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.