Saturday, January 19, 2008

Stratosphere upgrades by making things, uh, worse





The Stratosphere was on my mind yesterday, for a pretty strange reason. As I woke up in the morning, my radio was tuned to public radio, and they had a story about fire safety. The Stratosphere was mentioned as an example of a new breed of tall buildings that rely on elevators to evacuate occupants in case of fire, rather than the instructions we've all gotten used to, telling us to use the stairs, not the elevators, in an emergency. See http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18212200.

So when I couldn't get anything going at Harrah's and was headed home, it occurred to me that it was probably a good day to check out the brand-new poker room that the Strat has been advertising lately.

I liked the old poker room there. It was small and homey, maybe six tables. It had consistently among the softest competition in town. The main thing that kept me from visiting more frequently was the inconsistency with which they had any action going. I hadn't been there since April.

The first thing I inevitably noticed about the new room is that it's a long hike from the parking garage. The old one was right at the base of the escalator, as convenient as it could be. Now you have to walk to the far end of the casino. A small point, but an annoyance. At least, though, they did change the signs, so it's easy to navigate your way there.

The new room is much larger, probably twice as many tables. I was stunned to see how many were in action--at least eight, including both the midnight tournament and several live games. This was more than the old room could have handled at full capacity. So in that sense, the move was both smart and necessary.

Fortunately, the competition appeared not to have gotten any better. There was a nice mix of frightened players that I could bluff and push around, calling stations who would pay off my big hands, and a couple of completely predictable rocks, who basically played with their cards face up. There was only one smart, tricky player who could pose a serious threat of taking my stack if I weren't careful, but I was lucky enough to tangle with him only twice, both of which times I had the second nuts, and was pretty sure he didn't have the joint. My kind of table, for sure. Uptick $348 in 2.7 hours.

One mildly interesting hand: I ended up on the bad end of another set-over-set situation (unusual in that it's the second time in a week this has happened; see http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2008/01/news-flash-grump-hits-one-outer-on.html), and made money from it, even without sucking out. I had J-J and put in a raise. Two previous limpers called. Limper A was the smart, tricky player. Limper B was new to the table, bought in for the minimum, and didn't have much left. I had no read on his play. Flop was A-J-x, rainbow. It was checked to me, so I put in a bet of about 2/3 of the pot. Limper A called, Limper B went all-in for maybe $4 more than I had bet. With no straight possibilities, I had the second nuts and was not worried. The turn put a second spade on the board, but still no possible straight. I bet $50 when it was checked to me. Limper A reluctantly called. Same on the river, which was another blank--I bet another $75 and got called. I showed my set of jacks. My opponent nodded grimly and quietly mucked. (I'm guessing he had A-K or A-Q.) I was stunned as all get-out when Limper B flipped over the only hand that could beat me: pocket aces. But the $125 I got from the other guy on the turn and river far outweighed the $40 or so that I lost to the higher set. If he had started with more money, I would have lost it all to him, never suspecting in a million years that he was sitting on aces.

The other good news from the Stratosphere is that they have dropped the rake. This doesn't really matter much to me, though. My tight-aggressive style means that most of my profit (or loss) come in a handful of big pots in a session. If the house takes a max of $3 (Stratosphere, Palms, and I think a couple of other places) versus $4 (standard) versus $5 (Harrah's properties), it's an undetectable change to my hourly earning rate. Still, all else being equal, I'm happy to have an extra buck or two left in the pot.

They also have a dizzying array of promotions. Aces cracked gets you $25, 24 hours a day (most such promotions are only on slow days or during slow times of the day). There is a freeroll tournament for frequent players. There are high-hand and bad-beat jackpots. One that I've never seen before is that for all daily tournaments on the first Monday of the month the winner gets double the payout, because the house matches his share of the prize pool (if I read the sign correctly).

Unfortunately, the new poker room is open to the casino. The old one had walls on three sides, and was only open to the sports book on the fourth side. That made it one of the better rooms in the city for keeping down the noise and smoke. The new room just has a half-wall around three sides, and inconsiderate jerks in the casino lean right over the wall with their cigarettes, blowing their smoke in. There is also a lounge right next door, and the salsa music was loud enough that it was difficult for players at the table to hear each other, or hear the dealer. Dealers had tremendous difficulty getting attention from the floor (for fills, decisions, bonus payouts, or whatever), because they couldn't shout loudly enough to be heard over the racket. I had a headache within an hour.

I hate smoke and noise in a poker room. They are the two biggest deterrants for me (after a place being impracticably far from my apartment and being so slow that there is no game going).

Overall, the new Stratosphere poker room now reminds me of the Sahara in nearly every respect. It's a place I'll visit when I want an easy score and I'm willing to put up with the repulsive level of noise and smoke to get it. I preferred the peace and quiet of the old room, even if it meant I could only find a game at peak hours.

Superman playing poker, part 2



From Anthony Proctor, the reader who brought us the original Superman-playing-poker image (see http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2007/11/superman-playing-poker.html), comes this imaginary chip. He notes in the email to me, "It's a lead-clay composite, of course."

Maybe the best poker chip ever




Oh yeah! I think every casino ought to issue at least one "Dogs Playing Poker" commemorative chip. It should be, like, a federal law or something. Good for Harrah's for leading the way!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Miscellaneous online poker annoyances

Installing updates

I find it irritating that when I feel like playing, the sites won't let me on until I have installed their latest software upgrade. This is particularly true for the sites like Full Tilt that, for whatever reason, release new versions every few days. This is most obnoxious when there's a specific tournament I'm signed up for, which is about to start, and then I have to endure the delay of the download before I can join in. Thankfully I'm past the days of using a dial-up connection, but I can imagine how painfully slow this process would be for those users.

If I were in charge of such operations, in the dialog box that asks for permission to install the latest version of the software, I'd also have an option to allow the user to play the current session with the older software, then download and install the newest version when logging off. That way it can occur in the background, and doesn't delay me getting to the games. It's such a simple and obvious fix--can it really be that nobody else has thought of this?

Desktop shortcuts

Every time you use some of the online poker sites, their software checks to see if you have a shortcut on your PC desktop, and if you don't, it sticks one there, without asking if you want it or not. I'm looking at you, Bodog, and you, Ultimate Bet. If I wanted a desktop shortcut, I would have put it there! It's not exactly the most complicated operation in the world. Instead, after every time I play on one of those sites, I have to delete the shortcut it installs. Yeah, it's only three seconds out of my life, but it's irritating nonetheless.

Drug-related screen names and avatars

For the life of me I can't figure out what the hell is wrong with people that they would choose a poker screen name with reference to their recreational drug use, particularly the ubiquitous "420." Look, as a good libertarian kind of guy, I don't care one bit what you ingest, inject, or inhale. But is that really the aspect of your life that is most important to you, or of which you are most proud, such that you decided to advertise it to the poker-playing world?

Let me put it this way: If your blazin' is such a prominent feature of your existence that when presented with an opportunity to select a screen name (and, on some sites, upload a graphic representation of yourself), something by which you will be uniquely recognized by every other user of the site, you decided that "Canabus" or "Toke dealer" or "420player" was what best encapsulated who you are, you're a loser, with problems much deeper than you realize.

Phony Rakewells

I created an account on the newish "Players Only" site last night, and discovered that somebody had already taken the screen name of "Rakewell." This is theft, pure and simple! I am the one and only Rakewell! That is my name on Full Tilt, Absolute, UB, Party Poker (if they ever let U.S. players back in), Bodog, Cake Poker, and a bunch of other minor ones that I've never even used, but signed up just to stake my claim to the name. (The exception is Poker Stars; several years ago somebody had already taken the name there before I signed up.) It is also what I use on all the online poker forums. Now I'm stuck with the lame "Rakewell1."

Give me back my God-given screen name!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"Luckytown"--another poker movie to avoid (spoiler alert)












A recent thread in the discussion forums at http://www.allvegaspoker.com/ asked for opinions on the worst poker movie ever. Somebody mentioned "Luckytown" (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0160495/), which had previously escaped my attention, so I ordered it from Netflix and watched it last night. Yep--another dog.

The only bright spot is that it has Kirsten Dunst in it, whom I would marry. She's always nice to look at on the screen. But even that pleasure is turned to disgust when she is made to give such Shakesperean soliloquies as this:

"My feeling is that life hands you things, and nine out of ten times you can’t do anything with them. And then it hands you something you can do something with. And you ought to just grab it, and hold it tight. And hope you never lose it. And then you’re not alone."

You've got to be a member of a union of professional writers, like the Writers Guild of America, to come up with brilliant lines like that. Long may the strike last.

The plot centers around Dunst, who has just turned 18 and run away from her mother to Las Vegas to find the father who abandoned the family long ago. Played by James Caan, he allegedly is the greatest poker player in the world, or at least was before he became a washed-up, degenerate, has-been drunk.

Caan aims to get a big bankroll back by taking on a rich, mob-connected strip-club owner in heads-up poker. Caan's former girlfriend is now the rich guy's moll. In another bit of scintillating dialogue, she warns Caan not to play against him:

"It’s not like before. He plays a mean game now. Even when you win, you lose. Kind of like with you and me."

Meanwhile, Dunst picks up along the way to Vegas another teenager who, we are led to believe, is God's gift to poker. We see him play exactly one hand--against Caan, of course. Caan sees his talent and says he'll become one of the best ever. That all gets thrown away at the end of the film, though, because Dunst disapproves of the gambler's lifestyle, so they trade giving up vices: She quits smoking and he quits playing cards. Yeah, that makes sense. Smoking is a filthy habit that costs you money and destroys your health, while true poker talent is a rare gift that can bring fabulous wealth and freedom. So they're pretty much equivalent.

The match between Caan and his nemesis is reduced to one hand, which you can pretty much piece together from the photos above. As per the pathetic standard in poker scenes, they completely ignore the string-bet rule. It's as if Hollywood writers are incapable of conceiving of any way of putting in a raise other than the hackneyed: "Your 50" (push chips forward, followed by a dramatic pause) "plus another 100." When the two characters involved are unambiguously portrayed as old-time pros at Vegas casino poker, this just falls flat.

For more plausibility, nothing beats pocket aces versus pocket kings in a one-on-one match, first hand, with both players making sets with the board. Yeah, that's pretty much how every hand of poker is.

In "Annie Hall," Woody Allen says, "There's an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them says, 'Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.' The other one says, 'Yeah, I know, and such small portions.' Well, that's essentially how I feel about life--full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly."

One might say the same about the poker in this movie: It's really awful, and there's far too little of it. Two hands in an hour and a half of screen time. It's a stretch to call this a poker movie. And yes, it really is a lot worse than "Lucky You."

(To see my previous reviews of poker movies, just click on the "movies" label at the end of this post or in the list of labels in the left-lower corner of the page.)

I can't vote for Ron Paul (grrrrrrrrr) (non-poker related)

After writing the post below, I started looking for information on where I needed to go Saturday for the Republican caucuses to put in my vote for Ron Paul. I discovered, to my chagrin, that I can't. It turns out that the stupid Republican party put in place a rule that one has to have registered as a Republican 30 days before the caucus in order to participate. I'm not thrilled about changing my registration from Libertarian to Republican (I think it should be illegal for the state to collect data on one's party affiliation as part of voter registration, but that's another issue), but I would have done so temporarily for the purpose of voting for Paul.

I moved here from Minnesota, which had open caucuses--just show up and you can participate. I had just blithely assumed that things would work similarly here. The Democrats basically do the same in Nevada. But not the Republicans.

Why does everything have to be stupid and difficult?

On top of that, I have a painful stye in my left eye, and it was 28 degrees here a couple of hours ago, which is way too cold for existence. I am super grumpy today.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Funding online poker accounts is still a pain

I wrote a couple of months ago about my frustrations trying to get money into one of my online poker accounts (see http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2007/10/funding-online-poker-accounts-is-pain.html). I don't play particularly well online, so don't do it often, but once in a while I take another stab and see if I'm getting any better at it.

My epassporte account works, but there's a $5-$10 charge every time, and it's slow, with the money I send to it from my online bank not available for a week or two. Completely ridiculous and unacceptable in an age of instant transactions for everything else.

I had read several places that Visa gift cards worked like a charm, and were accepted at online poker sites where regular credit or debit cards would not be. So I decided to try it. I stopped at a local Walgreens and purchased a $100 Visa gift card for $105.95. I figured the worst that could happen would be it got rejected, and I'd be out the $5.95, but still be able to spend the $100 on whatever expenses came up in my life.

I naively assumed that all Visa gift cards were equal. Turns out not to be so. When I found that the one I bought would not be accepted at Full Tilt, Poker Stars, or Ultimate Bet, I did a little more searching around the poker forums where this subject is discussed. Various cards are issued by different banks, and some of them tend to get accepted and others not. By coincidence, the one I bought ("gift2go") is one that many users have reported success with, but for whatever reason, I couldn't make it work. Other users say that whatever brand is sold through Target has the best track record of being accepted, but I haven't tried that yet.

In the process of this after-the-fact research, I also came across favorable reports for gift cards purchased through http://www.giftcards.com/, so I gave that a try. The most detailed account I found online described the whole thing going through in a couple of hours. That wasn't my experience. They only gave me the option of buying the card via a direct withdrawal from my checking account (i.e., I couldn't use another credit or debit card to buy it), and my bank doesn't process such transactions any faster than two days. I put in the request Monday afternoon, and got the approval about noon today. It cost $105 for a $100 card.

I sent the "virtual gift card" to myself, and received an email telling me how to access it. That all worked fine. Then the big test: will it be accepted for online poker? Full Tilt: No. Poker Stars: No. Ultimate Bet: Yes! The card issuer charged a transaction fee of $0.06, and $99.94 showed up almost instantly in my UB account. (Yeah, I know about their association with Absolute Poker and the big scandal. But I still like playing on UB more than the other two big ones.)

There is another potential problem with funding an account this way: you can't withdraw by the same means, which probably means that if I start turning an actual profit and want to cash out, I'll have to settle for a slow paper check to be mailed to me. But that's a small problem, and I'll deal with it when the time comes. (Nevertheless, I'm bracing myself for a possible nightmare of an experience, after reading this account of trying to make a simple withdrawal from UB: http://hardboiledpoker.blogspot.com/2007/11/ub-kidding-me.html.)

When Full Tilt rejected the card, it suggested instead a new option, something called an Ultra account. So I went through the tedious process of signing up for one of those accounts, typing in all the usual redundant information, answering its questions to see if I was really who I was claiming to be, etc. Then I clicked "submit," and got one of those horrible error screens that tells me their server crashed or something. ARGHHHHHHHHHHHH!

This is all so pointless and stupid, and all due to that idiotic, anti-American UIGEA passed in 2006. If you vote for a presidential or congressional candidate who is on record as supporting that awful piece of legislation, well, you deserve all of the obstacles and frustrations that are now attendant upon trying to engage in the simple pasttime of running a bluff in your underwear. It is said that people get the government they deserve, so if people of this country are so ignorant and/or apathetic not to punish politically the people who visited this insanity upon us, I guess we're just getting what we deserve. (Quick hint: Ron Paul is far and away the most freedom-loving presidential candidate this country has had in my lifetime. Shame on us all if we let slip away this opportunity to have such a man in the White House. I'm afraid he'll be too old to run ever again.)

Addendum, January 18, 2008

I created accounts at two new (to me) sites last night, Carbon Poker and Players Only. The "gift2go" card mentioned above was rejected (as with every other place I tried it) at Carbon, but sailed through at Players Only. If there is any logical reason for this discrepancy, it completely escapes me.

Addendum, January 18, 2008

An amazing breakthrough! One of the commenters said that Poker Stars can be funded diretly through one's checking account. I was skeptical of this, because nothing has been that easy since Netteller stopped doing business in the U.S. But I dutifully went to PS to try it. It's the "E-check" option. And it worked like a charm! In about two minutes, I had $100 sitting in my Stars account--with zero fees! Simply amazing. It's just like the old days. I wonder if it will last.


Addendum, January 19, 2008

Another commenter mentioned the gift cards issued by http://www.allaccessgift.com/. They are sold locally at, among other places, Von's grocery stores. I needed a couple of things last night and was going right past a Von's anyway, so looked for and found the cards, right by the cash registers. The highest they had was $50, but that was fine, since it was just to see if it worked. Bought the thing for $55. The first place I tried to use it was a new account I just set up at Carbon Poker, and it went through without a hitch. Looking more closely at the card, it is issued by "Inter National Bank," which is the same place I've seen mentioned in the forums as the bank whose cards tend to work most consistently for this purpose. It seems that that information is correct. The commenter also mentioned something I hadn't seen anywhere else, which is that not all of this issuer's cards work equally well, and you need to check to see that it also gives the name "NetSpend" somewhere on the card's packaging before buying it. I can't confirm that exactly, but this one did have that label, and worked fine on the first try, so it's probably worth checking for that notation.


Addendum, February 5, 2008

I tried another one of those Inter National Bank NetSpend Visa gift cards on Full Tilt, and they wouldn't accept it. I tried it on Bodog and BugsysClub, and it went through instantly on both. There is no logical pattern to what works and doesn't work. It's all just trial and error, as far as I can tell--which is why I'm reporting my experiences here for each specific combination of funding method and site I try.

Addendum, April 9, 2008

Another of the same type of card worked like slick on both Poker Host and True Poker. I couldn't get it to work on Eurolinx, because that dumb site requires you to go to a third-party intermediary, which appears to accept only standard credit cards, not gift cards.

Hand-guessing quiz






OK, kiddies, time for a test!

Don't worry, it's only for fun.

I witnessed a hand at the Palms tonight in which I thought one player's hand was perfectly obvious, but the other was a completely mystery. That doesn't happen often. See if you can figure it out better than I did.

I had only been playing for maybe 30 or 45 minutes when this occurred. Player A is a stereotypical rock, the oldest and tightest player at the table. He has the biggest stack at the table, starting this hand with about $1200. Player B is an enigma to me. He has won a good number of hands with large bets on the river that opponents are unwilling to call, so he has had to show almost nothing, which means that I don't have a good sense if he is a frequent bluffer. He doesn't handle himself like a pro, but is by no means new to the game. I suppose if I had to classify him at this point, I would have thought him either an experienced tourist or a better-than-average local--but, as I said, that wasn't based on seeing his showdowns, so I had a lot of room for doubt there. He started this hand with what looks like maybe $350.

Player A is under the gun (first to act). He puts in a raise to $18 in a $1-3 no-limit hold'em game. This is a little larger than this table's average opening raise, which has usually been $12-$15. This was the first time I had seen him put in a pre-flop raise. Everybody folds except for Player B, who is in the big blind. He seems fairly reluctant to make the call, but does. After this point, I don't have anything that I would consider a reliable physical tell on how either player behaves during the hand, so I'll just not say any more about that aspect of things.

The flop is 2-2-4 rainbow. Player B bets $10. A calls. The turn card is an offsuit K (suits are irrelevant here; I'll give you that much as a hint). B bets $20. A raises to $70. B calls. The river card is another 4, giving us a final board of 2-2-4-K-4. B checks. A goes all-in. B quickly calls.

This is the point at which I was so confident of A's hand that I even did something very rare for me: I pointed at him and announced his hand out loud before either of them had shown. I was right. But B was a mystery to me.

Take a minute and see what you think before scrolling down.








Player A had pocket kings, making kings full of 4s. His pre-flop raise presumably hoped to chase out any weak aces. He missed the flop, but B's pre-flop call was so tentative and his bet so small that A was naturally going to at least call and see what developed. Then he hit his gin card on the turn, making the best possible full house. That's when he turned up the heat on his opponent. When the river double-paired the board, he probably guessed that Player B had made a smaller full house and would call off all of his chips. He only had to fear pocket 2s and pocket 4s.

Player B had pocket 3s. You might want to read that again. Pocket 3s. On the river he called off over $200 in the hope that his Rock-of-Gibraltar opponent was just playing the board--because he could beat almost nothing else! If A had, maybe, A-Q, his 3s would be good, but that was just not a plausible scenario, and it was the only way he could have won the pot. I could have fallen off my chair when I saw what he had.

I've previously described what I thought was the worst call ever (see http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2007/07/worst-call-ever-non-grumpy-content.html). This one is in contention for the same award. I have no idea what he was thinking. He sheepishly got up and left the game.

So how did you do? My guess is that nobody correctly named what Player B was holding--because he's a friggin' IDIOT, playing completely irrationally, and it's impossible to put such a player on a hand!

Thanks for taking our quiz.

Addendum

As several commenters pointed out, in the original post I accidentally switched A and B in the middle of the hand. Oops. Sorry about that. When I started writing it I knew that was going to happen, because their order of acting was different before the flop and after the flop. I blew it anyway, in spite of warning myself not to! I've fixed it now.

Addendum, January 17, 2007

Another commenter today said that I still had things messed up between A and B. I checked, and he was right--I had them reversed in the answer section. Good grief. My apologies. Now it's correct.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Hellmuth is wrong again

On last night's "Poker After Dark," Phil Hellmuth missed his straight draw, but bet on the river as a bluff. Jean-Robert Bellande (the poker player who was on "Survivor" last season) reluctantly called with third pair.

Hellmuth says, "You got it. Good call." But he doesn't show his hand or throw his cards away. Bellande waits for him to do one or the other.

Hellmuth launches into a lecture about proper poker etiquette. He insists that etiquette requires Bellande to show first in this situation, while acknowledging that the rules require him (Hellmuth) to show first. Bellande calmly and politely disagrees. Shawn Sheikhan--one of the very few players in the world more ill-behaved at the table than Hellmuth--chimes in on Phil's side.

Are there any two players in the world with less credibility on proper poker etiquette than these two clowns?

Hellmuth, as so often is the case, is dead wrong here. There is no case in which the rules prescribe one action and etiquette the opposite.

I've been in Bellande's situation countless times, and I will sit there all day or all night until my opponent figures out that the game isn't going anywhere until he fulfills his obligation. If he doesn't want to show his bluff, fine, he can toss his cards in the muck, and I'll take the pot. If he wants to see what I called him with, he can force me to show that I have the winner by turning over his cards first. But he has to do one or the other.

I've also had my share of times in the bluffer's seat. I don't think I've ever just mucked, but I don't hesitate to show my hand. I figure I've lost the pot, but at least I can get some advertising value out of showing the bluff, hoping that other players will remember it and call me down the next time when I've got the goods. And a couple of times I've been very pleasantly surprised to see the caller either muck or turn over a worse hand, and discover that I was bluffing with the best hand! Even if that happens only one time in 20, it makes it worth not just throwing away a bluff.

The reason for this rule is simple. Lots of scummy players will do what Hellmuth did, but with a hand that may or may not be the winner (rather than a stone-cold bluff that can't beat anybody who calls it), then say something like "You win" in order to induce the opponent to show first. Then, if the bettor discovers he actually has the better hand, he shows and takes the pot, but otherwise mucks. This is unethical, but perfectly legal.

I'm never going to let somebody shoot an angle that way, and the rule is set up to prevent it. I have no idea where Hellmuth got the idea that etiquette calls for the opposite of what the rule demands. It would be crazy to have every player in that situation torn between doing what the rule requires and what etiquette recommends. Fortunately, it isn't so. They are exactly aligned.

If Phil really believes that he's beat and doesn't want to show his cards, he can and should just muck them face-down--that is, make his actions match his words. If he holds out some hope that Bellande has called him ultra-thin and he might win at a showdown, then he should just flip his cards over without all the drama, fuss, argument, and time-wasting. If he loses, fine, move on to the next hand, and if he wins, it's a nice surprise bonus. The only conceivable reason that he continues to hold on to his cards while prompting Bellande to show first is the slim hope that he's holding a winner, which implies that what he wants to do is the unethical practice I just described: show if he turns out to have the best hand, and fold otherwise. Bellande is absolutely right not to let him try that slimy move.

Phil Hellmuth and Shawn Sheikhan giving lectures on proper poker etiquette. Wow. Has anybody checked on the temperature in hell today? Icing up a bit, I'm thinking?

Poker gems, #70





Sam Grizzle, on NBC's "Poker After Dark," January 15, 2007. Phil Hellmuth is wearing and promoting his new line of poker shirts bearing his initial.


What does the "P" stand for--puke?

The next Olympic gold-medal hurdler could be a poker player






I'm an idea man. I'm full of it, er, them.

Like right now I've got this great idea for how to assure the United States Olympic dominance in every track and field event that involves sprinting, hurdles, and the steeplechase: We recruit poker players.

You see, when a poker player is away from the table temporarily, on a restroom break or dinner break or whatever, and is just heading back to continue playing, it suddenly becomes a matter of life and death to get to the table in time for the next hand. If from a distance he sees the dealer pulling the deck from the Shufflemaster, he will break into a sweat and a sprint, and cover the remaining distance to the table in a dead run.

Mind you, this isn't just the young, healthy kids we're talking about here. This includes the old, the fat, the lame, guys who haven't voluntarily exercised since the Truman administration, and those who are coming back from a cigarette break with their oxygen tanks dragging behind.

I mention the steeplechase and hurdles because that's the other amazing thing about witnessing this surge of adrenaline. These guys can leap tall buildings in a single bound. They can jump over chairs, tables, and the half-walls that surround many poker rooms. Remember the Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza is at a children's party when fire breaks out, and he pushes all the kids down in his mad rush for the door? You see the same thing with poker players desperate to get back to the table. They're absolutely ruthless in their blind dash.

This phenomenon is really only remarkable for those who are stuck. Winning players are a lot more casual about returning. But have a guy lose his first four or five buy-ins, and you've got an Olympic athlete on your hands.

I realize that this is completely insane behavior. Think about it this way: Suppose you need to catch a bus. If it's the last bus of the night, and your destination is an impossible distance away and you've just got to get there, and there's no train or taxi, and you get to the bus stop just as that last bus is pulling away, you well might run for your life and scream for it to stop and throw rocks at it to get the driver's attention, etc. But suppose you knew that, rather than being the last bus of the night, this was a route on which another bus came along every two minutes, rain or shine, day or night. Wouldn't you be inclined to look at the departing bus with a shrug and say, "Oh well. The next one will be here soon"? Of course you would. Because that's what a rational human being would do.

But a poker player who is stuck for a large amount of money loses the ability to reason in such a calm and detached manner. To him, the cards the dealer is putting out right this instant are all that matter. He just knows that they are the pocket aces that will win him the huge pot that turns the session around. Of course, it's just as likely that it will be the pocket kings that lose everything to somebody else's pocket aces, but that possibility does not occur to the stuck player. All he knows is that, by all that is holy, he needs to play this hand, and Lord help anybody or anything that stands in his way.

So here's my idea. Put old, fat, butt-smoking, arthritic poker players in the U.S. Olympic team. When they line up to start the race, all the other competitors will laugh and relax, thinking they've got it cinched. But we have a secret weapon. You see, just before the race, our degenerate gamblers will have been playing poker, in a game that they don't know is rigged, so they're doomed to lose. They'll be down $1000, $2000 just when they get the call to report for the race. Then we fit them with one of those virtual-reality headset things. It will project in front of their eyes an image of the poker game they just left, with the dealer just about ready to begin the next hand.

Bang! The starter pistol goes off, our pokeristas are running like Secretariat, and we nail gold, silver, and bronze, while the muscular, tanned, elite athletes of every backwater third-world banana republic on the planet are left in the dust.

We can't lose.