Monday, March 27, 2017

The President Who Doesn’t Play Poker

J.J.: “He only goes out to play faro. Sometimes plays 15 or 20 hours at a time, just him against the house.”
Henry: “Roulette? Craps?”
J.J.: “He won’t touch ‘em. The croupier at Gilman’s says he never plays anything he can’t win.”
Henry: “Sports?”
J.J.: “Mmm... likes to be seen with fighters sometimes, but he doesn’t go to the fight or bet on them.”
Henry: “Does he do anything when he’s not alone?
J.J.: “Poker. And he cheats. Pretty good at it, too.”

Legislative machinations typically are not that interesting to follow, but last week’s unsuccessful attempt by lawmakers to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act with a hastily-assembled, much-derided alternative was something to witness.

For much of the latter part of the week it appeared the president was fully prepared to force a House vote on the matter, one doomed to fail and result in a spectacular loss both to the Republican party and to the president personally. Right up until late Friday afternoon the president appeared to be in full-blown Leeroy-Jenkins, let’s-do-this-no-matter-what mode before the vote was scuttled just before the finish.

Canceling the vote hasn’t stopped most commentary from employing words like “defeat,” “failure,” “humiliation,” and the like, but it does allow the president a tiny, cramped space from which to describe the episode as something other than a loss. Not that he would ever describe himself losing anything accurately, but in this case he technically “folded” before the showdown, enabling him to continue the charade of self-characterization that he’s never suffered anything resembling losing.

In this way, the president is a lot like the crime boss Doyle Lonnegan from The Sting. He doesn’t like playing games he can lose.

I’ve been known from time to time to write about U.S. presidents playing poker. I also always enjoy reading about the subject, and so now after many years of pursuing this particular niche of poker-slash-political history, I’ve become familiar with most of the stories -- true and apocryphal -- having to do with presidents’ card-playing habits.

During the 2016 presidential campaign there were a number of stories about how the candidates choices and strategy resembled the game of poker. This wasn’t because the candidates were themselves poker players, but rather because all political campaigns and elections resemble poker games. Here’s a PokerNews article I did just before the election that compiled a number of those analogies.

A short while ago I got curious about whether or not the one who won the election was ever actually a poker player. After all, he did own all of those the hotels and casinos and was so conspicuous in Atlantic City for so long, right up until last month, really, when the last sign with his name was taken down from the last of his shuttered properties.

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I thought I’d share three interesting articles related to the inquiry, anyway. Together they do appear to contribute to the argument that to our current president -- despite all the poker-strategy-talk that will sometimes come up in commentaries about him -- isn’t much of a poker player at all.

Talking Poker in BLUFF (2004)

The most recent of the three articles is from December 2004, one that appeared in BLUFF magazine and can be accessed in the archive of the now-defunct publication. Then-editor Michael Caselli interviewed the man who is now president, primarily focusing on the Taj Mahal and its once-famed poker room (immortalized in the 1998 film Rounders).

“Certain things go in and out of vogue,” the famous businessman and TV star observed. “Poker gains players by exposure.”

Speaking right in the heart of the poker boom, he added that “Poker and The Apprentice both are pop culture, both equally cool, except for the major player in The Apprentice.”

Caselli follows that quote wondering if the Taj owner was making a self-deprecating joke, but his interviewee clarifies “Jokes are a waste of time.” (I actually wonder if he wasn’t meaning to avoid suggesting his show -- and he himself -- was only merely as cool as poker.)

“Is [he] a poker player?” next asks Caselli. “Unfortunately he doesn’t have too much time for the game these days.” Caselli says he “knows poker” and “likes the game,” but that “his manicured hands don’t get to hold the Hold’em cards all that often.” (No reference in the article to the size of those manicured hands.)

The article ends with a somewhat convoluted question asking which six people in history The Apprentice star would invite to a poker game. “Winston Churchill, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Moses [the NYC planner], Leonardo da Vinci and Amadeus Mozart,” is the reply.

Then, after being pressed, he added “Would I win...? Most likely.”

The USPS and Poker at the Taj (1997)

Going back a few years earlier, there’s an interview conducted by Michael Konik for the March/April 1997 issue of Cigar Aficionado that sheds a little more light on the non-poker playing of our current president.

The interview took place late the previous year during the inaugural U.S. Poker Championship at the Taj Mahal. In fact most of the article focuses on the USPS series and in particular the Main Event, a $7,500+$100 affair that drew 100 entries and saw Ken “Skyhawk” Flaton outlast runner-up Surinder Sunar and third-place finisher Phil Hellmuth to win a $500,000 first prize. That was more than half the $850,000 prize pool thanks to a steep payout at the end, not atypical of tournaments back then. (You can watch ESPN's coverage of the final table of that event online here.)

Konik focuses on the series’ overall success -- more than $4 million in prize money and 3,000 total entries across 23 events -- largely crediting the name recognition of the Taj Mahal’s owner. It’s a solid example of early poker reporting, with the author following the tradition of Jon Bradshaw, Al Alvarez, and others as he describes Flaton’s win.

The article ends with an appended, short interview with the real estate magnate that begins with Konik asking him point blank “What is your poker background?”

“My life is a poker match,” he replies (the use of the word “match” sounding a bit incongruous). He admits, however, “I’ve never had time to play seriously. I’ve been too busy to really focus on poker. But my life is a series of poker games. Ins and outs. Ups and downs. Highs and lows.”

More questions follow about the investment being made into the USPS and poker, generally speaking, at the Taj Mahal. “Poker has been great for the facility,” comes the response. “It’s brought excitement, it’s brought glamour and it’s brought a tremendous amount of people. And a lot of these people then go from poker to our baccarat tables, which, you know, is at a very high level.”

Poker during the late 1990s and especially through most of the 2000s was a hot commodity, and it was regarded as such by the future president. But he makes it relatively clear that unlike other presidents he wasn’t much of a player, and probably never really played it seriously at all.

More on Avoiding Games (1989)

One even older article seems to serve as further proof that our president not only shuns poker, but any game in which he can’t have full control over the outcome.

In early August 1989, the Los Angeles Times ran a story titled “The Summer’s Hottest Board Games and How They Play.” Among the games discussed is the one pictured at left, a game of “wheeling and dealing” that actually generated a lot of anticipation in the board game industry. The article even speculates whether the new game might challenge the popularity of Monopoly, describing a showdown of sorts between gaming giants Parker Brothers (owner of Monopoly who turned down the chance to produce the new game) and Milton Bradley (who took the chance).

The article quotes a VP from Parker Brothers naysaying the new game, saying that unlike Monopoly it “is not the kind of the thing you want to pull out on the spur of the moment when grandma comes over. It can leave you exhausted and feeling like you don’t want to play again.”

The negative review of the game -- “a far wilder romp through the world of deal-making than Monopoly” -- continues from the Parker Brothers VP. “As accurate as it may be at capturing the feeling of insecurity in the real world, the game doesn't give you a feel-good experience, which is the purpose most people rely on for playing games,” he says.

If you’re curious, the game was a huge commercial flop, and gets regularly included in lists of the biggest failures attached the game’s namesake. You can read more about it here.

The most relevant part of the story to our purposes concerns a challenge issued by Bob Stupak, then owner of Vegas World Hotel Casino who would later open the Stratosphere. Stupak (who died in 2009) was a high-stakes poker player, too, winning a WSOP bracelet and (as some may recall) making an appearance during the first season of High Stakes Poker.

As the article explains, Stupak publicly challenged the man who is now our president to play the game bearing his name, even taking out full-page ads inviting him to play for $1 million. But the offer was not accepted.

“Says Stupak: ‘He said that even when you’re used to winning it’s always possible to lose.’”


Search through the president’s long, embarrassing Twitter history and there’s a self-contradicting, uncannily suitable tweet for practically everything he now does or says. One from early 2013 finds him making a rare poker analogy.

“Just shows that you can have all the cards and lose if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he tweeted.

In fact he was alluding then to the fractious Republican party having elected John Boehner to a second term as House Speaker -- a “failed coup,” as some news outlets described it at the time. There was significant opposition to Boehner, but an inability for those who opposed him to get together enough votes to replace him. In other words, it was a situation prefiguring fairly directly what happened to the G.O.P. last week.

The president is right when he says you can have the cards and still play them badly and lose. But I tend to think he’s probably never seriously played a hand of poker -- or any other game -- that way. Not when he’s ever had anything truly on the line, anwyay.

No, he’ll avoid the game entirely, if he can, if he can’t fix it in his favor. Like Lonnegan, he’ll never play anything he can’t win.

Images: (hair); BLUFF (cover); ESPN (’96 USPS); eBay (game).

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

To Panama and Back

Am back safely on the farm after a fun, long trip to Panama and back.

I miss a little doing the daily “travel reports” here, although as I’ve mentioned previously especially when returning to a place I’ve been before there ends up being a little less that’s fresh from the road to discuss. Never mind how busy the trips are, which obviously uses up a lot of the mental fuel left for scribbling further about what’s happening.

It was interesting going back to Panama where I’d been twice before for Latin American Poker Tour stops. Both there and elsewhere, the LAPTs were always popular though modest-seeming relative to European Poker Tour festivals or the World Series of Poker.

Usually LAPTs only featured a dozen or so events with a Main Event often featuring a buy-in on the small side (e.g., in the $1,100-$1,500 range). Meanwhile the EPTs would have as much as 100 events or more, including satellites, making for a much busier schedule.

This inaugural PokerStars Championship Panama series had 46 events on the schedule, a $5,300 Main Event (like at the former EPTs/other PSCs), and other elements that made it less like the LAPTs of old and more like the first PSC in the Bahamas and what is coming up in Macau, Monte Carlo, Sochi, and Barcelona.

In the coverage we focused largely on the $50K Super High Roller (won by Ben Tollerene), the $10K High Roller (won by Steve O’Dwyer), and the $5K Main Event (won by Kenny Smaron). Meanwhile there was some time here and there to look upon the city’s remarkable, idiosyncratic architecture, with several excursions by foot around the Sortis Hotel, Spa & Casino and a cab trip over to Old Town for a nice meal and more interesting sightseeing.

Those two photos up above -- and the idea to juxtapose them -- come via Brad Willis of the PokerStars blog who snapped ’em on one such evening out. “Panamanian noir,” he titled them.

Probably the night from the trip I’ll remember the longest was that of the media tournament. There were 30-40 entrants including three Team PokerStars Pros -- Jake Cody, Felipe Ramos, and Leo Fernandez. Tito Ortiz, the MMA fighter who managed to get all of the way to 22nd in the Main Event also took part in the media tournament, and I ended up playing with all four of them before the night was over.

After a slow start in the sucker, I had some good hands come my way and after a while had made the final table, then eventually got all of the way to heads-up before coming up short to finish second (again!). Was kind of a circus by the time we got to the end, with tons of people having stuck around to support both me and eventual winner Melanie.

And heads-up featured some big time back-and-forths with both of us getting close to finishing the other off in preflop all-ins before cards fell on either the turn or river to keep the thing going. Afterwards I knew I could’ve played a bit more aggressively heads-up, but I’ll have to file it away as more experience to draw from the next time around.

The best part of the trip was of course getting to work and laugh alongside my many colleagues and friends there, too. Among them was Carlos, who took that great pic of me just above during the media event, one of several great ones he snapped. “You are the most boring player,” grinned Carlos to me, referring to my lack of animation at the table. But from his photos you’d never guessed that was case.

Will be sitting tight for a while now, the next trip likely going to be another return visit, this time to Monaco. Plotting the summer as well, which might contain a fun adventure, too -- will update accordingly.

Photos: Brad Willis (top); Carlos Monti / PokerStars blog (bottom).

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Clocking in from Panama

Hola from rainy Panama City where I’ve been since Friday, having arrived in time to help cover the PokerStars Championship Panama series for the next week-and-a-half.

Had a chance this morning to get out and about a little, then again at lunchtime when my friend Nick and I were able to find a very busy local establishment to enjoy a Sunday brunch of Panamanian fare. The temps are warm and the air humid, and right now as I write a thunderstorm is pouring down sheets of rain outside. (Meanwhile, check out what happened back at the farm this morning -- nuts!)

Inside the Sortis Hotel and Casino the PSC continues with the $50,000 Super High Roller, a “shot clock” tournament in which players have 30 seconds to act, unless they want to use any of their three “time bank” chips that give them an extra minute each to be a decision.

I’m not sure if I ever have covered a tournament using a shot clock before -- if I have, I don’t recall it -- but yesterday made it seem an awfully attractive addition to tournament poker. My sample is a bit misleading, given that the players (all high rollers) are pretty much without exception both experienced and skillful, and the dealers are also top notch, making the incorporation of the clock (a hand held time piece) seem not at all intrusive.

From a reporter’s standpoint, the shot clock is very welcome given the way it obviously sets a limit on the amount of time any one hand will take. It’s nice to know something is going to happen relatively soon whenever you get involved watching a hand, and to avoid ever getting lost in those endless tanks that end in folds and little to report.

These guys (the regular participants in SHRs) generally act fairly quickly, anyway, of course. I could see how the shot clock wouldn’t be so welcome among more varied fields. Then again, I can also imagine everyone getting fairly used to them, and don’t necessarily see their introduction as being that much different than other experiments with structures designed to make events play out more quickly. I’m remembering not being so crazy about such an idea three years ago or even more recently, but I could warm to it.

Get over to the PokerStars blog to see how the $50K SHR is (rapidly) playing out and everything else happening in Panama.

Photo: courtesy Neil Stoddart / PokerStars blog.

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Monday, March 06, 2017

The Man Who Can’t Stop Firing

The most dangerous tweeter alive has fired off several more strange, unsettling, self-implicating messages for all of his followers -- and the rest of us -- to ponder. “Fired” was a word already associated with the reality TV star, thanks to his famous catch phrase. Now it’s the easy choice of verb to describe his weapon-like use of Twitter.

Last Thursday the president’s recently-named Attorney General recused himself from current and future investigations of the 2016 presidential campaign. Such investigations are presently focusing on the influence of Russia on last year’s election and the numerous ties between the foreign power and several of the president’s associates (including the president himself). The A.G.’s decision came after it became widely known that during his confirmation hearing he’d lied under oath about his own meetings with Russian representatives during the campaign.

We know that angered the president, as he let us all know via Twitter. Saw a funny tweet yesterday from the columnist Doug Sanders summarizing the absurdity of such a situation as speculative fiction: “Sci-fi where the president has lost his mind and everyone knows because his private thoughts keep appearing on little slabs in their pockets.”

“The Democrats are overplaying their hand,” the president furiously wrote, choosing a poker analogy in order to express frustration about his A.G. having succumbed to the pressure to recuse himself. The president wished to suggest the Democrats are betting too heavily with too weak of a holding, since (in his view) the connections and communications between Russia and his associates (and himself) are inconsequential.

“The real story,” he added, “is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total ‘witch hunt!’”

He hastily jabbed some more pettiness into his smartphone after that, then traveled to his supervillain-like lair in Florida, his estate in Mar-al-Lago. From there the embittered president launched an incredible accusation Saturday morning that his predecessor, Barack “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”

He first called this action “McCarthyism,” which is at best an imprecise use of a term normally used to refer to someone making unfair allegations against another. Indeed, the president himself seemed to be the one making the unfair allegation, making his phrase “This is McCarthyism!” punctuating his tweet seem unintentionally self-referential.

Many soon picked up on the fact that the claim was derived from a far-right talk show host’s hypothesis that had been turned into a faux-report over on Breitbart, the website formerly run by the president’s assistant Steve Bannon widely known to have published several unsupported conspiracy theories and falsehoods in the past.

The president continued his accusation over a few more tweets, finishing thusly: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

The “Nixon/Watergate” reference is again another hazy allusion to history being made by the president, in this case triggered by the mention of phone taps. Again, it’s hard not to think that while he intends to suggest a comparison that accuses another, he is instead drawing attention to parallels with himself.

To name one, the investigation into the 2016 election includes questions about the president and his associates (among them his original national security adviser Michael Flynn who has already resigned over the allegations) having suggested to the Russians that United States sanctions against them would be lessened or removed once the new administration took over, severely undermining the Obama administration’s authority and ability to act in the nation’s interests (never mind violating federal law).

Such meddling resembles what Nixon was alleged to have done prior to the 1968 election when interfering with the sitting president Lyndon B. Johnson’s attempts to reach peace in Vietnam. (For more on the latter, see “‘I’m Reading Their Hand”: LBJ, Nixon, and the Week Before the 1968 Election.”)

In fact, the idea of one president accusing his predecessor of having formerly illegally tapped his phones is yet another example of the current commander-in-chief emulating Nixon. So, too, did Nixon on multiple occasions bring up privately that he believed he had been bugged by Lyndon B. Johnson during the last couple of weeks prior to the 1968 election.

For example, on October 17, 1972, Nixon told John Connally (the former Texas governor who served for a time as Nixon’s Secretary of Treasury before leading the “Democrats for Nixon” in the run-up to the ’72 election) that J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Director until his death in May 1972, had informed him LBJ had Nixon’s plane bugged because “he had his Vietnam plans... and he had to have information as to what we were going to say about Vietnam.”

“Johnson knew every conversation,” Nixon told Connally. “And you know where it was bugged? In my compartment!”

Later, after Nixon had been reelected and once Watergate began seriously heating up, Nixon would again bring up LBJ’s alleged bugging of his plane, wondering aloud to others how they might make it public so as to make the bugging of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters seem less remarkable -- or at least not without precedent.

But Nixon never did that. Meanwhile the current president -- going off a speciously-sourced story that the present FBI Director is denying could be true (and a spokesman for Obama and others in the know are suggesting to have been wholly impossible) -- got out his phone and pulled the trigger without hesitation. And without even informing his staff he was doing so. And without seemingly any care for the effect such an accusation might have on the country he was elected to lead, or its standing in the world going forward.

I wonder sometimes what this presidency would be like without the tweets. Would it seem as obviously unhinged? Perhaps. After all, that first press conference in mid-February was an absolute horrorshow -- way, way more distressing than any performance by any president ever, including Nixon at his most petulant and paranoid.

Then again, it seems possible that if he were not to tweet he would at least seem less demented, wouldn’t it? Or is it too late? I mean with every single tweet he hurts himself, and often hurts lots of us, too. It seems like he has to figure that out at some point, right?

Or not. Brace yourself. He’s about to fire again.

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Monday, February 27, 2017

Don’t Leave Early -- You Might Miss Something

So today we’re all remembering Steve Harvey’s Miss Universe faux pas from a little over a year ago. I suppose that’s where all of this stuff started.

We must have reached a point in our shared cultural history where we were all getting a little too comfortable with the idea that “it’s all been done” or we’ve “seen it all before.” Like lifetime poker players who’ve been one-outed on the river enough times to be numb to it, we were all lulled into thinking we could safely shut the teevee off before the end and not miss anything.

Just off the top of my head here, I’m thinking back to that absurd second-round game in last year’s NCAA playoffs between Texas A&M and Northern Iowa, the one in which the Aggies were down 12 with just 44 seconds left in regulation and somehow managed to tie the sucker -- without even calling a timeout (!) -- and win in double-OT.

You have to think a few folks shut the set off before the conclusion of that one.

Sports provided a couple more similarly preposterous finishes last year, highlighted by the Cleveland Cavaliers overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the NBA finals to defeat the seemingly unbeatable Golden State Warriors. Then came the Chicago Cubs similarly coming back from 3-1 down (and from a 108-year title drought) to beat the Cleveland Indians, although not until after the Indians stunningly scored three runs late to tie things up (with an apocalyptic-seeming rain delay prior to extra innings adding further to the delirium).

Then came election night, another stunner for many that seemed to take a crazy turn mid-evening when all of the projections suddenly swung the other way. And of course that completely loopy 25-point comeback engineered by the New England Patriots against the Atlanta Falcons to win Super Bowl 51 is still fresh in everyone’s minds, a game that absolutely no one other than perhaps the Pats thought could possibly play out the way it did.

Vera and I watched the beginning of the Oscars last night, but didn’t bother to stick it out until the end. We hadn’t seen most of the movies. Indeed, we probably only go to the theater about once every other month or so, if that.

Whenever Vera and I do go to the movies, we have a routine where we always stay through the end credits, which invariably makes us the last two people to exit the place. Not sure why we do that, to be honest, although by doing so we necessarily catch any of those funny little post-credits like Ferris Bueller telling the audience to leave or the rider still waiting in Ted Striker’s cab in Airplane!

We were curious to see how the Oscars started, then, but not engaged enough to stick with it. Vera did, however, ask me to DVR the rest before we gave up. I didn’t ask to add the extension when recording, and while I haven’t checked it yet I’m sure I didn’t get the ending as I understand it ran quite late.

I’ve heard about it though, of course, and watched a clip this morning of the remarkable gaffe that saw the wrong film named as best picture, and multiple acceptance speeches being given before the correction came. Seemed fitting, I guess, after more than a year’s worth of such improbable twist-endings.

Hang around poker tournaments enough and you see examples of players all in and at risk leaving the table before the last card is dealt, sometimes when they are still drawing live. Every once in a while -- I’ve seen it happen maybe three or four times -- the departing player’s unlikely runner-runner actually comes, leading to the player having to be recalled to the table by staff or a friendly opponent.

After all of these head-spinning conclusions, gotta think people are going to stop being in such a hurry to get to the exits. Now everyone is going to start sticking around past the end.

For an explanation of all this that is fun -- or frightening, depending on your point of view -- check out Adam Gopnik’s piece for The New Yorker today, “Did the Oscars Just Prove That We Are Living in a Computer Simulation?

Image: “ P1080262,” Jon Seidman. CC BY 2.0.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Shape of the World

Kyrie Irving, the star guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers who hit the winning shot in Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals, believes the earth is flat. No, really.

When I first heard the story a few days ago, I thought perhaps it was a prank of some sort being pulled by Irving, meant to illustrate how outrageously easy it is to manipulate social media, which in turn makes it trivially simple to make any sort of absurdity go “viral.” After all, if you had thought about it a week ago, the idea that Kyrie Irving believes the earth is flat probably would have seemed almost as unlikely as the earth actually being flat.

But, no. He wasn’t joking. Given that Irving spent part of a year at Duke University before going pro provides this UNC fan a ready opening, of course. But I’m more interested in a larger issue connected to this story.

Irving made his position known on an episode of a podcast hosted by two of his Cleveland teammates, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye. Amid talk of conspiracy theories, Irving mentioned his view about the planet’s shape, defending it as not a conspiracy but a fact (in his estimation). “If you really think about it from a landscape of the way we travel,” Irving explained, “the way we move... can you really think of us rotating around the sun, and all planets align, rotating in specific dates...?”

There’s more, but it’s hardly worth transcribing. The gist of his position is to insist that “there’s a falseness in stories and things that people want you to believe and ultimately what they throw in front of us.” Or, to put it another way, “I think people should do their own research, man.”

Some, like NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, shared my initial, skeptical response to the story of Irving’s skepticism and tried to contextualize Irving’s comment in a way that made it seem less patently ignorant. “He was trying to be provocative and it was effective,” Silver said, reflecting on Irving’s own later comments about the furor he’d created.

“I think it was a larger comment on the sort of fake news debate that’s going on right now... and it led to a larger discussion,” added Silver, who didn’t omit appending the sanity-affirming disclaimer “I personally believe the world is round.”

The denial of objective truth is difficult to combat. It’s quite challenging to convince a superstitious poker player who refuses to accept that the cards dealt on one hand are wholly independent of the cards next on the next one that the “pattern” he perceives is in truth wholly subjective and not at all meaningful. You have to find some sort of common ground even to communicate with someone refusing to accept something as fundamentally obvious as the planet’s shape, rotation, and orbital path.

Existentialism encourages us to make our meaning, emphasizing subjective experience over the blind acceptance of received ideas about “reality” -- that is, not to receive “what they throw in front of us” without applying a little of our own rational analysis as a test. That doesn’t preclude, however, accepting certain (nominally) objective truths, even tentatively. Like, say, the laws of physics.

If Irving really understood the science, he’d understand how gravity works, which explains why when he launches a basketball skyward it comes back down toward the spherical planet’s center and doesn’t careen toward the center of his imagined “flat” earth, wherever that might be (one of dozens of easy-to-observe phenomena proving the earth’s roundness). Irving apparently hasn’t considered this or if he has he doesn’t find convincing the evidence he necessarily witnesses every waking moment of his life.

Silver -- who probably doesn’t care too much about one of the league’s stars espousing what might be called “fake science” -- grabs that “fake news” thread, trying to suggest that Irving was himself making some sort of point about the need to be skeptical amid what can certainly be a confusing climate of reporting and news-sharing.

But that kind of twists what Irving was saying. Rather, he was only referring to his incredulity that people would care so damn much about his position that the earth is flat.

“There are so many real things going on, actual, like, things that are going on that’s changing the shape, the way of our lives,” Irving told ESPN a couple of days after the initial blast. In other words, he doesn’t view the news of his belief as being “real” or “actual” (as in “significant”) compared to other, more important issues.

Irving even unwittingly puns on the word “shape,” saying (to paraphrase) that we should concern ourselves much more with the things certain people are currently doing to shape our world in a figurative sense than with the literal shape he imagines the world to be.

I agree with Irving on that point. In other words, I’m glad to know that our perspectives regarding the world in which we both live overlap at least in this way. I’m also more worried about the “things going on that’s changing the shape” of our world -- particularly about the people who are doing those “things” -- than about Irving’s flat-earth folly.

I’m additionally concerned, though, when the people shaping our world seem influenced by ideas about it that are easily discovered to be false.

Need examples? People can do their own research, man.

Image: “Fragile Planet,” Dave Ginsberg. CC BY 2.0.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Past Catches Up Fast

This morning another entry in my “Poker & Pop Culture” series went up over on PokerNews, this one discussing a few connections between poker and the Cold War.

This new one will be the last politics-themed entry in the series (for a while, anyway), as the next several deal with much lighter fare. Here are the recent ones:

  • That Time Harry Truman Let Winston Churchill Win
  • Tricky Dick Talks Poker in the White House
  • Joseph McCarthy Overplays the Red Scare Card
  • Bluffing With Bombs During the Cold War
  • I’ve been loosely following a chronological structure with these, although at this point with the story having reached the 20th century there is going to be a lot of jumping back and forth as the columns are organized around various subcategories of culture. It just so happened that the last month has been taken up with stories about politicians and (in these last couple) Cold War confrontations involving the United States and former Soviet Union.

    In these columns I haven’t explicitly referenced anything going on currently involving the new administration and the fast-moving crisis suddenly consuming it (and us). I did mention the new president entering the White House at the start of one of the columns, but otherwise I have kept my focus squarely on the past while avoiding the present. I’ve had a couple of reasons for doing so.

    One is simply to avoid unnecessarily opening doors onto ongoing (and highly-charged) political debates raging on all sides at the moment. That’s not a goal of the columns, really, even if it could be enlightening now and then to draw connections between events that happened before and what is going on now.

    The other is that it’s just too darn difficult to make such connections succinctly, given how different the present is from the past I’m discussing in those articles listed above (which mostly range from the 1920s through the 1970s).

    As I mentioned here a little over two weeks ago in a post titled “The Maniac at the Table,” the instinct to compare the current crisis at the top with the protracted scandal that ultimately forced Richard Nixon from office has been irresistible to many. Lots of commentators are now evoking certain moments on the path that led toward the impeachment hearings in the summer of 1974, recognizing similarities that have already emerged less than a month into the current president’s tenure.

    But while there are certainly parallels, there’s a lot that is different, too, not the least of which being the strange, singular relationship with Russia the current administration has adopted and consequently tried to force upon the U.S.

    As you no doubt have heard, the president’s national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned late Monday night just a little over weeks after taking on the role. Ostensibly he did so because he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about conversations he’d had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. in late December regarding sanctions imposed on Russia by Barack Obama’s administration.

    Those sanctions had been imposed following multiple intelligence reports revealing Russia had attempted to affect the 2016 election via various “hacking” methods. “Russia’s cyberactivities were intended to influence the election, erode faith in US democratic institutions, sow doubt about the integrity of our electoral process, and undermine confidence in the institutions of the US government,” was the White House’s statement at the time as the Obama administration sanctioned Russian individuals and entities while jettisoning 35 Russian diplomats from the country.

    Russia quickly retorted they’d be taking similar action in response, with Russian President Vladimir Putin quoted having told reporters there was “no alternative to reciprocal measures.” That same day (it has been revealed), Flynn spoke to the Russian ambassador about the sanctions. The very next day Russia announced it would not reciprocate in any fashion, but rather wait for the new administration to take office.

    The president-elect then brazenly tweeted “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always new he was very smart!”

    As we all know, the current president’s natural mode is to attack and bully, something he has demonstrated almost without exception over the last two years -- during the campaign, after the election, and during these three-and-a-half weeks in office.

    He has been almost entirely indiscriminate with his criticisms, including targeting the nation’s traditional allies, high-ranking Republicans, U.S. intelligence agencies, and others whom even those who voted for him probably wish he’d refrain from vilifying. He’s also mixed in lots of knee-jerky attacks on television shows, media figures, particular businesses, and anyone else he believes has offended him.

    His attacks are also often delivered without regard to political implications, something his supporters appreciate. Indeed, he seems almost entirely unconcerned about appearances or what others are going to say about his outbursts.

    I keep repeating that qualifier “almost” because there has been a consistent, blatant exception to this pattern. The president not only resists criticizing Russia or Putin, he unwaveringly adopts an entirely uncharacteristic stance of passivity and non-resistance. Instead he commends, he celebrates. He acquiesces, always.

    It has been impossible not to notice this exception. It’s also impossible not to entertain what seems an obvious explanation for it. The U.S. president is seriously compromised, and so is much of the team surrounding him.

    The president himself might be hamstrung to speak or act against Russia because of his business interests (hidden in those undisclosed tax returns) or even past personal conduct (alluded to in that infamous dossier) or both. More definitively, he and many of those around him are unmistakably compromised by their communications with Russia during the campaign and the interregnum period between election and inauguration.

    The president cannot speak out against Russia, at least not directly. Nor can he act in the nation’s interests when Russia chooses to violate a decades-old arms control treaty by deploying a new ground-launched cruise missile as was reported yesterday. (The administration has not responded to this violation yet, stating that it “is in the beginning stages of reviewing nuclear policy.”)

    I’m recalling attending a presentation in September 2015 given by Carl Bernstein and P.J. O’Rourke, both of whom reported extensively on Nixon and Watergate as it unfolded more than four decades ago. The discussion was more about the then-upcoming campaign and election, and not so much about Watergate. There was one question, though, regarding how the earlier scandal would be covered today, what with the change in technology, the rise of social media, and so on.

    Bernstein declared that “the web is a fabulous reportorial platform,” adding that we live in what he believes to be a “golden age of investigative reporting.” O’Rourke was a little more measured, recognizing how hard it can be sometimes to sort out the wheat from the chaff amid all of the reporting being done. He also said that if Watergate happened today, it would have taken a lot less than two-plus years to unfold since “the conspirators would have been more leaky.”

    The current administration is especially leaky, that’s for certain. And when combined with the web’s rapid-fire “reportorial platform” things are escalating at a dizzying pace.

    I tend to believe that the exhausting blitz of executive orders, memoranda, statements, and actions of the new president upon taking office occurred not just because of his naturally agitated state, his insatiable hunger for the spotlight, and/or his neglect (or ignorance) of “normal” politics and procedures of government.

    I think the president and his team hit the ground running because they knew these things might well catch up to them, and quickly. That the power he enjoyed on January 20 was temporary, vulnerable to become eroded before such measures could be implemented.

    That the past was going to catch up to them, and perhaps sooner than later.

    Image: “Trump,” IoSonoUnaFotoCamera. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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    Thursday, February 09, 2017

    The Recap Writer’s Lament

    Many times when explaining to someone unfamiliar with poker tournaments what exactly I do when I go report on them, I’ll bring up sports writing as an illustrative analogy. It’s a handy reference point, and while it doesn’t provide a perfect parallel there are a lot of connections between the two.

    There’s the “play-by-play”-type reporting of hands and other aspects of a tournament’s progress that resembles sports reporters’ straightforward accounts of games and their results. There are also the profiles and features and player interviews and so on that go along with tournament reporting that similarly can correspond to how a baseball or football or basketball game gets covered.

    A short New York Times article appearing a couple of days ago reminded me of the connection once again, one by Ben Shpigel titled “‘Or So It Seemed’: Notes on Rewriting the Super Bowl.”

    The article relives the craziness of Super Bowl LI from the sports writer’s perspective. Shpigel notes how he’d written and filed a draft version of his report on the game early in the third quarter, when it appeared all but certain the Atlanta Falcons would coast to an easy victory. Then came the mad scramble to rewrite and amend once New England mounted what turned out to be a historic comeback to win.

    Anyone who has ever reported on the final table of a poker tournament can identify with Shpigel’s story. I’m referring in particular to being the one charged with the assignment of writing an end-of-tournament recap of the result highlighting big hands and/or other themes from the final table.

    Those who have done it have all been there. Trying to get a head start in order to publish your piece in a timely fashion after the tournament concludes, you’ll sometimes pick a potential winner to foreground, perhaps even writing an entire mini-profile of the player and how the victory fits into the larger picture of his or her career.

    The player holding a big chip lead to start heads-up play will often be the one so targeted. Sometimes even with four or five players left there might be one with both a large chip advantage and significant experience edge who the recap writer will be encouraged to make the star of the early-draft version of the story.

    Then comes the series of improbable double-ups and suddenly you’re hitting that backspace key. Speaking of, I wrote something for PokerNews this week presenting the Patriots’ crazy comeback as a series of all-in hold’em situations -- “Patriots Use Their One Time in Super Bowl Comeback.”

    Depending on how long the final table goes, sometimes multiple recaps get written, all of which get trashed but one. I remember at some point a group of us agreeing that it was bad luck to get too enthusiastic about prematurely selecting one player to win, since doing so necessarily dooms your pick.

    And never actually save a draft version naming a winner in the headline, a sure-fire set-up for future pain.

    Anyone who has been there will enjoy Shpigel grieving over the many unpublished, alternate realities he’s composed. That group will also nod in ackowledgment when Shpigel explains he is “not in the business of rooting for teams,” but that he does “root for good stories and for blowouts.”

    Tournament reporters will probably also like finding out the meaning of the phrase in the headline -- “or so it seems.” Check it out.

    Image: “IMAG0021 Backspace” (adapted), Tom Anderson. CC BY 2.0.

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    Monday, February 06, 2017

    The Patriots Are the Pick

    I’m no fan of the New England Patriots. Now that I think about it, I have probably rooted against them in every Super Bowl they’ve ever played.

    I suppose I was neutral on them up until 2004 when the Pats defeated my Carolina Panthers in that wild Super Bowl 38. Carolina lost 32-29 after a crazy fourth quarter that saw the Panthers score three touchdowns, New England two, and the Pats hit a game-winning FG at the end.

    That was New England’s second title in three years, so it was easy to root against them thereafter as they dominated season after season. It has never come close to rising to Duke-level dislike (deep and unchangeable in this Tar Heel), but it’s been a pretty consistent feeling of antagonism toward the team for me nonetheless.

    That said, I have one rule in Pigskin Pick’em I’ve (almost) unerringly followed for years. I always pick New England. No matter what.

    Last night Vera and I attended a fun Super Bowl viewing party, and just about everyone there was on the Atlanta Falcons side, too. Here in North Carolina most were either Washington Redskins fans or Atlanta fans growing up, as they were the teams always featured on regional coverage here up until the Panthers franchise debuted in 1995. Not too hard, then, for many around these parts to be leaning Atlanta’s way last night.

    It was pretty festive up through the middle of the third quarter as Atlanta surprisingly built that 28-3 lead. The largest comeback ever in 50 previous Super Bowl had been just 10 points, so a 25-point lead seemed more than insurmountable.

    Actually the party remained fun during the Patriots comeback. Everyone wanted Atlanta to win, but it wasn’t like we were Falcons diehards. The fact that the game got closer as the night wore on ensured the game remained the focus of everyone’s attention the entire way.

    If you watched, you saw how it all went wrong for Atlanta. You may not understand it, but you saw it.

    Bill Barnwell breaks it down step-by-step this morning in an article titled “Anatomy of a Miracle” over on ESPN. It was way more nutty than that Panthers-Pats finish 13 years ago. It was also much more improbable than the New York Giants’ unlikely win over New England in SB 42, or the Seattle Seahawks’ surprise gift to the Pats two years ago at the end of SB 49.

    It was a bit like watching a player with a 10-to-1 chip lead heads-up lose flip after flip to let victory slip away. There were several bad-luck plays for Atlanta, the incredible catch (and release and catch) an inch above the turf by the Patriots’ Julian Edelman on that tipped ball during the game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter the most memorable example. There were so many if-they-just-get-this-one-it’s-over plays in there, it was kind of like watching queen-six beating ace-ten over and over.

    But you’d have to mix in some self-inflicted wounds from Atlanta, too -- a costly turnover, very bad clock management (multiple fourth-quarter snaps with 15-20 seconds on the play clock), and blowing through what turned out to be needed timeouts spring to mind.

    Some questionable play calls in key spots do as well, most glaringly when up 28-20 with just under four minutes left and looking at a second-and-11 on the Pat’s 23-yard line. Atlanta went high-risk with a pass play, got sacked, then after another pass play ended with a holding penalty they were out of FG range, having to punt to New England (who still had their two timeouts) with three-and-a-half minutes to go.

    There’s no denying New England couldn’t have climbed back out of such a historically deep hole without some help from Atlanta. Nor could they do it without the “cards” falling their way, too. Before overtime began, someone at the party correctly predicted New England would win the coin toss and march down the field for a winning TD, and indeed, things bounced the Pats way again and he was proven correct.

    That said, the Pats were relentless from the midpoint of the third quarter onward -- like an almost flawless, “optimal” poker player who never seems to choose incorrectly. And when he does perhaps do something uncharacteristically risky (e.g., the pass into double coverage resulting in Edelman’s spectacular grab), it still works out for him.

    Am seeing this morning a best-to-worst ranking of the 51 Super Bowls already putting last night’s at the top of the list. I’d charge recency bias, but sheesh... a 25-point comeback? A team down 19 to start the fourth somehow pulling it out? That stands out.

    I’m still no fan of the Patriots. And I’ll still root against them. But I’m not picking against them any time soon.

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    Tuesday, January 31, 2017

    The Maniac at the Table

    It’s easy to overreact.

    A new player sits down at the table and immediately starts opening every pot, consistently raising two or three times the “norm.” He’s betting and raising after the flop, too, instantly disrupting the game’s previous rhythm and causing a kind of temporary paralysis to take over many players at the table.

    He’s kind of a jerk as well, it turns out, making rude comments to the dealer and wait staff, and even directing a few unfriendly, terse judgments toward others at the table.

    You gradually start to adjust to this newcomer -- or to tell yourself you’re adjusting, even if you’re still folding every hand to his raises while keeping mum. “I’ll find a spot,” you think to yourself, convinced this new, reckless-appearing style can’t possibly be effective over the long term.

    Since the inauguration a week-and-a-half ago, the president of the United States and his team of advisors have heightened fears among many that his tenure in office will create lasting damage to the nation’s welfare and standing in the global community. Whether they will succeed in transforming the country’s core values -- equality, liberty, individualism, justice, the common good, diversity and unity -- is less certain, although those, too, are obviously under siege.

    Indeed, through a hastily delivered series of executive orders and presidential memoranda, numerous erratic and hair-raising statements (including threats) by himself and his team to various groups including the press, and the continued advancement of an overall impression of instability and startling unpredictability, it appears damage has already been done that will take many years and likely multiple subsequent administrations to repair.

    Unlike at any other time I can remember -- save, perhaps, the days following the attacks of 9/11 -- the country and its organizing principles feel genuinely threatened. Every single day since January 20 has presented new evidence to suggest that life as we know it both here in the U.S. and elsewhere is swiftly transforming into something less certain and more potentially destructive. Those among us who are not overtly supportive of the president and his team will suffer the most and the most directly, although even many of the most ardent red hat-wearers are going to find themselves significantly hurt as well.

    Many commentators have suggested a few analogies between the present administration’s wrecking ball approach to governance and the damage inflicted during the five-and-a-half years of Richard Nixon’s presidency. It’s a logical step to make, given that there are some parallels. It’s also kind of an assuring one, in a way, suggesting as it does (at least indirectly) that what is happening right now isn’t necessarily as bad as it seems since, well, the world didn’t end with Nixon.

    That’s what a friend of mine was telling me just last Friday after I commented to him how “exhausting” it was following the coverage of yet another crisis or three having been introduced by this administration. I brought up to him Nixon’s famous “Saturday Night Massacre,” that remarkable, turning-point moment in the Watergate scandal when the president’s willingness to abuse his power became much clearer to many and the idea of impeachment became a lot more concrete.

    In May 1973, Nixon had his Attorney General Elliot Richardson appoint a Watergate Special Prosecutor to investigate improprieties related to the ’72 election, and Richardson appointed Archibald Cox. In fact Richardson had only been made A.G. immediately before making the appointment, and during his confirmation hearings had assured the Senate he wouldn’t use his authority to dismiss Cox without there being sufficient cause to do so.

    In July came the public revelation of the White House taping system, and Cox soon was asking for copies of tapes of some of the recorded conversations about the break-in and its subsequent handling. The White House refused to hand them over, and Cox responded by serving a subpoena for the tapes. The resistance continued with Nixon continuing to refuse to hand over tapes, claiming “executive privilege.” By October Nixon and his staff came up with a compromise plan to have a senator listen to and summarize the tapes, but Cox refused to agree with such a compromise.

    The next day -- Saturday, October 20, 1973 -- Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused to do so, referring back to his promise to the Senate, and resigned in protest. Nixon then ordered the Deputy A.G. William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox, and he also refused the order and resigned. Finally the next in line, Soliticor General Robert Bork, did fire Cox.

    News coverage of that night is interesting to follow, and gives a sense of just how strange and scary it all seemed at the time. There is two hours’ worth of audio that compiles TV networks’ reporting from that evening and just afterward available over on You hear anchors breathlessly describing the developments as “stunning” and “dramatic” and “unprecedented,” with talk of a constitutional crisis like nothing they had ever witnessed before.

    To my friend I remarked that every single day last week felt like what those anchors were describing when reporting on the Saturday Night Massacre. It began with the president’s dark, divisive inauguration speech and absurdist one-man show before the CIA where his primary message concerned his “running war with the media.” Then came the feverish first performance by his press secretary in which he threatened to “hold the press accountable” while (1) strangely insisting upon statements about the inauguration crowd sizes that were verifiably false, and (2) not taking any questions himself. (It was more out there than anything Ron Ziegler ever did as Nixon’s sometimes combative and accusatory press secretary.)

    The next day the Counselor to the President infamously defended “alternative facts,” helping encourage Orwellian-inspired commentaries. The various executive orders and memoranda then came raining down over the next several days (I won’t summarize all of them), fueling the fire of discontent in very deliberate-seeming ways. Finally on late Friday afternoon came the E.O. titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which suspends the U.S. Refugees Admissions Program for 120 days while also prohibiting entry into the country of anyone from seven countries, all of which have overwhelmingly Muslim populations.

    Chaos and confusion followed that last one, including protests and ugly scenes at airports all over the U.S. In the days since details have surfaced regarding the non-standard procedures followed by the president and his team to produce the order, including failing to consult with administration officials and his own party’s legislators before the order was signed.

    As I say, I had already been reminded of the Saturday Night Massacre a few days before. But then last night everyone was reminded of it when the current Attorney General Sally Yates chose to defy the president in a manner that somewhat echoed Richardson’s action, even if the circumstances are quite different, when issuing a directive to the Justice Department not to defend the executive order. The president swiftly fired Yates (adding -- as he cannot avoid doing whenever he does anything -- a bitter, personal social media message about her).

    I wake up this morning to more headlines sounding the alarm, and I brace myself like many others are for the next threat to emerge.

    The argument over “who’s worse” between Nixon and Trump is an interesting one, though perhaps of limited practical value at such an early stage.

    Nixon is the past. His presidency caused significant trauma to this country, weakening both the office and the American government in serious ways. After Nixon became president and especially starting near the end of his first term in office, he explored methods to remake government entirely, in particular to increase the overall power of the executive branch either by reducing constraints upon it or by exploiting weaknesses in the system of checks and balances. He and his reelection committee additionally engaged in outright criminal activity.

    The Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up (and, as importantly, the attempted cover-up of the cover-up) would not only overwhelm Nixon’s ability to continue as president, it would obscure deeper, more significant corruption and illegality both in his campaign and his administration, not to mention the usurping of power that enabled him to order intervention in Cambodia without Congressional approval and similarly to continue the Vietnam War by evoking his title as Commander-in-Chief of the military.

    However the “system” did manage to remove him from office (thanks both to some good fortune and strategic missteps by Nixon himself). And, as my friend reminded me, the country and its government did survive him.

    Now this new jerk has come to the table. Some of us actually invited him. And within just a few hands it’s obvious that he is clearly doing everything he can to ruin the game. I’m reminded how I pursued this same analogy nearly a year-and-a-half ago, right after the first G.O.P. debate, in a post titled “America Is In Serious Trouble.”

    Whatever his intentions might truly be, it’s clear he wants both to provoke us all and to keep us all fixated on him and him only. Eventually everything we do or say (he hopes) will necessarily be influenced by him. He’s not just playing to win, but to make it impossible for anyone else ever to win again.

    Sure, it’s easy to overreact. Then again, against certain opponents whose actions are themselves wildly, crazily disproportionate, what feels like overreacting is simply responding in kind.

    Images: “Trump signing order January 27” (top), Staff of the President of the United States, Public Domain; front page of the New York Times (October 21, 1973), Fair Use.

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