Saturday, October 13, 2007

Poker gems, #37

Gabe Kaplan, on GSN's "High Stakes Poker," Season 1, episode 4, noting that Eli Elezra and Sammy Farha were sitting next to and needling each other:

Look at this. You've got an Israeli and a Lebanese, the best of friends. They should have U.N. meetings at the poker table. There'd be no wars--unless one country slow-rolled another.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Poker gems, #36

T. J. Cloutier, as quoted in Larry W. Phillips, The Tao of Poker, p. 196:

Just because you lost the last five hands in a row doesn't mean that you're going to lose the sixth one. The odds never change, the odds on the sixth hand are the same as they were on the first one. But you don't feel the same about it--nobody ever does.

This would drive me crazy!

I thought that by now I had seen nearly every kind of problem a dealer could introduce (intentionally or accidentally) into a poker game. But today, while catching up on reading some other poker blogs, I learned that the standard way of managing pots in British poker rooms is pure nuttiness--truly inexplicable why it would ever have begun, let alone been continued for so long. I can't improve on Lee Jones's description of the procedure and the problems it creates, so I'll just link to it. This whole "Bigger Deal" blog, by the way, may be the very tippy-top in the poker blogging world in terms of the consistent quality of writing. It's always a pleasure to read.

The class of Doyle Brunson (non-grumpy content)

I'll confess to having pirated, downloaded copies of every episode of GSN's "High Stakes Poker" on my hard drive. I love that show. It's simply the best poker ever broadcast.

Anyway, today I was watching again an episode from the first season, and it reminded me of the conclusion of the incident, which didn't occur until the second season.

Doyle Brunson and Ted Forrest were in a hand together. Doyle missed his hand, but made a big bluff bet on the river. Ted called. Doyle knew he was beat without even seeing Ted's cards (because Doyle didn't even have a pair), and resignedly said, "Good call." But he then muttered "I know better than to bluff an idiot." He had just a hint of a smile when he said it, but you have to look closely. Doyle does not really think Ted is an idiot--far from it, he put his big money on Ted to take on Andy Beal in their famous series of heads-up matches, which isn't the sort of thing you'd do if you genuinely thought somebody was an idiot at the game. So nobody who knows their history would take it as anything more than a little needle between friends. But, of course, if you don't know them, it looked really nasty.

Nothing more is said about this until season 2, episode 13. Doyle is there, and when Gus Hansen leaves, Ted arrives to take the seat. Before he even sits down, Doyle speaks up: "Ted, I want to apologize to you." Ted is truly puzzled--he has no idea what it's about. He asks, "For what, Doyle?" Doyle says, "I called you an idiot on national television." The whole table breaks into laughter. Ted smiles and says, "Yeah, I saw that." Doyle continues, "I didn't mean to do it." Ted replies, "It's OK, I've got thick skin."

I'm sure that those two had lots of face time together between the airing of the first show and the taping of the second one, but this was the first time that Doyle had approximately the same audience, so that he could make his apology as public as the insult had been.

Lots of people have long memories for when somebody has offended them, but not many tend to remember as long and as well when they have been the offender. It's pretty classy to come back on the show a year later and use the first opportunity to make amends.

I do try hard not to insult other people at the poker table, no matter how provoked. But if I ever slip, I hope I live up to Doyle's example of setting it right again the first chance I have.
Addendum, October 22, 2007
As another example of Doyle's classiness, he writes this in his new book, My 50 Most Memorable Hands:
I've always been a stickler for rules and try to observe them. If a situation comes up when I'm playing poker--even if the floorman rules in my favor--I make it a point to ask: "If my name was John Smith would you make the same ruling?" I don't expect, nor do I want, any favoritism just because I've been around for a long time. I think most rules are made for a purpose and have to be strictly enforced to be effective.

Online poker comic strip (non-grumpy content)

This has been going three times a week since last fall, but I just discovered it today. It's a must-see. The link is to the first one, then just keep clicking on "next."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

More on religion at the poker table

I previously wrote about some of the strange (in my view) things that Jerry Yang did at the final table of the World Series of Poker main event: At the time, I had watched the event live. Now, though, I've seen ESPN's broadcast. I taped it last night, so I can transcribe some things accurately, instead of relying on memory. Moreover, ESPN's multiple cameras and microphones caught things that weren't shown on the live broadcast. In terms of overt religiosity, there was even more strangeness than I knew.

In the hand in which Jerry Yang eliminated Lee Watkinson, Yang raised pre-flop with A-9, then Watkinson moved all-in with A-7. While Yang was thinking about what to do, Watkinson's financee, whose name is Timmi Derosa (see, is seen on the sidelines. She says, "If he calls, he's gonna double Lee up. No weapon formed against him shall prosper."

This appears to be an allusion to Isaiah 54:17: "No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their righteousness is of me, saith the LORD." (King James Version.)

So apparently Lee Watkinson is, according to his fiancee, a servant of the Lord, and as a result, he can't lose a hand of poker.

She repeats this a few seconds later, after Yang announces his call. Looking upward, she yells, "Come on, Father. In Jesus's name. No weapon formed against you shall prosper."

Note the little change of pronoun there, from "him" to "you." Now she is saying not that Yang is a weapon against Lee, the Lord's servant, but against God himself! Wow! I wonder what Yang did to deserve being accused of being a weapon formed against God, and how Derosa knows whatever this deep, dark secret is. But either way, whether one conspires to defeat the Lord or just the Lord's servant, one is obviously destined to fail.

Except that--OOPS!--Yang won the hand, and Watkinson was bumped out of the tournament. Hmmm. I guess that makes Ms. Derosa a false prophet. And what does the Bible say about false prophets?

But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I
have not commanded him to speak...even that prophet shall die. And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously.... (Deuteronomy 18:20-22, KJV.)

I'm not sure if that bit about the false prophet dying means that the religious community has an affirmative obligation to off Ms. Derosa, or if the good Lord will take care of that himself. Assuming, though, that she believes this passage to be true, she ought to be sure she has her affairs in order.

After the flop and turn haven't helped Watkinson's inferior hand, and only the river can save him, Derosa closes her eyes and says, "C'mon. Make him a believer. Make Lee a believer, Father." I don't know how to interpret this. Is this rhetorical, or is Lee not of the same faith as his fiancee? Well, if he wasn't, I doubt that this hand converted him.

Making this hand even more bizarre was Yang's simultaneous prayers for a contrary result: "Come on, Lord. You know your purpose for me.... You have a purpose for me today.... Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, c'mon, let me win this one." Norman Chad picked up on the strangeness of these dueling prayers, and said, "I'm not sure who the Lord is listening to."

I'm just speculating here, but perhaps Derosa's prayers were less effective than Yang's because God was offended by her vanity. Based on the shots of her on the ESPN broadcast, it appears that she has had way too many collagen injections to plump up her lips, a visual effect that is accentuated by her use of dark lip-liner. Or maybe she got stung by a bee, or maybe Watkinson smacks her around. Who knows? Whatever the cause, it looks awfully strange and unnatural. "Surely God will not hear vanity, neither will the Almighty regard it." (Job 35:13, KJV.) "Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity" (Psalms 24:3-4, KJV.)

But back to the Dueling Christians. I can't help thinking of one of the coolest stories in the Bible: Elijah and the priests of Baal (1 Kings, ch. 18). Elijah sets up a contest between him and the priests of Baal, to see which deity will better respond to entreaties and an animal sacrifice, by miraculously lighting a fire under the sacrificial altar. The priests of Baal pray all day, even cutting themselves with knives in an apparent show of devotion. But nothing happens. Then Elijah takes his turn. In a showy display of confidence (and, I suppose, to ensure that nobody thinks he was cheating and somehow had fire hidden away), he has servants come and dowse the entire altar with barrels of water three times, then dig a trench all around the altar and fill that with water, too. Then he utters a simple prayer, and WHOOSH! Fire leaps down from heaven and consumes the whole thing. Then, of course, he has the priests of Baal slaughtered, because no showdown is really complete without that. When you go all-in against the Lord, he apparently takes it very seriously, man.

The difference here is that, presumably, Derosa and Yang were praying to the same god, which makes the whole thing sort of a "Heads I win, tails you lose" situation. No matter how the cards fall, one camp or the other can say that Jesus was on their side. Which makes the bizarre incident a heck of a lot less compelling than successfully calling down fire from heaven. Oh well--maybe the god Yang and Derosa were praying to isn't really the same one that Elijah had on his side. Or maybe his powers have weakened over the centuries, and now all he can manage as a manifestation of his power is a little card trick. If Elijah had been at the WSOP final table, I assume that he would have stepped back, invoked a curse on his opponents for daring to stand in his way, and the whole table would have been consumed in a massive inferno from above. That would have been a lot faster than the 14 hours or so that it took Yang to defeat his opponents the hard way--and it would have been a lot cooler to watch.

Moving on, we have the hand in which Yang's J-8 outdrew Lee Childs's J-K to eliminate the latter. Again we get to eavesdrop on Yang's praying: "Father, I will glorify your name.... Let people see your miracle. I believe in your name." Of course, he only says this after the "miracle" 8 hits on the turn to give him the winning pair. But again, what a weak, pathetic kind of "miracle" this is, compared to, say, turning water into wine, healing the blind, raising the dead, feeding 5000 people with one loaf of bread, making a mule speak, sending manna from heaven, bringing down the walls of Jericho, etc.

Later, Yang calls an all-in bet from Alex Kravchenko before the flop. The latter has pocket 3s, and makes a set of them on the flop. Yang has just an offsuit K-Q, and is drawing dead. That is, by the usual rules of poker Yang cannot win the hand no matter what cards come on the turn and river. And in this situation there is a conspicuous absence of praying from Yang. Why? Does he have so little faith in his deity that he just assumes that he has lost? Even without going so far as to consume the entire table in a fiery blast, surely the Lord could, for example, make the dealer put out on the turn or river a card that was an exact duplicate of one already there (or of one in one of the players' hands). If there were found to be, e.g., two 8 of clubs in the deck, it would be declared to be a "fouled deck," and all the money put into the pot on that hand would be returned to the players. It's like the poker version of a children's "do over." Can't Yang's god perform even so trivial a miracle as that?*

I noticed that frequently after winning a hand, Yang and/or his family could be seen and heard saying "Hallelujah," which presumably means, to them, something akin to "Praise God." (See But oddly, we never see that happen when he loses a hand. I don't know how to interpret this discrepancy. Perhaps they declared their praise exactly the same either way, and it was edited out--though that seems unlikely. Assuming that they praised God when winning but not when losing, I have to wonder about the theological implications. Do they attribute winning hands to God's intervention, but not losing hands? If so, on what basis? Don't they believe that God is controlling everything that happens, for good or for ill? Wouldn't consistency require that they praise God for making Yang lose hands, too, since that presumably fulfills whatever his mysterious purposes might be? Hey, if Kevin Bacon in "Animal House" can choke out a "Thank you, sir, may I have another?" after getting whacked with a paddle (see, surely Christians can respond to the small adversity of losing a poker hand with praise for the being that they believe controlled how the cards were shuffled and how the betting went down, right?

Overall, I'd have to say that if the best evidence for God's intervention in poker that so-called Christians can muster is that a mediocre player (and after watching the final table, there is no doubt that that's what Yang is) can get lucky and win the WSOP main event, then I'm going to have to hold to my conclusion that prayers such as Yang's and Derosa's are just a showy, weird, embarrassing, and slightly demented version of rubbing a lucky rabbit's foot--and precisely as effective.

Too bad ESPN cut out Norman Chad's great line during his post-match interview with Yang: "Do you think this is the most poker the Lord has ever watched over?"

* NBC ran an interesting invitational poker series last year: the "Pro-Am Equalizer," in which celebrity amateur players were given a substantially larger starting stack than the pros at the table. In one event, Penn Jillette (of "Penn and Teller" fame) was playing. With the river card yet to come, he was drawing dead in a hand in which he and his opponent were all-in. He said, "The only way I can win now is if they let me deal." This was a very funny line, coming from a man who is a genuine expert on slight-of-hand and card cheating. (He has even published a book on how poker cheaters work. See I assume that if he were inclined to show off, in a situation in which nothing was at stake (so that it wasn't really cheating), that's one of the ways in which Penn, handed the deck of cards to deal the river, would resolve the dilemma in his favor. He can't win, but he could at least force the hand to be nullified by slipping a duplicate card into the deck. It doesn't say much for Yang's god if he isn't even as powerful a conjurer as Penn Jillette.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The worst hand in poker--are you sure?

A couple of weeks ago, while playing at the Hilton, I was in the big blind with 2-3 offsuit. The pot wasn't raised, so I got into the hand for no extra money. I got no help from the community cards, and at the end was playing the board, because all five cards out there were higher than mine. I got to the showdown because the action went check-check-check--it was one of those pots in which nobody made any hand worth betting on. I laughed as I exposed my cards, and said, "I don't think I win, since I have the worst possible hand."*

A player to my left said, "No, 2-7 is the worst possible hand."

I will cut him a bit of slack because he was referring to the worst starting hand, while I was referring to the worst possible hand at the end, given this particular set of five community cards.

But even after accounting for that misunderstanding of the context, the guy was wrong. Or at least he wasn't clearly right.

I first heard 2-7 (offsuit--and throughout this post I am granting that the hole cards are of different suits, because when they are of the same suit they automatically gain in potential value, due to the increased chance of hitting a flush) described as the worst starting hand in hold'em poker from Mike Sexton's commentary on one of the early episodes of the World Poker Tour, when I was just starting to understand how poker is played. And the observation stands to reason, because they are the lowest cards you can hold that can't make a straight. (That is, you can't make a straight using both cards--which means that in order to hit a straight you need help from four community cards, a considerably harder task than making a straight with just three of them.)

But anybody who makes the blanket claim that 2-7 is the worst possible starting hand just hasn't thought the matter through. In fact, next time I hear somebody say that, I think I'll test the strength of their belief by offering them a bet: "OK, I'll take 2-7 and give you 2-3, and we'll play out the hands, without any rounds of betting, just all five community cards at once. We'll do that, say, 100 times, and whoever has won the most hands gets $1000 from the other."

I sure hope somebody takes me up on that. Would you, dear reader? I hope not--because I hope my readers are smarter than that!

According to Card Player magazine's online poker odds calculator (, 2-7 beats 2-3 56% of the time, the 2-3 wins 26%, and they split the pot in 18% of hands. (All percentages in this post are rounded.) I like my chances for winning that $1000, if I can get anybody to agree to the bet.

As with nearly everything in poker, the answer to the question "What's the worst starting hand?" is "it all depends." Primarily, it depends on what you're up against.

Continuing with the 2-7 versus 2-3 comparison, let's see how they stack up against some sample opponents. I'm using two different tools for doing the calculation: the Card Player calculator and the application called Poker Stove (available for free download from They come up with slightly different results, mostly because the latter doesn't spit out a separate percentage for ties, but takes the frequency of ties (e.g., the 18% above) and splits it between the hands being compared (in that case, it gives an extra 9% to each, and reports the result as 65% for the 2-7 and 35% for the 2-3). There are also probably differences in how the calculation is run, though I don't know the details of either one's operation.

In the table below, I show the results of pitting the 2-3 and the 2-7 against a variety of other hands, as shown. The results are, in each case, using the CP calculator first and Poker Stove second. The dollar sign shows which is superior (i.e., between the 2-3 and 2-7):

A-A versus 2-3: 86/13, 86/14 $
A-A versus 2-7: 87/12, 87/13

A-K versus 2-3: 65/34, 65/35 $
A-K versus 2-7: 67/33, 67/33

9-9 versus 2-3: 84/15, 85/15 $
9-9 versus 2-7: 88/12, 88/12

5-5 versus 2-3: 86/12, 87/13
5-5 versus 2-7: 70/28, 71/29 $

2-2 versus 2-3: 64/30, 67/33 $
2-2 versus 2-7: 65/30, 68/32

A-2 versus 2-3: 74/25, 74/26 $
A-2 versus 2-7: 74/25, 75/25

A-4 versus 2-3: 67/33, 67/33
A-4 versus 2-7: 65/35, 65/35 $

Which is kind of a long way of saying that against at least some other opponents' starting hands, 2-7 would be a better choice than 2-3, sometimes a far better choice.

(As an aside, neither the 2-3 nor the 2-7 is the worst hand to take up against somebody else's pocket aces. Top--or, rather, bottom--honors there go to the A-6 offsuit, which is a 94/6 dog in that race, which is the absolute worst scenario of any two hold'em starting hands. The point being, again, that what qualifies as the worst hand depends entirely on what one is up against. Or, to avoid ending that sentence in a preposition, it depends entirely on up against which one is. (Yuck. So much for grammar.))

Of course, we don't get to choose either our own hole cards or those of our opponents. So probably the best way of answering the question of the worst starting hand is by running the test against a random hand. This is a calculation that Poker Stove does easily, but isn't available from the Card Player tool. The answer is that the 2-7 beats or ties a random hand 35% of the time, the 2-3 only 33%. Matthew Hilger's book, Texas Hold'em Odds and Probabilities, gives these numbers, respectively, as 35% and 32% (pp. 235-237), a difference I assume is probably attributable to just rounding.

By that most general metric, then, 2-7 is a better place to start than 2-3. In other words, if what we're interested in is the likelihood of ending up with the best hand after all five community cards have been dealt out, the worst cards to have in your hand are what I had in the story that prompted this rant: a 2 and a 3, not the infamous 2-7.

So why does Mike Sexton say that the 2-7 is the worst starting hand? And since he's not exactly the first one to make that observation, why is it found in so many sources?

The answer is that nobody plays poker the way that the calculators do the math, or the way that I would propose to run my 100-hand bet.

Given the choice, I'd rather take a 2-3 than 2-7 into battle in any given pot, even though I know that 2-7 beats 2-3 a lot more often than it loses to it, and even though 2-7 will win slightly more showdowns than will 2-3 against random opposing hands. The reason is that I want to be able to make a strong hand against an opponent who has a hand that isn't quite as good but is good enough that he's willing to bet on it (and lose).

Considering the 2-3 and 2-7, they are equally likely to make one pair, two pairs, three of a kind, a flush, a full house, or four of a kind. But, as mentioned early in this post, they are not equally likely to make a straight. And that makes enough of a difference (because straights are relatively common) that I'd prefer to start with the 2-3. It is more likely that I will hit a straight. Of course, with the 2-7 any flush or full house I hit will be higher than making the same category of hand with the 2-3. But the increased probability of the straight easily outweighs that factor, in my view.

The probability of flopping a straight with the 2-3 is only 0.7%, according to Hilger (p. 189). But the probability of flopping either a straight or an open-ended straight draw is much better: 3.8% (Hilger, p. 194). With 2-7, it's obviously impossible to flop a straight. Hilger doesn't list the probability of flopping an open-ended straight draw with the 2-7, so I had to work it out myself: 1.6%.**

To make matters worse for the 2-7, having four parts of the straight on the board (as is necessary to make a straight with 2-7 in one's hand) is much more suspicious to an opponent holding, say, trips or two pair than is having just three parts of the straight visible. This translates to the 2-7 being less likely to win a big pot even when it does manage to make a straight. Furthermore, when you're relying on four parts of the straight being on the board, it's a lot more likely that an opponent will have a higher straight (or at least split the pot with you by holding the fifth card in common) than it is when that opponent has to have both of his hole cards exactly right to have a higher straight than yours.

In that sense, yes, the 2-7 is the worst starting hand, because it's the one I would least like to have to work with. I assume that most professionals have reached the same conclusion--hence the common observation about the poor, much-maligned 2-7. But now my readers can be among the cognoscenti, those who know that the answer isn't really that simple.

Now if I can just find that guy from the Hilton again, and offer him my little contest....

*Of course, any two unpaired cards in the hole that were both smaller than whatever the lowest card on the board was (I don't remember what that might have been) would actually be equally bad, since all such hands would split the pot, all playing the board. But I obviously had the lowest possible cards that fit that description.

** In case anybody wants to check my work: There are 19,600 possible flops (we don't care what order the cards come in), from the remaining 50 unknown cards (because C(50,3)=19,600). The flop has to be 3-4-5, 4-5-6, 5-6-8, 6-8-9, or 8-9-10 to give us the draw. Each of those has 64 different ways of hitting (because there are four cards of each rank), giving a total of 320 different flops that qualify. So the probability of hitting the draw is 320/19,600, or 1.6%.

Addendum, October 9, 2007:

After writing and posting the above, curiosity drove me to do a Google search on the phrase "worst hand in poker" to see what others have written on the subject. Along the way, I came across a table of percentage wins and pot equity of every hold'em starting hand, as played out (or so the author claims) in a computer simulation against a random hand in 2,000,000+ trials each:

Monday, October 08, 2007

Poker gems, #35

I hope at least a few readers have followed and enjoyed the extended excerpts from Shut Up and Deal. I loved the book. It's highly unlikely that I'll devote anywhere near as much space to snippets from other stuff, but at least now I will return to other sources for this series of posts, for those who didn't much care for May's work.

Jesse May, Shut Up and Deal, p. 201:

It ain’t like I’m getting up every five minutes to go to my [hotel] room. Some buy-ins last longer than others, and sometimes I double my stack through before I lose it and once I’m almost even for fifteen minutes or so. But there’s no doubt as the session wears on that I’m losing, and my cards are rather gruesome. There’s no flow. There’s no order. Sometimes I go for an hour without playing more than a few hands, and then all of the sudden I get about ten to play in a row and get brutalized and then it’s all over and I feel like a tornado went through my head and sucked up my chips and I’m just shell-shocked and thinking about all the hands while Louie and Porky are chortling. And then dry as a bone. Sit back and wait. And fume.

Sometimes I make a pledge like I’m gonna die right here in this seat rather than quit this game because it’s so good. And don’t it always seem to be that when you make the pledge, those are the days you really do sit there and just die in the seat. That’s what it feels like. Just sitting there and dying, man.

Poker players are political wimps

In the nearly one year since passage of the abominable "Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act" (UIGEA) I have overheard quite a bit of discussion on the subject of politics around the poker table, as well as on TV, among well-known professional players, on "High Stakes Poker" and "Poker After Dark" (the only two poker programs that have a lot of table talk). I am repeatedly astounded by how players so readily forgive--or forget?--those who tried to make online poker difficult or impossible to play.

I don't play online much, because I'm just not very good at it. (Not that anybody cares, but I think the main reasons are that (1) live players give off oodles of information, and I seem not to function well without it, (2) I get bored and impatient with nothing to do but stare at the screen, and feel compelled to play hands that I should just fold; real people are a lot more interesting to watch, (3) players enter and leave virtual tables much more quickly than real ones, not giving me the time I need to figure out how they're playing. At least I'm in good company; both Daniel Negreanu and Barry Greenstein admit that they're similarly handicapped.) But there aren't very many more victimless "crimes" than sitting at home in one's underwear playing $0.05-0.10 limit hold'em on the computer. It's insane for "the land of the free" to be making this activity of questionable legality and putting up hurdles for casual players to jump over.

I guess what brought this to a head for me was hearing Daniel Negreanu and Doyle Brunson chatting, during a "Poker After Dark" episode, about presidential candidates, with both of them endorsing Barack Obama. There aren't many people in this country who were more negatively affected by the UIGEA than these two. Both of them had online poker sites that were about a year old, and both operations went belly-up shortly after the legislation was signed. I have no idea how much money they may have lost, but it must have been millions of dollars of potential revenue. And then they're openly talking about their support for a guy who voted to close them down!!! Have you guys lost all sense of reason???

The usual canard is that this was "must-pass" legislation, because Senator Bill Frist, seeking to polish his reputation with social conservatives for an abortive presidential candidacy, used his position as majority leader to push an unrelated bill about port security into conference committee, where he attached the UIGEA. This forced members of Congress in both houses to vote on the whole package. (Never mind what might have been done in that conference committee to prevent the attachment.) So even poker players who are reasonably informed about how this law came into being tend to go easy on the politicians: They had to vote for the port security legislation, and the online gambling unfortunately came along for the ride.

I don't buy it. I won't let them off the hook that easily. There is no such thing as a "must-pass" bill, in my view. Suppose that instead of a gambling provision Frist had attached, say, a bill repealing the 19th amendment (which gave women the right to vote). Would any senator or representative have said, "Well, we have to pass the port security stuff, so I guess we'll just have to hope that women don't notice this other little provision"? Of course not. They first would have prevented Frist from attaching that amendment in conference committee, or, failing that, they would have denounced it from the hilltops, voted against it, then quickly pushed the port security bill back through committees and to a floor vote, this time unencumbered by the anti-suffrage bits.

So why didn't they have the fortitude to do the same when the unrelated amendment was about gambling? Because they either actually liked the measure, or at least decided that few of their constituents would care deeply enough about it for it to hurt them at the next election. To be blunt, even those who might have thought the bill to be bad public policy put their fingers to the wind and decided that they could be more hurt by political opponents saying "He voted against making our ports secure" than "He voted to make it really difficult to put money into one's online poker account."

They could have kept the ports bill and the gambling bill separate if they wanted to. They just didn't care about the matter enough. I, for one, think that they should have to answer for such lack of integrity when it comes to protecting individual liberties.

So who voted for the combined bill? Here's the full, official legislative history of the bill. (The part about online gambling is the “Conference Report” stuff on 9/29/06.)

Here’s the roll-call vote from the House of Representatives: For Nevada residents, you’ll note the names of Jim Gibbons (now our illustrious governor, with more scandals accruing before he took office than most governors get in a full term), Jon Porter, and Shelley Berkley all voting for the bill. In the Senate, they were so cowardly that they passed it by “unanimous consent,” meaning that there was no roll-call vote recorded. Therefore, every member of the Senate gets the blame for it.

Even the politician I like the most, Ron Paul ( (I'm a strongly libertarian kind of guy--live and let live, and all that jazz), voted for it. I was surprised to learn that last night when I was poking around at the details of the history, because I've heard it said and seen it written that he voted against it. To be precise, he voted against a similar separate bill that the House defeated earlier in 2006. But as the links above show, he voted for it when it was attached to the ports security bill. Shame on you, Ron Paul.

But at least he has since then come out strongly in favor of either repealing this legislation or reducing its impact by carving out a provision for licensed gaming companies. There are at least two bills in the House that would have such an effect. See (listing Paul as a co-sponsor) and

Now, I'm opposed to federally licensing gambling establishments, because it's just not a proper or necessary role of the federal government, and it will inevitably lead to the licensees being subjected to more and more regulation as time goes by. That's the way of all federal regulations and licensing, unfortunately. But at least I can be confident that if outright repeal of the UIGEA ever managed to get put to a vote, Paul would unquestionably support it, as either a congressman or as president. See

But what about the other presidential candidates? It's hard to say, beyond the fact that all of the ones who are currently senators or repesentatives voted for the UIGEA, and therefore must be presumed to be enemies of poker players, absent strong contrary evidence. And, frankly, there just isn't much contrary evidence, except for Paul.

The very fact that it's hard to find clear, definitive position statements from any of them supports the theory that they are counting on this not being much of an issue in the presidential election. For those willing to invest the reading time, there have been at least three lengthy threads in the 2+2 poker forums on the subject, though, as always, the signal-to-noise ratio is pretty low, and nobody seems to have found much clear information:

Bill Richardson appears to be the only candidate, aside from Paul, who has openly supported repeal of the UIGEA. See (page down to the third story).

Rudy Giuliani has reportedly received the most money from the gaming industry. But that's hard to interpret. It was the brick-and-mortar casinos that first pushed through the law several years back that made it nearly impossible to use credit cards to fund online gambling accounts. (And their lobbyists did this on the ironic grounds of the immorality of expanded gambling!) Unless Harrah's, Station Casinos, MGM/Mirage, Wynn, etc., start running online operations themselves, they're likely to see Internet gaming as competition to be stifled, rather than as part of the same industry. Giuliani was definitely part of the crackdown on New York underground poker rooms, so his track record is pretty suspect.

As for the other candidates, it's a crap shoot (pardon the pun). They haven't committed themselves. But to me that's pretty telling. If a politician is dodging an issue that he knows a relatively small constituency cares passionately about, it is most likely because his position will anger that group, so he decides it's better to keep quiet. In my view, this is definitely in the "if you're not clearly with us, you must be against us" category.

If you love poker and you love personal liberty, you can't logically support any current presidential candidate except for Ron Paul or Bill Richardson. As far as I can tell, there aren't any other supporters out there. If there are, we have to wonder why they're keeping mum about it.

While I'm on this rant, just a word about one of the other related things I read in poker magazines frequently. The relatively new Poker Players Alliance ( is actively seeking federal regulation in exchange for recognized legality. Other writers repeatedly urge Congress to "regulate and tax" online poker specifically, or all online gambling generally. I think this is dangerous and completely wrong-headed.

As I said before, regulation always begets more regulation. Regulation means expense to the operators--and in this case that would translate to lower profits for the players. Opponents of anything who can't get it completely banned always go for regulation, incrementally making the regulations more onerous and expensive as time goes by. Look at abortion, cigarette smoking, alcohol, nuclear energy, mining, logging, or a zillion other examples. Inviting federal regulation is letting the camel's nose into the tent, and sooner or later, inevitably, the whole camel will be in there.

We also don't need regulation to protect us. The businesses that run online gaming risk bankruptcy if they are caught cheating or letting others cheat, because their customers will flit away in a heartbeat. They have much more to fear from loss of their investments than from not following every federal regulation. Despite the number of people I have heard calling for regulation, I haven't heard even one specific proposal of what these folks think the regulations should do, in terms of protecting players, that the online poker sites aren't already doing. Not even a phone-book-sized set of regulations would make me feel any safer about online play than I already do.

The same is true, but even more so, for those who casually say "regulate and tax it." Taxation would even more surely sound the death knell. The amount of the tax would simply get ratcheted up over time, and we would be spending our political energy trying to prevent that creep. But it would happen anyway. Just look at how the Nevada legislature treats the casinos--as cash cows to hit up for more revenue every time there's a budget shortfall. Just look at how tobacco taxes have moved over the years. The so-called "sin taxes" are the very easiest ones for politicians to support. If you think it's hard to make money playing poker now, when even good players have a fairly small percentage return on total wagers, wait until the feds hit you with, say, a 10% tax on every pot, on top of the house rake. Of course, it would start out at, say, just 1%, but there's no doubt in my mind that it would slowly increase until nearly all of the profit has been squeezed out of the game.

The message from poker players to politicians needs to be this: Leave us the hell alone. Don't ban it, don't make the financial transactions illegal or difficult, don't regulate it, don't tax it. Leave it alone. Let us play our little games in peace. You get your share from our income taxes, and that's more than enough.

As others have pointed out, it is now easier and more clearly legal to play online poker in Russia than in the United States. That's crazy. It should be unthinkable. It has come to this because we poker players haven't exercised any political muscle. Politicians have no reason to seek the support--or, alternatively, fear the wrath--of poker players, as they do with the NRA, the AARP, labor unions, etc. We're political wimps. That has to change.


I posted a link to this rant on the forums, and soon thereafter found posted this interesting and thoughtful response, which is well worth reading, if this whole subject interests you:

Addendum, November 18, 2007:

I just stumbled across this nice summary of where both parties' presidential candidates stand on internet gambling, so far as it is known:

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Online freeroll tournament for poker bloggers

OK, I'm completely whoring myself with this post. In order to qualify for a free tournament for poker bloggers at PokerStars, I have to post the following. It's a small price to pay. Thanks to Wil Wheaton's blog--which should just plain be on your list of places to visit regularly--for the alert:

Online Poker

I have registered to play in the PokerStars World Blogger Championship of Online Poker!

This Online Poker Tournament is a No Limit Texas Holdem event exclusive to Bloggers.

Registration code: 6060986

It would be unspeakably cool to win that. It would be even cooler to win it if anybody in the poker blogging world had any friggin' idea that my blog even existed! But they don't--at least not yet--and I'm OK with that. I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, the extraordinarily few people in the world who know me do appear to like me.

And ya never know. Maybe the table chat will result in other bloggers checking me out, posting links, etc. Then traffic builds, and before you know it, I'm a superstar!

Yeah, that's gonna happen....

Poker gems, #34

Jesse May, Shut Up and Deal, p. 163:

Player asks, How’s my game, man, my game? Your game? Who gives a fuck about your game, I want to know what you’re gonna do when they’re fuckin’ breathing down your neck they got you hooked so good and you’re so scared you’re praying you ain’t got a pair when you look down at those hole cards because Krock he just raised again with a queen up, and even though you know he’s got shit, you know it, man, I could fuckin’ swear it down to my bones. If I look down and see a pair of sickly eights my stomach is just turning, 'cause I don’t want to get there in no pot with him, where the river card is a big black snake and fate has already decided which cards are in that deck and which order they come out and odds in my favor has much less meaning to me than the pain in my stomach that feels like the lining is getting eaten away by acid—at least that feels real. I don’t know how the odds feel.