Friday, January 29, 2010

Salinger’s Game of Solitaire

'The Catcher in the Rye' (1951) by J.D. SalingerJ.D. Salinger died on Wednesday at age 91. Been a while since we’d heard from him.

Been a while also since I’d thought much about Salinger. Like most, I encountered The Catcher in the Rye as a young person, and like some I went on to read Nine Stories and everything else I could find. As a teen I suppose I identified somewhat with Holden Caulfield’s frustration. And puzzled over Seymour’s suicide in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

But like I say, haven’t thought much about Salinger since, other than occasionally to wonder what he’s been up to, and whether he ever wrote anything again since 1965 when the last story of his to appear in print -- the lengthy “Hapworth 16, 1924” -- was published in The New Yorker. Perhaps now that he’s gone, we may find out more about what he’s exactly been up to these last 45 years. (Or not.)

Many have speculated about why Salinger -- once a genuine literary celebrity, famous not just in academic circles but well beyond -- stopped publishing and so thoroughly withdrew from the public eye. One oft-repeated story, appearing in The New York Times article from yesterday about Salinger’s death, concerns him having been interviewed by some high school students for what he thought was going to be an innocuous piece in the local paper. The interview wound up on the editorial page (not on the high school news page), and Salinger apparently was so upset he soon began refusing interview requests.

He also built a six-and-a-half foot fence around his property.

Publishing is a tricky business. One never knows exactly how others are going to receive your words and ideas. As in poker, there’s always an element of risk that must be weighed against whatever reward may come from putting yourself “out there.”

Just so happens that on Wednesday -- the day I wrote about driving a lot -- I was in the car listening to a National Public Radio segment that had to do with blogging and the way one potentially loses control of one’s message when putting one’s words and ideas on these here intertubes.

The story was about the Pope who is apparently considering whether or not to start some sort of blog. A few experts were asked for their thoughts, and there was some funny, irreverent humor in there with people giving the Pope advice about the need to blog every day, to use hot links (not footnotes), and so forth.

One such expert, David Weinberger (a technology pundit and blogger), came on to address this issue of what happens when one publishes online. “Putting a message out on the internet is exactly the same thing as losing total control of your message,” said Weinberger. “People take it up, they republish it, they make fun of it, they contextualize it, [and] the simple message becomes incredibly complex.”

As if to confirm what Weinberger was saying, there was another story about Apple announcing its new iPad in which the reporters noted that there probably weren’t any women involved in the naming of the new tablet computer. Without being specific, they were alluding to the instantaneous reaction on the internet to the name “iPad” which saw some associate it with a woman’s product. (Some may have noticed that “iTampon” became a “trending topic” on Twitter within an hour of Apple’s announcement.) I suppose you could call that another example of having (somewhat) lost control of the message, with the speed of the ’net significantly accelerating that process.

I’ve been well aware for a long time how keeping a blog -- or writing and publishing, generally speaking -- necessarily involves “losing total control” of one’s message. But really, who wants “total control”? If, that is, these are indeed “messages” we are delivering, with a hope that those messages might be heard and perhaps responded to in some fashion, and not just “broadcasts” (or sermons?) for which we neither expect or desire feedback.

No, publishing means being willing to share the “control” over one’s messages. Otherwise we’re just talking to ourselves. Like playing solitaire -- no risk of losing, but not much to gain, either.

In a rare interview from 1974, Salinger told a reporter of how content he was not to be publishing. “It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

I can respect that, but that’s about all I have to say about it. Not much one can say in response to someone who prefers sitting out to playing.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Amateur vs. the Professional

The Amateur versus the ProfessionalOne subject I have discussed here off and on is the difference between “amateur” and “professional” poker players. Probably the most recent attempt at discussing that often difficult-to-make distinction came last spring, when I declared myself once and for all to be an example of “The Recreational Poker Player” -- not exactly an “amateur,” but certainly not a “pro” either.

A thoughtful piece was posted over on the ESPN Poker Club website yesterday, an article titled “What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Pro’?” The author is Eric Siegel, Marketing and Player Development Leader for Poker Players International, an agency with a large roster of players. Poking around the PPI website, it appears the agency represents dozens of players, including folks like Tom McEvoy, Kathy Liebert, Victor Ramdin, John D’Agostino, Linda Johnson, T.J. Cloutier, and many other recognizable folks. The agency divides its players into different teams according to various criteria (Team PPI, Team PPI Elite, and Team PPI Pro, and Team PPI International), so Siegel is perhaps quite familiar with this sometimes tricky business of classifying poker players.

Siegel begins his article by noting that the “professional” label doesn’t always fit poker players as neatly or obviously as it might in other areas of society. “By definition, a professional is someone who engages in an activity as a source of livelihood or as a career,” writes Siegel. However, when it comes to poker there are many who “are either labeled or label themselves as ‘professionals’” without necessarily regarding that otherwise cut-and-dry criterion as a prerequisite for doing so.

Siegel goes on to make a couple of further points before making his own attempt at answering the question that appears in the headline. One point he makes concerns the fact that poker players on the tournament circuit are “under constant scrutiny from other players, family or the media,” with their results “made public record on thousands of websites” -- oftentimes even before they collect their checks! Might be a slight exaggeration there to say “thousands” of sites posting such info, but you get the idea -- it’s all out there (says Siegel).

In this discussion, Siegel does gloss over a couple of obvious factors. One is the fact that a relatively small percentage of actual poker pros are exclusively tournament players. Dan Harrington declared in a Card Player interview (the December 11, 2007 issue, Vol. 20, No. 24) that he didn’t think the tournament circuit was even a viable option for those truly looking for “a source of livelihood or as a career.” Because “the volatility in tournaments is out of sight,” says Harrington, “I don’t think you can consider playing tournaments for a living. I think that is impossible.” Some still try to do so, of course, but I haven’t seen too many folks disagreeing with Harrington’s statement over the past couple of years.

So a lot of poker pros are in fact sticking mainly to the cash tables, where their successes and failures are not part of the “public record.” Of course, even with the tourney players this “public record” is highly incomplete, including only cashes and not the amount spent on entries or overall ROI. Earlier this week another item appeared on the ESPN site, a piece by Gary Wise about the recent sale of T.J. Cloutier’s 2005 WSOP bracelet on eBay. The “public record” of Cloutier (incidentally, a PPI player) is stellar, denoting him as one of the top tourney players of all time. However, it appears the $9.8 million he’s won over the years in tournaments is probably not a true indication of his relative “livelihood.”

Siegel goes on to note how sponsorship -- say, for a televised final table -- doesn’t really provide a trustworthy indicator of whether or not a player is a pro. He also adds a comment about a player having earned others’ respect as perhaps a sign that he or she might have earned the “pro” designation.

In the end, Siegel’s says he considers real poker pros as falling into two groups, although both are similar and both in fact go back to that traditional definition of a “professional” as someone earning a living at what he or she does. The first group, says Siegel, includes the person who has left his or her career in pursuit of a career in poker, while the second group includes those who made poker “their first job with no prior income source.”

Like I say, a thoughtful piece, though ultimately Siegel doesn’t really offer us a different way of thinking about the professional-amateur distinction. He’s right to say traditional ideas of what it means to be a “pro” don’t always apply perfectly to poker. But while Siegel does give us some things to think about, he doesn’t quite offer us a clear way to think differently about the distinction with regard to poker players.

David Spanier, 'Total Poker' (1977)I still like David Spanier’s distinction, drawn in his 1977 book Total Poker, a collection of essays I have come to believe is one of the more underrated and overlooked poker books around. (See a review here.) “A fine line is drawn between the status of amateur and professional at poker,” writes Spanier. “Really, it’s a moral line. How far do you go, how much do you play, how much do you want to win?”

Ultimately, argues Spanier, the pro will come to think of poker as “work,” and thus as part of his or her self-identity, whereas the amateur will never quite get rid of the idea that poker is “play.” “Somehow you can’t imagine a professional saying he is getting down to play,” says Spanier.

That observation, I think, starts to get at the real issue here, and offers us a genuinely different way to think of the amateur-professional problem as it applies to poker. Set aside the idea of identifying one’s “livelihood” as determined by how much cabbage it earns you. What is your level of commitment? When it comes to this game -- it is, after all, a game -- are you playing or working?

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Poker and Driving

Shamus drivingI am coming ever closer to a milestone here on Hard-Boiled Poker. Have been aware of it for a few weeks now -- seeing it on the horizon, so to speak -- and watching now as it approaches ever closer. Will probably be sometime next week when I finally get there, at which point I’ll post some sort of marker here to commemorate the occasion.

That word “milestone” implies a certain metaphor, of course, comparing -- in this case -- the writing of posts to a physical journey, as though I were hurtling down some road with mile markers periodically indicating my progress.

I’ve mentioned before here how my “real” job involves my having a significant commute to and from work. Thus do I spend a lot time each week behind the wheel, trying to get from here to there.

If I were to plot out all my activities each week, calculating to the minute how much time I spend doing every little thing, I’d probably discover that the amount of time I spend driving rivals almost every other activity I do (aside from sleeping). I write a lot, but I drive just as much. And I play poker quite a bit, but again, each week I’m likely driving at least as many hours, if not more.

While I often listen to podcasts or music during my drive, sometimes I shut everything off and let my mind wander. No surprise, I suppose, that my thoughts often will become occupied with poker.

The other day I found myself thinking about how poker sometimes resembles driving. I’m sure this analogy has occurred to many other players. You know, some jerk cuts you off, and you feel like you’ve just been check-raised. In fact, I’d be surprised if I haven’t written something about it before on the blog. I’m not sure about that, though. It has been a long trip here, after all.

It was this Rush Poker over on Full Tilt -- which I’ve been playing quite a bit over the last week -- that encouraged these thoughts this time. I’m not so sure about the name, really, but I guess it does successfully connote the idea that we’re dealing with a faster variant of the game. I talked about it some last week, how in my experience I’m playing about three times as many hands per hour in the Rush Poker game than in the regular ring games.

In Rush Poker, when you fold a hand, you’re immediately taken to a new table and dealt new cards (i.e., you don’t have to wait for the hand to play out). In other words, you just keep on driving, like on the interstate. No stop lights or signs to hold you up. Never have to wait for that train to cross. Just put on the cruise control and go go go.

Relatively speaking, the regular ring games are more like driving in the city. Of course, even there (we easily forget) we’re most certainly rushing around quite a bit. Anyone who has played both live and online poker knows the latter tends to provide about twice the hands per hour -- and that’s just if you’re playing a single table. Call up two, three, four, or sixteen tables, and you’re back on the interstate, always in action, always moving.

Metaphors Be With YouThe literary critic and theorist I.A. Richards once provided an influential definition of what a metaphor is (in his 1936 book, The Philosophy of Rhetoric). There he explained that a metaphor is made up of two parts -- the “tenor” and the “vehicle.” The tenor would be whatever it is you are trying to describe, while the vehicle would be whatever you’ve borrowed from elsewhere to try to help you describe it.

For example, Paul Simon wants to create a lonely, isolated character. He has the character say “I am a rock.” The tenor is the loner. The vehicle is the singular rock. And whether the character really “feels no pain” (like the inanimate rock) is open to question.

So here, I guess you’d say poker is my tenor, and driving my vehicle. (Rim shot.)

You could get a lot of mileage out of this particular vehicle, I’d think. You could talk about slow, timid drivers/players. Or the reckless, risk-taking types. Or tilt as “road rage.” And so forth.

Yes, you could go down that road for a long time. I’m gonna leave it there, though. Because this is my stop.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Talking Chess, Poker, and AI

Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue (1997)The Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov has an interesting new piece in the February 11, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, a review of Spanish writer Diego Rasskin-Gutman’s Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence of the Human Mind. Much of the article concerns the book, but toward the end Kasparov makes a couple of interesting references to poker -- comparing it to chess and talking about both games in the context of advancing research in the field of artificial intelligence -- that I thought I’d share here.

Kasparov begins by recounting how back in 1985 -- after he had defeated Anatoly Karpov and become World Chess Champion at age 22 -- he took on 32 chess-playing computers in a much publicized event in Hamburg and beat them all. Then he talks about the later 1997 match that he lost to IBM’s Deep Blue (pictured above) and some of the reactions that event caused, both within the chess world and in the culture at large.

While many outside of chess took Deep Blue’s triumph as “as a symbol of mankind's submission before the almighty computer,” Kasparov explains how the top chess players mostly took it in stride, and were in fact surprised it had taken that long for computers to catch up. And, in fact, among the artificial intelligence community -- “the AI crowd,” as Kasparov calls them -- there was some dismay that Deep Blue, while able to defeat a human at chess, still didn’t really seem to demonstrate human “intelligence.”

“Instead of a computer that thought and played chess like a human, with human creativity and intuition,” writes Kasparov, “they got one that played like a machine, systematically evaluating 200 million possible moves on the chess board per second and winning with brute number-crunching force.” In other words, for some Deep Blue’s win represented more of a programming triumph than a particularly significant advance in the development of AI.

Kasparov notes how today pretty much any home PC has the computing capacity to run a chess program “that will crush most grandmasters.” Even so, chess remains much too complex of a game to be “solved” once and for all argues Kasparov, citing Rasskin-Gutman’s book in a couple of places to support his point. He then moves into a longer discussion of the book, which sounds appealing for those interested in chess and/or discussions of how the human mind works.

I’m not going to summarize that entire discussion here (check it out yourself, if you’re interested), but I did want to share what Kasparov says at the end of the review when he talks about how “the AI crowd” have begun to refocus their efforts away from chess and toward another game.

“Poker is now everywhere,” writes Kasparov, “as amateurs dream of winning millions and being on television for playing a card game whose complexities can be detailed on a single piece of paper.” Indeed, there was a time -- around the early 1970s -- when it looked like chess would experience a “boom” not unlike the one poker has enjoyed this past decade, although it didn’t quite pan out. I wrote a little about that a couple of years ago in a post called “The Failed Ambassador” that was occasioned by the death of Bobby Fischer.

Getting back to the subject of artificial intelligence, Kasparov continues: “But while chess is a 100 percent information game -- both players are aware of all the data all the time -- and therefore directly susceptible to computing power, poker has hidden cards and variable stakes, creating critical roles for chance, bluffing, and risk management.”

Phil Laak vs. Polaris (2007)As such, suggests Kasparov, poker is perhaps a much better game on which to focus AI research. He refers to the efforts of Jonathan Schaeffer, leader of the University of Alberta’s Computer Poker Research Group (CPRG) that has been developing poker-playing programs “Polaris” and “Polaris 2.0” that have taken on top pros like Phil Laak, Ali Eslami, and the Stoxpoker guys over the last couple of years. I actually had the chance a while back to interview Schaeffer (following that first match with Laak and Eslami, see picture), who told me he believed “one of these days -- within 5 to 10 years -- two-person, limit Hold’em will be solved.”

My sense is that Kasparov isn’t quite as confident as Schaeffer regarding the possibility of “solving” even this relatively less complex variation of poker, though he does recognize how Schaeffer’s “digital players are performing better and better against strong humans -- with obvious implications for online gambling sites.”

The question remains, of course, as to whether or not these poker-playing computers are actually thinking “like humans” or not -- that is, when Polaris 2.0 defeated the Stoxpoker guys back in the summer of 2008, to what extent did that victory represent a real advance in the creation of artificial intelligence as opposed to a mere triumph in “programming” (as Kasparov characterizes his defeat to Deep Blue)?

In any event, much as he reacted to the work of the chess programmers as having exciting implications for his game, Kasparov seems enthused about the work of Schaeffer and his colleagues at the University of Alberta, too. Referring again to poker’s growing popularity, Kasparov notes how there is a “current trend of many chess professionals taking up the more lucrative pastime of poker.”

These chess pros are smart guys. They see there’s more money to be made playing poker than chess these days. But some -- like Kasparov -- also see poker as offering other benefits, too, such as the opportunity to test ourselves in “partial information” situations in which we much learn to adapt, to weigh risk and reward, and to act accordingly.

In other words, besides being a game ripe for the study of artificial intelligence, poker can help us develop our actual intelligence, too.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

PokerStars WBCOOP Event No. 1 (No-Limit Hold’em): Live Blog

World Blogger Championship of Online PokerSo here’s the skinny. I’m signed up to play in this here initial event of the 2009 World Blogger Championship of Online Poker thingy over on PokerStars this afternoon, for which I’m gonna try to live blog while I play. Hell, I got two hands.

Am askin’ for trouble, I’m sure, given the limited capacities of my jingle brain, not to mention the fact that it has been a couple of months since I last played no-limit hold’em (or a tourney, for that matter).

All of which is to say, don’t be comin’ around expecting pokery greatness from yr humble gumshoe.

Looks like with a little over a half-hour until the first hands are dealt there are already over 1,500 scribblers registered for the sucker. Top 153 finishers win tickets of varying amounts into the upcoming Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP), with a total prize pool of $5,096.50 having been set aside for today’s event.

Click here for more info on the WBCOOP series. I’ll be back here shortly after five o’clock ET with the first report. (And hopefully not the last!)

5:01 p.m. ET
Tourney is underway. 1,690 runners all told at the moment, but late registration is still open. Looks like at least two-thirds of my starting table is sitting out.

5:06 p.m. ET
Okay, there are five of us playing, with four sitting out. The sitters are all to my left, and the players to my right. At least one of the four other players is raising preflop each hand before it gets to me, so I have yet to be able to take the sitters’ blinds uncontested. Biding my time for now, but will probably have to start reraising to get involved.

5:08 p.m. ET
Just took my first hand, a standard PF raise with one caller, followed by c-bet on ace-high flop. (No, I didn’t have an ace.) Shortly after, I see an all-in confrontation between 8-7 offsuit and A-10 offsuit. It’s a freeroll, all right.

5:11 p.m. ET
I am seeing on Twitter my buddy the Poker Grump is already out. Must have picked up deuce-four and went with it, I am assuming.

5:15 p.m. ET
Just lost few chips getting a little reckless with the bloggers’ favorite, the hammer, but got it back very next next hand. Back to starting stack of 2,000.

5:21 p.m. ET
Pocket kings in early position. Both blinds call my standard raise. A king flops, both check, I make a smallish c-bet, and both go away. Might’ve milked it for more, I guess, but I’ll take it. Little over 2,400 now.

5:26 p.m. ET
First elimination at my table, about 25 minutes into the proceedings. Looks like 1,730 runners or so at the moment.

5:30 p.m. ET
Okay, just won first big pot of the tourney. Player raises to 120 (3x) in front of me from early position, I reraise to 420 with pocket kings, it folds around and my opponent calls. Flop comes Q-J-T. He checks, I shove (about 1,800), and he instacalls with A-J. Turn and river both nines, giving me straight and 4,670-chip pot (my new stack).

5:37 p.m. ET
EP preflop raiser gets one caller to his left, then I call, too, from cutoff with K-Q. Flop comes Q-4-2 with two hearts, and both check to me. I bet three-quarter pot (475), preflop raiser thinks, then raises to 1,400. I immediately shove (what do I know?), raiser goes into time bank for 30 seconds, then folds. At 6,170 now.

5:42 p.m. ET
Sheesh we are already at Level 5 (ten-minute levels). I don’t need to consult Arnold Snyder to conclude this here is a fast-structured tourney.

5:47 p.m. ET
Pick up another pot (1,135) with pocket queens. (Yes, I am getting some decent starting hands so far, no doubt.) Both an ace and king come by the river, but my opponent had neither (was chasing draws). At 6,965 now.

5:54 p.m. ET
I see registration is finally closed, with a total of 1,740 entrants. Looks like around seven hundred have already hit the rail. First break comin’ up.

6:01 p.m. ET
At first break I have 6,805 chips. That puts me 103rd out of 1,026 remaining players. Leader has 22,301 at the moment. We’re getting ready to start Level 7, where the blinds are 40/80 with an ante of 10.

Tortoise, 'Beacons of Ancestorship' (2009)6:06 p.m. ET
Just played Hand No. 100. I’m listening to Tortoise’s 2009 album Beacons of Ancestorship, probably my favorite disc from last year. Certainly the one I’ve listened to the most. Very cool ensemble, with lots of great instrumental grooves. I have it on repeat, and so we’re on the second go-round now.


6:11 p.m. ET
Oof, just tripped up and lost half my stack. A little more than half. A short-stacked player with about 1,900 to start the hand raised from early position to 300 (3x). I had AhTh and only the blinds really to worry about, and so shoved to isolate. Small blind -- whom I had covered -- pushed all in, too, and the shorty skedaddled. My opponent has me dominated with A-K. Board ran out eight-high, and I’m now down to 2,705. Still 27 big blinds, though, so no worries quite yet.

6:21 p.m. ET
Just had a goofy hand. UTG limps in, and the table folds around to me in the big blind with 6-4 offsuit. I check, and flop comes 6-6-7. I check, and so does my opponent. Turn another seven. I check again, but he doesn’t bite. Then the river is yet another seven, meaning I’m now playing the board. I make a cheeky minimum bet of 120, and he pushes all in. Argh. I call, he shows K-3, and we split. I probably mangled that one.

6:25 p.m. ET
Just lost a big coin flip. I had built back to about 3,100, and was all in before the flop with A-K versus pocket queens. Board came 7-4-3-8-2, and now I’m down to 585.

6:36 p.m. ET
I doubled up once, then with the blinds 75/150 I open-shoved my last 1,190 chips with Kh6h. Folded around to the big blind who thought a long while, then called with Ah3s. The flop was a nice one: Kd2c9s. I liked the turn, too -- 7c. But you know what's coming... the Ad on the river. Rude! And I’m outta there in six-hundred-and-somethingth, just as the last song of Beacons of Ancestorship was finishing for the second time this afternoon.

Thanks for reading, peoples... and good luck to all who remain in the first event of the WBCOOP. I do plan to try again tomorrow in the PLO event. Not sure if I’ll live blog again tomorrow (a bit of effort, that), but we’ll see. Have a good evening, all.

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More Rush Poker, UB HHs, and WBCOOP Starts

Ended up playing some more Rush Poker over the weekend on Full Tilt and enjoyed it quite a bit. I’m just one-tabling the sucker, sticking with the pot-limit Omaha games (both six-handed and full ring).

Looking at my Poker Tracker stats, it appears I’m playing almost exactly 150 hands per hour. That compares to about 45-50 hands per hour at a regular PLO table. And while I’m not going to get into win rates too specifically, let’s just say there’s been a similarly significant jump there, too, when compared to the regular ring games. (Insert smiley face here.)

As others have noted, the game is such that it is generally difficult to “get a read” on opponents in the way one might do in a regular ring game. In particular, since with each new hand players have been reassembled around a new table, there is no way of knowing what happened with everyone else just prior to the current hand being dealt. Thus, I don’t know if the guy coming out raising pot from UTG just suffered a horrendous beat and is now tilting, or if he’s a tight player who almost never raises from early position without aces, double-suited.

However, it is not impossible to get reads on players, especially when the pool is small enough that you see the same names coming back again and again. When I’ve been playing the PLO games, the player pool has been as big as 170 or so, and as small as 65, with usually about 20% of the players multi-tabling -- that is, playing two, three, or four tables. (I know the hold’em player pools have generally been much larger.) Thus, I have had sessions where I’ve encountered players several times and thus eventually come to develop some ideas about them from having seen them play previous hands. Gotta pay attention, though.

My sense is the software is assigning the various seat positions fairly enough, even though there have been times when it seems like I’m in the blinds more often than I should be. Again, looking at Poker Tracker, it appears I am, in fact, moving around the table just fine, occupying each of the positions roughly the same percentage of the time I would be in the regular ring game.

There’s one other aspect of the game that took a while for me to figure out. If you’ve played Rush Poker you know that once you fold a hand you are immediately moved from the table and start a new hand, meaning you don’t get to see the previous hand play out among the players still involved. However, the completed hand does make it into your personal hand histories, so if you open up that “Last Hand” window it isn’t too hard to go back and see how the story ended.

Speaking of going back and examining unfinished stories, this weekend I also became interested in this thread over on Two Plus Two regarding the UltimateBet cheating scandal and its aftermath, the one titled “How goes Sebok's hunt for the real (UB) killers?” Some interesting info starting to pop up in that one, including the contributions of Haley Hintze regarding both ownership issues and, more recently, the hand histories Barry Greenstein received from UB.

A month ago I shared the story of how -- after a full year of emails -- I finally received some of my hand histories from UltimateBet. I say “some” because in the end I was only sent roughly two-thirds of the hands I actually played on the site (along with a number of hands in which I was sitting out). As I mentioned then, I stuck to the small stakes, meaning I did not run up against any of the cheating accounts in the hands I played on the site (as far as I know).

Barry Greenstein's UB hand histories, as sent to him by the siteAnyhow, Haley has written further about Greenstein’s hand histories on her blog, noting in particular a couple of curious plays made by the cheating account when up against the Bear. You can look at Greenstein’s hand histories, too, if you want, as they’ve been posted over on PokerRoad.

By the way, the scattered, difficult-to-parse text files Greenstein received are in the same user-unfriendly format in which my HHs were sent to me. One difference, though -- Haley points out how some of the hands from particular sessions appear to be missing from Greenstein’s histories (i.e., there are some gaps in the numbering sequences). I noticed no such gaps in any of my sessions, although as I said before, I had a couple of sessions for which the hand histories were not sent to me.

Like I say, if you’re interested in that story, check out Haley’s most recent blog post as well as the Two Plus Two thread for more.

Meanwhile, let me remind you that the World Blogger Championship of Online Poker series begins this afternoon on PokerStars with the first event, a no-limit hold’em freeroll. (For more on that, see here.) I’m planning to be there, although I doubt I’m gonna try to blog and/or tweet much as I play. NLHE ain’t my usual game, so I might need my whole jingle brain to focus on the tourney. Good luck to you, if yr playin’ too.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Riding the Rush

RUSHSo I did find time to sit down for a relatively brief session of Rush Poker on Full Tilt yesterday. Jumped into the $25 max. buy-in, six-handed pot-limit Omaha game, where I joined about 160-170 others. A little over a half-hour later I’d played 111 hands, at which point the game paused. I noticed players quickly dropping out of the pool, and after a couple of minutes of waiting I decided to skedaddle as well.

I was happy enough to leave, having accumulated a handsome profit during those hands. I managed to double my buy-in (almost) very early on, then added a few more bucks before the pause. So I came away feeling fine, although the whole experience was likely unduly affected by my good mood at having that early success. In fact, I’m sensing a lot of early reactions to Rush Poker are tied pretty closely to whether the player won or lost during that first session or two, which is understandable.

With that in mind, I’m gonna resist offering some long-winded analysis and/or judgment of Rush Poker as of yet. I need to try it again and become more familiar with the ins and outs before presuming to say anything meaningful about it.

I will say one thing, though. Those initial hands, when I first realized how the game worked, evoked for me a feeling I hadn’t experienced for quite some time while playing online poker. I’m talking about that sorta nervous excitement that came with first signing onto a site and playing those initial hands. You remember that? That mix of fascination and edginess you felt when you first realized how online poker worked -- how you could play against others all around the world, any time of day or night? And then, when you won your first hand, and thought, hey, I like this!

Not saying that getting to relive that feeling necessarily means Rush Poker is the cat’s pajamas. But it was pretty cool to “go back” like that, even if only for a few moments.

Joe Namath and the New York Jets win Super Bowl IIISpeaking of “going back,” the New York Jets are playing the Indianapolis Colts this weekend in the AFC Championship game, with the Colts being huge favorites. Spent some time this week listening to “the Fan” -- i.e., the New York sports radio station -- and enjoying all the excitement and hype. And all of the references to Super Bowl III, the Jets’ finest moment, when “Broadway” Joe Namath led them to a stunning 16-7 victory. Over a heavily-favored opponent. The Colts.

As a Carolina Panthers fan, I have no particular allegiance to any of the remaining teams, which means like most unaffiliated folks, I’ll be rooting for the underdog in this one. That decision a few weeks ago by Indianapolis to rest their starters against the Jets and forgo the chance at an undefeated season -- see “The Colts Find a Fold” -- provides another reason to pull for the Jets on Sunday.

What a story that would be, eh? The Colts give a game away to the Jets, saving New York’s season, then find themselves in a nightmarish situation wherein a newly vitalized Jets team gives ’em all sorts of hell just one step from the Super Bowl. Sort of like a chip leader passing on a chance to eliminate a short stack, only to see that player then double up a few times to become a real threat to take it all away.

That Jets defense is obviously going to have to step it up to slow down Manning et al. And New York will absolutely have to run the ball effectively to chew up the clock and keep Indy’s offense off the field. Here’s hoping they keep that momentum going -- first launched just four weeks ago in that game versus Indy -- and make things interesting Sunday.

As far as the NFC Championship between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints goes, I’m mainly just looking for a good game there. Really, whoever wins that one will make for an interesting story.

So enjoy the weekend all, whether it be filled with Rush Poker, monitoring the Jets’ rushing attack, or rushing around doing something else.

Like listening to Rush!

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

2010 WSOP Rules Fitter for Twitter

2009 WSOP Rules Fitter for TwitterSince its launch in 2006, Twitter -- that “social networking” or “microblogging” tool -- has steadily grown into a full-blown phenomenon that seems to have some significance in just about every area of our culture -- including, of course, poker.

It took a year or so for Twitter to gain the notice of folks outside of the small podcast publishing and aggregation group at Odeo.com who first introduced it. Twitter became its own company in April 2007, and by the summer of that year 340,000 accounts had been created. A year later, in June 2008, there were approximately 2 million Twitter accounts. By September 2008, that number had crossed 3 million.

In April 2009, Oprah Winfrey did a feature on Twitter on her talk show, a moment some have pointed to as having finally signaled Twitter’s having made its big splash into the mainstream. (I don’t watch Oprah, but now that I think about it that’s right about when I first got my Twitter account, @hardboiledpoker.) Estimates from May 2009 suggest that by then over 30 million Twitter accounts had been created. Today that number is approximately 60 million. Even though not all of those accounts are active, Twitter’s reach is nevertheless extensive, and the site is one of the most visited on the internet, usually turning up around 12th or so (behind sites like Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia).

When I helped cover the 2008 World Series of Poker -- my first -- there were a few folks here and there sending text messages from the tables, though these messages were primarily being sent to individuals, not groups of “followers” on Twitter. But when I returned in 2009, Twitter had fully arrived, and those of us reporting on the action were well aware that we were surrounded by dozens if not hundreds of others who were also communicating the action to the outside world -- that is, the players themselves. I wrote a post at the time describing the scene titled “Land of 1000 Reporters.”

In that post I speculated about Twitter’s effect a bit, noting that I thought it served as a useful complement to the reporting I was doing. I also talked about the difference between the live blog (which remains well after the tourney is done) and the tweets (which are accessible later but tend to fade from the “historical record” soon after they are sent).

Of course, one factor I was conscious of all summer was that seemingly meaningless “Rule No. 88” that stated (in bold, no less) that “iPhones, iTouch, Treos, Blackberrys, and other similar devices will not be allowed at any time.” Unambiguous, that. But the players -- if they were even aware of the rule -- were obviously not bothering with following it. Nor were tourney officials too concerned, it seemed, although once tourneys reached the money there was usually some announcement about putting the electronic devices away.

I didn’t care so much one way or the other about folks Tweeting at the tables. I suppose if I had a choice I’d rather they didn’t -- that the poker be contested unmediated by all those communications with those not playing -- but it really doesn’t matter to me. The fact of having a rule, though, and not enforcing it, did always seem a bit strange.

So I was glad to see that when the rules for the 2010 World Series of Poker were released last week, changes included an updated policy regarding players communicating with those electronic devices at the tables. The new rule (No. 55) is stated as follows:

“All cell phones and other voice-enabled and ‘ringing’ electronic devices must be turned off during tournament play. Players not involved in a hand (cards in muck) shall be permitted to text/email at the table, but shall not be permitted to text/email any other player at the table. If [the] Rio [i.e., the Tournament staff], acting in its sole and absolute discretion, believes a player is communicating with another player at the table, both parties will be immediately disqualified from the tournament and face imposition of additional penalties as described in Rule 36. All players desiring to talk on a cell phone must be at least one table length away from their assigned table during all said communication. Those individuals who talk on a cell phone not at least one table length away from their assigned table shall be subject to a penalty to be determined by Tournament Staff. No cell phones or other electronic communication device can be placed on a poker table.”

Seems reasonable to me, and as I say this change makes the rules fit more closely with what actually was going on there in the Amazon Room and elsewhere in the Rio.

Of course, players will want to continue to be mindful of what they tweet at the tables -- one is, after all, giving away information, which could theoretically be accessed by one’s opponents! (See “Twitter Can Be Bitter, Or a Tweet Can Be Sweet.”)

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Let’s Hear It for the Noise

The Effect of Noise on a SignalSometime last summer, an enterprising person somewhere began placing a single comment -- in Chinese -- on one of my old posts every night at a certain time. Took me a couple or three times to notice the pattern, at which point I was curious enough to fuss with an online translation site for a minute or two to learn more. Couldn’t quite make out the entire meaning, but was able to figure out the comment had something to do with one of those many, heavily-advertised products designed to help treat erectile dysfunction.

It was anticlimactic, you might say.

Since my post was not, in fact, about erectile dysfunction, I thought it reasonable to delete the comment. I didn’t have comment moderation turned on at the time, so it would appear briefly on the site until I checked my email, got the notice of the comment, and deleted it. A minor annoyance, and eventually the comments stopped appearing.

Shortly after, I began to see a couple more of these non sequiturs regularly appearing as comments on other posts, and so finally decided it was time to turn the comment moderation on for good. As anyone who has commented on the blog over the last four or five months knows, you now have to wait for me to publish the comment for it to appear. I hope this extra step doesn’t prevent anyone from giving their feedback. I check my email frequently, so usually there isn’t much of a wait for comments to appear. And generally I publish ’em all (although I won’t always if they contain a superfluous link out).

Meanwhile, the spammy comments continue to arrive. I’m now rejecting these at a rate of about ten per day. They cover a wide range of non-pokery topics, are written in numerous languages (real and invented), and are primarily authored by our good friend “Anonymous” (natch). Mostly futile, these attempts. And still not much of a bother, really, as it is easy to reject several comments at once with just a few clicks.

As I mentioned, I get an email notification every time a comment is made, and so one kind of sour effect of all the spammy comments is the fact that my email box is now routinely filled with these non-messages. A minor bummer, actually, to check in and see new items waiting, but instead of finding real messages discover this applesauce instead.

Such has been the case pretty much ever since we all got our first email accounts back in the mid-90s, I suppose, with “junk e-mail” almost always coming at a higher clip than actual communications. We set up filters and try to manage the situation, thereby finding ways to endure all of the static. Such is our world, I guess, full of “noise” that we mostly accept as necessary accompaniment to the elusive “signals” we seek and deliver.

Rush PokerI’ve yet to have the chance to check out this new “Rush Poker” over at Full Tilt Poker, but from the summaries I’ve been reading it sounds like part of its appeal might be to filter out some of the “noise” one occasionally encounters at the online tables. Sounds like a truly novel concept, actually. If I understand it correctly, players join not a single table, but a “pool” of players that get distributed and redistributed constantly in order to keep all in action at all times. The moment a player folds, he or she is whisked to another table and dealt a new hand (against new opponents), so no down time. Wild.

For more on the Rush Poker concept, including some evaluation and discussion of consequences, you can check out the summaries/responses by F-Train, TripJax, and AlCantHang. Folks are buzzing about Rush Poker a lot on the forums, too, but I prefer reading blog posts about it. (You know, less noise.)

You can also head over to the Full Tilt website for a full explanation of how the game works, a list of Frequently Asked Questions, or a quick video tutorial with Phil Gordon.

Of course, as I assume some who’ve tried Rush Poker may already be ready to argue, a lot of the “noise” that is being filtered out is in fact what makes poker most fun and challenging -- e.g., the ability to learn opponents’ tendencies, to pick up patterns, to communicate. That is to say, not “noise” at all, but the game’s many “signals” that seem as though they’ve been mostly muted in this variation.

Am still curious to check it out, though. And to hear others’ feedback regarding Rush Poker. Just don’t link out to a Viagra retailer when leaving your comment.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

PokerStars WBCOOP Starts Next Week

World Blogger Championship of Online Poker (WBCOOP)During the last week of January, PokerStars will be running its annual World Blogger Championship of Online Poker (WBCOOP). Well, sort of annual. The last WBCOOP was in December 2008, and the schedule has slid back a month or so, meaning there wasn’t technically a “2009 WBCOOP.”

The WBCOOP is open to all poker bloggers, with the minimal requirement that the blog has been up and running for at least two months (and has been regularly updated) prior to registering. Like other tourney series -- and just about everything else at PokerStars -- the WBCOOP has gotten bigger and bigger with each passing year.

In 2005, the WBCOOP was a single no-limit hold’em tournament, a freeroll offering a total of $25,000 worth of prizes to the top finishers. In 2006, it was again a single tourney, this time with $37,000 worth of prizes, with the winner getting an entry into the following summer’s World Series of Poker Main Event. In 2007, $40,000 worth of prizes were awarded, with the winner this time getting a package to go play in the PokerStars Carribean Adventure in early 2008. There were 1,337 entrants in that 2007 tourney.

Then, in December 2008, the event was made into a series of tournaments, with six different preliminary events in pot-limit Omaha, no-limit hold’em, Omaha hi/lo, and the 8-game mix (a.k.a., S.P.L.E.N.D.O.R.). Top finishers in those preliminary events won various prizes while also qualifying to play in the Main Event, with a total of 369 entrants making it through. In all, over $100,000 worth of prizes were given away.

This year is following a similar format with a series of six preliminary events followed by a Main Event, only it appears this time everyone can go ahead and enter the Main Event as well as all of the prelims (i.e., one doesn’t have to qualify for the ME). All of the prizes this year will be in the form of “SCOOP” tickets of varying values. That’s the Spring Championship of Online Poker, which I assume will be coming around again in April.

World Blogger Championship of Online Poker (WBCOOP)Each preliminary event will be awarding $6,038 worth of SCOOP tickets to the top 136 finishers, ranging from a $1,050 ticket to the winner and $215 tickets to the other final tablists, down to $11 tickets to those finishing 46th-136th. The prizes are greater for the Main Event, with the winner getting a $3,150 ticket, the final tablists $2,100 tickets, on down to the 46th-136th place finishers each winning themselves a $22 ticket.

Additionally, PokerStars is going to be handing out more prizes to those chronicling the action on their blogs and via Twitter. Those prizes include one for “Best Live Event Blogging” ($425 worth of SCOOP tickets), one for “Best Tweeter” (also $425), three “Highly Commended Blogger” awards (each getting $33 worth of SCOOP tickets), and three “Highly Commended Tweeter” awards (also $33 each).

Here’s the full schedule of events for this year’s WBCOOP series:
  • Monday, Jan. 25, 17:00 ET -- No-Limit Hold’em
  • Tuesday, Jan. 26, 17:00 ET -- Pot-Limit Omaha
  • Wednesday, Jan. 27, 18:00 ET -- No-Limit Hold’em
  • Thursday, Jan. 28, 18:00 ET -- No-Limit Hold’em
  • Friday, Jan. 29, 19:00 ET -- 8-Game Mix
  • Saturday, Jan. 30, 15:00 ET -- No-Limit Hold’em
  • Sunday, Jan. 31, 15:00 ET -- Main Event, No-Limit Hold’em
  • I’ve participated in this sucker ever since I was first eligible to do so, and plan to be there again next week for at least some of the fun. I know I’ll aim to play the PLO event, and probably will try to sit down at some of the others, too.

    If you’ve had a poker blog for a couple of months and haven’t registered yet, there’s still time to do so. Click here for info on how to sign up.

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    Monday, January 18, 2010

    “My Observations Tell Me”

    My Observations Tell MeOpened up PokerStars yesterday for a brief session. While scanning the available tables I noticed one with a little yellow square before it indicating that I had taken a note on a player at that table. That’s a relatively new feature at Stars, I believe. Curious, I opened the table, saw the player, and read the note.

    I’m not as diligent a note-taker as I should be. Nor am I necessarily always confident in the quality of my notes, either. A lot of times inspiration for the note comes from a single hand, and thus may or may not offer sound information about how the player plays, more generally speaking. Even worse, sometimes that hand involved me taking a bad beat, and the note is really just an outlet for my frustration, a slightly more constructive alternative to whimpering in the chat box.

    When I took a look at my note for this particular player -- I’ll call him Drifter23 -- I realized that it was indeed partially an example of one of those dubious notes taken after I’d lost a hand. The note read “gambler; won big pot v. me after getting it in real bad; plays PLO50 mostly, six-tabling (PLO25-6).” That latter designation tells me where I had encountered him -- at a $25 max. buy-in, six-handed pot-limit Omaha table. Which is where I was finding him now. With a seat open on his left.

    Noting that he’d more than doubled up at this table (to about $55), I took the seat with a vague expectation that I might well be playing a big pot with Drifter23. A couple of orbits went by without much incident other than the two of us having battled for a couple of smallish pots in blind-vs.-blind hands.

    Then came a hand in which Drifter23 minimum-raised to 50 cents from UTG+1, I folded a crap hand from the cutoff, then a player I’ll call RowdyRon, who had $26.45 to start the hand, reraised pot (to $1.85) from the button. The blinds folded, and Drifter23 made the call. The flop came QhJc7h. Drifter23 checked, and RowdyRon bet $2.50 -- about half the pot. Drifter23 then check-raised pot to $11.35, and after thinking for a while RowdyRon finally folded, conceding the $8.65 pot to Drifter23.

    An unremarkable hand, it seemed, until the chat started up:
    Drifter23: i thought you were gonna take it all that time
    RowdyRon: fk up nit
    Drifter23: youre more of a nit than i am for sure
    RowdyRon: go suck a ball sack
    RowdyRon: and buy lotto
    The chat revealed at least three things to me. For one, these two apparently had butted heads some before I got there, it seemed. Secondly, RowdyRon’s calling Drifter23 a “nit” didn’t seem to jibe with my note on the dude, while Drifter23’s denial perhaps did. (In fact, I’m going to guess from the action and subsequent chat that Drifter23 had flopped a draw there and was ready to play for stacks -- not that “nit”-like, really.) And thirdly, RowdyRon was clearly a jerk.

    The chirping continued, and it became clear that the pair’s conversation had indeed probably begun sometime earlier. It also revealed a few more things.
    Drifter23: as i said, if lotto gave me these odds...
    RowdyRon: thats why ur break even over 50k hands
    RowdyRon: what a wste of life
    Drifter23: for sure
    Drifter23: quite terribad
    RowdyRon: i recommend find a new hobby
    RowdyRon: thats just incredible
    Drifter23: cheers
    Drifter23: i recommend stop breaking pstars rules btw =)
    I thought I had a little bit of extra info on Drifter23 when I’d sat down at the table, having taken my note on him during that earlier session. But RowdyRon knew even more. He’d obviously taken a peek at Poker Table Ratings to discover more about his nemesis. I wrote about this site a couple of weeks ago, one which tracks all cash games and where one can look up any player’s number of hands played, net profit/loss, and BB/100 for all stakes/games. One can even do some cursory analysis regarding their looseness/aggression, replay hands or sessions, among a few other investigations.

    Drifter23’s reference there to PokerStars’ rules alludes to the fact that the site forbids players from accessing Poker Table Ratings for such information. In fact, the way Stars’ rules are written, one isn’t to look at PTR while playing (something Stars can, theoretically, check for), nor even while away from the tables, although there’s no way Stars can enforce that prohibition.

    Unless, of course, someone pipes up in the chat box to volunteer that he’s accessed such info.
    RowdyRon: now u angry hey
    RowdyRon: i hit a nerve?
    Drifter23: my observations tell me that only one of us are crying
    RowdyRon: or learn to play
    RowdyRon: youll be better off either way
    Drifter23: thanks =)
    As play continued, I thought about my little note on Drifter23. Hadn’t really attached that much value to it in the first place, but now I realized how easy it was to discover much, much more about him if I so desired. I also was now playing with an awareness that RowdyRon may well be checking my stats to see if I were a winning player, if I were a “nit,” and so forth.

    In that post from a couple of weeks ago, I expressed a bit of bother about being tracked so closely (and not having the ability to opt out of the tracking). Having thought about it some more, I guess I’m less worried about it, although I still feel like my opponents’ knowledge of me ideally should be limited to hands they’ve played against me. And I remain cynical about sites having rules they can’t really enforce.

    Kind of appreciated Drifter23’s reference to what his “observations” were telling him there, which I took as a cheeky allusion (intended or not) to RowdyRon’s having supplemented his observations with extra data.

    I liked Drifter23’s apparent attitude as well. Can’t do much about folks investigating you like this. Nor about folks giving you hell in the chat box. Saying “cheers” and “thanks” and typing smiley faces seems as appropriate a response as any, I guess.

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    Friday, January 15, 2010

    That Was The Week That Was (Poker News Round Up)

    News Round UpHad all sorts of busy dreams last night, where I was constantly running around, having to be in two (or three or four) places at once. Probably because there's a damn lot going on these days, poker-wise.

    The PokerStars Caribbean Adventure -- the first leg on the new North American Poker Tour -- is finally winding down in Nassau, Bahamas. Harrison Gimbel (aged 19) took down the Main Event, earning a head-spinning $2.2 million. And last night another youngster, William Reynolds (aged 21), took down the High Rollers event, winning $526,240.

    Meanwhile, the Aussie Millions has gotten underway down in Melbourne and will be running for the rest of the month, with the Main Event happening Jan. 24-30. Follow the action at the Aussie Millions over at PokerNews’ live reporting page.

    Another bit of news came out yesterday, via Daniel Negreanu’s blog. The presence of 441 Productions at the PCA -- the crew ESPN uses for its WSOP coverage -- had suggested the possibility that ESPN would be carrying the NAPT, and according to Negreanu that indeed is going to be the case. Stephen A. Murphy gives us a good summary of that story over on the Card Player site.

    The news that ESPN will be there at the Venetian for the next NAPT event -- the main event of the Deep Stack Extravaganza series (Feb. 20-24) -- certainly will attract a lot of folks to the Venetian who might not have been there otherwise. Will be interesting, too, to see whether this next NAPT event will affect the numbers at the World Poker Tour L.A. Poker Classic, also going on in February, although if I am reading the schedule correctly the Main Event over there doesn’t begin until Feb. 26. Many will play both events, I imagine, although a large number of players may only have the bankroll to choose one. (Links to schedules: NAPT Venetian; WPT L.A. Poker Classic.)

    So it’ll be the NAPT vs. the WPT. The Venetian vs. the Commerce. ESPN vs. Fox Sports. And PokerStars vs. PartyPoker (sort of, as Peerless Media, Ltd., a division of PartyGaming, acquired World Poker Tour Enterprises late last summer). And, er, Vanessa Rousso versus Kara Scott? (Scott signed this week as a PartyPoker pro.)

    Senator Jon KylSpeaking of conflicts, while we’re all distracted by these other stories, most of us have taken our eyes off of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 after the deadline for the implementation of the law’s final regulations was delayed for six months to June 1, 2010. In what appears a bit of petulant politicking, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), one of those involved in authoring versions of the bill that would eventually become the UIGEA, has discovered a way to respond to the delay. He’s currently blocking the appointment of nominees to fill various Treasury Department posts, apparently as a kind of payback for the decision to delay the UIGEA’s enforcement.

    Maria Del Mar gives a good summary of the situation over at Poker News Daily, including some references to comments by various observers, such as Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who are marveling at how Kyl can find it worthwhile to delay the filling of key positions in the Treasury Department while the U.S. continues to try and find its way out of financial crisis. Specifically, Kyl is preventing the appointment of six key officials, all of whom would help manage tax policies and international finance, posts which, as Del Mar points out, “even for the most hardcore poker fans, it should be clear that they ought to have a much higher priority than the UIGEA’s implementation or repeal.”

    Among other folks, Del Mar points us to the political blogger Matthew Yglesias for more commentary. Seems more than a little unreasonable for Kyl to hold up the functioning of the Treasury this way in order to make known his grievance over the UIGEA delay.

    But then, every single step of the legislative history of the UIGEA has been characterized by such self-serving, dysfunctional applesauce by its authors and backers.

    A bill punted around in various forms for nearly a decade gets attached to another and passed into law without debate. Regulations get drafted, failing to clarify even the most rudimentary aspects of the bill (e.g., what constitutes “unlawful internet gambling”). A lame-duck administration finalizes the regulations, scheduling the sucker to go into effect on its last full day of its government. Banks and financial institutions, charged with enforcing the law, continue to plead they don’t know how to do so other than by “overblocking” all suspect transactions, and so a further delay is granted to revisit the issue, and perhaps entertain other legislation related to online gambling in the U.S.

    Of course, all of these stories are connected pretty closely, as the fate of the UIGEA will directly affect that of the NAPT, the WPT, the online sites connected with those tours, and more. So, as I say, it will be interesting to see what happens in February in L.V. and L.A. And after that in D.C.

    Victoria CorenAll in all, a busy week. Some will have recognized my headline as taken from the old BBC show. And while we’re on the subject of the U.K., go check out my interview with Victoria Coren over on Betfair about her book For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair with Poker. Coren was nice enough to take a little time out from her PokerStars Caribbean Adventure to answer my questions.

    Have a good weekend!

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    Thursday, January 14, 2010

    Uncertainty

    UncertaintyFor those who might have missed it, check out the comments to yesterday’s post in which I talked about that forthcoming article by Kyle Siler on the “Social and Psychological Challenges of Poker” in the Journal of Gambling Studies. In the comments you’ll see Kevmath pointing us to that Time magazine piece that also discusses the study. And Andy Bloch -- who I’m gonna go ahead and suggest is probably better equipped to judge these things than I am -- came by to offer some thoughts as well.

    One of the ideas that comes up near the end of Siler’s piece has to do with the special psychological pressures that arise when a player moves up in stakes. All of us who have played the game know about these pressures. Any sort of change from one’s “normal” game -- be it a change in stakes or an attempt to try a different game -- usually brings with it some measure of uncertainty, and some of us are better equipped than others to handle those differences (e.g., in opponents’ skill levels, in opponents’ strategies, in the hands/odds/play of other games, etc.).

    In fact, this phenomenon -- basically of finding it difficult to perform well when outside of one’s comfort zone -- occurred to me more than once yesterday.

    Was thinking about it last night while watching my UNC Tarheels get blasted by the Clemson Tigers in a game at Clemson. The Heels looked miserable from the start, turning the ball over every other possession and falling behind by 20 within the first nine minutes. UNC finally got it together midway through the first half and managed to play the Tigers evenly for the rest of the night, which meant they ended the game on the losing side of a 83-64 final.

    Carolina has a few seniors, but those guys don’t have a ton of experience, and much of the roster is filled out by freshmen and sophomores. While they are undefeated at home (11-0), they are now only 1-5 when not playing in the Dean Dome. Clearly having to leave Chapel Hill and get out of their comfort zone has negatively affected the young team thus far, as that poor start last night well showed.

    'Hunting Fish' by Jay Greenspan (2006)Earlier in the day I’d been thinking about the same idea while reading Jay Greenspan’s book Hunting Fish (2006), loaned to me a little while ago by Special K. I’ve only just started the book, which, as the subtitle announces, is a chronicle of Greenspan’s “cross-country search for America’s worst poker players.” The book is organized into 18 chapters, each of which focuses on a particular stop on Greenspan’s journey through various casinos, underground clubs, and home games. So far so good.

    Greenspan has to deal with a couple of different varieties of uncertainty as he travels from game to game. For one, his goal is to build his bankroll and move up in stakes, and already at the beginning of the book he’s starting to express self-doubt about whether or not he’ll eventually discover he cannot psychologically handle the pressure of moving up. “I understood that for me there would be a limit,” he writes, “a level at which I would say, I simply can’t play this high. The stakes are too much for me.

    Of course, Greenspan also has to deal with the uncertainty of playing in unfamiliar environs with unfamiliar opponents. Like UNC last night, he’s going to be the away team every single night, and so will have to get accustomed to dealing with unknowns and adapting accordingly.

    There was one other instance yesterday when this phenomenon occurred to me -- when I sat down for a short online session of my usual pot-limit Omaha game. When away from the tables, I almost always think about playing a different game. And sometimes I think about playing at higher stakes than the usual $25 buy-in games where I am most comfortable. But somehow, after I’ve logged in and opened up the lobby to find a game, I always go back to what’s familiar.

    I know playing other games or higher stakes will challenge me as a player, thereby helping me to improve. But I also know that by sticking with my usual game/stakes my familiarity there serves me well, too, as my experience tends to give me an edge -- sometimes modest, sometimes significant -- over my opponents. I don’t always win, but I usually know what the hell is going on. Thus do I minimize (somewhat) the “social and psychological challenges” game provides.

    Challenges are necessary, though. And paradoxical. We desire them, but shun them, too. We fear uncertainty, and perhaps a lot of times even consciously avoid situations in which we are confronted by uncertainty. But we know that a life without uncertainty isn’t desirable either.

    Of that I’m certain.

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    Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    An Academic Approach to Poker (Gets Dumbed Down)

    'Journal of Gambling Studies'Noticed an item in yesterday’s USA Today about online poker, a reference to a newly-published study about online poker called “Social and Psychological Challenges of Poker” by Kyle Siler, a doctoral student in sociology at Cornell University.

    As usually happens with these articles that try to summarize a discipline-specific study for a wide audience, the USA Today piece boils Siler’s article down to one simple, easy-to-digest claim, essentially announcing that it shows “Poker wins often lead to bigger losses.” In other words, the USA Today article makes it sounds as though Siler’s exhaustive study of a large sample of online poker hands proves that players who win a little tend to lose it back and then some -- confirming, in a way, the fears of those who object to poker and/or gambling as an inevitable road to ruin, regardless of one’s short-term successes.

    The USA Today article is accompanied by a picture of 2009 World Series of Poker champion Joe Cada, who does not actually figure in the piece. I suppose there could be some implication here being advanced about the possibility of Cada’s not holding onto his winnings, but I think it more likely this was the first available poker-related photo that came up following a quick search.

    I was curious to read the study, especially because the way it was presented in the USA Today article seemed more than a little sketchy. Took a little bit of work to get a look at it, but I did manage get a copy and have now read it through.

    Siler speaks knowledgeably of poker and the online game, and as far as I can tell seems to be operating within accepted expectations for sociological research and argumentation. He also shows an understanding of economic theory and applies some of those ideas when appropriate. Siler additionally brings in many references to “poker literature” -- both to strategy texts and to narratives -- which help ground the study within conversations about theory and practice with which we poker players who have read those books are versed. Those references to people like Sklansky, Caro, Harrington, Brunson, and others also make the article more fun for poker players to read than probably would be the case with most dry, academic treatises.

    All in all, I think Siler’s article is smart and interesting, and while its findings mostly confirm ideas we already had about what strategies are most successful his study is nonetheless useful for its having found support for those ideas in the data. I also think it is obvious that the USA Today writer probably only skimmed the study, coming away with a vague, uncertain understanding of its findings.

    Here, let me take a shot at summarizing this sucker a little more carefully...

    “Social and Psychological Challenges of Poker” by Kyle Siler appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Gambling Studies. Using Poker Tracker, Siler examines roughly 26.9 million hands of online poker played over a five-month period at different stakes in order to try to determine “which strategies are conducive to winning at these different levels,” and therefore perhaps draw some conclusions about the “social and psychological challenges” the game presents. The game on which Siler focuses is short-handed (6-max.) no-limit hold’em, and the hands he’s looking at come from games played at NL50, NL200, and NL1000. In all, he was able to gather and analyze stats on around 295,000 different players.

    After crunching the numbers with Poker Tracker, Siler reaches a few conclusions which he does a good job explaining, also using charts and graphs to help him further illustrate what he has found. Those conclusions include his having discovered that
  • “tight and aggressive strategies have the best return across all levels”;
  • one finds “an increased proportion of aggressive players as one moves up stakes,” where also “the number of passive players decreases”;
  • there is an “overrepresentation of loose and aggressive players” among the biggest winners and the biggest losers at all stakes;
  • “None of the biggest winners at any of the levels were even close to being in the top hundred win rates,” having made their money via higher volume (the “grinders”);
  • “a high win percentage (i.e. the percentage of total hands won by a player) is negatively correlated with win rate.”
  • It is this last item that I think caused the USA Today writer to stumble a bit. The point there is that in no-limit hold’em winning a lot of pots doesn’t mean one wins a lot of money, and, in fact, when one looks at millions of hands like Siler did, one discovers that the big winners tend to win fewer (though bigger) pots relative to the rest of the player pool. That correlates with the first finding, namely, that the tight-aggressive strategy has the best return.

    The USA Today writer took that point and mangled it into a declaration that “players who played a lot of hands and often won ended up losing more money than others.” He then quotes from Siler’s study in a way that makes it sound like Siler is agreeing with that somewhat vague claim, but he’s misrepresented Siler’s findings.

    Siler does conclude the study with some thoughts about how moving up in stakes presents players with new challenges, and does a nifty job relating how the stress of adapting one’s style -- necessary to succeeding at the higher levels -- presents especially difficult “social and psychological challenges” to poker players. He ends with the point that “the biggest opponent for many players is themselves,” an idea familiar to any poker player who has struggled to improve his or her game.

    Like I say, a smart study that I recommend if you can somehow get access to a copy. And I’m sorry to see it somewhat misrepresented in USA Today the way it was -- that is, as seeming uncritically to confirm fears about poker as just another unhealthy avenue to degeneracy and self-destruction -- and thereby soliciting further misinformed, unrelated comments like “this is the reason why the house always win[s]” and “that is why they call it gambling.”

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    Tuesday, January 12, 2010

    NBC’s Evening Line-Up & “Poker After Dark”

    'Poker After Dark'Had some extra time last week and so ended up filling some of it watching “Poker After Dark” here on the computer. The show has been around almost exactly three years now, although last week marked the debut of what they are calling season six.

    The theme for the week was “Commentators III,” meaning the six participants in the winner-take-all sit-n-go were all people who have hosted poker shows at some point -- Howard Lederer, Gabe Kaplan, Joe Sebok, Ali Nejad, Mark Gregorich, and Kara Scott. I’d seen a few comments here and there about the first episode, and so that got me over onto the NBC poker page where I ended up following the match throughout the week.

    I won’t go into particulars of how things went or who won, in case you have the sucker on TiVo or something and plan to watch yourself. I realized as I was watching I hadn’t really seen an entire week’s worth of “PAD” for a while. The show was somewhat entertaining, I suppose. Have to admit, though, I found my attention drifting more than once.

    The poker was mostly tight, with really only one or two hands during the entire week demonstrating a player making what might be called a “move.” Thus did the outcome primarily rest on who caught cards in the most timely fashion. The banter was at times interesting, although I found it a little headachy trying to hear everyone. Seems like if the table talk is meant to be a focus of the show, they’d highlight what folks were saying more aggressively by keeping the talkers on camera and maybe turning up their mics now and then. (Then again, maybe there was just more mumbling going on last week than normally occurs on the show.)

    I am nevertheless interested to see the show again this week, primarily to check out the debut of Annette Obrestad. Gonna be a big year for Obrestad, who turned 21 last September. They are calling this week “Nicknames” week, although strangely on the NBC site they are not referring to Obrestad by her best-known nickname -- “Annette_15” -- instead referring to her as “The Huntress.” Actually, I’m pretty sure that decision was quite consciously made so as to avoid any need to explain what “Annette_15” actually means.

    As I say, I watched the show last week on the NBC website, as I don’t normally stay up late enough to watch “PAD” when it airs on my local TV station at 2:05 a.m. Probably the last time I was watching the show at that time of night was last summer when I was in Vegas helping cover the WSOP and getting back to my room around then after a long day-slash-night at the Rio.

    You probably heard all of that news yesterday about NBC’s late night line-up being in serious doubt here following the 2010 Winter Olympics which will be taking over the network for most of February. “The Jay Leno Show,” which currently airs nightly at 10 p.m., has apparently been losing viewers at a rapid clip, with many affiliates saying they’ll drop it because of the way it has been negatively affecting ratings for the local 11 p.m. news. So NBC announced yesterday they’ll take Leno out of the prime time line-up once the Olympics are over, meaning their post-local news schedule is a bit up in the air.

    It sounds like NBC wants to put Leno on at 11:35 p.m. for a half-hour, bump Conan O’Brien’s “The Tonight Show” to 12:05 a.m., then move “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” to 1:05 a.m. Apparently Carson Daly’s half-hour show “Last Call,” currently at 1:35 a.m., will get dropped altogether if this turns out to be the new arrangement. Other possibilities being reported are that O’Brien could skedaddle, taking his show over to the Fox Network. In any event, the whole thing sounds like a major headache for NBC, compounded by significant regret over the whole Leno prime time experiment.

    So the question for poker fans -- especially those of us who don’t bother much with all these late night talk shows -- is what might all this have to do with “Poker After Dark”? Even if I wasn’t riveted by last week’s episodes, I’d still very much like to see the show stay on NBC. Will this shake-up on NBC between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. affect “PAD”?

    I kind of doubt it. That isn’t to say the show is altogether safe. But I’m not really seeing these moves as directly affecting the show’s fate all that much.

    For one, while ratings for “PAD” aren’t without meaning, they aren’t nearly as important as they would be without Full Tilt Poker’s sponsorship. Indeed, my understanding is the show wouldn’t exist without FTP supporting it. Recall how about year ago PokerStars decided no longer to send its pros onto the show? (Daniel Negreanu wrote about it on his blog.)

    In other words, the show really operates more like an infomercial than a regular, ratings-driven show. It’s not like the show needs to remain popular enough to attract advertisers to keep it on the air, although obviously if it were to tank too badly Full Tilt would no longer view it as a worthwhile vehicle to advertise their product. So, how well “PAD” is doing ratings-wise compared, say, to Carson Daly’s show isn’t necessarily a huge factor here, I don’t believe.

    One other point that seems relevant here: the articles I read yesterday suggested that NBC hasn’t any say over what its affiliates show after 2 a.m. As I mentioned, most were reporting that if the Leno-O’Brien-Fallon shuffle into the night indeed happens, Carson Daly’s show will be axed -- that is, it will not moved to 2:05 a.m. At least that’s how NBC network chairman Jeff Gaspin is characterizing that possible scenario. (EDIT [added 5:45 p.m.]: Actually, it sounds like Conan O’Brien is having none of this proposed shufflin' around, according to the statement he released today -- addressed to “People of Earth.”)

    All of which seems to indicate that if local affiliates are presently content to keep “PAD” on at 2:05 a.m., there doesn’t seem much reason yet to think they won’t continue to keep the show moving forward. I suppose if they were presented an option to show that Daly show at that time, that could threaten the future of “PAD,” but it doesn’t appear that’s going to happen.

    Gonna be a busier week for me this time around. But like I say I want to find time in here somewhere to watch Obrestad take on the other “nicknames” on this week’s show -- Mike “The Mouth” Matusow, Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari, Erick “E-Dog” Lindgren, Phil “The Unabomber” Laak, and Phil “The Poker Brat” Hellmuth.

    Yeah, I know what you’re thinking -- no Chainsaw?!

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    Monday, January 11, 2010

    Live, Laugh, Love: The Life of Amir Vahedi

    Amir VahediWoke up yesterday to a collection of messages coming over Twitter from folks sharing the sad news that the amiable, cigar-chomping poker pro Amir Vahedi had died. There are discrepancies online regarding Vahedi’s exact birth date; in any event, his death, stemming from complications related to diabetes, comes much too soon.

    Some of those sending the messages knew Vahedi personally. All spoke well of the Iranian pro most of us probably became aware of thanks to his final table finish at the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event (the year Moneymaker won it). All told, Vahedi earned over $3 million in tourney winnings, including one WSOP bracelet in a $1,500 no-limit hold’em event, also in 2003.

    As was the case with the untimely passing of Hans “Tuna” Lund a couple of months ago -- another well-liked pro who left us too early (at age 59) -- many were quick to share stories and good words regarding Vahedi.

    John Juanda referred to Vahedi as “one of the great personalities & funniest guys in poker.” Matt Savage noted how his “laugh will always be missed.” Over on the Bluff site, Kenna James commented on Lance Bradley’s article reporting the news, noting how Vahedi’s “broad smile and love for people and the game was infectious.”

    James also shares an anecdote there about how he and Vahedi had dinner the night after Vahedi finished sixth in the 2003 WSOP ME (in which James finished 38th), and how that was when he’d first heard Vahedi say “You must be willing to die in order to live.”

    That will no doubt be the most remembered line Vahedi left us. It has often been quoted over the last few years in the context of the need to play poker fearlessly. Of course, the line has broader application as well, suggesting the need to live one’s life without regret, and to develop the fortitude not to allow adversity to hold one back.

    Was easy to think of such broader applications of the line when one considered Vahedi’s own background, having served in the Iranian army during the Iran-Iraq war that began in September 1980. Vahedi would flee Iran as a political refugee as a young man, eventually finding his way to America.

    Hearing the news of Vahedi’s death made me think of that documentary No Limit: A Search for the American Dream on the Poker Tournament Trail, filmed by Susan Genard and Tim Rhys during 2004 (though not released until 2006). The movie features interviews with numerous poker pros, including James and Vahedi.

    Although the story of the film largely centers around Genard’s efforts to make it on the pro circuit, the many interviews helped provide a decent view of the pro poker circuit as a whole, right there as things were really starting to “boom.” (Some poker people were critical of the film for various reasons, but I liked it.)

    As No Limit progresses, the idea of the “American dream” gradually emerges as a theme of sorts, and I remembered Vahedi speaking in the film about the idea, coming at it from a perspective somewhat distinct from most of the others who were interviewed thanks to his experiences as a young man in Iran and his flight to America. (That is a still from No Limit pictured above.) In the film, Vahedi talks about the importance of freedom, emphasizing how valuable it is not to have to “censor your own mind” -- to be able to think and say what one feels and believes.

    Again, it is easy to connect what Vahedi is saying there to that idea that “You must be willing to die in order to live,” as well as to connect it to poker and the need to play a “free” game -- without “censoring” oneself with various ideas or fears.

    While I covered Vahedi in a few WSOP events, I never got the chance to meet him and enjoy his wit and personality first-hand. Still, I’m glad it happened that his career coincided with the poker “boom” in such a way that those of us who didn’t know him were nonetheless introduced to that “broad smile” and love for the game James mentions via the WSOP telecasts, “High Stakes Poker,” and other shows. And to that important message Vahedi has left us about living one’s life to the fullest.

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