Thursday, June 15, 2017

Revelation Regarding the (Alleged) Moss-Dandolos Match

Busy days here on the farm of late, although like everyone I’ve been following all that has gone on at the World Series of Poker thus far. Hard to believe they are only about two weeks into the series, as they’ve already gotten up to the 30th event today.

Have been glad to track the updates on PokerNews once more, and am tuning in over at PokerGO now and then. Speaking of the latter, they finally did get PayPal working and so I got a monthly subscription. They have it on Roku now, too, although I never have been able to get anything to load over there (it seems to stick in a “Retrieving” cycle and never quite opens the live event).

I did want to touch base, though, and let visitors know about a recent “Poker & Pop Culture” column of mine that relates somewhat to the history of the WSOP.

A few weeks back I ran a revised and expanded version of a column focusing on a famous heads-up poker game between Johnny Moss and Nick “The Greek” Dandolos. If you’re reading this blog you’ve probably heard of that match before.

According to most accounts, the pair got together sometime around 1951 (or thereabouts) at Binion’s Horseshoe to play a high-stakes match that lasted several months, with Moss ultimately said to have come away a big winner ($2 million or more, say some). The game was open to the public, goes the story, and for that reason sometimes gets linked to the later idea of the WSOP first run at Binion’s in 1970.

That column, titled “Moss and Dandolos at the Horseshoe - Legend or Myth?” was really more about the many stories about the game than about the game itself.

I included in there how one of the most referenced sources for details regarding the match is Al Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town (1983), a favorite poker book of mine that I’ve written about here many, many times over the years.

I also included a bit from Jesse May regarding how some of those who talked to Alvarez for his book (including Moss) likely embellished their tales more than a little bit.

In any case, about a week after that column went up I had a nice surprise when I got a note from a person who works for Jack Binion. The note asked if I could get in touch, as Mr. Binion had some information to share about the Moss-Dandolos story that could help clear up a lot of the uncertainty surrounding it.

I called and after a couple more exchanges ended up getting some fairly remarkable memories from Jack Binion regarding the alleged match. I say “alleged” because one of the clarifications he made was to explain that the match never really happened! At least not at Binion’s, and not in public. And likely not for the super-high stakes often cited, either.

I won’t give away the rest of the story here, but instead point you over to the newer article that shares Jack Binion’s insight:

Poker & Pop Culture: Jack Binion Sorts Fact From Fiction Regarding Moss-Dandolos Match.”

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, June 01, 2017

It’s Getting Better All the Time: 50 Years of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

I was probably around 12 years old when I got my first copy of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, perhaps just a little earlier.

That’s the age -- 12 -- of the protagonist in my new novel Obsessica. Have had some more readers and a couple of very nice reviews over on Amazon since the last time I brought it up over here. I’m actually in the middle of getting the ebook version together, and also have some other plans to promote it a little more going forward -- more on that soon.

I was chatting with someone about the book and stumbled into an observation about 12-year-olds. It’s an idea that might well have come from the narrator of Obsessica, who is writing as an adult about something he experienced when he was that age.

“We’re all 12, really, or thereabouts,” I said. “That is, there’s a point in there somewhere before we’ve grown up when we become who we end up being, and no matter how much we change after that we can’t really leave behind that first-finished-draft of ourselves.”

If that’s true, it matters that I was around 12 when I first listened to and loved Sgt. Pepper.

Later I would learn more about the Beatles, reading books and like many engaging in a kind of protracted study of every little detail of their history, including all things Sgt. Pepper. But well before that more intellectual engagement took place came the deep impression caused by many, many listenings back when I was a kid -- back when the record, like other things I experienced, inevitably became part of who I am.

I love the songs. All of them. And the idea. During their first few years of recording and performing, the Beatles provided a kind of template for the whole concept of a “band” (at least in the realm of popular music). Then with Sgt. Pepper they invented a fictional version of themselves to enable even greater experimentation.

They were already larger than life by then. But Sgt. Pepper was an even greater revelation -- about what the Beatles could do, and about what could be done by others, too.

In the title song, Sgt. Pepper is a character described as having “taught the band to play.” Like a mentor or muse or something. Which, of course, is what the album has served as for countless bands and musicians and people who yearn to be creative in other ways.

People talk about it being a “concept album” which it is. To me the analogue is a short story collection like Dubliners, Winesburg, Ohio, Nine Stories, or What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Different episodes, different characters, different moods, all connected by common thematic threads relating a particular ethos and vision emanating from the artist.

Sgt. Pepper features a variety of characters and voices and perspectives, complemented by the many different styles -- rock, blues, music hall, psychedelic, vaudeville, classical, traditional Indian, avant-garde -- all made to fit inside so-called “pop” formats.

The variety was more than enough to stimulate my still forming brain, with the record almost feeling like one “novelty” song after another. It’s rocking and relaxing, moving and melodramatic, catchy and complex, funny and frightening.

I suppose it’s true that an impressionable 12-year-old probably experiences these things more deeply than a cynical adult. But there I was, listening to Sgt. Pepper over and again on the stereo console, ensuring that decades later I’d still be thinking these thoughts and feeling these feelings when listening again.

I’ve written here about the Beatles many times before, including telling the story of my father playing the Red and Blue albums on eight-track player that came with an old Plymouth Valiant, and going with Vera to see the Cirque du Soleil show Love, and going to see Cheap Trick perform the whole of Sgt. Pepper, also in Las Vegas.

And (I must not omit) describing the card game I invented last year called “Sgt. Pepper,” a Badugi variant. Here are the complete rules:

Pulling out my Sgt. Pepper LP today, I’m finding tucked inside a copy of the fan mag The Beatles Monthly, dated June 1987. Yes, I’m old enough to remember when it was twenty years ago today the Beatles released their album that begins with the lyric “it was twenty years ago today.”

And now it’s fifty years ago today, the LP being released in the U.K. on June 1, 1967 and in the U.S. the next day. And everyone is listening to and talking about Sgt. Pepper and acting like kids again.

And I’m setting the needle down to listen -- again -- knowing even before the orchestra starts warming up that it’s guaranteed to raise a smile.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, April 21, 2017

Absolute Anticlimax

There was an item of news in the poker world last week, the sort of thing about which I might have written several blog posts had it occurred five or six years ago. After all, it was about an online poker site -- two sites, actually -- and cheating and scandal and illegality and all sorts of things your humble scribbler used to spend lots of time and energy opining about back in the day.

It has taken me a whole week even to acknowledge the story, though. Probably because it doesn’t affect me directly at all, and for those it does affect it has come so late as to make it seem we are in a place almost entirely distinct from where we all were when the story began.

It’s like one of those way, way, way late sequels. Or when a band who after shining brightly when young get back together many years later to try to reignite things with new material.

One of my faves, Robyn Hitchcock, actually has a new album out today (and the tracks I’ve heard are terrific). His old band, the Soft Boys, did one of those reunion records in the early 2000s about two decades after they’d split, and in an interview once he referred to it as “a bit of reactivating the undead by bringing back” and reanimating the band for that one-off.

That’s kind of how it feels writing about Absolute Poker and UltimateBet again, this time to report that almost six years after “Black Friday” -- the anniversary for which just passed -- players who had funds on Absolute Poker and UltimateBet and never were able to withdraw them are finally getting a chance to get that money back.

This has to be the slowest of any slow play in poker history.

For those keeping score, there were three sites named in the indictment and civil complaint unsealed on April 15, 2011 by the Department of Justice -- PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker -- with a fourth site, UltimateBet, then part of the “Cereus Network” along with Absolute, similarly affected by the DOJ’s action.

All four sites were subsequently prohibited from allowing players from the United States to continue playing on them. PokerStars shut us off right away. It took Full Tilt Poker an extra couple of days, but soon we got the stop-you-can’t-go-any-further pop-ups over there, too.

Both of those sites also made agreements with the feds right away to get back their domains (after they were momentarily seized). Those agreements involved ensuring funds went to the Americans, something PokerStars did immediately, but Full Tilt Poker never did, having shamefully squandered everyone’s money.

Eventually that led to the DOJ amending the civil complaint in September 2011 with further charges against Full Tilt Poker and new names added, and branding the site a “ponzi scheme” in an accompanying presser.

It took AP and UB a couple of extra weeks to make a similar agreement with the DOJ. Meanwhile, the sites blithely continued to allow U.S. players to play more than a month later (without their having any means of withdrawing). Finally both sites totally shut down -- not just to U.S. players, but the “ROW”-ers, too (rest of world) -- and as was the case with FTP no one was able to cash out a cent.

During the summer of 2012 PokerStars managed another deal with the DOJ, paying a big settlement that included acquiring Full Tilt Poker’s assets and making available outstanding FTP balances to U.S. players. Stars then reopened Full Tilt in November 2012 (outside the U.S., natch). Last year the two sites’ player pools were merged as one.

The reimbursement process was lengthy. I took part in it, finally getting my Full Tilt Poker funds in June 2014, more than three years after being shut out of the site.

(Incidentally, I’m convinced that by going through the withdrawal process which required me to submit bank account information to the DOJ in order to receive my funds, Fifth Third bank chose to close my account without warning and with zero explanation, very likely encouraged to do so by a DOJ initiative called “Operation Choke Point.”)

Anyhow, to get back to those rogue Cereus sites, Absolute Poker and UltimateBet, up until last week it appeared as though anyone with funds on those two sites at the time they went offline were never going to see that money again. Suddenly, though, came an announcement that a process similar to the one by which Full Tilt Poker players were able to recover their funds had begun for those who had money in accounts when Absolute Poker and UltimateBet closed up their respective scam-sites.

Am glad for those affected, although truthfully I can’t say I’ve had a lot of empathy for them during their six-year-long plight. That’s because not only did I not have any money on either AP or UB, I’d withdrawn from both at the first whiff of the insider cheating scandal on one of them (Absolute) in October 2007.

For those coming to all of this well after the fact, you can search this blog for “Absolute Poker” or “UltimateBet” and find plenty. This post from February 2008 links to a lot of other articles about the Absolute scandal, while this one from May 2008 is an early one among many relating details of the even bigger scandal that erupted on UB.

Also, if all of this is only vaguely familiar to you or if you aren’t up at all on the story of “Black Friday” and its aftermath, I wrote an article a year ago for PokerNews describing a lot of it in detail: “Black Friday: Reliving Poker’s Darkest Day Five Years Later.”

Just prior to Black Friday, UltimateBet in particular had somehow crept its way back into the limelight by signing a lot of “team pros” some of whom did work to rehabilitate the site’s post-scandal image. As it soon turned out, whatever the spokespersons’ intentions might have been at the time, it was all incredibly damaging to the poker community and, truthfully, to the subsequently dim prospects for online poker in the U.S.

This news regarding Absolute Poker and UltimateBet and the unveiling of the website where claims can be made by players (through June 9, 2017) took many by surprise, and I noticed a couple of articles describing it having come from “out of nowhere.”

I also saw some attempts to connect the DOJ’s decision to start the process with Preet Bharara’s headline-grabbing dismissal along with a number of other U.S. Attorneys by the Trump administration last month. Bharara, for those who don’t know, was the one who brought the charges against the founders of the implicated sites (and others) that were unsealed on Black Friday. He was also the one who called Full Tilt Poker a “ponzi scheme.”

Truthfully, it seems more likely that the news is more directly connected to Absolute Poker founder Scott Tom -- one of those named in the indictment and civil complaint -- having finally returned to the U.S. in February to face the charges against him. (Tom pleaded not guilty.)

Whatever prompted it, I’m sure the players are glad about it. To me it’s all the faintest hint of a whisper of an echo of a story finally lumbering, zombie-like, toward a much-belated anticlimax. And like Robyn Hitchcock was saying, it feels a bit like reactivating the undead to write about it.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Heads-Up and Humility

Wanted to share a short thought I had related to that Masters championship that concluded on Sunday. Actually the thought was inspired from both an impression of the ending of the golf tournament and after following the last live updates from the PokerStars Championships Macau Main Event final table, also taking place on Sunday.

I say the latter took place on Sunday, although in truth while it was Sunday morning and early afternoon here, it was Sunday evening and Monday morning in Macau, as the tournament didn’t conclude until around 2 a.m. their time. That reminded me of my lone visit to Macau back in late 2012 and the very long and late final day of the Asia Championship of Poker.

That day play didn’t end until around 3 a.m. I’ll skip over the details -- all recorded here in a blog post written after I’d gotten back -- but what followed was a kind of mad scramble by me afterwards to make my plane out of Hong Kong that morning. In fact, I didn’t make my flight, but things worked out in the end.

Much like happened back in 2012, heads-up lasted an inordinately long time at inaugural PSC Macau Main Event. In fact, it lasted about twice as long, as the final two in my tournament went about six hours while the final two last weekend -- Tianyuan Tang and eventual winner Elliot Smith -- went something close to 12 hours before finishing.

I followed the updates while chatting online with some of the fellas there reporting. I also noticed some of the talk on Twitter, with a few judgments passed along here and there about the heads-up skills of the final pair.

Televised coverage of the final round of the Masters began just about the time play ended in Macau, and as you know that ended up with a kind of protracted “heads-up” finish between Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia. By the last few holes those two had broken ahead of the chase pack, then both missed some big putts down the stretch before Garcia managed to take it down on the first playoff hole.

Heads-up is hard, man. No relaxing. No matter if it lasts a few minutes or hours and hours.

Garcia’s a poker player, as many readers of this blog probably know, regularly playing at the Bahamas each January and also turning up in tournaments in Spain. Has even cashed a handful of times, including in the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event once a few years ago, although I’m not aware of him ever making it to heads-up in a poker tournament. (He does have a third-place finish, though.)

When Garcia and Rose were battling at the end -- and especially after each missed big pressure-packed putts -- there was also some censure of their play. I’m remembering someone describing the play as a “disgrace” and comparing some missed putts to what amateurs might do when playing a round for $20. That’s part of the fun of following major sporting events, though -- the armchair quarterbacking and coaching, I mean. Adds a lot to the overall entertainment.

Anyhow, the combination of these two “heads-up” matches and the crowds of onlookers made me think a little bit of my own experience, in particular that recent poker tournament I played in which I made it to heads-up and with dozens of people watching and cheering came up short of winning the sucker.

I’ve gotten to heads-up in poker tournaments plenty of times before, winning some and losing others. That might’ve been the first time there was a significant rail, though. I remember thinking afterwards that I’d played heads-up okay for the most part, though obviously second-guessed a few decisions and concluded I could’ve handled it differently. I might have thought as well for just a moment or two about what others might have thought about it all, but didn’t waste a lot of time with that, to be honest.

I’ve watched countless number of players going at it heads-up to conclude tournaments before, and I know it’s always very tempting to cast judgments as an observer. Sometimes it’s obvious enough when a player makes a mistake or poor play. In that case, criticism is essentially going to be objective and informed. A lot of times, though, it’s harder to know from the outside all the variables making up the context of each decision and/or action.

Over what is now approaching a decade of reporting on poker tournaments, I’m a long way away from having the judging instinct when watching and reporting on hands. There’s always more information than can be understood or appreciated by a spectator, even when you know the hole cards.

All in all, I’ve become less quick to jump on even the more obvious mistakes competitors will make to betray themselves as less than graceful under pressure. Especially when they’re heads-up.

Image: “one on ones,” Jurgen Appelo. CC BY 2.0.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Ceiling Is the Roof

Carolina played terribly. Gonzaga also wasn’t good. And the refereeing nearly suffocated the life out of the second half, making everyone miserable.

But I enjoyed it.

Somehow my alma mater, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, managed to play two of their worst games all season on Saturday and Monday and still won the men’s basketball national championship. Saturday’s game was particularly nonsensical, with the Heels missing four consecutive free throws at the end yet still managing to secure a one-point win over Oregon. Last night’s final versus Gonzaga was similarly nuts throughout, with only a lucky break or three during the last couple of minutes swinging things UNC’s way in the end.

That post title, of course, comes from Michael Jordan’s funny, tripped-up-and-tangled sign off to a halftime speech he gave at the last regular season UNC-Duke game this year in which he was referring to the football team’s prospects.

“I wish you guys nothing but the best,” said Jordan. “The ceiling is the roof. Let’s make it happen.”

By the next game UNC students and fans were wearing t-shirts acknowledging the phrase. And as the NCAA run continued, so, too, did the “meme” created by the absurdity. And frankly, given how absurdly some of the games went (including last night’s), it felt appropriate. A goof that turned out all right.

Having grown up on Dean Smith’s disciplined teams that always seemed to be thinking a couple of steps ahead at any given moment, these last few seasons of UNC basketball have provided quite a contrast. This year in particular, the games have been especially chaotic thanks to a style that mostly shuns set offenses in favor of fast breaks and first-opportunity shots.

The ability to rebound (they led the nation in that stat) made up for a lot of deficits for UNC this year, enabling them to win despite poor shooting and/or game management. Still, for most of the season -- and particularly the last few games of the NCAA tournament -- I couldn’t help thinking of the poker-related term “high variance” whenever watching them play.

It was like watching a nonstop series of preflop all-ins, with UNC winning just enough of them to keep from going broke, then ultimately winning the last one to take down the tournament. Most were “coin flips,” although Carolina got it in bad plenty of times and won (and got it in good sometimes and lost).

Last night there were banked in three-pointers, crazy loose-ball scrambles resulting in momentum-swinging buckets, missed free throws galore, and oh-so-many bad shots. Both teams ended up having hit just over one of three attempts for the game, with Carolina an incredible 4-for-27 from three. Just brutal, with all that clanging of balls off rims and backboards introducing a ton of randomness into the outcome.

So, too, did the refs, who were unbelievably whistle-happy, inconsistent, and just flat-out wrong on many occasions. There were 22 fouls called in the first 12 minutes of the second half, not too far shy of one per possession. That upped the variance even more.

All that said, after the previous games I’d already resigned myself to pulling not so much for good, solid play from my team, but merely for us to get lucky at the end -- as happened against Arkansas, Kentucky, and Oregon this year, and as failed to happen for the Heels in the title game against Villanova a year ago.

I remember 1982 (with Jordan) and 1993 vividly, and while 2005 and 2009 were nice, they haven’t stuck with me the same way. I think 2017 will, though, if only because of how uncanny it felt watching games with such an incredibly high level of uncertainty for such extended periods.

Last night’s game wasn’t so much like ace-king versus two queens (over and over). It was more like jack-four versus ten-nine suited. Still a thrill for those invested, and damn I’m glad things fell the way they did.

Photo: Ytravel.

Labels: , , , ,

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.’”

Conclusion

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

Labels: , , , , , ,


Older Posts

Copyright © 2006-2017 Hard-Boiled Poker.
All Rights Reserved.