Saturday, November 29, 2014

Molly’s Game – A Poker Review

Any book that has a sub-title as long as this one (Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker) should eventually live up to the hype. Unfortunately, this one does not, at least from a poker perspective.

It might live up to expectations as a tell-all (although she tells far from ALL in these pages), or as an “Access Hollywood” type story. As far as poker goes it’s a complete bust. 

First of all this telling of Molly Bloom’s story as the “madam” of the underground poker world is far from an “adventure,” with all the overtones of exploration and excitement that are inherent in the word adventure. Her journey is more of a disaster – one that she has no idea is coming until the Russian mob sends someone to rearrange her face and the FBI agents come banging on her door.

Molly presents herself as an overachieving, driven, yet sympathetic and innocent product of her all-American Colorado family who turns away from their values since she cannot compete with her over achieving brothers and demanding father. Her entry into the underground poker scene is completely by accident and only when she discovers the far reaching financial benefits of this sketchy endeavor does she embrace it as though she has found the answer. Never once does she own up to the idea that running high stakes poker games for playboys and celebrities is far into the legal grey area and, eventually, completely into the black.

Molly, who I am sure is an otherwise very nice person, is easily led and her sense of self hardly shows up in the book. Her introduction to the fast living, hard drinking, boisterous and hollow life of Los Angeles is through a chance meeting with a character, probably real but who goes by a fictitious name in the book, named Reardon. If Reardon’s LA is anywhere close to the real LA, I and many other people will not want to be caught dead there! It’s a world of deals and arrangements, name-dropping and high-end amenities along with very little else that is not selfish, self-serving, or narcissistic. Reardon is Molly’s Svengali and, in spite of his verbal abuse, his disregard for her as a person, and his loathsome personality, she sticks with him until he sets her free to become the poker goddess that she decides she wants to be.

You would think that running underground poker games that routinely build pots in excess of a quarter of a million dollars would demand an extensive knowledge of Texas Hold ‘em. Not so in Molly’s case. At the beginning of her new found career she had no idea how to play the game, much less the nuances of what was happening right in front of her. According to her, what she did know was people and that may be so. However, offering a game where millions can change hands in a matter of hours to a bevy of gambling addicts and having them accept is like offering a bloody steak to a hungry hound and having him dive in and devour it.

In the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, following the double whammy in 2003 of Jim McManus’ “Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker” and Chris Moneymaker’s miracle at the World Series of Poker where he turned a $39 online stake into a Main Event  victory, poker was all the rage throughout the USA and Europe. Finding players for underground poker games was a simple task; finding players for a high stakes game where the buys-ins were often $250K should have been more difficult. However, we were in a financial heyday here at home and abroad as it turns out. Hedge fund guys and bank bigwigs, along with financial analysts and real estate tycoons were drooling cash, at the expense of the unknowing public it turns out. We had bought homes on credit because we could and we had turned our life savings over to fund managers who were going to make us comfortable in retirement. 

They didn’t, but the custodians of those funds did gamble it away not so much on the stock market and personal purchases, as we might have guessed, but in high stakes poker games like Molly’s. They had money to burn because they had our money and Molly was only too happy to accommodate them along with a few celebrities who are fantastically over paid in our superstar worshipping society.

They say a poker game is like life and in the case of Molly’s games that’s not far from the truth. Everyday life issues emerged in or around these games on a regular basis. Every human emotion, at least every seedy human emotion, surfaced over time – greed, lust, selfishness, jealousy, anger, fear, betrayal, compulsiveness, you name it. Most times these feelings were left to run amok as long as the sharks were winning and the fish were losing and Molly was getting paid. If it’s too good to be true it usually is and a “good thing,” like this was perceived to be, had to run its course and in the end the games succumbed to their own greed and materialism.

Don’t get me wrong. I love playing poker and doing so outside a legal casino environment is no big deal. Even playing at really high stakes in an underground environment doesn’t bother me all that much. What bothers me about Molly Bloom’s set up is that it wasn’t about the game. It was about the personalities and what they could do for her – the connections, the influences, the bargains she could hope to strike. When you play with fire, and she eventually did play with the bonfires of organized crime, you get burned, maybe even scorched, sometimes to a cinder.

If you like poker and like reading about poker, don’t read this book.  It’s not about poker. If you like seeing the names of famous people in print, or you like hearing about wearing Louboutin shoes, or riding in Phantoms, or wearing this or that designer dress, you might like this book. 

One way or the other, if your head is in the right place, you will see Molly Bloom as a sad, na├»ve, young women wallowing in the things that lots of money can buy and blinded by the glitz, the fame, and the show of it all. 

Recent news reports have indicated that Aaron Sorkin has agreed to write a screen play from “Molly’s Game.” This is the same Aaron Sorkin of “The West Wing,” “The Social Network,” and “The Newsroom” fame. That’s some good writing – writing with a message, often a moral, a meaningful treatment of a given subject. How in the world will he deal with this book? Other than presenting us with an opus detailing the demise of an otherwise innocent young woman, it’s a mystery to me. 

I’ll go out on a limb though and say this will be a case where the movie is much better than the book it’s based on.

Friday, November 28, 2014

New York's Big Day - For Gamblers Anyway

The announcement came out yesterday that the New York Casino Location Committee will reveal its long awaited choices for up to four NY casinos in three regions on December 17, 2014. Wednesdays are good days for news cycles - right in the middle of the week giving critics and proponents alike two days to complain and praise the decisions before the lull of the weekend.

While there are many good proposals out there among the 16, all eyes are on the Genting Resort idea for Tuxedo, New York. It stands out for a number of reasons, both good and bad:

* It would bring a casino closer to New York City than any other proposal - a little over 40 miles.

* It is the only proposal that brazenly ignores the original intention for bringing casinos to NY at all - economic development and reviving the economy in and around the casino site.

* Genting is by far the biggest player among those putting forth proposals. How far will its huge corporate arm reach in and influence decisions?

* A significant element in the Tuxedo community does not want a casino in their backyard.

* Traffic in and out of the site, notwithstanding the proximity of the New York Thruway, will be a nightmare without significant infrastructure improvements, probably at public expense.

It is hard to predict what will happen on 12/17 but it is a no-brainer that the old Catskills resort area, formerly the home of the Concord, the Nevele, and Grossingers, will get one casino, exactly which one is up for grabs.

What's your choice?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Right From the Horse's Mouth - Umm, maybe not the horse . . .

Here it is November and New Yorkers are still waiting for a decision on full scale casinos in New York that was promised for late October. But, be patient. I have it on good authority that a decision, whatever it may be, is imminent. 

Rather than put you to sleep with my own rhetoric, here's an email that a friend, much closer to the situation than I, was nice enough to share:

Dear Chairman Gearan: 
On behalf of my colleagues on the Gaming Facility Location Board, we write to provide an update on 
where we are with our obligations under § 1306 of the N.Y. Racing, Pari-Mutuel Wagering and 
Breeding Law. 
As you are aware, we received sixteen qualified applications pursuant to the Request For 
Applications to Develop and Operate a Gaming Facility in New York State issued on March 31, 2014 
for proposed casino development in the Capital Region, Eastern Southern Tier Region, and the 
Catskills-Hudson Valley Region. These applications cumulatively totaled in excess of 75,000 pages.
Since receipt, we have been busy working on reviewing the materials, individually and with the 
assistance of staff, consultants and applicable state agencies. We also convened two full days of 
presentations by the applicants and their consultants in Albany on September 8 and 9, 2014 and 
subsequently conducted three full days of public hearings: in Albany on September 22; 
Poughkeepsie on September 23 and Ithaca on September 24. 
In addition to the internal reviews and study, the Board has held two meetings, on October 20, 2014 
and again on November 10, 2014, with our consultants to discuss each applicant’s financial history. 
We have also traveled to proposed locations to better understand the potential positioning of each 
We are scheduled to meet again this upcoming Friday, November 21. We expect to be able to make 
a decision at our next meeting.  (My highlight!)
Please let us know if you have any questions. Thank you.
Kevin S. Law, Chairman

So, as you read this blog post the die may already have been cast and all your questions answered:

* How many licenses will be granted?
* Where exactly will the casinos be?
* Will any of the three regions get 2 casinos?
* If so, which region will get two?
* Which corporate entities will get the contracts?

I'm guessing that the answers to these questions will be part of the arguments and discussions you will have with friends and relatives over Thanksgiving dinner next week. If not, then those debates may have to wait for Christmas.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Nothing Stays the Same – Everything Changes: Skill Based Gambling

I have always tried to strip my language, both written and verbal, of absolutes but the title of this blog post alone has two – nothing and everything. When you are talking about technology, absolutes seem to fit.

Technology, computers and digital devices especially, have drastically changed the way we live and many of the institutions that were once commonplace.

The home computer has decimated the travel agent business. Nearly everyone needing a plane ticket and/or a resort reservation these days merely logs on and makes the arrangements.

When was the last time you saw anyone loading a camera with celluloid film? Not any time in the last decade or so. Computer technology has made film obsolete to the point that most movie theaters in the USA no longer rely on "movies" that are on film but digital ones shown on digital projectors instead.

Land telephone lines are dinosaurs and print newspapers are fast following on their path to extinction. Pay phone kiosks and phone books are relics of times past. CDs, once heralded as the most modern of technologies, are merely shiny remnants of an outdated music playing format following in the footprints of cassette tapes, eight track tapes, vinyl long playing records, and 45 rpms with big holes in the centers.  

And although many of us wait anxiously for our daily delivery of snail mail, that too has a limited shelf life, I am sure.

Why should the gambling industry go unscathed? It will not and it has already started to feel the encroachment of new technology.

Online gambling is not a newcomer to any of us. According to Wikipedia (which, by the way, made the Encyclopedia Britannica obsolete!), Planet Poker opened its digital doors for real money gambling in early 1998, years  before no-limit hold ‘em poker was all the rage. In the last 15 years we have seen legal online gambling come and go and come back again and I can assure you that it will never go away for good. With improvements in network access and better software, online gambling, poker in particular, will come close to overshadowing and possibly even eclipsing the card games played in brick and mortar gambling halls.

The entire gambling industry is up for grabs and despite the grumblings of casino moguls like Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn, digital “gaming,” as we now know it, is where the future lies.

Gambling is fun, it’s entertaining, and it’s often exhilarating but the bottom line is that gambling is a business and the industry exists to make money for corporations and stockholders, not to keep a smile or a frown on anyone’s faces. Good corporate process demands that the product meet the needs/desires/whims, etc. of the consumer. Baby boomers have sustained many industries and they continue to support the gambling industry but, sad as it seems, baby boomers are growing older and soon will be no more. Losing a consumer base is unacceptable for a business,  so smart companies look ahead and this is what they see – a younger generation, raised on computer games, familiar with technology, comfortable with cell phones, with money to burn now and in the future, who do not like the idea of losing money by chance. Instead, young people prefer games of skill and therefore they have universally ignored the lure of slot machines that so mesmerized their parents and grandparents.

For business that’s not a good thing, since most casinos generate the lion’s share of their profits from slots.

Enter “skill-based gaming.”

Although we are not talking chess, bridge or backgammon here, those games do qualify as skill-based games. Millenials play these games but they are not tailored to the characteristics that most young people embody – short attention spans, a need for quick availability, and a love of things naturally attractive and glitzy. 

 The games young people adore are the ones that are readily accessible from their smartphones – games like Candy Crush, Farmville and Minecraft.

Young people play all of these games and the manufacturers, King, Zynga, and Mojang respectively, do very well financially just as things are today. Most of these games and many others like them make money using what they call in the industry a “freemium” model –you download and play the game for free but if you get stuck you can buy more time, more lives, or more game tokens for real money, sometimes for less than a dollar at a time. That seems like a small expenditure to enable someone to make those last few connections and move to the next level. And, it is. And the companies bank on lots of young people feeling the same way, so it turns out that this gaming industry is really a numbers game. One dollar – not such a big deal; a million players spending one dollar each – a very big deal!

It is estimated that 100 million users log on to Candy Crush each day generating income in the $1 - $3 million range daily. That’s a lot of dough, a lot of dough that has not gone unnoticed by the gambling industry that is cunningly putting 2 and 2 together in the hopes of coming out with much more than 4.

$1 X 1,000,000 = $1,000,000

·         Premise – they (the younger generation) hate slot machines and the element (the only element actually) of chance.
·         Fact – they love hand-held computer skill games with a minimum of chance built in with lots of skill required.
·         Fact – they are willing to spend money – a little at a time – to succeed.
·         Conclusion – let’s build skill-based games that involve putting money at risk much in the same way as today’s slot machines and make a fortune in the bargain.

The only two things that have stopped casinos from putting some form of skill-based gaming into their venues up to this point are legal issues and development issues. Companies like European based Gambit Gaming have vowed to take up the challenge of “gamblifying” (a new industry needs new words!) existing skill-based games or some very much like them and presenting them to regulators in places where the laws already allow for this kind of wagering, New Jersey in particular. 

Nevada, unfortunately, is a step behind here since their laws do not permit skill-based gambling as written. All indications are that they are working on it and hope to have something in place sooner rather than later.

In the USA, New Jersey, in an attempt to revive a floundering Atlantic City gambling operation, has vigorously sought proposals for skill-based games and the Division of Gaming Enforcement has been quoted as saying they are “eager to receive skill-based games for consideration.”

Soon we may find that dexterity and knowledge far outweigh bankroll and wit on the gambling floors of this nation and other nations.  Soon our gambling museums may be stuffed with the electronic one-armed bandits that are so popular today. The next time you visit your local casino, instead of just spinning the “Wheel of Fortune” after you are lucky enough to get a “spin” logo to come up, you may have to answer a few questions or spell a few words. Or even better, you may not have to be inside a casino at all. The future of gaming, just like the future of nearly everything else in this universe, may soon be no farther away than your smartphone. 


Friday, November 7, 2014

October Was Here and Gone

The New York gambling community is still sitting on its hands waiting for a decision on the location and ownership of the four potential casinos that New York is likely to get in the near? future. All indications were, a few months back, that a decision would have been rendered by the end of October but that didn't happen. Most were not surprised that a decision did not come before Election Day but we are passed that now and still nothing.

In addition, any news about the decision has been sparse. An October 20 article in the Albany Business Review (Here!) has the New York Gaming Facility Location Board convening private meetings in Manhattan on that day but nothing has been heard from them since then.

The probability of a final decision by the end of October was hinted at by spokesman Lee Park but that was a dream or a smoke screen. He is qouted in the article saying, "They are optimistic they can make a decision by the end of the month however if the work requires them to go into November, so be it." 

I'm guessing that the "so be it" part was what he was really trying to say.

All of which leaves us no choice but to sit back, wait, speculate about all that goes on behind closed doors, and hope for the best.

Maybe by Thanksgiving!