November 22, 2016

Dancing Gorillas at the Poker Table

Bonus update (23 Nov 2016):  My good friend Poker Grump wrote a great article over at Poker News on the same issue of selective attention a few weeks back. His article is better because he has a Penn & Teller magic video. So go read that article then come back here for dancing gorilla videos.

* * * * *

After several stressful months at the office, not to mention a mind-boggling Presidential election, a trip to Las Vegas came at just the right moment. A few days to unplug from the world were just what the doctor ordered. Poker. Good food. Cocktails. Friends. The Vegas Rock 'N Roll Half Marathon. Well, the last one was more the excuse for Vegas than the highlight, yet there is something awesome about being mere yards from a stage where Snoop Dogg is rapping about peace, love, and weed, before running for two hours in the neon glow of the Vegas Strip at night.

As has become the norm for my Vegas trips, I made my headquarters at Aria; still the best value for upscale hotel rooms, awesome poker room, and great mid-Strip location. But there may have been a donkalicious late night drinking session of 2-6 spread limit Hold Them at Monte Carlo. Allegedly. Unquestionably there was a side trip for a session of Pot Limit Gambooool at the new Wynn poker room (actually in Encore). This is a fantastic room, with restrooms and a sports book window conveniently located in the room, lots of space between tables, top shelf drinks, and a cool, upscale vibe. And, of course, no Vegas poker trip is complete without a late night session of Poker With The Drunks at Planet Hollywood, where I cashed out for nearly a grand in profit. P-Ho remains the gold standard for lucrative late night poker.

Monday morning rolled around, and I decided to squeeze in a last three hour poker session at Aria. My legs were a little sore from the race, but I was rested, caffeinated, and sober. I should have been ready to play my A-game. Instead, I ended up looking like a total idiot.

But, for a moment, let's digress. Take a quick look at this video.

You may well have already seen this video, which was the centerpiece of an exceptional bit of psychological experimentation. The point of the experiment was to test how people observed an overall situation when they were focused on one aspect of the situation. Here, where people were focused on the task of counting the number of passes made by the people in white t-shirts, half of the observers completely missed the gorilla walking through the scene. That's right. People who were intently focused on tracking one part of the scene were utterly oblivious to another part of the scene, even something as absurd as a gorilla.

The researchers called this psychological phenomenon selective attention. Essentially, when your brain is focused on one task, it mutes or outright ignores information unrelated to the task at hand. And it can manifest itself in a wide range of daily activities. Including poker. And in a game where observation is a key skill, overlooking important information can be a costly leak.

Back to my session at Aria. I got into a game where most of the players had been at the table together since early in the morning. And it was quickly obvious why. Most of the players were over $500 deep, with several having over $1,000 stacked behind. The table economy ran through a total maniac across the table who raised preflop more than two out of three hands. His standard play was to raise preflop by splashing a random handful of chips into the pot, usually $30-$80. Then, he would c-bet nearly every flop by jamming a big stack of $80-$150 into the middle. Of course, the maniac attracted multiple callers every hand, with players looking to catch a hand and take a bite out of the maniac's stack. For his part, the maniac, as maniacs are wont to do, caught improbable hand after improbable hand to vacuum up chips from tilty nits.

So how many times did I screw up in this session? The number of the counting shall be three ....

Hand #1:  Early in the session, I had roughly my $300 starting stack and was in the small blind. Maniac raised to $20, and I called with 75 soooted along with three other players. Flop was a gorgeous 7-7-5 with two hearts. Catamaran! We checked it around on the flop. Turn was another 5. Boo! I led out for $50, and got called by the big blind. Maniac and another guy folded, but the cutoff—a fairly standard older nit—raised to $150. Damn, pretty clear he has the other 7 and we're chopping the pot. So, I shoved, expecting the big blind to fold, the nit to call, and to run out the board.

Except the big blind didn't fold. Instead, he kept looking at his cards and thinking. He cut out chips for a call, and kept looking back at his cards and the board. Eventually, he sighed and mucked. I rolled my cards and said, "I flopped it, but guess now we'll chop it."

It was only then that I realized the old nit in the cutoff hadn't snap-called! That was ... awkward. And seconds ticked by as the nit stared at my hand, the board, and his hand. Finally, he reluctantly folded. Obviously he didn't have the last 7, so he might have had something like an overpair or possibly an open-ended straight flush draw. In any event, I likely cost myself his $100 or so call.

Hand #2:  Later in the session, I was on the button with the Spanish Inquisition6h3s. The table maniac raised to $30 and I called, along with three other players. The flop was interesting—9h5h4h—giving me an open-ended straight draw, but presenting the danger of drawing dead, I was prepared to fold to any bet, on the theory there is always a better place to get it in bad. But instead it checked around, and I gladly asked the dealer for a free card.

The turn was even more interesting—the 2s—giving me the straight. This time, the maniac threw out $50, basically 1/3 of the pot. Two players flat called, and I made the reluctant crying call.

The river was the 2h. Although I doubted there had been a slow-played set or two pair that boated, the fourth heart on the river was almost certainly the nail in the coffin for my straight. The other players took turns looking at their hole cards and checking. I checked and waited to see the inevitable showdown between big single hearts in the hole. As everyone stared at each other, I rolled my cards and dramatically announced, "I have a straight to the six!" hoping to prod the other players to show down and move things along.

Knowing my hand wasn't good, I looked over at the TV, waiting for the next hand. I heard the dealer announce "Flush wins." Well duh. But then, I saw the dealer pushing the pot to me. What the heck??

Oh yeah. I had a baby heart in my hand, so I had a flush, not a straight. Of course, I could only beat a naked 3h in the hole, but that was the only other heart held by anyone in the hand at showdown. Cha-ching! Feel like I missed a value bet there with that monster ....

Hand #3:  Once again, maniac opened in middle position for $35. Once again I called on the button with 8s7s. But to my surprise, the rest of the table folded. The flop was pretty good—Ah9s6c—giving me an open-ended straight draw. Maniac bet $50, I raised to $130, and the maniac auto-called. Hmm, he might have a hand this time. Turn was interesting—9c. Maniac checked, I bet $200, he called. At this point, if I didn't hit my straight, I was done with the hand. It was far too probable maniac had an Ace or 9.

River was not just a blank, it was a killer card—6h. Basically, if maniac has any Ace, 9, 6, or pocket pair, he wins. Maniac checked, and I checked. Maniac says, "You win," I respond, "I have eight high" and flashed my hand. Maniac goes, "Oh, I can beat that!" and tables QcJc. Ahhh, so he chased a flush draw, missed, and still has me beat. Sucks to be me.

I went to muck my loser hand when the guy next to me says, "Wait, you chop!" I paused, then realized that maniac and I were both playing the board because the Ace on board was the kicker for each of our hands. I tabled my cards, and we chopped the pot.

I ended up stacking maniac when I slow-played QhQd preflop, and we got it all-in on a flop of AsQcTc. Maniac showed Ac2c, which was stronger than I hoped. But the board ran out blanks and my set held up for a monster pot.

So back to selective attention. In each of these hands, I was so focused on one thing—a player's action or chasing my draw—that I missed other important developments. Of course, having it happen three times in a three hour session is not something I am terribly proud of. I'm certain that the circumstances—a last quick session, some residual fatigue, playing a maniac—contributed to the problem. But it's also a phenomenon that happens even to the best trained professionals; for example, a decent percentage of radiologists failed to detect a gorilla shape when reviewing CT scans for tumors. And for you smug folks who saw the gorilla in the first video and who are laughing at my stupidity, try this follow up test:

In any event, being aware of this psychological phenomenon will hopefully make it less likely to recur in my future poker sessions.

Or I'm just getting old.

November 09, 2016

The Resiliency of America

Elections mean everything.

But not because our favored candidate wins or loses. I'm old enough now to have experienced the highs and lows of many, many elections. Elections for Presidents, Senators, Representatives, Governors, legislators, and even city council members. Won some. Lost some. Cried in jubilation. Cried in despair.

But here's the thing. America has been the greatest nation on Earth for going on nearly a quarter of a millenium. Our nation is the first and greatest experiment in Democracy, the idea that the will of the People will govern the People. We've had great leaders. We've had terrible leaders. And yet, here we are. Still Number One on the Charts, Number One in Their Hearts. The rest of the world still looks to America as the great beacon of Hope, of Freedom, of Opportunity.

Last May, I was in Las Vegas with a diverse group of friends to run a half marathon and share some good fellowship. We talked some politics. One member of our group is a hard-core conservative. When others in our group expressed fear of a Trump presidency, I noted that Trump would be constrained by the American power structure—Congress, the Executive bureaucracy, the courts. In an age of expansive Presidential power, these constraints may not mean as much as they did in prior ages. But they are there, and they are real.

At this moment, the election hasn't been officially called, but it looks like Donald Trump—yes, the Celebrity Apprentice "You're fired!" Donald Trump—will most likely be our next President. I'm on record thinking Trump will be a disaster as President. I would have voted for Jeb! Bush, John Kasich, or Marco Rubio over Hillary Clinton, and basically any Joe or Jane Schmoe over Donald Trump. Yet, here we are. A majority of Americans (or close enough as to make no difference) prefer Donald Trump.

That's the beauty of democracy. The will of the People prevails. And it seems America wants to go a direction I think is folly. But who am I to say I know better than the People? Maybe the People as a whole are smarter than I am, Wisdom of the Crowd and all. In two years there will be another Congressional election, and in four years there will be another Presidential election. And if Trump is a disaster, if our country has lurched into a ravine, then my side will presumably win a victory or two, and maybe even claim a mandate. And if Trump is successful? Well, then America as a whole presumably is doing well and my fears were misplaced.

I know my Democratic friends will run through the list of unfair disadvantages Clinton faced. Gerrymandering. Voter suppression. Media fawning over Trump. FBI Director Comey's absurd injecting of himself into the last two weeks of a presidential race. Third-party candidacies by Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein. Irrational and even rabid investigations by a Republican House. And yes, still in 2016, residual sexism.

It's all bullshit.

Trump was the weakest potential candidate in a large Republican field. President Obama is as popular as President Reagan was at the end of his second term. The economy is doing well, and unemployment is under 5%. This loss is squarely on Hillary Clinton. Clinton, who already faced skepticism and distrust, chose to use a personal email server while Secretary of State, feeding into a narrative of dishonesty and lawlessness, creating a scandal that was both meritless and defining. She chose to give speeches to Wall Street companies for large fees. She chose to limit her campaign efforts in the Upper Midwest, taking the traditional support of blue-collar union workers for granted. Clinton had the most amazing possible opposition research to turn into anti-Trump ads, focusing on Trump's sexist, racist, and generally unsavory actions and attitudes. Even Trump's greatest strength—his self-acclaimed business acumen—turned out to be as much a fraud as the candidate himself.

Clinton's failure to capitalize on all of these inherent advantages is a testament to her weakness as a candidate. She failed to connect to ordinary Americans who have been left out of the economic recovery. She failed to explain how she would change the status quo, how she would represent those who aren't part of the social and economic elite. She failed to make a case why her Presidency would move America forward in a significant way other than being "not Trump". She simply failed to connect with We the People.

So, here we are. The American People have spoken. The People want change. The People want not-Clinton. The People want Donald Trump to look President Obama in the eye and say "You're Fired!" And in a democracy, the will of the People prevails.

So to all of my friends who are anti-Trump: Do not despair. Trump and the Republicans now have full and unfettered power. Everything is on them. If they let Obamacare fail without a safety net, it's on them. If Russia hacks our government computers, it's on them. If there is a terrorist attack or if the Middle East falls into chaos, it's on them. If the economy tanks, it's on them. If they repeal civil rights legislation, it's on them. And if the Republicans do any of these things, well there is always the next election. And today begins the next election. Today is the first day to start to make the case for change. Today is the day to begin recruiting candidates for city councils, state legislatures, and Congress. Today is the day to start the opposition to Donald Trump.

But remember, millions of people around the world don't have the ability to participate in an election. Many people around the word have no say in their governance. They have no say in who runs their country, no say in who speaks for them on the local or international stage, no say in who makes policies that affect their lives.

Elections mean everything. And that's a beautiful thing.

November 08, 2016

Kumbaya and the Limits of Empathy

Boy have we come a long way since the Iowa caucuses. As we await the results of yet another hotly disputed presidential election, my thoughts have turned to the widening and seemingly unbridgeable gulf between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, right and left. In recent days, two prominent articles (one in the Washington Post, the other in the Wall Street Journal) have suggested that liberals need to learn to "empathize" with conservatives—in particular, blue-collar white voters.

These and similar empathy-trolling articles are based on the premise of finding a way to join hands and sing kumbaya after an election. This kumbaya mentality held a certain essential truth in the wake of the bitter, fractious elections from 2000-2012. Growing up in a small town in rural Nebraska, I understand the angst and even despair of those who feel left behind in the rapidly changing world. And I agree many liberals would be well-served to better understand and, yes, empathize with conservative voters.

But this election is different. We are far past differences in policy. We are even past disagreements as to basic facts; the rejection of shared facts by many conservative politicians and voters has only exacerbated our political divide. We are in a new and dangerous place where we no longer even share a concept of American democracy.

Trump has built his campaign on a base of alt-right, white nationalist support. This is not saying that all, or even a large number of his supporters are alt-right white nationalists. But that base, the ones supporting Trump because he wants to deport millions of Hispanics because they are "rapists and murderers", fueled his nomination. And we should rightly be disgusted by and reject them.

But even that is not the real problem with the kumbaya argument. The highly partisan, polarizing elections off 2000-2012 were fought within the shared boundaries of American democratic discourse. But Trump and the alt-right (with the tacit support of mainstream Republican leaders) have abandoned all pretense of those shared democratic values. Trump got his start with his alt-right base by championing the "birther" movement, attacking the legitimacy of Obama's presidency. Trump has only thrown gas on the alt-right fire with his rhetoric during the present campaign.

Trump not only claims polls are skewed, he and his alt-right supporters also assert the political process itself is rigged. Linking back to the racist base of his candidacy, Trump this week suggested the Nevada elections are "rigged" because polling places were only kept open for a "certain group" of voters. Or how about his rhetoric toward Clinton. Calling a political opponent "crooked" and "corrupt" is fair (if rough and tumble) commentary. Calling her a "criminal" and promising to throw her in prison is the stuff of fascism.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. In even more heated rhetoric, Clinton is no longer merely a "criminal"; Trump and other Republican leaders are asserting that Clinton and President Obama are "traitors" or have committed "treason"--treason, of course, is one of the few federal crimes for which there is a death penalty. And don't forget Trump suggesting that, if the election goes the wrong way, his supporters should use their Second Amendment rights (a dog whistle to the alt-right, where the right to bear arms is held to be part of a right to armed rebellion against a perceived tyrant). And as the election drew to a close, Trump has even refused to state if he will accept the results as legitimate in the event he loses.

Of course, it's hard to know whether and to what extent Trump and other Republican leaders are drinking the alt-right Kool-Aid. For some, whipping up crowds chanting "Lock her up!" is only a tool to energize their voting base. Yet, when those chants turn to "Execute her!", those same Republican leaders turn mum, offering at best tepid rebukes, afraid of losing their base (or worse, becoming a target in their next primary).

It's one thing to argue that we should all find common ground and respect each other after a bitter campaign like Bush-Gore or Obama-Romney. But it's an entirely different argument when the Trump/alt-right wing of the Republican party rejects the legitimacy of our shared democratic norms. How, exactly, are we supposed to engage post-election, particularly if Clinton is elected? How is that conversation at the office or church supposed to go?

"Clinton is a criminal who ought to be thrown in jail."

"I guess I don't agree. I get your frustration, but you know, she hasn't even been charged with a crime."

"The corrupt system is just protecting her. She's a traitor and ought to be executed."

"Well, I see where you're coming from, and I can agree Clinton has had some shady moments, but I guess I can't agree with you about her being a traitor."

"Thomas Jefferson once said, 'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.' And that's why we have the Second Amendment."

"Interesting point. Never thought of that perspective. Not sure I agree with you, but let me mull it over. Want to go grab lunch?"

Sorry, but certain ideas are sufficiently dangerous to a functioning democracy that they cannot be given false equivalency and treated as a legitimate part of political discourse. Rejecting the legitimacy of an anti-democratic argument is not "dehumanizing" those who advocate it; it's a defense of basic American values.

Sometimes, it's not about empathy. You understand your opponent's argument perfectly. And the only rational response is to say their idea is batshit insane.

So, until the Republican party rejects the batshit insane, anti-democratic, anti-American alt-right, I'm all out of empathy.

Empathy, anyone?

(Billboard posted by a resident of an affluent 
West Des Moines, Iowa neighborhood.)

June 21, 2016

Running v. Poker—Heads Up for Rollz

I'm a simple guy. I go to work. I come home. I walk the dog. I watch some TV. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

I only have two major hobbies—running and poker. Both are good ways to unwind. Both can be fun. Both can be challenging. Both can kick you in the nuts.

But, which one is the superior hobby? Let's break it down.


Poker:  Pizza.

Running:  Gu gel.

Winner:  Poker. And don't get me started about pizza-flavored gels.

Financial Leaks

Poker:  Tournament entry fees. Bad bluffs. Sports wagers.

Running:  Race entry fees. Travel expenses. Shoes.

Winner:  Running. At least you still have shoes.

Health Risks

Poker:  Back pain. High blood pressure. Depression. Assaults.

Running:  Knee injuries. Blisters. Chafing. Bear attacks.

Winner:  Running. #TeamGrizzly

Free Beverages

Poker:  Red Bull. Beer. Captain & Coke.

Running:  Gatorade. Chocolate milk. Pickle juice.

Winner:  Poker. Even when you add in the tip.


Poker:  Hoodie. Headphones. Sunglasses.

Running:  Neon-colored shorts. Headphones. Sunglasses.

Winner:  There are no winners here.

Embarrassing Moments

Poker:  Misreading a hand. Bluffing into the nuts.

Running:  Bloody nipplesRunner's trots.

Winner:  Poker. In a gawddamn landslide.

Bad Beat Stories

Poker:  "I had a huge stack on the bubble of this WSOP tourney. I had pocket Kings, flopped a set, and got it all in versus the chipleader. He had Aces and went runner-runner for a flush."

Running:  "My shoelace came untied, so I had to stop and retie it. I missed qualifying for Boston by 30 seconds."

Winner:  Running. Dante really should have devoted an entire level of Hell to poker players who tell bad beat stories.

Inspirational Movies

Poker:  Rounders. Maverick. The Cincinnati Kid.

Running:  Chariots of Fire. Prefontaine. Forrest Gump.

Winner:  Five great flicks, plus that Tom Hanks dud. Rounders captures the seedy, degenerate side of poker, while Forrest Gump is like a box of chocolate gel packs. Poker with the easy win.


Poker:  "Poker Face"—Lady Gaga. "Ace of Spades"—Motörhead. "The Gambler"—Kenny Rogers.

Running:  "Running Down a Dream"—Tom Petty. "Born to Run"—Bruce Springsteen. "Run Like Hell"—Pink Floyd.

Winner:  Usually a lineup of Petty, Floyd, and The Boss would cruise to victory. But Lemmy makes this a draw.

Amateur Aspiration

Poker:  Cash in a WSOP event.

Running:  Qualify for the Boston Marathon.

Winner:  Running. Your family and co-workers have actually heard of the Boston Marathon.

Worst Aspect

Poker:  Playing Limit Omaha-8.

Running:  Running up a mountain.

Winner:  Running. Both are agonizing, but with running you have a great view and a legitimate shot at dying as an exit strategy.


There you have it. The analysis is irrefutable. Running is slightly superior to poker.

And running is freaking stupid.

Mt. Evans Ascent—June 2015

April 26, 2016

Chopping the Primaries

As another set of presidential primary results come in tonight, it is interesting to note how the different delegate selection systems used by the Democrats and Republicans have had significantly different effects on how each party's eventual candidate will be selected. Let's look at these effects by using poker tournaments as an analogy.

Each state is essentially a separate poker tournament, offering a prize pool of delegates. The size of the prize pool (number of total delegates available) will vary based on the nature of the tournament. For example, some tournaments have smaller buy-ins or fewer participants, and have a smaller prize pool, while other tournaments have larger buy-ins or more participants, and have a larger prize pool. Under this analogy, California is the Main Event of the presidential primary season. You have to win a lot of smaller tournaments (or a lot of Nebraskas and Delawares) to net as many delegates as a win in the Main Event.

Even more important than the prize pool, however, is the payout structure. On the Democratic side, all states award delegates on a proportional basis—win 55% of the vote, get roughly 55% of the delegates (in states with small numbers of delegates, the delegate counts may deviate slightly due to rounding, such that a 52%-48% "win" results in an equal split of delegates). On the Republican side, however, early primaries were proportional (with a qualifying threshold), while most later-stage primaries are winner-take-all or winner-take-most affairs. In those states, a simple plurality of the vote—maybe as little as 40%—can win 90-100% of the delegates.

Viewed as poker tournaments, the Democratic primaries essentially are structured such that the candidates are required to "chop" every primary. As my poker-savvy readers know, chopping is an agreement to split the prize pool rather than playing out the tournament to its end. Chopping is common in poker tournaments, and is a method for reducing variance (being the chip leader is great until a couple of short stacks get lucky and knock you out with a small payout). Chopping is usually tied to chip stack size, recognizing that players with more chips have a better chance of winning. One basic method of chopping is a "chip-chop" where every player is paid last place money, and the remaining prize pool is divided proportionally to chip stack size. So, players with larger chip stacks get larger percentages of the prize pool, but everyone gets more money than last place money.

The Republican primaries—at least those remaining—are more akin to poker tournaments with top-heavy payout structures. Poker tournaments with guaranteed payouts (such as the WSOP "Millionaire Maker") often feature large payouts to the winner or top few players, with little or no prize money for lower finishers.

These structural differences are critical to the underdogs in both races. On the Democratic side, the primary was essentially decided by Super Tuesday, when Hillary Clinton opened up a sizable pledged delegate lead. Although Bernie Sanders has won numerous primaries and caucuses since then, most of those were in smaller states with fewer delegates. Even worse for Sanders, the proportional award of delegates made it difficult for Sanders to make an appreciable dent into Clinton's delegate lead because Clinton will pick up sizable numbers of delegates even in states she loses. Effectively, Sanders can never come close to sweeping a state's delegates. Based on projections by, Sanders will likely need to win 65% of the delegates in the late-stage Democratic primaries, which translates into this essentially impossible scenario:
"Based on these estimates, Sanders would need to beat Clinton by 26 percentage points in California, 28 points in Indiana and 16 points in New Jersey, all states where he trails Clinton in polling averages. He’d also need to win Western states like Oregon and Montana by 50 or more percentage points."

By contrast, the top-heavy structure of the late Republican primaries offers Ted Cruz an opportunity to quickly close the delegate gap on Donald Trump if he is able to score even narrow wins in most of the larger remaining Republican primaries. Even though that scenario is unlikely to lead Cruz to a majority of delegates, Cruz still has a decent shot of winning enough delegates to deny Trump a majority of delegates, enabling Cruz to make it past a first ballot and into a scenario where delegates would no longer be pledged to Trump and could throw their support to Cruz (or John Kasich or Marco Rubio).

In short, Sanders could close out the remaining primaries on a string of 60%-40% victories and handily lose the Democratic nomination, while Cruz could close out the remaining primaries on a string of 40%-35%-25% victories and win the Republican nomination. Of course, the most likely scenarios are for Clinton and Trump to score solid victories in most of the remaining primaries (starting tonight) and wrap up majorities of pledged delegates prior to the party conventions. But the difference in delegate selection structure means Clinton is essentially on cruise-control while Trump will be in a dogfight to control Cruz.

February 03, 2016

RINO for a Day—Inside the Iowa Republican Caucuses

I am a Republican.

There. It feels better to have that secret out there. It has been a terrible burden to bear.

I haven't always been a Republican, though I did grow up in one of the most reliably Republican congressional districts in America—Nebraska District 3—which covers pretty much everywhere in Nebraska that isn't Omaha or Lincoln. Republicans in partisan elections can rely on running up 70-80% of the vote in this largely rural district where you find fifth and sixth generation family farmers and ranchers, and county seats with populations in the low-to-mid thousands. Social life revolves around school, church, and Huskers football. Guns and God (and running the dang ball) are a way of life, not a punchline. My hometown actually sits on the banks of the Republican River.

Still, in my very first Presidential election, I voted Democrat, supporting Jimmy Carter in his 1976 victory over Gerald Ford. I suppose technically my vote only counted in the highly influential Weekly Reader presidential poll, considering I was a first grader and couldn't get around that pesky 26th Amendment. Still, my guy had won, so being a Democrat meant being a winner. So I was a Democrat. Of course, I'm still bitter about the other big election that fall, when my elementary school voted on the color of the new tornado slide. Informal recess polls had red and gold neck-and-neck during election week, but somehow blue pulled off the upset victory. I still suspect those shady 5th and 6th graders committed election fraud.

The Iowa caucus system strongly resembles a school election. Voters are crammed into churches, schools, and community centers. The pledge of allegiance is recited. Some self-important busybody serves as chair because nobody else wants to run the show, and everyone mostly wants to get home to watch Netflix. Speeches are given and ignored. In lieu of a raffle or bake sale, envelopes are passed around for cash donations, with a reminder to keep it below the mandatory reporting threshold; nobody wants to do homework.

My first two forays into the caucuses were as a Democrat in 2004 (Edwards) and 2008 (Obama). Those were the first caucuses of the social media era, and turnout was substantially greater than anticipated. Democrats those years were motivated, organized, energized. We left the caucuses feeling that our votes mattered.

This year, I had planned to skip the caucuses. I had switched my voter registration to Independent in 2010, and the Democratic race seems to hold little actual suspense—it's your standard race between a candidate who would fail an open-book exam in Economics 101 and a candidate who would need a cheat-sheet to pass Intro to Ethics.

But then, around Thanksgiving, a sign appeared.

No, really. An actual freaking sign. In fact, it was this particular billboard mounted on a fence in my neighborhood:

Donald Trump billboard (12/8/2015), West Des Moines.
2016 Iowa Republican Caucuses.
This sign is four blocks from my house. It is mounted overlooking the corner where my street intersects with one of the busiest parkways in the Des Moines metro area. In an unintentional homage to the modern Republican Party's core constituencies, the sign sits smack between the biggest evangelical mega-church in the metro and the largest shopping mall in the state. Given that I run, walk, and drive past that corner several times each day, I've gotten to see a lot of that sign. And as the caucus season progressed, it drew plenty of attention from visitors and the media.

As Donald Trump might say, the sign is yuuuuge.

Now my significant other and I enjoy watching Trump's reality TV show, Celebrity Apprentice. On the show, Trump can be a bullying buffoon, but he's an entertaining buffoon. Trump as President? Not nearly so entertaining. For that matter, I wasn't particularly enamored of several other Republican candidates. But what could I do?

Then, Monday morning as I passed the Trump sign on my way to work, it occurred to me—why not caucus as a Republican? If I'm not thrilled with the Democratic candidates, why not help support a better (i.e., more tolerable) Republican candidate? At the very least, why not see who these people are who think Trump should be President? Maybe the Trump sign guy would even speak!

Iowa allows same-day voter registration, including changing parties to cross-over and vote in a primary or caucus. A quick form to complete online and print out, and presto! I was a newly minted Republican.

Caucus night was exciting. It was a five minute drive to the large Catholic church where our precinct (West Des Moines 221) and four other precincts (the efficiently numbered West Des Moines 222-225) would gather. We arrived at 6:40, and the line stretched around the building. More doors were opened, and the lines collapsed into a black hole inside the church with folks jostling to get in the right registration line. Based on official tallies, 1,203 people voted at our location, with the largest group (406) being from our precinct.

Organizers had not anticipated the large number of caucus participants. There were too few people working registration. Ballots ran out and had to be printed. Lines ground to a halt. In the midst of the chaos, candidate Carly Fiorina was giving a TV interview, presumably setting expectations for a "win" as outpolling Mike Huckabee and Deez Nuts.

Suddenly, a murmur broke out. There, walking through the crowd as if he were parting the Red Sea or walking the Oscars red carpet, was Donald Trump. The crowd acted like he was a Hollywood star, maybe George Clooney on a bad hair day. Trump smiled and basked in the crowd's adoration, gave brief remarks to a TV crew, then headed to the front of the church. Love him or hate him, the Donald exudes charisma.

Donald Trump arrives at the Iowa Republican Caucuses.
St. Francis Church, West Des Moines, 2/1/2016 .
Despite the registration backlog, the caucus was brought to order at 7:15 PM. At least 800 people were crammed into the fellowship hall, with the remaining 400 or so of us out in the adjoining entry room, many still waiting to register. A Boy Scout troop posted the American and Iowa flags, and we all recited the Pledge of Allegiance, because we're Americans, not Socialists, dammit. The temporary chair appointed by the state party was then elected to be permanent chair because nobody else wanted the hassle. And then, as I remained 25 people back in the glacial registration line, the main event was underway.

Each campaign was given three minutes to bore or annoy the crowd with a last minute sales pitch to those oddballs who, despite months of campaign mailers, TV ads, debates, and candidate appearances at local fairs and pancake dinners, still found themselves undecided mere minutes before voting. Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump each spoke for themselves at the beginning, followed by precinct representatives for the other campaigns in alphabetical order. Here are my summaries of their speeches. Keep in mind I was trapped in the undertow of the registration line the entire time, so my notes were minimal. Paraphrasing is likely to be inaccurate, while direct quotes are probably unusually inaccurate paraphrases.

Fiorina:  Drawing on her experience as a failed CEO, Carly gave a wonderfully upbeat speech filled with corporate jingoism meant to distract from her campaign's lousy performance in the 4th quarter of 2015. She closed with an appeal for "enough votes to attract a leveraged buyout or vice presidential nomination."

Trump:  The Donald is loud! He's successful! He's rich! He's an outsider! He will be a winner! Every other candidate is a loser! Free walls for everyone! Mexico will host an open bar with free margaritas and walls! Note: The WALL (TM) thing has me curious. Is Mexico using MasterCard, and if so, what kind of airline miles or cash back multiplier are they getting for construction-related purchases? Will Mexico pay for my new backyard retaining wall? Because that would be amazing.

Santorum:  Rick's wife, Karen, reminded the crowd that the Muslim terror group, ISIS, wants Rick dead, which is sad and puzzling because they share those strong Christian values of demonizing gays and returning civilization to the good ol' days of the Dark Ages. Also, the electoral system is rigged against those who dare to speak against the Republican establishment, particularly if your name happens to rhyme with "Dick Mantorum." Karen closed with an anecdote about how Rick likes to make blackberry jam. But either she forgot to bring jam, or there wasn't enough for those of us in back. Trump would've had jam for everyone, and it would've been award-winning, amazing jam, and Venezuela would've paid for it with a post-dated check. Anyway, no jam, no vote.

Bush:  Jeb! can win Florida. Jeb! can win Ohio. In a close election, Jeb! can win in the Supreme Court. Basically, Jeb! has a very particular set of skills, and at this point, he expects you to vote for him, because if you don't, he's going to torture you with more cheesy super-PAC ads.

Carson:  Doctor Ben is a regular guy. He'd totally drop by your house on Thanksgiving. "By the way, we're all neighbors. You're supposed to love your neighbor. How many of you even know your neighbor?" [crowd shuffles uncomfortably] [Note: This was a totally real quote.]

Cruz:  Ted is a good person. Ted believes in God. He reads the Bible. Ted believes in the Constitution. It's not clear if he has read the Constitution. Ted will ban gay marriage, abortion, and the designated hitter. Ted makes the apple-iest apple pie. Ted is not only not Canadian, he is the only candidate willing to carpet bomb ISIS in Canada.

Huckabee:  No one spoke for Huckabee. For the first time ever, I agreed with every word said by Huckabee's campaign.

Kasich:  Only John can save the United States. Only you can prevent forest fires.

Paul:  Rand's niece, Lisa, spoke. "Dammit Jim! Rand is a doctor, not a career politician!" Note: This message would probably work better if Rand wasn't badly trailing a world-renowned neurosurgeon who actually has never held political office.

Rubio:  "Marco is very religious, but doesn't want to flaunt it. He keeps it private. Like this past Sunday when he came to Mass at this very church. And again both the Saturday and the Sunday before that. Marco loves Mass at this church." Also, Marco is the best candidate for beating Hillary in the general election. There are three important points to remember about Marco:

1. Experience
2. Judgment
3. ???


Official ballot, West Des Moines Precinct 221.
Iowa Republican Caucuses, 2/1/2016.

High tech ballot box, West Des Moines Precinct 221.
Iowa Republican Caucuses, 2/1/2016.
"White" label distinguishes white ballots from Precinct 221
from different colored ballots from other precincts at the caucus site.
Following the campaign speeches it was time to vote. In the Democratic caucuses, participants physically gather themselves into groups by candidate, then spend an hour playing a ritualized version of Red Rover as each campaign poaches people from and lends people to other campaigns to maximize their delegates while minimizing the delegates of selected rivals. The Republican Party, however, is much more modern and simply casts a statewide straw poll using cutting edge technology designed to expedite voting and thwart election fraud—paper ballots and golf pencils. Basically it was just like that Weekly Reader election back in 1976, except instead of the sainted Mrs. Pearson counting the ballots, it was a committee of party hacks in a back room, supervised by the caucus chair who also totally coincidentally was also Marco Rubio's precinct captain.

After dropping our ballots in the color-coded and completely secure homemade ballot boxes—our precinct was awkwardly designated the "White" precinct—we had the option of leaving or sticking around for a business meeting about organizing the precinct and electing county party leaders and committees. We skipped out before we could be drafted to make glitter signs and hang crepe paper in the gym or whatever.

Unfortunately, it turns out I was on the wrong end of this grown up Weekly Reader poll. In selecting a candidate to back, my first criterion was "Don't Be Batshit Insane". Right away that knocked out Trump, Cruz, Carson, Paul, Santorum, and Huckabee. Christie is a jerk. Fiorina lacks experience. I could find myself supporting Jeb!, Rubio, or Kasich even if I don't agree with some/many of their policy positions; unlike the rest of the field, they seem qualified to govern.

In the end, I went with Jeb! while my precinct went with Rubio. In fact, Rubio (160 votes) essentially tied the combined votes of Trump (86 votes) and Cruz (75 votes) who finished second and third in the precinct. The aggregate votes for the five precincts at our location had a similar pattern, with Rubio (455 votes) far outpacing Trump (240 votes) and Cruz (228 votes). Although Rubio finished third overall in the state, he clearly attracts the support of middle-class suburban voters who will be critical to the success of any candidate in the general election (statewide precinct level results have been compiled by the New York Times and the Iowa Secretary of State).

So much for the good signs. The bad omen is that Trump and Cruz are both still ahead of Rubio and the rest of the pack. Trump looks to win New Hampshire. Trump and Cruz are both strong in South Carolina. Rubio or any other "establishment" or "mainstream" Republican candidate will need to find a way to tap into the anti-establishment energy driving this campaign or be left in the dust.

Although the presidential primary marathon has only begun, Iowa's turn in the spotlight is blessedly over. Now it's up to the next wave of primary states to further clarify who will represent the Republican Party. As for me, my 48 hours as an Iowa Republican have been exhilarating and embarrassing. At least if Trump is nominated, I can say I played my part in the resistance. But sometime in the next few weeks, this Republican will turn back into an Independent.

In the meantime, I have a hankering for some homemade blackberry jam.

Standing room only at St. Francis Church, West Des Moines.
Iowa Republican Caucus, 2/1/2016

Standing room only at St. Francis Church, West Des Moines.
Iowa Republican Caucus, 2/1/2016

Donald Trump enters the Iowa Republican caucuses.
St. Francis Church, West Des Moines, 2/1/2016.

Crowds waiting to register for Iowa Republican Caucuses.
St. Francis Church, West Des Moines, 2/1/2016.

Crowds waiting to register for Iowa Republican Caucuses.
St. Francis Church, West Des Moines, 2/1/2016.

January 08, 2016

Always Protect Your Beverage

An axiom of live poker is: "Always protect your hand." If a hand is fouled or mucked by mistake, a player often has no recourse. To protect their cards from misadventure, many players will use a card protector or "capper"—a chip, coin, medallion, or small trinket placed on top of their cards to weigh them down and signal to the dealer the hand is live. 2004 WSOP Main Event champion Greg "FossilMan" Raymer famously uses small fossils as card protectors, and often gives them away to players who beat him.

I got to thinking today about the "protect your hand" rule and card protectors because of a blog post by Rob, over at the cryptically named Rob's Vegas & Poker Blog (here's my memory of one of my first times meeting Rob). Rob may be the last poker blogger left in the wild. He writes regularly, often posting entertaining trip reports (remember those?) about his poker outings in Vegas. With posts filled with wacky hand histories, outlandish characters, and hilarious hijinks, Rob keeps it old school. Nobody consistently puts the "long" in "longform" quite like Rob.

Today, Rob posted a vignette (an "anecdote" by Rob's standards) about having his drink "stolen" from him while he stepped away from the poker table during a tournament at Aria. Now "stolen" is probably a bit of an overstatement. In reality, what likely happened is that a cocktail server saw a glass which appeared abandoned and picked it up in the normal course of her rounds. Look, beverages are free in Vegas poker rooms (though Rob, like most poker players, typically tips the server a buck per drink). So if your glass is picked up with a couple of sips left, no big deal, right? Well, not for Rob, who has—to date—been inspired to pen more than 2,500 words over two posts on the grave injustice of removing his beverage glass before he has consumed every drop of liquid and every cube of ice. 

Given the quirky nature of many poker players, it should not surprise anyone that some poker players can be a little over-protective of their free beverages. Back during our annual Ironman of Poker (IMOP) trip in March 2012, my buddy Santa and I were playing 4/8 Limit Omaha8 at Venetian. As you might expect for such a game, Santa and I were the only players born after World War II. One of the players—let's call her Ruth—reminded me of a raptor; beady-eyed, with talon-like hands that pounced on any pot she drug. 

Ruth, like most of the other players, was a regular in the game. Also like most of the regulars, Ruth complained loudly about everything—the room temperature, the drafty ventilation, her chair, the dealers, the other players, her cards, the board cards, the food and beverage service, the comp system, and whatever topic was brought up at the table. I think it's safe to say that low stakes Omaha8 players are the pettiest, most miserable class of people in any poker room, and possibly in the entire casino.

I had the dubious privilege of sitting next to Ruth. Needless to say, a couple of drunk young guys yucking it up and splashing around did little to lighten the mood at the table. Losing money to a couple of luckboxes who played too many hands and chased (and caught) too many draws was just the latest indignity the regulars had to endure; many of the regulars, including Ruth, were rather vocal in sharing their displeasure at our style of play.

At some point, Ruth ordered dinner. When her food was delivered, it was placed on a side table between us. Of course, we heard a litany of complaints—service was slow, they hadn't gotten her special instructions right, the food was too cold, blah, blah, blah. Nonetheless, Ruth ate her dinner, then got up and went for a walk.

About 15 minutes later, a food server came by and asked if he could remove the dishes from the side table. I told him he could. The server left the side table because I and another player had our drinks sitting on it (the Venetian's tables did not have cup holders).

Another 15 minutes went by, and Ruth returned. Immediately upon sitting down, she snapped: "Where is my soda? Who took my soda?" At that outburst, I remembered Ruth had been drinking a soda with dinner out of a standard glass. When she left, the glass was less than half full, and she had tossed her napkin over it. It certainly had appeared ready to be cleared. But ...

"Why would they take my soda? 

"I told them I thought you were done with dinner."

"I was done eating." Beady eyes glared at me. "Why did you tell them they could take my soda? I put my napkin over it so they wouldn't take it."

Now, I'm not certain if a napkin over a glass is a high society etiquette maneuver which indicates, "please don't take my beverage", or if the Venetian's napkins serve as magical cloaks of beverage invisibility. But Ruth was clearly peeved about her missing soda. So naturally, every server the rest of the evening was given imperious instructions not to touch her beverage glass. And, every time she left the table, the dealer was given strict orders to protect her beverage as though it were an irreplaceable family heirloom. I got the impression—via several glares and snide comments—that Ruth did not find the situation nearly as amusing as I did. Of course, I may have needled her just a little whenever she brought up the topic.

In any event, about a month later I was back in Vegas for a work conference. One night I went over to Venetian to play 1/2 NLHE. As I wandered through the room, I noticed Ruth was back at the 4/8 Omaha8 game. And again, Ruth had a side table next to her to hold her dinner plate and a glass of soda. But this time, Ruth was prepared. Covering her glass was a laminated coaster with a straw hole. Above a large black skull and crossbones on bright yellow background was neatly typed:


Based on Rob's posts, I bet there's an untapped market for poker drink protectors.

"Please Do Not Take This Drink"
--Venetian Poker Room (April 2012)