July 30, 2010

Friday Fun (v.1.11)—Physics Fun

An all-science Friday Fun this week.  Let's hear it for our geeky friends in the lab!

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First off is a cool video of a lightning strike, filmed at 9000 frames/second (hat tip The Daily Wh.at).  This video captured lightning strikes over Rapid City, South Dakota, and is equivalent to one second of real time (well, except for all my readers who are traveling near the speed of light relative to my frame of reference):

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Neatorama.com passed along a report that scientists have measured the smallest unit of time so far—20 attoseconds.  What's an attosecond, you wonder?  Well, Neatorama helpfully tells us:

An attosecond is one quintillionth of a second.
Oh, that clears it up for me.  Anyway, the measurement was performed to discover the amount of time it took electrons to move after being struck by a photon.  Seriously, where are all the particle rights activists, and why are they allowing this lepton abuse to occur?  Are electrons just not as cuddly as the baryons?  Are the particle protestors all too busy enjoying their Swiss vacation as they protest hadron abuse in the CERN facility? 

In any event, if scientists want to conduct humane experiments about short time periods, they need only follow Phil Hellmuth in a poker tournament.  There is nothing faster than the "Hellmuth two-pawed insta-call" when he thinks he has trapped an opponent, except perhaps for the period of time between when Hellmuth's opponent reveals he has, in fact, actually trapped Hellmuth, and the beginning of Hellmuth's whining rant.

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Finally, ever wonder what would happen if a flamethrower went up against a fire extinguisher (especially when death is on the line)?  Here's the answer, in a video for "Ritalin" by Dancing Pigeons (hat tip Neatorama.com):

Dancing Pigeons - Ritalin from Blink on Vimeo.

July 29, 2010

"Bad Actors" & Bad Acting—Why Online Poker Legalization Is a Real Threat to Established Sites

As the dust settles from yesterday's House committee approval of Rep. Barney Frank's online gaming bill (HR 2267), the questions on many poker players' minds are:  "What about Full Tilt?  What about PokerStars?"  These questions arise from two "bad actor" amendments tacked on to the bill during the markup process, which purport to prohibit from qualifying for licensing those online gaming sites which have illegally operated in the United States since passage of the UIGEA.  There is a wide range of opinions on the issue, with PokerStars voicing support for the bill while asserting that nothing in the bill threatens its operations, while Gambling911 reports a strong possibility that current online sites might be shut out:  “ 'No one who took a bet or wager on or after the enactment of the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act (UIGEA) in 2006, processed payments, or received "assistance" can be licensed'. ” (quoting Joe Brennan, Jr. of iMEGA). 

The PPA and their friends at PokerStars, Full Tilt, and Ultimate Bet might be acting confident and unconcerned, but given the language of the bill, the old poker adage, "strong means weak" comes to mind.  Why?  Well, as my law school tax professor repeatedly told us, "The first rule of statutory construction is:  'Read!' "  So let's take a look at the bill and amendments, and see what they say about this issue.  Here's the relevant text from the original bill:

Now, here's the language from the Rep. Sherman Amendment No. 2, which is to be added to the end of the above section (ignore the bullet points—Blogger hates indenting):

"(E) fails to certify in writing, under penalty of perjury, that the applicant or other such person, and all affiliated business entities, has through its entire history:
  • "(i) not committed an intentional felony violation of Federal or State gambling laws; and  
  • "(ii) has used due diligence to prevent any U.S. person from placing a bet on an internet site in violation of Federal or State gambling laws.  
"All entities under common control shall be considered affiliated business entities for the purpose of this subparagraph."

Next we must look at the language of the Rep. Bachus-Bachmann Amendment No. 15, adopted after Amendment No. 2, implying it will take priority in any substantive difference in their terms (again, ignore the bullet points):
"(E) has, on or after the date of the enactment of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006-
  • "(i) knowingly participated in, or should have known they were participating in, any illegal Internet gambling activity, including the taking of an illegal Internet wager, the payment of winnings on an illegal Internet wager, the promotion through advertising of any illegal Internet gambling website or service, or the collection of any payments to an entity operating an illegal Internet gambling website; or  
  • "(ii) knowingly been owned, operated, managed, or employed by, or should have known they were owned, operated, managed, or employed by, any person who was knowingly participating in, or should have known they were participating in, any illegal Internet gambling activity, including the taking of an illegal Internet wager, the payment of winnings on an illegal Internet wager, the promotion through advertising of any illegal Internet gambling website or service, or the collection of any payments to an entity operating an illegal Internet gambling website;

 "(F) has-  
  • "(i) received any assistance, financial or otherwise, from any person who has, before the date of the enactment of the Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection, and Enforcement Act, knowingly accepted bets or wagers from a person located in the United States in violation of Federal or State law; or
  • "(ii) provided any assistance, financial or otherwise, to any person who has, before the date of the enactment of the Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection, and Enforcement Act, knowingly accepted bets or wagers from a person located in the United States in violation of Federal or State law. 
"(G) with respect to another entity that has accepted a bet or wager from any individual in violation of United States law, has purchased or otherwise obtained-
  • "(i) such entity;
  • "(ii) a list of the customers of such entity; or
  • "(iii) any other part of the equipment or operations of such entity; or
"(H) is listed on a State gambling excluded persons list.".

OK, there's a lot of legalese packed into these amendments.  What does it all mean?  First, note that the Bachus amendment, although pitched as "redundant" of the Sherman amendment, is actually much more harsh in excluding current online poker sites from licensing.  The Sherman amendment states that the legal standard for judging past violations of gaming laws is "intentional" conduct, while the Bachus amendment uses the much lower legal standard of "knowingly, or should have known". The applicable legal standard for judging violations is critical, as the "intentional" standard is a high bar for government regulators to prove, while "knowingly, or should have known" is much easier to prove.  For example, if it was illegal under Washington state law to accept wagers on the internet (see the pending Rousso appeal), a website might have put in place passive barriers to preclude Washington residents from using the site (e.g., a box asking users their state of residence, then barring play from Washington residents).  Under an "intentional" standard, a website might not be held liable if Washington residents nonetheless played on the site by misrepresenting their state of residence.  However, under a "knowingly, or should have known" standard, the website could be held liable if the website were aware that it was receiving funds from Washington residents, mailing checks to Washington residents, receiving game play from players with ISP addresses in Washington, or had in its possession any similar information or data that reasonably indicated Washington residents were placing wagers on their website.

The next striking feature of the Bachus Amendment is the laundry list of categories of disqualifying conduct: 

  1. taking of an illegal Internet wager,
  2. the payment of winnings on an illegal Internet wager,
  3. the promotion through advertising of any illegal Internet gambling website or service, or
  4. the collection of any payments to an entity operating an illegal Internet gambling website.

The primary purpose of these kinds of laundry lists is to attempt to close loopholes and technicalities that current websites might try to use to avoid disqualification.  The first two strike me as potentially problematic for current poker sites, as they do not necessarily require that the site itself be  found to be operating illegally, but merely that any wager they accepted or paid winnings on was illegal.  For example, if the placement of a wager via the internet was illegal in Washington, then the language above might apply to disqualify a site that took that wager or paid off a winning wager, even if the courts of Washington would find that the site itself was beyond Washington jurisdiction, or that only the bettor had broken Washington law.  This interpretation of the proposed statute might be affirmed by a court as a reasonable regulation intended to disqualify gaming sites that had encouraged or facilitated illegal gambling in states where such gambling was barred, even though the site itself was not criminally liable for the bettor's illegal wagering.  (As a very rough analogy, a bar owner who over-serves a patron will not be criminally liable for the patron's DUI arrest, but may very well lose his liquor license as a result of the incident).

Now, the issue of whether the current online poker sites accepting wagers from U.S. players are operating illegally is a matter of great contention, but may become relevant if regulations eventually establish that sites must have actually acted illegally themselves to merit a licensing disqualification.  It seems likely under current court interpretation of the federal Wire Act that online poker sites have not violated that particular statute, so long as they have not offered online sports betting.  Sites such as Bodog, however, which have offered sports betting are likely precluded from federal licensing, particularly since the committee adopted an amendment reiterating a federal ban on online sports wagering. 

So what about the poker-only sites, like Full Tilt, PokerStars, and Ultimate Bet?  Because the UIGEA itself does not make any online gambling illegal, its intent was to permit states to enforce their gambling laws.  The legislative committee members supporting the "bad actors" amendments seemed under the impression that sites currently operating in the U.S. would be ineligible for licensing, creating an inference that online poker sites currently operating in the U.S. are in fact violating state gambling laws.  Although PokerStars seems strangely confident it is in compliance with state gaming laws, and the Poker Players Aliance (PPA) seems to feel the same way, the issue is far from clear.  PokerStars' reference to "legal opinions" assuring that its operations are in full compliance with state laws is of little relevance to the debate.  An "advice of counsel" defense is difficult to maintain in criminal law, and generally only goes to the issue of "willful" violation of law, which is not always an element of state gaming laws.

Further, state gaming laws in many cases appear to ban online poker.  Several states explicitly ban online gaming, while poker is explicitly regulated as gambling in many states.  In states which use a "skill vs. chance" analysis, any "good faith" argument that poker is legal as a game of skill has been dashed, after the PPA's "poker is a game of skill" litigation strategy backfired, resulting in appellate court decisions in several states which explicitly hold that poker is a game of chance subject to gambling laws.  This leaves online poker sites with only two legitimate possible arguments—they are beyond state jurisdiction, and state regulation of online gaming is barred by the Commerce Clause.

These two arguments are related, each arguing that states cannot regulate commerce beyond their borders.  The first argument, related to state jurisdiction, is not particularly compelling.  States already use "long arm statutes" to pursue criminal and civil actions against companies located outside the state; examples in the consumer protection field include state suits against tobacco companies and Microsoft.  Given that online poker sites unquestionably do business within states that regulate poker as gambling, states arguably can assert jurisdiction over online sites.

Now the online gaming sites might argue that they are domiciled outside the state, and the gaming transaction takes place entirely on servers located outside the state, and thus the state has no jurisdiction.  This distinction might be significant in states that bar only taking or accepting wagers, but seems unpersuasive for states that prohibit the making a wager (e.g., Washington).  Although one federal court has declined jurisdiction in a civil lawsuit between a poker player and a foreign-based online poker site, there is no reason to expect a similar decision in the context of a state asserting its jurisdiction in a criminal law matter.

Looking at the Commerce Clause argument, those issues have been raised in the Rousso appellate challenge to the Washington internet gambling ban.  But the key point to remember is that a law is fully enforceable until declared unconstitutional.  In other words, internet gambling is illegal in Washington until a court rules otherwise, and internet poker sites violate the law every time they take wagers from Washington residents.  A company can't simply declare they feel a law is unconstitutional and flout it; instead, they are bound by the law until they (or someone) succeeds in a challenge the law.

Turning to the licensing ban for companies that have engaged in "the promotion through advertising of any illegal Internet gambling website or service", this provision potentially encompasses ".net" advertising if the ".net" company is too closely connected to an illegal ".com" company.  Indeed, the Nevada Gaming Commission recently pronounced that it would be closely examining these kinds of business affiliations, causing the Venetian to drop its relationship with the PokerStars.net sponsored NAPT.  If federal regulations similar to the NGC's views are implemented, this provision could be a major roadblock for online poker sites currently operating in the U.S., as all of the major players utilize ".net" advertising.

Some poker industry and poker media individuals have wondered if Full Tilt or PokerStars could simply create a new "U.S. only" skin or affiliated site, or create a new corporation to transfer their assets to which would be eligible for licensing.  These types of shell game maneuvers appear to be prohibited by subsection (G) of Amendment 15 (the Bachus amendment), which disqualifies from licensing companies which have bought a disqualified company, or its assetsSo, if Full Tilt or PokerStars were disqualified from licensing in the U.S., then they would be too toxic for another license-eligible company (say Google or Las Vegas Sands) to purchase.  This is a significant poison pill provision with financial consequences beyond the licensing debate.

A final interesting provision is that the bill would permit state and tribal gaming boards to license online gaming companies on a national basis under certain conditions.  The Secretary of the Treasury could reject the state or tribal license, but the state or tribal license provision would enable companies like Full Tilt or PokerStars to "forum shop" for a favorable jurisdiction that would grant them a license, presumably in return for significant licensing fees, tax payments, or locating of business operations.  Nevada would be the logical home court for licensing the brick and mortar giants (notably Harrah's and MGM, likely Wynn and Las Vegas Sands), but there are likely a number of states or tribes that would be open to certifying current online sites for the right kind of financial incentive.  Alternatively, current online sites, if unable to obtain a federal license, could still seek licensing in states which opt out of the national online gaming system.  This would only further balkanize the poker playing world, which is detrimental to the growth of the game.

Now, there are two major caveats to keep in mind at this stage.  First, there may be additional amendments to this bill in the House, and there remain almost certain amendments to be proposed in the Senate (home of UIGEA architect and supporter, Jon Kyl, who just happens to sit on both the Finance and Judiciary committees—good luck, PPA).  These differences will need to be hammered out if a final bill is ever passed, and the bill may contain stronger or weaker language related to online gaming sites currently operating in the U.S.  Second, if and when a bill ever becomes law, the Treasury Department will need to promulgate regulations to help enforce the law.  These regulations tend to be very important, and will be the subject of additional lobbying and political wrangling.  So, the final interpretation of the law will depend to a potentially significant degree on the views of Treasury Department bureaucrats, who can strengthen or soften the impact of Congress' statutory language.

Personally, I would prefer a licensing system that would permit sites like Full Tilt and PokerStars to operate legally in the U.S., as they have proven to be reliable sites enjoyed by millions of players (Ultimate Bet / Absolute Poker should have to do some serious explaining to regulators before getting a license).  If other sites started by Harrah's, MGM, Google, or other newcomers want to compete for the poker dollar, they should certainly jump into the fray and try to offer a superior product.  But I find rather distasteful the use of pious "fairness" rhetoric to justify gaining an economic advantage by disqualifying competing companies through an Act of Congress.  However, if sacrificing some current sites leads to legalization, licensing, and regulation, then I won't mourn the passing of Full Tilt or PokerStars.

July 28, 2010

The Online Poker Slalom Begins

"Go that way, really fast.  If something gets in your way, turn."

Better Off Dead

The movie quote above involved a character explaining to a high school kid how to ski.  The online poker legalization efforts remind me a lot of skiing—a long trudge up the mountain, followed by a lightning fast, treacherous obstacle course ride to the bottom. 

As you probably heard if you are at all connected to the poker media, the Barney Frank online gaming legalization bill (HR 2267) was successfully voted out of the House Financial Services Committee by a fairly comfortable and bi-partisan margin.  So what does this bill propose for online gaming, and what happens next?

The base bill plus approved amendments contain a lot of positive points for online poker.  Some of the highlights:

  • The federal Treasury Department will have authority to license online gaming.
  • There will be regulatory oversight of online casinos, with civil and criminal penalties for violations of gaming regulations.  Think of Russ Hamilton in jail for five years per cheating episode, as well as an end to any claims that the random number generators (RNGs) are rigged (if only it were this easy to legislate an urban myth to death).
  • Online gaming sites will need to be headquartered in the United States, with a majority of assets, operations, and employees also located within the United States.  This is intended to ensure legal jurisdiction over online sites, as well as to make regulatory oversight easier, and to maximize the economic benefits (read "jobs") of online gaming sites in the U.S.
  • Consumer protections against problem gambling include bans on credit cards funding gaming, self-selected limits on losses (by amount, time, or other variables), and self-banning from play.
  • Child protection, requiring age verification, and bans on many kinds of advertising.
  • A state opt-out provision, allowing states to prohibit or restrict the kinds of gaming that can be offered to individuals within the state's borders.
The state opt-out provision is vitally important to the legalization effort.  A proposal which attempted to impose online gaming on every state on an equal footing would be a political non-starter.  But, an opt-out provision is far better than an opt-in provision, because the default status is usually the status that is easiest to maintain.  In states where there might be opposition to online gaming, it will be more difficult for anti-gaming advocates to mount a campaign to opt out, while pro-gaming advocates will not need to mount gaming legalization campaigns in all 50 states.  This opt-out provision is unquestionably the key point to an effective and politically palatable bill, yet it is probably one of the least-discussed and least-appreciated provisions.

The final noteworthy provision is contained in Amendment 15, proposed by anti-gaming, pro-"family values" Representatives Bachus and Bachmann.  This is a provision which attempts to punish online gaming sites which are currently operating in apparent violation of UIGEA and/or state gaming laws.  This provision might operate to effectively prevent current online sites like Full Tilt, PokerStars, the Cake Poker network, and the Ultimate Bet / Absolute Poker group from being licensed under the new regulatory scheme.  This provision, and the possible loopholes I can see the sites attempting to use to avoid a licensing ban, merit their own post with more detailed analysis (hopefully tomorrow morning—watch this space!).  But, this is another provision that seems to be politically necessary to gather sufficient support to enable the bill to pass the House.

So, what next?  Much like skiing, getting up the hill is the hard part.  Now that the committee vote has started the legalization process on its trip down the mountain, momentum is clearly on its side.  Legalization advocates are mostly working to avoid obstacles at this point.  Major obtacles remaining are primarily in the Senate, which has yet to act on a companion bill (Senate Bill 1597).  Unlike the House which is essentially a "mob rules" operation  (think of the Alpha Beta jock fraternity in Revenge of the Nerds), the Senate gives much more deference to a few political divas who feel they are the elite (think of the "Plastics" in Mean Girls).   So, in the Senate, a handful of determined opponents can doom any bill.  Plus, there is the complication that a major pro-online gaming advocate in the Senate is Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is facing a tough reelection battle in Nevada (and has received a lot of money from Harrah's and MGM to promote online gaming legalization).  Given this election year dynamic, it wouldn't be a shock to see Republicans resist any pro-online gaming bill merely to deny Sen. Reid a political victory.

I do want to give a thumbs up to the efforts of the Poker Players Alliance (PPA) in helping get the bill marked up and voted out of committee in a reasonable form.   Although I have been (and remain) critical of the PPA for a number of reasons, the PPA deserves credit for their efforts in promoting this bill.  Although the PPA wasn't solely responsible for this legislative progress, it certainly deserves credit for representing the interests of poker players alongside the interests of the big gaming corporations and big business interests.

Even if the current legalization effort wipes out or slams into a tree, the House committee vote today marks the turning point in the online gaming legalization effort.  Now, the question no longer is whether online gaming will be legalized, but instead is merely when ... and the applicable tax rate.

"This is pure snow! Do you have any idea what the street value of this mountain is?"

Better Off Dead

July 27, 2010

I Gotta Wear Shades

"Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi."  (The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter).


"The eyes are the window to the soul."

—English proverb

In creationism, a significant argument against evolution is that the eye is too complex a structure to have developed in so many species merely by natural selection.  As usual, science has a strong rebuttal.  First, as a basic point, light (or more specifically, electromagnetic radiation from the Sun at all wavelengths) is such a critical energy source for life on Earth that it would be shocking if most species didn't develop some form of light-sensing organ.  Recent research into the genetic development of the eye has discovered a set of genes common to all species that developed an eye:

The next question is where Pax genes and their resulting structures came from.  According to Gehring, they could have arrived in jellyfish via symbiosis with dinoflagellates—a family of single-celled marine plankton, some with human-like eye structures inside their single cell.

Jellyfish absorbed dinoflagellates, speculates Gehring, after dinoflagellates absorbed Pax genes from red algae, which had absorbed light-sensitive cynanobacteria.  Gehring describes this as his “wild Russian doll hypothesis.”  His team is now searching jellyfish genomes for dinoflagellate genes.

“Evolution is very conservative. It uses the things that function well,” said Gehring.

Of course, there are many religious faith traditions, including many prominent branches of Christianity, which accept evolution as consistent with religious faith.  For these believers, the laws of nature—including evolution—are not something to be feared, but rather are evidence of the wonder of God's creation.  But for the hardcore fundamentalists, "the Bible is literally true" crowd, this type of scientific discovery is likely unsettling (or rapidly dismissed as fraudulent or flawed).

However, I didn't mention this scientific discovery to start a religious flame war.  Rather, I found it interesting because it's WSOP time again, with the first episodes of the new season airing tonight.  The first night of action involved the $50K Players' Championship, won by well-known pro player—and November Nine Main Event qualifier—Michael "the Grinder" Mizrachi.  After watching two hours of final table coverage, I noted that none of the final eight players wore sunglasses.

Wait a moment.  No sunglasses.  Let that sink in.  For the past decade, the de rigueur poker tournament player uniform has been sunglasses, baseball cap, and hoodie (or Ed Hardy or TapOut t-shirt—or Ed Hardy hoodie).  In fact, the attire is so ubiquitous that it's almost become a joke in many poker circles.  Yet the last eight players at this mega-buy-in tournament eschewed the sunglasses.

Now, part of the poker uniform may merely be the result of the crossover of the college-age standard attire into the poker world, as youngsters who cut their teeth online take their game into casinos and major live-action tournaments.  Frankly, I rarely take too much notice of attire at the poker table as it is not a particularly reliable indicator of skill or style (though there are plenty of players who fit the uber-aggro d-bag profile dressed in the uniform, sustaining the stereotype).  But the sunglass angle might have a little more utility than the rest of the uniform.

Psychological research has long known that various facial movements correlate with various mental or emotional states.  Recent research has refined this insight, finding that the eyes can give away valuable information, including what category of thought is taking place, and whether a person is being deceptive.  As Jonah Lehrer observed:

The larger lesson is that the brain can't escape its embodiment.  Even abstract information—and what's more abstract than a random number?—is subject to the heuristics of physical movement:  Up means higher, down means lower.  Because the mundane world of Newtonian physics is built into the mind at such a basic level, we are forced to re-use these same mental shortcuts when thinking about math, or playing poker.

Now, I have no doubt that the eyes can involuntarily reveal important information during a hand of poker, including whether a player is being deceptive, and the moment in time when a player reaches a decision about how to play a hand.  I also firmly believe that many successful poker players have learned to read other players by observing these kinds of physical tells, even if they are unable to articulate precisely the basis of their "read".  Often, you will hear a solid player say, "I just didn't think he had it" without being able to state how he read his opponent's eyes, face, breathing pattern, and other physical tells—his experience combined with his innate ability to read body language gave him what he might call a "gut feeling" that was every bit as important as other information such as the board and the betting of the hand.   I also believe that the best poker players have developed an ability to mask their own physical tells, making them harder to read.  Seriously, watch Phil Ivey or Patrik Antonius—do you think you could ever pick up a tell on either player?

All of this scientific research into the connection between the eyes and the mind is particularly interesting in light of Daniel Negreanu's recent suggestion that poker tournaments ban sunglasses:

Let's just say that guys like Russ Hamilton would appose [sic] such a ban.  I heard Durr say it on High Stakes Poker last week and he is absolutely right.  You should always be uncomfortable playing high stakes poker against someone wearing sunglasses.  I'm not making this up, it's just a fact.  Banning sunglasses helps to protect the integrity of the game against cheating.  For that reason alone, they should be completely outlawed from poker.  No other sport or organization would allow competitors a device that makes it easier for them to get away with cheating.

I'm not entirely sure what Negreanu means by "protect[ing] the integrity of the game against cheating", unless he is referring to "daubing", where a special substance is used to mark certain cards, with the substance being invisible except to those wearing special contacts or glasses.  I somehow doubt that daubing is a major scam in this day and age.  On the other hand, Negreanu is correct that many of the "elite" poker players rarely if ever wear sunglasses at the table. 

So, overall, I'm torn on the sunglasses in poker debate.  I don't wear them myself, and I think many people wear them thinking they are projecting a tough guy image when they actually are being mocked by others (seriously, in a 1/2 NLHE game, or a $60 tourney, do you think your sunglasses make a dang bit of difference?).  On the other hand, science supports the idea that poker players can give away valuable information via their eyes.  So, how can I fault a player for trying to minimize these kinds of subconscious tells by wearing sunglasses? 

Oh wait, that's right.  People who wear sunglasses indoors are pretentious d-bags.  If you need sunglasses to disguise your tells, go back to your parents' basement and play some more $1 SNGs.  If you think wearing sunglasses at the poker table makes you intimidating, sit at my table so I can laugh in your bespectacled, tell-spewing face as I crAAKK you repeatedly, until you are too broke to afford bottle service at an overpriced poseur club, and go home alone to your online porn collection.  Save the sunglasses for activities like golf, driving, skiing, hiking, biking, hanging at the beach ... you know, stuff that involves the Sun.

I'm heavenly blessed and worldy wise,
I'm a peeping-tom techy with x-ray eyes.
Things are going great, and they're only getting better.
I'm doing all right, getting good grades,
The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades.
—"I Gotta Wear Shades", by Timbuk3

Sauron never figured out why Gandalf always beat him
at "Kings & Little Ones" in their weekly home poker game.

(Image from here).

July 25, 2010

Let's Talk D-Bags and Cereal, Killer

Those of you following crAAKKer for our D-Bag O' the Day feature will be pleased to learn that there is, in fact, an official spelling for the long-form version of "D-Bag":

The word is douche bag.  Douche space bag.  People will insist that it’s one closed-up word—douchebag—but they are wrong.  When you cite the dictionary as proof of the division, they will tell you that the entry refers to a product women use to clean themselves and not the guy who thinks it’s impressive to drop $300 on a bottle of vodka.  You will calmly point out that, actually, the definition in Merriam-Webster is “an unattractive or offensive person” and not a reference to Summer’s Eve.  They will then choose to ignore you and write it as one word anyway.

That's the definitive word from Lori Fradkin, writing at The Awl about her former copy editing days.  The former law review editor and grammar cop in me can relate to how being a language nit has its drawbacks:

The job has its perks—an accumulation of random knowledge, for instance—but it also has its side effects when you unintentionally drink the copy Kool-Aid.  Once you train yourself to spot errors, you can’t not spot them.  You can’t simply shut off the careful reading when you leave the office.  You notice typos in novels, missing words in other magazines, incorrect punctuation on billboards.  You have nightmares that your oversight turned Mayor Bloomberg into a "pubic" figure.  You walk by a beauty salon the morning after you had sex for the first time with a guy you’ve been seeing and point out that there’s no such thing as “lazer” hair removal, realizing that this may not be the best way to get to have sex with him again.

Now, I've been blessed with a natural talent for spotting errors in writing, which is quite useful in my line of work. The downside—other than being the unofficial editor for many in my firm—is being constantly jolted by errors while reading.  It can be tough to read a brief or online article when basic grammatical errors keep jumping off the page.  Typos happen, people can be in a rush, but some errors are just so basic I can't help but assume the writer is lazy or stupid.  If I ever start a grammar Taserlist, the first entries will be those who can't figure out your / you're or there / their / they're.  You've been warned.

Fradkin's article also made reference to serial commas, which have been discussed this week on the Volokh Conspiracy (a libertarian-leaning law blog).  David Post uses this example from the Robert Frost poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Night", to illustrate the change that can occur with the mere addition or subtraction of a comma:

(a) “The woods are lovely, dark and deep”


(b) “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”

I also enjoyed this example reported by Brendan Kiley at Slog:

This description, published in The Times, of a documentary by Peter Ustinov:

"... highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector."

Now, I know that most journalism style books eschew the serial comma, in large part because historically it saved time when typesetting printing presses.  Other writing manuals mandate use of the serial comma.  As for me, I use the serial comma because it helps avoid ambiguity, and frankly, in the age of computers and laser printers, how tough is it to add a comma?  Of course, I also use the serial comma because I'm a compulsive punctuater, in large part because I did a lot of public speaking in high school, and I punctuate as if I were orating.  So, the serial comma just feels natural when I write.

Now, I'm not saying that those of you who omit the serial comma are D-Bags.  After all, it's entirely possible you're merely dildo collectors.

Friday Fun (v.1.10)—Special Weekend Update

I'm batching it this weekend with the Berkster (the crazy maniac version of my sweet Berkeley), and also decompressing after finishing an appellate brief this past week.  I love writing major briefs, and this case involves an important new legal issue (well, important to my field of law, but boring to 99.4% of the world).  But a big project like that is also seriously draining on the creativity.  So, no original content this morning, though there may be something later in the day if the Berkster ever decides to nap between rounds of Football, Fish, Rope, and Sock Monkey (there is apparently some significant difference in these games, but it escapes me).  On an unrelated note, is there anything wrong with letting a dog have a beer or two?

* * * * *

A truly gifted writer can make you enoy reading about a topic you would otherwise ignore.  One of the best writers I've run across online is Brad Willis, a/k/a "Otis".  Today, he made me laugh about an iPhone app I know nothing about and probably won't ever try out.  Earlier this month, I teared up as he shared the pain of the passing of his dog, Scoop.  My first encounter with his writing was the report of his bureaucratic nightmare after becoming enmeshed in the medical billing system following the otherwise routine birth of his son.  Otis is not only a technically gifted writer, but he has style as well.  So, add Rapid Eye Reality to your Google Reader feed.  Do it!

* * * * *

Speaking of talent and laughter, I also enjoyed The Godfather of Online Poker (TGOOP), perhaps the best-executed photoshop project of all time, posted on 2+2 by "Eponymous" (hat tip to Pauly at Tao of Poker).  Here's just a very limited list of inspired characters:

The Godfather—Howard Lederer
Tom Hagen (the consigliere)—Tom Dwan
Michael—Patrik Antonius
Sonny—Gus Hansen
Fredo ("Phildo")—Phil Gordon
Clemenza—Mike Matusow
Solozzo ("Sebozzo")—Joe Sebok
The Corrupt Police Captain—T.J. Cloutier (in his "T.J Cookier" form; his death scene is hilarious)

The written dialogue is equally inspired, both as a satire of the movie and a commentary on poker, with some hilarious throwaway jokes in the background (look for the Robert Williamson III cameo in a poker game where another player picks up Aces and Eights, or Clonie Gowen saying, "you know I suck at poker").  If you like The Godfather and poker, this may be the funniest thing you read all week.

* * * * *

It must be "Burglary Week" at Neatorama.com, as they have found reports of a man breaking into a bar ... and opening it for business; a bear breaking into a car and taking it for a ride (picture); and a bank robber who wasn't as smart as the bear.

ADDENDUM (25 July 2010):  Apparently Darth Vader has been laid off and is resorting to robbing banks to pay for his asthma medication.

* * * * *

If you like chipmunks and amazing photography, check out this photo collection by "powerpig" at Flickr.

* * * * * 

A song that often makes into my iPod poker mix o' the month is LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out".  Trust me, if you find yourself playing too passively, flip to this song (or some old-school Metallica) and your game will get back in the right groove.  However, let's just say that this remix of the song might have a different effect on your game ...

(Hat tip to 3QuarksDaily).

July 23, 2010

Happy Birthday Berkeley!

Yup, my cute little sweetheart puppy officially became a bad-azz dog as of midnight.  Time for him to get a job!

Relaxing after a long walk.

Hanging with buddy Oliver, a/k/a "The Snapping Westie".

How dare you interrupt my nap time?!?

I like football, long walks, and destroying my sworn enemy, the peace lily.

Seriously?  Who do you think runs this show?

Still blogging?  How about a treat before bed?  Please?

Friday Fun (v. 1.9)—
Antique Dildos? Inconceivable!

The Volokh Conspiracy is an interesting legal blog with libertarian leanings.  This week, there were a couple of posts discussing a ruling by a court in India that declared that Hindu gods cannot have finance accounts to allow them to make trades on the stock exchange.  Apparently Hindu gods have trouble creating their own property out of nothing like most of your run of the mill supernatural folk.  Guess the down economy is hurting even deities, making day trading a nice way to make some cash for weekend clubbing.

* * * * *

Speaking of the economy, a 17-year old boy used Craigslist to initiate a serious of swaps, and ended up turning a used cell phone into a Porsche Boxter.  Makes me wonder why I bothered with law school.  (Hat tip to Neatorama).

* * * * *

It was a great week in Swedish archaeology.  Also, in good news for traditional males everywhere, the Swedish bikini team probably has low expectations.

* * * * *

The Princess Bride is an all-time classic comedy, full of funny scenes and great quotes.  But would it have made a great horror film as well?  Inconceivable!  (posted at Miss Cellenia):

* * * * *

Via The Daily What, our silly dog video of the week from I Has a Hot Dog:

July 22, 2010

Reheating the Sh*t Sandwich from the Online Poker Hearing

"The review for 'Shark Sandwich' was merely a two word review, which simply read 'Shit Sandwich'."

This Is Spinal Tap

The poker world has been busily digesting yesterday's Congressional hearing regarding online gaming legalization.  The reviews are rolling in, with fairly standard pro-Poker Players Alliance (PPA) and pro-Annie Duke reactions from Poker News Daily, Bluff, Card Player, Pocket Fives, and the PPA itself (the self-annointed "leading grassroots poker advocacy group").  Kevin Mathers at Pokerati noted that a markup of the bill (an amending process prior to a final committee vote) may be scheduled as early as next week.  Matthew Kradell at Poker News noted an important development—the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is a very influential lobbying group on business (read: Republican) issues, has endorsed Rep. Frank's online gaming legalization bill.

I have also run across some interesting additional information and commentary about some of the issues I addressed in my initial post about the hearing.  First off, Politico is reporting that some Republicans in the House are dissatisfied with Rep. Bachus, the outspoken critic of the online gaming bill at the hearing.  Apparently, some Republicans view Bachus as a weak leader, and want to strip him of his ranking member status on the Financial Services Committee.  This has major implications for online poker legalization, as the ranking member position generally moves into the committee chair position if his party gains a majority in the House, which may occur in the upcoming elections.  Also, the ranking member has a great deal of influence on legislation even while in the minority.  So, anything that reduces the influence of Rep. Bachus is a win for online gaming supporters.

I previously questioned why Annie Duke would be chosen to represent the PPA at the hearing, particularly in light of her involvement with Ultimate Bet, and the taint of the Russ Hamilton "super user" scandal.  Turns out, some folks over at 2+2 had similar concerns.  What is interesting is the response from a PPA yo-yo master and 2+2 poster "The Engineer":

PPA did not this time, nor have we ever had any role in the choosing of witnesses for hearings in the House of Representatives.  Invitations to testify are made by the committee staffs and are rarely done with any input from those involved lobbying on those issues.  Annie Duke was invited by the committee staff, we were informed of that, and we work with what we are given.  While I understand your distaste for what you may perceive as her role in the UB/AP scandal, her presence today was not of our choosing, but she will again be an excellent witness on our behalf and the behalf of poker players, and we will support her with vital information and preparation so that she will be effective in that role.

Now, I'm not certain how much truth there is to this response.  The committee certainly picks its witnesses, but when Congressmen are dealing with friendly lobbying groups that support their bill, you can bet they and their staff coordinate with those lobbying groups to get a solid witness with no hidden issues that might blow up while testifying.  You can bet the committee didn't get Annie Duke's name from watching WSOP highlights on ESPN late at night.  In fact, based on an old 2+2 forum post by PPA executive director John Pappas, it appears Annie Duke first appeared on the Congressional radar back in 2007 when she testified in front of a different committee (the Judiciary Committee) chaired by Rep. Conyers.  Although Conyers requested Duke's testimony, Duke was introduced to Conyers by the PPA during a "fly-in" lobbying event.  The criticisms against Duke at that time were related to accusations of unethical conduct as a poker player, rather than the UB scandal, which had yet to break.  In any event, it seems pretty clear that the PPA could have made some effort to suggest a better spokesperson to the committee, or suggested to Duke that she politely decline the committee's invitation to testify (this wasn't a high profile investigation where the committee would compel testimony from a reluctant witness, plus Duke was called as a "friendly" witness in support of the bill).  The excuse that the committee didn't consult with the PPA regarding witnesses is either a lie or a cop-out.

While we're on the Annie Duke / Ultimate Bet topic, today I went back and reviewed Duke's written statement submitted to the committee (prepared by the PPA).  It echoed the answers Duke gave when confronted with the Ultimate Bet scandal during the hearing:

For me, the most critical component of regulation is player protections.  As some of you know, I play at a site called Ultimate Bet.  Under previous management, an associate of the website developed a breach in the software that allowed for players to be cheated out of a great deal of money.  I agreed to continue to endorse the site only after I was sure that new management had addressed the problems, took voluntary steps to refund the cheated players and ensured tighter control over their site security.  Nonetheless, an important benefit of regulation would be to ensure, through source code-based testing and outcome-based testing, that the games are fair and those players cannot be defrauded by the sites and that players cannot cheat others at the table.  Further, under a U.S. regulated system players would have legal recourse should they feel they are harmed and regulators would be able to penalize licensed companies that breach the regulatory standards.  Today, the best non-U.S. licensing regimes already do this, but, U.S. players deserve the protections and assurances of their own government.

I find it interesting that Duke essentially argues that poker should be legalized so that, if scandals like UB occur, then companies could be forced to take corrective action. Ummm, didn't Duke just tell us that UB was the paragon of virtue and cleaned up its mess without anyone holding its feet to the fire?  That's just a really curious argument to make—"Please legalize poker, otherwise we may cheat our customers again!"

(The argument that legalization and regulation is needed to protect U.S. online poker players from fraud and to provide jurisdiction for civil and criminal remedies is a strong point for the pro-legalization side.  I just find it a bit rich that Ultimate Bet, of all sites, is the advocate for online poker regulation in the U.S. when it has been anything but forthcoming about the details of the "super user" scandal as well as how it investigated and remedied the fraud, with major questions still unanswered even now, more than two years later).

Finally, there was an interesting "real time" discussion thread on 2+2 which ran contemporaneously with the televised hearing.  One of the most intriguing posts was by PPA muckety-muck Patrick "Skallagrim" Fleming, an attorney and poker player who posts under the same nickname at 2+2, in response to another post questioning the PPA's motivations and goals:
Sadly, you don't know anything about the PPA.

One of the major reasons the PPA wants a US regulatory scheme is to ensure that US players have full legal recourse for disputes and that sites that fail to provide a fair game are accountable in a US court of law.

The PPA also supports full and open competition under appropriate regulations, as that is what ultimately provides the best deal for the players.

The vast majority of PPA members want to be able to continue to play poker on the sites they have come to know and, to one extent or another, trust.  The PPA does prefer that these sites also be allowed to compete in a future market.  But only with some clear restrictions regarding fairness of the game and players' economic and informational security and site accountability (and that may well exclude some current sites from being able to obtain clear US legal status).

Furthermore, the PPA is not concerned with protecting the interests of existing poker sites against future competition—if a law passes that otherwise provides a good deal for US players but is somehow unfavorable to existing sites, so be it.  That is a site issue, not a PPA issue, and the PPA would still support the law.

PPA Litigation Support Director

Now, I also have strong concerns about the PPA's motivations and the looming conflict of interest between the PPA's membership, which presumably wants legalized online poker, and its leadership, which is dominated by individuals who own or are affiliated with established online poker sites which may be shut out of the U.S. online poker market as a necessary compromise if Rep. Frank's bill is to have a shot at moving forward.  Now it's nice that Skallagrim asserts that the PPA is willing to throw established online poker sites under the bus if necessary to advance the cause of legalization.  But it seems to me to be something easier said than done.  Let's look at one of Skallagrim's early PPA forum posts:

On May 7, 2008 the first meeting of the PPA's Litigation Support "Team" took place at the offices of the PPA in Washington, DC. Attending were John Pappas (PPA Executive Director), Myself (Patrick "Skallagrim' Fleming, PPA Litigation Support Director), my fellow attorneys Tom Goldstein and Ken Adams, both of Washington, Andrew Woods (another attorney and Director of the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society at Harvard Law), and Poker Professionals and authors Howard Lederer, Andy Block, Chris Ferguson, and William Chen.  Also present was Mr. Lederer's wife Suzie.  Everyone present contributed substantially and the meeting was, IMHO, extremely productive.

Lederer and Ferguson, two of the founders and owners of Full Tilt, also remain two of the seven directors of the PPA, along with PokerStars-affiliated Greg Raymer.  Clearly Lederer and Ferguson have been key figures in the PPA since its inception, and have played significant roles in developing the PPA's litigation and lobbying strategies.  If and when—and the "when" is looking increasingly like "sooner rather than later"—the online poker legalization bill is amended to include "poison pill" provisions to prevent current online sites from becoming approved to do business in the U.S. market, how easy will it really be for the PPA to look Lederer and Ferguson in the eye and tell them that the PPA wants to support a death sentence for Full Tilt, at least in the United States?  Does anyone really expect Lederer and Ferguson to approve a PPA lobbying strategy that is a death warrant for their own business?

"Life is a shit sandwich.  But if you've got enough bread, you don't taste the shit."

—Jonathan Winters
Why do I get the feeling the PPA is just feeding us a bunch of bread to hide all the bullshit they're serving?

(Image from _okat at flickr).

July 21, 2010

PPA Provides Cheese for the Sh*t Sandwich at Online Poker Hearing

"It's a huge shit sandwich, and we're all gonna have to take a bite."

Full Metal Jacket

Today was supposed to be a big day for online poker, with Rep. Barney Frank holding a House Financial Services committee hearing on his bill to legalize and regulate online gaming (HR 2267).  On the panel testifying for the Poker Players Alliance (PPA) was Annie Duke.  The PPA has posted video footage online for the hearing; it clocks in at over two hours total, but with a 30-40 minute intermission in the middle, the actual hearing time is a much more reasonable length.

As I feared, questions were raised about Duke's connection to Ultimate Bet and the "superuser" scandal (video ~ 53:00 mark).   Duke did parry the question and used it as a pivot to explain the need for legalization of online poker to provide better regulatory oversight of online poker, as well as effective legal remedies for players who feel they have been wronged by an online poker site, and even criminal prosecutions in appropriate cases where cheating or fraud are discovered.  However, it seems that the PPA could have made the same arguments with a spokesperson unconnected to the Ultimate Bet scandal, who would have had more credibility.

Duke didn't help her credibility when she stretched the truth, if not outright misrepresented, a couple of facts.  First, when questioned about her connection to Ultimate Bet, Duke quickly cut in to clarify that her connection was to "UltimateBet.net" which she characterized as a free, non-gambling site.  Although her description of the ".net" site was correct, it takes little effort to see that Duke is also a member of "Team UB" over on the real money ".com" site.  Duke also testified that "most courts" who have considered the "game of skill vs. game of chance" argument have ruled that poker is a game of skill.  Unfortunately, there is currently no state where an appellate court has issued a decision adopting the "game of skill" argument; in fact, the appellate courts which have ruled to this point on the issue have all held that poker is a game of chance governed by state gambling laws.  I am baffled by why Duke would make these kinds of misrepresentations to the committee.

Now, in fairness to Duke, I do feel she made strong points about the advantages of having online poker regulated in the United States to better protect Americans from fraud and cheating, and to better control access by minors, problem gamblers, and criminal elements.  But those same points could have been made by any number of other possible spokespeople without the credibility baggage Duke added to the mix.  However, the person raising the Ultimate Bet scandal, Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, likely would have found an opening to discuss the issue in any event.  So, in the grand scheme of things, Duke probably did no real harm to the legalization cause.  But the PPA still looks a bit like an ad hoc amateur hour outfit in failing to find a better spokesperson.

While on the topic of Ultimate Bet, Duke testified forcefully that the superuser fraud was committed by "one person", presumably Russ Hamilton.  If Duke knows this for certain, then why is Ultimate Bet so slow in revealing all it knows about the scandal?  Alternatively, if more than one person were involved in the scandal, then either Duke was not fully honest with the committee, or Ultimate Bet was not fully honest with Duke.  It might have been interesting if the committee had pressed Duke for additional information about the scandal while under oath.  Regrettably, the online poker community will have to continue waiting for those answers.

Frankly, though, I found other aspects of the hearing much more interesting than Duke's PPA talking points.  It is fairly clear now that many industry forces are in favor of legalizing gaming, but are also in favor of barring companies that are currently violating state or federal laws by offering online gaming or online poker in the United States.  Gaming industry rumors long-reported by Bill Rini and Pokerati's Dan Michalski suggest there is a strategy being pursued by leading brick-and-mortar casinos to legalize online gambling in a manner that clears the field of competition from established online poker sites, notably sites like Full Tilt, PokerStars, Ultimate Bet, and Bodog.  From the committee's questioning, it seems that some of the representatives are inclined to support this approach, voicing opinions that companies that are violating the law should not be rewarded by legalization of online gaming.  This again raises concerns that the PPA, dominated by directors associated with established online poker sites, might face a serious conflict of interest between the interests of its membership and the interests of its leadership.

Of more immediate concern to the online poker legalization efforts was the palpable hostility toward the bill from Rep. Bachus, who is the ranking minority member on the panel.  Rep. Bachus is not only opposed to legalization, he openly supports the UIGEA and expressed frustration that its implementation was delayed for two years!  This is not necessarily a deal breaker at this stage of matters, as the House operates in a manner where a majority can push through virtually any legislation it deems a priority, particularly when the bill is supported by a powerful committe chairman like Rep. Frank.  But, there is no indication that the current legalization bill is a priority, and there is precious little time for any real progress towards a vote between now and the fast-approaching reelection campaign season.  Of even greater concern is the real possibility that the Republicans will take control of the House after this fall's elections, which would flip chairmanship of the Financial Services Committee from Rep. Frank to Rep. Bachus.  Under such a scenario, Rep. Bachus would be able to singlehandedly kill any online gaming legalization bills.  To be blunt, if Republicans take control of the House, online poker legalization will stall for at least two more years.

So, the real lesson of the day for online poker legalization proponents is to support Democrats in the upcoming Congressional elections.  Time for the PPA to organize some "money bomb" fundraisers for key Democratic campaigns.

Kill the Dealer!

Walter Sobchak:  Over the line!

Smokey:  Huh?

Walter Sobchak:  I'm sorry, Smokey.  You were over the line, that's a foul.

Smokey:  Bullshit.  Mark it 8, Dude.

Walter Sobchak:  Uh, excuse me.  Mark it zero.  Next frame.

Smokey:  Bullshit, Walter.  Mark it 8, Dude.

Walter Sobchak:  Smokey, this is not 'Nam.  This is bowling.  There are rules.

The Dude:  Walter, ya know, it's Smokey, so his toe slipped over the line a little, big deal. It's just a game, man.

Walter Sobchak:  Dude, this is a league game, this determines who enters the next round robin.  Am I wrong?  Am I wrong?

Smokey:  Yeah, but I wasn't over.  Gimme the marker Dude, I'm marking it 8.

Walter Sobchak:  [pulls out a gun]  Smokey, my friend, you are entering a world of pain.

The Dude:  Walter ...

Walter Sobchak:  You mark that frame an 8, and you're entering a world of pain.

Smokey:  I'm not ...

Walter Sobchak:  A world of pain.

Smokey:  Dude, he's your partner ...

Walter Sobchak:  [shouting]  Has the whole world gone crazy?  Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?  Mark it zero!

—The Big Lebowski

Today, the sports talk world is abuzz with discussion of the odd ending to yesterday's Dodgers game.  The Dodgers held a 5-4 lead in the 9th inning, with the Giants having loaded the bases.  Acting Dodgers manager Don Mattingly came out for a conference on the mound.  So far, pretty standard baseball.  Then, after the conference, Mattingly took a step or two off the mound to answer a question from first baseman James Loney, then stepped back on the mound for a last word to pitcher Jonathon Broxton before exiting the field.  Giants manager Bruce Bochy immediately called for the umpires to rule that Mattingly had made a second trip to the mound in one inning.  The umpires conferred, agreed with Bochy, and ruled that Mattingly was required to remove Broxton from the game because of the "second" visit to the mound.  The relief pitcher, George Sherrill, came in essentially cold, and promptly gave up three runs, giving the Giants a 7-5 victory.

(Interesting historical note—The umpire crew chief for the game was Tim McClelland, who almost 27 years ago was the then-rookie home plate umpire who ejected George Brett in the infamous pine tar game, and more recently was home plate umpire and crew chief during the Sammy Sosa corked bat incident.  McClelland lives in the Des Moines area, and I ran into him on several occasions years ago when he was coaching his sons' AAU basketball teams and I was a referee.  McClelland is a towering man with a booming voice, but he was always a complete gentleman as a coach, respectful of referees, players, coaches, and parents.  Truly a class act.)

Now, the applicable rule does define a visit to the mound as ending when the manager steps off the mound (which is equivalent to the 18 foot circle referenced in the rule itself).  The rule has an important purpose, which is to speed up the game by limiting the number of conferences a manager can have per inning.  But the application in this case might strike some as being hyper-technical, a violation of the letter but not the spirit of the rule.  On the other hand, if an umpire doesn't strictly enforce the rule, where does he draw the line?  What if a manager took 5 or 6 steps, then came back to the mound?  Ten steps?  All the way up to the foul line?  Given that this occurred in a Major League game, I really don't have a problem with a strict enforcement of the rule; coaches and managers are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to know the details of the rulebook.  In a Little League or high school game, I would expect the umpires to be a little more relaxed about this type of rule.

After reffing basketball for nearly twenty years, and with some random officiating of a number of other sports, I have come to regard dealers and floors as being the "referees" of poker.  Just like sports officials, dealers and floors have to know the rules of the game (including varying sets of rules), they need experience to discern rules violations and apply the rules properly, they need the ability to explain their rulings to players, and they need to use good judgment in situations where they are able to exercise some degree of discretion.  And, just like sports officials, dealers and floors often have to take a certain amount of abuse from players after rendering a decision.

Now complaints about poker rules and rulings are commonplace enough to generate intense discussions on most poker forums and blogs.  Not suprisingly, poker rules maven Poker Grump has collected a vast menagerie of rules issues, some where a dealer or floor ruled in error, but most where a dealer enforced a rule and took some grief because of it.  Just this week, the Grump has written about a situation where a player tried to correct a mistaken wager, and defended a dealer who enforced the one player to a hand rule, despite some player grumbling. 

Nearly every poker player will complain on occasion about poker rules or rulings, but truth be told, we all rely on dealers and floors to make correct and fair rules decisions.  Players violate rules, inadvertantly and intentionally.  Strange situations arise that depart from normal play.  Disputes arise between players as to whether someone has acted improperly, or a particular action is permitted.  What exactly should poker players reasonably expect from their dealers and floors when it comes to rules enforcement?

First off, poker players need to realize that there are rules, and then there are rules.  Not all rules are created equal.  Some rules are absolute, some rules are flexible, and some rules are more like customs or guidelines.  Rules can be roughly broken down into four categories:
  • Fundamental rules—Rules that define the essential nature of a game.  Poker requires a 52-card deck, has betting/raising/calling/checking/folding actions, and has hand ranks.  If you can't bet, or if a flush beats a full house, it isn't poker.  Similarly, hold 'em has two hole cards and five community cards.  Give a player four hole cards, and it isn't hold 'em.
  • Structural rules—Rules that establish the parameters for a particular game.  Poker can be played with fixed limit, pot limit, or no limit betting; as a cash game or a tournament; heads up, full ring, or six-max; and one game, two games, or multiple games.
  • Procedural rules—Rules that govern the actual competition part of the game.  These rules cover dealing and handling cards, order of play, manner of betting, and player conduct.
  • Administrative rules—Rules that are peripheral to the competition part of the game.  These rules do not directly impact the game, but enable the game to be run in a smoother fashion.  These rules cover issues such as buy-ins, seat and table changes, and cell phone use.
Essentially, the fundamental and structural rules are fixed and not subject to any alterations or exceptions by the dealers or floors, and players expect no such variances.  The procedural and administrative rules, however, are the ones most subject to confusion and violation, and the ones which require the most enforcement and interpretation by dealers and floors.  These rules also are ones which may require a degree of flexibility in enforcement.

Second, players must accept that some rules are arbitrary, and may vary from game to game, room to room, tournament to tournament.  Don't like the button straddle?  Perturbed about a tournament structure?  Hate having to post in, or being unable to buy the button?  Mad that you can't talk on your cell phone?  Tough luck.  Don't whine to the dealer or floor about how much better it would be if different rules were used, you know, like the ones at Shangri-La Poker, where there is no rake and every player sets his own rules.  Instead, direct your complaints to a manager, and either suck it up and play, or move along to another room.   (Of course, you can and should whine about bad rules in your blog!). 

Third, players should expect strict enforcement of rules which relate to the integrity of the game.  A player should not need to prompt a dealer to enforce the "English only" or "one player to a hand" rules.

Fourth, players should expect consistent enforcement of rules.  The regular, the high roller, and the good tipper should not be given favorable rulings or preferential treatment merely because of who they are.  Likewise, the grumps, grouches, whiners, and jerks deserve a fair ruling, although abusive conduct need not be tolerated.

Fifth, players must accept that there will be judgment calls, and those judgment calls may not be consistent from game to game, dealer to dealer, floor to floor, shift to shift, day to day, room to room, tournament to tournament.  The toughest rules decisions occur when a situation arises where two conflicting rules may apply, or where strict application of a rule may have an unfair result or unintended negative effect on the game.  Those tough rules decisions are necessarily dependent on the unique factors presented by the situation, including the experience level of the players, the type of game, how the situation arose, what can be discerned as to the relative "fault" or "motives" of the players involved, and the potential consequences of various rulings.  To analogize to my basketball reffing days, a minor travel or other violation might be an automatic whistle in a high school varsity game, but might be ignored or only get a warning in a junior high game.  Or, contact that might need to be called a foul in one game might be perfectly acceptable contact in another game.  In these types of rules situations, poker players need to recognize that dealers and floors may reasonably come to different decisions at different times, and it is irrational and unhelpful for poker players to insist that these kinds of rulings be consistent with a ruling from a similar situation in a different game or another poker room.

"Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are."

—Franklin D. Roosevelt
Sixth, poker players must accept that some rulings may go against them, or might seem unfair.  But those decisions are much like bad calls in sports; they are going to happen, so there is no point in getting upset when they occur.  No dealer or floor is perfect, but the truly incompetent ones eventually tend to find themselves in other lines of work.  However, no dealer or floor intentionally screws up, so when they do err, it is better to accept it and move on than to dwell on it and let it distract you from your play.

Seventh, and finally, poker players must remember that dealer and floor rulings are only a small part of their success or failure.  Dealers and floors don't overplay weak hands, make stupid bluffs or silly hero calls, play above their bankroll, succumb to fancy play syndrome, or play while drunk or on tilt.  Only those poker players who can honestly say they are playing perfectly should ever even think about blaming a dealer or floor for their poor results.

Let's all try to cut our dealers and floors a little slack.

"Young men know the rules, but old men know the exceptions."

—Oliver Wendell Holmes