Friday, November 30, 2012

Killer Cards

Don’t ask me how exactly I came upon this story. Was up late the other night doing some scribbling and ended up pursuing one of those weird associative sequences of click-throughs that can take a person to unexpected places online.

I believe the sequence began on Wikipedia where I was looking up an actor who’d popped up in a movie I had playing on the teevee in the background as I worked. Eventually I ended up on a kind of unsettling “list of unusual deaths” throughout history. (And yes, now that I think of it, the late great Vic Morrow was sadly a link in that causal chain.)

In any case, one of the deaths described on that page involved a fellow named William Kogut, and after reading that entry I switched over from passive clicking to active searching to learn a little more about his demise.

This Kogut’s unusual death came while serving a death sentence at San Quentin. Kogut had been imprisoned for having murdered a woman who ran a brothel in California. Some of the stories about him note the woman may have been running a gaming hall, too. And some also speculate that the murder had been motivated by some sort of moral outrage on Kogut’s part regarding his victim’s line of work.

The year was 1930. Kogut wiled away his time in prison playing solitaire, something the guards had noticed but to which they hadn’t really bothered to pay much heed. Then came a day in early October when an explosion surprisingly rocked Kogut’s cell, killing the inmate.

A somewhat defiant-sounding suicide note was found in which Kogut mentioned how he’d “never give up as long as I am living and have a chance, but this is the end.” An investigation soon followed, turning up the ingenious method of Kogut’s bomb-making.

It was discovered that Kogut had torn out all of the hearts and diamonds from decks of playing cards. The way the story goes, the red dye used to print the cards contained a flammable compound called nitrocellulose, something once used in a lot of products like film, flash paper, plastics, and so on.

Apparently Kogut had removed the hollow leg from his bed, put the hearts and diamonds inside, added water, closed up the ends, set the sucker near a heating vent, and laid down with his head right beside it. The water then reacted with the nitrocellulose (the process sped up by the heat), thereby creating the explosion that ended his life.

Like I say, this is a story that appears in many versions on the web, including over at the site where we get a confirmation that this urban legend-sounding tale is in fact true. I have no idea what sort of processes are employed to print and coat cards these days, but I’m going to guess that today’s cards no longer involve potentially flammable compounds. From what I’m reading about nitrocellulose, lots of accidents and safety concerns led to its disuse around mid-century. Others with a greater interest in such things may know more about it.

The story reminded me of Tom Robbins’s novel Still Life With Woodpecker (1980) which I read ages ago. That was the one with the cover that looked like a pack of Camels. There’s a character in there -- the Woodpecker of the title -- who is a bomber, and in fact the “hearts and diamonds bomb” is one of the methods described and which I think he uses.

More searching uncovers a similar story being told in an episode of the Spike series 1000 Ways to Die, a show focusing on the subject unusual deaths. There they refer to a different convict, Floyd O’Malley, imprisoned at Joliet in 1938, using a similar method to fashion a bomb using playing cards in an attempted jailbreak. The plan goes awry, however, with O’Malley accidentally killing himself in the process, thereby giving the show’s makers an excuse to title the segment after a grisly pun, “Poker Face.” (Tend to believe the O’Malley story is probably a fiction, actually, based largely on the Kogut one which likely happened.)

The stories are ghastly enough, but there’s something extra horrorshow about the idea of ripping the hearts and diamonds out of cards like that, isn’t there? Little holes like sad eyes peering out of the deck, the pile of hearts and diamonds resembling drops of blood...

And the poor, useless deck... already murdered!

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Slim Story from Joseph Walsh

Yesterday I brought up California Split again as well as screenwriter Joseph Walsh’s 2008 book Gambler on the Loose. Not long after that book appeared and I wrote a review of it (for PokerNews), I got in contact with Walsh. We’ve been in touch ever since, and usually it’s around the time I teach the film in my class I find myself sending him another note to see how he’s doing and to share something with him about the discussion of Split.

The two of us had our exchange of messages again this week. I told him I hoped the replacement refs didn’t screw him over too much earlier this NFL season (and that the regular ones weren’t doing so, either). He replied by referring to that fourth-and-29 play in the Baltimore-San Diego game -- the one I was crying about on Monday -- and how it had him “reaching for the phone to call the paramedics.” But otherwise he’s doing great. Still “in action,” as they say.

I was reminded this time how back in the spring when we’d exchanged messages it wasn’t that long after the passing of “Amarillo” Slim Preston. It occurred to me then to ask Walsh if he had any Slim stories from the making of California Split. Preston has a cameo near the end of the film, and so I guessed Walsh probably had met and interacted with him at some point.

When the movie premiered in the summer of 1974, Preston was probably at the height of his popularity and renown as a poker player. He’d won the 1972 World Series of Poker Main Event, then had embarked on a kind of publicity tour afterwards to promote himself, his book (Play Poker to Win), as well as poker and the WSOP. He appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson multiple times during that period. Then in 1973 CBS filmed a documentary at the WSOP Main Event to show as part of its CBS Sports Spectacular, a kind of anthology show that often featured off-the-beaten-path sports programming.

That entire 47-minute show dealing with the 1973 WSOP is available on YouTube, if you’re curious to see it. As you might imagine, Preston is featured heavily as both the defending champ and, really, as the country’s most famous poker player at the time.

So, did Walsh have a Slim story? Yes, he did. I asked him this week if he’d mind if I shared it here, and he said it would be fine.

“Slim Story:

Since I barely knew Slim, I made an arrangement to have breakfast with him the day before we were going to start filming on ‘Split’. Soon as he sits down I say to him, ‘Slim, I’m going to offer you a bet you can’t refuse. In the next Keno game I’m going to pick one number and take 2 to 1 I hit it! Well, Slim, knowing he’s beating the price, says to me ‘you're on, son, and for how much.’ I reach into my pocket and put up two hundred bucks. Slim reaches into his pocket and takes out a roll of hundreds that must have been 6 inches thick.

I say to him, ‘You really come prepared.’ He says, ‘always’ and flicks off 4 hundred to cover the bet. One minute later the Keno game begins and the first number that lights up on the board is 9, the number I picked. If Slim had false teeth they would have fallen out of his mouth. It takes him about 4 seconds to recover and then he says to me ‘My god, son, you are spooky.’ Later in the next game, he tried to engage me in the same bet. I just smiled warmly and said ‘Sorry, Slim, you had your shot.’ We became instant friends.”

Thanks, Joey, for sharing that one -- a “Slim story” that rivals some of Preston’s own.

By the way, for fans of California Split here is an excellent compilation of reviews and interviews regarding the film on a cool website called Shooting Down Pictures. Lots of goodies there, including the whole background regarding the struggles to get the film made (and the alternate-universe-possibility that Steven Spielberg might’ve directed it), tons about the production, and an excerpt from an interview with Walsh in which he talks about what it was like working with Robert Altman.

(That picture of Walsh above is from another, more recent interview he did for Stop Smiling which focuses on the ending of the movie and how it diverged from what had been scripted.)

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Gambling As an Object of Inquiry

Was talking with students this week about the 1974 film California Split, a movie I’ve written about here several times and like more and more every time I see it and discuss it with groups watching it for the first time.

Thanks both to Robert Altman’s unique directorial style and Joseph Walsh’s unorthodox script, the movie can be a challenge for students who aren’t necessarily used to watching creatively complex films. But the movie works especially well at the end of the course -- that is, after we’ve already explored in detail the many ways poker has been a part of American history and culture and thus come to appreciate many of the themes the movie addresses.

I won’t rehearse all of those themes again. Here are some earlier posts in which I do:

  • Poker Review: California Split
  • California Split and First Impressions
  • Selling Stories in California Split

    As Joseph Walsh talks about in his 2008 memoir, Gambler on the Loose, his screenplay came largely from his own experiences as a gambler. Here’s a post in which I discuss Walsh’s funny (and also unorthodox) book.

    As I talk about in that post, in the book Walsh portrays himself as a person wholly under the spell of gambling, paradoxically praising it as a means to give one’s life more profound meaning (“Getting shut out of the action is unthinkable. A living death!”) and acknowledging it as a sickness of sorts (understood and accepted by “willing victims”). And the movie smartly delves into this love-hate relationship with gambling, presenting viewers with “a journey through the pain and gain of gambling” (as Walsh describes California Split in his introduction).

    Now I’m not really a gambler myself. I’ll play my small buy-in pools and maybe bet on a game once in a while when in a place where such a diversion is available. And sure, I understand and accept that playing poker is gambling, although not really in the same way betting on sports or playing the lottery or other forms of gambling are.

    That said, when Walsh draws lines between “us” and “them” in his book, I have to admit I really belong over on the “them” side -- that is, with the non-gamblers. “Non-gamblers tend to look at gamblers like an amusing freak show,” writes Walsh. “We tend to look at them like they barely exist. We match their interest in us, with disinterest in them.”

    He’s pegged me perfectly here. That is, as someone with what might be called an “academic” interest in gambling -- i.e., a curiosity about the people who gamble and the culture of gambling. When leading the discussion of California Split in class, it was hard for us not to talk about the character of Bill as an “addict” or someone with a “gambling problem.” Charlie, too, for that matter, although he appears to be much more comfortable with being a committed gambler.

    I think the class and I kind of had to talk about the characters in this way because we’re basically all non-gamblers. That is to say, for those of us who aren’t always “in action,” there’s something kind of alien to us about those who always are. We have never really felt the need to gamble, which makes it seem all the stranger to us when we watch a movie or read stories about people who do have that need.

    This morning I stumbled on an article about a woman in Australia who’d incredibly managed to lose $7.8 million playing slots online -- on the “online pokie machines,” as they call ’em down under. Now most of us will read a story like that and be puzzled how such a thing is even possible. Not only did she somehow manage successfully to steal money electronically more than a thousand times from her employer (she’s been found guilty of 1,410 instances of theft), but then she was able to lose all of those millions one spin at a time online, much of that time spent taken up with the business of chasing losses.

    To go back to Walsh’s dichotomy of “non-gamblers” and “gamblers,” I think the latter group is perhaps able at least to understand such extreme behavior, perhaps even to identify with it to some extent (and in some cases). Meanwhile the former group finds it as baffling as other addictive behaviors with which they have little or no personal experience.

    Still, some of us -- the non-gamblers -- are nonetheless fascinated. I suppose these stories about others’ willingness taking risks give us something by which to measure and consider our own risk-taking. For us, a “gambling problem” isn’t some sort of malady, but a puzzle to be solved.

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  • Tuesday, November 27, 2012

    Palmetto Poker: The South Carolina Ruling (Recommended Reads)

    Once upon a time I used to post fairly regularly here about various federal bills and state-level cases and/or debates about poker’s legality, especially the online variety.

    In fact, whenever I’m asked about how I started the blog and the early days (in the spring of 2006), I usually mention how it began as a simple outlet to discuss my own low-limit adventures online, then when the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 was signed into law a few months later (in October), I found myself writing about all sorts of other things happening in the poker world.

    In some ways, that development probably helped ensure the blog would become less inward-looking and more interesting than if I had simply stuck with talking about hands and uncertainly mimicking other, more able writers of strategy and theory. The whole UIGEA mess and other, subsequent legal machinations would continue for years thereafter, and I was sufficiently energized by the whole situation to keep writing about every new bill or development.

    But as I’ve mentioned here before more than once, I never felt all that equipped to analyze what was happening. I’m a decent reader, I think, even of sometimes opaque legal documents. And so I thought it was somewhat useful at least to summarize what I thought was happening, if only to help with my own understanding. But even there I was never wholly confident.

    Thus one day when I was asked by a site to be the “legal correspondent” who’d report on such things, I had to decline. I knew I could fake it to some extent, but I also knew I wasn’t really the best person to do such reporting. And on top of that, by then (a couple of years ago) I’d gotten a little fatigued by the whole situation, which seemed to involve a lot of variation on a tired theme -- namely, nothing was getting passed, arguments were never conclusive, and those debating legislation or ruling on cases themselves often seemed only partially to understand the first thing about what they were discussing.

    Not to mention it was the same friggin’ story over and over and over again. It was like reporting on the same exact hands repeatedly, only with different players. Except there was never any final all-in or resolution to come.

    So I mostly stopped writing about that stuff. Sometimes I’m tempted, though, such as last week when the South Carolina Supreme Court came down with an interesting, conflicted ruling regarding the legality of home games. But now I’m more apt just to read others’ summaries and analyses than to attempt my own, and I’ve just read some good ones I thought I’d recommend.

    One comes from our lawyer friend Grange95 on his crAAKKer blog, who provides an excellent explanation of the unusual split ruling delivered by the five judges. In fact, the first part of the title of his post -- “Same Song, Different Verse” -- kind of evokes that idea I’m referring to that we’ve heard all of this before many times over. Although as his explanation shows, there were a couple of new twists involved here.

    In this case, two of the judges ruled that a regular SC poker game with a low buy-in (just $20) but which saw the host take a rake to cover expenses and which advertised online in order to attract players was indeed illegal gambling according to a century-old statute. Meanwhile, two other judges dissented, while the fifth agreed with points made by both sides before ultimately concurring with the “plurality opinion” (i.e., the judges who found the games illegal).

    After providing a nice, clear explanation of the ruling, Grange95 adds some analysis that also looks ahead to how this particular ruling may affect future developments. The fact that the whole “skill-vs.-luck” issue was mostly set aside in this case as irrelevant (by both sides) is intriguing, as is the way the ruling kind of throws things back to the SC legislature to try to craft a better, more up-to-date law regarding illegal gambling. I also find interesting the way all of the judges seem to have voiced a kind of “common sense” or pragmatic view of how the kind of game being spread in their case (with a rake, and soliciting players online) differed from “casual games” played between friends in a private residence (with no rake, and not advertising to attract players).

    Grange95 thinks new legislation is a likely next move in South Carolina, and isn’t too optimistic about what may result from a modernized illegal gambling law (i.e., “Things Could Get Worse For Poker Players”). He also has some interesting things to say about the Poker Players Alliance and its relative impotence both in this case and generally speaking. So check out Grange95’s post for a full rundown of what happened in SC last week and what it may possibly mean going forward.

    Rakewell, a.k.a. the Poker Grump, added some thoughts regarding the case as well that serve as a good follow-up after reading Grange95’s post. He sides with the dissenting view in the case, and offers some thoughtful criticisms of the majority’s argument and of the strange I-agree-with-the-dissenters-but-concur-with-the-plurality position of the judge who cast the swing vote.

    Grange95 also recommends a PokerFuse article reporting on the case written by Haley Hintze which provides a good, short digest of the case and its implications.

    There are other articles in the usual places regarding the SC case, but most just echo each other and none seem to offer anything close to the thoughtful summary/analysis provided in the above-mentioned posts. So if you’ve been hearing about this SC business and were looking to learn more, check out those posts.

    A funny side note... when searching around for other reports and/or analyses on last week’s SC ruling, I quickly came upon an article from early 2009 on the same case reporting on the ruling that subsequently was appealed to the SC Supreme Court. It sounds like the defense then made a lot of the whole “skill-vs.-luck” issue and that the judge there even went so far as to acknowledge hold’em to be a game of skill while nonetheless issuing his guilty verdict.

    Seems like a competent enough article, I guess. I wonder, though, if the author really knew what he was talking about.

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    Monday, November 26, 2012


    Over the weekend I played a short session of fixed limit hold’em over on Hero Poker. I’m basically down to just a half-hour here and there, still goofing around with the small roll I won in a freeroll a good while back (just after Black Friday, actually).

    A lot of times I’ll just jump in a one- or two-dollar SNG to scratch that itch. Or, as I did on Sunday, just play a little bit of cash for quarters. Or nickels and dimes, even.

    I’d won a few bucks and was just about to sign off in this session when I was dealt pocket aces and decided to stick for one more hand. Raised and had a couple of callers, with one check-calling my bet after the flop came jack-high. The turn was a king and my opponent led with a bet, and when I raised he just called. The river brought an ace, giving me a set, my opponent check-called my bet, and I won the pot.

    He showed his hand after -- K-J. He’d gotten lucky on the turn, making two pair. But I’d gotten even luckier on the river to make the winning hand.

    I signed off, then spent the rest of Sunday watching NFL games while sweating my picks. Had one of those “hero picks” again late in the afternoon in which I’d taken San Diego to beat Baltimore. As I was explaining last week, a “hero pick” is one in which I’ve gone against the entire pool and taken a team no one else has (or almost no one), meaning I’m setting myself up for a two-game swing by either gaining a game on everyone or losing a game to the field. (I’d also consider a “hero pick” one which has a reasonable chance of actually winning; i.e., not just picking a hopeless underdog for the sake of going against the grain.)

    Last week I was griping about another “hero pick” I’d previously made in which defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory (the Panthers game). Well, if you follow the NFL, you know how San Diego managed to do something very similar yesterday. Up by 10 with five minutes to go, they’d ultimately allow Baltimore to tie the game, giving up a late first down to the Ravens on an incredible fourth-and-29 play in order to make it happen. The Ravens then managed to convert a few more long third downs in OT on their way to kicking a winning field goal.

    When that game ended I thought back to the Carolina game as well as to a couple of other instances this year where my “hero picks” had been improbably thwarted by last-second heroics performed by the teams I’d picked against. As in poker, we remember the losses so much more vividly than we do the wins.

    The fact is, last year I won the pool after benefiting repeatedly from hitting games thanks to unlikely last-second heroics. It takes a little effort to remember them, but I do recall a couple of late season examples.

    There was one early November game in which I’d taken Baltimore to beat Pittsburgh and the Ravens drove 92 yards at the end for a game-winning score to win 23-20. And I took the Giants to beat the Cowboys in that game near season’s end in which New York had not one but two TD drives in the last four minutes to win 37-34 (remember that one?).

    In both cases, a lot of the pool had gone the other way with those picks, thus earning me a two-game swing. And in both I’d gotten very lucky -- kind of like that ace on the river -- to come from behind and prevail.

    But like I say, it somehow takes extra effort to remember those wins. Meanwhile, the “hero picks” that almost get there but then crazily don’t remain firmly in mind. Ridiculously, I feel like I’ve been cheated out of something I “deserved,” not unlike what happens to some of us after suffering a bad beat in poker.

    Serious sports bettors -- like good poker players -- simply have to grow accustomed to that feeling of getting jobbed. I’ve been reading my buddy Dr. Pauly’s new sports betting blog, Ocelot Sports, where it’s obvious that experience of having had a sure win stolen away happens practically every night.

    Thankfully I’m not a serious sports bettor, just like I’m essentially a recreational poker player. The stakes aren’t ever that high for me.

    Still hurts, though, to watch a team I’m pulling against gain 30 on a must-have fourth-and-29. Talk about a one-outer.

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    Friday, November 23, 2012

    HBP Home Games Season 2 Continues, Books for Top Three

    Them football picks went well yesterday. Was 3-for-3, as I did end up going with the Skins in that toss-up versus Dallas.

    A tougher slate of games coming up Sunday, though, with nine of the 12 games currently sporting spreads of three points or less. Then Monday night my poor, pitiful Panthers are playing the equally execrable Eagles in what has to be one of the worst MNF match-ups in recent memory. Not to mention another hard game to pick.

    Speaking of looking ahead to Sunday, I wanted to report that Season 2 of the Hard-Boiled Poker Home Games at PokerStars is in full swing, with two more tourneys scheduled for Sunday night. This week will be Event Nos. 13 and 14, a six-handed pot-limit Omaha tournament (at 20:00 ET) followed by a H.O.R.S.E. tourney (at 21:00).

    As was the case with Season 1, there will be 20 tourneys altogether this season, with everything wrapping up by the end of December. The top three finishers in the league standings will win books which I will be shipping to them. I have three ready to go for prizes. What I thought I’d do is let the first-place finisher pick one, then the second-place finisher select from the other two, with the third-place finisher getting the remaining one.

    One of the books is the great Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling (2006) written by David G. Schwartz who heads the Center for Gaming Research over at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. It’s a nice hardback copy donated to the cause by our friend and occasional HBP HG player Mike Fasso.

    Another is Zach Elwood’s Reading Poker Tells which the author himself donated as a prize. I reviewed Elwood’s book for Betfair Poker a while back, and many others have chimed in on the web and on Twitter regarding how useful the book is for identifying and understanding tells at the table.

    Finally, I have a copy of Byron Jacobs’s 2011 strategy book Think Like a Poker Pro to give as a prize. I have to admit that I haven’t read all of it, but what I’ve read seems good and the book did get some praise here and there on the forums, in particular for its limit hold’em advice. It comes with a three-hour video CD, too.

    (By the way, if anyone out there would like to donate poker and/or gambling books for me to give as prizes in future seasons of the HBP HG, let me know.)

    Anyhow, like I say those finishing in the top three will get to choose which titles they’d like according to their order of finish. Through 12 events, linglemungo is leading the points race with Kevmath second, **GMONEY*722 third, and Season 1 winner thejim2020 currently in fourth.

    If you haven’t been playing tourneys in Season 2, there’s still time to collect enough points to move up the leaderboard. See the right-hand column for info about upcoming HBP HG tourneys as well as the club ID/invite code to join my PokerStars Home Game.

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    Thursday, November 22, 2012

    Talkin’ Thanksgiving and “Hero Picks”

    Gonna try to keep it short today. There’s food to eat. And football to watch. And thanks to give.

    Vera and I are avoiding the highways and sticking close to home today for Thanksgiving. We’ll catch up with the families soon at Christmas. Meanwhile, I’ll focus on the three NFL games today and my picks in each.

    I’m still battling in my “Pigskin Pick’em” pool, trying to defend my title from last year. Right now my team More Cowbell is six games out of the lead in the pool -- perhaps too far to come back and win, actually, although close enough to sneak into the money should I find a way to gain back a few games during the final six weeks of the season.

    Last week I made three “hero picks” on my sheet -- that is, games where I picked a team to win knowing that it was very likely most of the rest of the pool would be going the other way.

    One was to pick the woeful N.Y. Jets to beat the even more woeful St. Louis Rams, a game in which everyone took the Rams, I took the Jets, and N.Y. won easily (27-13). Felt like a genius there.

    Another was to take my Carolina Panthers versus Tampa Bay. Again, everyone (practically) took the Bucs, and when Carolina was up by 11 with six minutes to go, I again was feeling genius-like. I was even starting mentally to prepare a tweet saying something along the lines of “Who’s got two thumbs and picked the Jets and Panthers today? This guy.” (Jinxed!)

    Of course, Carolina incredibly found a way to give another game away. It took giving up two quickie drives, a two-point conversion, and turning down another opportunity at sealing a game by punting on fourth-and-1, but they did it.

    Because I enjoy pain, I had to check the “win probability” graph over at Advanced NFL Stats for this game, which showed the Panthers at 99% to win with a minute left. (Insert Wilhelm scream here.)

    My third “hero pick” last week was to take the Roethlisberger-less Steelers against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday night. Again, everyone else took Baltimore, and while Pittsburgh looked like they were capable of winning the game they managed to come up short to lose 13-10. So by going 1-2 in “hero picks” I lost a game to the lead pack, but I still felt like I had done well to try and gain some ground. (I was 12-2 overall last week, actually, but there was so much “chalk” everyone did well in Week 11.)

    Today there are two games in which everyone will likely pick big favorites. Most will take the Houston Texans (9-1) to beat Detroit (4-6). And most will also pick New England (7-3) to beat the Jets (4-6), I think, even though the Jets took N.E. to overtime earlier this year.

    I, too, will probably have to stick with the favorites in these two games, as making “hero picks” just for the sake of being different makes no sense when the team you’re picking can’t win the game. Would be like purposely pushing chips in the middle in an unmistakably negative-EV spot with hopes of getting lucky. No, a “hero pick” is more like a “hero call” in poker insofar as it is unorthodox, but done with a legitimate chance of winning.

    The Washington (4-6) at Dallas (5-5) game, however, is more of a Q-Q-vs.-A-K affair. Or should I say, T-6o-vs.-8-7s. The pool will probably be divided, I’m going to guess, with a few more taking the Cowboys. I’d much prefer going with the Skins, if only because I hate relying on Dallas to win. But I’m still deciding. (I’m also mindful that by picking Washington I will have taken all three visiting teams on a short week.)

    My hesitation to pick Dallas points back one other “hero pick” I made in Week 6 when I took the Cowboys against Baltimore. Dallas dominated the game, with more than 40 minutes of possession. But they gave away points (kickoff return TD), then botched clock management at the end and missed a long FG to lose 31-29. Again, the entire pool took the Ravens in that one, so it was a two-game swing in the wrong direction for More Cowbell.

    So I’m trigger shy when it comes to the Cowboys, and thus uncertain with regard to the one game today that’ll probably have much effect on the standings. Still I’m thankful to be back here on the couch with Vera here and the delicious food smells starting to fill the air.

    Speaking of giving thanks, let me do so as well to Bluff Magazine for including me again as a nominee in their “Favorite Poker Blog” category in the 2013 Reader’s Choice Awards.

    Voting for that opens up next week, so head over there then and vote for HBP. You know, if you happen to be looking for an underdog to pick.

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    Wednesday, November 21, 2012

    Stunt Hoops

    Been reading today about this crazy college basketball record set last night by Jack Taylor of Grinnell College, a Division III school in Iowa. You’ve probably heard something about it. Taylor scored 138 points in a 179-104 victory against Faith Baptist Bible College, a total that exceeded the old collegiate record by 25.

    From all accounts, the Grinnell team played the game in a highly peculiar fashion, pursuing a strategy expressly directed toward giving Taylor a chance to put up gaudy numbers against a weak opponent. I say “peculiar” because few teams at any level ever follow the strategies employed by Grinnell and their coach David Arseneault, although apparently there wasn’t too much peculiar about Arseneault choosing such a route, as he’s done it several times before at Grinnell.

    This is at least the third time a Grinnell player has set a D-III scoring record since Arseneault became coach at the small school a couple of decades ago. As Barry Petchesky reports for Deadspin, there was a 77-point game by a Grinnell player back in 1998 (then a record), and an 89-point game by another last year.

    Petchesky spells out in his article how the game was mostly taken up with Grinnell choosing essentially to let their opponent score as quickly as possible in order to maximize the number of possessions in the game. Meanwhile, Taylor would remain on the Grinnell side of the court, not playing defense but rather awaiting full court heaves from teammates each time they got the ball.

    Taylor would then shoot quickly -- usually a three-pointer (he attempted 71 of them) -- with his teammates often rebounding misses, passing up open shots themselves, and feeding Taylor the ball again for another shot. In the end, Taylor put up 108 shots, with none of his teammates trying more than six.

    The ESPN article about the game includes a note about Taylor reading scripture to his teammates before the game -- from Matthew, the parable of the talents (natch) -- then being quoted after the game saying “I gotta thank the man upstairs” for helping “multiply my talents tonight.”

    It’s hard not to be cynical about Taylor’s record-setting performance, the product of a contrived -- and not to mention not necessarily sportsmanlike -- strategy expressly designed to get media attention for tiny Grinnell. It reminds me a little of the debates we were having a few years ago about poker players acting out in order to earn TV time during WSOP broadcasts. The antics may or may have served a strategic purpose, but they certainly worked for some as self-promotion.

    In a blog post for ESPN, Eamonn Brennan freely acknowledges that Arseneault’s primary intention for employing the odd strategy was to earn Grinnell national exposure, with winning the game being secondary. Apparently Grinnell picks its spots when it comes to such conscious record-breaking attempts, choosing weak opponents against whom the strategy of allowing the other team to score is less likely to hurt Grinnell’s chances of winning.

    Brennan notes how he understands that when Arseneault employs the strategy he does so “to set a record and get on ‘SportsCenter’ and reap the benefits of copious Internet coverage.” However, Brennan also says he doesn’t mind such baldfaced attempts at getting included in a highlight reel.

    “I don’t care!” writes Brennan. “Whatever the aim, it’d be foolish to try and take anything away from Taylor. At the end of the day, I don’t really care how you score 138 points. It’s 138 points! The sheer act of getting up 108 shots in a 40-minute game is in and of itself an impressive athletic accomplishment, regardless of how many go in.”

    I’m not convinced. To me being able to shoot 108 times in a 40-minute game is only slightly more interesting than someone performing a certain number of push-ups in a given time period. Or eating 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Or raising before the flop 40 hands in a row in poker.

    It’s a curiosity, sure. And perhaps it invites interesting speculation about strategic assumptions regarding optimal play. And sure, it’s an “athletic accomplishment,” all right, but let’s not get carried away.

    In truth, Taylor’s 138-point night was mostly a stunt that got a lot of people to look. You know, like a dog skateboarding or something.

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    Tuesday, November 20, 2012

    Poker! That starts with P, and that rhymes with T, and that stands for Trouble!

    Been back for a week from Macau, and I’m repeatedly encountering people responding to stories of my trip with references to the new James Bond film Skyfall. Apparently there’s a sequence set in Macau, including a visit to a place called the Dragon Casino (?). I will have to investigate in short order, which shouldn’t be hard to do as Vera has already been indicating she wants to see the flick.

    I’m not a huge Bond buff, although like everyone I’ve seen and enjoyed a lot of the films over the years. We did catch Casino Royale in the theaters several years ago, and in fact I wrote up a “poker review” at the time as that film -- released at the height of the poker boom in 2006 -- featured several scenes of our hero playing high-stakes hold’em.

    At the time we all remarked on poker surfacing in the mainstream so prominently, although to be honest that was a period when poker was simply everywhere. Such is not so much the case anymore, which is why an episode of The Simpsons from a week ago featuring a subplot in which little Lisa plays online poker stood out as something a little different.

    I wrote a “Pop Poker” piece for PokerListings about The Simpsons episode, if you’re curious for more about it. One point I made there was to say that the show’s presentation of online poker was essentially no different than it might have been back during the “boom” -- that is, before the Unlawful Internet Enforcement Act of 2006 and Black Friday and everything else that has significantly altered online poker in the U.S.

    Indeed, the Simpsons episode essentially ignores the current reality of online poker altogether, proceeding as though Black Friday never even happened. (In truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea for the story had been hatched before Black Friday -- perhaps several years ago -- and only now found its way into an episode.)

    Anyhow, check out that discussion of the show on PokerListings and let me know what you think.

    Speaking of mainstream references to poker, there was another one recently when former NBA star Jalen Rose, now a commentator on ESPN, offered some candid thoughts about pro players’ poker playing in a clip appearing over on the Grantland channel. Here is that clip:

    Referring to the plane rides between games, Rose speaks of the popularity of poker as a pastime among many players, with the amounts changing hands sometimes climbing up to the $10K-$20K range. Rose weirdly insists on the games’ legality as he justifies them, while also pointing to the way they satisfy players’ competitive desires.

    He also explains the reason why players play with chips rather than money on the planes, settling their debts afterwards. “The reason why you bring poker chips,” he explains, “is that coaches and general managers and sometimes... the owners [are] on the plane.... [Therefore, you] don’t want to see guys passing around hundreds and thousands of dollars. It’s just not good etiquette.”

    In other words, as much as Rose defends the players’ gambling, there’s still a kind of “underground” element to the games insofar as the true significance of the money being exchanged is in need of being suppressed. If they aren’t doing anything wrong, why bother with such “etiquette”?

    Like with The Simpsons episode, I wouldn’t say poker is necessarily being promoted by Rose’s mention of it. In fact both instances seem to reinforce ideas of the game’s “outlaw” status, which is how the game is usually treated whenever it surfaces in the mainstream.

    Of course, there was that time, just a few years ago -- say, when Casino Royale was in the theaters back in ’06 -- when it wasn’t automatically the case that poker was considered to be like pool in that song from The Music Man....

    You know, starting with P. Which rhymes with T. And which stands for Trouble!

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    Monday, November 19, 2012

    A Petition to Prevent the “Professor” from Playing Poker

    Some brouhaha of late regarding a petition drafted by the poker player Nick DiVella seeking to have Howard Lederer barred from playing poker at the Aria. The petition went up a couple of days ago and has almost a couple of hundred signatures so far.

    Remember Lederer’s brief, calculated media blitz from a couple of months ago (discussed in part here and here)? It wasn’t long afterwards we began hearing reports of Lederer turning up at the Aria to play in the $400/$800 mixed games. (That photo of Lederer in action in Bobby’s Room was snapped and tweeted by “Crazy” Mike Thorpe.)

    Seemed like an incredibly tactless move on Lederer’s part, destined to provoke a negative reaction from a community of poker players many of whom continue to wait upon the return of their FTP funds.

    Then last month the “Professor” played in the $10,000 buy-in WPT Festa al Lago event at the Bellagio, burning through a couple of buy-ins on his way to busting. That, too, earned Lederer a lot of vitriol from players upset that he’d blithely ignore how others might feel about his gambling away thousands at a time when he continues to stand accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of funneling hundreds of millions of players’ funds into “FTP Insider” accounts.

    All of which is to say, it’s not like DiVella’s petition comes out of nowhere. People are upset, and so DiVella has made a decision to see if he can influence the Aria somehow to stop allowing Lederer to continue to play in their poker room. Claiming that the Aria has “a moral and ethical obligation to bar Howard Lederer from playing in the poker room,” those signing the petition are collectively threatening the Aria with a boycott should it fail to follow through on such an obligation.

    I don’t know a lot about DiVella. I do know he is one of the regulars at the Aria cash games and that he made a deep run in the WSOP Main Event this year where he finished 72nd. In fact, I happened to have reported on his unfortunate bustout hand for PokerNews, one which saw Steven Gee accidentally call DiVella’s all-in with K-7 then beat DiVella’s A-K when the community cards brought a seven.

    I remember DiVella handling his misfortune in that hand very well. I also recall listening to DiVella on a podcast later on with Kristy Arnett where he talked about his Main Event run, and found him interesting and thoughtful. So while I don’t really know DiVella, I have an impression of him as a fairly rational dude who isn’t necessarily looking to round up a lynch mob but rather simply wants to find some way to address an unpleasant situation.

    That said, I can’t really agree with the suggestion that the Aria has any “moral and ethical obligation” to bar Lederer from playing in its poker room. The Aria can do what it wants, of course, but it would have to be regarded as a troubling move if they decided to bar a player simply because others did not want to play with him.

    I’d be a lot quicker to say Lederer is the one who is choosing to ignore what might be called an ethical obligation to refrain from playing, at least until all players are finally refunded their balances.

    I’d be curious to know what Andrew Brokos, the “poker ethicist,” has to say about the “ethical obligations” of the Aria and/or Lederer here. Speaking of, Brokos and Nate Meyvis have a new episode of their “Thinking Poker Podcast” up in which they talk to PokerNews’ Matt Parvis about (among other things) the “Lederer Files.”

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    Friday, November 16, 2012

    A (Nate) Silver Lining for Online Poker

    Have been hearing a lot of folks in the poker world noting with varying degrees of surprise that Nate Silver -- the statistician and analyst who received a lot of attention for his uncannily correct predictions regarding the 2012 presidential election -- is in fact a poker player.

    I was vaguely aware of Silver following the 2008 election, having read a couple of articles reporting that his predictions that year had proven accurate. But I admit I didn’t really start paying attention to his “Five Thirty Eight” site (which in 2010 started to be hosted as a blog on the New York Times site) until just after Black Friday, April 2011.

    That’s because in the immediate aftermath of Black Friday, Silver wrote what I thought was one of the best and most thorough explanations of what had happened in an article titled “After ‘Black Friday’: American Poker Faces a Cloudy Future.”

    The article not only reported on the DOJ’s action (the indictment and civil complaint), but offered a smart overview of the brief history of online poker in the United States. I actually assigned the article to my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class that semester as a way to get them up to speed on what was happening, as Black Friday introduced kind of an unscheduled detour in the syllabus right at the end of the semester.

    In the article, Silver mentions his own experience playing online poker, which in a lot of ways mirrored my own. Silver’s best years online came during the “boom” (from 2003-2006), after which he notes how the games became more competitive in the post-UIGEA environment. He even says he earned most of his income playing during those years (never quite the case for me).

    I continued to follow Silver’s non-poker writing after that, and thus was aware of all of his different rubrics and methods of compiling poll data as the 2012 election approached. That’s when we started seeing various attacks on Silver being launched by those not in agreement with his consistently maintained position that Barack Obama was very likely to win.

    As happened four years ago, Silver’s predictions proved accurate, with Silver correctly forecasting how all 50 states would vote in the presidential race.

    Silver has a new book out titled The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- But Some Don’t which I’m interested to read, in part because the book finds Silver returning to writing about online poker in a chapter titled “The Poker Bubble.” There he apparently breaks down and explains the economics behind the “boom” and how so many players -- like himself, and like me -- were able to be winning players online during that 2003-2006 era thanks to the abundance of losing players then among the player pool.

    Now everyone’s looking to Silver for his thoughts on, well, anything he wishes to think about. He weighed in on the whole American League MVP debate a couple of days ago, explaining at length how the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout deserved the award over Detroit’s Triple Crown-winning Miguel Cabrera. (Cabrera won.) He also offered thoughts on various topics in an online Q&A this week for Deadspin, including answering a question about the possible legislative future for online poker.

    In his response, Silver said his “hunch is that the poker community probably underrates how difficult it is to get ANYTHING done at the federal level, especially in the near term.” However, he’s more optimistic regarding what might happen down the road, thanks to “the intersection of the need for more tax revenues, poker having become increasingly mainstream, [and] better lobbying efforts on behalf of the poker community.”

    Silver also adds how “the demographics of poker tend much more toward people who can ‘afford’ to gamble,” a point he presents as an argument in favor of legalizing poker before things like the lottery or other strictly chance-based forms of gambling.

    Makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. Of course, when it comes to making sense, Silver’s been pretty much gold of late.

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    Thursday, November 15, 2012

    MicroMillions III Underway at PokerStars

    Yesterday I was referring to the rebirth of Full Tilt Poker and games going on there from which we Americans are prohibited from participating. Today my thoughts have turned to the MicroMillions III series just underway on PokerStars, also not available to U.S. players.

    I always played a lot more on Stars than FTP, and thus never really got too heavily involved with FTOPS or the other tourneys and promotions on Full Tilt. Indeed, I was always more of a cash game player than a tourney guy in general, although I liked participating in various events on Stars, even jumping in to some low-level SCOOP events before the time came to cash out for good.

    The first MicroMillions series came along post-Black Friday, and is one in which I would’ve loved to have participated given the chance. The MM features 100 different events with lots of tiny “micro”-level buy-ins that are perfect for recreational players with just a few hundy or less on the site (as was the case for me).

    Looking over the schedule, the buy-ins range from 11 cents (the first event, a rebuy tourney) to a “Main Event” near the end with a $22 buy-in.

    In between are events with buy-ins of $1 (13 of them, almost all rebuys), $2.20 (14, some rebuys), $2.22 (3), $3.30 (27, just a few rebuys), $4.40 (8, two rebuys), $5.50 (19), $8.80 (6), and $11 (8). And of course, all of the different games are represented among the choices, too, from no-limit hold’em to Badugi.

    A great appeal of the MM series, of course, is being able to spend very little for a chance to win a lot. That first event has already finished -- the $0.11 one (with rebuys) -- and the winner took away a cool $1,761.22, probably after investing a quarter or two at most. Of course, that feat required topping a field of 53,780.

    Meanwhile, registration has closed for Event No. 2, a $1+R NLHE event, and the first prize there is $18,536.10.

    You probably heard the story of this year’s WCOOP winner, Marat “maratik” Sharafutdinov, a microstakes grinder who mostly stuck to $1-$3 SNGs and who played his way into the $5,200 buy-in event starting with just 40 frequent player points. He’d chop the sucker for $1,000,907.26, winning it outright after the deal. Here’s a neat article about Sharafutdinov by Rick Dacey for the PokerStars blog, if you want to read more.

    Sharafutdinov is kind of the poster boy for a series like the MicroMillions, where no one is going to spin a few FPPs or pocket change into a million dollars, but there will be a few six-figure first prizes mixed in there.

    Anyhow, for those who can participate, here’s the main site which includes the full schedule. Will be over in a flash, too, as the 100 events are packed into just 11 days, so jump in there if you’re so inclined.

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    Wednesday, November 14, 2012

    Faraway Poker

    While in Macau last week, we were all mindful of the reopening of Full Tilt Poker that happened Tuesday, November 6. There was even a minor buzz in the poker room at the moment FTP’s cash tables opened up, with people mentioning it to one another and wondering aloud about transferring money to and from their PokerStars’ accounts.

    I called up the newly updated client on my laptop, actually, and a few of us looked in briefly as players began to take seats at the money tables. For us it was the evening, with the final table of the Asia Championship of Poker Warm-Up event going on before us. That was the final table featuring Johnny Chan (who finished seventh) and Joseph Cheong (who took third), with the Australian Jeff Rossiter eventually winning later that night.

    I watched the number of players starting to climb a little -- not overly dramatically, but certainly increasing -- then closed the client. And really, I pretty much forgot all about Full Tilt Poker the rest of the week.

    Looking at PokerScout today, I see that according to their tabulations Full Tilt has swiftly moved back into second position behind PokerStars as far as cash players are concerned, with about a third the number they are counting at PokerStars’ real money tables.

    A couple of “Sunday majors” played out on the site last weekend (tourneys with $50K and $200K guarantees). Viktor “Isildur1” Blom -- now an FTP-sponsored pro -- is back on there vying for six-figure pots again on the $50/$100 PLO tables. And the FTOPS XXI schedule has been announced -- 35 tourneys totaling $7.5 million in guarantees starting in early December.

    Meanwhile as far as FTP is concerned, we Americans piddle around on the free money tables, wonder about our balances (which now read “$0.00”), and read less-than-inspiring missives from the Poker Players Alliance regarding the DOJ-managed return of our balances.

    According to the PPA, there is no timeline in place at present as far as the U.S. players’ return of funds is concerned. Says PPA Executive Director John Pappas who has been meeting with DOJ officials about it all, the “completion of a refund claims process is a long way away.”

    Apparently a “third-party claims administrator” needs to be found -- with possible entities bidding on the right to assume that duty -- before anything else can happen, and even there no date has been set for when such an administrator will be put in place.

    Over on PokerFuse, Dave Ferrara wrote a piece about “FTP Hoopla From Afar: A U.S. Player’s Perspective on the Relaunch” in which he wistfully laments being kept on the sideline amid the excited tweets, forum posts, and articles regarding FTP’s return.

    Indeed, the “hoopla” tends only to accentuate the already well established feeling of powerlessness felt by the U.S. online poker player -- unable to play, wholly dependent on others for the recovery of lost funds, and with still uncertain future prospects for playing the so-called “American game” of poker online.

    It almost seemed weirdly appropriate to have been 8,000-plus miles from home to watch Full Tilt Poker’s relaunch of cash games. As Ferrara’s choice of headline suggests, it does feel as though FTP 2.0 is all happening from “afar.”

    Meanwhile, the return of our FTP funds is a “a long way away.” And for Americans, our regular playing of online poker is quickly receding into a distant past, perhaps to return at point -- unknown as yet -- in the future.

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    Tuesday, November 13, 2012

    Skipping Steps (leaving Macau)

    “Winter schedule!”

    So said the older of the two women at the United desk in Hong Kong, the tone of admonishment weirdly sending me back to kindergarten and a teacher’s reprimand after I’d thoughtlessly skipped a step while marching in line down a staircase with the class.

    It was a little after 10 a.m. on Monday, and after waiting several minutes I’d finally reached the front of the line. The morning hadn’t gone as smoothly as anticipated. Getting to Macau had been relatively simple, aside from that extra night spent in Chicago after my original flight had been canceled. When I’d arrived in Hong Kong before, I had gone straight to a ferry counter, bought a ticket, and after a short wait was in Macau an hour later. Took a little longer after that to get to my hotel, but it was all fairly simple to negotiate.

    Here, though, I found myself in a more complicated spot. As it happened, the last night of the APPT Macau Asia Championship of Poker Main Event had lasted until nearly 3 a.m., and I’d been up two more hours completing my work reporting on it. Got back to my room, and by the time I showered and packed it was already after six, which meant I really had no time to sleep. I did sit in a chair and close my eyes for about 20 minutes, sort of pseudo-sleeping, but was too restless and worried about missing my flight really to relax.

    It was a little after seven when I had gone downstairs to checkout. That took longer than expected, too, in part because they initially were asking me to pay for a room that had already been paid for prior to the trip. Then I was about to get a taxi to the ferry station, but was told “free limo service” came with my room. Free is good, I thought, and said okay, but it would take an extra 15 minutes to get the “limo” ready (in fact, a van).

    Anyhow, I arrived at the ferry station a little after 8 a.m. My flight wasn’t until 11:10 a.m., so I wasn’t too worried. But after waiting to get to the front of the ticket line there, I was told I’d arrived too late to get the next scheduled ferry going directly to the airport. I’m still not sure what the deal was, but I’d just missed the cutoff time for checking in for my flight and so they weren’t allowing me to take that next airport-bound ferry.

    The only way to make my flight, then, would be to ferry to Hong Kong, then get a train or taxi over to the airport. I went over to that line, waited a bit, got my ticket, then waited a little longer for the ferry to leave.

    Thankfully that was when I reunited with one of the tournament directors, Chris, who’d been working APPT Macau and who happened to be taking the same ferry as a first step on his journey back home to Australia. He set my mind at ease about getting the train to the airport once our ferry landed, and as it happened would help me find my way to the counter.

    The ferry took about an hour. That picture up above is from us leaving Macau, the surrounding fog reflecting my own tired state. I did involuntarily doze a little in my seat. Then once we arrived I hustled off the ferry with everyone else, went through customs, and eventually made it over to the train station with Chris, a walk of probably 20 minutes or so. Finally I was in the line for United, bidding Chris adieu and thanking him, very glad to have made it to that point.

    That’s I noticed the sheet of paper hanging behind the desk listing 9:40 a.m. as the latest time for those on the Chicago flight to be able to get a train to the airport. The train only took a half-hour, and we were still more than an hour from the departure time, but I already saw them refusing one Chicago-bound passenger, and so knew by the time I got up there it probably wasn’t going to be good news for me, either.

    But after a few minutes with the United ladies, I was relieved to know the news was going to be good, after all.

    “It’s your lucky day,” said the younger of the two women behind the desk, as she’d found a seat on a later flight to San Francisco for me, and then another seat on a flight from S.F. to my final destination of Charlotte. It would get me home a few hours later than planned, and in fact she ended up having to be creative and tic a box somewhere -- i.e., something absolving me from fault in the matter, like declaring some sort of hardship or the like -- in order to prevent my having to pay a couple of hundred dollars to make the switch.

    I was most grateful, thanking the two women (and thinking how much better the experience was with United than with American Airlines last May). That’s when the older one began lecturing to me about the winter schedule.

    I was still sweating from hustling around carrying two heavy bags in the Hong Kong humidity. It didn’t seem like winter. Of course, with my lack of sleep and general disorientation from living half a day ahead of where I usually live, all temporal distinctions -- day, night, seasons -- had become increasingly fuzzy and unreliable.

    I just nodded, happily accepting the criticisms for not being adequately informed for my traveling. I should’ve gone over getting back before the time came to do so, but was too busy and distracted to do so. In other words, I had skipped a step, not even really conscious of the fact that I had.

    We’d cross the international date line flying to S.F., which meant Monday ended up lasting 36-plus hours for me, a lot of it taken up with the traveling. Actually ended up catching an earlier flight home from S.F. when a seat opened up, and so really didn’t add too much to the overall trip, all told. (Again, big thanks to United.)

    Still kind of marveling at how the sucker ended, with the final two players deciding not to play it out and instead to chop the remaining prize pool evenly and have an all-in-blind hand to decide a winner.

    Talk about skipping a step!

    That to the left is a photo I snapped just as the community cards for the final hand were about to be dealt. For more on what happened, see my post here as well as the one on the PokerStars blog spelling out what occurred.

    Thinking about what would’ve happened at the WSOP if something like that arose. Or if they had simply played heads-up out and the tourney had lasted another couple of hours, how it’s possible I wouldn’t have gotten home until today.

    But that’s not how it happened. There’s the sequence of episodes that make up our lives, then there are others we imagine happening for ourselves, where we set aside the actual and in our minds skip over to other, possible futures, destinies... selves.

    In any case, as great as the trip was, I’m glad to be home. To have made all of those steps that took me more than eight thousand miles away and back, in whatever order.

    Traveling Travails: Macau Awaits
    APPT Macau, ACOP Warm-Up, Day 1a
    APPT Macau, ACOP Warm-Up, Day 1b
    APPT Macau, ACOP Warm-Up, Day 2
    APPT Macau, ACOP Warm-Up, Day 3
    APPT Macau, ACOP Main Event, Day 1
    APPT Macau, ACOP Main Event, Day 2
    APPT Macau, ACOP Main Event, Day 3
    APPT Macau, ACOP Main Event, Day 4
    APPT Macau, ACOP Main Event, Day 5

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    Monday, November 12, 2012

    Travel Report: APPT Macau, ACOP Main Event, Day 5

    Because poker tournament reporters are generally paid by the day or gig -- and not by the hour -- it isn’t surprising to hear varying degrees of complaining or self-pity being expressed when a particular day’s assignment stretches out to an inordinate length. I know I’ve used this space from time to time to share stories of marathon final tables or other situations where I’ve found myself in less than desirable circumstances work-wise due to the unpredictable nature of my job’s hours.

    I try not to complain overly about such things, though. Partly because I’m not really the complaining sort (in most cases), but mostly because I accept as part of the assignment that if I’m going to be covering a poker tournament, well, in most cases, it isn’t like there’s a point in time when I know for certain my work will end. Such is the nature of the game.

    Still, I’ve indulged in that fantasy now and then -- one I think most tourney reporters have at least thought about -- wishing that a long heads-up match might end abruptly in some fashion and cut the work day short. “Oh, just go all in already,” we think. Or maybe even sometimes say to one another, if willing to share such a sentiment.

    Well, last night the fantasy became reality in a stunning way. I’m still shaking my head over it.

    The heads-up match to conclude the Asia Championship of Poker Main Event between Xing Zhou of China and Ying Kit Chan of Hong Kong had lasted more than six hours, including the breaks. Both players had led in the match, and the stacks were still quite deep after all that time, with the average between them being nearly 70 big blinds.

    Then, suddenly, a hand was dealt to the pair and instead of betting they began talking. Their speech (which I couldn’t understand, of course) became more animated, then they both stood up, the crowd began shouting and clapping, and we were hearing a familiar phrase -- “All in!”

    They’d agreed to chop the remaining prize money evenly (despite Zhou having about a 3-to-2 lead in chips). And they’d go all in without looking at their cards in order to determine the winner.

    I ended up writing a lengthy post about it all over on the PokerStars blog, if you’re curious to read more about what happened. None of us had ever seen anything quite like it, and I’m referring to people who’ve covered hundreds of tournaments before.

    The scene was kind of joyous, really, with the excellent Danny McDonagh (APPT President and tournament director) handling the situation even-handedly and effectively. As I describe in the post, Zhou ended up winning the hand and the chips, and our little fantasy of an abrupt end came upon us so quickly we had to sit around talking about it for a while just to reassure each other we weren’t dreaming.

    Definitely was an ending that helped further demonstrate the Asian culture’s love of gambling. And truly it seemed like the sort of thing one might have to go to a place like Macau ever to see happen.

    Speaking of dreaming, gonna try to get some winks here before the long journey home begins. It’s good that I’m writing this now before bed, as I’ll have further proof here that it really happened.

    Catch you all on the other side.

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    Saturday, November 10, 2012

    Travel Report: APPT Macau, ACOP Main Event, Day 4

    Was a short one, relatively speaking, at the Asia Championship of Poker Main Event yesterday, with the penultimate day of play lasting around seven hours to conclude around 10 p.m. Michael Kanaan of Australia leads with nine to go, with four different continents and eight nationalities represented among the final tablists.

    There’s a “High Rollers” event happening this weekend as well, one featuring a $250,000 (HKD) buy-in which equals something like $32K USD. All of the big pros who I’ve seen in other events were playing in that one, plus someone I hadn’t seen this week yet, Phil Ivey.

    Sort of interesting to see Ivey in this setting, where unlike at the WSOP there really doesn’t seem to be as much stargazing and hoopla surrounding his presence. Indeed, there are others in the High Rollers who’ve participated in those huge cash games with Ivey here in Macau.

    Alan Sass, who has made the final table of the Main Event, has played in those games, too. Sass also played with Ivey in that crazy $2 million (HKD) buy-in “Macau High Stakes Challenge Super High Roller” back in August, finishing ninth while Ivey took eighth.

    As I was talking about earlier in the week after visiting the Venetian Macao Casino and witnessing the huge amounts being gambled nonchalantly all around, it’s an environment where a “high roller” is perhaps necessarily a less conspicuous entity. In other words, we’re in a place where Phil Ivey actually has what could be considered “peers” gambling-wise, if you can believe that.

    Was kind of hoping to get out for a real sit-down meal last night, even tentatively arranging to do so when it looked like play might end early enough for us to be getting out somewhere near the dinner hour. But alas they went on a little too long, then I was saddled with some extra writing at night’s end that got in the way.

    Such is the way it often goes on these trips, where there might be short windows of opportunity to get out and explore here and there, but a lot of the time is taken up working the event and thus mostly experiencing different places and cultures from inside relatively familiar-looking poker rooms.

    A week ago I was relating how my flight here (from Chicago to Hong Kong) had been canceled and rescheduled for a day later. That meant rather than arrive here a day early -- and perhaps experience something other than poker -- I was arriving just as the first tournament I was due to cover was getting started. So it was straight to work. And while I have gotten out a couple of times to see the city over the days since, most of those days have been occupied by work.

    And I fly in the morning, which’ll mean an early start on Monday to catch the ferry back to Hong Kong. I expect today’s final day to be a long one, too, with the average chip stack more than 60 big blinds to start play this afternoon.

    Still, I’m enjoying the experience and grateful for seeing what I have thus far. And for meeting the people I have, too, which has made the trip all the better. Makes the big scary world seem a little smaller and easier to manage. I suppose it’s like Ivey somehow seeming less intimidating when sitting among the other high rollers, the world as a whole becomes a less daunting place the more you see of it.

    (Ivey photo via Hong Kong portrait photographer Kenneth Lim.)

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    Friday, November 09, 2012

    Travel Report: APPT Macau, ACOP Main Event, Day 3

    Was another day spent strictly inside the Grand Waldo yesterday, about 14 hours of it or so down in the Grand Waldo Conference and Exhibition Centre where the poker room is located.

    Day 3 of the Asia Championship of Poker Main Event -- a.k.a. the APPT Macau ME -- lasted the absolute maximum length of time yesterday as they played from 56 players down to 22 and the cash bubble bursting.

    They began with a half-hour left in the 90-minute Level 10, with the plan being to get to 22 and the money or stop at the end of Level 16. The structure is super-deep, with 700/1,400 and 900/1,800 levels stuck in there along the way to ensure the average stack was at least 60-70 big blinds for much of the day. So it wasn’t too surprising things took a while.

    As it happened, they made it to the end of Level 16 with 23 players left, having gone to hand-for-hand play at the last three tables for several hands by then. The level reached its end and was extended an extra 15 minutes, and in fact it had been announced they would be playing the very last hand when Linh Tran was knocked out in an A-K versus 9-9 hand.

    Michael Kanaan (Australia) and Andrew Gaw (Philippines) are basically tied for the lead as of now, with Mike "SirWatts" Watson (Canada) in third. Team PokerStars Pro Raymond Wu (Chinese Taipei) is still in as well.

    This marked my seventh straight day of work, with two more to go. Kind of an arduous schedule, longer than usual for these trips although I know I’ve worked this many days in a row at the WSOP in the past. But as I’ve mentioned before the APPT/PokerStars Macau folks are great to work with, and it’s a fun, supportive environment.

    Had a chance yesterday to speak briefly with the last American player left in the field, Alan Sass, for a post. Very nice guy who echoes my sentiment about Macau being a fun place to be. Sass, by the way, participated in that wild $2 million (HKD) turbo sit-n-go in Macau back in late August -- essentially a quarter-million USD buy-in -- and took ninth for a cash worth $705K.

    Am also liking very much that the PokerNews folks are here -- Donnie, Remko, Lynn, and Andrew -- as well as others like Jenn who does PokerStars’ Japanese blog.

    Speaking of Lynn and Andrew, we shot one of those “nightly notables” videos late yesterday, if you’re curious.

    As I say, time is running out here, so I’m cutting this post short today with an idea of trying to sneak in some souvenir shopping before play resumes this afternoon. Check the PokerStars blog today for my posts as well as the live updates from the PN guys.

    (Photo above via Hong Kong portrait photographer Kenneth Lim.)

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    Thursday, November 08, 2012

    Travel Report: APPT Macau, ACOP Main Event, Day 2

    After a short Day 1 on Wednesday, yesterday’s Day 2 of the Asia Championship of Poker Main Event was a long one, starting and ending late. Just 56 players survived the day, and the plan is for them to return today and play down to the bursting of cash bubble at 22.

    The start time was pushed back to 5 p.m. yesterday to allow players and staff to sleep a little later following the late night party at the D2 Club in Macau. I said last post I’d link to some video of ElkY dancing to PSY’s “Gangnam Style.” Here’s a post I did yesterday with some pics (including one of ElkY) and a PokerNews video at the end which doesn’t show the dancing but gives a sense of the scene nonetheless.

    Having a little bit of time on my hands yesterday, I took a cab to the Venetian Macao Casino located not too far from the Grand Waldo here on the Taipa Island of Macau. Really had no particular plan in mind other than to go see for myself what the world’s largest casino looked like.

    After a short cab ride over, I took the main entrance and didn’t have to walk for very long before arriving at the casino that appears to occupy most of the street-level floor. It’s a massive building -- 40 stories high, the largest hotel in Asia, and apparently the sixth largest building, period, in the entire world.

    Once you pass the guards and enter the gaming area, the casino extends on as far as you can see. Apparently there are 800 tables and 3,400 slot machines, and I’d spend probably an hour or more just walking around watching.

    There were blackjack, craps, and roulette and other “money wheel”-type games. But the most popular games going were baccarat and Sic Bo, the latter being kind of version a roulette with dice. And those tables were packed, especially the baccarat ones, with all seats often occupied plus 10-20 people encircling the players, either sweating the action or placing bets themselves.

    Baccarat is a drawing game involving the “player” and “banker” which allows players to bet on either to win (or on a tie), and for which the cards’ numerical value is all that matters (i.e., suits aren’t involved). If you’re curious, you can read the rules here and then visit this site where you can play a free flash version of baccarat to get a better idea of how the game is played.

    It took me a while to appreciate the fact that many of the tables I watched had minimum bets of 800 or 1,000 Hong Kong dollars, and in a lot of cases the minimum was higher than that. (I didn’t wander into any of the “high stakes” areas.) In other words, the minimum bet was the equivalent of about $100 USD, although players usually were betting a lot more than that.

    Afterwards Remko was quoting a statistic to me about the average wager in Macau being several times that placed Vegas, and searching online I’m seeing various references to that being the case.

    I didn’t hang out at any one table for very long, usually just standing behind the crowd and watching a single hand before moving on. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but afterwards wondered if maybe I’d have been considered bad luck had I gotten too close or was too conspicuous with my railing. I suppose I was drawing on these years of learning how to be discreet while watching poker hands being played. Also helped that at six feet I’m taller than most here and thus could easily watch from a distance, standing behind the crowds.

    Two players would be designated the “player” and “banker” each hand and thus were allowed to squeeze the cards, which they’d routinely mangle and crease to the point of destroying them, the dealers dropping the no-longer-usable cards in a plastic box for discarding later. All hands featured multiple players betting, and it seemed like most of the time everyone would bet the same way, thus eliciting a collective response one way or the other when the hand completed.

    Like I say, baccarat and Sic Bo were really the main games getting most of the action. I did see in one corner some poker happening. I can’t tell you how many tables were reserved for poker, but it looked like only a couple were active. I believe the limits were $50/$100 (HKD).

    I’m reading online about how the Venetian casino has different themed areas -- Golden Fish, Imperial House, Red Dragon and Phoenix -- but to be honest I didn’t really appreciate any distinctions between one area and another as I walked around. That is to say, there was a kind of coherence to the design all over the sprawling room, and I felt at times the place resembled a small city with neighborhoods of citizens all focused on their games.

    There was smoking, and indeed afterwards I could feel in my lungs having been exposed to cigarette smoke more than usual, but it didn’t seem overly bothersome while I was there. In fact, the casino seemed especially clean with air freshener being pumped through to giving a more mall-like ambience.

    I left and explored the shops upstairs for a while, which very much resembled what you find at other hotel-casinos in Vegas. There was the same canal and trompe d’oeil ceiling like you find at the Venetian in Vegas, too. An imitation of an imitation, I guess.

    Am glad I looked in on the place, even if only as an observer. I kind of felt like I was in reporter mode as I walked about, even pulling out my notebook to jot down things from time to time. I suppose whenever visiting a foreign country where one doesn’t speak the language one will inevitably feel detached to some degree, but at the Venetian I felt doubly so whenever I considered the amounts being so casually bet all around me.

    Back to the tournament today. I’ll probably try to sneak out at least once more either Saturday or Sunday morning to explore some more before I begin the journey home on Monday.

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