Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Safe and Sound

Back on the farm now after a busy week-and-a-half in Barcelona.

The turnouts for the big events (i.e., the ones we focused on the most on the PokerStars blog) of the PokerStars Championship Barcelona series were all quite big, which meant a lot of long days strung together. That in turn meant not a whole lot of extracurricular activity outside of the casino or hotel during my stay, although I did get out a couple of times.

This was my fourth trip to Barcelona, and having spent some time sightseeing on earlier visits (including once with Vera Valmore), I didn’t feel too much urgency to get out this time, even if I had wanted to.

The day before leaving I did manage to make the walk over to La Rambla, which would have been 10 days after the attack there that occurred the day before my arrival. It was a Sunday. A couple of police vans were parked at the end where I entered from the roundabout, the opposite end from where the attack began.

As you might have seen on television, there’s a wide pedestrian walkway in the center with two narrow streets on either side. As it was the weekend, portable stands and tents were set up throughout selling paintings and other locally-produced art along with other souvenirs -- the Fira Nova Artesania flea market where tourists frequently pick up items to take home.

There had been a big memorial at the location the day before, and a lot also happened at the site during the three-day mourning period the previous weekend. This Sunday, though, there was little evidence of what had taken place before. Life had gone on, as it does.

Walking back out I saw a few the “human statues” getting ready for the day, including the first three featured in this video another visitor made a few years back. They weren’t quite set up for the day just yet, and as they readied themselves there was something uncannily business-like about their preparations.

Walking back through the streets of Barcelona to the Hotel Arts for the last day of play, I found myself doing more people watching than usual, occasionally caught off-guard by short though intense bursts of melancholy over the cruelty and horror that had been perpetrated there (and elsewhere).

That photo above (taken by someone else -- I am replacing my old phone soon, as the camera has been worthless for a while) shows where someone had written in Catalan on the base of a La Rambla street lamp “Tots som Barcelona” -- i.e., “We are all Barcelona.”

Truth be told, the great majority of the human race is good and looking out for one another. They might be motivated and/or encouraged differently to feel that way about others, but I think most of them know (perhaps instinctively) that helping and loving each other is what gives our meaning. Perhaps the only thing.

All ended well poker-wise. The Main Event winner Sebastian Sorensson, a Swede who was quiet and wrapped up tightly in a Miami Dolphins scarf throughout most of the tournament, turned out to be a gregarious (and hilarious) winner, delivering a fantastic post-even interview with Joe Stapleton that’s worth checking out.

The trip back home was smooth and without incident. Was good as always to reunite with Vera and the several four-legged friends with whom we share this small, pie-shaped slice of the world where we all take care of each other. And where I’ll be staying put for a while.

Photo: “Todos somos Barcelona - We are all Barcelona - El mundo es Barcelona - The World is Barcelona | | 170827-8851-jikatu” (adapted), Jimmy Baikovicius. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Morning in Barcelona

“It could have been worse” is a phrase we’ve all heard and most of us have probably used. Usually after something bad happens.

(Actually, as I try to start out on that foot, I can’t avoid noting how we have a president in the United States right now who appears intent on proving nearly every single day that yes, it can be worse. But I’ll avoid that digression just now.)

Depending on the context, the phrase “it could have been worse” can have different connotations and thus produce different effects.

In certain circumstances, it can be genuinely comforting to recognize that whatever bad thing has happened, it wasn’t as bad as other possible events. You leave your wallet behind at a restaurant, but when you return an hour later they’ve kept it for you and gladly return it. It could have been worse, you say.

Sometimes, though, it feels trite or hollow to make such a remark, especially when the bad thing that happened is much, much worse than some mundane, easily handled inconvenience. That said, as I sit in my hotel room here in Barcelona this morning catching up with the latest details regarding the terrorist attack that occurred Thursday about two miles from here at La Rambla in the city’s center -- and the subsequent attack occurring in Cambrils about 70 miles away -- it’s hard not to shudder at the thought of how much worse it could have been.

Still, like I say, that rings hollow. Such senseless, deranged horror perpetrated on so many innocents, and for no reason whatsoever other than to serve some mindless, indefensible, inhumane cause. (And frustratingly reprising several other attacks here in Europe, as well as another deranged and deadly decision made for similarly stupid reasons in Virginia a week ago.)

You’re following the coverage, too, so I won’t rehearse all of the details I’m learning both through various news sources and via conversations here where I’ve come to help cover the PokerStars Barcelona Championship series already underway. Suffice it say, the circumstantial evidence strongly suggests more ambitiously cruel plans by the perpetrators failed to be realized for various reasons (including some swift action on the part of Spanish police).

It was sickening to follow the story two days ago from the farm while I was packing for the trip, the chest tightening more than a little at the thought of my many friends and other familiar and friendly poker folks who were already here. Brad Willis provided a thorough and sensitive explanation of this feeling yesterday for the PokerStars blog in a post titled “On terror, fear, and perseverance in Barcelona.”

That post includes a photo my friend and fellow reporter Alex Villegas took yesterday, as well as some by another friend and colleague, Neil Stoddart. (That's another of Neil’s up above.) Catalan officials have declared three days of mourning, lasting through the weekend.

Alex arrived in the morning on Friday, and since our check-in wasn’t until later in the afternoon he spent that time over at La Rambla as we’ve done before on past visits to this beautiful, inviting coastal city. I came a little later (though still too early to get a room), and he and I spent much of the afternoon talking about various things, including those many memorials now dotting the pedestrian path.

We begin work today, the first of what will be nine straight days of reporting. There is some cloud cover this morning, though the usual deep blue is nonetheless gamely starting to peek through up above.

It’s my fourth trip here, and before coming I had plans once more to get out when I can to see the city and its people. I still plan to do so, and will likely get over to La Rambla at some point as Alex and Neil have already done.

It’s good to be among my many friends who like me have been here many times. It’s also good to be among the always friendly and inviting people who live here. I’m glad to be back.

Photo: courtesy Neil Stoddart / PokerStars blog.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Main Event Memories

Been back on the farm more than a week now from Las Vegas. I snapped that pic to the left as I left the Rio for the last time following a 16-night stay.

It took me a while, but finally I’m sharing links to some of my favorite features posted during the World Series of Poker Main Event.

Early on I had the chance to chat with New York Times best selling author Maria Konnikova about her current book project. You might have heard something about it -- the story has been passed around the poker world the last few month’s as Konnikova writing a book “about” Erik Seidel, although that isn’t exactly what she’s doing.

Rather, the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and The Confidence Game is spending a year playing poker on the professional poker tournament circuit as part of an inquiry into how humans make decisions, including when faced with elements outside of our control (such as happens in poker).

Talking with Konnikova was one of my favorite half-hours of the entire trip, to be honest, and while not everything we talked about made it into this post, a lot of it did, including a fuller introduction to her study. You can read it here: “Konnikova seeking answers in the cards about life, poker, and everything.”

A couple of days after that I had another fun conversation with Vanessa Selbst, a player I’ve been covering in tournaments for nearly a decade now.

If you followed the Main Event you probably remember how Selbst found herself in a highly unusual spot only an hour or so into the tournament, running into Gaelle Baumann’s quads to be eliminated halfway through the very first level.

We talked about that hand, of course, but also about one of the very first tournaments I ever covered, the $1,500 pot-limit Omaha event at the 2008 WSOP in which Selbst won her first bracelet. That remains one of my favorite reporting experiences ever -- thanks in large part to the crazy finish -- and it was fun inviting Selbst to remember the scene.

She also neatly tied together with her comments the end of that tournament and her exit hand in this year’s Main -- check it out: “Vanessa embraces the variance.”

The cash bubble burst at the end of Day 3, and just before the start of Day 4 I spoke with one of those who’d made the money -- Kenneth “K.L.” Cleeton.

You might have heard something about this story, too. Cleeton is a 27-year-old player from Illinois who suffers from a rare neuromuscular disorder that leaves him essentially paralyzed from the neck down. He’s anything but handicapped otherwise, though -- very quick-witted and gregarious and also a good poker player, too.

Cleeton entered a contest put together by Daniel Negreanu and along with a couple of other entrants was put into the the Main Event by Kid Poker. With his father at the table providing assistance looking at cards and making bets, Cleeton survived the bubble bursting with a short stack, and both of them were unsurprisingly ecstatic about it all when we chatted just before Day 4 began.

Negreanu shared some comments as well for the post. Read about Cleeton and be energized by one of the cooler stories of the whole Main: “K.L. Cleeton continues inspiring run into Day 4.”

As the tournament wore on, a player named Mickey Craft started to get everyone’s attention thanks to his big stack and especially loose style of play. He was also kind of a character at the tables, chatting it up and obviously enjoying himself immensely.

I happened to be around when Craft won a big pot on Day 4 in an especially nutty hand. I remember watching it play out alongside the ESPN crew, talking a bit with one of them who was marveling at how crazy the poker was. I knew right then they’d be finding a way to get Craft onto a feature table soon, and sure enough that’s what happened later in the day.

Here’s that post describing the wacky hand: “Mickey Craft is must-see poker.”

Finally, if you paid any attention at all to the Main Event -- particularly to the final table -- you certainly heard about the 64-year-old amateur from Bridlington, England named John Hesp.

You couldn’t miss Hesp in his multi-colored, patchwork shirt and jacket and Panama hat. His personality was just as colorful, and by chance I ended up chatting with him on multiple occasions during his deep Main Event run, including about how the Main was a “bucket list” item for him, a bit of a diversion from his usual 10-pound tournaments in Hull.

Just before the final table (where he’d go on to finish fourth to earn $2.6 million), I posted a piece sharing some of what Hesp and I chatted about: “John Hesp’s Vegas vaction continues; or ‘When I’m Sixty-Four.’

These are just some of my favorites among the nearly 100 posts Howard Swains and I wrote over the course of the Main Event. Wanted to kind of bookmark them here, though, and also invite some more eyes to ‘em in case folks missed them before.

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