Saturday, February 02, 2008

Jerry Yang and the questions still unanswered




I have written twice before about 2007 WSOP main event winner Jerry Yang and his unprecedented overt display of religiosity at the final table (see http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2007/07/mr-destiny.html and http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2007/10/more-on-religion-at-poker-table.html). You'll need to read those posts if you want to understand some of the details in this one, I think.

Last night some web surfing on another poker-related subject led me to the archive of articles that Gary Wise occasionally writes for ESPN (http://sports.espn.go.com/keyword/search?searchString=gary_wise), and there I noticed an interview he did in December with Yang (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/poker/columns/story?columnist=wise_gary&id=3140073). Now I have to rant on this subject again.

This is the part of the article that first raised my hopes about getting a straight answer to the obvious question Yang's public propitiations raised:

The question I'd wanted to ask Jerry over those months since watching him
win was this: "If God isn't changing the order of the cards, why the prayer?"
Yang was instantly transformed into poker's holy champion by his calls to the
"Lord" on ESPN's broadcasts. It felt a little strange to me (and a plethora of
other observers) that he'd think a greater power would invest itself in any way
in the turn of a card. My mistake was in my perception of his acts.

"God doesn't love one person more than another person" Jerry answered,
assuring me there was no chance the Lord was intentionally pairing him up flop
after flop. "I pray to my God for the strength to make the right decision."

Time and again, Yang made tough calls at the final table, trusting his
gut instincts in doing so. It would have been easier to play it safe and make
folds in those situations, the money and exposure being what they were. In
calling out his prayers, Jerry was seeking the fortitude we all seek when faced
with those make-or-break moments at the table. "He's giving me the opportunity
to make my own choices." He also wanted to share the joy he was experiencing
with the being he saw as responsible for it.


Unfortunately, that's as probing as Mr. Wise got. He apparently did not confront Yang with the fairly obvious discrepancies between his answer here and what actually happened last July.

For example, in the hand that knocked out Lee Watkinson, Yang is heard saying this, after all the money was in and the hole cards were exposed, so that no further decisions by either player were possible: "Come on, Lord. You know your purpose for me.... You have a purpose for me today.... Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, c'mon, let me win this one."

OK, Jerry--explain to me how those words can plausibly be interpreted as pleading for God to help you make correct decisions, and not as a request for a conclusion to the hand favorable to you.

Similarly, in the hand that eliminated Lee Childs, Yang pleads, "Let people see your miracle." Again, I can't see any way to interpret that as a prayer for Yang to be given strength to play to the best of his ability, coming, as it did, after all of the chips were in.

As further evidence, here's what the Las Vegas Sun reported as happening before the final table:
Once, for instance, he risked a big chunk of his stack of chips with just
a pair of 4s and ran smack into an opponent's higher pocket pair.

It was then Yang - like a lot of poker players, including some who are
probably more reluctant to admit it - turned to prayer.

"I kept saying, 'Lord, give me a set,' " Yang said, using the common poker
term for three-of-a-kind. "And there was a 4 on the flop."

Another time, Yang needed an ace or a 4 on the final card to fill a
straight and extend his tournament life.

"I said, 'Lord, if you want me to win this, put the ace or the 4 on the
river,' " Yang said. A 4 came, and Yang lived to fight on.


(Note that the link to that story in my first post is now dead, but the article can be found here: http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2007/jul/19/jeff-haney-on-how-the-new-face-of-championship-pok/.)

I don't know how Yang's own words could be any more explicit. "Lord, give me a set" and "put the ace or the 4 on the river" are not prayers to be helped in making correct decisions. They are overt, unambiguous requests for divine intervention to change the order of the cards being held in the dealer's hand.

With that in mind, let's look in more detail at what Yang said to Mr. Wise. Below is my transcript of the critical section of the interview, which you can hear in full at http://cdn.libsyn.com/roundersradio/12-05-07__Gary_Wise_Full_Show___Jerry_Yang__and_Chip_Reese_memories__.mp3. This portion occurs between about 28:05 and 30:10. I tried to be as accurate as I could be in making the transcript, and I'll take responsibility if I accidentally introduced any small errors.


WISE: The question that I asked you in our conversation a few days ago was one that was meant to clarify for a lot of people some misconceptions, and that was whether prayer could affect the result of hands, because at that final table obviously you prayed very long and very hard and very loud to God, and I feel a lot of people interpret that...

YANG: You're right, absolutely.

WISE: And I think a lot of people interpret that to mean that you felt that, y'know, if you called loud enough, you could get a better turn card.

YANG: [laughs] Oh, that's pretty funny, Gary!

WISE: But you see what I'm saying, this is the misconception that a lot of people have been operating under, y'know, so

YANG: [more laughter] Absolutely, yeah, you're right.

WISE: [Crosstalk makes it difficult to hear a few words here] c'mon, God, gimme an ace, y'know?

YANG: [more laughter] No. I did not say that. C'mon.

WISE: Well, no, you didn't say those words, but I think a lot of people interpreted your prayers that way. So why don't you, why don't you take this opportunity to straighten them out a little bit? What, uh, why were you praying to God?

YANG: OK. I wanted to, this is such a very, very interesting question, and I'd be more than happy to answer that question. First of all, I don't want the fans, I don't want anybody out there to, to think that I'm praying to God to give me the cards. That's not my intention whatsoever. I believe in my God. I pray to my God for the strength and the guidance to make the right decision. And at that point when I pray to my God I say, you know what, I leave everything in his will, I ask him for his guidance, his strength, to give me the strength to make the right decision for myself. That's all I'm asking from my God. I'm not asking God to change the cards.


To Mr. Wise's credit, he's the only one to date, as far as I have been able to learn, who has asked Yang directly about this apparent bit of bizarre theology. Unfortunately, though, he then let Yang off the hook with an answer that is obviously false, or at least woefully incomplete, and flagrantly inconsistent with Yang's own words immediately after the event.

My disappointment in having my hopes for an answer raised, then dashed, prompted me to do a Google search for other Yang interviews, to see if anybody else has pressed him on this point. As far as I can tell, nobody has. Here's the list of interviews I was able to find:

http://www.pokerlistings.com/poker-player-interviews/wsop/2007/jerry-yang-a-world-class-world-champion

http://www.holdemradio.com/media/kfa110107.mp3

http://www.bluffmagazine.com/magazine/readarticle.asp?aid=670

All of those appear to have nothing useful on the question at hand.

But in an ESPN radio podcast with Phil Gordon (http://ne.edgecastcdn.net/0000A6/espnpod2/espnradio/poker/poker070807.mp3), Yang makes this comment, at about 14:10:


"Winning this, this thing, this whole thing, I think I give all the glory and credit to God for obviously giving me some good cards...."


Then, starting at 26:05, he says, "God brought me through each step of the way. I believe that God had a plan for me and to win the World Series of Poker and win this amount of money. That is why I dedicate to giving back something back [sic] to the community. So I give the glory, all the glory and credit to God, because of him I won and I believe that there was a miracle hand that happened during the World Series. I was on the verge of being eliminated like three, four times, but the river card just happened to bail me out, so I believe that God and the Holy Spirit was [sic] there with me. I truly believe in that."


So he does unquestionably believe that God arranges the deck. I don't see how you can believe that precept, and that God answers prayers, yet not believe that one's prayers asking God for specific cards will result in the cards in the dealer's hand changing.


One other interview captures another piece of evidence: http://pokerati.com/2007/08/01/re-meet-jerry-yang/. Here, Yang is asked, apparently right after the WSOP, whether, on the final hand, he expected the river to bring the 6 that filled his inside straight. (He needed one of the four 6s or one of the two remaining 8s to win the hand.) He says that yes, he "absolutely" expected it. "I remember the second day, my chips went down, I started with 738,000 or so, and I went down, and I prayed for the 4 on the river, and the 4 came and gave me a wheel. And today I felt it, somehow I felt that. I say, oh please, either that 8 or that 6 at the river, and when the 6 came I was so excited."


Again, how can he reconcile this with the later claim that he does not expect God to intervene in order for him to win hands? Does he not remember what he said before? Has his theology shifted in the interim? Does he think that we're all too stupid to notice that he is now denying what he openly admitted to before?


Yang is being blatantly inconsistent in his responses to various interviewers.


I hope that this changes. I hope that at least one member of the poker media takes the initiative to press Yang with the hard questions that so far he has been allowed to duck. Quote to him what he has said, point out the contradictions, and keep nailing him with direct questions until he either admits that he really did intend his propitiations to affect the outcome of specific hands, or explains (if it is possible) how his repeated words that sound as if that's what he is doing can reasonably be interpreted in a way that is consistent with his post hoc explanations.


I hate the fact that I have to include this disclaimer, but I do: As far as I can tell, everybody who has had contact with Yang agrees that he is an incredibly nice, humble person, a good family man, generous with his winnings, with an amazing personal life story. I don't dispute any of that. I'm focused narrowly on trying to understand what I consider a weird, even borderline delusional, belief that saying the right things to the right deity in the middle of a poker hand will supernaturally cause a different outcome for that hand than would have occurred without the player uttering those magical words. I remain quite confident that Jerry Yang does actually believe that, despite his later denials.


Fitting comics below borrowed from http://goberude.blogspot.com/.







Addendum, February 3, 2008

1. I apologize for the weird line spacing in the foregoing post. Blogger does something mysterious to an entire post when there are sections that are block-indented. I haven't been able to figure out how to counter it. I hope the content is still worthwhile, even though the visual presentation is less professional than I would ideally like it. I'm slowly learning, and someday I expect I'll be able to set such things right.

2. Gary Wise was kind enough to not only write back to me (I sent him an email to alert him that I was talking about him--I figure that's the polite thing to do), and post a comment here, but quickly drafted a very thoughtful reply on his own blog. See http://www.wisehandpoker.com/blog/index.php/gary-wise/2008/02/03/an_interesting_debate.

I'm sympathetic to his dilemma: Press too hard, and you get shut out entirely in the future, because people such as Yang have no obligation to do interviews at all, and when they do, they have a lot of reporters lined up who want in, and they can cherry-pick the best and/or easiest ones. As I said above, give him credit for even broaching the subject, when nobody else has, as far as I know.

I agree with his observation that my role as an independent, unpaid writer (and one that precious few people in the big poker world pay attention to!) gives me the luxury of more freedom to be blunt than he can afford. I hope it's helpful that I put the hard questions out there into the ether, even if I don't have access to the only one who can answer them. Perhaps in some intangible way, more people seeing the hard evidence of the stark contradictions between what Yang actually did, and what he nows says that he did, will eventually seep back to him, and prompt him to reflect more on the whole thing, and maybe comment publicly about it at some point.

3. One commenter takes me to task for getting "worked up" about the whole thing. I'm not sure how to respond to that. First, I'm not "worked up" in any emotional sense. I'm intensely curious about the overt contradictions in Yang's statements, but I feel not one speck of personal investment in the matter. I don't expect that I could change Yang's mind about his beliefs, even if he were perfectly clear as to what his beliefs are (and I don't think he is; I think his thoughts on the matter are terribly muddled, and that he hasn't really ever wrestled with himself as to what he believes God does and doesn't do). Nor am I particularly interested in doing so.

But f'r cryin' out loud, this whole blog is devoted to my pointing out things in the poker world that I don't like, that I think should be done differently. That includes griping about things a whole lot more trivial than whether there is a supernatural being that controls the shuffle even more directly than the dealer does. Doesn't that seem like a rather important thing to know? If you are facing an opponent who has a omniscient and omnipotent being hovering over his shoulder, one who knows what you've been dealt and might whisper that information to your opponent, and one who can wiggle his nose like Samantha on "Bewitched" and change your aces into a 2-7 offsuit if it pleases him to do so, wouldn't you want to know that? I think I'd ask for a table change, if I knew that I were up against that kind of sorcery.

Conversely, if your opponent is so addled in his thinking that he believes that he will win any hand if he counts backward from 100 by sevens while twirling his left thumb clockwise, isn't that something you'd like to know? If there is no ethereal creature waving an omnipotent magic wand to rearrange the cards in the dealer's hand, but your opponent fervently believes that there is, isn't that information worth having?

I think, as a general rule, that truth and consistency are pretty important things. Yang is in a position to potentially influence how a lot of people view our game. If he were on the speaking circuit telling the world that there is a purple unicorn that he talks to--visible only to him--and that the unicorn talks back to him, and the unicorn uses its magic powers to put the cards that Yang needs on the board when he asks in just the right way, wouldn't it concern you that that's a pretty bizarre image of poker to be presenting to the world? Well, objectively there is no difference between that and what Yang is actually telling everybody. He believes in a powerful, invisible, supernatural being that wants Jerry to win, one who moves the cards around in the dealer's hand to make that happen, if Jerry just incants the right words at critical moments. That's weird. That's nuts, frankly. If he were to couch that idea in any way other than putting the specific label of the Christian god on it (the unicorn, for example), he'd get locked up in the looney bin and deemed unfit and unsafe to raise his own children until he got put on enough Thorazine to quiet his demons.

Yeah, I think that having one of the currently most visible players of the game announcing, basically, that he's borderline hallucinatory, is kind of important, as subject matter goes in the poker universe. It's probably more important than whether casinos give too-small and watered-down servings of Coke, or whether Phil Hellmuth is occasionally way off in his on-the-spot odds calculations, or whether a particular poker movie was a waste of $6 to see, or whether the El Cortez poker room is worth visiting, or whether David Apostolico made an error in how he recounted a specific WSOP hand in a magazine article, or how annoying it is to have poker players leave stuff under the table that I end up stepping on. Yet all those, and a couple hundred others, have been the targets of my musings here. Look at it like this: If Yang really did start publicly recounting a unicorn theory, would you think that worthy of attention from poker bloggers? If yes, then why should I, or we, ignore what he says because he phrases it in a more common supernatural vein than in a less common one? I can't see that the commonness or uncommonness of a delusion--if indeed it is a delusion--makes it any more or less valid a topic of discussion. Conversely, if it is not a delusion, if Yang really does have the key to access omnipotent powers on behalf of his poker game, should I deem that an unimportant topic of conversation? Seems pretty important to me to know whether that's really true or not.

Finally, I will invoke what I assume is a tenet of Yang's own faith: "[B]e ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you." (1 Peter 3: 15, King James Version.) Shouldn't Jerry Yang be willing to live up to this, assuming he views it as a directive from the God he worships?

Friday, February 01, 2008

A possible non-sucky poker movie




See the trailer at http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/1809733374/video/6207507.

I just put its opening date (March 21) on my Outlook calendar.

Poker gems, #79




Proverbs 10:4, King James Version:


He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand: but the hand of the diligent maketh rich.


Amen.

An ethical dilemma (non-grumpy content)




Last night I played a hand at the Riviera while knowing what my opponent held. It was an extremely strange sensation. How it happened requires some fairly boring background explanation.

Many of the sleazier poker rooms (and the Riviera fits that description) scrimp way too much on putting replacement decks of cards into use. The uniform pattern on the backs of cards gradually starts wearing off in places, leaving tell-tale pale spots in the design. Often, there are so many cards affected in this way, and the marks are so hard to distinguish from each other, that it would take great concentration and effort to learn which spot went with which card. But sometimes one of the marks is fairly distinct in shape or location, and an observant player can quickly learn to identify that card.

Naturally, I consider it unethical to continue playing with such a card in the deck, once I'm confident I can spot it in an opponent's hand. I alert the dealer to the problem and get that card (or the whole deck) replaced.

One of the first times I did this, I was embarrassed to be wrong. As the card I had noted was mucked by another player, I said to the dealer what has become my standard line: "You should peek at that card. If it's the four of hearts (or whatever), you should probably replace it." I had been right all three times or so that I had noted such a problem before. But on that occasion, I was wrong for the first time. It turned out that that deck had two or three cards all with similar marks.

As a result, I tightened up my standards. My method now is that when I see what appears to be a distinctive worn patch, and learn what card it is associated with, I have to correctly spot that card twice before I alert the dealer to it. For example, if I get dealt the card and correctly identify it to myself before peeking at it, that's one. If I see it coming off of the deck as one of the flop cards, and the card I've named to myself is indeed on the flop, that's two. Then I feel ready to alert the dealer the next time there's an opportunity.

Even then, I still want the dealer to do the final test. It's far more convincing that there's a problem if I point to a card in the muck and name it for the dealer, than if I point to a spot on a card that the dealer knows that I've seen (e.g., one from the flop or one of my own hole cards). So even after I've passed my double test, often quite a bit of time passes before I get the chance to see the card in a situation where the dealer will know that the only way I could name it is from recognizing the back (usually when another player folds his hand, and I see the mark as the card is being pulled into the muck).

The reason for this final demonstration is that on a previous occasion when I didn't prove my secret knoweldge, but just pointed to the tell-tale spot on a card from my hand, the dealer waved it off, saying, "Oh, lots of the cards have little marks like that."

Before last night, I had never contemplated the dilemma that I would face if I found myself in a hand with an opponent who was holding the card I had confidently identified, but had not yet had the chance to reveal to the dealer. So of course, since I hadn't thought about how to handle the situation, the poker gods foisted it upon me.

On one of my very first hands of the session, I noticed an unusual mark on a card in the muck. The Kem card pattern was one of tiny overlapping circles. There isn't a straight line anywhere in the design. But this wear mark was perfectly linear, which is why it caught my eye. It was a long, long time before that card was dealt to me, and I learned that it was the nine of spades. But having been burned once, I was aware that there might be two or more cards with similar features, and I couldn't be sure. So I waited until it was dealt to me again. Yep--nine of spades again. That's almost surely a unique mark, and I'm ready to point it out to the dealer next time I see it in a situation where he or she will know that I didn't see the face of the card.

Then the problem hand developed. I was in the five seat, and looked down at the ace and jack of spades. I raised. I got only one caller, an older man in the one seat, who was in the big blind. He didn't use a card protector, and as he tossed in the chips to call, I saw, to my consternation, that his top card was the marked one. I now knew that he had the nine of spades.

This was an eerie feeling, one that I've never had before. Instead of mentally constructing a list of the possible range of hands with which he would have called me in that situation, I knew one of his cards for sure, and could place extremely tight boundaries on what the other card must be. He might have an unsuited ace-nine (had to be unsuited because I had the ace of spades), he might have pocket nines, and he might have suited connectors, with the eight or ten of spades as his second card. Those were really the only possibilities for his call, given that he was a tight player, that he knew me to be a tight player, and that he was willing to play the hand against me from out of position.

It's hard to describe how incredibly useful this kind of information is.

The flop was J-4-5, with one spade. I had top pair, top kicker. He checked to me. Naturally I'm going to bet here, even if I have no idea what he's holding, but I would usually be doing so with a cautious eye to the possibility that he had flopped a set and was slow-playing it, or had a big pocket pair with which he was preparing to sandbag me. Here, though, that wasn't possible. Of the narrow range of hands listed above, the best he could have at this point was pocket nines, which were way behind my jacks. He could not have a flush draw or a straight draw. He could not have a higher pair.

I bet with a higher degree of confidence than I can recall ever previously having on the flop (short of holding the absolute nuts). It was spooky. I suddenly had an inkling of how the infamous Potripper must have felt playing on Absolute Poker last year. (He's the guy who had insider access so that he could see all of his opponents' cards while he played. Poker is a remarkably easy game when you can do that.)

I was fidgeting, though, and unsure of what to do. I wasn't cheating, of course. I hadn't marked the card. I hadn't peeked at it when it wasn't mine to see. I had only used information that was freely available to anybody at the table who cared to pay attention to it. Furthermore, I hadn't intentionally withheld my knowledge of this one card--I just hadn't yet had the opportunity to disclose my knowledge of it in the way that I have developed, in good faith, as my custom.

If this guy had called my bet on the flop, I was thinking that I should probably stop the action and tell him what an advantage I had, and let the dealer and floor figure out what to do about it.

Fortunately, I was saved the decision of whether to actually do that, because he folded. And yes, I did seize the moment, as he slid his cards toward the dealer, to tell the dealer, "Check his top card. If it's the nine of spades, you need to replace it." My opponent looked as if I had just performed an astonishing magic trick. "How did you know that?" I pointed out the spot. He turned over both cards. The other one was the nine of diamonds. Bingo.

Now my problem is what procedure to use to balance being highly confident that I have, in fact, identified a unique mark, against being again put in the awkward position of playing against an opponent when I have such a huge unfair advantage. It's a problem I haven't solved yet.



Note above, please, that the Riviera is another casino with a huge assortment of lovely chips for collectors. (Click on the photo for a magnified view.) I especially like that they issue chips for conventions that they host, which produces some really unexpected ones. My favorites from this batch, though, are the Easter one in the center and the Halloween one in the lower right corner.


Addendum, February 4, 2008

Yesterday I was playing at Boulder Station. Twice in a fairly short interval I was dealt the five of clubs, which I noted had a small mark on the back. Given my story above, I decided to lower my threshold for pointing out the problem to the dealer, so instead of waiting for a second confirmatory instance of identifying the card from the mark, I used just one (i.e., the second time it was dealt to me, I correctly suspected it was the 5c before I turned it over). The next time I saw what appeared to be the same mark on a card in the muck, I had the dealer check it. It was the deuce of clubs, not the five. *D'oh!* So I'm still unsure how to get to a position of confidence that a mark is unique and therefore especially problematic without risking putting myself in an ethical quandary again.

Bluetooth addicts




I secretly snapped this photo at the poker desk at the Riviera last night. See that Bluetooth headset the guy is wearing? He was just concluding at least two hours of poker with that thing stuck in/on his ear the whole time. He was at the next table over, so I can't be sure, but I never noticed him acting as if he were taking a phone call at any point.

I suspect that the image such people wish to project is one of great self-importance. "I'm in such demand that I can't even be bothered to take my cell phone off of my belt when a call comes in."

I'm sure that these devices are extremely useful for people in some specific situations, such as needing to use both hands to enter data on a computer while on the phone with a customer. But to wear it through a long poker session at a casino is ludicrous. It reeks of a fragile ego that needs to be boosted by silly status symbols.

Here's an idea: When you go to play poker, play poker. Let other stuff go. It's fine to leave your cell phone on (I do), but remember that you do have voice mail. You can let most of your calls go there and deal with them later. Really--not everything is urgent in life. And since you're going to step away from the table to take the rare call that is worthy of immediate attention (you are going to step away, aren't you? Or do you think that we're all vitally interested in what groceries your wife is asking you to pick up on the way home?), you really don't need the telephone hanging from your ear for hours at a stretch, do you? Or perhaps you enjoy looking that dorky?

(Incidentally, for one of the best stories ever of public cell phone use, see http://hardboiledpoker.blogspot.com/2007/05/shamus-in-vegas-episode-9-what-happens.html.)



Below is a bonus photo of yours truly, looking suave and sophisticated and important with my own Bluetooth thingy. It came free with my cell phone. I put it on just for this picture, then put it back in its box and in the closet--never inserted a battery in it or synced it to the phone. I just don't need it.

(Close observers may notice that this is the first time a photograph has appeared in a post at some point other than the top. I just now figured out how to move it to a different spot! Woohoo! Another breakthrough for your techno-challenged author!)


Thursday, January 31, 2008

"Dead Man's Hand" review, part 2

What, you don't remember reading a part 1 of this series? Well, I didn't exactly call it that, but see http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2008/01/johnny-moneymaker.html. I read the second story in the collection last night, and it became apparent to me that I can't wait until I finish the book to write a review, or it will be way too long for anybody to bother reading. Furthermore, I'll forget the details that I need to grouse about.

I don't know whether I'll review each story separately, or maybe two or three at a time. It all depends on what I find. So this serial review may end up with three parts or thirty. We'll see. However it works out, you'll be able to get them all on your screen at once by clicking on the "Penzler" label at the end of the post, or in the lower left-hand corner of the page layout.

But for now, I've got to tell you about the story "Bump," by Jeffrey Deaver. One of my complaints about this book is that there is no introduction to the authors. I've read very little crime fiction, and I only recognize two names here: Michael Connelly and Joyce Carol Oates. As far as I know, Jeffrey Deaver may be a god in the crime genre, but he's an unknown to me. I trust that, sooner or later, Short-Stacked Shamus over at Hard-Boiled Poker (http://hardboiledpoker.blogspot.com/) will post his own review, and he's as well-situated as anybody to describe how this book fits into the larger world of crime writing. I can't do that. But I can tell you about the poker in the stories.

To start with, I'll venture this guess about Jeffrey Deaver: He's never played a hand of poker in his life.

But first let me tell you that Deaver had a great idea for a poker/crime genre mashup. Imagine that GSN's "High Stakes Poker" were played on live TV, rather than being taped and edited. Then imagine that somebody decided to try to rob it. How would it go down? That's the premise here, and it's a dandy. The story is well told--except for the poker.

Alarm about the author's grasp of the game is first raised with this description of how Texas Hold'em works: "[P]layers use their two hole cards plus any three of the five faceup board cards to make the best hand they can." Hmmm. Well, not quite, but I was willing to dismiss this as an oversimplification, rather than an outright misunderstanding. But then later Deaver shows that he really does think this is how it works. Our protagonist gets dealt the proverbial worst starting hand in hold'em, deuce-seven offsuit. He bemoans the bad cards, because "You can't make a straight--you're allowed only three cards from the board--and there was no chance of a flush."

Uh, no, that's not how it works.

But wait, it gets worse.

In one big hand, we are told that the final "community cards were the jack of spades, king of diamonds, three of clubs, seven of clubs, six of hearts." One player moves all in, another calls. We are then told that one has made a full house with a jack and ten in the hole, while the other loses with a spade flush.

Huh????? With that board, it's obviously impossible for any player to have either a flush or a full house.

This is so far off that I think it can't be attributed just to the author's ignorance of the game. Rather, I suspect that it's a mistake introduced in editing. I think that initially there were two different hands being described, and then, perhaps for reasons of space, they sort of got combined into one, without anybody noticing that the board described is not consistent with the outcome.

Deaver also doesn't understand how the blinds work. At one point, we're told that the player in the small blind "chose" $25,000 as the amount to put in--as if one can select any arbitrary quantity.

There are peculiar betting patterns in evidence. In one hand, our hero is dealt the A-J of spades in three-handed play. Here's how Deaver describes the pre-flop action: "The betting began. O'Connor played it cautious, though, checking at first, then matching the other bets or raising slightly." (The next sentence describes the flop and subsequent betting.)

Again, huh???? The only way he would be able to check is if he were in the big blind, with no raise having been put in before him. But if that were the case, then his check would end the pre-flop betting, and he wouldn't be able to call or raise the "other bets." Just how many times did they go around, calling and raising, in this hand? The description makes no sense. You might think that the "matching the other bets or raising slightly" might be describing, in advance, the entire hand, but it isn't--he details every post-flop bet as the hand unfolds.

Deaver also can't add. Each of six players buys in for $250,000. But at the end of the first session of play, three have been eliminated, and we're informed that the remaining three have, respectively, $490,000, $505,000, and $515,000. An extra $10,000 came out of nowhere. It then disappears again the next time we get an updated tally.

The last poker detail that Deaver screws up is referring to the discard pile as the "mush," rather than the "muck."

This author just plain doesn't know poker. And, apparently, neither does the editor. I cannot imagine why they didn't hire somebody who understands how poker works to read through the manuscript and highlight technical problems with the game play. How much could it possibly have cost the publisher to do that? By not doing so, they basically ruin the reading experience for poker players, who presumably constitute their target audience! It's crazy. And it's very disappointing.

Howard Lederer wrote an introduction to the volume. I wonder if he read the stories before submitting his piece. (He makes no mention of any of them, so maybe all he knew was the general idea for the collection.) It would be strange indeed if he did read them and either didn't notice or didn't point out to the editor the kinds of problems I spotted. I didn't go looking for them; they jumped out at me, as they would to anybody who plays the game even recreationally.

Maybe the Deaver contribution will be the exception, and the other authors either know poker or on their own had somebody knowledgeable check their work for problems before submitting it. I sure hope so, because, much as I enjoy complaining about things, I'd really prefer to be able to sit back and enjoy the tales, rather than being constantly distracted by problems caused by writers not knowing their subject matter.

Poker gems, #78




Stu Ungar, as quoted in Graham Sharpe, Poker's Strangest Hands, p. 149:

No one has ever beaten me playing cards. I have only beaten myself.

Celebrity sighting




I was playing at Binion's tonight when Bob Stupak came in. He looked like death warmed over, but I take it that's his baseline condition.

He watched a tournament in progress for a while, then left.

Isn't that exciting?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The state of poker

A recent article in The Economist surveys the world of modern poker: http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10281315. It discusses the young generation of players, the online world, legislation, women in poker, etc. Well worth reading.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Poker gems, #77




Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond), in the 1957 introduction to the British edition of Herbert Yardley's classic book, The Education of a Poker Player, as quoted in Graham Sharpe, Poker's Strangest Hands:

I am not a good poker player. Poker is a cold-hearted, deadly game that breaks and bankrupts men.

A rant about poker and politics




On days like today, when election news is all that's on, I can't help thinking about how screwed up American politics are, and what a pathetically small place the whole concept of liberty has in the platform of most politicians and the minds of most American voters.

To the extent that they talk about it at all, those who tried (and continue to try) to make online poker difficult or impossible justify their actions by saying that they wanted to protect children and/or compulsive gamblers.

I look at it differently, and suggest that you should, too. What I hear those politicians telling me is, "The ability to choose to play poker on your computer is really just way more freedom than I think you should have, so I'm going to take it away from you."

Doesn't that piss you off? Isn't that about as horrendous and insulting a thing as somebody you elected to serve your interests could say or imply to you? Doesn't that make you want to devote some time and money to making sure that such arrogance gets soundly renounced on election day?

It isn't just about poker, though. As much as I love the game, I'm not so delusional as to think that it is the central issue of our day. But I submit that what a politician thinks and does about poker is a pretty good surrogate (the term "litmus test" has acquired a bad reputation as regards things political, but I think it's legitimate) for what he thinks and does about personal freedom generally. After all, if a politician thinks that you can't handle a low-stakes poker game in your pajamas, you can just imagine what else he will think is too much freedom for you.

Many of the same politicians who voted for the abominable UIGEA also recently voted for the repulsive energy bill late last year. Among other things, this will eventually ban all incandescent light bulbs. The supporters couch their victory in terms such as saving the planet from global warming. Rubbish. What I hear in those votes is this message, loud and clear: "You really can't be trusted with a decision as monumental as what kind of light bulbs to put in your house." These arrogant bastards think that they know how to make that decision for me better than I can make it for myself, so they arrogated the power to decide it for everybody. (Do you see anywhere in the Constitution that Congress shall have the power to decide what kind of light bulbs you buy? It's not in my copy.)

Again, doesn't that make you deeply angry?

You can take nearly any political issue and look at it through the lens of personal liberty. Do your elected representatives want to raise the minimum wage? Well, another way of looking at it is that they don't think you, as either an employer or an employee, are competent to make a good bargain as to the value of one's time and labor.

Do they support mandatory increases in automobile fuel efficiency? That means that they don't trust you to decide for yourself how to balance, optimally for your specific situation, vehicle capacity, initial car cost, operating costs, power, and safety (and rest assured that every notch upward in fleet economy means that more people will die, because manufacturers will cut weight, and lighter cars are less crashworthy, all else being equal). That's just far, far too complex a set of of factors for you poor, stupid people to weigh on your own.

Do they want to restrict your right to donate money to the candidate or party of your choice, or limit what political advertising you and/or groups you support can purchase near election time (read: McCain-Feingold amendment)? That is a perfectly clear message to you that you're incompetent to spend your money on your political goals wisely--and the First Amendment be damned.

Do they oppose even partial privatization of Social Security? If so, it's because they see you, the foolish citizen, as way too stupid to make sound long-term investments on your own behalf.

Do they support the horrendously expensive boondoggle called the war on drugs? That's because they think that they, and not you, should be entitled to decide what substances you ingest, inhale, imbibe, or inject.

And perhaps most importantly, what do they think about money? I remember that moment of clarity in 1999 when Bill Clinton slipped and let his real thoughts show, when he was asked about the possibility of refunding some of what was then a budget surplus to the people. He said, "We could give it all back to you and hope you spend it right."

Do you hear that--you might not spend your own money "right." He knows better than you do where that money should go. What he wants to do with it is more important than anything that you mere citizens could possibly want to do with it. The same idea is reflected, though a little less flagrantly, in his wife's recent unguarded moment, when she admitted that the nation couldn't afford all the ideas she has for federal spending. There is simply no doubt that she thinks you are keeping too much of your own money--she needs to take more of it from you, and do things with it that really matter, unlike your own pathetic little goals and preferences for it. She is far from alone in this desire.

The politician who thinks you can't be trusted with the decision to play poker will most likely also think that you can't really be trusted with how you raise your children, school choice, the decision to purchase a firearm, decisions about alcohol and tobacco use, picking your own health care plan, selecting a mortgage you can afford (some want a huge increase in regulations on that whole industry), and a million other choices that we have to make as citizens and consumers. It's all just too much for you to handle, they think (and occasionally say out loud). We need to do it for you.

I cannot even begin to express the contempt I have for elected officials who bring such condescending attitudes to their term of service. It is positively vile. It does not begin or end with poker, but their views on your freedom to play the game make a pretty good single-issue sample test for the larger question of whether they really, truly, deeply believe that you should be left alone to make virtually every other decision for how to lead your life.

Sadly, and to my great consternation, there are very, very few politicians who genuinely think you can live your life without the government guiding you at every turn.

There is, as far as I know, only one presidential candidate who goes against the grain on all of this. Ron Paul (http://www.ronpaul2008.com/) says in every stump speech, "I don't want to run your life"--and he means it. How sad and ironic that in the "land of liberty" this message makes him a maverick and an outcast.

If my words and thoughts here have not roused you to a sense of righteous anger at how nearly every current office-holder and candidate treats you and thinks of you, then I have failed. But I'll make one last effort, by embedding below one of the greatest scenes in movie history. Maybe Peter Finch, in his masterful portrayal of Howard Beale ("Network," 1976), can accomplish what I have not, and make you want to "throw the bums out," as the saying goes.

You've got to get mad!



Second fun poker movie in a week!
























I've always said, "If you're gonna watch one light-hearted, poker-themed Western, ya might as well watch two of 'em." Really, I have always said that.

So I did.

While I was on Netflix adding "A Big Hand for the Little Lady" to my queue (see http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2008/01/poker-movie-worth-watching.html), I decided to push "Maverick" (see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110478/) up to the top of the list with it, and make it a twofer. OK, so it came out in 1994 and I never got around to seeing it. I confess. But now I've rectified that.

I liked this even more than "Big Hand." Jodie Foster has never looked lovelier. I have a huge crush on her. Well, maybe not quite John-Hinckley-shoot-the-president-to-impress-her huge, but pretty huge nonetheless. You might be able to guess that from the number of screen shots of her I captured above.

The story revolves around Bret Maverick's travels to the biggest poker game ever, and his attempts to acquire the buy-in for the same. This immediately introduces a huge poker-related anachronism, because the game in question is a poker tournament, and poker tournaments weren't invented until Benny Binion had the idea in the early 1970s. Oops. I guess we're not supposed to know that. To make it even stranger, the tournament uses a shootout format (the winner from each table advances to the finals), which was an even later innovation.

But it has Jodie Foster in it, so who cares?

I mean, we've got shootouts (the firearms type--and I won't even mention that Mel Gibson once manages to get off eight shots from his six-shooter without reloading), fistfights, Injuns, Jodie Foster, runaway horses to be stopped, cheaters, scoundrels, love scenes with Jodie Foster, gorgeous Western scenery, crosses and double-crosses, pickpocketing, and lots of poker. And Jodie Foster.

My main gripe was that the story dragged a bit in getting our main characters to the big game. The whole side story about the Indians could have been left on the editing room floor, and the plot would have suffered not at all.

I love the old-fashioned cards and chips they used as props for this movie.

James Coburn makes a great appearance as "the Commodore." He also gets off one of the best slow-rolls ever. His opponent shows his hand first, and the dealer announces, "Full house--kings over eights." Coburn makes a sour face and says, "Oooo, that's a good hand." Then he turns over his own cards one at a time, saying, "That beats one, two, three sevens." His opponent grins and starts raking in the pot. Coburn flips over one more card, then adds, "But not four." Very cruel--but funny.

If you, like me, have let this fun little gem go neglected for the last 14 years, take a couple hours out of your life and fix that, huh?

Poker gems, #76




Amarillo Slim Preston, as quoted in Graham Sharpe, Poker's Strangest Hands, p. 129:


I played with Nixon before Watergate at a private club in Washington, and he wasn't as tricky as advertised.

A political nightmare














Sixty consecutive years of Clintons and Bushes in the White House:
1989-1993: George H. W. Bush
1993-2001: Bill Clinton
2001-2009: George W. Bush
2009-2017: Hillary Clinton
2017-2025: Jeb Bush
2025-2033: Neil Bush
2033-2041: Chelsea Clinton
2041-2049: George P. Bush

Poker Grump readers' tournament: Update




Bah! As the initial email from Full Tilt had suggested, I had them slightly modify the tournament request, just to include this web address in the comments section of the tournament lobby, so that anybody browsing the private tournament list could see where to go to learn more.

Little did I know that making that change required them to dump the whole tournament and institute a new one:

**********************

Hello,

Thank you for your e-mail and tournament request. I have updated your private tournament comment as you requested in your e-mail below and it is open for registration at this time. In order to locate your tournament, click the "Private" tab in the tournament lobby.

Tournament #38270872 (02.05.08 21:00ET)

Please be advised that the 3 players registered for your initial tournament id have had their buy-in & fee automatically returned to their player accounts.

If you require any changes to your tournament structure, do not hesitate to reply to this e-mail.
Thank you and Good Luck!

John
Team Full Tilt
*************************

So the other two of you who had already registered, like me, have had your registrations cancelled, and now you have to do it again. I'm sorry about that--had I known, I would have just left it alone.

There's a learning curve to everything in life.

I also figured out why the prize pool shown is greater than the one entry fee. The minimum number of players with which they'll start the tournament is two, so the prize pool will have to be at least $40.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Poker gems, #75




Dwight D. Eisenhower, on the difficulty of deliberately losing to a bad player, as quoted in Graham Sharpe, Poker's Strangest Hands, p. 113. Eisenhower had won most of a fellow officer's life savings, felt badly about it, and surreptitiously tried to let the man win his money back:

This was not easily achieved. One of the hardest things known to man is to make a fellow win in poker who plays as if bent on losing every nickel.

Johnny Moneymaker???





Last night I started reading Dead Man's Hand: Crime Fiction at the Poker Table. This is a collection of crime-genre short stories all somehow involving poker, all originals by a variety of authors, solicited specifically for this book, edited by Otto Penzler (Harcourt, 2007; see http://www.harcourtbooks.com/bookcatalogs/bookpages/9780151012770.asp).

I've only read the introduction and the first story (which I thought was hard to follow and boring), so I'm not ready to do a full review yet. But I can't resist pointing out the howler in Penzler's "Foreword":

"The great players...used to ply their skills clandestinely, slipping into a town, cleaning out the local hot-shots, and skedaddling before they realized they had been taken by a professional cardsharp. Now they are like rock stars, though they wear clean clothes and take baths. Even occasional televised-poker viewers recognize Johnny Moneymaker, Annie Duke, Howard Lederer, Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, and Amarillo Slim."

Oh, sure--we all recognize Johnny Moneymaker. That's Chris's younger brother, right?

This does not give one great hope that the editor really knows the world of poker all that thoroughly.

Special announcement: Poker Grump readers' tournament




To celebrate my most recent attempted return to online poker, and the happy discovery that I don't suck at it quite as badly as I used to (that's as bold a claim as I think it's safe to make at this point), I have arranged a private poker tournament at Full Tilt.

This is the email I got from the helpful folks there:

************
Hello,

Thank you for your e-mail and tournament request. I have created your private nl hold'em tournament as you requested in your e-mail below as a double stack tournament with 3000 chips and it is open for registration at this time. In order to locate your tournament, click the "Private" tab in the tournament lobby.

Tournament #38179680 (02.05.08 21:00ET)

The payout structure for your tournament is the standard 9 handed payout structure and it is possible to view the percentage payouts on this link:

http://www.fulltiltpoker.com/tourPayout9Hand.php

If you want to include your web address in your comment so that players can read your blog and enter your tournament or require any changes to your tournament structure or payouts, do not hesitate to reply to this e-mail.

Thank you and Good Luck!

John
Team Full Tilt
***************

I've already registered, as you can see above (click the image to bigger it). I hope that by next Tuesday I won't be the only player. That would be very, very, very, very sad. It would be nice to be able to play and chat with you all.

It's a double-stacks structure, so lots of play for the money. No re-buys or add-ons. And no overlay--I'm not making that much yet!

If I picked a day, date, time, or entry fee that don't work for a lot of you, I'm sorry--I had to just guess. Suggestions for what might work better in a future event will be welcomed.

The password to register is: grumpy.

Based on my recent experiences, I know that funding an online account can be slow and frustrating. If any of you want to participate but don't have money at Full Tilt, and can't get it there in time, shoot me an email (rakewell at cox dot net), and we'll see if we can arrange an exchange, using some other poker site where you do have some bucks already, or via PayPal.

I hope to see many of you there.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A poker movie worth watching








"A Big Hand for the Little Lady" (1966; see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060165/) has been on my list of movies to see someday for a long time. From a recent post over at Hard-Boiled Poker (http://hardboiledpoker.blogspot.com/2008/01/poker-review-big-hand-for-little-lady.html) I learned that it was recently released on DVD. I moved it to the top of my Netflix queue. It arrived a few days ago, and I just finished watching it.

I knew the key plot twists going in (it's kind of hard to keep spoilers out of circulation for 42 years, though I'll do my part here), but still enjoyed it. It's short and light and keeps moving well. There's nothing profound about it, but it's a delightful little piece of poker fluff.

One small thing still has me baffled. I can't figure out why there is a character named Henry Drummond. There was a real Henry Drummond (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Drummond), then there was a character of the same name in "Inherit the Wind" (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inherit_the_Wind), played by Spencer Tracy. (The latter is how I recognized the name when it came up in "Big Hand.") It can't be a pure coincidence that, six years after that classic film was made, a character of the same name shows up in this one. Yet there is nothing I could see in this movie that made any sort of connection; it does not appear that we are supposed to infer that this Henry Drummond is the same as the real one or the earlier fictional one. The makers of the movie could not have been ignorant of the name's dual significance, but why use a character name that viewers might recognize from either of two different contexts, if neither one is intended? I get hung up on this sort of minutia.

I learned a new phrase from this film, unrelated to poker: "Pelion on Ossa." As explained in the Columbia Encyclopedia (http://www.bartleby.com/65/al/Aloadae.html), Otus and Ephialtes were "sons of Aloeus' wife by Poseidon. They tried to reach heaven to overthrow the gods by piling Mt. Ossa on Mt. Olympus and Mt. Pelion on Mt. Ossa. Some said they were killed by Apollo, others said they killed each other while shooting at a hind sent by Apollo. For their wickedness they were condemned to eternal torture in Tartarus. Thus the phrase 'to pile Pelion on Ossa' means to attempt an enormous but fruitless task." I'm not exactly sure where that bit of obscure knowledge may come in handy in my life, but you never know.

There are two reasons any reader should make a point of seeing this movie. First, it's a decent, fun poker movie--and isn't that reason enough? Second, any film with such a marvelous cast of classic Hollywood stars in their prime--Henry Fonda, Joanne Woodward, Jason Robards, Paul Ford, Burgess Meredith, and Kevin McCarthy--needs to be viewed, just for general cultural literacy.