Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Poker Turning the Page

Card Player magazines, 2007-2011Bill Rini offers us a good read today with a post titled “The Death of Poker Media?” There Bill comments at length about how poker publications like Card Player have clearly been affected significantly by Black Friday and the sudden down-sizing of online poker in the U.S. that happened in its wake.

Bill’s post reminded me of one I wrote last May titled “On Spines, or the Lack Thereof” in which I noticed how Card Player had swiftly reduced in size after losing PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and UltimateBet/Absolute Poker as advertisers.

In that post I remarked on how it had taken a few issues of Card Player for there to be any comment whatsoever on Black Friday, and when they finally did get around to mentioning it -- only briefly, in the issue dated May 24, 2011 -- it just so happened that was the issue in which the advertising from the indicted sites had stopped. (The fact that the new issue didn’t have a spine but was stapled together encouraged the pun in the title.)

Bill noted in his post that he’d picked up a recent issue of Card Player (dated January 25, 2012) and saw it was a mere 68 pages long, less than half of which contained actual content (i.e., features, strategy articles, etc.). In fact, that issue from last May -- the first one without a spine -- was also just 68 pages, so CP in particular has been scaled down for quite a while.

Having also noticed how the content being provided had slowed to a trickle, it was late last year I finally let my subscription to Card Player run out after many years. Actually the slimming down of the magazine had been happening pretty much over that entire stretch, starting with the signing of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006.

I still have all of my old issues of CP and so can quickly confirm what Bill is noting in his post about the lack of heft in the new Card Player compared to the good old days. The first issue of 2006 was 164 pages long, more than twice the number of pages of today’s Card Player. And observing the number of pages in the first issue of each year since further reveals the trend: 2007 (156 pages), 2008 (148), 2009 (112), 2010 (100), and 2011 (84).

Other poker-related print publications are struggling, too, of course, and Bill does a good job outlining how too great of a reliance on online sites’ ad revenue and the affiliate game help explain a lot of the wasting away that has occurred. As Bill points out, all poker media outlets are necessarily having to adapt to new circumstances in order to survive, let alone thrive.

I don’t think poker media’s “death” is necessarily imminent, although the future of print publications is understandably highly uncertain. Such is the case for much of print media, generally speaking.

Still, it is interesting to consider how the physicality of the magazines covering our favorite game -- not even their content, but how they feel in our hands -- can be said to provide a kind of literal marker of the game’s currently embattled status.

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Stranger Than Fiction

Quad jacks beat quad nines in my 'Poker in American Film and Culture' classI mentioned last post (on Friday) my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class, as well as another class taught by Professor Bruce McCullough over at Drexel University, titled “Poker, Probability and Decision-Making.” When I spoke with Bruce about his class, we talked about various teaching strategies, including the relative usefulness of having students actually play some poker in our classes.

If you take a look at our Betfair poker interview from last week, you’ll see us discussing the various topics Bruce’s course covers, including probability, expected value, Bayes theorem, odds and outs, Sklansky's Fundamental Theorem of Poker, decision trees, expected utility, prospect theory, bankroll management, and more. You’ll also see Bruce describing having set up weekly tournaments online for his students to play, and really it made a lot of sense to me that he had them playing poker as a way of immediately applying various ideas from their course.

In my course, I have the students play a session of poker in class just one time early on primarily to help them understand the rules of the various games -- draw, stud, and hold’em -- that we’ll be reading about and watching being played in films. Not everyone who signs up for the course is a poker player, and indeed even those who are don’t always have a lot of familiarity with five-card draw or other variants.

I mentioned this strategy here a few months ago, sharing an especially boring handout I provide the students detailing the rules of the various games. Knowing that actually handling cards and chips and having to play hands can be much more instructive than simply reading a sheet describing the rules, our little session does a good job getting everyone at least somewhat familiar with the games.

Last week we met for the second time and so as I’ve done before we went ahead and had our day of playing poker in class. I shared on Twitter last week a remarkable seven-card stud hand that occurred in which two students put in a number of bets to force others to fold, and by the end both had incredibly drawn four of a kind. One had quad nines and the other quad jacks.

We all marveled at the hands, and I tried to convey just how unlikely it was for this to have occurred. After all, I was introducing the game to just about all of them, so most had no frame of reference to help appreciate just how crazy a hand it was. I insisted on taking a picture (see above), just to chronicle the moment.

“What are the odds?” I was asked, and I had to tell them I didn’t know. I’ve seen a couple of different attempts to calculate it, both coming up with different yet similarly long odds against. (If any math-minded folks want to work it out exactly, please do -- my students and I would be grateful.)

One reason why I want to make sure the students realize quads over quads is hardly an everyday occurrence is because we are going to be reading a number of stories and watching some films (both clips and entire features) in which these sort of improbable hands are fairly common -- e.g., straight flush over straight flush, four aces over four kings, etc.

In many cases, cheating helps create these unlikely hands, though not always. Of course, we might say that cheating always creates these hands in the stories we read -- that is, either the characters are cheating or the author is “cheating” (in a way) by giving the characters such hands.

But in reality, hands like the one we had in my class last week just don’t happen. Pro player Joe Tall was telling me last week he’d never seen quads over quads in 7CS live, and perhaps once in ten years’ worth of playing online (including 1-2 years of full-time play online).

Quad jacks beat quad nines in 'The Sting' (1973)So I’m preparing today’s class during which I’ll be showing a few different film clips, including the great scene from The Sting in which Gondorff outcheats the cheater Lombard aboard the 20th Century Limited. And as I was looking over my notes and thinking about showing the scene to a new group, I realized what hands are turned over at the showdown.

Quad jacks over quad nines!

A different game (five-card draw), but the same hands as my students last week! Now what are the odds of that?

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Teachers Talking Out of School

TeachersOne of the neat consequences of teaching my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class has been getting contacted by others with an interest in the course and/or who are themselves teaching college classes in which poker has a place.

Recently I ended up starting a correspondence with a fellow named Bruce McCullough who has taught a neat honors course over at Drexel University called “Poker, Probability and Decision-Making.” He sent me his syllabus and I sent him mine, and we ended up exchanging a few messages before I suggested possibly interviewing him for a Betfair poker column.

He agreed, and today the interview was posted. His class looks very interesting, and he really makes a great case for how poker serves as an excellent tool for learning about probability and decision-making. His own story about how he got into poker is quite fun, too.

If you’re interested, go check out the interview, titled “Poker in the Classroom: Teaching Probability and Decision-Making.” I’m now imagining perhaps eventually taking to other folks teaching courses involving poker and having a little series of “Poker in the Classroom” interviews with them.

During our exchanges Bruce recommended the 1990 film Havana to me as one I might want to consider including in my course. It’s an interesting and entertaining film starring Robert Redford as an American poker player named Jack Weil who finds himself kind of caught in the middle of the last days before the Castro revolution in Cuba at the end of 1958.

'Havana' (1990)I ended up writing about the film this week over on the Epic Poker blog for my “Community Cards” column where I talked about the way it uses poker to flesh out Jack’s character. I also noted how there seemed to be a connection between poker and American identity being advanced in the film, with Jack -- the supposedly non-political American only interested in playing cards -- getting caught up in the revolution thanks largely to his attraction to a woman.

The movie also has more than a few parallels to Casablanca which make it even more interesting to those of us who are fans of that film. I talk some about that as well in the “Community Cards” piece, but one item I don’t mention there is the fact that Jack owns some high-level textbooks on probability. Bruce found that detail quite interesting, as you might imagine, and so back over in the Betfair piece I asked him a little about that at the end of our conversation.

So if any of these things interest you -- college courses involving poker, the subjects of probability and decision-making, the film Havana -- click them links above and let me know your thoughts.

And if you happen to teach a class that involves poker or know about one, let me know about that, too!

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ivey Showing Up Down Under

Aussie MillionsThree days of play at the Aussie Millions Main Event have seen the starting field of 659 play down to 26, with Phil Ivey (currently in sixth) being the name that stands out most conspicuously among the remaining players.

Ivey has been on the first page of the leaderboard pretty much since the start of the $10,600 (AUD) Main Event. After the first three Day 1 flights, Ivey was in the top 10 overall out of the 305 players who made it to the second day of play. And he was second in chips after Day 2 with 75 players left.

Leading right now is Matt Turk with more than 2.6 million chips, about twice what second-place Tim O’Shea has. Ivey will have a little over 1.1 million when Day 4 begins a few hours from now. I believe they’ll be starting with Level 18 (1,000/5,000/10,000), with the average stack at about 760,000.

Ivey played in the $100,000 event at the Aussie Millions as well, bubbling the final table when Gus Hansen knocked him out. (That’s Ivey playing in the $100K below, as photographed by the PokerNews guys who are there covering several events from the series.) Hansen would go on to be the cash bubble boy by finishing fifth as only the top four spots paid in the 22-person event.

Ivey stayed away from the professional poker circuit for most of 2011, skipping the WSOP in dramatic fashion and stating on his website that as long as Full Tilt Poker’s many players weren’t able to cash out their funds, he didn’t feel as though he should play. At the time Ivey noted that he was “deeply disappointed and embarrassed that Full Tilt players have not been paid money they are owed,” adding “I do not believe it is fair that I compete when others cannot.”

He continued to sit out of events after the WSOP had completed, only surfacing at last in late November in Macau where he participated in the APPT Main Event while joining some of those big cash games there, too. And now he’s in Melbourne, suddenly the focus of poker world’s attention yet again.

Phil Ivey in the $100,000 Challenge at the 2012 Aussie MillionsWhile Ivey and Hansen -- a couple of Team Full Tilters -- played in that $100K event, most of the FTP crowd that participated in the $100K event at the Aussie Millions in 2011 weren’t there this time around. Exactly half of the 38 who played in 2011 were either members of Team Full Tilt or FTP red pros. This time around just Ivey, Hansen, Erik Seidel, and Tom Dwan were among those who played.

Recall also that $250,000 “Super High Roller” added at the last minute to the Aussie Millions schedule in 2011. Of the 20 who participated there, 11 were either Team Full Tilt members or red pros. It is safe to assume the turnout for that one will be smaller this year, too, when it happens this weekend.

Revelations since Black Friday have clued us all into the fact that besides having significant amounts of money seized by the Department of Justice, Full Tilt Poker additionally squandered a lot of funds in other ways, too, including (one presumes) for recompensing the site’s many sponsored players and thus -- directly or indirectly -- enabling them to play in high-stakes events such as the high roller ones at Melbourne last January.

As we all know, Full Tilt Poker players still have not been paid money they are owed. At the time Ivey made that statement, the site was still operating outside of the U.S., but went offline entirely about a month later when the Alderney Gambling Control Commission suspending its license to operate in late June.

Hopes were raised late in the year in response to news of that possible Groupe Bernard Tapie deal to purchase Full Tilt Poker, though nothing has come of that as yet. And yesterday Subject:Poker dropped another drama bomb (sans identifying sources) regarding Chris Ferguson’s various bank accounts and the efforts he and his lawyer, Ian Imrich, apparently have been taking to recover $14.3 million or so he believes he is owed by FTP.

Chris FergusonRemember how according to that September 2011 amendment to the civil complaint (discussed here) the DOJ alleged that Ferguson, Howard Lederer, Rafe Furst, Ray Bitar, and “the other approximately 19 owners of Tiltware LLC” had funneled $443,860,529.89 into various “FTP Insider Accounts” and other personal accounts? The amendment also noted how at the end of March 2011, FTP had only about $60 million on hand at a time when its players worldwide thought they had about $390 million sitting in FTP accounts.

I mentioned on Twitter yesterday how Ferguson’s lawyer having that name -- Imrich -- serves as kind of an uncanny-name-bookend to a guy named Moneymaker starting it all. In other words, when the story of online poker’s meteoric rise and staggering fall in the United States is finally told, it will begin with Moneymaker and end with Imrich.

All of which is to say, I can’t help but feel ambivalent about Ivey -- most certainly among those other “approximately 19 owners” mentioned in the amended complaint -- showing up and doing well at the Aussie Millions this week. His presence obviously adds interest to the story of the tournament, and if this deep run had happened at last year’s Aussie Millions, it would’ve been hard not to have been intrigued by yet another high-level performance by one of poker’s best.

But given what has happened over the last eight months -- and remembering what Ivey himself was saying about what he thought was the right course of action for himself back in late May -- makes it difficult to get too enthusiastic about it all this time around.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Thousand Words (Or So) About Bill Simmons

GrantlandOver the last couple of months I’ve come to appreciate more and more what Bill Simmons and his collection of writers are doing over at Grantland.

I’ve mentioned Grantland here a few times, such as last June when alluding to Rounders co-scripter Brian Koppelman’s interesting op-ed that appeared on the site called “The Beauty of Black Friday.” I brought up Grantland again in late July when referring to the novelist Colson Whitehead’s novella-length account of his experience World Series of Poker that ran on the site.

And last month James McManus did a turn on Grantland to recap the “Full Tilt Boogie” in which he presented the story of Black Friday and its messy aftermath to a wider audience, so I made mention of that, too.

Poker only turns up now and then on Grantland. The site primarily focuses on in-depth analyses of sports as well as some interesting and similarly detailed essays on popular culture. Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief and lead writer on the site. In one of those earlier posts I characterized Simmons as “some sort of superblogger, one of these endlessly passionate fans who will go on and on and on with little acknowledgment that it might seem self-indulgent or obsessive to do so.”

I wrote that about Simmons with full self-awareness that I, too, have been guilty of such self-indulgence now and then here on Hard-Boiled Poker. But I do try to be mindful of the fact that quality trumps quantity when it comes to any sort of writing, not to mention the fact that readers are much less likely to stop and read thousands of words about anything unless they are similarly passionate and/or interested in the subject.

Grantland was begun back in the spring as kind of a carve-out from ESPN (where Simmons has written for years, including occasionally about poker) to provide a space for long-form writing about sports and entertainment. And as I say, I’m coming around to enjoy the site more and more, including the podcasts.

The B.S. ReportI particularly like Simmons’ own “B.S. Report” podcast, having gotten into it a lot over the last couple of months in order to hear him talk with a variety of guests about the NFL season and playoffs.

On Monday’s show (1/23/12), Simmons was talking with the always funny Cousin Sal about how both of the conference championships that took place on Sunday interestingly turned on player mistakes that created a few more “goats” than “heroes” in the games. Indeed, while the New England Patriots and New York Giants both played well and deserved their victories, both benefited considerably by opponents’ errors that helped make their victories possible.

In fact, both contests saw late-game miscues -- a couple of fumbles in the Niners-Giants game, a muffed catch and missed field goal in the Ravens-Pats one -- that were on the flukey side. That is, they were mistakes to be sure, but it is easy to imagine them having been avoided and the outcomes being different.

Simmons used a poker analogy to explain his point further, bringing up an idea that those of us who play poker know quite well.

“I came to the realization yesterday that… there’s gonna be these NFL seasons where you have four or five or six teams that are all basically the same talent level, and then they play and it becomes a poker hand,” said Simmons. “It’s like everybody can do everything relatively the right way, but it’s still going to come down to… the last card… on the river. And I need this and you need this and our percentages are pretty much equal and then that happens and then you win.”

In terms of a given hand, Simmons is describing one of those “coin flip” situations in which all decisions have been made and players’ fates are now to be decided by whatever card peels off the deck. Both players apparently have played the hand well, and now the odds of each winning is roughly the same.

Of course, the analogy also includes a slightly different observation, namely that when two players of essentially equal skill level sit down to play poker, luck will ultimately decide who walks away a winner. (I think the latter is actually the primary point Simmons was making here.)

All of which I found interesting and relevant as part of an analysis of what happened on Sunday. I’m still a little amazed at how Simmons pours out thousands upon thousands of words each week about a given game, then invites multiple guests on his show to break down the games even more.

The Journal of the American Medical AssociationLast week Simmons’ ESPN colleague Rick Reilly responded to a reader’s email complaining that he’d left out mentioning something in a column by making reference to his desire to keep his columns a reasonable length. “I try to keep all my columns under 900 words so people don’t have to quit their jobs to read me,” wrote Reilly. “It’s just sports, not the American Medical Journal. Not everything fits in 900 words.”

That particular “mail bag” column by Reilly ballooned over 2,800 words, actually, although as he says he usually keeps it around 1,000 words or less, such as he did in the column about 49ers kicker David Akers about which that particular reader was complaining.

One of Simmons’ readers mentioned Reilly’s comment to him, and Simmons shared the message in his own “mail bag” column from last Friday. Referring to Simmons’ prolixity, the reader remarked that Simmons -- who goes by “the Sports Guy” -- might consider changing his nickname to “the American Medical Journal Guy.”

Simmons replied that thanks to that snarky comment he was going to try for 7,500 words in that column. In fact, he almost made it, getting up over 7,200 before signing off.

I’ve already shot past the 1,000 word-mark myself in this post, and since I don’t have the same aspirations -- or inspiration -- to aim much higher, I think I’ll be signing off soon. As I said I do understand and appreciate Simmons’ approach. And while sports or poker probably aren’t as important in a practical sense to the discoveries being shared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of close, extended scrutiny.

After all, how we play and experience games tell us a lot about ourselves, and learning about ourselves can be as meaningful to improving our lives as can finding out how to treat a disease. Besides it is hard to be inspired by writers who aren’t inspired themselves. Or, to put it another way, I’m not really that into spending my time reading a sports column only to be told "it’s just sports.”

By the same token, I also think (like I assume Reilly does) that more isn’t necessarily better, and it’s possible to start saying less the more words you pile on. I believe Simmons is plenty aware of that, though. The self-effacing highlighting of his initials -- B.S. -- in his podcast title suggests as much.

Quite succinctly, in fact.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Still About Even

Still About EvenPresident Obama delivers his State of the Union address tonight. Pokerati Dan today is posting about the “State of the Poker Union.” I guess it’s as good a day as any to think about the state of my own online poker game.

Am still piddling away on a couple of Merge network sites from time to time, playing with those funds won via freerolls. Most nickel-and-dimin’ it at the PLO tables, or sometimes playing limit hold’em where I am also mainly just passing quarters back and forth. Occasionally I will hop into low-limit sit-n-go, though not that often. Meanwhile I’m not terribly anxious to try to deposit anywhere, as I imagine is likely the case for most U.S. players these days.

I was talking with a friend over the weekend, a recreational player who first got interested in poker after seeing it on television over recent years. He’d opened a PokerStars account a while back on which he played for play chips for a few months. He was right on the verge of making a deposit and starting to play the micros when Black Friday hit. Interestingly, he doesn’t play at all on Stars anymore, even though technically he still can in the free games.

“How do you still play online?” he asked. Not a simple question to answer.

I told him the story of winning a few bucks in freerolls on Hero and Carbon and how I’ve kind of held steady on both. I actually ran the Hero roll up to a point where I might’ve considered trying to withdraw a little, but never quite pulled the trigger. Then I fell back down to where I no longer want to try to take any out. If I even can, that is, without enduring too much hassle.

But in truth, as I’ve suggested here before a few times over the recent months, it doesn’t even feel like I’m playing the game we all enjoyed for the several years prior to last April. So when my friend asks how I am still playing, I almost feel like answering that I’m not. Not really.

If you scout around you can still find a number of online poker sites that are serving Americans. For instance over on the Cards Chat site there’s a list of poker sites that are still serving U.S. players. (Anybody ever play on Juicy Stakes?)

Actually most other poker news sites and forums have similar listings, in most cases highlighting a half-dozen or so sites in an effort to get sign-ups as affiliates. One of the more comprehensive lists (that gets updated fairly frequently) can be found over at Compatible Poker.

I did finally get around to balancing my online poker ledger for 2011 last week. Used to be I kept that stuff constantly updated after each session, but the urgency to do so has lessened considerably as the stakes got smaller and the frequency of play slowed down. Was mildly happy to find I’d ended the year in the black, although not by a lot. In fact, the final figure essentially represented just a tad more than what I’d won in those freerolls.

I think my online poker career has probably followed an arc very similar to others, with the best years coming shortly after the boom (through about 2007 or so), then things flattening out a bit after that once the UIGEA came and opponents became less plentiful (and less fishy).

The height of my graph is of course way, way below that of many, though perhaps above some, too. But the shape is probably similar, with the peak coming around the same point on the timeline.

FlatliningRight now, though, at least for Americans, most of those lines are strictly horizontal. And have been for a good while.

Such is the state of things at present as we hope for online poker to revive back to life.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Bracing for a Boom of Dragon Babies

Chinese calendarWas in the car today when I happened to hear I. Nelson Rose talking the Wire Act and the future of online gambling in America on “Here & Now,” an NPR show.

Nothing we haven’t heard or read before, particularly if we have been keeping up with the various state-level developments that happening in the wake of that December memo from the Department of Justice noting that the Federal Wire Act of 1961 applies strictly to sports betting (and not other forms of gambling). Or if we happen to follow some of what Rose has been writing about over on his Gambling and the Law blog of late.

Still, it was interesting to hear both the questions and Rose’s answers, and perhaps notable to consider that NPR saw fit to give it a quarter-hour’s worth of time to discuss. You can listen to the segment online here.

When Rose was done, the show then segued to a segment on the Chinese New Year which begins today.

“Here & Now” did a good job keeping me from changing the channel, initially by introducing the segment with Warren Buffett performing “I’ve Been Working the Railroad” on the ukulele. Apparently Buffett’s company owns the railroad operator Burlington Northern-Santa Fe in China, and more than a billion Chinese travel during the Lunar New Year holiday period, including many by train. The song was part of an advertisement.

I didn’t change the channel after Buffett was done, though, because I was intrigued by the host Robin Young explaining how Asia was “bracing for a boom in dragon babies.” The funny-sounding phrase brought to mind fantastic, B-movie scenarios, but in fact Young was referring to how the Year of the Dragon (which starts today) is widely considered by the Asian countries that follow the Chinese calendar to be the luckiest of the twelve in the cycle.

Thus have many families been carefully planning to have children during the current year, or “dragon babies.” The segment went on to share quotes from a Hong Kong couple talking about children born during the Year of the Dragon being both smarter and luckier.

Hong Kong’s medical system is in fact being put under extra strain to accommodate the extra births (about a 10% increase). The educational system also feels the effect of there being more “dragon babies” than children born in other years, although those effects aren’t felt until a few years later when those children start going to school. “Dragon babies may not receive the same quality of education as children born in other years,” commented a Hong Kong University professor.

In other words, one might argue that it is in fact less advantageous, practically speaking, to be a “dragon baby” than not, since you could face issues initially with regard to your birth and care, then later in terms of the education you might receive.

The segment (which you can listen to here) got me thinking a little bit about how superstitions in poker -- such as coveting lucky hands or seats or the like -- can sometimes have real, practical consequences on game play. Or, to look at it from the other direction, how others’ apparently irrational predilections can affect the fortunes of the logical-minded trying to coexist and/or prosper in their world (or at their table).

The Year of the Dragon begins todayMeanwhile, if there isn’t already a band named the Dragon Babies, I’m grabbing that one right now. Fire-breathing power pop is what we’ll play.

Brace yourselves.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

A Zynga Zinger

Zynga PokerI have played Zynga poker a few times on my iPhone. I think I logged onto Facebook once long ago to play, although as I have noted here before I am so strongly averse to Facebook I essentially ignore the account I have. In fact, my distaste over having to log into the Facebook account in order to get to the game on my phone has prevented me from opening it more than just a few times out of curiosity.

But there are millions who aren’t reluctant like me who love playing Zynga poker. Like eight million a day, or something, and over 30 million playing each month. Thus today’s news regarding Zynga Poker perhaps wanting to get involved with real money games isn’t utterly surprising, though it is still a bit of an eyebrow-raiser given how it follows a long sequence of suggestions to the contrary.

In fact, it was only just a couple of months ago that Zynga Casino General Manager Lo Toney was telling eGaming Review that his outfit had “no plans to enter the real-money market.” That echoed a sentiment Toney and the Zynga folks had been reiterating for most of 2011, including after Black Friday when the online poker world as it previously existed was suddenly turned upside down.

The Entities over at Wicked Chops are today pointing us to a story on a site called “All Things D” in which an unnamed Zynga spokesperson is telling them “that there’s an interest in the real money gambling market” among (some? many? a few?) Zynga players and that Zynga is “in active conversations with potential partners to better understand and explore this new opportunity.”

In an Insider piece the Entities consider the many steps needed before Zynga could enter the real money online poker market outside of the U.S., let alone be part of the game here in the States should legislation allow that to occur. The “All Things D” article actually breaks down the situation quite well itself, if you’re interested in reading more about where things presently stand for Zynga and its prospects.

Zynga PokerThe timeline would include getting a real money platform together, developing it, launching the sucker outside of the U.S., then following the path of other European sites have done and form a partnership with a U.S. casino brand in anticipation of legislation opening the door to America. All of which would take a while.

It is interesting to step back and contemplate what this possible crossover by Zynga from “social gaming” to real money gambling might look like. It makes me think of two possible futures for online poker, both very unlike one another and different as well from what we all grew accustomed to during the “rise and fall” of online poker in the U.S. over the past decade.

There’s the version in which online poker undergoes some sort of transformation to become something more like social gaming as it presently exists, only with real dollars going back and forth in a more conspicuous way than is currently the case with most games. (Real money exchanges do occur in “social gaming” -- in significant amounts in some cases -- although the majority of those who play such games are not part of that segment of the player base engaging in such.) In other words, a future game consisting of a weird “kinda-sorta-poker” that is even further removed from the live game than online poker has been.

Then there’s the heavily-regulated version of online poker that federal or state governments might allow to happen in which game play options will be necessarily limited, with all sorts of assumptions we grew to make about online poker getting thrown out as no longer permissible (e.g., multitabling, cash transfers, certain game variants, other volume-limiting restrictions, etc.). This version would be like the old game, but with lots of missing pieces players will initially complain about before either accepting the changes or giving up.

As I think out loud about this, it occurs to me that there is probably a third future for online poker in the U.S. that I’m not smart enough to envision. I still think whatever it turns out to be, it will be so markedly different from what we experienced before as to be unrecognizable in comparison.

(EDIT [added 8:30 p.m.]: For more on the Zynga speculation -- and why that possible future in which the Facebook game becomes a real money player in online poker is not necessarily likely -- see Bill Rini’s post "Zynga Ready for Real Money Gaming or Trying to Hide Failures?")

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Patchwork Poker

Patchwork pokerAmid yesterday’s poker-related headlines was a story from the Des Moines Register relating how a senator from that state, Jeff Danielson, is taking that recent memorandum from the Department of Justice regarding the 1961 Federal Wire Act as an invite of sorts for his state to entertain online gambling as a possible revenue source.

You remember the DOJ memo, the one from just before Christmas which clarified that the Wire Act applied to sports betting only. Danielson told the Des Moines Register this week he believed not only that the opinion -- which he (like others) calls a “ruling” -- opened the door for online gambling within the state, but also means “we can now have a multistate compact” with other states, too. (Danielson attempted to push a similar bill last year but failed.)

Another Iowa state senator, William Dotzler, is on board with Danielson. In the article he points out how “the evidence is pretty clear that Iowans are already gambling online… using offshore Internet gambling accounts,” and so he is ready, too, to find a way for Iowa to keep such revenue in-state. The article suggests Danielson is about to draft a bill for which Dotzler “would most likely serve as floor manager” when it comes to trying to shepherd it through the legislative process.

Iowa thus joins a growing list of states edging closer to following Nevada’s lead by passing legislation to offer some form of online gambling (either intra- or interstate). The District of Columbia has also passed such legislation, while New Jersey and California are making noises to indicate they may be next in line. Here’s a good, thorough overview by Michael Cooper of The New York Times reviewing where things stand at present, “As States Weigh Online Gambling, Profit May Be Small.”

That headline for the NYT piece suggests how the ability to form a “multistate compact” may well be key to states actually realizing significant revenue from online gambling -- i.e., the kind of revenue that would encourage some legislators to set aside whatever reservations they might have in order to vote in favor of such bills.

Right now the situation feels a little like one in which there are a few disconnected folks trying separately to drum up a game. They’re aware of each other, and in fact there exists a kind of competition between them to try and get a game up and running first. Yet all are additionally aware the game is going to be much better if they can somehow get to a stage where they can pool resources, share contacts, and spread a game that won’t have too many empty seats to be viable.

So many contingencies still must be met, though, including the one regarding whether or not such multistate agreements will be allowed to proceed free of any undue federal pressure. From the way the state senators and others (like New Jersey governor Chris Christie) are talking, there doesn’t seem to be a concern that multistate agreements can’t go forward à la the Powerball. But I can’t imagine such plans will be realized without some interference coming along at least to slow things down, if not stop them entirely.

Also worth noting in this context was Sen. Harry Reid’s comment last weekend regarding the DOJ’s revised opinion on the Wire Act and how “it’ll give us an incentive to get something done” with regard to pushing through a federal online gambling bill. Reid wants to avoid having “a series of laws around the country related to gaming,” believing “it’s very important that we have a national law.” See this Pocket Fives article for more on Reid’s recent comments.

The Des Moines Register piece ends with a quote from a representative of the American Gaming Association expressing similar concern “that a state-by-state approach would result in a ‘patchwork quilt of rules and regulations’ governing online gambling in the United States.”

It’s a legitimate concern. I don’t know how realistic hopes are for a federal bill to pass. But it sure seems at the moment that the “patchwork” state-by-state (or multistate) form of online gambling is a more likely future. If the future includes any online gambling in the U.S. at all, that is.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Making Picks, Getting Fix

100% legalI’ve mentioned here a couple of times how I’ve experimented a little with fantasy sports, mostly on the Draft Day site started by Taylor Caby and some other online poker-people in the wake of Black Friday.

If you’re curious to learn more about Draft Day, an article appeared on Mashable yesterday in which Caby was interviewed about the site. There we read that after being launched back in September, the site has already attracted 10,000 users, with about a quarter of them regular players.

Caby points out in the article how they are “not going for the people who already spend hours on fantasy sports,” but rather are hoping to attract those “who are more casual sports fans and just looking to have fun.” In other words, the site presents itself as especially attractive to those whom we might call “recreational” fantasy sports players with limited time and/or bankrolls to commit.

That would be me.

Rather than buy into an entire season as some fantasy sports games require, the Draft Day games all last either a single day or in the case of the NFL a single weekend’s worth of games. So, for instance, with the NBA games you draft line-ups of players chosen from that evening’s slate of games, then watch to see how many points your players accumulate and whether or not you come out ahead of the totals put up by others’ line-ups.

The site is especially easy to navigate and I’m really enjoying how simple it is to sweat your teams. Stats are calculated instantaneously as the games proceed, with your ranking within a given game constantly updated as well. And there are freerolls and inexpensive games, too -- as low as $1-- also good for a noob like me who is just becoming acquainted with some of the strategy involved with player selection. You know, like not starting injured guys.

The UIGEA carves out fantasy sportsAnd of course as those of us who’ve spent the last five-plus years fussing over the awful Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 well know, the law specifically (and oddly) identifies fantasy sports as not falling under its otherwise ambiguous definition of “unlawful” online gambling. Which means easy deposit methods (including PayPal and credit cards), fast payouts, and none of the multitudinous money-related hassles to which we online poker players have grown accustomed.

While I’m finding the fantasy sports thing a fun diversion, it doesn’t really satisfy the desire for competition in the same way poker does. Even though we compete against others, it feels a lot more like playing solitaire. None of the decisions we make are controlled by others’ actions. (Not really... although I suppose one could apply some game theory-related arguments to counter that notion.) That is to say, all players are available to everyone, with each player portioning out the allotted salary as he or she sees fit.

And to be honest, I’m not really that into the way fantasy sports force a kind of fragmented rooting interest where you have to pull for individual players to succeed rather than teams.

For instance, last night the L.A. Clippers-Utah Jazz game was the last to complete, a blowout in which the Jazz won by nearly 30. I had the Clippers’ Caron Butler and was hoping he’d add a few buckets late to improve my position. Meanwhile, others still had Butler’s teammate Blake Griffin. Kind of absurd hoping for one player to score over another like that, and even stranger caring at all about what happens at the end of a game in which the outcome has long been settled.

As it happened, Butler did little in the fourth quarter while Griffin sat out. But I did manage to “min-cash” in my game thanks to big nights had by LeBron James, Dwight Howard, and others I’d fit onto my team’s roster.

Draft DayAnyhow, as I’ve been saying, the Draft Day site is well-constructed and easy to use, and as Caby notes it is particularly aimed at casual players or those who are just curious about how fantasy sports work. If you click here, sign up, then eventually deposit something I get a referral bonus. But like I say, you can play for free, too.

If you do check it out, let me know how it goes. And remember to keep an eye on those injury reports.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tempus Fuggitaboutit

Growth of the InternetTeaching this “Poker in American Film and Culture” course has been both interesting and challenging. I’m now teaching it for a third time, having revised the syllabus again by dropping a few items and adding others.

From the beginning, I knew I’d have to be careful about how I handled the most recent decade or so as far as the historical survey of poker went. So much has happened so quickly -- even over the last year -- that I knew it would be tricky to try to pretend to cover all of the developments in poker from 2003-onward in a course that also purports to look at the 200-year history of the game in America.

The first two times I taught the course, I saved a couple of classes at the end to deal with “miscellaneous” topics like online poker, legal issues, and other items. This time around I’ve actually omitted that unit entirely, planning instead to bring up these topics at other moments during the semester, kind of tying various present-day matters to historical events and issues as they arise.

All of which is to say, I’ve pretty much set the topic of online poker to the side this time around. Imagine one of those literature survey classes that tries to cover everything in 15 weeks. You know, “Beowulf to Virginia Woolf” or something. And how oftentimes the professor never got to Virginia Woolf or even the 20th century, having been slowed down by the Romantic poets right after the break and falling hopelessly behind schedule.

It’s kind of the same situation here. My course begins at the start of the 19th century and extends to start of the 21st century, with contemporary developments being addressed along the way. We only have a few months together. Not enough time for everything.

The fact is, I can imagine an entire class devoted solely to the story of poker since the first online cash game went live on Planet Poker on January 1, 1998. Just think of all of the many areas of inquiry such a class would have to cover as it traced the explosion of the online game, the rise of televised poker and the game’s sudden emergence in the mainstream, the celebrities and scandals, the various legal conflicts highlighted by the UIGEA, Black Friday, and other signal moments, and more.

You can see why I’m finding it hard to include all of that in my single semester course while dealing with the previous couple of centuries, too.

That 10th anniversary PokerStars celebrated last month got me thinking further about the rise of online poker, generally speaking. Obviously Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 WSOP Main Event win -- his entry into the event coming via qualifying online at Stars -- was a big part of the online game suddenly becoming popular. But even if that hadn’t happened, it seems like playing poker online would have become popular, anyway, although perhaps not quite as rapidly.

inter-what?If I remember correctly, I think I got my first email account in 1994. It wasn’t long after that that the first online casinos started to appear, although I can’t say I was aware of them then. I believe the first online casino went live in 1995 or thereabouts. Amazon and eBay both went online in 1995, too.

That was the same year Clifford Stoll infamously penned an article for Newsweek titled “The Internet? Bah!” in which he uttered a handful of proclamations including “no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”

Also listed among his many ill-fated prophecies was a claim that consumers will never agree to the idea of actually purchasing items online. “Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet -- which there isn’t -- the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople,” wrote Stoll.

To be fair, the idea of sending money over the internet did seem more than a bit sketchy in 1995, let alone trusting sites enough to gamble that way. But things changed quickly, and before the end of the 1990s people like Rob Spiegel of the E-Commerce Times were already writing articles asking “When Did The Internet Become Mainstream?

With users having quickly become comfortable with the idea of shipping money back and forth online, it was inevitable that increased opportunities to gamble online would follow, including online poker. The poker “boom” was certainly accelerated by Moneymaker and the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel, but it likely would’ve happened in some form, anyway, even without those encouragements.

Which leads to another “alternate history”-type question. If the “boom” hadn’t happened as quickly as it did, would legislators have done better to keep up with things sufficiently enough either to stem online poker’s growth or introduce reasonable, workable means to regulate the industry?

I suppose that would be a topic for my own alternate poker class, the one in which we examined the last decade in earnest.

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Speaking Out

Speaking OutThe Aussie Millions is underway, which means tennis’ Australian Open -- also in Melbourne -- has begun as well.

I was intrigued this morning to read about a bit of a rift having occurred between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer regarding the latter’s unwillingness to pipe up about certain undesirable tour conditions -- including an overloaded schedule.

It sounds like various issues have arisen over recent months regarding the ATP, including discontent surrounding the scheduling of Davis Cup matches in February right on the heels of the Australian Open. Apparently the pro tennis schedule is especially packed this year thanks in part to the 2012 Olympics.

Nadal has spoken out about the problems in recent months, as has the Scottish player Andy Murray. Meanwhile, Roger Federer has kept mostly mum, something Nadal alluded to when asked at a pre-Australian Open news conference about the scheduling issues.

Nadal was asked specifically about Federer’s not speaking out and whether he took that to indicate that Federer believed it wasn’t good for tennis’ image to have players complaining. “For him it’s good to say nothing,” said the Spanish player somewhat facetiously (via a translator). “‘It’s all well and good for me, I look like a gentleman,’ [says Federer] and the rest can burn themselves.”

Roger Federer and Rafael NadalThe press may be blowing up this story more than is really warranted. Both Nadal and Federer have a long tradition of being great examples of sportsmanship and highly respectful of each other’s games. Even so, it does appear that there are a few problems being faced by professional tennis at the moment, including the problem of being willing to acknowledge such problems in a public forum.

The story reminded me a little of some of the considerable problems in poker -- live and online -- and the way some players and media are more than willing to address them while others are not.

I’m thinking of writers like Jesse May speaking out last summer and fall about the sorry circumstance created by the Full Tilt fiasco and other related matters. Or Daniel Negreanu’s “Being Real” blog post from last October in which he addressed a host of different concerns, some more personal than others.

I also thought about Matt Glantz’ post on the Epic Poker blog from a couple of weeks ago titled “Responsibility in Poker” in which he addressed poker’s image in mainstream culture and suggested ways in which current pros could help improve it.

Finally, I was reminded of a lengthy blog post penned just yesterday by Phil Galfond titled “Let’s Make Some Changes” in which he addresses all sorts of problems currently plaguing online poker, including various examples of “angle shooting” and other sorta-tolerated-but-ethically-sketchy practices he believes are hurting the game.

There’s always some element of risk associated with putting oneself out there and taking positions regarding issues over which there exist legitimate debate -- i.e., over which reasonable people disagree. Particularly when doing so could in some way negatively affect one’s own bottom line in some fashion, either directly or indirectly.

Not going to suggest some trite comparison between reforms in tennis and/or poker and other, more serious reforms which a holiday like MLK day invites us to contemplate. Nor do I mean to suggest I necessarily agree with all of the reforms proposed by those mentioned above. But it does seem an appropriate day to note the need to talk about problems when they arise. And, even more importantly, to be willing to listen, too.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Plots and Percentages

The PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event final table, streaming on a delay at pokerstars.tvAm slipping into spectator mode today.

Have currently dialed up the streaming coverage of the final table of the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event final table on pokerstars.tv. Will probably look in on the coverage there tomorrow as well when they show the finale of the High Roller, the $25,500 buy-in event that ended up drawing a huge field of 148.

Am remembering how last year the PCA kind of inaugurated the whole “almost live” programming that by year’s end became something of the norm thanks to its employment at both the World Series of Poker Main Event (online and on television) and a few World Poker Tour final tables (online).

Last year the PCA managed to grab several hours of air time on ESPN2 to show Galen Hall’s come-from-behind Main Event win over Chris Oliver. Was entertaining stuff, and I’m similarly enjoying the start of today’s final table, being shown on a 40-minute delay with commentary by James Hartigan and Joe Stapleton.

And, of course, I’ll remain in spectator mode this weekend as I will surely look in on those NFL playoff games, all four of which are pretty darned intriguing. Was especially locked in when it came to pro football this year, especially during the last few weeks as I battled to win that there pick’em pool run by the good Dr. Pauly. (Discussed that some here.)

For the entire regular season, I was picking games each week. Until December or so, I would confine my study of the week’s games to Sunday mornings. Then, as we approached the end of the year, I couldn’t help but think about the match-ups a day or two earlier, reading some online and trying to gather a little extra info to help me make my picks.

I’m kind of fascinated by the full-time sports bettors who spend countless hours crunching numbers, finding the best spots, and seeking enough of an edge to beat the vig on a consistent basis. And I’ve always been kind of a numbers-geek, instinctively intrigued by sports’ seemingly endless statistics. But I don’t think I could ever become that immersed in the numbers side of things. Besides, I like the stories -- the plots and characters -- sports can produce too much.

I’ve thought about this before, and probably written about it, too -- I believe it is that combination of stories and puzzles, of literature and logic, that has made poker such a fun, gratifying pursuit for me.

Tim TebowSpeaking of sports producing interesting plots and characters, I took a shot at talking about the whole Tim Tebow phenomenon over on Betfair poker today, specifically considering how he’s begun to attract interest of non-football folks and comparing that phenomenon to poker’s ongoing struggle to capture the attention of those outside its niche audience of hardcore fans. Here’s that article, if you’re curious.

While you do that, I’m going to go retake my seat among the niche audience of hardcore fans watching the PCA final table this afternoon.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Hangover’s Game of Chicken

'The Hangover' (2009)Well behind the crowd, Vera Valmore and I finally got around to watching The Hangover this week. Kind of surprising we hadn’t caught it yet, given how we both generally like these over-the-top kinds of comedies. Indeed, a lot of time when we make it to the theater it is to kick back and enjoy something like The Hangover rather than to be challenged too greatly by more intellectually-demanding fare.

That said, The Hangover is a fairly clever film, particularly in its unusual plotting whereby the story moves ahead yet also looks back pretty much throughout. As those of you who’ve seen it know -- and even those who haven’t probably do, too -- the main characters’ bachelor party turns into a night of mayhem that none can remember afterwards, and so the final two-thirds of film involves them trying to piece together what happened during those hours they all blacked out.

Lots of grins throughout, and the Las Vegas setting made it more fun given the amount of time we’ve both spent in Sin City over the last few years. The “wolfpack” speech by Alan (Zach Galifianakis) was a definite highlight, as was the tiger song performed by Stu (Ed Helms).

Stu wakes up to find a chicken in the suite in 'The Hangover' (2009)Something friends of ours had drawn our attention to before viewing was the apparent non sequitur of the chicken. While all of the story’s considerable complications seem reasonably resolved by The Hangover’s conclusion, no real explanation ever comes for the fact that when the fellas wake up in their Caesars Palace suite following their wild night there’s a chicken conspicuously present.

Even stranger, the guys never seem concerned to figure out why the chicken is there, instead content just to stumble over it repeatedly while they work on other puzzles. Of course, they might be forgiven by the fact that there are a number of other issues that seem more urgent, including the additional presence of a tiger and a baby in the suite, as well as the absence of their friend, the groom-to-be.

Vera and I talked about the chicken some afterwards, and I floated the idea that rather than representing a “mistake” in the plotting, its presence actually served to reinforce the idea that the rest of the film’s many loose ends had been tied. Not so much a MacGuffin -- i.e., a plot element that is also ambiguous but more integral to driving the action -- but really just a superfluous, non-integrated detail that reminds us how just about every other detail has significance. Just part of the overall game of concentration being played with the audience.

Alan playing blackjack in 'The Hangover' (2009)That response might be a little on the high-falutin’ side, but you get the point. It makes me think of how in poker some value can be created by making a non-characteristic or erratic-seeming play early in a session. Say you call a raise from out of position with a lousy hand, perhaps even give up another bet by the river, then showdown your trash as your opponent wins a small pot. Everyone pegs you as a noob with little understanding of hand values or the importance of position, then pay you off repeatedly when you subsequently play your usual solid game.

Of course, there we might say the poorly-played hand isn’t really like the chicken, because it is in fact integrated into the “plot” you’re creating during the early part or “exposition” of your session. Even so, it is similar insofar as the “failure” represented by the poorly-played hand helps make the “success” of the rest of your session seem that much more impressive. (And perhaps even more profitable.)

Pulling off such a move can be easier said than done, though. It is hard to play a hand badly deliberately. In fact, I’d suggest that usually when this sort of scenario develops it is because we’ve genuinely screwed up a hand early on, then settled down afterwards.

Anyhow, to get back to The Hangover, I admit I may be giving more attention to the silly chicken than is warranted. Although a bit of searching online reveals a lot of theories -- some considerably more abstract and involved than this one -- regarding it.

If I am going overboard here though, well, that’s okay. I’ll just have to be a one-man wolfpack on this one.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A. Alvarez and America

'Poker: Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats' (2001) by Al AlvarezI’ve written here many times about the English writer Al Alvarez, in particular regarding his 1983 book The Biggest Game in Town. Just click that “Al Alvarez” tag at the bottom of this post to see a number of examples.

In fact, last spring I wrote a half-dozen posts that focusing on a single chapter of The Biggest Game in Town, a kind of extended close reading intended to highlight some of the book’s themes as well as to demonstrate how packed full of great stories and ideas the book is. (Those posts begin here.)

Alvarez is not just a “poker writer,” of course, having had a lengthy career writing poetry, literary criticism, and other nonfiction on a host of different topics. However, his contributions to our little subgenre of nonfiction or sports journalism or whatever you want to call it are especially noteworthy. Inspiring, even.

In The Biggest Game in Town, Alvarez reports from the 1981 World Series of Poker (won by Stu Ungar), ultimately providing an especially insightful, thorough portrait not just of the WSOP and Vegas but American culture as a whole and poker’s significant status within it.

Years later Alvarez penned a second book about poker titled Poker: Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats (first published in 2001). At first glance that book’s extensive (and very cool) collection of illustrations and photographs might cause one to consider it a “coffee table book,” but it, too, includes a number of smart, entertaining, and revealing discussions about our favorite card game. The book provides a nice supplement to The Biggest Game in Town, exploring various facets of the game and culminating with a chapter recounting Alvarez’ own participation in the 1994 WSOP Main Event.

Like The Biggest Game in Town, the more recent book also finds Alvarez making some astute observations about American culture and the many ways poker reflects it, especially in the first chapter, titled “The American Game.”

For my “Community Cards” column this week on the Epic Poker blog, I shared some of what Alvarez talks about in that first chapter of Poker: Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats as well as in the initial chapter of The Biggest Game in Town. Obviously there was a lot more to be said about the two books and Alvarez’ significant contributions to poker writing, but in the column I mainly focused on some of the Londoner’s observations about poker and American culture.

Reading 'The Biggest Game in Town' (1983) by Al Alvarez (again)Check out the column for more, and as I say at the end, if you aren’t familiar with Alvarez’ poker writings, you could do a lot worse than to pick up The Biggest Game in Town, Poker: Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats, or both.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Breaking Records in the Bahamas

Randy Lew, as photographed by Joe GironBeen following reports from the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure over the last few days, including the news of Viktor “Isildur1” Blom’s triumph in the $100K Super High Roller over the weekend.

Sort of a neat reprise of that revelation at the PCA almost exactly one year before when Blom finally confirmed once and for all what everyone already knew, namely, that he was in fact the Swingin’ Swede of online legend.

Blom won $1,254,400 for besting the field of 30 at the Super High Roller, his best live score by a long, long shot. When I saw that first prize, I couldn’t help but think back to that hand of $500/$1,000 pot-limit Omaha Blom lost to Patrik Antonius a little over two years ago on Full Tilt Poker, the one for which the pot totaled a mind-boggling $1,356,946.50.

Remember that? I suppose that still stands as a record as far as online poker goes.

Speaking of records, I was also kind of diverted on Sunday by the exploits of Randy “nanonoko” Lew at the PCA. Lew spent the day sitting at a computer, a couple of large monitors glowing before him, attempting to set a record for most hands of poker played during an eight-hour period while still turning a profit. (That is Lew pictured above, as photographed by the great Joe Giron.)

I’m not really sure what the previous record was supposed to be here, but in any case Lew did manage to establish a new standard by playing 23,493 hands and concluding with a small but significant profit of $7.93. That broke down to a shade under 49 hands per minute, if you can imagine that.

I believe he was moving back and forth between low limits and $5/$10 no-limit hold’em throughout the day. According to Brad “Otis” Willis’ report on the PokerStars blog, Lew was actually down as much as $1,200 at one point before grinding his way back into the black. And thus into the record books.

I’d have to go back through my own personal record books to see for certain, but I imagine the most hands I ever played in a single session was probably around 1,500 or so, and that probably took eight hours or thereabouts. I never got much beyond three-tabling, really, a far cry from the 40-ish tables Lew generally had going throughout the day.

In fact, after the first couple of years playing online, I gravitated towards shorter sessions (a hour or two) and one- or two-tabling, both because I tended to win more consistently playing that way and I found myself becoming less and less desirous to sit and play for long stretches.

As far as my biggest-ever pot goes, I remember losing a hand of PLO50 once that had ballooned up around $400 or so, half of which I had contributed. Straight flush over my aces full. Exquisite pain, that. Won a few big pots, too, but nothing that high. You know, just $1.356 million or so off the record.

Now, of course, I am strictly playing for nickels and dimes, nursing my two smallish rolls on Carbon and Hero, both earned in freerolls. And usually no more than a half-hour or hour at most. Looking back, I see I had a 300-plus hand session back in November, easily the longest I’ve played over the last half-year or so.

Blom is still just 21 years old. I believe Lew is 26. I guess it is safe to say both probably view money a little differently than do most of us. And time. And the relationship between the two.

Oh, and they both gots some skills, too.

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Monday, January 09, 2012

The Hunger Games and Poker Tournaments

Suzanne Collins, 'The Hunger Games' (2008)I did finish The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins the other day, my first Kindle book.

The novel was published in 2008 and is the first of a trilogy set in a kind of post-apocalyptic America (redubbed “Panem”) in which 12 “districts” are ruled by a totalitarian government (the “Capitol”). Little back story comes in this first book, so the reader just has to accept the premise in which Panem’s citizens must suffer unfair treatment from the Capitol, including an annual ritual in which two citizens from each district (one boy and one girl, aged 12-18) are made to fight in the brutal “hunger games” from which only one of the 24 participants can survive.

The book is told in the first person by the 16-year-old Katniss, the girl from District 12 who must fight in the games. The book and trilogy have been marketed as “young adult” fiction, and as I read I could tell I probably would’ve enjoyed it much more as a teen. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, a film adaptation is due soon (in March, I think), a lot of which was filmed in North Carolina last summer. Depending on the budget, I’m guessing the movie will be a CGI-laden action pic with a lot of good-looking young actors, and will probably be a hit.

The story kind of plays off “Survivor” and other competition-based “reality” shows which feature an ensemble of players whom an audience follows for a few weeks until one emerges as the winner. The “hunger games” take place in an elaborate, controlled “arena” and are televised throughout Panem, and it seems like they become a kind of national focus as they play out. Kind of like the NFL playoffs or “American Idol” or the presidential campaign or... (fill in the blank).

As I said in that earlier post, the lottery at the beginning of the book which determines who must fight in the games is pretty directly lifted from that famous Shirley Jackson short story from the 1940s. And while it has been many years since I’ve read Stephen King’s early novel The Long Walk (published in 1979 as by Richard Bachman), the story seems very similar to that one, too. Also reminds me of those Japanese Battle Royale movies more than a little.

I was also reminded as I read of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago) as well as her two Parable novels, which also featured young female protagonists fighting for survival amid creatively-constructed, alternate worlds. Butler’s books also provide a lot more depth in their exploration of similar themes, including violence, sexuality, self-identity, family and relationships, and more. (I’d definitely recommend Butler before The Hunger Games.)

Anyhow, I’m bringing up The Hunger Games again here because I wanted to point out how the story reminded me in several ways of a multi-table poker tournament such as the World Series of Poker Main Event. I’ll try to list a few here without giving away too much plot.

There are constant references in the book to the “Gamemakers” who might be likened to tournament officials and/or the director governing game play. As in a poker tournament, the rules for the hunger games are significant, although the possibility for the Gamemakers in Collins’ novel to change the rules or introduce new ones as they go is a bit greater than is the case at the WSOP.

The 'arena' at the 2011 WSOPLike happens with the WSOP, non-players bet on the outcome according to constantly shifting odds. And as mentioned, viewers can follow all of the action at home. Once the field shrinks to less than a dozen, Katniss mentions how “they’ll be doing special features on each of us” for the viewing audience.

While the hunger games are literally life-and-death for the characters, they seem mostly about creating a spectacle and retaining an audience. “From the Gamemakers’ point of view, this is the final word in entertainment,” explains Katniss at one point. There’s even a highlight show at the end, again reminding me of the way the WSOP Main Event has often been presented. “Condensing several weeks into three hours is quite a feat,” observes Katniss.

Players collude with one another in the hunger games (something that is allowed more openly than in a poker tournament), their “alliances” sometimes recalling the online sponsorships that identify certain players as belonging to the same “pack.” And speaking of sponsorships, the players in the hunger games are also sponsored, with gifts provided to them as they fight (medicine, food, etc.) which could be said to create an unfair advantage for some.

There’s some profiling of opponents and “reading” of other players in The Hunger Games. Katniss enters the games with a healthy respect for others’ abilities. However, at one point she notes “I’ve spent so much time making sure I don’t underestimate my opponents that I’ve forgotten it’s just as dangerous to overestimate them as well.”

Indeed, while she seems a relatively well-prepared or “skilled” player, she knows that the reckless play of others can get her in trouble, noting early on that “stupid people are dangerous.”

Game play recalls poker strategy in other instances, too, with bluffing, trap-setting, slow-playing, and many other examples reflecting the psychological warfare of a poker tournament. At one point Katniss refers to “the surreal world of the arena where the authenticity of everything is to be doubted.”

By the way, it is in the context of such strategy talk that the book’s only sorta-kinda-reference to poker arises, when Peeta (the boy selected from District 12) tells Katniss she isn’t a good bluffer. “Never gamble at cards,” he says. “You’ll lose your last coin.”

There are a few other analogies with poker tourneys and especially the WSOP ME I could draw, including the handsome, set-for-life reward due the winner. I’ll stop here, though, as it would be hard to explain further without dropping a few spoilers.

While I can’t really say I was moved too terribly much by the book -- I don’t think I’m going to continue with the rest of the trilogy -- it was entertaining. And it might well appeal to poker players, especially those who play tourneys and thus perhaps might be inclined to like this sort of winner-take-all story.

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Friday, January 06, 2012

New Jersey to Join the Online Gambling Race?

Welcome to New JerseyI remember arriving in Atlantic City last spring to help cover the WSOP-Circuit event there. Just a few days before I got there, New Jersey governor Chris Christie had vetoed a bill that would have allowed for instrastate online gambling via websites run by AC casinos, and there was still a bit of buzz going around about the news.

Had the bill made it past Christie’s desk, New Jersey would have been the first state to pass such a bill. As it happened, Nevada would gain that distinction a few months later when it passed A.B. 258.

At the time, Christie had said he had “significant concerns” with the proposed bill, including uncertainty about whether it satisfied certain requirements in the state’s constitution. Christie also noted at the time that many New Jersey residents were in fact opposed to the state offering online gambling -- polls then indicated they were about 2-to-1 against -- and thus wasn’t sure if the bill reflected “the public’s sentiment.”

There were no references to federal laws in the message accompanying Christie’s veto. That is to say, he mentioned nothing then about the Wire Act, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, or other federal laws that might have raised concern for a state wishing to pass a bill such as the one he’d chosen to veto.

There was talk even then about the value of getting out ahead of this issue -- i.e., for New Jersey to be first in line when it came to passing such legislation and thus getting the infrastructure together to start offering online gambling before other states could. But Christie weighed the risk against the potential reward and decided folding the better option.

Cut to the first week of 2012. As the previous year was coming to a close, a revised opinion from the Department of Justice regarding the Wire Act and its applicability to non-sports betting was made public, seemingly removing a possible obstacle to states setting up their own online gambling sites.

Nevada, having passed its online gambling bill six months before, has approved regulations for licensing companies to offer online gambling, and many have already applied. Approvals of those applications are expected to come in April.

And now, after playing it safe for several months, New Jersey appears ready to play.

State senator Raymond Lesniak had reintroduced the a new version of the bill in August with revisions responding to some of Christie's concerns about it opening the door for more than just AC casino-run websites. As the new year began, Lesniak again attempted to get the bill (S-3019) considered before the current legislative session ends next Monday, although it doesn’t appear that is going to happen.

However, it does look like the bill could well come up for a vote and could possibly be passed during the first part of the next session (i.e., within a couple of weeks). This week Lesniak met with the governor and came away confident that Christie is likely on board with the new bill. “I expect that we can get it through the Legislature and signed by the Governor within the first few weeks of the new session,” said Lesniak in a statement issued on Wednesday.

I haven’t examined the previous New Jersey bill (that Christie vetoed), nor the revised one that sounds like it may pass, so I don’t know the specifics of how it was changed to assuage the governor’s concerns. In any case, it seems clear that the DOJ’s new stance has ignited something here, even if Christie hadn’t mentioned anything about federal laws regarding online gambling last spring when vetoing the earlier bill.

Meanwhile, several other states are starting to talk in similarly serious ways about offering online gambling in the wake of that revised DOJ opinion. As Mike Sexton would say, it looks like we have ourselves a race situation, Vince.

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Thursday, January 05, 2012

Novel Thinking

Novel ThinkingLike I imagine most folks who trip over here from time to time to read these poker-related scribblings, I usually spend a bit of time each day perusing various poker news sites, forums, and following the chatter on Twitter in an effort to keep track with what’s happening in the poker world.

As I’m sure you also notice when making such a virtual trek around the intertubes, there’s a lot of repeating of information happening online. Such is the case not just for poker but for just about any subject area. It’s as though as soon as something newsworthy happens or gets reported, dozens are sharing the exact same news within a short span of time, thus helping any item -- even examples of misreporting -- quickly proliferate around our little circle.

I remember once having a writing teacher explain to me the concept of “common knowledge.” In academic essays, one generally is required to document one’s sources whenever presenting ideas or words that are not one’s own. The one exception to this rule was the occasion of presenting so-called “common knowledge.” You know, like the Titanic went down in 1912 or John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

The teacher offered a rule of thumb for determining whether or not an idea or bit of information qualified as “common knowledge.” If you see the information in five different sources, the teacher explained, only then can you safely assume it is common knowledge and thus not in need of citation.

Back then we didn’t have the internet to assist us with our research. So finding something in five different sources meant putting in a lot of time amid the stacks in the library. Indeed, I sometimes thought the five-source minimum was intentionally established as a difficult-to-reach barrier so as to keep students from being too quick to think of something as “common knowledge” and thus more apt to cite sources whenever in doubt.

'Wanted today to point everyone'Today, of course, such advice is mostly meaningless. Moments after I publish this post, you’ll probably be able to find the words I am writing appear in five different other places, having been “scraped” and published by various web-page producing programs. It is almost as though everything that gets published somewhere online instantly becomes “common knowledge” and is regarded as such by many going forward -- i.e., as fair game for reporting without attribution.

Maybe it’s because I have occasionally been called on to write poker news articles myself that I find myself thinking about this phenomenon. Or because I write this blog every weekday, where I always try to avoid repeating what else is out there and provide something novel or at least a little bit different, even if it is only just to share a personal take on what everyone else is talking about.

Thanks in part to the way search engines work and the whole “SEO” thing, a distinction has developed in internet reporting between publishing something that is “new” and publishing something that is “original.” The fact is, it is much more valued to be first -- or perceived as first by the elusive algorithms employed by internet search engines -- than it is to be original. (I smile grimly at the post I wrote yesterday, today appearing on other sites as though published years ago.)

Writing and publishing original content is by definition going to mean producing something that is new. Readers will recognize this, but so will the search engines (which will help attract more readers).

But it is possible also to appear to write something new without necessarily writing something that is original. A quick summary of someone else’s reporting can accomplish as much quite efficiently, and depending on the site producing it, can effectively place a newly-published page way up or even at the top of searches for the item.

And speaking of efficiency, it is much less costly to come up with such “new” (but not original) content than it is to commission that which is truly original.

I’m conscious of the fact that my observation here is itself unoriginal. I nonetheless felt compelled to bring up the idea here as I’ve been lately seeing not just the usual examples of the phenomenon but also some others pointing out having seen the same, too.

I Hate CrowdsPerhaps it was because of thinking about all of this -- coupled with a further bit of meditating on “viral” videos and marketing, cut-and-paste emails, “retweeting” on Twitter, etc. -- that I have come up with the first inklings of an idea for a new novel.

It may turn out to be a science fiction story, though the variety of sci-fi that serves to provide a commentary on the “real” world we inhabit. Perhaps even an original one.

Gonna file the idea away for now, though. I have another novel I need to finish first. Besides, I don’t want to get to carried away with explaining the idea here today only to see it a hundred times over elsewhere before I even begin writing.

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