Sunday, September 30, 2012

Hard-Boiled Poker Home Games Season 1 Concludes Tonight

The first season of the Hard-Boiled Poker Home Games on PokerStars comes to a close tonight with two more tournaments.

At 20:00 ET comes a full ring, no-limit hold’em tourney (Event No. 19), then at 21:00 ET comes an 8-game mixed tourney (Event No. 20).

This makes 10 straight Sunday nights I’ve hosted tournaments, and it has been a ton of fun playing different games and enjoying a little bit of competition at the tables. Even though the tourneys are free to enter (play chips), they’ve been plenty competitive. Usually between 12-15 players are entering each tourney, although there have been several with more players, including one with 24.

With 18 of 20 events completed, the points race is tight, with Grange95 enjoying a slight lead at present thanks in part to his four wins. The next two spots are occupied by thejim2020 and SmBoatDrinks, both of whom could overtake Grange95 tonight, with **GMONEY*72 also having a shot. (There is a look at the current top 10 at left.)

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ll be sending the winner of HBP HG Season 1 a copy of Poker: Bets, Bluffs and Bad Beats by Al Avarez.

I have a late-game surprise to announce, too. Those finishing second and third in the final Season 1 standings will also be receiving prizes, copies of Zach Elwood’s Reading Poker Tells, a book I’ve mentioned here before and reviewed over on the Betfair Poker blog a while time back.

Anyone who’d like to play in the Hard-Boiled Poker Home Games is welcome. The Club ID number is 530631 and the invitation code is noshinola.

Season 2 begins next week and will go from October through December. (I’ll probably end the second season prior to Christmas.) I expect we’ll continue with a similar schedule next week with tourneys every Sunday, although I will probably start scheduling some events during the afternoon so as to make it easier for our European friends to play, too.

There will be prizes as well for top Season 2 performers (stay tuned!). Meanwhile, good luck to all tonight.

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Friday, September 28, 2012

Here’s to Cheers

Not a lot of time for scribbling today, although I did want to post a quick note about this nifty (and long) oral history of the sitcom Cheers that appeared over on the GQ site yesterday. Anyone who remembers the show should find the collection of remembrances from cast and crew members interesting, I think.

Not too long ago I noticed we have one channel among the many in our line-up that airs a couple of Cheers episodes each weekday. They come on late in the afternoon, and I’ve found myself dialing up the shows frequently of late.

I was a fan of Cheers when it originally aired from 1982 to 1993, and probably continued to watch reruns for a few years after it signed off. But I hadn’t seen it much for a while, and so was pleasantly surprised to find it as funny and smart and engaging as ever. I literally will laugh out loud multiple times every episode at the seemingly endless supply of funnies provided by Sam, Diane, Carla, Coach, Woody, Rebecca, Norm, Cliff, Frasier, Lilith, and others.

For example, last week the episode titled “The Book of Samuel” (from the fifth season) aired, one in which Woody finds Sam’s “little black book” and from it calls a woman for a date. At the end of the episode -- after things don’t go as planned for Woody -- he expresses remorse to Diane for his behavior.

“I feel so ashamed,” he says to Diane. “Promise not to tell my mother?”

“Mum’s the word,” says Diane with a nod, and Woody starts to walk away. Then he turns back.

“Promise not to tell my mum?”

One thread that emerges from the oral history is the fact that many today aren’t really aware of Cheers, which really is too bad as it probably stands as one of the best examples ever of the half-hour situation comedy. If you’re a television fan and somehow have never bothered to check out the show, there are tons of grins -- not to mention endearing characters and some genuinely moving moments -- to be found in those 275 episodes (all streaming on Netflix, btw). Seriously, Cheers is (or should be) like the Beatles of sitcoms, a show everyone likes.

As it happened, I was reading the oral history yesterday as the show came on. It was an episode titled “License to Hill” (from Season 10) which in fact included a subplot involving characters playing poker.

Although primarily set in a bar, I don’t really remember there being too much poker in Cheers. I do kind of remember one episode, though, in which Sam and Diane are thinking about buying a house together, and Sam wants to hang a particular picture to which Diane strongly objects.

That’s right, “A Friend in Need,” a.k.a. “Dogs Playing Poker.”

In fact, the poker is mostly incidental in this episode, too, although they do have some fun showing Woody (the country bumpkin in the big city) cleaning up versus the others.

I don’t have time today to delve more deeply into the many reasons why Cheers is such a great show, although as I say anyone who saw it probably knows already why I’d say as much.

Those of you who are familiar with Cheers... do you remember any other episodes involving poker?

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Poker Podcast Review: Full Tilt Poker's Tips from the Pros, Episode 5 -- Your Online Poker Bankroll feat. Howard Lederer

I see the Two Plus Two Pokercast guys have conducted their interview with poker’s most interviewed subject of late, Howard Lederer. They posted the show just a few moments ago, actually. Four hours long, this one.

As I was saying a few days back, I’ll certainly be listening in, even though I have a feeling that while there may be some new nuggets, there will be a lot that will be similar to what we heard last week in the PokerNews interview -- i.e., deflecting blame, rationalizing inexcusable decisions, selectively forgetting unflattering details, and the like.

Before I listen, though, I wanted to share one little find I had while sorting through some old files, something that kind of relates both to the Two Plus Two Pokercast and to Lederer.

When I started the blog way back in 2006, I was inspired to do so by a few different factors, one of which was the poker podcasts I had begun listening to just a few months before. In particular it was the Card Club on Lord Admiral Radio podcast on which the subject of poker blogs occasionally arose that got me thinking of trying something similar.

Among those early podcasts was Rounders, the Poker Show, the one hosted by Mike Johnson and Adam Schwartz who later on would move over to host the consistently excellent 2+2 show. Those early Rounders shows were good, too, many of which focused on one lengthy interview with a poker personality. Indeed, given their track record and experience with interviewing, I do look forward to hearing how Johnson and Schwartz handled the interview with Lederer (and am inclined to guess they likely did well).

Anyhow, just yesterday I happened to be searching for some old music files among a stack of CDs and DVDs and noticed I had a few on which there were folders labeled “Poker Podcasts.” During those early days of listening to podcasts I’d save them onto the computer before listening, and for some reason I was compelled to back those files up along with everything else.

Looking through those folders I am seeing a bunch of old episodes of Rounders, the Poker Show as well as Card Club, Poker Diagram, The Circuit (from back when it first appeared on the CardPlayer site), Ante Up!, The Poker Edge (with Phil Gordon), and some other obscure ones like California Poker Radio, NetBettor, and so on.

Also tucked in there are some old files labeled “Full Tilt Poker” which upon closer inspection turn out to be episodes of a kind of half-hearted attempt at podcasting by the FTP crew. The shows were all just a few minutes long and featured members of Team Full Tilt being interviewed by a host (who doesn’t identify himself) to talk about various strategy tips -- e.g., how to play ace-king, slow-playing, heads-up play, and so on. I think most were recorded either late 2005 or early 2006.

One of those I found featured Lederer, of course. The topic? Bankroll management. I had to listen.

“The number one consideration when it comes to bankroll management is working on your game and making sure you have the best of it,” Lederer begins. “If you don’t have the best of it, no bankroll management system is going to help you win.”

It’s an obvious point, of course, that if you aren’t a winning player then you can’t possibly come up with a scheme to prevent your bankroll from dwindling rather than growing. Lederer follows that with a few other guidelines regarding how much you need to have in your account in order to play different games comfortably (e.g., SNGs, limit games, no-limit).

Lederer then gets into other standard stuff about how, say, if you are a limit hold’em player you want to have a certain number of big bets in order to avoid going broke (Lederer says 500 big bets per table). He goes on to recommend “limits per session” (i.e., “stop-loss” limits) and the need to walk away once you’ve lost a certain amount.

“Poker’s going to be there, you know, Full Tilt Poker’s going to be open,” he says with a laugh. “There’s always going to be a game.”

The discussion then moves on to address the importance of tracking one’s play and keeping good records. “Being a good poker player takes a lot of self-honesty,” says Lederer. “Keep accurate records of how you do... those records won’t lie,” he adds. And for players who are losing overall, a check of the ledger can be especially helpful. Says Lederer, “you need to be objective, you need to be self-critical, you need to figure out what you’re doing wrong, and you need to fix it.”

I know, I know... it’s an easy target. Still, pretty funny hearing all of this advice about how to avoid risk of ruin coming from one of those involved with losing track of hundreds of millions of dollars. By the way, there’s another episode featuring Chris Ferguson also on the topic of bankroll management advice (talking about the “The Chris Ferguson Challenge.”)

(I’d point you to the shows on the web, but am having trouble finding them anywhere anymore.)

Will be thinking of all of these tips, then -- about the need to keep accurate records, about the value of setting limits for oneself, about the importance of self-honesty and figuring out what’s one is doing wrong -- when listening to Lederer’s 2+2 interview.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cannes Openers: 2012 WSOP Europe Underway

The 2012 World Series of Poker Europe is currently in full swing in Cannes, France, with the first three bracelets (of seven) having already been won, and one more to be claimed later tonight.

In Event No. 1, the €2,700 buy-in six-handed no-limit hold’em event, Imed Ben Mahmoud topped a field of 227 to win. Mahmoud is the first player from Tunisia ever to win a WSOP bracelet of any sort. Meanwhile runner-up Yannick Bonnet came one spot shy of grabbing a first WSOPE bracelet for France.

Event No. 2, a €1,100 NLHE tourney, drew 626 entries. Antonio Esfandiari won a third career bracelet in that one. Again, it was a Frenchman who took second, Remi Bollengier.

It looks like France finally broke through, however, in Event No. 3, the €5,300 pot-limit Omaha tourney, where just moments ago Roger Hairabedian of beat the Finnish pro Ville Mattila heads-up to win. I remember “Big Roger” as one of the more entertaining personalities from WPT Marrakech a couple of years ago. (I believe Marrakech is Hairabedian’s current home, although he was born in Marseille.)

They drew 97 entrants for the PLO event. Event Nos. 4 and 5 are underway as well, and it looks as though so far the overall turnouts are significantly lower than was the case last year.

The schedule is essentially the same except for all of the buy-ins having been increased slightly from 2011. But check out how the number of entrants fell off in the first four events (see left).

Esfandiari’s win follows his big victory this summer in the “Big One for One Drop,” the one in which he won a bracelet and that massive $18,346,673 first prize. (Yeah, I know -- he didn’t really win $18-plus million, as he was staked for much of the million-dollar buy-in.)

I remember covering a tournament just after the “Big One” in which Esfandiari was playing, I believe it was Event No. 59, a $1,000 no-limit hold’em tourney. It was Day 1, and Andy Frankenberger (who also won a bracelet this summer) was asking Esfandiari from a neighboring table if his win in the $1 million buy-in event had counted toward the WSOP POY race.

Esfandiari said he didn’t know. He then asked me if I knew, and I remember finding out (confirming with our buddy Kevmath) and reporting back that yes, indeed, the “Big One” counted.

I seem to recall some discussion after that at both players’ tables over whether or not the $1 million buy-in event should count toward the POY race. That debate was revived this week after Esfandiari won the €1,100 event and grabbed the POY lead away from Phil Ivey.

Some are arguing the “Big One” should not count. Others are suggesting as well that counting WSOPE events is not necessarily right, given that a significant number of players who played in Las Vegas over the summer don’t make the trip to play in the European events. The fact that the WSOPE also only spreads no-limit hold’em and pot-limit Omaha (i.e., no stud or draw, no mixed-games, etc.), has been brought up as well by some as a reason for excluding the Cannes tourneys from the POY race.

I don’t have a problem with counting the WSOPE events toward the POY race, although understand arguments against doing so. I do think the “Big One” probably might’ve been excluded as an utterly unique tournament (both in terms of the participants and the buy-in) that doesn’t really belong in the category of events being weighed against one another for the WSOP POY.

The POY race is still up for grabs, though, as Ivey, John Monnette, David “ODB” Baker, and Phil Hellmuth (who round out the current top five) are all in Cannes battling for bracelets along with leader Esfandiari. Those are the current standings to the left, which are being updated here as the events play out over the next week in Cannes.

That’s one reason for checking in on the coverage (on PokerNews and the WSOP site). The Main Event getting started this weekend should provide another, despite the lower turnouts and what seems a slight dip in interest overall in what’s happening at the WSOPE.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Everything Is Wild: On the Packers-Seahawks Game; or, Simultaneous Botch

With about eight-and-a-half minutes left to go in the fourth quarter of the NFL game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks last night, Seattle got the ball on their own 20 down 12-7, hoping to begin a long late-game drive to victory.

On the first play of that drive, quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass down the right sideline that was intercepted by Packers cornerback Jerron Williams, a play which appeared as though it might help lock up a win for Green Bay. But a penalty against the Packers’ Eric Walden for roughing the passer nullified the interception, and Seattle retained possession.

The call had been highly sketchy-looking. The quarterback Wilson had been running with the ball, and Williams lunged at his feet to tackle him as he threw. It definitely looked as though it should not have been a penalty.

But I wasn’t that surprised by the flag. That’s because I had just watched yet another weekend’s worth of crazy, unpredictable, and flat-out incorrect calls by the so-called “replacement referees,” the ones working games while the regular, experienced refs are locked out from working over a labor dispute.

That is to say, like many fans, I had started to become accustomed used to such weirdness -- e.g., unexpected flags, surprising calls, etc. I realized I’d instinctively begun to temper all responses to plays, delaying my reaction as I waited to see whether or not what I had just seen would be called back, or a ruling would be revised, or a challenge would be upheld, and so on.

I wasn’t even pulling for either team, especially. I picked the Packers to win in Pauly’s Pub “pick ’em” pool, but so did most everyone else, which meant a win or loss wouldn’t really affect the standings. But I nonetheless realized I was starting to get weary of all the uncertainty that came with trying to follow the game.

Others on my Twitter feed had been commenting on the game and the poor officiating throughout the night. That’s when I thought I’d weigh in, too.

“The NFL has turned into a game of do-overs and didn't-counts,” I tweeted. “No play ever is as it appears.”

Little did I realize what was to come. And how that observation would subsequently apply.

Another blunder from the refs would follow, an incredible, obviously wrong call of defensive pass interference that gave Seattle 30-plus yards of field position. Seattle ultimately saw their drive stall deep in Green Bay territory, the Packers had to punt it back with less than a minute to go, and the Seahawks drove down to the Packer 24-yard-line. Three incomplete passes later, they faced a fourth down with just eight seconds left. Seattle would have to throw into the endzone on what was likely going to be the last play of the game.

You know what happened next. Wilson threw the pass. Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings went up above a crowd to catch it. Seattle receiver Golden Tate pushed Packer defensive back Sam Shields to the ground, jumped for the ball and landed next to Jennings, kinda sorta jamming his hands where Jennings held it against his chest. Two referees -- neither of whom had been close to the area of the catch -- rushed over, took a quick look, then at the same time one signaled touchback (an interception) while the other signaled touchdown.

Madness ensued, punctuated by a reiteration of the touchdown call, a very rapid replay review to confirm, a much-delayed extra point by Seattle, and a 14-12 Seahawks win. Norman Chad swiftly tweeted a jokey comparison to the infamous conclusion to the 1972 Olympic gold medal basketball game between the U.S.-U.S.S.R., which was actually quite apt.

“No play is ever as it appears” I had said. This one clearly appeared one way, was ruled differently, and as a result the wrong team won the game.

It was not a “simultaneous catch” (that thus goes to the offensive player). It was a simultaneous botch.

Football is a game that like most involves a certain element of chance. Having referees fail to enforce rules consistently or accurately adds significantly to that chance element. The obvious analogy from poker would be to introduce certain changes in the rules or to create a variant which necessarily heightens the luck of the game -- i.e., which lessens players’ ability to affect outcomes.

Just a couple of minutes after my tweet, political commentator and comedian Bill Maher offered an analogy from poker to characterize how odd NFL football had become. “So the NFL with replacement refs is now like a card game with Jokers included as wild cards,” he said. “Every 10 plays or so it just makes no sense.”

Maher really is making two different points, the first of which corresponds to the one I’m saying about chance in poker. Adding wild cards certainly does increase the luck element in poker. As John Lukacs wrote in his 1963 essay “Poker and American Character,” poker becomes more of a “gambling game” as more wild cards are introduced. “It is a contest not between human personalities who represent themselves through money and cards,” complains Lukacs, “but between cards held fortuitously by certain individuals.”

Maher’s second point is more like the sentiment I had just tweeted. And distinct from what he’s saying about playing with jokers which is kind of a tangential idea referring to how players unfamiliar with wild-card games find them confusing. From a spectator’s point of view (I was saying of the NFL), the game frequently “makes no sense” with all the “do-overs” and “didn’t counts.”

And, of course, plays that aren’t as they appear.

I might draw a poker analogy from James Thurber’s great 1932 short story “Everything Is Wild” that features a character named Mr. Brush inventing a poker variant on the spot he claims goes by the names of “Soap-in-Your-Eye” and “Kick-in-the-Pants.” (Hear the story read on episode 13 of the Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show.)

The game is utterly incomprehensible, with multiple (and changing) wild cards and plays foreign to other variants. As a result no one other than Brush has any idea what is going on as they play. (There’s a partial explanation in the paragraph to the left.)

Of course, the game that Brush invents is not designed to be a context for actual competition -- it is a big ruse fashioned by himself for his own amusement and to get back at others whom he believes are too enamored with wild-card games.

Players and coaches in these NFL games are very much in the position of Brush’s opponents right now, with rules being misinterpreted and misapplied with such frequency that it feels like the game itself is becoming something other than the one they’d formerly played, a game in which outcomes are being controlled less and less by what they do.

To say the NFL has become a “wild-card game” at present is an understatement. I can’t imagine having to play it right now for high stakes.

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Monday, September 24, 2012

The Mis-Lederer Files

So last Friday we finally reached the end of “The Lederer Files,” the lengthy interview with Howard Lederer posted in seven half-hour segments throughout the week by PokerNews.

To me the interview grew increasingly compelling as it went. Indeed, the process of watching successive “episodes” kind of reminded me of how a lot of us view new television programs, consuming entire seasons’ worth of shows in a single sitting or over the course of just a few days. I joked at one point over Twitter the sucker should have been put on Netflix streaming.

The forums and Twitter were of course all fired up over Lederer’s explanations, evasions, declarations, and obfuscations. A few detailed responses appeared as well on various sites and blogs, with Bill Rini’s breakdown of the interview (including some comments about Diamond Flush’s recent interview with Andy Bloch) being the most insightful by far.

In “A Review of The Lederer Files (Parts I-IV) and Andy Bloch Interview,” Rini assesses what Lederer and Bloch reveal about the ultimately inadequate management structure at FTP, including discussing at length about that incredible blind spot regarding the need to segregate accounts used for operating expenses and player funds that many of us were commenting on last week.

Then in “The Lederer Files Parts 5, 6, and 7” Rini looks a little more closely at the internal strife between the FTP owners and the issue of culpability. He rightly points out how Lederer utterly missed the point of Matt Glantz’ “The Silence of Full Tilt” blog post from February 2012. (Glantz wasn’t asking for a daily report on the status of deals and/or return of funds; he was noting the utter lack of any acknowledgement of the hugely effed-up situation.) Rini also ultimately finds Lederer’s interview-concluding apology to ring hollow, ultimately viewing the entire three-and-a-half-hour interview as much, much more self-serving than altruistic.

At the end of that second post, Rini offers some additional comments about Matthew Parvis and the quality of the interview as a whole. Parvis provided his own post-mortem on Saturday, also worth a look: “The Lederer Files: Process and Opinions.”

Sure, there were a few moments when follow-ups were warranted -- e.g., after that bizarre suggestion early on that segregating accounts wasn’t important to FTP or the industry as a whole; in the face of the non-explanation for why distributions continued at an obscenely high clip even after the company began to experience financial difficulty; during the self-righteous talk about the need to be fully “committed” as a member of FTP Board of Directors when Lederer himself was pretty obviously far from committed to his responsibilities as a BOD member prior to April 2011.

But like Rini I nonetheless have to acknowledge Parvis and PokerNews as having mostly done well with what was certainly a “tough gig” (as Rini says). And as I say above, I found the interview more compelling as it went, mostly because of the weird detours and occasional howlers Lederer dropped along the way.

His grouchy griping about Phil Ivey, John Juanda, Phil Gordon, Perry Friedman, and others was certainly intriguing, although in truth the more Lederer tried to deflect blame the worse he came off.

For example, the business with the “double-credited” loan to Erick Lindgren certainly appears primarily intended as a criticism of Lindgren for making off with not just a $2 million loan but another $2 million accidentally wired to him. But really, the whole idea of FTP casually shipping seven-figure loans to its Red Pros like this -- and amazingly being able to make multi-million-dollar mistakes in accounting when doing so (!) -- reflects incredibly badly on FTP and those who so recklessly ran the sucker.

If this were a television show, the dominant theme or motif of the “story arc” presented in these seven “episodes” would have to be the idea of being misled. On the surface, Lederer tries to argue over and again how he himself had been misled in various ways and in various contexts. But the audience cannot help but see the irony of his position as someone who contributed significantly (both by action and inaction) to the misleading of us all.

It sounds like Lederer may possibly return with still more interviews, and while more Lederer “episodes” -- or a second “season” -- might well provide some more gossipy nuggets to distract us, I’m not too hopeful anything more of substance will be forthcoming from the man who just a year-and-a-half ago was crowned the most powerful person in poker.

I was writing on Friday about quantity versus quality (referring to my chosen posting schedule). More is not necessarily better. While I’ll certainly be curious should further interviews take place, I’m kind of done with Lederer’s lecturing, as I think the “Professor” hasn’t really that much more to teach us.

That said, what an object lesson, eh?

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Friday, September 21, 2012

On the Possibility of Scaling Back

For various reasons I have been thinking a lot about the blog this week, specifically how I continue to follow this schedule of posting at least once every weekday. Have been doing so for quite a long time now (since the start of 2008, if you can believe that), and for the last year or more I’ve been thinking off and on about the possibility of scaling back.

I updated the archive pages this week, which is perhaps what started my thoughts going down this road. If you look down the right-hand column you’ll see those five sections -- On the Street, The Rumble, Shots in the Dark, High Society, and By the Book. I’ve created pages for each that link to all of the posts belonging to each category.

It might sound strange coming from someone who has written so many friggin’ posts, but I’ve always thought quantity a poor substitute for quality. While I’m proud of most of those posts, I know overall it is much better to produce one solid piece of writing than several so-so ones.

That would be one reason among several for posting less. Sort of like being more judicious with hand selection -- one has a better chance at doing well those times one does play than is the case when playing every hand. If I posted, say, two or three times a week rather than five, chances would increase that the quality of each post would improve. I’d choose fewer and probably better/more interesting topics upon which to write (I’d be playing better hands). And I’d have more mental energy to devote per post, too (I’d be playing hands better).

A couple of other reasons for posting less spring to mind. One has to do with the fact that the whole culture of personal blogs has changed considerably, especially over the last year or so. I’ve written about this before, but many of the bloggers have moved on, choosing Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr or Instagram or FourSquare or Pinterest or other avenues via which to communicate and/or interact.

I started the blog initially because I like to write. Very quickly it became a way of interacting with others, kind of an introduction into a great community of readers and writers. But now it’s become... well, a more isolated-seeming activity. I’m not talking about having fewer readers (that’s not the case), but just recognizing that something has changed about the community that has altered the place personal blogs have within it.

Perhaps more than anything it was the loss of online poker for us Americans that fragmented the community to which I’m referring. A lot of us aren’t really playing poker with each other anymore. Or on the same sites, anyway. I think having that common point of reference is important, and perhaps what potentially can make a blog like this one more than just a series of broadcasted op-ed pieces about the poker world.

As a freelancer, I’m also having to think about the bottom line and how much time I can afford to devote to the blog, time that necessarily takes away from the pursuit of for-pay writing opportunities. While I certainly don’t believe I deserve payment for anything I’ve ever posted here, I sometimes think of a sentiment once expressed by a fellow freelancer long ago -- something about it being hard to expect to be paid for something you’re willing to give away for free.

The blog has definitely helped me land a number of writing opportunities. There’s no doubt about that. But sometimes I feel like it’s prevented me from landing some, too, if that makes sense.

I haven’t decided to scale back just yet. Indeed, there’s something a little daunting about actually going ahead and altering a routine such as the one I have followed here on Hard-Boiled Poker for so many years. It’s like I’ve been playing so long and employing a style with which I’ve grown very comfortable, thus making it hard to change gears and do something differently.

We’ll see. Have a feeling I’ll be continuing to check off those boxes every weekday for the near future, anyhow.

Have a good weekend, all. I’m sure I’ll see you Monday.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

On the Lederer Files: The “Professor” and the “Culture” of Online Poker

In my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class we frequently talk about “the culture of poker.” In fact, I have one unit called just that -- “The Culture of Poker” -- in which we take look at how the game was played in certain times and places and consider some of the various characteristics associated with poker as it was played in those contexts.

For example, we go back to the 19th century and read some authors writing then who explain how much cheating was prevalent or part of the “culture” of the game. We then look at later authors showing how in the 20th century the game became relatively less plagued by cardsharps and blacklegs.

We look at places like Las Vegas and California and talk about how poker rooms operated there. We talk about the “masculine culture” of poker and how through much of its history poker has been primarily thought of as a “man’s game.” And so on. We even occasionally talk about the online version of the game and its “culture,” if the schedule permits.

Like a lot of you, I’ve watched the first four half-hour long parts of the PokerNews interview with Howard Lederer in which he has thus far offered a kind of sketchy narrative of how Full Tilt Poker was started, its early days and rapid rise, the move of FTP headquarters to Dublin, the UIGEA and eventual troubles with transactions that led to the massive “backlog,” and Black Friday.

In that narrative, Lederer presents us with what might be called the “culture” of Full Tilt Poker as it evolved from 2004 to 2011. He even uses the word “culture” near the end of Part 1 when he talks about having had “a good influence over company culture” back when FTP was still being run from California, and how he felt as though he lost such influence at some point after the move to Ireland in 2006.

Lederer also makes a few references along the way to the larger “culture” of online poker, particularly in that first part when talking about the early days of FTP.

For example, there’s a moment about halfway through that first video (around the 13-minute mark) when Lederer suggests the idea of keeping segregated accounts -- i.e., keeping operating expenses separate from player balances -- wasn’t really part of the culture of online poker, generally speaking.

This comes up when PokerNews’ Matthew Parvis asks Lederer about the early days of FTP and whether or not there were “multiple bank accounts at this point for operating versus player funds.” To that question, Lederer has a couple of responses.

The first is “I don’t know.” As he repeats frequently throughout the interview, despite being a major owner, a member of the Board of Directors, and (theoretically) a primary decision-maker at FTP, the “Professor” professes ignorance when it comes to financial matters. Indeed, according to his version of the story, it wasn’t until about a week before Black Friday -- when the nine-figure “backlog” was finally spelled out to him -- that he seemed ever to concern himself at all with the financial side of things. (And even then “it didn’t seem like an emergency” to him [!])

Lederer then adds what I find a curious claim. Regarding the idea of segregated accounts, he suggests that not only did FTP not really consider that important, he thinks perhaps the industry as a whole -- i.e., the “culture” of online poker -- was such that keeping operating expenses separate from player funds wasn’t really an issue.

Here’s that second response to the question...

“It just wasn’t... you know, the company was strong, the reports looked good. I just... it just wasn’t, uh, this idea of segregated trust accounts [shakes head “no”]. That... I don’t think it was anywhere even in the industry. I don’t think people were even thinking about it. I just... it just wasn’t anything that was of a real concern, you know?”

More than a little strange, really, that Lederer would characterize the culture of online poker this way. Because it was a concern -- perhaps not a widespread one, but not completely off the radar (as Lederer suggests).

I realize it is easy with hindsight to point out how fundamentally important the idea of keeping player funds separate from operating expenses truly is. And I understand how it may have taken the “culture” of online poker some time to appreciate this importance. But I don’t think it was as alien an idea as Lederer suggests, not by a long shot. And particularly for those online poker sites who were moving to the forefront in terms of popularity and ambition.

In fact, less than a minute before Lederer says this he alludes to PartyPoker -- or, really, PartyGaming (the parent company) -- having gone public (in June 2005). Other poker sites were edging in that direction, too. As Lederer says, they were “hearing rumblings that it’s happening, that companies are starting toward that.”

Obviously Party had to ensure it had its financial situation well under control before making such a move. At that time PokerStars was also apparently looking into the possibility of going public (and thus was also ensuring its accounts were in order). Lederer implies FTP might’ve been considering going public, too, although obviously those ideas weren’t pursued very far if they never inspired the company to begin thinking about the importance of segregating accounts.

There’s a lot more to the story of the rise and fall of Full Tilt Poker, of course. And of Howard Lederer’s role in both. But it’s this weird blind spot about segregating funds (and about paying attention to the books, generally speaking) that seems central to all of it, kind of the fatal flaw that pretty much ensured from the start the story would end badly.

Perhaps the culture of Full Tilt Poker didn’t see it as important back in the early days, but it certainly was not the case it wasn’t a “real concern” to others in the industry. And it wouldn’t be long -- March 2008 -- before FTP was addressing the matter directly. That’s when CEO Ray Bitar drafted a response to customer inquiries stating that “Players’ funds at Full Tilt Poker are kept in several deposit accounts throughout the world, all of which are separate and distinct from our operating accounts.”

That response appears in the superseding indictment against Bitar and Nelson Burtnick, which also explains how such a declaration (repeated ad infinitum by “FTPDoug” and others over the next three-plus years) was in fact never true: “at no time in its history did Full Tilt Poker protect player funds in separate accounts.”

Going back to the “culture of poker,” we might remind ourselves how Full Tilt Poker was an online site conceived and operated by poker players. I wrote a post here almost a year ago called “The Perils of Learning as You Go” that addressed what we already knew well before “The Lederer Files” -- the guys making the decisions at FTP were in way over their heads.

In that post I talked a little about how professional poker players necessarily learn the game by playing it, contrasting that with most other professions which require some sort of study or classroom work or training that isn’t necessarily “on-the-job.” I suggested that perhaps Chris Ferguson, Howard Lederer, and the other poker players who helped launch FTP approached that venture similarly -- they’d learn as they went, make “reads” and react accordingly, etc.

Some of the FTP owners also appear to have been influenced by other elements of the “culture of poker” in their management of the company, too. Things like self-interest, a willingness to take risks, and greed.

Obviously, it didn’t work out. As Lederer variously puts it in the interview, “something weird happened” and “clearly things got out of hand.”

It appears the “Professor” should’ve studied the culture in which he found himself a little more carefully.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Esfandiari on Stern

Howard SternI know most readers of this blog are probably honed in on this long interview with Howard Lederer that’s being slowly rolled out this week over on the PokerNews site.

Like most, I watched the two half-hour segments yesterday, and I expect I’ll be looking in on the rest as well. And like most I have all sorts of opinions about what I saw and heard regarding the questions, the answers, and other aspects of the interview.

Gonna resist adding to all the noise about “The Lederer Files” today, though, and instead just mention another interview I heard yesterday. Antonio Esfandiari appeared on the Howard Stern’s satellite radio show where he talked with Stern and his co-host Robin Quivers for more than half an hour about a range of topics, including the Magician’s $18 million-plus win in the Big One for One Drop.

If you’re curious, you can listen to the interview here, as a Two Plus Two poster has made it available.

I’m not a regular listener of Stern. I used to hear him now and then back in the day when his show was syndicated and would turn up on FM, but since his move over onto satellite radio some years ago I haven’t really heard him much at all. I do like his humor and personality, though, and while all the “shock jock” or blue material can be hit-or-miss sometimes, I’ve always thought he was an engaging host who knew a lot about how to keep listeners from turning the dial.

Stern has been a proponent of poker over the years, occasionally opining about the game and speaking out in opposition to prohibitions against online poker. A few years back he had PPA Chairman Alfonse D’Amato on the show to talk about the PPA’s cause. In the interview with Esfandiari, Stern further reveals himself to be genuinely interested in the game -- he does play -- and not a little bit fascinated with the world of high-stakes players.

Antonio EsfandiariAmong the topics covered are the Big One for One Drop, backing arrangements, skill and luck in poker, bankroll management and dealing with swings, and the culture of poker/gambling and Las Vegas.

They also discuss Esfandiari’s background as an Iranian immigrant, his career as a professional magician, and his early days starting out as a low-stakes player. And on multiple occasions Stern returns to the topic of Esfandiari’s sex life and his predilection for partying, about which Esfandiari doesn’t hesitate much at all to share details.

Fans of Esfandiari will like the interview a lot, and even those who aren’t necessarily interested in him might find it interesting to hear Esfandiari represent poker to a wider audience. Despite Stern’s often adult-themed topics and his being on satellite radio, he show does fall squarely within the “mainstream,” and Esfandiari does a decent job (in my opinion) representing the game to those who aren’t inside of our little poker world.

For example, Esfandiari does quite well throughout the interview explaining the importance of skill in the game while also consistently pointing out how luck is involved, too. And Stern is convinced there exists a huge divide between amateur players like himself and pros like Esfandiari.

“I think that poker is a game of skill,” says Stern near the end. Then Esfandiari offers an analogy.

“It’s like saying if I spent as many hours doing what you do [i.e., hosting a radio show], I'd be as good as you,” says Esfandiari. “Of course not...”

“Of course you wouldn’t,” Stern interrupts, and you can almost hear him grinning. “Look at you. Cards is one thing, being the king of all media is another!”

It’s true... just like poker, interviewing requires skill (from both the interviewer and interviewee). If you want to hear a couple who are quite good at it, check out Esfandiari on Stern.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Full Tilters Talking

Andy Bloch and Howard LedererLate last week Diamond Flush published a very lengthy interview with Andy Bloch, one of those Team Full Tilters who had been closer than most to the many failures that led to Full Tilt Poker’s fall.

Bloch had been a significant shareholder in FTP’s parent company, Tiltware. He was also present and involved in discussions regarding a potential change in the management of the company post-Black Friday. Thus is Bloch one of several individuals definitely worth interviewing with regard to the FTP fiasco, someone who theoretically should know more than most about how the site came to mismanage funds so egregiously so as to be unable to allow players to cash out their balances once the site ceased U.S. operations (in April 2011) and eventually lost its licenses to operate elsewhere (in late June 2011).

Even though the interview is more than 7,000 words long, it has a fairly narrow scope, drilling deeper and deeper into what are really just a couple of issues -- (1) the logistics of decision-making and management at Full Tilt during the months before and after Black Friday; and (2) Bloch’s personal knowledge and/or understanding of what was happening.

Regarding the former, Bloch doesn’t offer too much that is new regarding how things were run prior to Black Friday, his comments essentially confirming what we’ve read elsewhere suggesting that CEO Ray Bitar was largely responsible for major decisions. We learn a bit more, however, about what happened from the summer of 2011 onward, when an attempt was made to unseat Bitar and/or bring in a new Board of Directors (on which Bloch would potentially serve). Neither change happened.

Bloch also tells of his own discovery in April 2011 of just how cash-poor FTP really was. It sounds like he had been vaguely aware of those governmental seizures of funds although hadn’t really focused on the situation until after the shinola had already hit the fan. Indeed, in the interview Diamond Flush seems a little surprised that Bloch is expressing a lack of awareness regarding certain seizures and amounts that had been reported by mainstream outlets.

That section of the interview almost led me to affix some cheeky title to this post, something about “Bloch-ing It Out” or the like, although I resisted. Bloch’s lack of awareness about what was going on didn’t seem as though it deserved highlighting in that way. (Of course, Bloch wasn’t the only one in a position of potential influence at FTP who apparently chose not to look more closely at what was happening.)

There’s some interesting almost-dirt being tossed around in there, with Bloch expressing suspicion and/or uncertainty about fellow Team Full Tilt members’ motives during those contentious what-the-hell-are-we-gonna-do-now meetings in Dublin last summer. Bloch looks askance at both of “the Phils” -- Gordon and Ivey -- sounding as though he believes both were more interested in preserving themselves than the company, especially Ivey with his lawsuit that Bloch judged “ma[de] no sense” and “had no valid legal basis.”

Andy BlochBitar predictably receives criticism from Bloch. The CFO (Gil Coronado, whom Bloch doesn’t name) is also censured here by Bloch, although only in passing. However, when it comes to the other three “FTP Insiders” named in the DOJ civil complaint -- Howard Lederer, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, and Rafe Furst -- Bloch says relatively little.

He doesn’t mention Furst at all. Ferguson comes up but once, during a discussion of a possible post-Black Friday “cash call” which would involve the inner circle putting up their own cabbage to try to save the company.

“A lot of people had their money tied up in real estate for example and had lost a lot in real estate as well,” explains Bloch. (We learned something of this kind of spending-slash-investing in the second amendment to the civil complaint that appeared last week just after Bloch’s interview.) “Unfortunately, not everyone is like Chris Ferguson who doesn’t spend a lot of money.”

In other words, unlike most (says Bloch), “Jesus” saves. Ultimately, though, the idea of the “FTP Insiders” supplying the needed money to cover cashouts wasn’t feasible. So the only reference to Ferguson here is positive. So, too, are the few references by Bloch to Howard Lederer.

Bloch notes how Lederer contacted him shortly after Black Friday, instructing Bloch to remain available for votes (as a shareholder). There’s reference to Lederer actually going ahead and pledging money amid that “cash call” discussion, the only person Bloch is aware of having done so. Finally, there’s one last reference to Lederer by Bloch when he’s asked about whether or not he would have done things differently.

“I would have been more involved,” Bloch begins, “and made sure there is somebody that was making sure that Ray was doing his job and not making ridiculous risky decisions that put everything in jeopardy. I think Howard would probably say the same thing.”

Speaking of Lederer, he, too, has finally spoken -- and again, at great length -- having agreed to an interview with PokerNews’ Matthew Parvis that apparently lasted seven hours or thereabouts. In a teaser, Parvis reported yesterday that the interview will be posted on the PN site in multiple installments starting today under the austere heading “The Lederer Files.” Sounds like there will be a follow-up of some kind as well over on Two Plus Two where Lederer will be answering further questions.

Like Bloch, Lederer will no doubt characterize his own involvement similarly, noting how the situation at FTP largely unraveled between 2008 (when he stepped away from the day-to-day operations) and early 2011. Will be curious to see, though, if the interview goes beyond Lederer just attempting to absolve himself over and again.

Diamond Flush introduced the Bloch interview as the first of several with FTPers, so it sounds like now that the PokerStars-DOJ-FTP agreement has been finalized, that trickle of anonymous postings by FTP employees that began almost a year ago is about to become a tidal wave of talk.

Meanwhile the rest of us will have to get out our detectors and start mining. Here’s hoping something of use washes ashore.

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Monday, September 17, 2012

Playing Poker With Truman and Churchill

Harry Truman says 'The Buck Stops Here'One very fun thing about teaching this “Poker in American Film and Culture” class each semester is discovering additional readings, films, or other material related to the course. I’ve taught the class a few times now and every time I do I end up finding new, interesting items to incorporate.

Of course the class remains just one semester long, which means I have to decide sometimes whether to cut readings in order to bring in the new material. I’ve compromised somewhat in this regard by introducing an ever-growing “Recommended Readings & Viewings” section where I’ve been moving articles and clips that are getting replaced.

James McManus’s Cowboys Full remains a core text for the class, a book we spend a lot of time with especially early on. Doing so ensures we have some idea of the history of poker in the U.S. and thus some context for the films and other cultural productions we examine later on.

Those of you who’ve read McManus’s book know how he makes lots of references to events in American history in which poker was of particular relevance. A few examples come in the chapter about Harry Truman, one of many poker-playing U.S. presidents.

Truman’s adopted motto -- “the buck stops here” -- is in fact derived from poker, the “buck” referring to the buckhorn knife once used as a the dealer’s button. McManus explains that bit of trivia while also telling the story of Truman playing stud with the press aboard the U.S.S. Augusta battleship while waiting for news regarding the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima.

We all know how the Enola Gay, piloted by Paul Tibbets, was the name of the aircraft from which the first bomb was dropped. McManus doesn’t mention the names of a couple of other aircraft involved in the missions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- the Straight Flush and Full House (both of which handled weather reconnaissance).

Winston Churchill delivering the 'Iron Curtain' speech at Westminster College in Missouri, March 5, 1946McManus does go on to talk about WWII’s aftermath, including Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech delivered in March 1946. Churchill had arrived in Washington D.C. and rode with Truman on his private train to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri where he gave the speech (pictured at left). On the way, Churchill, Truman, and others played poker on the train.

McManus explains how the game went, with Churchill losing steadily before finally quitting at 2:30 in the morning. The next day Churchill then delivered the speech that along with Stalin’s response many point to as the start of the Cold War.

McManus resists drawing any substantial connections between the poker game and the speech, but reading between the lines it is tempting to give it some symbolic significance as a prelude to the cementing of a significant and enduring alliance.

We’ll be discussing this chapter along with others today in class. When preparing I found this clip in which long-time journalist David Brinkley talks about playing in the poker game on the train with Truman and Churchill. I think I’ll show the clip in class today and let the students hear Brinkley talk about how after beating up on Churchill for most of the night, the Americans finally eased up before the game concluded.

Like I say, it’s tempting to give the game some significance it probably doesn’t deserve and talk about how it demonstrated something of the Americans’ character to Churchill. Or perhaps even illustrated a modest example of diplomacy. In any event, it’s fascinating how often poker comes up at key moments in the nation’s history.

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Friday, September 14, 2012

2012 Poker Hall of Fame Nominees Announced

Poker Hall of FameHave spent some time this morning contemplating those 10 nominees for the 2012 Poker Hall of Fame. Once again I’ve been tapped to participate in the process as a voter along with other poker media and the 18 living Poker Hall of Famers, and so I’m currently doing some homework to try to sort out who among the 10 will be getting my votes.

This year’s nominees are Chris Björin, David Chiu, Eric Drache, Thor Hansen, George Hardie, Jennifer Harman-Traniello, John Juanda, Tom McEvoy, Scotty Nguyen, and Brian "Sailor" Roberts.

The ballots have yet to be sent out -- that will happen next week -- but I’m assuming things will go similarly to previous years. I’ll have 10 points which I’ll be allowed to distributed among one, two, or three nominees. (Voting for none at all is an option, too, although I can promise I won’t be doing that.) Once the votes are collected, the points will be tallied and the top two point-getters will be inducted.

For a rundown of the nominees and a little info about each, check my post over on Betfair poker this morning titled “New Names Among 2012 Poker Hall of Fame Nominees.”

I had a few initial impressions when the list was announced earlier this week. One was the fact that McEvoy and Nguyen have both been named as finalists for the last four years (i.e., ever since the voting process was first introduced). Unlike other finalists who’ve appeared, were not voted in, and then dropped, these two have had support in the past and may well be favorites to get in this time around.

Among the other things that stood out as I intially perused the list was the fact that six of the nominees this year hadn’t been named before. That five of the 10 were born outside the U.S. (Björin, Chiu, Hansen, Juanda, Nguyen). And that Annie Duke, Marcel Luske, Jack McClelland, and Huck Seed failed to get back on the ballot this time after being finalists and not getting voted in last year.

I wasn’t surprised to see Eric Drache’s name included, as I’ve heard several voice support of his candidacy before thanks to his contributions as a tourney director at the WSOP and introduction of the satellite system.

Can’t say I expected to see George Hardie’s name on the ballot, although it wasn’t out-of-nowhere. He started and ran the Bicycle Club in the 1980s and was part of the California poker scene’s huge growth during that era, although subsequently ran into all sorts of legal problems in the 1990s and eventually left the Bicycle after the U.S. government took the place over. (Here’s something from Poker Player Newspaper about Hardie from a short while ago arguing the case for his importance to poker’s history.)

The late “Sailor” Roberts appears on the ballot thanks to having been suggested by a living Poker Hall of Famer -- that is, he’s a “write-in” candidate rather than one nominated by the public via the WSOP website. As one of the famed “Texas Rounders” along with Doyle Brunson and “Amarillo Slim” Preston -- not to mention having won the WSOP Main Event in 1975 -- Roberts is certainly deserving of the nomination, although I wonder if those voting will consider him worthy enough to take points away from other candidates.

I don’t take this responsibility lightly, and so as before I will be committing a lot of study and thought before deciding how to vote. Thankfully I will have until the end of September to make my decision.

How would you distribute your 10 points among one, two, or three of these candidates?

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bad Cell

Battery testThis week I found myself experiencing some inconvenience thanks to a faulty car battery. All’s well today, but it did cause a headache or two.

Actually the problems with my car extend well beyond the battery. Nearly 15 years old and with almost 200,000 miles on it, just about every non-essential part of the car is broken or malfunctions in some fashion. I won’t bore you with details of the vehicle’s many issues, other than to share that the very old battery finally became unresponsive to jump starts this week and had to be replaced.

In truth, the battery hadn’t completely crapped out, but rather had developed one bad cell, meaning it couldn’t produce enough voltage to get the sucker started. There are six cells in a 12-volt battery, and when one goes that means the others have to work harder. My radio and lights worked, but with the bad cell there wasn’t enough juice to start the engine, and so a change had to be made.

The metaphor of a “bad cell” seems apt for describing the United States’ current status relative to the world of online poker.

When Black Friday happened and suddenly Americans were all but shut out of the online poker game, it was a little like one cell had gone bad, and for a while the others had to work a bit harder in order to keep the game going. Of course, online poker has survived these last 16-plus months without the U.S., and you might say the whole system has by now been replaced with a new one.

Meanwhile comes this week’s news that a second amendment has been made to the original Black Friday civil complaint adding new charges against the so-called “Full Tilt Insiders” named in the first amendment from September 2011. The idea behind the new amendment is to bolster the case for getting the FTPers to forfeit assets by adding in the Travel Act as another law the accused have violated.

The new amendment provides details regarding what Howard Lederer and Ray Bitar were doing with the millions they’d funnelled from FTP to their own personal accounts from 2006 to 2011. Sounds like both were doing a lot of home-buying and/or renovating. Lederer also apparently bought himself several nice cars, including a sweet 1965 Shelby Cobra.

Apparently some of the cars were in need of repairs, too, as the new amendment spells out. Not seeing any references in the complaint noting whether any of the cars needed batteries replaced.

2012 Audi A8 L QuattroSome of the expenditures apparently took place after Black Friday, if you can believe that. For example, Lederer is said to have completed his purchase of a 2012 Audi A8 L Quattro for $156,549 on June 30, 2011. (There’s a picture of one to the left.) Of course, the Professor did knock a good chunk off the list price by trading in his 2008 Audi and selling his Maserati to the dealer (both vehicles also purchased with funds traced back to FTP).

Again, none of it looks good at all for Lederer and Bitar in particular, nor the other FTP “Insiders” more generally speaking.

You could call the whole FTP saga yet another kind of “bad cell” that essentially helped ensure that online poker in the U.S. would end up getting pushed to the curb. (Others contributed to that development, too, of course.) We’ll see what happens in November when the new FTP launches and once again becomes part of the worldwide online poker machine.

Meanwhile, we Americans will sit parked a little while longer, hoping roadside assistance arrives soon.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Watchin’ the WCOOP

PokerStars' World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP)Last year around this time I wrote a post comparing the turnouts for the 2011 World Championship of Online Poker at PokerStars with what we had seen the year before. Was kind of curious then to find out how great of an effect Black Friday would have on the overall numbers, given that U.S. players could no longer play.

Back in 2010, Americans comprised just about one-third of the overall player pool in WCOOP, so some sort of dip was obviously expected to occur in 2011. PokerStars signaled they were anticipating such by reducing all of the guarantees across the board.

As it turned out, the decline in turnouts from 2010 to 2011 at the WCOOP wasn’t that enormous. See my post from last year for details of how the numbers compared for the first half of the series. In some cases events did lose just about a third of the entrants from year to year, although most saw much smaller decreases and in couple of cases the numbers held steady or even increased.

As the WCOOP is getting close to its midpoint again I thought I’d once more take a peek at the turnouts thus far. In this case I wasn’t really sure what to expect, although given the fact that most of the events and guarantees were kept the same from last year, I thought we’d probably see very similar numbers in terms of entrants.

Here’s how things appear through the first 30 events of this year’s WCOOP, along with figures from the last two years for similar events/buy-ins.

I left off referring to Event #s this time, since a few were moved around. Also, whereas the schedule was virtually unchanged from 2010 to 2011, there were a few more alterations this year, and so among the first 30 events this year there are really only 25 with parallels from a year ago. In a couple of cases buy-ins were changed or the format tweaked (e.g., $320 mixed hold’em became full ring this time rather than 6-max.). And a couple more ($215 razz, $265 NL Omaha H/L 6-max.) were removed from the schedule in 2012.

Looking at those remaining 25 events then, 16 saw greater turnouts this year (in some cases significantly greater), 8 saw declines (only a couple more than 10%), and one went unchanged (the $320 NLHE 6-max. shootout that’s reached its cap the last three years).

There are various factors in play here, obviously, including the fact that this year there are certainly more U.S. players participating in WCOOP from Canada, Mexico, and other countries than was the case in 2011. A few had done so last year, but it seems like considerably more decided the WCOOP was worth traveling for this time.

I say that in part because of anecdotal evidence, with Twitter and forum buzz suggesting a lot of American players have trekked up to Vancouver or Toronto this month. Also, the fact that Canada is currently leading all countries thus far in cashes, money won, final table appearances, and WCOOP bracelets is probably an indicator, too, that some Americans have found their way back into the WCOOP. (Canada did lead in cashes in 2011 although by a slimmer margin, and didn’t have as high a frequency of final table appearances or events won.)

Looking ahead a bit, it will be interesting to see going forward what effect the launch of Full Tilt Poker 2.0 by PokerStars (likely to occur in early November) will have on tournament series like WCOOP, SCOOP, and others. Meanwhile, as the rest of the online poker world continues to endure various struggles, PokerStars and the WCOOP keep on keeping on.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Meaningful Interruption

However you define the game, playing poker can be an incredibly immersive experience. Anyone who has played poker in a more than casual way has experienced being so caught up in the game that the idea of actually stopping and leaving becomes utterly shut out of one’s consciousness.

In The Biggest Game in Town, Al Alvarez tells the story of how during several weeks in Las Vegas during the 1981 WSOP he’d heard practically zero references to the outside world. To further the point that all were too involved in what they were doing to acknowledge anything else, Alvarez mentions how during his time there Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square. “But nobody mentioned it, despite the innumerable crucifixes dangling from the necks of both the players and the casino staff.”

Poker (or other casino games) can do that. But so can other activities or routines. We all can be more or less obsessive about whatever it is we do.

Speaking of routines and getting knocked from them, I had a few different ideas for topics for today, but I’ve become stymied somewhat thinking about the anniversary of 9/11.

Like you, I find myself remembering the day itself and how like everyone else I became aware of the events of that morning. And how they stopped us all in our tracks then, too, changing our plans not just for the day but for weeks and months and years to come.

The New York Times, Sept. 12, 2001I was teaching that day, my world lit class scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. It was early in the semester, and I remember we were scheduled to discuss The Aeneid, Virgil’s epic all about conflict and war and destiny and gravitas and how when it came to Aeneas getting to Rome “the man should sail: that is the whole point.”

Normally I would’ve made it to school about an hour before my class, spending that time at my desk in the large office I shared with a colleague. However, that morning I’d taken a detour to my bank to deposit a check -- the so-called “tax refund,” actually, that was sent out late that summer to try to inject some extra dollars into the economy. The idea was we’d all spend the extra few hundy, but Vera and I thought it most prudent for us to bank it, and so that’s what I was doing.

I was still in the car a little after 9 a.m. listening to sports radio. The Panthers had won their season opener the previous Sunday against the Vikings, and so the hosts were enthusiastic discussing that. However, they were distracted a little by news of something happening at the World Trade Center. There’d be no football the following Sunday, of course, and in fact when the season resumed the Panthers wouldn’t win another game that year.

I got to my office around 9:15 or so. My colleague had a television -- one of those on a roller-cart with a VCR underneath that teachers sometimes wheeled into classrooms to show videos -- and had it on. Soon I learned about both planes hitting the Twin Towers, and by the time I was walking to my class we’d heard President Bush was about to address the nation.

TV on a cartCanceling class seemed like a no-brainer to me, although as I think back on that day I recall how some of my colleagues did not do so, choosing instead to teach as usual for the entire 75-minute period. The school ultimately closed, although not until lunch, I believe. I just told my students we’d push our reading back a class and let them go, then went to a neighboring classroom where a group had gathered around another of those TV-on-a-carts.

It wasn’t long after we heard about the third plane hitting the Pentagon. That was the point when things really did seem to be coming apart. I hung out with the students for a while, then went back to my office where a half-dozen or more colleagues had gathered. We heard about the fourth flight crashing in Pennsylvania. We watched the towers fall, speculated about the numbers of the dead, and fretted about what was to come.

Before long I was driving back to the small apartment where Vera and I then lived. She was out of town, unfortunately, and I don’t think it would be until early afternoon the phones worked and I was able to talk to her. So I’d spend the day with my cat, Sweetie, then just three months old, watching the coverage unfold.

Breaking NewsI’d learn the FAA had halted all flight operations (in fact, planes would stay grounded for three more days). At some point I learned that President Bush had been in a classroom that morning, too, reading stories with a group of elementary school kids. His continuing with the class for several minutes after learning of the second plane crash would later earn a lot of scrutiny.

All of this sticks with me, as I imagine do all of the events of that day for you, too, coming back to me today to make me stop and ponder. I’ve long forgotten all of my students in that class I canceled. I’m sure they all remember their teacher -- whose name they probably can’t recall -- coming in and telling them we’d put off discussing the Aeneid until Thursday.

Later in the week we were all back in class. That Friday morning I recall teaching a seminar, a small class in which about a dozen upperclassmen sat around a large table. It was my 18th-century Brit lit class, although I don’t remember what our reading was that day.

A student had been talking and she’d just finished. I opened my mouth to respond, and in the brief space of silence in between we heard something that made us all stop for a moment. A plane.

We looked at each other, saying nothing. It was a sound we hadn’t heard all week. A meaningful interruption. I’ll bet my students probably remember that moment a lot more than all of the other ones we shared together that semester.

I know I do.

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Monday, September 10, 2012

Defining Poker

Defining PokerHad fun again last night playing Hard-Boiled Poker Home Games on PokerStars while watching the opening weekend of NFL football. We’re still pushing through “Season 1” of the HBP HG, playing two tourneys each Sunday night until the end of September. By the end there will have been 20 events in this season, then at the beginning of October I’ll begin a “Season 2” that will play through the end of December.

As I’ve mentioned here before, players in each of the events can accumulate points for finishing in the top third of the field, and the one earning the most points for the season is going to win a copy of Poker: Bets, Bluffs and Bad Beats by Al Alvarez. I’m looking into lining up a few extra prizes for Season 2, so that one won’t be a winner-take-all.

I’ve been trying to schedule various games besides no-limit hold’em to keep things interesting. Last night we played pot-limit hold’em (Event No. 13) and what PokerStars calls “Triple Stud” (Event No. 14), the latter rotating between the three stud games in H.O.R.S.E. -- that is, stud (high only), stud hi/lo, and razz.

One of the ongoing challenges when playing Triple Stud was simply to remember which game was being played. The levels only lasted three minutes, which meant the games were switching frequently, and I think just about every one of us at least once started a hand thinking it was one stud variant when in fact it was a different one. Keeping track of the games is part of the challenge of any mixed game format, but I think the test might be slightly more taxing when all of the games are stud and thus superficially appear similar.

Kind of got me thinking a little about how “poker” covers so many different kinds of games. Or, to put it another way, how flexible that word “poker” really is in terms of what it could be said to define.

Heck, when I create Home Games, PokerStars let’s me choose from 17 different poker variants, with a number of those allowing for different betting formats (e.g., no-limit, pot-limit, fixed-limit). And of course there are options for full ring, short-handed, heads-up, different level durations, different starting stacks, and so forth. We couldn’t get through all of different poker games if we played a 100-event series.

Many say there are certain elements that are absolutely essential for a game to be called “poker.” I’ve heard and read a number of attempts at pinning those elements down, with most usually declaring that in order for a game to qualify as “poker,” it must involve cards, money, and bluffing.

Think about it, though... what a huge range of possibility exists for games that include those three criteria. And I’m not even completely sure those three elements are absolutely essential or cannot be modified significantly without carrying the game outside of the boundaries of what we can still call “poker.”

It’s like “literature” or “the novel” or other ambiguous categories or genres, really. One could even argue that as long as participants can agree on rules and that the game is still going to be called “poker,” then it’s poker.

How do you define poker? What elements would you say are utterly essential for a game to be called poker?

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Friday, September 07, 2012

Partouche Postscript

“They paid it!”

So tweeted Matt Savage, serving as tournament director for the Partouche Poker Tour in Cannes, France this week. Savage was caught in the middle of this week’s controversy over the failure to honor a purported €5 million guarantee for the PPT’s Main Event.

Yesterday PPT’s CEO Patrick Partouche confirmed that from the organizers’ point of view there never had been such a guarantee, and thus the prize pool of about €4.26 million would stand. Partouche further announced that this fifth year of the PPT would be the last, a decision seemingly prompted by distaste at players’ negative response to the news there would be no overlay.

Today we learn the decision has been made by the PPT to add the more than 700,000 Euros to make the prize pool €5 million after all. Such was the news tweeted by Savage.

Again the announcement of the change was made by Patrick Partouche prior to his delivery of the charge to “shuffle up and deal.” A letter including his comments has also begun to circulate, including being posted over on Two Plus Two.

They paid it!' tweets Matt SavageThere Partouche reiterates that the tournament’s official rules never included anything about a €5 million guarantee, although he acknowledges some were misled “by the way this event was promoted in the media and the confusion that since followed.” He then notes that he’s “asked the Partouche group to bear the consequences and make up the difference” and add €736,880 to the prize pool.

There is a French law, apparently, that limits the amount of money a casino can add to a prize pool in this way, so that will have to be sorted out somehow. (That law also makes the whole idea of a “guaranteed” prize pool theoretically hard to fathom.) In any event, players are glad -- especially those who have now made the money, as the cash bubble has already burst.

Just like yesterday’s announcement that the PPT was finished, today’s news caught most by surprise. My friend Benjo -- who like Savage was also kind of caught in the middle yesterday in his role as a reporter -- tweeted when he arrived for Day 4: “Just got in the Cannes casino, got welcomed with the news that Partouche is actually honoring the €5M prize-pool. #wow #rewow”

Patrick PartoucheThe letter containing the announcement continues, with Partouche (pictured at left) adding a few more statements of support for his colleagues (or “troops”) and recognizing that all are prone to mistakes.

“That being said,” he adds, “I cannot now go back on my word and therefore my decision stands and the PPT will be no more.” That reaffirmation remains sad news for many, including staff and media for whom the PPT provided not insignificant employment opportunities.

As I concluded yesterday, it is difficult to judge or assign blame here, although there was obviously a lot of miscommunication regarding the terms of the tournament and that led to significant problems with how it has proceeded this week.

Some are reacting to the news by citing the many other recent examples of miscommunication and/or false (or misleading) “guarantees” such as exemplified by online sites like Full Tilt Poker, UltimateBet, and Absolute Poker, the debacle that was Epic Poker League, and countless other scandals involving various companies and individuals. I don’t really think this incident belongs in the same category of those other egregious failures, actually, although I can understand the inclination to step back and once again talk about poker as a whole being plagued by such.

Just as money is a crucial element of the game -- as some insist, the game is meaningless without it -- perhaps that very fact ensures that conflict and (sometimes) controversy will necessarily ensue. After all, the game itself is a kind of fight over money, one the very rules of which encourage combatants to mislead one another with false promises and deceit.

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