Friday, April 24, 2015

The PokerStars Blog Turns 10

This week I’ve been enjoying all of the posts on the PokerStars blog commemorating the blog’s 10th birthday which has at last arrived today.

PokerStars Head of Blogging Brad Willis was there at the very start writing that first introductory post back on April 24, 2005. He has this morning posted an article thanking many of those who’ve contributed to the blog over the past decade while also linking to other posts from this week sharing a lot of fun stories and anecdotes.

I’ve been lucky enough to have contributed a few posts to the many thousands that have appeared on the PokerStars blog over the years, having first been recruited to help out with some reports on the WCOOP back in September 2008.

After that came more reporting on various online events and tournaments, as well as the chance to travel and write about several live events, too, starting with the Latin American Poker Tour, then the North American Poker Tour, then eventually the Asia Pacific Poker Tour and European Poker Tour. (That pic above of bloggers in action is from LAPT Peru in 2011.)

Speaking of the latter, I’ll be rejoining the EPT crew next week as I’m heading to Monaco to help with the coverage of the EPT Grand Final in Monte Carlo. Vera and I once had the chance to go to Nice long ago, but I’ve never been over to Monaco and so am greatly looking forward to that trip.

Am grateful, obviously, to have had those opportunities. I’m also appreciative of Brad and everyone else who has helped make the PokerStars blog into not just an enjoyable and informative source of information about PokerStars-related activities specifically and the poker world in general, but also a place that inspires and challenges those of us who love poker to think more deeply about the game and its place in the larger scheme of things.

Once some time ago I recall Brad sharing a mnemonic developed early on as a kind of shorthand guide for those reporting on the PS blog -- “ACE” -- indicating a desire to be accurate, comprehensive, and entertaining. Stephen Bartley slipped that in again yesterday in a post titled “What’s next for the PokerStars Blog?” in which he referred to those three goals as comprising an “unofficial maxim” for the blog.

All three of those goals have been consistently met over the years, in my view. And as someone who has been involved in the reporting on the PS blog, I know there have been other, more specific goals, too, as well as a lot of behind-the-scenes brainstorming to introduce new possibilities and ideas. Again, it’s all been great fun to be a part of, and satisfying to have contributed occasionally in a small way to the PS blog’s decade-long achievement.

Check out Brad’s post for more. Meanwhile, I’m reminded -- another blog birthday is coming soon.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

On Jon Stewart and Online Poker; or, For Every Action There Is an Indignant and Opposite Overreaction

Seeing references the last couple of days from poker people responding to something Jon Stewart said on The Daily Show earlier this week regarding online gambling in New Jersey.

The Poker Players Alliance and others are mildly up in arms about what they’re saying was an unfair characterization of online poker by Stewart. However, looking back at the clip and statement, that itself sounds like an unfair characterization of what Stewart actually said.

It came up as a short postscript to a segment not about online gambling or online poker, but rather about the issue of legalizing marijuana (on the April 20 show, natch) -- one you can watch on the Comedy Central site here. Amid that discussion, reference was made to New Jersey Governor and potential presidential candidate Chris Christie saying he is opposed to pot being legal, noting also how states allowing its sale are in conflict with federal law.

“Marijuana is a gateway drug,” Christie says in a clip played on The Daily Show from a recent appearance by Christie on The Hugh Hewitt Show, a syndicated radio show. “We have an enormous addiction problem in this country.... Marijuana is an illegal drug in this country under federal law, and the states should not be permitted to sell it and profit from it.”

Stewart’s response to that position is to bring up Christie having signed into law the online gambling bill back in February 2013 that opened up poker and other casino games to online players in New Jersey. Actually Stewart doesn’t bring it up specifically, but rather plays another clip from another news show reporting that.

“There is a difference though, to be fair,” concludes Stewart via his usual deadpan. “If you smoke too much pot, no one comes to break your f*cking knees.”

It’s obvious that while Stewart did evoke a long legacy of gambling being associated with other criminal activity -- including violence -- to get a laugh, he hardly “attacked online poker” as Rich Muny of the PPA has tweeted out (and which others are also saying).

The point of the observation by Stewart is entirely muted by that response, actually. Rather than “attack” online gambling directly, Stewart is showing what appears to be an inconsistent position by Christie regarding the ability of states to pass laws that aren’t in accord with federal laws. Christie allowed legislation in New Jersey that goes against the feds’ legal stance on online gambling, Stewart and The Daily Show are pointing out, which seems to contradict what he is now saying about individual states legalizing the sale of pot despite federal laws making it illegal.

Those responding to this tangential reference to online gambling (and online poker) as though it were an “attack” are building it up into something it is not, thereby making it seem as though Stewart -- someone with a fair amount of influence -- is some kind of threat to the cause when he clearly isn’t.

Anyone remember way back in 2006 -- before even the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was passed into law -- when Stewart joked about members of Congress arguing about legislating against online poker (and other forms of gambling) while permitting wagering over the internet on lotteries and horse racing? Again, there was an inconsistency worth highlighting and a source of some ready grins. (Here’s that clip on the Comedy Central site.)

In order to reflect on the absurdity of allowing some forms of online gambling and not others, Stewart evoked Alaska senator Ted Stevens’ much-derided characterization of the internet as “a series of tubes.” Aided by some hilarious animation, Stewart explained how poker chips clog up the tubes whereas horses can run through them easily and lottery balls blow through them without a problem.

When making that point about the inconsistency present in the bill being proposed (that would eventually become the UIGEA), was Stewart attacking gambling over the internet on horse racing and lotteries? Well, he wasn’t promoting those things, but he was hardly attacking them, either. In truth the observation implied support for online poker, although there, too, that would be reading something definite into the segment that was only implied at best.

Stewart didn’t “attack” online poker this week. I don’t think it makes sense to attack him as though he did.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Contemplating Commissioners

Was listening today to an interview with the new Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred who was elected to take over the position last August after Bud Selig stepped down.

Can’t say he was especially riveting to listen to as he addressed various “state of the game” questions, but afterwards my mind wandered a little into a couple of interesting memories from years past.

One was very long ago -- had to be 1981, I guess -- when Major League Baseball went on strike for nearly two months right in the middle of the season. I lived and breathed baseball then, playing all summer, collecting cards, watching and listening to games, and poring over box scores in the paper every day, so the strike was hugely disappointing to a young Shamus. (Making it worse, the strike started the day after my birthday.)

I was concerned enough about the situation to write a letter to then MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn, something I probably wouldn’t remember having done if not for the fact that Kuhn wrote me back. I have long lost both letters, but you can imagine what they both said -- mine expressing a desire they’d resolve the sucker and his registering my concern and stating his similar hope.

I thought of that when hearing Manfred talk about how baseball fans contact him constantly -- some every single day -- with thoughts about the game and how it can be improved. I imagine he probably experiences that sort of thing much more often than Kuhn did back in those letter-writing days.

A bit of trivia: Had history evolved differently, Richard Nixon could have been in the MLB Commissioner’s seat then as he was actually offered the job in 1965, which he turned down. Later on, after both he and Kuhn took their respective offices in 1969, Kuhn presented Nixon a trophy honoring him as “Baseball’s Number 1 Fan” during a reception at the White House (pictured at left).

I also found myself after listening to Manfred being interviewed thinking a bit about the World Series of Poker’s experiment with having a commissioner and Jeffrey Pollack’s tenure in that position which lasted from early 2006 through November 2009. Pollack first came from NASCAR to the WSOP in mid-2005, and somewhere in there -- perhaps just after he changed from being VP of Marketing to Commish -- there were rumors that Pollack was in fact angling one day perhaps to succeed Selig as the next MLB Commissioner.

Some of Manfred’s PR-like talk about baseball made me think of Pollack and the rhetoric he employed -- often effectively -- when talking about poker in general and the WSOP in particular during those years. While many spoke favorably of him early on, later things soured a bit and his departure and subsequent involvement in the failed Epic Poker League helped influence many to conclude his influence on the game’s livelihood was mixed at best.

I was thinking, though, about how we got used to having someone in what seemed an authoritative position -- even if it weren’t, really -- who was constantly addressing questions about the “state of the game” and thus by default carrying a kind of influence, if not on the game at least on how people thought about the game.

There are certain poker players who today perhaps occasionally seem to fill that role. I suppose Alex Dreyfus with his GPI-related ventures perhaps also does, too, as do those leading the EPT, WPT, WSOP, and other major tours and venues.

But there’s no “commissioner” currently acting as the game’s “table captain” -- not that there actually can be, I don’t think.

Which is okay. Until there’s a strike, then to whom will the kids send their letters?

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ever Heard of the “Silent Bowl”?

Was reading an article over at the newly-designed ESPN site this afternoon about the NBA playoffs in which there was a reference to LeBron James’s practice of watching recorded games with the sound down. In the article his teammate Kyrie Irving noted how he’s picked up the habit, too.

“One of the things I took from Bron is putting the games on mute and just listen to music while you watch the game,” Irving is quoted as saying. “No disrespect to the announcers or halftime show, but you want to be in silence. Watch good basketball, high-intensity basketball, just watch the game.”

I love watching basketball, and indeed sometimes will have games on with the sound down as it is eminently easy to follow nearly everything without the commentators. More often than not I’ll keep the sound up, but it’s not a problem at all knowing where things stand at any moment after hitting that mute button.

The story reminded me of an NFL game from way back in 1980 aired on NBC, a late-season contest between the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins that came to be known as the “Silent Bowl.” In an effort to boost ratings for a meaningless regular season game between a couple of mediocre teams, Don Ohlmeyer (then the executive producer of the network’s sports division) came up with the experiment.

A quick search about that game took me to a feature about it from a few years back on the ESPN site. There a few more details about the broadcast are shared, including how NBC used more graphics than usual while also having the stadium’s public address announcer make more descriptive comments to help viewers track the action.

They didn’t have the score on screen at all times, though, nor an inset showing the clock. In fact, those didn’t become regular features for televised football until 1994 (later than I would have guessed).

Ratings were higher for the game than would have been expected without the gimmick, and apparently response to the broadcast was more favorable than not, although no one ever thought for a moment that announcerless games would ever become the norm. From the perspective of three decades later, Ohlmeyer sounds like he kinda sorta regrets being remembered for the stunt, but I think it was an interesting idea to have tried.

While not perfectly analogous, televised poker seems as though it cannot do without commentators (even though some live streams -- including at the WSOP -- have tried to do without). That said, I spend a fair share of time watching online poker tournaments which though not necessarily nail-biting are nonetheless easy enough to follow given all of the detailed information available -- including “instant replay,” even.

Now that I think about it, I turn the sound down for that and listen to music, too.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Lock Down

Among the weekend poker news was the report that Lock Poker, for a good while one of the more conspicuous “rogue” online poker sites continuing to serve U.S. players post-Black Friday, went offline sometime last Friday.

John Mehaffey first reported for U.S. Poker that the site had gone down on Saturday, although over the last few weeks it had become something of a ghost site with only a handful of players at a time. Others reported on the shutdown as well, which appears also to include that “SuperWins” site that popped up about a year ago as a surreptitious skin of Lock.

While there hasn’t been a lot of activity on Lock of late, the site has remained well within the poker community’s consciousness thanks to the site having become increasingly unreliable with processing withdrawals, then finally becoming altogether unresponsive to all withdrawal requests. Mehaffey notes how troubles withdrawing date back to late 2012, with the site not having processed any withdrawal requests at all since April 2014.

He lists “$10-$15 million” as an estimate of how much sits in Lock Poker accounts, although I’ve seen some guessing the total to be even higher. Or should I say nominally sits in those accounts, as the money surely is long gone, having been either spent or otherwise purloined by the site’s owners. (And some percentage of it probably never was anything more than “phantom” funds to start with, thinking of alleged payouts in freerolls, overlays being allegedly covered, and so on.)

Never has a site been more appropriately named, a fact I’ve already exploited more than once here in posts from 2013 punningly titled “Put Your Funds on Lock Poker (And Throw Away the Key)” and “Lock’s Stock in Peril.”

Those posts were written two years ago, and it’s amazing to think the site continued to function for so long afterwards with players continuing to deposit as the ability to withdrawal gradually diminished and then ceased altogether. There was a regulator for Lock -- Curaçao eGaming -- although they obviously weren’t acting legitimately in any way to ensure against the ongoing thievery. (In fact, Mehaffey notes the license with Curaçao is still valid.)

When I peeked over on Twitter earlier tonight it was interesting to see some back-and-forthing among some whom I follow regarding how much sympathy should be given to those losing money on Lock, with some taking the position players foolish enough to risk playing there -- especially after the troubles began in earnest -- got what they deserved.

Others are pointing out how some affiliates continued to advertise for Lock, with Card Player being the most conspicuous culprit after having continued to host banners and direct players to sign up and deposit up until May 2014. The assorted Lock Poker “pros” who continued to be associated with the site well after it became apparent to many it was not trustworthy are catching some heat again as well as they did before.

Some were surely encouraged to play on the site by Card Player and other affiliates, and perhaps by the pros, too, although their influence was likely less extensive. Anyhow, enough of the unwitting were hoodwinked to keep things going over there, even if only barely, up until Friday.

It’ll amount to a sad, belated postscript to all of the other scandals and disappointments that form the narrative of the fall of U.S. Online Poker 1.0. That story still continues with a few more lingering sites and Bovada (formerly Bodog) having gathered momentum of late as the currently most popular “rogue” site. According to PokerScout, Bovada (whose traffic has to be estimated) is now more popular than Full Tilt and PartyPoker, even, in terms of the number of active cash players.

With the story of U.S. Online Poker 2.0 starting so sluggishly and without much inspiration, the finish of the prequel continues to be more interesting, even if anticlimactic.

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Jacob on Jeopardy!

Tuned in tonight to watch Jeopardy! in order to see Alex Jacob, the poker pro (or former poker pro) who is currently enjoying a massive run on the show.

Most in the poker world first met Jacob nearly a decade ago when he won that United States Poker Championship in Atlantic City in 2006, an event that was televised and thus got him some notice even though he’d already made final tables at the World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker by then.

He’d continue to collect cashes up through 2012, earning over $2.6 million total. I feel like he never was a full-timer on the circuit, though, and over the last couple of years has been even less conspicuous, perhaps having stepped away entirely.

In any case, you’ve probably heard about him popping up again on Jeopardy! where he’s been crushing. Going into tonight he’d won five times in a row, winning $129,401 total with mostly dominating performances. At the start of this sixth try, host Alex Trebek noted how Jacob had gotten to Final Jeopardy four of five times with leads of greater than double the nearest competitor, meaning he’d already clinched the win.

I did watch the end of one of those shows and laughed at the end when during Final Jeopardy Jacob appeared to push “all in” by moving his hands forward when his final betting amount was revealed -- $0, actually. At the start of tonight’s show Trebek introduced Jacob as a currency trader, so I’m not even sure they’ve discussed his poker background at all.

Hearing about some of Jacob’s strategies -- e.g., not going top-to-botton with categories but jumping all around the board with his clue selections, and usually betting everything on the Daily Doubles -- I thought back to that fellow from about a year ago, Arthur Chu, who also got a lot of press and poker players’ attention during a run of 11 straight wins on the show.

Chu became known as the “Jeopardy Villain” because of both his unorthodox strategy and his humorous baiting of folks over Twitter during the time of his reign. Chu would also pick clues out of order and routinely go “all in” on the Daily Doubles. Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings wrote an article for Slate at the time discussing Chu, explaining how that latter decision to go for “true Daily Doubles” was correct.

“Like a poker player trying to increase the size of the pot when he has a good hand,” Jennings wrote, “Jeopardy! contestants should maximize their upside when the odds are in their favor.”

There was one other quirk Chu exhibited during Final Jeopardy. When leading but not having more than twice the “stack” as his nearest foe, he’d bet exactly enough to tie should his opponent bet everything and both players answered the clue correctly.

For example, if Chu had $12,000 and his opponent had $7,000, Chu would bet exactly $2,000 -- not $2,001, as some tend to do -- to end with $14,000 if he were to be correct and tie with his opponent if that player bet everything and was correct as well. In fact, one time that’s what happened and after tying both he and his opponent were able to return for the next show.

That strategy, as I understand it, makes it just a tiny bit less likely Chu could lose should his opponent happen not to bet everything but a lesser amount. In the above example, for instance, if he bet $2,001 and was incorrect he’d end with $11,999, and if his opponent only bet $5,000 even and was correct that player would have $12,000 and win by a buck.

I noticed someone retweeting Chu commenting on Jacob, in fact, interestingly bringing up his own poker playing as he did.

Getting back to Jacob’s performance tonight, Trebek introduced things by alluding to Jacob’s recent run, advising Jacob’s opponents Nikhil and Scott to “get him early, and then try to get him late, too.” Jacob ruled during much of the first round, though, quickly building a big lead before the others finally were able to buzz in and start notching some correct answers.

Then Scott got the Daily Double and with just $600 -- several thousand behind Jacob -- he surprisingly bet only $5. The questioned turned out to be an easy one for him and he won the $5, but it felt a lot like a player too timid to bet without a sure thing.

By the second round Jacob was well in front and in fact went a long stretch without buzzing in at all while the totals of other two went up and down. Scott got another Daily Double, and this time said “Alex is too good, I gotta do it... true Daily Double.” Alas for him he got a tough one about an Italian painter and lost his stack.

A little later Nikhil got the other Daily Double at a point when he had $4,200 and Alex $7,200. Betting it all and being correct would put him in the lead, but he chose only to bet $2,000. The category was “In the Dictionary” and the clue “Fittingly it means ‘Empty Orchestra’ in Japanese.” Nikhil guessed “What is kabuki?” but the correct response was “What is karaoke?” and Jacob’s lead increased again.

There was a clue about “Manhattan prosecutor Preet Bharara” -- he of Black Friday fame -- that perhaps got poker players’ attention. It got Jacob’s attention, too, as he finally buzzed back in to guess correctly that Bharara had vowed sweeping reform of Rikers Island.

Jacob then rattled off a few more correct answers, seeming at one point to pause unnaturally after buzzing in to answer an easy one about a Halloween TV special featuring a character who instead of candy gets a rock.

“Who is... Charlie Brown?” he said, and for a moment I thought he might have been stalling a little as the round was winding down. But he immediately picked back up the pace thereafter, and the trio was able to complete the entire board with Jacob sitting with $17,400, Nikhil $10,200, and Scott $3,600.

The Final Jeopardy category was “Book Reviews” and the clue was an easy one (I thought) -- “A 2008 review of this novel, later filmed, compared it to ‘Battle Royale’ & said it’s ‘a future we can fear.’” -- although I guess it might not have been easy if I hadn’t read The Hunger Games.

Nikhil missed it, though, while Jacob got it correct. He bet $3,001 -- meaning he did not choose the Chu approach -- and ended with $20,401 to bring his six-day total close to $150K.

To be honest, while it’s probably safe to say Jacob is using some of the same skills and strategic thinking he honed at the poker tables while playing and winning at Jeopardy!, there wasn’t that much in his play that obviously recalled his poker background. In fact, it was the timidity of the other two players that made me think more of poker, as well as a kind of “tell” from Scott when he declared he didn’t like one category as he was selecting it.

I guess, though, at the very end of the show I was reminded again that Jacob played poker. “Smile, Alex... smile!” said Trebek to Jacob who remained stoic even as the audience applauded his victory. He reminded me of a seasoned player who has just won a big pot and who has trained himself not to show emotion afterwards.

Jacob may be a “currency trader” now, but he still has that poker face.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Turn and Face the Strange

Poker’s a great game for helping a person realize how resistant we can be anything new. When something works for us once, we try it again. And if it works again, we try it a dozen more times. Then when it doesn’t work it takes us twice as long to get away from it and accept the idea of changing our ways.

Back on April Fool’s Day -- actually I think it might have been the night before -- ESPN changed the design of its website for the first time since 2009. The site had obviously been tweaked a lot over those six years, but that’s still a long time to go between overhauls for one of the most visited sites on the internet.

I read the article over on ESPN announcing the change, then clicked to see the comments afterwards. One of the changes made to the site, in fact, is that you have to click to read comments in a pop-up now, rather than just scroll down -- kind of makes comments less conspicuous, I’ve discovered, which I’ve also realized ain’t a bad thing.

It was kind of hilarious to read what was clearly a loud, angry concensus of negative reaction. Absolutely no one seemed to like the new look of the site which besides having a brighter look now conforms more closely to how people experience the site on tablets and smartphones than before.

The most “liked” comments at the top were uniformly critical. “Change it back, the new site sucks.” “This is a mess.” “Can you please go back to the old format, this wasn’t what anyone wanted.” “Perfectly awful new design.” “Daily user for 10+ years. Am completely blown away by how bad the new site it.” And so on and on and on, with plenty of April Fool’s references peppered in along the way. Everyone commenting seemed to hate the new site.

This week Norman Chad -- whom poker fans are used to hearing on ESPN quite a bit (where, now that I think about it, WSOP coverage hasn’t experienced that much change over the last decade-plus) -- chimed in with his own negative review of the redesign in his weekly “Couch Slouch” column for The Washington Post. “There’s just too much going on — it feels like I’ve walked into a pinball machine,” writes Chad amid a characteristically funny rant that concludes with a self-deprecating admission that “the problem is me, not them.”

When I first loaded the site after the redesign, I, too, was vaguely annoyed at not being able to find the things I usually sought out. But to be honest it only took a few more visits to realize the new design is much, much better than what had been there before, with most of it being very intuitive and easy to navigate.

All of this is pretty subjective stuff, though. The overwhelmingly negative reaction at first seemed to suggest something meaningful about the culture as a whole. In his column Chad noted “I hate change in general,” and the chorus of comments appeared to confirm that most people feel similarly.

The reaction also perhaps says something about the subset of surfers who bother to comment on articles -- there, too, you’re often much more likely to find comments to be critical than praising. Then there’s that other echo-chamber phenomenon that often occurs online whereby the first responses get repeated ad infinitum, especially when there’s a easy target for everyone to point to with their downward thumbs.

That said, I’m hardly one to dispute the idea of being resistant to change. It took me about five years, I think, to change this site’s background from brooding black to grim gray, and it’s almost been another four years since (never mind having stuck with essentially the same layout throughout the run).

Gonna go think about how to change this sucker into a pinball machine.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Fade to Black (Friday)

Today marks four years since “Black Friday,” the day the U.S. Department fo Justice unsealed its indictment and civil complaint targeting the world’s three biggest online poker sites, temporarily seizing domains and subsequently shutting the U.S. out of the global online poker game.

Was looking back today through the last few posts noting anniversaries of the occasion.

One year after Black Friday I was marking the date by looking back, revisiting the story of my being in Lima, Peru when everything went down (like, really went down).

Two years after Black Friday I was covering a tournament in nearby Cherokee and was thus distracted from writing about the occasion, belatedly turning to it a week later and already starting to think about how it seemed “the great majority of the recreational or part-time U.S. online poker players have now moved on from poker entirely.”

Three years on I was stepping back even further, talking about some of my various trips abroad where I’d get to experience vicariously other countries’ “online poker cultures” and be reminded in a vague way of the one I used to experience on a daily basis.

Today, four years later, I saw a few fleeting references to Black Friday in my Twitter timeline -- when I fleetingly checked it, that is, as I’ve now adopted a policy not to keep the sucker open all day as I used to do. But I didn’t see too much deep thought about it.

We’ve all more or less moved on -- some literally, most of us figuratively. Seems like much, much more than four years ago now, the memory of it (and what came before) having nearly faded to black.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

“Imagine You Have Pocket Aces,” Says the Caddy

Was listening earlier today to an interview with Michael Greller, the former sixth-grade math and science teacher who is now the full-time caddy for Jordan Spieth, winner of the Masters over the weekend.

Greller’s story is interesting, in part because he isn’t necessarily someone with a traditional background of those who caddy for the game’s top players. He has experience, though not as much as others who serve in that role. During the interview (on the Dan Le Batard Show) he explained how circumstances led to him getting involved with Spieth and ultimately becoming not just his full-time caddy but a trusted friend as well.

When asked about what kind of advice he gave to Spieth during the final round, Greller interestingly brought up poker as a game both he and Spieth like to play and as a source for ideas from which to draw upon to help him guide Spieth on Sunday.

“What I told Jordan all day Sunday, he’s been playing probably better than anybody in the world for a little while now. And I said -- he had a four-shot lead -- and I said... we play cards a lot on the road with each other, [so] I put it into poker terms.”

“I said ‘You’ve got pocket aces, you’re playing better than anybody in the world... [and] you’ve got the chip lead.’ He just wanted to build that chip lead. We talked about that a lot on the golf course.... He wasn’t thinking about the other guys; he was just thinking about getting to 20-under. And that was the goal all day Sunday.”

Analogies between poker and golf are endless. I’ve written about them before here many times, including in the context of the Masters which always seems to inspire that kind of thinking. So it wasn’t surprising to hear Greller bring up playing cards, although it was kind of interesting to think of the two of them chatting about poker during the endgame, one during which Spieth never was challenged much by the field as he was able to keep them at a safe distance right to the end.

Greller really combined two different analogies -- one comparing leading a golf tournament to having the best hand (pocket aces) and thus a necessary edge over one’s opponents, and the other comparing that to leading a poker tournament. Both emphasized Spieth playing from an advantageous position, either in terms of his “cards” or his “chips,” with the resulting lesson being to use that edge smartly by pressuring those with “less strong cards” or “shorter stacks.”

Of course, such advice is only going to be helpful if the recipient knows something about playing from ahead, as Spieth -- who raced out to a big lead after the first round and led wire-to-wire last week -- clearly does.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Morality in the Muck?

I recently reposted an interview here with the poker writer, commentator, and player Jesse May, reading through it once more as I did and enjoying a lot of the insights May shares as he discusses his novel Shut Up and Deal, the origins of Late Night Poker, and other poker-related topics.

Meanwhile I’ve been working further on another project which just so happened to carry me back to David Apostolico’s interesting 2005 book Machiavellian Poker Strategy: How to Play Like a Prince and Rule the Poker Table. I remember first reading Apostolico’s book right about the time I interviewed May, in fact (about four years ago).

In the past I used to teach a Great Books class which included The Prince -- taught it many times -- and so I remember getting a kick out of all the many connections Apostolico was able to make between poker strategy and theory and Machiavellian principles of leadership and government.

Looking again at Machiavellian Poker Strategy, I happened to notice kind of an interesting contrast between something May says in the interview and a point Apostolico makes early on in his book. It probably isn’t fair to either of them to isolate the quotes as I’m about to do, but the difference between them was so stark I thought I’d share if only to invite others’ consideration.

In Part 1 of the interview during our discussion of Shut Up and Deal, May more than once talks about the issue of morality in poker, in particular noting how the game in fact presents a significant challenge to players’ moral sensibilities, or at least did back during the 1990s when he played (and when his book is set).

“One of the things about poker, especially back then, is that you are faced with so many moral choices,” says May. “I think that’s what excited me about the story more than anything else. Just because of poker’s nature, the decisions that you have to make every day... you are constantly testing out your own morality. And other people’s, too. You find out a lot about what lengths they’ll go to, what depths they’ll sink to, really who they are as a person. Poker reveals so much about people’s personalities because the ethical dilemmas -- the gray areas -- they come so fast and furious.”

If you’ve ever read Shut Up and Deal, you know exactly how what May is talking about applies to the complicated network of relationships in which his main character, Mickey, finds himself entangled. Or if you’ve lived the live of a full-time poker player and/or gambler, you may also know what he’s getting at with regard to the moral challenge the game provides.

In any case, I had that observation in mind when rereading the following passage occurring early in Apostolico’s book:

“Since poker can be an unjust game, you must do everything in your power to ensure that you succeed,” writes Apostolico. “So long as you play within the rules, you can and should use every means at your disposal to beat your opponent. Poker provides a forum for you to implement guilt free the most ruthless of Machiavellian principles. It is your opportunity to be a Prince.”

That passage reminded me of discussions with my classes about Machiavelli’s recommendations to would be rulers not to let questions of good or bad interfere with governing successfully and above all retaining power. The Prince advocates throughout practicality, the importance of appearances and being able to manipulate the masses, and setting aside anything not directly related to winning and/or having power over others. (In other words, it describes modern politics, more or less.)

Meanwhile the passage seems to run counter to what May is saying in the way it suggests poker exists as a kind of morality-free zone rather than an area in which moral questions are of utmost importance.

I think, though, I could be drawing a false comparison here. May is talking not just about the strategy of playing a hand of poker, but about living the life of a full-time poker player, while Apostolico is focused more narrowly on the way Machiavellian principles relate to succeeding when playing a zero sum game.

Then again, maybe the two aren’t in disagreement at all, and both are talking about how poker (in a sense) challenges each player not to care about others’ welfare as it necessarily affects your own in a negative way -- a challenge to which each player’s response is necessarily going to be personal.

I thought that was an interesting enough juxtaposition to share while also giving me a chance again to recommend both Shut Up and Deal and Machiavellian Poker Strategy: How to Play Like a Prince and Rule the Poker Table.

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