Saturday, January 29, 2011

Another unwatchable quasi-poker movie

A couple of weeks ago, somebody that I follow on Twitter (sorry, but now I don't remember who it was) posted a link to an old web page that said something about Natalie Portman being signed up to be in a movie that was at least partially about poker. The ever-reliable and apparently omniscient Kevin Mathers replied that the movie came out back in 2007 under the title "My Blueberry Nights." IMDB gives a theatrical release date for France, but none for the U.S., so I'm guessing that it went direct to video here, which explains why I had never heard of it. I found it listed on Netflix, so ordered it, and watched it last night.

Good Lord is this thing a dog! It shouldn't be; it stars Norah Jones, the always-terrific Jude Law, Portman, plus a couple of usually solid supporters, Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn. But they can't rescue the horrible writing, and I doubt that anybody could. I would have shut it off after 20 minutes, if not for the promise of eventually getting to the poker part that would allow me to write a blog post about it. (See what I endure for you people?!)

Jones plays Elizabeth, a young woman who discovers that her boyfriend is stepping out on her. She cries on the shoulder of Jeremy (Law), who runs a New York City cafe. The stupid title comes from the fact that he feeds her blueberry pie during their nightly after-hours chats at the restaurant.

But she sets out (for reasons never made clear) on a voyage of self-discovery. First she lands in Memphis and takes jobs waitressing at a restaurant and at a bar, where she befriends an alcoholic cop (Strathairn). She learns an Important Life Lesson about the durability of relationships, and moves on.

We next find her at an unnamed small Nevada town, where she befriends Leslie, a professional poker player, played by Portman, who is more badly miscast than anything in her career to date. She is utterly unconvincing as a supposedly tough-as-nails gambler. What's more, the one hand of poker we see played out is completely ridiculous, with quads being beaten by a one-outer straight flush. (Technically I suppose that's a spoiler, but they flagrantly trumpet the thing coming up Sixth Avenue, so nobody could possibly be surprised when it happens. Besides, it's not any sort of climax, just the setup for what follows.)

After losing her entire bankroll on that hand (there is no commentary about how foolish she was to be playing with money she couldn't afford to lose), she proposes to Elizabeth the most idiotic staking deal in the history of poker. If Elizabeth will give her the $2200 she has saved towards buying a car, Leslie will get back in the juicy game and return to Elizabeth the stake plus 1/3 of the profit. And if she loses the stake, Elizabeth can have Leslie's brand new Jaguar.

There are all sorts of unanswered questions here, such as why Leslie is driving such an expensive car when she can't rebuy into the game from her own pocket, or how Elizabeth is to be guaranteed that Leslie won't renege on the offer, or why Leslie is so crazy as to pledge a car worth maybe 20 times the amount of money she is borrowing, etc. But never mind all that, because by this point in the movie, you don't really care about any of these people.

In the end, Elizabeth learns yet another Important Life Lesson, this time about trusting others. The only mildly interesting thing in this entire one-third of the film was that one long scene was filmed on a street corner just outside the El Cortez, just a couple of blocks from my apartment. (They're in Vegas to visit Leslie's father.) Big whoop.

Having learned her Important Life Lessons, Elizabeth returns to New York, where, of course, Jeremy awaits her with open arms. Wow--a "journey" movie that ends up with the protagonist back at home. How original. Nobody's ever done that before.

The whole thing is just unwatchably dull and boring. The dialog is stilted and dumb. Law and Strathairn both turn in their usual pitch-perfect performances, but everybody else is either phoning it in or over-the-top campy. Oh, and the director so badly overuses random moments of slow motion, for no apparent reason, that I literally thought the DVD playback software in my computer was malfunctioning. I switched to another program, which had it exactly the same, and since the soundtrack never slowed down, I finally concluded that, yes, that's what was on the disc. But that's how stupid and random it is--it looks like a glitch.

Here are some critical quotations pulled from http://www.metacritic.com/, which I think are all spot-on: "Often ponderous, sometimes pretentious and mostly clichéd, this contrived meditation on longing and loss feels like a missed opportunity." "Even with dyed hair, heavy makeup and a cigarette dangling from her bottom lip, Portman still looks like a schoolgirl pretending to be somebody's mom." "Wong's technique is layered and detailed like a couture gown, but the story it hangs on is as generic as a seamstress's dress form." "Alternately precious and vapid, the movie attempts to wrest metaphors from a jar of house keys, and eternal verities from pastry. Slice the pie how you will, it's still half-baked." "Fractured, tentative, oh-so-artsy and very much in the style of Wong's previous Hong Kong-set boy-meets-girl movies. But this time, the effect is contrived: a star-driven pseudo-indie affair that will please neither celebrity worshipers nor cineastes."

Will we ever get another good poker movie, or were they all played out after "Rounders"?

PokerStars screw-up

When I received notification from PokerStars that I had been given an entry into the World Blogger Championship of Online Poker (WBCOOP) series of tournaments, I went to the WBCOOP web page, found the schedule of events, and entered an Outlook reminder to myself for each of them.

Here's the schedule, which you can still see here:



Note that today's event was supposed to begin at 19:00 EST, which is 4:00 p.m. PST.

Each of the preceding events had been just dismally disastrous for me, so today's final preliminary event was my last chance to win a spot in tomorrow's main event. In order to be sure not to miss it, I opened the Stars client two hours early, at 2:00 pm. I was puzzled to find that the tournament ticket was not showing up.

With the help of some Twitter friends, I discovered that the tournament had actually started at 15:00 ET, noon my time, as shown in the tournament lobby:




I was too late to register. I can't win a spot in the main event tomorrow.

It is probably true that if I had looked closely at each tournament ticket, I could have compared the details it listed with the published tournament schedule and noticed the discrepancy. After all, a few hundred other people apparently managed to figure out the right time. But I had checked the schedule well in advance, and had no reason to even consider that it might have changed. Why would it?

I also could have rechecked the schedule on the web page. But if I had, I would still have missed it, because after they changed the starting time of the tournament, they didn't bother to change the published schedule. The screen shot of the web page above, showing the originally scheduled time, was taken this afternoon, after I discovered that I had been shut out.

I realize that this whole thing is a freebie, and there's something uncouth about complaining that a gift isn't good enough. But dammit, this stuff isn't difficult. If you publish a schedule, people have a right to expect that you'll either stick to it or provide prominent notice of the change. PokerStars certainly knows my email address, but they did not bother to send all of us a message about the change.

Of course, it's possible that it was never changed, and that the web page simply had a typo on it from the beginning. Either way, though, it's shamefully sloppy and unprofessional. This episode has done nothing to brighten the already sour mood I've been in all week.

I fired off this email to Stars support:

I had a ticket to today's WBCOOP qualifying tournament. According to your
own web site, it was to be at 19:00 Eastern time, 7:00 pm. I logged on a short
time ago--nearly two hours in advance--and found the ticket was gone. After
probing around for a while, I discovered that the tournament was already in
progress (tournament #339187696), having started not at 7:00, but at 3:00.

Your web site still lists the starting time as 7:00, which is what I was
relying on. See here:
http://www.pokerstars.com/blog_tournament/

When did you change the starting time? WHY did you change it? Why
didn't you update the web page with the new time? Why didn't you email those to
whom you had given tournament tickets to notify them of the change?

If I get a reply of any substance, i.e., that's more than a bedbug letter, I'll let you know.


Update

Here's the response:

Thank you for your email.

We are truly sorry if this situation has caused you any discomfort.

To make up for it, we have credited your account with a Weekly Round 2
ticket an additional 300 FPPs in your account.

If you have any questions feel free to email us at anytime.

Regards,
Michael G
PokerStars Support Team

Harumph. It's a non-apology apology. They're not sorry that they screwed up--in fact, they're not even owning up to having made a mistake. They're only sorry if I experienced any "discomfort." It is so rare and refreshing when somebody at a big organization says, "Yeah, we made a mistake, and we're really sorry about it." I guess that's too much to expect from PokerStars. You'll notice also that there is no explanation, no answer to my questions about when the change was made, why it was made, and why they didn't send a courtesy email about it.

I'm grateful for the compensatory gesture, but I'm still left irked about several aspects of the whole thing.

Guess the casino, #767






To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.




Answer: Riviera

Friday, January 28, 2011

Guess the casino, #766






To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.




Answer: O'Shea's

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ed Miller




I played at the Venetian yesterday afternoon. My first table was all deadly serious players trying hard to win--hard place to make money. I noticed that the next one over was much more jovial, so when a seat opened up I got permission to move.

I realized that one player looked familiar, but it took me a few minutes to figure out why. He looked like Ed Miller, columnist for Card Player magazine and Sklansky's co-author on No Limit Hold'em Theory and Practice. I wasn't sure it was him at first, so snapped the above picture and asked Twitter for opinions. Nobody responded, but over time conversation made clear that I was right. I may have impressed him (in a strange way) by being the only one at the table who knew that he had once been on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

I wish I had some great story to tell--me making a phenomenal play against him, or us forming a lifelong friendship, or discovering that he is a devoted reader of this blog, or whatever. But truth is, it was kind of a boring session with not much interesting happening. Sorry.

Guess the casino, #765






To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.




Answer: Jokers Wild

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Guess the casino, #764






To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.




Answer: Flamingo

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sometimes you feel like the nuts, sometimes you don't

It happened twice over the weekend, exactly the same way both times. There was a showdown, one person had suited A-x matching the suit of three of the board cards and winning the pot, followed by an uninvolved player commenting, "Just the nuts."

Problem is, it wasn't the nuts either time. Not even close. In both cases the board was paired.

I remember the first time I ever played poker in a casino. It was at the Luxor, in about 2003, maybe 2004. It was just a stupid daily afternoon tournament, buy-in of about $40. I lasted all of 20 minutes. I went out when I had a flush. I was surprised when I didn't win the hand. The other guy had a full house.

"Well, how was I to know that he could have been that strong there?" I thought. At the time, my knowledge of the game was so crude that I did not understand that a full house was a possibility anytime there was a paired board. (I use this, my own case, as a prime example every time somebody says something about the hand in progress that they think is so obvious that everyone already knows it and so it could not possibly affect the action. You just never know how rudimentary some other player's understanding of the game is, and, therefore, what may or may not help him or confuse him.)

I later worked out on my own that a paired board meant that exactly six different full houses were possible. I drilled myself over and over again until I could spit out, rapid-fire, what they were, in descending order of strength.

When the Hard Rock briefly experimented with the game variant called Royal Hold'em, they didn't have a poker room, and thus had to quickly retrain some blackjack dealers, and they didn't know poker well at all. One time I was sitting there by myself hoping that some fish would come to play, got chatting with the very attractive young woman dealing, found out how shaky her poker knowledge was, and spent the time improving her showdown hand-reading facility. She was deeply impressed with my being able to rattle off all the best possible hands in order. Ya just never know what it will take to pick up women!

Hmm. I seem to have wandered off-topic here.

Anyway, the repeated non-nuts "nuts" this weekend got me to wondering how many possible hands there could be ahead of the nut flush with different types of boards in hold'em. I'm going to take as my slightly silly hypothetical that we're playing at a 22-handed table (thus using the entire deck, after accounting for five board cards and three burn cards).

The easiest scenario is when there are quads on the board. That's easiest because it's not possible for anybody to have a flush, so the question is moot. The same is true if there is a full house on the board.

If there are trips on the board, then obviously one person can have quads, and anybody holding a pocket pair has a flush-beating full house. Suppose the board is Ac-As-Ah-Kh-7h. The nut flush is Qh-Xh. But that poor sap is being beaten not only by somebody holding the last ace, but by anybody holding any pocket pair, and even by anybody holding any K-X hand or any 7-X hand.

In theory, the nut flush could actually be the worst hand among the 22 players at our very large table, given the board listed in the previous paragraph. As just one way of dividing up the deck, let's suppose the three burn cards are all deuces, as is the kicker for the nut flush. We could have three players with K-3, three with Q-3, two with J-J, two with T-T, two with 9-9, two with 8-8, three with 7-4, two with 6-6, and two with 5-5, giving all 21 opponents a hand that beats the nut flush. [Edit: As pointed out in the comments, I made a mistake here. Here's my second attempt: one with A-3 (for quads), three with K-3, one with Q-Q, one with Q-7, two with J-J, two with T-T, two with 9-9, two with 8-8, two with 7-4, two with 6-6, two with 5-5, and one with 4-4, and we've got our 21 hands that beat the nut flush.] If we ignore which cards can be held simultaneously and just rank-order the possible hands, the nut flush is actually the 24th nuts, falling behind 12 different quads hands (A-K down through A-2), and 11 different kinds of full houses (aces full of kings down through aces full of deuces).

But wait, there's more! If I optimize my board to, say, 9h-8h-7h-7c-7s, then the nut flush drops to the theoretical 30th nuts--behind three different ways to make a straight flush, 12 different ways to make quads, and 14 different ways to make a full house (9s full one way, 8s full one way, and 7s full 12 ways).

Suppose the board is double-paired, e.g., Ah-Ad-Kh-Kd-2h. Then there will always be a theoretical minimum of two players who can beat the nut flush--those holding quads. If nobody has quads, then there can be a maximum of five full houses lurking among the opponents (e.g., A-7 times two, K-7 times two, and 2-2).

But we can do better than that. Let's instead made the board 9h-9d-8h-8d-7h. Now the nut flush is Ah-Xh, but it can be beaten not only by up to five boats, but also by any of three different straight flushes, and two of those can exist simultaneously, for a maximum of seven players at once crushing the nut flush (e.g., 9-2, 9-2, 8-2, 8-2, 7-7, Jh-Th, 5h-6h).

Now let's look at the kind of situation that pertained in both of the examples I started this post with. The most ordinary kind of paired board will have one set of quads and six different kinds of full houses available, making the nut flush only the 7th nuts. How many players might simultaneously be sitting on hands better than the nut flush? Five. Suppose the board is Ah-Ad-9h-5h-2c. We can have, e.g., A-9, A-5, 9-9, 5-5, and 2-2 out there. So in our 22-handed game, Mr. Nut Flush can at least have the small comfort of knowing that he will be in no worse than sixth place at showdown.

But again, if we tweak the board to full ridiculousness, such as 9h-8h-7h-6h-6c, the nut flush is the 10th nuts, standing in line behind three different straight flushes (jack-high, 10-high, and 9-high), one set of quads, and six different full houses. How many of these could exist at once? Seven, maximally: two straight flushes, and five full houses. Which means that in this scenario, Mr. Nut Flush might be only eighth-best at the showdown.

Even on an unpaired board, with no quads or boats on the horizon, the nut flush might not be the nuts when a straight flush is possible. Who here has lost a stack to a straight flush while holding the nut flush? (Grump raises his hand.) No more than two players can have a straight flush at once, so at least when the board is unpaired, holding the nut flush means you have at least 19 of your 21 opponents beat, and that's not bad!

All of which is an exceedingly long way of saying this: Not only is it an error to equate "nut flush" with "nuts," but sometimes the two things are a very, very long way apart. As shown above, it's possible for the nut flush to actually be only the 30th-best possible hand for some kinds of boards. If you call "nuts" when there are 29 hands that can beat you, you're due for a serious dope slap.


(What are the chances that I've made it through all of that without having made a mistake at some point?)

"Most"? Seriously?

Roy Cooke begins his latest column for Card Player magazine (January 26, 2011, vol. 24 #2) with this assertion:

"Most poker books encourage a rigid strategy. Few discuss constantly adapting your play to your opponents' tendencies."

Huh? I've read a good number of poker books, and I can't remember even one of them encouraging use of a rigid strategy. If I had, I think it would have stood out in my mind as so obviously, ridiculously wrong-headed that I would have (1) stopped reading it, and (2) blogged derisively about it right away.

The only possible exception that comes to mind is Kill Phil, but that is explicitly a book for beginners, outlining a strategy (actually, several strategies of varying complexity) by which an amateur can minimize the skill advantage that more experienced players have over him in a no-limit hold'em tournament. Its authors acknowledge that it is not a long-term winning approach to the game, and that readers will need to learn more finesse as they progress.

Even Phil Hellmuth's dated and basic Play Poker Like the Pros describes a few different broad categories of opponents' styles one is likely to encounter, and how one might adjust to play against each.

As a test, I just now pulled out my old (copyright 2000) copy of Poker for Dummies by Richard Harroch and Lou Krieger. In Chapter 2, "Essential Strategic Considerations," I find this on page 34, after description of a semi-bluff that went bad:

"What went wrong?" you ask yourself. "I had the perfect opportunity to
semi-bluff." Perfect, that is, only from the perspective of the cards on the
table and those in your hand. But it was far from perfect if you stopped to
consider your opponents. Your mistake involved considering only the cards while
choosing a strategy. Semi-bluffing doesn't work with players who always call.
You have to show them the best hand to take the money. While there was nothing
you could have done to win that pot, you certainly could have saved a bet on the
river.

Nothing was wrong with the strategy itself. It might have worked if the
cards were the same but your opponents were different. Knowing your opponents is
as important to winning at poker as understanding strategic concepts.

So the most simplified poker strategy book I own or know about, a mere 34 pages in, in the second chapter, is already emphasizing the point that Cooke says "most" poker books do not discuss.

Let's try another sample. This is the 2004 answer to the above publication, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Poker, by the late, great Andy Glazer. He actually gets to it even earlier than Harroch and Krieger did. In Chapter 1, page 7, under the heading, "Poker Is a Card Game and a People Game," Glazer writes:
It is difficult to imagine a game in which context is more important than
it is in poker--where the right decision against Jeff may be the wrong decision
against Phil, or where the right decision against a player who has been winning
for the last 20 minutes would be the wrong decision against someone who has been
losing heavily during that time.

Although many decisions are clear-cut--for example, you would not want to
fold the strongest possible hand in poker, a royal flush--just how you should
bet with your royal flush to maximize the amount you will win isn't at all
clear-cut.

Some players will be intimidatd by an early bet and may drop out; if you're
up against such a player, you're much better off checking and hoping that he
catches some good cards and becomes the aggressor himself. The amount you will
win with this hand can vary dramatically depending on how well you understand
your opponents' tendencies and personalities.

So, again, a book aimed at completely green beginners addresses this point at the earliest opportunity.

I'm completely unable to understand how Cooke could hold this opinion. How many poker books has he read, and how many of them recommended an inflexible strategy, rather than adapting one's play to the table?

Readers, I'm calling on you. If you can recall any poker strategy book that conforms to the description that Cooke says is true of "most" of them, please leave a comment here with the book's title and author, with a page number (and exact quotation, if you feel up to it) where such a recommendation is to be found. My guess is that even with the number of books we have collectively read, we won't come up with any.

A challenge to Mr. Cooke: Can you quote me even one poker strategy book that fits the description you gave for "most" of them? It should be easy, if what you say is true.

I suppose I should add that I happen to enjoy reading Cooke's columns and thinking through the situations he describes. I also adore his rulebook, Rules of Real Poker--it's the best one in print. He is no fool, and it is not my purpose to denounce him as one. This strange assertion is, I think, a rare glitch, but it sure is a whopper.

Guess the casino, #763






To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.




Answer: Wynn

Monday, January 24, 2011

Inducing vertigo and/or nausea

It's bad enough when I tell you about my poker-themed dreams. Now, for just this once, I'm going to tell you about one from last night that had nothing to do with poker--because it's just too funny not to share.

I'm a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan. I've seen "Vertigo" many times, and think it's his greatest achievement. It's also his most psychologically disturbing work (with "Frenzy" a close second). It is not appropriate material for children--not because of any overt sexual or violent content, but because of how Scottie gradually and abusively seizes control over Judy, and bullies her into transforming herself into a doppelganger of his lost love.

So in this dream I am, for some now-forgotten reason, sitting with a few other adults at the back of a first-grade classroom. They're showing the kids "Vertigo." I'm aware that it's a version that has been altered to better suit the sensibilities of youngsters, and I'm not liking the changes.

My frustration with the revisions reaches a peak when we get to the scene in the clothing store, where Scottie keeps rejecting dresses for Judy--ones that she likes--until he finds the one that matches what he remembers Madeleine wearing. But in the toned-down version being shown in class, Judy politely declines to put it on, and, to deal with Scottie's agitation, makes some excuse to leave the shop. As she's walking out, she tells him, "I'll contact you on Facebook."

That was the final straw for me. I said out loud, "Facebook?" The first-grade teacher tried to shush me. I would not be silenced. I said again, "Facebook? In a 1958 movie? That's just too messed up!" And I left.

It's bad enough when they colorize classic black-and-white films. When they start adding anachronistic Internet references to old cinematic masterpieces, they've really gone too far. Even my dreaming subconscious recognizes the outrage of it all.

What's in a screen name? #21





A new episode in the lives of The Micros is up here. There are many spots in which a freeze-frame will provide you additional enjoyment at some of the funny details included, such as this delightful list of screen names.

Guess the casino, #762








To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.




Answer: Stratosphere

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Guess the casino, #761






To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.




Answer: Rio

Starting a game at Hooters

Yesterday afternoon I ended up at the Hooters poker room around 5:00. I found two dealers and one shift manager sitting at the table twiddling their thumbs. I was a little surprised that they didn't have a game going yet. They had several names on the list. I was told that those players were occasionally checking back in, but they'd see that the tables were empty, and would take off again for their blackjack tables or slot machines.

I decided to plunk myself down in a seat in the hope that it would get at least one of these in-and-outers to stick around, which, in turn, might persuade another of them that the game was about to go, etc. So I did. I even had them sell me chips, in order to enhance the image that we were on the verge of starting.

I had to wait about 40 minutes before the cards started flying (I carry a crossword puzzle to work on for just such time-killing situations), but it was worth it. Once we got started, the other players were, frankly, pretty easy pickings.

The only reason I'm writing this post is to commend the shift manager at Hooters. When I told him that I'd stay put to try to get the other names on the list to join us, he immediately said, "Great. I'll get you clocked in right now."

That hadn't occurred to me as a possibility, probably because nobody has ever offered it to me before, despite the fact that I've played the same "catalyst" role many times in many different rooms. I earned less than a dollar in food comp credit sitting there, but it was something. More important, really, than the monetary value was the gesture; he was saying, in effect, "I recognize that you are helping us get the game going by sticking around instead of going off to do something else and waiting for other people to show up first, and this is our small token of appreciation."

As the great Chip Reese said, "If you don't open the store, how can you get any customers?" I have occasionally had room managers offer to begin rake-free when there are just three or four players, trying to induce them to get the game started. They obviously know that a game in progress is far more likely to attract additional players than the mere promise that a game will be starting some time in the ill-defined future. It seems to me that Hooters has stumbled upon another incentive technique: Offer to start the comps clock on players who actually sit at the table with chips, as that will probably help get the game going more quickly than if you just add another name to the list.

It's such a simple, cheap, effective, and (in retrospect) obvious idea that I have to wonder why nobody else ever does it.