March 31, 2010

The Southwestern Lake Wobegon State Tech Flying Pigs Are On the Bubble

"Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."
—Garrison Keillor
With the NCAA Final Four set for this weekend, the sports news of the day is that this year is likely the last edition of the tournament to have 64 (well, technically 65) teams.  Yup, the Big Dance is going to change from a high school prom to a warehouse rave.  The reason, as always in college athletics, is about the money:

The NCAA can opt out of its current tournament broadcast contract with CBS after this season. It has three years, $2.131 billion remaining of an original 11-year, $6 billion contract.

Some have said that an extra round of 31 games would make the tournament a more valuable television property. The decision has to be made by this summer. The NCAA asked television networks for their thoughts in a request for proposals sent out earlier this year. (31 March 2010)
There's probably little doubt that CBS (or another network) would pay dearly for an extra 31 first-round games (actually 32, since nobody regards the current "play-in game" as a real part of the tournament, despite the NCAA's dogmatic insistence to the contrary).  But frankly, this is a solution in search of a problem.  As my buddy Jugweed tweeted this morning, most sports fans want a college football playoff and don't want an expanded basketball playoff, and the NCAA is giving us exactly the opposite.

Several prominent coaches, including Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Jay Wright of Villanova, are staunch advocates of an expanded tournament field.  Coaches favor expansion in part because success in the tournament translates into significant revenues for the teams and their schools, and in part because coaches often lose their jobs for failing to make the tournament frequently enough.  These coaches argue that only 65 out of 344 (roughly 20%) NCAA Division I teams make the tournament, far less than the nearly 50% of college football teams who play in bowl games.  This "participation ribbons for everyone" argument, however, mixes apples and oranges, as only two football teams play in the national title game and another eight teams play in presitigious BCS bowl games, while most of the remaining bowl games are "minor" and hold little public interest except for fans of the teams playing, and degenerate sports gamblers.

Another reason cited for expanding the tournament is the claim that deserving teams are shut out of the tournament because of the 65-team format.  This rationale is pure bovine excrement.  Look at the teams who were "on the bubble" and just missed qualifying for the tournament field this year:  Illinois, Utah State, Virginia Tech, and Mississippi State.  Those four teams were mediocre at best during the regular season.  Does anyone seriously want to argue that any of those teams would have made the Final Four had they been in the field?  Instead, they likely would have lost in the first or second round, much like the last few at-large teams to qualify (Florida, Missouri, and Minnesota).

Look at the current NIT field, comprised of the 32 "next best" teams not in the Big Dance.  Expansion advocates are essentially arguing that these teams should be added to the current NCAA tournament field.  Can a basketball fan (other than a fan of a particular team) honestly argue that any of those teams is good enough to have made a deep run in an expanded tournament this season?  North Carolina was sub-.500 in the ACC, and coach Roy Willimas freely admits his team was terrible this year, even making a poorly articulated comparison to the earthquake tragedy in Haiti.  Yet the Tarheels are in the NIT championship game!  Do we really need to bloat the Big Dance with a bunch of teams that can't even pull off a good "Sprinkler" or "Butter Churn" move (or worse)?

The real reason for expanding the field is not that qualified teams are being excluded, but rather because mediocre teams from the major "power" conferences are being excluded.  Out of the 65 teams in the field, 31 are "automatic qualifiers", generally by virtue of winning their conference post-season tournament; each conference receives one automatic bid.  Thus, "Cinderella teams" get into the tournament field despite having a low (or non-existent) profile in the national sports media.  Usually small schools from obscure conferences, these teams tend to be "directional" (East Tennessee State) and "fake state" (San Diego State) schools.  These teams provide most of the drama and charm of the first two or three rounds of the tournament, pulling the occasional upset of one of the "big dog" schools (e.g., 15-seed Hampton beating 2-seed Iowa State in 2001, or 14-seed Northwestern State—a directional fake state two-fer— beating 3-seed Iowa in 2006).

What's wrong with letting these Cinderella-wannabes attend the ball?  Well, the NCAA tournament is a monstrous cash cow, and the milk is divvied up among all of the Division I basketball schools using a formula based in large part on the number of tournament wins a conference's teams have had over the preceding six years.  Thus, the more teams a conference has in the tournament, the greater the number of potential wins, and the greater the potential payday for the conference.  Following the 2009 season, the six "power" conferences (the same as the six BCS conferences in football) received from $14 million to $28 million each, while smaller conferences with fewer qualifying teams and fewer wins received exponentially less; for example, even though Memphis University has had a history of success over the past decade, their Conference-USA only received $8.4 million, still the most among the non-power conferences.  This year's pseudo-Cinderella, Butler University, has a history of success in the tournament, but their Horizon League is not even in the top ten conferences for revenue received from the tournament.  Ditto for Gonzaga and the WCC, despite Gonzaga's perennial tournament success over the past decade or more.  Outside the power conferences, only the "high-major" conferences (e.g., Atlantic-10, Conference-USA, and MWC) are receiving any significant money from the NCAA tournament, yet the amounts pale in comparison to the Big 6 power conferences, and even some of the high-majors (e.g., the WAC) are missing the gravy train.

The economic incentives tied to maximizing conference wins leads to some perverse incentives in the tournament selection and seeding process.  First, seeding and bracketing rules require the top three teams from any conference to be placed in different regions, while two teams from the same conference cannot play prior to the regional final game (Elite Eight), unless a conference has more than eight teams in the tournament.  These rules permit the power conferences to maximize their potential wins, by not cannibalizing wins from other conference teams.  Next, the tournament committee (usually dominated by members of the power conferences) will often schedule first-round matchups between good teams from "mid-major" conferences.  This minimizes the potential wins of the mid-major conferences, and lets power conference teams face easier low-major conference opponents in the first-round.  Finally, the tournament committee is able to select mediocre power conference teams ahead of mid-major or low-major conference regular season champions who were upset in their conference tournaments; again, this maximizes potential power conference wins while minimizing potential wins for the mid/low-major conferences.

What does this all mean in terms of the practical effect of expanding the tournament field?  Let's look at the breakdown of the 2009 and 2010 tournaments.*  The top 32 teams (the 1-8 seeds) would get byes the first round of an expanded tournament.  Who are those teams?  In 2010, 24 of 32 (75%) of the teams with 1-8 seeds were from the Big 6 power conferences (this number is probably low when compared to recent years, due to the weakness of the Pac-10 conference with only one team with a seed in the 1-8 range).  In 2009, 27 of 32 (84%) of the teams with 1-8 seeds were from the Big 6 power conferences.  The first round bye would benefit the power conferences in two ways.  First, the low/mid-major teams would be pitted against each other with higher frequency in the first round (much as occurs with the current play-in game), allowing more power conference teams to advance to the second round.  Second, assuming the first round games are played within a few days of the start of the round of 64, the power conference teams with byes would be better rested and have a greater preparation advantage in the second round games, likely reducing the frequency of upsets by low/mid-major teams. 

However, the power conferences would glean yet another advantage from the expanded field.  The 1-4 seeded teams are given greater protection in terms of the site of their opening round games under the "pod" system.  These teams travel shorter distances, resulting in better fan support and less team fatigue.  In 2009, 15 out of 16 (94%) of the teams with 1-4 seeds were from the Big 6 power conferences.  In 2010, 13 out of 16 (81%) of the teams with 1-4 seeds were from the Big 6 power conferences. Once again, the expanded field would enable the power conferences to maximize their advantages over the low/mid-major conferences.

The power conferences are interested in expanding the tournament field not because it is good for basketball fans, or to include the little schools.  No, the power conferences are expanding the tournament field because they want the low/mid-major schools to have a smaller piece of the basketball revenue pie, and expanding the field is politically easier to accomplish than eliminating automatic bids for all conferences.  The net result of expanding the tournament field, however, is to increase the total TV revenue (more games), and to give the power conferences an even greater edge in maximizing their share of those revenues (more power conference teams in the tournament, earlier elimination of low/mid-major teams, and greater protection against upsets by low/mid-majors).

No doubt about it, the NCAA basketball tournament is big business, and the power conferences are the big shot CEOs intent on maximizing their personal income however they can.  The low/mid-major schools are merely the hourly workers who will have to tolerate a pay cut just to keep food on the table.  As always, be skeptical whenever a CEO says a program is being implemented for the benefit of his workers!


* (Below the jump are detailed breakdowns of teams seeded 1-8 by conference for 2009 & 2010)


Big 12 (6)—Kansas (1); Oklahoma St. (7); Kansas St. (2); Texas (8); Texas A&M (5); Baylor (3);

Big East (7)—Georgetown (3); Syracuse (1); Pitt (3); Marquette (6); West Virginia (2); Notre Dame (6); Villanova (2)

Big 10 (4)—Michigan St. (5); Ohio St. (2); Wisconsin (4); Purdue (4)

ACC (3)—Maryland (4); Clemson (7); Duke (1);

Pac-10 (1)—California (8)

SEC (3)—Tennessee (6); Vanderbilt (4); Kentucky (1);

Conference-USA (0)—None

Horizon League (1)—Butler (5);

Mountain West (2)—UNLV (8); New Mexico (3)

WCC (1)—Gonzaga (8)

Atlantic-10 (3)—Xavier (6); Temple (5); Richmond (7)

WAC (1)—BYU (7)


Big 12 (5)—Kansas (3); Missouri (3); Oklahoma St. (8); Texas (7); Oklahoma (2)

Big East (8)—Louisville (1); West Virginia (6); Boston College (7); Connecticut (1); Marquette (6); Pitt (1); Villanova (3); Syracuse (3)

Big 10 (4)—Ohio St. (8); Michigan St. (2); Purdue (5); Illinois (5)

ACC (5)—Wake Forest (4); Florida St. (5); Duke (2); North Carolina (1); Clemson (7)

Pac-10 (4)—Washington (4); California (7); UCLA (6); Arizona St. (6)

SEC (1)—LSU (8)

Atlantic-10 (1)—Xavier (4)

Conference-USA (1)—Memphis (2)

MWC (2)—Utah (5); BYU (8)

WAC (0)—None

WCC (1)—Gonzaga (4)

March 30, 2010

Wine & Whine O' the Week (v. 1.9)
—Beaching a Drunken Whale

During my Festivus '09 trip to Vegas, I found myself in a wild late night 1/2 NLHE game at Bally's.  Shocking, I know.  Although Bally's often features loose-drunk action after midnight, this was a special occasion.  Driving the action at our table was a well-lubricated gambler with a seemingly endless bankroll—a drunken whale, if you will.  This gent would call any preflop raise under $200 with almost any two cards, and if the pot was unraised when it reached him, he would grab a random stack of red chips and blind raise $30-$80.  On the flop, he would go all-in with any pair or any draw.  Needless to say, this gent saw some monstrous variance, running up his stack to more than $1,000, then busting out and peeling another $300 from a fat wad of bills.  He took this all with a great deal humor, and a great number of beverages.

My strategy was to wait for solid starting hands (pairs 88 or better, or two Broadway cards), then see flops with the drunk gent.  I managed to take down a couple of nice pots, and was licking my chops for more.  Then, a mousey little 50-ish guy in a tweed sportcoat and precious little half-glasses (looked like Hollywood's idea of an English professor) decided it was time to tap the glass.  While drunk guy stepped away for a smoke, the professor began whining about the large preflop raises: "It's just not poker!"  I quietly said, "If this guy is going to play like this, until he's broke or passes out, he is the funniest and nicest guy you've ever met, and he can play his cards however he wants."  A couple of other players agreed, but the professor continued to stew (it probably didn't help that the professor had been sawed off a couple of times by the drunk's improbable suckouts). 

Sure enough, when drunk guy came back to the table and pushed all-in against the professor's preflop raise, the professor showed Queens and mucked.  The professor then began to berate the drunk guy, whining about how he "wasn't playing right" and "was ruining the game".  Although I tried to lighten the mood, the damage was done.  Within a few hands, drunk guy stands up and leaves, saying, "Time to go play blackjack. At least I play that the right way."  So, drunk guy walks away from the game with at least $5,000 still in his pocket.  I still weep for all the missing Benjamins.

This tragic tale reminded me of a saké I once enjoyed during a dinner at the now-defunct Social House at Treasure Island (TI) (although the Social House website states it is reopening in the Crystals shopping center at City Center in three months).  Like wine, saké is a complicated beverage with a lot of styles and differences in quality.  I don't know much about saké except that a good, cold saké tastes great with a lot of Asian cuisine, and it apparently contains alcohol.  So, our group asked our server for a recommendation, and she suggested the Suigei "Drunken Whale" Tokubetsu Junmai.  "Suigei" refers to the brewery, while the words after the English name refer to the quality and style of the saké.  All I know is that the Drunken Whale had a crisp bite, reminiscent of a tart green apple, but dry, without any noticeable sweetness.  A little research after I got home revealed that the Drunken Whale is regarded as a "Champagne of Saké"; yet another hat tip to the fine Social House staff.  The saké went well with our meal, including sushi, Kobe beef sliders, and a couple of fish dishes.  At 15.5% alcohol, the Drunken Whale likely could get a whale a little tipsy.  If you like crisp, refreshing white wines like Champagne, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Albariño, or Vinho Verde, a good saké like the Drunken Whale is well worth a try next time you serve light fish or vegetable dishes.  At around $20/bottle retail, this might be more of a special occasion beverage, but it would be a worthy option to consider in lieu of yet another bottle of overpriced, overoaked Chardonnay, especially come summer.

March 29, 2010

Vegas Odds & Ends

Just a few random items from my trip to Vegas last week that don't merit individual posts.

* * * * *
St. Patrick's Day Miracle:  My crew liked to party, so when I met them for late dinner on St. Paddy's Day, they were well-lubricated.  One member of our group tried to flirt with the busboy at Yolo's in Planet Hollywood, but apparently her words were a bit slurred:

Gal:  "You're gorgeous!"

Busboy:  "Did you say 'rigor mortis' ?"

Later, as I escorted the crew back across the overpass to Aria, they proceeded to pinch everyone who wasn't wearing green, and also shouted "Trolls!" and "Hey girl!" at random passersby.  The routine may have gotten a bit out of hand at Aria, as the security guards in their orange sportcoats became pinching targets (and were also labeled "trolls").  Thankfully, I got them all back to the room before bail money became necessary.  Like I said, it was a miracle.

* * * * *

Todd English's P.U.B. at City Center:  I am a big fan of mega-chef Todd English's Mediterranean-influenced Olives restaurant in Bellagio.  So I was excited to try out his P.U.B. ("Public Urban Bar"—how precious), located at the end of the corridor connecting Aria's lobby to the Crystals shopping center.  We ate lunch early one afternoon, the day after the "official" grand opening and a few days after the dwarf and celebrity laden "VIP opening".  I went into the P.U.B. with the excitement of flopping an open-ended straight flush draw, and left with the disappointment of losing to Yak-high after whiffing all my outs.

The ambience is the high point of the P.U.B. experience.  It is a "classy" sports bar setting, with beautiful marble bar and lots of hard wood decor.  There are plenty of TVs for watching sports events, and dartboards for those who want a little friendly competition.  The bar offers a wide range of British and Irish beers on tap and by bottle/can, with pints on tap going for a fairly reasonable price (by Vegas standards).  As part of the opening week event, special pint glasses could be purchased for $20, with a discount on refills, and a portion of the proceeds going to a worthy medical charity.

Unfortunately, our group wanted more than a bar.  After an inexplicable 10 minute wait for a table to "open up" (despite there being at least ten tables open), we were finally seated.  Our server turned out to be a snotty, overbearing yahoo who quite literally talked down his nose at us the entire time.  Apparently, we looked like folks who had never had a fine dining experience better than a Happy Meal. 

In any event, the P.U.B. offers a raw seafood bar built into the bar, but if I want good seafood in Vegas, I have plenty of places to go where I know I'll enjoy the food. The main menu is primarily burgers and sandwiches, with an assortment of salads and traditional British pub food (with a twist, of course).  The twist on the sandwiches is that they are "deconstructed", meaning the chef can't be bothered to put meat onto bread for you.  There are probably ten different roasted meats available, including sirloin, lamb, turkey, chicken, pulled pork, and brisket.  You can order a half pound of any meat for $12-$20 (depending on meat), and then choose two homemade sauces and bread to go with the meat.  I went with lamb, black truffle mayo, bleu cheese sauce, and rye bread.  The meat and bread were dry and chewy, though both sauces were exquisite, so I at least had some good flavor to savor while gnawing my un-sandwich.

My compatriots were also disappointed.  The turkey was as dry as my lamb.  The chicken was not only deconstructed, it was debutchered, coming to the table in two family picnic-style pieces.  Let's just say that it's a bit tough to turn chicken on the bone into a sandwich on a pub table.  All of the sandwiches were sided with a mini-bucket of pickled veggies (cauliflower, carrots, and some mini-cukes) that even my puppy would find inedible.  Our server raved about the sweet potato fries, which were decent, but not nearly as good as those offered by the Burger Bar or BLT Burger.  The sole bright spot in the meal were the chicken sliders ordered by one of our group; they were juicy and a little spicy, and came with some kind of slaw that really worked with the sandwiches. 

When it was time to leave, it took us over ten minutes to get our server's attention so we could get the bill.  I would go back to the P.U.B. to watch sports, but when I do, I'm sitting at the bar and sticking to beer and sliders.

* * * * *

Dancing with the Tourists:  One afternoon, I was heading to Planet Hollywood from Bellagio.  I was on the elevated moving walkways heading toward the Strip when the music being played overhead turned to the 'N Sync classic, "Bye Bye Bye".  Now, let's face it, this is one of those songs that, try as you might to pretend to hate it, you start humming and tapping your toes when it comes on.  Well, on the opposite walkway riding toward me were five 30-something guys who were doing more than that—they were doing a semi-synchronized dance routine with all the moves from 'N Sync's original video!

You know you are going to watch it ... go ahead ... we'll wait ...

(Here's a link to the video, just in case there was an embedding fail.)

Out of all the crazy stuff I've seen in Vegas over a couple dozen trips, this was likely the most absurd.  I hope for these guys' sake they were being inducted into a cool Ironman of Poker type of club.  Unfortunately, they were probably reliving their old fraternity days when performing that routine in college bars was the ultimate pickup line.

What happens in Vegas ...

Tigers Hate Cinnamon.
Republicans Hate Iceland.

Tigers love pepper. They hate cinnamon.

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

Catching up on the day's news, I learned that Iceland has banned stripclubs.  This really won't affect me much personally, though I'm sure a few of my friends will be distraught.  I've been to a few such fine art establishments over the years, but I usually become invisible to the dancers once I say the magic words, "Sorry, I'm gay."  On one occasion, a persistent dancer actually cursed at me, thinking I was just using the gay line as an excuse for being cheap.  But, between this law and its recent volcano issues, Iceland is probably going to drop a few notches down the world tourism rankings.

Among those likely to remove Iceland from their travel itineraries is Michael Steele, Republican National Committee chairman (with the GOP, it's always a man).   According to the Daily Caller, recent RNC filings with the Federal Election Commission showed some interesting expenditures by Steele*, including:

A February RNC trip to California, for example, included a $9,099 stop at the Beverly Hills Hotel, $6,596 dropped at the nearby Four Seasons, and $1,620.71 spent [update: the amount is actually $1,946.25] at Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex.

However, later reporting by the Daily Caller clarified that Steele likely was not personally in attendance at the party, which was targeted at "young donors"*:
[T]he outing at Voyeur West Hollywood was an after-party for a number of young Republicans who attended a Young Eagles event that night at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Young Eagles is an RNC-sponsored program to cultivate 30- to 40-year olds seen as tomorrow’s big donors.

Way to go GOP!  Way to target the youth, er, middle-aged male vote. 

One gossip blog reports that a Republican donor has taken the fall for the expenditures, and also provides some interesting background on the Voyeur club.  In any event, it's rather amusing to see a political party that caters to a conservative Christian base out raising money with faux-lesbian bondage strippers.

For poker players, however, it's possible that Steele could be lobbied to support legalizing online poker.  At the very least, some RNC money is finding it's way into the Vegas economy:
RNC trips to other cities produced bills from a long list of chic and costly hotels such as the Venetian and the M Resort in Las Vegas, and the W (for a total of $19,443) in Washington. A midwinter trip to Hawaii cost the RNC $43,828, not including airfare.
 I really need that kind of expense account!

* ADDENDUM (30 March 2010):  Additional reporting by the Washington Post the day after the story broke clarifies that Steele neither attended nor approved of the stripclub outing.  Not surprisingly, reports that the RNC has fired the staffer who approved the expense reimbursement request:
[RNC Chief of Staff Ken] McKay wrote that the fired staffer, who is not named in the email, “was aware that this activity was not eligible for reimbursement and had been previously counseled on this very subject. Accordingly, that staff person has been terminated.”
So, does that mean this staffer previously approved other faux-lesbian bondage stripper club reimbursement requests?  Inquiring minds want to know! also reported reactions from outraged Republican leaders.  My favorite quote was from former Ohio Secretary of State, Ken Blackwell:

“This incident does not help the RNC leadership dispel the charge that they are nothing but duplicitous high rollers and big spenders ..."
Gee, ya think?  But don't forget your image as the party of family value hypocrites!  (Notable entry in this list is former Illinois Senate candidate Jack Ryan who dropped out of the 2004 Senate race amid reports relating to his prediliction for taking his then-wife to sex clubs and asking her to have public sex.  This cleared the path to election for an up-and-coming Democrat—Barack Obama.)

March 27, 2010

Idiot Sports Announcers Watch (v. 1.0)
—ESPN Lacrosse

Welcome to the first in what will become a recurring blog theme—idiot sports announcers.  For our first entry, we go to a surprise entry from the world of lacrosse ...

This afternoon, I was watching the Virginia vs. Johns Hopkins lacrosse match on ESPN2. Lacrosse has been blowing up in terms of participation over the past decade—see articles HERE, HERE, and HERE for a sense of the rapid expansion of lacrosse at all levels of play.  Matches are often covered on ESPNU and ESPN2, and are fun to watch.  The action is fast-paced, there is plenty of scoring, and there is a strong element of athleticism to the game, which makes it entertaining even for those of us who've never played the game.

Midway through the second half, the color commentator* was talking about a player who had grown up outside the traditional lacrosse hotbeds in the Northeastern part of the country.  Using my DVR to try to create an accurate transcript, here's the commentary:
[This player is] Another example of how lacrosse continues to grow in non-hotbed areas. Places like Florida, Texas, California, Arizona, Seattle, Washington. There are more great players coming out of those areas playing at all sorts of different schools. And that’s why parity now exists in Division I college lacrosse. There’s only 60 schools, there’s only so many places you can go. Gender equity slowing the growth of Division I men’s lacrosse.
Our commentator starts by making an interesting point about the growth of lacrosse across the entire country, emphasizing how lacrosse is now a national sport, and how that development of the sport nationally has made the sport as a whole more competitive.  He has me hooked.

Then, our commentator decides to be an idiot, blaming parity in college lacrosse on "gender equity".  Apparently, our commentator feels that more men's lacrosse teams would be fielded by Division I colleges if "gender equity" weren't required.  He doesn't explain his position further, so the purported cause-effect relationship between "gender equity"  and the lack of men's lacrosse teams can only be surmised to be a reference to Title IX requirements for gender equity in athletic opportunities.

The problem for our commentator's thesis is that Title IX does not prohibit any school from fielding a men's lacrosse team.  All that Title IX requires is equitable treatment of women in providing athletic opportunities.  A school can comply with Title IX in one of three ways:
  1. Have a female participation rate for athletics roughly equivalent to the percentage of women in the student body;
  2. Demonstrate a steady increase in athletic opportunites for women; or,
  3. Demonstrate that it is meeting the athletic interests and needs of its female students.
Interestingly, according to an article by Gene Garber at ESPN, there are only an average of 25 Title IX complaints per year related to collegiate athletics at all levels, and no school has ever lost federal funding due to Title IX violations

Given that somewhat more men than women play Division I lacrosse (there are more women's teams because women tend to have smaller squads), it appears complaints about a lack of opportunity for male lacrosse players are misplaced.  In any event, Title IX does not prevent schools from fielding men's lacrosse teams (or other men's athetic teams) if they wish to do so.  Title IX only requires schools to provide more opportunities for female athletes, which often leads to budgetary concerns—a school can either find new funds to finance women's athletic teams, or it can reallocate part of its sports budget away from men's sports programs.  Thus, schools without a men's lacrosse team have made a budgetary decision not to support a men's lacrosse program, pure and simple.  Blaming "gender equity" or Title IX is simply wrong, and does a great disservice to the public, fueling common resentments against Title IX and women's athletics programs.

To our idiot announcer:  Let's set aside your inexplicable ignorance about an important federal sports law, which every announcer at a network like ESPN should be able to discuss intelligibly.  As a practical matter, you aren't going to help men's lacrosse by whining about "gender equity".  Helping keep lacrosse as a whole popular is the best way to increase opportunities for all lacrosse players, as increased popularity will increase the funds that can be generated by the sport in terms of tickets, TV rights, team sponsors, memorabilia/apparel sales, etc.  More money will lead to more teams.  No need to tear the women down to buld up the men.

* I could not locate the name of the color commentator through a search of  If I can find the individual's name, I will update the post.

An Aria for Aria—
Is a Fat Lady Singing for City Center?

Last week, I stayed at Aria at the new City Center for the first time, and also attended a conference at Vdara, another City Center hotel.  Vdara certainly has its own distinct personality, very much in keeping with its "spa" mentality; think "quiet plus flowers".  Vdara might be a good place to stay if you go to Vegas with your wife who wants to avoid the typical casino atmosphere.  It's easy to get from Vdara to Bellagio, but remarkably inconvenient to travel between Aria and Vdara.  There is a tram, but I prefer to walk, and one thing the City Center layout does is strongly discourage walking anywhere.

The Aria rooms were nice, smaller than Bellagio, about on a par with Wynn for size and decor.  Aria aims for and mostly hits the same level of quality as the other five-star resorts on the Strip (Wynn, Venetian, Bellagio).  Although the room is fully automated from a central control panel by the bed, you can't check out from your room.  The check out lines were long, but Aria did have people posted in the lobby to take down email addresses for guests who wanted to check out without reviewing their bill.  I took this option, but the email of my bill did not show up in the promised 30 minutes, nor at all even six days later.  Kind of an annoying glitch for a hotel aiming for "elite" status.

I played several sessions at the Aria poker room in my past two trips this month, as well as a few sessions during mid-December right after the room opened.  On my recent trips, the crowds have predictably thinned as the novelty has worn off.  Instead of 'round the clock games, the room was dark most mornings with cash games starting between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm.  The daily tourneys at 1:00 and 7:00 pm were fairly well attended (30-40 runners seemed typical), and offer good structures for the $100+$20 buy-in.  But by late afternoon, there are usually at least five 1/3 NLHE (increasing in the evenings), with a couple of 2/5 NLHE games also running most evenings.  There seemed to be regular 4/8 LHE and 4/8 Omaha8 games, along with occasional 9/18 Omaha8, 9/18 LHE, and 2/5 PLO games.  The room is offering double hourly comps (triple during early morning hours) until June 1.  Overall, the poker room is one bright spot in the Aria experiment.

I did enjoy playing at the Aria poker room.  Management still seems to be going the extra mile to keep players happy, opening new games quickly, advertising for players for games with interest lists, and generally being attentive and friendly.  The dealers are a mixed bag, with several entertaining and highly competent dealers, and a handful who give the attitude they would rather be elsewhere.  I posted one particularly vexing experience at All Vegas Poker, but I'll repost it here as well:

Overall I like the [Aria poker] room, but I had one terrible dealer experience around 3:30 or 4:00 am. A female dealer was having a very animated and lengthy conversation with a player at the table who was also a dealer and at least a casual friend. I get AK in EP, raise, and get called by the button and also her buddy in the big blind. Flop is Ace high with a couple os small suited cards. Buddy checks, and I take some chips and begin cutting them next to the rail as I debated the amount of the raise. Next thing I know, dealer says, "checks around" and begins to burn and turn. I immediately say, "wait, I haven't acted." Dealer says, " you checked" and makes a gesture with all five fingers in a claw shape tapping the table. Now, my only hand on the table always had chips, was by the rail, and never tapped anything. I said, "I was cutting chips." Dealer's buddy piped up, "that was an obvious check," but other guy in the hand said he didn't know, and nobody else at table saw a check. Buddy pipes up again, "you checked" and dealer backed her buddy. I was as furious as I can remember being at a poker table, but I knew it was pointless to ask for a floor. The turn was an offsuit Jack, I bet it in a very deliberate manner, and took down the pot.

In 7+ years of playing live poker in casinos, I've never failed to tip a dealer (except by accident). I tipped on this hand as well, but it was the first time I had to think about it.
Although I very much liked Aria and Vdara from a design and "vibe" perspective, I'm not certain the City Center concept will ultimately prove successful. Back in mid-December, just after Aria opened, the casino was fairly busy while the poker room was hopping at all hours, despite being a typically slow pre-holiday week on the Strip as a whole. But in my two recent visits in March, the casino was notably less busy than other Strip properties. For example, mid-week, Bellagio seemed busy, but they were offering some $10 minimum tables in the pits. Bally's and Planet Hollywood were also very busy. Aria had all $25 minimum tables, and few gamblers. The Aria sportsbook was dead in early March, and moderately busy for the opening rounds of the NCAA tourney, but it was a ghost town compared to the crowds at Mirage, Caesars Palace, Bally's, and Bellagio.  Crystals, the upscale mall in City Center, has been desolate every time I've walked through.

I think a big part of the problem is that the City Center design is not conducive to walk-by traffic from the Strip.  City Center seems designed to be a self-contained resort, where the flies get caught in the web and don't leave until they are sucked dry.  As noted above, it is remarkably inconvenient to get into the complex while walking the Strip, and even more inconvenient to leave on foot.  But a major attraction of the Strip is the ability to walk from casino to casino.  Tourists like to be able to walk from Bellagio to Caesars to Mirage, or from TI to Venetian to Wynn, or from Bally's to Paris to Planet Hollywood.  Tourists do not like to be tied to only one casino for entertainment, no matter how ritzy that casino might be.  Just think of the typical Vegas day—lay by the pool at your hotel, shopping at Caesars Forum Shops or Fashion Mall, drinks at one casino, dinner at another resort, show at still another resort, and drinks/gambling/poker at yet another casino.  The City Center simply makes that experience inconvenient.  Plus, with less "walk-by" traffic, the casino seems less "fun" for those who do walk in, making it less likely they'll stay.

I stayed at Aria on an email offer sent to MGM-Mirage players card holders.  I'm about as low a level players club member as you'll find, and I got a rate of $109/night as an "introduction to Aria".  Fair enough, they want to get people in the doors the first few months.  But a couple of days ago, I got another offer for the summer busy season, still at $109/night.  Now, I'm not complaining, I like a good deal.  But I'm not getting comparable offers for Bellagio, which is also an "elite" MGM-Mirage property right next door.  I'm certainly not getting similar offers from Venetian, Wynn, or Caesars Palace, purportedly Aria's competition.  I can only surmise Aria is having trouble attracting hotel customers while the other elite properties are pretty much in a "business as usual" mode. 

Maybe City Center's business will pick up with more marketing (I've seen a lot of online ads for Aria recently) and the approach of the busy tourist season.  Maybe Aria's target audience is already satisfied with the other elite casinos on the Strip and sees no need to make the switch to Aria.  Maybe it's a matter of bad timing, opening an upper-class casino in the midst of an economic downturn.  All I know is that, with billions in financing to pay back, Aria is going to need something more to keep the circling vultures at bay.  In fact, I suspect Aria needs what every aria needs:

More cowbell.

March 25, 2010

Where's the (Vegas) Beef?

Sometimes, even on vacation, you just want a tasty burger.  During my last couple of trips to Vegas, I've finally been able to try two burger joints (In-N-Out Burger and The Burger Bar) that had previously eluded my best eating efforts.  Having checked those two spots off the list, I can now offer my tourist's guide to Vegas burgers.

In-N-Out Burger—The franchise closest to the Strip is at 4888 Dean Martin Drive, which is essentially a couple minutes drive west on Tropicana from New York New York.  Set your expectations dial on "greasy spoon" and you'll enjoy the experience.  I had the double cheeseburger "Animal Style" (mustard-grilled patties, extra spread, and grilled onions).  It was a juicy, greasy, satisfying burger.  The fries were a little undercooked and underwhelming, even under a blanket of cheese and grilled onions.  Overall, a good meal, but I can't say that I get the cult-like devotion many people have for this chain (similar to the cult of White Castle).  I think Smashburger and Culver's offer significantly tastier burgers for chains.  But at 2:00 a.m., In-N-Out is a solid Vegas option, particularly for those who may have had a drink or ten.

Margaritaville—Located on the Strip as part of the Flamingo complex, Margaritaville offers decent but not special burgers at decent but not special prices.  But the burgers are plenty tasty when combined with a margarita or three.  Also try the appetizers: the nachos are huge, while the crab/shrimp/mushroom cheese dip is particularly decadent (but not for the Lipitor crowd).

The Burger Bar—The original "upscale" burger restaurant by acclaimed French chef Hubert Keller*, The Burger Bar is located in the Mandalay Place shops between Mandalay Bay and Luxor.  You can get Black Angus, grass-fed, or Kobe beef burgers, as well as bison, ostrich, turkey, or veggie burgers.  Then, you can pick a chef's selection of toppings, or build your own burger, selecting from normal toppings like mushrooms, cheese, and bacon, or going more daring (and expensive) with foie gras, truffles, or caviar.  You can also get a variety of amazingly tasty housemade sauces in lieu of the standard mustard and ketchup, and a variety of fresh baked buns are offered for all burgers.  The sweet potato fries and thick cut onion rings were exceptional.  Order one of the dessert "burgers" or milkshakes to satisfy your sweet tooth. The vibe is a "classy" sports bar/pub, and there are plenty of interesting beers on tap and in bottle, as well as some house specialty drinks.  Service was friendly and fairly quick.  Altogether a highly satisfying dining experience.  Be prepared to spend $25-$35 per person (including an alcoholic beverage), but it is worth the price.

BLT Burger—The "BLT" stands for "Bistro Laurent Tourondel" after another acclaimed chef with a chain of eateries.  BLT Burger is located in Mirage, just down the hall from the entrance next to the Caesars Forum shops, near the sports book and poker room.  Again, you can choose from a number of base burgers (Angus, Kobe, lamb, turkey, chicken, salmon, and veggie), but the toppings are significantly more limited, as are the bun and drink selections.  The sweet potato fries are excellent, and the jalapeno poppers are the best I've ever had—large peppers filled with a smoky chipotle cheese, sided with a spicy-sweet salsa.  Huge milkshakes are available, with or without your favorite booze or liqueur.  Ambience is contemporary/trendy bistro, and the servers wear t-shirts with a variety of humorous sayings, such as "Tip waiters, not cows."  Again, a meal will run $25-$35 per person (including an alcoholic beverage), and again, definitely worth the price.

Le Burger Brasserie—This is what a French sports bar would look like, if the French had real sports.  Located on the walkway between Paris and Bally's, Le Burger Brasserie offers Angus beef, Kobe beef, chicken, turkey, veggie, and lamb burgers (I highly recommend the lamb burger), in a variety of chef-selected versions, or in a build-your-own mode.  There is a good variety of toppings; I suggest trying prosciutto or pancetta in lieu of basic bacon, while goat cheese and pesto add an interesting twist.  You also can select from a number of fresh-baked bun styles.  The sides are rather pedestrian, but the thick fries are a solid choice and plenty to accompany a very generously-sized burger.  Ambience is upscale sports bar, including provocatively clad waitresses (for those into such things).  There is a full bar with daily drink specials (2-for-1 drinks during certain hours, and cheap buckets of beer).  A meal will run a little cheaper than the other two upscale places, more on the order of $20-$25 per person (including an alcoholic beverage).

Although I enjoyed all of these places and would recommend all of them, based on a combination of food quality, location, and price, it's not surprising I have eaten most often at Le Burger Brasserie.  But if you are looking to impress, the culinary creativity at The Burger Bar is a notch above the rest.

* The significant other was reviewing the menu and asked me, "Why is there a Helen Keller burger?"  This occurred while we were both stone sober.  'Nuff said.

March 23, 2010

Striking Gold at Treasure Island

Last week, I was in Vegas for Spring Break; well, I was in Vegas because the spousal unit was on Spring Break (he’s a teacher), and he and a couple of his friends decided to do Vegas this year. I could get them a room at Aria for $109/night, but I had to be present at check-in. So, my role was limited strictly to checking in and paying for the room. Otherwise, I was on my own to play poker while the crew (“Jack”, “Karen”, and “Will”) roamed the Strip in search of adult beverages and childish pranks.

Friday was our last night in Vegas, and I had been running poorly at Aria. Jack suggested I play at Treasure Island (excuse me, "TI"), since I usually have run well there. Although I rarely listen to Jack’s thoughts on poker, I was already at Mirage (we had all met for dinner at BLT) and TI is one of my favorite small rooms, so I trammed it over to TI. Well, I wanted to tram it, but a family decided to take group photos on the sidewalk out front of Mirage as the tram was loading, blocking me from the tram just long enough I could have risked severed limbs by attempting to squeeze on board. People blocking sidewalks or aisles to take photos may need to go on the taserlist; it’s under consideration. Anyway, too lazy to wait for a tram, I hoofed it down the Strip to TI (and frankly, I needed the exercise).

I must have arrived a little after 9:00 pm, as the 7:00 pm tourney was winding down to the final table, and the 10:00 pm tourney was starting to get some entrants. There was only one 1/3 NLHE table going, but there was a lot of money in play, so I waited 15-20 minutes until a seat opened up. Unfortunately, this table was not a typical TI fish fry. The two gents to my immediate right were very tight-aggressive, and clearly rather formidable opponents (I later learned they were AVPer SoCalMike and his friend John). There were a couple of tight-passive tourist types, and a couple more maniac-style regulars at the opposite end of the table. Early on I stacked off to SoCalMike with A8s, when he flopped a set of 9s, I turned Aces up, and the river 8 filled us both up, letting me drive my dinghy into his destroyer. But I recovered quickly, doubling up a buy-in through John when my AsKs turned a flush to crack John’s AA. I also won a couple of decent pots from one of the LAG regulars with good reads, and a refusal to be bullied (well, he considered me a calling station—tomAEto, tomAHto—I got the cash).

About an hour and a half into my session, there were enough tourney bustouts to start a new 1/3 NLHE table. Surveying the table, it was more to my liking, with several obvious drunks, tourists, and generally weaker looking players. It’s kind of a strange skill, but recently I’ve found my ability to sniff out weaker opponents is getting much better. Probably the result of years of playing experience letting my subconscious pick up on little tells in how players handle themselves, plus noticing how drunk they are. Anyway, I requested a table change, but was told the new game was a must-move game for at least one hour. Strangely, though, they let our game drop to 6-handed without moving any players over.

Eventually, after opening another new 1/3 NLHE table, the manager asked me if I wanted the table change. I gladly took it, since there is no reason in Vegas to sit in a tough game, no matter how well you are playing. Boy am I glad I moved! One table drunk was insistent on trying to bully everyone. I picked up a few timely hands and picked off several bad bluffs for at least $600 in profit. I also won several pots with well-timed bluffs of my own, mostly from betting the turn after everyone checked the flop. Basic play, I know, but at a passive table, no need to get fancy.

The other big pot I won illustrates an interesting betting pattern tell that can be exploited in certain players—the flop overbet. Most typical flop bets are 1/2 to 3/4 of the pot, particularly when the pot was raised preflop. Certain players will overbet the flop when they have a good hand, but the flop worries them. Often this means they have a pocket pair, but are worried by an overcard on the board, or a flush draw. In this hand, a decent young player (DYP) raised preflop in early position to $15, standard for the table. DYP’s raise most likely meant a pocket pair AA-88, or a big Ace; he didn’t seem the type to raise in early position with more speculative holdings. I called in late position with AhTh, as did one of the blinds. Flop was Ac8c4h. DYP led out for $50, which was just over a full pot-size bet. I read this as either: a) being a big pocket pair KK-JJ trying to represent the Ace and find out if either of us had an Ace, too, or b) a big Ace scared of the flush draw. Although I’m almost certainly outkicked if DYP has the Ace, I’m not yet convinced he does, and I may be able to represent the flush and bluff if a club hits, or even hit Aces up by catching my kicker. Plus, he had nearly $300 behind at the start of the hand, so this was potentially a big pot. So, I elected to call and reevaluate on the turn.

The turn comes another small club. DYP looks at his cards, then checks. I decide to represent the flush and bet $50. DYP thinks, then pushes all-in for ~$230 total. This puts me in a tough spot. If my read has been correct to this point, DYP might have the following hands that beat me: a) a set, most likely Aces or 8s; b) a big Ace; or c) a flush. Sets and big Aces are possible, but most cautious players probably don’t check-push the turn, particularly after I’ve represented a flush; the more common line for sets is to check-call the turn, and hope to pair the board, while a big Ace is more likely to check-call twice. A flush is possible, but with the Ac on board and DYP’s preflop raise, a flush becomes much less likely (though he could have KcQc). A hand that makes sense is a big pocket pair with a club, something like KcKx, or a big Ace with the Kc kicker, which are I-might-be-good-but-I-have-outs-if-I-need-them sorts of hands, which are nice hands for applying pressure when you aren’t sure if your opponent has a hand or is making a move.

So, I’m dead if he has a set or made flush, and drawing thin if he has AxKc/AxQc. I’m ahead of a hand like KcKx/QcQx. This is where the flop overbet comes into play. Hands like a set, nut flush draw, or top pair good kicker generally don’t overbet the flop, as they want action from weaker hands. The flop overbet is an overly aggressive move for true big hands. Instead, it is usually a sign of a weaker hand trying to look strong, like the animal defense mechanism of trying to look bigger and meaner to scare off potential predators. Now sometimes this defense mechanism is also used by a truly dangerous animal, like a cobra, or a savvy poker player mixing up his play. But for most recreational players, the overbet is a fairly reliable tell of a scared hand. Given this tell, along with the rest of the play (no tell is useful in isolation), I decided DYP most likely had KcKx/QcQx, possibly AxKc/AxQc, and I was doing fairly well against that range. I called, the river was a blank, and DYP just stared at me. I said, “All I have is the Ace.” DYP nods, and mucks. I said, “Kings with a club redraw, huh?” DYP jerks back a bit, stares at me, then nods. That hand goes into the books as Kings cracked, with an asterisk.

I finished my session moving to another table which included four friends from Orange County on a poker/drinking/sports betting weekend. Strangely, one of the guys was married to a lady from McCook, Nebraska, which was the nearest “big” town to my home town in rural southwest Nebraska. So, I fly a couple thousand miles to Vegas, only to play poker with a guy who’s been through my little hometown of 200 people. Truly a weird “only in Vegas” moment. Anyway, these guys were yucking it up, playing crazy, tilting some “serious” players, and having a blast; they would fit right in with the Ironmen. At one point, they were calling the clock on each other so much, they were banned from calling for the floor (presumably they could have called the floor for a rule issue). So, they started calling for “Grandma” when they wanted a floor. I ended up making some good money from the table, but I also had a great time.

All told, this TI session was easily my most profitable session of my trip (the always enjoyable four-rack cashout), and my most entertaining. There are several reasons I don’t play as much at TI as previously (mostly related to the ownership change), but I still enjoy the room’s dealers and managers, and the room is still a fun and profitable spot on the Strip. Oh, and where else will you find this nice lady playing at 3:00 am?

March 21, 2010

Anatomy of a crAAKKer Hand

I returned from Vegas to Iowa last night to find snow on the ground and a post online by the Poker Grump about a session we played together at the Mirage on Friday afternoon.  His post reflected on a handful of the interesting discussions he always seems to generate at the table, which is why I don't mind having him at the table, even though he is almost always the best player at the table (and seems to have learned Cardgrrl's ninja position skills, invariably ending up on my immediate left).  Look, I enjoy Discovery Channel's "Shark Week", and I don't mind a hammerhead shark at my poker table so long as I can avoid him, and he doesn't bring any other shark friends (like CKBWoP).  Anyway, the Grump and I had an enjoyable chat during a profitable session for both of us, mostly because I avoided him except for three or four ill-fated attempts to hoist him on his deuce-four petard (like a cobra and its venom, the Grump must be naturally immune to the deuce-four).

The Grump's post mentioned a hand involving some confusion by a dealer over whether a raise all-in reopened betting for an earlier raiser.  I happened to be involved in the hand, and it turned out to be one of the bigger pots I'd win in that session.  Now, I'm not planning to dissect a lot of hands in this blog, as it is not usually all that interesting for those not involved in the hand, and I'm under no illusion that I can provide any meaningful insights for most of my readers who are likely at least solid recreational players.  But this hand struck me as a paradigmatic crAAKKer hand, so let's take a look under the hood.

Preflop, I was in the small blind and the Grump was in the big blind.  First to act was a lady who liked to see flops and had been running hot, a typical ET (uber-calling station) who was impossible to shake off a hand if she had top pair.  Predictably, she limped in.  Next to her was a middle-aged guy ("MAG") with a relatively short stack of ~$80; he raised to $15 total.  Now, $15 was a large raise for this table, and signalled a likely premium hand, something like Yaks or better, or a Broadway Ace.  Also, MAG had been trying to double up for an hour or so, since taking a big hit when he overplayed top pair.  His MO was to either limp and push over the top of any preflop raise, or to just shove any flop where he caught a piece of the board.  To this point, he hadn't been called down.  Next to act was a young guy with a big stack, who liked to see flops, but had been on lockdown to protect his stack and wouldn't play postflop without a big hand or big draw.  He called the $15, as did the chatty lady next to him.  Then, a young guy pushed for his last $26, and it folded around to me.

I look down at Tc8c, which is a decent crAAKKing hand.  It offers straight and flush possibilities, and it almost certainly is not dominated, like a hand such as KQ can be.  The crAAKKing situation was also nearly ideal, as this was shaping up to be a big pot, with calls likely from all the players behind me, while offering me great odds of 5:1 or 6:1.  On the flop, I could easily get away from the hand if facing any heat without a big hand myself, and if I hit the flop, odds were good I would get paid by at least one other player.  My concern was whether MAG would overshove the pending raise for his whole stack, potentially ruining the situation.  However, after some thought, I realized that MAG (and others after him) could not reraise as the $26 shove did not reopen the betting for him, though I and the lady acting before MAG could still raise (I suspected, correctly, that the lady would not raise).  So, I made the call, as did the lady.

Predictably, MAG tries to shove, and after some debate, the floor correctly rules that MAG cannot raise.  So he grouchily calls, as do the other limpers.  The flop comes down 8-6-5 with one club.  Not the worst flop for my hand.  I check, knowing MAG is going to shove with any hand.  Sure enough, he pushes, and it folds to me.  Now this is a rather marginal situation, as MAG's range of hands has a lot of overpairs to this board.  But, it was only another $65 to see two more cards, and I was getting great odds for the main pot as well.  Plus, if MAG had AK/AQ, I was ahead and winning the side pot alone would still be profitable.  If MAG had a large stack behind, this would be a fold or raise decision, normally folding, and raising only against tight opponents.  As this hand shook out, though, the fact MAG was all-in made this a tough spot, but I finally decided it was worth the risk and called.  The turn brought another 8, the river a 6, and I took down both pots with 8s full of 6s.  MAG didn't show, but muttered to his end of the table about Kings, while the other all-in player showed AK.

In hindsight, this hand happened in large part because MAG was oblivious to table conditions.  The other all-in player clearly was looking for a place to push, so limping in early position with Kings would have been a good option. Alternatively, raising to $12 would have allowed MAG to reraise all-in to any raise.  Clearly it pays to pay attention at the table.  Still, count it as another satisfying crAAKKer hand.

March 16, 2010

You Can Lead a Horse to Gay Marriage ....

"You see, the Massachusetts Supreme Court, when it started this move toward same-sex marriage, actually defined marriage—now get this—it defined marriage as simply, 'the establishment of intimacy.' Now how dangerous is that? I mean, I don't mean to be absurd about it, but I guess I can make the point of absurdity with an absurd point—I guess that would mean if you really had affection for your horse, I guess you could marry your horse. It's just the wrong way to go, and the only way to protect the institution of marriage is with that federal marriage amendment that I support."—Arizona U.S. Senate candidate JD Hayworth
I really have little interest in turning this poker/sports/random musings blog into a gay rights blog, but when some right wing yahoo blurts out a quote like this, I have to interrupt the degeneracy chatter for a little sober and rational analysis.  After all, I'm not one to suffer fools gladly. Or at all.

So what is it with the right wing nutcases, that makes them go for the man-horse (or in Rick Santorum's case, the man-dog) argument anytime gay marriage is brought up?  Gay marriage is certainly a controversial topic worthy of serious public debate.  I happen to be gay, and I'm in a long-term relationship which, thanks to the Iowa supreme court, is eligible to be recognized as a civil marriage.  I look at my relationship and I see a lot of what my straight friends have in their marriages—I get nagged for not keeping the house clean, I get static about the amount of poker I play, my poker bankroll gets siphoned for house projects and spouse gifts, he rolls his eyes when I watch sports, I roll my eyes when he watches "House Hunters", when one of us is sick the other babies him, when he drives on a closed road and gets stuck in a snowdrift I bite my tongue ... The only difference is that we gays have a lot more angry sex and make up sex, and no angry withholding of sex; jealous, aren't ya?

Look, gay marriage is a major change.  It is going to be controversial, and there will be harsh words and hurt feelings from the debate.  That is all part of the healthy process of democracy.  I fully understand that well-meaning and rational folks might not agree that gay marriage should be legalized.   But what I don't understand is the ultra-right-wing's reflexive slippery slope argument that gay marriage is somehow an endorsement of bestiality.  It is incredibly offensive, not to mention irrational.*  In some ways, the fact that they resort to this argument is reassuring—if they have to stoop to such a ridiculous "analysis" then they are essentially admitting their position is intellectually bankrupt.  I think most Americans who are undecided recognize the bestiality "argument" for the specious drivel it is.  But when a serious candidate for a high political office feels the need to articulate this point, it establishes either that he is too stupid to be trusted in public service, or he is too cynical a panderer to be trusted with public office.

Now, I'm pretty sure there's some saying about giving a man a fish ....

*Just to be clear, two adult humans can enter into a contract, such as marriage.  A human and an animal cannot enter into such a contract.  I lost IQ points simply by spelling out such a rudimentary argument, but apparently there are folks who need this point explained to them.  I will be happy to forward a Venn diagram and a sledgehammer to the skull to anyone needing further explanation.

March 15, 2010

Salmonella Made Right

"All politics is local."

—Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill
The nation is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress is debating health care legislation, and controversy has erupted (yet again) over Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  Closer to home, Iowa is facing a huge state budget shortfall, with state employee layoffs and reductions in critical services, not to mention a hotly contested gubenatorial race.  So what issue has captured the attention of Iowa legislators?  What issue merited a half page above-the-fold lead editorial today from the Des Moines Register, the state's largest paper and de facto paper of record?

Loose meat sandwiches.

That's right, Iowans are all in a tizzy about Maid-Rites, the cornerstone product for its namesake Iowa-based sandwich franchises.  Maid-Rites are essentially seasoned loose ground beef on a bun.  Native Iowans are almost as fanatical about the sandwiches as people in other parts of the country are about White Castle or In & Out Burger.  Myself, as a Nebraska native, I've never cared much for the Maid-Rite sandwiches, though to be fair, I'm also not a huge fan of the Nebraska fanatical fast food option—the Runza

What has the Maid-Rite fanatics all worked up is that one long-time franchise was cited recently for health code violations because the cooked loose meat was placed back in the same container used to hold the precooked (read "raw") ground beef.  This obviously is a potential source of bacterial contamination that the cooking process is meant to prevent. 

Now, the obvious solution is for the franchise to use different containers for cooked and raw ground beef ... like every other Maid-Rite franchise in the state.  But this particular franchise has been in place for decades and by golly, can't see why it should have to change just because someone might get sick or die.

"We fear change."

—Garth Algar (Dana Carvey) in "Wayne's World"
So, the Iowa legislature is now debating whether to amend the state's health code to permit this one Maid-Rite franchise the opportunity to offer its customers pathogen roulette:  "Salmonella, E. coli, come on Listeria, come on Listeria ... Damn!  Hit that stupid Shigella again.  Live pathogens are so rigged!"

Legislators often get unfair criticism for making hard choices on public policy, but when it comes to stupid laws, this proposal is more than the usual combination of silly, ignorant, and irrelevant.  This proposal is downright dangerous.  No matter your view on the proper role and size of government, food and drug safety is one sphere where the government has a track record of benefiting the public (before you disagree, you may want to reread your Upton Sinclair, "The Jungle").  Think of all the foods we consume that are fully or partially cooked or processed prior to reaching our plates, whether we are dining out or eating at home.  Now ask yourself if you'd like to eat your next meal knowing that your food was handled even once, let alone potentially dozens of times, without regard for legally mandated sanitation techniques.  So ...

"You've got to ask yourself one question:  'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?"

—Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in "Dirty Harry"

A Maid-Rite Sandwich.

A typical Maid-Rite franchise (not the one involved in the current controversy).

March 12, 2010

Wine & Whine O' the Week (v. 1.8)

On a Festivus trip to Vegas, I was playing a session at Bally’s. I got into a hand with an uber-tight nit who would overplay big pairs. Nit raised to $15 preflop, I called from the button with 6c4c, and a loose-drunk player also called. Flop is 2-3-5 with two spades. Donkey Kong! Long story short, Nit bet, I raised, he pushed for $450 total, and I made the reluctant call.

Nit: “You must’ve hit your set.”

Me: “Nope, no set.”

Nit: “No set? Then I’m good!” as he rolled over the obvious AA.

Me: “Aces? Is that all?”

I rolled my hand, Nit did a quadruple take. Hilarity ensued for a moment.

Unfortunately, the board went running spades, and Nit scooped with a backdoor flush. Nit then proceeded to berate me for 15 minutes. “$15 preflop? Do you know how big of a dog you were?” He must’ve asked me this half a dozen times, as I sat there quietly. Finally, I felt the need to respond: “Do you know how big of a dog you were when you pushed $450 into the middle with just Aces?” Mercifully, this stopped the lecture.

Speaking of big dogs, I’m a huge fan of petite sirah, and Vinum Cellars makes a great value petite sirah. The Vinum “Pets” 2007 is a juicy concoction with boysenberry and blackberry barking up front, backed by the bite of some spicy tannins. “Pets” pairs well with pizza, hearty pastas, and burgers. This wine is consistently one of the tastiest, best value petite sirahs on the market, usually in the $10-$13 / bottle range. My only knock is their decision to take the beautiful dog off their label; however, they continue to make a contribution to their local animal shelter for every bottle purchased.  As a bonus, "Pets" is now bottled with a screw cap for freshness.

March 10, 2010

Poker Is Not a Team Sport

Despite my recent paean to the Venetian poker room, there is always room for improvement.  In fact, this past weekend, I observed one of the more unsettling scenes of collusion I can remember witnessing at a poker table.

The scene was a 2/5 NLHE game late Sunday night / early Monday morning.  I was playing alongside my IMOP teammate Barbie in what was a juicy, action-packed game.  Most players had $1,000 or more behind, and monster pots were common.  It quickly became apparent that three younger guys at the table—Larry, Moe, and Curly—were friends away from the table.  Now, I often play at the same table as friends, though I try to keep the number to one or two.  I also don't hold back when playing against friends, and they don't hold back against me.  In some respects, it is actually more satisfying to beat friends who know my game, as they pose a greater challenge than many random players who are donkey arks passing in the night.

Larry, Moe, and Curly were aggressive, even by this game's hyper-aggro standards, so they often found themselves against each other in pots.  They would then do a lot of annoying chatter, stuff like:  "I've got a hand, get out", "I know you're on a draw", "Jacks are no good", that sort of thing.  It's annoying but generally harmless, unless you count the minutes being sucked out of the game by all the posturing.

Then this weird hand came up.  Larry raised to $30 preflop, and was called by Moe, Curly, and Irish Guy (not because he was Irish, but because he had on a Notre Dame windbreaker).  The flop came down something highly coordinated, like 9-8-6 with two of a suit.  Larry bet $75, Moe called, Curly raised to $150, Irish Guy called, Larry raised to $300, Moe muttered and folded, and Curly pushed all-in for over $1,500, which covered Irish Guy and Larry.  Irish Guy thought a long time, then folded.

At this point, Curly starts talking to Larry: "You know I have a big hand, you should fold."  Larry responded, "But I have a big hand, too."  Larry started counting out chips, and Curly went into overdrive: "Why go broke?  Give me the pot and I'll give you your last bet [$300] back."  Larry says, "Make it $400 and I'll fold."

Now, the dealer was very young, but to her credit she did speak up at this point: "I can't have you discuss deals at the table.  If you want to do something away from the table, that's your business."  Larry and Curly ignored her and kept talking about a "rebate" if Larry folded.  Finally, Larry folded, and Curly picked up $300 in green and red chips and walked them over to Larry, who put them in his stack.

Now the interesting part of the situation was that, before paying the "rebate", Curly rolled over a combo draw (gutshot and non-nut flush draw).  Larry showed down JJ for just an overpair.  Irish Guy saw the hands and muttered about laying down top two pair.  Irish Guy was visibly bothered, and left within a few hands.

So what was wrong with the Stooges' conduct?  In essence, they colluded by raising and reraising to get Irish Guy to fold, then cutting a deal to minimize their variance.  It seemed pretty clear that these guys had run this "rebate" deal many times in the past.  I have no problem with this practice if the pot has been heads up the entire way, but where a third player has put in a significant amount of money, and is forced to fold to two other players' raises and reraises, the "rebate" practice carries the stench of collusion. 

I wish the dealer had called the floor about the situation, and it would have been interesting to see how the situation would have been handled.  My gut reaction is that nothing could be done about the hand in question once Irish guy folded, but a stern warning at the minimum would have been in order.  In hindsight, Irish Guy had the right response—there's no reason to play an individual game against a team.

March 09, 2010

Sweet Home Venetian

The Ironman of Poker (IMOP) returned this year to the Venetian, now home base for three out of five IMOPs.  Although IMOP events are held up and down the Strip, the bulk of IMOP cash game play tends to be at the home base, partly because of the convenience, and partly because of the need to rack up enough hours to qualify for the deeply discounted poker room rate. 

So, why the Venetian?  There are several reasons, including:

* Poker room quality—The Venetian is, if not the nicest-looking poker room in Vegas, at least in the conversation with Wynn, Bellagio, and Aria.  Actually, I'd throw Hard Rock into mix, though it is not particularly convenient.  There is plenty of room between tables (unlike Bellagio), and the chairs are comfy.  Moreover, playing poker at the Venetian gives a sense of being part of the glamor of the Vegas experience, rather than being stuck in a dumpy back room somewhere.

* Location—The Venetian poker room is prominently located by the main casino floor and sportsbook, as well as being just inside a main entrance from the Strip, and right by a set of escalators coming from the Venetian Canal Shops and Tao nightclub.  Definitely a good spot to attract casual players passing by.

* Number of tables & players—The Venetian poker room has 39 tables in the main room, and what is appearing to be a semi-permanent tournment area by the room entrance with another dozen or so tables. On a weekend evening, nearly every room in the place will be full, ensuring plenty of good games to choose from.  But there is always plenty of bad/drunk competition, essentially 24/7/365.

* Quality of opposition—Although the competition at the Venetian has certainly toughened up since the room opened, and is nowhere near the donkfest one might find in some of the small rooms, there are still plenty of bad players who want to try playing in such a fancy room.  Also, the drunk rich club kids coming down after partying at Tao, or rich Cali-kids looking to play some poker before going out certainly add to fish fry.

* Tournaments—The Venetian runs well-structured daily NLHE tournaments and seasonal Deep Stack Extravaganzas that offer tourney players a great value.

* Comps—What can you say?  Standard $1/hour for 1/2 NLHE, $1.50/hour for 2/5 NLHE and PLO.  But rather than being restricted to a sandwich shop or café, the comps can be used at the Grand Lux Café which offers a tasty menu sure to have something for everyone.  Not a bad reward for playing cards!

* Room discount—We got Rialto View Suites, which usually cost $299-$499 / night, for just under $100 / night, including taxes and fees.  These rooms are big and fancy, and add some fun and glitz to the experience.  But, at the discounted rate, they cost less than a Holiday Inn-level hotel in many of the towns I visit for business.

* Beverage service—Paying poker in such a nice room is fun, but for the Ironmen, the Venetian's offering of premium drinks (Red Bull-Grey Goose is the unofficial drink of IMOP) to its poker players is a major draw.

* Customer Service—The Venetian poker room management has made an effort to be friendly and welcoming to low-level players, rather than taking a snooty attitude as might be found in other "elite" rooms.  This is rather important to the Ironmen, given our rather loud, boisterous hijinks at the tables.  Also, management welcoming of low-level players only swells the Venetian's herds of donkeys.

Speaking of customer service, when I checked in, I was informed that the rooms for the others in my party were not yet available.  However, the three of us team "captains" had booked separately.  It's quite the marvel of computer programming to identify that the three of us always book rooms at the same time, during the same month, every year.  As long as they haven't figured out our inclination to drink high-end liquor ...

I also had a package with our pledge "awards" shipped to the Venetian.  Little did I realize that the Venetian's package center closed at 6:00, so when I went to pick up the package at 6:10, I was told I would need to wait until the next day.  When I explained that I needed the package that night, a front desk worker explained the situation to a manager, who then contacted security to arrange to get the package.  Now that's customer service!

Now, the Venetian isn't perfect; for starters, I'd get rid of the cloying floral perfume that assaults the nose (a serious annoyance for me as I have highly sensitive sinuses).  Also, it's not the place for cheap table games.  But overall, it's really hard to think of a better place for the Ironmen to call home.

ADDENDUM (3 March 2010):  I believe the Venetian's success has a lot to do with a great marketing concept that started before the casino opened.  To dedicate such a large area of prime casino floor space to poker without any customer base took a lot of courage.  Also, management early on made a critical decision to cater to 1/2 NLHE players, who really weren't getting much attention from the heavyweights of the day:  Mirage was fixated on its bigger LHE games, Bellagio had the Big Game and bigger stakes games, and Wynn was chasing much the same crowd.  The Venetian offered a glamorous room and a welcoming smile to the little people, who comprise a pretty large percentage of poker players.  Now the rooms which once snubbed these bread and butter customers are reluctantly retooling their marketing to try to compete with the Venetian for the 1/2 NLHE niche, while the Venetian packs in their normal crowd while still expanding into bigger games.  Based on results, Venetian has had what is quite possibly the best poker room marketing campaign of all time.

March 04, 2010

IMOP Memories: The Beatdown at Bally's

IMOP-V begins today, and I've been on the ground in Vegas since yesterday for pregame training and festivities. Last night included an In & Out Burger run, as well as some poker at MGM and Aria. My fun hand of note was cracking Ironman Rookie River Joe's Aces with a rivered bajos dos pairs while playing Ironman Barbie's signature hand, the Spanish Inquisition (6-3, because nobody expects it). Hilarity ensued (Joe: "You called $50 on the turn with a pair of 3s?!?!"; Me: "I put you on Aces.").

As with yesterday's post, today is another trip down IMOP memory lane as we continue to celebrate "Ironman Week" here at crAAKKer. For the uninitiated, check out the page links under the header above for background information.

Tomorrow, I will post my personal IMOP-V prop bet picks, along with a look back at some classic IMOP props.


One of my most bizarre poker experiences occurred on IMOP-II. Santa and I were Strip surfing, looking for good drunken late night game. We stopped in a Paris (remember when Paris had a poker room?) but the room was dark. So we headed up the Strip and stumbled across a short-handed game at Bally's.

Now this was my first time in the Bally's poker room, so I wasn't prepared for the unique mix of drunken play and weird characters that epitomize the Bally's poker experience. For those who have never enjoyed the Bally's poker room, two key factors come into play--being open and immediately adjacent to the pits, and being literally next to a bar. Drink service to the poker room is as fast and as frequent as a puppy begging for treats, though with marginally less drool.

As we settled in at our table, two friendly guys in their early 20s introduced themselves as Mark and Simon (alas, no Theodore or Alvin joined the fun). We quickly learned two things about our new friends: a) they were English, and b) they were utterly trashed. The second fun fact was soon explained as they proceeded to order round after round of kamikaze shots for the table.

As their intoxication increased, so did our English friends' propensity to spew chips. They were also spewing the F-bomb nearly every other sentence. One dealer resorted to "fining" them $1 tip for every F-bomb, but that hardly slowed them down.

Although the Brits were drunken yahoos, most of the table didn't mind, partially because they were friendly and amusing, but mostly because they were terrible poker players. It was a classic example of not tapping the clown fish tank. Their friendliness may have crossed some boundaries, like when Mark rubbed my head and said, "I like your skull, Darrell.". (FYI, my name is not in the same ballpark as "Darrell"). A little later, Mark hugged a new arrival to the table, who was apparently too serious a player to play nicely with the table donkeys; angry words were exchanged, and I thought a fight might ensue.

Against this backdrop, ensuing events seem inevitable. I was sitting in the 9 seat, and Mark was on my right in the 8 seat. I noticed he was "going south" rather literally, taking a few chips every hand and dropping them into his lap or onto the floor, apparently to preserve some cash to buy booze and a cab ride. Now, I didn't really mind, because Simon kept asking Mark for chips, and Mark kept giving him chips from his lap stash. They both were hemorrhaging chips, so who was I to rat them out?

Around this point, Mark starts getting really friendly, high-fiving and hitting me in the shoulder every pot I won, or every joke I made, or just whenever some imaginary ball of yarn amused him. I folded a hand, turned away from the table, then turned back just in time to see a blur as Mark jumped into me and tackled me to the floor! I have no idea what he was thinking, but apparently he had decided we were good friends who needed to wrestle. The poker manager came rushing over, but I waved him off, telling him Mark was just messing around (he and Simon still had chips to lose!). The floor appeared skeptical, but issued a "final warning" and let things drop. Oh, and my supposed best bud Santa didn't even so much as say, "No, stop, don't do that" to defend me. I hope he gets attacked by a drunk Euro sometime, then we'll see how funny he finds it!

The Mark & Simon Show came to its inevitable yet amusing conclusion in short order. Despite the "final warning", the F-Bombs continued to fly freely. Eventually, a pit boss from the casino floor came over:

Pit Boss: "I can hear you way over in the pits. If you don't stop using the F-Word, I'll have to ask you to leave."

Simon: "How about the C-Word? Can we use the C-Word?"

Pit Boss: "No, you can't."

Mark: "What if we're talking about your mum?"

Pit Boss: "Security!"

Mark and Simon left on a friendly note, shaking hands all around and nearly starting a fight with an rather overly familiar hug to the player who had made it clear earlier he liked personal boundaries. I've always wondered what happened to these lovable English poker hooligans ...

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

March 03, 2010

IMOP Memories: The Sherminator

NOTE: A detailed description of the Ironman of Poker (IMOP) can be found in the pages linked under the blog header.

One of my favorite IMOP moments occurred on my first trip, IMOP-II. I had been invited by college roomie Santa Claus to the inaugural IMOP, but I had declined because I was not yet a full-fledged poker degenerate. After reading Santa's trip report, however, I realized how empty my life would be without some official poker hijinks. And mojitos.

We were based out of the Venetian, which was still a brand new room looking for its niche on the Vegas poker scene. It seemed like their goal was to fill 30+ tables with drunk trust fund d-bags. Looks like they have succeeded. Probably the last successful poker marketing scheme that didn't rely on Tiffany Michele's ta-tas (or ta-tas in general).

Early in the trip, Santa had run into a d-bag who looked just like the nerd from "American Pie". In a moment of inspiration, Santa nicknamed him "The Sherminator". Brilliant.

The Sherminator was an early 20s d-bag who thought he was cooler than he was, better looking than he was, and a better poker player than he was. Which put him in the same category as 75% of the after-Tao poker crowd. The Sherminator loved to chatter non-stop about his poker play and how good he was (in his own world, at least). He loved to say, "I play the player, not the cards," usually after making a trivially standard play. What distinguished The Sherminator from the d-bag horde, however, was his outrageous nerdishness, displayed in his pre-Hevad Khan era celebration of winning a big pot by standing up, putting his hands together over his head, and yelling, "I am the Highlander!" Santa wanted to felt The Sherminator as much as OJ wanted to find his ex-wife's real murderers. Hmmm, well maybe more like as much as Wile E. Coyote wanted to catch the Road Runner--and with about as much luck, given The Sherminator's off the charts SVB skills enabling him to run hotter than Betelgeuse.

Until I stepped in with my uber-SVB skills. Santa and I were playing our last long overnight session at the Venetian, looking for courtesy chips from the bottle service boys fresh off a night of clubbing. I had run up a nice stack but Santa was struggling to get any traction. Suddenly, The Sherminator materializes at our table! Game on.

The Sherminator actually played fairly well, which he was happy to point out for our benefit. He had built up a nice stack when the poker gods decided to teach a little lesson in the perils of hubris.

I was on the button. The game was playing loose-stupid, so there were a couple of limpers to Santa who put in a healthy raise; to those paying attention, he clearly had a premium hand, but the Red Bull-vodka crew at our table were as perceptive as Mr. Magoo. I glance over at Shermy who is clearly excited, either by his cards, or by the fact that the cocktail waitress called him "honey". Since I have bullets in my pocket, I decide it's a good time for an ambush, and silky-smooth call.

Shermy hollywoods a bit, then makes a "please play" raise. Santa decides he wants to join the reindeer games and pushes all-in for ~$250 total. I decide it's time to put my hard-earned image to good use, and I pull out a "Mad Hatter" hat--it was at least a foot high, made of red felt with black stripes and card suits sewn on. I pull on this so-funny-it's-cool monstrosity, look right at Shermy, and say, "Let's make this easy. I'm all-in, too."

Shermy goes nuts! He has over $600 total, but I have him covered. He also knows Santa and I are friends who have been making outrageous plays all night (well, I've been harassing Santa with annoyance plays to win Ironman tilt points, but the table didn't know that part of the dynamics). Shermy stands up and tanks hard. "This can't be happening! There's no way this is happening again!" Shermy is clearly in anguish, obviously holding Kings and dreading Aces.

That's when Santa makes a brilliant play. He looks Shermy dead in the eye and says, "I play the player, not the cards." That taunt must have hit home, as Shermy snap calls. He looks at Santa and says, "You have aces?" Santa shakes his head and rolls over Queens. Shermy looks happy and rolls his Kings. That's when I roll my Aces. Shermy looks like someone kicked his puppy: "Twice in one day! Twice!" Gee bud, sucks when variance catches up to ya, huh?

As Shermy whined on, the dealer put out the board. Shermy starts calling for a King like a wife trying to get her husband to do chores during the Super Bowl. Junky cards hit the flop and turn, but the river was paint: a Queen! Santa steals my pot to get healthy, while I took the side pot for a decent profit myself.

Shermy? He whined some more, then stormed out of the poker room, looking for an ATM. Funny thing--he came back to the room, but found a different table. Apparently the kiddie game was across the room.

Next time we see the Sherminator, I'll lay even money he's either crying while busting out of the WSOP Main Event, or an Internet millionaire looking for love (and to get to third base) on "The Bachelor".

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone