Friday, August 29, 2014

Reviewing Zachary Elwood’s Verbal Poker Tells

I mentioned earlier this week how I’d been reading Zachary Elwood’s Verbal Poker Tells, the follow-up to his earlier Reading Poker Tells. I was able to finish it and wrote a review for Learn.PokerNews, posted today.

I had to mention in my review how the topic Zach chose could seem to be a “niche within a niche within a niche,” although as it turns out the book has a lot of value that goes beyond the narrow scope of verbal tells. I believe anyone reading the book will come away not just with added knowledge about how to decipher opponents’ table talk, but also further equipped to understand many commonly employed approaches to hold’em strategy.

Zach does a nice job in his explanations of all the different kinds of statements about hand strength, misdirections, defensive statements, attempts at manipulation, and other verbal patterns connecting the words players use to the strategies they are employing when playing a hand.

I especially enjoyed the many, many hands discussed in Verbal Poker Tells, including a lot from televised poker that I remembered seeing before. There’s a much greater emphasis on hand histories in this book than was the case with Zach’s earlier one, which makes sense as all of the direct quotes help provide concrete illustrations of the many varieties of tells he’s addressing.

He also does well (as he did in the first book) to distinguish how recreational players tend to exhibit these tells more readily and less subtly than is the case with more seasoned table talkers. And again he makes it clear with several disclaimers that recognizing tells is only a small part of live poker, with an understanding of fundamental strategy more important (and, of course, necessary to have before even being able to think about tells).

I admire Zach for the obvious commitment of time and energy to this new project, and for getting his book completed and now made available for readers. It’s quite an achievement.

Whenever I write a book review I have misgivings about what I wasn’t able to cover in the space of the review. Such is true again with this one, although I’m hoping to interview Zach next week and thus have a chance to add further to the discussion of how Verbal Poker Tells contributes to our understanding of both tells specifically and poker strategy more broadly. Stay tuned over at Learn.PokerNews for that.

Meanwhile, check out the review for more. And enjoy the weekend!

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

What the Winner Wins

Well, I couldn’t shut off that EPTLive stream last night, watching all of the way to the very end of the protracted heads-up battle between Sam Phillips and eventual winner Andre Lettau on my iPhone just before finally hitting the hay.

The last EPT Main Event in Monaco back in May had ended similarly, with an 18-hour final table and a heads-up match that went about 10 hours (with breaks) and lasted 237 hands. This time the final table went for something like 15 hours, and while heads-up “only” lasted 142 hands and a little over six hours with the dinner break, it was still a marathon for all involved.

The huge field of 1,496 entrants helped ensure there’d be deep stacks at the end, and Phillips and Lettau managed to work all of the way into the 600,000/1,200,000 blind level (with a 200,000 ante) before reaching a conclusion. Lettau prevailed, which meant thanks to the three-handed deal runner-up Phillips earned considerably more than did the champion, taking away more than €1,000,000 from the prize pool while Lettau ended with €794,058.

Always kind of awkward when reporting on a tournament when a deal is made and the winner isn’t the one actually earning the biggest prize. Makes for some lengthy headlines and lots of qualifying statements when referring to the event. Asterisks are sometimes needed when reporting payouts, too, reflecting adjustments made.

Such a circumstance probably also adds another layer of ambiguity preventing poker tournaments from being considered analogous to sporting events, even if they can be argued to resemble them in many other respects. We can’t really imagine, say, a pair of tennis players in the finals of a tourney stopping short of a fifth-set tiebreaker to narrow the gap between first- and second-place prize money before continuing.

Indeed, the whole process of deal-making highlights a couple of crucial differences between poker tournaments and other sports -- the fact that players pay to play, and that money is itself an element of the game.

Deals in poker tournaments often have a tangible effect on how play proceeds thereafter. Some pros don’t like making deals because of the way they lessen the money pressure their opponents may not be as equipped to handle as they are. I said yesterday how I enjoy watching the deals being made because the process can directly reflect how players play the game itself. Deals really are part of the game, one of a number of reasons why most can’t call poker a sport.

By the way, I might have mentioned this before, but I wrote a three-part series over on Learn.PokerNews some time ago about deal-making in tournaments, for those who might be interested. I was inspired to write it after watching some MicroMillions players stumbling through deals at final tables, understandably uncertain about how they worked. It covers the logistics, some strategic considerations, and includes some fun deal-making anecdotes, too -- the series starts here.

Deals also help make explicit the various reasons why people play poker tournaments, specifically the way they draw a stark distinction between playing for money and playing for the prestige of winning.

Being an EPT champion, for example, does have value, as was clearly demonstrated by the earnestly-fought battle between Phillips and Lettau yesterday. Sure, €90,000 was on the line -- perhaps a relatively small percentage of both players’ winnings, but hardly insignificant. But getting that favored position in the headlines and the subsequent “EPT champ” adjective attached to your name was worth playing for, too.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Bartering in Barcelona

Pretty well locked into this EPT Barcelona Main Event final table right now, which has finally reached heads-up after a deal was made at three-handed.

The deal came at a time when the U.S. player Sam Phillips enjoyed a huge chip lead over the two Germans, Andre Lettau and Hossein Ensan. Ensan won the Seniors Event, incidentally, so it has been a great week for him.

At the time of the deal, Phillips had close to 30 million chips, I believe, while the other two were down around 7 million or just under. They weren’t able to come to terms during the first round of talks, but paused the tourney again and eventually made the deal happen, with Phillips locking up €1,021,275, Lettau €704,058, and Ensan €652,667, with €90,000 left on the table for which to play.

As I write, Ensan just busted in third and Phillips nearly eliminated on the first hand of heads-up, but the latter scored a double-up and the final two battle onward.

Deals at the EPT are all made out in the open -- unlike at the WSOP where the rules nominally forbid deal-making, thus forcing players to make the deals privately. As such, media generally can’t report on deals made at the WSOP, since they aren’t necessarily privy to their details nor assured of their veracity. Nor are deals at the WSOP reflected in results chronicled by the Hendon Mob and other sites.

It’s better for the players to have tourney organizers help oversee such negotiations and guarantee the adjusted payouts are correctly applied. What happens at the EPT is very much like what you see play out on the PokerStars client when an online tournament such as the Sunday Million is paused at the final table for players to discuss a chop. A moderator arrives in the chat box, often providing both “chip chop” and “ICM”-based figures (while setting some money aside for which to play), discussions ensue, and if a deal is made the payouts are automatically adjusted.

Watching the deal-making play out today, I couldn’t help but think back to last year’s EPT Barcelona Main Event when I was there to help cover the tournament for the PokerStars blog. At four-handed there was an especially lengthy discussion (around 45 minutes, I think) that ultimately did not result in a deal being made. I wrote a little about that here at the time, and Rick Dacey wrote a good, informative feature about the process on the PS blog that day as well. (A deal was eventually struck at heads-up between eventual winner Tom Middleton and Kimmo Kurko.)

This time the tournament director made it clear that the EPT has revised its policies regarding deal-making, limiting the time they can spend and also how much advice players can solicit from friends on the rail. I think I heard players being instructed they could only talk to a single friend and only briefly, a proscription clearly designed to prevent the extended negotiations-within-negotiations that happened last year when Middleton was not only bartering with his opponents but working out a deal with others buying pieces as well.

“This is always fascinating, I think,” said Jake Cody who was helping with the commentary at the time of the deal. To me it’s also all quite interesting to follow, the analogies between poker strategy and the kinds of strategy employed during deal-making making even more intriguing when the entire process is able to be witnessed in all of its detail.

I wonder, though, like I did last year, how it plays to the wider audience, many of whom -- including the most devoted poker players/fans -- find deal-making especially tedious to watch. Joe Stapleton shared on the commentary that according to the tweets the audiences seemed divided evenly between those who enjoyed watching it and those who found it a bore.

Understandable. Hard enough to believe some enjoy watching people playing cards, but watching people not play cards? How could that be interesting?

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

T-Shirt Talk

There has been an abundance of talk of late about poker players showing up at televised final tables wearing t-shirts with political slogans and the appropriateness of such. If you saw the €50,000 Super High Roller final table play out at EPT11 Barcelona last week and/or have read any of the several articles, blog posts, and Twitterings resulting from it, you know where all of that started.

The discussion has moved around to touch on a number of different topics. Some believe players should be allowed to wear whatever they like at the tables, including being able to seize the opportunity of earning some extra exposure on a televised table to deliver messages such as we saw last week. Others maintain those hosting and televising such tables should be able to exert some control over what players wear when appearing on their shows, including not permitting political slogans.

Some of the talk has even stepped back to consider whether or not there is “room” for politics in poker -- i.e., to entertain the idea that the poker table perhaps should represent a kind of safe haven where one shouldn’t have to confront various conflicts existing elsewhere, including political ones.

Of course, many poker players readily choose to shut out the world (so to speak) while playing, immersing themselves in the game entirely. That phenomenon always makes me think of the story Al Alvarez tells in The Biggest Game in Town about being in Las Vegas during the 1981 WSOP when Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square. “Nobody mentioned it,” notes Alvarez, “despite the innumerable crucifixes dangling from the necks of both the players and the casino staff.”

Such is true not just of poker, but in much of contemporary culture where many would rather focus on awards shows, sporting events, or Facebook than the news of the day, particularly if that news is unpleasant or makes one uncomfortable. (I’m certainly not claiming to be innocent of that escapist impulse, either.)

I was trying to decide if I had anything original to contribute to the discussion of this issue, or if by writing a post about it I’d just be adding more noise to bounce around the echo chamber. A thought then occurred to me that I haven’t necessarily seen others mention, so I’m sharing it here.

I mentioned yesterday how I’m reading Zach Elwood’s Verbal Poker Tells. He has a chapter early on titled “Deception and Truth-Telling” that focuses primarily on players’ statements about hand-strength. Zach maintains that most of these statements are indirect rather than straightforward. That is to say, when players do talk about the strength of their hands, they usually do so in ways that require interpretation. For example, instead of saying “I have the nuts,” a player will more likely say “I have a big hand” or something even more ambiguous like “If you fold, I’ll show.”

The primary reason why direct statements are relatively rare, says Zach, “is that poker is a game that assumes non-cooperation and deception from opponents. Because deception is assumed, there isn’t much value in making direct hand-strength statements, whether true or false, because opponents assume you are trying to deceive them.”

Whatever your experience or belief regarding players’ statements about hand strength might be, I think most would agree with this characterization of the poker table as a place where “deception is assumed.” Most would likely also agree with the contrast Zach draws between the poker table and “‘real-life’ situations -- like social and professional interactions -- [where] truth-telling is assumed and is considered the ‘proper’ behavior.”

Reading this passage made me think back to all of the t-shirt talk. Since the poker table is a place where “deception is assumed,” that perhaps makes it all the more strange as a context for earnest declarations about “real-life” causes. I’m not saying we don’t believe the player wearing such a shirt is a sincere advocate for the position or claim its slogan represents. But there is a kind of dissonance there, I think, given the context of a poker game.

After all, the poker table is the one place where we are always having to ask each other “Are you for real?”

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Feeding and Reading

Another nice day on the farm here. I was just doing barn chores. Every weekday afternoon about this time I am usually found in the barn cleaning stalls and feeding the three horses we’re keeping. Two are ours -- Sammy and Maggie -- while we’re boarding another, Shakan. All are now munching their feed and hay happily once more, an indication of a job well performed. Or at least that’s how I’m reading it.

Soon they’ll be turned out for the night. That above is a picture of Sammy (brown) and Maggie (black), shortly after getting turned out the other day.

Like most who follow poker, I had the EPTLive stream on for much of the day to watch the coverage from Day 4 of the €5,300 Main Event in Barcelona. They just finished up a few minutes ago, with 25 players making it through to night’s end, survivors of that record 1,496-entry field.

I didn’t closely follow what has been happening in the €10,300 High Roller event which started today, although I did hear the reports of how that field, too, had ballooned to record proportions. That one is already up over the 370-entry mark, with late registration (and the ability to reenter) open until the start of tomorrow’s Day 2.

At one point during the afternoon Daniel Negreanu joined in for some commentary, as usual adding both insight and entertainment with his contributions. Interestingly he’s skipping that record-breaking High Roller to explore some sights in Barcelona tonight and tomorrow. It’s a good call, I’d say, to take a break once in a while and not play all the events, even if Negreanu is a player who certainly could do so if he wished. Fits with his overall message as well to poker players to keep their lives balanced with other non-poker activities.

One theme that emerged during Negreanu’s time in the booth was how slow players were to act, something that happens a lot more at the feature tables, I think, than is the case out from under the lights and cameras. During one hand Negreanu was pointing out how among the items the player might be considering, the search for his opponent’s tells was especially futile. The fellow was stone-faced and motionless, and as Negreanu noted there was just nothing there to observe.

I’ve been thinking about tells lately in part because I’m nearly finished with Zach Elwood’s latest, Verbal Poker Tells, which catalogues and examines lots of different kinds of table talk in an accessible and entertaining way. (I’ll be reviewing the book soon over on Learn.PokerNews.)

As I’ve been reading, I found myself inspired occasionally to share some of Zach’s observations with Vera along the way. After one instance of doing so the conversation moved on to how animals -- specifically the horses -- communicate with us by their actions, movements, and even their “verbal” snorts and whinnies.

I was thinking of that conversation again this afternoon while in Sammy’s stall and he gave me a playful nudge on the shoulder, rubbing his nose back and forth before turning back around and sticking his head back out of the stall window to enjoy an unusually crisp August afternoon.

It was an unmistakably friendly message. Or at least that’s how I’m reading it.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Looking in Over at Learn

Continuing to follow the EPTLive coverage from Barcelona, marveling some today at the number of players -- more than 1,000 just for today’s Day 1 flight alone (!) -- they have been drawing this week.

Meanwhile I’ve been busy with other things, including the Learn.PokerNews site where there have been some good contributions over the last couple of weeks I thought I’d share here before signing off for the weekend.

Earlier this week Andrew Brokos offered another smart article, this one titled “Thinking Poker: Everything Has Its Price.” In the piece Andrew explains both what it means to think in terms of “price” when acting during a poker hand and how doing so can help with decision-making. It’s a nice, accessible explanation of a not-so-simple concept.

Robert Woolley, a.k.a. the “Poker Grump,” also continues to add to what has now become a growing collection of great “Casino Poker for Beginners” pieces, this week discussing in particular “chopping” the blinds in cash games. In this week’s piece Robert explains the procedure while also sharing his own thoughts about chopping the blinds and guidelines for new players.

Like other pieces by Robert, he does a great job spelling out something that I know I wondered about when I first started playing. Check out “Chopping Blinds: Expectations, Etiquette, and EV” to read his advice.

Finally I want to recommend a couple of “nuts-and-bolts”-type pieces, what I call articles that deal more directly with specific strategy advice, again geared mostly toward beginners but useful for others, too, I think.

Neil Gibson has been contributing some worthwhile strategy articles of late, including a popular piece not too long ago called “Finding Folds With Pocket Jacks” that talks about how to play that trouble hand -- and get away from it, if needed -- both before and after the flop.

And Aaron Hendrix today has a new one called “Overplaying Big Slick When Deep-Stacked in Tournaments” that touches on something I’ve seen a lot during the early and middle stages of tournaments, namely players getting crazy with A-K in spots when they needn’t necessarily do so.

Interestingly, both Neil and Aaron make reference to hands Phil Ivey has played in their articles as illustrative of the points they make.

Anyhow, just thought I’d pass those articles along for those looking for strategy and theory advice. By the way, if you have a request for an article addressing a particular strategy topic for one of the Learn contributors, let me know about it and perhaps we can work it in over at Learn.

Meanwhile, enjoy the weekend!

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Rambling, Gambling Willie’s Card Trick

Not long ago Vera saw that Farm Aid is coming to North Carolina next month, and after looking over the line-up we decided to get tickets. Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews are headlining, with Jack White among the others set to perform. Should be a fun Saturday.

I remember hearing a few years back that Willie Nelson was a longtime card player. There’s a story that he and Waylon Jennings co-wrote Nelson’s mid-70s hit “Good Hearted Woman” while playing a poker game, one of several poker-related tales floating around that involve the Red-Headed Stranger.

In fact, when not on the road (again) Nelson hosts a weekly poker game in Maui in which folks like Owen and Luke Wilson, Woody Harrelson, the former basketball coach Don Nelson (no relation, I believe), and others participate. Last fall Owen Wilson was on Jimmy Kimmel Live talking about the game as well as sharing the painting of “Nellie’s Poker Room” by John Woodruff shown above.

I was reminded of that this week when I saw the following video clip of Nelson getting passed around, one of him performing a fun, impressive card trick for his sister, Bobbie. Take a look, and just try not to grin while watching:

The trick is a version of a famous one called “Sam the Bellhop” that involves memorizing the story and telling it while working in all of the false shuffles and false cuts as you go. I’ve seen attributed to Chicago-based sleight-of-hand artist Frank Everhart, Sr., with the magician Bill Malone also famous for performing it.

Reading around about it further, “Sam the Bellhop” sounds like it is kind of a “standard” among magicians who work with cards -- sort of like “’Round Midnight” for jazz musicians or the “Aristocrats” joke for comedians. But if you haven’t seen or heard of it before, Nelson’s version is a fun way to be introduced to it.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Poker, the Least Sporty Sport

The fall semester has already begun, and that means I’m again teaching my “Poker in American Film and Culture” course. I generally like to start the course with an excerpt from the first chapter of Poker: Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats by Al Alvarez in which he declares poker to be “The American Game.”

Alvarez begins the chapter comparing poker to various sports that are popular in the U.S., noting how unlike other candidates for the title of “the American game” like baseball or football, poker is a game people continue to play “once they have left school and lost their physical edge.” It’s “a game for life and a great equalizer,” he says, going on to point out how so many who “were athletes in their youth... turned to poker because their desire to compete and win lingered on long after their legs gave out.”

When discussing the excerpt with the class we’ll often address this comparison of poker to sports, and in that context I’ll usually bring up how occasionally some will argue that poker is a sport, or at least has enough in common with other sports for such a designation not to be easily dismissed.

But yesterday I found myself a little less ready to share that observation after my attention was drawn to a chart resulting from a survey conducted on Reddit in which respondents were given a list of more than 50 games and activities and asked whether or not they considered them as a sport.

The list included a few obvious “sports” (to me, anyway) like boxing, lacrosse, wrestling, and golf, as well things like paintball, fishing, chess, and poker about which people reasonably disagree about the designation. If I’m following the explanation of the chart clearly, it looks like there were 460 respondents altogether -- not a huge sample, but enough to make the results interesting nonetheless.

The chart showing the results dramatically positions poker as the activity the fewest respondents said they considered to be a sport, with just a little over 10% saying they consider it as such. Even cheerleading, competitive video gaming, and competitive eating were considered sports by more respondents than was poker.

Here’s the chart, with poker nudged all of the way there on the right-most edge -- to the periphery, you might say (click to embiggen):

Comments on Reddit reiterate commonly made observations that people “don’t consider poker a sport because you’re just sitting there with a deck of cards” -- i.e., the relative lack of physicality involved in the game hurts poker’s candidacy here.

As I’ve written about here before, I am disinclined to call poker a sport -- preferring “game” instead (as the title of the Alvarez chapter has it) -- although I certainly understand and often enjoy thinking about the many affinities between poker and several sports, especially individual ones. Additionally, to some I describe my tournament reporting as being much like sports writing, too, which sometimes helps make the job a lot easier to explain.

While a larger sample size would be helpful, I don’t think it would largely alter poker’s low-ranking status when it comes to this particular survey question. Meanwhile, the exercise brings a couple of other questions to mind.

First, how might the fact that most are unwilling to entertain the idea that poker is a sport affect attitudes toward the game, generally speaking? Also, as many who have taken up the “cause” of poker have tried the tactic of likening it to sports in order to make it seem more culturally acceptable, but does that argument largely fall on deaf ears?

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Rewatching Notkin’s Triple-Knockout; or, Did Anybody Fold an Ace?

Glad today to tune back in for the return of the EPTLive stream from Barcelona. Coverage of the Super High Roller has been featured today, the first of nine straight days’ worth of all-day shows.

I’ve missed the EPT guys’ coverage over the last few months since Season 10 wound down back in early May. Always worth tuning in when the EPT is on, both because of the play and the high quality of the production and commentary -- the most consistently engaging televised poker around, in my opinion.

I was reminded this week that we did get another glimpse of James Hartigan and Joe Stapleton and the production team since the EPT Grand Final, namely at that Canada Cup event that played out at the Playground Poker Club in Montreal in late May.

I wrote about that one here briefly then, entirely because of the wild conclusion that saw no less than four players all in on the final hand with a rare triple-knockout giving the tournament to Robert Notkin. Yes, that really happened.

They’ve isolated the hand in a YouTube clip, which if you haven’t seen it is probably worth five minutes to watch:

“This would be the weirdest end of a tournament ever,” says Stapleton while Vincent Rivers contemplates making the call with his pocket eights, the only genuinely questionable action in the hand needed to create the weird four-way all-in.

Then when Rivers does call and everything is getting sorted out before the delivery of the community cards, Stapes delivers the following hilarity:

“Did anyone fold an ace?”

I’d missed that line when watching this hand before. Think about it.

Afterwards Hartigan makes reference to it having been “the strangest hand ever streamed online,” and it’s hard to disagree.

This post is sponsored by Spreaditfast.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Colman, Chomsky, and Irrational Attitudes of Submission to Authority

Listened over the weekend to the newest episode of Todd Witteles’s PokerFraudAlert podcast, the first in a few weeks. Always enjoy listening to Witteles discussing various news items and offering his views.

In this week’s show Witteles offered more worthwhile response to the ill-conceived and spottily researched Newsweek anti-online poker screed that appeared late last week (and about which I wrote here and here). He pointed out a few of the article’s inaccuracies while also doing well to explain how damaging such articles can be because of the way others will absorb the agenda-driven message uncritically, simply accepting the opinions (all collected from one side of the issue) as truths and not being able to spot the factual mistakes and misleading juxtapositions.

Among the other items Witteles tackled was the reprise of the topic of “Big One for One Drop” winner Daniel Colman’s similarly negative statements about poker. That topic returned last week following the airing of the “One Drop” final table (a show I was pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed watching). Even Perez Hilton got some mileage out of it, with the blogger of celebrity gossip posting last week about the “super weird reaction” of Colman after winning the event.

During the final table coverage, comments were made about Colman’s unfavorable stance toward poker suggesting both that (1) his views weren’t shared by most, and (2) they may be the result of the 24-year-old’s relative lack of worldly experience. Afterwards and over the course of a half-dozen tweets, Colman disagreed with the assessments of co-host Lon McEachern and Colman’s heads-up opponent Daniel Negreanu that he “doesn’t know who he is yet,” maintaining “I am actually 100% certain in [sic] who I am.” From there Colman went on to provide a few more reasons why he isn’t in favor of poker as an activity worth pursuing and/or glamorizing and using as a means for creating celebrities.

“I find it to be a much greater accomplishment (and necessary) if thru solidarity, we can get everyone at the bottom to all move up,” wrote Colman, adding that “This can be done once we stop idolizing those who were able to make it to the top.”

He then pulled back somewhat from his earlier characterization of poker as a “dark game” that harms many more than it helps, shifting his position from censure to a kind of ambivalence. “I misrepresented myself before when I said I didn’t want to speak to media because of poker being a harmful game,” Colman says. “I do not care about poker... I just see it as a distraction to people, just like any sport/tv show/movie. Taking away the focus from things that matter to people[’]s lives.”

As others have done, Witteles pointed out the obviously self-contradictory position of someone earning a handsome living from poker speaking so critically of it. He also didn’t care much for Colman’s inclusion of poker in a catalogue of other “distractions” he thinks significantly lessen the quality of life for those who indulge in them.

Witteles then pursued an interesting thesis regarding the “guilty winner” as a way of explaining Colman’s views. He defended watching and enjoying sports and being able to balance such recreation with “things that matter.” Finally he noted how Colman’s statements reminded him “of kids in college who like to spout off about how they think they understand how the world works... when in reality they are just clueless kids who mean well, but who don’t understand that they’re being very naive.”

That latter point was one that reminded me of how I’d ended my post on Friday, essentially characterizing Leah McGrath Goodman in a somewhat similar fashion and also likening her to a well-meaning student having gotten in over her head a bit with regard to the subject she had chosen to pursue. I remember being guilty of the same mistaken belief in my own understanding of various subjects, especially when young and in school, but also later as an adult. I’d imagine most of us can recall a time when we thought we knew much more about something than we did (for example, about poker?), then later realized we’d missed an important piece of the overall picture that would’ve caused us to think very differently.

I found myself thinking back to graduate school, a time when those self-realizations seemed to come over and over again as the extent of what I didn’t know was made clearer and clearer to me. Colman’s words and Witteles’s discussion of them also reminded me in particular of how it was during that period -- I’m talking about my early 20s when I was just about Colman’s age -- that I first thought consciously about the relative frivolity of the kinds of “distractions” to which Colman refers.

The idea that watching sports or television or playing poker could be a distraction from “things that matter” I associate with a few different writers to whom I was first introduced then. One was the French philosopher Louis Althusser, a Marxist who wrote a lot about politics, epistemology, and ideology. I won’t pretend to have a great acquaintance with his writings or positions, but I remember being assigned a famous essay by Althusser called “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation” which opened my eyes to the ways certain cultural “ISAs” like professional sports, entertainment culture, religion, and so forth helped keep the masses in line -- that is to say, distracted them from questioning the conditions of production and helped keep those who controlled them from being challenged.

I knew even then it was a sketchy take-away from a much more complicated argument, but it was nonetheless kind of revelatory. I could see how, say, games distracted us, and in fact those would be the only years of my life during which I turned the television off entirely so I could spend my time more fruitfully (I imagined). Other theorists I was assigned to read further broadened the point Althusser made, helping me to question all sorts of ideas about society and culture I’d previously not even realized were able to be questioned.

Right around then I also began to read some of Noam Chomsky’s writings, another writer who spoke of ideology and the many indirect means by which those in power are able to keep those without power in line. The excellent documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media came out right about that time, too, and as I think about this point I instinctively go back to a sequence from the film in which Chomsky speaks of sports in particular as a way to keep most people -- the percentage he usually cites is 80% -- from thinking about anything that might lead to a questioning or perhaps threatening of established power structures.

The sequence comes about an hour into the film, and the filmmakers cheekily show Chomsky making the point in a speech that they have being projected from a Jumbotron at an empty football stadium -- a funny, incongruous method of delivering the idea. Anyone who has seen the movie remembers it, presented as “Sports Rap with Noam Chomsky” and beginning with the linguist and activist characterizing sports as “indoctrination system... offering something for people to pay attention to that is of no importance.”

“It keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea about doing something about,” says Chomsky. “In fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in sports. I mean, listen to radio stations where people call in -- they have the most exotic information and understanding about all kinds of arcane issues.”

He recalls being in high school and suddenly wondering to himself why, in fact, he cared if his school’s team won a football game. He had no personal investment in the team’s success; therefore, it didn’t make any sense that he should care one way or the other if they won.

“But it does make sense,” Chomsky concludes. “It’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority. And, you know, group cohesion behind the leadership elements. In fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism.... That’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.”

Like I say, I’ve long remembered that idea even if it never did dissuade me from watching NFL football. Even during the preseason.

Now Colman is just firing off tweets and it’s hard to know what exactly he’s getting at grouping poker with other activities like watching football or consuming entertainment media or the like. But I’m guessing the point he’s trying to make isn’t unrelated to the one Chomsky advances, namely, that we’re wasting our lives with these games and thus risking all sorts of detrimental effects. For Chomsky, those effects crucially involve being unable to free ourselves to think about and attempt to correct unjust systems of government; for Colman, they seem more to do with personal relationships and psychological health, but perhaps have to do with broader areas of society, too.

I’ll note one other connection here as I pursue what must seem a pretty idiosyncratic line of thought. Part of what makes the Jumbotron sequence all the more humorous is the fact that Chomsky specifically dislikes the idea of making individuals into larger-than-life figures with undue influence, with the fashioning of celebrity culture (such as Hilton fosters) often serving as yet another way to divert our attention from things that are important. The whole movie, in fact, was made with Chomsky’s (non-manufactured) consent but without his input, and he’d be critical of certain aspects of it once it appeared.

Early in the film an older clip of Chomsky is shown in which he is addressing his disinclination to share information about his family and personal life. “I’m rather against the whole notion of developing public personalities,” he says, “who are treated as stars of one kind or another where aspects of their personal life are supposed to have some kind of significance and so on.” Colman’s shunning of the spotlight as well as that expressed desire to “stop idolizing those who [are] able to make it to the top” again provides a kind of uncanny echo of a position taken by Chomsky.

I don’t know if Colman has had a chance to read Chomsky or any of the other theorists I was first introduced to when I was his age, but I imagine like most of us he has arrived at a point in his life where he’s recently been exposed to a lot of ideas that have led him to question things he hadn’t thought to question before. Some of us never leave that phase of questioning the world around us. Meanwhile some of us never really get there, or at least that’s what Chomsky maintains when referring to “Joe Six-Pack” being too consumed by next weekend’s games to wonder about such stuff.

All of which is to say, I have to admit I’m a little intrigued -- perhaps in a nostalgic kind of way -- by some of the points Colman is making, even if the awkward way those points have been delivered has lessened their effectiveness considerably. His interest in authority and in not adopting an irrational attitude of submission to it is certainly more interesting than what we typically hear from poker players, especially the big winners. That said, I tend to agree with Witteles that Colman’s current position atop the poker food chain lends further awkwardness to his rhetorical position, making it that much harder for him to be convincing with his criticism about poker.

But I do think poker players as a group are actually quite aware and constructively critical of what’s going on around them. That is to say, even if the game can be wholly absorbing and encourage a kind of self-centeredness that makes some shut out the “non-poker world,” I think most who participate in the game do so while understanding it as existing within a larger context that includes family, society, culture, government, and so on.

And when they turn their critical thinking away from the table and onto that context, they often see much more than most about how it is put together and what improvements might need to be made upon it (even if they aren’t always encouraged to act upon such insights). In fact, a lot of the response from the poker world to the Newsweek article seems indicative of such.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

More on Newsweek (Goodman’s Addendum)

I see Leah McGrath Goodman has tried to write a response of sorts today taking into account some of the considerable blowback she received from her Newsweek article regarding online poker in the United States that first went online yesterday.

Goodman still doesn’t show evidence of being particularly well informed of the complicated history of online gambling legislation. Nor does she present herself as someone knowledgeable enough to discuss persuasively the current situation involving legal, regulated poker in the U.S. as it currently exists in Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware, and as it is being tentatively discussed in a handful of other states.

The response follows her attempts to discuss her article on Twitter over the last couple of days, with many of her tweets being either snarky (see her exchange with BLUFF editor Lance Bradley in yesterday’s post) or condescending.

“Articles always contain only a small amount of the total research,” Goodman tweeted to one critic today. “Otherwise, they are books.” That is a point she tries to make in today’s addendum as well when insisting upon all of the wide-ranging research she did for her piece.

So glad to have this explained. Really, how could the rest of us -- mere mortals who don’t even write for Newsweek -- possibly understand the reporter’s process? No, it’s much too complicated for us.

Such applesauce.

In a few of those tweets yesterday Goodman brought up how one purpose of her article was to shed light on what she believed to be a usurping of the legislative process that resulted in legal, regulated online gambling coming to the U.S. She reiterated that purpose in her note today, saying that her article “sought to question the transparency of the legal process that allowed online gambling to be introduced in its latest incarnation.”

That issue is foregrounded during the early part of her article where she focuses on the memorandum written by Virginia Seitz during her tenure in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. Guided by a law professor’s interpretation and a Republican Congressman from Utah who seemed to influence much of her thinking about the entire subject, Goodman presents a case that the memo unduly influenced legal interpretations of the Wire Act going forward.

Seitz, of course, was only writing an opinion, not rewriting laws and forcing states to follow new guidelines regarding what they would and would not allow when it came to online gambling in their states. From there individual states’ legislators proposed laws, debated them openly, voted upon them, and in a few cases passed them. Goodman strangely insists that “legalizing online gambling should have been discussed first in an open forum, instead of behind closed doors,” but the fact is these laws were debated openly. No laws were passed by Virginia Seitz, and it’s goofily disingenous to suggest her memo somehow forced the states who have passed such legislation to have done so.

As I discussed yesterday, Goodman’s article goes on to note Seitz’s plan to return to Sidley Austin, the Chicago law firm where she previously worked, with some non-specific references to that firm’s possible interest in online gambling appearing to suggest -- preposterously -- Seitz had an ulterior motive when writing her opinion. Goodman adds a note that a spokeswoman from the firm “declined to discuss its work in the gambling niche, including whether it had ever worked with Rational Group, PokerStars, Full Tilt or Amaya” -- a transparent attempt to draw some sort of implied association via the denial.

In other words, many readers of the article who aren’t necessarily clear on how the legislative process actually works might well come away thinking that Seitz somehow all on her own engineered a stealthy plan to reintroduce online gambling in the U.S. so as to benefit herself, the law firm she plans to return to work for, and also President Obama (who also worked at Sidley Austin) who is likewise implicated indirectly by Goodman as perhaps enabling the engineering this terrible subversion of the legislative process.

It’s all nonsense. It’s also all woefully ironic in light of how the UIGEA -- the federal law that awkwardly attempted to close the long-before opened “floodgates” of unlicensed online gambling in the U.S. -- itself became law. Sneakily appended by then Senate Majority leader Bill Frist to an entirely unrelated bill regarding port security that was thought at the time to be “must pass” legislation, the UIGEA did in fact become law without adequate debate among the Congressmen who voted for it.

The UIGEA’s passage into law actually is an example of the legislative process being subverted -- an example of a single person, in fact, successfully skirting usual channels to sneak a law through that would subsequently affect the lives of millions. Virginia Seitz’s letter expressing an opinion about the Wire Act was not.

Leah McGrath Goodman’s article reminds me a great deal of a graduate student who has stumbled into an area outside his or her primary area of still-developing expertise, finds something intriguing that seems on the surface to represent an opportunity to pursue an original inquiry, then hastily produces an essay after an intense but unwittingly narrow investigation. It feels like a well-considered thesis to the writer, but all actual scholars actively working within that area instantly recognize the gaping holes in the resulting essay’s methodology and findings.

I could say more -- after all, I have been writing about this stuff here nonstop for over eight years. But this is just an article. It only represents a small part of my thinking when it comes to the many problems Goodman’s article presents to me. Otherwise it would be a book.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Here Comes the Flood: Newsweek on Online Poker

A long cover feature about online poker from the latest issue of Newsweek became available online this morning, and it has already captured a lot of attention in the poker world. Titled “How Washington Opened the Floodgates to Online Poker, Dealing Parents a Bad Hand,” the article reviews recent legislative history regarding online poker in the U.S. while advancing a view that the current, nascent era of state-by-state legalization heralds a potentially negative future.

Most in peril are the youth of America, as emphasized by the cover image of a young boy holding an iPad with a poker hand displayed. There’s perhaps a humorous incongruity between his rueful look and the royal flush he “holds.” In any case, it’s not a subtle image. Nor is the article that subtle when it comes to tipping its hand (so to speak) with regard to online gambling.

The author is Leah McGrath Goodman who earned some notoreity back in March of this year after writing another cover story purporting to identify the inventor of Bitcoin by name -- a pretty big scoop given the fact that his identity had been previously hidden. The outing of Dorian Nakamato as Bitcoin inventor “Satoshi Nakamoto” spurred debates about ethics in journalism, then the adamant denial by Nakamoto to the Associated Press that he was the inventor of Bitcoin fueled further controversy. (Another person claiming to be “Satoshi” later denied he was Dorian.) While Newsweek stood behind the article, the question of the founder’s identity remains uncertain.

I mention that earlier article because part of the resulting backlash against it involved the Bitcoin community being critical of Goodman’s understanding of the cryptocurrency, as well as Goodman lashing back on her Facebook page at the “fanatical Bitcoiners” whom she said “will see this all in a different light once they reach puberty.”

In her new article, Goodman again comments at length on a subculture that includes a number of passionate defenders, even if none of them is represented in her piece.

Goodman speaks to a law professor who opposes the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel’s undue influence over law enforcement, a Republican member of the House from Utah who oppposes online gambling, a professor of child psychology and psychiatry who warns of 18-to-25-year-olds’ susceptibility to gambling addiction and who has knowledge of an instance of an underaged player losing money playing poker online, a psychiatry professor researching addiction who likens gambling disorders to substance abuse, and the executive director of the National Council of Problem Gambling who expresses similar concern about gambling addiction.

The article begins with a summary of the memorandum by Virginia Seitz of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel first made public in December 2011 that opined the Wire Act only applied to sports betting and not other forms of gambling, thus helping create conditions for certain states to consider and in a few cases pass online gambling bills.

The DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel is further introduced in a dim light, starting with a winky parenthetical note referring to its writing “justifications of drones and waterboarding.” Then comes the law professor complaining about the Office of Legal Counsel’s opinions being “treated as legally binding,” followed by the Utah House member’s fears about online gambling “reaching all the states.” He, too, is concerned about the Office of Legal Counsel (“an office in the bowels of the DOJ”) having so much power. (Incidentally, no reference is made in the article to how the UIGEA became law.) The Congressman is also skeptical about geolocational technology and about preventing children from being able to gamble online.

Next comes the academics’ observations about gambling addiction, followed by an overview of the current status of legislative efforts regarding online gambling in the U.S. The last part of the article goes back to tell the story of how we got here, summarizing Black Friday, the subsequent settlements, and current efforts by lobbyists and those contributing to politicians’ campaigns with an interest in the online gambling issue (with a conspicuous lack of perspective regarding Sheldon Adelson).

While mostly letting others speak of the evils of online gambling, Goodman does frequently target both Seitz and President Obama, highlighting their connection via the Chicago law firm Sidley Austin where both have worked. We learn that Seitz has left the DOJ and is planning to rejoin Sidley Austin to practice law. Thus does discussion of the Sidley Austin firm having “expanded its deal-making practice in the gambling space, which now includes major markets in North America, Europe and Asia” indirectly -- and speciously -- suggest that Seitz might have had a personal motivation for promoting online gambling. (Goodman did speak to Seitz, too, who reminded the author that the memo she wrote was an opinion.)

Obama’s acceptance of contributions from the gambling industry is also given a lot of attention near the end of the article, again kind of indirectly (and weirdly) suggesting that the nation’s growing interest in passing online gambling legislation helps support a larger goal of the current administration.

Many of the points shared in the article involve issues with more nuance than the commentators suggest. For instance, the professor of child psychology and psychiatry tells of a college student describing to him the “general progression” some take with Facebook games in which they start out playing them “purely for fun,” then some go “to the next level, where it’s for fun and money,” then some of those move further to “where the fun has disappeared and they are doing it just for money.”

Cool story, bro, but hardly as representative as it is made to appear. Nor does it account for the many other factors that contribute as causes for gambling addiction. Nor does it acknowledge that Facebook games are not the same as the regulated forms online gambling currently available in three U.S. states. In other words, in this article it is essentially a non sequitur, although it might have been useful to share in a feature about social gaming.

Speaking of there only being three states on board at the moment, to say the “floodgates” have been opened in the U.S. with regard to online gambling is so far from being true it can only be understood as either (1) a lethargic reliance on clichéd language (one of two in the headline), or (2) propaganda. Three states have passed laws, and in none of them is online gambling thriving by any means. And only a few others are tentatively considering such laws (with very modest prospects), while many other states never will come close to considering such.

(And by the way, why are we highlighting poker in that headline and not other forms of gambling? Makes for a better photo?)

There’s a lot, then, that is potentially misleading here thanks to the article’s unapologetic bias, something that comes out again in the very last last line which also incidentally includes another obvious inaccuracy. Referring to the DOJ’s repayment of Full Tilt Poker players (I received mine in June), Goodman derisively alludes to “Americans who had money in their Full Tilt Poker accounts on Black Friday, even though at the time those people should have known it was illegal to gamble online in the U.S.”

It wasn’t, of course, illegal for Americans to play on Full Tilt Poker -- indeed if it were it seems preposterous to think the DOJ would bother to help facilitate the return of players’ funds. The snide comment reminds the reader of the perspective informing the entire article, one that instinctive elides gambling with other illicit and illegal activity, deserving of punishment not reward.

That’s not even one of the other “11 Serious Problems With Newsweek’s Weird Tirade Against Regulated Online Gambling” that Chris Grove has already compiled over at the Online Poker Report. Others are already chiming in, too, with articles and over Twitter. And Goodman is responding, occasionally sounding a lot like she did before when dismissing the “fanatical Bitcoiners” as too immature to share her own wise perspective:

I’ll cut Goodman a break and conclude that here she’s mostly intending to echo Lance Bradley’s criticism of her methodology with a facetiously imitative rejoinder. Even so, her response does remind us that by speaking in favor of online gambling -- or even just asking those who oppose it to clarify their positions -- you risk being labeled as in favor of exposing children to danger. Or being grouped with others who support morally dubious behaviors. Or worse.

To reply to “How Washington Opened the Floodgates to Online Poker, Dealing Parents a Bad Hand” with yet another cliché, I tempted just to call it fear-mongering. But I’ll end with a fear of my own, namely that many will read and agree with Goodman’s blinkered position about online gambling -- especially poker -- and thus be likely to dismiss those trying to point out its flaws as “fanatical,” too.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mushrooms, Real and Imagined

We’ve gotten a lot of rain here on the farm over the last week or so. Recently a couple of these mushrooms have oddly popped up here and there, including that one pictured to the left. They look a little like teed up golf balls from afar, although this one is already approaching softball size.

They come up fast, too -- this wasn’t even there yesterday. When I bent over to snap the photo, I found myself thinking a little about mushroom clouds, and before long an associative-chain of YouTubing led me to rewatching a couple of TV films from the early ’80s that focused on the possibility of modern day nuclear war -- The Day After and Special Bulletin.

Both of these movies appeared on network television on Sunday nights in 1983, with Special Bulletin being shown on NBC in March and The Day After on ABC in November. I vividly remember watching them then, and I don’t know if I really had sat down to see either since.

Both are highly intriguing, with The Day After the more accomplished of the two. Both address the horror of nuclear weapons, with Special Bulletin also attempting some further commentary on news media with the entire movie being presented as a faux news broadcast, sort of like Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio show from nearly a half-century before.

In fact, disclaimers are shown throughout Special Bulletin reminding viewers they are watching a “realistic depiction of fictional events.” Even so, just as happened with Welles’s broadcast, there were viewers calling stations who weren’t sure what they were watching wasn’t in fact real.

It’s impossible to watch these movies today without being mindful of the specific historical context of the Cold War as well as the recent Three Mile Island incident and other nuclear-related fears of the day. Chernobyl came a couple of years later, and that, too, weighs on the mind when viewing today. Nor can one watch them now without doing so through the memory lens of the real-life horror of 9/11, an event that resonates in various ways with both films.

In Special Bulletin, an activist group manages to steal plutonium, assemble a bomb, then take hostages in a docked boat in Charleston, South Carolina. Their demands include the turning over of all of the triggers for the nuclear devices located at the nearby naval base, part of a larger design to encourage the reduction of nuclear weapons generally. If their demands aren’t met, they’ll detonate their device.

At one point a couple of talking heads on the news broadcast bring up a poker metaphor when discussing the activists -- or “terrorists,” as they are tentatively described in the film -- and whether they’ve actually obtained plutonium or not.

The analogy they use is an obvious one. “I don’t believe the bomb is real,” says the doubter. “We’re witnessing an extraordinary kind of bluff -- a poker move, simple as that.” Then the other expert responds by declaring the first commentor “wishes to play card games with an entire city” before taking the position that the bomb might be real.

The Day After presents a different scenario, one depicting a rapidly deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. turning the Cold War hot in a relative flash after a quick sequence of aggressive moves. Poker is not mentioned in that film, and the strategizing being employed by both superpowers is suggested in subtle ways that allows some ambiguity while focusing the viewer’s attention much more so on the effects of a massive nuclear strike on citizens.

Was curious to watch both films again all of these years later, and to remember how we were viewing them three decades ago. We’ve grown a lot more accustomed to becoming utterly absorbed by news and entertainment media today, but then it was something quite out-of-the-ordinary to experience. More than 100 million watched The Day After, and they reran Special Bulletin again later, too. The cultural impact of both films (and a handful of others with similar subject matter) certainly “mushroomed” and I suppose could be said still to exert some influence today.

I guess today, though, we’d say of their popularity that they really “blew up.”

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dropping in on “The Big One for One Drop”

Was writing yesterday in general terms about watching poker on the tube, then tonight I found myself getting surprisingly absorbed by a couple of hours’ worth of poker TV while watching the finale of the “Big One for One Drop” on ESPN. Have to say I enjoyed the show more than I’d expected I would.

The first hour showed them play down from nine players to three. There would be 13 hands total shown during that first hour, selected from a span of 41 actual hands. From those hands, no less than 12 featured players all in, most often preflop. And in all but one of those hands the all-in was called and a player either doubled or was knocked out.

That hour was actually a little fatiguing to wade through, save the one hand featuring Scott Seiver make a bold all-in shove on the turn with an open-ended straight draw (and king-high) to force Tobias Reinkemeier to fold his pocket aces (an overpair to the board). Here was the hand from PokerNews’ reporting, and here the clip on the ESPN site, if you’re curious.

The hand took over 10 minutes in real time, and they actually took up around eight minutes of the program for it, not counting the gimmicky commercial break stuck in the middle. It was the only all-in bet not called during the first hour, and it was easily a highlight of the entire night.

The second hour began similarly, with a short-stacked Christoph Vogelsang all in three times in the first five hands shown (culled from about 30), finally busting on the last one. Then came what turned out to be a fairly enjoyable rest of the program showing 11 of the 46 heads-up hands between the two Daniels, including some very interesting reads by both players of each other -- some correct, some not.

Negreanu’s big call with K-Q on a 4-8-J-A-4 board against what turned out to be Colman’s full house with A-4 was the most intriguing decision (Hand #103). I remember reading James McManus writing about the “Big One” final table for Bloomberg and mentioning Negreanu had king-queen in the hand, something I hadn’t seen reported elsewhere, and so was intrigued to see that confirmed.

Then the final hand provided some uncanny symmetry with Colman using K-Q to beat Negreanu’s A-4, the latter actually flopping two pair before Colman turned his winning straight.

Poker-wise that heads-up portion of the show was more fun to watch than I’d anticipated it would be, although I think Negreanu had a ton to do with it thanks to both his table talk and the somewhat infectious excitement he was showing right through to the end. (Negreanu’s tweets during the night commenting on hands actually added a lot to the enjoyment, too, I came to realize.)

ESPN’s occasional acknowledgements of Colman’s disinterest in chatting it up with the media were mostly fine, I thought, although the montage of pros commenting on the subject felt more like another excuse to squeeze Phil Hellmuth into a poker show than anything else. Hardly that gripping of a side story, but at least ESPN didn’t go overboard and try to construct a full-blown villain out of such meager materials.

Talk of folks buying pieces wasn’t ignored, with shots of Colman backers Olivier Busquet and Haralabos Voulgaris a fairly frequent reminder, although not a lot of focus was placed upon it. (Then again it never felt as though the millions for which players were vying were all that significant to anyone involved.) Meanwhile references to the One Drop charity and other positive messages about poker came often enough to represent a minor theme for the night.

Like I say, I found myself more engaged by it all than I thought I’d be, especially knowing the outcome, something I wrote about a couple of weeks ago being a big deterrent when it came to viewing. Was still nowhere near as captivating as your average live sporting event, but once I dropped in on the show it nonetheless kept my attention.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Watching Golf, Watching Poker

Got thoroughly caught up in the PGA Championship yesterday. Such high quality play from the leaders at the end, and Rory McIlroy more than proved himself with his comeback, making shot after shot to top that tough field and claim yet another major. Three straight weeks’ worth of wins by McIlroy is pretty incredible, too -- perhaps slightly more likely than a poker player winning three successive tournaments, but still a very rare feat to pull off.

I’ve written here before about the many similarities between golf and poker, both of which are games that players of wildly differing levels of skill and commitment can enjoy. Amateur golfers like myself can watch pros and still feel somewhat connected with what we are seeing, having ourselves attempted similar shots even if we’re competing on a much lower level. I’m not sure that’s really so much the case, though, with poker. Not currently, anyway.

I was realizing yesterday that when we think back to televised poker’s heyday during the mid-2000s, one of the primary attractions for a lot of us was the fact that we could make a similar connection with what we were watching. Whether it be the WSOP Main Event, the prelims that got some play on ESPN during those couple of years, the WPT, or other poker on TV, many of us watching were players ourselves and without too much effort could readily appreciate similarities between hands we were playing and those we were watching.

It was kind of like one big game then (if that makes sense), with online poker especially helping all of us feel connected in a much more immediate way than is the case today. Even if we didn’t necessarily think “one day that’ll be me” as we watched, we still recognized the games on TV as analogous to what we were doing when we played.

Some of us who continue to tune in and watch televised poker today still think in similar terms as we watch -- that is, we connect somewhat with the players and the game -- but I think the gap between what’s happening on screen and what most of us experience with poker is a lot wider now. Certainly when it’s the “Big One for One Drop” being shown none of us identifies that much with those participating in a $1 million buy-in event. But even in other tourneys I’d venture to say many of us find it hard to relate to what we’re seeing.

During the PGA broadcasts this week they would occasionally show short instructional segments featuring Lou Guzzi, the 2013 PGA Teacher of the Year. That’s a shot of him above, getting set to deliver a quick lesson about how to hit the ball out of a fairway sandtrap. The lesson didn’t seem out of place at all within the context of the coverage. Players could benefit from the instruction, and even non-players might have found it interesting to see the mechanics of such a shot being explained.

I know in televised poker there have been various attempts to introduce strategy discussion into the coverage. In truth, every single hand shown is usually accompanied by some talk along those lines. But I think most of such commentary is received simply as describing the action, not prescribing potential plays we viewers might make. The level of engagement by the viewer just isn’t the same with poker as it is with golf.

I’m discussing this phenomenon as if it isn’t just personal but applies more broadly among most viewers, which could be incorrect. This might just be me. Or what I’m describing might primarily apply to recreational players of both golf and poker (in which categories I put myself in both cases), and not as much to others.

Still, I think for all the similarities between golf and poker, there are some big differences, too, particularly when it comes to trying to make the card game into a game as engaging to watch as golf can be.

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Friday, August 08, 2014

Humility and Hubris

I’ve mentioned here a couple of times how over the last several months I’ve gotten hooked on The Dan Le Batard Show. It originates each weekday afternoon from Miami where they have an hour just for the locals, then three more hours syndicated nationally.

The show was especially fun to follow during the latter half of the NBA regular season, playoffs, and the post-Finals drama involving LeBron James that ended with his decision to leave the Miami Heat after four years to return to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

James, you’ll recall, made that announcement via a letter published in Sports Illustrated. The general response to the move was much more positive than had been the case four years ago when James decided to leave for Miami, with “The Decision” still earning him derision as a poorly-conceived bit of PR. Here, though, James saying “I’m coming home” played a lot more favorably among most observers (outside of Miami, anyway), and it does set up an intriguing storyline for the NBA next year.

They’ve predictably spent a lot of time discussing both James’s departure and the future of the Heat on Le Batard’s show. Also capturing the attention of folks in Miami was how James conspicuously failed to thank the Heat fans in his letter. He refers to Miami as a “second home” and thanks his teammates and Miami management, but doesn’t specifically thank Heat fans.

Today there is a big “Welcome Home LeBron” event happening in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. As a prank, the Le Batard show bought up several billboards telling James “You’re Welcome” from the Miami fans, humorously drawing attention to the omission in the letter.

Regular listeners of the show knew all about the billboards as well as the fact that the show was readying a “multi-pronged attack” involving some more hijinks today. They also know that Le Batard himself is much more interested in having fun than anything else, and his buying up the billboards to deliver a message genuinely felt by some Miami fans was mainly just a goof to fill some downtime in the sports calendar (and drum up publicity for his show).

The ESPN folks didn’t find the billboards as funny or harmless, though, actually suspending Le Batard and knocking his show off the air for two days in response. Saying the “stunt does not reflect ESPN’s standards and brand,” the network weirdly claims they “were not made aware of his plans in advance” despite the fact that the idea was discussed repeatedly on the show beforehand.

ESPN’s reaction is silly, although it kind of helps promote even further that sense of “fun anarchy” surrounding the episode (to use Le Batard’s phrase describing the “stunt”). In any case, the story made me think about how sports fans relatively value humility and hubris, a topic that comes up in poker sometimes, too.

James’s move to Miami was overtly cloaked in hubris, with his infamous prediction of multiple championships (“not one, not two, not three...”) still being endlessly quoted as a mark against him. He scored points for humility, though, with his SI letter, explicitly saying “I’m not promising a championship” and “I know how hard that is to deliver.”

The jokey, indirect complaint about James failing to thank the Heat fans, though, refers again to a lack of humility -- something most missed when reading the letter initially.

We see this in poker sometimes, such as in the reaction to Ryan Riess saying after winning the WSOP Main Event last fall that “I just think I’m the best player in the world.” Or Daniel Colman stirring things up by proclaiming after winning this year’s “Big One for One Drop” that “I don’t owe poker a single thing.”

We like competitors to express confidence, but I think we like hearing expressions of humility a lot more. Perhaps in poker it is different, where the element of luck is more conspicuous than in basketball or in other sports (where it exists, too), thus making it appear even more unseemly not to acknowledge that one isn’t actually invincible.

In any case, will be interesting to hear Le Batard when he returns, including where he will position himself on the humility-to-hubris spectrum regarding ESPN’s humorless action.

(EDIT [added 8/11/14]: For more regarding Le Batard’s suspension -- which sounds as though it was more for some planned-for hijinks than for the billboards alone -- read his column over at ESPN.)

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Thursday, August 07, 2014

Is Gutshot Straight the Nut Low?

Saw folks referring this week to this forthcoming film starring Steven Seagal that is getting referred to as a “poker movie” thanks to a plot that appears to include a professional poker player as its protagonist and a title that like the miserable Runner Runner involves a poker term -- Gutshot Straight.

The trailer recalls Runner Runner, too, with poker not appearing too vital to the story and ham-fisted lines punctuating action sequences being front and center:

Not a lot of info circulating about the film with regard to release dates or distribution plans, and in fact it appears it is likely headed for some kind of direct-to-video release. I saw one article from early May actually saying something about the producers wanting to send it to Cannes later that month, but that clearly wasn’t a realistic plan.

There isn’t even a lot available regarding what exactly Gutshot Straight is about. It’s “the story of a professional poker player who gets mixed up with a mysterious underworld gambler,” or so goes the line repeated in most articles about the movie.

It seems like there would be about a hundred other poker terms and phrases that would work better as titles for an action-adventure vehicle than “gutshot straight” or “runner runner.”

“Under the gun” has been used a lot before, including by John Vorhaus for his poker-themed novel. But there are so many still available, like…

  • Bad Beat
  • Blind Steal
  • Catching Perfect
  • Calling the Clock
  • Cards Speak
  • Cold Call
  • Dead Money
  • Drawing Dead
  • Drawing Live
  • Freezeout
  • Hand-for-Hand
  • Hijack Seat
  • Jackpot
  • Kill Game
  • Misdeal
  • Run It Twice
  • Scare Card
  • Squeeze Play
  • Heck, even Nut Low seems like it’d be better than Gutshot Straight, although it would probably be better suited not for an action flick but for an indie production pursuing some existentialist theme, say, about a down-and-out ex-junkie hitting rock bottom.

    Could be worse, I guess, but Bubble Boy was taken.

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    Wednesday, August 06, 2014

    A 2006 WSOP Time Capsule

    Didn’t watch the “One Drop” last night (DVR’d it). Instead what time I did spend looking at poker actually involved viewing some of the 2006 World Series of Poker Main Event -- not the ESPN episodes, but the live pay-per-view that was shown that August night (the eighth anniversary of which comes this weekend) when Jamie Gold won the biggest first prize in WSOP Main Event history.

    The program brings back some personal memories. That final table occurred just a few months after I started this blog, and about six weeks prior to the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. Thus it exists within a rosy context, a time when my absorption in all things poker was at an all-time high. As was the case for a lot of people.

    The playing styles at the final table are of course conspicuously different from what we see today, with everyone opening for at least three times the big blind before the flop (sometimes more), lots of overbetting of pots after the flop, and many all-ins that today would automatically be read as “ICM suicide.”

    The commentary by Phil Gordon doesn’t have the benefit of eight years’ worth of hindsight, and so while he does point out what seem like misplays or less-than-recommended bet-sizing here and there, most of his observations -- like the plays themselves -- are essentially time-bound, perfectly fine then while highlighting in retrospect changes in tournament strategy that have happened since.

    Other comments by the many guest hosts rotating through during the broadcast are similarly time-bound, and since it was such an interesting time those comments are all the more intriguing.

    At one point Doyle Brunson stops by. It happens to be his 73rd birthday. He’s just finished playing a 14-hour day the night before, finishing 21st in one of those post-Main Event bracelet tournaments they ran that year.

    “What are your impressions... eighty-seven hundred players this year?” begins Gordon, and Brunson answers that he was one who expected there would be an increase in players from 2005. There were 8,773 players in the WSOP Main Event that year -- still a record. That was more than 3,000 more than had played in 2005, and more than 10 times as many as had played in 2003.

    “I think that it’s just going to get bigger and bigger,” Brunson continues. “I don’t see any stopping it. In fact if there were some way to bet, I would like to bet there would be something like 40-50 thousand players in 10 years.”

    “Oh boy,” says Gordon, who begins to disagree. “I think so,” affirms Brunson. “The only thing that would stop it, you know, if the internet....”

    At that point Brunson gets interrupted by another “Oh boy” from Gordon as a hand has developed that will result in Sweden’s Erik Friberg getting knocked out in eighth place by Gold.

    “Hold onto that thought,” says Nejad as the hand starts to play out. But the bustout distracts them and they never do get back to the topic.

    Not unlike the way the idea itself would be interrupted just a few weeks later. That vision of 50,000 WSOP Main Event players -- perhaps spread all over Las Vegas and/or the internet -- would be left behind, time-bound.

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    Tuesday, August 05, 2014

    Nixon’s Big Fold, Forty Years Later

    I have mentioned my “Nixon studies” here often enough now that people sometimes bring it up to me, including a couple of instances in the last few days as the 40th anniversary of Richard M. Nixon’s resignation from office approaches this Saturday.

    For a long time now I’ve been compiling lots of anecdotes and other information related to Nixon’s poker playing, building toward what I am planning to be a short book about the subject. Many don’t even know “Tricky Dick” played poker. Those who do perhaps are aware of the much-repeated story of his supposedly learning the game as a Naval officer when serving in the Pacific during World War II. Some even know that he won enough during those games against fellow officers to help fund his first Congressional campaign in 1946.

    The truth is Nixon learned poker well before his military service, and also played the game afterwards as well. Poker comes up constantly in Nixon’s story as well during his campaigns, in his speeches and writings, and throughout his political career up to and including the Watergate scandal and his resignation.

    There’s enough there, I think, to make for an interesting book, one that not only would share more details about Nixon’s poker playing than are generally known but also explore how his political thinking was often shaped by poker-like strategy, sometimes overtly.

    The more I read about Nixon (and of his own writings), the more I’ve come to understand his “zero sum” mindset whereby practically everything he did or said had political implications, with every word or action supporting his view that in practically every context one person’s gain necessarily depends on another’s loss. Such was how he personally interacted with others, I think, and also, of course, how he conducted himself in campaigns and when governing.

    Looking at his presidency in such terms thus causes his role during Watergate to resemble that of a stubborn poker player unwilling to let go of a losing hand, blundering through it with a sequence of poor decisions, then finally -- well after having committed essentially all of his chips -- letting go of his cards.

    It’s definitely possible to get carried away with the analogy, but I think there’s some genuine insight to be gained from looking at Nixon’s life and career through the lens of poker. As I was remarking yesterday, poker is endlessly interesting, even to many who don’t even play the game. And Nixon is just plain fascinating, with no end to the amount of material available for those pursuing such “studies.”

    Let me share one small anecdote. While the hearings of the U.S. Senate Watergate Committee were televised, with PBS actually showing everything from mid-May 1973 right up through early August, there isn’t a lot of footage floating around aside from certain highlights. (Video exists, but isn’t just a click away.) But full transcripts of all 250 hours or so are readily available for those curious about such things.

    One of the first witnesses to testify was James McCord, one of the five arrested on June 17, 1972 during the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate hotel. A former longtime CIA employee, McCord had been tried and convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and wiretapping, and during his lengthy testimony was entirely forthcoming about his involvement in both break-ins (they were only caught during the second one) and his understanding of higher-ups’ endorsement of them.

    McCord was asked repeatedly by various senators why he would involve himself in what he well knew to be a criminal activity, and his response was that he understood the break-ins, photo-taking, and wire-tapping to have been okayed by then Attorney General John Mitchell -- and, by extension, by Nixon, too. “The Attorney General, the White House itself, and in my personal opinion, the President of the United States, I felt, had set into motion this operation,” says McCord.

    While McCord admits that others would have had political reasons for wanting to gather information from the rival campaign’s headquarters, he understood the operation to have been motivated by national security, prompted by concerns about demonstrations occurring at the upcoming conventions in Miami and suspicions that the Democrats may in fact have been “working closely with violence groups.”

    Reading from a memo he prepared titled “Sanction of the Watergate Operation,” McCord shares how the Committee for the Re-Election of the President’s mission included “obtain[ing] information regarding not only political intelligence but also regarding violence-oriented groups who would be planning violence against the committee in Washington, and later at the August convention site, thereby endangering the lives and property of the committee and its personnel.” The riots at the 1968 DNC in Chicago were “uppermost in everyone’s minds” he says, as were more recent threats and actual attacks, thus making the threat more “realistic” than “theoretical.”

    The memo also includes an acknowledgement of the political motive, however, noting in particular how the Republicans believed the Democrats were gathering intelligence on them, thus casting their efforts as simply a response in kind. McCord doesn’t ever present that argument as a justification for his own participation in the break-ins, but rather shares it to help round out the larger picture for the Senate Watergate Committee regarding why the break-ins occurred.

    “Now, we also had word from CRP sources alleging that the McGovern committee had ‘a pipeline’ directly into the offices of the Committee To Re-Elect the President in Washington,” explains McCord. “Allegedly, they were feeding out, on a regular basis, policy position papers, that is, plans and strategy, which were rather important to the success of a candidate's campaign.”

    McCord then punctuates that observation with an analogy.

    “If the other side is reading your poker hand, he can negate your plans.”

    The comparison suggests how the gathering of “political intelligence” was looked upon as being not unlike a game of poker in which an opponent has demonstrated a willingness to cheat, thus making it imperative to defend against such cheating and perhaps to cheat oneself in order to be able to compete. Nixon would make a similar point subsequently when commenting on Watergate during his post-Presidency, pointing out how other administrations had performed similar acts of political espionage as a kind of justification of what happened during his own.

    That’s one of a few references to poker that come up during the hearings. They come up quite frequently on the tapes, too, including during exchanges between Nixon and Henry Kissinger in which the President encourages his National Security Advisor to bring up Nixon’s prowess as a poker player when negotiating with the North Vietnamese. Such references and analogies arise during various speeches, too, often very deliberately -- the list goes on and on.

    The project has been delayed somewhat thanks to another possible book I might be writing -- one even more ambitious that may be happening sooner than later (stay tuned for that). In the meantime, I look forward to reading others’ reflections this week as we approach the anniversary of the biggest fold a U.S. president ever made.

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