July 31, 2012

A Touch of Grey for Full Tilt Players?

I see you've got your list out, say your piece and get out.
Yes I get the gist of it, but it's all right.
Sorry that you feel that way, the only thing there is to say is
Every silver lining's got a touch of grey.

~The Grateful Dead, "Touch of Grey"

The big poker news of the day was the announcement that the DOJ and PokerStars had reached a deal to settle the federal forfeiture proceeding against PokerStars in exchange for PokerStars paying off Full Tilt Poker's players in full for the money stolen/mismanaged from them by directors Ray Bitar, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Howard Lederer, and Rafe Furst. Obviously this is welcome news to the tens of thousands of Full Tilt players whose funds have been frozen (or been gambled or spent by Full Tilt shareholders) for over fifteen months. But for some of those players, the check they get in the mail might be a little lighter than they anticipated.

A key provision of the settlement agreement provides that the DOJ will be paid settlement funds from PokerStars to reimburse U.S. players, while PokerStars will reimburse foreign players directly. The settlement agreement also provides that PokerStars will provide the DOJ with player account records to facilitate the reimbursement of U.S. players. Although the DOJ has not yet announced reimbursement procedures for U.S. players to follow, the involvement of the DOJ raises the interesting question of whether some players will receive their entire account balance.

What could possibly prevent a full refund? Well, it seems almost certain that players will need to file some kind of paperwork to the government to submit their claims, and that paperwork will almost certainly include basic information such as names, addresses, and social security numbers. Most likely, the government will also issue a Form 1099-MISC or a Form W2-G with any player reimbursements. Consequently, there are a number of legal issues that might arise that would affect the reimbursement of certain players, including:

  • Federal & state tax debts:  Players owing tax debts will likely find their player accounts garnished.
  • Delinquent child support obligations:  The federal government is actively involved in enforcing child support withholding.
  • Divorce & bankruptcy court proceedings:  Players who have filed asset inventories in divorce or bankruptcy proceedings might find that attorneys for their former spouse or creditors have developed an interest in determining if a poker account refund is in the works.
  • Civil judgment and criminal fine garnishments:  Players who have unpaid civil judgments and criminal fines may face garnishments of their account funds.
As a practical matter, the tax and child support debts are more likely to affect players, as the government is more active in seeking out funds to satisfy those kinds of debts, and those types of debts are fairly easy for the government to locate and garnish with the straightforward exchange of data (e.g., names, addresses, social security numbers). Divorce and bankruptcy proceedings, as well as civil judgments and minor criminal fines (e.g., traffic or parking tickets) are more likely to fly under the radar unless and until an interested party catches the whiff of money in the air; remarkably, this happens a fair percentage of the time.

However, even players who don't have any current outstanding debts are not immune from potential financial issues related to their refunds. Players with significant refunds due will likely find themselves facing tax withholding, as well as potential audits of prior tax returns (remember, the DOJ will have full access to all past Full Tilt accounting records for each player account). Every player receiving a refund will also need to pay taxes on their refund proceeds. If players have kept good records, they may be able to deduct poker losses to reduce or eliminate their taxes owed. But players who haven't kept good records may well find themselves paying taxes on the full amount of their refund.

I'm happy for all the Full Tilt players who now have a good chance of recovering their funds which once seemed lost to yet another online poker scandal. If some of those players have a portion of their funds garnished to satisfy child support, tax, or other legal debts, well, every silver lining has a touch of grey.

ADDENDUM (31 July 2012):  After I hit publish, I found out via Twitter that tax attorney Brad Polizzano (@taxdood) had also written about the tax implications of Full Tilt refunds. Check out his post!

ADDENDUM (1 August 2012): To follow up on a series of questions and comments on Twitter, I want to clarify that it's not a guarantee that the DOJ would issue a Form 1099/W2-G with any refund. The federal regulations related to remissions in forfeiture cases are silent as to tax withholding, but do provide that the DOJ can impose procedures and conditions for remissions. So at the very least, there will be some kind of paper trail to tie remissions to players, and that paper trail at least creates potential tax implications for players.

Also, normal tax rules will apply to any remissions. So tax would only be owed on the profit/gain, and not on the deposit portion of the player account. Assuming players paid taxes in prior years and have good records, they may well owe nothing further (unless they declared a casualty loss for theft/loss of their account funds). Players who did not pay taxes, underpaid taxes, and/or lack appropriate records to document wins/losses may well find themselves with tax issues. Depending on the records available to the DOJ and PokerStars, the DOJ might be able to document deposits and wins/profits for player reporting purposes, but I'm not certain the DOJ is going to want to go to that kind of trouble. As Brad Polizanno wrote in his blog (see first Addendum above), it would be a surprise if the DOJ and PokerStars have not already thought out most of these sort of logisitics.

July 08, 2012

Bally's Tower of Babel

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

~Genesis 11:1-9 (NIV)

If you spend much time in poker rooms on the Vegas Strip, you quickly discover that foreign players are a common sight. On one December trip a few years back, I kept track and found that I played poker with folks from more than 30 different countries over a six day period. Although it can be fun to talk to players from around the world, language and cultural barriers can crop up in unexpected ways, as foreign players struggle to adjust to American norms for proper poker procedure and etiquette.

One of the most common problems arises when two or more foreign players are playing at the same table and begin chatting in their native language. Of course, this violates the "English only" rule that is generally enforced to prevent players from sharing information or otherwise colluding during the play of a hand. Enforcing this rule can be difficult, as a poker dealer might not want to jeopardize tips from players by asking them to stop conversing. The rule is also awkward for foreign players who are not fluent in English and find themselves shut out of the casual table chat. The WSOP with its influx of foreign poker players only exacerbates the situation. A couple of summers ago, I nearly quit playing in the Caesars Palace poker room during the WSOP because the dealers essentially ignored the English only rule, and permitted foreign language conversation even among players with live hands.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I played a few sessions of poker during a short trip to Vegas with the sig other. I was playing at Bally's one weekday afternoon when a female dealer rotated to our table. The dealer appeared to be in her 40s, and was Asian with a distinct Asian accent, but she spoke English well and could generally be understood, with occasional moments when her fast speech patterns combined with Bally's general background noise required closer attention to understand what she was saying.

The other characters in this melodrama were the gent in Seat 10 and a young gal sitting behind him, sweating his play. The gent was also Asian, mid-50s, and had a thick Asian accent on the rare occasions he spoke. His gal pal was Hispanic and appeared to be in her late-20s; she had a noticeable Hispanic accent. What could possibly go wrong?

For the first 20 minutes of the Asian dealer's down, nothing notable happened. The Asian gent and his Hispanic gal would occasionally chatter with each other, usually when the gent had folded. But they began talking during one hand while the Asian gent was debating his action when facing a big bet. The dealer turned and said something to the Hispanic gal. The Hispanic gal looked confused, then said something back to the dealer, who replied, this time more loudly, "English only, please."

Uh oh.

Hilarity ensued.

Hispanic Gal: "What do you mean, 'English only'? I was speaking English!

Dealer:  "You can only use English during a hand."

Hispanic Gal:  "I was speaking English!"

Dealer:  "It didn't sound like English!"

Hispanic Gal:  "What's wrong with how I speak? I was speaking English!"

Dealer:  "It didn't sound like English to me."

Hispanic Gal:  "Are you saying I can't speak English?"

Yes, two individuals for whom English is a second language were arguing about which of them was at fault for their failure to communicate. And they were both visibly upset by the situation.

The dealer to her credit, ended the discussion and finished out her down at the table with no further comment. The Hispanic gal, however, clearly was not interested in letting the incident go, and stalked off to corner the floor person. He accompanied her back to the table, where the dealer explained her side of the situation. The floor patiently let the Hispanic gal vent, then said, "I'm sorry, there seems to have been a misunderstanding. I'm not going to reprimand my dealer for trying to make sure our rules are followed." The Hispanic gal took offense to the floor's comments, and went off in a lengthy diatribe about how the dealer had insulted her by not understanding she was speaking in English. Finally, the floor offered another apology and moved along, while the Hispanic gal resumed her seat, clearly fuming.

Poker has truly developed into a global game, which creates inevitable cultural and linguistic complications. Balancing the need to enforce an English only rule with the common presence of foreign and foreign-born players and dealers at the poker tables is a difficult task at best. Hopefully everyone involved will recognize the need to handle the inevitable misunderstandings in a diplomatic fashion with grace and humor.

The Tower of Babel (image source).

My Garmin & Me

I have been a recreational runner / addict for much of my life (but more about that in a future post). Every serious runner needs a good running watch, and for my high school and college days, I had a classic Timex Ironman Triathlon watch, probably the most successful sports watch in history. Late in my law school days, my first Ironman watch died, and I upgraded to the then-cutting edge Ironman watch with "IndiGlo" backlighting. That watch lasted from roughly 1995 through 2010, seeing me through a marathon, dozens of other road races, and near daily runs with only the occasional battery replacement.

Classic Timex Ironman watch with "IndiGlo" lighting.
(Photo from Wikipedia.)

For a variety of reasons (primarily injuries, apathy, and a decision to stop running road races), I never got around to replacing my Ironman watch. But, I have continued to run, even as age, injuries, work, and family life have conspired to make my running habit less regular and less intense. Still, it felt weird not having a watch to track my pace as I ran.

Last Christmas, my sig other got me a new running watch, a Garmin Forerunner 405, a watch my brother has raved about for several years. Let's just say that technology has progressed a bit since my law school days. First and foremost, my Garmin has built-in GPS tracking capability, enabling the watch to give me precise distances run, along with elevation changes. Also, the GPS feature frees a runner from the boredom and strictures of adhering to a few set routes where the distance is known; instead, the runner can explore new routes and trails and simply consult the watch to determine distance run. The watch also calculates calories burned based on age, weight, and gender data entered by the runner. Runners can also use the watch to track actual versus planned pace of run, and to craft workouts. The watch also has an optional heart rate monitor feature (which I do not use).

Garmin Forerunner 405, available on Amazon.

But the best feature of my Garmin watch is that, after every few runs (or even every run), you can upload the detailed run data from your watch to your computer via a wireless USB antenna. Once the data from your watch is uploaded, Garmin exports the data to a personal fitness webpage where you can keep a complete record of all of your training runs and road races. Your personal Garmin webpage lets you view a detailed report for each running event, with interesting data such as your pace at any point on your route. Below is a report for a typical solo run on my standard "long route" which is roughly five miles long (depending on whether I remember to start my watch as I leave the driveway or shortly after, the route can vary from 4.9 to 5.1 miles on the precise Garmin GPS measurement). If you follow the "View Details" tab, you can see additional information, such as my "splits" (time and pace for each mile segment), elevation changes (this is a generally flat course with a long gradual slope throughout Mile 3 and a small hill near the end of Mile 4), and my "moving pace" (pace after factoring out pauses for street lights, dog misadventures, etc.).

The report above was for a pretty good running day—temperature in upper 50s, moderate humidity, light wind—call it an 8 out of 10 for running conditions. My runs during the heat wave over the past month have generally been at a much slower pace, usually around 9:00 to 9:30 minute/miles over this same course. Frankly, the high humidity is tougher for running than the heat, making it impossible for the body to keep cool, not to mention making it feel like there is no oxygen in the air. But my moving pace of 8:22 per mile in this report is probably a pretty good snapshot of my current running level during good weather conditions, and right now I would expect on most 10K (6.2 mile) courses to knock out pretty steady splits around 8:15 to 8:30 minute/miles. It's a far cry from my prime running days, but I have plenty of time for serious training before tackling a possible 5K road race during Mastodon and running the Vegas Rock 'N Roll Half Marathon with Santa Claus on my birthday (and probably during WPBT—scheduling details have not yet been released).

Below is the report from a typical run with Berkeley on the same long route, back when the weather was more suitable for boxer fitness training (depending on humidity, Berk can't run with me when the temperature is above 60-65F). Click on the "View Details" tab and you will see the detailed pace chart which reveals where in our route Berk read or sent "p-mail", took care of his "bizness", slowed to check out another dog, or waited with me to cross a street. Kind of fascinating what modern tech can do!

I love my Garmin watch, and certainly recommend the Garmin watch line to all serious runners. Similarly, the Timex Ironman watch line has also exploded into a myriad of Ironman watches, most with fancy new technology options such as GPS location, run pacing, training records, and heart rate monitoring. If you are a regular runner or biker who wants to make the most of your fitness training, you owe it to yourself to look into getting a good quality training watch.

July 01, 2012

Egg On Your Face Up Gaming

Recently I read about several poker bloggers who had played in a special freeroll tourney arranged by famed poker media guru AlCantHang through Face Up Gaming (Lightning's account of the first tourney and a screen shot of the Face Up table display are here, while JT88Keys blogged about the tourney here). Face Up is a subscription model poker site which offers play chip poker tournaments, "cash" games, and leagues, with various cash and non-cash prizes awarded for tournament wins or monthly performance. Although registration is free, additional benefits (mostly more free play chips and better access to tourneys and leagues) are available for a monthly fee of $25.

A few days ago, Al posted on his blog that he had arranged a second freeroll tourney on Face Up, set for mid-afternoon yesterday. I had some errands to run, but was spousal unit free for the weekend, so I figured why not organize my day to play some cards online during the worst of the scorching heat wave Iowa (and half the country) has been enduring recently. Plus, there was plenty of free swag up for grabs, including an iPad, an iPod, a pair of fancy sunglasses, and assorted clothing items. Pretty sweet set up, eh?

I got registered just fine. I opened the poker lobby around 2:00, 15 minutes before tourney start time. The lobby did not really indicate how to go about getting your table to display, and I was starting to wonder how to get seated when my tournament room finally displayed a link to my table a minute or two before the tourney started. I was dealt the Ace of spades for the button, which is always a good omen. I then spent a few hands trying to figure out the table set up, auto-folding several trash hands.

Finally, I found a hand to play—Ace-Queen offsuit on the button. As players started to fold, I tried to figure out where and how to put in a raise. As the betting display finally popped up, I went to enter a raise amount ... and nothing happened. As my timer ran down and my hand was folded, I frantically clicked buttons as it slowly dawned on me that I had been disconnected.

OK, stuff happens. I waited briefly to see if I reconnected automatically, but no luck. So I went back to the tourney lobby, but couldn't find the blogger tourney because once a tourney starts, it is no longer displayed. I tried to engage in the lobby chat, but kept getting an error message telling me I needed to log in. Then when a log in dialogue box appeared, I tried to log in but only got error messages. I tried closing and reloading the Face Up site, but no luck. Finally, after about 30 minutes of trying various solutions, I successfully reconnected. It took a few minutes after that for the lobby to again display the blogger tourney. But I was back in action.

I had been blinded down from 2000 to ~1400, but stole a couple of pots with preflop all-ins with deuces and A6 sooooted. Then I knocked a player out when I won a race with a middle pocket pair versus his Broadway Ace (funny how I can't remember the details of my one big winning pot).

I was running good, too good. I was almost immediately disconnected again, this time for only five minutes or so. I got back to the game in time to find 66 under the gun. I decided to get tricky and play for a check raise. Unfortunately, six of us saw a flop of 5-5-7. I bet out, got raised by a shorty who was all in, and it folded back to me. I called off the small raise, and found myself up against Q5 sooooted. Ouch. I was back to being a short stack, and got it all in with KQ offsuit against pocket Fours. Four in the window and goodbye, good luck, good gravy.

From the Face Up lobby chatter and the poker blogger Twitter stream, it was pretty clear that Face Up was having major connection issues during the blogger tourney. The lobby showed a mere 500 or so players logged in, and I don't know how that number compares to the normal player volume. The site problems clearly were affecting all tourneys, not just the blogger freeroll. As another blogger, Heffmike, noted on his blog, the Face Up administrator disabled lobby chat for a period, so I can't comment how long the connection issues lasted. But between the players labeled as disconnected on the site and the Twitter stream, I would guess well over half of the poker bloggers in the tourney experienced some level of connection problems.

When any business throws a promotional event like this for influential media and blogger types, the purpose is to get some free publicity, preferably glowing reviews and enthusiastic endorsements. Whether it's a poker site's freeroll, a new restaurant's sneak preview, or a casino's "soft opening"—the one big rule is make sure everything runs smoothly. After all, you invited these people to try your business for free in hopes they will be impressed enough to generate some favorable publicity. So if your business has serious problems during your promotional event, you have pretty much shot yourself in the foot.

That being said, although the connection issues were annoying, it was just a freeroll, after all. None of the players lost anything other than an hour or two of their weekend. I will probably give the site another shot or two to see how things run once they have the connection issue sorted out, though I can't see myself renewing my monthly membership if the connection issues aren't resolved in the next few weeks.

In all fairness, however the site seemed to run fairly smoothly during the periods I was able to stay connected. I did find some areas where the site could look to improve:

  • Table size—The table was awkwardly sized. I had to reduce the window size to get it to fit on my laptop screen, but this made many parts of the screen hard to observe without scrolling up and down.
  • Betting options—The bet slider was very difficult to use, and I had to resort to typing in numbers.
  • Slow graphics—The dealing and action graphics were notably slow.
  • Lobby screen—The lobby screen needs a place to log in if you are disconnected, rather than having to close the lobby, go back to the website, and start all over from scratch. Also, there needs to be a tab to display tourneys that have started, as well as a better way to get back to your table when you are disconnected. Finally, when you click on a cash game or tourney with no players, the screen basically locks up instead of indicating that no games are available.
  • Player chat—The availability of video and voice chat are nice. But it looks to be difficult or impossible to chat with players not at your table.

Certainly Face Up is well behind the sophisticated player interface of established play money poker sites like Poker Stars (where I have been playing occasionally over the past six weeks). But Face Up is solid enough for a new start up site, and hopefully Face Up gets its glitches fixed and keeps working to upgrade its interface software. Face Up's real prize reward system for fake money play could fill a desperately needed niche in the online poker eco-system as we continue to see very slow and fragmented movement toward online real money poker legalization. But for the moment, Face Up is coming off as being an amateur hour operation.

(Image source).