Category: poker

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.)


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.



Business as (un)usual in the poker room

The 3 Commandments

Life in the poker room is a pretty placid affair. Low-level chatter punctuated by laughs or the occasional cheer. The shuffle of cards. Pop music—Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, The Eagles, The Beatles—on low volume.


Occasionally you’ll also hear “Shit,” “Dammit,” and the stray “Fuck,” but the unspoken ethos and the printed rules that hang on the wall discourage profanity.

A sense of calm celebration prevails. And when it doesn’t, when the calm is shattered, alcoholic beverages or controlled substances are usually involved. Outbursts or fisticuffs are extremely infrequent, so that when they do occur, the effect is jolting.

Recently at an area poker room, for instance, a guy juiced up on booze and Adderall loudly and profanely questioned his bar tab. The bartender—a professional and cool-headed young lady—sought to placate him by refunding, out of her tip jar, the amount in question. No dice. His rant continued unabated and before long, security ejected him.

But the show was just beginning. Out on the street he started throwing punches and soon the security guy and two poker players were—with great difficulty—wrestling this bantamweight drunkard to the ground, not before he smashed a window and started yelling for his mom. Police arrived. Next stop: the drunk tank.

To be clear: These things rarely happen, but when they do, they live on for days in poker room discussions, providing a nice break from the run-of-the-mill, that-guy-called-my-pocket-kings-with-ace-three-off-and-sucked-out-on-the-river conversations.

The saphead has been banned from the club and condemned for breaking a cardinal rule of the poker room: Thou shalt not abuse the female bartender.

Also, thou shalt not imbibe Adderall and Hennessy then attempt to play Texas Hold’em.

Also, thou shalt not be a jackass.

I’ll drink to that

We enjoy drinking for a variety of reasons: to loosen up, to commiserate, to take a little vacation from the here-and-now. Sometimes, of course, the alcohol will prompt philosophizing.

Here’s an actual conversation that took place in the bar at the Encore Club in Portland some months ago.

The characters: A 40-ish player who, while not given to moping or self pity, has just busted out of a Texas Hold’em tournament and is not feeling too good about it; and Encore’s off-duty cook, a bald-headed, tattooed guy also in his 40s, with horn-rimmed glasses and a sour, studious demeanor—in a prison film, he’d be the lifer hitting the law books in hopes of winning exoneration.

They’ve both had a few drinks…
Player (re: poker): Sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth the time and effort.
Cook: Isn’t that the big question?
Player: I guess…
Cook: I ask myself, is it all futile? Aeschylus talks about that in “The Libation Bearers.” Have you read it?
Customer: Well, I’ve read my Aeschylus, but I’m unfamiliar with that one.

( [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Aeschylus is probably wondering how the hell he got dragged into a gambling blog…
Hold on: “The Libation Bearers”?? And at least three people in a bar in a poker room who’d actually read Aeschylus?? Had I slipped into an alternate universe where the denizens of poker rooms read Greek playwrights in their spare moments? Or is the moral of the story that you’ve got to give credit to people for being a lot smarter than you might think?

In a matter of weeks, the cook had moved on to a different job, no doubt spreading his joyful message of futility and Aeschylus to the unsuspecting clientele of another barroom.

Casino Buffet #1

At the casino buffet, you plunk down a modest amount of cash, in exchange for which you can sample a smorgasbord of dishes from near and far. Hey, that guy in the white hat is carving a hot turkey! The other guy in the other white hat is making crepes and omelets! And that other guy… shouldn’t he be wearing a hairnet or something?

In the spirit of the casino buffet, here are some tasty news tidbits from casinos near and far. And don’t worry, I’m wearing a hairnet.

There’s an acronym for that

I recently discussed that awful blackjack rule in Britain wherein the dealer takes his second card after all the players have acted. In a few short yet brilliant paragraphs, I illustrated how lousy this rule is and just how it might play out using as an example a hand in which you’re dealt two eights.

Turns out that there’s an actual acronym for this rule: ENHC, which stands for (drum roll, please…) European No Hole Card. You can find out more about this rule as well as a basic strategy chart that’s been adjusted for ENHC at Golden Touch Craps. Interestingly, the author, Dan Pronovost, uses virtually the same situation as I did to demonstrate the considerable downside of ENHC.

Eldorado killing

Awhile ago I wrote about an incident at the Eldorado in Reno in which a patron reportedly met his death during a scuffle with the hotel-casino’s security detail. Thankfully, justice is being served: one of the security guards has been charged with murder. Here’s a news article about it: “Security guard charged in man’s death.”

Whitehead’s WSOP

Colson Whitehead is a writer who’s earned a reputation as a “serious” novelist. Apparently he’s loosened up a bit. A novice poker player, Colson has written a new book, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death. It’s a first-person account of his experiences training for the World Series of Poker, then playing in it. Reviews have been mixed, but the New York Times seemed to like it. (Read the review here.)

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Colson Whitehead, author of “The Noble Hustle,” a reviewer’s copy of which is on its way to my mailbox… right, Doubleday?
This kind of book has been done before, somewhat recently—and very successfully—by James McManus. His Positively Fifth Street is brilliant and became an instant classic when it was published in 2003. Don’t know if Whitehead’s book reaches the stratospheric heights of “Fifth Street,” but I’d sure like to read it and judge for myself. (Ahem, Doubleday: Where’s my reviewer’s copy? Huh?)

A tale for the telling

Speaking of classics, Zach Elwood’s Reading Poker Tells has pretty much become required reading for those interested in this topic.

Now the Zelwood Empire has expanded with the publication of his new book, Verbal Poker Tells, and a series of seminars he’s giving in Las Vegas during this year’s WSOP. Recently I was Zach’s guinea pig in a test run-through of this seminar and was impressed with his mastery of this complicated topic. You’ll find out more about his books and his seminars at

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 [CC-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 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 (], 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.

Jackpot summer, part one

Life-changing events come in two flavors:

#1. The Unexpected. You know, it’s the inside fastball that whacks you in the cheekbone before you can duck.

#2. The Anticipated. You’re not happy, but you’ve got a seat in the dugout and you can study the dangerous southpaw as he makes his long, slow walk from the bullpen in deep right field.

If you’re lucky, the seismic shifts in your life fall into category number two, like mine did in the summer of 2003, on August 29 to be exact.

Next stop, Eden!

I knew well in advance that I was going to drive my black RAV-4 three thousand miles across the country to the University of Pennsylvania with my 18-year-old daughter. This is the part I knew I was going to like.

I’d prevailed upon AAA to issue me a TripTik (remember TripTiks?) that would guide us mile by mile. So yes, we would be spending one night at the Amber Inn in Eden, Idaho. Yes, we’d have stopovers Cheyenne, Des Moines and Strongsville, Ohio, alternating nights between places rated two diamonds (welcome to the Bates Motel) and three diamonds (a nice step up from Motel 6) by the esteemed travelers of AAA. And yes, it would take us precisely five days to reach the City of Brotherly Love.

I knew I was going move Julia into a dorm room, then leave her among strangers in a strange city, and I knew that saying goodbye was not going to be easy. But I did not know that it was going to affect me quite the way it did: emotionally, sure, but also physically.

Thirty miles outside of Philly, sad and shaken, the image of her growing smaller in my rear-view mirror still fresh in my mind, I pulled into a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Deep breaths, a few sips of water. I needed to pull myself together because I was going to retrace the five-day route that had brought us here. But not only would I have to do it alone; as a special bonus, at the end of those five days of driving, I was going to have to grapple with the sad state of my marriage. It was on the verge of implosion.

Lucky for me I had a knapsack full of printed material guaranteed to distract me:

• A Rand-McNally road atlas of North America;

• AAA travel guides for every state I would be driving through;

• A recent copy of Current Blackjack News, which listed every blackjack-playing casino in the US;

• And a copy of Blackjack Autumn, which held the blueprint for at least several days worth of distractions.

I pulled back onto the road and pointed the car west towards Jackpot, NV.

Jackpot, Nevada -- a chip toss away from Twin Falls, Idaho.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Jackpot.

The Limits of Obsession

No matter how obsessed you are, there are limits. You can’t stand in a stream waving a fly rod or park yourself at a poker table seven days a week. Well maybe you can, but I can’t. That’s why God created books: So you can experience vicariously what may be too expensive or time-consuming to experience on the river or in the casino.

While there are a profusion of high-quality narrative books aimed at certain hobbyists—travelers, for instance, and sports fans—most gambling books fall into the instructional category.

Travel fanatics get Kerouac’s On The Road and Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

Sports fans get Jim Bouton’s classic Ball Four and Laura Hillenbrand’s stirring Seabiscuit.

Blackjack players get Blackjack for Blood, Blackbelt in Blackjack, and Blackjack Attack. I’m guessing that these titles offer valuable advice for BJ players. I’m also guessing that they lack the literary heft of A River Runs Through It or The Innocents Abroad.

As a source for literary endeavors, blackjack is the Mohave Desert. You’d have to go way back to 2003 to find a book that made any kind of splash. That would be Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich, a “nonfiction” account of the escapades of a team of card-counting M.I.T. students. The book is an enjoyable read, although Mezrich took some well-publicized hits in the press for—shall we say—embellishing the aforementioned escapades. The Kevin Spacey movie 21 was based on Bringing Down The House and took the already fictionalized nonfiction story one more giant step into the realm of fantasy.

The closest thing in the genre of recent blackjack nonfiction that approaches the literary is Barry Meadow’s Blackjack Autumn: A True Tale of Life, Death, and Splitting Tens in Winnemucca. Part memoir, part travelogue, part history and part instruction, the book is based on a simple premise: Over the course of the autumn of 1998, the author was going to play blackjack in every casino in the state of Nevada. He ended up putting about 4,000 miles on his odometer as he traveled to nearly 200 casinos.

Back in 2003, just the idea had me drooling. That’s what obsession can do to a guy.

The first time I read the book, I was struck by Meadow’s sardonic humor (he writes that the Reno Philharmonic is “an odd juxtaposition of two proper nouns”) and his skills of observation (“Partial truth is about the best you can expect in Nevada”). In re-reading it, which I’m doing now, I realize just how much I learned from this book, how it informed the way I play the game and how it influenced me to begin counting cards.

But ten years ago, the book provided me a bit of hope, inspiration for a way that I might both mend myself and prepare myself for the traumas that lay ahead. As Meadow writes, “One thing about the casino world—real life never gets to intrude upon it.”

So here’s the deal: It was about 2400 miles from Philly to Jackpot, and there were a few casinos along the way.





The road to Las Vegas, part one

In my former life I was a fly fisherman.

For nearly two decades I tromped around in wading boots, waved my fisher-stick in the air, gently placed teeny flies on the surface of streams and lakes in British Columbia, Montana, Alaska, Washington and Oregon, trying to induce creatures with brains the size of a pea into biting a hook disguised with feathers.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved it. At times I was obsessed by it. What I enjoyed most, in retrospect, was traveling to remote, rugged places, soaking in the beautiful landscapes and relaxing in the comradeship of my fellow fisher folk. It was fun flying into remote, woody areas. It was fun complaining about the crappy food back at the lodge and about the stupid, mostly unresponsive fish. It was even more fun when you caught one.

But here’s the thing. It was not an inexpensive hobby. Hell, a single fly alone cost a couple of bucks; then there were the rods, the lines (floating and sinking and floating-sinking). the leaders (of absurdly varied lengths and strengths), the waders and other accessories, all essential to one’s efforts in trapping a 14-inch rainbow trout. Plus there’s this: On the vast majority of rivers and lakes, catch-and-release ordinances mandate that you toss back the little fuckers!

In short, most of the time you’re paying for the experience of not catching fish.

As a (REDUNDANCY ALERT!) struggling actor, then as a (DITTO!) struggling writer, these summertime fishing journeys were way too costly for me to foot any part of the bill outside of the gear.

My benefactor was Robert Unger, DDS, my (at the time) father-in-law. Bob was a unique character: whip smart, generous, funny, insanely left-wing and dangerously fast with a barbed comment. He’d learned to fish during WWII, when he was stationed in Canada, and it became a life-long passion for him. As he became more and more successful in his dual careers of dentistry and real estate, apparently the price-per-fish became less and less of a factor. Then, once it became clear that I was going to become part of his family and that there’d be no escaping the utter klutziness of me, I guess he thought, “What the hell. Take the goy fishing.”

Photographic evidence that I caught a fish. Or at least hooked one.
A rare occurrence: The goy actually hooks a trout.

The goy liked it. And in our particular crucible of traveling to remote fishing destinations – fighting off mosquitos the size of squirrels, riding horses that farted, losing fishing leaders in trees (me), hooking a dry fly into your scalp because foolishly you didn’t wear a hat (brother-in-law Alan), nearly drowning because you made a false step and your waders filled with water (again, me), sharing platform tents in Alaska with yahoos drunk on schnapps, losing an actual king salmon because you just couldn’t get leverage on the deceptively muscular little guy (yet again, me), then finally losing a trout on your forever-final cast when the pea-brained-size fish in a moment of survival-motivated clarity scooted under a rock and snapped your line (Bob) – over the course of fifteen summers, fish were barbecued, family stories were shared, drinks were imbibed, drugs were ingested, secrets were shared and not shared, bonds (you know, the male kind) were formed.

So what changed? Why did I hang up my neoprene waders for good?

Looking back it’s clear that I, in effect, traded away the healthy pastime of fly fishing for the morally questionable one of gambling; traded away bucolic scenery and lungfuls of healthy air for casino smoke and rooms with no windows. I simply swapped one out for the other. It was not a conscious decision. In fact, for the longest while the notion of casino gambling had zero appeal to me. Casinos, after all, were for degenerates and those with money to burn. But my attitude shifted in the spring of 2000 when I came under the influence of an unlikely exacta: Cirque du Soleil and Evil George Taylor.

Doug, Bob and Alan in Wyoming.
The Three Amigos (Doug, Bob, Alan) at Darwin Ranch in Wyoming. Cue the farting horses.