Saturday, August 04, 2012

Brownie update

As reported here, Josie has given me until August 5 (extended from the original deadline of July 31) to get my Black Chip Poker account up to $1200 in order to earn a batch of what she claims to be the world's best brownies. This challenge was issued when the balance stood at $661. I have been trying mightily, but with little to show for it. I've had a couple of min-cashes, but that's about it. It has been fail, fail, fail, several tournaments a day every day. Deeply demoralizing.

Tonight was the first glimmer of hope I've had. It was an $11 freezeout, which is most of what I've been doing, with the $2000 guaranteed prize pool well exceeded. My stack was below average for most of the tournament, but never in dire straits. The lack of flexibility that a cramped stack brings forced me to just play solid ABC, not get much out of line.

Just before the money bubble burst, I cracked aces with tens by flopping a set, won an enormous pot, and took over the tournament chip lead with 27 left. But then I entered the card graveyard, and was dealt a never-ending string of J-2, 8-3, etc. The big stack gave me the ability to just ride out the flurry of all-ins that inevitably occurs for a while after the bubble bursts, but that meant that I was not the one profiting by knocking out other players. I was just coasting. By the final table bubble, I was down to below average.

But I got a big opportunity. At a four-handed table, the short stack open-shoved with what turned out to be A-2. I re-shoved with Q-Q, expecting that to end the action. But the big stack in the small blind called, showing A-K.

Here's how it played out:

As soon as I flopped the set, I relaxed and actually missed the fact that Mr. A-K turned the straight. When my table disappeared, I thought it was just because with the elimination we were on to the final table. But the new table didn't pop up. That's when I looked at the hand history and realized what had happened. It made me want to throw up.

So I finished in 8th:

If I had won that pot, I would have had about 198,000 chips. I would have been way out in front with the chip lead, and would have been in a prime position to go for the $625 first prize.

"For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'"

I've done so many buy-ins with so little reward that the $82 I won only brings me back up to $415. This is still more than double what it was a couple of weeks ago, before I had those two nice scores back to back, but obviously still well down from my peak. It seems impossibly far from $1200, given less than 48 hours left to get there.

Along the way, I had two opportunities to prove the power of the Mighty Deuce-Four, and it did not disappoint. I flopped two pair both times, bet and won both pots:

I'm afraid it's going to be back to brownie mixes from the store for me. So sad.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

A response to Michael Shermer (no poker content)

I wasn't planning to use this space to address gun control yet again, after having done so once just ten days ago, but a post I read on another blog today prompts me to do so.

In this case, the identity of the writer in question matters a great deal. Michael Shermer is one of the authors I admire most. He is the editor of Skeptic magazine, to which I have been a loyal subscriber and reader since I first learned of its existence with Volume 3, #1, which I think was in about 1995. I have bought and read several of his books. They are uniformly interesting and enlightening. I have a special fondness for his Denying History, which is a careful examination of the evidence for and against the claims of Holocaust deniers, leading to a broader consideration of the fascinating philosophical and pragmatic question of how we can know anything about history. His books are usually among that rare breed that forever change how you think about the subject involved.

The hallmarks of Shermer's writing are careful attention to facts, rigorously sifting the reliable from the unreliable, and sticking to logical inferences from them. He is the epitome of reason, willing to go wherever the evidence leads, regardless of his own preconceived ideas. To make matters even better, in recent years he has been more overt about his leanings toward libertarian economics and politics, further endearing him to me. He is a sufficiently interesting writer and speaker that seeing his name on an article or as a guest on an upcoming radio or TV show is all the reason I need to read it, or to tune in. Heck, I've even read a good deal from Mr. Shermer's hand about competitive cycling because it is a passion of his, and his writing is so interesting and insightful that I find it worth reading along even in subjects that are not especially important to me.

OK, enough with the sycophancy. I thought it worth a bit of space to make clear in what high regard I hold Mr. Shermer, before I turn to my disappointment of today.

Here is the blog post in question:

My disappointment is not just that Mr. Shermer disagrees on a question of public policy that is important to me. Of far more importance is that it appears to me that he has abandoned his usual characteristic care about both facts and logical inference.

Points of agreement

Let me begin my analysis by stating where we agree: There are and probably always will be mentally ill among us. Some small percentage of such people will erupt with public violence. (We might add that some who are not mentally ill will do the same for political, religious, or other reasons.) Such events are largely unpredictable, especially when committed by those with no prior history of crimes or formal contact with the psychiatric or legal systems. As a result, it seems virtually inevitable that we will, sadly, continue to occasionally experience sickening scenes such as happened in Aurora, Colorado, a couple of weeks ago.

Errors of fact

Mr. Shermer's first factual errors come when he speaks of "semi-automatic assault rifles like those [James] Holmes’ [sic] allegedly used to murder 12 and wound another 58 in a matter of seconds."

The first problem with this is that the phrase "semi-automatic assault rifle" is nonsensical, self-contradictory. An "assault rifle" by definition is full automatic. See, e.g., here. If a gun is semi-automatic (i.e., one shot per trigger pull), it is not an assault rifle. This error creeps in again later when Mr. Shermer refers to "outlawing all automatic and semi-automatic assault rifles for anyone who is not in law enforcement or the military," which is the specific policy his blog post proposes.

Secondly, I'm not sure it's accurate to refer to the assaults as having happened in a matter of "seconds." My understanding from news reports is that it was several minutes at least.

The third error, or at least unwarranted assumption, is that Holmes used his rifle to kill 12 and wound another 58. News stories are quite consistently reporting that he began with the rifle, but it jammed at some point. He then turned to the shotgun he was carrying, and later to his Glock handgun. I have seen nothing yet that tells us how many of the fatal and non-fatal wounds were inflicted by which weapons, nor how many shots were fired from each. I assume that those questions are still under forensic investigation. For all we know, his rifle might have jammed after two shots, both of which missed, in which case no harm was inflicted by it. I don't think that is likely, but we just don't know yet. It is certainly premature to say that all 70 victims were shot with Holmes' AR-15-style rifle (apparently a variant made by Smith & Wesson). If it turns out that the great majority of the wounds were actually inflicted by the shotgun and handgun, and not the rifle, is Mr. Shermer prepared to retract his policy proposal? I doubt it.

Another error pops in unexpectedly when Mr. Shermer writes about assault rifles "that can be secreted into a movie theater." First, Holmes did no such thing. Eyewitnesses tell us that he entered the theater with everybody else, then left, then returned with the guns in hand and in full view. How this constitutes them being "secreted" is beyond me.

Moreover, I wonder if Mr. Shermer has ever tried "secreting" an AR-15 on his person? Teller manages such a trick in his stage magic act with Penn Jillette here in Vegas at the Rio hotel and casino (I actually think it's a shotgun rather than a rifle, but my memory might be playing tricks on me), but I doubt that anything less than a trick prop gun, a carefully constructed suit, and a bunch of well-rehearsed stagehands could get the job done.

Second Amendment considerations

Mr. Shermer defends his proposal against constitutional objection with this observation: "When the Second Amendment was written stating that citizens have a right to 'keep and bear arms,' rifles took over a minute to load one bullet at a time. The most crazed 18th century American could not possibly commit mass murder because no WMMs [Mr. Shermer's abbreviation for "weapons of mass murder"] existed at the time."

The last sentence is not quite accurate. One could presumably have committed mass murder in the late 18th century with a bomb, or a cannon, or with arson of a crowded building. But that's beside the point.

The larger point, of course, deals with the march of technology. I realize that Mr. Shermer is not writing a technical piece for a law journal, nor a legal brief for the Supreme Court. His point is a conceptual one here, not a rigorous legalistic one. And that's fine. I'll address it on the same rhetorical level.

Technology has moved on in communications as well as firearms. If we were to accept Mr. Shermer's implicit argument that the protection afforded by the Constitution stops with the technology available to those who produced that document, we would logically have to conclude that the same is true for the First Amendment as for the Second Amendment. Freedom of the press and of speech would continue to be recognized for actual speaking and for actual ink-stained printing presses, but not for more modern technologies, such as radio, television, fax machines, photocopiers, photography, and the Internet. I have a hard time believing that Mr. Shermer's view of the First Amendment is so crabbed. If I'm right about that guess, then on what logical exegetical basis does the Second Amendment get treated so differently?

Of fists and noses

Mr. Shermer wishes not to be thought of as anti-freedom: "My fellow libertarians are likely to see this as another loss of freedom, but I disagree. The principle of freedom states that all people are free to think, believe, and act as they choose, so long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. But the freedom for me to swing my arm ends at your nose."

Fair enough. But such a cute aphorism is not terribly rigorous, and is subject to such varied application as to be pretty much useless. Does it mean that I cannot swing my fist at all, lest there be an off-chance that I run into the nose of somebody I was not aware was there? Does it mean that I can swing my fist at your face, so long as I stop a millimeter short of your nose? (Current laws would call such obvious threat of bodily harm an assault, even if I did not complete the swing so as to turn it into a battery.) If taken to an extreme, it would seem to mean that I do not have the right to punch an assailant in self-defense, even if he is attacking me. Is that Mr. Shermer's view? I doubt it, but resorting to such a vague, glib talking point lends itself to that interpretation as well as to any other.

So it is with the subject of the implicit analogy. Does the use of the aphorism mean that nobody should own an assault rifle, or merely that one does not have the right to injure another person with it? Those are vastly different conclusions. I own a semi-automatic rifle, a civilian version of the AK-47, which is kept unloaded and locked in a safe when not with me at a firing range. The chance that Mr. Shermer or anybody else will ever be injured by my possession of this gun is so remote that it hardly seems within his proper purview to prohibit me from it.

It is conceivable that Mr. Shermer will some day get drunk, climb in his car, and recklessly run me over when I'm innocently crossing a street. Should I on the basis of that remote possibility be allowed to prohibit him from drinking alcohol? Or from owning a car? The chance that I will flip out and start shooting up a movie theater, or that a carelessly errant shot from my rifle at the gun range will sail for miles and hit somebody, or that a thief will break into my house and safe, steal the gun, and then use it to rob a bank, is of a similar degree of remoteness. It is a far, far cry from launching my fist forward when standing a foot in front of another person.

Collective risks

Of course, there are collective risks. The fact that I could legally acquire and can legally use my rifle for shooting competitions (which is all I have ever used it for, having no interest in hunting) means that others can, too, and some small percentage of them will eventually use the weapons criminally. If we cannot accurately predict which of the users are the vast majority in whose hands the guns will forever be harmless and which are the tiny minority who will turn them against the rest of us, then certainly one possible solution is to ban them across the board.

But then what is to stop similar considerations from being used for other things? We could put Prohibition back into place, because a minority of people who drink manifestly cause all manner of social harms--including murder--when intoxicated. Or we could outlaw automobiles in order to prevent all the accidental and intentional deaths that they cause. Any one of us could build a bomb of frightful lethality out of legally purchased fuel oil and fertilizer, as Timothy McVeigh taught us.

Mr. Shermer, what is the logical limiting principal here? Why outlaw one item that can be used to commit mayhem but not all such items? I would guess that the answer is that he sees no utility in anybody owning the guns he wants to ban, but acknowledges that there is meaningful enough social utility in alcohol, cars, oil, fertilizer, etc., that he is willing to accept the attendant cost of occasional criminal misuse. And if I'm right about that guess, then we simply have very different subjective assessments of what constitutes sufficient offsetting positive utility.


Even if we were to learn that all or nearly all of Holmes' victims were shot with his AR-15-style rifle, that would make the incident virtually unique in modern history. I follow such things with reasonable (although not obsessive) care, and I cannot recall offhand a weapon of this type being used in any other mass shooting. Most such events are carried out with an ordinary handgun or two. (For example, the massacres in Tucson, Ft. Hood, and Virginia Tech University.) Can Mr. Shermer name another incident in the United States prior to this month that was carried out with the kind of weapon he proposes to outlaw?* [EDIT: See Addendum below, in which I more carefully research this point, and find that my memory failed me.]

If not, and if in spite of that he still sticks with his proposal on the basis of what James Holmes did, then it seems to follow that one mass shooting justifies, in Mr. Shermer's view, the outlawing of the entire class of weapon used. It would seem to follow further, then, that all semi-automatic handguns should be banned, too, on the basis of several other mass shootings in which those were the weapons used. Mr. Shermer mentions Charles Whitman, the infamous University of Texas tower shooter. He killed 14 and wounded 32 using a shotgun, an ordinary bolt-action hunting rifle, and a pump-action rifle. If the Aurora shootings justify banning one of the weapons used in it, then why would not the greater number of people killed by Whitman justify banning the categories of weapons he used?

Nitty-gritty details

While I'm speaking of practicality, let's consider the logistics of the kind of ban Mr. Shermer seems to have in mind. The first problem is one of definitions. Perhaps if Mr. Shermer is not familiar with guns, he does not understand how difficult it would be to write a legal definition that accurately and reliably distinguishes between the kinds of guns he wants to get rid of and the ones that he presumably thinks are OK (because he does not propose outlawing all guns, or even all rifles, or even all semi-automatic rifles). Congress tried this in 1994, and manufacturers quickly learned that all they had to do was leave off some unimportant features (such as a bayonet mount, and threads on the end of the barrel to which a suppressor could be attached), and continue producing what were functionally nearly identical arms. What good did that do anybody?

Consider the Ruger Mini-14, an enormously popular semi-automatic rifle. It shoots the same caliber of cartridge as most AR-15s, and can do so in equal quantities. Its two primary applications are recreational shooting and as a light farm/ranch/trail gun for shooting varmints such as gophers and coyotes. Would this be banned under Mr. Shermer's proposal? If so, on what basis? Just the fact that it is a semi-automatic rifle? If that is the case, then Mr. Shermer was apparently not being honest in the scope of his proposal, and he really wants to outlaw all semi-automatic rifles. But if it is not to be included in the ban, then what has actually been accomplished? James Holmes could acquire a Mini-14 exactly the same way he did his AR-15 copy, use the same ammunition, and kill just as many people with it. The differences between the Mini-14 and the AR-15 have little to do with how a criminal or insane person could use it. The presence or absence of a bayonet lug, flash suppressor, pistol grip, or folding stock surely have minimal impact on the weapon's destructive potential.

Next consider what happens even if we managed to find a definition that neatly distinguished between the guns that Mr. Shermer thinks you should be able to have and those he thinks you shouldn't. We then have to decide whether to "grandfather" in currently existing examples, of which there are millions upon millions. Criminalizing the possession of items commonly owned legally is an enormous problem, especially when those items are (1) expensive, and (2) highly prized by their owners. It is no small matter to turn millions of law-abiding Americans into felons (many of them unknowing) overnight. Such actions breed deep resentment for the government and a disrespect for law.

But if you don't outlaw those currently in existence, then you will have barely made a dent in the problem. The world in general and our nation in particular are awash in these guns, and with just a little care they can last far longer than any owner's lifetime. Even if all manufacture of them stopped tomorrow, one would be unable to notice any diminution in the absolute numbers in circulation for many decades.

I consider this an essentially intractable, insoluble problem no matter which horn of the dilemma you choose to skewer yourself on.

I suppose I should add that the Supreme Court, given its recent precedents, would be nearly certain to rule such a ban unconstitutional. Mr. Shermer is then put in the difficult position of pressing for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court and limit the scope of the Second Amendment. Good luck with that.


I understand the impulse to read of a heinous crime such as Holmes committed and feel that we should do something. But before such impulses are translated into public policy, they must be carefully processed through filters that take into consideration things like constitutionality, costs, and benefits. I do not see that Mr. Shermer has undertaken that gargantuan task, or even that he grasps how difficult a problem it is. It seems to me that he has simply jumped to what seems an obvious remedy without serious thought put into such crucial questions as (1) would the proposal actually prevent future such incidents (I don't see how it could), (2) what would the costs be (enormous), (3) can the distinction he wishes to make actually be written as law (probably not), and (4) would it violate current judicial interpretations of the Constitution (almost surely).

I find myself dismayed that an author I admire for his rigorous fidelity to facts and logical thinking could suffer such an egregious lapse of exactly those qualities, writing about a subject on which he is self-evidently poorly informed, one to which it appears that he has dedicated precious little deep thought, and for which he has amassed precious few facts. (I speak here of the guns, not of his statistics about mental illness or what is implied by the "law of large numbers.")

Mr. Shermer, won't you please spend some time in more careful background reading (I recommend the several books by economist John Lott as an excellent starting point), then revisit your proposal and see if you still think it holds water?

By the way, Mr. Shermer, if you've read this far, I have rattling around inside my head an outline for an article that I think would be great for Skeptic magazine--about some of the examples of magical thinking and cognitive errors (such as the gambler's fallacy) that I run into day after day at the poker tables of Las Vegas. Interested?

*After writing this, I put a little more thought into it, and came up with one case that I think most people will have forgotten about: In 2005, a man unloaded a bunch of rounds from a semi-automatic rifle, patterned after the AK-47, in the Hudson Valley Mall. Two people were wounded, but none killed.

Addendum, August 1, 2012

I found this list of deadly mass public shootings in the United States from 1984 to the present, and looked up the Wikipedia entry (where available, or other reasonably reliable web sources in the few cases where not available) for each one to find out what types of firearms were used. I am not including the gunmen's own deaths (where they occurred) in the body counts. I am listing here only the incidents in which a semi-automatic rifle was the (or one of the) weapons used.

1989, Stockton, California: 5 deaths, all caused by a semi-automatic version of the Type 56.

1989, Louisville, Kentucky: 8 deaths, all caused by a semi-automatic version of the Type 56.

1990, Jacksonville, Florida: 9 deaths, all caused by an M1 carbine.

1997, Orange, California: 4 deaths. There is no Wikipedia entry for this incident. An L.A. Times story says that he was armed with an "AK-47." However, reporters are notoriously inaccurate at describing weapons. A true AK-47 is fully automatic. It's not impossible that this one was, but it was more likely a semi-automatic version, simply because those are vastly more common in the United States. He was apparently also armed with a shotgun and pistol, and nothing I can find quickly specifies how many deaths were caused by each weapon.

1998, Springfield, Oregon: 2 deaths in school shooting, plus he had murdered his parents at home before going to the school, apparently all using a Ruger 10/22 rifle. This is a semi-automatic, but chambered for the low-powered .22 LR rimfire cartridge. I include it here not because it is even remotely a military/law enforcement weapon, but because if one is contemplating outlawing all semi-automatic rifles, this is one that would be included.

2000, Wakefield, Massachusetts: 7 deaths. The Wikipedia entry states that he used an "AK-47 variant," a 12-gauge shotgun, and a .32 pistol, without specifying how many deaths were inflicted by each weapon.

2001, Omaha, Nebraska: 8 deaths, claimed to be from an "AKM 7.62 x 39 mm semi-automatic rifle," which would be an AK-47 variant.

2011, Carson City, Nevada: 4 deaths, apparently from an AK-47 variant. News reports at the time were claiming that this was manufactured as a semi-automatic rifle but had later been illegally converted to fire in full-auto mode. I have seen no definitive confirmation of this, however.

2012, Aurora, Colorado: 12 deaths, inflicted by an unknown combination of a semi-automatic AR-15-style rifle, a shotgun, and a handgun.

But the listing is clearly incomplete, for reasons that I don't understand. It omits at least the following incidents:
  • 1991, Ridgewood, New Jersey: 4 deaths, attributed in this article to "a semiautomatic 9 mm pistol [and] an Uzi semiautomatic assault weapon." The latter phraseology is clearly incorrect, however, I can't discern what he's trying to get at. As far as I know, all Uzis (both fully automatic and semi-automatic) are chambered in pistol calibers, not rifle calibers. Because of this, not even the automatic versions are assault rifles, and so would presumably not fall within Mr. Shermer's proposed ban.
  • 1991, Royal Oak, Michigan: 4 deaths using a Ruger 10/22 rifle. (See comments about 1998, Springfield, Oregon, above.)
  • 2006, Goleta, California: 6 deaths using a 9 mm pistol.
So to the extent that the information I could quickly find on such incidents and the weapons used is accurate, then a maximum of 10 out of 32 mass shootings with multiple deaths over the past 28 years in the United States employed a semi-automatic rifle to inflict some or all of the killings. The great majority used one or two handguns.

Although my memory was admittedly terribly faulty when writing the main blog entry above late last night (i.e., I couldn't offhand recall any of these incidents having used semi-automatic rifles), this compilation gives some idea as to the upper limit of the damage that could be avoided even if we magically removed all semi-automatic rifles (both military-style and others) from existence. I see little reason to hope that crazed gunmen would not simply turn to other weapons of comparable destructive capacity, such as semi-automatic shotguns and semi-automatic pistols, to carry out their schemes.

Addendum 2, August 1, 2012

I keep poking around the web more in search of other mass shootings not accounted for above. There is a whole category of them that some people refer to as "familicides," in which one person shoots and kills several family members inside their home, often ending with the suicide of the shooter. As just two examples, there was this one in California in 1989, and this one in Alabama in 2009. It's hard to pin down numbers on such incidents. They are obviously as sad and tragic as the mass shootings of strangers in public places, which are the focus of all of my discussion above, though they tend to frighten us less because they are less apparently random. I don't want to ignore this type of crime, nor to be accused of deliberately omitting them. But at the same time, I really don't want to invest the time and energy to suss out a comprehensive list of such incidents. That they occur in private and have victims with special relationships to the killer clearly means that some potential deterrents to public mass murder might help prevent these, while others would not. I'll leave it at that.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Oldie but goodie

I think it's been about three years since I first saw this little animation, but it still makes me LOL every single time I watch it. I've been reminded of it by how my online tournaments have been going the last few days.

Warning: Extremely naughty language. Avert sensitive ears.


By age and physique, Kimberly Rhode is not what you would probably think of as the archetypal Olympic champion. But in terms of attitude, discipline, and results, she is, in fact, the epitome of one.

Due to a little insomnia, I was up at around 4 a.m. Sunday. Flipping channels, I happened to catch the final round of women's skeet shooting live, and so was privileged to see Rhode's amazing gold-medal run. Frankly, I don't think I had ever heard of her before yesterday. The shooting sports that I have participated in and that I still follow in gun magazines are not Olympic events.

Rhode has won an individual medal in five consecutive Olympics. That's Atlanta 1996 (gold in double trap at the age of 17), Sidney 2000 (bronze in double trap), Athens 2004 (gold in double trap), Beijing 2008 (silver in skeet), and now London 2012. No other American has accomplished that in any sport. What's more, she is not past her prime. In fact, she's better than ever. She crushed her competition this week, hitting 99 out of 100 clay pigeons--eight more than the silver medalist--setting a new Olympic record and tying the world record. All indications are that she will show up in Rio in 2016 and continue her streak, still with that big smile on her face.

This news story about her inspired me:

She went out of her way to find places to practice that had wind and rain that would simulate what she would likely face in England, and shot in those difficult conditions when everybody else had quit. She doesn't beat herself up over the one missed shot, but instead sees it as an opportunity for improvement at the next Olympics.

And yet in spite of that drive for perfection, she still keeps its importance in perspective: It's a game. She does it because it's fun, and if she doesn't win, the world won't end.

This is what excellence is. I stand in awe of it.

(If you are too dense to see the obvious lessons to be learned about your poker game, well, I don't think me pointing them out is going to help.)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Thought for the day

From Wil Wheaton, on his birthday, which he asks us to recognize as "Don't Be a Dick" day:

"Live your life honestly, honorably, with kindness, compassion and generosity."