Friday, April 21, 2017

Absolute Anticlimax

There was an item of news in the poker world last week, the sort of thing about which I might have written several blog posts had it occurred five or six years ago. After all, it was about an online poker site -- two sites, actually -- and cheating and scandal and illegality and all sorts of things your humble scribbler used to spend lots of time and energy opining about back in the day.

It has taken me a whole week even to acknowledge the story, though. Probably because it doesn’t affect me directly at all, and for those it does affect it has come so late as to make it seem we are in a place almost entirely distinct from where we all were when the story began.

It’s like one of those way, way, way late sequels. Or when a band who after shining brightly when young get back together many years later to try to reignite things with new material.

One of my faves, Robyn Hitchcock, actually has a new album out today (and the tracks I’ve heard are terrific). His old band, the Soft Boys, did one of those reunion records in the early 2000s about two decades after they’d split, and in an interview once he referred to it as “a bit of reactivating the undead by bringing back” and reanimating the band for that one-off.

That’s kind of how it feels writing about Absolute Poker and UltimateBet again, this time to report that almost six years after “Black Friday” -- the anniversary for which just passed -- players who had funds on Absolute Poker and UltimateBet and never were able to withdraw them are finally getting a chance to get that money back.

This has to be the slowest of any slow play in poker history.

For those keeping score, there were three sites named in the indictment and civil complaint unsealed on April 15, 2011 by the Department of Justice -- PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker -- with a fourth site, UltimateBet, then part of the “Cereus Network” along with Absolute, similarly affected by the DOJ’s action.

All four sites were subsequently prohibited from allowing players from the United States to continue playing on them. PokerStars shut us off right away. It took Full Tilt Poker an extra couple of days, but soon we got the stop-you-can’t-go-any-further pop-ups over there, too.

Both of those sites also made agreements with the feds right away to get back their domains (after they were momentarily seized). Those agreements involved ensuring funds went to the Americans, something PokerStars did immediately, but Full Tilt Poker never did, having shamefully squandered everyone’s money.

Eventually that led to the DOJ amending the civil complaint in September 2011 with further charges against Full Tilt Poker and new names added, and branding the site a “ponzi scheme” in an accompanying presser.

It took AP and UB a couple of extra weeks to make a similar agreement with the DOJ. Meanwhile, the sites blithely continued to allow U.S. players to play more than a month later (without their having any means of withdrawing). Finally both sites totally shut down -- not just to U.S. players, but the “ROW”-ers, too (rest of world) -- and as was the case with FTP no one was able to cash out a cent.

During the summer of 2012 PokerStars managed another deal with the DOJ, paying a big settlement that included acquiring Full Tilt Poker’s assets and making available outstanding FTP balances to U.S. players. Stars then reopened Full Tilt in November 2012 (outside the U.S., natch). Last year the two sites’ player pools were merged as one.

The reimbursement process was lengthy. I took part in it, finally getting my Full Tilt Poker funds in June 2014, more than three years after being shut out of the site.

(Incidentally, I’m convinced that by going through the withdrawal process which required me to submit bank account information to the DOJ in order to receive my funds, Fifth Third bank chose to close my account without warning and with zero explanation, very likely encouraged to do so by a DOJ initiative called “Operation Choke Point.”)

Anyhow, to get back to those rogue Cereus sites, Absolute Poker and UltimateBet, up until last week it appeared as though anyone with funds on those two sites at the time they went offline were never going to see that money again. Suddenly, though, came an announcement that a process similar to the one by which Full Tilt Poker players were able to recover their funds had begun for those who had money in accounts when Absolute Poker and UltimateBet closed up their respective scam-sites.

Am glad for those affected, although truthfully I can’t say I’ve had a lot of empathy for them during their six-year-long plight. That’s because not only did I not have any money on either AP or UB, I’d withdrawn from both at the first whiff of the insider cheating scandal on one of them (Absolute) in October 2007.

For those coming to all of this well after the fact, you can search this blog for “Absolute Poker” or “UltimateBet” and find plenty. This post from February 2008 links to a lot of other articles about the Absolute scandal, while this one from May 2008 is an early one among many relating details of the even bigger scandal that erupted on UB.

Also, if all of this is only vaguely familiar to you or if you aren’t up at all on the story of “Black Friday” and its aftermath, I wrote an article a year ago for PokerNews describing a lot of it in detail: “Black Friday: Reliving Poker’s Darkest Day Five Years Later.”

Just prior to Black Friday, UltimateBet in particular had somehow crept its way back into the limelight by signing a lot of “team pros” some of whom did work to rehabilitate the site’s post-scandal image. As it soon turned out, whatever the spokespersons’ intentions might have been at the time, it was all incredibly damaging to the poker community and, truthfully, to the subsequently dim prospects for online poker in the U.S.

This news regarding Absolute Poker and UltimateBet and the unveiling of the website where claims can be made by players (through June 9, 2017) took many by surprise, and I noticed a couple of articles describing it having come from “out of nowhere.”

I also saw some attempts to connect the DOJ’s decision to start the process with Preet Bharara’s headline-grabbing dismissal along with a number of other U.S. Attorneys by the Trump administration last month. Bharara, for those who don’t know, was the one who brought the charges against the founders of the implicated sites (and others) that were unsealed on Black Friday. He was also the one who called Full Tilt Poker a “ponzi scheme.”

Truthfully, it seems more likely that the news is more directly connected to Absolute Poker founder Scott Tom -- one of those named in the indictment and civil complaint -- having finally returned to the U.S. in February to face the charges against him. (Tom pleaded not guilty.)

Whatever prompted it, I’m sure the players are glad about it. To me it’s all the faintest hint of a whisper of an echo of a story finally lumbering, zombie-like, toward a much-belated anticlimax. And like Robyn Hitchcock was saying, it feels a bit like reactivating the undead to write about it.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Heads-Up and Humility

Wanted to share a short thought I had related to that Masters championship that concluded on Sunday. Actually the thought was inspired from both an impression of the ending of the golf tournament and after following the last live updates from the PokerStars Championships Macau Main Event final table, also taking place on Sunday.

I say the latter took place on Sunday, although in truth while it was Sunday morning and early afternoon here, it was Sunday evening and Monday morning in Macau, as the tournament didn’t conclude until around 2 a.m. their time. That reminded me of my lone visit to Macau back in late 2012 and the very long and late final day of the Asia Championship of Poker.

That day play didn’t end until around 3 a.m. I’ll skip over the details -- all recorded here in a blog post written after I’d gotten back -- but what followed was a kind of mad scramble by me afterwards to make my plane out of Hong Kong that morning. In fact, I didn’t make my flight, but things worked out in the end.

Much like happened back in 2012, heads-up lasted an inordinately long time at inaugural PSC Macau Main Event. In fact, it lasted about twice as long, as the final two in my tournament went about six hours while the final two last weekend -- Tianyuan Tang and eventual winner Elliot Smith -- went something close to 12 hours before finishing.

I followed the updates while chatting online with some of the fellas there reporting. I also noticed some of the talk on Twitter, with a few judgments passed along here and there about the heads-up skills of the final pair.

Televised coverage of the final round of the Masters began just about the time play ended in Macau, and as you know that ended up with a kind of protracted “heads-up” finish between Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia. By the last few holes those two had broken ahead of the chase pack, then both missed some big putts down the stretch before Garcia managed to take it down on the first playoff hole.

Heads-up is hard, man. No relaxing. No matter if it lasts a few minutes or hours and hours.

Garcia’s a poker player, as many readers of this blog probably know, regularly playing at the Bahamas each January and also turning up in tournaments in Spain. Has even cashed a handful of times, including in the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event once a few years ago, although I’m not aware of him ever making it to heads-up in a poker tournament. (He does have a third-place finish, though.)

When Garcia and Rose were battling at the end -- and especially after each missed big pressure-packed putts -- there was also some censure of their play. I’m remembering someone describing the play as a “disgrace” and comparing some missed putts to what amateurs might do when playing a round for $20. That’s part of the fun of following major sporting events, though -- the armchair quarterbacking and coaching, I mean. Adds a lot to the overall entertainment.

Anyhow, the combination of these two “heads-up” matches and the crowds of onlookers made me think a little bit of my own experience, in particular that recent poker tournament I played in which I made it to heads-up and with dozens of people watching and cheering came up short of winning the sucker.

I’ve gotten to heads-up in poker tournaments plenty of times before, winning some and losing others. That might’ve been the first time there was a significant rail, though. I remember thinking afterwards that I’d played heads-up okay for the most part, though obviously second-guessed a few decisions and concluded I could’ve handled it differently. I might have thought as well for just a moment or two about what others might have thought about it all, but didn’t waste a lot of time with that, to be honest.

I’ve watched countless number of players going at it heads-up to conclude tournaments before, and I know it’s always very tempting to cast judgments as an observer. Sometimes it’s obvious enough when a player makes a mistake or poor play. In that case, criticism is essentially going to be objective and informed. A lot of times, though, it’s harder to know from the outside all the variables making up the context of each decision and/or action.

Over what is now approaching a decade of reporting on poker tournaments, I’m a long way away from having the judging instinct when watching and reporting on hands. There’s always more information than can be understood or appreciated by a spectator, even when you know the hole cards.

All in all, I’ve become less quick to jump on even the more obvious mistakes competitors will make to betray themselves as less than graceful under pressure. Especially when they’re heads-up.

Image: “one on ones,” Jurgen Appelo. CC BY 2.0.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Ceiling Is the Roof

Carolina played terribly. Gonzaga also wasn’t good. And the refereeing nearly suffocated the life out of the second half, making everyone miserable.

But I enjoyed it.

Somehow my alma mater, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, managed to play two of their worst games all season on Saturday and Monday and still won the men’s basketball national championship. Saturday’s game was particularly nonsensical, with the Heels missing four consecutive free throws at the end yet still managing to secure a one-point win over Oregon. Last night’s final versus Gonzaga was similarly nuts throughout, with only a lucky break or three during the last couple of minutes swinging things UNC’s way in the end.

That post title, of course, comes from Michael Jordan’s funny, tripped-up-and-tangled sign off to a halftime speech he gave at the last regular season UNC-Duke game this year in which he was referring to the football team’s prospects.

“I wish you guys nothing but the best,” said Jordan. “The ceiling is the roof. Let’s make it happen.”

By the next game UNC students and fans were wearing t-shirts acknowledging the phrase. And as the NCAA run continued, so, too, did the “meme” created by the absurdity. And frankly, given how absurdly some of the games went (including last night’s), it felt appropriate. A goof that turned out all right.

Having grown up on Dean Smith’s disciplined teams that always seemed to be thinking a couple of steps ahead at any given moment, these last few seasons of UNC basketball have provided quite a contrast. This year in particular, the games have been especially chaotic thanks to a style that mostly shuns set offenses in favor of fast breaks and first-opportunity shots.

The ability to rebound (they led the nation in that stat) made up for a lot of deficits for UNC this year, enabling them to win despite poor shooting and/or game management. Still, for most of the season -- and particularly the last few games of the NCAA tournament -- I couldn’t help thinking of the poker-related term “high variance” whenever watching them play.

It was like watching a nonstop series of preflop all-ins, with UNC winning just enough of them to keep from going broke, then ultimately winning the last one to take down the tournament. Most were “coin flips,” although Carolina got it in bad plenty of times and won (and got it in good sometimes and lost).

Last night there were banked in three-pointers, crazy loose-ball scrambles resulting in momentum-swinging buckets, missed free throws galore, and oh-so-many bad shots. Both teams ended up having hit just over one of three attempts for the game, with Carolina an incredible 4-for-27 from three. Just brutal, with all that clanging of balls off rims and backboards introducing a ton of randomness into the outcome.

So, too, did the refs, who were unbelievably whistle-happy, inconsistent, and just flat-out wrong on many occasions. There were 22 fouls called in the first 12 minutes of the second half, not too far shy of one per possession. That upped the variance even more.

All that said, after the previous games I’d already resigned myself to pulling not so much for good, solid play from my team, but merely for us to get lucky at the end -- as happened against Arkansas, Kentucky, and Oregon this year, and as failed to happen for the Heels in the title game against Villanova a year ago.

I remember 1982 (with Jordan) and 1993 vividly, and while 2005 and 2009 were nice, they haven’t stuck with me the same way. I think 2017 will, though, if only because of how uncanny it felt watching games with such an incredibly high level of uncertainty for such extended periods.

Last night’s game wasn’t so much like ace-king versus two queens (over and over). It was more like jack-four versus ten-nine suited. Still a thrill for those invested, and damn I’m glad things fell the way they did.

Photo: Ytravel.

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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.’”

Conclusion

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: trumpoji.com (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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