Monday, March 27, 2017

The President Who Doesn’t Play Poker

J.J.: “He only goes out to play faro. Sometimes plays 15 or 20 hours at a time, just him against the house.”
Henry: “Roulette? Craps?”
J.J.: “He won’t touch ‘em. The croupier at Gilman’s says he never plays anything he can’t win.”
Henry: “Sports?”
J.J.: “Mmm... likes to be seen with fighters sometimes, but he doesn’t go to the fight or bet on them.”
Henry: “Does he do anything when he’s not alone?
J.J.: “Poker. And he cheats. Pretty good at it, too.”

Legislative machinations typically are not that interesting to follow, but last week’s unsuccessful attempt by lawmakers to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act with a hastily-assembled, much-derided alternative was something to witness.

For much of the latter part of the week it appeared the president was fully prepared to force a House vote on the matter, one doomed to fail and result in a spectacular loss both to the Republican party and to the president personally. Right up until late Friday afternoon the president appeared to be in full-blown Leeroy-Jenkins, let’s-do-this-no-matter-what mode before the vote was scuttled just before the finish.

Canceling the vote hasn’t stopped most commentary from employing words like “defeat,” “failure,” “humiliation,” and the like, but it does allow the president a tiny, cramped space from which to describe the episode as something other than a loss. Not that he would ever describe himself losing anything accurately, but in this case he technically “folded” before the showdown, enabling him to continue the charade of self-characterization that he’s never suffered anything resembling losing.

In this way, the president is a lot like the crime boss Doyle Lonnegan from The Sting. He doesn’t like playing games he can lose.

I’ve been known from time to time to write about U.S. presidents playing poker. I also always enjoy reading about the subject, and so now after many years of pursuing this particular niche of poker-slash-political history, I’ve become familiar with most of the stories -- true and apocryphal -- having to do with presidents’ card-playing habits.

During the 2016 presidential campaign there were a number of stories about how the candidates choices and strategy resembled the game of poker. This wasn’t because the candidates were themselves poker players, but rather because all political campaigns and elections resemble poker games. Here’s a PokerNews article I did just before the election that compiled a number of those analogies.

A short while ago I got curious about whether or not the one who won the election was ever actually a poker player. After all, he did own all of those the hotels and casinos and was so conspicuous in Atlantic City for so long, right up until last month, really, when the last sign with his name was taken down from the last of his shuttered properties.

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I thought I’d share three interesting articles related to the inquiry, anyway. Together they do appear to contribute to the argument that to our current president -- despite all the poker-strategy-talk that will sometimes come up in commentaries about him -- isn’t much of a poker player at all.

Talking Poker in BLUFF (2004)

The most recent of the three articles is from December 2004, one that appeared in BLUFF magazine and can be accessed in the archive of the now-defunct publication. Then-editor Michael Caselli interviewed the man who is now president, primarily focusing on the Taj Mahal and its once-famed poker room (immortalized in the 1998 film Rounders).

“Certain things go in and out of vogue,” the famous businessman and TV star observed. “Poker gains players by exposure.”

Speaking right in the heart of the poker boom, he added that “Poker and The Apprentice both are pop culture, both equally cool, except for the major player in The Apprentice.”

Caselli follows that quote wondering if the Taj owner was making a self-deprecating joke, but his interviewee clarifies “Jokes are a waste of time.” (I actually wonder if he wasn’t meaning to avoid suggesting his show -- and he himself -- was only merely as cool as poker.)

“Is [he] a poker player?” next asks Caselli. “Unfortunately he doesn’t have too much time for the game these days.” Caselli says he “knows poker” and “likes the game,” but that “his manicured hands don’t get to hold the Hold’em cards all that often.” (No reference in the article to the size of those manicured hands.)

The article ends with a somewhat convoluted question asking which six people in history The Apprentice star would invite to a poker game. “Winston Churchill, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Moses [the NYC planner], Leonardo da Vinci and Amadeus Mozart,” is the reply.

Then, after being pressed, he added “Would I win...? Most likely.”

The USPS and Poker at the Taj (1997)

Going back a few years earlier, there’s an interview conducted by Michael Konik for the March/April 1997 issue of Cigar Aficionado that sheds a little more light on the non-poker playing of our current president.

The interview took place late the previous year during the inaugural U.S. Poker Championship at the Taj Mahal. In fact most of the article focuses on the USPS series and in particular the Main Event, a $7,500+$100 affair that drew 100 entries and saw Ken “Skyhawk” Flaton outlast runner-up Surinder Sunar and third-place finisher Phil Hellmuth to win a $500,000 first prize. That was more than half the $850,000 prize pool thanks to a steep payout at the end, not atypical of tournaments back then. (You can watch ESPN's coverage of the final table of that event online here.)

Konik focuses on the series’ overall success -- more than $4 million in prize money and 3,000 total entries across 23 events -- largely crediting the name recognition of the Taj Mahal’s owner. It’s a solid example of early poker reporting, with the author following the tradition of Jon Bradshaw, Al Alvarez, and others as he describes Flaton’s win.

The article ends with an appended, short interview with the real estate magnate that begins with Konik asking him point blank “What is your poker background?”

“My life is a poker match,” he replies (the use of the word “match” sounding a bit incongruous). He admits, however, “I’ve never had time to play seriously. I’ve been too busy to really focus on poker. But my life is a series of poker games. Ins and outs. Ups and downs. Highs and lows.”

More questions follow about the investment being made into the USPS and poker, generally speaking, at the Taj Mahal. “Poker has been great for the facility,” comes the response. “It’s brought excitement, it’s brought glamour and it’s brought a tremendous amount of people. And a lot of these people then go from poker to our baccarat tables, which, you know, is at a very high level.”

Poker during the late 1990s and especially through most of the 2000s was a hot commodity, and it was regarded as such by the future president. But he makes it relatively clear that unlike other presidents he wasn’t much of a player, and probably never really played it seriously at all.

More on Avoiding Games (1989)

One even older article seems to serve as further proof that our president not only shuns poker, but any game in which he can’t have full control over the outcome.

In early August 1989, the Los Angeles Times ran a story titled “The Summer’s Hottest Board Games and How They Play.” Among the games discussed is the one pictured at left, a game of “wheeling and dealing” that actually generated a lot of anticipation in the board game industry. The article even speculates whether the new game might challenge the popularity of Monopoly, describing a showdown of sorts between gaming giants Parker Brothers (owner of Monopoly who turned down the chance to produce the new game) and Milton Bradley (who took the chance).

The article quotes a VP from Parker Brothers naysaying the new game, saying that unlike Monopoly it “is not the kind of the thing you want to pull out on the spur of the moment when grandma comes over. It can leave you exhausted and feeling like you don’t want to play again.”

The negative review of the game -- “a far wilder romp through the world of deal-making than Monopoly” -- continues from the Parker Brothers VP. “As accurate as it may be at capturing the feeling of insecurity in the real world, the game doesn't give you a feel-good experience, which is the purpose most people rely on for playing games,” he says.

If you’re curious, the game was a huge commercial flop, and gets regularly included in lists of the biggest failures attached the game’s namesake. You can read more about it here.

The most relevant part of the story to our purposes concerns a challenge issued by Bob Stupak, then owner of Vegas World Hotel Casino who would later open the Stratosphere. Stupak (who died in 2009) was a high-stakes poker player, too, winning a WSOP bracelet and (as some may recall) making an appearance during the first season of High Stakes Poker.

As the article explains, Stupak publicly challenged the man who is now our president to play the game bearing his name, even taking out full-page ads inviting him to play for $1 million. But the offer was not accepted.

“Says Stupak: ‘He said that even when you’re used to winning it’s always possible to lose.’”


Search through the president’s long, embarrassing Twitter history and there’s a self-contradicting, uncannily suitable tweet for practically everything he now does or says. One from early 2013 finds him making a rare poker analogy.

“Just shows that you can have all the cards and lose if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he tweeted.

In fact he was alluding then to the fractious Republican party having elected John Boehner to a second term as House Speaker -- a “failed coup,” as some news outlets described it at the time. There was significant opposition to Boehner, but an inability for those who opposed him to get together enough votes to replace him. In other words, it was a situation prefiguring fairly directly what happened to the G.O.P. last week.

The president is right when he says you can have the cards and still play them badly and lose. But I tend to think he’s probably never seriously played a hand of poker -- or any other game -- that way. Not when he’s ever had anything truly on the line, anwyay.

No, he’ll avoid the game entirely, if he can, if he can’t fix it in his favor. Like Lonnegan, he’ll never play anything he can’t win.

Images: (hair); BLUFF (cover); ESPN (’96 USPS); eBay (game).

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

To Panama and Back

Am back safely on the farm after a fun, long trip to Panama and back.

I miss a little doing the daily “travel reports” here, although as I’ve mentioned previously especially when returning to a place I’ve been before there ends up being a little less that’s fresh from the road to discuss. Never mind how busy the trips are, which obviously uses up a lot of the mental fuel left for scribbling further about what’s happening.

It was interesting going back to Panama where I’d been twice before for Latin American Poker Tour stops. Both there and elsewhere, the LAPTs were always popular though modest-seeming relative to European Poker Tour festivals or the World Series of Poker.

Usually LAPTs only featured a dozen or so events with a Main Event often featuring a buy-in on the small side (e.g., in the $1,100-$1,500 range). Meanwhile the EPTs would have as much as 100 events or more, including satellites, making for a much busier schedule.

This inaugural PokerStars Championship Panama series had 46 events on the schedule, a $5,300 Main Event (like at the former EPTs/other PSCs), and other elements that made it less like the LAPTs of old and more like the first PSC in the Bahamas and what is coming up in Macau, Monte Carlo, Sochi, and Barcelona.

In the coverage we focused largely on the $50K Super High Roller (won by Ben Tollerene), the $10K High Roller (won by Steve O’Dwyer), and the $5K Main Event (won by Kenny Smaron). Meanwhile there was some time here and there to look upon the city’s remarkable, idiosyncratic architecture, with several excursions by foot around the Sortis Hotel, Spa & Casino and a cab trip over to Old Town for a nice meal and more interesting sightseeing.

Those two photos up above -- and the idea to juxtapose them -- come via Brad Willis of the PokerStars blog who snapped ’em on one such evening out. “Panamanian noir,” he titled them.

Probably the night from the trip I’ll remember the longest was that of the media tournament. There were 30-40 entrants including three Team PokerStars Pros -- Jake Cody, Felipe Ramos, and Leo Fernandez. Tito Ortiz, the MMA fighter who managed to get all of the way to 22nd in the Main Event also took part in the media tournament, and I ended up playing with all four of them before the night was over.

After a slow start in the sucker, I had some good hands come my way and after a while had made the final table, then eventually got all of the way to heads-up before coming up short to finish second (again!). Was kind of a circus by the time we got to the end, with tons of people having stuck around to support both me and eventual winner Melanie.

And heads-up featured some big time back-and-forths with both of us getting close to finishing the other off in preflop all-ins before cards fell on either the turn or river to keep the thing going. Afterwards I knew I could’ve played a bit more aggressively heads-up, but I’ll have to file it away as more experience to draw from the next time around.

The best part of the trip was of course getting to work and laugh alongside my many colleagues and friends there, too. Among them was Carlos, who took that great pic of me just above during the media event, one of several great ones he snapped. “You are the most boring player,” grinned Carlos to me, referring to my lack of animation at the table. But from his photos you’d never guessed that was case.

Will be sitting tight for a while now, the next trip likely going to be another return visit, this time to Monaco. Plotting the summer as well, which might contain a fun adventure, too -- will update accordingly.

Photos: Brad Willis (top); Carlos Monti / PokerStars blog (bottom).

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Clocking in from Panama

Hola from rainy Panama City where I’ve been since Friday, having arrived in time to help cover the PokerStars Championship Panama series for the next week-and-a-half.

Had a chance this morning to get out and about a little, then again at lunchtime when my friend Nick and I were able to find a very busy local establishment to enjoy a Sunday brunch of Panamanian fare. The temps are warm and the air humid, and right now as I write a thunderstorm is pouring down sheets of rain outside. (Meanwhile, check out what happened back at the farm this morning -- nuts!)

Inside the Sortis Hotel and Casino the PSC continues with the $50,000 Super High Roller, a “shot clock” tournament in which players have 30 seconds to act, unless they want to use any of their three “time bank” chips that give them an extra minute each to be a decision.

I’m not sure if I ever have covered a tournament using a shot clock before -- if I have, I don’t recall it -- but yesterday made it seem an awfully attractive addition to tournament poker. My sample is a bit misleading, given that the players (all high rollers) are pretty much without exception both experienced and skillful, and the dealers are also top notch, making the incorporation of the clock (a hand held time piece) seem not at all intrusive.

From a reporter’s standpoint, the shot clock is very welcome given the way it obviously sets a limit on the amount of time any one hand will take. It’s nice to know something is going to happen relatively soon whenever you get involved watching a hand, and to avoid ever getting lost in those endless tanks that end in folds and little to report.

These guys (the regular participants in SHRs) generally act fairly quickly, anyway, of course. I could see how the shot clock wouldn’t be so welcome among more varied fields. Then again, I can also imagine everyone getting fairly used to them, and don’t necessarily see their introduction as being that much different than other experiments with structures designed to make events play out more quickly. I’m remembering not being so crazy about such an idea three years ago or even more recently, but I could warm to it.

Get over to the PokerStars blog to see how the $50K SHR is (rapidly) playing out and everything else happening in Panama.

Photo: courtesy Neil Stoddart / PokerStars blog.

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Monday, March 06, 2017

The Man Who Can’t Stop Firing

The most dangerous tweeter alive has fired off several more strange, unsettling, self-implicating messages for all of his followers -- and the rest of us -- to ponder. “Fired” was a word already associated with the reality TV star, thanks to his famous catch phrase. Now it’s the easy choice of verb to describe his weapon-like use of Twitter.

Last Thursday the president’s recently-named Attorney General recused himself from current and future investigations of the 2016 presidential campaign. Such investigations are presently focusing on the influence of Russia on last year’s election and the numerous ties between the foreign power and several of the president’s associates (including the president himself). The A.G.’s decision came after it became widely known that during his confirmation hearing he’d lied under oath about his own meetings with Russian representatives during the campaign.

We know that angered the president, as he let us all know via Twitter. Saw a funny tweet yesterday from the columnist Doug Sanders summarizing the absurdity of such a situation as speculative fiction: “Sci-fi where the president has lost his mind and everyone knows because his private thoughts keep appearing on little slabs in their pockets.”

“The Democrats are overplaying their hand,” the president furiously wrote, choosing a poker analogy in order to express frustration about his A.G. having succumbed to the pressure to recuse himself. The president wished to suggest the Democrats are betting too heavily with too weak of a holding, since (in his view) the connections and communications between Russia and his associates (and himself) are inconsequential.

“The real story,” he added, “is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total ‘witch hunt!’”

He hastily jabbed some more pettiness into his smartphone after that, then traveled to his supervillain-like lair in Florida, his estate in Mar-al-Lago. From there the embittered president launched an incredible accusation Saturday morning that his predecessor, Barack “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”

He first called this action “McCarthyism,” which is at best an imprecise use of a term normally used to refer to someone making unfair allegations against another. Indeed, the president himself seemed to be the one making the unfair allegation, making his phrase “This is McCarthyism!” punctuating his tweet seem unintentionally self-referential.

Many soon picked up on the fact that the claim was derived from a far-right talk show host’s hypothesis that had been turned into a faux-report over on Breitbart, the website formerly run by the president’s assistant Steve Bannon widely known to have published several unsupported conspiracy theories and falsehoods in the past.

The president continued his accusation over a few more tweets, finishing thusly: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

The “Nixon/Watergate” reference is again another hazy allusion to history being made by the president, in this case triggered by the mention of phone taps. Again, it’s hard not to think that while he intends to suggest a comparison that accuses another, he is instead drawing attention to parallels with himself.

To name one, the investigation into the 2016 election includes questions about the president and his associates (among them his original national security adviser Michael Flynn who has already resigned over the allegations) having suggested to the Russians that United States sanctions against them would be lessened or removed once the new administration took over, severely undermining the Obama administration’s authority and ability to act in the nation’s interests (never mind violating federal law).

Such meddling resembles what Nixon was alleged to have done prior to the 1968 election when interfering with the sitting president Lyndon B. Johnson’s attempts to reach peace in Vietnam. (For more on the latter, see “‘I’m Reading Their Hand”: LBJ, Nixon, and the Week Before the 1968 Election.”)

In fact, the idea of one president accusing his predecessor of having formerly illegally tapped his phones is yet another example of the current commander-in-chief emulating Nixon. So, too, did Nixon on multiple occasions bring up privately that he believed he had been bugged by Lyndon B. Johnson during the last couple of weeks prior to the 1968 election.

For example, on October 17, 1972, Nixon told John Connally (the former Texas governor who served for a time as Nixon’s Secretary of Treasury before leading the “Democrats for Nixon” in the run-up to the ’72 election) that J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Director until his death in May 1972, had informed him LBJ had Nixon’s plane bugged because “he had his Vietnam plans... and he had to have information as to what we were going to say about Vietnam.”

“Johnson knew every conversation,” Nixon told Connally. “And you know where it was bugged? In my compartment!”

Later, after Nixon had been reelected and once Watergate began seriously heating up, Nixon would again bring up LBJ’s alleged bugging of his plane, wondering aloud to others how they might make it public so as to make the bugging of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters seem less remarkable -- or at least not without precedent.

But Nixon never did that. Meanwhile the current president -- going off a speciously-sourced story that the present FBI Director is denying could be true (and a spokesman for Obama and others in the know are suggesting to have been wholly impossible) -- got out his phone and pulled the trigger without hesitation. And without even informing his staff he was doing so. And without seemingly any care for the effect such an accusation might have on the country he was elected to lead, or its standing in the world going forward.

I wonder sometimes what this presidency would be like without the tweets. Would it seem as obviously unhinged? Perhaps. After all, that first press conference in mid-February was an absolute horrorshow -- way, way more distressing than any performance by any president ever, including Nixon at his most petulant and paranoid.

Then again, it seems possible that if he were not to tweet he would at least seem less demented, wouldn’t it? Or is it too late? I mean with every single tweet he hurts himself, and often hurts lots of us, too. It seems like he has to figure that out at some point, right?

Or not. Brace yourself. He’s about to fire again.

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