Friday, October 29, 2010

November Niners’ Await Restart (With No Redraw)

A week from tomorrow and the 2010 WSOP Main Event cranks back up as the “November Nine” return to the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino to restart the tourney after a nearly four-month hiatus. (Cool pic of the scene there at the Penn and Teller Theater during last year’s final table courtesy the great FlipChip.)

Here are the current chip stacks and seat assignments:

Seat 1: Jason Senti -- 7,625,000 (9th)
Seat 2: Joseph Cheong -- 23,525,000 (3rd)
Seat 3: John Dolan -- 46,250,000 (2nd)
Seat 4: Jonathan Duhamel -- 65,975,000 (1st)
Seat 5: Michael Mizrachi -- 14,450,000 (7th)
Seat 6: Matt Jarvis -- 16,700,000 (5th)
Seat 7: John Racener -- 19,050,000 (4th)
Seat 8: Filippo Candio -- 16,400,000 (6th)
Seat 9: Soi Nguyen -- 9,650,000 (8th)

Remember when the November Nine ideer was first brought up? And how back in 2008, once they’d played down to the final nine and play was suspended, we kept hearing people say that the plan was going to be to redraw for seats once players returned to the Rio? (No shinola.)

Was a curious phenomenon, actually. As it turned out, the seating assignments did not change between that last hand in July and the restart in November. Even if the much-repeated story -- believed by many observers and even the players themselves -- was that they would.

As generally happens at WSOP events, there had been a redraw when the tourney had gotten down to 10 players, from which point they played ten-handed until Dean Hamrick was eliminated. Talk then was that there would be a redraw, one purpose for which would be to minimize collusion, a frequently-evoked concern of critics of the November Nine idea at the time.

Many also mentioned then that the redraw would significantly affect the way players prepared, too, since they couldn’t spend four months working on how to deal with a particular player sitting on his immediate left or right.

Since redraws don’t happen in other WSOP bracelet events when the tourney goes from 10 to 9, it seemed a little strange to be hearing that there would be one for the Main Event. But the November Nine was a new and radical change, so most weren’t that surprised to be hearing about other novelties like the redraw being associated with it.

I remember hearing players interviewed back in 2008 -- right up until the last week, in fact -- and how they all seemed under the impression there would be a redraw. There was even confusion, it seemed, the day of the restart, as I wrote about here at the time. There was live audio commentary one could listen to online for the 2008 ME final table, and there the announcers were actually describing preparations being made for a redraw, but in fact none took place.

Now that we are in the third year of having the delayed final table, there doesn’t seem to be confusion, anymore, about this particular aspect of the Main Event final table. All of the players know where they’ll be sitting come a week from tomorrow, and commentators are taking seating assignments -- and players’ positions relative to one another -- into account when handicapping the FT.

What do you think? Should they redraw? What would be the pros and/or cons of doing so?

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Talkin’ WSOP on ESPN

2010 WSOP on ESPNYesterday I had the opportunity to participate in a conference call conducted by the WSOP and ESPN in which the topic of discussion was the upcoming Main Event final table. Hard to believe that’ll finally be happening in a little over a week!

For a full write-up of the call (which lasted about 45 minutes), head to Betfair Poker where I’ve sorted out into topics most of the items that were discussed.

When my turn arose, I asked a couple of questions. The first was about the logo/patch situation. I mentioned in yesterday’s post how Full Tilt Poker has seven sponsored players among the November Nine, yet there is that WSOP rule regarding televised tables that limits sponsors to having just three players sport their logos.

I was curious about the issue because earlier in the week on “This Week in Poker” one of those seven players -- John Racener -- had indicated he was under the impression that all seven would be wearing Full Tilt patches. But Ty Stewart, VP of Harrah’s/WSOP, confirmed yesterday that the rule would certainly be enforced.

I noted yesterday how it seemed curious that even the players being sponsored by FTP didn’t know which three among them would be patched. On the same show, Victory Poker CEO Dan Fleyshman recognized Full Tilt Poker’s strategy here -- by not announcing early which three players will be representing the site, all seven players remain identified with Full Tilt Poker right up until the start of the final table.

I wonder, though, if this strategy might negatively affect the chances for the four players who will not be wearing FTP logos to score alternate deals?

I directed my second question to Lon McEachern and Norman Chad, the commentators for ESPN’s WSOP coverage. I asked them to talk about the fact that they’ve been doing this same gig for more than seven years now.

Since I didn’t cover that question over on Betfair, I thought I’d share their response here. McEachern was the first to answer.

“You know, honestly, as Norman has mentioned a number of times, it was his dream as a kid to sit around and watch people play poker,” McEachern cracked.

“That’s all of our dreams!” I said jokingly. “Yeah, exactly!” said McEachern with a laugh. Then came the real response.

Lon McEachern and Norman Chad“For myself,” said McEachern, “I was doing a lot of niche sports with ESPN for a number of years, and that was kind of my bailiwick to do some oddball sports. Baseball, football, basketball... that was all taken up. So when [the chance to cover the WSOP arose], I had the foothold. I was the only one at ESPN doing it.”

McEachern went on speak with humility about how the pair has yet to “screw it up” thus far, and in fact have “grown in the role” and gotten better as the years have passed.

This “right-place-right-time” theme was something Chad touched upon as well in his response.

“As far as the ‘poker boom’ goes and ESPN’s success with the World Series of Poker [is concerned], Lon and I are just passengers in the getaway car,” said Chad. “This all would have happened with or without us, and we just happened to be there and as Lon mentioned we haven’t screwed up.... We’ve somehow stayed there since it began in ’03, but it’s just happenstance. It was a piano falling out of the sky for me, and instead of crushing me it landed next to me. And I knew how to play the piano.”

I liked their responses, and especially Chad’s choice of metaphors. Made me think a lot about the good fortune I’ve enjoyed thus far writing about poker and the opportunities that have come my way. Also made me think a little about poker, too, and how luck so often plays an important role there.

Stewart then chimed in to add a few words of praise for McEachern and Chad, noting how in his opinion “their longevity is a testament to the fact that they’re the best and they’re true professionals.”

Stewart noted how he’d been with the WSOP for five years now, and how early on he “made the mistake” of checking out “Two Plus Two and some of those other crazy poker sites.” He saw how those sites do feature a lot of critical commentary on all things poker, but recognized that “people universally agree” that McEachern and Chad do a terrific job.

Of course, one doesn’t have to hunt around very long on Two Plus Two to find criticisms of ESPN and the commentators. But I think Stewart is basically right to point out that McEachern and Chad are liked by many, and on the whole do receive a lot more praise than censure. I know I am a fan of both, for sure.

Like I say, for more on the conference call, click on over to Betfair Poker.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

TWIP Notes

Mel AllenAn especially interesting episode of “This Week in Poker” yesterday, I thought.

The Entities from Wicked Chops managed to cram four guests into the less-than-hour-and-a-half long program. I'd say three of those four guests shared thoughts and/or opinions which might’ve caused some viewers to utter the catch-phrase of Mel Allen, longtime Yankees broadcaster and host of “This Week in Baseball.”

Don’t tell me you don’t remember...! What did Allen always say at the end of the weekly “TWIB notes” segment?

“How about that!”

Dan Fleyshman, CEO of Victory Poker and seventh-place finisher at last month’s WSOPE Main Event, was in the studio. Fleyshman shared a lot of interesting views about the state of online poker at present, particularly in the United States where we remained mired in ambiguity, legally speaking. He expressed cautious optimism about the eventual regulation of online poker in the U.S., though noted that we’re still at least a couple of years away from such occurring.

He also had some things to say about the upcoming WSOP November Nine and sponsorships. If I heard him correctly, Fleyshman mentioned that last year’s chip leader (Darvin Moon) had been offered $300,000 by both PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker to wear their patches, but had turned down the offers.

Last fall some of the rumors suggested Moon had been offered as much as $1 million to get himself patched up, although most had guessed something less than that. Last year Paul Leggett, COO of Tokwiro Enterprises (then owner of UltimateBet), was interviewed about the topic over on Poker News Daily, and while he didn’t confirm exact figures, an editor’s note suggested $350,000 to have been the offered sum. (Tip of the fedora to Kevmath for help recalling that item.)

Another guest on the show, November Niner John Racener, was also asked about the wearing of logos at the final table, specifically who among the November Niners being sponsored by Full Tilt Poker will be the ones to sport FTP patches.

Over on Full Tilt’s site, they are currently listing seven of the nine as part of their stable -- Filippo Candio, Joseph Cheong, John Dolan, Matthew Jarvis, Michael Mizrachi, Soi Nguyen, and Racener. (The other two -- Jonathan Duhamel and Jason Senti -- have PokerStars’ backing.)

This Week in PokerRacener was asked the question because of the restriction listed in the WSOP rules that limits the number of players who can wear a single site’s logos at a televised table. According to the rule (Rule 50, section B), “During all events taped for television coverage, and at the start of each television taping day, no more than three (3) players at the Final Table -- and all other tables featured for television coverage -- will be allowed to wear apparel with logos, patches or promotional language from the same entity.”

Racener initially seemed under the impression that all seven of the FTP players would be wearing garb representing the site. However, further discussion seemed to reveal that he was assuming as much because he hadn’t been told otherwise.

Kind of interesting to see how FTP has kept even their players in the dark regarding this decision, a strategy which Fleyshman -- who remains interested in possibly having a November Niner don a Victory patch -- commended as strategically sound insofar as all seven necessarily remain identified with FTP throughout this long build-up to the final table.

Another “how about that” moment from Racener’s interview came up when he was asked whether or not he and his friend Michael Mizrachi had pieces of one another or had swung any sort of deal leading into the final table. Racener said no, adding that the WSOP explicitly forbid the players from making deals at the final table, an admonition expressed to them in a meeting with the final nine before they left Vegas in July.

Speaking of Full Tilt, one of their “red pros” Phil Gordon also appeared on the show. And speaking again of the battles between online sites, one of the more interesting items Gordon brought up was his frustration over the fact that the FTP pros and members of Team PokerStars couldn’t compete against one another on televised shows like “The PokerStars.net Big Game” or the “Full Tilt Doubles Poker Championship.”

In fact, when Gordon was asked which player he’d like most to team up with in a doubles tourney among those not already on the Full Tilt show, Gordon somewhat surprisingly answered Joe Cada, the 2009 WSOP ME champ and PokerStars pro. The issue was discussed further, and Gordon acknowledged that the marketplace was so competitive that his desire to see the sites no longer segregate themselves this way was perhaps not something that was likely to happen.

Can’t honestly report the fourth guest on yesterday’s show -- Victory Poker model Victoria Moore -- offered anything as intriguing as did the other guests. Besides being easy on the eyes, that is. Or the news of her being named this year’s “Official Wicked Chops Poker Girl.”

Like I say, another interesting and engaging episode of “This Week in Poker.” An archived version should appear over on the “This Week In” site soon. I’ll add a link here when it does.

(Here you go.)

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Robl, Negreanu, and Tony G Play Poker (and Other Games) on TV

Robl, Negreanu, and Tony G Play Poker (and Other Games) on TVRemember those first couple of years following the “boom” in 2003, when poker on television was still a novelty for most? Wasn’t that long ago.

A favorite saying back then was to observe how what one sees on television wasn’t a good representation of so-called “real poker.” Since the shows were often edited to highlight the biggest encounters -- the bustouts and double-ups -- we saw lots of all-in bets and not so much post-flop maneuvering. Thus could one get the impression from TV that playing poker meant being in a state of constant crisis, with little down time or even that much evidence of the way the game demands careful thought.

Sort of like most television, movies, video games, what have you. Always something happening. No time for thinkin’.

Of course, poker on TV has changed over the years, with shows like “High Stakes Poker” and “The PokerStars.net Big Game” now delivering us long sequences of cash-game hands, thereby introducing a much greater variety into the programming. Still, even in those settings, many continue to maintain that “TV poker” is fundamentally different from “real poker,” with the need to create action -- and thus keep viewers interested -- being a kind of unwritten rule players have to follow.

That latter idea was highlighted over the last couple of days following the most recent episode of “The PokerStars.net Big Game,” thanks largely to a couple of hands involving Andrew “Good2CU” Robl.

By taking a little longer than most to make decisions at the table, Robl drew the ire of Tony G who responded by calling the clock on the young player -- first in a hand between the pair, then again in another hand between Robl and Negreanu. Here’s a video compiling those moments as well as some follow-up comments by the players.



Commenting on the action, Joe Stapleton makes an observation during the first hand. “As entertaining as this is,” says Stapleton, “it’s actually breaking etiquette a little bit to call the clock on someone, especially in a cash game where the blinds don’t increase.”

Tony G Calls the ClockThe usually irascible Tony G acknowledged as much in a recent blog post about the episode and his behavior, provocatively titled “I Am the Third Most Hated Man in Poker.” There Tony G admits he “crossed the line,” but adds that he nevertheless had “a point about [Robl’s] nittish waiting at a bus stop behavior,” explaining that Robl’s deliberations “drove me to distraction.”

In his short post, Tony G doesn’t explicitly say that because they were playing on television, Robl should have been playing more quickly. However, the always-opinionated Negreanu did make that very point in his comment on the show, which one can find posted in a thread over on Two Plus Two.

Daniel Negreanu WaitsYou can read Negreanu’s statement yourself, which includes a number of comments about televised poker in general and multiple criticisms of Robl in particular. To sum up Kid Poker’s thesis, he says TV poker must be played quickly as production costs are significant, and also should be played “faster” in terms of players’ willingness to give action, partly because they are being paid to appear. Robl failed in both regards on “The Big Game,” says Negreanu, taking too long to act and also refusing to straddle when all of the others wished to do so.

In other words, it sounds like “Good2CU” is not the nickname Negreanu would choose for Robl. (EDIT [added 7:00 p.m. ET]: Negreanu has added a few more thoughts about the show in a blog post, where he also notes he and Robl have recently spoken and “we are cool and we squashed it.”)

Robl has also spoken up about the show, yesterday publishing a blog post about the episode and the issues that have been raised.

Andrew Robl thinksAgain, I’ll let you read Robl’s post if you are curious about particulars, but in essence he’s defending playing a deliberate, analytical game (regardless of the context), he points out that straddling doesn’t necessarily lead to increased action (while also potentially reduces the skill component), and he additionally notes that while there are production costs his time is also valuable. (Robl also speaks in complimentary terms about both Tony G and Negreanu while at the same time rating himself a better player than both.)

While I find myself leaning in the direction of agreeing more with Robl than with his older opponents here, it might be that I am being more swayed by the thoughtfulness of his response than by the particulars of his position.

Because I can see, too, what Tony G is implying and what Negreanu makes explicit -- namely, that TV poker is still different from “real poker.” There are always going to be other games going on there, too, besides the one with the cards and the chips -- something anyone who goes on TV to play is probably going to have to acknowledge one way or another.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Physicists & Poker

Wile E. Coyote, GeniusYou might have heard something last week about an article in the November issue of Discover magazine about physicists and poker. The article is titled “Big Game Theory” and is by Jennifer Ouelette. You can read it online by clicking here. There was also an NPR segment on the article over the weekend, which you can access by clicking here.

I happen to have a particular interest in this subject. While I never studied physics too intensely -- only had a couple of classes that didn’t really take me beyond an introduction to the subject -- my father is in fact a physicist, and as a result I’ve always been somewhat curious about some of the many areas of inquiry physicists pursue.

What was it like being raised by a physicist? Well, I used to joke about how Dad didn’t mind me watching the Wile E. Coyote-Road Runner cartoons as a kid, but simply could not let me see the coyote run off the side of a cliff, hang in mid-air for a few seconds and perhaps hold up a sign, then drop from the sky leaving a puff of smoke behind without delivering an explanation of the impossibility of such applesauce.

The joke (only partially embellished from the truth, I maintain) perhaps suggests something about how physicists see the world around them -- namely, as a place where explanations really do exist for most physical phenomena. Some of these explanations, such as why a coyote can’t hang in the air like that, are not difficult to discover. Others are less obvious, but even there the physicist will pursue acceptable methods of inquiry in the effort to discover such explanations.

That’s the idea -- of the physicist being a puzzle-solving, rational interpreter of the world -- Ouelette advances in her article, her main point being to suggest that such a mindset appears to be especially well-suited to poker.

“Perhaps poker appeals to physicists because it is an intricate, complex puzzle,” writes Ouelette, noting how poker is “steeped in statistical probabilities and the tenets of game theory.” Since it often turns out that “the best players evince a rare combination of skills in math, strategy, and psychology,” it isn’t that surprising to find a number of physicists doing well at the tables.

Ouelette refers to Michael Binger, perhaps the best-known and most successful poker-playing physicist, whom you’ll recall finished third at the 2006 WSOP Main Event behind Jamie Gold and Paul Wasicka. She also makes reference to a few others, including Michael Piper and Liv Boeree, while also mentioning Chris Ferguson who has a Ph.D. in computer science.

She additionally spoke with the Dutch player Marcel Vonk, another physicist who won a WSOP bracelet in an event I happened to cover this summer, Event No. 54, the last of the $1,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em events. As the tournament reached the final stages, we became aware of his background in physics and his website. I wrote a little about Vonk’s background in a post here back in July.

Vonk certainly played well in that event, although experienced some good fortune, too -- including during heads-up play versus the strong David Peters -- on his way to conquering the 3,844-player field.

Vonk confirms Ouelette’s suggestion that those who become physicists may in fact be especially well-suited for poker.

“The skills required are similar,” says Vonk, noting that they include “mathematical abilities,” being able to “spot patterns and predict things from them,” and “patience” to keep working at difficult problems that may take multiple attempts to solve.

The article goes on to make a few more points that most poker players will find familiar. It’s good to know probabilities, but one shouldn’t get too carried away with emphasizing the “math” of the game. Poker is a game of “incomplete information,” so we can’t perfectly calculate everything, anyway. And bad beats or “statistical anomalies” will happen, something any physicist worth his credentials well understands.

All in all, an interesting piece that makes some decent observations. The only deficit I can see -- beyond the fact that Ouelette is really only scratching the surface of this subject -- is her suggestion that poker tourneys began to “flourish” in the 1970s when “thousands of how-to books” appeared. (About three decades off there, I’d say.)

I say she’s only scratching the surface -- indeed, the article only represents a small portion of the writing and research she did. Over on the “Cocktail Party Physics” website, Ouelette has additionally published a lengthy blog post, titled “Physicists Put on Their Poker Face,” in which she shares a great deal more from her piece that didn’t make the final cut -- more discussion of probability and game theory, more quotes from her interviewees, etc.

I will have to send these links along to my Dad the physicist and see what he thinks about them. Maybe reading these pieces will get him wanting to play poker with me.

However, for my sake I might be better off avoiding getting involved in a game with him. Might well end up like this:

Wile E. Coyote

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Thinking About the Rake

A couple of years ago I wrote a little two-part sequence of posts titled “Raise That Rake!” In those posts I talked about a situation with which I imagine most players are familiar.

Two players find themselves reaching the final round of betting with hands of identical value. They bet the maximum on the end and end up splitting a large pot. The “winner,” then, seems to be the house (or the site), since the rake gets increased thanks to the pot becoming bigger at the end.

In those posts, the first one described a Stud/8 hand in which by sixth street I had the low locked up and my opponent had an unbeatable high. Yet I continued to bet anyway, and afterwards my opponent objected to what he viewed as a futile bit of rake-raising. In the post, I defend my play.

The second post pursues the topic a little further, addressing that notion some players have that online sites are “rigged” to create these kinds of scenarios, thereby ensuring they claim more rake. I don’t buy that idea, although in the post I describe my very last session on UltimateBet (long, long ago) in which I found myself wonderin’ just a little.

I was reminded of this issue again this week, for a couple of reasons.

I continue to play small-stakes pot-limit Omaha (almost always on PokerStars). Like most recreational players, I don’t usually spend a lot of time worrying about the rake, although I am aware it significantly cuts into what I’m able to take away from the tables. And, of course, I don’t have any rakeback or anything at PokerStars. (Nor do I at Full Tilt Poker, unfortunately, the only other site on which I am playing these days.)

I noticed a thread on Two Plus Two this week in which an argument was raised that sites should consider lowering the rake in small-stakes PLO games. The original post began with the statement that “the rake in small stakes PLO (100PLO and lower) is so high it effectively turns the game into a black hole.” You can look at the thread if you want to see how the discussion went.

What is the rake in the PLO games I usually play at PokerStars? A look over at the rake page on the PS site shows that for the game I generally play -- with blinds of $0.10/$0.25 -- the rake is a penny for every 20 cents in the pot, up to a maximum of $2.00 taken out. The maximum drops to $1.00 when there are 3-5 players at the table, and $0.50 when just two.

In other words, 5% of just about every pot I win is going to the site. I do get a little back from bonuses and whatnot, but not nearly enough to cover that 5%. So obviously, I have to do better than break even to break even.

Whether or not the game is really a “black hole,” I’m not smart enough to say. I mentioned a few weeks ago I have been mired in a long stretch of “break-even poker,” and while I know the rake is helping keep me there, I’m not ready to concede that it is impossible to come out ahead at small-stakes PLO. (Perhaps a reader can enlighten me.)

Seeing that thread did get me thinking a little more specifically about the rake, though. Then came a hand the other day in which I was not involved that got me considering the rake once again and the scenario I had written about a couple of years ago -- that is, the one in which two players with identical hands create a large pot and by their betting necessarily increase the rake.

In this hand I had folded from UTG, and it folded to the button who raised pot to $0.85. Only the big blind called. The flop came AsKsJc. The BB checked, the button bet $1.25, and the BB called. The turn was the Tc, and this time both players checked.

The river was the Qd. The big blind checked, and the button bet $2.50. The BB called, turning over QsJs9c8c for a Broadway straight. As it turned out, the button had bluffed on the end, holding but 6s5s5h2h, and the BB won the entire pot. That’s when the BB made a weird, if familiar, comment in the chat box.

“rake!!!!!” typed the player, adding “why bet when the board is nuts?”

A lot that is strange here. For one, I don’t think the BB even noticed his opponent’s hand, or even the fact that they didn’t split the pot. I could be wrong, but I don’t really see how the BB can complain about the button’s river bet after winning the entire pot like that. That was a gift, man!

Secondly, I began to wonder if the BB even knew how to play PLO -- that is, did the BB realize one cannot “play the board”? Seemed possible he did not.

I hadn’t really paid close attention to the hand as it played out, to be honest, but I found myself looking back and also wondering why the BB didn’t bet the turn. He had the nuts, plus a redraw to not one but two different flushes!

I sort of understood why the BB hadn’t bet or check-raised the river, as it seemed obvious that neither would be called by an inferior hand, and so this actually seemed like a legitimate spot to avoid inflating the pot and thus raising the rake.

I ended up cautiously playing a few hands versus the BB, winning a couple of medium-sized pots but wondering all along how well my opponent understood the rules of the game he was playing. The fact is, one does sometimes encounter players in these low-stakes PLO games who aren’t sure about the “must play two cards from one’s hand” rule, never mind pot odds or any other more involved strategy.

Ironically, one could argue that it is the presence of players like this that make it reasonable to raise even when it appears you and your opponent must have hands of identical value and thus are destined to split the pot. Because there’s a chance your opponent doesn’t have what seems an obvious holding, the explanation being he or she doesn’t know the rules of the game!

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Well Played, WPT

World Poker TourHave really been enjoying the latest addition to our already loaded menu of poker-related goodness on the interwebs, the short video recaps done by our friends Jessica Welman and B.J. Nemeth over on the World Poker Tour site.

The WPT has always done a nifty job reporting from its events, thanks in large part to people like B.J. and Jess, both of whom bring a lot of experience and know-how to poker reporting. Video content has always been part of the WPT site, too, mostly in the form of player interviews. But as far as I know B.J. & Jess’ show is something a bit new.

This week saw the Festa al Lago event play out at the Bellagio, won yesterday by Randal Flowers (his second WPT title). At the end of each day’s play, Welman and Nemeth recorded videos recapping the action and making predictions about how the tournament would continue to play out. The vids generally last 8-12 minutes and afford the viewer both a quick rundown of what’s happening in the tourney as well as some grins, too.

For each event, then, the WPT provides all sorts of content -- videos, B.J.’s photo blogs, hand reports, and more -- thereby making it possible to follow a given tourney quite closely from afar. The site is also smartly organized. It’s a simple matter to look up past events, stats, and all sorts of info related to the World Poker Tour’s history.

My sense is the WPT is doing well thus far in Season 9, in terms of both attracting players and successfully producing a general buzz around the tour and its stops. Goes without saying that having a good handle on the reporting/promotion side of things helps a lot when it comes to keeping the WPT relevant and in the minds of us poker fans.

On their final installment from Festa al Lago, B.J. and Jess asked for suggestions for a title of their show:



I actually enjoyed the running gag this week in which a new title was introduced each day. Even so, I understand the need to settle on some way to refer to the show, and thus have a suggestion, one that simultaneously evokes B.J.’s love of Coca-Cola products, Jess’ fondness for Starbucks, and a favorite term of WPT co-host Vince Van Patten...

“Wired Pair.”

If you have a better ideer, send it their way via Twitter @JessAndBJ.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Robot Rights (and Wrongs)

I enjoy playing online poker. Strictly small stakes, natch. Been doing so for several years now, and hope to continue playing in the future, too.

With online poker, there’s always a leap of faith. One can never know with 100% certainty that one is not being dealt a crooked game. But I can say that almost every time I’ve ever sat down to play I’ve felt reasonably sure the games have been on the up-and-up.

How long, though, can online poker -- as we’ve been enjoying it over these last few years -- survive in its current form? Have to admit, this recent “bots” business has me wonderin’...

Some News About “Some of your opponents”

Some News About 'Some of your opponents'Over the weekend there was quite a lot of chatter on the forums, Twitter, and elsewhere in response to the fact that on Friday a large number of players had received some sort of refund or compensation from Full Tilt Poker.

Most of those receiving money were sent emails which began by announcing that the “Full Tilt Poker Security department has recently concluded an extensive investigation and we have determined some of your opponents were in violation of our site terms.” The email went on to note that the offending accounts had been “permanently closed,” the money confiscated, and refunds awarded to affected players “based on the number of tournaments or hands played against the offending players, and the amount won or lost against them.”

The emails provided no other specifics, only adding that “for a number of reasons, we are unable to provide any other additional information” regarding the violations of the site terms. It looks as though some players might have begun receiving refunds as early as late September, actually, then late last week came an especially high number of refunds, prompting players to congregate on the forums and elsewhere to figure out why exactly they were getting money returned to them.

By Friday afternoon, an explanation had been found, thanks primarily to the fact that those responsible for the site term violations had posted a complaint on their website about their accounts being shut down and funds confiscated. That’s right -- the cheaters have a website, and a forum, and what appears to be a thriving little community of bot-promoters and -users.

Turns out “some of your opponents” were not who you thought they were. There was a reason why that dude always seemed to three-bet from the blinds following your late-position attempts to steal. “He” was programmed to do so!

Beware the Bots

Beware the BotsThe site where the complaint appeared is called “Bonus Bots” and is operated by a group that identifies itself as “Shanky Technologies.” They have apparently been up and running for more than two years now, selling a number of different “poker bot” products that play all sorts of games and work on various sites. A bit of poking around shows one can download demo versions of the programs that’ll run for a couple hundred hands (for hold’em, Omaha/8, pot-limit Omaha, and even blackjack), then unlock them by purchasing licenses which range from $99 to $149.

The “bot” programs are obviously functional, playing both cash games and tourneys for the players who run them. Whether they have been programmed well enough to win consistently is difficult to determine, but it appears as though they had at least enabled many of those who were using them to profit via rakeback.

And while the number of players and accounts that had been using the Shanky Technologies bots is not known, from the forums it appears there were a lot of them, primarily hanging out in the lower buy-in SNGs, MTTs, and ring games, especially Rush Poker where they perhaps could more easily go undetected by players playing against the bots.

The use of “poker bots” of course violates one of Full Tilt Poker’s “site terms,” the one stating that “the use of artificial intelligence including, without limitation, ‘robots’ is strictly forbidden.” Full Tilt also states that by playing on the site one agrees to allow FTP to “take steps to detect and prevent the use of prohibited EPA [external player assistance] programs,” including the “examination of software programs running concurrently with the Full Tilt Poker software on a player’s computer.”

Other sites have similar restrictions, although the policing against bots is inconsistent. Some have noted that PokerStars appears to be the only U.S.-facing site that has remained constantly vigilant in detecting bots and keeping them off their games.

“An Incredibly Unethical Move”

'An Incredibly Unethical Move'The complaint from Shanky Technologies is fascinating for a number of reasons, including the fact that it begins by noting that Full Tilt “came out of nowhere” with “no warning” to stop the use of the bots, “and this was after years of tolerating us to such an extent that most of us felt they welcomed us with open arms.”

Indeed, the unapologetic manner in which the bots are discussed on the site’s blog and forums does suggest not only that they’ve been able to use their programs for some time, but that Full Tilt and several other sites -- not including PokerStars or PartyPoker -- have turned a blind eye to their use for quite some time. And some continue to do so, apparently, including UB and Bodog.

The complaint goes on to mention that “hundreds of us” had been using the programs without incident. The move by Full Tilt Poker to freeze their accounts and confiscate their funds is described as “a very sudden and calculated move on their part.” “It would be difficult to describe their actions as anything other than stealing,” says Shanky Technologies, “if you understand the environment.”

They go on to describe Full Tilt’s decision finally to enforce their site term as “an incredibly unethical move” and suggest players stay away from the site, even those who might wish to play there “manually” (i.e., without a “bot”).

Pretty friggin’ audacious, eh? Kind of reminds me of some of those sci-fi stories which try to explore the subject of “robot rights.” Usually such stories involve the development of consciousness or “feelings” in the robots, thereby raising questions about whether or not they might or should be treated similarly to humans and/or afforded the same “rights,” including the right to live.

But Bots are People, Too!

But Bots Are People, Too!While acknowledging the fact that they’ve been violating one of Full Tilt’s site terms, the makers and users of the poker bots adamantly believe the use of bots to play online poker does not affect the game’s integrity. In other words, they appear ready to argue for the “right” of their bots to compete against humans, even if the humans -- both the players and those ones running the site -- do not wish to allow such to occur.

One of the users of the Shanky bots started a thread on Two Plus Two over the weekend defending their use as “a legit form of poker,” claiming “it’s my mind dictating my bot’s actions” and even going so far as to describe using the bot as “a form of poker at its purist.”

Hard to know for sure whether the poster was being truthful or simply provoking. As you might imagine, most of those responding to the post disagreed with its argument, pointing out how poker “at its purist” is a game between people, not a competition to see who can construct the best poker-playing program.

Even so, online poker has always been different from the live game. Sure, it’s a game between people, but we each are operating a machine in order to compete with one another. To what extent are those machines representing us?

Are you human? Am I?

Are you human? Am I?The more I think about it, the more I find the whole incident troubling. Some are suggesting that at certain levels (NL2 and NL5), the games at Full Tilt were “saturated” by these poker-playing bots prior to last week’s action. Again, it is hard to know what to believe, but one assumes that those creating the programs will work further to try to develop ways of running their programs without being detected (“stealth measures,” as the Shanky guys put it).

I keep thinking of that one statement, the one where the makers of the bots try to characterize Full Tilt suddenly bringing down the hammer as “stealing,” explaining that it would appear as such to you, too, “if you understand the environment.”

The reference there is to the lackadaisical enforcement of site terms, although the line makes me think in broader terms about the game we have enjoyed for so long. And we thought we knew.

How well do most of us playing online poker really “understand the environment”?

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

From the Mayfair Club to Poker’s Most Exclusive Club: Harrington, Seidel Newest Poker Hall of Famers

Poker Hall of FameThe votes have been tallied and today comes the announcement that Dan Harrington and Erik Seidel have become the 39th and 40th members of the Poker Hall of Fame. As I mentioned yesterday, the newest inductees will be recognized in a special ceremony at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino as part of the November Nine festivities.

Not a huge surprise to see these two emerge from the list of ten nominees. As was the case for Mike Sexton last year, various factors had combined to make Harrington a favorite this time around. And Seidel, too, had been getting a lot of attention as one of those several “gonna-get-in-eventually” future Hall of Famers whose time appeared to have come.

I think most observers will agree that both players are highly deserving.

Dan HarringtonHarrington’s four WSOP Main Event final tables -- including one victory -- is one of those jawdropping feats that has to be recognized as an accomplishment worthy of praise. The fact that he made those final tables in three different decades (’80s, ’90s, ’00s) and in events with fields of 152 (1987), 273 (1995, the year he won), 839 (2003), and 2,576 (2004) only makes it more impressive.

“Action Dan” has a second WSOP bracelet (also won in 1995) plus a World Poker Tour title (won in 2007), and has racked up about $6.5 million in tourney winnings while essentially being a part-time player. Also, his books -- especially the Harrington on Hold’em series -- have helped further establish his legacy as an important contributor to the game.

Seidel has also enjoyed a long, lucrative career with over $10 million in career tourney earnings and a whopping eight WSOP bracelets. Seidel’s WSOP wins have come in a variety of games, too, including limit hold’em, Omaha/8, pot-limit Omaha, Deuce-to-Seven, and no-limit hold’em.

Erik SeidelThe other part of Seidel’s resume that especially impresses is the fact that not only has he cashed 60 times at the WSOP, but he tends to make the most of his cashes, having made 33 final tables, too. That gets him into the all-time top five of both lists (most cashes, most final tables).

In a response to the news of his induction, Seidel made reference to his having gotten his start playing at the old Mayfair Club in New York with Harrington long ago. “Both of us refined our games at the Mayfair Club in New York,” he noted, saying “it’s an extra bonus for me to be going in with Dan Harrington” with whom he has “been great friends for my entire poker career.”

The fact that Harrington and Seidel are going in together will bring renewed attention to the Mayfair Club, a place where many others also played before becoming stars at the WSOP. Other regulars at the underground club (shut down finally in 2000) included Jay Heimowitz, Mickey Appelman, and Howard Lederer. Stu Ungar apparently would stop in there, too, as would Steve Zolotow, Paul Magriel, and others.

Mayfair Club on 'Poker After Dark'The club was featured one week on “Poker After Dark,” with club goers Heimowitz, Lederer, Appelman, Harrington, Zolotow, and Mike Shictman all playing. The club was apparently a model of sorts for the Chesterfield Club in Rounders (1998), the movie in which Seidel’s second-place finish in the 1988 WSOP Main Event (to Johnny Chan) was forever immortalized.

Both Harrington and Seidel were among the nominees on last year’s ballot, and I think when they did not get in last year just about everyone believed they would both be inducted soon. And as I say, I think the timing turned out right for both this time, partly because of the fact that both compared well to the other eight nominees.

I wrote a piece last week for Betfair Poker in which I discussed “Age and the Poker Hall of Fame.” There I pointed out how the great majority of the 38 individuals who had been inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame -- all but three, in fact -- were aged 50 and above (or were deceased) when they got in. Harrington is 64, meaning only Tom McEvoy at 65 was older among this year’s nominees. And Seidel will be turning 51 a couple of days before the ceremony in November.

Among the other nominees, only McEvoy, Linda Johnson (aged 57), and Barry Greenstein (aged 55) were also more than 50. Even though there is no specific rule regarding a minimum age for induction into the Poker Hall of Fame, I think it still remains a factor for most voters, which means when it comes down to it, those candidates who are older will be competing against one another as long as the WSOP continues to limit the number who can be inducted each year (which I have no doubt they will continue to do).

All of which probably means McEvoy, Johnson, and Greenstein each have a good chance of making it in next year, since it is doubtful there are other players aged 50 or above who will emerge between now and 2011 to challenge them.

I’ve mentioned here before how I had the chance to participate in the voting for this year’s Poker Hall of Fame as one of the members of the media panel. I’m very grateful to have been given the opportunity to participate in the process, and while I’m not going to share specifics of my vote, I will place myself in that group who believe Harrington and Seidel are both highly deserving of the honor. Congrats to both!

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Looking Ahead: The November Nine

Have been starting to think a bit about the November Nine, which is sneaking up on us pretty quickly here. A short quiz for you: Without looking it up, how many of the nine players who made the WSOP Main Event final table can you name?

I have also been thinking some about how I’d like to be there at the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino to see the sucker, although as of right now I have no concrete plans to make the trip. While I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to help cover the World Series of Poker each of the last three summers, I’ve yet to see a Main Event come to its conclusion. Kinda wanting to do that, I’m realizing.

You’ll recall that the whole delayed final table ideer for the Main Event first came about in 2008. That was my first year at the WSOP. In fact, when I initially signed on to make the trip out that summer, no one knew yet that the delay was going to happen. The new schedule wasn’t announced until early May that year, just a few weeks before the WSOP was set to begin.

I remember first hearing about the decision to delay the final table. Was kind of a shocker. There had been a few rumors floating around for the previous three weeks or so. But really, the whole idea seemed kind of out there, a far-fetched plan that didn’t really feel like it was all that likely until the announcement was finally, officially made.

I was already voicing objections here even before the announcement was made. I wrote one post in April 2008 likening the delayed final table plan to a movie sequel, a kind of anticlimactic money-grab that usually mucks with the original’s integrity. Wrote something else after the announcement was made, a post titled “Nine Players in Search of a Final Table” in which I expressed a few more reservations.

I suppose I’ve come around to appreciating some of the benefits of the delayed final table, but I’m still not a great fan of the idea. And like I say, the delay has meant I’ve yet to experience first-hand the excitement of seeing the Main Event come to its conclusion.

The last two years I’ve had a full-time job that prevented me from being able to make those November trips. This year I’m no longer so constrained, and theoretically could zip out there to check it all out. However, I can’t really justify making the trip on my own dime, which I would have to do unless something changes in the near future.

Would definitely get a kick out of being there to see the champion crowned. Would also like to be there for the induction ceremony for the Poker Hall of Fame, too. I had the great honor of being able to participate in the voting this time around, and so would like to witness that process come to its conclusion. (Don’t ask me who got voted in -- I’m still waiting to hear, too!)

But like I say, it isn’t looking likely I’ll be there. I imagine most outlets have already settled on how they plan to cover the sucker, but if there are any who are still looking for help, do get in touch, as perhaps we could work something out.

So, how many of those November Niners could you name? Six? Three? One?

Not to worry. Whether I make it out there or not, I’m sure there will be plenty of folks telling us quite a lot about all nine of ’em pretty soon.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Poker at the Speed of Whoa

Poker at the Speed of WhoaBeen helping out covering the Sunday Million tourneys for the PokerStars blog this month. Have seen some interesting things at those final tables so far.

For instance, last week the tourney happened to have taken place on 10/10/10. The biggest hand at the final table involved the winner -- SHIPP ITT -- going all in with pocket tens, flopping a set, and winning almost all of the chips in play. Three tens on 10/10/10! It would take one more hand to give SHIPP ITT the victory, but that proved the decisive hand. (Here’s the write-up of that event, if you’re curious.)

Another interesting facet of that final table story was the fact that SHIPP ITT began that final table ninth out of nine in chips. (SHIPP ITT’s real name is Mark Herm, I believe, to evoke a topic I wrote about earlier this week.) I’ve seen him go deep in other tourneys, though, and so wasn’t too surprised to watch him battle his way back into contention and then ultimately to victory.

Incidentally, there was one other hand along the way -- a big three-way all-in -- that SHIPP ITT won at that final table to survive. He had pocket tens in that one, too!

PokerStars Sunday MillionThe PokerStars Sunday Million remains the biggest online tourney of the week. It just about always meets its $1.5 million guarantee, usually attracting more than 7,000 players every Sunday.

I hadn’t really paid attention to the Sunday Million for the last few months, but watching it these last few weeks I’ve noticed the structure is really quite speedy.

They start with 10,000 chips, but with 15-minute levels it usually only takes a little over two hours to lose half the field. Most weeks they get through the entire sucker in 10 or 11 hours, and by the time they reach the final table the stacks are often quite shallow relative to the blinds. It’s not a total crapshoot at the end, but it’s true that just about every big hand involves all the decisions being made before the flop.

Of course, I say the structure feels fast to me, but to a lot of these full-time MTT and SNG grinders it probably doesn’t seem that way. The pace of online poker is -- for the most part -- breathtaking. It has always fast been compared to live poker, of course. But even compared to just a couple of years ago, it seems most players desire an even more rapid, more action-filled game.

And that is precisely what the sites keep giving them. I mean, Rush Poker on mobile devices? Whoa.

Good luck to all playing in the Sunday Million this week. And for everyone, be sure to find some time to relax some this weekend.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Urge to Keep Writing, Continued

1200 clubHad a lot of good comments on that post from a couple of days ago, titled “The Urge to Keep Writing.” Some nice words, too, for which I thank the commentors.

Since not everyone might’ve seen the comments -- and since this is, in fact, one of those “milestone” posts (today’s is the 1,200th) that tend to inspire the same kind of self-reflection I was engaging in on Tuesday -- I thought I’d use today’s post to share some of what was said in response to that one.

The post was mainly me wondering aloud about the place and/or relevance of poker blogs these days. For a variety of reasons, it seems fewer are writing them and fewer are reading them. And so I found myself thinking that morning about Hard-Boiled Poker and my desire to keep posting, despite these contrary trends.

In the post I made a reference to the “five minutes” out of each day I estimated it took folks to read my daily missives, and speculating whether or not these days that might be too much to ask. F-Train noted how in today’s media-saturated world the cut-off seems to be around three minutes. Thus, when confronted with a “wall of text” such as will happen sometimes when someone lands at Hard-Boiled Poker, some might quickly click elsewhere rather than commit.

F-Train concluded by agreeing that blogs still have a place, even if they aren’t as central to our conversations about poker as they might’ve been a few years back. NT then commented that these other, competing forms of communication or “social media” such as Facebook and Twitter will probably also eventually fade from prominence, presumably to be replaced by something else.

Hoyazo chimed in, building on a point that F-Train had raised regarding the fact that after several years of writing about poker, it has become harder for everyone to find something new about which to write. Thus, says Hoyazo, the move by many away from blogs and over to Twitter is partly related to the fact that folks simply have less to say nowadays than they might have in the past.

Luke in his comment picked up on a sentence in my post where I mentioned being much more “cognizant of having an audience” today than I was when I first started the blog long ago. He smartly adds that we all have an audience -- always -- whether we recognize that fact or not.

Finally, Drizztdj pointed out how time constraints keep him from blogging as much as he’d like, something I think most of us who keep blogs can appreciate.

As I said on Tuesday, I do remain inspired to continue posting here regularly. I’ll definitely keep all of these thoughts and ideas in mind, though, as I move forward.

While I write for many reasons, I probably wouldn’t keep at this if I didn’t believe I was communicating in a meaningful way with others. In other words, it’s important to me that whatever it is I’m doing here represents a worthwhile contribution to our many conversations about poker. And not just a bunch of “walls of text” standing as barriers between me and you!

Thanks again for the feedback, folks. And thanks also, again, to everyone else for reading.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Poker Fictions: Comedy vs. Drama

Poker Fictions: Comedy Vs. DramaYou might’ve heard some recent news about a new poker show reportedly in the works -- not another game show, but something a little different.

Apparently the creators of the well-regarded Showtime series “Weeds” are planning a new poker-themed comedy called “Whales.” The half-hour show “revolves around a group of brilliant and quirky young people, some of them Harvard and MIT graduates, who move to Las Vegas to live in a lavish apartment while pursuing the $10 million prize at the World Series of Poker.” That’s about all the report on the new show gives us, aside from some more background on the show’s producers, at least one of whom is described as “an avid poker player.”

Initial response in the poker community to the show seems positive, I’m guessing mostly because “Weeds” has proven a winner among many in that crowd. I’ve seen a few episodes of “Weeds,” a show with a novel premise involving a middle-class woman who upon the death of her husband ends up selling marijuana in order to support herself and two kids.

Now that I think about it, I am recalling some references to poker in the few episodes I watched of that show, too. Seemed like there might have been an older character on there who played online poker, but I might be thinking of some other series. (Like I say, I’ve only seen “Weeds” a few times, and it has been a while since I did.)

While the producers’ resumes might be the main reason why poker people are reacting positively to “Whales,” I’m wondering if some aren’t simply glad to see an attempt made at a poker-themed comedy as opposed to yet another drama.

Since the poker “boom” in 2003, there have been a string of films and TV shows revolving around poker. Nearly all have been primarily dramas. And almost none have been well-received, either in the poker community or by the public at large.

That original series on ESPN, “Tilt,” from 2005 comes to mind, the one starring Michael Madsen as a player nicknamed “The Matador.” That one got a lot of attention at the time, and while some liked it, most reviews were lukewarm at best. Then came those films -- All In (2006), Lucky You (2007), Deal (2008) -- which like “Tilt” tried to shoehorn a dramatic story into the world of high-stakes tournament poker, and in all cases were coolly received by audiences, both by poker people and everyone else.

'The Grand' (2007)The only recent poker-themed film that seems to have escaped universal derision was the often wildly funny mockumentary The Grand (2007). Of course, one might argue that film’s success largely stems from the improvisational talents of the cast rather than the construction of a compelling (wholly fictional) narrative. (When I say “poker-themed film” I’m not referring to movies that include poker scenes -- be they integral or incidental -- but rather films in which poker is of primary significance. In other words, films which all would agree are about poker.)

As a fiction writer, I’ve purposely avoided trying to write poker-themed stories thus far. One reason is that I write so darned much about poker otherwise. Also, I think I’m a little intimidated by the prospect of trying to build a fiction around poker. How could I possibly say something new or fresh that hasn’t already been communicated thousands of times already in real-life poker games?

Hearing about “Whales,” though, has me wondering if perhaps those taking a comedic approach to their poker-themed storytelling might enjoy a slight advantage over those who try to create poker-themed dramas.

Whereas the dramatic writer is having to deal with the fact that so many possible plots and characters already exist in the real world of poker, the comedic writer doesn’t necessarily have to compete with reality so directly. Furthermore, the comedic writer probably also enjoys a greater license to exaggerate or even misrepresent reality than does the dramatic writer.

Think about how many criticisms levied against those dramatic films by poker players revolve around identifying inaccuracies in the way the game is represented. But if the main goal was more obviously to produce grins, I think the storytellers would be allowed a little more leeway in this regard, generally speaking.

Poker -- a game based on producing conflicts and resolving them -- is inherently dramatic. It is also a game full of absurdities and ironies, of people behaving oddly, of situations so outrageous one instinctively responds with laughter.

Stands to reason, then, that poker-themed fictions can go in either direction. Or both at once. Such is poker, I guess. Equally capable of making us laugh or cry.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Urge to Keep Writing

I have this obviously malfunctioning mechancial pencil...I have this obviously malfunctioning mechanical pencil sitting here next to the computer. There’s a picture of me trying to use it -- again -- even though it doesn’t work properly.

It’s one of those throw-away, cheap plastic ones that comes with a few pieces of lead which once you get through you’re meant to toss the sucker in the garbage. That is to say, it isn’t designed to be used for very long, as it doesn’t really accommodate adding more lead the way the slightly more expensive ones do.

When I shake the pencil I can hear a couple of pieces of lead remain, and so am reluctant to get rid of it. But there’s definitely something wrong with it. Whenever I grab the thing to jot down a note, it only takes a few strokes for the lead to disappear mischievously back into the plastic tube. Notice up above how I couldn’t even make it through the last word of my short note.

I click the top a few times and begin anew, but if I press onto the paper with any force at all the piece of lead gets pushed back in once more. Still, I keep using the stupid thing, usually cursing a couple or five times before I get through whatever it is I was jotting down.

The note I was taking related to an idea I had for today’s post -- something about the blog itself. Didn’t have anything too definite in mind, but rather just wanted to ask for some feedback about what readers think about blogs such as this one and their current place in the larger scheme of things.

I’ve remarked before here how when I began the blog more than four years ago, there seemed to be hundreds of folks out there writing about poker on a regular basis, covering an amazingly wide spectrum of styles and abilities -- both writing-wise and poker-wise. But the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of interacting-slash-communication over the last couple of years has clearly edged blogs over into a more specialized location of this here virtual community we got goin’.

Such an observation was already being made by many over a year ago -- perhaps even earlier than that. Not just about poker blogs, but blogs, generally speaking. Most directly tied the so-called “decline of blogs” to the rise of other forms of “social media” such as the quick-hitting Twitter or other, non-verbal types of communication (e.g., fast-streaming audio and video, images, even games) with which those of us who use the internet on a regular basis are now very familiar.

Just think for a moment how you would spend an hour “surfing” on the internet in 2006 and compare it to what you do during that same hour today. How much of that time is spent reading articles (or blog posts) of more than 500 words today? How much in 2006?

When I began Hard-Boiled Poker, I did so because I enjoy poker and writing, and thought it would be fun to combine those two pursuits in a poker blog. I posted regularly -- even early on, when I wasn’t sure anyone at all was reading -- for no other reason than because it was fun to do. Over time I did attract a few readers, then a few more, then eventually found myself having joined what I experienced as an especially cool community of poker-lovin’ writers and readers.

My goal at first was to try to post every other day, which I essentially did for the first year-and-a-half of keeping the blog. I finally got wise to how folks read a lot more during the week than on Saturdays and Sundays, and so starting in January 2008 I decided to begin posting every weekday. This I’ve somehow managed to do without fail for what is now almost three years, even sometimes posting more than just weekdays, but adding posts on weekends, too (such as when I’m covering a live event).

As I sat here this morning fighting with that damned pencil once again, I recognized that there’s something maybe a little stubborn about posting with such regularity. I continue to get lots of hits, and I know from the feedback I receive (both in comments and via other means) that folks are reading. Even so, I can’t help but think I could perhaps change the way I am contributing to our ongoing conversations about poker.

Not saying I’m planning any big change right away, but just wondering what others might think. I continue to enjoy keeping the blog, and only rarely do I experience writing my weekday post as something arduous. Sometimes I have other writing assignments or responsibilities that make it harder to keep to my schedule -- and occasionally, like today, force me to post a little later in the day than I would otherwise. (Included among those other tasks is the writing of a second novel, to which I’m increasingly wanting to devote more time, too.)

While I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of writing my posts here, I’m also now very cognizant of having an audience -- much more so than when I began the blog -- and so try with every post to provide something of value to the reader. It is my hope with every post that the reader who makes it all of the way to the end has gotten something from doing so... that is, feels the five minutes or so was time well spent.

But as I mentioned above, I sense it becoming more difficult these days to tear many away from Facebook or Twitter or other places for those five minutes. So by writing another post here today, am I being inflexible by doggedly sticking to the same routine? Like with the pencil? Or like with my poker playing, where I also tend to stay with the familiar, perhaps to my detriment.

F-Train wrote a thoughtful piece at the end of last week titled “The Decline of Poker Writing” in which he addressed a few different issues regarding the current state of “poker media” and the availability (and quality) of jobs within that small world. I may be addressing a related issue here when I suggest that the decline in poker writing (in the form of blogs) is related also to a decline in poker reading -- speaking quantitatively, that is.

If any of these musings inspired some thoughts of your own, do share ’em. Thanks once again to those who took the five minutes and made it to the end of the post. And once again, I sincerely hope it was worth it.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Secret (and Not-So-Secret) Identities in Poker

Clark Kent is SupermanThe flesh-and-blood appearance of the young Swedish player Viktor Blom at the World Series of Poker Europe a few weeks back caused something of a stir in the poker world. That was because Blom, of course, is the player most believe to be “Isildur1,” he of the multimillion-dollar swings over on Full Tilt Poker that captured everyone’s attention during the latter months of 2009.

While the prize pools at the WSOPE pale in comparison to the stakes Isildur1 was playing a little under a year ago -- remember that $1,356,946.50 pot he lost to Patrik Antonius?! -- Blom had what some might consider a successful series, highlighted by a 16th-place finish in the WSOPE Main Event.

The £33,582 Blom won for that achievement (the equivalent about $52,000) would not have even gotten him to the flop in that big hand against Antonius last November. But still, his deep run got a lot of attention, especially when he and Phil Ivey -- one of Isildur1’s many big-name Full Tilt opponents -- were sitting one-two in chips at one point on Day 2.

This wasn’t the first time Blom has appeared at a live tourney. He was at the 2009 WSOPE as well as the 2010 EPT Grand Final in Monaco. He did bail at the last minute from playing in the televised Party Poker IV Big Game last spring, but has been out and about enough to become a recognizable figure (and the subject of a hilarious photoshop thread on Two Plus Two, from which comes that picture below).

That said, Blom had never before drawn as much attention as he did at the 2010 WSOPE. It was highly interesting to see how those reporting on Blom handled the issue of whether or not to identify him as Isildur1.

As far as I know, Blom still hasn’t publicly acknowledged that he is Isildur1. In fact, when asked directly by Bluff Europe back in December 2009, Blom denied it altogether. “I am not the one you are looking for,” said Blom to the magazine. “Keep looking.”

Viktor Blom as the 'ninja' character on Full Tilt Poker, the one used by Isildur1 (photoshop created by HillmanB on TwoPlusTwo)Thus are most commentators continuing to choose their words carefully whenever connecting Blom to his apparent online identity. It’s an awkward situation, but it’s also a very familiar one in the world of online poker. I’ve had the chance to report on both live and online events, and in either venue there is always some awareness of -- and varying levels of pressure or need either to refer to or not to refer to -- that other “world” in which the same actors are known to operate.

Sometimes the connection between a player’s “real” self and his or her online identity is wholly unambiguous and without controversy. Tom Dwan is durrrr. Daniel Negreanu is Kid Poker. Greg Raymer is Fossilman. The names are almost interchangeable, recognizable to nearly everyone.

Other times, there are legitimate doubts about whether this or that person can be linked to a particular username. Or not-so-clearly-defined guidelines not to “out” someone who doesn’t wish to be identified.

It’s that latter issue that is especially curious when it comes to poker.

The internet inherently introduces all sorts of challenges when it comes to identity, insofar as it all but requires us to create “virtual” selves in order to communicate. So part of what we’re talking about here isn’t specific to poker at all, but just part of what it means to interact on these here interwebs.

But when it comes to poker, “identity” is actually part of the game. Who I am -- or even better, who you think I am -- is of great relevance to how you are going to play against me. And vice-versa.

Thus might a player’s desire not to be “outed” become significant to the reporter, then, because to do so could be construed as influencing the game on which one is reporting -- something which no conscientious reporter ever wants to have happen. Even if the player hasn’t made such a desire known, I think most reporters are at least aware that it is probably best to exercise some prudence when publicizing such connections.

The Blom-Isildur1 case is obviously special. No one reporting on the WSOPE and referring to Blom as Isildur1 was passing along some previously unknown revelation that could be said to change the way Blom’s opponents approached him. (Although there was that one, odd story from the Main Event in which Ivey apparently was overheard asking someone -- perhaps with tongue in cheek -- “Who’s Isildur?”)

Is interesting, though, to consider how in professional poker -- now that the online game has grown so considerably -- we are almost always thinking in terms of these two distinct worlds, with nearly everyone, it seems, having one foot in each.

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Poker & Pop Culture, Revisited

Poker & Pop CultureIn yesterday’s post I referred to some references to poker in popular culture. Got me thinking further about other, similar examples, both of late and from further back in history.

I have a piece over on Betfair Poker today that refers to one such example, the awesomely-named Thanatopsis Pleasure and Inside Straight Club, a poker club that involved members of the famous Algonquin Round Table from the 1920s. The article kind of revives an old series of columns I had begun over on PokerNews some time ago.

These “Poker & Pop Culture” columns have had a bit more shelf life than some of the other articles I’ve written, and I find myself going back to them every now and then. In fact, just yesterday on Twitter my friend B.J. Nemeth made a reference to how poker came up a lot on the old “Star Trek: Next Generation” series, and I was able to point him to a fairly long piece compiling all of those references.

Anyhow, here’s a list of all 20 of those “Poker & Pop Culture” columns I’ve done, with links to each.

The Thanatopsis Pleasure and Inside Straight Club (10/8/10)
Poker and Space Exploration (7/21/09)
‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ (5/19/09)
Herbert O. Yardley’s ‘The Education of a Poker Player’ (4/28/09)
‘California Split’ (4/14/09)

Mainstream Magazines on the Poker Boom (3/31/09)
Wild Bill Hickok and the Dead Man’s Hand (3/17/09)
Hold’em Hand Nicknames (3/3/09)
Mark Twain (2/17/09)
Matt Damon and Ed Norton Enter the 1998 WSOP (2/3/09)

The Films of W.C. Fields (1/20/09)
Kenny Rogers’ ‘The Gambler’ (12/30/08)
Dogs Playing Poker (12/17/08)
Bret Maverick (12/2/08)
Gabe Kaplan (11/18/08)

Poker-Playing Presidents (11/4/08)
CBS and the World Series of Poker (10/21/08)
Critical Reception of ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ (10/7/08)
Amarillo Slim Goes on Johnny Carson (9/23/08)
Moss & Dandalos, Dazzling With Dollars (9/9/08)

Some of these are definitely better than others, I think, but I’m gonna guess there’s bound to be at least one or two items of interest to most folks in there somewhere. My favorites include the one about C.M. Coolidge's “Dogs Playing Poker” paintings, the one telling the story behind ”The Gambler,” and the Star Trek one.

I’ve had more than a few posts here on Hard-Boiled Poker that have fit under this “Poker & Pop Culture” heading, too. I think I might create a separate page listing all of those posts/articles in the near future.

If you happen to click through and read any of those pieces, come back and let me know what you think. Meanwhile, have a good weekend all.

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Thursday, October 07, 2010

Seeing Poker “Out in the World”

Poker is on the map“Played poker when I arrived in Reno, now trying to buy the band back for the show tonight.”

Saw that on my Twitter feed last night, a tweet from Steve Martin, comedian, actor, and banjo player. Martin is currently touring with a bluegrass-playing outfit, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As that tweet indicates they just had a gig in Reno. (Martin is relatively new to Twitter -- follow him @SteveMartinToGo, if yr innersted.)

Not the first time Martin has made a humorous reference to poker. Some might remember his appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman” (back in February 2009) when he told a story about playing online poker under the influence of Ambien. I wrote about that here in a post titled “Steve Martin Is a Card,” including linking to a clip of him telling the story. Funny stuff.

By now, references to poker in popular culture have become quite commonplace. I thought it was interesting at the time to note how the story Martin told on Letterman -- a story that involved his betraying a familiarity with online poker and not really having to explain it at length to the audience in order for his joke to be understood -- could be taken as another piece of evidence that poker (and even online poker) had “surfaced” in the mainstream.

There have been at least a couple of other items of late which one might say further exhibit poker’s prominence in popular culture. Last week Vera Valmore and I were watching “The Office” when an allusion to the World Poker Tour popped up kind of surprisingly, eliciting a laugh of recognition from us both.

Pam uses strategy learned from the 'World Poker Tour' on 'The Office'One of the episode’s storylines involved Pam, the former receptionist now salesperson, struggling to make any commissions in her new position. She comes up with a plan -- a kind of bluff, if you will -- to embellish her salary. She tells Gabe Lewis, a coordinating director for Sabre, the company that has taken over the one for which Pam works, that she is the “Office Administrator” and has not seen payment on her checks for her duties as such.

Toward the end of the episode, Gabe calls Pam for a meeting and explains to her that he’s searched through the last three years’ worth of records and has found nothing to indicate the position she claims to have exists. Yet he’s reluctant to accuse her of anything untoward.

“Can you just admit... admit...?” he impotently utters. He can’t say it. “Admit what?” Pam replies with defiance. He ultimately backs down, unable to come right out and call her bluff. Afterwards, Pam explains how she approached the situation.

“The first lesson of watching World Poker Tour at 2 a.m. -- you play the opponent, not the cards,” she explains.

Kind of unexpected, that, but an apt application of the oft-repeated bromide from the WPT and other poker commentary dating back many, many years before.

Map of Online CommunitiesOne last item to share, another indication of poker’s continuing emergence into the mainstream -- this neat, newly-updated “Map of Online Communities” that some of you might have seen getting referenced a lot yesterday.

The map attempts to represent graphically the amount of "social activity" happening in a given community, something the mapmaker explains isn't necessarily demonstrates by the number of members but by other indicators of how much the sites are actually used to facilitate social interaction. Thus, the larger the community on the map, the more socializing that is happening there.

Clicking on the picture (or here) gets you to a larger version, where you can more clearly see Facebook’s dominance and the emergence of Twitter and Skype being illustrated by their relative size. And if you look in the lower right corner, you’ll see a section for “Forums,” where the poker forum Two Plus Two actually rates a small little island situated in between the similarly-sized Lay It Low (a site for “lowriders”) and the larger gaming and trading community D2JSP.

For poker even to show up on the map is noteworthy, I think. Although, like I say, we’re starting to become accustomed to seeing poker “out in the world” (so to speak).

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