February 28, 2010

Joining the Hive

"You will be assimilated."

The Borg, "Star Trek: The Next Generation"
Friday night I played a short session at The Meadows ATM.  It was one of those sessions where you feel like you never do anything right.  My first hand, I have Presto and turn a 5 for a nice pot before my chips even reach the table.  But then, my stack got flushed.  Literally.  I ran top two pair, two straights, and a baby flush into flushes, which is not a particularly profitable approach to the game.  Thankfully, my Spidey sense kept my losses somewhat limited.  The pickle on the sh*t sandwich that was my session was when I flopped an OESD with 64s on a board of 5-3-3.  I bet the flop and got a call from an uber-tight player.  Turn is a 7.  Donkey Kong!  I bet, he calls.  River is a blank, so I push my last $100 into the $400 pot.  He reluctantly calls with ... 73s, and says, "I was worried you had pocket 5s again."  I wish.

I headed home to watch some Olympics with the puppy in bed.  I fell asleep around 3:00 am, and I woke up around 5:00 am and heard Berkeley on the floor, chewing something.  Turns out it was several somethings:  a toothbrush, a razor, and ... my BlackBerry.  All were in pretty sad condition:

Puppy Chew Toy

As an amusing touch, I checked the still-functioning BlackBerry later in the day, and discovered Berkeley had somehow managed to call one of my friends at 3:38 a.m. and leave a six minute voicemail message, presumably of him chewing and slobbering, but who knows, maybe he barked something insightful.  I suspect my buddy was passed out and never heard the phone, or more amusingly, was perhaps drunk and thought he was getting a steamy booty call.

So yesterday I had to venture out in search of a new phone.  Since I have AT&T coverage (the sig other has an iPhone), my options were somewhat limited.  After some online research, I narrowed my choices down to a couple of BlackBerrys.  But the A&T store at the mall across the street only had one of the models I was interested in, and no staff interested in helping me.  So, I headed up the street to Best Buy.  Turns out they were running a special deal for their Rewards Zone members, where a 16GB iPhone 3GS was going for only $99.  So, I went with the iPhone.  It took about 30 minutes for the staff to set me up.  I left and went to make a call in my car when I discovered the phone was not in the box!  Hmmm, awkward.  I was heading back into the store when I ran into the salesperson who had assisted me, running out to the parking lot with my phone.

Anyway, I've been hearing iPhone users rave about their phones for several years now, and it always seemed a little over the top, like those too cheerful cult members passing out propaganda on the street corner.  Well, in less than 24 hours, I've joined the iPhone cult.  The dang thing is just ... slick.  The touchscreen is huge compared to the BlackBerry.  The interface is incredibly intuitive; no guessing where settings are located as with the BlackBerry.  Applications (pardon me, "apps") are easy to find, quick to download, and a snap to install.  I've added four apps so far, and none of them took longer than 2-3 minutes total to find and install.

Among the apps I've installed are a free Blogger app (BlogPressLite) that will let me update my blog on the go. I also added a free Google app that will let me access my documents and other Google programs quickly.  But, my new favorite app is TweetDeck, which is a huge improvement over the Twitter app I was using on my BlackBerry.  TweetDeck took less than a minute to install, as opposed to the BlackBerry where installing a Twitter app required me to find it on the internet, download it, then endure a complicated set up procedure.  TweetDeck is also a great app since it allows me to set up different "columns" or groups/categories of people to follow.  This enables me to follow the Ironmen separately, for example.  Just from browsing the app store, I fully expect I will downloading apps for days, like a puppy looking for treats.  Just so my iPhone doesn't become a puppy treat ...

For those of you losers out there who don't have iPhones, go get one!  Now!
"Resistance is futile!"

February 26, 2010

Will the Hawkeye State Go All-In with Online Poker?

The Des Moines Register today reported that Iowa lawmakers are drafting a bill that would legalize online poker for Iowa residents.  According to the report:

The idea would allow people to deposit between $50 and $500 into a special account at one of Iowa’s casinos. That account could then be used to play poker online. The restriction, however, is that the person would have to play on a computer that is using an Iowa Internet address.

Playing outside of the state would be prohibited.

—"Iowa Lawmakers Considering Online Gambling" by Jason Clayworth (Des Moines Register, Feb. 26, 2010).

From this description, it appears that lawmakers envision Iowans being able to play on currently established poker sites, rather than having Iowa casinos set up their own online sites.*  Presumably, the state would require online sites doing business with Iowa residents to comply with regulations regarding deposits and withdrawals of funds, monitoring for cheating, payment and reporting of taxes, and prevention of underage gambling.

One interesting implication of the proposal is that by legalizing online poker in the state, presumably Iowa residents could also make online deposits of funds which would be legal under the UIGEA.  However, the proposal also calls for deposits to be made at local casinos.  This in-person deposit rule likely is intended both to prevent underage gambling and to ensure proper accounting for taxes and fees to be collected by the state.  As a practical matter, the proliferation of casinos in Iowa the past decade means no Iowa resident is much more than an hour's drive from a casino, so the lack of ability to deposit money online would be more annoyance than obstacle for players.

A potential problem for Iowa's online poker players is that the explicit legalization and regulation of online poker would likely mean that any online poker outside the state-approved system would be deemed illegal.  I suspect the state would assert that online poker is currently illegal in the state, but the existence of a legal state-approved system would remove any potential ambiguity about the legality of unregulated online poker play.  Also, based on a recent Iowa supreme court decision, it would appear that any unregulated online poker playing would leave players without any legal recourse if they should have a dispute about cheating or withdrawal of funds, since playing on an unregulated online poker site would be be deemed illegal wagering outside the state-approved gaming system.

This proposal offers Iowa online poker players both positives and negatives.  The positives would include making online poker a clearly legal activity, instead of letting it occur in a legally nebulous gray zone.  Online poker would also be subject to regulation and oversight, particuarly important in light of the Absolute Poker / Ultimate Bet scandals, as well as more garden variety glitches like awarding a pot to the wrong player.  Players would have a legal mechanism within the state to enforce their rights if they were victims of cheating, or had other disputes with the online poker sites.  Players would also be ensured a fairly easy, convenient, and secure method of depositing and withdrawing money.

On the other hand, the negatives would include forcing Iowa poker players to play online poker pursuant to the state's rules, or not at all.  It is doubtful any reputable online poker site would risk doing business with Iowa players outside the state-regulated system.  Also, with legalization and regulation comes their red-headed stepchild—taxation.  Iowa online poker players who currently play with little or no concern for tax issues would find it impossible to avoid paying income tax on online poker profits, not to mention incurring the nearly inevitable fees for setting up and maintaining an account (after all, that handy regulation doesn't come for free). 

The most interesting implication for legalization of online poker is whether the state would eventually legalize other forms of online gaming.  For example, Iowa does not permit sports wagering, yet personal experience tells me plenty of Iowans love to put a little money down on the occasional game.  Letting Iowans place sports wagers with online sportsbooks—subject to regulation, of course—would seem a natural extension of online gaming.  Given the fairly rapid evolution of legalized gaming in the state over less than 20 years—horse racing led to lotteries, which led to slots, which led to table games—the logical question is how long would it be before Iowa allows residents to play blackjack, craps, or slots online?

Nonetheless, all things considered, a state-regulated system permitting online poker playing is a net gain for Iowa poker players.  Also, given the state's budget problems along with the popularity of online poker and the general acceptance of gambling within the state, some form of regulation and taxation is almost inevitable for online poker.  If legalization of online poker doesn't happen first in Iowa, it almost certainly will occur within the next couple of years in another state (perhaps California), which will start a cascade of other states following suit.  Iowa might as well be the first state to go all-in with online poker.

* None of Iowa's current casinos would likely have the interest or the resources to set up an online poker site, other than the Horseshoe in Council Bluffs (across the river from Omaha, for my non-Midwestern readers).  The Horseshoe is part of the Harrah's family of casinos, and there have been indications that Harrah's has long-term plans to set up an online gaming network.

February 25, 2010

IMOP-V: Git Yer Programs Here!

As some of you may have noticed, I have added some new pages to the blog to provide Ironman of Poker (IMOP) information. By popular demand, we now offer around the clock access to general IMOP information, Ironman bios, and details about the upcoming IMOP-V.

IMOP-V: A Wolfpack of 12 kicks off next Thursday, March 4.  Check out the IMOP-V page for tournaments, events, scoring, and a first-ever behind the scenes look into the infamous Ironman Prop Bet sheet.

A couple of tilt-a-riffic events worth noting:

2/4 War:  One member from each team will play 2/4 LHE using the "no check, no call" rule.  It's non-stop action with mandatory bet/raise/fold options.  Sure to tilt some nits.

"I Put You On Aces":  Bonus points for saying this to someone while stacking a $100+ pot.  (I may have suggested this one to Santa ...).

No IMOP in history has carried this great a risk of physical violence (Santa has set odds at 15/1 on the official prop bet sheet).  Hilarity is guaranteed to ensue, or double your money back!

February 22, 2010

Poker Odds & Ends

While I work on creating a few pages for Ironman of Poker information, I’m skipping a regular blog post for the day. Instead, I’ll share a few random items of note from recent sessions at Riverside ATM and the Meadows ATM.

* * * * *

At Riverside, I watched a 2/5 NLHE table while waiting for a seat. This was the main game with a must-move feeder game. There was easily $15K to $20K in play, more than I’ve seen on any 2/5 NL table. By the chatter, the game was filled mostly with regulars who weren’t afraid to put a lot of chips into play, running big plays, and calling down light (often correctly). One hand, there was a $10 straddle, a raise in early position to $60, and five callers. The flop came down J-J-x, and after a bet, a raise, and a push all-in, everyone folded to the all-in raiser who tabled J2o as he raked the pot. From the chatter, this seemed to be a typical hand. Crazy.

* * * * *

Also at Riverside, I flopped a full house with K8s and stacked JJ. A couple of hands later, I play 64o for a raise OTB and again flop a full house. Donkey Kong!

* * * * *

At the Meadows ATM, someone jokingly suggested giving up poker for Lent. An older regular player said, “Jesus wants me to play poker. My priest just gave a sermon about being fishers of men.”

* * * * *

My string of winning sessions at the Meadows ATM came to a crashing halt this weekend. I built up a nice stack with a great hero call for a $250 profit, but gave it back plus a couple of buy-ins when I ran a flopped second nut straight into the nut straight, a flopped flush into a bigger flush, top two pair into a rivered straight, and pushing with a pair plus straight draw against TT and … TT, and blanking out. Eh. Such is statistical variance.

* * * * *

February 21, 2010

The Hole-y See

Twice in the past two weeks I have encountered a poker etiquette situation that is easily among my Top 5 poker pet peeves (in case you’re curious, I’ve added a sidebar devoted to my poker pet peeves). Although I’m generally an easy going guy at the poker table and let things roll off my back, this particular breach of etiquette is one that irks me enough that I have started speaking up when it occurs.

In both situations, I have been involved in a big pot. In both cases, there were three of us going all-in for substantial amounts on the flop. In both cases, I put my money in knowing I was behind top pair or an overpair, but getting good odds for a call—in one case, I had straight and flush draws, and in the other I had top pair and an open-ended straight draw. In both cases, my draws blanked, and I mucked immediately after the winner tabled his hand.

Of course, in both cases, the same thing happens. Some yahoo who folded preflop pipes up, “I want to see his hand!” pointing to my mucked cards. Slowroll me, Hollywood me, celebrate like Hevad Khan, even berate me for my bad play, and I’ll rarely give any reaction other than a smile (and maybe a sarcastic needling remark later at an opportune moment). But if you aren’t in a hand and ask to see my cards, well, this is one situation where I’ve decided to draw the line. In both cases, the conversation went roughly the same:

Yahoo:  “I want to see his hand.”

Me:  “Are you accusing me of cheating?”

Yahoo [confused]:  “No. I just want to see your hand.”

Me:  “I know you want to see my hand. You weren’t in the hand, so the only reason to ask is if you are accusing me of collusion.”

Yahoo:  “No, no. I just want to see what you called with.”

Me:  “If you weren’t in the hand, the only good reason to ask to see my hand is if you think I’m cheating. So, go ahead. If you think I was cheating, ask to see my hand.”

Yahoo:  “I just want to see your cards.”

Me:  “I know you want to see my cards. And it’s rude.”

Of course, both times they persisted and the dealer—correctly—showed my hand. Under the most common poker rules, any called hand may be shown at the request of any player. Some poker rooms limit the right to those in the hand, or upon a valid basis for suspecting collusion (two players betting big with marginal holdings to force out a third, better hand). In one case, the requester was a regular player who later apologized. In the other case, the player spent the next three hours muttering non-stop about “etiquette” every time he was involved in a showdown. I guess rules-tilt is appropriate karmic justice.

Although asking to see a called hand is within the rules, doing so when not in a hand and solely to gain information is widely regarded as poor poker etiquette. As with many poker rules, there is a fairly obvious line between proper use and abusive misuse of the called hand rule. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do so. Not surprisingly, my friend the Poker Grump, poker etiquette maven extraordinaire, has already discussed this issue. The Grump helpfully pointed to a longer article on the subject, which I think summarizes the situation nicely:

Players abuse the called-hand rule because they want to know what cards a player had. The original reason for the rule was to prevent collusion. If two players raised back and forth and drove another player out of the pot, other players at the end had the right to see the losing hand to make sure that that hand was actually a legitimate holding, and not an unfair ploy by players who presumably would split their winnings later. Even though the rules permit requesting any called hand to be shown, you'll find that in public cardrooms, players rarely ask. Doing so is often considered a breach of poker etiquette. It's easy online. At the end of any hand in which you had cards, you can just click on the button that presents the hand history. No one knows that you looked. In live play, though, you'll soon make a nuisance of yourself and annoy the others at your table if you keep asking. Reserve doing so for a hand in which you had demonstrable interest, such as one in which you were driven out by a large bet on the river and the winning hand is worse than yours and you want to see if you had the bettor beat. And even then, exercise your right sparingly.

—Michael Wiesenberg, “Rules of the Game: Part VIII—Called hands” (Cardplayer.com, June 11, 2008) (emphasis added).

Remember, curiosity killed the cat. Asking to see my mucked hand merely gets you tasered.

February 19, 2010

Wine & Whine O' the Week (v. 1.6)

Last weekend, I played a short session at the Meadows ATM. Two buddies (BFF#1 and BFF#2) joined the game, talking a lot about their home game, the WSOP, and other poker talk. Already in the game was a good LAG player, “Action Jackson”. Anyway, I was looking to get into pots with AJ, when BFF#1 pushed his short stack over the top of AJ’s raise for a total of $70. AJ called, so I called OTB with Td8d. We check the flop and turn, and I catch a Ten on the river to win the pot. BFF#1 whined about my preflop call a bit, then wandered out to find an ATM (the machine, not the player).

A little later, I felted BFF#2 when he slowplayed and overplayed KK, letting me flop altos dos pairs with Q9o to stack him for $350 (including his shove into me on the river with just KK for $200 after I checked to him). A few hands later, BFF#1 raises preflop, and AJ calls, so I call with 8d6d in the cutoff. Flop is T-T-9 rainbow. Checks to me, so I bet 2/3 pot, and BFF#1 calls. Turn is a 7. Donkey Kong! BFF#1 checks to me, I bet, he pushes, I snap-call. Yup, BFF#1 has KK! BFF#1 looks at my hand and says, “You called with that? You must love your diamonds, huh?” before tilting off into the night.

Well, yes, I do love my diamonds—at least the Francis Ford Coppola Winery "Diamond Collection" of wines. The Diamond Series is a group of wines in the $15-$20 price range, offering good value for the quality. Perhaps the most unusual offering is the Alicante Bouschet Magenta Label 2007, an "off the beaten path" red grape varietal related to Grenache, but with both red skin and red flesh. It tends to make inky, deep red wines that are surprisingly lighter in taste than the color might indicate. Flavors tend toward cranberry sauce and strawberry jam, with a note of cinnamon in the background. Pairs well with pizza and red-sauced pastas.

Tiger & the Flying Pig

"Tigers love pepper. They hate cinnamon."

—Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis), "The Hangover"

Hmmm, I wonder if Tiger ever met an exotic dancer named Cinnamon? ...

Anyway, the Tiger Woods kabuki theatre continued today with Act III—The Public Apology. The sports media is now abuzz with varying critiques of Tiger’s performance:

Was he sincere enough?
Did he sound genuine or scripted?
Should he have looked at the camera more?
Did he get all of his lines right?
Did he apologize to all the right people?
Why wouldn’t he answer questions?

On many levels, I don’t give a flying pig about the Tiger “scandal”. To me, Tiger is a great golfer, nothing more, nothing less. Tiger is not a role model. I don’t buy or do anything because he endorses a product or service. I don’t know Tiger, and nothing he’s done has affected me personally, so he certainly doesn’t owe me any explanation or apology. My only expectation from Tiger is the chance for a thrilling round of golf on the weekend of a golf major, with maybe a breathtaking shot or two thrown in.

Frankly, I’m baffled. Why is America so obsessed with this story? Tiger is not the only athlete to exhibit an inflated ego and sense of entitlement; in fact, an outsized ego seems almost de rigueur for professional athletes. Tiger is not the first, nor will he be the last athlete to succumb to the temptations of his wealth and fame, whether those temptations are women, booze, drugs, or gambling. Really, the media is intoxicated on the heady brew of an overly self-righteous sense of judgment, cashing in on America’s favorite pastime—schadenfreude of the rich and famous.

It is indisputable that Tiger’s womanizing was wildly inappropriate and incredibly hurtful to his family. But, Tiger didn’t commit a crime, nor did he betray a public trust. So, how does his rakish behavior affect anyone other than his family? Why do we in the public need to know how many women, whether they have pictures or tapes, and the intimate details of how they hooked up? Why does the public in general and the sports media in particular feel entitled to know everything that happened, and assert the right to judge whether Tiger is handling the situation correctly?

At the end of the day, this entire sordid situation reflects poorly on Tiger’s character, but it is irrelevant to his ability to play golf. So enough with the media coverage. Let Tiger deal with the situation in private, with his wife and family. Only Tiger’s wife can judge whether Tiger is truly remorseful, and decide whether their marriage can be salvaged. The sports media and the public need to move along and stop rubbernecking at the Tiger train wreck.

February 18, 2010

Yo-Yo Olympics

"I am the Seventh Degree Imperial Yo-Yo Master. 'Ooh, do me, Yo-Yo Master, I want you to do me cause you're the yo-yo guy!' "

—Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell), "The 40 Year Old Virgin"
I played a short session at the Meadows ATM today, and during most of my session, the TVs were tuned to the Olympic curling competition. Now, curling is the ice version of drunken bocce ball, so it really isn't all that exciting of a sport. It's interesting in that vague, "oh yeah, people play this weird game" fashion that hits every Olympics for a handful of events—equestrian, rhythmic gymnastics, synchronized swimming. But what was downright bizarre was not the competition itself, but the commentary from a surprising number of people at my table and the tables near me (not to mention a dozen or so random folks I follow on Twitter). These guys, who I'm willing to lay odds have never played nor even watched curling before this week, were commenting on strategy, shot selection, and even technique. Let's just say when a bunch of Iowa beer-bellied couch potatoes can figure out your "sport" in a day or two without ever even playing it, you're barely one step removed from a company rec league softball team.

Now, I'm not interested in the pseudo-debate over whether a particular game or activity qualifies as a "sport"—those arguments generally devolve into a definitional analysis, where those on either side of a debate over a particular game define "sport" to include/exclude the game at issue in accordance with their pre-determined position. But I think curling lacks any serious "athletic" component, a quality I feel is critical to elevating a sport to Olympic status. Say what you will about the many "niche" sports featured in the Olympics, almost all of them require some extraordinary athletic talent—speed, strength, coordination, agility, and/or endurance displayed in some manner that causes excitement and amazement. True Olympic sports at some point create a "wow" factor when a competitor does something physically amazing.

But what is the athletic component for curling? Curling is merely people sliding stones on ice, and brushing the ice to control the path of the stone. Sure, the game requires strategy, but the athletic skills necessary for the sport appear minimal—in fact, several competitors looked as if they would keel over if asked to jog a mile. What athletic skill elevates curling from a recreational game to a true Olympic-caliber sport?

If curling qualifies as an Olympic sport, let me suggest a few additional sports that should be added to the Olympics:

  • Billiards
  • Bowling
  • Bocce ball
  • Broomball
  • Croquet
  • Darts
  • Guitar Hero
  • Horseshoes
  • Poker
  • Shuffleboard
  • Ultimate Frisbee
  • Wii
  • Yo-yo
Now, I'm sure that curling is an entertaining pastime for those who enjoy fun in the cold. I'm sure that many curlers are athletic. But let's be honest—curling just isn't in the same athletic league as speedskating or snowboarding. Let's showcase some real athletes instead. Bring on the ice dancers!

February 16, 2010

Getting Skinny on Fat Tuesday

“It’s funny ‘cause he’s fat!”
—Mr. Chow in “The Hangover”

With Mardi Gras—Fat Tuesday—upon us again, I found it rather ironic that Kevin Smith—director of such classic movies as Clerks—was in the news this past weekend after being deemed too fat to fly by Southwest Airlines. Smith Tweeted the entire experience, including several epic sarcastic rants against Southwest. My favorite Tweet occurred after Smith was allowed to fly on another Southwest flight:

“Hey @SouthwestAir! I've landed in Burbank. Don't worry: wall of the plane was opened & I was airlifted out while Richard Simmons supervised.”
—@thatkevinsmith (Feb. 14, 2010)

Now, airlines on occasion may have a valid reason to restrict service to passengers whose size unduly imposes on the safety or comfort of other passengers. But it seems like Southwest Airlines was out of line in this particular situation.

In many ways, as society has grown more tolerant and accepting, and overt discrimination based on gender, race, disability, and even sexual orientation has subsided, discrimination against the overweight and obese (or “fat people” to be blunt) is one of the few remaining socially acceptable prejudices.* Tasteless, even cruel, “fat jokes” are fair game for a quick laugh on TV or in the movies, while a joke based on gender or religion requires careful crafting to avoid offending viewers. Now, I’m not saying every fat joke is inappropriate; heck, as a gay man, I think there are plenty of gay jokes that are hilarious. Chris Rock has made a fortune with racially based humor. Notable comics like John Candy, Chris Farley, and Louie Anderson made entire careers out of playing up the lovable fat guy schtick.

When it comes to the overweight members of our society, however, I think there remains a stigma that overweight people are fat by choice. People see an overweight person and implicitly assume that that person could be a normal weight if only they ate healthier and worked out more. So, it’s easy to rationalize teasing them, mocking them, or even discriminating against them since, on some level, we assume it’s their own fault they are fat. Let me tell you, though, it’s not so simple.

I hit the genetic lottery in the weight department (though I definitely missed the Powerball in the looks department, but I digress). At 6’4”, I’ve always been a fairly thin to average build, weighing in at 185-195 pounds through most of my adult life. Now, I do work out regularly, but I can’t say that I’m a particularly healthy eater, with at least half of my meals being fast food or pizza. By contrast, my younger brother “Kurt” has always been into athletics as much as I have, regularly plays basketball, bikes, and snowboards, and has even run a marathon. He’s married, and he and his wife cook good, nutritious meals at home. Yet he carries an extra 70-80 pounds more than me. I know he could probably drop 30-40 pounds, but it is as unrealistic to expect him to be under 200 pounds as it is to expect me to marry a woman. He just is a bigger guy, and always will be.

Then there’s my older brother, “Steve”. Steve battled his weight most of his life, and it made him unhappy, though he rarely talked about it. At some point, he fell into a self-reinforcing cycle of staying home and not working out because he was embarrassed by his weight, and while alone at home, would eat more, leading to more weight gain and less chance for exercise (not to mention his weight itself inhibited working out due to the physical pain and discomfort). As his weight increased, Steve had trouble with tasks many of us take for granted—sitting down and standing up, getting into cars, finding a chair or booth at a restaurant that could accommodate him, picking up things off the floor, or even walking up a short flight of stairs or down a long hall. Then, three years ago, just before Christmas, Steve went to his doctor for what he thought was chronic bronchitis. The doctor was concerned about possible pneumonia, so he admitted Steve to the hospital for observation and testing. While in the hospital and awaiting test results, Steve unexpectedly died from a heart condition known as cor pulmonale. He was only 38 at the time. His weight was well north of 400 pounds.

Steve’s death has really reinforced for me the need to do what I can to maintain a healthy weight. The past few months, the winter weather has kept me from running my usual amount, and I’ve packed on 10 or so extra pounds, creeping over the 200 pound mark for the first time in years. Now, at age 40, I’m probably never going to be back to my prime “fighting weight” of 185 like I was in my 20s to mid-30s. But I need to make an effort to do what I can to control my weight. So, even though I do not give up anything for Lent (other than church), Fat Tuesday makes a good point to start a healthy weight loss program. Starting tomorrow, I will get back to running five to seven miles a day at least five days a week, even if I have to join a gym to do so. I will also cut out alcohol until I get back to 195 pounds; that is the easiest way to cut empty calories (not to mention on days when I work out, I seem to drink a lot less alcohol). Hopefully I will be back under 200 pounds before IMOP in early March.

I’m fortunate that I have the genetic base to stay in a healthy weight zone if I make the effort. But for many overweight people, such as my brother, there are not a lot of plays for the genetic hand they were dealt. I'm not saying that overweight people should be excused from giving their best effort to be as healthy as they can.  Neither am I saying that people should never tell a fat joke, or that airlines or other businesses shouldn’t take weight into account for legitimate purposes, but they should try to do so with some measure of sensitivity and compassion. To perhaps create a cliché, fat people are people, too.

* Post-9/11, I would probably add bias against Muslims and/or people of Middle Eastern descent to the list of “socially acceptable prejudices” in mainstream America.

February 15, 2010

Between a Rock (of Gibraltar) and a Hard Place

“Not my problem.”
—Mr. Chow in “The Hangover”
In poker, a “rock” is a tight player who plays few hands, and when his money goes in the pot, he almost certainly knows he is the winner. When it comes to law, online poker sites may as well be “rocks”, knowing they are unlikely to lose if they ever get drug into court.

Pokerati today reported on a recent Poker Player (2/1/10 edition) article in which I. Nelson Rose analyzed a recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision related to online poker disputes. The decision in Wong v. PartyGaming, Ltd., arose from a claim by two Ohio residents that Party Poker had failed to prevent collusion as promised in its advertising and terms of service. The plaintiffs sought damages for themselves, as well as class-action certification to pursue damages on behalf of other alleged victims of collusion (class action suits are commonly sought where individuals may have suffered small amounts of damages individually, but significant damages in the aggregate).

The court, however, affirmed the dismissal of the lawsuit without considering the merits of the plaintiffs’ collusion claims, or even permitting discovery to determine if the claims had any merit. Instead, the court held that the lawsuit could not be pursued in the United States, but instead could only be pursued in Gibraltar (an island at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea that is an autonomous British territory). The basis for the court’s ruling was that the plaintiffs, like all Party Poker players, had assented to a terms of service agreement that contained a choice of forum provision, designating Gibraltar’s courts as the sole place to adjudicate claims against PartyGaming, Ltd. If you spend any significant time online, you have probably clicked on and “agreed” to any number of similar terms of service agreements, likely without even bothering to read them, nor caring much what they said even if you browsed the terms. They are what the law refers to as a “contract of adhesion”—a “take it or leave it” proposal where the user generally needs (or greatly desires) the service being offered, yet is powerless to negotiate different terms. The federal courts are generally willing to enforce these types of agreements, particularly with respect to choice of forum, choice of law, and mandatory binding arbitration clauses, all of which generally favor the company providing the service in question.

The court’s decision to enforce the choice of forum clause is not particularly surprising. What was rather unexpected was the concurring opinion by Judge Merritt, whose primary purpose for writing separately was to point out that the underlying contractual relationship between the parties was for wagering in violation of Ohio law:

[T]he gambling contract entered into between the parties here is likely illegal in Ohio but completely legal in Gibraltar. If we read Ohio law as controlling the contract in question, the parties probably are guilty of a crime under Ohio law, the contract is void, and both parties could be extradited and prosecuted together in an Ohio criminal court.

Surely the parties assumed that if the plaintiff won at gambling, the plaintiff would get some money and if the plaintiff lost, the winner and the house would split the winnings. So when the plaintiff comes into court and says he wants money in an Ohio court under what he regards as an Ohio contract, but does not want the Ohio court to say that under the governing Ohio law the gambling contract is illegal, the plaintiff is a bit inconsistent in his logic, to say the least.

Wong v. PartyGaming, Ltd., (Merritt, J., concurring).
The concurring opinion goes on to note that PartyGaming has withdrawn from the U.S. market because the passage of the UIGEA in 2006 outlawed internet gambling, thereby bringing federal criminal charges into play, including possible wire fraud and RICO racketeering violations. Thus, the concurring opinion reasoned that another policy basis for enforcing the choice of forum provision was to insulate the parties from criminal prosecution in the Unites States, and instead requiring the parties to litigate their claims in a forum where their online gambling activities were unquestionably legal.

So, what does this all mean for the average American online poker player? First and foremost, it reinforces the difficulty in obtaining legal remedies in the event of a dispute with an online poker site. If an American poker player feels that he has suffered from cheating (such as the Absolute Poker / UltimateBet “superuser” scandal), has a dispute with a poker site regarding a hand or his account, or even encounters difficulty in removing funds from a site, that player will likely be unable to pursue any claim against the online site in a United States court. This means the player would likely need to pursue the claim in a foreign country, often a country with a vested interest in protecting a valuable tax-paying corporation based in that country. Pursuing a claim in a foreign country also requires investment of time and expense beyond that which would be required to pursue legal proceedings in the United States. Even if a judgment can be obtained in such a foreign venue, enforcing that judgment will be difficult, as most online poker sites will have no assets in the United States. In other words, as a practical matter, unless the amount in question is significant, the typical American poker player will simply be better off eating the loss and not pursuing any legal action against the poker site.

As a further complication, American online poker players in states where poker is offered in casinos likely will have less standing to pursue claims against online poker sites than in states that do not license poker in casinos, and merely have a generic law against gambling on “games of chance”. Take, for example, my home state of Iowa. A recent Iowa supreme court decision (discussed in a prior post) held that only gambling wagers made pursuant to Iowa statute or regulation were enforceable; all other gambling contracts were illegal and void (or voidable). Because Iowa’s regulations specifically permit poker in casinos subject to meeting certain requirements, it is likely that any poker wagers occurring in Iowa but not in a licensed casino would be regarded as illegal wagers. Similar arguments likely apply in any other state that permits but regulates poker as a game of chance to be offered in a casino setting. By contrast, in a state that does not permit gambling on games of chance and is silent as to poker specifically, a colorable argument can be made that poker is a game of skill that falls outside the state ban on gambling. In such a case, an online poker player would stand a significantly better chance of prevailing on a state court claim against an online poker site, insofar as the illegality of the poker wagering would not be a foregone conclusion.

In short, if you are an online poker player, beware of the limitations on your ability to obtain legal relief in the event of a problem with your online poker site of choice. You can limit your risk by only playing on well-established and highly visible sites doing substantial business in the U.S. Even though those companies may be legally immune from lawsuits in the U.S., they will likely want to treat their players with a high degree of fairness so as to avoid negative publicity. Hopefully the legality of online poker can be clarified in the near future by amendments to UIGEA and/or further regulations by various states. But in the meantime, online poker players need to adhere to a live action poker maxim—protect your own hand.

February 14, 2010

Wine & Whine O' the Week (v. 1.5)

Recently, I watched a regular maniac bust a young kid's Kings with deuce-trey soooted, flopping trips and turning a boat. The kid storms away in disgust, fuming, “That’s just a dirt hand! All you play is dirt!”

Although wine should never taste like dirt, many good pinot noirs have a certain earthy quality, hinting of mushrooms in the background. One of my favorites is the Argyle Pinot Noir 2007, from Willamette Valley, Oregon (a leading pinot noir region). It has tasty red cherry and cranberry flavors, a hint of cinnamon, and vibrant acidity to let it pair well with most lighter meat dishes and heavier pastas. It would be perfect with a chicken and mushroom dish. But, like many pinots, it is delicate enough to enjoy alone as a sipping wine.

February 13, 2010

Iowa Casinos Win a Jackpot

The Iowa supreme court handed down an interesting decision Friday related to the Meadows ATM. The court’s decision in Blackford v. Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino, Inc. considered the question of whether a person who had been “trespassed” (permanently banned) from a casino, but later plays at the casino and wins a jackpot, is entitled to be paid the jackpot.

The timeline of relevant facts makes this a rather complicated situation:
  • August 1996—Blackford punches his hand through the glass front of a slot machine. He is ejected and advised he is permanently banned from the casino. He also pleads guilty to criminal mischief and is fined.
  • March 1998—Blackford is found on the casino premises, and is escorted from the building. He pleads guilty to trespass and is fined.
  • 2000—Blackford writes to Prairie Meadows to request his ban be lifted. It is contested whether the ban was lifted. Prairie Meadows has no written record of lifting the ban, while Blackford contends the ban was lifted by a letter (which he was not able to produce at time of trial).
  • January 2006—Blackford applies for and is issued a Prairie Meadows slot club card. He uses the card on at least one occasion between January and May 2006.
  • May 2006—Blackford wins $9,387, primarily through slot machine play, including a jackpot. Upon cashing out, the size of the jackpot required issuance of a W-2, at which time the casino discovered Blackford was banned. Blackford was taken to a security office, his winnings were confiscated, he was required to sign a form donating his winnings to a local gambling addiction treatment program, and finally he was charged with trespassing and released.
Backford filed suit to recover his winnings under a theory of conversion (intentionally depriving someone of property). At trial, a jury found that Blackford’s ban had not been lifted, and the trial court ruled this meant Blackford had no right to his winnings as no legal wagering contract had been formed between Blackford and the casino. The trial court was reversed on appeal by the Iowa court of appeals, which held that no statute or gaming regulation explicitly permitted confiscation of gambling winnings when the winner was subject to a permanent ban.

On further review by the Iowa supreme court, the court first looked at the casino’s right to permanently ban individuals from gambling at the casino. The court determined that gaming regulations permit a casino to “eject or exclude” a person from its premises literally for any reason whatsoever, so long as it is not based on a constitutionally protected classification (e.g., race, gender, national origin, or disability).

The court next looked at the effect of a ban on the ability of the banned person to wager at a casino. The court first noted that all gambling and wagering contracts are void unless authorized by statute. Further, even legally permissible casino wagers are subject to traditional contractual requirements of offer, acceptance, and consideration, as well as any terms or conditions imposed by statute or regulation. The court then examined the nature of the wagering contract and determined that the casino was only making a wagering “offer” to those persons who were legally able to gamble and who had not been banned from the casino. In other words, Blackford, subject to a permanent ban, could not reasonably have believed himself to have been among the group of individuals to whom the casino had extended its wagering offer. Because the casino never intended to extend a wagering offer to Blackford, there was no contract, and thus Blackford had no right to recover the confiscated winnings.

At first blush, the court’s decision is really rather straight forward. From a policy point of view, it is easy to side with the casino—if you get banned from a casino, don’t expect to get paid if you go back and gamble. There are also enforcement considerations in play, as it is unrealistic to expect a casino to be able to track every person gambling on its floor at a given time. It is inevitable, even with stellar security, for some banned or ineligible players to make it into the casino. When those players are discovered gambling in violation of the law, it is easy to conclude that a forfeiture of their winnings (if any) is an appropriate sanction.

However, a few troubling implications arise from this decision. First, it seems highly likely that Blackford wagered and lost on at least some of his bets during this session, and perhaps prior sessions. Now, if the court is correct that no wagering contract could arise between Blackford and the casino, then Blackford’s losing wagers were likewise not legally binding contracts. So, if the casino has no legal obligation to pay Blackford on his winning wagers, how can the casino legally keep his losing wagers? The court had no reason to address this issue, however, because Blackford never made a claim for refund of his lost wagers. The court did note that some legal authority suggests equitable rescission is an appropriate remedy for voiding illegal wagering contracts (resulting in a refund of the wager), but the New Jersey federal court case cited in the decision arose from a legal gambler who felt he had been improperly denied a slot jackpot. In a situation involving an illegal gambler—like Blackford—courts are much less likely to be sympathetic to a claim for equitable rescission of a contract. Nonetheless, it seems rather inconsistent to permit a casino to keep money won from illegal wagers, while not refunding money lost on illegal wagers—what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.

The second troubling implication of the court’s decision is that casinos seem to have little incentive to actively discourage banned patrons from returning to the casino and gambling again. If the banned player loses money, the casino keeps the money. If the player wins, the casino confiscates the winnings. It’s a win-win for the house. Now, it might be difficult to catch banned players at the entrance, but here, the player signed up for a slot players club card. In an industry that tracks gaming play to the nickel, it seems rather implausible that a casino would not cross-reference slot club applications against its banned players list. Even if the casino did not do so in this case, the capability to do so should place a responsibility on a casino to take reasonable steps to prevent banned players from placing wagers, if in fact the casino does not desire to accept their wagers. If the casino knows a banned player is making wagers and accepts those wagers, the casino should be required to pay off those wagers.*

The final troubling implication is the nature of the forfeiture of Blackford’s winnings. It is one thing to determine that a wager was illegal, and thus need not be paid by the casino. It is another thing altogether to require the banned player to “donate” his confiscated winnings to a charity designated by the casino (even a well-intentioned gambling addiction program). Now, nothing in the court decision commented on the method of disposal of the confiscated money, and it appears the issue was never raised by Blackford. As a practical matter, it probably makes little difference whether the casino requires the banned player to make the donation directly, or does so indirectly as a matter of casino policy for distributing confiscated wagers. But in an age where civil forfeiture laws are commonly used (and abused) to seize property, permitting seized winnings to be funneled to the casino’s charity of choice seems ripe for abuse. This is particularly true where, as here, the casino is closely tied to the county government, though it is not difficult to imagine private casinos funneling seized winnings to charities associated with influential lawmakers and regulators.

The moral of the story is not only clear, but entirely predictable—In the long run, the house always wins.

* Rescission, promissory estoppel, estoppel by acquiescence, or unjust enrichment would be possible equitable theories of recovery in such cases. However, the highly regulated nature of casino wagering might preclude any equitable remedies altogether. If so, then the only possible legal remedy would be enacting a statute or regulation to cover those types of claims.

February 12, 2010

Saké Bombed

With Friday work scheduled for eastern Iowa, I had the perfect excuse to head over to Cedar Rapids for the IMOP home game Thursday night. Since I'm not playing in the home game winter tournament series, I had a couple of hours to kill early evening, so I swung by the Meadows ATM for a quick session on the way out of town.

My session was short, but eventful. Early on, I got the Grump and managed to give away $200 semi-bluffing with my OESD that whiffed. But I rallied with a weird hand. Guy who was short-stacked with $40 was in EP, and pushed, a move he had made a few times, obviously looking for a double-up. A terrible ET flat-called with about $250 more behind (he was easily $1K into the game according to the guy sitting next to me).  I find AsQd on the button, and I figure I am way ahead of these two guys' ranges.  I decided to raise, hoping to drive out ET and get heads up with short-stack guy with ET's dead money giving me a nice overlay.  ET thinks a bit, then suddenly pushes!  Aaaiiiyyyaaahhh!  I think a bit, then decide to trust my read, so I call.  Flop is three spades, giving me the nut flush draw, the turn adds a small card to give me a wheel draw, and the river totally blanks.  I turn up my Ace-high, short-stack shows KK for the main pot, and ET shows ... KQ offsuit!  Donkey Kong!  Ship.  It.

Despite misplaying Yaks horribly, I found myself with $325 profit around 7:30 pm.  With the home tourney starting at 8:00 pm, I assumed the cash game would start no later than 9:30 pm (given the degenerates in the game), so I booked the win and hit the road for the two-hour drive.  On my way out, IMOP pledge Mr. Chow stopped to say hello; he was in Des Moines for business, and was planning to play the Meadows tourney (predictably, he was out in under 30 minutes). 

Fast forward two hours, and I was stopping off at a Cedar Rapids grocery store that has a nice wine and beer section.  I picked up some special request beer for the guys, a bottle of wine for me, and some kettle chips (my snack food weakness). That's when I saw it—a nice bottle of premium saké.  Impulse buy!

Santa Claus was hosting the game, which was convenient for me, as he was also providing Wynn-quality room and board for me.  All the usual suspects were present, and the cash game got going upon my arrival.  There really weren't a lot of hands of note, but there were a ton of laughs.  If this game was any indication, Vegas' poker rooms will have more hilarity than they can handle three weeks from now!  I personally played about as poorly as possible, running AK into Bonnie's AA (when did he start playing those cards?), and later running my AK into Bonnie's K3o on a J-J-3 flop (that's the Bonnie we all know and love!).  I also managed to win and lose a couple of big pots against Santa, but I didn't mind since I was playing off Santa's home game account.  Fortunately, I rallied at the end so I didn't completely bankrupt Santa's poker roll.

Now, I'm not one to drink at the poker table.  I might have one or two drinks toward the end of a session, but usually I am booze-free.  Even during IMOP most of my sessions are spent drinking green tea or diet soda.  But for some reason, the IMOP home game brings out my inner degenerate.  After some wine early, I soon switched over to saké, drinking it straight from an over-sized lowball glass.  The saké was quite tasty, but had some unexpected effects, such as rearranging the space-time contiuum to eliminate the period from 1:30 to 3:30 am.  Saké also causes flop death and chip stack erosion.  Thankfully, Mrs. Claus had a tasty eggs and sausage breakfast waiting for me, which proved a great antidote for the residual saké tremors.  So, new rule for IMOP-V:

"Friends don't let friends drink saké"

February 10, 2010

Poker at the Gas 'n' Sip

Lloyd Dobler:  I got a question. If you guys know so much about women, how come you're here at like the Gas 'n' Sip on a Saturday night completely alone drinking beers with no women anywhere?

Joe:  By choice, man.

—Say Anything

If you look around a “brick and mortar” poker room, it is striking how few women play poker. At my local casino, there are probably 4-5 regular women players, and maybe another 5-10 who play occasionally, primarily after the weekly ladies tournament. I can’t think of an open tournament either at my local room or in Vegas where I’ve seen more than 5-10 women players, and it is usually more like 3-5 women players. The Black Widow of Poker recently posted a thoughtful commentary on the relative lack of success of women in major poker tournaments. Analyzing the results of the recent PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event, BWoP found that the total number of women playing this major tournament was a mere 29, just under 2% of the field of 1529 total players. Further, the women took home a little less than 1% of the total prize pool, roughly half what their numbers should have won, all other factors being equal. Based on these tourney statistics, BWoP wonders, “where are these women we're supposed to watch out for?” *

Although I know about as much about women as the boys down at the Gas ‘n’ Sip, I think one major factor in play here is the method by which poker players are introduced to the game and learn to improve their skills. Until recently, poker was primarily a social game played in bars, basements, garages, offices, fraternity houses, and back rooms, almost exclusively by men. New players—again, almost exclusively men—were introduced to the game by older brothers, fathers, bosses, drinking buddies, co-workers, and fraternity brothers. When players wanted to get better, they would talk to their friends who also played poker—again, mostly men. In other words, poker was a man’s world.

The current poker situation is strikingly similar to where women were with respect to professional careers and athletic competition in the 1970s, prior to enactment of Title IX. Following Title IX, women went from being a rarity in professions like law and medicine to comprising over 40% of those professions. Similarly, women’s participation in sports skyrocketed. Sure, there were a few noteworthy women holding their own with men in professions—Sandra Day O’Connor in law, for example—and in athletics—Nancy Lieberman or Pat Summitt in basketball, for example—but their success only highlighted the relative lack of other successful women in those arenas. Similarly, the current poker scene has a few obviously successful women players—Jen Harman, Kathy Liebert, Katja Thater, Vanessa Selbst, and Annette Obrestad, among others**—but they are the notable exceptions in the male-dominated poker scene.

Now Title IX was an important step in helping women gain access to educational, professional, and athletic opportunities. But, even more important was the resulting slow development of a critical mass of women who could serve as role models, mentors, coaches, and support network for other women. Women needed not only the opportunity to participate, but also to see other women succeed in order to encourage their own participation, development, and success. It was undoubtedly tough for the women who were in the vanguard of the assault on traditionally male-dominated arenas, but by the time my generation rolled around, half or more of my freshman class were women, roughly half of my law school class were women, and roughly half of the lawyers my age or younger I work with (at my firm and from other firms) are women. Frankly, for people my age or younger, the presence of women in law, medicine, or business is taken for granted and rarely even merits a comment. Similarly, young women playing or coaching sports is so common it’s the accepted norm.

Turning back to poker, it feels like we are in that pre-Title IX era with a few women distinguishing themselves, but many women passing on the opportunity to participate altogether. This impacts women’s success rates in poker tournaments in three ways. First, many women who possess a natural talent for the game may never even try the game, let alone pursue it on a serious level. It’s hard to know how many potential female Patrik Antoniuses or Tom Dwans are out there working instead as doctors or lawyers, or pursuing a different intellectual hobby. Second, some women who participate may not pursue the game as seriously as some men, since they lack the same natural support structure many men have in place. Many of my friends play poker, and a fair amount of our social time together is spent playing or talking poker. If a woman’s friends don’t play poker, she may not focus on her poker game as much, or may even abandon poker altogether in favor of other pursuits. Third, the lack of a large number of strong women players inherently makes it more difficult for them as a group to overcome the odds of going deep into a large field tournament. Statistically, even if there are a handful of elite-level women poker players, if women as a group comprise less than 2% of a tournament field, simple variance might easily disguise the group’s actual talent level.

So, how do we encourage more women to play poker? How do we obtain a critical mass of women who play and enjoy poker, and make it socially acceptable for other women to play and enjoy poker? I’m firmly convinced that, if a critical mass of women players could be developed, natural talent will be attracted to the game and will find a support network of other women players to help develop their talent. Further, the more women who play, the less important distinctions will be between men and women players—gender will become the non-issue it is today in the workplace or athletics. Finally, the more women who play poker, the more women who will play it well, and the more success women will have in poker tournaments.

So, why aren’t more women playing poker in the first place? What’s keeping them from getting into the game? What can be done to attract more women to the game? Obviously as a man who currently plays poker, I’m not the best person to answer these questions. But a few ideas leap to mind.

Introduce women to the game—As noted above, most men get introduced to the game by other men. So, women who play poker should make an effort to get other women interested in the game. Home games, “girls’ night out” to the local card room, even “ladies” tournaments. But we men need to do our part as well. If your girlfriend, wife, sister, mother, or female friend or co-worker expresses an interest in the game, teach them the game. Invite them to a low key home game, preferably where they aren’t the only woman playing. Point them to good strategy books and websites. Set them up with an online account, even a free account. Sit down and play a small stakes game with them at the local card room or on your vacation visit to a casino. Most importantly, while doing all of this, be supportive and don’t be a condescending d-bag. Which leads me to my next point …

Crack down on the “bad boy” antics—The public perception of the game is driven by TV coverage, primarily of the WSOP. In nearly every episode of WSOP coverage, we are treated to at least one if not several d-bags (almost always male) who are berating their opponents and doing elaborate victory dances. We need to get past celebrating, or even tolerating, the antics of players like Mike Matusow, Phill Hellmuth, Eric Molina, Hevad Khan, Tony G, and Shawn Sheikan (to name only a very few of the better known examples), and instead encourage play along the lines of that shown by Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius, Tom Dwan, and Barry Greenstein. Now, the cameras are going to look for outrageous conduct, so this responsibility falls squarely on the WSOP tournament staff, which in fact has been cracking down in the past couple of years. Individual card rooms need to follow the WSOP’s lead and also crack down on this kind of conduct. As players, we need to do a better job of controlling our own actions and admonishing fellow players who step out of line.

Crack down on the “boys will be boys” behavior—Closely related to the “bad boy” issue, management, dealers, and players all need to do a better job of making the poker room (online as well as brick and mortar) a more welcoming place for women. It’s an entertaining part of the game to engage in a little verbal sparring with opponents. But there is a definite line between acceptable—if sharp—barbs, and sexist or otherwise inappropriate language. Guys, if you want to talk about women and crack inappropriate jokes while playing poker, save it for your home game. Online or at the poker room, show some self-control. It’s entirely possible to play poker without commenting on the appearance of the female waitresses, players, and dealers, using inappropriate language to taunt a player, or giving condescending “advice” to women players. Act as if your wife, girlfriend, or a female co-worker is in the game; dial back the inner d-bag a bit. Frankly, there are plenty of men playing poker who would also appreciate a break from the Animal House routine.

Market poker to women—This should be a no-brainer, yet there doesn’t seem to be much poker advertising directed to attracting women players. Online poker sites need to figure out a way to reach out to women players. I have no doubt a substantial number of women enjoy playing cards online to kill an hour or two on occasion; why shouldn’t they be encouraged to choose poker? Sure, Full Tilt Poker has a TV ad featuring Jen Harman, but it plays mostly on ESPN and during poker shows, hardly places where it will reach a wide audience of non-poker playing women.

What can local card rooms do? Well, in addition to cleaning up the behavior of its current players, they can offer free poker lessons for women to introduce them to the game (a popular weekly event at the local casino). They can also offer “ladies” tournaments. Now this is a controversial topic among poker players; some players find the tourneys to be a good way to introduce women to poker, while others find the tourneys to be condescending and sexist, and of little benefit to developing the players’ skills. My view is that ladies tournaments can serve as poker “training wheels”—a great way to get women to try out poker and develop some comfort with the game, serving as a bridge to playing in open tournaments or cash games. The problem is that many women never make that last leap to playing poker outside the ladies tournament (at least from what I’ve seen at the local casino). I’m not sure why this is the case, but I suspect in part it goes back to some of the other issues noted earlier that may turn women off to the idea of playing in a predominately male game.

In terms of marketing, however, BWoP is entirely correct that the image of women poker players being portrayed by television is rather condescending. Women poker players are presented as novelty acts, either because they are attractive or because they happen to make a deep run into the tournament. There is usually an undercurrent of “isn’t it cute when these girls try to play with the big boys?” Rarely are women presented as serious players who should be feared by their opponents. Would TV producers ever make a fuss over the “last Asian” player, or would tournament organizers ever give a special award to the “last Jew standing”? Honestly, if I have to endure another WSOP broadcast with a breathless deathwatch for the elimination of the last woman player, I swear I’ll enter the WSOP Main Event, borrow one of Dario Minieri’s scarves, and demand constant TV coverage for the “last queer” award. Let’s feature women poker players because they are good poker players, not because they are the last woman playing, or because they could qualify for a photospread in Maxim magazine.

Frankly, I think resolving the “women in poker” issue is simply a matter of patience. Poker is becoming more acceptable in the mainstream. Poker is more accessible in home games, local card rooms, and online than ever before. Many younger women are taking up the game, predominately online, where many women learn the game while avoiding some of the negative social pressures associated with male-dominated live games (an issue discussed by Short-Stacked Shamus in Betfair articles HERE and HERE). These women players will make it easier for other women to join the action, and eventually enough women will be playing poker that neither their presence nor their success will be remarkable. When that inevitable day arrives, and a woman slips on the WSOP Main Event bracelet, there will be only one more mountain for women to climb:

“Kickboxing. Sport of the future.”

* I strongly encourage you to read BWoP’s intial blog post, including the very thoughtful comments, as well as BWoP’s follow up blog post with some of her responsive thoughts. Also, you might want to check out the article by Rebekah Mercer at PokerStars that takes a more optimistic view of the progress of women in poker, which served as the jumping off point for BWoP’s initial post.

** ADDENDUM (11 FEB 2010):  While poking around commenter Pink Poker's website, I found she had posted a page with detailed statistics on ~20 of the most successful women poker players. All of these names were as familiar to me as the names of the top men's poker players, and it's pretty clear from results that these women can play with—and beat—the big boys.

February 08, 2010

An Onside Kick for Poker

“Fortune favors the bold.”—Roman proverb

The day after another in a recent string of entertaining and memorable Super Bowls, the buzz in the sports world is all about New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton’s “gamble” to open the second half of the game with an unusual and daring onside kick. The Saints recovered the kick, and took advantage of the resulting great field position to score a touchdown and take the lead. Although the Indianapolis Colts would answer the Saints’ score with a touchdown drive of their own, the Saints had established the momentum that would carry them to the victory.

Of course, it wasn’t just that one play that carried the day. Several other key turning points in the game included:  unsuccessfully going for the touchdown on 4th and 1 late in the first half (but pinning the Colts deep, leading to a field goal and momentum to close the first half), successfully challenging an official’s ruling on a two point conversion play (risking a crucial timeout in the process), calling blitzes against Peyton Manning (who is one of the best QBs in the NFL against pressure), and a interception by Tracy Porter who jumped a receiver’s route as the Colts were driving for the tying touchdown late in the game (if he misses the pick, the Colts likely score and tie the game). Although many commentators refer to these critical plays as “gambles”, in fact they are better regarded as calculated aggression—high risk, high reward decisions that take the initiative and force their opponent to react to them.

Aggression, of course, is widely touted as a key to success in poker. In the past, I’ve been widely regarded as an aggressive player. As one of my poker buds put it, “It’s not the $15 preflop that I mind. It’s that I know it’s going to be another $50 on the flop.” But, after a string of bad sessions last summer and fall, I have to admit I started shying away from aggression. I dialed the c-bets way back, and started running scared from raises. I still generally played a marginally profitable game by relying on getting paid off on big hands, but I knew I was leaving a ton of money on the table. The nadir came in November when I lost a big pot in a 2/5 NLHE game at the Meadows ATM, failing to c-bet with AK on a whiffed flop and check-calling a bet, turning a pair and check-calling again because the turn completed a flush, then losing to a rivered runner-runner straight. As I shook my head at the weird conclusion to the hand, an older gent whose game I respect quietly said to me, “You never gave him a chance to fold.”

That short sentence was an onside kick to my poker ego. At some level, I knew I had been playing passive, scared poker. I knew I was folding way too often, giving up on hands to avoid big losses, and in the process giving away chips $15 to $50 at a time. But, I justified it to myself by thinking of my play as "tight", "cautious", or "prudent". Over the long haul, that is a recipe for losing a lot of money. So, after that old gent's gentle critique, I made it a point to begin dialing the aggression back up. Not necessarily to a maniac level—being overly aggressive can be devastating both in poker and in football. But I definitely wanted players to fear me again when they call a preflop raise.

Being aggressive is tough and risky, but it’s the difference between being a champion and finishing in the middle of the pack. Always give your opponent a chance to fold.

February 07, 2010

Finding Gold in the Dirt

Last night, I played a session at the Meadows ATM. My first hand, I post in late position and call a small raise with Js6s. I flop a pair with a flush draw, and hit the flush to crack QQ. A couple of hands later, I play 75s, and again call a small raise. I flop a flush draw with gutshot straight draw, and turn the straight to crack KK. Establish tight image—check. I complete the first orbit when my QQ holds up against Yaks on a junky board. One orbit, three hands, and I’ve already doubled up! Sometimes I play so good.

The next few hours are pretty much a wasteland. Either I get junk cards or I whiff the flop. I take down a few small pots, and give it back one preflop raise or bad c-bet at a time. I crack KK once again when my 54o flops two pair and rivers a boat. But, I give that back when I make a tough call with TPTK holding AT on a Ten-high board, only to have the Q6s flush draw spike a Queen. Eh.

I was thinking about leaving early and locking in the double up when a regular sits down—let’s call him “JT”. JT is a known action player, has pretty good game with a style ranging from LAG to maniac, depending on the table. JT promptly starts playing nearly every hand, raising many hands, which was a big change for the table. JT also made and showed several big bluffs, which helped get him paid when he flopped big with a weird hand. JT’s pièce de résistance, however, came when he cracked a tight young player’s KK with 32s, flopping trips and turning a boat. The kid storms away in disgust, fuming, “That’s just a dirt hand! All you play is dirt!”

Hardly three hands later, the tight old regular sitting next to Dirt Boy raises to $17 preflop. I call with 64o on the button. Flop is 6-5-6. Donkey Kong! Old Grump bets the pot, I raise $50 more. Old Grump points at JT and says, “I’m glad he’s not in the hand.” Old Guy then gives the going home speech and raises to $200. I pretend to think a bit, then push all-in for his last $125. Old Grump snap calls and proudly rolls over his AA (duh! never saw that hand coming). Old Grump looks at my hand and asks the dealer, “What does he have?” The dealer says “six four” and old guy says, “He called $17 with that?” Old Grump says “good hand” dripping with sarcasm, and wanders out of the room. Dirt Boy had returned by this point, and he and a few others at his end of the table continue to murmur amongst themselves, presumably about my “stupid” play. I stack my chips—slowly—then play another orbit, before heading home with a nice profit.

So yeah, you might wonder, why am I boring y’all with another day at the poker office? After all, it’s pretty standard fare for me to crack Aces or Kings. Well, the comments by Dirt Boy and Old Grump are fairly typical of the kinds of comments I often hear after cracking Aces or Kings—“You called me with that trash?” and “You called $X preflop with that crap?” Depending on my mood, I either ignore them or make a snarky comment. But what these crAAKKer victims fail to understand are some important principles of poker that explain why they are bitchy and broke, while I’m happily stacking their chips.

First and foremost, these players place far too much emphasis on preflop hand strength. For many of these players, if they get AA/KK preflop, they feel they are entitled to win the pot, and if they lose, it is only because of some horrendous bad play by their opponent or pure bad luck. I think a lot of this mentality comes from televised and online tournament poker, where players emphasize starting hand strength due to the relatively short stacks in play forcing frequent pushes preflop. But in deep-stacked cash games, starting hand strength, while still important, fades and becomes only one of many factors to consider. As two leading poker analysts put it:

“In deep stack no limit, preflop hands derive most of their value from how well they extract money after the flop from opponents. Comparing hands based on how often they win a showdown or on their poker ‘hand rank’ is worse than worthless.”

—David Sklansky & Ed Miller, “No Limit Hold ‘Em Theory and Practice” (1st Ed., p. 124)

One of my favorite dealers at the Meadows ATM is a bit more pithy—“There are no bad hands, just bad flops.”

Now even I won’t play the extreme “any two cards” style of some maniacs, but hands like connectors and one-gappers Ten-Nine/Eight and below have some useful traits. First, assuming I can put my victim on a premium hand, my hand will almost never be dominated. Thus, I will never be faced with a tough decision, as I will know to a high degree of certainty where I stand postflop. Conversely, my victim will be in the dark as to the relative strength of my hand postflop, and he will be the one facing the tough decision—does my check-raise mean I flopped two pair or trips, or am I on a draw, or am I bluffing? Second, these hands are relatively safe, in that I can get away from them relatively easily postflop, while my victim may feel married to his AA/KK. So, my victim is at much greater risk of stacking off or losing a big pot than I am. Third, these kinds of hands often flop draws, pairs with a draw, or combo draws, giving me great semi-bluffing opportunities. Finally, showing down a few of these hands often sets up good bluffing opportunities on junky boards against other players later in the session.

The second critical error my crAAKKer victims make is to assume no rational player would call their preflop raise without a hand recognized as having a certain showdown “strength”. My victims assume that I would never make the “mistake” of calling a big preflop raise with “just” 75 suited. But, I am a logically oriented person. Why would I make a play my victims regard as irrational? Because my victims are overlooking what may be the most basic principle of poker:

“The key to no limit hold ‘em success isn’t to play perfectly. It’s to swap mistakes with your opponents. You trade small mistakes to your opponents if they will trade back big ones.”

—David Sklansky & Ed Miller, “No Limit Hold ‘Em Theory and Practice” (1st Ed., p. 178)

I don’t play speculative or “dirt” hands against just any opponent. Ideally, my victim is tight preflop, so that a raise means a fairly narrow range of “premium” hands, and a big raise means AA-JJ or AK. This is important because if I can put a player on a hand, but they can’t do the same for me, I have an advantage. Also, the victim should be a player who has trouble laying down Aces or Kings, especially heads up and on a “junky” board. Finally, the victim should be fairly deep-stacked, both to give good implied odds for when I hit (helping my risk-reward ratio), but also for those cases where he gets away with some or all of his stack intact, he may still tilt over getting his AA/KK cracked and give me a second crack at crAAKKing him.

So, when I crack someone’s AA/KK, and they rant on about how I called their $15 preflop raise with “junk”, they are absolutely correct—I did make a small mistake by calling their raise when I knew I was behind their hand. But—and this is key—they made a huge mistake stacking off for $200, $300, or more with only one pair, no matter how big that pair might be. It’s funny how my crAAKKer victims always blame me for the $15 bad preflop call, but rarely acknowledge their bad $200+ play postflop. I’m more than happy to trade those kinds of mistakes all night, or until their ATM card is maxed out.

Finally, let’s be quite clear. I play poker to make money. Cracking AA/KK with “junk” hands is merely a method for getting chips away from tight players, often in large chunks at a time. Although hilarity often ensues, the amusing story is just a fun bonus and is not the point of crAAKKing. Unless of course, my victim is someone annoying; then crAAKKing them is a matter of public service.

February 06, 2010

Wine & Whine O' the Week (v. 1.4)

Last March, while in Vegas for our annual Ironman of Poker competition, I was playing at Bellagio early one morning. In keeping with the spirit of our IMOP group, I was wearing a t-shirt with paint splotches on it which read, "I Just Killed a Clown". I was also keeping up my drunk goofball image by making plenty of stupid jokes, keeping the table entertained, except for one intense middle-aged guy who was taking bad beat after cooler to gack off over $1,500. Knowing he was on tilt, I called his overly large preflop raise with 5-3 suited. Long story short, I flop the open-ended straight draw, and the turn Ace gave me the wheel—and gave intense dude a set. My hand holds up, and intense dude stands up, flings his Aces into the center of the table, looks at me and blurts out:

"You are a f#$%ing clown!"

Thanks for noticing!

This gent's angry outburst pairs well with a bold red wine, like the Crios de Susana Balbo Malbec 2007. The Crios Malbec is a beautiful dark red, with a ton of black cherry and raspberry fruit, and a hint of spice. This malbec is a little lighter in color and flavor profile than many of the inky purple monsters common from Argentina, so it pairs better with milder foods, like pork chops, burgers, pizza, and pastas. The Crios Malbec also is not as heavy as many malbecs, making it an easy-drinking sipping wine. The Crios Malbec is part of a line of value wines by Susana Balbo, one of Argentina's premier winewakers who also has a pricier line of specially crafted wines released under her personal label. The "Crios" line is a great value, usually around $10-$15/bottle retail, and also includes a rose’ of malbec, a torrontes (full-bodied Argentine white), a bonarda (soft Argentine red), and a cabernet sauvignon.

February 05, 2010

Bludgeoned by the Deck

Poker players notoriously love to whine about bad beats and losing streaks. There's almost a perverse enjoyment of the misery of losing.

I much prefer having fun at the poker table, like last night's session at the Meadows ATM. IMOP buddies Santa Claus and Mr. Chow were in town for business and talked me into playing a few hours, bless their hearts! When I arrived, the guys were playing in the 2/5 NLHE feeder game—rookie mistake. Thursday night is one of the two big NLHE tourneys, and the post-tourney 1/2 NLHE cash games are usually soft. I was soon seated in a new 1/2 NLHE game that was starting once a tourney table broke. I locked up my favorite seat—the 3 seat— which was easily the best decision I made all night.

The omens were auspicious—several young players I didn't know and a couple of regular tourney players (who suck at cash games) were at the table. Then, dealing for the button I hit the Ace of spades.  Excellent. That's when I proceeded to get bludgeoned by the deck:

  • First hand, playing my rush, I have 92s, flop is A-2-2, and I take down decent pot from A-rag.
  • My first BB, call small raise with 53o. Flop a pair of 3s with gutterball draw, hero call 3 barrels, river puts four diamonds on board, and my 5d is good to snap QQ.  Establish tight image—check.
  • I get AA OTB, raise to $12, get 3 callers.  Flop is Ten-high with two diamonds.  I bet, get called in two spots.  Turn is a black Jack. There is a bet and a raise all-in, but it wasn't much considering pot size. I reluctantly call, only to have initial bettor push all-in!  Aaaiiiiyyyyaaahhh!   I tank, but finally call hoping I have a shot at the sizeable side pot.  River pairs the board (7s), and my opponents roll over ... KTo (no draw), and JdTd!  I rake a monster $750+ pot.  This was my only tough hand of the night.
  • I get AA in the SB, raise, get a couple of callers.  Flop is 7-A-7.  Donkey Kong!  I end up stacking a guy who overplays A-rag.  Thank you, thank you very much.
  • I get Yaks for the first time, raise in the CO, and smooth call after my raise gets repopped.  I flop top set and wind up cracking QQ.
  • I get 44 OTB and wind up cracking and stacking AA when I flop a set.  Hmm, "crackin' and stackin' " has a cool "Ricky Bobby" sound. May have to use that one on IMOP.
  • I get 22 in the BB and stack KK when I flop a set.
  • Hand O' the Night—I stack Uber-Nit for ~$330 when I raise OTB with A6o and he limp-calls UTG.  Flop is 6-A-6.  Donkey Kong!  Uber-Nit checks, I bet, he pushes, I make the hero call.  He shows AK, and wonders why he lost.  Hilarity ensued.
  • On back to back hands, my 32s in the SB turns a wheel, and my 87o OTB flops the nut straight.  Regrettably two rather smallish pots, as everyone was running scared from my SVB run.
  • My buddy Mr. Chow picks the wrong hand to try to bully me when he bluffs off his $250 stack into my ... AA.  Thank you, come again!
Quite a rush, but I think I was blessed by the poker gods for observing the Deuce-Four high holiday.  Ironically, my three 2-4 hands all whiffed, but I think a set of 4s and a set of 2s—each stacking a supposedly "premium" hand—certainly qualifies as a successful holiday run (and it sounds like the Poker Grump ran quite well for the holiday as well).

Not only was it a profitable session, the table was as fun as I've seen outside of Vegas.  Early on I decided to play my "table clown" persona, and it worked to keep the table happy as they kept losing chips to my SVB run.  I even bought three rounds of drinks, making sure to joke that I was buying with someone else's chips.  There were a couple of young guys at the table from out of state, and I spent the night poking fun at them, and they loved it.  There were a ton of funny slams traded around the table, but I don't recall any now.  However, my buddy Santa Claus had the quote of the night.  After one of the female dealers was telling us about a party where the host had served Rocky Mountain Oysters as a poolside snack, Santa pipes up:
It's not a party until you're sucking down some testicles.
And he's supposedly the straight guy ...

I sensed my SVB rush had ended, so I locked up a tidy profit:

In a game where I'm happy to make $300 in a six hour session, I averaged $300 per hour.

Sometimes, I play so good.

POSTSCRIPT:  Santa Claus stayed and played a while longer.  As I was cashing out, he hit quad 5s and doubled though the table yahoo for a $700+ pot.  Later, he flopped the joint with A3s for another monster pot.  Add in $500 in profit from the 2/5 NLHE game, and Santa can pay his elves their unemployment benefits this month.

Although he gacked off a couple of buy-in this session, Mr. Chow was sitting on a nice $2500 score from the 2/5 NLHE game the prior night.  All in all, the IMOP crew made a nice withdrawal from the Meadows ATM.

February 04, 2010

Herding Yaks at Riverside

Work took me to eastern Iowa the past two days. Tuesday night was spent beating college buddy Santa Claus in a NLHE tourney at his place, along with enjoying some Chinese takeout, wine, and gin. I suppose I should also mention I lost in that tourney to Mrs. Claus, who called my flop bluff with A-high, which held up over my K-high. Rigged, I tell you!

Wednesday I mediated a case, and got done in time to make a short stop off at Riverside Casino, Insane Asylum, and ATM near Iowa City. It's a nice looking casino and golf resort, with a 14-table poker room. But, the poker room is quirky enough to qualify as the Mandalay Bay of the Midwest:

  • No electronic devices can be used at the table at any time, in any manner, even if you are not in the hand.  One old guy admonished me for Twittering at the table, claiming I would void any high hand or badbeat jackpot, even if I'm not in the hand.  I felt like saying I didn't give a flying pig, but it looked like the fellows at my table took their jackpots very seriously, so I acquiesced.
  • Dealer tips are not kept by the individual dealer.  Nor are the tips pooled with the other poker dealers.  Instead, poker dealer tips are pooled with all the other dealer tips from the pit games.  Not a lot of motivation for the dealers, and it shows.
  • The tables seem slightly larger than regulation vegas tables, making it hard for a lot of people to see the board from the ends of the table.  One dealer had trouble reaching bets, so he would put the deck down on the table, half stand, lean forward to pull in bets two-handed, then sit back down and pick the deck back up.  Very odd.
  • The chairs swivel, but are not on wheels, and are not adjustable for height.  Their fixed height is too short for the tables.
  • They have HHJs for quads and straight flushes, but they are quite small.  There is also a bad beat jackpot and a "mini bad beat" jackpot.  Pick a promo already!

When I arrived late afternoon, there were two 2/5 NLHE games in progress, with a main game and a full must move game.  I got seated within minutes.  The action was pretty wild, with a lot of pots where 4-5 players called $20-$25 preflop, and postflop big bets were being called down by third or fourth pair, which often won the pot.  I saw one $1600 pot where five players called $25 preflop, and three players got it all-in on a flop of:  Js6s2s.  The hands:  KsTd, 9s3s, 8s4s.  Hand runs out blanks.  Within minutes, the winner and the loser of that hand both got called to the main game, taking a ton of chips with them.

Our game suddenly became uber-passive, with a lot of limped pots, and no 3-betting preflop.  I manage to turn out just over a double up by playing maybe 10 hands in two hours, and scoring medium sized pots with:  a flopped set of 8s filling up on a card that made the nut flush, a flopped set of treys knocking off flopped top two with AK, my own flopped top two with AK holding up against a pair with flush draw, and 3-betting out of the BB preflop with AQ to steal $100 in limp-calls of a $20 preflop raise.  That's it.  That's my session.  Exciting, eh?

There was plenty of excitement in the room, however.  The main game looked to be playing psychotically, with a ton of big pots.  The players all seemed to be regulars, and there sounded like a lot of bluffing, 3-betting, and big moves being made.  At one point, I tried to estimate the chips in play, and figured there had to be $11K to $13K on the table--two players had over $2000, two other players had over $1500, and the rest all had at least $800-$1000.  By contrast, at my table, I was one of the two big stacks with $600 when I left, and most stacks were in the $100-$250 range.  At the main game, pots of $500-$1000 were being pushed regularly.  At my table, the most exciting moment was when a debate broke out among the old farmers as to which Vegas casino had the best action--a couple backed the Riviera, and a couple backed the Orleans, and one guy threw out the Flamingo.  Actually, that conversation alone should tell you how the game at my table played.  Although both games were labeled "2/5 NLHE", it's pretty clear that those games had nothing in common but their limits.

Which brings us to the Yaks.  One guy was stacked twice in one orbit with Yaks, running a flopped set into a monster draw that got there (Q8s gutterballed Broadway), and a few hands later flopping top set with Yaks against a set of 9s.  Of course, the 9s river quads.  Hilarity ensued, which was aggravated by the "apology" of the guy with quad 9s.  A little later, two other guys get it all-in on a junky low flop, only to find it's Yaks vs. Yaks!   Of course, the board four-flushes.  Bonus hilarity ensued!  Altogether a very satisfying poker session.