Saturday, September 20, 2008

A great poker scene in a non-poker movie

I love Ricky Jay's work. If he is in a movie or show, that alone makes it worth watching.

About a month ago I learned about a CD he had compiled, which had previously escaped my attention. While poking around the net to read more about it, I also happened upon a reference to a movie Jay had been in that I had never heard of before. It's the 1995 made-for-TV film, "The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky." I ordered it from Netflix and watched it a couple of days ago.

It's a pretty dumb and forgettable movie overall, barely worth the time it takes to watch it. It's based on a Norman McLean ("Mac," played in the movie by Jerry O'Connell) book reminiscing about the summer of 1919, which he spent working in the Bitterroot mountains for the U.S. Forest Service. But as expected, Ricky Jay provides the movie's one great highlight.

He plays Mr. Hawkes, the surly and mysterious cook for the forest service men. Mac repeatedly tries to goad Hawkes into card games. The cook always declines, with increasing irritation each time, by saying, "I don't play cards against the men I work with."

The confrontation finally reaches a boiling point with yet one more challenge from Mac, who fancies himself quite a poker player. Hawkes again sternly refuses: "How many times do I have to tell you? I don't play cards against the men I work with!"



This time, though, the head ranger, played by Sam Elliott, quietly says to Hawkes, "Why don't you show him why you don't play cards with the men you work with?"



The cook apparently sees the wisdom of this, and walks over to the table. He picks up the deck of cards, inspecting the faces.



He then shuffles the deck without even sitting down.



As he does so, at seemingly random moments, he flicks out the four aces in succession.



He then sits and thoroughly shuffles the deck again.



He has Mac cut the deck.



He then deals out five five-card hands with machine-gun rapidity.



He tells Mac to look at the hands. Mac was dealt four tens. The other men, who have gathered around, help expose the other hands, which include four jacks, four queens, and four kings.



Hawkes leans in close to Mac, and sneers, "I bet I win." Mac turns over the hand that Hawkes has dealt to himself: four aces.



Now, up to this point the scene has been shot without a single cut. The director clearly wants us to understand that this has all been Ricky Jay's artistry with cards on display, without any camera or editing tricks. It is indeed a bravura performance. But now we have our first cut, to the stunned face of Mac, who can only be thinking, "Holy #$%@&! This is the guy I challenged to a poker game!?"



We cut back to the cook. He gathers up the cards and starts shuffling some more. He gives Mac a little lecture about how he plays poker for a living, but takes summers off for his health, signing on as a cook and dishwasher to keep his hands soft. As he's chatting and shuffling, he again casually flicks out of the deck the aces, one at a time.



He concludes with his emphatic final words, which I think it's safe to say is the last time he will have to decline one of Mac's invitations: "I don't play cards against the men I work with!"

It's one of the greatest poker scenes in any movie, ever, even though not a single hand of actual poker is played.

Jay comes back one more time later in the movie for a poker game against the cheating sharks in a nearby town. This is supposed to be the climax of the movie, for which the scene in the ranger station was just the set-up. I won't tell you what happens, in case you want to watch it yourself. But I will say that it's disappointing, both because they show so little actual poker, and because they don't let Ricky Jay do any more of his dazzling handiwork.

The scene I described is one of the greatest possible warnings and reminders of what a truly skilled card mechanic can do with a deck, what complete control can be exerted over the cards. You do not want to be in a home game with such a person at the table. Commercial casinos with Shufflemasters and professional dealers make me feel much more at ease.

Anyway, if you have Netflix, I'd recommend putting this movie in your queue. Even with the detailed description and screen shots above, the scene is still worth watching a few times, in order to appreciate Ricky Jay's mastery. You can skip the rest of the movie without missing much.

"Oh yeah"




OK, one last Rio story from tonight's session.

I told you in the last post about the guy who was sitting on my right. This story is about the guy on my left. He was nice enough, and perfectly polite, but, well, not too bright. He revealed this at many times, in many ways. For example, after burning through about $400 in an hour, mostly with bad calls, he said, twice, "I'm forced to play bad cards now. I don't have any choice. It's the only way I can get my money back. I have to do it."

This, of course, is the kind of player I want to find every time I sit down. Unfortunately, I didn't get my fair share of his chips before he went completely broke. I won only one sizable pot, and that was by picking off an unconvincing river bluff. I did it with no pair, just ace-high. (I'm still patting myself on the back for that, as you might have guessed.)

Anyway, there was a woman at the table having one of those unbelievable streaks of luck. She was not a good player, though the guy my story is about was in awe of her. (Much later, when a new player tangled with her, my village idiot even whispered to me, "He has no idea how good she is." I had to stifle a laugh.) Her basic strategy was to play any two suited cards, for any price, muck if she didn't flop a flush or flush draw, and call any bet until she made her flush--which she did an astonishing percentage of the time. Even when she missed, she did things like back into a straight or two pair with what were, of course, completely unreadable hands, so that it looked like she was bluffing with a missed flush draw. Her bet sizing had no discernible rationale to it; she would bet $50 into an $8 pot, or $8 into a $50 pot. But she hit her hands with such unreal frequency that she cleaned up. She made at least $700 in the three hours or so I was watching her. It's not a strategy that can win over the long haul, but it was truly her lucky night.

Anyway, in one hand the flop was Q-Q-4. She bet, and all five or six opponents folded. She smiled and showed her pocket fours, for a flopped full house.

I grinned at her and said, with what I thought was obvious understatement, "I think you might have had the best hand there."

The Idiot speaks up: "No, Q-4 would have been the best hand."

I look at him. He is not joking. He is incapable of irony; it's about seven levels of thinking beyond his capacity.

He's clearly expecting me to respond. I'm stymied at first, not knowing quite what to say. Not only has he mistaken my comment about who at the table had the best hand for a remark about what the nuts theoretically would have been, but he has even that wrong.

Then, apparently because I wasn't giving him his dues for figuring it out, he repeated his observation: "Q-4 would have been the best hand." (He was saying this quietly, just to me--the room was noisy enough that nobody else heard our conversation.)

So I feel obligated to say something. I can't agree with him, and he's not going to let me get away without responding. So I point out, "Well, pocket queens would actually have been the best hand."

There is silence. He cocks his head back, looks up toward the ceiling with a furrowed brow, apparently deep in thought. I swear I'm not making this up: he holds this pose for about five seconds, before looking at me again. "Oh yeah. That would be better."

There's another bit of awkward silence. I break it and let him off the hook by saying, "But I just meant that I think she must have had the best hand at the table, not the absolutely best possible hand." This is calculated to give us something to agree on, and pull the discussion away from his error, so that the exchange ends pleasantly and sociably. He quickly echoes his agreement that she probably did have the best hand there, and by now we both have the cards for our next hand, and can move past the awkwardness.

Of course, maybe he didn't sense any awkwardness. I can't tell.

You know that old saying, "Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt"? Whoever coined that (and it's not at all clear who actually did) had, I suspect, met this player, and had him specifically in mind.


(In re-reading this, I see that my storytelling has once again fallen into a bit of grammatical ugliness--specifically, I have woven back and forth between past tense and present tense. I'm aware that I do this sometimes. It's never intentional, because, well, it's just plain bad writing to do that, and I wouldn't deliberately employ bad writing, except as a sort of special effect, which this isn't. But once something is written that way, it's a lot of work to go back and fix it, and, well, sometimes it's too late at night or I'm just too lazy or uncaring. So I apologize for this lapse in the writing craft. I apologize for this post, for all the previous posts that I have written and left in a similar sorry state, and for all future ones in which it may happen again. For the most part, this is first-draft writing, folks. I try to fix the obvious goofs, but a lot slide by, since I have no editor but myself. This note is just to let you all know that I'm embarrassed by the mistakes, including the confusing indecisiveness in verb tenses. I'm just not quite embarrassed enough to do anything about it, beyond acknowledging it with this half-assed explanation.)

"You deserved to lose!"




I was playing at the Rio tonight. The guy on my immediate right was a jerk to everyone.

The height of it came in one crucial hand. I don't remember the exact betting sequence, nor the exact board cards. Trust me, the details aren't too important. But I had J-10 offsuit, and the flop had been 10-9-x, rainbow. He had raised before the flop, but he was doing this with maybe a third of his hands, so it didn't mean much. I had called from the button.

On the flop, he checked, I bet, he called. The turn was a 5, I think. He checked, I bet again. He thought a bit, then moved all in for $71 more.

This gave me pause. I had him covered, but this was an overbet of the pot. I don't like committing a lot of chips with just top pair. But it was hard to give him credit for a bigger hand. I rolled through the hands that would have me beat, and there just wasn't anything that really fit what the betting had been. I couldn't completely rule out a flopped set, but I didn't get any sort of vibe from him of that kind of strength. I had been playing with him for a couple of hours, and had seen him when he had the nuts, and, though I couldn't list specifics, his whole gestalt radiance was just completely different than what he was showing me now. Furthermore, the only other time I had seen him aggressively move all in had been a bluff; when he was really strong, he tended to make small value bets.

I didn't rush this. I took at least a full minute thinking it through, and finally concluded that I probably had the best hand. If I was wrong, OK, but I thought the chances of being ahead were high enough to be worth the call. I counted out the chips and pushed them in.

The river was another 9. I wasn't going to show my cards until he either showed or mucked, because he was one of these jerks who never want to show, trying to just wait out the other guy, hoping he'll show first. Well, I have the patience of Job in that situation. We can sit there all night if that's what it takes.

It didn't take all night, but he did take at least a full ten seconds before he finally exposed his cards: A-9 of clubs. He had had just second pair, no flush or straight draw, then hit his miracle river card. He had had five outs when the money went in. I showed my cards, as kind of a message to him and the table that I had had him thoroughly nailed.

OK, so I made the right read, had the courage to back it up with my chips, and got unlucky. It's annoying, but it happens--just part of the game. I would normally not say a word. But he had irked me with how long he took to get it over with. I'm emotionally cool enough that I don't sit there on pins and needles, in agony over whether I won or not. I either won or lost, nothing I can do about it, and ten seconds out of my life is pretty paltry. So if he was trying to make me fret and sweat, it failed.

Still, rude is rude, and what he did is generally considered one of the most unforgiveable breaches of etiquette one can pull at a poker table. I hate people that waste everybody's time for no reason.

So I said, "Nice slowroll," as I pull out another C-note. (He didn't break me, but it got me below the amount I like to have in play.) He said, "What do you mean?" I can't really believe he didn't understand the term; he has played in the WSOP, and certainly has enough experience to know what I meant. But I played along: "How long does it take you to show your cards?"

His response was bizarre: "I had all my chips out there already. What else was I supposed to do?"

So at this point we seem to be talking past each other. I have no idea what his chips had to do with it. But I decide it's not worth pursuing, and tell him, "Never mind."

He doesn't want to drop it, though. He says, "Anyway, what the hell are you doing calling with jack-ten there? You deserved to lose, making a call for that much money with that!"

Now this amuses me. When people reveal a level of stupidity beyond what I had judged them capable of, it always amuses me. I said, "So I shouldn't have put my money in with the best hand, huh?"

He said, "Not with that! You don't call that much with just a pair!"

I actually laughed at him. Sorry--couldn't help it. It was so absurd. This idiot genuinely believes, apparently, that the right way to make a call decision is based on the dollar amount involved and the absolute strength of one's hand. But I think it's safe to say that prevailing wisdom is that what really matters is the strength of one's hand relative to that of the opponent--which is exactly what I had spent all that time pondering.

His comment ended our lovely little chat, because I realized I was in a battle of wits with an unarmed man. I just chuckled at him, said, "OK, dude" and broke it off. He repeated something about what a bad call I had made, and I just smiled.

Morons and jerks are everywhere, often rolled up inside the same body. Can't do anything about it other than laugh.

Friday, September 19, 2008

"The Duke" makes a magazine cover





I picked up the new issue of Poker Pro magazine last night, but didn't even glance at it until today. I was surprised to see among the stories listed on the front cover "How 'THE DUKE' Had $30k at Risk in a $1-$2 Cash Game!" Oh, I had to read this! I've mentioned "The Duke" here before. He's one of the most recognizable inhabitants of Vegas poker rooms. He even got mentioned once in Jennifer Tilly's Bluff magazine column.

Unfortunately, I know that Poker Pro doesn't get distributed nearly as widely as Card Player and Bluff. I could direct you to the magazine's web site, but they only put a few articles from the current issue up there, and their archives are pathetic. So I'm afraid that most of my readers won't get to read what is really an interesting, entertaining story about The Duke--and one that contains a valuable poker lesson--unless I take matters into my own hands. So that's what I'm doing here. If they contact me and ask me to take it down, I will. But for now I hope this increases the number of people reading the story. Click on the images above, and it should be large enough to read online.

By the way, I think the author of the article is entirely wrong when he says that "I'll put you all in" does not constitute an actual bet. Were I the floorperson, that phrase would absolutely constitute a verbally binding bet of the number of chips/cash in front of the person to whom it was addressed. In the situtation described in the story here, that would have been interpreted to be an all-in bet by Duke, exactly the same as if he had simply said, "All in."

Toothpicks--again




I've grumbled before about people chewing toothpicks, here and here. I can't absolutely swear that this will be the last time I mention it, but it likely will be, because there just isn't much more to say on the subject.

But this guy from the Rio tonight deserved a mention, because he took it to a whole 'nuther level. You can't tell from the low-resolution cell phone photo, but he had a double-pointed toothpick that he gradually worked into a pulp. He would periodically spin it around in his mouth so that he could work on both ends and keep them about even, which meant that over time what one saw protruding from his mouth was a wet, soggy, split, chewed, bleached bit of wood. He somehow also nearly broke it in the middle, so that the protruding half was dangling kind of precariously, like the too-long ashes on a cigarette.

He was on vacation from North Carolina, which makes sense, because everybody who lives in North Carolina is, of course, a backwoods redneck uneducated hick unworthy of sharing city space with the rest of us.

:-)

ARGH!




Sahara last night. It is of considerable significance to the story that they recently added high-hand jackpots there.

I have 5-5. Somebody raises to $12. I call, as do several others. Flop is A-10-6. Original raiser bets. Second player calls. I might call the raiser if everybody else folded, because he could have whiffed. But with no flush draws and only gutshot straight draws on this board, the first call almost surely means that at least one of the two players now has a pair that has me beat, and there are still a couple of people yet to act behind me. So I fold.

Turn is a 5, making my set. River is the case 5, making my quads.

Jackpot for quad 5s is $236.

Argh!

A couple of hours later, the same dealer is back in the box. The game is short-handed, with just five of us. We're all pretty much playing any two cards. I'm on the button and join the limpers with 10-6 of hearts.

Flop is 7h-8c-9h. I have flopped a straight with a flush draw and gutshot straight flush draw. When it is checked to me, I bet small--$6. One caller. Turn is a blank. I bet $12. Fold.

I show my cards. The last guy to fold asks the dealer to rabbit hunt. (I never have made such a request, and never will.) She burns one, then turns over the 8 of hearts.

ARGH!

I'm probably near the top end of players in terms of being emotionally resistant to getting myself mentally tormented by "woulda coulda shoulda" syndrome. I realize that it would be completely irrational to play the first hand differently, in the hopes of hitting runner-runner quads (about a 1/2500 shot), or the second hand differently, in the hopes of making the straight flush (about a 2% shot on the turn)--especially since the jackpot was only $63.

But though I've tried hard to extinguish it, I do retain a flicker of the humanity with which I was born, and knowing how things turned out, it's hard not to feel a twinge of regret for not having gone for it.


The sketch above is "A Near Miss." See here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Weird rule at Planet Hollywood

After seeing the lamest show in Vegas, I walked next door to play some $1-$2 NLHE at Planet Hollywood.

At one point, there was a raise to $12, then an attempted reraise to $22. The dealer told the reraiser that he had to make it $24, to double the previous bet. This is a type of error I've seen dealers make many times before, because they have a mental slip and forget that the initial raise was by an interval of only $10, so a raise from $12 to $22--i.e., another $10--is, in fact, legal.

So I said to the dealer, "$22 should be a legal raise." The dealer responded, "No, he has to double the previous bet." I pointed out that the first raise had been $10, so this interval was legitimate.

This is where it got interesting. Every other time I've had this exchange with a dealer, at this point he or she realizes his or her error and straightens things out. But yesterday I learned that Planet Hollywood does it differently. They actually have a house rule that a raise must be double the previous bet, not just a minimum of the same increment as the previous raise had been.

This dealer was by no means inexperienced, so he clearly wasn't saying this because he was first day on the job and didn't know his stuff. I told him that I had never heard of any other poker room using this rule. He said, "This is the only place in the world that does." The fact that he recognized that it was highly unusual--unique, even--strengthened my impression that he was speaking the truth, and didn't just misunderstand the standard rule.

So I asked him a hypothetical: After the flop, the first player bets $10, the second player raises to $20, now what is the minimum reraise? The standard rule would be that a minimum reraise would be to $30, adding to the prior bet the same increment that it had been over the bet it was raising. But the dealer said that at PH, the minimum reraise in that situation would be to $40, because every raise must be at least double the previous bet. And if the third player raises to $40, the next minimum reraise would be to $80.

I was convinced that he really did know what he was talking about here, but just to be doubly certain, I checked with the floorperson as I was cashing out. He confirmed what the dealer had told me, down to the fact that, as far as he knew, PH is the only poker room in the world that uses this bet-sizing rule. I asked whether there was any advantage he could think of over the standard rule. He admitted that he knew of none. So I asked the obvious question: Why do you do it this way? He said that he could only guess that whoever it was that originally implemented it had had brain damage as a child, because the rule caused confusion without conferring any advantages. It sometimes causes problems when somebody announces "raise" without realizing there had already been a raise, because now that person is committed to a larger minimum raise than if they used the standard rule.

I'm a big proponent of poker rules being standardized and uniform as far as possible, to prevent surprises and misunderstandings. This is one that I just don't get. The PH staff clearly understands that it is non-standard, and they can't offer any justification for using it. So why do they keep it, rather than changing their rules to match how everybody else operates?

I am perplexed.

Madame Meg: Maybe the lamest show in Vegas




Yesterday I got a free ticket (from showtickets4locals.com) to "Madame Meg's" at the Harmon Theater next to Planet Hollywood. Yuck. Definitely the most worthless show I've seen since living here.

"Madame Meg" herself does the world's mildest and most boring strip tease. PG-13 rating at worst.

There is a singer who does three songs. She wouldn't have been invited to Hollywood in an "American Idol" first-round audition. She attempted to sing "Life is a Cabaret," which is unwise. If you can't do it better than Liza Minelli--which, frankly, isn't very likely--you really shouldn't even attempt it.

There's a pantomime skit of a woman who wants to be a showgirl, but doesn't have the assets or talent for it.

There's a stage hypnotist. This was the most painful, embarrassing part of the whole show to watch. She had a reticent audience, and could only get two volunteers up on stage, one of whom was obviously just going through the motions with a perpetual "I wish I hadn't come here" look on his face. Basically, everything went wrong for the hypnotist. She couldn't coax any audience participation. If it had been done on "The Gong Show," she wouldn't have lasted two minutes.

Finally there was a magician. Not horrible, but not one original or interesting thing in her act. It was completely, 100% the same stuff we've been seeing magicians do for, oh, a hundred years or so: cards appearing and disappearing, doves being pulled out of scarves, paper being torn and reassembled, blah, blah, blah. Not a single word of patter or humor, either.

The whole thing was a complete waste of an hour. Even with free tickets, I felt like I had paid too much.

Lame. Just completely lame.


The print above is "Christ Healing the Lame," one of a large series of interesting re-interpretations of biblical scenes by Watanabe Sadao. See the art here, and read about the artist here.

Poker gems, #165




Terry, a poker dealer (female, it must be said) at Planet Hollywood, September 17, 2008:


You know the poker gods are all female. Men aren't capable of being that cruel.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Doyle Brunson seems to be confused

Doyle Brunson, in his blog, February 16, 2008:

During this poker cash game lull, I am on this race for President like stupid is
on Britney Spears. I have come to the conclusion that poker players have to
support Obama. We can’t possibly let McCain be our President because he supports
most of George W. Bush’s views.

Doyle Brunson, in his blog, September 12, 2008:

It’s hard to believe, but McCain has taken the lead in the presidential race.
They rolled the dice when they chose Governor Palin to run for Vice President
and they threw a seven because she really turned things around for the
Republicans. It’s hard not to be in McCain’s camp after listening to his life
story. He really is an American hero.

Doyle Brunson, when asked who he will be voting for in the presidential election, during red-carpet interview at the Hard Rock Poker Lounge Grand Opening, September 13, 2008, as shown on Wicked Chops Poker:
I'm undecided, but probably McCain.

Journalistic integrity




On July 29, I wrote this post about how KNPR, the Las Vegas public radio station, got the facts all wrong about online poker.

The same day, I emailed Kathryn LaTour, the UNLV professor who was on that show, telling her of the post and inviting any response she might have. No reply.

The slightly more interesting story is what happened with the radio station. I emailed the host of the program, Dave Berns, with this message:

Mr. Berns:

You got the legal facts about online gambling
completely wrong, repeatedly, during the 7/28 broadcast. I detail the errors in
a post on my poker blog here: http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2008/07/knpr-gets-it-wrong-wrong-wrong.html

If you have any comments to make in response to my post, I’d be
happy to add them as an addendum to the blog.

I think you owe your
listeners a retraction, an explanation, and an apology.

Mr. Berns replied quickly, within a couple of hours:
Thanks for listening and writing. Give me a little time to check into this.
If I'm wrong I will certainly correct it on the air. It wouldn't be the first
time I've made a mistake, and undoubtedly won't be the last. Bear with me, and
I'll get to it within a day or two.

Best,

Dave

This was encouraging.

But nothing came of it. So on August 9, I sent Mr. Berns another email, asking about what he had learned when he looked into the matter. On August 11, I got this reply:
Just got back from vacation after six days out of town. It's my pleasure to
nail this down.

Dave

Hmmm. This is starting to sound like a brush-off. But OK, I'll give him a chance.

Not too surprisingly, I did not hear back from Mr. Berns. So on August 22, I sent him one last email:
After more than three weeks, I have to assume that correcting errors isn’t
actually as important to you as you tried to suggest here [this was at the top
of his original response to me]. Or did I miss it at some point?

There has been no reply.

Thus it became obvious that Mr. Berns had zero interest in looking into whether he had given out erroneous information on his show. It is apparent to me that he lacks the journalistic integrity to check up on his own work when it is called into question. He simply doesn't care whether the things he says on his program are true or not. Furthermore, he lacks general personal integrity, as demonstrated by twice promising to explore the problem, yet then doing nothing about it. In short, neither his factual assertions nor his personal assurances mean anything.

So I tried going up the ladder. KNPR's web site lists Florence Rogers as the "President and General Manager." I emailed her about the situation. I included all of the above-mentioned correspondence, so that she could see that I made pretty reasonable attempts to resolve it with Mr. Berns directly. After quoting those exchanges, I asked Ms. Rogers these questions:
So now, given that history, my questions for you:

1. Do you
care enough about seeing that on-air errors get corrected to do anything about
this, since it seems apparent that Mr. Berns lacks sufficient journalistic
integrity to take care of it on his own?

2. Is there any reason
that I should think that the rest of your staff cares any more about getting
things right than Mr. Berns does? Put another way, this is the first time I have
attempted to get somebody on your staff to correct a factual misstatement, so I
have to assume that the kind of reaction I got (i.e., reassuring platitudes, but
zero action; basically a “bedbug letter”) was typical. Can you provide any
evidence that this is not so?

This was on August 27, three weeks ago today.

There has been no reply.

So my conclusion, inevitably, is that neither the on-air talent nor upper management at KNPR gives a rat's ass about getting things right, or correcting false information that they broadcast.

Sadly, this is typical of my experiences with news outlets generally. There are four general areas in which I consider myself a lot more knowledgeable than most of the world: poker, firearms, medicine, and Mormonism (the religion I was raised in). It's kind of an odd assortment of things to be more or less expert about, but that's how life has worked out for me.

The majority of the time that one of these subjects is in the news, there is at least one unambiguously false or misleading statement in the story. On at least a dozen occasions over the past, oh, six or seven years I have attempted to get a reporter and/or editor and/or publisher to issue a correction, after pointing them to easily available, reliable sources that demonstrate the error. Not once has any news outlet responded with a quick retraction/correction. In fact, I can only recall one time that a correction ever got made, and it was a few months later, and only after more than 12 contacts on my part to different people within the newspaper hierarchy.

It appears that KNPR is the same as the rest. They just don't care about factual accuracy. They will, of course, endlessly claim that they do, but their actions--or, rather, inactions--prove otherwise. Yet several times a year they spend day after day of air time asking me to send them money because of what a valuable "news and information" service they provide. Yeah, right.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Another WSOP non-fact

Just a few days ago I questioned the accuracy of the "poker fact" given as ESPN's broadcast of the World Series of Poker went to a commercial. I wouldn't have thought they would screw it up two weeks in a row--but they surprised me.

This week they said, "When starting with two suited cards, the odds of making a flush are 118-1."

No.

The odds of flopping a flush are 118:1. But the odds of making a flush, assuming one sees all five board cards, are 6.4%, or about 15:1.

I wonder who ESPN is using as poker consultants for this stuff. Whoever it is, they need to fire him and hire me instead.

David Foster Wallace (zero poker content)




I've been debating for two days now whether to write a post about the death of one of my all-time favorite writers, David Foster Wallace. The problem is that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of writers more talented than I will have already written about it, and better than I could. I doubt that I have anything original to say, except perhaps this: There is no other writer whose death--especially by suicide--would sadden me more than Wallace's has.

If you're not familiar with his work, it's kind of hard to explain. See here and here for good overviews.

I first came across him when I used to subscribe to Harper's magazine. He wrote a long experiential essay for them about taking a cruise. In expanded form (or, more correctly, in its original form, because it had to be condensed for magazine publication) it became the title piece for a collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. By the time that book came out, I had found a couple of other things he had written, and was a solid fan.

I was much more fond of his non-fiction writing than his fiction. I read The Broom of the System and Girl with Curious Hair maybe eight or ten years ago. They were OK, but never grabbed me the way his essays did. For that reason, Infinite Jest remains unread on my shelf. I also never bought Interviews with Hideous Men, after reading one story from it excerpted in Harper's. Didn't like it. But I absolutely adored his non-fiction writing, every bit of it. He had that rare gift of being able to explain a subject to somebody who previously knew nothing about it, and make it compelling. He was as good at this as Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and Steven Jay Gould were in the natural sciences, though usually tackling non-technical subject matter.

It was just a few months ago that I finished what will presumably be his last book (unless somebody puts together a posthumous collection), Consider the Lobster. It illustrates perfectly what I so admired about him: He could write about anything. I saw an interview with him once in which he said, approximately, "Anything is interesting if you look at it closely enough." And that was his trademark in non-fiction: looking at a subject more closely than you might have thought possible, thinking about it in more detail than anybody else had ever done before, then being able to express what he had learned and thought with exquisite clarity, insight, and humor.

In that book, he tackles, in order, what it's like to attend the Adult Video News awards in Las Vegas, John Updike's decline as a writer, an explanation of the humor in Kafka, dictionaries and English style guides, how 9/11 was experienced in a small Midwest town, what was great about Tracy Austin's short tennis career and what was wrong with her autobiography, life with the John McCain campaign of 2000, a Maine lobster festival, a reflection on a biography of Dostoevsky, and a profile of a conservative radio talk-show host. I simply cannot grasp how it is possible to write intelligently on a range of subjects that broad, let alone do so with such rhetorical brilliance. Those essays have become the first things that I think about when I come across anything related to those subjects. That's also true, for me, for the variety of things he wrote about in A Supposedly Fun Thing, including pieces about a professional tennis player, David Lynch movies, and a trip to the Illinois State Fair.

There's another aspect to all of this that makes it even more poignant: Wallace and I grew up in the same city (Champaign, Illinois), at the same time, he being a year younger than I. He describes, in one of his essays, having played tennis in Hessel Park, which was the park nearest to where I lived. It was the usual location for our church picnics. When I attended the nearby elementary school, there were innumerable group walks to that park. I played tennis there with my high-school girlfriend, in the same courts he was describing having learned the game on. We may have gone to the same high school. I'm not sure of that, but there were only two in the city, and if he lived as close to me as suggested by us having frequented the same park, he would have been assigned to my high school (unless he was one of the kids who instead went to University High School). Obviously, though, I didn't know him. That shared background is a large part of what makes it so seriously weird for me to think of him dead.

The main point of writing anything about this is to use whatever influence I have with my readers to urge you to make an effort to find a Wallace book and introduce yourself to him, if he has somehow escaped your attention to date.

I like what is said in the second link above, and will close with it:

Writers check each other out. If you care about the work, you invariably
become
envious or just infuriated when another writer's success far exceeds
his or her
talent. Others make you want to do what they do. And then there
are those
special few who make you think, "Crap, I could never do that, but
I don't care.
I just want to read more."

Wallace was one of those.

Addendum, September 16, 2008

If you want to sample Wallace's work without buying a book, here are some links:

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200711/wallace-safety

http://www.harpers.org/archive/2008/09/hbc-90003557

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html?pagewanted=all

Monday, September 15, 2008

Gambling911.com gets it wrong--again

Christopher Costigan at gambling911.com is a strange bird. He sometimes has his hands on stories and/or details unavailable anywhere else. Yet just as often, he's so far off the mark of what's real that you have to wonder whether he needs his psychotropic medication doses adjusted. (See, for example, my critique of his reporting on the iMEGA case here.)

Today he posted another example of the latter, here. I'm pasting below the entire text of the story as it reads, just in case he or somebody else goes in later and revises it.

DuplicatePoker.com Operating Online Poker Room from US?

Submitted by C Costigan on Mon, 09/15/2008 - 11:25.

It is illegal to operate an online poker room in the United States
under the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act. Some companies, like
PokerStars, tread around this law by operating their business outside the US
though they still allow customers from within the States to play for "real
cash".

DuplicatePoker.com has
taken this one step further. They physically run their online poker room from -
where else?....New York City, at least that‘s what their latest press release
claims.

Duplicate Poker.com is a U.S. corporation operating a legal U.S.
poker room with headquarters in NYC, and offices in Tel Aviv, Israel. Visit the
next big thing in skill-based gaming at:
www.duplicatepoker.com.

The company goes further to imply they are doing absolutely wrong in
the face of the US Government.

"Duplicate Poker has the potential to be as popular as Texas Hold'Em, Omaha
or 7-Card Stud," says Romik. "Yet unlike these games that have uncertain
origins, we have patented the Duplicate Poker process and it has the potential
to be marketed, licensed and monetized globally. Our legal status in the U.S.
also offers a competitive advantage."

Is this arrogance or something we don't know about?

In the past, US and state law enforcement has actively pursued any
online gambling operator they deemed to physically running all or part of their
business from within the States.

Betcha.com owner, Nick Jenkins, was ultimately arrested for running an
online gambling site within Washington State last year. He claimed the site was
perfectly legal since his peer-to-peer business model never accepted a bet
directly. Authorities saw things differently.

The site was run out of Seattle, Washington where online betting is a
Class C felony. Washington officials shut down Jenkins' site within weeks of it
opening to the public.

Over the last year, the US Government has aggressively set its sites on
payment processors operating within the United States. Most recently,
authorities seized millions of dollars from ZIP Payments, which had been
conducting most of its business with BodogLife.com.

DuplicatePoker may be asking for trouble if indeed they are operating
from within New York City. Long before the passage of the UIGEA in 1998, 21
online gambling operators were indicted. Partners in SBD Global (a separate
operation from what is now SBG Global out of Costa Rica), including Internet
gambling pioneer and author, Steve Budin, were among those indicted. SBD
operated a marketing office on Wall Street at the time, much to the industry's
surprise.

Law enforcement within the New York City area - both on the federal and
local level - have been especially aggressive in pursuing parties involved in
taking bets from US citizens. Until now the focus has been primarily on
interstate sports betting mostly through the Queens DA's office and the Suffolk
County DA's office.

And to be clear, DuplicatePoker.com admits to being a "real cash" online
poker room. The company also gives clear instructions on how to deposit funds,
which is clearly prohibited under the UIGEA.

"How does Duplicate Poker work? Players sitting at the same position at
different tables are dealt the same cards. As a result, Duplicate Poker
eliminates the luck of the draw and pits players' true poker skills against each
other. DuplicatePoker.com offers both free play money and real money games. Real
money players can deposit funds using Visa, MasterCard and PayPal."

Christopher Costigan, Gambling911.com Publisher

(Bolded paragraph as in the original.)

Now let's go through and try to count the errors.


Online poker illegal?

We don't have to go far to find the first factual misstatement--the very first sentence carries a whopper: "It is illegal to operate an online poker room in the United States under the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act."

I cannot understand how a person who makes his living following gaming news can be so clueless about the pertinent laws.

The 2006 UIGEA, by its own explicit terms, did not make illegal the placing or accepting of any wager that was not already illegal under state or federal law. The statute (which you can read here) states: "No provision of this subchapter shall be construed as altering, limiting, or extending any Federal or State law or Tribal-State compact prohibiting, permitting, or regulating gambling within the United States." In other words, if offering online poker was legal before the UIGEA, it remained legal after passage of the UIGEA. (See Nelson Rose's article here for perhaps the most thorough non-technical analysis of what the UIGEA does and does not do.)

So for Mr. Costigan to be right in his statement, online poker would have to have been already illegal under pre-2006 federal law. (See here for general information on the handful of state criminal provisions related to online gambling.)

But, as I detailed in this post, prior federal law prohibited only the acceptance (not even the placing of) bets on sporting events. Neither playing nor hosting online poker, for free or for real money, has ever been illegal under federal law. It wasn't illegal before the UIGEA, and it isn't illegal after the UIGEA. The UIGEA is all about funding and money transfers, not about the actual placing or accepting of bets, or the playing or hosting of games.


Careless writing

This sentence appears wrong: "The company goes further to imply they are doing absolutely wrong in the face of the US Government." I'm guessing, from context, that Mr. Costigan meant to write, "...they are doing absolutely nothing wrong...." Kind of a significant omission there.

There is apparently another word missing here: "...actively pursued any online gambling operator they deemed to physically running...." I assume that he meant to write "...deemed to be physically running...." It doesn't make sense otherwise.

Next we have this sentence: "Over the last year, the US Government has aggressively set its sites on payment processors operating within the United States." Sites? Seriously, Mr. Costigan, you do not know the difference between a site and a sight? Here's a clue for you: http://dictionary.reference.com/. You might want to bookmark that one.

Is there no room in the gambling911.com budget for a proofreader?


What year?

Mr. Costigan writes, "Long before the passage of the UIGEA in 1998...." Huh? It was, of course, 2006, not 1998. It's possible that this is just a problem of a missing comma. That is, the "1998" might be referring to what follows in the sentence--the prosecutions--rather than what precedes it, "the UIGEA." But as it stands, it sure looks like a boneheaded blunder of dates.


A distinction with a difference

Mr. Costigan points to the case of Steve Budin to illustrate that the feds prosecute online gambling sites aggressively, when they are within U.S. jurisdiction. But as another article found on Mr. Costigan's own site makes clear, Budin's business was all about sports bets.

Similarly, Mr. Costigan points to the recent legal and financial troubles of Bodog. But he doesn't point out the obvious relevant fact that distinguishes Bodog from PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, UltimateBet, AbsolutePoker, DoylesRoom, and other online poker sites: Bodog also accepts sports bets. The others do not, and--surprise, surprise--are not under threat of prosecution.

Being in the business of accepting online sports bets is pretty clearly illegal under the federal Wire Act. Neither Budin nor Bodog got in trouble for online poker.

I can't tell whether Mr. Costigan genuinely fails to grasp this critical distinction, or is deliberately omitting it in order to make a false point. In other words, I can't tell if he is abysmally ignorant of the law, or intentionally obscuring/distorting the facts. Either way, he's a horribly unreliable source.


"Clearly prohibited"

Mr. Costigan says of DuplicatePoker, "The company also gives clear instructions on how to deposit funds, which is clearly prohibited under the UIGEA."

Not so fast, sir. First, we have the argument above about how pre-2006 federal law prohibited only online sports betting. I think it's pretty clear that sites, even within the U.S., that offer poker and other casino games, but not sports betting, could not successfully be prosecuted under the Wire Act or other pre-2006 federal law.

But additionally, it appears that DuplicatePoker is attempting to navigate around this UIGEA language:
§ 5362. Definitions
In this subchapter:
(1 ) BET OR WAGER.
The term 'bet or wager'—
(A) means the staking or risking by any person of something of value upon
the outcome of a contest of others, a sporting event, or a game subject to
chance, upon an agreement or understanding that the person or another person
will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome....

The key words there are "a game subject to chance." Now, I don't really think that this can be understood to expand the scope of the 1961 Wire Act, because of the provision, previously quoted, requiring courts not to use the UIGEA to alter what bets are legal or illegal. I think DuplicatePoker is simply trying to add an extra layer of legal protection. They don't offer blackjack or roulette or other traditional casino games that are unquestionably "subject to chance."

Poker is, of course, "subject to chance." But DuplicatePoker's unusual game structure reduces the chance factor further, because each player, as I understand it (caveat: I've never explored the site, so I'm just going by what I've read in their ads and in articles I've read), each player gets dealt the same cards at different times, as was done in the man-versus-machine poker competitions in 2007 and 2008. While this doesn't exactly make poker no longer "subject to chance," it at least makes every player subject to the same chance. Nobody will get more pocket aces or cold-deck situations than anybody else, if I understand correctly how it works.

My admittedly amateurish reading of the relevant laws tells me that this precaution is neither necessary (because even regular poker is not illegal under any existing federal law) nor sufficient (because the feds could easily still argue that they are offering a "game subject to chance" in spite of the unusual game structure). But the point is that, at the very least, there are complex and non-obvious legal questions to be resolved, which Mr. Costigan blithely dismisses or ignores when he says that what DuplicatePoker is doing is "clearly prohibited." Their actions are, under what I think is the best understanding of the law, not prohibited at all, let alone being "clearly prohibited," as Mr. Costigan asserts, and his claim is made without any sort of detailed explanation as to how he interprets the relevant laws so as to arrive at this conclusion.


Conclusion

Gambling911.com's Costigan sometimes gets a scoop that the rest of the world misses. For that reason, it's a useful site to check on once in a while. But he is so careless with facts, so slipshod in his writing, and occasionally so bizarre in his interpretation and analysis of what's going on that he is, sadly, a terribly unreliable source. Today's story shows that in, uh, spades.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

How do you ruin a great razz hand?

This is how:

'Nuff said.


A H.O.R.S.E with no name




Late last year, Shamus commented on the new addition to the World Series of Poker for 2008, an eight-game mixed event. He titled his post "A H.O.R.S.E. With No Name," which was impossible for me to improve on here, so instead of trying, I just stole it shamelessly (or maybe Shamusly).

He suggested the acronym SPLENDOR for the nameless mixed game, which is pretty good. But now that I've been playing a fair amount of HORSE, I've come to think that the name chosen really needs to reflect the order in which the games rotate. I don't really need it as a mnemonic device any more (I've done 98 single-table HORSE tournaments now, which is plenty to burn the order deep into my cranium), but for a long time I definitely used the letters in the acronym to remind myself what was coming up next. With eight games in the mix, I think that function is even more crucial.

Furthermore, because it is effectively an extension of HORSE, it seems to me most desirable, if possible, to keep that part of the acronym intact. It doesn't help new players if limit hold'em is represented by H in one mixed-game format, but L in the other.

I bring this up because PokerStars recently introduced an eight-game mixer, but has no good name for it. In the lobby, it is simply referred to as "8-Game." If you probe a bit further into the Stars web site, you find this half-hearted attempt at an acronym:

T - Limit 2-7 Triple Draw
H - Limit Hold’em
O - Limit Omaha Eight or Better (Hi/Lo)
R - Razz
S - Limit Seven Card Stud
E - Limit Stud Eight or Better (Hi/Lo)
H - No Limit Hold’em
A - Pot Limit Omaha

For reasons that are not at all clear to me, Stars has chosen to order the games differently than the WSOP did. Not that the WSOP is the definitive statement of how poker ought to be played, but I can't think of a compelling reason to deviate from it. The games have to be in some order, so why not use the WSOP's order as a template, and standardize it everywhere based on that? If Stars simply moved triple-draw from first to last, they would match the WSOP format.

Anyway, this all really makes coming up with a good acronym virtually impossible. You can tell that Stars was making some effort at it, because of choosing A for pot-limit Omaha, instead of the more obvious P, and repeating the H for no-limit hold'em, instead of the more obvious N. That suggests that they wanted the thing at least vaguely pronounceable.

Unfortunately, if you constrain yourself to an acronym that reflects the order of the games that Stars has chosen, and also add in the constraints that the HORSE parts remain unchanged, there just isn't much wiggle room. To make matters even harder, I would insist that the letters not be repeated, as Stars has done with the H. Triple-draw is going to have to be either T or D. (Well, you could stretch and argue for a W there. But then you have an acronym that starts with WHOR, and that's just going to create other problems....) No-limit hold'em is going to have to be N. Pot-limit Omaha should be P.

I give Stars points for creativity in choosing A for pot-limit Omaha, rather than repeating the O. The problem with the selection, though, is that it doesn't take advantage of identifying the unique feature of the game--its structure--nor the unique letter that would most obviously represent that structure--P.

So something has to give way. You have to sacrifice at least one of these properties: (1) Pronounceability. (2) Consistency with the well-established HORSE. (3) Non-repetition of letters. (4) Order of letters reflecting order of the games. (5) Obvious association between the letter chosen and the game it stands for.

THORSEHA compromises on points 3 (by repeating the H) and 5 (by using A for pot-limit Omaha). It arguably also compromises point 1, in that, unlike HORSE, THORSEHA isn't a real word.

Shamus's suggestion, SPLENDOR, scores superbly on points 1, 3, and 5, but misses on points 2 and 4.

The two best ones I came up with in my comments on Shamus's original post were NOT HORSE and HERO SHOT. But those violate points 3 and 4. Also, while they are readily pronounceable, they are not single words, which is at least a minor problem for all those who have to figure out how to reduce such things to paper. (NOTHORSE just looks wrong.)

So where do we make the compromises? After thinking about this for far longer than the whole matter probably deserves, I've concluded that pronounceability is the least important principle. I would order my points, from most to least important, as 2, 4, 5, 3, 1.

And so, were I in charge of things over at PokerStars (which, shockingly, I'm not), but for whatever reason the order of the games they've selected were inviolable, I would reluctantly settle on calling the thing THORSENP, pronounced (if you must) "Thorsen-P." This pretty much offers up my point 1 on the altar, but honors the other four principles well.

If I were allowed to re-order the games, then I would follow the WSOP's lead and call it HORSENAT. This is at least a little more pronounceable than THORSENP, and compromises only mildly on point 5 (with A not being an obvious representative of pot-limit Omaha), while leaving the other points their integrity.

I don't like Stars' use of THORSEHA because it compromises both points 3 and 5 without really being any better than THORSENP in pronouncability.

I despair of a really good solution, though if my clever and creative readers have better suggestions, I'd love to hear them.


The artwork above, incidentally, is "The horse with no name" by Eddie Maier. See here.