April 30, 2010

My Roots Are Showing

During my trip back to sweet home Huskerland yesterday, I got slow-rolled (or rolled slow) by a truck, but the lengthy drive was otherwise rather pleasant.  Of course, most of the trip was on I-80, which is not particularly interesting to most out of state drivers, but the speed limit in Nebraska is 75 mph (with traffic going 80-85 mph) so the countryside flies by.  Plus, with ESPN and Fox Sports talk radio available via XM radio, the trip isn't nearly as long and boring as it was back in the days of fighting with my brothers in the back seats of a late 70s station wagon on family trips.

Once I got off the interstate near Grand Island and took Highway 281 to head north to St. Paul, I saw a number of interesting signs and sights that were part of my farm background that many of my friends and readers of this blog might not be familiar with.  So, on my return trip, I made a few quick pitstops to snap these pictures on my iPhone.  Hope you enjoy!

Follow the Red Brick Road:

Red brick streets in the St. Paul business district.

St. Paul is a small town (population ~2,200), but it is a county seat, which is still a big deal in rural Nebraska.  A part of the tradition for many county seats (which were historically older and wealthier towns before their decline since the farm crisis in the 1970s) was to have paved streets by the county courthouse.  The original paving was done with bricks, but St. Paul's relative historical wealth was flaunted by extending the brick paving to the entire business district (the brick paving runs from the railroad tracks about four blocks ahead of the camera to a dozen blocks or so behind the camera where you can find the courthouse, school, and public library, and to most of the immediately adjacent side streets).  The city has maintained the brick paving despite paving the rest of the town using more modern methods.  As kids, when we visited our grandparents, we used to walk to a city park located by the trees in the upper left side of the photo.  My grandmother worked in a drugstore on the left side of Main Street, while my grandparents' house was a couple of blocks to the right side of Main Street.  Interestingly, for years my grandparents were neighbors to the Lynch family, creators of the famous Dorothy Lynch salad dressing (well, famous and popular in the Midwest, at least).

Sarah Palin, Used Car Salesperson:

Funny sign on the outskirts of St. Paul. 

I was reminded of this classic Saturday Night Live skit:

Bin There, Done That:

Farm grain bins.  These are set back from the road, so the telephone
pole creates a perspective that the bins are smaller than actual size. 
Bin "rings" are ~ 3 foot high, so the large bin on the left is ~ 21 feet to the
base of the peak, and the peak adds an additional ~10 feet in height.

Grain bins are a common sight in farm country; every farmer has several for storing and sometimes drying grain that is not taken directly to the local elevator for sale during harvest.  The large bin above probably can hold ~10,000 to 13,000 bushels of grain (assuming a 24' or 27' diameter base), while the smaller bins will hold 1/3 to 1/2 as much.

We would often move grain out of bins for sale or to grind for livestock feed.  Let's just say that scooping grain inside a dusty steel bin during the middle of July is not a fun summer vacation activity.  It's even worse when your brothers (allegedly) have allergies to grain dust and get to do other chores.  Jerks.

Use Your Melon:

Roadside melon stand near St. Libory, Nebraska.

The area between Grand Island and St. Paul has sandy soil suited to growing watermelons, muskmelons (mostly cantaloupe and honeydews), pumpkins, and squash.  There are several roadside farmer-owned melon stands along Highway 281 that have been around for decades.  Some Nebraska produce may have made its way into your fruit salad or pumpkin pie.

Making It Rain, Nebraska Style:

Typical "center pivots" used for irrigation (standard length is 1/4 mile long).

If you hit a big score in Las Vegas, you can "make it rain" at, ahem, a gentlemen's club.  In western Nebraska, where actual rain can be scarce, irrigation is often necessary.  On our farm in the aptly named Republican River valley, we used water from a nearby reservoir for gravity flow irrigation via pipes or siphon tubes (pictures of both techniques available in this discussion of "furrow irrigation").  In hilly areas, however, center pivot irrigation is the only option, using water pumped up from the Ogallala aquifer, a major aquifer in the Midwest (as an aside, the aquifer's name-source, Ogallala, Nebraska, is on the edge of the beautiful Nebraska Sandhills).  If you've flown to Las Vegas from the eastern United States and passed over Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, or Colorado, and looked out your window, you've probably seen large green circles inside square fields.  The green areas are the potions of the fields irrigated by the center pivot, usually panted to corn, soybeans, or other "cash crop", while the corners are typically planted to a dryland grain crop (e.g., wheat or sorghum) or a forage crop (e.g., alfalfa or grass for hay).

Cattle Rustlers Beware!

Most of western Nebraska is cattle country, and cattle branding is taken seriously.

Calves are typically weaned in May or June, and the process of "working calves" can be a rather tough few days of work, depending on the number of calves.  Calves are first separated from their mothers, then taken to a place with a squeeze chute to allow vaccination, castration (males), dehorning, tagging, and branding, before then being taken to the feedlot to begin the process of being fattened for eventual sale and slaughter.  Even though grazing in Nebraska is not "open-range" and cattle are usually kept in fenced-in pastures, cattle do find ways to break through fences, and branding is an easy way to separate mixed herds.  More importantly, with the recent economic downturn, cattle rustling is on the rise across the country, including in Nebraska.  So, inspecting the brands on cattle being sold or transported to an area without brand inspection procedures is an important process for ranchers.

When I was in 4-H, I got a purple ribbon for giving a 10-minute discussion and demonstration on brands and branding at the Nebraska State Fair.  Yup, I was a farm geek.

Hot Vacation Spots:

Great place names!

If you're sick of the South Beach diet and the Atkins diet, may I suggest a Diet of Worms?

Well, hope you enjoyed my nostalgic trip down the backroads of Nebraska!  Next time, we'll discuss pulling calves, and other glamorous farm chores.

D-Bag O' the Day (v. 1.5)—I Can't Drive 65

Yesterday, on my trip back to my home state of Nebraska, I encountered several examples of a common species of D-Bag, the Left Lane Slowpoke—drivers who sit in the left lane, but neither passing the traffic in the right lane nor pulling into the right lane, trapping faster movig traffic behind them in an impromptu rolling roadblock.  I'm not sure what motivates these folks:  some may dislike being in the same lane as most of the truck traffic, some may hate making lane changes, a few are probably oblivious to the traffic piling up behind them, and a few are trying to single-handedly enforce speed limits (they are the ones who make a point of not letting you pass for a mile or so, then glaring as you pass them on the right).

Our designated D-Bag, however, gets the award for exceptional inconsideration.  As I approached the Council Bluffs/Omaha area on I-80, I found my way blocked by this yahoo, who managed to almost—but never quite—pass the truck in the right lane for nearly 10 miles.  Both trucks were going 60-65 mph the entire time, while the speed limit is 70 mph (and prevailing auto traffic is typically ~75 mph).  By the time our yahoo gave up the chase and pulled into the right lane, over 20 cars had piled up behind me in a convoy of the damned.

Trucking company name obscured to protect the innocent employer
from its inconsiderate employee.

So thanks a lot, pal.  Your little trucker's Indy 500 inconvenienced a bunch of other drivers, and probably created a potentially dangerous situation as all those congested cars waited to get past your inconsiderate and self-absorbed ego. 

Sing it, Sammy!

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777 Unlucky Horseshoes

I traveled Thursday back to my great home state of Nebraska to visit my grandmother who began receiving hospice care this week due to a recent diagnosis of cancer.  Grandma C just turned 94 and had lived on her own until three years ago.  She's still pretty sharp mentally, but I wanted to make sure I got to visit with her at least one last time before she needs higher doses of painkillers.  So, I combined a business trip to Omaha with a jaunt to central Nebraska.  Grandma C was doing well, all things considered, and we got to talk a good two hours before she became fatigued.  The highlight was when she complained about her roommate, and broke her usual mannerly demeanor to observe:  "She complains all the time.  Nobody likes her.  She's something else.  Well, she's a bitch.  I guess I can call her that because she calls me that all the time."  It took all the self-control I had not to fall on the floor laughing at the commentary!

Anyway, on the way home, I decided to make a pit stop at the Horseshoe casino in Council Bluffs (just over the border from Omaha for my geographically impaired readers).  The Horseshoe is at the site of a former dog racing track (or maybe they still race dogs, I don't know for certain, and don't particularly care).  Anyway, it's part of the Harrah's Casino Borg, so it's a good place to keep my Total Rewards card points current.

The Horseshoe poker room is easily the nicest in Iowa in terms of decor, comfort, and physical layout.  They have 18 tables, so they can accomodate tournaments and cash games simultaneously.  The Horseshoe also hosts an annual WSOP Circuit Event.  But, there are a number of quirks:
  • There is no posting into a game, unique in Iowa.
  • They play 1/3 NLHE (as well as 2/5 NLHE), unique in Iowa.
  • The maximum buy-in for 1/3 NLHE, however, is only $200.
  • They take a jackpot drop for high hand jackpots, but all the HHJs are progessive by specific hand, including suits for straight flushes.  Also, the HHJs reset to only $10 after being hit.  So, tonight, if you hit a royal flush in spades, you would win $10, while the other royals were each well over $1000.
  • They use a moving button instead of a dead button, again unique in Iowa.
The above-listed quirks are simply house rules, so even though they are unusual for Iowa, they don't much affect play.  However, I did notice a few house quirks that are annoying:
  • Fills are done whenever the floor brings chips to the table, even if a hand is in progress.  Twice I saw dealers filling their rack while players were betting the flop.  It's astonishing that there were no errors or issues that arose from the dealer's attention being diverted from the action.  Both dealers severely "rolled" the deck while completing the fill.
  • The house rakes at 10%, with a maximum of $5.50, well over the $4 maximum rake at all other Iowa casinos, and higher even than at Harrah's properties in Vegas (where they rake $5 maximum).  Compared to other Iowa casinos, the extra $1.50 per hand adds up pretty quickly; assuming 30 hands per hour, with 20 hands hitting the maximum rake, that's an extra $30/hour being taken off the table (not insignificant when the average stack is $100-$250).
The bad thing about the extra $1.50 rake is that the Horseshoe is taking a significant amount of that rake from its dealers.  It seemed that tipping a 50-cent chip was common for pots under $50, rather than the $1 tip that would be standard on a table without 50-cent pieces.  So, at least one-quarter of the extra rake is actually coming from the dealers who are being tipped less.

I also saw one situation that would have driven my friend the Poker Grump crazy (or crazier).  A new dealer sits down at our table and promptly announces, "This is my first table for the night.  I hope you guys start me off right with some big pots."  Now, she didn't exactly say it, but the implication was clear; she was angling for tips.  This attitude was reinforced when she continued to tip-hustle on most pots, with comments like, "Nicely played" or "You knew I was going to get you that flush" directed to pot winners.  Just to really bother the Grump, this dealer also had the habit of shuffling the cards once before putting them into the automated shuffler; apparently, the machine is not to be trusted with random shuffling.

Because the 2/5 NLHE list was full, I sat in 1/3 NLHE instead for my quick session.  I got up about $150 early with a couple of calls of fairly obvious bluffs.  But the level of play was quite atrocious.  Once, on a board of 9-9-T-7-Q, a player with pocket Tens check-called a river bet, to let a player with A9 save some of his stack.  On another hand, a player folded 87 face up to a flop check-raise all-in (to $100 into a pot of $50+) ... on a board of 8-7-3 with two diamonds.  Just very curious.

However, I ended up gacking back my profit and part of my buy-in on three weird hands.  I had black kings and one preflop caller, with a flop of 4-5-6 all clubs.  We got it all-in on the turn, and he showed red 77, so he was drawing to seven outs.  Of course, the 7s hits the river.  Another hand, I have AKo, limp-reraise preflop to $28 total, get one caller who has ~$75 behind.  Flop is K-J-7, we get it all-in, he has a set of 7s.  Hmmm, set-mining getting only 4:1 odds??   Finally, I have KK again, limp-reraise to $105 (enough to cover the preflop initial raise).  He calls with ... AdJd.  Of course, he rivers the Ace.  I'm actually pleased with how I played these hands, and I'm not complaining about bad beats.  I just want to illustrate the poor play going on.  This is definitely one of the softer rooms in the state.

As an interesting coda, it turns out two of the guys who took big pots off me were in town for the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting (Berkshire Hathaway is the investment company owned by tycoon Warren Buffet).  Obviously Mr. Buffet's disciples don't share his investing acumen.

April 28, 2010

D-Bag O' the Day (v. 1.4)—GOP Chip Tricks

Our D-Bag du Jour is an Iowa Republican other than our resident blowhard, Rep. Steve King—shocking, I know.  Nope, our D-Bag is Pat Bertroche, a candidate in the Republican primary race for the House of Representatives from Iowa's 3rd Congressional District (essentially central Iowa, including much of the Des Moines area).   During a Republican debate earlier this week, Betroche had this to say about the issue of illegal immigration:

“I think we should catch ’em, we should document ’em, make sure we know where they are and where they are going.  I actually support micro-chipping them. I can micro-chip my dog so I can find it. Why can’t I micro-chip an illegal?"

—James Q. Lynch, "3rd District GOP Hopefuls Take Tough Stances on Immigration", Cedar Rapids Gazette (April 27, 2010).
Sounds an awful lot like a plot from the X-Files, or part of a "black helicopters" conspiracy theory.  Hmm, where have I heard about the evil government plot to insert chips into people against their will?  Oh wait!  That's right, some of the loonier right-wingers in the country were spreading rumors that the health care reform bill would require people to have microchips implanted in order to receive health insurance.  Apparently microchip tracking is evil if done to American citizens, but patriotic if done to illegal immigrants.  Got it. 

Now, Bertroche is not some fringe, half-loopy candidate.  Nope, he's a psychiatrist from a Des Moines suburb.  So, the man comparing illegal immigrants to dogs is actually an educated professional with a comfortable spot in society.  Oh, and he wants to help run our government.  Let's just say that, if you have to ask the question, "Why can't I micro-chip an illegal [immigrant]?", maybe you need to be sitting on a shrink's couch yourself.

Of course, Bertroche now claims his remarks were taken out of context:

Bertroche did not deny making the comments when asked about them Tuesday by The Associated Press. But he said he never meant to suggest he advocates illegal immigrants be microchipped like dogs, which can have chips placed beneath their skin.

"I don't support microchipping anybody and it also didn't occur to me I was comparing dogs to illegal immigrants," he said by phone.

—Associated Press, “Iowa Candidate: Microchipping Comment Not Serious”, via KCRG.com (April 28, 2010).
So, when you suggest illegal immigrants be tracked with microchips like dogs, you aren't advocating microchipping immigrants, you aren't comparing immigrants to dogs, and you aren't suggesting that illegal immigrants be given microchips for tracking purposes like dogs?  Alrighty then, glad you cleared that up.  Would hate for there to be any misunderstanding.

 Peeing on the reputations of
reasonable Republicans since 2010.

ADDENDUM (28 April 2010):  While we're on the topic, I should give Rep. Steve King credit for his proposed solution to the illegal immigration problem—electric fences.  As Rep. King put it, "We do this with livestock all the time."  Now, I grew up on a farm and put up my fair share of electric fences.  Let's just say it was no fun to touch a live wire, and such fences are highly impractical as a solution to this particular problem.  How does Iowa end up with yahoos like King and Bertroche making the national news, while intelligent Republicans like former Representatives Jim Leach and Greg Ganske find themselves out of office?

ADDENDUM (30 April 2010):  Now we have another GOP yahoo, Rep. Ted Poe of Texas, comparing illegal immigrants to "illegal grasshoppers".  Seriously.  Grasshoppers.

April 26, 2010

Wine & Whine O' the Week (v. 1.11)
—The crAAKKer in the Rye

Now that the IMOP-V official trip report has been released by Santa Claus on All Vegas Poker (Part I & Part II), I can share the full story of my tilting of fellow Ironman (and teammate) Sahara.  Sahara gained his official nickname during IMOP-II, when he made the mistake of vocalizing his distaste for, you guessed it, the wondrous Sahara Resort, Casino, and Iron Lung.  In fact, Sahara was the first Ironman to have his IMOP nickname officially stick. I still remember the joy of my first time yelling, "Yo, Sahara!" at him in the Venetian poker room, and having him turn around like a little puppy expecting a treat.

All kidding aside, Sahara is the designated IMOP tournament assassin.  He is a corporate lawyer by day, and an online MTT Fight Club master by night.  Sahara has memorized Harrington on Hold 'Em and The Mathematics of Poker, and can calculate his M, Q, Z, and DD to eight decimal points.  This guy is a true poker idiot savant—a guppy at cash games, and a shark in tournaments.  In fact, Sahara is known to the Pocket Fives poker community as "Sh@rkB@it"; his recent online tourney results are rather impressive, particularly for a Hobbit with an HgH habit.

Sahara at the TI poker tourney on IMOP-V.
Tragically, the shirt was unironed and unironic.

As part of the IMOP festivities, the Ironmen all entered the Sunday afternoon tournament at Aria.  There were roughly 50-60 runners, and with a $120 buy-in, the prize pool was a nice pot o' gold tempting a leprechaun like Sahara.  I managed not to do anything stupid and by late afternoon I found myself in the final two tables.  Near as Sahara can recall (he actually remembers pesky poker details and "analyzes his game"), I had an average stack of ~20,000, while Sahara had just moved to the table and was one of the stronger stacks left with ~30,000.  Blinds were 600/1200, with a 200 ante. Sahara was in the hijack and raised to 2800 after everyone folded to him.  Figuring Sahara was "stealing" (or maybe it was "trespassing to chattels", who knows what those online guys mean with all their mumbo jumbo), I flat-called on the button with 5s2s.  Now, five-deuce sooooted is a strong hand; I've won at least three or four big pots with it over the past decade.  Plus, I have been studying poker, too, and I remembered an important Stupid/System lesson: "There is no easier way for you to make your hand strong than to call a big bet."  Clearly, I had to be ahead of Sahara, so I deviously flat-called to trap him.

The flop came out T-7-3 with one spade.  Sahara checked to me. Little chickensh#t.  Clearly I was still ahead, plus I had picked up straight and flush draws, so if I happened to be behind, I figured I had at least 24 outs (spades, deuces, treys, fours, fives, and sixes).  Not wanting to scare Sahara off, I checked behind.  Sometimes, I play so good!

The turn was one of my outs: a 5!  Yahtzee!  However, not wanting to give off any tells, I maintained a strict poker face:

Sahara put out a weakazz bet of 5K.  I mentally went through the Stupid/System checklist.  Reads?—With that ridiculous bet, Sahara was weak and clearly bluffing.  Sahara's range?—Let's see, I could beat AK, AQ, basically any bluff with overcards; obviously then, Sahara must be bluffing with overcards.  Was I due?—I hadn't won a pot in like an orbit.  Heck yeah, I was due!  Was I priced in?—Well, there were some blinds and antes, and I have at least 127% equity in the pot ... carry the four, round down, convert to a ratio ... Screw it, I can win a bunch of chips!  So, since I knew I was ahead of Sahara, my best move was to push all-in.  Ergo (philosopher for "I'm brilliant"), I pushed.

Sahara looked surprised.  He stood up, stared at the board, fidgeted with his cards, and muttered, "I don't think you have anything."  Hah!  These online geeks are terrible at live action play.  Sahara says, "OK, I call."  Sahara rolls over AcTc for top pair, top kicker.  What a donkey!  Like that hand is going to be any good.  Sahara kept standing, but I leaned back comfortably in my chair, knowing I couldn't lose.  Sure enough, the dealer rolled off the river:  another 5!  Donkey Kong!  Sahara jerked back like he'd been tasered.

When the shock of my skillful trap wore off, Sahara started muttering:  "Five-deuce?  What are you doing? Seriously, five-deuce?  That's terrible!"  All I could think was: "The dude really should relax. Seriously."  I mean, he's the donkey who called my all-in with just top pair when I had to have at least almost-trips.  Instead, I smiled and said, "I put you on aces."  For some reason, that comment made Sahara turn a brighter shade of lobster.

Within a few hands, Sahara was eliminated and headed back to the Venetian, stopping at the Caesars Palace fresh mojito stand for a delicious, calming beverage.  Free of tilt and scurvy, Sahara entered the Venetian 8:00 p.m. tourney and dominated the field for a profitable victory.  After the tourney, Sahara took time to explain to me why "flatting with five-deuce is a terrible play online", forgetting that we had been playing live; online guys really can't transition to live play at all.  As for me, I made the final table at Aria, but bubbled when the chipleader sucked out on my 88 with AA.  Luckbox.  Live poker is rigged.

Just like my brilliant play in this hand, Templeton Rye whiskey is strong and smooth, with a bite that can sneak up on you.  Templeton Rye has an intriguing story.  During Prohibition, Al Capone considered the bootleg rye whiskey from the tiny farmtown of Templeton, Iowa to be some of the best bootlegged booze around, and was his personal favorite.  Supposedly, even after Prohibition ended, some rye continued to be made every year.  A few years ago, a couple of local youngsters decided to resurrect the brand for legal marketing.  Now, the whiskey is so popular in Iowa and Illinois that there is currently a shortage as the company ramps up production (hindered by the four-year aging process)**.  Fortunately, as of this December, the company's production will dramatically increase so that wait lists will no longer be necessary.*

The Chicago Tribune recently ran a feature story on Templeton Rye.  For those interested, here's some background on rye whiskey.  Although rye whiskey was the traditional base for Whiskey Sours, Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and Sazeracs, I prefer drinking Templeton Rye on the rocks, either straight or in a cocktail made by adding 1-3 parts ginger beer (ginger ale in a pinch) to 1 part Templeton Rye (the amount of ginger beer/ale is to individual taste), with a twist of lemon or lime if you must have a garnish.

To anyone wishing to avoid being crAAAKKed, I do provide "protection" in exchange for a bottle of Templeton Rye.

ADDENDUM (28 April 2010):  I didn't give a very good description of the flavor profile for Templeton Rye, mostly because I don't have a bottle handy (damn you, Erik Seidel, for that shortage!).  So, I found a couple of reviews that capture the essence of Templeton Rye.

From the blog "Lost Angeles" (which I have now added to my Google Reader feeds, as it appears rather entertaining and definitely well-written):
The whiskey smelled a little sweet when we opened it. A first sip was very smooth, but packed quite a kick on the back nine. I thought at first that I was going to be too rough and tumble for this Iowan rye, but I was wrong. We put our second glass on ice and continued to enjoy it. This whiskey was strong and smooth at the same time, which are hallmarks of what I look for. I like the whiskey’s strength to be in its punch, not in its peat so to speak. The Templeton Rye was smooth, warming and substantial in every way. It stuck to your ribs. It made me want to fight a bear and pour him a glass after we’d gone a few rounds. You know, just to show him it was only a little good-natured roughhousing. [emphasis added].
Yes, I'm pretty sure I could fight a bear with a little Templeton Rye in me.  Or at least hold my own in a wrestling match with Berkeley over his stuffed giraffe.

Here's a little more traditional review from the "DrinkHacker" blog:
The flavor profile is overwhelming, and in a good way. Starting with honeycomb and toffee, it soon reveals notes of buttermilk biscuits, shortbread, and even gingersnaps. Extremely easygoing, there’s virtually no heat on the finish at all, which is probably why I’m well into glass #3. A bit of dark chocolate plays on the finish, too.
How could you not love honey, toffee, gingersnaps, and dark chocolate?  In fact, I think Templeton Rye is a great reason to break out some good dark chocolate (not that I ever really need an excuse).

I also found another great background story on Templeton Rye at the "Heavy Table" blog.  This story has a lot of interesting details and quirky anecdotes, well worth the read.

I had forgotten to mention that Templeton Rye was named "Best Whiskey" at the 2008 Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition

Finally, for those of you interested in the distillery, Templeton Rye was originally distilled in Indiana, then aged and bottled in Templeton, Iowa.  However, the company has built a distillery in Templeton (opening in 2008), and is even beginning to grow rye in the Templeton area.  So, Templeton Rye is well on its way to becoming truly an "all-Iowa" product.
* I played poker Friday night with a local wine/beer/liquor distributor who indicated that most stores in Iowa are being allocated 2-6 bottles per week.  Most of these stores are not even stocking it on the shelves, instead calling the next name on their waiting list.  An attorney I know in Des Moines has a group of friends who will search for a bar with a bottle of Templeton Rye, and once found, the group will descend on the bar en masse to drink it 'til it's gone.  Other fans share locations of bars and stores with bottles available via Twitter and the Templeton Rye blog.  And yes, it really is worth the effort!

** EDITED (21 April 2010):  Originally stated a six-year aging process.  The Templeton Rye blog, however, states that the aging process is "more than four years" which is now reflected in the post.

April 25, 2010

Crazy Eights at the Meadows ATM

I played a six hour session last night at the Meadows ATM.  I got up early when I had pocket 8s twice flop sets, and I made two good reads/hero calls for decent pots, but no real monsterpotten as much of the table was playing rather short.  Then came up the hand of the night:

I straddled UTG for $4.  There were several callers back to me, and I found AJo.  Figuring I was ahead of the field, I popped it to $29 straight to take it down or get heads up.  Of course, I get three callers ... establish tight image, check.  Then, the SB (a solid regular) repops it to $129, leaving himself ~$150 behind.  I thought a bit, and decided none of the remaining players could have a real hand, given the action to that point—the three limp-callers had all passed on two shots at raising, while the SB would never have limped a strong hand.  I decided that SB likely had a small PP, thought I was full of bovine excrement, and was trying a squeeze play.  I immediately decided I should crush his dreams.  I rerepopped it to $299 total, and got one caller all-in for $109 total, while SB thought a bit and reluctantly folded.  Flop was KKJ, followed by two baby blanks, and my hand was good.

Of course, instead of cashing out +$550, I stuck around another hour and managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  I ran into the table luckbox/maniac twice and donked off ~$300 to his improbable two pairs and straights before he gave away all my chips plus his buy-in to the rest of the table.  A horrid misread and a bad crying call dissipated the rest of my profit, and my buy-in went up in smoke when variance turned my two hot hands into a cooler.  I had AJ, flopped top two pair, and ran into a flopped set of 8s (in unrelated news, Dealer Jim has plummeted 10 spots on the official Grange dealer rankings).  Nothing better than combining bad luck with bad play.

The entertaining moment of the evening occurred when a guy in his late 20s got a text message from a college gal he had hung around with last year.  He asked us to interpret her message:  "You should make some loves on me."  The table decided it was a typo for "moves", and encouraged the guy to head out and pick her up from the bar where she was having a fight with her boyfriend (the genesis of the text message).  He decided to play it cool and stay and play poker.  So, for over an hour the entire table took turns needling the guy over how he should leave and get the girl, knocking him off his usual solid game.  I might possibly have had some small part in keeping the heckling going.  In any event, just more proof that sex-tilt is a dangerous thing—women truly are the rake!

Bi-Ware the Gay Mafia

I swear, I'll get some poker and sports posts up this week, but the past few days have seen some really silly moments on the gay news front, including:

  • The decision to disqualify a gay softball team from the gay softball association's national championship game, because three of its bisexual players were declared to be "heterosexual" (the subject of my post a few days ago).
  • A Pennsylvania state legislator "outing" her primary opponent ... as straight!  According to Thomas Fitzgerald at the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Veteran Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.) last Thursday accused her primary opponent, Gregg Kravitz, of pretending to be bisexual in order to pander to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender voters, a powerful bloc in the district."  Who thought we'd ever see the day when being straight was a political scandal?
  • A Sacramento, California man, has filed a lawsuit alleging, "he was fired for not being gay, or gay enough, while working at Suzie's", a local porn shop (excuse me, "adult bookstore").  As reported by David Begnaud of the local CBS affiliate (KOVR), the man asserts, "I was told flat out that I wasn't the 'gay boy' they were looking for; they were looking for someone who was more gay."  Oh, and the man is "a plumber by trade."  'Nuff said.
Clearly, the Fairy Godfather of the gay mafia is hard at work, keeping the straight man down.  While you mentally make your own half dozen truly tasteless jokes, let's hand it off to Robin Williams and Elton John to explain the gay mafia:

Robin Williams, Live on Broadway (at the 4:30 mark):

Will & Grace (special appearance by Elton John):

April 23, 2010

Baxter v. United States—Landmark or Mirage?

Earlier this month, I posted about the recent Pennsylvania appellate court decision finding that poker was a game of chance, and could be regulated as gambling. The upshot of my post was that the “poker is a game of skill” argument isn’t getting any traction in court, and poker players and the Poker Players Alliance need to abandon the court-driven approach to legalizing poker in favor of lobbying Congress (for online poker) and state legislatures (for recreational home games) for statutory changes. I also cross-posted over on the All Vegas Poker forums to see what their reactions might be.

One of the AVPers—fellow Iowan “zzjitterzz”—posted a comment referring to a federal court case, Baxter v. United States, which suggested the Baxter court had found poker to be a game of skill.  I wasn’t familiar with the case, but with a little research, I discovered that many in the poker community regarded the case as definitively holding that poker was a game of skill (see here, herehere, here, here, and here for a sampling of the pro-Baxter discussion).  I decided I needed to read the actual court decision for myself, but could not find the decision on any of the usual free law sources. So, I logged onto Westlaw (the uber-site for legal research) and pulled up the case (you can read for yourself the text of the decision here).  I also did a little research about the legal aftermath of the decision, and found the case to be rather interesting.  So, considering the Baxter decision is held in such esteem by the poker community, let’s take a closer look and see what, if any, benefit the case may have for the current battle over legalizing poker.

Q: Who is Billy Baxter?

A: According to a biographical article in CardPlayer Magazine, William “Billy” Baxter, Jr. is a lifelong gambler, beginning as a pool hustler before moving into poker and sports betting. Baxter has won seven WSOP bracelets, and is widely regarded as one of the all-time greatest lowball poker players.

Q: Why was Baxter in federal court?

A: Baxter and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had a dispute over whether Baxter’s gambling winnings of over $1.2 million for a four year period (1978-81) should be taxed as “earned income” or “unearned income”. At that time, earned income had a substantially lower income tax rate, and certain expenses could be deducted from earned income that could not be deducted from unearned income. To protest the IRS decision to tax his poker profits at the higher tax rate, Baxter could either pay the amount the IRS demanded and sue in federal district court for a refund, or he could refuse to pay and file a lawsuit in federal tax court. Baxter chose to pay the assessed tax and sue for a refund in district court (the same courts that get first bite at hearing a wide range of cases involving federal criminal cases, federal statutory claims, constitutional law challenges, cases involving federal agencies, and high-dollar civil litigation).

Q: Why did Baxter win?

A: First and foremost, it’s vitally important to understand that tax law, like almost all statutory law, is based on definitions. At the beginning of most statutes are a few introductory sections that define all sorts of terms. These sections look boring, but they in fact drive most of the resulting analysis. Let’s assume Congress wants to encourage widget production and discourage gadget production through the tax code. Congress will enact laws giving preferential tax treatment to widgets, while penalizing gadgets. But, there are also wadgets and gidgets on the market that look quite a bit like widgets and gadgets. The definitions in the statute (or in the IRS regulations interpreting the statute) will determine whether wadgets and gidgets end up being treated like widgets, gadgets, or neither.

Turning to the Baxter decision, the court engaged in a three-step analysis to determine how to treat Baxter’s poker income. The first step (Section I of the decision) addressed whether Baxter’s “gambling” constituted a “trade or business”. The court essentially analogized Baxter’s poker playing to stock traders who played the market for their own profit (as opposed to trading other people’s stocks for a fee). Finding that gambling and playing the stock market were similar activities, the court decided:
[T]he frequency, extent, and regularity of Baxter's gaming activities as well as his intent to derive a profit were sufficient to constitute a trade or business under the relevant sections of the Cod
Note that the court did not find that skill was a factor relevant to establishing poker as a “trade or business".

The second step of the court’s analysis (Section II of the decision) addressed whether Baxter’s gambling income was “personal service income”, which turned on the question of whether his profits were “earned” or “unearned”. The purpose of the earned/unearned test is that the government treats income differently if it is earned through the labor or business efforts of the taxpayer, or whether it is obtained as a return on a passive investment. The court found that, in Baxter’s case, he in fact had “earned” his poker winnings:
Clearly, Baxter's $1.2 million gaming income for the years at issue was not derived from his passive investment of capital in a series of risky ventures. Baxter expended substantial time and energy playing poker. Baxter consistently won at poker because he possesses extraordinary poker skills. Any argument that Baxter's gaming income is not based upon his personal expenditure of time, energy, and skill is meritless. Thus, because Baxter's gaming income constitutes earned income under § 911(b), it also constitutes personal service income under § 1348.
The court also found that a regulation treating all gambling income generically as “unearned income” was void to the extent it was applied to poker; the court specifically found the IRS regulation should distinguish between games with a skill element (like poker), and games with no skill element (like keno or slots). A-ha! “Skill” is finally recognized by the court as an important part of poker distinguishing it from other casino games! Well, let’s hold off on celebrating just yet. The court’s analysis isn’t complete.

The final step in the court’s analysis (Section III of the decision) was to determine the extent to which Baxter’s poker winnings were the result of return on capital, which might potentially limit his ability to utilize the lower tax rate for “personal services income”. The court found that:
… Baxter's income was derived entirely from his personal services and that the capital he used to finance his poker playing was merely a “tool of the trade.” The money, once bet, would have produced no income without the application of Baxter's skills. As discussed previously, it was Baxter's extraordinary poker skills which generated his substantial gaming income, not the intrinsic value of the money he bet.
See! The court found that poker is a game of skill a second time! Well, it’s true that the court relied on Baxter’s skill in finding that his poker income should be treated as earned income, no differently than the income from a stock market speculator. Unfortunately, although the court recognized that poker was a game of skill, the Baxter decision doesn’t necessarily help poker players seeking to legalize poker by arguing that poker, as a game of skill, is not subject to state laws banning “games of chance” or “gambling”.

Q:  Why wouldn’t the Baxter decision be the final word on the “poker is a game of skill” debate for all courts?

A:  Three major reasons come to mind:
  1. Baxter involves federal tax laws, not state gambling laws;
  2. The federal tax law which formed the basis for Baxter has changed; and, 
  3. Baxter was a federal district court case, which is not binding on any other court.
Q: Wait a minute! Wasn’t Baxter affirmed by a federal court of appeals? Doesn’t that make it binding on other courts?

A: A decision of a federal district court is binding only on the parties to the case in the particular dispute being litigated. Other courts (state or federal) may rely on the district court’s decision to the extent they agree with the court’s reasoning, but they are free to adopt, modify, or ignore the decision as they see fit. In fact, disagreements between district court judges as to the proper interpretation of a point of law often lead to a higher appeal court issuing a definitive ruling establishing an interpretation of law that is binding on all lower courts.

Several reports by people who know Baxter have repeated substantially the the same history:
The government appealed the ruling, and the case then went to a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Again, the court ruled in Baxter's favor. And again, the government appealed and said it was going to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

After due consideration, the government apparently thought it might not win there, and wanted to make a deal with Baxter. He held his ground and emphatically said, "No!" The government later dropped the case and Baxter got all of his money back with interest. (The interest barely covered his attorney's fees, but it was a sweet victory, which was all Baxter wanted.) He had stepped up to the plate and hit a home run off the government.

In poker terms, the government was bluffing when it said it wanted to go to the Supreme Court—and Baxter called the bluff.

—Mike Sexton, "Billy Baxter—The Man Who Made a Difference", in CardPlayer.com
In this case, the appeal would have been filed with the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the federal appellate court for most of the western states. If the Baxter decision had been affirmed by the court of appeals, it would have been binding precedent for federal courts in those states, and would have been given more deference in other circuits than a mere district court decision.

The problem is, the court of appeals never issued a decision in the Baxter case. According to Westlaw, there is no decision of record from the court of appeals, not even a memorandum opinion affirming the district court without comment. Without a court of appeals decision, the IRS certainly never appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

I suspect that the government may have filed a notice of appeal to the court of appeals, but decided to drop the appeal before an appellate decision was entered. The IRS attorneys may also have engaged in typical rhetoric about appealing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court as part of their attempts to negotiate a settlement. People who were unfamiliar with the case or the legal process might have misunderstood what occurred, leading to an inaccurate procedural history becoming part of the common lore surrounding the case.  But Baxter was never ruled on by any appellate court.

Q: Why would the IRS drop the appeal?

A: Probably for three reasons: 1) the tax laws at issue in the case had been amended in 1982, so the case was not particularly important from the government’s perspective, 2) the IRS realized they would likely lose the appeal in light of a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and 3) during the mid-1980s, the government’s position on gambling income was evolving along with changes in the tax laws.

This brings us to the second reason why Baxter is of limited benefit to current poker legalization litigation—the tax laws at issue in Baxter were amended in 1982 (and have been amended several times since). Further, less than a year after Baxter was decided, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed a similar legal question, this time arising from a full-time dog-race handicapper who wanted to claim his gambling wins as “earned income” from a “trade or business”. The U.S. Supreme Court held:
[I]f one's gambling activity is pursued full time, in good faith, and with regularity, to the production of income for a livelihood, and is not a mere hobby, it is a trade or business within the meaning of the statutes with which we are here concerned. Respondent Groetzinger satisfied that test in 1978. Constant and large-scale effort on his part was made. Skill was required and was applied. He did what he did for a livelihood, though with a less-than-successful result. This was not a hobby or a passing fancy or an occasional bet for amusement.

Commissioner v. Groetzinger, 480 U.S. 23, 35-36, 107 S.Ct. 980, 987 (1986).
 Hmmm, well there’s more “skill” talk, that's a big deal, right? There are two problems with relying on Groetzinger in the current poker legalization litigation, however. First, as the decision itself noted, the relevant tax laws had already been amended by the time the decision was entered, meaning it had little application going forward. Second, and more importantly, the IRS began to focus on the distinction between gambling for a livelihood and gambling for a hobby, without regard for skill. In the past twenty-odd years since Groetzinger, there are numerous tax court decisions finding not only dog and horse handicappers, but also sports bettors, keno players, and slots players to be “professional gamblers”. Professional poker players are now lumped into that same “professional gambler” category for tax law purposes, which is hardly an association poker players want to highlight in the current legal challenges to state gambling laws.

Q: But isn’t it important that Baxter found poker to be a game of skill?

A:  Frankly, no. It’s certainly nice that a federal judge made those findings, but his views are not particularly relevant to the state courts considering the current poker legalization cases. The primary reason Baxter is irrelevant to the poker legalization movement is the issue of statutory definitions discussed earlier. “Gambling” simply has different definitions under various federal and state statutes. It is entirely possible for a poker player to be considered a “professional gambler” for purposes of federal tax law, while his actual poker playing is "illegal gambling" pursuant to state gaming laws:
The issue before us is not whether the United States may tax activities which a State or Congress has declared unlawful. The Court has repeatedly indicated that the unlawfulness of an activity does not prevent its taxation, and nothing that follows is intended to limit or diminish the vitality of those cases.

Marchetti v. U.S., 390 U.S. 39, 44, 88 S.Ct. 697, 701 (1968).

Q:  So are you saying that Baxter wasn’t an important case?

 A: The case was certainly important to Baxter himself. It was probably helpful to the small community of similarly situated poker players in the early 1980s. But the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Groetzinger—coupled with changes in tax laws and regulations and the public’s growing acceptance of legalized gambling—was the primary driving factor leading to recognition of “professional gamblers” for federal tax law purposes. Even the Baxter decision itself referred to Baxter as being a “professional gambler” rather than a “professional poker player”, which is a much more recent label. 

Baxter’s relative unimportance can be seen by the fact it has been cited exactly twice in nearly a quarter of a century. One citation was in a footnote in the Groetzinger decision, cited for the proposition that the tax court regards gamblers the same as active market stock traders. The other citation was in a 1989 tax court decision involving income from betting on horse races. No other courts have found Baxter important enough to either rely upon or to criticize. In other words, Baxter has had essentially no impact on the development of the law.

Although prominent poker players and bloggers want to credit Baxter as the basis for professional poker players being treated like any other occupation for purposes of tax laws, that credit more properly belongs with Groetzinger. As for the current challenges to state gambling laws, Baxter’s language regarding the skill required to play poker has no precedential value, and little relevance.

Q: So what is the legacy of the Baxter decision?

A: Although the importance of the Baxter decision has been greatly overstated in the poker community, Baxter himself does deserve credit for pursuing the case (even though he had a significant financial motivation to do so). I think Justin West, in reflecting on Baxter’s induction into the Poker Hall of Fame, probably gets it right:  
While this case may have been brought up later, it was Baxter who took one of the first steps in making poker not only a legitimate profession, but a mainstream, above-the-table endeavor.

—Justin West, "Baxter, Cloutier Admitted to Poker Hall of Fame" at PokerPages.com
But when tax season rolls around, professional poker players should give a tip of the cap to Robert Groetzinger, professional dog-handicapper.

April 21, 2010

D-Bag O' the Day (v. 1.3)
—Pitchers & Catchers Report!

Our latest winner of the prestigious D-Bag O' the Day Award goes to the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA), whose website proudly proclaims:

Created in 1977, the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA) is a 501c(3) organization that promotes amateur sports competition, particularly softball, for all persons regardless of age, sexual orientation or preference, with special emphasis on the participation of members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community; and to otherwise foster national and international sports competition by planning, promoting and carrying out amateur sports competition.

NAGAAA's current membership includes over 680 teams from 37 leagues throughout the United States and Canada. Teams representing these leagues participate annually in NAGAAA's Gay Softball World Series (GSWS), hosted each year by a different member city.

NAGAAA sounds like a nice way for athletically inclined GLBT folks to enjoy some sports-related community bonding.  Also, the gay softball leagues allow straight people to play as well, which leads to increased tolerance, not to mention unlikely friendships.  As a good example, one of my close college buddies and roommates moved halfway across the country after graduation.  Doug was a typical small town Midwesterner by background, played every sport imaginable, and straight to the point where I doubt he had ever met a gay person.  When he got to Florida, his co-workers were gay, yet they hit it off over sports, and within a couple of weeks, Doug was a star player in the Tampa area gay softball league.

So why am I throwing NAGAAA  under the D-Bag Express?  Well, it turns out that even gays can be intolerant and discriminatory when it comes to sexuality.  Apparently, at the 2007 Gay Softball World Series, a team from the Seattle area placed second, but was challenged by another team(s) for violating a rule limiting the number of "heterosexual" players to two per team.  How did NAGAAA handle the allegations?  According to a discrimination lawsuit recently filed over the incident:

Each of the three plaintiffs was called into a conference room in front of more than 25 people, and was asked "personal and intrusive questions" about his sexual attractions and desires, purportedly to determine if the player was heterosexual or gay, the lawsuit alleges.

—Janet I. Tu, "Bisexual men sue gay group, claim bias," Seattle Times (20 April 2010).

Now, NAGAAA's rules only reference "heterosexual" and "gay" as possible sexual orientations, and the distinction is drawn based on the "predominate sexual interest" of the player, apparently making individuals who identify as bisexual "pick a team", so to speak.  So, these three gentlemen, who had publicly declared themselves gay (for purposes of softball, at least), still had to prove they were gay, or at least mostly gay, to a bunch of other gay people. When they were deemed insufficiently gay, their team was disqualified.  So much for "promot[ing] ... softball, for all persons regardless of ... sexual orientation or preference, with special emphasis on the participation of members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community."  It's good to have goals.

First off, how do you even decide if someone is "gay enough" to play softball?  See how many fashion designers they can identify in 30 seconds?  Have them identify interior decorating faux pas in pictures?  Ask them to create a Madonna-Lady GaGa mashup, and then choreograph it?  Decide if they run or throw "like a girl"?  Oh wait, the gay community is (correctly) opposed to such trite and offensive stereotypes.  So was the questioning more a matter of keeping score while the players were asked if they would rather sleep with Ricky Martin or J-Lo ... Paul Walker or Jessica Alba ... Will Smith or Beyonce' ... Joaquin Phoenix or Reese Witherspoon?  Or did it come down purely to an over/under on sexual encounters—"you must have sucked this many c---s to play our reindeer games"?  The entire premise of "gay enough" is simply absurd.  Let's be blunt—if someone is willing to self-identify as gay or bisexual, and face the negative societal attitudes that still come with such self-identification, well in my book, that's plenty gay.  I seriously doubt the NAGAAA is going to see a huge influx of faux-gay players who can't resist the opportunity to win a gay softball title.

Even setting aside the ridiculous complaints and resulting sexual inquisition, the NAGAAA rule itself is way out of line.  Sports are one area in society where gays still face some degree of systemic discrimination.  Trust me, it's tough to be gay and to love sports.  But if you don't believe me, take a look at a list of prominent "out" gay athletes, and note how many waited to come out until after their retirement from competition.  So when straight guys not only accept openly gay athletes but also accept them as teammates and friends, why on earth would gays want to limit straight participation in their leagues?  What better way to break down gay sports stereotypes and build stronger gay-straight ties in the sports community than to encourage even more straight guys to participate in predominately gay sports leagues?  The NAGAAA's rule prevents the very acceptance of gays in sports that the organization is trying to promote.

Besides, doesn't the NAGAAA realize that good switch hitters are always in great demand?

Picture of the DQ'd softball team.  Can you identify the not-gays?
(Answers and some interesting reader comments at Towleroad.com).

ADDENDUM (22 April 2010):  The three DQ'd players apparently were suspended for a few months, but later reinstated with threats made to ban the team from NAGAAA competitions if the team subsequently were found to have again violated the "two heterosexuals" roster limit.  The players are seeking not only monetary damages (a requirement for federal court jurisdiction in this type of case), but also are seeking injunctive relief, including a court order to strike the use of "gay" and "heterosexual" labels from the NAGAAA rules, as well as to abolish the "two heterosexuals" roster limit.  The plaintiffs are being represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), and the full complaint is available online.  Incidentally, a big high five to a gay rights advocacy group willing to stand up for folks who have been wronged by a gay organization on the basis of sexual identity.

ADDENDUM (23 April 2010):  The NAGAAA put out an "open letter" response to the lawsuit today.  Over at the Boneyard, blogger "davyjones" effectively skewers the NAGAAA's obsessive use of "gay/lesbian" and an apparent head in the sand approach to the existence of bisexuals. 

I also noticed that NAGAAA made several references to "security" and "safety" in its PR release.  Perhaps in the distant past (the NAGAAA dates to 1977) there were concerns over safety for gay athletes, but if there is a serious problem of gay-bashing straight softball players, I certainly haven't heard of it.  I think this purported "safety" justification is a pretty small fig leaf to hide behind. 

Frankly, if the NAGAAA wants to exclude straight folks for safety (or any reason), then they need to exclude all straight folks (why allow two scary straight players per team?).  The fact that NAGAAA allows some straights to play pretty well eviscerates any of their purported justifications for their silly rule.  The NAGAAA should be honest and admit their rule is based on an old (and untrue) stereotype that gays are not as good at sports as straights, and straights must be "ringers" whose participation should be limited.  The original protest seems founded on this very stereotype; the protesters didn't care that they were losing to a team with bisexual or straight players, they were upset that those players were giving their opponents some kind of "unfair advantage".  Are we as gays really going to buy in to this kind of bovine excrement?  The NAGAAA should be ashamed of having this rule, and the protesting team should be ashamed for protesting based on that rule.


Just for the record, since he wasn't given his own individual post, our D-Bag O' the Day Award (v. 1.2) went to this gentleman for intentionally vomiting on an 11-year old girl at a Phillies game.  You stay classy, Philadelphia!

April 18, 2010

Wine & Whine O' the Week (v. 1.10)

While on IMOP-V last month, I played several sessions of 1/2 PLG at the Venetian.  During one late night session, a guy dressed in Cardinals gear was playing an uber-aggressive style and running over the table.  In a two hour period, I flopped two sets of 4s and a set of 6s against Cards.  Now, small sets can spell doom in PLG, but since Cards was uber-aggro, I stuck around all three times, and all three times I rivered quads!  Even better, it turns out Cards actually had big hands all three times as well, and paid me off.  The first two times, he did some standard whining, but the third time, Cards stood up and started shouting about the injustice of it all, putting on a real Phil Hellmuth temper tantrum before storming out.  The next evening, when I told the PLG players about the prior night, they told me Cards had played earlier that evening and was still bitching about it.  Hilarity certainly did ensue!

In honor of Cards' temper tantrum, I must highly recommend a new line of wines I recently discovered—Tempra Tantrum.  The Tempra Tantrum wines are from Spain, home of the Tempranillo grape, one of the few wine grapes that performs well in hot, dry climates (most of the traditional well-known wine grapes—e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir—perform best in cooler climates, or areas with cool, foggy mornings to offset hot summer days).  All of the Tempra Tantrum wines are a blend of Tempranillo and one of the "noble" red wine grapes—Merlot, Syrah/Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Grenache.  Although Tempranillo historically was used for Riojas which are aged before release, in the past decade more Spanish winemakers are turning to a younger, fresher style of Tempranillo that emphasizes the grape's soft, juicy blackberry and plum flavors.  The Tempra Tantrum line is a good example of these modern, easy drinking wines that are also easy on the wallet ($8-$10 retail).  My personal favorite is the Tempranillo-Grenache blend.  Grenache is another grape that performs well in hot climates, and adds red fruit (cherry and raspberry) flavors to the blend; it goes very well with pizza, pasta with red sauce, and cheese.  For those who like a spicy note to their red wine, I highly recommend the Tempranillo-Shiraz blend.

You can follow Tempra Tantrum on Twitter.

April 17, 2010

Another Night at the Meadows

Last night I made my return to the Meadows ATM after a month or so layoff, recovering from two Vegas trips, getting caught up on work, and getting some quality time in with Berkeley now that the weather has turned Iowa-spring beautiful.  I was afraid there would be some rust, but I made two early hero calls (JJ on a K-Q-x flop, and calling with bottom pair to catch a busted flush draw) to build up some chips.  But then I made a great call with KQs on a flop of Ah-Kh-Tc, to find I was up against the T-high flush draw (as I expected).  The turn was a Q to steal some more outs, but the river brought the 3h.  Ouch.  Rebuy!  Ooops.  Error.  I made two donkey plays—paying off a rock with TPTK when he caught his 3-outer for two pair, and trying to bluff a calling station when a flush draw hit the river.  I also flopped the nut boat with Q9, got it all-in against QT, but the river was another 9 for a chop that felt like a loss (though in fairness, about half the money went in on the river when I knew a chop was likely).  So, I called it a night.  Bad luck + bad play usually is a sign that it's time for gin.

There was a fun hand that went down shortly after my 1/2 NL table opened.  A young kid had just taken a big hit, and was looking to push with his last $30-$40.  Someone raised preflop to $12, kid and a couple others call.  Flop is Tc5d3s.  Kid pushes for $25, gets called by one player.  Kid shows QcJc for no pair, no draw, and is up against QTo.  The poker gods smiled on the kid, however, throwing out runner-runner Ac-Kc for the backdoor royal flush!  Kid made a nice pot and a $200 high hand jackpot.  Pretty sweet!

* * * * *
Today was a gorgeous day, sunny, light breeze, upper 60s this morning.  So, the sig other and I took Berkeley to nearby Raccoon River Park for a walk on the nature trail around Blue Heron Lake.  Berk did the usual dog head-out-the-window thing on the drive over, and had a ball on the walk.  We also checked out the doggie park, and we'll likely sign Berk up once he gets past his overly-friendly puppy phase.

Anyway, as we walked, the sig other reminded me that today was the birthday for our gal pal who went with us on our recent spring break Vegas trip.   I texted her a birthday wish:  "Happy Birthday! Rigor Mortis!", referring to our running joke since St. Paddy's Day on the Strip.  Of course, about an hour later, the sig other happens to mention that our friend was driving to an uncle's funeral this morning!  Yeah.  Awkward.  Maybe I'll nominate myself as "D-Bag O' the Day"....  Thankfully, she hadn't even thought of the awkward connection when I texted an apology.  As for the sig other:

Gee, you know that information really would've been more useful to me YESTERDAY!

—Robbie (Adam Sandler) in The Wedding Singer

April 16, 2010

The City Center Pit of Despair

Count Rugen:  Ah. Are you coming down into the pit? Westley's got his strength back. I'm starting him on the machine tonight.

Prince Humperdinck:  Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work, but I've got my country's 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it; I'm swamped.

Count Rugen:  Get some rest. If you haven't got your health, then you haven't got anything.

—The Princess Bride

In the movie The Princess Bride, the villain Count Rugen tortures the hero Westley in the "Pit of Despair" with a machine that sucks out a person's remaining years of life, causing them to scream in horrendous anguish.  The screeching and wailing you heard yesterday likely was from investors in MGM Grand-Mirage (MGM) as its stock price fell on MGM's reports of dismal first quarter earnings projections, as the CityCenter project is quite literally sucking out all of MGM's current and future profits.

The numbers for Aria are shockingly bad:  a $66 million operating loss ($54 million of which is depreciation), and a pathetic 63% occupancy rate.  As I wrote in a recent review of City Center, the Aria casino seems designed to eschew luring in walk-by customers from the Strip in favor of trapping its hotel guests inside.  This strategy obviously won't be successful if you aren't getting any hotel guests.

Even worse news for City Center comes from their residential condo units.  According to an article by Howard Stutz at the Las Vegas Review-Journal:
  • MGM took an "approximately $171 million noncash impairment charge related to the development's 2,400 residential units";
  • MGM recorded "revenues of $24 million related to forfeited residential deposits"; and,
  • Only "25 condominium sales had closed by March 31 with a combined sales price of $38 million".
Let's unpack this data a bit.  Getting $24 million in bonus cash from forfeited deposits sounds great—for this quarter.  I don't know how much of a deposit was required per condo, but those canceled sales have to affect hundreds of condos, and City Center won't be getting any revenue from those condos in the near future.  Based on the closings reported, each condo is averaging around $1.5 million, so the canceled condos translate into hundreds of millions in deferred revenues that probably won't be recouped for more than a year, if not significantly longer.  Now, City Center will save some money in the short term by not having to finish all of those condos, but selling those condos was a key part of their financing plan.  But at least they've closed on a whopping 25 out of 2,400 condos, so they've got that going for them, which is nice.  Even assuming another couple of hundred condos have been sold and will close later in the year, it looks like City Center still will have a glut of unsold condos to carry into the next few years—if they have the cash to do so.

Speaking of cash, digging into the financial statements themselves is kind of interesting, in a Discovery Channel show about vultures and dung beetles sort of way.  First, the gaming industry has definitely not recovered from the recession:

Total casino revenue is expected to be approximately 5% lower than the prior year, with slots revenue down approximately 1% for the quarter. The Company's table games volume, excluding baccarat, was down 4% in the quarter, but baccarat volume was up 17% compared to the prior year quarter. The overall table games hold percentage was lower in 2010 than the prior year quarter; in the current year first quarter the hold percentage was near the midpoint of the Company's normal 18% to 22%, while in the 2009 quarter it was at the top end of the range.

The increase in baccarat volume likely means marketing efforts have been focused on Asian high-rollers, something all the major casinos probably have been making a priority now that the great American home equity rave is over.  Also, the MGM house has been experiencing a little negative variance on the table games, meaning we can all expect more 6/5 payout, eight deck, continual shuffle blackjack tables.  Poker isn't broken out separately from the pit games, but I suspect poker is holding its own; poker players might drop down stakes in a recession, but the volume of games seems about standard on my recent trips, and rake is more about volume than game size.  Still, it wouldn't surprise me if the MGM family took a look at Harrah's and made a move to $5 maximum rake.

The other interesting information is the breakdown of operating income by casino.  Now, the financial statements also show a breakdown of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), which is a useful and meaningful figure for certain accounting purposes.  But, let's focus on the operating income portion of earnings, which is the actual hard cash coming in the door, and compare it to the first quarter of 2009 (all figures in thousands of dollars):

It seems that business is down across the board for the MGM family of Strip casinos, but the drag of City Center is quite obvious.  Also, although the financial strength of previous MGM family flagship Bellagio is no surprise, the strong performance of New York New York relative to its MGM siblings was a major surprise.  The sharp drop off for Mandalay Bay is puzzling, although that might be related to reduced numbers of conventions (Mandalay Bay has a large convention area).  The Monte Carlo numbers are almost certainly skewed by the fire last year; insurance proceeds for business interruption were discussed in the financial statements, but they seem to be accounted for separate from operating income.*  It's also pretty obvious that Circus Circus should be imploded, except what could be done with that crappy property in the current economy?

No matter how you slice it, City Center is appearing more and more like a boondoggle.  Maybe MGM was part of a covert government plan to bankrupt Dubai by sucking them into this money pit ... Ya never know!


* ADDENDUM (18 April 2010):  Looking back at the financial statements, the Monte Carlo fire insurance proceeds were accounted for as follows:

The prior year [2009] results include the $190 million pre-tax gain on the TI sale as well as $15 million of Monte Carlo business interruption insurance recovery income (recorded as a reduction to general and administrative expense) and $7 million of Monte Carlo property damage insurance recovery income (recorded as property transactions, net).

However, I forgot that the fire was in January 2008, not last year.  So, the 2009 and 2010 figures cited above are both from full operations.  From the financial statements in the recent press release, it's unclear whether the $15 million in business interruption insurance proceeds were included in the 2009 operating income figure.  Even assuming insurance proceeds were included (making the 2009 operating income exclusive of insurance proceeds something closer to $8 million), the Monte Carlo's operating income for this year is still significantly reduced.  Makes you wonder if City Center is sucking its neighbor dry.