Friday, May 22, 2015

Remko’s Run

Last summer I remember listening to an episode of the Dope Stories Podcast, the one featuring Shane “Shaniac” Schleger and Dr. Pauly. It was their “last” episode, actually, titled “This Is The End,” although they’d get together for another reunion ep. after that one.

On the show Pauly tells a funny story about working at the World Series of Poker several years back, with one of the story’s highlights (for me) having to do with our Dutch friend Remko Rinkema. I must’ve first met Remko at the 2008 WSOP when he was there reporting for PokerNews’ “NL” site, and we’ve had the chance to work together many times since then including most recently at the EPT Grand Final in Monaco.

I won’t rehearse all of Pauly’s story, but I will say it has to do with him having noticed something special about Remko. As the good doctor explains, his powers of perception had been heightened pharmaceutically, thereby enabling him to see more clearly than the rest of us Remko’s unrelentingly bright and positive aura. I’m remembering Remko back then often dressed in the orange jersey of his native country’s football squad, which I suppose only heightened the sunshiny effect Pauly was witnessing.

You can take Pauly’s story however you like, but anyone who knows Remko would readily agree that it is almost impossible not to pick up on the positive vibrations he consistently gives off. There are many others with whom I’ve had the good fortune to work at poker tournaments over the years who have also made my life brighter and funnier, and I’ll bet a lot of them -- like me -- would include Remko in that category of colleagues, too.

Thus was it especially fun to see Remko not only go deep in yesterday’s PokerStars’ Spring Championship of Online Poker Event #35-M, the $215 8-game mix, but actually come close to winning the sucker. He finished second out of 548, and in fact took away the largest share of the prize pool ($18,195.21) thanks to making a deal heads-up when he had the chip lead.

Even wilder, he outlasted both fourth-place finisher Dzmitry "Colisea" Urbanovich (who finished fourth) and Team PokerStars Pro Jason Mercier (who finished third), even knocking both of them out. Urbanovich is just coming off a series of European Poker Tour victories and earning EPT Player of the Year for Season 11, while Mercier has won three SCOOP titles over the last week-and-a-half. Seriously, what a barnburner!

When he and the eventual winner, a player named “Toby Work” from Denmark, were heads-up and getting the deal done, Remko’s opponent asked “u r journalist?” Remko didn’t hesitate before answering.

“I’m a top poker pro, I just write about poker so that the others have a chance to win,” he typed.

Remko’s many friends who were railing -- including both players and other poker media -- all laughed wherever they were around the world, each imagining hearing Remko delivering that line. (“Imagine how much funnier I am in Dutch,” Remko once told me. I believe it.)

I was glad a lot of us Remko fans got a chance last night to enjoy seeing him shine.

(EDIT [added 5/23/15]: To hear Remko tell the story of his run, check out the newest PokerNews podcast.)

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Last Call for Late Night

Along with about 14 million others I watched David Letterman’s show last night, his last after more than three decades of being a fixture on late night television. Was laughing pretty hard from beginning to end thanks to a lot of well chosen and edited clips and other funny business.

I remember when Letterman was late, late night -- as in a 12:30 a.m. start. In fact I even dimly remember his stint with a morning show, too. I was barely a teen when Late Night with David Letterman first premiered in early 1982, at time which happened to coincide with that period in my life when I would be staying up late a lot, too.

Watched enough of him during those years to be as influenced as anyone else by what was then considered a somewhat alternative style of comedy and general TV spoofing. Like most of my generation I continued to pay fairly close attention to Letterman right up until those “late night wars” surrounding Johnny Carson’s retirement in 1992.

Kept watching occasionally after the CBS show began airing in the summer of ’93, although by then whatever late nights I kept were school-related as for the next several years I’d be pursuing graduate degrees. Then came “real life” and full-time employment, and thus fewer late nights watching the tube.

After that came this second career writing about poker which again has me up all hours, although more often watching people play cards than crack jokes on the teevee. So while I occasionally would keep tuning in to watch the Late Show it would only be now and then, and rarely in the elective way I’d watched the NBC show.

I wasn’t paying attention, then, when Letterman had Chris Moneymaker on as a guest after he’d won the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event -- in June, that is, before that year’s WSOP had aired on ESPN. That episode doesn’t seem to be online anywhere, although Moneymaker told me once how he was pretty sure he had a tape of it somewhere.

I do recall Joe Cada’s turn on Letterman’s show in 2009, where the youngest-ever WSOP ME champ appeared just a day or two before he turned 22. Earlier that same year I wrote something here after a Steve Martin appearance on Late Show which included a funny story about Martin playing online poker after taking Ambien.

I’ve found myself distracted some over the last couple of days reading others’ stories about Letterman’s show and its significance while also looking at various clips, mostly from that first decade or so he was on the air and I was watching practically every night. And I greatly enjoyed the finale, primarily because of how Letterman characteristically downplayed the significance of the event -- entirely expected, and fitting, of course, given the self-deprecating core around which most of his humor has always been based.

I liked the sweet yet not overly sentimental way he acknowledged his mother (whom we all remember fondly, too). And I also liked how he found a spot to include his wife and son (whom we hadn’t met before), saying to them “I love you both and really nothing else matters, does it?” without being at all maudlin about it, but rather just stating a fact.

Others have (and will continue to) assign significance to his contributions to television, comedy, and the culture in general. Like Letterman himself, though, I’m dissuaded from trying to articulate any profundities explaining what it all was about.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

One More Week

The 2015 World Series of Poker begins a week from today, and like most in the poker world my attention will be mostly occupied by what happens in the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino over the following seven weeks or so. (That here-it-comes-ready-or-not photo from the Twitter feed of WSOP.com’s Bill Rini.)

Like like summer I’m likely sticking close to the farm, albeit still attuned to the proceedings happening around 1,900 miles west. Curious, too, to see how it all gets covered, including the WSOP handling the live updates itself this time rather than have PokerNews “power” those as has been done since 2007. (Was using that verb in yesterday’s post, too.)

To me the most interesting story will be how the numbers go. Every year since, well, the “boom,” it seems, predictions have been that fields will be smaller, although they’ve continued to hold steady each and every year. I suppose smart money would predict another relatively even year -- right at or a little above the last. But like watching another runout following an ace-king vs. queens all in, it’s still somehow interesting to watch what happens.

Particular events will be of interest, too, with that crazy “Colossus” (the $565 buy-in one coming a week from Friday) likely to set a tone of sorts for what comes thereafter. The WSOP as a whole is an incredible logistical puzzle each year, so for this one event with its multiple, overlapping starting flights and anticipated record-breaking field will be quite a feat to see.

With everyone else, am staying tuned.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

GPI, WSOP, POY, et al.

A little behind with other stuff this week. Saw one item over the past few days I might’ve written more extensively about in the past, but am only going to allude to briefly here today -- both because I don’t have time to sort through it fully, and I’m not sure how deeply I’d want to get into it even if I did.

It was announced last week that the Global Poker Index will be “powering” the World Series of Poker Player of the Year rankings this time around. (That’s a great, positive-sounding verb, by the way, to describe such a relationship, isn’t it?) In fact, the new name for the race/award will be the “GPI WSOP Player of the Year.”

BLUFF had previously been the one powering the WSOP POY, and their method seemed reasonably powerful enough although like any ranking system it was the subject of plenty of debate. I think over recent years more have objected to the WSOP Europe and/or the WSOP APAC events being included in the tabulations than have had any problems with the way the rankings were done.

Now the WSOP Player of the Year will be determined according to points players earned as determined by the current GPI model, which differs in a number of ways from what BLUFF had done. Like I say, I might’ve written at length about this before, but instead today I’ll point first to Jess Welman’s recent post over on her blog that highlights some of these differences, titled “POY Problems.”

Amid the Twitter discussion of the topic I was led to read another interesting post written a few months ago that like Jess’s takes issue with the GPI rankings while also comparing them to BLUFF’s method. That one is by poker player Michael Wang and is titled “A Critique of the GPI Ranking System.”

The WSOP POY race -- or should I say, the GPI WSOP POY race (which is hard to rattle off if you need to ASAP or PDQ) -- serves a few different purposes, including heightening interest in the events for fans of poker and in some cases providing encouragement to players to play more events. The winner gets a trophy, is pictured on a banner to be hung in the Rio hallways each summer (like Allen Cunningham’s above), and is honored in a special ceremony, but there aren’t any other tangible benefits (as far as I know).

Stepping back from the whole issue, it feels a lot like a different, more detailed version of the debate over WSOP bracelets and their relative worth. It also resembles other debates from major sports, too, having to do with the numbers games can create and how we interpret them.

I’ll just leave it all right there for now, though, and let you, reader, do your own interpreting.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

The Virtual Rail

Late last week I was railing a friend as he played a Spring Championship of Online Poker event on PokerStars.

He was on Twitch as well, and once I realized that I opened up his channel and heard him commenting about the heads-up match in which he was involved to a modest-sized audience of viewers, some of whom were chatting to him along the way.

Eventually someone in chat mentioned how his opponent in the heads-up match was also streaming the match on Twitch, something my friend found interesting but didn’t really give much attention. His viewers continued to discuss it, though, and eventually someone mentioned the fellow’s Twitch handle.

Soon enough I had his channel up as well, meaning I had the Stars client open and showing the match play out plus both players’ Twitch channels on which they were commenting about the hands as they went by (about five minutes behind for each, I think).

This wasn’t a couple of pros playing at the highest levels and breaking down every decision to the smallest possible minutiae, so it wasn’t quite what you might be used to hearing as far as live analysis goes. My friend was commenting on hands in a relatively low-key manner, occasionally speculating about his opponent’s thinking or intentions as a hand progressed. Occasional chat box criticisms from the other fellow also got my friend’s attention, leading him to wonder if perhaps the guy might be tilted.

The other fellow’s channel absolutely confirmed that he was indeed much more emotionally involved in the match, hurling frequent epithets at my buddy whom he’d judged some time before to be a less than skilled player. While he’d kept the chat box comments to a minimum, he was showing no restraint before his Twitch followers, and it was almost as good a show as any Hellmuthian “How does he always get there!?!” rants.

The contrast between the two players’ personalities couldn’t have been greater. The match concluded almost predictably with my friend winning -- sucking out on the last hand, actually, after getting it in a slight dog -- and noting in an understated way his good fortune to advance. Meanwhile the other fellow was angrily throwing headphones around and shouting “I’m done! I’m done!” before logging off.

It all added up to something a little out-of-the-ordinary as far as watching poker was concerned, although maybe down the road something like that won’t seem so novel. Was entertaining to be sure, and perhaps a little bit educational, although in truth it felt more voyeuristic than anything, as a lot of what falls under the heading of “social media” ultimately is -- i.e., us looking at what other people are doing.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Comedy, Poker, and the “Call Back”

Easily the most interesting hand from the final table of the PokerStars and Monte-Carlo®Casino EPT Grand Final Main Event that finished up last Friday was the one in which eventual winner Adrian Mateos successfully bluffed Johnny Lodden when the tournament was down to just four players.

If you watched the final table or followed the coverage on PokerNews, you know the hand. It began as a family pot, then after both Mateos and Lodden missed the flop both players made plays to knock out the other two (one of whom had to fold what was then the best hand).

The gamesmanship continued to the river where Mateos -- then the chip leader -- pushed all in with jack-high and Lodden thought seriously about calling with pocket fives (with a couple of aces and a nine on board). Finally Lodden folded, though, and Mateos showed his bluff afterwards.

I wrote something about the hand today over on PokerNews, not necessarily trying to analyze it fully but rather just looking at hands preceding that one in which Mateos similarly just called preflop raises -- kind of guessing that might have been one (of a few) factors Lodden was considering when trying to decide about Mateos’s range of hands at the end.

In the article I also talk some about the sitcom Cheers -- a favorite of mine that I’ve written about here before -- connecting the idea of a comedy “call back” with what happens in poker when a player’s action in one hand recalls something from an earlier hand. You can check it out here: “The ‘Call Back’: On That Epic Adrian Mateos-Johnny Lodden EPT Grand Final Hand.”

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

On the WSOP Conference Call

With a little over two weeks to go before the start of this year’s World Series of Poker, the WSOP conducted its annual conference call for the media on Tuesday.

Ty Stewart (WSOP Executive Director), Jack Effel (WSOP Tournament Director), Bill Rini (WSOP.com Head of Online Poker), and Seth Palansky (VP of Corporate Communications for CIE) were on the call. As usual, each started out with statements covering various items, then the group fielded questions to round out the hour.

Here’s a full rundown of what was discussed, if you’re curious: “Highlights from the 2015 World Series of Poker Conference Call.”

The Q&A was a bit more interesting than were the statements which contained a few news items but mostly just reiterated schedule details and other information for players.

The first question was about the Colossus, the $565 buy-in event coming during the first weekend for which expectations are very high in terms of the turnout. The question asked about scheduling the Colossus early rather than later in the schedule, and while the answer to that was predictable (“we think we’re ready”), the WSOP’s unbridled optimism regarding the turnout will make it interesting to see just how many play.

It’ll also be interesting to see how well the WSOP meets the logistical challenge they’ve given themselves to stage a tournament that will surely draw more than 10,000 entries, and perhaps much, much more than that. “If it is not by a large margin the biggest event in the history of poker, it will be a disappointment,” said Stewart.

There were other questions about the Colossus, about betting on final tables, about patch restrictions, about making the November Nine a three-day affair (rather than two), about WSOP.com-related matters (including the online bracelet event), about satellites, and more. The most interesting question, I thought, was the one from Kevin Mathers (representing BLUFF) about final table deals and the WSOP’s long-held policy to prohibit them.

I noticed some discussion of that topic last week over Twitter, with Palansky dipping in with a few confusing comments before stepping out of the conversation. The answer this time came from Stewart who echoed what the WSOP has said in the past about how (in their view) those watching WSOP events would rather see them played out to a conclusion rather than have the climactic moment in which a winner is determined muted by a deal.

The policy (as stated in this way) has more to do with spectators than with players. “The general public really doesn’t want to see skill-based games played that way,” said Stewart. “I can tell you ESPN producers and viewers [also] don’t want to see poker played that way.”

This is a curious point of view, contrasting markedly with how the European Poker Tour (for instance) has handled the issue of both deal-making and audience expectations and/or desires. The reference to “skill-based games” is also interesting, given that a frequent motive for making a final table deal is to reduce the role luck plays in determining how remaining prize money gets divided.

Stewart described those supporting deal-making at the WSOP as “a small and vocal minority,” suggesting that for most players at the WSOP it would be a negative to allow deals. I’m not sure that’s really the case -- i.e., that only a minority support being able to make deals at the WSOP -- and thus I don’t think that issue is going to go away, especially as players continue to make deals on their own, anyway.

Just a couple of weeks to go.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Playing Games, Watching Sports

Saw someone refer in passing to this whole “sportifying” poker idea that has come up now and again over the last several months, usually in the context of the Global Poker Index and some of the ideas and stories related to their method of ranking tournament players and associated ventures.

It was an unsympathetic reference, insisting -- as I tend to do -- that poker is really a “game” not a “sport,” although not elaborating on the point much further.

This debate or conversation starter or whatever you want to call it comes up occasionally in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” course, thanks largely to a reading I assign early on, the first chapter of Al Alvarez’s book Poker: Bets, Bluffs and Bad Beats titled “The American Game.”

In that chapter Alvarez makes a good case for why poker is, in his opinion, the “American national game.” In fact the first move he makes as he launches into the argument is explicitly to distinguish poker from baseball and football -- i.e., a couple of other games which might spring to mind as candidates for the title he’s bestowing on poker.

The difference, says Alvarez, is that “baseball and football are spectator sports, and, airtime and column inches notwithstanding, not many people go on playing them once they have left school and lost their physical edge. Poker, in comparison, is a game for life and a great equalizer -- what the young gain from stamina the old make up for with experience -- and it is played by at least sixty million Americans.”

The book was published in 2001, when about 285 million lived in the U.S. Today the population is edging toward 320 million. You continue to see estimates of the number of poker players ranging from 40-60 million, although that’s obviously a hard number to pinpoint.

In any case it’s probably safe to say there are more people playing poker in America than are playing baseball or football. According to one report, there were a little over one million football players in high school last year and a little under half a million playing baseball. You could extrapolate from that how many total players (older and younger) there might be in each sport, but I think the total would be well below the 40-60 million poker players.

A lifelong sport like golf might be a better comparison, actually. It sounds like there are about 25 million golfers in the country at present, a number that has held steady for the last three years or so according to another report.

Stepping back from all of this (and perhaps getting a little abstract as I do), it occurred to me that calling poker a “sport” rather than a “game” could make it seem more like something you watch than something you play.

Many of us love to play one sport or another, but don’t necessarily look upon all sports as providing opportunities for participation. Or any, even. Each sport requires some specific set of physical skills that can potentially limit involvement for those who lack them. Meanwhile playing a game of cards also requires some skills (more so mental than physical), and to play cards well requires even more, but the game of poker is nowhere near as exclusive as are sports like baseball and basketball.

I know the idea behind “sportifying” poker is to make the game more accessible (and acceptable), but could calling poker a sport and championing its most successful players as superior mental “athletes” actually make the game less inviting to new players? That is, could it make the game seem more exclusive as far as participating is concerned, though (perhaps) more inviting to spectators?

Another way of posing the same question: Today the International Federation of Poker (@IFPoker) tweeted “#Poker is a game where the best players think about the way hands are played at a level most people couldn't even imagine! #mindsport #skill.” That’s a view I imagine most of us who have studied poker and who take the game seriously can readily appreciate to be true.

But does that make poker a more inviting game to play? Or less?

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Gertrude Schimmel: First Female NYPD Chief, Poker Player

Saw a story earlier today over in The New York Times that Gertrude Schimmel, the first female chief with the New York Police Department, had died in Manhattan at the age of 96.

The NYT obituary for Schimmel details her fascinating life, focusing primarily on her lengthy career with the NYPD that lasted from her joining as officer in 1940 to her retiring in 1981. She’d been on the force for two decades when she and another policewoman took the city to court to challenge discriminatory promotional policies and won.

She was elevated to sergeant and then lieutenant in the 1960s, then eventually captain in the early 1970s. By her final years on the force she was a deputy chief.

Near the end of the article comes a reference to the fact that “Ms. Schimmel was an avid poker player who competed in professional events into her last years.”

I’d known that Schimmel had been an NYPD chief, although didn’t know all of the details of her story. I also knew already that she played poker during her decades of retirement, and in fact before she retired, too. How? Because I happened to have met her a couple of years ago when at age 94 she played in the Ladies Event at the World Series of Poker (from which comes the photo above, taken by Jayne Furman).

I had just told this story to some of my colleagues last week, in fact, during one of our dinner breaks from reporting on the EPT Grand Final in Monte Carlo. Amid a field of 936 on the first day of the Ladies Event, I’d seen Schimmel sporting an NYPD baseball cap with someone at her side helping her. Eventually I was able to say hello to her and talk to her helper -- her niece -- who told me more about her story, which I then shared over on the PokerNews blog.

I learned then that Schimmel had been playing poker for more than 50 years, and that like many who took up the game during the middle of the last century, seven-card stud was her favored game. She’d played at the WSOP in the Ladies Event a few times before during the 1980s and 1990s -- when it was stud -- and in fact final tabled it in 1998 (at age 80) when she finished fourth.

It had been a while since she’d played at the WSOP, and I remember her niece explaining to me that she’d had the desire to play it again in 2012, and so they made a trip out of it.

Having written a novel set in the 1970s that in part tries to imagine the NYPD as it existed then, it would’ve been very interesting to talk more with Schimmel about her life. But I’m glad to have had met her even briefly, and (like many others, it is evident) to have drawn some inspiration from having done so.

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Flight Time

Am back home safe and sound on the farm after two weeks in Monaco at the EPT Grand Final. Have already gotten busy mowing some of that grass that relentlessly has been growing on all sides of us for the last six weeks or so.

Wrote about the grass last spring, right about this same time, in fact. Sometimes I find myself looking out and imagining I’m actually seeing it growing. Think sometimes of that Stephen King short story “Weeds,” made into an episode in George Romero’s Creepshow anthology titled “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” (in which King starred).

Speaking of movies, I didn’t watch any on the way out and almost didn’t on the way back. Searching through the selections of mostly new titles, I had little desire to see anything, particularly on a small screen and in a cut version (as is the case with some of them).

It was a nine-hour flight home, and traveling back through six time zones I almost felt like I was getting some time back. But after frittering away the first half of it doing nothing much, I realized I could use some way to make the rest of it go by more quickly. I finally decided to dial up the almost three-hour (and not edited) Interstellar, the sci-fi one starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway.

Was a little skeptical at first, although I was drawn in by the rural farm setting where the film begins. I’d been gone nearly two weeks and was feeling some serious longing to get back not just to Vera, our horses, and cats, but to the pastures, the sky, the barn, the fences, and yes, even that grass growing up all around.

I’ve written here before about being the son of a physicist who nurtured within me curiosity about various physical phenomena, as well as about space. Not enough to have made it an academic pursuit (beyond just a few classes), but enough to make me interested in some of the questions raised by some “hard SF.” Or by movies like Interstellar that take on some tough concepts and ideas and try to fit them into a plot most of us can follow with characters to whom we can relate.

I won’t get into the story too much other than to say after getting over those initial doubts it drew me in quite well. At one point characters having to negotiate passage near a supermassive black hole introduces the idea of gravitational time dilation -- i.e., some characters age just a few minutes while others age many years -- something that subsequently creates some very affecting pathos when a father realizes he’s suddenly missed 23 years of a daughter’s life.

I couldn’t help but think of being away from home for those two weeks and missing everything happening during that time I was gone. From there it isn’t hard to think as well of even longer gaps between meetings with friends and family.

Later on in the film comes a scene with an elderly woman in a hospital near the end of her life, and that, too, brought on some personal memories reminding me of how even though life seems so edge along so gradually, so slowly, it only seems that way because of our lack of attention to what’s happening.

In reality, it’s flying. Faster than we can imagine. Blink and two weeks are gone. Or two months or two years. Or a lifetime. I can’t really see the grass growing. But if I look away for long enough and then look back, it seems like it has.

I’m a complete sucker for time-lapse photography, partially because of the way it foregrounds that theme of time -- our lives -- slipping away from us. I become oddly moved by it, even emotional. I think how we haven’t got long. I think, worriedly... slow down!

Here’s an example of what I mean, an inspired video matched with a track from an album I’ve been listening to a lot lately, Robert Fripp’s A Blessing of Tears (a record expressly intended as a memorial for the artist’s late mother). The music isn’t unlike some of Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for Interstellar, actually, at least in terms of the mood it evokes:

Slow down clouds, sky, grass. Slow down Earth.

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