Saturday, September 10, 2011

Guess the casino, #976

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

Answer: Tuscany

Friday, September 09, 2011

Guess the casino, #975

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Answer: South Point

What's in a screen name? #33

Somebody buy that man a slice of pi.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Guess the casino, #974

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

Answer: Mirage

Kandu Challenge

I was just reading the newest Ante Up magazine, and found a brief article by attorney Marc Dunbar. (Available online here, page 62.) He is discussing recent legal cases in which courts had to determine whether poker is predominantly a game of skill or of chance. He thinks the courts are getting it wrong by usually ruling it a game of chance.

His discussion mentions a case I had not heard of, so I looked it up. It's Three Kings Holdings v. Six, from the Kansas Court of Appeals, June 10, 2011, available here. I found a couple of references on poker-related sites about the trial court decision in 2009 (e.g., PokerPages story here), but not a word anywhere in the poker media about the recent appellate decision. I don't think I had ever heard of either the game or its legal history before tonight.

Kandu Challenge is Texas Hold'em with one significant twist: After the cards are shuffled, but before any are dealt, the deck is spread out in front of the players face up for three to five seconds, allowing players a chance to memorize the order of as many cards as they can. The dealer then gathers the cards without disturbing their order, cuts the deck, and shows the card at which the deck was cut. In theory, if you had been able to memorize the entire order, you would now know exactly which cards would be dealt to every player, as well as what would be coming on the flop, turn, and river. Wouldn't that be nice?!

The game was offered at some sort of card room in Wichita, but within a few months was shut down by the state attorney general as a violation of state gambling statutes. The game's owners sued, arguing that skill dominated over chance in determining the outcome. They lost and filed an appeal.

The appellate court basically rehearses the trial court's decision and endorses it at every crucial step. Most interestingly, this included a lengthy discussion of whether the skill/luck determination should be made based on a single hand or based on some undefined longer period of time. This is a question that other courts have touched on briefly but without much rigorous analysis.

It's true that the "spread the deck" twist adds a feature not found in regular poker, and it might arguably increase the skill factor, because quick memorization of many cards would clearly grant a significant edge. But the courts didn't put much stock in this, based on witnesses saying that they could usually only memorize four or five cards in the allotted time, and they had not found that doing so had helped them win.

The courts, then, analyzed the case just as they would for Texas Hold'em--which is why the discussion of whether the legal determination on the skill/luck question should be made on a single hand versus some "long run" (a session of a few hours or more) is potentially important to other courts that will face the same question in the future.

Their decision is, I think, hard to argue with. The rules allow a player to play just one hand and then leave, even if few people actually do so. A winner is unambiguously determined at the conclusion of every hand, but there is no unambiguous way to determine a "winner" if you extend the period of consideration arbitrarily. Most importantly, if the analysis isn't done on the basis of a single hand, then there is no other logical unit to apply.

Once the courts had almost entirely discounted the ability to memorize the order of the deck--Kandu Challenge's only unique feature--and had decided that the skill/luck determination had to be made, for legal purposes, on the basis of a single hand, well, the outcome was in the cards, so to speak. I don't think anybody can seriously debate the proposition that what cards one is dealt and what cards come on the board are more determinative of the outcome of a typical hand of poker than the relative degree of two players' skill. If Joe Tourist and I play two hands, one where I beat his straight with my flush and one in which those hands are reversed, my greater skill might cause me to win more than he does with the flush, and lose less than he does with the straight. But no amount of skill can make a straight beat a flush.

I summarized and posted pointers to the other recent state appellate court cases a few weeks ago here. You can now add the Kansas decision to the growing list of cases in which courts view the skill versus luck question entirely differently than we as poker players are inclined to do. At least in this case the courts made explicit the basis for their rulings, and the underlying logic, rather than just waving off the overwhelming expert testimony that poker is, in fact, a game of skill.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

"The Superuser"

Last week I saw a flurry of Tweets about the release of a new poker novel, The Superuser, by Collin Moshman and Katie Dozier. It cost only $2.99, and I was kind of curious how the Kindle application would work on my PC and on my Android phone, so I bought the book, downloaded the software to both devices, and dug in. It's a fast read, and I finished it the night before last.

Basic story: Some high-stakes online players suddenly start losing a ton of money to a few unknown accounts. They start investigating and quickly come to understand that there must be one or more superusers, players who have access to their opponents' hole cards. As they probe deeper, they find themselves entangled in a web of deception, scapegoats, conflicting motives, political power plays, and murder.

Most of what I'm going to write here is going to be negative, but I don't want the volume of words that I use for my critiques to obscure or overwhelm this central fact: It's a fun read. If having a few hours of distraction from your cares, immersed in a fast-paced story of crime and intrigue in the poker world, is worth three bucks to you, you will no doubt enjoy yourself with this novel. It's hard to beat it for value on a dollars-per-hour-of-entertainment basis. Most blessedly for the sake of my steam gauge, all of the poker details are correct, without the kinds of howlers that authors unfamiliar with the game tend to include through their ignorance. (The co-authors--husband and wife--are both successful online pros.)

There are some amusing nuggets tossed in for those in the know. For example, one rich online player is said to have a condo with a slide installed for getting from upstairs to downstairs. Hi, Phil Galfond! Another character's name appears to be a slight variation on that of Jimmy Fricke. Assuming that was deliberate, the authors must have gotten a laugh out of making him a sniveling, weasely cop. One online player is said to play under the screen name of "hotjenny314," which is Dozier's Twitter handle. At one point in the investigation they produce a graph of money won against hands played, and it looks just like the famous one that in the actual UB/AP superuser scandal first convinced everyone that there was no explanation except cheating. (In fact, it might be the actual graph from that history--I didn't try to compare them to find out.) And so on. I appreciate little bones like that thrown quietly to those paying attention.

Now for my gripes. There's one potential spoiler, but I'll let you know when it's coming.

First, the high-stakes players hire as an investigator the book's protagonist, Grisham Stark. This makes no sense at all. Stark has three possible qualifications for the job: He's a former cop, he has had some success in poker (he has a WSOP bracelet), and he has been caught cheating at poker, in a live tournament. We are supposed to believe that these multimillionaire, sophisticated online pros pick this guy to investigate the superuser on the theory that it takes a cheat to catch a cheat. But Stark knows absolutely nothing about the subject. He plays so little online that he isn't even aware of the existence of hand-tracking software and heads-up displays. (It is, frankly, implausible that somebody who has won a bracelet and has an online poker account--as Stark does--could be this clueless about the modern state of the game, but that's what we are asked to accept.) He doesn't know how to trace IP addresses or online money transfers. He is a loser at life and at poker. He is utterly unsuited to such a technical investigation. It strains credulity to the breaking point that he, of all people, would be the one hired to crack the case. It seems obvious that the only reason he is chosen is so that he can have a character arc of redemption from his cheating past, but within the universe of the book, his selection is completely ludicrous. Stark's investigation keeps running up against the limitations of his own incompetence, which causes the reader (at least this reader) to keep wondering, "Why did you pick this moron to track down your criminal???"

Next is the typos. There were only a couple of glaring ones, but there are many, many spots where commas are used incorrectly--or, to be more specific, where commas are needed but not to be found. This happens especially around words such as "however" and when a person is being addressed and his or her name is not set off with commas, as would be standard usage. These things bug me a lot, as an inveterate proofreader. They probably won't annoy others as much as they do me, but I'm a stickler for grammar and punctuation, so such errors leap off the page and grab me by the throat, yanking me out of the world of the book for a few seconds every time.

But my biggest complaint is structural--how the novel is put together. In this category I have three specific irritants.

First, these authors are way, way, way too fond of the cliffhanger. The chapters are short--often the equivalent of what would be just one or two pages in a paperback novel--and nearly every one of them ends with some sort of drama bomb. Just now I picked a spot at random, went to the end of the chapter, and there was a typical example. A character is reading an email, and the chapter ends with this: "Then he looked again, and realized that the attachment was far from standard." You can almost hear the Dramatic Chipmunk music playing as the scene ends. The next chapter then picks up with some other character's action somewhere else, and we are forced to wait for the completion of the story from which we were whisked away. I picked another random spot and tried again. This time the chapter ended with, "As he looked inside, he clasped his hands to his face." Of course they don't tell us what he saw that was so horrific. Instead they jump to another character's story.

This kind of thing is completely artificial. It breaks how we expect things to be presented. As a general rule, a movie scene or a novel chapter should be one logical whole. If a character sees something important, well, tell us what it is. The cliffhanger has a place in novel writing, but, like most devices, needs to be applied sparingly. These authors seem to know no other way to end a chapter. The extreme overuse of this technique made me feel like I was watching a badly written TV show, with the writers desperate that I not change the channel during the commercial break. I found it seriously annoying.

The second structural gripe I had was that the authors don't play fair with crucial information. Without revealing too much here, there are important relationships between some of the characters, which these characters are perfectly well aware of, yet Moshman and Dozier withhold these details much longer than is logically necessary simply in order to heighten the "Aha" sensation when they are finally announced. This is, in my opinion, authorial cheating. It's one thing if, say, two characters are brothers separated at birth and they discover that fact in the course of interacting with each other, and we as readers learn it along with them. But the relationships I'm talking about here are known to the characters, and it feels completely artificial that we're deeply into the book before we are allowed to know what the characters know, when we otherwise are given full access to their thoughts and actions.

A related "cheating" problem is that the authors seem to love starting a chapter by describing the action, but not telling us who is involved. They just use pronouns without identifiers, then finally let us in on who we're watching after a few paragraphs have gone by. For example, Chapter 42 begins, "The distinctive beeping surprised him. He opened the text on his work phone. Look at Poker Times news forum top. With a sick feeling in his stomach, he logged on to the poker site and navigated his way to the specified section...." All we can do is guess at who this is we're supposedly watching, until the authors deign to give us a name. This is pure amateur hour--the sort of thing I'd expect to see turned in for a high school creative writing assignment. It does nothing to further either the story line or the reader's emotional experience, in my opinion. It's just irritating.

My final structural critique contains a semi-spoiler. That is, I'm not going to tell you what specific details we learn at the end of the book, but I'm going to tell you the way in which those details are revealed. If you think that will ruin part of the fun of reading, then skip the next paragraph.


There was a great sketch on Saturday Night Live in its early years, in which (as I recall--it's been a very long time, so forgive me if my memory is faulty in some details) a villain is admonishing other villains about what to do when they capture James Bond. "Just kill him. Don't tie him up while you tell him your master plan. Just shoot him and be done with it." It went on at some length about all the times that other baddies had made this same mistake, spilling their beans to Bond because he was about to die anyway, so what harm could it do? This cinematic device was ripe for parody by SNL, because it's both cliched and dumb. Surely mastermind criminals aren't actually that stupid, are they? Sadly, though, Moshman and Dozier resort to this tired old mechanism for finally explaining who did what and why. One or more of the bad guys literally have one or more of the good guys at gunpoint, about to kill them, when a good guy pulls this old ploy: "You're going to kill me anyway, so it can't do you any harm now to tell me now how it happened," and the bad guys go along with it, telling how the whole plot fit together. Seriously, all you aspiring novel writers, do NOT do this. It is maybe the single most lame, hackneyed way ever devised for revealing to your readers the back story that finally makes everything fall into place.


OK, that's it for my list of nits to pick. Even though it took a lot of words to lay them out, I want to reiterate that their net impact is not enough to cause me to feel cheated, or hate the book, or wish I hadn't read it, or withhold a recommendation. Things like I've listed may well bother me more than they would most readers, and even with my heightened sensitivity for errors and irritants, I still enjoyed the ride the authors took me on. There's a good chance you will, too.

Guess the casino, #973

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

Answer: Harrah's

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Guess the casino, #972

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Answer: Excalibur

Monday, September 05, 2011

Daily tournaments

I frequently hear tourists at poker tables asking dealers and locals where to find tournaments at a certain time of day, or of a certain length, or in a specified buy-in range. There is, of course, the comprehensive database maintained at, here. But it's a daunting list--bewildering for having so many options from which to choose.

Yesterday I picked up the September issue of Ante Up magazine, and found that Michael Hamai's column points to some specific suggestions based on buy-in and game type, which I think will be helpful in narrowing down the long list of possibilities for out-of-town visitors. You can read it online, though it's a little awkward, requiring either Flash or a PDF download. See here, page 32.

Guess the casino, #971

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

Answer: Binion's

It makes my brain feel adled

This ad is running in the current issue of Poker Player newspaper:

Can anybody tell me what a "mandatory stradle" is?

Poker gems, #434

Mike Caro, in Poker Player newspaper, September 12, 2011 (vol. 15, #6), page 4.

[P]oker often mimics the game of rock, paper, scissors.... Bluffers beat timid players. Timid players beat loose players. But loose players beat bluffers. Not in every case, of course, but whenever those traits collide, that's who has the advantage.

One of these things is just like the other

I think this is the first time I've been dealt identical cards on two tables at once.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Lazy Sunday

My day:

I woke up, after having dreamed that I hung onto the wing of the space shuttle and hitched a ride all the way up to the International Space Station, which was pretty cool. (Apparently I can breathe in outer space, which might come in handy someday.) I had lunch while watching "Reliable Sources" on CNN. I like Howard Kurtz. I played two SNG tournaments on Bodog, nothing in one, shipped the other.

While I was doing that, I was seeing Twitter messages from my friends Stacey and Don of Las Vegas Poker Source about how well Stacey was doing in the U.S. Ladies Poker Championship at the Golden Nugget. She had started the final table at noon with one of the short stacks, but had bullied her way upward.

I hatched a plan. The Plaza hotel and casino has been closed for renovation for several months, and just reopened Thursday. I had heard that a gourmet cupcake shop, Gigi's, was part of the new restaurant lineup, and I wanted to indulge. I'm within easy walking distance of both the Nugget and the Plaza, so I decided to walk to the Nugget and if it looked like Stacey would still be in for a while, I'd head off to the Plaza and buy three cupcakes to share with her and Don in celebration of her deep run. By the time I got there to check in with them, it was down to the final three, and her stack was healthy, so off to the Plaza I went. But to my great disappointment, I learned that Gigi's isn't going to open for another several days. No cupcakes for us. Boo!

I went back to the Nugget just as Stacey was beginning the heads-up battle. Here she is, looking all fierce. Or maybe bored. You decide:

Stacey was head-and-shoulders better than her last remaining opponent. This other woman had no concept of bet sizing. She was opening for up to eight times the big blind, or reraising all-in for 50+ big blinds after a standard opening raise from Stacey. Reckless. Or perhaps she recognized that she was outclassed, and figured that she'd enhance the luck factor by trying to play a few big pots pre-flop, so as not to have to face the more difficult decisions post-flop. Either way, it worked well enough, and Stacey couldn't overcome the chip deficit with which she started the last phase of the tournament. But she played great, from what I could see, and walked away with more than $6000. She is an excellent tournament player and has been slaying events for the past year or so (see Hendon Mob listing here).

I walked across the plaza to Binion's to play some poker myself. I had to wait a while for a new table to open, and passed the time reading a few more pages in the brand-new poker novel The Superuser--my first Kindle book (reading on my Android phone). I'm a little more than halfway through, and will do a post about it when I'm done.

I made $123 in an hour, but really didn't feel like playing any more, so I cashed out, picking up the new issues of various poker magazines as I left. I kept one of the chips for my collection. It's a new issue since the last time I played at Binion's, commemorating the casino's recent 60th anniversary:

I went back to the Plaza to see if the remodeling had made the place nice enough to be worth taking pictures of. Nope. It looked mostly the same as I remember it, though admittedly I had only been there twice before, and it was a long time ago. I mean, there's new carpet and better lighting, but nothing like the complete re-do that the Tropicana recently received. No poker room in the new place. But I snapped a few pictures for the "Guess the Casino" series anyway.

On my way home I passed a couple of mildly interesting sights. There's always a bunch of people dressed up as showgirls and celebrities, hoping tourists will tip them to pose for a photo. This was a new twist on the genre--the famous Vegas sign. No need to drive out past Mandalay Bay!

(I achieved a minor personal breakthrough with this photograph, even though it looks unremarkable. When I got home and uploaded the day's shots to my computer, I found that I had left the white balance set on "incandescent" for the indoor shots at the Plaza, which made this one pervasively blue-tinted. But I discovered how to do color correction using Microsoft Picture Viewer and fixed it.)

Then there was this young woman with interesting hair, dancing enthusiastically on stage:

I came home and did a crossword puzzle with Cardgrrl via Skype. Now it's time for a snack while I watch "Top Gear" (the kind-of-sucky-but-gradually-getting-better American version) from earlier tonight. Then wash the dishes, probably a couple more Bodog single-tables, put up another's week's worth of GTC posts, then to bed.

See what an exciting life I lead?

Guess the casino, #970

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

Answer: Tropicana

What's in a screen name? #32

I like this one a lot. Nice joining of name and avatar. I just wish his town had been reported as Alamogordo, New Mexico, but it wasn't.

What I was thinking:

Please bet. Please bet. Please bet. Please bet. Please bet. Please bet. Please bet. Please bet. Please bet. Please bet. Please bet. Please bet. Please bet. Please bet. Please bet. Please bet. Please bet.

The reason I was thinking that:

Poker dozens

It all started innocently enough. The geniuses behind "The Micros" series of animated poker adventures sent out two Tweets, from out of nowhere:

Yo mama so dumb she called a river shove with bottom two on a four-flush board. #PokerSnapFight

Yo mama so dumb she thinks a stack of chips comes in a Pringles can. #PokerSnapFight

And that was all it took to unleash an all-day game of the dozens, played by, well, dozens of Micros fans.

Here are the ones that I thought best. (Apologies in advance to anybody whose mama is, in fact, outrageously fat, dumb, broke, poor, ugly, nasty, or skanky, and who therefore takes personal offense at the following.)

Yo mama so fat that when she busts out of a cash game the dealer shouts "Seats open at 6, 7, and 8." #PokerSnapFight

Your mama's underarms are so hairy it looks like she's got Elix Powers in a headlock #PokerSnapFight

Yo mama's so poor, she posted the big blind on layaway. #PokerSnapFight

Yo mama's so poor, she bought in with food stamps. #PokerSnapFight

Yo mama's so ugly, when she looked at her pocket kings, they had their eyes closed. #PokerSnapFight

yo mamma's so fat they won't let her straddle the button anymore #pokersnapfight

Yo mama's so fat, she plays Pot-Limit Nebraska. #PokerSnapFight

Yo mama so broke she was begging for a buyin to a freeroll. #PokerSnapFight

Your momma so fat, she called for a rack and the floor man brought her ribs. #PokerSnapFight

I confess that I, too, got a bit caught up in the spirit of things. Yes, I'm 12 years old.

Yo mama so fat, when the game is HORSE, they throw a saddle on her back. #PokerSnapFight

Yo mama so fat, when she went on a heater, it broke. #PokerSnapFight

Yo mama so dumb, when the dealer called for player's checks, she thought they were bringing her cereal. #PokerSnapFight

Yo mama so fat, she's got more folds than @AllenKessler. #PokerSnapFight

Yo mama so broke, she can't even give a free card. #PokerSnapFight

Yo mama so fat, the only way she can get to the table is a slowroll. #PokerSnapFight

Yo mama so nasty, all the other players can smell her even when she plays online. #PokerSnapFight

Good thing I'm not going back to school to face an essay assignment on how I spent my summer.