Tuesday, January 27, 2015

This Is You Asking a Question and This Is Me Answering It

One night during a dinner break at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure earlier this month, the topic turned to discussing poker players who weren’t interested in doing interviews.

We weren’t talking about Daniel Colman and all of the hubbub from last summer at the WSOP (although his example did come up). No, in fact there are a few other players who aren’t so enamored with doing interviews, especially during breaks in play when they might be making better use of their time. It’s by far the exception -- in truth, the great majority are more than amenable -- but it comes up now and again.

Among the questions raised by the topic was one considering whether or not players in a poker tournament -- say a big WSOP or EPT event or some other widely-covered tournament -- were at all obligated to give interviews. The question elicted a variety of opinions. It also inspired me to introduce the analogous case of Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.

You might have heard about his appearance at the NFL’s “Media Day” today, and if so you got an idea why I might have brought him up in this context. The NFL does in fact require players to submit to interviews, and most readily comply. But Lynch is not a fan of giving them, and so has gained notoriety for the ways he’s kinda-sorta went along with them by answering questions with non-answers.

He went through one post-game interview only answering “Yeah” over and over, regardless of the questions. There was another in which he responded each time by saying “Thank you for asking.” Today he did something similar, repeating 29 different times (ESPN counted) with some close variation of the non-responsive response “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”

I’m mostly ambivalent about Lynch’s unwillingness to do interviews. I know some get pretty heated about it, either taking issue or wanting to defend him. I’m more interested in watching him play than talk, and in fact his anarchic approach to interviews provides something more interesting to consider than what the majority of interviews with athletes produce.

Lynch isn’t the first athlete to repeat a non sequitur over and again as answers to interview questions. Former NBA great Rasheed Wallace did the same at least once, I recall, going through a whole postgame presser saying “Both teams played hard” over and again. Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook did something similar earlier this month answering “Good win for us” (and near variations) repeatedly.

In those cases the non-answer at least related to the game, albeit non-specifically. Lynch’s answers are not even that relevant, although like the others they still perhaps draw attention to the fact that most sports interviews -- both questions and answers -- are often entirely comprised of redundancies. Even the athletes and coaches who do respond to the questions often do so in ways that communicate very little, although there are exceptions there, too, with some interviewees sharing genuine insight or at least engaging personalities than enhance our enjoyment watching them perform on the field or court.

I remember watching a football game a few months ago after which a sideline reporter grabbed a player from the winning team to ask again the same “how did it feel?” question we’ve heard so many times, with the answer also echoing the same expressions we’ve heard time and again. I was inspired to tweet a paraphrase of the reporter’s question (see left).

Getting back to the poker players and the occasional example of one not wanting to do an interview, I’ve never minded that too much either. That said, it’s always a little disappointing to hear a poker player talk about not doing interviews not because they are inconvenient, but because of some sort of principle related to the idea that they gain nothing of value by doing them.

When that happens -- and again, I’m talking about something that’s actually surprisingly rare -- I’m always a little dispirited mainly because it brings to the foreground how poker for some isn’t necessarily “just a game” or an opportunity for amusement, but a business in which anything that can potentially affect the bottom line negatively is to be avoided. (But I know that’s an easy position for me to take.)

Interviewing is hard -- much harder than it looks. And being interviewed isn’t easy, either.

What else do I think about it all? Thank you for asking.

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Monday, January 26, 2015

The Best Opening Chord Ever

Over the weekend I had a chance to go to a screening of A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles’ first (and best) movie. Was dubbed a 50th anniversary showing, although that milestone passed a few months back as it first premiered in the late summer of 1964.

I’d seen it many times before, of course, although it was great fun to watch it with an audience. They didn’t scream like the kids apparently did back in the day, but there was a lot of laughing and people obviously enjoying the show. The venue also had a nice, brief introductory lecture by a local academic who shared some background regarding the making of the film.

He also talked a little about the spectacular opening chord with which the song begins (and the film, too). He subscribed to the theory that John and George are each striking different chords, Paul is hitting a note on the bass, Ringo is tapping both his snare drum and a cymbal, and producer George Martin is also hitting a chord on a Steinway. However it is constructed, it’s gotta be the best first impression ever.

He suggested (correctly) that it was essentially intended as an “exploitation” film -- i.e., a vehicle by which to exploit a batch of new Beatles tunes not unlike the Presley pics that were appearing two or three times per year back then. But it turned out to be so much more, thanks largely to Alun Owen’s inspired screenplay, the unanticipated comic talents of the Fab Four, and, of course, all of those genuinely transporting songs.

The boys do play cards in the film. Early on, while aboard the train, they play a game while also performing “I Should Have Known Better.” Not sure what the game is -- it’s not poker, but some trick-taking game like a version of rummy or Euchre, with Ringo appearing to win. Just after that scene Ringo gets an invitation to visit a gambling club -- “The Circle Club” -- amid his fan mail, but Paul’s grandfather steals it and ends up there playing baccarat until the boys collect him back.

My favorite part is the conclusion and the medley of tunes played for the television show, with the last one -- “She Loves You” -- the best of the bunch. It’s hard to explain, but I feel some weird, hard tug of nostalgia watching it, as though I don’t want the song to end. I think it’s partly related to my father having told me a story of going to see A Hard Day’s Night back in ’64 while on a trip to Washington, D.C., and what a memorable occasion that was for him.

By coincidence, last week I happened to dial up a documentary about the Knack on YouTube -- Getting the Knack -- and after getting hooked by the first few minutes ended up watching (and enjoying) the whole thing. The Knack ruled the summer of 1979 as far as pop music went, and while I was a Beatle fan previously Get the Knack was one of the very first albums I ever bought, and I remember the record store owner pointing out to me how it was a No. 1 record when I did.

As the doc pointed out, the Knack pretty obviously appropriated certain elements of the Beatles pop “formula” (as it were), such as with the LP packaging (and title, which paraphrased Meet the Beatles), the band’s look, and their sound (to an extent). They’d similarly appeal to a teen and preteen crowd, too, “conquering” America for a short while, anyway, and thus furthering the comparisons.

The film talks about how the Knack chose their name -- apparently after a bit of surfing through a dictionary looking for interesting words. I’d always thought that, too, was a conscious bit of Beatle following. After all, the director of A Hard Day’s Night was Richard Lester, and his very next film was a comedy called The Knack... and How to Get It. But there was no mention of that in the doc.

Of course for the Knack things didn’t continue so swimmingly, their great first impression not lasting for them. Though talented, they hadn’t the deep well of creativity the Beatles did. But that wasn’t the only reason they weren’t able to sustain their success.

The fellow introducing A Hard Day’s Night pointed out to us how integral Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, was to their early success, including helping facilitate the making of the film. Meanwhile the Knack clearly lacked such guidance, with various poor decisions by those who managed them (e.g., having them not give interviews, snub the Grammys, refuse invites to appear on American Bandstand and Saturday Night Live, etc.) helping fuel a swift, aggressive backlash that took them down as fast as they’d been built up.

I guess I feel a bit of nostalgia for the Knack, too, even if I don’t dial up their music all that much anymore. I’ll always keep playing the Beatles, though.

Here, enjoy the opening of the film -- and that chord!

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Talking Team Poker and the Global Poker Masters

Was reading here at week’s end about this new Global Poker Masters event scheduled for March 21-22 in Malta in a couple of articles appearing over on the All In site -- one by Storms Reback criticizing called “Empty Cup?” and a response Alex Dreyfus, CEO of Global Poker Index (who is sponsoring and organizing the event), titled “Masters Plan.”

Like you (probably), I’d become aware of the Global Poker Masters via a few tweets and other random references here and there, but hadn’t really paid too much attention to it. As a quick look at the very detailed and sharp-looking Global Poker Masters website confirms, the event will involve eight national teams each made up of five players competing against each other for the title of “World Champion Nation.” Here’s the trailer they’ve created for it:



The nations involved are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States (making it more a North America-Europe competition than a “world” one). I think that ideally each team’s players would have been the highest-ranked ones according to the GPI, but in reality they’ll mostly consist of the highest-ranked players who would commit to playing. I’m not sure, actually, how the teams are being formed, but there will be four players (with high GPI rankings) plus a “wild card” player on each.

I believe the format resembles that of the Americas Cup of Poker that recently played out at the PCA with sit-n-gos the first day then heads-up matches the second (I wrote a couple of posts about the Americas Cup here and here). There are still a couple of months to go to learn how it all works, and the GPI has already done pretty well to start getting word out about the event. It will be live streamed as well on the Global Poker Masters website and other places, too, so there will be more attention drawn to it in March for sure.

The event is being referred to as “Poker’s World Cup,” and Reback’s editorial begins with him asking the question “Does poker really need its own version of soccer’s World Cup?” He goes on to wonder why attempts keep being made to take poker, a “quintessentially individual pursuit,” and shoehorn it into a team game. Reback takes issue with the anointing of the event’s winners as “the world champion.” He also mentions the efforts of the GPI and Dreyfus to “sportify” poker -- that is, to promote the game’s affinity to other sports (including its skill component) in order to widen its mainstream appeal. “But I don’t see how this two-day team poker event is going to achieve that end,” opines Reback.

In his response, Dreyfus correctly notes that just because previous attempts at team poker haven’t been successful, that shouldn’t necessarily make it wrong to keep trying. (In fact, Dreyfus brings up a longer list of failed attempts than did Reback.) He notes events like golf’s Ryder Cup and the Davis Cup in tennis as analogous examples to this effort to make a team game out of an individual one. Dreyfus also clarifies that the “world champion” tag for the winning team is hardly meant to usurp the one given to the WSOP Main Event winner.

To me Dreyfus’s most interesting point about the Global Poker Masters comes in a digression where he explains that “To promote poker in the mainstream, we need to create content and excuses that appeal to the journalists,” going on to identify sports as the “vertical that best fits poker.” In other words (if I’m following), present poker in ways that more closely resemble sports -- including creating new versions of the game (like the team format) -- and you’re more likely to generate more interesting coverage and perhaps capture the interest of a new audience.

While I’m not sure I entirely agree with the idea that sports provides the best available avenue via which to increase poker’s appeal, when Dreyfus goes on to complain about the numbing repetition of much current poker reporting, I can’t really dispute his point. “But honestly, aren’t sports journalists tired of always seeing the same headlines?” asks Dreyfus. “‘This new random name won $1.2 million in another poker tournament.’ These are the same headlines we’ve been reading for 10 years. There is (almost) no innovation in the way we serve poker to the media.”

He’s not blaming the reporters for reporting on poker tournaments the same way over and over and over again (although he could have), but rather is finding fault in the game itself for failing to generate anything innovative -- at least since those earliest stories of players becoming millionaires in tourneys lost their novelty.

Reback ends his article expressing considerable apathy about the Global Poker Masters, idly speculating about which team might be a favorite, then adding “That is, if I even bother to watch, which, given my current lack of enthusiasm, seems highly unlikely.” Meanwhile Dreyfus concludes with references to the enthusiasm of the players who have committed and that of the GPI and its partners in the project.

The event is obviously more of an exhibition than anything, and while it will likely showcase some skillful poker being played it won’t be nearly the demonstration of talent we saw at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure earlier in the month. (See my interview with Jesse May at the PCA for more on that topic.) But I’m definitely more intrigued to see how it plays out than is Reback, as well as to see what kinds of stories the event produces and whether or not they are more interesting than the usual poker narratives.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

What Did They Know, and When Did They Know It?

“Quarterback says he ‘didn’t alter the ball’?”

So said Vera to me a short while ago, reading in a questioning tone a headline appearing on the CNN website this evening. (I’d give the link, but I’m kind of loathing the new design at CNN, never mind the autoplaying Esurance commercial. Oh, and the sensationalized, SEO-driven, tabloid-y approach to reporting news.)

Vera isn’t a huge sports fan, and so hasn’t really been following the story of the 11 deflated footballs used by the New England Patriots during the first half of their drubbing of the Indianapolis Colts in last Sunday’s AFC Championship game -- a story that picked up renewed vigor today after the press conferences of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

I’m not going to rehearse all of the details of the story here. If you’re like Vera and haven’t heard all about it yet, it’s easy enough to read further online. And if you’re like me and have, well, then you don’t need a summary.

I’ve been having some fun this week tweeting various comparisons between the situation -- predictably dubbed “Deflate-gate” -- and Watergate, given how both involve allegations of cheating against heavily favored entities with histories of “dirty tricks.” And with today’s twin denials of knowledge by Belichick and Brady and the relentless nature of the continued questioning and swirling suspicion, the idea of some kind of “cover up” is now in play as well to further the analogy.

“I had no knowledge whatsoever of this situation until Monday morning,” said Belichick. “I have no knowledge of anything... I have no knowledge of any wrongdoing,” added Brady. Statements that the chorus of doubters responding afterwards -- some especially indignant -- don’t seem ready to accept.

There’s a lot of emphasis on the “integrity of the game” being threatened by the episode (again, not unlike the integrity of the electoral process back in ’72). Even if New England trounced Indy 45-7 (like Nixon trounced McGovern 520 to 17), thereby making any ball-altering shenanigans seem less meaningful from a results-oriented perspective, it surely isn’t fair for one side to run its offense with balls inflated more favorably (i.e., well under the league-determined level) than the other, right?

To draw a poker analogy, it sounds a little like someone playing the first half of a heads-up cash game session knowing there were only three aces in the deck. Sure, both are playing with the same deck, but one has more accurate knowledge about that deck than the other. Depending on how the other 51 cards were dealt, it could matter greatly or not at all.

With today’s pressers the story has moved from the sports pages onto CNN and other news sites, with non-football fans like Vera now asking football fans like me what the deal is with the Super Bowl-bound QB denying cheating allegations. Brady didn’t say “I’m not a crook” today, although he did have to respond to the question (posed somewhat within a hypothetical) “Is Tom Brady a cheater?” with the statement “I feel like I’ve always played within the rules.”

I’m no great fan of the Pats or Belichick or Brady -- my ambivalence towards N.E. tracing back to their dramatic last-second Super Bowl win over my Panthers over a decade ago -- which means I’m kinda sorta enjoying all the nonsense on a certain anarchy-loving level only available to those of us on the sidelines without a specific rooting interest.

But I also think that unlike Watergate, there’s not much to this silly sideshow at all. My answer to Vera’s question, then, wasn’t really an answer.

“It’s all anyone’s talking about right now,” I said to her, shaking my head. And then we talked about something else.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Playing Cepheus

A short follow-up regarding Cepheus, the heads-up fixed-limit hold’em playing program developed by the Computer Poker Research Group at the University of Alberta I was writing about yesterday -- i.e., the program that is said to have essentially “solved” heads-up LHE insofar as (the researchers claim) “a human lifetime of play is not sufficient to establish with statistical significance that the strategy [employed by Cepheus] is not an exact solution.”

I mentioned how they’ve put Cepheus online for the curious to play against. Today after queueing up for a long time I managed to get a game against the program. We played 100 hands of 10/20 LHE, after which I managed to finish up 105 units -- just about five big bets.

I ran hot early on, so hot it almost seemed like things were rigged in my favor as I built up a lead of over 250 through the first 30 hands. Then things evened out between us and after 49 hands we were dead even, and for a hand or two after that I was down briefly. But I won three big pots in a row to zoom back up over 200, and ultimately never lost the lead again.

I played tight-aggressive throughout, becoming a little more conservative during the last dozen hands or so as I wanted to preserve my lead. Both Cepheus and I were mindful of position, with Cepheus raising almost every single button and folding otherwise (i.e., never limping). Meanwhile I also mostly raised or folded my buttons (folding more than Cepheus did), though I limped occasionally, too.

Cepheus would three-bet me fairly often before the flop when I did raise, and probably bet when checked to around 80-90% of the time (I don’t have a log of the hand histories, so can’t say for sure). After about 75 hands I had just begun to become aware of the fact that Cepheus hadn’t seemed to have check-raised me on either the turn or river, then the program did it twice within just a few hands, both times successfully earning extra bets as a result.

In the first case I was playing from the button with K-7-offsuit with the king of clubs, and the flop had come all clubs with the ace to give me a nut flush draw. Cepheus check-called me there, then a king fell on the turn and that’s where Cepheus check-raised me. The river was a blank, and Cepheus won the hand with K-Q.

The second instance also involved Cepheus connecting on the turn -- that’s a screenshot of that hand above (click to enlarge). I also managed to check-raise a couple of turns after making hands to get extra value.

Obviously the tiny sample established practically nothing regarding either Cepheus or myself. I will admit that toward the latter part of the session I felt my attention flag just a touch, enough to remind me of the difference between myself and my non-human competitor. If we’d gone on, say, to play 1,000 hands or more I imagine it would have been very difficult for me to continue to make correct decisions (not that all of the ones I made were correct).

If you happen to play Cepheus, let me know how it goes and what impressions you get from the program.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Cepheus and the “Solving” of Heads-Up LHE

Yesterday I was writing about the “New York Times 4th Down Bot” and related efforts by those studying stats to present math-based models for dictating how best to coach a football game. There was a related story last week regarding the team of researchers at the University of Alberta who have been working for several years on “solving” heads-up fixed-limit hold’em, with their new study published in the January 2015 issue of the journal Science “announc[ing] that heads-up limit Texas hold’em is now essentially weakly solved.”

I remember many years ago -- way back in the summer of 2007 -- speaking with Jonathan Schaeffer of the University of Alberta about Polaris, the computer program developed by his team of researchers that comprised the university’s Computer Poker Research Group (CPRG) in the dept. of Computing Science which he chaired. An LHE match between Polaris and two pros, Phil Laak and Ali Eslami, took place that summer in which the humans won, and for PokerNews I spoke to Schaeffer about Polaris and the CPRG’s goals.

“One of these days -- within 5 to 10 years -- two-person, limit hold’em will be solved,” he said to me. Here we are about seven-and-a-half years later, and it sounds like those continuing the work there at Alberta have fulfilled Schaeffer’s prediction.

The new heads-up LHE-playing program is called Cepheus and is in fact available to play against online, although when I went to the site there were “too many in queue” and I was invited to come back later to try.

With my academic affiliation I have been able to get a copy of the Science study and have read through it. Simply titled “Heads-up limit hold'em poker is solved,” it begins by pointing out that while certain “perfect-information” games like Connect Four and checkers have been solved, others like chess have not even if much-celebrated events like Deep Blue’s victory over Garry Kasparov has led some to suggest it has. “Defeating top human players is not the same as ‘solving’ a game,” the study’s four authors point out.

The study then notes how only “perfect-information” games have been solved thus far, making their claim regarding the “imperfect-information” game of heads-up limit hold’em groundbreaking. Reference is made to the work of game theory pioneer John von Neumann and the element of bluffing that distinguishes poker, to Michael Craig’s The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King (which details the high-stakes LHE games between by Andy Beal and “the Corporation”), as well as to the previous work of Schaeffer and his team at Alberta.

An explanation of what it means to “solve” a game follows, with the distinction “weakly solved” referring to a game in which “for the initial position(s), a strategy has been determined to obtain at least the game-theoretic value, for both players, under reasonable resources.” From that definition, the researches extrapolate that as far as heads-up LHE goes, it is safe to say that the game is “essentially weakly solved... if a human lifetime of play is not sufficient to establish with statistical significance that the strategy is not an exact solution.”

From there comes further refinement of what is meant by an “imperfect-information game” then an explanation of the programming of Cepheus and the “solution” ultimately found. This admittedly is where your humble scribbler feels especially humbled, not being versed in the various fields of the researchers.

Back in 2007 there was already lots of talk about “poker bots” and online poker, so I had to ask Schaeffer about Polaris and how it might relate to the online game. “I want to be clear,” he told me. “We do not play online poker. None of our software is enabled to play online poker on any of the sites.”

Nor has being able to “solve” heads-up limit hold’em ever been the endgame for the researchers at Alberta. They conclude their study by noting how “the breakthroughs behind our result are general algorithmic advances that make game-theoretic reasoning in large-scale models of any sort more tractable.” In other words, as often gets pointed out by those who study game theory as it applies to recreational games or sports, the findings there have value in other realms involving human decision-making.

As a longtime fan of LHE, I’m curious to learn more about Cepheus, including how it was created and what it can do. If you are also curious, here’s a good piece on the FiveThirtyEight site summarizing the team’s work and placing it in a broader context by Oliver Roeder called “Computers Are Learning How to Treat Illnesses By Playing Poker and Atari.” And I’m about to go listen to the latest episode of the Thinking Poker podcast on which Andrew Brokos had on as guests two of the study’s authors, Michael Bowling and Michael Johanson of the CPRG at Alberta, to talk about Cepheus.

In the meantime I’m going to keep queueing up to try to play Cepheus. Last night Vanessa Selbst was on PokerStars playing at some some 8-game play money tables, and I actually sat at one for a few orbits. Feeling equally intimidated to sit across from Cepheus, I think.

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Go For It or Take the Points?

Was captivated like most yesterday by that Packers-Seahawks NFC Championship tilt which ended so crazily with several unlikely plays going Seattle’s way to earn them the comeback and eventual victory.

If you saw the game, you know the plays to which I’m referring, the fake field goal TD, the Hail Mary two-point conversion, and the muff-and-recovery of the onside kick the most vivid of the among them. Those two instances of Green Bay choosing to kick field goals rather than go for it on short fourth-and-goal situations early on also loomed large throughout the day.

Regarding the latter, check out “The New York Times Fourth Down Bot” and its page assessing all of the fourth down decisions made in that GB-SEA game. Applying statistical-based findings about how such calls affect win probabilities, the NYT 4th Down Bot offers judgments on all fourth down decisions as games are being played. The obvious poker-related analogy would be to an online poker player’s “HUD” (Heads-Up Display) offering real-time stats that can be interpreted to help a player make plus-EV decisions on the fly.

As explained here, those findings generally recommend going for it on fourth down much more frequently than most coaches actually choose to do so. Of course, the NYT 4th Down Bot -- like all Monday morning quarterbacks -- can opine at will from the sidelines, not having to face the real-life consequences coaches do when making decisions.

Green Bay’s unwillingness to go for those two first-quarter fourth-and-shorts certainly seemed overly conservative at the time, especially when playing on the road in a do-or-die game versus such a heavy favorite. Not too surprisingly, the NYT 4th Down Bot recommended going for it in both cases yesterday.

Almost every other fourth down decision made yesterday was judged a “Good call!” by the NYT 4th Down Bot. A couple weren’t so cut-and-dry, with the judgments for those being “It’s complicated” and “Too close to call.” Only one other fourth down decision -- also by Green Bay -- was considered incorrect by the Bot, the one at the very end when the Packers punted with four minutes to go when facing fourth-and-14 on their own 39.

That one seems less obvious on the surface, but the explanation suggests the lateness of the decision, being up by 12, and other factors make it so that “teams who go for it would win about 2% more often than teams who punt.” As it happened, GB only gained 30 yards of field position on the play, and it would take Seattle just two quick plays to more than make that yardage back.

I’ve written here before about how I occasionally like looking at these mathematical models that crunch the numbers from thousands of games to give instantaneous interpretations of win probability. The graph from that GB-SEA game was especially wacky, as plotted by Advanced Football Analytics (see left). Green Bay was sailing along at at WP of 80% or above from the late first quarter onwards, peaking at 98% with 3:07 left and then suddenly plunging down to just 14% with 1:33 to go (after Seattle grabbed the lead). Things evened out after the game was tied and went to OT, but Seattle wasn’t challenged thereafter.

Today I was listening to sports talk radio and hearing an ex-player (who years ago also lost a heartbreaking conference championship game to miss a Super Bowl opportunity) talking about how losing hurts much more than winning feels good, another idea with which most poker players are familiar. Interestingly, that same player was also defending Green Bay’s decisions to kick those first-quarter field goals and “take the points.”

I think the first of these ideas -- that losing or failing hurts more than winning or succeeding feels good -- is not unrelated to the second one encouraging the avoidance of risk and acceptance of small victories over the prospect of having to endure what are perceived to be large losses. In any case, as fascinating as the numbers can be, humans and their capacity to be non-rational -- or not bots -- with their decisions are even more so.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

The Trip from PCA to Bee

Made it home in good shape, thankful for once to be flying directly to my destination. There were a lot of familiar folks taking the same flight to Charlotte with me, including poker media and several players, although for them CLT was a just a stop on the way elsewhere.

Had kind of a funny coincidence with the seat draw for my airborne, two-and-a-half-hour sit-n-go. In the morning before leaving I had pulled together a new article for PokerNews updating the Global Poker Index rankings. In the overall GPI Ole Schemion is still on top this week, while Pratyush Buddiga (pictured above, via PokerStars’ Neil Stoddart) had made a move up several spots to No. 2 after finishing seventh in the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event -- a career-high ranking for the Colorado player.

I had decided to feature Buddiga in the headline and in the photo illustrating the article, and so I had to chuckle when he came on board to take the empty seat next to me on the plane.

I told him about the article which he’d already seen -- “I want to get to No. 1,” he grinned -- and we chatted further about the PCA and our respective trips home. While I knew some about his background -- including, of course, his win as a youngster in the Scripps National Spelling Bee back in 2002 -- I didn’t realize he’d graduated from Duke a few years ago. As a UNC grad, I had to report how I am obligated to pull against the Blue Devils at every opportunity, which he of course understood.

Later while disembarking we talked a bit more about spelling bees. I remembered Rebecca Sealfon’s win back in 1997, which he mentioned having watched, too, and how it had gotten him interested in the competition. Many also remember Pratyush’s brother, Akshay, who finished runner-up a couple of years after Pratyush won, and how during the competition he famously fainted after being given a word to spell, then dramatically rose back up to spell it correctly. It wasn’t until later that I recalled having seen the 2002 documentary Spellbound (about the ’99 Bee), which I’m sure Pratyush watched as well.

Pratyush mentioned how a lot of people are more interested in his spelling bee story than in his poker accomplishments. I recalled how during the PCA coverage Howard Swains had written a post about him that included a video interview with Sarah Herring, and how Howard had worked in a sneaky reference to the word “prospicience” which by spelling correctly Pratyush had clinched the title back in ’02.

We parted, with him going to settle in for a longish layover before flying to Denver while I took off for baggage claim. It was fun meeting the very friendly Pratyush. I’m sure in some ways his experience handling the intense pressure of the spelling bees as a youth is serving him well at the poker tables today. After getting home I told Vera about Pratyush and his spelling bee background (and his getting a degree from Duke), and she responded that it proves again how winning poker players tend to be smart in other ways, too (which is true).

I thought back to the couple of times I participated in a spelling bee, way back in elementary school. I don’t remember much about it (I was seven or eight), but after all of these years I do recall the word that knocked me out of one of them -- thermometer.

I don’t think we were sending winners from our little school to D.C. Nor we we being asked to spell words like “prospicience” or “euonym” or “alopecoid.”

I mean, really, ours was a humble Bee.

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Travel Report: 2015 PCA, Day 9 -- The Final Final Final Final Final

Writing this morning from a quiet, sparsely populated terminal in the Lynden Pindling International Airport in Nassau where I await my flight home after a week-and-a-half in the Caribbean. The 35-event PokerStars Caribbean Adventure has come to an end, and while the trip was great fun I’m now eagerly looking forward to cleaning stalls and freezing temps.

I’m thinking of my nephew who will be turning six relatively soon, the one who likes to invent different games for us to play. Noted yesterday how I wrote one post this week -- “Finding little edges” -- in which I mentioned him and one of his games, the very common one among youngsters of jumping around from one piece of furniture to another while referring to the carpet below as “hot lava” or quicksand or something else treacherous.

He has another game which we have “played” although in actuality the game is strictly him reiterating the rules to me over and over without our ever competing (or so I can tell). Just when the game appears to be over, he amends things to say how the next exchange will be the “Final Final.” Then comes the “Final Final Final,” the “Final Final Final Final,” the “Final Final Final Final Final,” and so on.

There were a couple of finals occupying our attention yesterday, the conclusions of the $10K Main Event and $25K High Roller. Over in the Main the action was fairly swift, taking around six hours, I believe, for the final six players to play down to the winner, Kevin Schulz (photographed above by Joe Giron).

Schulz roomed with Faraz Jaka on this trip, and the story of the pair’s first meeting around eight years ago at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign -- at a talk given by Urbana-Champaign alum Barry Greenstein, no less -- was intriguing. You can read that story and profiles of the other five who made it to the last day here.

Schulz won a first prize of $1,491,580 (there was no deal). Meanwhile Jaka was at the final table of the High Roller where he had a shot at nearly $1.3 million. He’d bust in seventh, though, then the final two players struck a deal to even out the payouts between first- and second-place.

The eventual winner, Ilkin Garibli, had a big chip lead on Joe Kuether when the deal was struck for the remaining prize money, but the payouts upon which they agreed were nearly even (about $1.1 million for Garibli and $1.05 million for Kuether). Stephen wrote an introduction to Garibli early in the afternoon, noting among other things that this was the first live tournament for the Azerbaijan player -- perhaps an explanation for how the deal went.

From there they played only for the trophy and SLYDE watch, and it took long enough (a couple more hours or so) for us to recognize the irony of the prize of a watch extending the time of the tourney.

There were also a number of unlikely suckouts and other tourney-extending turns that I am sure made it seem like to most of those still sticking around that someone was revising their fate over and again. The final final final final final final....

Along the way yesterday I shared one anecdotal post about Dan Heimiller who was leading early in the day in the High Roller before busting in eighth. It includes details and an appreciation of his currently inaccessible website, and is titled “But where will we buy our X-ray glasses and sea monkeys?

Even with the late finish (around 1:30 a.m.), a group of us got to hang out for a while longer before going our separate ways. Was a fun end to a fun week, and I’m very grateful for having had the chance to come work with the PokerStars bloggers (Brad, Howard, Stephen, and Adam), photographers (Joe, Neil, and Carlos), staff (too many to name), and alongside all the other poker media folks whom I missed seeing at last summer’s WSOP.

Now, though, I’m just wanting to see Vera, brush and feed some horses, and chase around some cats. So glad to be heading home final final final final finally.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Travel Report: 2015 PCA, Day 8 -- Penultimate-Day Poker

We’re almost there. One day to go here at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure with both the Main Event and High Roller tournaments scheduled to complete today.

Poker-wise there was much of interest yesterday. In the Main Event, Chance Kornuth stormed to a lead which he kept through the end of the day as they played down to six players.

I’m curious to see how the two remaining South Americans -- Diego Ventura (of Peru) and Juan Martin Pastor (of Argentina) -- do today, both of whom are more online than live players, although Pastor I’ve come to recognize from the LAPTs where he’s notched some cashes. (Meet Pastor in this great video from late last year when he clinched Supernova Elite before a crowd of partying friends.)

The High Roller, meanwhile, played down to 11 players with a kind of wild knockout of Daniel Negreanu in 14th by Dan Heimiller highlighting the late night action. Here’s the hand report of that one from PokerNews, with Negreanu’s post-bust series of tweets lamenting how the hand went also interesting to read.

Jean-Pascal Savard carries the chip lead into the final day in that one, with Heimiller third in chips. (On a side note, I'm lamenting the fact that apparently Heimiller's excellent website is no longer online. From where will I order my sea monkeys now?)

Had a fun High Roller post yesterday titled “Finding little edges” in which I managed to discuss the carpets, talk to Jake Cody, and mention my five-and-a-half-year-old nephew.

There was the famed PCA party last night (from which came the above pic), moved indoors because of inclement weather. Was quite a spectacle, with dancers, marching bands, people walking around on stilts, and a nonstop beat with food and drink a-plenty.

Heading in for one more day of fun-slash-work today, after which I’m eager to get back to the farm tomorrow. Follow the reports today on both the Main Event and High Roller on the PokerStars blog, and watch PokerNews for hands, counts, and everything else.

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