Thursday, October 30, 2014

Going Negative

We’re less than a week away from midterm elections here in the U.S. Of course, anyone in this country who has turned on a television set, been near a computer, or receives mail knows that already thanks to the relentless campaign ads greeting us at every turn.

Was reading today over at Slate how this year the total number of ads concerning the 36 races for U.S. Senate seats is approaching 1 million. Here in North Carolina the race between incumbent Kay Hagan (D) and her opponent Thom Tillis (R) has produced more ads than any other in the country, currently coming at a clip of about 11,000 ads per week or about one ad per minute, they say.

The Slate article further notes how the great majority of campaign ads this year have been negative, something about which I found myself commenting out loud to Vera just a few days ago. I’d noticed that practically none of the ads for Tillis featured him at all, only Hagan, while the Hagan ads all seemed only to be showing Tillis.

The article notes how the week before last “all but two-dozen” of the nearly 11,000 Hagan/Tillis ads “contained at least some negative content.” That ratio changed a bit this week with more than 500 non-negative ads -- “roughly 5 percent” of the nearly 11,000.

It’s clear that in the current political climate “going negative” is the preferred approach. The rise of social media -- even more prominent and integral to Americans’ lives today than even two years ago -- might well be a primary factor here, as is current news media and the constant (and influential) efforts of many to voice and inspire outrage wherever possible, legitimate or otherwise.

The approach is hardly new, though perhaps more popular today than ever, and affirms how in politics any effort that is antagonistic to your opponent is considered equivalent to (or perhaps even better than) promoting yourself. I was trying to imagine an analogy from poker -- a “zero sum” game in which one can only benefit to the detriment of others -- and I think I came up with one.

Say each candidate has a certain amount of chips with which to play, with each chip representing one campaign ad. In poker when you make a bet, it is often either because you like the strength of your hand or you doubt the strength of your opponent’s hand. There are times, of course, when you aren’t sure and so your bet may not be so easily categorized, but let’s just focus on those two reasons for betting here.

The former bet would be a “positive ad” bet, made as a way of “supporting” your good hand. The latter bet would be a “negative ad” bet, made as a way of “attacking” what you perceive to be your opponent’s weak hand. In the latter case, your cards aren’t really that important -- you could hold anything, with your action primarily motivated by your perception of an opponent’s weakness.

Which I guess would mean in these races overwhelmed by both sides almost exclusively going with negative ads, the actual strength of each candidate is mostly irrelevant.

In any case, I’ll be glad when next week comes and all the chippiness finally ends.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Missing Game 7

I was mentioning yesterday how that other World Series -- of baseball, not poker -- had emerged for me as one of several distractions from ESPN’s coverage of this year’s WSOP Main Event. Tonight the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants play a winner-take-all Game 7, something that comes along rarely enough that even a long-lapsed baseball fan like me will be forced to take a look.

I’ve written here before about how devoted I was to baseball as a youngster. It was easily my favorite sport both to play and watch up through my middle teens, at least, although by the time I was a senior in high school my devotion to the game had begun to waver. In fact, it was that fall I can pinpoint a particular day when baseball suddenly became less important to me.

During the Royals’ playoff run this year many have been pointing back to the last time Kansas City made the playoffs way back in 1985, when, coincidentally, they won the championship in a World Series that also went seven games. Those references reminded me of that Game 7, not because of what happened during the game, but because I didn’t see it at all.

The game was on a Sunday (I remember). It was my senior year, a time when I’d already started looking at colleges. I can’t remember if I’d sent any applications by late October or not, but I probably had. I made decent grades in high school, good enough to put me in the running for some scholarships, including one for the school I wanted to attend, UNC-Chapel Hill.

The specifics escape me, but for this particular scholarship there was some sort of get-together I could not avoid that was scheduled for that Sunday evening. I’d submitted some written materials, including an essay showing whether or not I knew how to put sentences and paragraphs together. Then on this day there was a personal interview with a committee, followed by a dinner for all of the applicants.

It was a novel experience for me. The only thing I remember about the interview was that the person leading the five-person committee was blind. He smiled a lot, though, and had a friendly tone that helped keep everything from becoming too intimidating. And the only thing I remember about the dinner afterwards was commiserating with some of the guys from other schools about how we were missing Game 7.

I suppose I could have gotten out of it, but at the time it seemed like one of those things I just had to do. Looking back, it’s tempting to read my decision as one of those fork-in-the-road moments where I chose not to watch a baseball game as my younger self would have done, but instead did the “mature” forward-looking thing with an eye toward my future. That surely exaggerates the moment, though, charging it with more meaning than it really had.

I also remember how missing the game turned out to be much less of a big deal than it seemed at the time. Maybe it was because the game was -- much like last night’s Royals win -- a laugher, with Kansas City winning 11-0. Or maybe it was because lots of other interests had already begun to crowd into a boy’s still-forming mind, pushing baseball over into what would become a mostly-neglected corner.

I didn’t get the scholarship, although I did end up going to UNC-Chapel Hill, and that led to all sorts of other good things for me (not the least of which being meeting Vera during our first week on campus). The next fall I was a college freshman, way too distracted to pay much attention to another great World Series between the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox that would go seven games as well.

I’d look in on the World Series occasionally thereafter, and I became somewhat invested in the Atlanta Braves (my team as a kid) as they finally started winning and playing some exciting playoff games in the 1990s -- among them a heartbreaker of a Game 7 in 1991 which I did watch.

But I’d never again be as big a baseball fan as I had been prior to October 27, 1985, the day I didn’t watch Game 7.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Not Watching Poker

Have to admit I’ve more or less drifted away from following the 2014 World Series of Poker coverage on ESPN this month. Going up against Sunday Night Football has lost them one viewer in this household, and while I DVR’d the sucker the first couple of weeks I haven’t been moved even to do that lately.

Not picking up things until Day 4 made for some added awkwardness narrative-wise when it came to telling the story of what happened this summer. There were some okay moments and an interesting hand or two involving Phil Ivey during those first two hours, but as I’ve said here before about these edited shows, knowing outcomes (e.g., Ivey’s pre-deep run bustout) considerably lessens what is already small amount of suspense in evidence.

I thought about this method of showing a poker tournament months after it actually occurs when reading this funny article from The Onion earlier today -- “LeBron James Relieved to Finish Filming NBA Season.”

The inordinate focus on amateur player Curtis Rystadt and his relentless antics on Day 5 were a big turnoff for me as well (literally). Exhibiting all sorts of poor etiquette and cringe-worthy behavior -- none of it terribly representative of how the great majority of players act at the WSOP -- Rystadt was made the center of attention during that week’s shows.

However, it almost felt exploitative for ESPN to devote so much attention to a relative unknown who like an unwitting reality show participant probably wasn’t fully aware how he’d be received. (Here’s a quick example of Rystadt’s performance, if you happened not to have been watching.)

So I’m not really watching, and in fact this year I may well miss out on the final table, too, as it looks like I’m scheduled for a tourney trip during those days. Speaking of the November Nine, Chris Tessaro has a new column for All In punningly titled “Waited Down” in which he’s revisiting the delayed final table idea -- now in its seventh year, if you can believe it -- and wondering if the WSOP and ESPN might consider altering its approach going forward.

There’s much I still like about the shows -- including Norman Chad, Lon McEachern, and Kara Scott -- but like Chris I’m finding the current approach to the coverage to be far removed from the immediacy and excitement of what tournament poker actually can be. And with NBA starting up and that other World Series going the distance, it’s making it even harder for this sports fan to tune in to watch the card playing.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Chess vs. Poker in the Cold War: Planning Ahead vs. Reacting to the Last Hand

On February 5, 1961, Oskar Morgenstern wrote an article for The New York Times titled “The Cold War Is Cold Poker” that argued for poker -- and against chess -- as the game best suited to parallel the ongoing diplomatic conflict between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

“The cold war is sometimes compared to a giant chess game between ourselves and the Soviet Union, and Russia’s disturbingly frequent successes are sometimes attributed to the national preoccupation with chess,” Morgenstern begins. “The analogy, however, is quite false, for while chess is a formidable game of almost unbelievable complexity, it lacks salient features of the political and military struggles with which it is compared.”

Morgenstern argues that since “chess is the Russian national pastime and poker is ours, we ought to be more skillful than they in applying its precepts to the cold-war struggle.” Alas (in his view) that had not been the case by early 1961. Thus does he proceed to argue in favor of the country’s leaders becoming more studious about poker strategy, particularly highlighting the need to learn how bluff effectively (and responsibly) and to learn how to recognize the Soviets’ bluffs, too.

“The problem of how, on the one hand, to make a threat effective and, on the other, to recognize a genuine threat by your opponent is one of the most fundamental of the day,” writes Morgenstern.

As the co-author with John von Neumann of the groundbreaking and influential Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944), the German-born economist had by then thought at great length about how certain games usefully mimic strategies employed by individuals and groups -- including governments -- in various economic, political, and military contexts.

An early essay by von Neumann “On the Theory of Parlor Games” (1928) explored how poker’s bluffing element helped make the game suitable to study as a means to learn more about deceptive behaviors in other contexts. That essay was expanded upon considerably into a chapter called “Poker and Bluffing” in Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, with the pair’s work often being cited as having pioneered what would come to be called game theory.

Morgenstern would go on to work as an advisor for Eisenhower, while Von Neumann would likewise be involved in Cold War strategy while chairing a secret Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Committee before his death in 1957. Thus by 1961 Morgenstern had well developed his “Cold War is Cold Poker” idea, and he lays it out in full in the NYT piece.

It was an influential argument. Kennedy would get variously credited with having reaffirmed the “we play poker, they play chess” idea, further underscoring both cultural differences and the contrasting strategic approaches of the two super powers toward each other. And further promoting the “poker provides a better approach” argument as well.

Reading backwards onto Cold War history, that strategic divide frequently gets presented in ways that are favorable to the U.S., with adopting a poker-like strategy often made to seem more practically useful given its more conspicuous attention to bluffing than is the case with chess. The fact that chess is “a game of complete information” (as Morgenstern points out) makes it less suitable than a partial information game like poker that “describes better what goes on in political reality where countries with opposing aims and ideals watch each other’s every move with unveiled suspicion.”

Those retrospectively viewing the conflict today (with knowledge of its ultimate outcome) -- and indeed, contemporaries commenting on it then like Morgenstern -- therefore mostly champion the America’s “poker” approach as preferable to Soviets’ “chess” tactics.

Not everyone was agreeing with Morgenstern, however, that poker was necessarily a better source of Cold War strategy for the U.S. than was chess. A letter to the NYT by Louis Wiznitzer dated February 26, 1961 responded to Morgenstern’s article by saying its pro-poker position “sums up pretty much the essential reasons why the United States has been steadily losing the cold war in the last twelve years.”

“Whereas the Communists are waging a game of chess, with moves as scientifically planned as possible,” noted Wiznitzer, “the Americans are improvising poker moves and bluffs, without a master plan or aim, and depending more or less on their last hand, or reacting to the enemy’s bet.” Since “politics is not a game nor simply an art” but rather a “science,” he insists, the long-range thinking of chess is actually preferable to the overly reactive game of poker.

“You cannot beat chess with poker,” he concludes.

It’s an interesting response, and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion less than two months later -- soon recognized as a woefully shortsighted “play” with especially damaging consequences for the U.S. -- probably helped convince many that Witnitzer, not Morgenstern, was on the right side of this debate at the time.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

NJ Sports Betting: Leagues Throw Out the Challenge Flag

Was curious this afternoon to see what might happen up in New Jersey regarding its efforts to legalize sports betting.

You might have heard the legislature in the Garden State rushed a bill through both houses last week and a day later Governor Chris Christie signed it, and all was in place at Monmouth Park to start taking bets on the NFL games this Sunday.

Earlier this week came the complaints from the NCAA and the four major professional leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL) who took the position that the New Jersey law which would allow casinos and horse tracks to take sports bet was “in clear and flagrant violation of federal law” (the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992).

The leagues sought an injunction to keep New Jersey from going forward with sports betting, New Jersey filed a response to the complaint, then all waited to see what U.S. District Court Judge Michael A. Shipp might do. Without any sort of ruling, bets could be taken, but Shipp could step in to issue a temporary restraining order so more time could be taken to decide on the case.

And that’s what Shipp did just before the end of the business day today, although it sounds like the order only prevents bets involving the NCAA or the four major leagues, meaning they actually could take sports bets at Monmouth on golf, tennis, NASCAR, and other sports, or so points out an advisor to Monmouth. (Not sure that’s actually the case, though.)

Here’s an article in The Press of Atlantic City detailing Shipp’s late afternoon decision. For a good and quick overview of what’s happening regarding these efforts to get sports betting in New Jersey and Shipp’s decision, check out this radio interview with John Brennan of the Bergan Record. (Thanks to Grange95 for tweeting that one out, and check his blog for more good commentary on this topic.) [EDIT (added 10/25/14]: And for another interesting read, here’s Brennan delivering a blow-by-blow account the scene in Shipp’s courtroom when he gave the decision.]

In the interview, Brennan spells out how it was a little extraordinary for such a restraining order to be granted, but Shipp had a history of ruling in that direction on this issue and so his decision wasn’t a surprise. So they’re on hold a little longer in New Jersey on the sports betting front. Meanwhile they’re still playing online poker and gambling in other ways there, and of course fantasy sports continues to be enjoyed all over the nation.

Allowing sports betting in the ailing Atlantic City casinos (those that remain, anyhow) and at the horse tracks doesn’t seem terribly out of place from afar, and the leagues’ complaints against it seem disingenuous when sports betting already happens legally in Nevada (and illegally everywhere) and the leagues have continued to survive. Will remain curious to see if it ever comes about.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Two More for the PHOF

I mentioned a few weeks ago when the nominees for this year’s Poker Hall of Fame were announced how this year I was not part of the panel of media who voted along with the living PHOF members. I had that privilege to cast a ballot for the previous four years, actually. Was honored to have had the chance to take part and happy to step aside to allow others the chance to do so.

Today the WSOP announced Daniel Negreanu and Jack McClelland had been voted in, with Negreanu a “first-ballot” Hall of Famer as he just turned 40, the minimum age for induction.

As I didn’t participate this time, I’m not 100% sure on what the instructions were for those who did. In the past, we’d receive the ballot with the 10 nominees listed and vote according to a “10-point must system” meaning we had 10 points we had to assign to one, two, or three candidates. So we could give all 10 points to one nominee, split the points among two or three, or even vote for no one (I think).

Then the points were all tallied and the two candidates who received the most total points were elected. I believe at some point early on there was talk about a candidate needing enough points to exceed a minimum overall percentage to make it (as in the Baseball Hall of Fame), but if I’m not mistaken they just take the top two point-getters, however many points they happened to get.

Like I say, I don’t know if they used the same system this year, but if they did I have to imagine everyone had to have given Negreanu some of their points, perhaps even most of them. And I’d guess many of the living PHOFers likely cast votes for McClelland, as well as some of the media.

Negreanu’s poker résumé is so extensive it goes without saying he was a shoo-in and much deserving. McClelland recently retired at the end of last year after four decades in poker, a time that included serving as a tournament director since the 1980s in various poker rooms (including at the WSOP).

I was at McClelland’s last tourney, actually, the WPT Five Diamond at the Bellagio last December, where there were some nice moments of recognition for him at the final table. His contributions to poker are harder for those who came into the game more recently to appreciate, but he’s clearly had a significant influence that many have regarded as especially positive.

There will be a ceremony at the November Nine to recognize Negreanu and McClelland. Perhaps next summer the WSOP will consider my Poker Hall of Fame idea to construct some sort of temporary “Hall” in the halls of the Rio.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

“I Hate Trusting Anybody”

Ben Bradlee, the longtime executive editor of The Washington Post who became a nationally-known figure for his role managing the paper’s reporting on Watergate, has passed away at age 93.

Like most, my knowledge of Bradlee and his career has been mostly confined to that period during the early 1970s when he guided Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, although as the many remembrances being published this week show his influence and significance in journalism extends well beyond that important period in American history and politics.

If you’ve seen the 1976 film All the President’s Men, you’ll recall Jason Robards played Bradlee -- excellently, as Robards was in everything. In fact he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for what was really a small part, though perfectly pitched with the gravitas appropriate to someone in Bradlee’s position of authority.

I liked the character of Bradlee -- both in the film and in real life (in the context of reading Watergate, where I’ve mostly encountered him). Via Robards he comes off as partly a parental figure, partly a tough-minded coach, possessed of both the relevant experience and unassailable intellect to make sound decisions. I think I like the character so much mainly because of my own experience both as a teacher and as an editor, roles that require not just being able to pull out the red pen and use it unhesitatingly, but to be willing and able to assume responsibility for others when required.

I also like the character for all the great lines he delivers, such as the one that punctuates the scene when Bradlee gives the pair the go-ahead to run their story:

The line “I hate trusting anybody” doesn’t appear in Bernstein and Woodward’s 1974 bestseller, I don’t believe, although the sentiment is there in the way the authors present their editor. And Bradlee articulated the same position again and again in various contexts subsequently, such as in 1995 when he told 60 Minutes “I just do not believe the first version of events in this city,” referring to the nation’s capital and how inside the Beltway people “don’t tell the truth a hundred different ways.”

Not accepting what you are told (or what you see) at face value is obviously a skill great poker players cultivate, their training to do so advanced by the consistency with which opponents “don’t tell the truth a hundred different ways.” Inspiring such skepticism and inquisitiveness -- something I like to think I’ve been able to do here and there as a teacher and perhaps outside of the classroom occasionally, too -- is a good legacy to leave.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Professionals Leave the Table

Today Full Tilt Poker announced they aren’t renewing sponsorship contracts with Viktor “Isildur1” Blom and Gus Hansen, thereby jettisoning the last two sponsored pros from the site. Also gone (apparently) is the name originally given to the site’s “power trio” of sponsored pros -- Blom, Hansen, and Tom Dwan -- shortly after the launch of FTP 2.0 in November 2012: “The Professionals.”

Dwan left the band in December 2013. I wrote here then how the occasion inspired “thoughts of how the whole idea of poker celebs -- that different class of poker ‘professionals’ -- once such a very effective construct of online sites and abetted ably by the TV shows the sites sponsored, seems like something from an earlier era.”

Today’s news moves the needle even less. Hansen has long remained a figure of interest to many thanks to his win in the very first televised World Poker Tour event way back in 2002, his high-level involvement with FTP as a member of Team Full Tilt, and his continued participation in the “nosebleed” stakes games on the site where he’s reportedly lost over $20 million, including more than $17 million on the site during the last two years (according to High Stakes DB).

Blom, too, has fascinated many ever since the mysterious “Isildur1” showed up to challenge all of those Team Full Tilters and the rest of the world in late 2009. I’ve written here many times about Blom, including how intriguing it was to report on him at the WSOP. High Stakes DB shows Blom sitting around break-even during his almost two years playing on FTP 2.0, having been up nearly $6 million during the first six or seven months before falling back down to where he was on the site back in November 2012 (down a few milly).

The last post I wrote here about Hansen was in January 2013 when just a couple of months after FTP 2.0 went live he fired off some tone-deaf tweets in defense of Howard Lederer that were dismissive of just about the entire online poker community. The title of that post, “Ungrateful Gus; or, Hansen on High,” suggests how his thoughts were received here. The last one I wrote about Blom was right about the same time, the title of which was a response to enthusiastic tweets from the FTP account reporting his presence at the high-stakes tables on the site: “Blasé About Blom.” Again, the title is an indicator of the attitude expressed in the post.

Today the dissolution of “The Professionals” altogether brings a different thought to mind about the significance of sponsored pros to online sites. I actually think they can serve a great purpose, even today, not just in helping attract players and building sites’ presence, but in helping to advocate for poker, generally speaking. The Team PokerStars Pros are an obviously well managed example of this, with players all over the world doing a lot to help explain and promote poker to wider audiences in their respective countries.

I’m realizing today, though, that FTP’s “Professionals” idea -- a dim echo of Team Full Tilt from the start -- had very little to do with establishing and strengthening connections among members of an online poker community. Rather, its whole ethos was to emphasize the impassable distance between Hansen, Blom, and Dwan and the unwashed masses.

The spectacle of watching “The Professionals” play for high stakes was mildly diverting for some, but hardly inspiring for most, particularly given the seeming apathy -- or even antipathy (in Hansen’s case) -- they appeared to have for the poker community as a whole.

In fact, the news of the end of the “The Professionals” makes me think of what a table full of amateurs might say to each other after a pro player finally gets up to leave after having made things difficult for them for the previous several hours.

“Glad he’s gone.”

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Travel Report: LAPT7 Peru, Day 4 -- A Grand Final

The final day of play in the LAPT Peru Grand Final Main Event took a while, starting at noon on Sunday and lasting until just about 9 p.m. before Oscar Alache of Chile came away with the victory following a three-handed deal. Was kind of a neat way to end Season 7 for the tour, with eight players from eight different countries (seven of them in Central or South America) vying for the last title of the year.

Heads-up between Alache and the 65-year-old Uruguyan Daniel Campodonico was kind of curious, actually, with both players almost always just limping in from the button, the other almost always checking, followed by a lot of passive play postflop. The only variation would come with open-raises all in, although the key hand of the match saw a limped pot produce a check-bet-shove-call sequence.

Alache had flopped two pair with 7-3-offsuit, Campodonico a flush draw, and the two pair held to give Alache a big lead before he finished things off. There had been room for some postflop play, if the players had wanted to engage in such -- there were about 70 big blinds in play for a lot of their duel -- but neither chose to do much other than call or check or shove.

Third-place finisher Jerson Backmann actually won the largest share of the prize pool thanks to the three-way deal, though. When the final three went off to discuss a possible deal, I joked with Sergio Prado (blogging for the PokerStars Brazil site) that they should come back and say they wanted to play it out as a Spin & Go. (Rim shot.)

All in all it was a nice finish for the season with such a big turnout and a record prize pool (for Lima) for the LAPT. There’s a lot of anticipation surrounding the Season 8 kickoff in the Bahamas -- coming just before the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure -- as well as a lot else LAPT-related to come.

Fun spending the week with so many people excited about poker, and of course to get the chance to work with such a great group of people as are part of the LAPT.

Long day of travel ahead. Talk to you again from the farm.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Travel Report: LAPT7 Peru, Day 3 -- Muy Rápido

An unexpectedly fast one yesterday at the Latin American Poker Tour Peru Grand Final. Not sure why I always come to these events anticipating days to last longer than they ultimately do, but one of these times I’ll remember that on the LAPT the pace is pretty much always muy rápido.

We had 45 players to start the day and had to play down to eight. Settled in thinking it would take us deep into the night to get there, but they managed to work all of the way down to that goal in just under six one-hour levels.

Was a wacky day, really, with the player who started it in 41st place out of 45 -- Jerson Backmann of Mexico -- ending the day with a big chip lead. Another one, Argentina's Jose Torre, was in 44th position, and he made the final table, too, with a middle-of-the-pack stack. Meanwhile Nacho Barbero's quest for a third LAPT title came up short as he busted in 17th.

The early finish allowed us finally to break free from the casino and head a few blocks away to enjoy a nice meal at a restaurant called Punto Azul where I enjoyed a delicious dish of fettuccine full of seafood with the black squid ink adding some extra flavor and character.

Having to be muy rápido with posting today as the final table is drawing near. Check the PokerStars blog today for updates, and while you’re watching the NFL perhaps look in on the LAPT Live stream as well.

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