Monday, May 29, 2017

Pursuing Poker

Spent the last couple of days watching poker on my computer. The PokerStars Championship Sochi series is running, and as I’m staying on the farm for that one I’ve had occasion to check in now and then from here to follow the coverage both on the PokerStars blog and via PokerStars TV.

Then yesterday I had Day 1 of the Super High Roller Bowl on all day, that $300K buy-in tournament that started last night and lasts for several days. Both events are serving as a kind of prelude to the World Series of Poker that gets cranking on Wednesday.

Did very much enjoy seeing Kevin Hart knock out Phil Hellmuth on Day 1. Hellmuth had a bit of a cooler versus Justin Bonomo early (flopped set versus flopped straight), then as a short stack lost all his chips in a set-under-set hand versus Hart.

In fact, when the cards were dealt and Hellmuth had pocket treys versus Hart’s queens, I was already imagining a Q-3-x flop and that’s exactly what happened. Such fun.

Realizing the NBA Finals don’t start until Thursday -- a full week since the last game of the conference finals completed -- I had to joke on Twitter that poker had found a “sweet spot” amid what amounted to a “November Nine-like wait” for basketball to return.

Indeed, the entire WSOP, right through the Main Event that will go until July 22nd, will more or less function to fill a fairly dead spot in the sports calendar between the NBA and NFL. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’m all on board with getting rid of the November Nine and playing the Main down to a winner this summer with only a couple of days’ delay before the final table.

This new PokerGO channel that PokerCentral has created seems okay from the outside, although there are obviously a lot of kinks still to be ironed out. While it’s nice to be able simply to click through and watch (as with PokerStars TV) -- ideal, really -- I’m not too bothered by the subscription model they’ve set up and $10 a month doesn’t seem like a lot to fuss over, as long as the sucker works.

(That said, I’m still waiting for the PayPal option to become functional, as I prefer that route to using a credit card. And I’m looking forward to them getting Roku up and running as they are saying they will, as I’d much rather watch on the teevee than the laptop.)

Still feel like televised (or online streaming) poker remains a super niche form of entertainment, and frankly can’t imagine it being otherwise. There’s always a dream to grow televised poker into something bigger than it is, something resembling or even competing with other sports or entertainment. In other words, something like it was 13-14 years ago, when the televised poker boom first boomed.

That ain’t happening again, of course. But a more modest goal of providing something worth checking out when other desired distractions aren’t available isn’t such a bad one.

Images: PokerStars; PokerCentral / PokerGO.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Recreational Poker Writer

For a couple of months now I’ve been aware of an anniversary of sorts coming up on the calendar. No, I’m not talking about me and Vera’s anniversary (although that’s coming up, too). Rather a poker-related one.

It was exactly 10 years ago today I wrote my first article for PokerNews.

I’d been writing on this blog for over a year by then. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I believe that PN article had to have been the first poker-related bit of scribbling for which I’d ever been paid. Which means, in turn, it represents the first, tiny indicator of what would become a big life pivot about four years after that -- away from full-time teaching and into full-time freelancing.

The article was a short one, just five paragraphs -- “Poker Bill Fails to Pass Louisiana House.” Pretty standard stuff, and the kind of thing we’d end up reading (and some of us writing) over and over for the entire decade that followed.

But even if I might look back with ambivalence (and even a little cynicism) at such a slight morsel of reporting, I do remember the excitement at seeing something I’d written show up on the site.

I’d placed some articles in academic journals, wrote columns and book reviews for The Charlotte Observer, and even had some poems published before (no shinola). But this was something new and different.

Like a lot of poker “enthusiasts” then (and now), I couldn’t get enough of poker -- playing the game, thinking about it, reading about it, and writing about it.

Getting paid even just a little for a poker article offered the same sort of thrill as winning those first few real money pots when playing online. In neither case did I think a career was in the offing, but both involved realizing a small profit from doing something that was already fun and intellectually stimulating.

I have Haley Hintze and John Caldwell to thank (again) for having recruited me to write that first article way back when. And a ton of other folks thereafter for giving me opportunities and helping guide me to become more than just a “recreational” poker writer.

Even now, so many years later, it doesn’t seem like a “regular” gig, even if that’s what it has been for quite a while. The constant flux of the poker world -- with people always coming and going -- is one obvious reason for that feeling, I’m sure.

But another is the fact that there’s still a lot of “play” involved when doing such “work.” And that’s a very good thing, whatever your job is.

Photo: courtesy Carlos Monti / PokerStars blog.

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Nine Years Enough for November Nine

I never liked the November Nine. I got used to it, like everyone else. But I never liked the idea.

The World Series of Poker first introduced the “delayed final table” format for the Main Event in 2008, stopping the tournament at nine players in July and restarting it in November. That was also the first summer I went out to help cover the WSOP.

The announcement came at the beginning of May that year, a couple of weeks after I’d already signed on to go out for PokerNews. I remember being disappointed to learn at that late date that I wouldn’t be seeing the Main Event play to a conclusion. I thought the idea to pause a poker tournament for four months was absurd, wildly distorting whatever “standard” might have been established for tournament poker since its rise in popularity.

It’s a little silly, I know, to speak of poker tournaments as a format unable to withstand too much variation. That’s the beauty of poker, of course -- namely, the way the game can accommodate all sorts of imaginative twists and alterations. And in fact, over the last decade we’ve seen an incredible number of different kinds of poker tournaments developed, both live and online, to challenge all sorts of “traditional” ideas of what a poker tournament is or should be.

Tournaments are like novels in that way -- an incredibly elastic “genre” under which heading a seemingly endless array of different kinds of “narratives” can qualify.

But the idea of playing for a week-and-a-half, then waiting four months, then playing another day or two or three was just too much. Even the most experimental novelist would have difficulty selling the idea of presenting 90 percent of the book all at once, then withholding the last couple of chapters until everyone has forgotten the story and characters.

The WSOP and ESPN did what they could with the idea, and by the last couple of years managed to build it into something that was genuinely interesting to follow. Even so, the disconnect between what happened in the Main Event during the summer and how it ended always made it seem more like two, separate “events” than not.

Today -- at an even later date than in 2008 -- we learned the November Nine is finally being scrapped this year. And that there will be a lot of televised coverage in July on both ESPN and PokerCentral, starting with the Day 1 flights and lasting all of the way through to the end. All welcome news, as far as I’m concerned.

Sure, there will be no more coaching and simulations filling those four months in between to challenge ideas of “integrity” and further shape the Main Event into something barely resembling other poker tournaments. Most importantly, though, the story’s momentum won’t be interrupted, which means the building drama over the first seven days of poker will get to continue into the last three days of the final table.

There is still a delay before the final table, but one lasting just two days. Plenty of time, I think, to get to know the players and build some interest and excitement heading into the finale -- like that extra week before the Super Bowl.

After being away a few summers, I’m also plotting a return to the WSOP this time, meaning if all goes as intended I’ll be there to watch this Main Event play out -- all the way out, that is.

I’ll even get to lend a hand when it comes to telling the story of how the sucker ends, too. Finally. Nine years later.

Talk about a final table delay.

Image: PokerNews.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Racing to Monaco (and Back)

Sorry for the lack of updates of late. The last two weeks have been taken up with travel and tournament reporting, another trip to Monaco for the PokerStars Championship Monte-Carlo having carried me away from the farm.

This was my third trip to Monte-Carlo, site of the annual Monaco Grand Prix happening later this month. Not at all a bad place to spend time either working or vacationing. The temps were a little cooler than usual and there was some rain off and on, though for the most part the weather was nice and I had one of those fantastic fifth-floor views looking out on the Mediterranean and the cruise ships passing to and fro.

The poker was fun, kicked off by a €100,000 Super High Roller that drew a decent-sized field of 61 entries (counting re-entries). Comedian and actor Kevin Hart was there, as he was in the Bahamas back in January, and he added some entertainment during the first day especially, and into Day 2 until he busted well shy of the cash.

On several occasions Hart got the attentions of those of us reporting on the event, delivering us quotes with explicit instructions that the lines be shared as though representing our own thoughts and commentary, not his.

“Reporter, reporter!” he’d say (for example). “I have a quote for you, but it has to come from you. Say... ‘Kevin Hart is making poker cool for the first time ever. He is taking poker in a sexy direction.’”

And so on. Late on Day 1 he managed to pick up aces and knock out two short-stacked players in a three-way preflop all-in, after which his quote -- or rather our comment about him (as dictated by Hart) -- was “Kevin Hart says that poker... is a science. And in this science experiment, he’s f**king the pros!”

I happened to catch Hart’s knockout on Day 2. All in with pocket sevens versus Byron Kaverman’s ace-four, two aces flopped, a seven came on the turn, then a four on the river. Hart took it well, though, then the next day came a press conference in which a new partnership was announced between Hart and PokerStars. Not sure what all it will entail, other than his being involved with promoting the game and site going forward.

There was no media event per se this time, although we did get to play in a charity event which added up to a couple of hours of entertainment for your humble scribbler.

Didn’t get over to it until well after it had begun, which meant mostly nursing a short stack and never quite being able to get anything going chip-wise. (That's me with position on fellow media event expert Frank Op de Woerd of PokerNews.) But there were a lot of laughs at my table where Team PokerStars Pros Vanessa Selbst, Fatima Moreira de Melo, and Felipe Ramos were seated to start, thanks largely to Felipe’s jokes and the subsequent (even funnier) analysis of his joke-telling style.

Both the Main Event and High Roller were interesting as well, with one highlight coming near the end when I had a chance to talk with Daniel Dvoress who had a red-hot series, making three high roller final tables (including the Super High Roller), cashing in a fourth high roller, and cashing in the Main as well. Friendly, smart guy who incredibly has accumulated about $5 million in cashes over the last few years without (1) playing at the WSOP or (2) winning a tournament. (Here’s the PokerStars blog post with our conversation.)

The trip home had one out-of-the-ordinary incident to report. Took a morning flight from Nice to London, landing at Heathrow Airport about two-and-a-half hours before my scheduled flight back to the U.S. Was going on less than two hours’ sleep, actually, after having had to take care of a lot of extra work stuff before crashing in the hotel one last time.

Disembarked and wound my way through the terminal to a bus ready to take us over to Terminal 3 and my gate. After a short wait we filled the bus and sat for a while, then were told to get back off the bus and reenter the terminal. Eventually there came an announcement -- a “slight incident” at Terminal 3 had occurred, and no one was allowed to go there at all.

I wasn’t too concerned until I checked Twitter, where a couple of different stories were being breathlessly passed around to explain the delay. One was a terror suspect had been arrested at Terminal 3 after arriving. Another had to do with a suspicious package. Lots of references to all of Heathrow being on “lock down” and no flights coming or going.

I was convinced I wasn’t going anywhere soon.

Much to my surprise, though, about 40 minutes later we were back on the bus, and while I ended up having to hurry a bit I made it onto my on-time flight without much problem. Later learned the arrest had happened the day before. Meanwhile there wasn’t any suspicious package that caused the delay, but rather a dude running through security with his bag without waiting for it to go through an extra check. In other words, it really was a “slight incident.”

Got me thinking of how misleading Twitter can be with these things, quickly spreading inaccurate or outright false information that can be nonetheless convincing.

Glad to be back on the farm, where I’ll be staying put for the next couple of months -- and posting a bit more.

Photos: courtesy Neil Stoddart, Manuel Kovsca / PokerStars blog.

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