Saturday, March 13, 2010

"There is a figure, an exact figure"

A poker hand that I played the other night at Planet Hollywood got me thinking about a great episode of the great sitcom "Taxi." It took me a while, but with the wonders of the web, I was able to track down the episode from some key words in the plot, and actually found it online. It's season 4, episode 22 (the 88th episode of the series), first aired on April 8, 1982.

Jim (Christopher Lloyd, who is funny every second he is on screen) accidentally burns up Louie's (Danny DeVito) apartment and everything in it. But Jim's millionaire father is willing to make good on the damages, writing Louie a blank check, with the instruction to fill it out for whatever amount he feels is fair compensation. The greedy Louie is tormented by the problem of what dollar amount to write on the check, which he wants to be as big as will be accepted, dismissing the laughable (to him) suggestion that he make it merely for the actual amount of his losses. "If I fill this check out for a million bucks, his dad would never cover it. But there is a figure, an exact figure, one big enough so that he'll go, 'brrrrrrr' [shudders], but not so big that he won't say, 'ehhhhhh' [shrugging dismissively]." (Sorry for the vagueness. It's all conveyed with voice tone and body language.) After much hand-wringing, Louie finally settles on $29,542. Jim calls his father, who OKs the amount. Louie is at first ecstatic at his windfall, but then nearly has a heart attack when Jim relays the news that his father had been expecting--and prepared to pay--a figure of about $200,000.

(You can watch the "Taxi" episode in three parts on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. )

I think of this conundrum every time I'm faced with the situation of a river bet when I have a hand I'm sure is a winner and an opponent who shows willingness to call. The problem is trying to guess the figure, the exact figure, that is the maximum that he will decide to call. Make it too big and he folds, leaving you with no further profit on the hand. Make it too small, and you leave money in his stack that should be in yours.

Thursday night I had been playing at Planet Hollywood for about five hours, without much to show for it. I had started with the maximum buy-in of $300, and had only increased it to about $400. I was thinking that this was going to be kind of a disappointment of a night and maybe I should pack it in. But about that time, I found the two red jacks in the small blind. Now, a lot of people hate jacks, but I have found them to play very profitably, for the most part.

One of the few decent players at the table--very solid, classic tight-aggressive style--raised to $15 from the cutoff seat. I happily called, even though I knew he could easily have a bigger pair. It was just us to the flop, which was a lovely Q-J-x with two spades. I checked. He bet $20. I called. The turn was the 7c. I checked again. He bet $30. This was significant, because he had previously shown a tendency to fire only once if he missed the flop, so his bet told me that his minimum hand here was an top pair (e.g., A-Q), and more likely he had an overpair to the board. Of course, there was a chance that he had me in a horrible set-over-set situation, but you just have to accept that possible fate once in a while and not let it hamper you. I check-raised to $90. He called with almost no hesitation, again suggesting that he genuinely liked his hand.

The river was maybe the best card I could have asked for: the 7s. It gave me a full house. If perchance he had something like the As-Ks, he would have made his nut flush. More realistically, though, if he had an overpair, he would have improved to two pair, and thus think that perhaps I had hit the flop with Q-J and had now been counterfeited by his better two pair. My check-raise on the turn would not be consistent with how he would expect me to play a flush draw, so I didn't think he would put me on that and be scared by a third spade.

So now I had the dilemma of how much to bet. There was about $245 in the pot. I had about $275 left, and he was roughly equally deep. How much would he call with just an overpair, which I had concluded was his most likely holding? I took a little more time than usual on this, both because I was sincerely pondering how much I could charge him, but also because I was hoping that the Hollywooding would make him think that I was falsely representing the flush with just top pair (e.g., A-Q in the hole), or that I had been playing Q-J, realized the dilemma that the paired board gave me, and was trying to decide whether to give up or go for it. I have no idea if my hesitation actually got him thinking that way, but that was the goal. Anyway, I finally landed on $140 as my amount. To give it a finishing touch, I did some little mannerisms that were different from the way I had bet every previous time (like announce the amount verbally before putting it in), because he was one of the few who might have been paying attention; I hadn't been caught bluffing all night, so he might notice changes and think they indicated something was different this time. Again, I can't know whether that bit of trickery really did anything, but it couldn't hurt.

He took nearly two minutes to think. He counted out the amount, separated it from the rest of his chips, looked at what he would have left, appeared to be trying to estimate the pot, rechecked the board and his down cards a couple of times, etc. He finally pushed it forward. I showed my boat. He nodded grimly, knocked the table, and quietly said, "Nice hand" before tossing his cards away unseen. (I'm left with the conviction that he had either A-A or K-K for the overpair, or, less likely, Q-J for top two pair.)

His reaction makes me think that my river bet probably got very close to that elusive "exact figure" that is the most that he would be willing to put out as a crying call without being so excruciatingly painful that he decides to fold. That's rare. Usually in those situations I'm left with the feeling that I blew it one direction or the other.

But still, could I have gotten more? Ed Miller recently wrote a Card Player magazine column on how no-limit players tend to bet too small with their strong hands, missing opportunities to take an opponent's whole stack. (See here.) Similarly, the book he co-wrote with David Sklansky, No Limit Hold'em: Theory and Practice, emphasizes the need to plan bet sizing so as to capture entire stacks. So even though I think I extracted the maximum on the river, I'm left wondering if I could have done better on earlier streets. Would I have gotten more by betting out on the flop and hoping for a raise? Would a check-raise on the flop have set up a bigger pot by the end of the hand? I suppose there is no way to know. I will just have to be satisfied with the roughly $260 I made from him, and continue to wonder if it could have been more, or if a different line would have scared him off before he became married to his hand.

What do you think?

Guess the casino, #445

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

Answer: Flamingo

Friday, March 12, 2010

Did I get leveled?

I played at Planet Hollywood last night. An hour or so into my session, we were joined by a new player. He brought only $60 in chips to the table, and minimum buy-in is $100. So first there was some delay in explaining to him why he had to get more chips. He was Asian, with a thick accent, and seemed inexperienced in how poker rooms work, so it all took some explaining and negotiating.

Once that was settled, he asked the dealer, "This is like video poker, right?" Because of his accent, nobody understood him at first. I think I was the first one to decipher his question (after the third iteration) and restate it for the dealer. The dealer understandably laughed, because the guy was smiling, as if he were asking this as an "I'm so dumb" joke. He answered sarcastically, "Yeah, just like video poker." This may seem unprofessional as I've told it, but I think everybody assumed the question was only in jest, so a jokey answer was not out of place. After all, if he were serious, then he was sitting down with $100 in play, not even knowing that he was playing against other players instead of against the house. I have never seen a player that green at a no-limit hold'em table. But then the guy followed it up by asking whether you trade in cards to try to make quads and royal flush like video poker. Then we understood that he was not kidding about his question, and the dealer appropriately changed the nature of his answer, and explained the whole process and structure of hold'em.

In fitting with never having played hold'em before, it took the player a couple of rounds to figure out about paying blinds, acting in turn, etc. He lost his first buy in making a couple of ridiculously bad calls. He left to hit the ATM and asked the dealer to save his seat. You would usually expect a couple of unkind comments about his skill level after he left the table, but there were none here, because this entire table was overall the most inexperienced I've ever sat at. It was like sitting at one of the instructional tables where they use tournament chips just to illustrate how the game works--except that we were playing for hundreds of dollars. I posted a couple of notes on Twitter about the table generally and this player in particular.

The guy came back with another $100. The game continued. He was chatting a lot with the player next to him. I missed most of it because of his nearly incomprehensible accent, the general noise level of the PH poker room, and the music in my earphones. I wish now I had listened in more, to have gotten more clues about his understanding of the game.

Over time, I began to wonder whether his whole extreme-newbie thing was an elaborate act. The first thing that was out of character was that he was rather facile with handling chips. I've spent a ridiculous amount of time observing players new to casino poker, and most often they keep their hands completely away from their chip stacks until they need to put money into the pot. There are exceptions, such as those with a lot of home game experience, but not many. I couldn't assume this Asian guy had home game practice, or else he wouldn't have mistaken hold'em for 5-card draw. But, I reasoned, maybe he played a lot of blackjack and became adept at handling chips there. On the other hand, not everything that I noticed him doing was consistent with how a blackjack player would handle chips. For example, most new players making a bet with, say, five chips will stack them neatly and push or place that stack just across the betting line. This guy, though, would casually lay such a stack across the felt with an apparently practiced motion that left the chips in a neat row. Hmmmm.

The second thing that drew my skepticism, though, was the relative speed with which he acted. Again, my experience with true beginners is that they take forever for even the simplest decisions. He didn't. He was able to come to very quick decisions about calls and folds and raises. For example, in the only pot of any size that I contested with him, I had 9-9, and the flop was 8-high. He bet $5. I raised to $20. When it got back to him, he didn't hesitate at all to move all in for an additional $56. I called, not putting him on a higher pair, since there had been no pre-flop raise. There are so many $1-2 players who will commit their stacks (especially relative small stacks like his) with just top pair in that spot that I thought a call was warranted. He turned over 10-10. I was immediately struck by the fact that he required no deliberation at all to make this all-in raise. If he were really playing hold'em for the first time, wouldn't he be expected to stop and think about whether he had the best hand? Of course, maybe he's just naturally an impulsive person. Or maybe he's just so green that it doesn't occur to him that his tens might be no good there. Still, it definitely caught my attention that he showed none of the mental wavering that is usually seen in inexperienced players.

He left after an hour or two, cashing out something around $350. I noticed that he knew, without asking, where to go to fetch himself a chip rack and how and where to cash out. Those are the kind of things that new players usually ask about, or at least you can see them turning their heads around as they try to figure it out without asking. Also, along the way, after taking a restroom break, he knew what to do when the dealer asked him whether he wanted to make up his blinds or wait; most new players would require specific instructions about what that meant.

As he was racking up, I realized that after the first buy-in, which he donked off badly, he had never got his chips in with the worst of it. His calls were correct. He raised where he should have. He folded to strength--and without hesitation. None of these things can be said for the play of a typical tourist hitting a Vegas poker table for the first time. Even the fact of him leaving when he was up, instead of staying to give it all back, was atypical for a new player.

I was left completely unsure of what I had witnessed. If the first part of his time at the table was an act, it was the most convincing one I've seen--including throwing away $100 as part of the gig. (Well, I guess I should qualify that. Obviously if somebody else has played the role of a rube so thoroughly that I never even suspected it was an act, that would have to top this performance. But I kind of doubt that. I'm pretty observant about picking up on clues and inconsistencies, and I'd like to think that I can sniff out the pretenders.) For 15 minutes or so, I was absolutely confident (and, I admit, salivating more than a little) that I was dealing with the first person I had ever seen sit down at a no-limit hold'em table not even knowing what hold'em was. But by the end of his session, I had seen enough from him that was not consistent with that status to have grave doubts.

My best guess in retrospect is that he is a more experienced than average player who decided to try the dumb role, but just couldn't pull it off for more than a short time. He hadn't thought through all of the things that mark inexperienced players as new and how to imitate them, and thus tipped his hand. I think it is unlikely that what I observed could be found in one who was genuinely so naive that he thought poker and video poker were the same game. But I'm still not entirely sure. It is well within the realm of possibility that he was just was he first appeared to be, and the traces of fluency and lack of hesitation that I saw were borne of a natural generalized confidence and/or aided by the booze he had been drinking, plus some experience at other games.

I feel like I've been in a real-world version of "To Tell the Truth." I'm not writing down his number on my card as the genuine article--i.e., the real inexperienced player--but without the reveal at the end of the show, I'll never know for sure.

Guess the casino, #444

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

Answer: M Resort

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Guess the casino, #443

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

Answer: Mirage

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

More on flopping quads

Was just thinking a bit more about flopping quads, triggered by Shamus emailing me a screen shot of having done so again in an online hand. I wondered what the probability of flopped quads was, given that one starts with a pocket pair. I was about to dig into the math when it occurred to me that I had run through this before. So instead of pulling out the calculator, I did an archive search. Sure enough, it's all right here:

If you don't feel like slogging through the math, here's the bottom line:

So, to summarize--given a pocket pair, the probability of flops is as

Set: 10.78%. (That's 1 in 9.28 times, or 8.28:1 odds against.)

Full house: 0.73%. (That's 1 in 137 times, or 136:1 odds against.)

Quads: 0.24%. (That's 1 in 417 times, or 416:1 odds against.)

So good luck to all those of you who try to hit the "flopped quads" jackpots in town (e.g., at Mandalay Bay and M Resort). You get a pocket pair one time in 17 hands on average, so you'll have to play an average of 17 x 417 = 7089 hands of poker to win. Let's say you get 30 hands an hour (taking into account some breaks). That means one set of flopped quads about every 236 hours of play. Hope you have a lot of spare time on your hands.

Guess the casino, #442

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

Answer: Bellagio

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Lee Jones, heretic

In the March issue of Bluff magazine, Lee Jones has a thought-provoking article about how online poker rules have lagged behind real-world considerations. He provides several suggestions for how online poker sites should deal with rules problems.

At the very end of the piece comes what was for me an entirely surprising idea:

The following is going to sound heretical, but stick with me. One or more
online poker sites may choose to embrace bots. They could set up an Application
Programming Interface (API) which allows a bot-developer to have his program
talk directly to the poker server at that site. That site might even make its
hand history database available for review, download, etc. I promise you that
such a site would be fascinating to watch. Computer science departments in
universities the world around would fall over themselves trying to develop the
best poker bot. Hackers in tiny apartments would compete byte-for-byte with the
computer science departments. It's hard to overestimate the academic
breakthroughs that might come out of such competition. Create the same profit
motive available to automated stock and optoins traders, and we'll see poker
played in ways that we never thought possible.
I think this is a great idea. As long as people know that they are or may be playing against a bot, why not let them?

It seems to me that what would happen is approximately this: The bots would start off playing pretty badly, as at present. (I'm talking no-limit, full-ring games here.) Good players would spot the programs' weaknesses, exploit them, and win money. The programmers, in turn, would have to figure out what holes in their games had been their downfall, patch them, and play with an improved version. Presumably the improved version could beat some players to whom it had lost before, thus generating revenue for continued investment in research and development and/or allowing the bot to have enough bankroll to play at higher stakes. Again, though, the best players (attracted by the bots now playing at stakes that interest them) would pick apart what the programs are doing, find weaknesses, and pounce on them. This arms race would continue until the bots are good enough that they can't be beat by humans.

Of course, as Jones says, at the same time the bots would be competing directly against each other. It seems likely that at first it would be the best human players driving the development, but eventually, one has to believe, the best bots will be competing only against each other, because no human will be willing to challenge them--at least not for more than occasional recreation.

What could we learn about optimal poker from such a competition? I have no idea, but I would love to zip ahead in my time machine about 20 years and see what has come of it.

Quads and laws

Once again a post from my buddy Shamus provides today's inspiration, on two unrelated fronts.


While playing at a Florida card club recently, he flopped quads for the first time ever. That made me reflect a bit on how many times that has happened to me. Offhand I can remember flopping quad deuces at the Palms, fives at Planet Hollywood. There was another set at the Orleans--in 2007, I think--that I'm pretty sure was also fives; I remember the incident because I had raised before the flop, which back then wasn't my usual practice with small pairs, then got rewarded with the quads. I thought I had written about that hand, but now can't find it in my archives.

But the best one was when I flopped quad aces in a hand against Phyllis at the Hilton. Phyllis was one of the most likeable characters from my Hilton days. She was Rocky "The Rock" McRockerson when she played most of the time. But on the days that she chose to drink, she would usually have too many, and then she actually became a dangerous player, because she played much more loosely and mixed a large number of bluffs in with her strong hands. It was on one such day that I had the button, the pocket aces, plus the other two of them on the flop. Phyllis bet into me. I called. On the turn she bet bigger. I called again. On the river she bet yet again. By now the board had two pairs plus a king. I raised all in. She responded, "I call. I'm playing the board." I smiled and said, "I'm not," and showed her the quads. She laughed. (That was another thing about Phyllis--she hated to lose when she was sober, not so much when she was drunk.)

There may have been one or two other flopped quads that I'm no longer remembering, but there have been at least those four sets of them.


The second thing from Shamus's post that I wanted to comment on was the statutory situation in Florida:

I spoke with Scott Long of Ante Up! (who co-hosts the show with Chris
Cosenza) just to make sure I was clear on what the current laws were. Indeed,
the $100 max-buy in remains in place for NL games, as does the $5 limit on bets
in limit games. The maximum buy-in for tourneys is $800 or thereabouts (Long
says some places have managed to find a way to finagle up to $1,000 buy-ins
somehow). Long shared with me the comparison he and Cosenza often make when
highlighting the present absurdity of the poker-gambling situation in

“I can go down to the Kennel Club and bet $50,000 on a dog running around
the track, but can’t buy in for more than $100 to play poker,” explained Long.
He added how the motorcycle-riding thrill-seeker Evel Knievel, who lived his
latter years in Florida prior to his death a couple of years ago, apparently
used to go place $10,000 bets on the greyhounds from time to time, screwing up
the odds considerably when he did.

It does sound as though the law to remove caps and betting limits has a
good chance of going through this summer, though, and so perhaps the situation
will be different in Florida soon.

One of the things that most reliably gets my dander up is stupid laws, especially stupid laws passed by legislators who are trying to protect people from themselves. The more I know about a subject, the more obvious it is to me that the people writing the laws about it have no idea what they're doing. Firearms laws is one such example, though today I'll spare you a rant about how ill-conceived most gun laws are. I'll stick to poker instead.

The Florida case is a good example of legislative idiocy, but Minnesota is at least its equal. Maybe ten years ago the state first made it legal for horse racing tracks (of which there was only one at the time) to have card clubs, too. But because the bleeding-heart lawmakers didn't want people to lose too much money playing poker, they put in place a maximum of $60 per bet. What that means in real terms is that Minnesota poker rooms can offer $30-$60 limit games, but not a game such as $1-2 no-limit hold'em--the most popular form of poker in the country these days.

Most of my readers play a lot of poker, obviously. So you tell me: in which game is a bad player likely to lose more money, $30-60 LHE, or $1-2 NLHE? For the few readers who don't play enough to make the answer apparent, I'll just tell you that I wouldn't go near a $30-$60 LHE game, for fear that one unlucky session would wipe out my bankroll. It's a much bigger game than the standard capped buy-in no-limit game, despite the potentially misleading labels of one being "limit" and the other "no-limit." I might lose $300 in one hand of poker once a month or so, certainly not more frequently than that on average. But if one played $30-$60 limit, losing $300 in a hand would be expected to happen more than once in every session.

No rational legislator who understood poker could possibly set up the laws the way they did with the goal of protecting players from losing too much money. It's insane. (Of course, I could also point to the UIGEA as an example of a law passed by a bunch of legislators who had little or no idea how idiotic and vague and overbroad and philosophically inconsistent it was. But you all already know about that, whereas you're less likely to know about Minnesota statutes.)

Unfortunately, that's the system we have: laws are made by people who, for the most part, have only the barest understanding of the subjects they are trying to govern, and who care more about scoring points with favored interest groups than passing laws that are actually rational. The last thing that would ever occur to them is that maybe the citizens are capable of making their own decisions about how to live their lives and spend their money, without Big Brother putting stupid, arbitrary restrictions in place. I will never understand why so many people--legislators being only the example du jour--have such strong desires to restrict and control what others do. Power-hungry madness for the most part, I think.

Stepping off soapbox in three, two, one--now.

Guess the casino, #441

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

Answer: Treasure Island

Monday, March 08, 2010

This is likely to be one of my least popular opinions

Like most others who follow poker news faithfully, I was interested in the weekend's developments about the robbery at the European Poker Tournament in Berlin. I've been reading everything on the subject that comes my way through my usual Twitter and RSS feeds.

But this morning my friend Shamus put up a post that included an aspect of the story that I hadn't seen mentioned much elsewhere: the security provided at the hotel (not a casino) where the event was held. He quotes from a Wall Street Journal story about the incident:

The WSJ article quotes Kirsty Thompson, an EPT spokesperson, saying how the
tour “works closely with all its venues to ensure that appropriate security is
in place” and that they “will continue to do so going forward, and step up
efforts even further after this incident.”

That's one of the most laughable, palpable lies I've heard from a PR person in quite a while. In fact, the two sentences plainly contradict each other. After all, if they are already providing "appropriate security," then why do they need to "step up" their efforts in the future?

You can watch the videos of the robbery in progress and see, for example, one security guy throwing books at one of the perpetrators. If your security guards are charged with the safekeeping of more than a million dollars in cash, and they have no better weapons than books, you have utterly failed to provide "appropriate security." The pen may be mightier than the sword--but I wouldn't take that too literally. If you make your security team face armed robbers by throwing books at them, your so-called "security" is a joke.

A short time later in the video, this same security guard has one of the robbers in a headlock, but has to let him go when his masked buddy comes at them swinging what appears to be a microphone stand. Again, if the robbers can grab a microphone stand and thereby be more effectively armed fighters than your security team, you have nothing more than a sham for "security."

Look, this world is a violent, ugly, dog-eat-dog place. Only people who have failed to thoroughly internalize that fact are shocked by incidents such as this. I was naive once, too, until I was the victim of a completely unexpected, unpredictable daytime assault in, of all places, a movie theater. It changed the way I see the world. It forever stripped away my false sense of safety.

I love Hitchcock movies. One of his most frequently recurring themes is how chaos, violence, and murder can erupt in the most unexpected time and places: a casbah, a streetcar, a carousel, an amusement park, across the courtyard of an apartment complex, a motel room shower, a schoolyard. I share this view now, and understand that there is nowhere that is as safe as it appears.

Still, some violent acts are more predictable than others. Banks get hit by robbers because, as Willie Sutton so famously put it, "That's where the money is." An internationally publicized poker tournament which hundreds of people will be attending and paying for with thousands of dollars each in cash makes for what any sensible person can foresee will be a tempting target for crooks. Cash in million-dollar quantities predictably causes people to be willing to resort to extreme, daring, risky, even life-threatening means to take it. This is hardly news.

If you are going to have that kind of cash around, it is negligent not to take serious measures to protect it. A vault would be nice. Failing that, well-trained people armed with guns is the obvious choice. I remember sitting at home in Minnesota in 2005 and watching the online updates from the final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event, taking place at Binion's for the last time. When the cash was brought out in the traditional cardboard boxes to be dumped onto a table, it was surrounded by men wielding shotguns. I recall one of the posts quoting the announcer, who told the onlookers something to this effect: "If you are not one of the people with shotguns, you should probably step away from the table." I don't remember anybody trying to steal that money.

Of course, once in a while criminals are so brazen and/or stupid that they attempt to attack even well-guarded sites. But this obviously happens less than it would if there were not armed forces present. No deterrent is perfect, but both common sense and loads of empirical evidence show that the presence of lethal force is a highly effective deterrent to crime.

Throughout human history it has been the law that if you engage in or credibly threaten a potentially lethal attack on an innocent person, he is entitled to defend himself by any means necessary. You effectively forfeit your right to live. When those men entered the hotel wearing masks and carrying guns and machetes (I find the initial reports of hand grenades to be pretty unbelievable; that would be an incredibly stupid choice of weapon for their purposes), implicitly and/or explicitly threatening to kill anybody who got in their way, they should have been met with overwhelming counterforce. They should have been shot where they stood by security forces who were sufficiently skilled with their arms to take out the criminals with the least possible risk to innocent bystanders. Had that happened, then I would agree with the EPT spokesperson that they had provided "appropriate security." Nothing less meets that description.

What's more, that outcome would have been a positive benefit to the wider society. Nobody would mourn the loss of thugs like them. The world is far better off without such people in it.

Now, maybe there are laws in place that limit the use of firearms for defense in a hotel in Berlin. I don't know. But if there are, then the obvious answer is that you don't choose that site to host a poker tournament. Genuinely appropriate security should be as non-negotiable a part of picking a site as, say, the availablity of poker tables and dealers and chips. It clearly wasn't in this instance, and only the tournament organizers can be blamed for that.

Whatever else the EPT may have done right, it utterly failed in providing "appropriate security," no matter what lies to the contrary its PR hacks may spew for public consumption.

Something works out in my favor (no poker content)

I just got a phone call that removed a worry that has been hanging over my head for two months.

When I drove to Utah in early January for a belated holiday visit to my family, I rented a Toyota Corolla. As usual, I declined the insurance they tried to pressure me into buying. I've never had a problem with either a breakdown of or damage to a rental car, and there was no reason to think that such would happen on this trip.

I rented the car the evening before I was going to be leaving, and parked it on the street overnight. The next morning I was sick to discover that something had happened to the car during the night. I still can't figure out exactly what. You can see the damage in the photos above. Clearly not a conventional collision, but also not really looking like deliberate vandalism. It sort of looks like somebody threw a white brick at the car--four times. Or maybe some sort of very high vehicle backed into/over it, and just scraped the hood and fender. I dunno--it still baffles me.

Anyway, I knew that my own auto insurance wouldn't cover this, so I was worried that this was going to be a big out-of-pocket expense. But I remembered having heard that Visa and Mastercard provide automatic damage insurance when you rent a car using them. I had used my Visa card. I checked the Visa web site, and it certainly seemed to confirm that they would cover any damage costs.

But I remained skeptical. I couldn't shake the feeling that it was too good to be true, that there was a catch I was missing, and they would cite some sort of fine-print exclusion that would leave me holding the bag. (This particular bag, by the way, was nearly $1800 of body-work repairs and associated costs and fees.) I followed all the directions, filled out all the paperwork, and sent it in with fingers crossed.

The call I got today was Visa's service division telling me that they have all the documentation they require, and they are authorizing payment in full, and the net cost to me will be exactly zero--just as their web site had promised.

It shouldn't be so, but it seems very rare that things actually work as advertised in the world of commerce. It's a pleasant surprise and a great relief to hear, in effect, "Don't worry about it. We've taken care of it for you."

Life lesson: When you rent a car using your credit card (and there isn't any other way that I know of), skip the rental company's insurance--you're covered at no additional cost anyway. (In fact, if you buy the rental company's insurance, Visa won't cover you.)

A final note: Payless Car Rental was the company involved. They were complete dicks about this whole thing every step of the way. It started at the rental counter when I picked up the car, with the agent making me feel like I was (1) a criminal that they couldn't entrust with one of their precious vehicles, and (2) an idiot for declining their insurance and roadside assistance options. It continued with my interactions with the guy checking the damage when I returned the car, and all subsequent contacts about the company's claim for payment for repairs. At every possible point of contact, this company's people went out of their way to be rude, offensive, demeaning, unprofessional, and accusatory. Even the written stuff they sent conveyed the same kind of insulting, demanding, bullying tone. No matter how much their rates undercut the competition in the future, I will not be renting from them again. I suggest you similarly avoid this nasty company.

Guess the casino, #440

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

Answer: Venetian

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Guess the casino, #439

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

Answer: Venetian

Odds and ends from the MGM Grand

I played at the MGM Grand tonight. Nothing especially noteworthy happened in the poker, but there were a few interesting sights along the way.

First there was this guy's hat. Click on the photo for the full-size version, and you'll see how he likes to identify himself.

Then there was a woman to my left using this as a card protector:

For some reason, my cell phone camera completely washed out the color here, but it's actually yellow. She confessed to being from Wisconsin--a cheesehead through and through.

As I was making my way to the poker room upon arrival, I passed a sight so odd that I wasn't sure I had seen it correctly, so after going about 20 feet past it, I turned around and went back for a second look. I had not been hallucinating. Here's what I saw:

This woman was playing a slot machine, and every time the reels were spinning (it's one with actual mechanical reels), she would rub the glass over one of the reels. I watched her for about two minutes, and she did this every time. Most often she would rub over the center reel. But once in a while she would instead rub over the right-hand reel, and once I saw her divide her rubbing, first on the right then on the center during the same spin.

In case you're wondering, no, this isn't some sort of touch panel. The glass does nothing. Rubbing it does nothing, except, obviously, in her mind. I was this close to asking her why she did it, but I chickened out. Nevertheless, I'm about 99% confident what she would say, if she were being honest: She has somehow become convinced that this action enhances her chances of winning.

It does nothing of the sort, of course. The electronic and mechanical innards of the machine do not respond to such inputs. But she clearly believes that they will, else she wouldn't bother expending her energy this way.

She reminded me a lot of the moron I once saw at the Riviera who would rub his magic spoon in front of him before every hand of poker. It's the same kind of lunacy that makes Jerry Yang think that a supernatural being will change the cards in the dealer's hand when he says "Lord, give me a set" in the middle of a hand, after all the chips are in. It is of a piece with Joe Bishop thinking that his dead father will perform similar magic on the deck for him, or Hal Lubarsky thinking that touching his card cap before each hand will make him luckier, or Daniel Negreanu thinking that $50 bills are unlucky, or Shannon Elizabeth believing that positive thinking and speaking will cause good cards to come while thinking and speaking negatively will cause bad ones to come, or Brian Lemke believing that his recently deceased cousin caused a miracle card to be dealt on the final hand that won him a WSOP bracelet last year (something I didn't write about at the time). It's all madness, sheer madness.

As you can tell from the links above, I've ridden this particular hobby horse a few times before, so I won't belabor it again. But I will tell you that one of the reasons I finally decided against asking this woman why she was rubbing the glass was that I was afraid she would tell me that it made the reels spins in her favor, and then I would be unable to resist asking her the only possible followup question: "Are you really that stupid?"

My prognostications

Time to summarize how I did in predicting winners in the NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship. Why now, instead of waiting until it's over? Because none of the final eight remaining were my picks to get this far. I'm drawing dead.

I got exactly 16/32 of the first set of matches correct, just what would be predicted by chance alone. Interestingly, I also had exactly 4 out of the final 16 right (Kaplan, Laak, Obrestad, and Wasicka), also just what would be predicted by chance alone. By rights, two of my remaining horses should have won their way into the elite eight, but they all failed. Good thing I didn't put any money down on this thing.

So my ability to pick winners is, well, about average or a little below. You could do as well by flipping coins to fill in your brackets as to go by my soothsaying.