Commando of hay

A heartwarming holiday tale

I am haunted by the hay.

Look out my office window and you’ll see, just over the chain-link fence in my neighbor’s yard, two mounds of it. You really can’t miss those piles of hay, so out of place in the ridiculous overgrown tangle of vines and brambles.

Hay: Perfect for a hearty bovine brunch in the unlikely event that a cow finds herself wandering through the backyards of our Portland neighborhood.

Neighbor Man will probably never lay eyes upon these mounds of barnyard straw, as he rarely makes an appearance back there. Who can blame him? The yard is a mess, with not much to recommend it; setting foot back there—as I stupidly did last autumn—is folly. In the world of yard grooming, this is a no-man’s land, all sharp ends and bristles, nature’s equivalent of a paper shredder.

Yes, there lies the hay, protected by ivy, vines and thorns and by the fence, which is topped by pointy diamonds of galvanized wire just waiting to perforate your scrotum if you happen to possess one. I do.

For most of the autumn the hay, three bales of it, had resided in our front yard, part of a Gomer-Goes-Portlandia Halloween display that included psoriasis-faced pumpkins, small pots of pumpkin-colored flowers, and the odd plastic skeleton bone.

This was to be my task as requested by my significant other: recycle those bales, relocate them, whatever, just tote those bales elsewhere, deliver them to their final resting place, and do it soon.

Generally speaking, my modus operandi is to indefinitely avoid unpleasant household tasks, especially if a bale of hay is involved. But even I had to admit that, with Christmas weeks away, those soggy bales were a decorating non sequitur. Holiday lights and puffy Santa mannequins were popping up all over the neighborhood.

We had the hay.

Even low-key Pat down the block with the take-one-leave-one book kiosk was taking the impending arrival of December 25 seriously; on a walk this particular Saturday in mid-November, Rhonda and I discovered that he had gone so far as to supplement his little roadside collection with a book called “Cats’ Letters to Santa.” WHOA! What a find!

Cats? Actually writing letters? TO SANTA?

The titular imagery was nearly overwhelming. Little kitties at their typewriters, pencils behind their ears, hammering out heartwarming missives to Old Saint Nick in which they revealed the true Christmas Spirit residing in their misunderstood kitty souls, then licking postage stamps with their little kitty tongues and heading for the local post office, where they’d drop the letters with the kindly (if pleasantly befuddled) local postmaster.

For a second, I thought of grabbing the book, sprinting home, and replacing it with my copy of “The Pagan Book of Days.” Take one, leave one, right? But, in the spirit of the season, I exercised restraint. As much as I wanted, I couldn’t take the book for my own; I just knew some dim-witted cat lover would die to get her precious little mitts on this poignant Yuletide masterpiece.


This being the day that the bales were to go away, over Saturday brunch at a local diner when I posed my dilemma—how was I going to disappear three huge chunks of hay?—my ever-practical stepdaughter, who’d lived many years in the house, was ready with a solution: Toss them over Neighbor Man’s fence.

“I dumped stuff over that fence all the time,” she said. “Nobody ever goes back there.”

So here was my plan: Use a spade to chop up the bales, then put the chunks, one-by-one, into a yellow recycling tub, and unload them over the fence.

The first load was terribly light and easy to lift. This was going to be a piece of cake. I marched the hay-laden tub around the house, through the yard, right up to the fence, finding a secluded spot between trees that would shield the hay from Neighbor Man’s eyes in the off-chance he’d wander back here to inspect his back forty.

I hoisted the yellow tub to the top of the fence—which was about the same height as I—upended it, and immediately lost my grip. The bright yellow tub, along with the hay, tumbled over to the other side of the fence, well out of reach.

I stared at it.

Now what? Plainly I couldn’t leave it there. Plainly I’d have to scale the fence to retrieve it.

Like a commando on a scouting mission, I strode across the yard looking for a place to climb over. The little diamonds of wire comprising the fence were narrow, too narrow to gain footing, so I elected to use a trip limb to give me a boost. I’d figure out later how to get back over. So I thought.

Grabbing the tree, I boosted myself to the top rail, balanced myself precariously and jumped over, careful to keep my groin region above the pointy fence parts just waiting to turn me into a eunuch. I hit the earth and immediately felt thorns tearing at my legs. Through the brambles I marched, grabbed the yellow bucket and tossed it back over the fence.

It never hit earth, instead lodging itself four feet  above the ground in a tree.

What are the odds of tossing an object into the air and it never actually landing? This would seem to defy the laws of gravity. But there it hung in the branches, disobedient, taunting me for the second time in the space of three minutes.

Now, to get back to my home turf. I marched back to the spot where I’d climbed over, but the tree which had helped me over was now no help at all. No way I could reach it from where I stood. So I grabbed the top bar of the fence and tried to jam my feet into the little steel diamonds. No luck; the toes of my sneakers were just too wide.

I tried the same maneuver again on a different part of the fence. And again. Idiot! Why would it work here having failed just a few yards away?

My baseball cap was sweat drenched by now, so I took it off, wiped my head with my sweat-shirted arm, and panted, trying to regain my breath.  I pictured the sun setting, me stranded here until I could crawl out through Neighbor Man’s yard under the cover of darkness.

I marched back and forth until I spotted a tree with skinny arms that might just give me the leverage I needed. Grabbing a limb, I managed to land the heels of my shoes on the fence top, making me imperfectly parallel to the thorny ground below. But the sneakers felt like they were greased with butter and I slid down the fence, in the process getting a stiff whack in the back of the head by a nearby branch.

Ringing in my ears. Sweat pouring into my eyes. The commando stranded in enemy territory.

If you’d been standing with a camera on the other side of the fence in my yard, here’s the image you’d have captured: a slight man with a gray beard and baseball cap, in torn dungarees, clutching the back of his head and howling in pain; adding a brilliant touch of surrealism, in the foreground of the photo a bright yellow recycling tub inexplicably floats in the trees.

So far, twenty minutes had elapsed from the time I’d scaled the fence and I’d made no progress, unless you count throwing a recycling bin into a tree as progress.

I took stock of my options and came to a conclusion: The only way out was through Neighbor Man’s yard. Between where I stood and his exit to the street were several dozen square yards, all of it thorny vines and brambles, some as tall as I. And thus I hatched my next unfortunate maneuver of the afternoon: If I walked gingerly, I could make it through this sticky gauntlet without injury.

Onward I went, instantly regretting this course of action. The thicket was denser than it looked, and I was swarmed, torso and limbs, by angry thorns. Swatting away the vines, I ripped my way through the thicket and within five minutes I stood at the edge of Neighbor Man’s new stone patio, a vision in ripped jeans, thorns attached to nearly every square inch of my clothing, panting, sweating like a pig into my dirty yellow baseball cap. If he looked out his window, he’d spy what looked to be a disoriented hobo emerging somehow from his backyard.

No car in his driveway, no lights flickering in his windows, no one at home. My first break of the afternoon.

I trudged down his driveway into the street. From here, it was about four blocks, all uphill, to the front door of home. Shuffling along in my hobo garb, out of breath, I berated myself: What a clown! How inept can one person be? How do I explain this to Rhonda?

I found myself in front of Pat’s house with his little book kiosk. “Cats’ Letters to Santa”! At last! A way to brighten the day. I grabbed it. Rhonda, I thought, will get a kick out of this little inside joke, especially when I tell her about my wacky misadventure.

I approached our house and stepped into the foyer.

“Doug? DOUG?”

It was Rhonda, panic in her voice.

“Where were you?”

I stood there panting.

“I was looking all over for you! Upstairs, downstairs, the garage, the backyard… Calling your name. And then I saw that yellow bucket hanging in the trees. I thought you’d collapsed somewhere, I thought you were dead,  and…” She looked at the book I was holding. “You went all the way back for that stupid cat book???”

The commando had returned to home base and not given a hero’s welcome. Not only had the commando returned—arms and legs covered with scratches gouges and blood—but he’d done so bearing a precious souvenir of his adventures: the cat book!

Despite the fact that my legs and arms were covered with scratches and gouges and blood, I knew I had one more task to perform: dump the rest of the hay.

Soon, by Thanksgiving dinner, my little Hay Bale Escapade had passed into family lore. My dignity is somewhere over that fence, residing between those two bales of hay. When this sad little fact becomes too much to bear, I open that thin volume of cat’s letters and take comfort in the wise words contained between its covers, words like “Dear Santa: Do you have any catnip? I’m off the wagon—again. Your friend, Pinky.”




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.


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. 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.


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 (], 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.

17 blackjack beginner boo-boos, part one

Hey, you didn’t know you could make as many as 17 mistakes at the blackjack table, did you? Read on, dear BJ neophyte, and you’ll be able to sidestep all of them.

Error #1: Being intimidated.

You’ve flown to Vegas to have some fun. Even if you’re there for business, you’ll probably want to blow off a little steam at your hotel’s casino. Blackjack sounds like a good idea, but you’re intimidated by the prospect of sitting down with other players. Maybe you actually did play one time and had your decision-making impugned by someone at the table who used words like “Why did you take a hit?” The snarky tone of voice implied the addition of the word “moron” at the sentence’s end.

Are you going to take the easy way out and park yourself in front of a slot machine?

Please don’t.

Everyone starts somewhere. Everyone was or is a newbie. Two suggestions. Numero uno: Be pals with the dealer; many of them will love to help you. Number two: Do a little research—perhaps beginning with the steps that follow—before you head off to Las Vegas or your local casino.

Error #2: Not knowing the rules.

The version of blackjack that you play in a casino does bear a resemblance to the game you played in your dorm room or at the kitchen table. The casino’s rules, however, are different and if you don’t know what those rules are… well, dumb luck will carry you just so far.

Prior to setting out to gamble, take a few minutes to review the rules online or in a book. Some casino websites post those rules.

Then when you’re at the casino, before placing your chips on the table, familiarize yourself with your particular casino’s version of the game. Yes, there are variations. These are usually spelled out on the green felt and on the printed signs near the dealer. Rules can (and very often do) differ from table to table on the casino floor. Or from country to country. Don’t get me started about London or Venice

Read the felt...
Read the felt…


Error #3: Accepting poor odds on blackjack payouts.

If you’re lucky enough to be dealt blackjack (an ace plus a card valued at 10) and the dealer does not, you automatically win. Traditionally the payoff has been 3:2, which means on a $10.00 bet, you win $15.00. It’s one of the advantages that you as a player have at the blackjack table. However, a dismaying number of casinos are paying out at 6:5, so you’d only get $12.00 on a $10.00 bet. This repellant variation of the rules should be clearly displayed at the table. If you see it, run away screaming!

Error #4: Accepting even money on blackjack.

Here’s the situation: You have blackjack; the dealer has a face-up ace. Before checking his hole card, the dealer offers you even money, for example $10 on a $10 bet. Trust me on this: Even in the short term—even if you sit at the table for just an hour—this is a bad idea. Most times the dealer will not have blackjack. By accepting even money, you are compromising one of the only advantages you have at the casino.

Yes, there are specific conditions under which you would take insurance, but these involve card counting and you’re not at that stage in your illustrious career as a player of the game.

I implore you, do not accept even money when you have blackjack.

Error #5: Buying insurance.

This is a close relative to #4.

Here’s how it works. The dealer has a face-up ace. You don’t have blackjack. The dealer asks “Insurance?” as he arcs his hand in a semicircle across the table. If you were to take him up on this generous offer, you’d place an additional chip on the table—up to half of the amount you’ve wagered– in front of your original bet. Let’s say you’ve got $10.00 out there; you’d place a five-dollar chip on the table. If the dealer has blackjack, he pays you 2:1 or $10.00 on your insurance bet, but takes your original ten bucks. It’s a wash.

If the dealer does not have blackjack—and he probably won’t—he takes the insurance chip and you’re out $5.00 and you haven’t even played out the hand yet! This is a terrible bet and you’re a chicken if you do it. Just don’t.

Error #6: Playing “Lucky Ladies” or other side bets.

This is another way for the casino to extract money from you. Playing these side games is so tempting because the minimum bet is just one buck and it requires no skill or decision making at all. Yes, the payouts are large, but the odds against winning are larger. Much larger. If you have money that you’d just like to throw away, this is a wonderful bet. Otherwise it would probably be more fun to stuff your greenbacks into a bong and smoke them.

More beginners’ errors in the next post…

Oh happy gambling films, where art thou, part two 

or, Gambling with the facts

“Based on a true story.”

These words, appearing in movie advertisements or in opening credits, are supposed to confer verisimilitude upon a film, and a hey-this-really-happened kind of expectation on the part of the prospective viewer. But when you get right down to it, it’s the same thing as an ingredient label that reads “may contain artificial ingredients.”

gdcgraphics [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Jim Sturgess, of “21.” MIT student by day… bane of blackjack tables by night.
Case in point: “21, the 2008 film starring Jim Sturgess and Kevin Spacey, and based on the “nonfiction” book, “Bringing Down the House,” by Ben Mezrich. It’s the tale of a card-counting team comprised of MIT students. It gains (supposedly) its impact because it’s true. However, if you were to peruse the book’s copyright page, this is what you’d read:

“The names of the characters and locations in this book have been changed, as have certain physical characteristics and other details. Some of the events and characters are also composites of several individual events or persons.”

In other words, it’s not true. And I think it’s fair to surmise that the film based on the book is even less true; after all, that’s what big-studio movies do, right? They use books as fodder, as starting points to weave a cinematic web that may or may not bear any resemblance to the source material.  In the case of “21,” what we’re left with is a series of serious-faced casino hijinks in which bad things happen to stupid people.

Rating: One Nut (on a one- to five-nut scale)

Truer, in the sense that it presents authentic characters and emotions, is “Rounders, the 1998 Matt Damon/Edward Norton poker drama that’s a thriller-diller to those of us who gamble and (I’m guessing) pretty much a snooze to everybody else. This antipathy on the part of the civilian population is probably due to the downbeat storyline as well as to the dialogue, which is ultra-thick with poker lingo. They should distribute glossaries with this film. Or display Poker to English subtitles.

By David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Edward Norton as Mr. Bad Influence in “Rounders.”
The movie works grandly (right, fellow poker players?) because Damon and Norton seem to have absorbed the essence of the game and its lifestyle. And then there’s John Malkovich chewing away at the scenery as a malevolent, Oreo-eating Russian named Teddy KGB.

The climactic scene (a scene a faire, if ever there were one) pits Damon versus Malkovich in a two-handed game of hold ’em that’s got to rank with filmdom’s best-ever card scenes. Extra points go to writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman who, along with director John Dahl, crafted a conclusion that’s not a total downer.

Rating: 4 Nuts


Casino buffet

Can you trust your local video poker machine?

If you’ve played video poker, you know that following the initial deal, the machine typically suggests which cards to keep, which to discard. Personally I’ve found that, on the casino floor, this advice is often useful. In fact, I’d estimate that 90% of the time the machines are correct in their recommendations. Beware the ubiquitous Oregon Lottery machines, however, because evidently they’ve been programmed to screw you.

A story in Willamette Week explores a suit filed by a disgruntled player named Justin Curzi who contends that, after being dealt an open-ended straight draw, a video poker machine in Northwest Portland advised him to toss away the wrong card, cutting in half his chances of completing the straight. Repeated tries yielded the same kind of results. (For what it’s worth, while I no longer play the Oregon Lottery machines, my past experiences tell me that Curzi’s claims have real merit.)

This kind of rigging has cost players $134 million, says Curzi. So not only is he pissed off; using his own funds, he’s actually suing the state to recoup players’ losses and says he has internal Lottery communications that back him up. You’ve gotta applaud the guy’s gumption, which you can read about at the WW site.

The Wacky World of the Wynns

Steve Wynn then: A spot for the Golden Nugget with a cameo appearance by the Chairman of the Board.

Steve and Elaine now: Bye-bye to a Member of the Board.


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 (], 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 -
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 / - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
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.)


“Yes, Mr. Ivey”

Yes, Mr. Ivey, you can have a private baccarat table.

Yes, we give you permission to wager up to $100,000 per hand.

Yes, we can supply that particular series of purple Gemaco playing cards.

Yes, we can supply the specific style of shoe you desire, so you can more clearly see the patterns on the back of the cards.

By Photo by flipchip / [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Tumultuous times for the edge-sorting poker champ.
Yes, we can supply a Mandarin-speaking dealer to communicate with your Mandarin-speaking associate.

Yes, the dealer will rotate the cards any way you’d like then place them into the shoe in whatever orientation your little heart desires.

Yes, we—being of sound mind—will provide everything you’ve requested and yes, we will take your money if you lose.

Oh, one more thing: We won’t allow you to win.

If we lose, all bets are off.

Thus seems to be the borderline larcenous logic of the two casinos—one in London, one in Atlantic City—engaged in legal proceedings involving Phil Ivey in which they characterize him as a cheater.

Adios, $12.4 million

On October 7, Ivey took what might be regarded as preemptive action by appearing in a segment of “60 Minutes Sports.” He doesn’t grant interviews often, which is a shame because he’s articulate and comes off rather well as an ambassador for the world of gambling. That is, rather well if you buy the premise (as I do) that he did not cheat.

Viewers were treated to a glimpse of his cool digs overlooking the Vegas Strip; his secretive rear-door entrance to the Rio during the WSOP; and a thumbnail bio of his New Jersey childhood.

Finally the interviewer got down to the crux of the matter: Would Ivey admit to cheating at Baccarat?

Of course not. His made his case (rephrased above) with utter conviction.

Then, the day after “60 Minutes Sports” aired, he was screwed. A British judge ruled in favor of Crockfords, the London casino, telling them they didn’t have to pay Ivey the $12.4 million that Ivey feels (as do many in the gambling world) he won legitimately.

And so sorry, said the judge. An appeal would not be allowed.

There’s a loophole that his lawyers will likely exploit, but for now say goodbye to $12.4 million, Phil.

How the Crockfords decision will affect the Borgata’s suit against Ivey is unclear, though it cannot be read as a good sign. In that case, the Borgata is suing Ivey to get back the $9.6 million that he won at baccarat.

By Photos by flipchip / [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Kid Poker: In Ivey’s corner.
Meanwhile, over at the ESPN site, Jeff Ma has written “Why Phil Ivey Got a Raw Deal,” an excellent analysis of the ethical issues involved in “advantage play.”

And none other than Daniel Negreanu weighs in on the decision over at the Pocket Fives site. Guess which side he landed on.


Welcome to the Casino Buffet

Some tasty tidbits from the world of gambling…

Video poker hell

While we’re on the topic of advantage play, Wired posted a fascinating article about two guys who exploited a flaw in a particular model of video poker machines that they discovered accidentally. Then, after they won a bunch of money, they went through legal hell.

Short version: Don’t screw around with the casinos. They’ve got friends in high places.

The longer (and highly recommended) version is right here.


“Mad” about slots

Slot machine manufacturers just love their TV tie-ins. I’m cool with the “Wheel of Fortune” slots, the “C.S.I.” slots, the “Big Bang Theory” slots, even the “Sex in the City” slots: Harmless little shows that don’t seem entirely out of place on the casino floor.

But how about this one: “Mad Men” slots.

No kidding.

By jdeeringdavis from San Francisco, CA, USA (Flickr Uploaded by tm) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
“Oh, sure. Walking the red carpet is fine. So are the Emmy nominations. And the Golden Globe nominations. And the fact that I’m a sex object to hundreds of thousands of females. But you know what I really, really want? My mug on a slot machine.”
Spin the wheel! If you’re lucky, you’ll get a “Don Draper Bonus”, and you can choose an ad for that next campaign!

Spin the wheel! If you’re luckier, you’ll draw a “Roger Sterling Bonus” and get this message: “Have a drink”!

Spin the wheel! If you’re unlucky, you’ll be dropped head-first into a brackish swamp awash with atavistic shame for the sexism and racism of the early 1960s.

But seriously folks, these machines feature graphics and video images from this brilliant, dark, sometimes creepy cult TV drama. While they might add an intellectual element to those banks of mindless electronic thieves, it’s like dropping a page from Nabokov into the Sunday funnies.

At least when you play “The Wizard of Oz” slots (yes, these machines exist) you’ll be smiling as you throw your money away.

With the “Mad Men” machines, the words “feel good” don’t exactly come to mind.


Nutty boy

In the category of Oddest Combination of Keywords Leading to My Site is this entry. And I quote:

“if a boy nut is cold what does that mean”

What does that mean, indeed? For starters I’d like to know what a “boy nut” is. Anybody?

And what would possess a person to Google this strange conglomeration of words? It looks like a phrase that you might randomly assemble on your refrigerator door with those magnetic word kits. While you’re drunk.

In any case, I really do hope that Stone-Cold Nuts helped answer this Googler’s existential question. If this website can help just one person solve the boy-nut-cold dilemma… well, that’s why we’ve been put on Earth, right?



Meet the killer who invented the World Series of Poker

Ah, autumn.

‘Tis the season for pumpkin picking and hot apple cider, for long drives through the color-shifting countryside, and for parking yourself in front of the TV for ESPN’s coverage of the World Series of Poker’s Main Event.

Beginning September 28, the network serves up two weekly hours of WSOP programming through the beginning of November, at which point the final table—a.k.a. the November Nine—reconvenes for a slugfest which grosses each player a minimum of $700,000.

But how to fill those empty WSOP-less hours between Sundays? Well, duh, you could actually play poker. Or if you want to engage in a more edifying activity, you might curl up with “Blood Aces,” Doug J. Swanson’s superb, highly entertaining new biography of WSOP founder Benny Binion.

It’s got the feel of a classic. Meticulously researched and told with verve and a sly sense of "Blood Aces" coverhumor, it’s a genre-buster, a gambling saga that will appeal to fans of true crime, to casino denizens, and to anyone interested in a tasty slice of 20th century history.

If you’ve strolled along Fremont Street, Binion is a familiar name thanks to his Horseshoe Casino, a seedy relic from the 1950s. It’s widely known that Binion started the World Series of Poker at the Horseshoe, but I’m guessing that few players know the whole story of the man behind the casino. Swanson remedies that big time, painting a vivid portrait of the nicest man you’d ever want to kill you.

“Binion had long resembled a doughy rural-route cherub,” writes Swanson in the book’s Prologue, “at least until he wanted somebody dead, which happened with some frequency. Then his grin fell away and his darting blue eyes went hard. ‘No one in his right mind,’ the great poker player Doyle Brunson once said, ‘messed with Benny Binion.’”

The book follows Binion’s path from sickly child to horse trader to Dallas gambling kingpin to Vegas hotelier-casino operator. This path was unimpeded by the fact that he was semi-literate (he stalled out in second grade), that his arrest became a top priority of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and that he eventually was brought to justice for the crime of tax evasion and did time at Leavenworth, an event that Swanson chronicles with typical wryness:

‘Prison Doors Clank Shut on Benny Binion,’ said a front-page headline in the Nevada State Journal. ‘Interesting Career Interrupted by Uncle Sam.’ This proved that somewhere in Reno a copy editor had the gift of understatement.

By This image is part of University of Nevada at Las Vegas Special Collections on the World Series of Poker. Permission was given by David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research, to use any materials from this site in accordance with the GFDL. ( [GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Benny Binion and daughter Becky in front of the Horseshoe’s famous million-dollar display.
Described by Swanson as “a sort of Will Rogers of mobsters,” Binion was forced to flee from Texas to Nevada after his lucrative gambling operation in Dallas collapsed and the powers that be made it clear that his life was in jeopardy. By the time he arrived in Las Vegas, “The city had entered the public consciousness as a criminal wild game preserve—or, more aptly, an adult amusement park—with an unmatched collection of murderous rogues reborn as legitimate businessmen, free to roam the streets.”

He fit right in and thrived, rising to the status of respected civic leader. Eventually heart ailments slowed him down, but did nothing to squelch his… well, let’s call it spunkiness. To wit:

Although a nurse now accompanied him when he traveled, he still kept a .22 handgun in his pocket… because no one knew when an eighty-year-old man with a nurse at his side might encounter a gunfight.

By the time Binion cashed in his proverbial chips, he’d done a stint as an FBI informant (a tidbit that Swanson reveals for the first time) and had become a pillar of Vegas society thanks to his generous civic donations. Hell, they even erected a statue of the man.

Today the WSOP, which Binion kicked off in 1970 with just a handful of players, attracts thousands of players and is operated by Caesar’s Entertainment, as squeaky clean a gambling enterprise as Binion’s was dirty. In light of this revealing new overview of the WSOP’s genesis, will ESPN acknowledge the tourney’s unsavory roots? I’m betting they will. The story is just too damn compelling.

As Swanson writes, “There is simply no one who went from murderous street thug to domineering crime boss to revered businessman to civic treasure like Benny Binion. No one comes close.”

It’s a one-of-a-kind tale and–along with Positively Fifth Street, Cowboys Full, and The Biggest Game in Town–deserves a place on the shelf reserved for gambling books that, through sheer storytelling verve, transcend the limitations of their genre.

Casino Buffet

“Lost in Translation,” casino edition

"Pachinko parlour" by MichaelMaggs - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Paging Bill Murray… Photo by Michael Maggs, Wikimedia Commons.

Pachinko, anyone?

Turns out the Japanese game–which combines elements of pinball and roulette–is making a comeback. Hurray!

What? You didn’t realize that the game had been fading in popularity because of its ties to the yakuza and its lack of appeal to Japan’s young folk? Or that three-quarters of pachinko parlor owners are ethnic Koreans? Or that pachinko’s rebound is considered big news at The New York Times?

Well, get with it! Here’s a link to the recent Times article that will will turn you into a sparkling conversationalist the next time that the subject of pachinko comes up at a party.

Banking on lotteries

Who says lotteries are evil? Enterprising credit unions are actually using the lottery concept as a way to induce low-income families to sock away some dough. And it’s working!

I’m all for it, although I humbly suggest that we should draw the line when your local bank starts rolling out blackjack tables into the lobby.

The failure of persistence

“Energy and persistence,” said Ben Franklin, “conquer all things.”

All things apparently, except for the Mohegan Sun casino.

Despite his stick-to-it-iveness, Bruce Koloshi of Summit, NJ, just couldn’t make his card-marking scheme work.

It sounds clever enough. Kolshi used invisible ink to mark the cards in a casino game called Mississippi Stud and special contacts to view the markings.

Only problem was he’d been caught twice before, in Delaware and Louisiana, so the jig was pretty much up by the time he arrived in Connecticut with his bottle of magic ink. Security had his photo and… well, read about it here.

And thanks to my old buddy Don Elustando for bringing this story to my attention.

Monetizing “Nuts”?

Last post, I wrote about some of the odd search terms that have led readers to this site. “Human nuts being cold” struck a deep chord with a bunch of SCN fans, none more so than poker pal Matthew Douglas, who emailed me suggesting that I sell cozies to monetize visitors.

“Cold nuts?” Matthew wrote. “No problem: Doug’s stone cold nut cozies only $19.95.”

As you read this, a small factory in Beijing is ramping up production.

Poker genius or certified nutcase?

And finally, I am humiliated nauseated delighted and proud to introduce you to “Cigarillo” Sam Pitzkin, a poker player unlike any you’ve encountered. Today marks the day that Sam and I launch PitzkinPoker, a website filled with totally useless somewhat dangerous wacky cuckoo brilliant techniques that will in all likelihood change the way you look at the game.

So who is Sam Pitzkin?  He’s a man of astoundingly diverse interests: a brilliant poker player who writes haikus, an ex-convict who quotes Shakespeare at the Hold’em table, and a connoisseur of cheese who still finds time to make a positive mark in the community. His charitable organization, the Inner City Children’s Poker Fund, has helped literally dozens of kids escape the clutches of poverty.

Read more about this remarkable man at

Objects in the Mirror, part two

They call it the World Series of Poker, but I’m thinking that might just be a misnomer.

To reach baseball’s World Series, players must slog their way through an interminable, yawn-inducing regular season (162 games) plus a couple of weeks of playoffs before they get a crack at the so-called World Championship.

To reach the World Series of Poker, simply buy a ticket to McCarran International Airport, catch a ride to the Rio, plunk down your cash, and you’re in.

And unlike MLB’s World Series, which is a best-of-seven contest, the WSOP is actually 65 separate events played over the course of seven weeks, with various games and buy-ins culminating in the ten-day No-Limit Hold’em Main Event, the one that costs $10,000 for a seat at the table, the one that will pay out $10 million to the winner when the final nine players reconvene in November.

By Gage Skidmore [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Aaron Paul was among the entrants in the 2014 Main Event.
At the WSOP, gender is not an issue. Neither is age, as long as you’re at least 21. Neither is nationality or skill. So essentially it’s more like the WCOP, the World Convention of Poker. You could be Stanford scholar or a paranoid, hygienically challenged old coot. You could be a celebrity: Aaron Paul, James Woods, Justin Henry and Ray Romano played this year. You could hail from Minsk, Athens, Tel-Aviv, or Matuyama City, Japan; a total of 87 countries were represented in the pool of 6,683 players who ponied up $10Gs for this year’s Main Event.

By the time I arrived at the Rio for my shot at a WSOP Side Event (which I’m capitalizing to make it seem more important that it actually was), 90% of those players had been bounced. Smarts and celebrityhood simply cannot protect you from those ever-escalating blinds.

The delegate from the fair state of Oregon will please step forward and be seated.

So while the 690-something remaining Main Event participants duked it out in the Amazon room, at 2:45pm I presented my entry slip and photo ID to the dealer at my assigned table, number 57, and took my place at seat four.

Psyched. Ready to compete against the other 538 entrants. “The Mental Game of Poker” had prepped me psychologically, and the Power Bar Triple Protein Threat that I’d consumed in my room at Bally’s and the Chocolate Caramel Fusion Bar in my pocket were going to keep me buzzing for awhile.

It’s 3pm: Let the game begin!

The contest progressed like this: 30-minute levels beginning at 25/50 blinds, with antes being added at level four. A 20-minute break every two hours.

At every poker table, there’s always a designated chatterbox and at table 57 those duties fell to the loudmouthed, Bronx-born general manager of a Houston car dealership. He wouldn’t shut up, perhaps because he was lubricating himself with tumbler after tumbler of vodka and pineapple juice. His playing style: Loosey-goosey, any two cards will do.

Then there was this lanky kid, an omnivore from Berlin, a terrible player with a charming German accent. While the Bronx guy was inhaling vodka, this kid was inhaling food. First there was the plate of salad and cheese that he forked into his mouth during and between hands. Then he disappeared and returned from the Poker Kitchen with a plastic tray bearing a large chunk of beef and a side of potatoes, which he proceeded to shovel down his gullet. Unfortunately for him, this fuel did nothing to improve the quality of his game. Soon he was hanging by a thread, prompting the sardonic old codger to my right to lean into me and whisper, “I bet he goes all in once he finishes that slab of meat.”

The final morsel was consumed, a final bet was made and he was gone.

Two hours later, it’s time for break number two, and I’m the one hanging by a thread. My chip stack has drastically shrunk. I have 20 minutes to figure this out. Out on the patio, in the hundred-degree heat, I take a shot at visualization: What’s the best possible situation for me at this point?

I picture pocket aces. I picture making a big raise. I picture everyone folding, except two players. I picture my aces holding up.

What the hell: If you’re going to dream the impossible dream, why not go all the way?

Inside, three hands later, I look down at my hole cards: Pocket aces. I make a big raise. Everyone folds except two players. I go all-in. My pocket aces win it and I triple up.

Tip of the hat to Shakti Gawain.

Finally, though, the clock wears down my stack to next-to-nada and I go all-in with ace-five off-suit and I’m trounced by a bigger ace. Six and a half hours into the tourney, I say “Good luck, everybody,” and take my Walk of Shame, not comforted by the fact that the vodka/pineapple-drunk car dealer from the Bronx has somehow managed to keep his seat longer than I.

Note to self: Next time get sloshed on pineapple-and-vodka. Maybe that’s the key to success in this game.

Casino buffet

WSOP’s Old Guy

By Sunday—day six of the Main Event—a quiet, church-like atmosphere prevailed; the Amazon Room had been transformed into the Cathedral of Poker. Pockets of light illuminated the remaining eight tables while spectators watched from the surrounding dimness.

There was some commotion, however, at the featured table where the oldest remaining player, Bill Cole, 72, of Murrieta, CA, was on a run of good luck. When his ace-king took down a huge pot against a youngster holding ace-queen, he leapt from his chair and shouted “Livin’ the dream!” and exchanged hugs with his small but vocal entourage.

You couldn’t help but root for the guy, but it wasn’t long before he shipped all his chips with ace-king of clubs (a reasonable move at that point) and lost to a pair of queens. It wasn’t a bad payday for the oldster: Finishing in 58th place, he took home $124,447.

Worst Bad Beat Ever?

This YouTube clip has been the buzz of the poker world, and for good reason. It occurred at WSOP’s Big One for One Drop, in which the buy-in was $1 million. Two players went E20Ci [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commonsall-in. Each held pocket aces. Statistically, this should have resulted in a chopped pot. But then there was that nasty heart on the river…

And you found me how?

The wonderful world of WordPress allows blog-keepers such as yours truly to monitor traffic. It also displays search terms, phrases that have led readers to Stone-Cold Nuts. Here are two recent examples, phrases that people typed into their search engines which, one click later, deposited them right here.

There’s this:

man won poker tournament of Adderall

And even better:

human nuts being cold

Speaking of nuts…

Overheard by my friend Zach Elwood at a Portland poker room: “I’m not impugning your manhood. I’m merely questioning your hand selection.”

Guest Post Numero Uno

I recently penned a guest post for in which I drew an analogy between the nuns of my youth and poker dealers. You can read it here: The Nun at the Table.

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.