaum had a website and fairly popular forum, too, where I participated occasionally and continued to interact with both him and others. And we stayed in touch a bit over email as well. I remember at some point providing him some .mp3s of some podcasts on which he had appeared that I had saved, but it has been awhile since our last exchange of messages.

Anyhow, like I say the story of my interactions with Tanenbaum is a relatively small one, but I wanted to share it today as further testament of his friendliness as well as his being one of those “poker people” who always welcomed newcomers into the game in a variety of ways.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Far from Super

FailureWell, everybody’s disappointed in the “super committee” it seems. This despite the fact that most appear never to have held out much hope to start with that the sucker would produce anything, anyway.

Yesterday the specially-appointed, 12-member bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction announced it had been unable to complete its charge to issue a recommendation for reducing the nation’s deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next ten years. (They’d started out talking about $1.5 trillion, but scaled that back.) Apparently the group of senators and representatives were still meeting as late as yesterday, leading some to think they may in fact come through with legislation that would then be voted on by the House and Senate. But alas, they did not.

Not even taking an “incomplete” here, to draw a campus-related analogy. No, this is “withdraw/failing.”

If I am not mistaken, now that the “super committee” has failed, “automatic” budget cuts will start happening -- including cuts to defense spending -- although they don't start up until 2013. Meaning Congress can still step in to change their minds on that, too. As Sen. John McCain has said, “Congress is not bound by this. It’s something we passed. We can reverse it.”

Such is the life of the rule-makers. You can withdraw with a failing grade. But you can keep retaking the course, too, as long as you keep your seat.

When the “super committee” was first created by in August -- a consequence of that debt ceiling crisis from the summer -- there had been some talk that a provision to license and regulate online poker as a new revenue source might pop up as part of the recommendation the group would be making. Last week’s leaked story that Sen. Harry Reid and Sen. Jon Kyl are perhaps looking to co-sponsor some sort of online poker legislation faintly revived that hope once again for some, as Kyl was on the Joint Select Committee and Reid had appointed the three Democratic senators who served.

But all of the commentary this morning seems to indicate that the “super committee” was a doomed enterprise all along. And some are connecting its failure to come to terms with a larger one characterizing the U.S. 112th Congress.

Wendy Schiller, an Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Brown University, told CNN today that the committee’s failure was not just theirs -- apparently they’d tried to cut deals with others in Congress to get something together, “but were rebuffed by their party leaders” -- but a “failure of political leadership on both sides of the partisan aisle.”

“Both parties chose their own electoral livelihoods over the good of the country, and it is outright shameful,” added Schiller. “This might be the most self-serving, mediocre, and uncaring set of legislators in Congress in the last 50 years.”

Schiller suggests that the current Congress is perhaps unique in the extent of its self-interestedness and collective failure to lead. But we know that when it comes to legislating online gambling in the U.S., every action made in the past -- on the state or federal level -- has been “self-serving” to the legislators who made it. As such will be the case for whatever comes next, if anything.

Meanwhile, as citizens with a desire to play our favorite card game against each other online, we just have to hope what serves the political interests of our overlords happens to overlap a little with what serves our own.

Sure, they represent us in theory. But in practice the arrangement is not so super.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Back ’Round to Rounders

Mike McDermott retrieves money from a copy of Mike Caro's 'Poker Tells' in 'Rounders'We discussed Rounders today in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class, rounding off our unit of films. Just a couple more weeks left in the semester, during which time the students will pick a particular film in which poker is prominent and write an essay analyzing the film and its use of poker.

I’ve mentioned before here how I’ve always been kind of lukewarm about Rounders. But with each viewing I’m growing to appreciate it a little more, I think. It works especially well here at the end of the semester, bringing together all sorts of themes and ideas we’ve been reading about and discussing for the past three months.

It’s clear from those opening shots of classic poker strategy books like Mike Caro’s Poker Tells and Doyle Brunson’s Super/System that the film was made by people with a keen understanding and appreciation of the history of poker. Indeed, the script is peppered with many familiar, much-repeated lines from the two-plus century-long story of the game. Some of these are passed along by Mike McDermott in his voice-over narration with attribution, while others are uttered by characters without stopping to identify sources.

That “allusive” quality of the film makes it especially fun to watch and talk about at the end of the course, after we’ve read Cowboys Full by James McManus, The Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez, and many other essays and stories.

Mike McDermott retrieves money from a copy of 'Super/System' in 'Rounders'We’ve already read Doyle’s characterization of hold’em as “the Cadillac of poker” more than once by now.

We’ve seen reference to Amarillo Slim Preston several times, too -- even watched him and Doyle and others in a video in class -- and so recognize the reference when Mike quotes him talking about being able to “shear a sheep many times, but you can skin him only once” (noting how Worm never seemed to have learned that lesson).

We hear Teddy KGB complain about Mike having “alligator blood” at the end of the film, and we remember Johnny Moss saying the same thing about Stu Ungar at the 1981 WSOP near the end of The Biggest Game in Town.

And so on. References to the World Series of Poker resonate, too, since we have already discussed its central place in poker culture at present. And even situations the characters find themselves in throughout the film are mostly recognizable to us by now, having read those histories, short stories, Jesse May’s novel Shut Up and Deal, and watched other films including The Cincinnati Kid and California Split.

All of which is to say that while I still wouldn’t put Rounders at the tippy top of my list of poker movies -- or anywhere close to the top of a list of best movies, poker or otherwise -- I am enjoying certain aspects of David Levien and Brian Koppelman’s script more and more. And I especially like the way the film kind of encapsulates so many themes one finds in an extended survey of the culture and history of poker in America.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

The Rebranding of Poker

The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade talks online gaming (again)I watched the live streams of both of those Congressional hearings regarding online gaming this week.

This first happened yesterday afternoon over in the Senate where the Committee on Indian Affairs had an oversight hearing on “The Future of Internet Gaming: What's at Stake for Tribes?” Then this morning came a second meeting in the House of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade to talk about “Internet Gaming: Regulating in an Online World,” in particular the bill proposed by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) to license, regulate, and tax online poker in the U.S. (H.R. 2366).

Yesterday’s discussion in the senate regarding Native Americans’ potential stake in a regulated online gambling environment in the U.S. did deal in some specifics with regard to how it might be reconciled with the current situation and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. Otherwise, the talk was mostly of a generic variety when it came to what such an environment would be like.

The upshot seemed to be that proponents of regulation all want to assure the Native Americans that neither their current rights nor their brick-and-mortar casinos will be unduly threatened by the dawning of a regulated online gambling in the U.S. Meanwhile, representatives of the Native Americans’ interest are somewhat divided, with several sounding less than enthusiastic about such a prospect.

That is to say, there are more than a few reservations from the reservations.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA)Meanwhile, today’s House subcommittee hearing was much more specific about logistics and seemed to indicate the real possibility that the Barton bill could move forward soon. Still, there were a number of points made to suggest at least some legislators aren’t thrilled with the idea of allowing anything like H.R. 2366 to move along, including Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) whose nickname may or may not be “Big Bad.”

Channeling our old friend Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) -- the House Financial Services Committee Chairman currently scheduling hearings to look into insider trading while being accused himself of having benefited from the very same practice (no shinola) -- Wolf spoke of suicides and ruin as unavoidable consequences to unleashing the “crack cocaine” of online gambling upon citizens who will necessarily be unable to control their worst, most self-destructive instincts.

Responding to Wolf in today’s hearing, Rep. Barton tried to distinguish poker from other gambling games -- his bill is, after all, poker-specific -- promoting it as a true test of skill that primarily attracts intelligent people who aren’t in such dire need of governmental hand-holding. Referencing the World Series of Poker on ESPN, Barton praised the smarts on display there, noting how the players seemed more like “very intelligent, ‘MIT’ type engineering people” than potential gambling addicts.

Wolf wasn’t really hearing that argument, and indeed others who would support Barton’s bill such as Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) who also testified at today’s House hearing aren’t that excited, either, to start distinguishing poker as particularly different from other gambling games. Not when it comes to arguing for individual liberty and citizens’ rights to play those games, anyway.

All of this made me think of a Forbes article that just appeared a couple of days ago by Jeff Bercovici titled “Poker Shuffles the Deck.”

International Federation of PokerTaking an argument that is currently being advanced by the International Federation of Poker, the group currently holding a duplicate poker tournament in London (“the Nations Cup”) designed to highlight the skill the game requires, Bercovici discusses current efforts to try to “rebrand” poker as a “mindsport.”

Besides improving poker’s cultural status (and perhaps helping legislators like Barton make his case for poker’s difference from other gambling games), such a “rebranding” may also help in the securing the support of advertisers other sports currently enjoy. So goes the argument, anyway.

“If poker ever manages to transcend its unsavory origins and become a mainstream sport with big-league sponsorship -- and that's a big if -- it will have followed a familiar path,” writes Bercovici. He then goes on to compare poker to Mixed Martial Arts, stock car racing, and even football -- all sports that weren’t initially accepted by the American culture at large before eventually becoming some of the country’s most popular sports to watch.

The comparisons are interesting, as is the overall effort to “rebrand” poker into something more acceptable to more Americans. I can’t help but think, though, that it would be easy to take all of this too far -- to try to characterize poker as a game that does not involve real gambling, or to make the game over into something else entirely (as one could argue duplicate poker tries to do).

Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX)Barton’s words today implied the idea that it’s mostly super-smarties playing poker, but we all know that is hardly the case. And even if everyone who played poker approached it as studiously as many approach other “mindsports,” it would still be a gambling game in which chance necessarily plays a significant role. And well, not everyone is okay with that.

Apparently there might be another online poker-only bill introduced over in the senate before the end of the year -- at least that is what the New York Post reported this week. Harry Reid (D-NV) is said to be behind this one (again), with UIGEA-architect and former opponent of all things gambling-related Jon Kyl (R-AZ) allegedly on board as a co-sponsor. Kyl is on that “super committee,” you'll recall, and so some are wondering if the subject might have come up as that group works on discovering ways to reduce the deficit, including creating new revenue sources.

Am highly curious to see where all of this legislative pushing ultimately goes. And, of course, what the poker “brand” will become in terms of its significance to American culture if and when it does.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Return of Full Tilt Poker Funds Coming Sooner Than Later?

CNN Money reporting the GBT-FTP-DOJ deal (before the story was taken down)Was following that hearing this afternoon of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs regarding “The Future of Internet Gaming: What's at Stake for Tribes?” Some interesting and suggestive talk about the prospects for federal legislation going on there, with the tribes’ potential involvement being foregrounded throughout.

Right near the end, though, I was distracted by news regarding a possible deal having been struck between Full Tilt Poker, Groupe Bernard Tapie, and the Department of Justice.

The story, filed by Aaron Smith and Erica Fink, popped up a couple of hours ago over on the CNN Money site, although was subsequently taken down. The same article remains up over on Yahoo’s finance page; however, a disclaimer at the top of the report suggests it perhaps the article was posted prematurely: “Editors: THIS STORY IS UNDER EMBARGO UNTIL ERICA GETS THE CLEAR FROM THE LAWYER AT GROUPE BERNARD TAPIE.” (EDIT [added 6:30 p.m.]: The story has been removed from the Yahoo site now, too. Here is a cached version.)

The report says the deal involves FTP forfeiting its assets to the DOJ “which then sold the assets to the GBT.” The purchase price in this deal “brokered” by the DOJ is $80 million. Also mentioned in the story is a plan for the DOJ to dismiss civil forfeiture proceedings against Full Tilt. (Meanwhile, there’s no mention of the amended Black Friday indictment and civil complaint versus Full Tilt and its owners.)

More pertinent to most of us, it sounds like the deal also requires the GBT to “take responsibility for the burned players outside the U.S., while the Department of Justice will facilitate paybacks to the American gamblers.” We Yanks will have to “apply to the DOJ for compensation.”

Like I say, the status of the deal is not 100% certain quite yet. Shortly after the CNN Money article was posted and removed, the International Business Times reported that the deal remained up in the air, choosing the headline “Settlement Stalled?” for their report. Meanwhile, both Vin Narayanan of the Casino City Times (@CasinoCityVin) and Andrew Feldman of ESPN (@ESPN_Poker) tweeted within the last hour that they’d spoken with representatives of the DOJ who refused to confirm or deny any deal had been struck.

However, Wendeen H. Eolis over at Poker Player Newspaper did speak with a legal representative of the GBT who confirmed to her that the deal had been made pending “approval of the deal by a 2/3 vote of the FTP shareholder interests.” Other points of interest regarding the terms of the deal being reported by Eolis include the fact that that the “GBT will hold at least a majority interest in the company,” and that “none of the current FTP directors will be permitted to hold shares in the company.”

Quite a development, this, if the deal is indeed about to be finalized and the news hasn’t been prematurely delivered. I imagine if the FTP shareholders do agree to the deal we should hear some sort of confirmation soon from the DOJ. Would imagine FTP will have a statement of some sort, too. (EDIT [added 7:30 p.m.]: FTP has; see here.) Kind of par for the course, really, for such a story to “break” so uncertainly like this, given the way all of the previous chapters in the ongoing Full Tilt Poker serialized drama have been shared.

I guess we’ll stay tuned. And perhaps some of us will get ready to fill out those applications to the DOJ for the return of our cabbage. I suppose a problem may arise in there somewhere for folks who liked to avoid paying taxes on their winnings, though it is hard to say for sure exactly how that will go.

In any case, it’s funny to compare such a prospect to how things used to look whenever we withdrew from Full Tilt Poker.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Strip Poker, Art, and Cultural Commentary

Warning for 'I'll Raise You One...' performanceThis week I’ve seen a number of articles about this performance art happening up in New York City involving a strip poker game. You’ve probably seen stories about it by now, too, if you spend any time on the poker news sites. Or even several non-poker news sites where the story has proven attention-grabbing enough to rate a mention.

Zefrey Throwell is the artist behind the performance, titled “I’ll Raise You One...” All week at the Art in General studio on Walker Street in Tribeca, a group of 48 people are playing an ongoing game of strip poker. The game is taking place from 10:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. each day through Saturday in the studio’s front window, meaning passersby can look in and watch the game as it proceeds.

According to a report in the Village Voice, the performance is meant to offer a commentary of sorts on American culture, a commentary which seems to either have some affinity with or to have been inspired by the “Occupy” protests in New York and elsewhere.

“Throwell sees strip poker as a metaphor for the economy, with clothing symbolizing money,” the article states, quoting from the studio’s explanation of the piece. “While skill can help, the people who show up with the least clothing are in the worst shape, and no one can control the luck of the draw.”

from 'I'll Raise You One...'Like I say, there’s plenty online already about the strip poker game. Here’s a short video put together by The New York Post presenting it, and here is the page on the Art in General website explaining it further.

Throwell was in the news back in early August after another of his performance pieces, also involving public nudity, was swiftly shut down within minutes. That one also had an awkward title -- “Ocularpation: Wall Street” -- and involved 50 people suddenly stripping on Wall Street. Was sort of a visual pun, I guess, on the “flash mob” idea.

A few were detained for disorderly conduct, the others quickly put their clothes on, and that was that. Other than the news articles, that is, which helped spell out the artist’s intended message “to lend more transparency to Wall Street, a street which is so damn mysterious.”

I was intrigued to hear about this performance piece thanks in part to the fact that last month I’d written a short piece about strip poker in American history and culture for the Epic Poker blog. But the more I read about “I’ll Raise You Once...” the less enthused I am about the piece.

Like that “Ocularpation: Wall Street” performance, this one, too, seems to be delivering a not-so-interesting political message, in this case regarding the unequal distribution of wealth and material goods. And again, public nudity gets the piece extra attention, thereby extending the reach of that message.

But I dunno... can’t say I’m all that inspired by it.

Maybe it’s because as a poker player I am already too well acquainted with the message. We players well know that having more chips gives a player more options and thus an advantage over his or her shorter-stacked opponent. And sure, we’re also well aware that we’re all subject to luck, and that while having more chips makes it easier to absorb potential misfortunes, there are no guarantees.

Poker is unfair. Life is unfair. Being good doesn’t guarantee reward. Got it.

from 'I'll Raise You One...'“Using the language of small stakes capitalism mixed with America’s favorite gambling pass-time [sic], and the flirtatious teenage party game of strip poker, Throwell draws a fluxus parallel between what we consider winning and losing in the world today.” So explains the studio.

“Fluxus” refers to that category of experimental art across a variety of media usually designed to deliver various kinds of cultural commentary -- including commentary on art itself -- often with an emphasis on humor. Sorta big in the ’60s, it was. Think John Cage or Yoko Ono.

The strip poker piece reminds me of a similar but more interesting work, a short film titled “Naked” in which poker pro and chess champ Jennifer Shahade plays chess against a nude male amateur, Jason Bretz. That piece plays off of a famous photo of Marcel Duchamp (a big influence on the Fluxus crowd), reversing the roles of the man and woman to make a comment on the relationship of the sexes.

In Big Deal, Anthony Holden famously observed that “whether he likes it or not, a man’s character is stripped bare at the poker table.” Holden’s point was to emphasize the inescapability of “exposing” oneself (figuratively) at the table. And the need to appreciate that fact if one hopes to endure as a player. “Unless he is both able and prepared to see himself as others do, flaws and all,” says Holden, “he will be a loser in cards as in life."

I suppose strip poker kind of weirdly literalizes this process of being “stripped bare,” although losing your clothes needn’t signify much in particular about your character. (Other than perhaps a willingness to party, that is!) Nor does it say too much about your abilities as a player, either. Not in the short sample size marked by a few garments and a pair of shoes, anyhow.

Does it say something about the U.S. economy? Or the unequal distribution of wealth in this country? Or “a world where money has taken supreme importance and all functions of life are commoditized”?

Eye of the beholder, I guess. Or of the voyeur.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On Subscription Sites; or, a Penny for Your Thoughts

PaywallBeen thinking a little this morning about the “subscription site” model for web content.

One reason why this topic has entered my thoughts is because my Twitter feed has become mildly animated by talk of a new development in the Full Tilt Poker saga, this one apparently involving some of the site’s companies having filed a claim for nearly $100 million worth of money seized by the feds following Black Friday.

Few in my feed have more specifics on that one, since apparently the full report currently exists behind a paywall over on the eGaming Review website. I imagine before the day is through the story will get disseminated more widely by other outlets without such restricted access.

I get a daily email from EGR telling me of all the articles I’m missing out on from not being a subscriber, so tomorrow I expect I will get a message telling me about this latest one. Starting in September, the site began charging £320 a year (plus VAT) for access to its reports, op-eds, and other features regarding the online gaming industry.

The model is not unusual, with many news-related sites having employed it with varying degrees of success (and in some cases, failure). There are “hard” paywalls in which almost no content is available to non-subscribers, “soft” paywalls which allow limited access to all, and other varieties.

The eGaming Review occasionally reports items of interest to the poker industry, which is why those folks on my Twitter feed are talking about it this morning. Most other sites that report poker news are free, although recently we’ve seen some sites experimenting with subscription plans of their own.

QuadJacks has tried something along these lines, introducing subscription plans back in September. To be honest, I haven’t given much effort to deciphering what exactly they are doing over there with their “silver,” “gold,” and “platinum” plans (costing $5, $10, and $20 a month, respectively).

A couple of weeks ago WickedChops also launched its paywall-protected “Insider Wicked Chops” site where “independent poker writers and thought leaders” are posting various “industry inside information” via articles and editorials.

Black Friday obviously had a significant effect on some poker news sites’ ability to generate revenue, particularly those that had depended on affiliate programs and other advertising dollars from the targeted sites. Thus was the partial inspiration, I’d assume, for poker news sites to experiment with the subscription model.

But I wonder what readers of this blog -- many of whom, I assume, also peruse those poker news sites -- think about these paywalls having been erected here and there amid your usual browsing paths? What exactly would make you want to pay to read any of these articles (or with QJ, listen to the shows)?

I assume one would have to have some financial reason to do so -- that is to say, your willingness to pay for such “inside information” would have to be directly related to your ability to use that information to make money yourself. Unless, that is, there is some other, non-financial benefit to be had from such access (e.g., the entertainment it provides).

Soliciting your thoughts here. Sorry, I can’t pay you for them -- not even a penny.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Guessing Games

ESPN's 'Pigskin Pick'em' gameAs in past years, I’ve joined a pool this fall in which I’m attempting to pick winners of all NFL games. No picking against the spread in this one, just winners. Adds a little fun to the game watching, which I’m doing anyway.

So far things have gone reasonably well and I’m tied for first in the pool, having accurately predicted 98 of 145 winners going into tonight’s game between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers. Almost getting two out of every three correct, a decent rate comparatively speaking.

In fact, out of all the hundreds of thousands of folks picking games over in the ESPN Pigskin Pick ’em game, the absolute best of the bunch in picking the non-spread games has only gotten 109 of them right. Which I suppose shows that even the most skillful prognosticator can’t do much better than to pick winners in three of every four games.

I’ve written here before about how generally speaking I am not much of a sports bettor. I’ve placed a few bets here and there on games while in Vegas, but only rarely and never for more than a few bucks.

That said, I certainly appreciate how sports betting can involve genuine skill. Or at least knowledge. Because even just picking straight-up winners in NFL games requires at least some familiarity with the teams if one hopes to do better than what one might get by just randomly guessing. Or pursuing some idiosyncratic “system”.

The relative skill involved in sports betting actually came up in that response earlier this month by the U.S Department of Justice to the motion to dismiss the charges filed by Black Friday defendants John Campos and Chad Elie.

Was talking some about that in last Friday’s post -- how one of the arguments made by the defendants was to suggest poker didn’t fall under the heading of “illegal gambling” as defined in the Illegal Gambling Business Act or the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, and how the DOJ in its response has taken up the opportunity to clarify their position that yes, indeed, poker is illegal gambling.

In their motion to dismiss, the defendants argued that neither the IGBA nor UIGEA does an adequate job defining what “illegal gambling” is. They then go on to try to show how poker shouldn’t be considered such because it is unlike other gambling games in which “the bettor has no role in, or control over, the outcome.” (They make other points, of course, responding to more than just the charges for violating the IGBA and UIGEA.)

In response, the DOJ has pointed out that both the IGBA and UIGEA are meant to leave the business of defining “illegal gambling” to the states, not to come in and “federalize some kinds of gambling that are outlawed by states but not others.”

Guessing GamesThe government’s response then discusses how even sports betting affords the bettor a “role in, or control over, the outcome.” We can’t control the games, obviously. But we can control how we bet on them, and our judgments there can involve skill (says the DOJ).

“Sports bettors have every opportunity to employ superior knowledge of the games, teams and the players involved in order to exploit odds that do not reflect the true likelihoods of the possible outcomes,” they argue. “Indeed, academics who have argued that poker should not be treated as a form of illegal gambling on the grounds that it is a ‘game of skill’ make the same argument with respect to sports betting. Ultimately, the outcome of the bets that poker players make on the cards, just like the outcome of the bets on sporting events [sic].”

I say “sic” because there’s obviously a verb missing in that last sentence. But you get the gist, I trust. The DOJ is conceding that sports betting can be considered to include an element of skill -- can even be regarded as a “game of skill” -- while at the same time thought of as gambling (or “illegal gambling”). And that poker can, too.

Later on the response the DOJ defends the UIGEA more specifically against charges of vagueness. Speaking of that phrase “game subject to chance” that appears in the UIGEA to help indicate what exactly “unlawful internet gambling” is, the response explains how an earlier draft of the UIGEA had phrased it “game predominantly subject to chance” (original emphasis), but the adverb was removed precisely to ensure that games like poker (which do involve some skill) would be covered.

In other words, pretty much any betting game you can think of that we can play online is going to be covered here, say the feds. That includes totally gambly ones, and the ones in which you do need some smarts to succeed long term. Any game in which there is at least some chance involved.

Oh, except for betting on horse racing. And fantasy sports. And lotteries. And other “educational games.” And whatever else the government decides is cool.

Like we can reasonably predict that.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Raymond Chandler & Poker

Some time ago I wrote a post in which I referred to a quote about poker I often see erroneously attributed to the great hard-boiled writer Raymond Chandler. The quote has Chandler professing that “poker is as elaborate waste of human intelligence as you could find outside an advertising agency.” Pops up all over the intertubes. Even saw it in print once -- on page 26 of a book with the silly title Poker Wit and Wisdom: Everything You’ll Never Need to Know About Poker.

As I explained in that earlier post, the line refers to something Chandler’s private detective, Philip Marlowe, utters in his next-to-last novel, The Long Goodbye (1953). And it doesn’t have anything to do with poker at all.

During a quiet interlude in the middle of a case in which he’s been hired to track down a missing husband, Marlowe is described pulling out a chess board to reenact famous championship matches. Some mental calisthenics for an over-active mind unable to rest. Marlowe describes himself completing one such match, which he characterizes as “seventy-two moves to a draw, a prize specimen of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a battle without armor, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency.”

So it’s chess (not poker) that Marlowe (not Chandler) lightheartedly dismisses as a fruitless enterprise.

At the time I said I wasn’t aware of any specific references by Chandler to poker. I knew then that none of his seven novels included any memorable instances, although I was aware that Marlowe does find it necessary to visit the occasional “dime-and-dice” gambling establishment from time to time. Since then I’ve happened to run across a couple of poker references in Chandler short stories, both fairly incidental.

There’s a casual allusion to poker at the beginning of “Killer in the Rain” (1935) when a character is described having “arranged five century notes like a light poker hand.” Another pops up on the last page of the excellent “Red Wind” (1938). That’s the story with that famous, much-referred-to opening paragraph that gets quoted a lot as the epitome of Chandler’s hard-boiled style:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen . . . .”

That passage foreshadows the story of blackmail and murder that follows. (Some chess in that one, too, actually.) In the story’s closing moments, Marlowe refers to a deceased character as a “four-flusher” as a way of confirming his idea about the dead man’s character. (He was a bluffer.)

Finally, I came across one more reference, this time in a letter Chandler wrote to Charles Morton. Morton was the editor at the Atlantic Monthly who once asked Chandler to write an article about detective fiction. Eventually Chander would write the article, which was published in December 1944 under the title “The Simple Art of Murder.” Still a great introduction to the tradition to which Chandler contributed so significantly.

Before that article was published, Chandler and Morton exchanged a few letters discussing other article ideas, including one Chandler refers to as “an article of studied insult about the Bay City (Santa Monica) police.” Writing about that idea to Morton, Chandler relates in detail a true story of the Bay City police getting a tip about a “chip and bone parlor” (i.e., a gambling hall) over in nearby Ocean Park. Chandler tells how the police succeeded in closing the place down, and “several alleged gamblers were tossed into the sneezer and the equipment seized for evidence (a truckload of it).” (Does this scenario sound at all familiar?)

The next day, however, when the District Attorney’s men arrived to survey the evidence, “everything had disappeared but a few handfuls of white poker chips. The locks had not been tampered with, and no trace could be found of the truck or driver. The flatfeet [the cops] shook their grizzled polls in bewilderment and the investigators went back to town to hand the Jury the story. Nothing will ever come it. Nothing ever does. Do you wonder why I love Bay City?”

Chandler concludes that a “real clinical study of such a town would be fascinating reading.”

Again, not a lot here to go on as far as determining Chandler’s ideas regarding poker, although I think it is relatively clear from his tone that Chandler doesn’t think cops busting “chip and bone parlors” are all that vital to maintaining a stable, functioning society.

No . . . there’s a lot of other stuff happening that’s way more important than that. Like what happens when those Santa Ana winds start to blow . . . .


Friday, November 11, 2011

On the (Legislative) Road Again

Willie Nelson's 1980 single 'On the Road Again'With the WSOP Main Event finally in the rearview, attentions are slowly turning back to ongoing machinations concerning the shambles that online poker in the U.S. currently is and the possibility for some newly-regulated game to become available to Americans in the future.

Setting aside the whole FTP-Groupe Bernard Tapie thing, as well as that story from a couple of weeks back that Absolute Poker/UB have a plan to liquidate assets in order to pay back its players, there appear to be three main areas on which to focus when it comes to federal-level legislative talk about online poker.

And anyway, like we were talking about yesterday, three is always a cool amount to use for organizing one’s thoughts, right?

One is this so-called “super committee,” a.k.a. the Joint Select Committee for Deficit Reduction, which continues to meet and formulate recommendations for cutting spending and increasing revenue. The bi-partisan group of senators and House members has a report due on November 23, and within a month of that the Congressional houses will be voting “up or down” (with no amendments or filibusters allowed) on what is recommended.

Some have suggested an online poker bill could sneak into the recommendations somehow, although most of the scuttlebutt seems to be suggesting that’s unlikely to happen. In any case, in a couple of weeks we’ll know for sure whether or not to strike this one off the list of items to watch.

The second bit of news to focus on is that next week not one but two different Congressional committees will be meeting to talk about online gaming.

Capitol bldg.One is the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which will meet on Thursday, November 17 to talk about the native Americans' stake in particular. The other is that same House subcommittee that met last month to talk online gaming (the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade) who will be meeting on Friday, November 18 to pursue the subject further.

Those meetings will most surely create some buzz, and perhaps even some concrete steps toward a vote on an online poker-related bill. Of course, with 2012 being an election year, the window for any such bill making its way up the legislative ladder will be closing soon.

Finally, we learned back in early October how two of the figures targeted in the Black Friday indictment -- John Campos (the vice-chairman and co-owner of that Sun Trust bank in Utah) and Chad Elie (a payment processor) -- were fighting the feds in court, having both filed motions to have the counts against them dismissed. Those motions largely are resting on the argument that the online poker sites with which they dealt were not “illegal gambling businesses” as defined (or not-so-well defined) in the Illegal Gambling Business Act of 1970 or the UIGEA.

Of course, in addition to being accused of violating these laws (the IGBA and UIGEA), these two are also both said to have conspired to commit money laundering, and Elie is looking at a bank and wire fraud charge, too. So how well their arguments about the online poker sites not being “gambling businesses” are carrying them in those contexts, I do not know.

In any event, late last week federal prosecutors responded by filing a 51-page defense of their case responding to the pair’s motions to dismiss the counts. That response makes several points, one being an affirmation of the position that poker is indeed gambling, despite the many arguments that have been made regarding its skill component. The feds also address in great detail other misdeeds by the pair with regard to the non-UIGEA stuff, too.

Additionally, in a kind of superfluous attempt to explain how when the IGBA was passed into law poker had long been considered to be gambling by the culture a large, the feds botch a reference to the poker song “The Gambler”:
Those who spent their time playing poker in saloons were called ‘gamblers’ from the outset, and poker is described almost unfailingly as ‘gambling’ in a variety of contexts in reported cases dating back to the 1800s. This characterization of poker as gambling reflects society’s traditional understanding of poker, particularly at the time of IGBA’s enactment. For example, Willie Nelson’s classic poker song, about knowing when to “hold ’em” and when to “fold ’em” is called -- based on the movie by the same name -- “The Gambler.”
Kenny Rogers' 1978 LP 'The Gambler'As just about all of the rest of us know, that was Kenny Rogers, not Willie Nelson, who recorded the referenced song. His version first released in late 1978, a few years after the IGBA came about. The TV movie starring Rogers -- the first of several -- came a couple of years later. Don Schlitz first wrote it (and recorded it earlier, actually), a story I wrote about in a “Poker & Pop Culture” piece a while back.

In any event, the feds are pretty adamant in their response about poker falling under the heading of gambling, likening it to other examples of gambling that may incorporate an element of skill -- they even admit sports betting has some of that -- but in which outcomes are ultimately “subject to chance.”

If you want more details on this latter item, Nathan Vardi of Forbes reported on the feds’ reponse a week ago. The guys at PokerFuse wrote up a detailed analysis of the response earlier this week. And Pokerati Dan chimed in last night as well with a quick list of some of the feds’ major points.

Of these three items, then, the “super committee” doesn’t seem too promising, nor does the Campos-Elie case inspire much confidence regarding the UIGEA ever getting taken down. Thus do we look to those Congressional committees, watching and wondering if and when any change for online poker in U.S. is coming any time soon.

Or whether, when it comes to American online poker players, our situation continues to resemble that of the figures Willie Nelson sang about... “like a band of gypsies we go down the highway.”

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

This, That, and What Was That Other Thing...?

Rick Perry can't rememberI saw that Rick Perry gaffe from last night’s Republican Party presidential candidates debate, too. The one where he set himself up by saying there were three governmental agencies he would eliminate if elected, then proceeded to name two and amazingly forget what the third one was.

Never mind the agencies. Probably eliminated himself there, yes?

Public speaking ain’t as easy as it looks, of course. I’ve had a lot of experience with it, but primarily in situations where the group is small and more or less attentive and engaged (e.g., a class of students), and where I have a reasonable command of the subject matter.

But I can sympathize. In fact, I’m sure somewhere along the way I have probably run into that same rhetorical trap myself of promising “three” items and somewhere in the middle of the second one realizing I might not have three after all.

There’s a good way to avoid that trap, actually. Don’t promise three.

Am a little behind today and so without too much time for scribblin’. Have probably written way over my usual number of words this week, anyhow, thanks to those “Almost Live” blog posts from Sunday and Tuesday.

And if those posts aren’t enough, I have written up some further thoughts about the big ESPN show this week, that comprehensive coverage of the 2011 World Series of Poker Main Event final table (a.k.a. the “November Nine”), for the Epic Poker League blog.

Epic Poker LeagueMy response as published over on the EPL blog comes in two parts. The first part gives an initial impression while going back to discuss how much televised coverage of the WSOP has changed over the decades. The second part then talks in more detail about this week’s shows and speculates a little about the future of the WSOP on television.

As I have been suggesting here all week, I very much enjoyed the shows and find all of the extra attention being given to the WSOP finale a nice, positive development coming here in the midst of what has been an especially bad year for poker, generally speaking. Meanwhile, I am especially curious to see what the ratings were for the two days’ worth of shows, totaling more than 15 hours, I believe. That more than anything is probably going to affect whether or not we will see such start-to-finish final table coverage and/or the November Nine again in 2012, I would imagine.

Could’ve said more about all of it than I do in those EPL posts. But I think I ended up sharing most of the impressions I had there.

Hey, at least I didn’t start the first part saying there’d be three.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Making Stories That Make Sense

Story sandwichWas thinking a little about the 15-plus hours of coverage of the 2011 WSOP Main Event final table aired on Sunday (on ESPN2) and Tuesday (ESPN). I enjoyed nearly all aspects of the coverage, and really it was only during the latter hour or two of heads-up between Pius Heinz and Martin Staszko that my attention flagged much at all.

That said, the marathon-like nature of the shows got me thinking about how well they might have played for the so-called “casual” poker fan. In particular, I wondered how well some were enjoying watching without knowing hole cards until after a hand had concluded.

Or, perhaps, were not enjoying watching.

Many of us enjoy not knowing the cards beforehand. We like the strategy talk and speculating about players’ holdings as a hand plays out. For us, the drama and intellectual engagement and even the emotion of watching is heightened by that unknown element. As players, we perhaps identify more easily with the “characters” in the “story” when the hole cards aren’t told to us beforehand.

But a lot of viewers aren’t as moved by such things, and in fact much prefer knowing the hole cards in advance. Rather than have to think about “what if,” they get to enjoy the benefits of knowing more than the “characters” do as a hand plays out. In other words, they are more likely to experience the pleasure that can be produced by perceiving dramatic irony.

You know what I mean. We know Juliet hasn’t really died, but only drank a sleeping potion. But the other characters don’t, including Romeo, and thus his misapprehension heightens the drama as we watch him act with an incorrect assumption about his beloved.

Think about that Hand #211 from last night -- actually the 33rd hand of the evening and the 29th of heads-up -- in which Staszko shoved with king-high on the turn over a bet by Heinz and forced a fold.

Heinz had almost 125 million and Staszko 81 million to start the hand. With the blinds 800k/1.6m with a 200k ante, Staszko opened with a raise to 3.5 million, Heinz reraised to 10.1 million, and Staszko called.

The flop came 7d2hTs. The pair looked at each other for several seconds while Heinz riffled his chips, then after almost a minute Heinz bet 9.8 million. Staszko looked at Heinz some more, then after about 30 seconds called.

The turn brought the Ac. “What an interesting card,” said Esfandiari, who then went through possible hands for Heinz. For A-K or A-Q, it was a good turn. For pocket queens or jacks, not so good. The big three-bet by Heinz before the flop -- and Staszko sticking around with calls both pre- and post-flop -- certainly made that ace on the turn interesting.

As Heinz thought further, so did Esfandiari. “There’s a very good chance that he’s up to it again,” Esfandiari finally said, meaning Heinz could well have something considerably less than a premium starter. “I mean, I would not be surprised if he turned over king-jack.”

Finally, after about 90 seconds, Heinz bet 21.3 million and looked back over at Staszko. A half-smile appeared on the normally emotionless Czech’s face as he looked back at Heinz, then down at his stack. About 15 seconds later he looked up and told the dealer he was all in, and Heinz immediately folded.

We then got to see their hands -- Jd9s for Heinz, and KdQh for Staszko!

Esfandiari and Norman Chad each expressed amazement at Staszko’s play, and Lon McEachern summarized their response by noting that “Heinz’ story did not make sense to Staszko.” Now the Czech had the lead with over 122 million while Heinz was back down under 84 million.

A thrilling hand, really, but it wasn’t until the end that we knew just how remarkable it was. And then only for a moment as the next hand was already being dealt.

Imagine knowing the cards beforehand. In other words, imagine enjoying the dramatic irony produced by the knowledge that Heinz was (as Esfandiari correctly guessed) “up to it again.” And that Staszko was up to something, too!

There are other problems with the comprehensive coverage -- namely, the long, less-than-thrilling stretches that come in between such interesting hands. But I genuinely wonder which way of presenting a hand like this one would be preferable. Which method of presentation -- with hole cards known from the start or only after the action is complete -- would produce the best or most pleasurable “story” for the most viewers?

McEachern said the line taken by Heinz in the hand “did not make sense.” But I think for many viewers not knowing hole cards all but ensures that most hands won’t make a lot of sense regardless of what the players are doing.

Make sense?

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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Almost Live Blog: 2011 WSOP Main Event Final Table (November Nine), Day 2

Final Jeopardy at the WSOP Main EventA couple of hours away from the restart. Kind of funny -- much like several of the events this summer that ran into that “hard stop” rule causing just three or four players to come back the following afternoon to play out their tourneys, the Main Event is following suit in the way it stopped the final table Sunday with three remaining.

But as I was saying yesterday, I like that we have three players left rather than just two. It’s sort of like “Final Jeopardy” or something, with the leader’s advantage a bit less secure thanks to dynamic of having two opponents and not one, vying both against each other as well against him.

Here’s how the stacks will look like with tonight’s first hand, the 179th of the final table:

Pius Heinz -- 107,800,000

Ben Lamb -- 55,400,000

Martin Staszko -- 42,700,000

The winner tonight gets $8,715,638, the runner-up $5,433,086, and the third-place finisher $4,021,138.

They’ll still be in the middle of Level 40 when they resume, where the blinds are 600k/1.2m with a 200k ante. Meaning Staskzo starts tonight with about 35 big blinds, Lamb about 46, and Heinz nearly 90. Not sure but I think they’ve got about an hour to go there before the end of the level.

Last year Jonathan Duhamel and John Racener came back to heads-up near the end of Level 40, then played a little more than half of the two-hour Level 41 before finishing up. In 2009, Joe Cada finished off Darvin Moon just before Level 40 was completed.

Much depends on the cards, of course, but I’m leaning toward thinking tonight will be a relatively short one. I can say that without hesitation, of course, since I’m not there working the sucker. Usually if someone covering an event live says something out loud about the night being a short one, that automatically dooms everyone to a long, long night. And that person is then given appropriate hell for having uttered such folly.

No, I’m home watching the coverage “almost live” on the teevee on ESPN. Those outside of the U.S. can watch it streaming online over at And there are some other ways to see the action, too -- see the start of my Sunday post for details.

Gonna grab some dinner. Will be back here in a couple of hours once the show gets started.

5:45 p.m.
As I did on Sunday, I’ll time stamp these posts using Vegas time even though I’m three hours ahead here on the east coast. Just finished dinner and am now settling on the couch, readying for the big show.

Got to watch the live stream of the Poker Hall of Fame induction ceremony over on the WSOP site, which was a nice thing for them to make available. As I mentioned earlier today, I was glad to see both Greenstein and Johnson make it this year as deserving candidates.

Turning our attention to the restart of the final table... we can assume all three players watched the nine-plus hours of coverage from Sunday with a close eye. Extra information all around, although again I think we might be assuming too much to think it necessarily will affect the players’ strategies too greatly.

Then again, having seen something on the broadcast might well alter just one decision. And as we know, in a poker tourney just one decision can alter everything.

6:20 p.m.
Whoa. Even before the live feed began, I’d seen the tweets about Ben Lamb’s king-jack jam. What the heck?

“Ben Lamb has been on top of his game” throughout the Main Event said Antonio Esfandiari in the intro. “I cannot remember one blow up,” he added. Hmm... gotta see this hand!

By the way, it’s Esfandiari doing the analysis, Lon McEachern handling the play-by-play, and Norman Chad providing a few jokes here and there tonight. No Phil Hellmuth this time, I don’t believe. Nor are they planning to have guests come around, either.

Day 10 beginsThe excited tweets continued as the players were shown sitting down. By then I was reading how Staszko had already moved from third to first (in just two hands!). Meanwhile the commentators spoke of the aggressive Heinz surely controlling the table.

In that first hand, Lamb opened with a raise to 3 million from the small blind, then Staszko quickly made it 7.5 million from the BB. Lamb thought about a minute, then pushed all in. Staszko didn’t take that long -- maybe 20 seconds -- then called.

Lamb tabled KhJd and Staszko 7s7h. “This is insane action” said Esfandiari. The board ran out 3h9s2d3sTc, and just like that Lamb’s down to just over 10 big blinds!

“I can't blame him for doing what he did,” said Esfandiari afterwards, alluding to how Staszko may well three-bet light there. He also referred to the players having watched the video from Sunday, implying that may have affected Lamb's thought process. Well, there will be plenty of time to break that one down in the coming months.

And Czech this... Staszko took the second hand from Heinz and now has the chip lead! He picked up pocket kings versus the K-Q of Heinz and ended up getting a couple of postflop streets of value from the German. What a start!

6:35 p.m.
“Now he is down to almost mutton,” tweeted Scarlet “PokerScar” Robinson about Lamb just a moment ago. And now, just four hands in, it’s over for the Oklahoman.

Lamb down to one cardIn the small blind again, Lamb open-shoved his last 10.9 million with Q-6 and Staszko woke up with pocket jacks. (That makes three pocket pairs in four hands for the Czech.) Board came 5-5-2-2-7, and Lamb’s night ends quickly.

He seemed in good spirits talking to Kara Scott afterwards as he briefly broke down the reasoning for the K-J shove.

Two to go. Will be a first-ever bracelet for either Germany or the Czech Republic.

Martin Staszko -- 117,300,000
Pius Heinz -- 88,600,000

6:50 p.m.
Heinz has retaken the chip lead in a big one where he pushed all in on the river to force a fold from Staszko (Hand #187).

Staszko limped from the button (as he has done a few times), Heinz raised, and Stasko called. Heinz then fired two bullets as the board came 9d5c8dQd, and Staszko called both. The river brought the Tc and a check from Heinz, and Staszko took the invitation to bet. Heinz then surprisingly check-raised all in, and Staszko relented.

On the feed we saw the hands -- Staszko had a pair with As8c (and had limp-called the button with an ace). Meanwhile Heinz had made two pair with 9s8s.

7:30 p.m.
After that initial flurry and Heinz retaking the lead from Staszko, the pair have settled in and traded chips for a couple dozen hands, with Heinz gradually chipping a bit at the Czech player’s stack.

Was an exciting opening to the broadcast, but I’m starting to wonder how well this sequence is holding the audience on ESPN. Folks on Twitter are debating the advantage of seeing hole cards from the start of the hand, something that helps sustain the interest of casual viewers a lot more than the strategy discussions and speculation about holdings we poker players enjoy.

Level 41 has begun (200k/800k/1.6m).

Pius Heinz -- 128,200,000
Martin Staszko -- 77,700,000

8:10 p.m.
Dr. Pauly is live blogging again tonight from the Rio. Check his coverage here. Am also refreshing the PokerNews page, although I could do without that autoplay “Entertainment” video on there that you can’t turn off until after the first clip completes.

Starting to look like these two might take a while to settle this sucker. There’s been plenty of action, including several hands not just making it to the flop but all of the way to the river and a showdown, but no big all ins. And no one (since that Hand #187) looking too anxious to start flipping for the bracelet. Not yet.

In Hand #203 (the 25th of the final-table and 21st of heads-up), Staszko grabbed the lead when a river card gave both players two pair, but Staszko's were better.

Then three hands later a river bet by Heinz pushed Staszko off a hand and gave the German the advantage once more.

Hand #210 saw Heinz four-bet preflop and get a fold from Staszko. Heinz had As3h in that one, and Staszko Ks2s.

8:25 p.m.
Well that was interesting.

Staszko stareOn Hand #211, Staszko called a preflop three-bet from Heinz, then a half-pot c-bet on the 7-2-10 flop. An ace fell on the turn, and Heinz bet 21.3 million -- about half the pot. Staszko gave Heinz a quick look, studied his chips for a moment, then declared he was all in. Heinz quickly folded.

Expected to learn Staszko had an ace at least, but he had K-Q! And Heinz J-9. Good read.

Starting to dig that plaid shirt.

Martin Staszko -- 122,400,000
Pius Heinz -- 83,500,000

8:55 p.m.
The 50th hand of the day (Hand #228 overall for the final table) saw Staszko push out to a better than 2-to-1 lead over Heinz.

Heinz opened for 3.4 million from the button and Staszko called. The flop came Ad9s3d and Staszko check-called a 3.8 million bet from Heinz. The turn was the As, and Staszko checked again. Heinz bet 8.4 million this time, and Staszko check-raised to 18.5 million. Heinz called.

The river was the 6d and when Staszko bet 20.25 million Heinz let it go. Staszko, it turns out, had the nuts with Ac9c, while Heinz had gone to the river with 7c6s.

Have to wonder what would have happened if Staszko had checked the river -- would Heinz have tried to bluff it? That had to have been the plan after the turn call. Staszko has over 141 million now, while Heinz has slipped under 65 million.

9:05 p.m.
It does not appear as though either player is leaving the table at all to consult with their respective rails about what is being shown on the 15-minute delay. I’m sure they’ll get caught up on the breaks, particularly with regard to the bigger hands. But for now it looks like they’re essentially playing this out without constantly collecting the extra available info.

9:35 p.m.
They’ve pushed all of the way through to the end of Level 41, with Heinz taking a series of small-to-medium pots from Staszko to pull back even, then take the lead.

Oskar Garcia's graph of the chip movement on Day 10 of the 2011 WSOP MEOskar Garcia, the Associated Press reporter who covers casinos and the gambling scene there in Vegas, has tweeted this groovy graph showing how the chips have been moving around thus far tonight.

Looks like those yellow and blue lines have intersected more than a half-dozen times already, each instance denoting another lead change. By the way, for poker people, Oskar is a guy worth following (@OskarGarcia).

9:55 p.m.
Yet another lead change. On the first hand of Level 42 (300k/1m/2m), preflop back-and-forthing ended with Staszko five-bet shoving and Heinz letting his hand go.

We got to see Heinz had gotten a little randy with 9h7d while Staszko held Ac2c. A little over 20 million goes from Heinz to Staszko on that one.

Martin Staszko -- 109,900,000
Pius Heinz -- 96,000,000

10:25 p.m.
The tide appears to be turning in the Czech's direction in a significant way.

In Hand #257 -- the 75th of heads-up play -- the board showed JhTc3hQh6s and about 20 million sat in the middle. Heinz checked, Staszko bet 10 million, and after a lot of hemming and hawing Heinz finally called to see his plaid-shirted opponent flip over Kd9c for a turned king-high straight.

Heinz hurtingHeinz looked pretty disgusted as he mucked, and we got to see he had Qd2c for top pair.

Staszko picked up another pot shortly after that and is closing in on a 3-to-1 lead now.

Martin Staszko -- 146,300,000
Pius Heinz -- 59,600,000

11:20 p.m.
This heads-up match is turning into the opposite of what televised poker has traditionally been in the post-"boom" era. Far from an endless sequence of preflop all-ins, there has not been a single all-in bet and call between these two during 100 hands of heads-up play.

Gotta wonder how the ratings are doing now that we have moved past 2 a.m. here in the east.

Heinz did manage to close the gap between himself and Staszko during that last stretch of hands, but the Czech then pushed back out ahead and now sits with nearly 160 million while Heinz has about 47 million. Staszko certainly appears much more comfortable than does Heinz, not to mention patient.

They are still in Level 42, where the blinds are 1m/2m.

11:50 p.m.
During the last sequence we saw Heinz fold to a river bet and for the second time tonight discover he had a full house -- not the nuts, but very possibly the best hand. (And, in fact, it was the best hand both times.)

Approaching end of Level 42Then Heinz won seven of the next eight hands to push back up close to 80 million. Along the way came one hand in which Heinz c-bet a 5h4hJd flop, then Staszko raised. Heinz shoved and after a lot of thought Staszko folded. We then saw Heinz had Td5d for fives. Meanwhile Staszko folded Qh6h, surprisingly deciding not to continue with his flush draw, even after raising.

The pair then traded next few pots and reached the end of the level and another 15-minute break.

Martin Staszko -- 124,750,000
Pius Heinz -- 81,150,000

12:15 a.m.
They have begun Level 43 (300k/1.2m/2.4m), and on the very first hand of the level came the first all-in and call of heads-up.

After Staszko limped, Heinz raised to 7.9 million and Staszko called. The flop came Tc7cKs. Heinz bet 8.2 million, and after a couple of minutes Staszko raised to 17.5 million. Heinz riffled his chips and thought. "I don't think Heinz is gonna fold," said Esfandiari. He didn't -- he shoved all in. And Staszko called.

Heinz had two overs -- AhQh -- and Staszko Qc9c. The Czech decided to go with the flush draw this time. He had a gutshot, too, but the jack would give Heinz a better straight. (His nine was live, though.)

Heinz doublesThe turn was the 3h and river the 6s, and suddenly Heinz had 161.5 million to Staszko's 44.4 million (less than 19 big blinds).

Heinz open-shoved the next hand with Q-10 and Staszko folded. Might well be looking at another all-in here pretty soon.

12:35 a.m.
It’s over! In the 301st hand of the final table -- the 119th of heads-up play -- Martin Staszko open-shoved his last 39.5 million with Tc7c and Pius Heinz quickly called, having picked up AsKc. The board ran out 5c2d9sJh4d, and that was that.

Heinz winsBoth Heinz and Staszko played especially well, and had Staszko hit a seven, eight, or ten there on the end they might have gone on another hour.

I think a lot of folks underestimated the Czech, who came into the final table with the most chips but nowhere near the most respect of the final nine. And he appeared to have his way with Heinz for the better part of their heads-up battle, but the German hit a couple of hands on the end and things went the other way.

Fun stuff again from ESPN, although I'll admit getting a bit bleary-eyed once they'd crossed the six-hour mark. And as I mentioned before, I'm very curious to see what kind of ratings they had tonight, particularly beyond the first hour.

Am curious as well to see where all this “almost live” stuff is heading in the future. But I’m feeling almost dead right now, and so off to bed I’ll go. Thanks for reading.

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