Saturday, November 22, 2008

History Channel show

The History Channel has a series called "Cities of the Underworld," which I've never watched before. I taped the episode this week because it was about Las Vegas. If you get a chance, I'd recommend seeing it. (It's not yet up on the network's web site, but older installments are, so I expect that this one will be there soon enough, too.) There was a segment on the Hoover Dam, which was pretty much the same thing as has been featured on a thousand other documentary shows. But I was intrigued to get a look inside the basement "hard count" room at Fitzgeralds. I was also interested in what a vast underground network of enormous storm drains the city has been building for flood control over the last 30 years--something like 450 miles of tunnels now, and rapidly increasing. But the best part of the show was the last segment, showing the inner workings of the Bellagio fountains. There is a staff of 36 full-time employees just for maintenance. They show underwater footage of one of the big blasters being replaced. Very cool stuff. Well, if you like that sort of thing, which I do.

Ted is back

I just noticed that some time earlier this month Ted O'Neill quietly resumed writing his Red Bull and Poker blog, after a long hiatus and a site redesign. I like reading it because he plays in the same rooms and against the same opponents as I do (although, oddly, we've never actually run into each other), and has to deal with some of the same related issues, such as losing streaks, self-control, etc. So even though it may not be one of the most famous or most linked-to poker blogs out there, and won't provide much in the way of breaking news or inside industry information, it's real and raw and honest, and opens a window on what it's like to struggle to stay afloat playing this crazy game.

Glad to have you back writing, Ted.

Along the way...

As I attempted my first Grump Challenge (immediately preceding post), a few extraneous stories took place. I didn't want to interrupt the main tale there, so I'm dumping them here.


The chip shown above was in use as a card cap by a very nice man at the Luxor. My camera couldn't focus close enough to let you see the tiny lettering clearly, but it reads, "It's sad how bad you suck at cards."

I like. (But I wouldn't ever use it myself.)


This one goes in the "Huh?" department.

Again at Luxor. Flop is 6c-9d-10d. Player A bets all-in. Player B thinks long and hard. He finally says, "There's only two hands that beat me." So he has pocket nines (beaten by 7-8 for the straight, and by pocket 10s for a higher set), right? Nope. He eventually folds face-up: pocket jacks.

I didn't ask, but I sure wondered what he was thinking.


The dealers at the Luxor continue to strive mightily to wrest the "worst dealers in town" status from the Sahara bunch. (For previous stories of their antics, just click the "Luxor" label at the bottom of this post, or here.) They seem to hit new lows of unprofessionalism every time I go there.

In tonight's first example, we had a dealer named Frank. (I don't usually name names here, but this guy is a repeat offender at ticking me off, identified in this post as "Dealer #2.") On the flop, Player A checked. Player B pushed all of his chips in. The pot was roughly $45. B's stack was about $70, so a significant overbet. Player A quite reasonably asked how much the bet was to call. (It was just those two contesting it.) Frank said to Player A, "You have him covered by about $250." This was true, but mostly irrelevant to A's decision. His decision clearly wasn't based on what fraction of his stack he was putting at risk, but on the pot odds he was being offered. Frank continued, "You still want it counted down? [exasperated sigh] All right, I'll count it down. I don't mind." But that was a lie. Everything about his tone and facial expression and body language said loudly and clearly that he did mind, and considered it an unnecessary nuisance. Well, sorry to trouble you to DO YOUR FRIGGIN' JOB, sir!

At the Luxor, the dealers empty out the tip box from the table at the end of every down. I noticed that when Frank left the table, he had a total of $2 in the box. That gives you some idea of how popular he was with the players. The amount was so strikingly low that the dealer coming in asked Frank what had happened. He gave her a lame excuse about the players taking too long to make decisions. There were indeed a couple of chronic slowpokes there. Mildly annoying, but not truly exceptional.

Another later dealer (I don't remember him annoying me before, so I'll keep him anonymous for now) seemed unusually touchy about a seat change. The most aggressive and skilled player at the table moved from Seat 6 to Seat 4 when it opened up. I was in Seat 1. I was eager to move to 6 to have good position on this guy. Before I could speak up for it, the guy in Seat 10 asked if he could move there. The dealer said yes, but then Seat 10 changed his mind and said he'd stay put. So I announced that if he wasn't going to take Seat 6, I would. The dealer threw up his hands and said, in complete seriousness,"You guys are making me crazy!"

This was nothing out of the ordinary. One player leaves, a second wants to move to the now-open spot, and a third wants to take that seat. This happens all the time, and is no big deal. It was an utterly commonplace exchange, the kind that the dealer must see transpire several times a day. I have no idea why it irritated him so. If it was just the yes/no changed mind of Seat 10, that hardly seems like grounds for feeling like the players were trying to confuse or gang up on him.

This same guy, at the end of his down, had a hand that took longer than usual to play out, while the replacement dealer stood by waiting. One player this time really was on the borderline of taking an unreasonable amount of time, and I was on the verge of asking for a clock, when he finally announced a call of his opponent's large river bet. After pushing the pot, the exiting dealer said to the other, "This is the table from hell." There was no humor or irony in his voice or body language--just anger. Hey, dude, we all had to wait just the same as you did.

Finally, there were three players at the far end of the table (when I was in Seat 1) who repeatedly and openly speculated on what various players held while the hand was in progress and decisions were still pending. I asked the dealer, "Are players allowed to speculate out loud about what others have?" I know full well that the answer is no, but this is my usual way of addressing the problem, because asking the dealer that question is much less confrontational than telling the offenders, "Hey, you can't say those things." She had obviously heard them, because she turned to them and said, "Yeah, you guys can't be talking about the hand while other players still have decisions to make." OK, young lady, so why didn't you speak up to them directly? Why did you wait for me to point out the problem, when controlling the table is your job, not mine? And, worse, why did you continue to allow it to go on from the same players in subsequent hands?

I'm convinced that the Luxor dealers reinforce each others' bad habits and practices. That room really needs an iron-fisted manager who respects the rules and demands that the dealers conduct themselves professionally. But at this point, that would be such a sea change that I'm not holding my breath.

My first attempt at a Grump Challenge

A couple of weeks ago I proposed the Great Grump Challenges. Tonight I gave one of them my first serious attempt. I decided to go for the MGM/Mirage Challenge (Mandalay Bay, Luxor, and Excalibur), as it is undoubtedly the easiest one. I thought that if I could establish a benchmark score for that one, it would simultaneously make the others seem less daunting and encourage readers to try to best my time.

I went first to Mandalay Bay, starting at 6:30 p.m, buying into my usual $1-2 NLHE game for my usual $100. On my third hand at the table, I had pocket deuces. Well, it's no powerhouse like deuce-four, but you have to take what you're given. Several of us limped in. The flop was a lovely 2-5-7 rainbow--a set with no flush draws and minimal straight draws to worry about. A player in one of the blinds led out at it for $10. I was the only caller. The turn was the ace of the fourth suit, so again not much to worry about in terms of being outdrawn here. My opponent bet $25. I called again. The river was the fourth deuce. My opponent now bet another $30. I went all in, which was just an additional $29 at that point, and he folded. I showed the quads.

The floor person came over with the form for me to sign just as the rotating display showed me the high-hand jackpot I had won: $258. A few minutes later, she brought my chips--but it was $308! She explained that I happened to hit the bonus during their "happy hour," which is 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., during which time they add an extra $50 to any high-hand jackpot. Whee! 15 minutes at the table, and I'm up by well over $300!

(I should insert here a clarification of the Challenge rules. I hadn't thought of whether jackpots should count toward one's total. I declare that they do. Any money you win from playing cash poker--whether you win it from other players or from the casino--counts. It does not count if you, e.g., hit a winning sports book ticket while you're playing poker.)

I played the rest of that orbit and one more, picking up a couple more small pots, and left at 7:00, 30 minutes after starting, cashing out for $444, uptick of $344. This challenge was starting off like gangbusters!

As I walked over the walkway to the Luxor, I was already starting to compose this post, with boasts about how I had set a nearly unbeatable time in the MGM/Mirage Challenge. I should have remembered the old saw about counting one's chickens before they hatch....

Luxor: Sat down at 7:05 in another $1-2 NLHE game. For nearly two hours, it was just a little up, a little down, no real momentum. But then a new guy came to the table, and raised his first three hands in a row, all from early position. He was highly fidgety and talkative, manifesting all the ADD-like signs of a true action junkie. Three raises in a row from out of position immediately after sitting down, combined with those traits, means that I can't give him much credit on the third one, which he made $10 to go from under the gun.

I was on the button and found A-K suited. There were two callers between Mr. ADD and me--obviously, the other players were starting to be suspicious of his raising range, too. I pushed it to $35, about a third of my stack. Mr. ADD moved all in when it was his turn. The other players folded, leaving some dead money in the pot. Of course, he might have aces or kings, but I think the range of hands he will do this with is w-a-a-a-y broader than that. He probably thinks I'm on a position re-steal without much and will fold to his reraise. I'm not one to play A-K for all my chips before the flop in most circumstances, but this is one in which I'm likely to be ahead of most of his range. Besides, I'm getting pot odds of nearly 2:1, and unless he has exactly A-A, I can't be more than a 2:1 dog. So I call.

He has pocket 10s. An ace greets me right in the door, and nothing else comes for either one of us. This pushes me over my target profit, so I quit a few hands later, cashing out for $238 (up $138) at exactly 9:00 p.m. (When one is on a Great Grump Challenge, one cannot be too concerned about being thought ill-mannered for a hit-and-run.)

Two down, one to go. I'm up $482 in 2 1/2 hours, which should be an outstanding pace for the Challenge, if only I can keep it up.

But the Excalibur has not been kind to me since the conversion to the electronic tables. The nature of the player mix has definitely changed, with fewer of the totally clueless dropping in. That has not been the problem, though. It's no tougher there than anyplace else I play. I have simply been faced with an endless stream of bad luck. Unbelievable stretches of card-dead hell get interrupted only by bad beats and inescapable second-best hands. I realize fully that complaints like this are the common refrain of the bad player who can't recognize that he's bad. But I really do have a pretty realistic assessment of when my losses are due to my own screwups and when they are attributable to bad luck, and the Excalibur has heaped more of the latter on me in the last three months than any joint in town. I've played there four times since the changeover, with these net results before tonight: +$13, -$48, -$270, and +$7. Ick.

So I approached this third leg of the Challenge with a bit of trepidation. But still, I was on a roll, and felt that it could continue. In fact, I had felt so confident that I burned about 10 minutes waiting in a slow line at the Excalibur McDonald's for a chocolate shake to power me to my glorious finish.

It was not to be.

My first $100 buy-in was lost to a bad beat (runner-runner flush for my opponent). The second $100 was lost with my big pocket pair against a one-notch-bigger pocket pair. The third hundred dribbled away slowly in a series of making or calling pre-flop raises with promising hands that all hit zilch on the flop, and in situations where I couldn't make a convincing move to steal the pot with a bet. The last of it went in on a straight draw that actually hit, only to be crushed by an opponent's quads, after he had flopped a set and turned the four-of-a-kind.

What ironic justice (or, I would argue, injustice), to start the night so well with a set turning into quads, then have it ended in such an ugly manner with the quads hitting against me.

This is exactly typical of how the Excalibur's new infernal machines have treated me--and that after I gave them a pretty good initial review! The wretched things are supremely ungrateful. The last time I tried playing all three places in one evening (post about it here), before I had conceived of the Challenges, I ran into the same sort of obstacle: up $240 in 1.5 hours at Mandalay Bay, then up $197 in 1.3 hours at Luxor, then spinning my wheels at Excalibur for a whopping gain of $7 in three hours. I tell you, those damn machines have it in for me, for reasons I cannot understand.

Long experience has taught me that if I lose three buy-ins, it is very rare for me to do well with a fourth. At that point, tilt starts to set in, as I feel the nearly universal urge to try hard to get back to even, and start playing less than solid poker. And, of course, opponents know that I'm struggling, and swoop in like vultures.

So even though it meant giving up on what had been an extraordinarily promising start to my first serious Challenge attempt, I stood up and walked away at 10:30 p.m., after just over an hour at the Excalibur. I still had a net gain of $182 in exactly four hours. That's not horrible, but it doesn't send me home whistling a merry tune and with a lilt in my step. It was far, far short of what I had had my heart set on.

As Michael Craig has bitterly but wisely observed, "Poker's a bitch mistress who exists to break your heart."

My future

My brother-in-law is in town for a convention, so we went out to eat tonight at a Chinese place. The above was in my fortune cookie at the end of the meal.

The good news: I think this pretty clearly foretells that I will win the Main Event of the World Series of Poker and be set for life.

The bad news: It ain't gonna happen until I'm in my old age, which I interpret as starting, oh, about 30 years from now.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Poker gems, #185

John Juanda, in Card Player magazine interview, November 19, 2008 (Vol. 21, #23), p. 70.

So many of the poker shows are too concerned with creating characters, and are focused on the guys who are jumping up and down and screaming. What often gets lost is the subtlety, the beauty, and the artfulness of the game. I think they may be underestimating the audience. It's so much more interesting to watch tough decisions being made by great players.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Poker history quiz answer

I was expecting that somebody would figure out the significance of the door marked "16" in my photo in the previous post once I put up a second picture tomorrow. But I was not prepared for the mystery to be solved less than 30 minutes after I posted that one stark image!

OK, Mookie, you got it. You'd win the prize, if there were one.

Saturday will be the 10th anniversary of the death of Stu Ungar on November 22, 1998, in room 16 of the Oasis Motel.

Here's what the Oasis looks like today:

That picture of the parking lot is taken from the far end, looking back toward the entrance on Las Vegas Boulevard. Room 16 is near that entrance, on the south (left in this photo), just this side of the white pickup truck.

Here's how the place is described by Des Wilson in Ghosts at the Table:

As for Stuey, 18 months later he was found lying face-down on a bed in a sleazy
flophouse motel called the Oasis, the kind of cesspool that has only porno
movies on the television set, burn holes in the carpet, seedy drapes, a
cockroach to the square inch, and where you risk your life just breathing the
air. Only Stuey wasn't breathing. He was dead at 43.

I can't confirm the burn marks or the cockroach count, but the place really is nasty. I've stayed in a lot of Motel 6 franchises in my life, and all of them look like the Bellagio compared to the Oasis. Should you want to find it, for whatever reason, it's about a block north of the Stratosphere, on the east side of the street, and about a block south of the Olympic Garden strip club, just south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Oakey. By odd coincidence, it's also directly across the street to the east from the White Cross pharmacy that was the locale for a key scene in "Lucky You"--the one in which Huck loses his WSOP Main Event buy-in to his father in a foolish game of "Guts." My guess is that you might be able to see the Oasis through the windows in that scene; the cameras definitely would have been shooting in that direction. But confirming that would require watching the movie again, which isn't high on my priority list.

It had been my plan to bribe tip the desk clerk to let me into room 16 for a couple of minutes to snap some photos, but that proved to be unnecessary. By a nice little stroke of luck, the "seedy drapes" had been left open and I could peek in through the trellis-like wooden grating over the window. The photos didn't turn out great, because of the slats, the horrible grime on the glass, and the darkness inside and daylight outside causing reflections. But this shot lets you see most of what there is to see:

Just out of the picture on the right is a dresser with the TV set on it. The doorway to the right of the foot of the bed leads, I assume, to the bathroom. And that's it. That's the whole room. Given the general nature of the place, it could well be the same bed that was there ten years ago. Hell, it could be the same bedsheets, still unwashed.

Here's how Ungar's final days were described in his biography, One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar, the World's Greatest Poker Player, by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson, pp. 292-293. (Since I'm about to steal some of their material, let me throw in a plug for the book: Buy it here. I just ordered a copy myself, something I've been neglecting for a couple of years.)

And here's a couple of photos lifted from the same source, thanks to's "search inside" feature:

It appears that the stone reads, "A great person, but a greater loss."

I'm not sure that I would describe Stu Ungar as "a great person." Frankly, he was a mess. He seems to have had no idea how to sustain a friendship or family relationship, and tended to mess up the lives of others nearly as badly as he messed up his own. Forget the stupid commercial with the frying pan smashing the eggs. To see your brain on drugs, just look at Stuey Ungar. He burned through relationships the same way he burned through money and narcotics. It's terribly sad to look back and see what a waste he made of a brilliant mind and an astonishing talent for poker. I can only imagine the feelings of those who knew and loved him, as they watched the self-destruction occur in real time.

I do not think that I could have made or sustained a friendship with a person as pathological as he was. Were he still alive, I would probably rail about him on this blog even more mercilessly than I do Phil Hellmuth, because by all accounts he was a terror at the table--not just in how he played his cards, but in how he behaved. He had no manners, no tact, no grace, no etiquette, no respect for others. He is said to have mercilessly berated opponents and dealers alike. James McManus spends a good part of two of his "history of poker" Card Player articles on Ungar (here and here), and says, "He was also an obnoxious winner and a terrible sport when he did lose the occasional match."

I really can't stand people like that. Nevertheless, I can stand in awe of his ferocious, prodigious, unequalled talent at cards. Perhaps the kindest assessment comes from McManus: "The bottom line is that Stuey's financial recklessness and freakish neural circuitry not only broke him and killed him, they were also what made him unbeatable."

Requiescat in pace, Stu Ungar.

Poker history quiz

An event significant to the history of poker took place behind this door. What was it?

For now, I'll tell you just two things. First, this door is in Las Vegas. (I took the photo--and the others that will be coming--this afternoon.) Second, it is not happenstance that this is the week I chose to take and post the pictures. I've been planning this for a couple of months, because we are approaching a significant anniversay of the event in question.

I'll post additional hints about every 24 hours until somebody submits a comment that correctly identifies the event, at which time I'll put up the full post.

AVP tournament

My image was captured at another recent tournament held at Imperial Palace. Pic above shamelessly stolen from this thread on the site. That's me in the dark blue sweatshirt. I'm smiling, so the photo must have been taken after I cracked somebody's aces with my jacks by hitting a set on the turn (sorry, Flea!), but before my kings ran into the aces of the blond woman in the foreground.

Speaking of my image, I have had two more recent suggestions of who I look like. For previous posts in this series, see here and here and here. The first suggestion is Bill Gates. I don't really see it, myself:

The second suggestion, though, is more plausible, I think--actor Zeljko Ivanek. You may not recognize the name, but if you've ever watched American television, you've seen him in something, because he has been in just about everything:

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The most powerful hand in poker

After I scored a nice W at Binion's last night, I still had some time and energy left, so I wandered across the street to the Golden Nugget. While there, I had an opportunity once again to make some money from what regular readers by now understand is the most powerful hand in Texas hold'em: the deuce-four. (Today I finally got around to going back through old posts where I've talked about this particular hand and how it became my favorite, and adding a special deuce-four label to them, so that they're all easy to find from now on.)

An aggressive player in early position raised to $13. I was on the button, and calling a raise with the 2-4 from the button is my favorite way of deploying it. (The reason for that should be obvious: when it hits, nobody can possibly believe that a tight player like me could have called a pre-flop raise with crap like that, so it's completely disguised. It's a Ninja hand!) The big blind then pushed all-in for a total of $28, $15 more. The original raiser called. Well, I can't fold now, being offered more than 4.5:1 for the call!

The flop is 7-4-2 rainbow, giving me two pairs. I have only about $60 left in front of me at this point, so when it is checked to me, I shove. Sadly, the original raiser apparently didn't catch any part of that flop, so he folded. The turn card was another 4, making a full house for me. The big blind mucked after seeing my hand, so I never learned what either opponent had. But I don't really care, as long as I scooped up the chips.

As evidence by the faces and rolled eyes and post-hand conspiratorial whispering of the losers, the 2-4 once again proved not only its value as a gatherer of chips, but as an unparalleled inducer of tilt. This occurs whether you win with it in a freak hand like this, or miss and turn it into a pure bluff (which is where having position really becomes important) and show it off.

Please don't tell your friends about the 2-4, or post about it in online forums, etc. We need to keep it our little secret, OK?

The image above is lifted from this site, which chronicles the feats of battlefield courage demonstrated by one particular U.S. Army unit that goes by the nickname of "Deuce-Four." I intend no disrespect for the unit or the heroism of its members by borrowing the image for my rather silly purposes here. It was just the most useful thing that came up in a Google image search.


Hmmm. It seems that I was a bit premature in counting my 1000th post.

Warning: extremely boring technical explanation to follow.

Once in a while I start writing a post and don't know how to finish it, or something comes up and I have to leave, or whatever. The partial post gets saved as a draft. When I come back to it later, often a few days have passed. If I simply complete the original draft, the stupid Blogger software puts it in the chronological order of when it was first saved, not when it was actually published, which means that many people would never see it, because they wouldn't know that a new post had been inserted down the page, between others they've already read. So instead, I just copy the previous partial post into a brand-new one. But then I sometimes forget to delete the partial draft one. While doing some other blog maintenance work just now, I discovered that I had about five old drafts saved. All of them later got turned into full posts and published in due course, but the deadwood was still there. What I had not known until today is that Blogger counts the unpublished drafts in the total post count. When I deleted those old drafts, my total count dropped, making this now post #1002. I hadn't intended to be "cheating" to puff up my numbers; I just didn't know. I'm mortified.

Anyway, the count should be correct now.

Stuffing the ballot box

Over on they've been running an informal poll for favorite pro player's blog (voting section in the center column, a little way down from the top of the page). At some point they added me to the list of candidates. So doesn't that make it obvious what you should do at this point? Just 25 more votes, and I'll overtake Daniel Negreanu, who is currently the big favorite.

Request for suggestions

As I've mentioned a couple of times lately, my nephew has started playing poker online, and it's fun to get into heads-up sit-and-go matches with him for low stakes. We're using Full Tilt, since that's where he has a little money stashed.

The first time we played, we had an IM chat going on the side. I found a table, then sent him an "OK," he did a player search for my screen name to find the table, and claimed the other seat. No problem. He's quick--took him less than 10 seconds. And after the first game, rematches are easy because FTP has cleverly built in a feature that automatically offers another match to both participants.

But the next time we tried it, twice in a row some stranger (different one each time) sat down before he could get in. I didn't want to play anybody else, so I just clicked the "sit out next hand" button and let the other person win by not playing. I'm not terribly bothered by losing $2 that way, but it's annoying not to be able to have any control when I want another specific player to join me. If we were to be playing for higher stakes, then it would start to be a serious annoyance to have to either forfeit the entry fee or battle somebody else for it when I want to be focusing on the game I came to play.

I know about setting up private tournaments through Full Tilt, but that requires emailing them in advance with a particular start time. We need the flexibility to be able to play whenever we both happen to be available simultaneously. If it were a cash game, of course, I could just leave after one hand and move to another table, until we got into one in which my nephew successfully grabbed the other seat before anybody else horned in on the action. But with a tournament format, that doesn't work.

I emailed FTP support, and they had no other suggestions for handling this. But surely there are lots of other people who have faced a similar situation--wanting to play a one-on-one tournament against a specific other person. If you have figured out a way to make this happen, or have heard of a good solution, please post it in the comments section.


New entry in the Grump poker rule book

Players are not allowed to utter the sentence, "That's what I'm talking about," unless the event that triggered the outburst is actually an exact enactment of something that player had, in fact, been describing within the previous 60 seconds. Penalty for violation: The offender's entire chip stack is confiscated and evenly distributed among the other players at the table.

Unexpected sight on Fremont Street

One of the cool things about life in Las Vegas is that one tends frequently to get surprised by peculiar, unexpected things going on wherever one happens to go.

Last night I was walking down Fremont Street to Binion's when I came upon the largest event I've ever seen downtown, outside of a car race: a firefighter competition. This was a relay race. Team members had to race up the tower, hoist up a weight, race back down, use a sledge hammer to pound something, drag a dummy, use a fire hose, etc. It was quite a spectacle.

Living here requires carrying a camera, because strange things are always popping up.