Category: Gambling

As I was saying…

Okay, so I took some time off.

Since the last post, I visited Barcelona, Grenada, and Almeria, Spain, courtesy of the lovely Rhonda K. and the wonderful folks at Cosentino. Much eating and drinking was involved (was that a roofie I quaffed?). No casino visits, however. The rules for table games are just too wacky in Europe. And I just wasn’t willing to play poker in a non-English-speaking environment. It’s enough of a struggle playing in my native tongue.

Other stuff happened: A long stream of charming AIRBNB guests visited from around the globe, and I wrote a series of articles on casinos and gambling for the Oregonian, our local paper here in Portland. I’ve pasted one of them below for your edification.

 

AC: Will the last one to leave please kill the lights?

An article in the September 7th New Yorker Magazine takes a deep dive into the choppy waters of Atlantic City. You’ve probably heard some of this stuff before: the cataclysmic failure of the Revel, declining gaming revenues, the closing of this casino and that. But NYer staff writer Nick Paumgarten does a solid job of putting a human face on this tale of woe and also frames it in the perspective of New Jersey politics. Could Chris Christie’s presidential bid (such as it is) be put into jeopardy, smashed to smithereens, because of the Revel’s spectacular flameout?NewYorker, Sept 7

Who knows? But reading Paumgarten’s piece had me thinking about the several times I’ve visited AC. I’m not sure why I returned, especially after my initial visit.

That first time was actually three strange weeks I spent there in the summer of 1979 developing a stage play (“The Man Who Shot The Man Who Shot Jesse James”) with nine other like-minded artistes, and bedding down in the damp basement of a Quaker school. Water bugs the size of baby rats frolicked in the shower stalls, begging to be squished, while we taught acting classes and emoted in the gymnasium upstairs.

Gambling had just been recently legalized and we walked snootily through Trump’s crowded new boardwalk casino, decrying the glitz as offensive to our sophisticated Manhattanite sensibilities. The glitz stood in sharp contrast to the grungy streets immediately nearby, upon which pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers openly plied their wares.

Yes, this was one strange town, a fact eerily demonstrated on our final night. As we were partying in the gym, lighting hit the school. Lights flickered, came back on. Partying continued for awhile, until someone pointed to the big clock on the gymnasium wall.

Creepy.

It was running in reverse.

 

Gambling Tips x 9

As mentioned earlier, I landed a nice writing gig for The Oregonian, which allowed me to expound on the topic of gambling tips. Here are the ones I landed upon as they appeared in the newspaper. I’m sharing this with you courtesy of the Oregonian Media Group, which published the following article in the September 9, 2015, edition:


 

No doubt about it: Luck plays an important role in all casino games. And everyone who plays experiences swings of luck, both good and bad. But you can sidestep bad luck and improve your chances of winning by following these simple bits of advice.

Tip #1. Join the club.

Spirit Mountain has the Coyote Club, Chinook Winds has the Winners Circle, the Mill Casino has the Mill Club. In fact, virtually every casino offers you the opportunity to participate in their version of a players club.

The concept is simple: The more you play, the more the casino rewards you in the form of free or discounted meals and hotel rooms, as well as giveaways, special offers and merchandise. If you’re not already a member, becoming one should near the top of your list on your next casino visit.

Tip #2: Double your money.

In blackjack, always double down (that is, double your bet) when your first two cards total 11. Also, double down when you have 10 and the dealer’s face card is nine or less. Caution: This move is not for the faint of heart. Be prepared to experience a pulse-pounding jolt of adrenaline.

Tip #3: Split those cards.

No, you should not physically rip your cards in half. In blackjack when you hold two aces or two eights, you should split them into two hands by doubling your bet.

Tip #4: Assume the position.

Texas hold’em is a challenging game. If you’re a newbie, an important thing to learn (after the ranking of hands, of course) is the importance of position at the table. Simply stated, the closer you are to the dealer’s button, the freer you are to play a wider range of hole cards. An example: you’d might very well fold a pair of pocket deuces in early position, but (assuming no one else has entered the pot) raise with them in a late position.

Tip #5: Read the fine print.

Rules and payouts differ from machine to machine and table to table. Whether it’s video poker, slots, or a table game, take half a minute to look over the rules, even if you’ve played the game previously. Occasionally rules and payouts will have been adjusted since your last visit, and it pays to be prepared by knowing the latest ground rules.

Tip #6: Take slots to the max.

To win the jackpot in progressive slot machines, there’s no choice: You must make the maximum bet. But jackpots on non-progressive slots often pay disproportionally more when you make the maximum bet versus the minimum. Take a few seconds to see which type of payout will yield you a better result then adjust your wager accordingly.

Tip #7: Can you afford more? Then bet more.

The payouts are often more generous on slot machines that have a higher minimum bet. That means, for example, that many times playing a dollar machine versus a quarter machine is a better choice.

Tip #8: New to video poker? Start with Jacks or Better.

Although you’ll find banks of video poker machines situated among slot machines, the two games could hardly be more different.

When you play a slot machine, nothing you do can affect the outcome; your only decision is how much to wager. In video poker, however, you must decide which cards to keep and which to throw away; this directly affects how much you win.

If you’re new to video poker, cut your teeth on Jacks or Better. It’s the original version of this electronic game and it’s simple to learn. The goal, as its name implies, is to get a hand that contains at least a pair of jacks. The higher the hand, the more you win.

FYI, payouts at the casino are generally better than the Oregon Lottery version of the game.

Tip #9: Visit the web

It will come as no surprise that the Internet contains a cornucopia of information about casino games. Many casinos, including Spirit Mountain, Chinook Winds, and Seven Feathers, post rules on their websites.

To dig a little deeper, check out the free basic strategy charts all over the Web. Wizardofodds.com is a good place to start.

Plus there are dozens of sites—free and paid—devoted to poker and tailored to players of all skill levels.


 

Texts from the Battlefield: Sam and the Main Event

You might remember that several months ago on this site, I profiled my friend Sam (“The Nicest Guy You’d Never Want To Sit Next To“), currently one of the most successful poker players in Portland. Several months ago his skills at the table really paid off and he won a $10,000 entry in the World Series of Poker Main Event.

He was generous enough to share with me the text messages he sent to his “rail back home” as he progressed in the tournament, which for him began July 6.  FYI, each player starts with 20,000 chips. Spoiler alert: Despite his enthusiasm and crafty play, he did not make the November 9. And a caution: The texts are lingo-heavy.

He started texting on day one start and continued through his final hand. Here they are, for the most part verbatim…

Monday 2:19pm

Rough first level. Got down to 17.5k [chips] at one point from 30k SS but managed to climb back to 23.6. Got coolered in one hand AQ<AK when he doesn’t three bet me pre and board runs out KQ6A6. I check called three streets. Lotta time to recover tho….Let’s fucking goooooooo!!!!

Monday 4:36pm

Second break…roller coaster level. Got back up to SS then back down to 23k. Now back over SS at 31k or so. Maniac at table keeps wanting to mix it up with me. Just won a big pot off him so prepared for fireworks going forward. Thank u all for the texts and well wishes!!! I will update every break which is every 2 hours. Thanks for all the support!!!!

Monday 7:15pm

Dinner break. Another roller coaster level. But ended with 26.5k coming back to 150/300/25. Let’s keep it going!!!!!

Monday 10:55pm

Horrible level. Good news is I still have chips. Gonna focus and not text any more until bag and tag after one more level. Thanks again for the support guys!!!!!

Tuesday 12:55am

Bag and tag!!!!! Got down as low as 6k but climbed back to 14k. Coming back to 500bb on Wednesday. Thankful for all the support. U guys are the best. Not what I envisioned…but day 2 is day 2.

Wednesday 10:24am

Day two starts at noon today. Coming back to almost 30 bb’s. Making day 2 was my first goal now I am hopeful to be able to chip up. Loooooooong way to go but I’m def excited to get back to the table. Same as last time…will update on breaks. 😎👍🏼

Wednesday 2:12pm

19k at first break. Table is good…no one has gotten out of line yet. Been all in 4 times. Once AIPF TT vs TT for a chop against a 14bb stack. Then bvb all in on KT9 flop….we both have KT lolol

Three bet cram AK and got thru twice. Then lost a flip AQ<JJ vs 13bb stack.

Coming back to 300/600/75 so surviving but looking for spots to gain chips.

Wednesday 2:33pm

Bust….Second hand after break I’m BB. There’s an EP open and a 3b from the CO. I have JJ and 4b rip. First guy recrams and is CL at the table. JJ<KK. Blah. Thanks for the support guys.


 

And then there’s this

Apropos of nothing, here’s something I just received in the mail.

IMG_1289It’s an envelope that asks the eternal question: How can something be free if it’s prepaid? Or vice versa?

17 blackjack beginner boo-boos, part two

I’ve been a bit slow in doling these out, but here at last are a few more tips to keep in mind.

Error #7: Not splitting

What is splitting? It’s when you are dealt two identical cards (two 8s, two kings, etc.) and then increase your bet by splitting those identical cards into two separate hands. If you do this correctly, it’s another rule that can give you an advantage over the house. You can consult a basic strategy table, which I’d strongly recommend if you plan to play more frequently in the future; there are a number of variations on which cards you’d split versus the dealer’s particular up-card. But for now here’s a very simple rule about splitting.

Always split aces and eights. Always.

Not complicated. Memorize it.

Splitting aces and eights and eights in blackjack.
To split or not to split: There’s only one answer…

The thinking boils down to this: Two aces is a terrible hand, adding up as either two or twelve. Two 8s are awful, too, since they add up to the bane of your blackjack existence, 16. By splitting, you can turn these awful hands into an advantage. Your aces have a shot at giving you blackjack twice; your 8s can yield an 18 or better; plus if you catch a 2 or a 3 to go with your 8, you can double-down.

Error #8: Splitting 10s

You know that scene in the original “Frankenstein” movie, where the villagers chase the monster with their fiery torches, then burn the poor fellow to death? Many of you might be under the impression that the villagers were so worked up because he threw that cute little girl into the well.

Wrong.

They’re chasing him because he committed an even worse crime: He split 10s at the local casino. (This was a scene edited from James Whales’s original cut of the film.)

 

Splitting tens in blackjack.
Suffer a fiery death if you split these two cards or any two cards, for that matter.

Split 10s and you’ll gain the enmity of everyone at the table and for good reason: It’s a stupid move. An exception: When you’re counting cards, there is a set of specific instances when it’s actually a smart move. But for our purposes, do not do this. Why?

To clarify, we’re talking about any two cards valued at 10: King/Queen, 10/Jack, etc. And no matter how you slice it, 20 is a great blackjack hand. When you split 10s, you’re putting yourself in an excellent position to draw a worse hand. Plus you’ve altered which cards the dealer will draw; often the dealer will end up with a better hand than he might have had you not made that idiotic split; often he’ll draw to one that beats you and your table mates. They will hate you. If they have torches, you might very well suffer the fate of the monster.

Error #9: Not doubling down

Okay, it can be expensive. But doubling down is potentially the most profitable move you can make at the blackjack table.

Here’s how it works. After the dealer finishes dealing the initial round of two cards to each player and it’s your turn to act, you can double your bet by sliding the appropriate amount of chips forward. The dealer then gives you one, and only one, additional card; after the other players have acted and the dealer takes his card or cards, if you beat this total, you’ve doubled that initial bet.

Theoretically you can double down on any two cards. Players do actually double-down on blackjack; don’t. In all practicality, there are only several conditions when you’ll want to (and I command you to) double down.

  • When your two cards total 11. Many times you’ll draw a 10, giving you an unbeatable hand.
  • When your two cards total 10, and the dealer’s face-up card is a nine or less.
  • When your two cards total 9 and the dealer is showing a six. This move is designed to exploit his (hopefully) weak hand.

In many casinos, you can double down after splitting. This can be the juiciest and most fun you can have at the BJ table. Here’s a classic, fasten-on-your-seatbelt scenario.

  • You draw two 8s and split them.
  • Your first 8 draws a 3. Time to double down! Time to move on to your second 8…
  • Your second 8 draws an 8. Split them!
  • Back to that second 8 which draws a…. 3. Double down!
  • Onto the third eight which draws an…8. Time to split ‘em.
  • Back to the third 8, which draws a… 3. Double down!
  • Back to the fourth 8, which draws a 3. Double down again!

Yikes! If your initial bet was $10, you’ve just won $80! (The voice of reality: “Or lost $80.”)

Error #10: Starting out with an insufficient bankroll

You need to have enough money to finance potentially profitable moves such as the example directly above; you literally wouldn’t be able to do it with just $50 in your pocket. So how large of a bankroll do you need?

In deciding, you need to ask yourself (a) how much you can comfortably afford to lose and (b) how long you want to play. In answering that second question, keep in mind that this is a very fast-paced game. At a full table, the dealer doles out a complete round of cards at the rate of about one hand per minute. If it’s just you and the dealer (an excellent way to play, BTW) you can easily triple that rate. So if you want to hang around for more than ten minutes, you need to have ample funds at your disposal. My recommendation is to have at least fifty times the minimum bet. That would be $250 if you’re playing a $5 table, double that for a $10 table, etc. Not only will those amounts give you some staying power, they’ll also give you a much better chance of actually winning.

More to come next time…

Oh, happy gambling movies, #3

Before he become a worldwide heartthrob, Clive Owen was dealing blackjack as the title character in the 1999 film, “Croupier.” This is a crackerjack film noir for players and non-players alike; it’s light on the arcane dialogue and thick on atmosphere, characterization and intrigue.

By David de la Luz from Mexico City, Mexico (Clive) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Clive Owen: Who says blackjack is a dead-end job?
Owen plays a writer with casino experience in his past. Once ensconced as a croupier, he gets involved in a plot to separate the casino from some of its money.

So this film blends elements of an art film, a heist movie, a con movie and noir. It all comes together in a very satisfactory way, thanks to the brooding Owen and director Mike Hodges, known for his brutal and brilliant “Get Carter,” the original version starring Michael Caine.

Plus get this: It actually has an upbeat ending, winding up in a place quite unexpected.

Rating: 5 nuts (on a one-to-five scale)

Casino Buffet

A little wrist action

Now that Apple is launching the Apple Watch, a host of questions arrive along with it. Can you legally wear it while driving? Will anybody actually purchase the deluxe $12,000 model? And most importantly, will the Apple Watch be useful in playing poker? Here’s an answer, kind of: Tips on your wrist.

“Dad loves blackjack…”

It’s rare that you come across a written piece that centers around gambling and tugs at the heart strings, but New York Times Op-Ed writer Frank Bruni has written one that does just that. Read it here: “My Father’s Secret.”

WSOP schedule

The 2015 World Series of Poker recently announced its schedule. Lots of changes are in the offing, like bigger starting stacks and new tournaments, including one named “$565 Colossus No-Limit Hold’em”; it’s being played on May 29 and has a $5,000,000 guaranteed prize pool. Expectations are high for this one. The WSOP folks are saying that, in terms of participants, they expect it to be the largest poker tournament ever held, meaning upwards of a gargantuan 7,000 players.

The action begins to wind down July 5 with day one of the Main Event. If you’re one of the fortunate nine to reach the final table on this granddaddy of big-time poker tourneys, you’re guaranteed to take home at least $1,000,000.

Oh happy gambling films, where art thou?

The schedule for the Portland International Film Festival was recently announced. It’s an annual event to which Portlandia cineastes look forward with great anticipation. This year’s PIFF looks to be another winner; the team that puts this event together does a wonderful job of cherry-picking the most intriguing obscure pictures from all over the world.

One particular film fits within the central topic of this blog. It’s called “The Gambler,” and here is how it’s described in the PIFF schedule:

“A celebrated paramedic, Vincentas, has a dangerous addiction: gambling. Desperate to hit it big and pay off his mounting debts, he’s quick to place a bet on just about anything. In over his head, he ups the ante by betting on the odds of his own patients’ survival. This twisted game, played with his fellow paramedics, soon becomes a major enterprise after the hospital’s doctors and nurses want in on the action, and Vincentas finds himself becoming a big-time bookie. Jonynas’ gimlet-eyed black comedy is this year’s Lithuanian submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. “

A Lithuanian dark comedy? About a gambling paramedic? Betting on the survival of patients? YES! Can’t wait. Not kidding.

The synopsis of this movie brings up an interesting question: Why are gambling films, generally speaking, so damn grim? As a case in point, take a look at “Hard Eight,” the first full-length film from Paul Thomas Anderson, a terrific director who went on to make “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights, “There Must Be Blood,” “The Master,” and the current “Inherent Vice.”

Many directors cut their teeth on low-budget horror films; Anderson chose a different kind of horror, the kind where your immortal soul has been replaced by the voracious desire to earn casino comps.

Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
“Mr. Reilly Goes To Reno” aka “Hard Eight”
The cast of this movie, released in 1996, is stacked with A-caliber talent just waiting for their trip to the big leagues.

John C. Reilly plays John, a broke, down-on-his-luck, kinda dimwitted neophyte gambler who, by the time the movie begins, has lost all his money. Philip Baker Hall is Sydney, a seasoned pro who, for a reason not revealed until the third act, takes John under his wing and shows him how to play the house for freebies.

Gwyneth Paltrow appears as a prostitute who hooks up with John. Samuel L. Jackson plays a vicious baddie who meets with a sad end. And there’s unintended poignancy when Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up in a cameo role as a craps player.

It’s all about The Education of a Gambler until about halfway through, when the film takes a hard right and turns into a crime drama. And not the “Oceans Eleven” kind of crime drama. Despite justice prevailing and the bad getting their due (more or less) no one in “Hard Eight” is very happy.

If you took a swig of Early Times every time someone in this film cracks a smile, you’d be stone-cold sober by the time the final credits roll.

BTW, IMDB has a list called “100 Best Gambling and Poker Movies” which is a nice resource, although I’d quibble with some of the inclusions. “The Sting”? “Cool Hand Luke”? “Atlantic City”?

 

Casino Buffet

Grinding it out

Keep your eyes peeled for a serious new gambling film, “Mississippi Grind,” which made its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn star, with Mendelsohn giving what’s being described by critics as a breakthrough performance.

"Ben Mendelsohn (8019231435)" by Eva Rinaldi from Sydney Australia - Ben MendelsohnUploaded by russavia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ben_Mendelsohn_(8019231435).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ben_Mendelsohn_(8019231435).jpg
Mendelsohn in “Mississippi”: His breakout role?

Here’s the plot summary as it appears on IMDB and Metacritic:

“Down on his luck and facing financial hardship, Gerry teams up with younger charismatic poker player, Curtis, in an attempt to change his luck. The two set off on a road trip through the South with visions of winning back what’s been lost.”

Well, at least they’re not betting on the survivability of EMT patients, so perhaps this one has an uplifting, inspirational ending, like “Rocky.” But in a card room.

 

Christmas in May

And June. And July.

Yes, poker mavens, the World Series of Poker has announced its upcoming schedule. It seems that the tournament director(s) and marketing department have not been slumbering since the Main Event wound up in November.

They’re launching a bunch of changes—such as giving players more bang for their buck in the form of larger starting stacks—and some new events, the most staggering of which would seem to be a tournament the WSOP is calling “The Colossus”: a buy-in of $565 and a prize pool of $5,000,000!

 

Chaos at Full Tilt

Many players were burned when Full Tilt was hammered by the Feds in 2011. In the months following, details emerged about the operation’s unsavory financial practices. And now this: Unsavory and stupid.

"Erick Lindgren 2007" by Photos by flipchip / LasVegasVegas.com - http://www.lasvegasvegas.com/pokerblog/archives/006040.php. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Erick_Lindgren_2007.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Erick_Lindgren_2007.jpg
Recipient of an cool extra $2,000,000

In April 2011, Full Tilt agreed to lend poker star Erick Lindgren $2,000,000. So they deposited the money into Lindgren’s account…TWICE! Lindgren kept the extra $2million—a questionable decision—and now the current owners of Full Tilt are suing him to get it back.

Kind of hard to pick a dog in this fight, wouldn’t you say?

 

 

 

The nicest guy you’d never want to sit next to

“I don’t like going around telling people I’m a professional poker player,” says the professional poker player across the table. “Because A, they don’t know what it means. And B, a lot of people think that means I’m a degenerate gambler. And I’m not.”

I can understand his conundrum. Because this guy Sam isn’t in any sense of the word degenerate.

We’re imbibing caffeine at World Cup Coffee, several blocks from the Encore Club, Sam’s poker venue of choice. It’s about 11am, and we’re meeting here and now because Sam wants to play in his “most profitable” tournament, the daily nooner.

This is the first time I’m really talking to him, and I’m not surprised at how articulate he is. encore logoIn our casual encounters in front of the Encore Poker Club in northwest Portland, he’s handled our brief conversations with a casual, smart, polite deportment. I’ll put it this way: He’s an engaging, all-out nice guy. So, degenerate he’s not.

“When I try to explain it to somebody,” he says, “I liken it to somebody who’s into investments. They’re kind of gambling their money,” he continues, “but they’re not doing it on a whim. They’re doing their research, they’re making decisions that they know will have positive outcomes. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But for the most part it does work. And people who do it on the side don’t make money.”

He means people like me.

Play at your own risk

Let’s back up. I’ve played poker with Sam just a handful of times and each time it’s always pretty much been a good news/bad news situation.

Good news: “Hey, it’s Sam! He’s always a fun guy to be around!”

Bad news: “Uh-oh, it’s Sam. He’s a killer. I’m doomed.”

You’ll find Sam’s name at or near the top of Encore’s leaderboard month after month. There’s a reason for this: Over the past four years, he has been relentless in his pursuit of excellence at the poker table, some weeks putting in as many as eighty hours.

But the road to becoming a pro—he quit his day job two and a half years ago—was hardly a straight line.

Curriculum vitae

Son of a minister. Youngest of five kids.

Married at 19.

Degree in psychology.

Divorced at 29.

Job as a social worker for the state, going into homes and assessing cases of alleged child abuse, an occupation he calls “extremely intense and draining.”

Job as a waiter at a relative’s restaurant.

“Aha” moment when amateur Chris Moneymaker parlayed $40 into $2.5 million at the 2003 World Series of Poker.

Home games.

Home games.

Home games.

Turning point in 2011 when Encore opened its doors. “And I still wasn’t good at it.”

Observed others. Got good at it.

Quit the restaurant.

Turned pro, earning his livelihood by forcing poor saps like me to make poor decisions at the table and scooping up all their chips.

An existential moment. Tilting. Assholes.

There are moments in poker when everything falls together: You’re catching good cards, your chip stack is growing, every decision is a wise one, fellow players shake their heads in wonder at your uncanny prowess, and you march without a hitch to the final table and take your fair share of tournament winnings.

And then there are moments when it all goes sideways: no cards, no hope, and you shake your head at what a buffoon you are. Afterward you need a few shots of Old Overholt to restore, however temporarily, some semblance of self-respect.

WSOP and meSo I take comfort at a hand Sam shares with me, a hand from last summer’s WSOP. Sam bought into the Monster Stack tournament for $1500, the largest buy-in of his poker career. He caught a full house and it came down to him and one other player who wouldn’t back down, firing chips relentlessly at the pot. Finally, Sam backed off, folded, putting the guy on a better full house. That wasn’t the case.

They each showed their hands and Sam saw that he was bluffed off his full house by a handful of trash, the highest card of which was a nine.

It was a stunner. “It really made me question everything about poker,” he says.

Take note, however, that he didn’t display anger. He never does, at least at the poker table.

“There are some things I really hate,” he says: “When people get angry at the table. If you lose a hand, you lose a hand. I personally have lost many hands, but at the end of the day, it’s just one hand.”

Another pet peeve: Assholes

“Some of my really, really good friends are assholes at the table and I just don’t get it. Why? It doesn’t serve a good purpose to be an asshole at the table, only bad.”

Me: Some people are just assholes.

Sam: “Yeah, but some of my friends aren’t assholes. They’re just assholes at the table. I don’t get it. When you’re an asshole at the table, you automatically get a target on your back. And I don’t want a target on my back.”

Walk of shame

The other night, not too long after our coffee date, I made a bad decision on a hand at Encore. Sam was not the perpetrator; rather it was some smirking chubby kid.A.k.a, Carte de Jeu

My demise was particularly pathetic because Sam had advised me not to do exactly what I ended up doing: I went all-in with 10-10, putting my tournament life in jeopardy for a less-than-premium hand. My opponent had J-J, which inevitably held up. As I skulked away, I mentally smacked myself. How had I forgotten this simple pearl of poker wisdom bestowed upon me by one of the best players in town?

I stepped outside and, of course, there he was, Sam The Man, standing on the sidewalk. I had to do my walk of shame right past him. I offered a wan smile, exchanged a few words, and drove my sorry ass home.

(End note: For personal reasons, Sam requested that I not use his last name in this article.)

 

Objects in the Mirror, part one

There it is. The sign. Right there. The airport-shuttle driver is pointing at it from the driveway in front of my hotel.

The Rio, home of the 2014 World Series of Poker.

Wow, so close.

It’s 11:30pm on a steaming hot Thursday night, I just landed, but what the heck, maybe I’ll just stroll on over to—

Wait a minute, jocko. Are you insane? Sure it looks like you could reach out and touch that Rio sign, but everything in Las Vegas is farther away than it might seem. Much farther.

A pocket pair, for example. Also, luck.

Also my hotel room at Bally’s: an inexplicable 40-minute wait to check in. Also, the Internet at Bally’s: $20 a day if you want to use that iPad. Also, restaurants at Bally’s; because of the stupid 40-minute wait to check-in, everything is closed, so it’s a 15-minute underground hike to a pathetic Sbarro’s where there’s a 10-minute wait for a cheese slice. Post-slice, it’s too late to catch the shuttle over to the WSOP, so that’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

Also far away: the Amazon Room at the Rio, where the WSOP Main Event is being played. From the front door of the Rio where the shuttle from Bally’s drops you, it’s a half-mile trek through the casino then down one hallway after another. Past the oxygen station, past Hash House A Go-Go, past the “Welcome to the World Series of Poker” sign – still a quarter mile to go. Past two signs with the headline “Stone Cold Nats.” Past the Poker Kitchen (hey, it’s beginning to look like a poker theme park!), past the Brasilia Room—where I’ll play in a WSOP side event later this particular day—past the stacks of All In magazine and Ante Up, past the souvenir stand and the book stand, until you arrive at the nexus of the poker world, at least on this Friday afternoon: the Amazon Room.

Inside is Day Four of the Main Event.

Awww, they knew I was coming.
Awww, they knew I was coming.

In contrast to the Strip, where chaos reigns 24/7, the Main Event is a paradigm of quiet efficiency. Conversations are muted. Video crews—there are several—glide with precision from table to table.

On the north side of the room is ESPN’s featured table, lit for TV, ringed with cameras and several dozen spectator seats, with an announcer providing the play-by-play. From my angle—behind video village, where the crew from Poker PROductions is milling about—it’s difficult to see the faces of the players.

 

I turn to the guy next to me, a Serbian fellow from Denver, and ask, “Any famous players at the table?”

He points. “Well, there’s Phil Ivey.”

There he sits: cold-eyed, expressionless gaze. Downright scary. How scary? Let me tell you.

A few minutes later, I’m on the outside patio, where a handful of players are milling about with their cigarettes in the 105-degree heat. A 40-something Brit who’s just busted out of the Main Event has an Ivey story to tell.

Seems Ivey was seated at a neighboring table, where a young opponent with 180,000 in chips announced “all-in.” Ivey, with 250K, thinks it over and calls. The two players flip over their cards. The flop (the first three communal cards) have given the kid an open-ended straight draw. Ivey has a set (i.e., three of a kind). Ivey plainly has the lead. Two cards to go.

The turn card is revealed, giving the kid his straight. One card to go. The kid stands up and begins to walk away from the table.

Ivey: “Where are you going? You’re ahead.”

Kid: “Yeah, but you’re Phil Ivey.”

The next card pairs the board, giving Ivey a full house. File this one under The Power of Negative Visualization.

At this point, out here on the smoker’s patio, Central Casting delivers The Crazy Old Gambler: toothless, unshaven, on a stream-of-consciousness rant about Whitey Bulger and Whitey’s brother and corruption in Boston and The Crazy Old Gambler’s cross-country trip by bus which has landed him here on this cement patio and—

Clearly it’s time to exit stage left.

WSOP featured table
WSOP featured table

Poor 695

Day One of the Main Event began with 6,683 players, who each shelled out $10,000 or made their way into the tournament through much less costly satellite games. Now, back inside the Amazon Room on Day Four, they’re down to 695 players, of which 693 will finish in the money. “In the money” means that you’ll go home with anywhere from a few thousand dollars profit up to the grand prize of ten million smackeroos.

Was there a sadder tale of misfortune than Mr. 695, two players away from the money?

Mr. 695 has a full house. Mr. 695 goes all-in. Mr. 695’s opponent catches quads on the river. Mr. 695 takes the walk of shame.

Everybody who plays tournament poker at one time or another takes this walk, and it can take many guises. In a tip o’ the hat to Monty Python, let’s lump them together under one category.

The Ministry of Sheepish Walks

Your chips are all gone. You’ve busted out. There’s no rebuy, no salvation, no poker-chip-shaped life preserver. And so—no getting around it— now you must leave. How you do so defines your emotional state of mind and to some degree your personality.

Mr. Nice Guy. You’re played your best, you’ve been legitimately outplayed and so you’re gracious. You smile at the guy who just took all your chips and say, “Nice hand.” Then you turn to the table and say, “Good luck, everybody.” You turn and walk naturally to the exit. Everyone should be so pleasant.

The Mangy Mutt. You are top dog. Look at that pile of chips! Oh, yeah! It’s been growing and growing and you are numero uno, buddy! Or at least you were. Let’s admit it: You’ve kind of been a bully, gloating when you win (“You guys are my personal ATM!”), scowling when you lose. And lose. And lose. You’re on tilt because you’ve been entering pots with marginal hands using all those “extra” chips you’ve won from all these chumps. Until that one-two punch in which two of your actual good hands get eaten alive by bad beats (just like the ones of which you were the beneficiary) and suddenly you are not gloating anymore, because you’re all in with a pair of jacks against ace-king and… you’re toast.

You rise slowly from your chair, shaking your head. Your shoulders slump and you skulk way, a mangy mutt who’s pooped on the kitchen floor.

Mr. Shellshock. Hey, wait a minute. There’s something wrong here. I’ve got three kings, but the dealer is sliding my chips over to that idiot kid across the table who turned over five-three off-suit. What do you mean, I lost? What? What do you mean he caught his straight? I don’t see a— Oh.

You sit there a moment. Your fellow tablemates offer words of commiseration (“Wow, man, that was ugly”) and you exit the room, exit the building, go to the parking lot, shift your car into drive, and realize that you’ve left your iPhone at the table. Back you go, across the parking lot, into the card room, crossing the battlefield, retrieving your phone, unnoticed by your former fellow players because, let’s face it: To them you no longer exist.

The ER Patient. Pocket aces: You’re golden. The showboat to your right raises. You reraise. He reraises. You go all-in. He calls and shows pocket deuces. You simply cannot lose this hand!

The flop comes. No ace, no deuce. Your aces are holding up.

The river card is flipped over. No ace. No deuce. You’re at the finish line, baby!

The river card is… a deuce.

Owwwww. That really hurt. Bad. Tears-welling-up-in-the eyes bad. A sinking feeling that extends from your cranium to your pelvis.

Nurse, get the defibrillator. Clear!

Jaws agape, you stumble away in a haze. But you need medicine to numb the pain. Lucky for you the dispensary is open until 2am and they will gladly provide any number of elixirs guaranteed (almost) to help you forget that damn river deuce.

The WSOP Walk. Yes, everyone gets their chance to demonstrate their walk of shame. I got a chance to strut my stuff at the Rio’s Brasilia Room at about 9:30pm Pacific Daylight time on the final Friday night of the WSOP.

 WSOP Main Event banner

Casino Buffet

More than the hole-cam

Until Henry Orenstein came along, the game of poker was nearly unwatchable on TV. (To some, it still is.) He’s the fellow who invented the hole-card cam, which revolutionized TV coverage of the game and contributed mightily to poker’s resurgence. But the hole-cam wasn’t his most impressive achievement. He’s a Holocaust survivor who spent his teenage years in five concentration camps. PokerNews has a brief yet enlightening story about the man.

Pumping up the AC

Atlantic City is on the ropes: No big surprise, but it’s encouraging that they’ve come up with a new game plan.

The Return of Action Dan

Last decade, Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie co-authored the “Harrington on Hold’em” series, arguably the best available set of poker manuals. Now the duo is back with “Harrington on Modern Tournament Poker,” which presents a significantly revamped version of their earlier, conservative approach to the game.

Like the earlier books, this one is nicely written and presents smart, useful, clear-headed information in an easy-to-digest format. Reading it will pretty much guarantee an improvement in your game, so please do not buy it, especially if you plan to play hold’em in the vicinity of Portland, Oregon.

 

 

The Mind-Meld Mambo

You know that moment—that classic moment—in West Side Story when Tony and Maria meet and fall in love? They’re at a gymnasium for a neighborhood dance where tensions are running high because the Jets hate the Sharks and both groups are snarling at each other across the dance floor. The hatred is mutual, but for some reason, everyone is doing the mambo. I guess that was the tough guys’ dance of preference in 1961.

But then… then Tony and Maria simultaneously spot each other across the room, and everyone else blurs away, leaving these star-crossed lovers in their individual halos of light. The mambo music fades away and suddenly these two are performing a pas de deux to a music-box version of “Maria.”

The Jets versus the Sharks or "What happened to the mambo?"
The Jets versus the Sharks or “What happened to the mambo?”

The same kind of thing (except the pas de deux part) happens when fellow gamblers find each other in a non-gambling environment, like a wedding reception or birthday party.

“You mean, you… you play blackjack?” The other partygoers disappear into a mist of irrelevance as the two of you mind-meld over topics like card counting and eight-deck shoes. Your date listens politely, indulgently, like the mother of a five-year-old who’s happy that little Johnny has a new friend.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, at a wedding reception out in the small country town of Yacolt, WA., I found myself sitting near Jessica and Tony Quain, an entirely charming couple from the east coast. She I’d previously met. He was a stranger. We were making small talk when the conversation turned to their recent vacation in Scandinavia. Evidently they’d had a swell time cavorting (a Scandinavian-sounding verb if ever there was one) until they reached Aarhus, Denmark.

Tony was relaxing outside the Royal Casino taking a break from a blackjack session when two men in black masks raced past him into the casino wielding semi-automatic weapons. (You can see actual footage of the robbery here.)

Wait a minute. What did he just say? “Casino?” “Blackjack?” Is that a mambo I hear in the distance?

He’d uttered the magic words.

Let the mind-meld begin!

Turns out that Tony has been a card-counter for a bunch of years, a skill he took with him during college to the Atlantic City boardwalk, where he was able to profitably slog his way through those humongous eight-deck shoes.

We traded our stories of being thrown out of casinos: me from the El Dorado in Reno, him from the Trump Plaza and Claridge in AC. Oddly, they didn’t throw him out for being underage, which he was, but for his advantage playing. Evidently they don’t care much about corrupting the morals of youth and taking their money, but if Junior counts cards, they’ll toss his ass out onto the boardwalk. That was in 1991. I’m guessing there’s a statute of limitations (or institutional amnesia) because he’s returned since and played with impunity. That’s good news: Maybe I’ll return to the El Dorado.

No, wait a minute: That would mean going back to Reno.

Destination: WSOP

Tony to me: “So how does a blackjack player become a poker player?”

I’d told him I’d more or less forsaken 21 in favor of Hold’em, but the steps that led me there were kind of random.

Here goes.

A.k.a, Carte de JeuBlackjack can be a grind. You’re down, you’re up, you’re even. And if you’re counting cards your torturous inner monologue might be something like Ace plus king equals minus two… subtract that from negative 20… I’m down…. Deuce plus three equals plus two… add that to minus one… I’m up…

God help you if someone attempts even the most innocuous bit of conversation; simply processing an answer to “Nice day we’re having, don’t you think?” can give your brain a hernia. And the simple fact of life about card counting is that to really make money at it, you’ve got to have a fat bankroll—one that you’re ready to lose—at your disposal.

And then there’s the element of repetition. In blackjack, after a few hundred hands, you’ve seen it all, every combination of cards, every type of bad beat, every single way you can watch your bankroll swell and contract.

So, boredom was a factor. Then came the poker boom. Around 2003, everyone was talking about Hold’em, a phenomenon that coincided with the introduction of the hole cam, which enabled viewers to see the hole cards of players in major events. So, in effect, via televised editions of “The World Poker Tour,” you could have a front-row seat in a weekly series of poker seminars taught by the top players in the game.

That same year, James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street hit the bookstores. The book has two main threads: the murder of Ted Binion, son of Benny Binion who is credited with devising the World Series of Poker; and color coverage of the 2000 WSOP. McManus’s writing style was smart, literary and approachable. He painted such a rich portrait of the game and its players that I was hooked. Also, the fact that he—a lowly writer, mind you—made it to the final table of the Main Event was enticing.

Eleven years later, after innumerable tournaments and cash games, I’m taking the next step: the WSOP. Just one of their smaller buy-in “Side Events,” but still…

As I post this, I’m five hours away from stepping on an Alaska Airline jet, destination Vegas.

A full report will appear here next time around.

Casino Buffet #2

Econo-Blog

Turns out that my new friend Tony Quain is a lot more than an accomplished card counter. He’s a true smarty pants, with a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. A fine writer, too, with a provocative blog on free-market economics.

Walk a mile in his shoes

While researching poker strategy, this blog popped up: YourPokerDealer.com. It explores gambling from the dealer’s point of view. It’s a highly entertaining and informative site. Check out the very observational post on empathy.

Ivey Update: The Baccarat Flapdoodle Continues

A few posts back, we talked about the suit lodged against poker pro Phil Ivey by the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. Their claim: Ivey and an associate bilked the casino out of nearly ten million dollars by exploiting the flawed patterns on the back of Gemaco playing cards.

The Borgata wants the money back because (they say) he cheated. Ivey says no way: his big wins were the result of “sheer skill.”

And so he’s firing back by filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. If Ivey’s attorneys are as skilled in legal matters as Ivey is in poker, you’ve got to pity the Borgata: They don’t stand a chance.

From “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death”

“The World Series of Poker. My intro to the world of high-stakes competition. I’d never been much of an athlete, due to a physical condition I’d had since birth (unathleticism). Perhaps if there were a sport centered around lying on your couch in a neurotic stupor all day, I’d take an interest.”

No, Doubleday never sent me a reviewer’s copy. But I’m not going to hold that against them. The book is an absolute hoot and Colson Whitehead deserves all the praise he’s been getting.

 

 

 

Down the rabbit hole

The tiny Chinese man with jigsaw teeth is perhaps the happiest man on the face of the earth. If he wins, he laughs. If he loses, he laughs harder.

We’re playing blackjack at the Empire Casino in Leicester Square, London, and everything is a source of amusement for this old guy. Between hands he’s kind enough to lean over in my direction and—in Chinese—share his thoughts with me. What in God’s name is he saying? And why won’t he stop laughing? Is he high? Demented? Perhaps his meds haven’t kicked in.

I shrug and chuckle along with him as the dealer gives himself a five on top of his sixteen: 21. We all lose. Hilarious!

My guess is that this Asian elf has sat through enough hands to understand that putting together a decent winning streak at a London casino is pretty much a long shot; each turn of the card confirms his belief that he’s got it all figured out, the gambling universe and his place in it.

Either that or he’s mad as a hatter.

Which I can understand. This is the Alice in Wonderland version of blackjack. It’s not even noon and the blackjack and roulette tables are jam-packed with noisy players. It’s the Tower of Babel and everyone is speaking in British, American or Eastern European accents or in Chinese.

By Ian Holton from Beijing, China (IMG_2316) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Emerge from the Tube and you have a choice: Angela Lansbury or the Laughing Chinese Elf.
Then there’s the young guy lounging mid-table who is not taking cards. Instead, at the beginning of each hand he scrambles to place bets on other players’ hands: multiple chips, plus side action on those dumb long-shot side bets that pay you a gazillion-to-one if your cards plus the dealer’s cards together make a straight flush, or their combined total equals the square root of an isosceles triangle’s hypotenuse.

Another old Chinese fellow is hovering over my left shoulder, lingering there, pressing in on me to get a closer view of the action. He’s a gnat. He won’t go away. This is my cue to cash in my chips and leave.

West End farce

The Empire at the Casino (operated by Caesar’s Entertainment) shares Leicester Square with a handful of other casinos, as well with a bunch of West End theatres. The effect is like an upscale mini-Vegas. Walk under the marquee for Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit starring Angela Lansbury, turn the corner, step into the Empire and play a role in the low-brow farce known as British blackjack.

Why is it farcical? Well, there’s this whole business of the casinos actually encouraging customers to bet on other customers’ hands. At the Hippodrome—several short blocks from the Empire—the tables are a confusion of green-felt geometrics, including three extra circles in front of each player that are meant to accommodate this freelance betting. Puzzling. Would you place your chips in front of a stranger whose blackjack skills are unknown to you and expect to win? Of course it’s simply a blatant attempt by the London casinos to bilk more money from their customers.

And then there’s a variation in blackjack procedure which is really quite perverse. British rules (or at least the rules in the casinos I visited) call for the dealer to deal two cards to all players and just one face-up card to himself. Action then progresses as the dealer goes around the table accommodating the players—allowing them to take a hit or not—and only then does he take his second card!

This was a bit of info I knew going in, but seeing it in action hammered home its absurdity. Here’s how this rule might play out.

In the good old USA, everyone—dealer included—gets two cards, and the dealer’s second card is face up.

Let’s pretend you’re at a Vegas casino and you’re dealt two eights. Blackjack 101 says you must split them. And let’s pretend that the dealer’s up-card is an ace. But before action progresses—before you can split those eights—he asks if anyone would like insurance (generally a poor wager), then checks his hole card. In our fictional scenario, he’s got a picture card underneath and he turns over blackjack. Everyone loses, but at least you didn’t have the opportunity to plunk down the extra money to split those eights.

By Ian Muttoo from Mississauga, Canada [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Notice that no one is wearing a hat. For security reasons they’re forbidden in London casinos.
But in London, this same scenario would work out very differently, one might say catastrophically.

The dealer goes around the table and gives you the two eights and himself a single card which is a face-up ace. Let’s say you’re betting 25£ (about $42US). You split the eights, so now you’ve got 50£ out there. Time for your first draw on your first eight…. and you get another eight. So you’ve got to split again.

Okay, let’s cut to the chase. In our make-believe scenario you follow basic blackjack strategy and you end up re-splitting those eights four times and doubling down on two of those hands. You’ve got 150£ out there (or about $250US) and now it’s time for the dealer to take his second card.

It’s a ten. Everyone loses, but you in particular are toast.

Huh x 7

After one such let-me-pull-a-rabbit-out-of-my-hat hand in which we all took a beating, I heard emitting from a fellow player a sound which I’ve heard many times stateside. In fact the first time I heard this noise, it was issuing from the mouth of my “pal” Evil George Taylor, who was suffering from an extended streak of bad luck in Reno. Uttered with a tight smile and a shake of the head, it sounded like huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh. No less than seven huhs.

The Grim Chuckle of Hopeless Resignation.

The Grim Chuckle of Hopeless Resignation says, Of course I lost. How could it be otherwise?

The Grim Chuckle says, I am a decent human being with no small modicum of intelligence, and yet I sit here being pummeled hand after hand by a stranger wearing a maroon vest and a nametag reading “Omar.”

It says, I could be doing anything right now. I could be reading a book or watching Mad Men or catching up on my sleep. Hell, getting shit-faced drunk would be a more productive use of my money and time than this soul-sucking activity. But after racking my brain trying to come up with a productive plan of action, the only thing I can do is mutter “Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh.”

Seven “huhs.”

There’s something oddly comforting in hearing that sound come from a stranger at a blackjack table 5,000 miles from home. Apparently, the Grim Chuckle of Hopeless Resignation transcends borders and unites gamblers in a worldwide embrace of despair impotence humanity.

Paging Clive Owen

One last stop on this mini-tour of London casinos: the Grosvenor Piccadilly, part of the huge Grosvenor (pronounced GROW-ven-er) chain of casinos. To gain entrance you must join their “club.” Okay, why not: This place must be special. I think of the film Croupier, with Clive Owen in a black tie and the gamblers in fancy suits, beautiful women hanging on their arms.

I join. I enter the casino: Empty, save for one or two players. Echoing through this vast space is Billy Ray Cyrus crooning “Achy Breaky Heart,” a tune I’m pretty certain didn’t find its way onto the Croupier soundtrack.

I go upstairs, where there are two human beings among the banks of gambling machines. One of them is a young Asian woman sprawled over the top of an electronic roulette game, fast asleep, the “before” picture of a Red Bull ad.

Cue the exit music.

Two minutes later I’m on the street, marching past a restaurant called The Slug and Lettuce, humming “Achy Breaky Heart,” a card-carrying member of the Grosvenor family, happy to see Angela Lansbury smiling down on my decision to beat feet from that sad-sack casino as fast as I could.

The Borgata’s Baccarat Flapdoodle

For the past couple of weeks, Internet gambling sites have been buzzing about a provocative tidbit of news: Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa announced it was suing poker genius Phil Ivey to the tune of $9.6 million. They’re charging that Ivey earned that much by cheating at baccarat.

By www.LasVegasVegas.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Phil Ivey at the 2009 World Series of Poker
Upon reading the initial reports, I experienced a say-it-ain’t-so moment. Ivey a cheat? The man is a towering figure in the world of poker, unquestionably one of its greatest players. In a game where skill is measured in dollar amounts, Ivey has reportedly won more than $21 million in tournaments and many millions more in cash games. Plus he’s taken home nine World Series of Poker bracelets. So why would he risk his reputation by getting involved in a cheating scheme?

Turns out “cheating” may be the wrong word. And given the antipathy towards casinos by many professional gamblers, his reputation may actually be burnished.

So, what is baccarat anyway?

Think of baccarat as blackjack’s sleepy cousin or as a rich, lazy brat. It doesn’t matter if you (the player) know the rules of baccarat or not, because you don’t have to do anything. Correction. You must stay conscious. And you must take a lot of money out of your pocket because baccarat is usually offered only in the roped-off high-rollers area of the casino floor. The only action that you take is to place your chips on one of three betting positions: the player, the banker (i.e., the casino) or tie. That’s it.

Two cards each are dealt face down to the player and the banker. The cards are flipped over. Depending on the total value of each hand, you’re automatically dealt another card or no card. No thinking allowed. The goal is to get nearest to a value of nine.

You make no decisions, except that initial one as to where to place your bet.
You cannot affect which cards are dealt. Cheating? Seems to be just about impossible. Unless you are the casino and you redefine the word, which some might say is exactly what the Borgata did. You might also say that the Borgata made a series of monumentally bone-headed decisions and that suing Ivey only serves to underline just how poor those decisions were.

By Route 82 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Attention all edge sorters: Bear left for Exit H.

A suit of cards

Here’s what the lawsuit says: “Because of his notoriety as a high-stakes gambler, and the amount of money he intended to gamble, Ivey was able to negotiate special arrangements to play Baccarat at Borgata.”

He requested a maximum bet of $50,000, a private pit and a handful of other conditions, including a dealer who spoke Mandarin Chinese. The casino chalked all this up to Ivey being superstitious.

But here’s where alarm bells should’ve gone off. Per his request, “Ivey was provided with one 8-deck shoe of purple Gemaco Borgata playing cards,” the lawsuit says, “to be used for the entirety of each session of play.”

Turns out the Gemaco cards were flawed. The patterns on the long edges on the back of the cards were cut irregularly, allowing Ivey and a sidekick to engage in a practice called “edge sorting.”

Betting patterns

The first time through the shoe, the duo would use the flawed patterns to detect which cards were favorable. Ivey’s pal would then instruct the dealer in Mandarin Chinese to kindly rotate the cards so the favorable cards would face in the oppose direction of the unfavorable.

Ivey also requested an automatic shuffling machine, so the orientation of the cards wouldn’t be disturbed. Prior to each hand being dealt, Ivey could see the pattern on the back of the first card in the shoe and place his bet accordingly.

A perfect hand in baccarat. Nine = face value, picture cards and 10s = 0.
A perfect hand in baccarat. Nine = face value, picture cards and 10s = 0.

At his first visit to the Borgata in April 2012, Ivey took home almost $2.5 million. The second time, a month later, he won more than $1.5 million. The third time, in July 2012, it was almost $4.8 million. The fourth time (yes, there was a fourth time) he won a mere $824,900: chump change.

The suit says that the edge sorting gave Ivey an “unfair advantage” over the casino. Hmmm. Unlike the rules that casinos employ to gave advantage over each player who walks in the doors?

It’s amusing to think that the casinos unwittingly put themselves in the role of a problem gambler, chasing their losses in session after session after session after session. Maybe they should seek professional counseling.

Choosing sides

The more I read about this escapade, the more I came down on the side of Ivey. Curious to learn if others shared my line of thinking, I contacted a quartet of people involved in the gambling industry and solicited their opinions.

First up is Zachary Elwood, author of the highly instructive and well-reviewed book, Reading Poker Tells. Here’s what he told me via email: “I’m completely on Phil Ivey’s side. I have no sympathy for casinos; their whole business is offering unwinnable games to the public. It’s their responsibility to make sure their games are unexploitable. As long as Ivey didn’t mark the cards and was just taking advantage of an existing quality of the cards that was theoretically available to anyone else, I don’t consider it cheating.

“Mainly, though, I feel the way I do because the casino is in the business of making sure no one has an edge on them. If a customer can figure out how to get an edge (without creating an advantage that is unique for that one person) I have no problem with it. The same way I have no problem with card-counting in Blackjack.”

A problem of perception

Next I contacted Sean Gentry, manager of Encore, arguably Portland’s top poker room. Part of Sean’s job is to ensure the integrity of his dealers and the decks of cards they use. He called my attention to an earlier edge-sorting case involving Ivey and a London casino, Crockfords. Ivey is suing them because they refused to turn over the millions of pounds he encore logowon using the technique at a form of baccarat called Punto Banco.

“It’s very clear that none of this would have been possible if the casinos hadn’t allowed it to happen,” Sean says. “The Borgata allowed Ivey to choose which decks he would be playing with… down to the specific model and color. How this didn’t set off alarm bells, I don’t understand.

“If they’re betting $50K per hand, surely the casino should put a lot of resources into maintaining the integrity of the game. How did they not have two pit bosses and a couple of security people monitoring the entire thing? It makes no sense. If you have a high roller coming in and being treated like a king, you should also have a royal level of security protecting your investment.”

But Sean had some reservations about Ivey’s involvement in the scheme, to wit: “I really don’t like that this will paint a dark image of arguably poker’s most famous player. The perception among random people unfamiliar with the game is that poker is a haven for cheaters and riff-raff. Having one of the most famous players involved in cheating (whether proven or not) will cast a shadow on public perception. As much good work as Ivey (or Negreanu or Greenstein) has done to improve public perception, a lot of the work will be undone if this story gets real mainstream play.”

Which it hasn’t. Yet.

From the other side of the table

My friend Diana1 dealt cards games in Reno for twenty years, including baccarat. She looked at the story from a couple of angles.

In an email she wrote, “It was very interesting that the casino continued to indulge them by turning the cards (purportedly for superstitious reasons). At first, yes — a lot of people have weird ways. Then, when the winning gets serious, there are two different focal points at play……one is the pit boss’s objective — to keep a winning player at the table because most times he will lose the money back (hence the continued allowance of deck manipulation so as not to piss off the player, causing him to leave the casino with the winnings).

“The other job is that of the surveillance crew – the eye in the sky. Normally, when the winning gets serious and there is a betting pattern detected, gaming commission agents would be called in to sit with surveillance, and all would be glued to that close-up monitor watching for anything that would be telling the player when to raise and lower their bet. I’ve even seen them take decks off of a table, right into a plastic bag to be scrutinized by the gaming agents… I think that the surveillance team should have been much more on top of this.”

She closed with some choice words for the gaming industry: “I guess the bottom line is: Casinos play a tough game. They do not operate whatsoever on what is right (or moral). The poker player went into that house on his own free will, they didn’t drop a net and drag him in. As such, he has to play by their rules.”

Al Rogers of bj21.com was much terser in stating his opinion. How did he feel about this entire affair?

“Ridiculous,” he said.

By darwin Bell from San Francisco, USA (Lolly in the sky Uploaded by SunOfErat) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
There’s one born every minute.

Who’s the fish?

There’s an old expression in poker, one that might apply to this Borgata mess: “If you can’t spot the sucker at the table, it’s probably you.” Over the course of four long sessions of baccarat, with millions of dollars at stake, the staff of the Borgata took a good look around the table and came to a brilliant conclusion.

There wasn’t a sucker in sight.

 

  1. Per her request, I’m not using her real name.

A Bootload of Trouble

Fact: There are approximately 1500 casinos in America. Per capita, that works out to be about one casino per 213,000 people.

Fact: In Italy there are four, count ‘em, four casinos. That’s about one casino for every 15.5 million citizens!

Despite this tragic situation, or perhaps because of it, Italia has a big, fat gambling problem.

Fears of Social Breakdown as Gambling Explodes in Italy,” announced the New York Times at the end of 2013. The epicenter of this explosion? The town of Pavia, near Milan, population about 68,000. According to the Times, there is one slot machine or VLT (video lottery terminal) for every 104 residents, who each spend an average of more than $4,000 per year on gambling. Evidently these machines are ubiquitous; not only that, they’re everywhere: malls, shops, coffee bars, even pharmacies.By GoShow (Own work. Added on to Flickr.) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

On a broader scale, “one in every eight dollars spent by an Italian family goes toward gambling,” wrote Times reporter Elisabetta Povoledo.

Yikes! What’s the deal over there?

Answer: the Italian government. In an effort to combat a huge illegal gambling market that was largely controlled by organized crime, the powers that be deregulated gambling. Now instead of mobsters cashing in, the federal government does. In 2012, the feds took a rake of somewhere between $8 billion $11 billion in gambling tax revenue. Talk about a disincentive to help problem gamblers.

In The Daily Beast the head of an Italian organization that helps gambling addicts said, “Italy is becoming the Wild West of gambling nations.” Italy can also boast that it’s Numero Uno among European countries… in money spent on gambling.

The casino museum

It’s certainly not fair to judge Italian casinos (all four of them) on the merits and demerits of just one, but if the other Italian casinos are like the one in Venice, they’ve got a few issues to work out.

From the outside, the Casino Venezia is impressively old and handsome. Established in 1638, it bills itself as the first casino in Italy and Europe.

By Abxbay (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Casino Venezia, where you probably do not want to play blackjack.
Like most edifices in Venice, it’s a stone’s throw from a canal, in this case, the Grand Canal. And like all buildings in Venice, it’s subject to strict codes which are designed to preserve the character of this magnificent—and once terribly powerful—little city.

When I visited, there was a shiny new sports car parked in the courtyard, some sort of casino promotion. Inside I asked an employee, “What’s going on with the car?”

“What car?” she answered.

WHAT CAR?

Venice is, by law and practicality, a city without cars. You simply will not find an automobile on the entire island. I hadn’t seen a car in days. If you resided in Venice, you could spend your entire life without seeing a land-based motor vehicle. Here one was parked just yards away, a fact that might have been noted by someone who was forced daily to take a boat then utilize their own feet to get to their job. Maybe it had been so long since she’d seen a car that she simply didn’t recognize this newfangled hunk of metal and plastic within spitting distance.

Or maybe it was because the casino existed in a pre-Henry Ford time bubble. Except for the far-off bleating of electronic slot machines, this place was ancient, hermetically sealed off from the twenty-first century.

But, WHAT CAR?

I pointed outside with my thumb.

She raised her eyebrows, impressed: How did that get there?

Paging The Man With The Yellow Hat

Evidently this particular casino had a dress code, and since I’d arrived without a sports jacket, the Woman For Whom Cars Did Not Exist pointed me towards a counter where they supplied me with a black one that was about two sizes too big. It hung off my shoulders, giving me a simian appearance.

Curious George Goes to the Casino.

Inside, the casino floor was almost empty. It didn’t seem like a casino. It seemed more like a casino museum. Maybe a dozen or so tables, with just a handful of patrons who seemed tired and gray. You don’t associate this kind of staid atmosphere with a gambling hall.

This casino had been around for about 375 years. Just give it a few more centuries and maybe word of mouth will kick in.

I monkey-stepped my way over to a blackjack table.

Like any responsible gambler, I’d set a dollar limit for the evening, which came crashing to an end in about ten minutes. You see, it’s almost impossible to win blackjack at the Casino Venezia, thanks to rules which are aggressively tilted to the house. I discovered the most heinous of these rules about nine minutes into my session.

In the US, when the dealer and the player both have blackjack, it’s a push: no one wins. Here in Venice, when both parties have blackjack, guess who wins? The house.

Wait a minute: The name of the game is blackjack. How can they deal you blackjack then tell you that you lose?

My jaw dropped. The dealer had evidently seen this reaction so many times, he just shrugged helplessly: Mongo just pawn in game of life.

There was no way a guy was going to win under these conditions.

I quickly returned the borrowed jacket, regained my human form and made my escape from the Casino of the Apes.

And now a word from the gene pool…

Depending on your state of mind, it’s either grimly fascinating or highly amusing to observe the train wreck known as the problem gambler.

He’s that sartorially challenged guy in baggy shorts and hyperactive tattoos who never seems to leave the poker room.

Or the successful downtown lawyer with a wife and daughter who simply cannot feed twenties into the video slot machine fast enough.

Or the beefy former frat fellow who apparently has never made the acquaintance of a blackjack basic-strategy chart and who approaches the game like an all-night kegger: Bring on the booze, and be gone, judgment and restraint! I’ve got money to lose, and plenty of it!

Yes, when it comes to problem gamblers, it’s easy to be glib and judgmental (guilty!) until it comes to a member of your family (also, unfortunately, guilty). I’m talking about my brother Bruce and I’m talking about my second-to-last visit to Reno in the summer of 2002.

The Reno shuffle, part one

If you read the Reno Gazette-Journal’s website (and why wouldn’t you?) you’ll see prominently featured on its home page an ongoing series called “Reno Rebirth.” The premise of this series, as I understand it, is that once upon a time Reno was great; then it sucked; now let’s all join together and help make it not suck again.

Let’s wish them luck. According to dispatches from the front, downtown Reno is looking pretty bedraggled these days, more than a little worn around the edges.

Another King of ClubsIt wasn’t exactly Shangri La during the summer of 2002, but you could travel there from Portland with little trouble or expense, the casinos were crowded, and the table conditions were good.

We landed in Reno mid afternoon and the sun had the brightness of a nuclear explosion, producing the kind of heat that alters your vision, the squinting kind of heat you might experience if you lathered a tube of Ben Gay over your cranium then for good measure applied some directly to your eyeballs. I guess what I’m saying here is that it was kind of hot.

This was a trip I made in the company of Evil George Taylor and we’d booked a couple of rooms at the Eldorado, which put us right in the center of downtown. One of the good things about Reno is that all the casinos are near each other. Even the outlying ones, the Peppermill and the Atlantis, are a short drive from center city. We’d take the rental car, park, then flee inside, like refugees from an advancing army, to the air conditioning inside.

The trip, my last one before I taught myself to count cards, was not a successful one. I simply couldn’t sustain more than one prolonged winning session.

The low point, gambling-wise, was a session in which I played against a dealer with jet-black hair whose name tag read “Fausto.” Fausto, as in that guy who sold his soul to Mephistopheles. I later learned that Fausto is actually an Italian word meaning “lucky.” But from my position across the table from him that summer evening, he seemed like Satan.

I was thinking, I’m playing cards with the devil!

Then as my miserable luck continued I thought, I am losing to the devil! 1

The smart thing would’ve been to move to another table, but the place was teeming with players and I couldn’t find an open spot at a non-demonic table. So I let the devil beat me. But at least I escaped with my soul. I hadn’t bargained it away for unlimited luck at the blackjack table. Although if the proposition had been raised…

Clearly, it was time for a break and I needed to go upstairs to return a phone call. It was a call that I was dreading.

Betting on a pulse

People who hate casinos hate them for any number of reasons.

  • Casinos are sinful, gaudy, smoke-filled holding pens designed exclusively to separate you from your money.
  • Casinos promote crimes such as prostitution and drug dealing.
  • Casinos prey on the elderly, luring them with free transportation and buffet discounts.
  • Casino floors are populated by sad-sack losers.

My brother Bruce hated casinos for another reason: He simply because he could not step foot into them. The sensory overload was too much, causing him to shake almost to the point of convulsion. This was ironic since my brother was a rabid, enthusiastic, lifelong gambler.

Ironic, too, was the fact that I heard he was dying in my Eldorado hotel room during a break between blackjack sessions.Yet another King of Clubs

Bruce perfectly fit the profile of a problem gambler. His days revolved around a handful of rituals: drinking a half case of Budweiser; smoking a pack of non-filtered Camels; delivering racing programs for the local greyhound track; spending his salary at the very same track or another gambling facility; then going to a bar in West Palm Beach known as El Cid.

Bruce liked to bet on two- and four-legged creatures. The ponies. And the greyhounds. And jai alai. And football games. Anything with a pulse. Unfortunately, this predilection had cost him his wife and daughter, along with at least one job.

So, now we get to the serious question of genetics, of nature versus nurture. Is this kind of behavior built-in or inculcated? There’s a strong case for the latter: When I was seventeen, Bruce introduced me to harness racing at Roosevelt Raceway and taught me how to handicap the trotters. I’m guessing he saw this as a rite of passage, because his father did the same for him at the same age, causing — as I understood it — some consternation on the part of my mother.

But then there’s this: Bruce was actually my half-brother; we had different fathers. Both his father and mine were problem gamblers.

Where does that leave yours truly? I’m not answering, because I truly don’t know. I’ve not lost anything of significance in my gambling career. I’m a responsible guy. But why is it that the first time I sat down at a blackjack table, I felt like I was going home, that I’d landed exactly where I was supposed to be?

A keepsake for cash

Several days after returning from Reno, I was on a plane to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to help my sister tie up loose ends for Bruce. There was all that unpleasant death-related stuff to deal with, including returning his portable oxygen tank, which on its top side showed burn marks from his unfiltered Camels.

He’d squirreled away enough money to pay his funeral expenses and to leave $500 to me, which was a surprise. I thought it appropriate to put the bulk of that money into my gambling fund.

But I did take $50 of my inheritance and spent it on an item that I carry with me every time I go the casino or card room, every time I play poker or blackjack: It’s a brass, hinged money clip with an Indian-head nickel on top. It does a pretty good job, this money clip, of holding my money together, at least until my winnings swell the wad beyond its grasp, or until the house edge has whittled my bankroll down to a shadow of its former self.

 

Courtesy of Bruce
Courtesy of Bruce

 

 

 

  1. I later used this incident as inspiration for a ten-minute stage comedy called “A Little Risk,” which I’ve posted for your reading pleasure.