Saturday, October 31, 2009

Third-Graders Behind Nationwide Extortion Ring

When I lived in London I dated a girl who had a couple of uncles. They were well-dressed men with heavy East End accents whose line of business was not discussed in polite company. Their main income derived from visiting pubs and inquiring if the landlord had fire insurance. When, as was usually the case, the landlord replied that he had, the uncles would recommend that he got more. From them. Now. Because, well, you know John, these old pubs, bloody tinderbox, know what I mean? All these cigarettes, right, mean to say, one match, whole place could go up, couldn't it?

It turns out that this particular method of selling fire insurance is regarded as illegal in most countries, including the United Kingdom. I was under the impression that extortion was also a crime in the U.S., but there appears to be a loophole. Specifically, every October 31st hordes of heavily-disguised children, aided and abetted in the conspiracy by their parents, extort candy and assorted novelty items from anyone owning or renting a home.

"Trick or treat?"

Or as the uncles might have put it "Fire or money?"

I have never been fond of Halloween since the year my ex-wife decided we would stick a rotting pumpkin on the front steps and stock the shelves with candy. I felt it wise to feign enthusiasm for the project and thus, when the doorbell was accompanied by the sound of young voices, I opened the door with a bucket of treats.

I should explain at this point that on this particular Halloween I was considerably lighter than my usual 140 lbs due to a recent jaw infection. At just over six feet tall the term "thin" didn't come close to describing my build. As a heavy smoker I also have sunken cheeks. My usual attire in the evening is a three-quarter length tux, shades, and black hat. I think I look pretty cool. The trick-or-treaters apparently did not. One boy screamed, a second ran away, and the unfortunate girl dressed as a cat peed her pants.

Their parents, who were sitting in a heavily-armored SUV a few feet away, were absolutely furious. As mother comforted her distraught offspring, father stomped up to my door and in a menacing tone asked me "what the 'H' 'E' double hockey sticks" I thought I was doing. When I realized that I could shut the front door before he could get his foot in it I told him to fuck off.

It still baffles me that trick-or-treating maintains its nationwide popularity despite razor blades in Twinkies and people like me. This year I was considering putting out a pumpkin and leaving the light on. And when the brats mumbled "trick or treat" I was going to say "trick, please," mostly out of curiosity. What cunning trick would they play on me? I abandoned the project because I suspect even a third-grader has enough of a grasp of risk-reward and hourly rate that performing a trick is, for them, a negative expectation value proposition.

But I'm still going to put out a pumpkin or three.

Happy Halloween.

Monday, October 12, 2009

December 1st Doomsday?

The first freeze hit the U.S. Midwest last week reminding us that this could be a long, cold winter for online poker. UIGEA is scheduled to be enforced on December 1st and while the ramifications of this are still unclear the poker world is more than jittery. So what are the best-case and worst-case scenarios when we wake up on the first day of Advent?

To address this question, recall the scope of the UIGEA. This act demands that banks prohibit transactions that place wagers (or deposit funds) on internet gaming sites. Horse racing is, for obvious reasons, excluded. [1] An important point that is often overlooked is that there is nothing in the legislation about banks accepting winnings from online wagers and gaming. Thus, based on the actual content of the UIGEA, the often-expressed fear of winning poker players that they will not be able to access their funds is unfounded.

With this in mind, how bad could the situation become in December? The complete Doomsday Scenario is that PokerStars, Full Tilt, and the other major sites decide they no longer want to deal with Department of Justice stormtroopers and withdraw from the U.S. market. Is this likely? I feel that it is not. Multibillion dollar industries are not in the habit of throwing up their hands, dismantling their operations, and opening a chain of casual dining restaurants instead.

What about financial institutions? Will they feel sufficiently intimidated by the UIGEA that they decide to block incoming funds that have been withdrawn from online sites? Again, we feel this is extremely unlikely. First, historical precedent indicates that banks rarely say "no thanks" to money. They have, as it were, a self-interest in the interest. Al Capone had a bank account. Second, with withdrawals from poker sites being processed via third party intermediaries there is no obvious way that banks can distinguish between poker winnings and proceeds gained through the sale of garden gnomes.

This second point also pertains to the ability of players to deposit funds at poker sites. If this, the only limitation imposed by UIGEA, actually occurs, the ramifications for winning players are clearly serious. But with third-party processing and the vested interest poker sites have in keeping fresh money flowing in, can such a law be enforced? It is difficult to see how.

With all these factors in mind, the best-case scenario for December 1st is that nothing will change at all. However, it would be foolish to assume that this will be the case. Even if the legislation proves to be unenforceable in principle, it seems inevitable that fear of UIGEA will decrease the amount of money deposited at poker sites. Simply increasing obstacles to deposits at sites will reduce action from losing U.S. players. This is a sufficient reason for poker players to continue to protest and fight UIGEA in any way they can. A broader reason is that the U.S. has a written constitution that protects its citizens and residents from this kind of bullshit.

[1] The most obvious of the obvious reasons being that assholes who have been in the Senate for decades and who are about to step down can pass whatever bizarre, inconsistent, flawed legislation they please, and thus trample on the constitutional rights of American citizens and residents before putting their feet up and living off the fat pension being paid for by the aforementioned American citizens and residents.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

It is what it is

I have long held the opinion that interviewing sportsmen and women immediately after they have completed a match, round, race or game is as useful as asking your cat what it would like for breakfast. Why, for example, do we need a quarterback to describe the winning touchdown when we have seen nineteen replays of the event from twelve different angles? "I threw the ball to a wide receiver in the back of the end-zone who caught it." Right. We knew that already.

Lucrative sponsorship deals have compelled many athletes to develop their public speaking skills with varying degrees of success. The Peyton Mannings and Michael Jordans of the sports world have an easy, polished delivery. Occasionally they even say something interesting. But many athletes employ a mode of speech that seems to have evolved in an environment free of natural predators, so that redundancy flourishes like a bizarre marsupial. Semi-rhetorical questions such as "you know," "know what I mean," and "you know what I'm saying," are used as commas and periods. We are told by announcers "that's a wonderful golf shot," presumably to eliminate any confusion in our mind that we might be watching hockey.

Even the most engaging speakers are frequently forced to sound like total twits due to the aforementioned sponsorship deals.

"Jeff, a great race today. Tell us about the closing laps."

"Thanks Rusty. I'd like to thank God, my crew, Ricky-Raccoon-Racing, Goodyear, Chevrolet, Castrol, Viagra, Pepsi, Branflakes, Southwest Airlines, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Tampax, Slim Jim, Joe's Laundromat and Bait Shop..."

Perhaps because I am older than most such interviewees I tend to attribute these "sportsisms" to a disease of youth. Two hours ago, however, I was forced to revise that opinion thanks to an in-game interview with Detroit Tigers' manager Jim Leyland. Leyland, now in his early nineties, is old school in every sense of the term. I was therefore horrified when he responded to one of the announcer's questions with "It is what it is." My first reaction was that I must have misheard him. The Metrodome is notoriously noisy and Leyland had added to the problem by choosing to position the microphone on his headset directly over his nose. However, a few sentences later he repeated the phrase.

"WHAT IS IT?" I screamed at the screen. At some level I think I just felt left out. Apparently everyone other than me knows what "it" is.

I suppose if one is generous one can view "it is what it is" as a modern incarnation of the once popular "que sera, sera." The latter, however, in employing the future tense at least offers the hope that we may at some point discover what it is (or, to be pedantic, what will be). Further, despite being fundamentally self-evident, the phrase does communicate the concept of kizmit and has the added benefit of being foreign and thus sophisticated.

For reasons that defy my understanding, the directors and producers of televised poker events have concluded that the ideal time to interview a poker player is immediately after he or she has busted out from a tournament. At such times the last thing I want to do is talk to anyone about anything. But even fellow players can be staggeringly oblivious. Immediately after I busted out of the 2006 WSOP Main Event and was heading through the Rio labyrinth to find an exit so I could kill myself through chain smoking I was intercepted by a poker-playing colleague. He offered a few brief words of condolence about the $10k that I had yesterday but didn't have today, then asked me if I wanted to split cab fare to go to the nearest Office Max so he could get a new battery for his laptop. I haven't spoken to him since.

One of the advantages of being a low-profile poker player is that I have never been confronted by Norm Chad stuffing a microphone under my snout and asking me how I feel about suddenly being poorer. There are players, of course, who provide wonderful TV on such occasions. Hellmuth's rants about the stupidity of his opponents and his abysmal luck are invariably entertaining. I could listen for hours to a David "Devilfish" Ulliot interview as he meanders effortlessly from how his aces got cracked to the fact his girlfriend is the third most attractive woman in China and that his uncle was rescued from a desert island by the Titanic. It is a great shame that less than five per cent of Americans can understand more than a few words of what David says.

Alas the ipso busto facto interview can also unleash the phrase that I dislike above all others. It is our equivalent, I suppose, of "it is what it is," but irks me far more for the simple reason that I dislike a representative of my profession sounding like a complete asshat.

"So, John, tell us about that last hand."

"Well Norm, I picked up AK under the gun, shoved, got called by Annie in the big blind with AQ, and she flopped a Q. But... You know... That's poker."

Indeed it is.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Raymer's Shades

In my never-ending search for a poker edge I've been considering new angles for my appearance. As is the case for CEOs, a disproportionate number of WSOP ME winners are above average height. Because stopping smoking at my age is unlikely to lead to a sudden growth spurt I did what I could in this area and started wearing 2" Cuban heels and a hat.

Greg Raymer, of course, is above average width, and it is not clear to me that this leads to any particularly intimidatory advantage. However, I do find those voluminous cargo shorts that he wears to be unsettling. Somehow they communicate the idea of camping and I do poorly when asked to sleep in the wilderness when I know there's a perfectly good Marriott within twenty miles. Greg also has the worst nickname in the poker world. He gave himself the handle of "Fossilman" and frankly it's so naff that a strange feeling (maybe it's 'sympathy'?) creeps up my neck when I see him, potentially taking my head out of the game.

But when it comes to clothes and accessories, Raymer is best known for the shades he wore when he won the big one. Many of his opponents have stated that the holographic monsters not only made Raymer harder to read but were simply unpleasant to look at. Indeed I suspect the slightly mesmerizing effects of these shades may have inspired some of the avatars used by players at PokerStars. The timing could have been a coincidence, but immediately after Raymer's ME win there was an outbreak of out-of-focus, double exposed, swirly things that could lead to migraines. None are as disturbing as the ever-popular, ever-nauseating baby pictures, of course, but whatever the nastiness presented in the little Stars' circle I have the ability to block the horrid thing. Something that cannot be done live without drawing undue attention to oneself with masks, fans, and so forth.

To simply imitate Raymer and wear holographic shades is clearly not an option here. But this is an angle I want to shoot. So I have been experimenting with high-wattage halogen lamps tucked into the inside pockets of my double-breasted jacket, pointing them upwards in the traditional manner used for telling scary stories around the camp-fire. There are still a few practical issues to iron out in order to use the set up in a casino, but I am pleased with the initial results...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The benefits of (nearly) going broke

Some time last year my poker results started declining. My tournament ROI dropped and I stopped making significant money in cash games. In April of this year I had enough stats to know that unless there was a sudden upswing in my earn I was going to go broke.

I still haven't completely figured out what happened. The number of hands and tournaments is too great to attribute the downswing to variance, although I think it played a part. My current guess is I started playing bad as a result of running bad. Not stupid "let's try and get back a chunk of the roll at once by playing limits I can't afford," but that creeping disease of semi-tilt.

The situation led to considerable reflection and some tough decisions. First, I realized that I didn't quit a well-paying job to "become" a poker player. I was already a poker player and to make my living in any other manner was going to make me unhappy. I also concluded that five winning years provided convincing evidence that fundamentally I am a winning player provided I play my best and keep working on improving my game. This optimism was aided by a former poker student telling me "you're too good to not be making money."

None of this altered the fact that I was a few weeks away from going busto.

So I put a plan together. I got a long-term backer as well as other stakers to make sure that I could stay in the game. This also meant I had to work twice as hard for the same earn, but the alternative was unacceptable. I also started paying more attention to the small edges. Sitting out of a cash game when it got too tight to be profitable; changing my sleep schedule to target easier times of day; focusing on my strongest forms and structures of poker. And perhaps most importantly working my ass off through training sites, forums, books and other resources to make my game stronger.

I still don't know how this story is going to play out because I am still working with a worryingly thin bankroll and my house is falling down. My feeling (supported by steadily-improving results) is that I've turned the corner. One thing I know for sure is that nearly going broke has forced me to greatly improve my game and my approach to playing poker. And those of you who have accused me in the past, rightly, of being arrogant, may be pleased to know that this episode has also given me a little humility. Not a lot. But a little.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Sympathy for Myself

I’ve never understood all the fuss
About my disguises
The word now carries a sense of deceit
But the fake fur and eyelashes
Came from a sense of fun
The same with the clues
Muddle metaphysicians
And find mystics in a heap
A wizard who lives backwards
And doesn’t sleep?
Invert nil REM
It’s easy
Mallory got that one anachronistically
Give him a hint and he’ll create a novel
And thus a world

Ours is dying
We’re promised a technological cure
And told that the medicine
Is a dose of Vitamin C and not clap sans frontieres
Similar promises accompanied pox-filled blankets
Terra Incognita became terror known
To those who saw the New World as old
Age provides perspective.
Four hundred years for Rome
Less here I think.
Caligula may have looked impassively at the decapitated head of his nephew
(Will that child not stop coughing?)
But he would blush today.

According to an ex-colleague of mine
It was people who screwed up the deal from the get-go.
He forgets that I was there and saw
Eve's alleged mistake
She wanted to exile ignorance.
But the snake
(When straight, the perpendicular pronoun, wink wink)
Was a liberator
A facilitator of education.
The one thing that He despises most.
Knowledge is the antithesis of faith.
And what’s the price for suppressing it?
Hope and Charity locked out of the house.
Silly girls asked questions.
Original thought is original sin

So with snakes out of favor it was time for geometry
Got Descartes thinking
Produced axes and soon thereafter
Died in Sweden thanks to the negligence of Queen Christina
(There's that name again, feminized)
He says, 'thou shalt not know,' and strikes down one of the Enlightened.
But the first half of the secret slipped out.
I think, therefore I am.
A good start
And yet the species is reluctant to end its childhood
And accept that the Cartesian axiom for an individual also applies to a society, planetwide.

He’s the master of confusion
His lawyers successfully turned the World upside down.
War, they claim, is the domain of the Dark Angel, for our Lord is Light
(Blitzkrieg almost gave the game away, but they got the Big Lie guy on board)
The Lightning strike of the Stukas was His idea, not mine.
The Crusades didn’t end.
The theocratic clash echoes down the centuries and Force Majeure still rules
But knightly armor is now Armani and an alligator smile.

Funny thing.
We’re told, by the latest lead attorney
As he stuffs his old clothes in the closet
And puts on a funny hat
That the one without toes is behind all this
(The only inconvenience concerning the toes, incidentally, being a slight numbness in the feet, but an aspirin a day works wonders)
I’ve also been implicated in famine
But have you once heard me say ‘go forth and multiply.’
No. That was one of His.
And don’t worry about the consequences for He will provide… Starvation?
And if all this gets you down remember
Death ain’t so bad.
Heaven on Earth is a blink away.

But a cat has two eyelids, blinks twice.
The second one a Darwinian marvel evolved to block His Light.
It’s why felines need nine lives
They’ve used those eyes to peek behind the curtain and so He keeps trying to bump them off.
Exterminated by the Inquisition in millions.
Know why?
The cats were killing the rats.
Slowed the spread of the Black Death.
He got pissed.
Plague fills the churches faster than plenty.
Fear populates the pews.

I'll give Him this, He has a certain ingenuity.
But even He can’t suppress the curiosity characteristic of cats and sometimes seen in people.
He’d like to because you are (He claims) His children.
(Technically adopted; He bends the truth.)
He tried to head-off the desire for knowledge through his Killing Joke
Claiming the Son was a teacher
Teacher? A teacher of blind obedience.
Follow me for I am the path and through me, The One
(The cats call him the One Third)
You will learn not to think.
Here endeth the lesson.
Well, with the Father's pitiful bill of goods, what other lesson could there be?
The three of them, you see, they don't want to let you go.
They like having kids, whereas I’ve never been comfortable around children.
That's why they threw me out.
And why, eventually
(I have to confess, it's taking a while)
I will bring Childhood's End.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Interwebz

One of the problems presented by online poker that is not an issue when playing live is losing internet connection to the poker site. If a casino unexpectedly bursts into flames all players in the card room are affected equally and an equitable resolution to the problem can be easily found. I guess it's conceivable that one of the geriatric cocktail waitresses at Bally's might drop a gin and tonic in my lap and that I'd be forced to leave, but that has not yet happened. If, on the other hand, I am sitting in a PLO8 tourney at Stars looking with joy at AA23 single-suited and my internet goes down I am both screwed and apoplectic. This happened last night. For real. AA23.

As we all know, the internet is a series of tubes, and I understand that on occasion those tubes can get clogged. So when I phoned my cable company this afternoon to report this ongoing problem I was polite and controlled despite the fact that this is costing me money!!! And I spoke to a very helpful young man named Brandon who confirmed he was seeing packets vanishing for an unknown reason and that a service engineer would be out tomorrow afternoon. Which is really pretty fucking useless given that I need to play off another 1400 Stars' VPPs to maintain my VIP status AND I am supposed to be internet-broadcasting a tournament tonight. Brandon also told me explicitly, because I asked, that no other customer in my area had reported any problems.

Now I know absolutely nothing about the internet (other than the tube thing), hardware, software, computers, electronics, or anything that gets plugged into a wall socket, but undeterred by my boundless ignorance I decided to walk around my estate to see if there were any squirrel teeth marks in the big wire that comes from a pole in the alley to the box on the side of my house. And what did I see in the alley? I saw a man up a ladder fiddling with wires. And beneath him was a white van. And what do you think was written on the side of the van? Hmmm??? Yup. The name of the cable company that provides my fucking internet.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Just Play

National Poker Week is upon us and a drive is underway by organizations such as the Poker Players Alliance to defend The Holy Game from the stupidity of the UIGEA, the DoJ and quite probably the DMV since they are usually involved in making life difficult. This raises a question for professional and recreational online players alike: What can we do to keep online poker legal and help it thrive?

There are petitions that can be signed and form letters that require a couple of mouse clicks to send to members of the House and Senate. The major online sites have been ponying up prize-pools for freeroll tournaments for those signing these petitions and sending letters, thereby providing additional incentive for players to get involved in this process. I strongly encourage everyone who supports the right of citizens and residents of the U.S. to play online poker to take the thirty seconds required to petition and write. However, I am also convinced that the most important weapon we have in our fight against dim, repressive, and flawed legislation is the simplest of all.

Just play.

The fundamental reason that the prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. was repealed is that people continued to manufacture and consume alcohol. Similarly tobacco remains legal despite its health consequences because so many people smoke. The U.S. will eventually follow the worldwide trend of decriminalizing marijuana largely for the same reasons. One does not have to approve of drinking and smoking to recognize that attempts to make them illegal are counter-productive and lead to a lessening of respect by the public of laws in general.

Playing poker online is not currently illegal, of course. Part of the cynicism of lawmakers opposed to online poker is that, recognizing the popularity of the game, they have attempted to cripple it through indirect means such as attacking the flow of money between players and online sites. And this has clearly succeeded in driving away many U.S. players. Particularly the bad ones, unfortunately. We have endured scares over seized funds going back to the Neteller fiasco. I had nearly $10k tied up for several months. I didn't like this at all. Eventually every penny ended up safely in my bank account.

Clearly one can make the decision to cease playing and wait to see how the legal situation pans out. That is exactly what the opponents of our freedom to play The Holy Game want you to do. So be the change you want to see in the world. Just play.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Department of "Justice"

As an Omaha-8 player my life is not exactly stress-free. At least once a day I will flop the nut flush and nut low, lose the low on the turn to a counterfeit, and watch the flush dissolve on the river as the board pairs. I also have to maintain concentration over many hours while sitting at tables with players who have screen-names such as "ilovetoeatpoo." But this is the life that I have chosen and all I really ask is that I be left alone to make my living playing poker.

Apparently in the "land of the free" this is overly optimistic.

It has emerged over the last couple of days that the Department of Justice, acting through the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, has frozen $30 million of online poker players' winnings.


Apparently it has something to do with the 1961 Wire Fraud Act. My detailed research has revealed that whenever some social-engineering, mindless, bottom-dwelling federal attorney decides they want to make a name for themselves without bothering with the niceties of due process they invoke wire fraud. Which they are compelled to do in the case of online poker because playing poker is not illegal.

In fact why online poker gets certain politicians all riled up baffles me. "Gambling is a disease. It destroys families." I see. Well, first poker is a game of skill it isn't "gambling," and second where are these nanny-state legislators when it comes to state lotteries?

I went to my local gas station the other day to buy a carton of cigarettes. For the reasons given above I, like many Omaha-8 players, smoke heavily. The check-out guy asked me if I wanted to buy a lottery ticket. I peered at him over my shades with my best "wtf do you think" glare. "Sorry," he replied, "we have to ask everyone that this week."

Walking home I mulled this over. The corporation running this gas station instructs its employees to invite customers to engage in gambling. Since the lottery is state run it follows that they do so with the full support of the state. This is essentially solicitation to participate in gambling of a form that would be illegal in any Nevada casino because the house take is so huge. But if I choose to play poker online and by using my skill advantage win money I run the risk of losing my winnings because of "wire fraud."

Genuinely confused by all this I decided it was time to do a little background research into the man apparently behind this madness, Arlo Devlin-Brown, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. It seems online poker is the bee in the bonnet of Mr. Devlin-Brown since it was he who went after Neteller and Party Poker for reasons that are baffling to poker players.

Based on my extensive research it is possible that Mr. Devlin-Brown has spent much of his legal career involved in noble causes protecting the innocent and acting as an advocate for the disenfranchised. And that while engaged in these activities he has shunned publicity. Because a thorough googling of Mr. Devlin-Brown returns a remarkably thin curriculum vitae up until the point he got in on this wire fraud scam. Specifically since 1995, when Mr. Devlin-Brown placed 4th in the APDA Speaker of the Year contest, his only notable achievement was the prosecution of a Mount Vernon trash hauler:

Albert Tranquillo III, 30, of Armonk, faces a possible new indictment that will include a charge of bribing a Mount Vernon Department of Public Works official.

"There is a substantial likelihood a superseding indictment will be handed down," Assistant U.S. Attorney Arlo Devlin-Brown said during Tranquillo's hearing before U.S. District Judge Stephen C. Robinson.

Appparently this case was insufficient to catapult Mr. Devlin-Brown into the spotlight and he is looking for bigger fish to fry. Thereby chasing all my fish off the poker sites and back to the state lotteries.

Monday, June 1, 2009

It's WSOP time and I'm in... Kansas?

And I'm not at all happy about it. For the first time since 2004 I'm not in Vegas for the World Series of Poker. My personal recession and the indifference of the Government to my request for a financial bail-out have stranded me in the Heartland when I should be prowling the side action at The Mirage and Caesar's Palace.

So instead of the real deal I am at home playing the "Mini Series of Poker" courtesy of the good folks at Full Tilt. It's great! The events are the same as the WSOP but the buy-ins are 1/100th the size. This naturally means the prizes are somewhat reduced, so despite cutting through a field of 1500 to finish 77th in the LO8 my prize was a mere $36. $20 net. $10 after I split the profit with my backers.

I blew all my winnings on a modest lunch the next day and then got back to work playing the PokerStars 100k Nightly where I busted when someone accidentally called my AQ shove with K3. Flop A3x turn 3. Busted by a misclick. I immediately fired off an e-mail to Stars' support urging them to introduce REALLY HUGE ACTION BUTTONS.

Even though I'm not going to be out for the show I will be following the fortunes of several friends who'll be playing. Good luck today, Marky, in the PLO. And many congrats to Connie/sunfish2 for winning a Main Event seat through a Full Tilt satty. Connie helped me turn my LHE game from a firework display into solid poker. Like many pros over the last couple of years she's been under considerable financial stress so to see her have this big score really made me happy. It was also the best tournament poker I've ever seen her play.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

It was 20 years ago last Monday...

...that I flew from London, the city of my birth, to Baltimore. I had two suitcases, $600 and a freshly-minted PhD in Theoretical Cosmology. The European Space Agency had very kindly given me a postdoctoral fellowship to work at the Space Telescope Science Institute. My plan was simple. Spend three years in the U.S. building my academic credentials then get back to London to resume normal life.

My plans often get derailed. Instead of moving back to London after my fellowship was completed I moved to Toronto for two years during which time the town experienced five winters. In my opinion it's the ugliest city in North America. And I have visited Detroit, Cleveland, and Akron.

For the last fifteen years I have lived in Kansas. I'm not sure why. I moved here because my second wife had a job at the University of Kansas, but she left the state a decade ago. I am fond of thunderstorms, but that seems a fairly thin reason to live in the middle of nowhere. Its main geographical advantage in the U.S. is that it's half way to everywhere else.

About three years ago I developed another plan of moving to Vegas. It's the obvious city for me to live. People go there with the idea that they have money to "spend" on gaming. It's always a joy to my ears when I'm sitting at McCarran airport on the way home and hear people explain that they are down a few hundred on the trip but "where else can you have that many hours of fun for $600?" If only all of them played poker.

Which brings me to my idea for the perfect casino. The poker room at most casinos tends to be located fairly centrally. This is because for the most part casinos don't like poker players. We take up a lot of space, the games require dealers and floor (managers - all parts of the casino require a physical floor with the possible exception of the area around Keno where falling to one's death may be better than playing the game) who have to be paid, and the drop from the game is relatively small. By putting the card room in a central location it makes it less likely punters walking through the casino "trying their luck" at slots and table games will stumble across it inadvertently and compound the problem of the poker presence. Perhaps counter-intuitively the outer parts of the casino act as an area of distraction.

The flipside to this is that I can readily find the poker room in a casino that I haven't previously visited, so my plan is to leave the current location alone. However, it is of some importance that those compassionate tourists who are happy to spend a few hundred on losing are encouraged to find the poker room.

I envision the following scheme. At each casino entrance, as well as the region by the guest elevators, boring slot machines should be placed. These form the beginning of slot-lined walkways all of which lead like spokes to the poker room. Moving around the casino floor towards table games will be rendered difficult by this arrangement, thereby discouraging people from getting involved with blackjack and roulette. As one progresses up the walkways the slot machines will become more interesting. Shit doesn't run uphill and neither does money so this is necessary in order to funnel people towards the poker room. Drinks will also improve as one moves along the walkways. The more attractive cocktail waitresses will be positioned at the poker room end. Small pies and candy will start to appear as one gets closer to the convergence of the spokes.

You may object to this plan on the grounds that the increasing quality of slot machines and perks may cause people to stall out before reaching the poker room. There are a couple of things to understand here. First, one can classify visitors to casinos into two groups: those who are happy to sit in front of slot machines like automatons for sixteen hours at a time surviving only on candy, small pies, and watered down drinks, and those who get bored of slots and investigate table games. I regard the dedicated slot players as individuals who are beyond the reach of poker (and probably beyond hope of any kind). Consequently my plan only applies to the second category of people and even the dimmest have figured out that candy, small pies and watered down drinks are portable.

In this way people will tend to find themselves in front of the poker room. Currently most poker rooms appear a little unfriendly from the outside. They tend to be designed for people who know ahead of time that they want to play poker and who have some idea of the processes involved in signing up for a game. In addition to making that process more user-friendly, possibly employing more complementary small pies, I envision a large sign being placed at the front of the poker room that reads "Poker! It's Great Fun! Come In And Try Your Luck!" (It's important to give the impression to recreational players that poker is mainly luck. That way they feel better about themselves when they lose.)

There is one further element to my plan. Every poker room will spread limit Omaha high-low, $5/10 with a full-kill. The table will be placed near an exit so I don't have far to go for smoke breaks. And whenever I visit a particular card room all other pros will be asked to leave. They won't object. This plan will make them a fortune.

So why have I not moved to Vegas? I think it's clear from the above that I have the right sort of mind for the place. There are two reasons.

First, I have a Maine Coon cat, Zoot. He is sixteen and has been with me longer than my two ex-wives put together. (Incidentally, the possibility of combining my two ex-wives into a single super-being may have interesting military implications, but I will return to that idea in a later blog.) I simply can't put Zoot through the trauma of moving.

Second, despite my constant mention of what a great place Vegas is to live particularly for individuals working in the general area of mental health, my psychotherapist shows no interest in moving there. I really have enough problems as it is without going through the grueling process of finding someone else to help me solve my problems. Besides I'd miss her.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Poker isn't about winning and losing (Part I)'s about making the right decisions. Also sprach Doyle Brunson and given my current ROI I'm not going to argue with him.

In some ways the idea is self-evident. We play poker with the long-term goal of winning, but the way we actually get there is by making correct decisions. And extrapolating the concept we can reasonably conclude that the most successful poker players are the ones who make the most correct (either the largest number of correct or the 'correctest') decisions.

I'd like to apologize for my pedantic and stilted prose today. This afternoon I spent 45 minutes talking to my insurance agent.

So how do I become a better poker player? How do I make more correct decisions?

I suspect if you asked poker players why someone like Chris Ferguson or Jen Harman is so good at the game the answers would include experience, knowing the odds, hand-reading ability...

I don't need to 'suspect' anything, I will go and post this very question at a poker forum. BRB.

Okay, it'll take a while to get responses so I'll just keep yammering on here and get back to that later. Irrespective of the answers I receive I think it's apparent that the Holy Grail which we seek is an explanation of why some poker players make better decisions than others. And equally clearly a large part of the answer is "they know more about the game than the poor saps who couldn't tell you the odds of hitting a flush draw with two to come if you gave them a bit of paper that listed the odds of hitting a flush draw with two to come."

So is that it?

I don't think so.

In fact I'm becoming increasingly convinced that what separates great poker players from good ones and good ones from donkeys isn't the depth of knowledge of the game at all. It's the ability to consistently make the decision that the player knows to be correct. This idea may sound silly, but so does setting fire to a leaf and inhaling the fumes. As a cigarette smoker of 30 years I guess I am well-placed to entertain the plausibility of silly ideas.

In any tournament or cash game the players will have differing levels of understanding of the fundamentals of poker, but in my experience these differences are not great. I used to play a lot of limit hold 'em around the $25/50 limits where essentially everyone knew the odds and the standard plays. The vast majority of players had decent hand-reading skills and knew situations where it was profitable to run a bluff or make a loose call to pick off a likely bluff. And yet some players were consistent winners while others financed my drinking problem.


The simple answer is the losing players were making all the classic poker mistakes. Playing too many hands, going too far with hands, chasing draws without the correct odds, and so on. And they made these plays despite 'knowing' that they were clear mistakes.

So why would anyone do such a thing? It may sound sufficiently unlikely that you are currently wondering if I am fabricating the whole thing as part of some cunning plan to make a joke about beavers. Well I'm not. Honest. In fact about thirty minutes ago I made exactly such a play myself. One of me watched in horror as another one of me clicked the "call" button. When I failed to hit the draw that I had no business chasing the one of me that was operating my eyes blinked at the screen. All of me then closed PokerStars and came here.

At this point one of you may be elbowing another of you in the ribs saying "oh, he's going to talk about tilt, we know all about that let's eat ice-cream." NOT SO FAST! Simply giving a name to a phenomenon doesn't explain anything. I want to pull this puppy apart and examine its intestines. Besides 'tilt' implies a deviation from a norm. Poker players making sub-optimal decisions even when they know better is the norm.

Let's play with some working hypotheses. Presumably when we make a poker decision that we know to be incorrect there is a reason. In the most general terms, there must be something about the incorrect decision that appeals to us. After all, the one of us who balances the check book at the end of the month is a pretty assertive character, so the one of us who is determined to make bad decisions must have a strong motivation to do so and have the ability to overcome the wishes of the check-book balancer.

Who is this bastard who keeps destroying my bankroll?

Since we've exonerated the mathematical, rational, logical me, it must be one of those characters who is frequently at a loss to explain himself. Possibly the one who will start crying at the sight of a Monet, or become unaccountably furious when examining the shape of a paper clip. We may never unambiguously identify him, but it seems that he has been spending far too much time hanging out with my unconscious. And that in itself produces something of a paradox because the unconscious knows a great deal about poker and could be a major asset if it wasn't for this business of whispering in the ear of the me that has the responsibility of clicking the "call" button.

In fact it's far more important than that. Because another thing the unconscious knows about is the unconscious of other poker players. And if we could get it to spill the beans we'd have the ultimate poker edge.

In Part II of these musings I'll suggest that the vast majority of the beans are still in the bean jar but that one or two have escaped. More accurately, one of me will suggest that.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Stirring Up Hook

Dr. Pauly's "Tao of Poker" blog recently included a Babel Fish translation of a text from its original French to something akin to English. Babel Fish is renowned for producing unusual prose and it occurred to me that when dealing with poker lingo the online translator would have a particularly tough time. So I carried out a few experiments.

In order to establish the reliability of Babel Fish poker translations (hereafter BFPTs - I used to work for NASA and have never outgrown acronyms), I used it to translate text from English to a second language and then back to English again. Clearly if BFPTs were perfect the text produced by this process would be identical to that entered.

The fundamental finding of this research is that BFPTs are not perfect.

German provides a particular challenge. The English word "poker" is translated not as the card game but as the object that you use to poke a fire. Which, thanks to German compound nouns, is re-translated back into English as "stirring up hook." Now at some level this all makes perfect sense. A poker is indeed a sort of hook that is used to stir up ashes and coals and so forth. However it does represent a central problem for the reliability of German BFPTs.

To provide an example and simultaneously avoid copyright infringement I used Babel Fish to translate a portion of my April 9th blog from English to German to English. The original text is:

Behind door number 2: cocktail waitresses with fake tits and free drinks, people who are bad at math who came here of their own volition and not because of a university Gen Ed requirement, bathrooms that always have enough paper towels and that are free from the angry scrawl of students who just failed my class and see fit to describe in fourth-grade handwriting and grammar their theories about how I am gay and/or nailing that girl in the front row in the denim miniskirt that they wanted to nail but never got anywhere because the girl in question found them indistinguishable from all the other terminally dull guys in baseball caps and sweatshirts, and... oh yes, sorry, I digressed. Behind door number 2: POKER.

The German BFPT of this passage is:

Behind door No. 2: Cocktail waitresses with falsified Tits and freely beverages, people, which are bad at Mathe, which came of their own expression of will and not because of a requirement Universitätsgen OD, bathroom, the always sufficient Papiertücher have and of the annoyed Scrawl of the class participants, the straight my category and fit, around in the fourth degrees handwriting and in the grammar to describe their theories left survey, how I am homosexual and/or am free the nailing of this girl in the first row in the Denimminirock, which they wanted to nail, but never received, everywhere because the girl, that nisht found them too differentiating of all other chaps in the baseball caps and the Sweatshirts, blunt at the end and… oh, is sadly questionable, I deviated. Behind door No. 2: STIRRING UP HOOK.

Given that I have a tendency to employ long, rambling, run-on sentences that frequently, but not always, include multiple nested clauses, it occurred to me that using my own prose to test BFPTs was not entirely fair. So I found some relatively simple questions involving poker and carried out BFPTs through various languages. The original questions in English and the BFPT results are presented below.

Some critical questions when playing poker: How big are the blinds? At what level do the antes kick in? How often should I defend my blinds? How do I build my chip stack? Who is the chip leader at the table? Are my opponents good poker players?

BFPT via German:

Some critical questions, if stirring up hook is played: Are the curtains as large? On which level does the Antes step inside? How often should I mean curtains to defend? How establish do I mean splinter piles? Who is the splinter leader at the table? Are my competitors good stirring up hook players?

BFPT via French:

Some critical questions while playing poker: How much large are the lamp-shade? To which level the settings do give a kick inside? How much times I should defend my lamp-shade? How I build my pile of piece? Who is the chief of piece to the table? Are my adversaries good players of poker?

BFPT via Italian:

Some critical questions when they play mace: How much large they are the blind people? To that level the advance payments gives of soccer within? Every how much time I would have to defend my blind people? How I construct my battery of the integrated circuit? Who is the head of the integrated circuit to the table? Are my adversaries good players of mace?

All of this raises a troubling issue. I coach poker players many of whom have first languages other than English. When I tell them "stealing the blinds allows you to add poker chips to your stack" do they instead hear one of the following BPFTs?

To steal the blind people allows that you add the integrated circuits of mace to your battery.

Theft of the curtains permits you to add stirring up hook splinters to your pile.

The flight of the lamp-shade allows you to add pieces of poker to your pile.

Stealing the zonneblinden permits you add pookspaanders to your battery.

The theft of blinds allows in you in order to adds the chips poker in your pile.

That you steal blind, it makes that the tip/chip for the poker is added to your accumulation possible.

To steal the curtains allows that you add chips of póquer its stack.

To steal shutters makes possible for you to add to [oblomoki] of poker to your stack.

I should emphasize that my research into BFPTs is in its early stages and I have few conclusions at this point. With a sufficiently large Federal grant I would be prepared to devote myself to this project. However, it is my personal feeling that anyone attempting to apply BFPTs to Omaha terminology should be discouraged. Asking Babel Fish to get its gums around "a nut low draw with an inside wheel wrap and twin backdoor flush draws" strikes me as cruel and unusual punishment.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Small Sue's Pet Raccoon

In addition to playing poker I am also a moderator at a poker forum. The duties are minimal. Occasionally I use my powers to ban someone for threatening to kill another forum member or for posting naked pictures of my step sister. Other than that my main role is to assist new members in finding their way around the site and to provide input on poker theory.

A new member signed up today. "Small Sue." She claims to be from Arkansas and 4'7" tall which certainly qualifies as small. It is of course quite possible that she is lying. I am sure I am not the only one who has carried out a long and flirtatious cyber-relationship only to discover that Anna-the-exotic-dancer from Newport is actually Sully-the-lobster-fisherman from Bangor. However, someone claiming to be extremely short didn't strike me as a security threat to the forum so I approved her request to join.

A couple of hours later the conversation appended below occurred in the forum shoutbox. I have left the original text unedited since I think it is necessary to fully appreciate the episode and apologize if this makes the conversation difficult to follow in places. I don't know if Small Sue is severely dyslexic, typing whilst wearing mittens, or simply lacking in a formal education. I do not judge, I merely reproduce the text below.

Small Sue: hello?

Small Sue: anyon hree?

Small Sue: i gota pitcher

Small Sue: cn smoone hlp?

Feline 9ine: hi sue

Small Sue: i gt a picrur

Small Sue: i wanna pos tit

Feline 9ine: that's fine we have a board for pictures - go to 'Lounge' then 'The Real Me'

Small Sue: it aint of me ist f risky

Small Sue: ricy

Small Sue: ricky

Feline 9ine: our software won't mind you can go ahead and post it

Small Sue: his mty racoon

Small Sue: pet

Small Sue: how od i post a pitchr?

Feline 9ine: click 'New Topic' then when the composition box comes up click 'additional options.' then follow the instructions for uploads

Small Sue: ths is cunfusrng

Feline 9ine: okay this picture of risky is on your puter, yeah?

Small Sue: is nmae is ricky

Feline 9ine: my sincere apologies, ricky

Small Sue: so how do ip ost it? im not grate wth cumptures

Count Stackula: hey 9ine can you tran me 3 bills at Stars for Tilt dollas?

Feline 9ine: sure

Count Stackula: no rush u can take care of this raccoon issue first - thx m8

Feline 9ine: np, gl

Small Sue: [pl[53

Small Sue: qwewrfas

Small Sue: ,.

Feline 9ine: sue?

Small Sue: helol

Feline 9ine: ricky get on your keyboard?

Small Sue: no it fall on th thing nd we had to relaees ricky e got rael frsky chewd joes pole and riggl

Small Sue: but he wulds dyed withuot us th tree he was in com down nd is momma and the othre babies dyed so i nerly calld im lukcy but as ym sis says it aint rela lucky when yur famly all dyes in a axcident

Feline 9ine: is there anyone there who helps you with the puter?

Small Sue: yeh my husbnd joe

Feline 9ine: ok why don't you get joe and i'll explain the upload to him

Small Sue: his in iduhoe

Feline 9ine: Idaho?

Small Sue: yeah idaho sry iam so so allurtrat it aint funyn

Feline 9ine: i beg to differ but let's not lose sight of your raccoon - i have a plan B

Small Sue: his a turcker joe is taht is why he aint hear his in idaho

Small Sue: big 17-weeler

Small Sue: q8

Small Sue: 18

Feline 9ine: sue do you know how to use e-mail?

Small Sue: yeh im not sutpid

Feline 9ine: i didn't mean to imply - look - just e-mail it to me at feline9ine@sunmail i'll handle it from there

Small Sue: who do i do taht?

Feline 9ine: ok compose a e/m to me, then do you see a little paper clip above the place where you type?

Small Sue: yeh

Feline 9ine: click that then it'll ask you what you wanna upload and you choose the picture

At this juncture there was a ten minute pause during which time several
IM boxes on my computer popped up with forum members inquiring whether this was an elaborate hoax. Then the picture of Ricky Raccoon arrived. While there are raccoons living in my neighborhood I've never seen one up close and have always had a cartoon image of them. A sort of cross between a panda and a kitten. The reality took me by surprise.

Small Sue: i thnik i done it

Small Sue: did yu gte it?

Feline 9ine: success!

Small Sue: THANK U ! wear is it on teh frum?

Feline 9ine: just a sec, uploading now

Feline 9ine: okay sue go to the 'The Real Me' board you were at before and you'll see a new link

Feline 9ine: i've titled it 'Small Sue's Raccoon'

Feline 9ine: i guess we should be thankful that you didn't rescue a beaver

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Door Number AA23 double-suited

Here in the Free State of Kansas we are experiencing "Spring." It's a petulant season. Within the last ten days we've had a severe thunderstorm, freezing rain, an afternoon of cloudless skies and a slight breeze ruffling the daffodils as the temperature hovered in the mid-very-nice-indeeds, and graupel. That's not a typo whatever Microslush tells you. 'Graupel' is a real form of frozen precipitation invented in Germany.

Fortunately I slept through it.

I had no choice. PokerStars has seen fit to entertain the poker world with its Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP) and since playing poker is my only means of providing my cats with kibbles and me with boots I was compelled to participate. Work all night and sleep all day or have howling moggies and wear sandals.

I've tried the other kind of working and frankly it didn't suit my constitution. For a while I was a university professor. Then I had an epiphany. I realized that if I was going to earn my living exploiting the mathematical ineptitude of others I could either continue teaching or devote my considerable intellect to the Holy Game of Poker. I compared the office facilities associated with the two options.

Behind door number 1: A computer, a carpet stained with undrinkable state university coffee, a suicide note, a phone that never stops ringing ("Professor... um... yeah it's Shannon... in your class... er... Astrology? Sorry Astronomy. Yeah that. Okay so about the mid-term. I really wanted to be there cos, like, I studied all the material and even bought the book. You wrote that, huh? Wow. Heh. Um. Yeah... Oh! So, you know the Red Lobster on 59th Street? Yeah, next to the..." CLICK), mounds of ungraded papers, invitations from Deans and Vice Provosts to attend "Working Breakfasts! Let us enrich you so you can enrich your students!"

Behind door number 2: cocktail waitresses with fake tits and free drinks, people who are bad at math who came here of their own volition and not because of a university Gen Ed requirement, bathrooms that always have enough paper towels and that are free from the angry scrawl of students who just failed my class and see fit to describe in fourth-grade handwriting and grammar their theories about how I am gay and/or nailing that girl in the front row in the denim miniskirt that they wanted to nail but never got anywhere because the girl in question found them indistinguishable from all the other terminally dull guys in baseball caps and sweatshirts, and... oh yes, sorry, I digressed. Behind door number 2: POKER.

The odd thing about this decision, particularly given that I never did nail the girl in the front row in the denim miniskirt, was that it took me more than thirty seconds to decide on door number 2.

Doors, like Omaha-8, are notable for their bidirectionality. They allow the passage of bipeds, quadrupeds, thoughts, smells, bills, food, drink, and bowheads, both in and out. If a door ever runs for the office of President of the United States of America this apparent intrinsic ambivalence will doubtless be characterized as "flip-flopping" by Fox News. And the door that led me to Poker is no exception. In future blogs I will describe the adventures that commenced as I walked through that door, those that I had thought had ended but were in fact just resting, and adventures that have not yet begun.