Friday, November 27, 2015

James McManus' "The Education of a Poker Player": Facts or Fiction

There are at least four other books I can find online with “education of a poker player” as part of their title:

·        John Billingham’s The Education of a Modern Poker Player LINK
·        Richard Sparks’ Getting Lucky: The Education of a Mad Poker Player LINK
·        Robert Jameson’s The Education of a Poker Player (self-published) LINK
·        Herbert O. Yardley’s Education of a Poker Player LINK

All of them are what you might expect from their titles – stories about how the authors came to the game of poker and some sort of treatise on how they learned the game along with advice and strategies for the readers to emulate should they choose to embark on the same journey.
James McManus’ The Education of a Poker Player LINK is not anything like the books mentioned above!

The first hint that McManus’ 2015 published work is not going to be typical is the fact that it is not “fact.” It is a collection of stories, a few previously published elsewhere, that are billed as fiction but smack of autobiographical or semi-autobiographical vignettes from a boy’s life. I say “from a boy’s life” because the narrator barely makes it out of his teens before the close of the final story in the collection.

There are seven stories in all with only “Kings Up” and “Romeoville” giving poker more than a passing mention. I’ll come back to those two.

James McManus is more than a good writer. He is a thorough, professional, recognized chronicler of the kind the poker community has not seen since A. Alvarez and The Biggest Game in Town LINK. McManus’ Positively Fifth Street LINK is a major cog in the machine that brought poker to pop culture-like popularity in the early part of the current century. Along with the atmospheric rise of online poker sites, and the astounding World Series of Poker victory of Chris Moneymaker in 2003, McManus is credited by many as a founding father of the modern poker boom.

In Positively Fifth Street and the later Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker (2009) LINK, James McManus is at his journalistic best – a keen observer of the human condition and a thorough, relentless researcher of times past. Non-fiction is his milieu and, although I am reasonably sure that every non-fiction writer has a burning desire deep inside to create a stunning piece of fiction that will blow everyone away, that’s not always as easy as it seems. McManus has written fiction before and has been rewarded for his efforts – he was awarded a Carl Sandburg Award for Fiction. Nevertheless, he is at his best in the real world of non-fiction.

The Education of a Poker Player, throughout all seven stories, follows Vincent Killeen, an Irish-born, Bronx transplant living in the Chicago suburbs with his mother and father, a gaggle of siblings, and his uber Catholic grandmother who also works in the parish rectory. In addition to the standard Catholic trappings of going to church, saying prayers, and attending parochial school, Vince is treated to doses of intense religious propaganda promulgated mostly by his grandmother but also by the clerics involved. The propaganda includes where babies come from, a series of untruths that are not sorted out until he is middle school age, the wisdom of joining the clergy - the prospect of becoming a priest so that his entire family’s time in Purgatory will be eliminated - and the ubiquitous aura that sex, and anything remotely sexual, will land you in the fires of hell for eternity where your skin will be painfully seared from your body only to grow back and be seared off again and again. 

 To Vince’s credit he eventually sees through most of the hype, like virtually all Catholic school children eventually do. Like all normal prepubescent boys he soon gives in to the temptation and relieves the stubborn “doozers” that he so often gets whenever he is around a good looking female lay teacher or a distaff classmate that he fantasizes about. Guilt, shame, and other pre-programmed feelings of inadequacy soon fade with age.

The members of Vince’s nuclear family are not big fans of gambling or carousing although on his mother’s side that’s not the case at all. The Madden’s introduce Vince to poker and a few other borderline vices when he spends a summer with them in Mahopac, NY. When he receives “a pair of Bicycle decks” and a copy of Yardley’s The Education of a Poker Player for his thirteenth birthday from his maternal grandmother and grandfather and their randy son, Uncle Thomas, the scandal is great enough that his father confiscates the gift for a while with the admonishment to never play poker for anything but “matchsticks” or “pennies.”

You can guess that Vince pays no mind to his father’s advice leaving room for the only real “poker” story of the book, “Kings Up.” The setting for the poker game is a caddy shack at the local country club where Vince is a B caddie. The regulars, A caddies, consist of a variety of unsavory characters who have chosen caddying as their life’s work. Actually what they prefer doing is spending drizzly afternoons separating the local teenagers from their meager earnings. Vince has a knack for poker and usually can hold his own against the toughs, Swede and Tennessee. The final encounter in this game of draw poker to which the title refers has Vince pitted against Swede in a mega pot. Both players think they have a read on their opponent and they do since the ultimate showdown reveals both have kings over sevens. Vince scrapes up the pot though and the lesson learned is “kicker, kicker, kicker” – his Ace kicking Swede’s Jack! But that wasn’t the end. Like many junk yard card games, this one, too, ended in a brawl with coins and bills strewn all over the dirty floor.

It’s a good story but not a great story,

The other mostly poker story is the final “Romeoville” wherein a losing player at a home game Vince is involved in crashes his car and dies on the way home for no apparent reason. Guilt, questions, and soul searching follow and thankfully the story does not yield to the Catholic pressure of bad things (dying) follow bad things (playing poker).

James McManus’ The Education of a Poker Player is not a bad book. Unfortunately it is not a good book either if you take into account what we have come to expect from the author. If any of you who have been unfortunate enough to experience the surreptitious proselytizing of all Catholic institutions, including and especially the Irish Catholic family and parochial schools, would like revisit those chilling feelings, be my guest! I, for one, remember them all too well.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Musings – DFS, Sexism, and the Internet

Over the last year or two I have consciously made an effort to “follow” those on Twitter who have something useful to say about the poker playing community. My list is not exhaustive but I think it is representative and I believe I am getting a fairly well-rounded view of the issues that impact poker players. Also, selfishly, I often post links to this blog on Twitter with new articles in hopes of attracting readers, new and old.

Over the past few weeks the number of posts in my twitter feed on Daily Fantasy Sports and the recurring theme of sexism in poker have been astounding. Everyone has had a go at these two issues, and in the typical manner of commentary on the World Wide Web, the comments run from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Daily Fantasy Sports

Daily Fantasy Sports in general and FanDuel
and DraftKings in particular have enjoyed a free ride as far as the government and other regulators are concerned. It’s not that no one noticed two or three years ago when these mega sites first started attracting players. It’s that the money they were generating was inconsequential. Once the money swelled, the risk of being targeted and investigated increased dramatically. 

The fact that a DraftKings’ employee won a hefty pool prize on FanDuel after allegations of leaked information was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. Within the space of two weeks state AGs and gambling commission big wigs started to swoop in for their share of the pot.

Up to this point what is going on in Nevada and Massachusetts makes most sense to me. What is going on in New York reeks of paternalism and publicity grabbing.

Nevada, as we all know, has a refined respect for gambling. They tolerate all sorts of wagering although they do not encourage state-wide or national lotteries for obvious reasons. Their standpoint in a nutshell is if you want to operate in NV get a license. Period! End of story! Get approved like every other new iteration of a game of chance (or skill, if you prefer) and you can do business here as long as we (the state) get our cut.

The MA Attorney General, Maura Tracy Healey, not known as a friend of gambling, recently took the middle road on DFS. Her take is let’s sit down and draw up some regulations and then you can take wagers in MA. Her initial proposal will probably be regarded by the big DFS companies as a negotiating position. I do not see any way that FanDuel or DraftKings would agree to limiting their clientele to 21 year olds and older or cutting all college sports out of the mix.

New York, on the other hand, is way off base in my opinion. I live in a state that tolerates (encourages might be a better word) horse racing, both flats and harness racing, lotteries of every stripe, Native American casinos, racinos, charity Bingo and charity poker games, and now four fledgling casinos in the offing. Skewering the DFS sites on the grounds that they violate gambling statutes is a travesty. New York is far beyond upholding a constitutional provision preventing gambling in the state when there are so many exceptions that NY is soon to become a gambling mecca. The AG, and the state he represents, wants a piece of the pie. Why not be honest about it instead of manufacturing this huge affront. In the end, when all the financial pieces have been shared equitably, DFS will operate in NY and many other places too.

Sexism in the Poker Community

I have addressed the issue of poor treatment of women in the poker community before in this blog. It’s a topic that keeps coming up because it does not go away. That leads me to believe that this is not so much a poker issue as a social issue that is far more wide-spread than the poker table.

The current gaggle of presidential candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, either address the issues of gender inequality and seek ways to eradicate them or avoid the issues altogether and even try to clamp down further on what women can and cannot do in an otherwise free society like ours. Gender inequality is not going away any time soon and, just as racism persists in the USA even after major legislative efforts to erase it, sexism will not be regulated away by Congress or by poker room rules. The changes that need to take place are not changes that happen on paper. They are changes that happen inside individual human beings. You can rest assured that men at a poker table who disrespect women are the same men that disrespect their wives, daughters, girlfriends and mothers. When those attitudes away from the poker table change then it will be safer for women to play poker without fear of being abused. Sad but true!!!

The Internet

And finally what about the Internet! We have arrived at a point where most of us cannot do without it! The era of using our cell phones for just about everything from paying bills, to scheduling a trip, to sending a greeting card, and adjusting the heat in our home has arrived and each day more industries go by the wayside because people have been replaced by data ( i.e. the travel agency, the people who make phone books, and maybe soon the newspaper and magazines, and so many more things). I’m not saying this is all bad. As a matter of fact, much of it is good, very good.

What is of some concern, however, are places on the web where people get to express an opinion – twitter, facebook, any comment section in any internet post.

The digital generation is a generation that grew up, learned even, that opinions are sacrosanct! If it’s my opinion there is nothing you can say to undermine it. I am entitled to my views. Well, guess what. You’re not, especially if they are hurtful, stupid, mean, cowardly, obscene, racist, sexist, ageist, or any other distasteful comment designed to cut deeply and twist the blade. What happened to “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?” Why not express an opinion on a topic without besmirching the character of the person on the other end?

My guess is that any open comment area on the internet takes about three or four generations of comments before someone says something stupid or hurtful. The idea of an intelligent airing of opinions going on until everyone has had a chance to voice their responsible point of view is unheard of. This is not a legacy that we should be leaving behind. Let’s clean it up, people. Let’s revive the cult of civility and treat each other with respect.

'Nuf said!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Return From The Desert

I just returned from our twice yearly trip to Las Vegas, trips that are designed to increase our face time with the grandkids and our daughter who live there and enjoy it very much. We, my wife and I, enjoy Vegas too but not enough yet to pick up our hardened east coast roots and move out there for good. We go with great anticipation having not seen any of them for months and we take full advantage of spending as much time as possible with them. After about three days we are so exhausted that a side trip to a local casino (they live in North Las Vegas) is a necessity. Once refreshed we are back into the fray and happy for it.


This time around I had the opportunity to play poker in three distinctly different ways – one of which is very familiar to me, another something I really enjoyed once upon a time, and the third a completely new experience. 

The Red Rock Tournament: By rental car my daughter’s home is about 25 minutes east of the Red Rock Resort and Casino on the 215. As “station” casinos go it is one of the nicer ones and the one we prefer over the closer Santa Fe Casino. Red Rock has everything a gambler could want plus a bowling alley, a Bingo hall, a 16 screen movie theater, restaurants galore, low, mid, and high range, and a friendly local atmosphere although there are tourists a plenty. Parking is plentiful and nearby and the valet option is free of charge although a nice tip makes a lot of sense and generates a lot of good will. I played in a noon time No Limit Hold’em tournament on a weekday where the entrance fee was $60 with a generous add on for $10 more. Ten bucks went to the casino and the rest was player money. Only 15 players sat down that day but according to the TM that’s about average on a weekday with Friday and weekend tournaments generating at least double that number.

 We played for about four 20 minute levels and then arrived at the “final” table which meant that five players had been knocked out – not your typical World Series of Poker experience for sure but a minor victory nonetheless. 

The play after that was every bit as competitive as any poker game I ever watched on TV or anywhere else – bad beats, suck outs, near misses, bluffs, tense races  and uncanny reads. It was great fun. With $900 in prize money at stake and a disdain for the normal pay out structure of money for places 1, 2 and 3 only, talk of an amicable fair split started when there were 7 players left. Most of these kinds of conversations defer to the chip leader and he was not interested with that many players left. However, he was a nice guy and when the table was reduced to 5 players and he had the lion’s share of the chips he suggested a split that gave him the winner’s badge and $400 while the rest received $125 each. He wasn’t sacrificing much in terms of money and he was eliminating the risk of being blown away by a lucky hand. So, that’s where it ended. I was one of the lucky recipients of $125 and after a tip to the dealer I was still ahead.

What this brings to mind, and this is why I write about it, is that the vast majority of people play poker, in a casino or anywhere else, for FUN! Winning $50 bucks is not going to change anyone’s life in any way at all. Losing $70 bucks is not a big deal for most people. Yet, having spent a few hours with like-minded people enjoying a pastime that we all agree is fun, is an experience worth savoring. Why this fact is not universally recognized and why some people still have to travel outside of their own states to play harmless games like poker is, and always will be, incomprehensible to me.

Online Poker in Nevada: The last two times I was in Las Vegas online poker was already legal but I was too busy doing other things to bother. This trip, once the grandkids were bedded down for the night and the catching up with my daughter was done, I decided to play.

Before they were shut down by the US Justice Department, I had played online poker before on sites like Full Tilt Poker, Ultimate Bet, and Poker Stars. I was never a big winner but then I never played big stakes either. I enjoyed playing Sit ‘N Go type tournaments and when I had the time to invest I was not beyond playing a MTT sometimes with thousands of others from all over the world for $5 or $10 entries. 

I chose to open a WSOP account on the site run by Caesars just because I had heard that they had more liquidity at their site – more people playing at any given time. Honestly, the liquidity was far less than anything I had experienced before Black Friday. Given the choice between cash games, sit ‘n gos, and tournaments, I always will choose sit ‘n gos. Never in an entire week of evenings was I able to find a table of this kind with more than one other player waiting hopelessly for additional players. Cash games for micro stakes were available but not in abundance. Tournaments were the one area where you could register and play easily.

Most of the ones I played were $5 or $10 entries with unlimited re-buys and an add-on before the re-buy period ended. In live tournaments I am against re-buys. For me it defeats the purpose of tournament play. With unlimited re-buys you can play like an ass, bust out, and return from the dead immediately. Overly aggressive play is not penalized as it should be. In the case of WSOP online tournaments that never attracted more than 125 players and usually attracted in the neighborhood of 60 or 70, re-buys tend to fatten up the prize pool and, for that reason, I can live with them in these kinds of cases.

As the week progressed my late night escapades showed an improvement in finishing, getting down to just before the money twice. I invested $150 overall and left with about $15 still in my account and a “cash” nowhere in sight. I will try again next time and work harder at better results.

Poker Pro at Aliante: The Aliante Resort and Casino is the closest gambling option to my daughter’s house. It is, in fact, within walking distance or a short five minute drive away. My wife and I have stayed there a few times rather than bunk at our daughter’s house but we prefer being around the kids as much as possible. The hotel itself is nice and the pool, in season, is pretty. It has a Bingo hall, a few nice restaurants, and a movie theater. It was once a “station” casino but changed hands about 4 or 5 years ago. Soon after the property changed hands they abandoned their small but cozy poker room and, for all intents and purposes, it was gone forever.
It’s hard to say what made management change its mind but I, for one, always left comments in the hotel lobby and online, lamenting the loss of poker and pleading for its return. This trip I was able to experience what the Aliante has done to make up for that.

Poker Pro machines are not new. They are ubiquitous on cruise ships and have been known to show up in smaller casinos when the demand was there. They had been set up in a nice circle on the casino floor since November 2014. They only opened for play recently and customers are just now getting used to them.
For anyone who has ever played poker on a computer or smart phone, these machines are a dream. However, rather than playing with someone, somewhere far away, with a Poker Pro machine there are ten people seated around a poker layout playing electronic cards and betting accordingly. 

I played in a small, inexpensive ($30) tournament with 17 other players – two tables. I busted out after about an hour but played long enough to see the potential of these machines. Although they are expensive to own or lease, they require just one live worker to register players and pay off winners. Over time they will undoubtedly pay for themselves. A few days later, when no tournament was scheduled, I played No Limit Hold ‘em at a full table. The stakes were small (.50 and $1 blinds), the buy ins were from $40 to $200, and bets of $15, $25, and all in bets for $100 or more happen at the drop of a hat. I played for about 2 hours, holding on to about $150 in winnings that I accumulated in the first 20 minutes, just enjoying the experience most of the time.

The “touch” screen in front of each player is not what you are used to on your phone. In order to place a bet or “turn up” the ends of your cards so you, and no one else, can see them, pressure rather than touch must be applied. Most players use the edge of the players’ cards to press down on an icon; others use the edge of their fingernail with the same results.

This is a great way to satisfy a known need in this small casino. I can see that they are starting out slowly and I support that. I would recommend that they run more tournaments each day (right now most days they have one at noon and on a few days they have an evening one as well). Following that they have a lot of room to increase stakes to the $50 or $60 level for tournaments. If you are in the area I suggest you try them out!

And By The Way: I love poker. My wife does too and is trying to muster up the courage to play in public. We both enjoy other casino games as well but are not comfortable playing at high stakes. We like $5 Blackjack, $5 Craps, and we sometimes play quarter or lower slot machines and Keno, of course. I also enjoy playing draw poker machines and although I know the basic strategy for Bonus Poker and Jacks or Better, I have never walked away with more than a few bucks in winnings, certainly never a jackpot.

Walking through the Red Rock Casino one morning, on the way to the cafe, we passed a bank of 8 poker machines that advertised 100% pay back. I know that means that over all, over time, that’s the rate these machines are set to pay off. Any one player and any one given time will still lose their drawers! I decided that we should give them a try on the way back from breakfast.

Sitting next to each other, investing $20 worth of quarters each and playing 5 units at a time, we both set to our mission. Not long after we started I had spun my first Royal Straight Flush ever and I quickly printed out my ticket for $1000+ and we left.
Give these machines a try if you are in the area.