Saturday, November 24, 2012

"You'll get there"

(No poker content.)

Last night I was browsing bike routes that local riders have uploaded, looking for someplace new to explore this morning. I found this one out in Henderson and thought it looked promising:

I did see that hill between the 11- and 12-mile marks, but thought that after my encounter with the monster climb Tuesday, I could handle this one. Ah, the hubris of youth. Or age. To tell you the truth, I didn't even check the slopes. I just looked at the total elevation change, and made a snap-call that it was manageable. Had I peered into the numbers a little more deeply, I might have seen that most of that uphill is 7-9%, and stretches of it are above 10%, peaking at 13.6%. Those numbers may not mean much to you if you have no experience comparing them with real-world roads, but trust me--those are gnarly slopes. The one that nearly killed me Tuesday was a pretty steady 4-5%. So if I had seriously studied the map for this one in Henderson, I might have spared myself what was to come.

The first part of the ride wasn't hard. About ten miles in, I got to the base of the hill and started up, determined that I was going to do it without stopping, even if it meant going ultra-slow. If I just looked a short distance in front of my tire, I could convince myself that I could do it--just keep turning the pedals one more time, then one more time after that.* But if I lifted my head and looked at how far I had to go, and how steep it was, it felt impossible.

I was pushing through the hurt, mostly managing not to discourage myself by looking too far ahead. But then about half way up, I had a sudden collapse. I had not planned on stopping to rest, but all at once I just couldn't push the pedals any more, and had to stop. I parked the bike and sat on a big rock panting, sensing my heart about to pound its way through my sternum, feeling pathetically sorry for myself. I also felt stupid: Twice in one week I had bitten off more than I could chew (an apt metaphor for Thanksgiving week). How could I have looked at the profile of this hill--a mere three days after having underestimated the one in Summerlin--and yet again failed to realize that it was beyond my capacity? Am I really that slow a learner?

As I was wallowing in fatigue and hypoxia and pain and self-pity, I glanced up and saw another cyclist coming up the hill. He was covering ground faster than I would have thought humanly possible, given how that same slope had defeated me. What's more was that he didn't look like it was killing him, or even bothering him. He appeared to be enjoying himself, as if he were just on an relaxing Sunday jaunt. At a glance it was obvious that he was a very, very strong rider. His bike and accessories were top-shelf, and he was clearly in that elite class of riders for whom such expensive purchases were justified, in that he could really squeeze their performance potential from them. If there is a bell curve of cycling ability, he and I are at opposite ends of it.

He never stopped, but he slowed down as he neared me. He called out, "Are you all right?" "Fine," I replied. "I just couldn't make it all the way up without stopping to rest."

He gave me a smile that struck me as warm and supportive, not in the least bit condescending (as he might have reason to be, given the disparity in our abilities), and said sympathetically, "It's a hard climb." By now he was past me, and he looked back over his shoulder to add, "But don't worry--you'll get there." And he sped off.

I'm not usually one to be easily affected by cheap sentiment, breezy cliches, or generic affirmations. But something about the specific words he chose and the warmth and compassion that I detected behind them gave me a real rush of confidence. Like few times that I can remember in my life, in a flash my mood and outlook were transformed. This random stranger managed, with those last six words, to pull me out of a pit of doubt and self-recrimination and snapped me back into focusing on actually getting done what I had set out to do. As soon as he had disappeared around a bend, I hopped back on my bike to attack the hill again.

And you know what? He was right. I did get there. Not nearly as fast as he did, but at my own slow pace I got to the top, when a few minutes before I had come very close to convincing myself that I couldn't do it and calling off the apparently futile attempt.

Not many worthwhile things in life are easy. Once in a while you are treated to an easy coast down a hill and the feeling is exhilarating. But very quickly that freeroll ends and you're back to the hard slog up the ugly side of the next challenge, step after step, day after day. Life is one hill after another after another, and we spend a lot more time trudging up them than we do sailing down the other side. Each one can feel endless, even pointless, as if you'll never beat it, as if you'll never get to the top.

It's a hard climb.

But don't worry--you'll get there.

*If you've never seen the documentary film "Touching the Void," you owe it to yourself to find it and watch it. It's an incredible, harrowing story of survival. In short, a guy with a broken leg has to climb down a mountain in the Andes all by himself, because his partner has left him behind, assuming that he had died in the fall that broke his leg. I thought the most interesting part was the psychological tricks he had to use to get himself through the ordeal. He had a master self who kept issuing commands, such as, "You have to get to that rock over there before you can rest." And the part of his mind that was actually carrying out the orders would protest that it couldn't be done. But the master self was like a slave driver who would accept no excuses for failure. So accomplishing one small goal at a time, pushing through the pain of one more short segment before resting, he made it down and survived. It took him several days of pushing himself in that way. I realize it's kind of melodramatic of me to compare a virtually risk-free suburban hill climb on a bicycle to that arduous journey, but I do flash back to it when trying to push myself to go a little bit farther, and then a little bit farther after that.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

South Carolina case

I have just read the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court in Town of Mount Pleasant v. Chimento, available here. I have not read any other coverage or commentary on it. I don't have time for as full a critique as I would like to write, but here are some scattered thoughts. And remember: I am not a lawyer, and I don't even play one on TV.

1. The entire case turns on the meaning of the phrase "any house used as a place of gaming," because the statute bans gambling only in specifically listed locations, and this is the only one from the list that could conceivably apply to the home poker game in question. The phrase is not defined by the statute. You can immediately intuit that the phrase cannot just mean "any house where gaming takes place," because if that is the intended meaning, then the legislature would have just said, "any house." Put another way, the broadest interpretation renders meaningless the qualifying verbiage, "used as a place of gaming." So when does a house shift from being one where gaming is taking place but is not "used as a place of gaming" to one where gaming is taking place and is "used as a place of gaming"? That is the crux of the whole matter.

2. The majority concludes that, sure, it will often be vague whether some particular defendant's conduct crosses that ill-defined line, but these particular defendants were so clearly on the bad side of the line that we don't have to decide where that line is. Moreover, the court said, these defendants don't even have legal standing to raise the constitutional defense of statutory vagueness.

3. I think the dissent has by far the better argument here. The dissent says that whether these defendants' conduct was clearly over the line is not the end of the inquiry. We also have to ask whether the fuzziness of the line is such an intrinsic characteristic of the statutory language that arbitrary enforcement is necessarily going to result. And she concludes that that is, in fact, the statute's fatal flaw, constitutionally speaking, independent of the question of whether these defendants' due-process rights were violated because the vagueness of the statute made it impossible for them to know whether their conduct ran afoul of the law.

These defendants were only arrested and prosecuted because of the regularity of the game's occurrence, the fact that they held open an invitation for anyone to join, because rake was taken to defray the costs of providing food, and because the stakes were more than "penny-ante." The police freely admitted that it was these criteria that caused them to make arrests. Yet none of these additional criteria are in the statute. When the police make up their own criteria for deciding who to arrest and who to leave alone, I don't see how anybody can deny that this constitutes arbitrary enforcement. Nor can I see how anybody can deny that arbitrary enforcement is both (1) constitutionally disallowed as a matter of due process and (2) odious and dangerous as a matter of public policy. As the dissent persuasively argues, this statue is so vague that arbitrariness on the part of law enforcement is not only a possibility, but an inevitable consequence, and that is something the Supreme Court has rightly and repeatedly said cannot be tolerated.

4. My preference for the dissent's conclusion really has nothing to do with my preference, as a public policy matter, that people be free to run poker games in their home. It surely has a great deal to do, however, with my personal experience with arbitrary enforcement of laws. I have been on the raw end of an arbitrary law-enforcement decision--and not in a minor way, but in a way that completely changed the entire trajectory of my life, so I have a strong visceral distaste for prosecutions that hinge on the arbitrary decisions of those charged with enforcing the laws.

5. The majority decision doesn't take issue with the conclusion of the lower court that poker is a game in which skill predominates over luck. But not a single member of the court, either in the majority or in the dissent, thought that that had any bearing on the outcome. It was completely irrelevant to the questions that the court had to answer. "Whether an activity is gaming/gambling is not dependent upon the relative roles of skill and chance, but whether there is money or something of value wagered on the game's outcome." If you hear anybody say that this court held that poker is a game of skill, they're either misinformed or deliberately misstating the facts. That language is pure dicta--i.e., a side commentary on a question that the court did not have to resolve in order to reach its conclusion. It has no legal force, and cannot properly be cited as precedent by future courts.

6. I'm appalled at Chief Justice Toal's concurrence. She effectively admits that she would vote to uphold the statute even if it is unconstitutionally vague because she fears what would happen to public decency and order if they struck it down. I consider that a flagrant abdication of her duty. In the rare instances in which a court finds that it must invalidate a statute but that doing so will leave some sort of potentially alarming gap in the state's whole statutory scheme, one compromise remedy courts can turn to is to stay (i.e., delay) the effect of the decision--say, for 30 or 60 or 90 days--to give the legislature time to enact a replacement before the old statute is declared void.

7. The dissent reads to me as if it were originally written to be a majority opinion, then tweaked later when it became a dissent. My guess is that the swing vote, Toal, was with the dissent at first, but then what became the court's opinion was amended just enough to win her over as far as the result, though she still disagreed with the main part of its reasoning. It appears that it was the section on standing that pulled her over.

8. The dissent is right, IMHO, to criticize the majority's handling of the standing question. That is, they are deciding the case (or at least settling one of its most important arguments) on the basis of a question that neither party raised to the court. Although the dissent doesn't say this, the proper thing for the court to do when it faces such a dilemma is to order the parties to do additional briefing, and perhaps even a second round of oral argument, to address the question on which the case may be turning. (This is what happened, for example, in the Citizens United case on campaign financing before the Supreme Court a couple of years ago.)

OK, that's all I have time for. Besides, it's probably more than about 99% of you are interested in already.

Climb every mountain

(No poker content.)

I found a web site, Strava, on which one can not only upload the GPS data from a bike ride, but compare it to other users who have covered the same track. I quickly discovered that one of the most popular local biking challenges is a route called the "Villa Ridge climb" in Summerlin:

I thought it would be fun and interesting to take it on and compare my time to the best that have been recorded--which, as you can see, is 13:37 for a man, 15:03 for a woman. I knew I would be vastly slower than that, but I didn't expect that I'd have difficulty even finishing the ride. After all,  I've done 24-mile rides with 1000 feet of climb, so how hard can 4.4 miles and 667 feet of climb be?

As it turns out, a lot harder than I thought. I had to stop--twice--for ten-minute breaks to catch my breath. Some of my longer rides to date have certainly left me tired, but I had never before been forced to stop because I had reached my cardiovascular limit. Until today.

The first time I must have looked a sight sitting on the curb panting, because a nice lady stopped her car, rolled down the window, and asked if I was OK. I put on a brave face. "Yes, fine, thanks--just taking a breather." Inside, though, I was dying.

When the fire in my legs and lungs again forced a halt, this time I dialed 911 and had the friendly paramedics come by and jump-start my heart a few times, as it had gone into ventricular fibrillation.

Why so much difficulty compared to my previous rides? The answer perhaps should have been obvious to me just looking at the graph above, but it became painfully apparent as I was riding: It's the unbroken, unrelenting nature of the climb. Once it starts going uphill, there are no flat spots, no downhill portions in which to do some recovery. It's just climb, climb, climb, and climb some more.That is a condition I haven't faced before, and it makes all the difference in the world.

But I did eventually make it up the hill, mostly fueled by sheer stubbornness. Well, that plus the fact that I had left my car at the top of the hill, so turning around and heading down was not an option. I confess that I was feeling so completely whipped that I probably would have wimped out and taken that option had it been available.

My time? 51 minutes, including the rest breaks. My legs felt like overcooked spaghetti for the rest of the day. Overcooked spaghetti that was on fire.

This is mildly discouraging because I've had my eye on riding Red Rock Canyon, and that is an even more difficult climb, with more than 50% greater elevation rise in about the same distance as Villa Ridge. I had previously been thinking that it would be at the outer edge of my ability, but that I could do it. I now know that I can't--at least not without taking several breaks along the way, and maybe being carried the last mile or two by my funeral procession.

On the other hand, being faced with this stark evidence of how out of shape I am gives me some motivation to do better. And having an objective, repeatable benchmark test gives me the means to track my progress. Maybe next time I can make do with one ten-minute rest and one five-minute rest. Then with just two five-minute rests, then just one. And maybe, just maybe, in a month or two I can increase my leg strength and cardiovascular reserve enough that I can make it to the top without stopping at all. (One of the advantages of living in Las Vegas is that even in the winter it doesn't get prohibitively cold for biking.)

I still won't show up on the Strava leaderboard, but that doesn't matter. I'm really only competing against myself. As long as I can get to where I can convincingly trounce the pathetic, out-of-shape, overweight, middle-aged, whiny slowpoke who barely managed to even finish the ride today, it will be something I'll be proud of.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Steve Zolotow presents an interesting little quiz in his column for Card Player magazine (November 14, 2012, issue; vol. 25, #23, page 50). He asks the reader to estimate what percentage of the time 10s-9s will win against the following hands, assuming all-in before the flop:

1. Ac-Ad
2. Ac-Kc
3. Ac-5c
4. 5c-5d
5. 7c-6c
6. 9c-8c
7. Top 20 percent range
8. Top 40 percent range
9. Top 60 percent range
10. All hands--100 percent range

If this piques your curiosity as it did mine, take a couple of minutes to jot down your answers, before scrolling down.

Here are the answers Zolotow gives, as percentages, followed in parentheses by the estimates I had written down:

1. 22.8 (20)
2. 38.7 (40)
3. 45.9 (45)
4. 52.4 (50)
5. 62.8 (65)
6. 69.3 (75)
7. 35.4 (30)
8. 41.6 (35)
9. 46.5 (40)
10. 54.0 (45)

Clearly I did a lot better putting in estimates against specific starting hands than I did against ranges. I have a bazillion times more experience with the former than with the latter. For the former, my guesses were all good enough that they would produce the right answer in a go/no-go situation at the table nearly every time. For the latter, though I wasn't outrageously off, I still missed by enough to cause an erroneous decision in some significant spots.

And, frankly, estimating hand strength against an opponent's range is a more important skill than estimating it against a specific hand. It's something I ought to work on.

How about you?

The near future of online poker

This insightful analysis was published nearly a month ago, but it had escaped my attention until Poker Lawyer tweeted a link to it today:

I won the Sunday Million on PokerStars

OK, well, not me, exactly, but clearly one of my disciples in the Holy Order of the Mighty Deuce-Four, somebody using the screen name Sexylady409. See the write-up of the final hand of the tournament near the end of this piece. (Thanks to Jen for the tip.)