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Old 03-10-2014, 09:14 AM   #151
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

Your attention to how Alvarez positions himself as a journalist reminded me of a resource that I don't want to forget again: http://www.ialjs.org/?page_id=34.

Lots of moments where Alvarez calls attention to himself as a character in the story. I've only touched on a few. Another is when he gets propositioned in his hotel, leading to his remark that he's "too old" for excitement/sex. But then he sits at the poker table and feels like a young man.

I'll need to go back to the Doyle sections and see if the same things happens. Alvarez does show up late to their meeting--and Doyle comes late the next day--leading to Doyle's comment about time being his most valuable commodity.
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Old 03-11-2014, 03:41 PM   #152
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

The Biggest Game, part three

[IMG]http://s2.************/r9wgukcvd/121011_FUT_Las_Vegas_Street_jpg_CROP_rectangle3_la .jpg[/IMG]

It would seem to be a motif in The Biggest Game...that the various "insiders" in Vegas are in many respects "outsiders" in relation to general society —Dr. TJO

While The Biggest Game appears to be about poker—and it is—the book is also a deeply personal exploration of loneliness, depression, and extremity. These are prominent themes, I think, because Al Alvarez has been thinking about them his whole life.

Early in his life, Alvarez struggled through a career change, a “disastrous” first marriage, and the suicide of his friend and almost-lover, Sylvia Plath. Although he didn't know it at the time, Plath was in the last days of her life when she came to him and asked for help. “I failed her on that level,” he said in an interview. “I was 30 years old and stupid. What did I know about chronic clinical depression?…I had been clinically depressed, but I didn't know what it was when I was in it.
(http://www.theguardian.com/books/200...oetry.features)

In 1974 Alvarez published The Savage God, a classic study of suicide. While the core of the book is an overview of Western attitudes towards suicide, it begins with an account of Plath’s final year and ends with a discussion of Alvarez’s own suicide attempt in his early thirties. In other words, two slices of life permeate the book and, in Alvarez's words, “keep it human” (http://www.connectingconversations.o...n_id=2&item=58).

Alvarez was also drawn to Plath because of her style. As the author of an essay on Alvarez/Plath/Hughes points out,
“In the 1960s Alvarez was a champion of what he termed ‘extremist’ poets. Alongside Plath, these numbered Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton, a list as tragic as it is distinguished: lives, three of which were curtailed by suicide, blighted by mental illness, addiction, and unhappiness; the extreme, and extremely personal, nature of their work, it would appear, connected with the extreme lives they lived.” (http://camqtly.oxfordjournals.org/co...3/217.abstract)

Alvarez’s attraction to life on the edge—to risk—led him to not just “extremist” poets but also to rock climbing and poker. We already know that, despite his success, Alvarez has never “fit in”: he left the academy early on and has flourished as a freelancer writing in the margins. It’s no coincidence, then, that he’s drawn to the titanic and peculiar figures in The Biggest Game who, as Dr. TJO observed, are outsiders in general society.

While outsiders, misfits, and “lost souls” appear throughout the book—we're in Vegas, after all—they're given extended treatment in Chapter 9 when we meet David Sklansky, Mickey Appleman, and an unknown dealer, Ronnie. In addition to description, a sense of place, and quotation, Alvarez also uses juxtaposition to great effect. The Chapter 9 material is inconspicuous —it appears late in the book, after we’ve met Doyle, Johnny Moss, and Jack Strauss and before the start of the main event. The chapter might be easily skipped or forgotten.

Misfits

"His eyes unfocused, and for a moment he seemed lonelier than anyone I had ever met—as though loneliness were the element he moved in, like a fish in water.” (126)

The chapter revolves around Mickey Appleman’s comment that “a lot of people don't fit in where they are, but Vegas takes anybody.” And Vegas never comments. The city welcomes the hordes of sallow, grizzled regulars who hunch over their chips and snarl “Shut up and deal.” The city welcomes prostitutes. The city welcomes a fat man so obese that “his tiny, bald head seemed to belong to another body entirely; he looked as if he were trapped in an overinflated balloon” (124). And the city welcomes Ronnie.

The story of this wounded dealer has haunted me ever since I read the book. Ronnie reminds me of the insulted and injured characters from Russian literature or the southern gothic: people we’d rather ignore than meet. A few things jump out about the scene (posted above):

* The physical description is sensitive and intuitive. Just by looking at the “skeleton-thin” man in the corner, the narrator realizes that Ronnie is in pain. He has “hurt eyes,” and “hurt” is repeated at the end of the paragraph.

*"I guess you don't know who I am." I looked at his name tag again and said, “Ronnie.”

External signs and labels--a name, a tag on the front of one's shirt—doesn't capture a person's. "Ronnie" says nothing about who this man actually is. To know someone requires attention and care; it requires listening, to return to Alvarez’s key point about writing and voice.

*Even as he tells Ronnie's story, Alvarez may be suggesting that Ronnie is unknowable and that he'll ultimately be forgotten. The newspaper clipping—SEX CHANGE DEALER RETURNS TO BINION'S HORSESHOE—is provocative but rather meaningless. What’s the full story? Where can we get it? "Be sure to read it," Ronnie says about an upcoming article from the National Enquirer. “Of course,” Alvarez replies. Is he just being polite? Does he actually mean to read it? Either way, how can we, the readers, ever know Ronnie's story?

* Is Alvarez compassionate or disdainful? I think mainly the former. Alvarez must see something of himself or Plath in Ronnie—a "lost soul," a lonely person plagued by pain and isolation. At the same time, Ronnie's story is called a “bizarre sexual sideshow” and a “freak show” that's set alongside degenerate gamblers and staggering obesity.

*There's something both redeeming and depressing about how Ronnie's story appears in the narrative. The story is there, on the page, and that means something. But we may be tempted—and the arrangement of the chapters encourages us—to skip over these paragraphs to read about big pots and bigger personalities. The implication is that some of the most powerful stories are all around us, easily missed, hidden in plain sight.

Poker misfits

[IMG]http://s23.************/yllfg5963/world_series_of_poker_jpeg1.jpg[/IMG]

Alvarez juxtaposes Ronnie’s story with two poker misfits, Sklansky and Appleman. Both are highly intelligent men who are unable or unwilling to live in traditional society. “In appearance,” Alvarez writes, “Sklansky is like one of Dostoyevski's intolerant student revolutionaries: broad face, trimmed beard, steel spectacles, styleless clothes” (131). Love this description.
Sklansky, of course, has been easy fodder for 2+2 mockery (and he contributes to his reputation as poker's eccentric intellectual: http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/62...evenge-799962/).

Appleman earned an M.B.A. and left the business world to work at a drug rehab clinic in D.C. Then he left social work to play poker. Strangely—Alvarez calls his reasoning an “absurd psychological sleight of hand”—Appleman found more solace in playing poker than in working with addicted and underprivileged youth: “Gambling helped me more than analysis. I suffered from depression—I was so entwined with my inner world I never had a change to enjoy myself. For me, activity was the answer. I took up gambling after I finished with psychoanalysis, and the depressions never returned.”

Both men are somehow unfit for traditional work. They exist outside the system, enjoying financial and personal security from a game and, it seems, also questioning the principles on which they've grounded their lives. The narrator's attitude towards them--like the tone throughout the book--is one of detachment, compassion, and curiosity. Alvarez may not understand these men, but he respects them and, perhaps, sees a trace of himself in these outsiders of a different stripe.

In the end, The Biggest Game is both bleak and playful. Alvarez remains repulsed and enchanted by these colorful Vegas characters. The city has seduced him, too, and he loves the challenge of shaping his poker experiences into stories. It seems fitting to end with Alvarez himself (http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/In...w-Al-Alvarez):

What would your advice be to a young writer?

Have fun.

[IMG]http://s27.************/avh09upb7/2663536512.jpg[/IMG]


Cliffs: If you read only one poker book—fiction or nonfiction—read The Biggest Game in Town. Filled with both concrete detail and poetic description, the book is a joy to read. What makes Alvarez's approach so successful is that he knows his limits. As a professional writer (poet, essayist, novelist) and amateur poker player, he doesn’t write poker strategy. Instead, he crafts wonderful portraits of the Vegas gamblers of an almost-forgotten age—Jack Strauss, Benny and Jack Binion, Chip Reese, Bobby Baldwin, Amarillo Slim, Stu Ungar, Mickey Applebaum, and the godfather himself, Doyle Brunson.

***

Hope you enjoyed reading about The Biggest Game. Thanks for the feedback along the way. Always appreciated. The timing of this entry is pretty good, since I'll be heading to Vegas in two weeks and can (finally) see this crazy city for myself. Which means I'll have some live hands to post, too .

Last edited by bob_124; 03-11-2014 at 03:58 PM.
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Old 03-12-2014, 01:53 PM   #153
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

Well, it almost took a year, but I've completed ten book reviews and posted them to this blog. Cliffs of the reviews below.

Here's what I have planned next. If anyone has book recs, let me know!

front burner

John Dunne, Vegas: Memoirs of A Dark Season (1974)
Hunter Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)
Paul McGuire, Lost Vegas (2011), has anyone read this?
James McManus, Positively Fifth Street
Colson Whitehead, the Noble Hustle (2014)

back burner

Jesse May, Shut up and Deal
Nolan Dalla, One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stu Ungar (2006)
DeArment, Robert. Knights of the Green Cloth: The Saga of the Frontier Gamblers (1990)

Big Deal, by Anthony Holden (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990)

Big Deal is a well-written personal narrative about poker in the early 1990s. It presents a window into Vegas culture, the lives of early poker legends (Moss, Ungar, Chan, Amarillo Slim), and Holden's own life as a writer and poker player. Holden's style is learned and literary but also quite accessible. The book also addresses the broader significance of poker in Holden's personal life—which, by extension, prompts the reader to ask similar questions. Holden does not, however, offer useful poker strategy (nor does he pretend to). I enjoyed this book and plan to read Holden's sequel, Bigger Deal (2008).

King of A Small World by Rick Bennet (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1995)

King of a Small World is a must-read. Like Rounders, the book doesn't dwell on poker but uses it as a springboard to touch on a variety of powerful themes. While the writing isn't quite as good as the acting in Rounders (but, really, how could it be?), Bennett has written a gripping story. Read this book!

Broke, by Brandon Adams (iUniverse, 2008)

Brandon Adams's foray into fiction-writing leaves much to be desired. Broke is a novel written by a poker player rather than a poker book written by a novelist. At its best, Adams offers an insightful glimpse into the lives of precocious grinders--and perhaps into his own life as a successful jack-of-all trades figure. But the book would have benefited from deeper character development and a more consistent plot.

The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time, by Michael Craig (Warner Books, 2005)

A group of Vegas rounders play an ultra-high stakes game of poker against one Texas billionaire. This almost mythical showdown had some serious potential as a book idea, and Michael Craig delivers in a big way. The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King is the most gripping poker book I've read so far.

Cards by Jonathan Maxwell (Silent Lyric Productions, 2005)

Despite many flaws, Cards will take you for a ride. Highly recommended!

Sidewalk by Mitchell Duneier (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1999)

Sidewalk is a compelling ethnography of a hidden and misunderstood subculture. It also, I hope, will give a bit of context for my next post, which will be a review of the only existing academic study of poker culture, David Hayano’s autoethnography Poker Faces: The Life and Work of Professional Card Players.

Poker Faces: The Life and Work of Poker Players, by David Hayano (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982)

Poker Faces is a rigorous, readable ethnography of poker culture. Hayano's unique book illuminates a misunderstood American subculture, and for that he should be commended. But readers should also be warned:

1. Don't turn to this book for advice on in-game strategy.
2. Poker Faces was published in 1982 and is outdated in many ways.
3. Most of the discussion is abstract and rooted in generalization rather than in concrete details, statistics, or case studies.

Levels of the Game by John McPhee (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1979)

When Hemingway lived in Paris in the 1920s he found the Russians--Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. "To have come on all this new world of writing," he wrote, "no matter how poor you were, was like having a great treasure given to you." I recently discovered two treasures--the work of John McPhee and George Saunders--and figured I'd post my response to Levels of the Game, McPhee's account of a 1968 US Open semifinal match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner.

Fast Company by Jon Bradshaw (High Stakes Publishing, 1975)

Fast Company is a rare classic that goes well beyond its purported subject, gambling, to explore themes of loss, aging, and historical truth. Bradshaw writes with humor, honesty, and compassion--and that alone makes Fast Company a worthy and memorable book.

I liked Minnesota Fats's and Johnny Moss's chapters the best. For readers only interested in poker content, the chapters on Pearson and Moss are well worth your time.

The Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez (New York: Picador, 1983)

Cliffs: If you read only one poker book—fiction or nonfiction—read The Biggest Game in Town. Filled with both concrete detail and poetic description, the book is a joy to read. What makes Alvarez's approach so successful is that he knows his limits. As a professional writer (poet, essayist, novelist) and amateur poker player, he doesn’t write poker strategy. Instead, he crafts wonderful portraits of the Vegas gamblers of an almost-forgotten age—Jack Strauss, Benny and Jack Binion, Chip Reese, Bobby Baldwin, Amarillo Slim, Stu Ungar, Mickey Applebaum, and the godfather himself, Doyle Brunson.
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Old 03-12-2014, 02:57 PM   #154
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

Thx for yet another excellent review! GL in Vegas. Where will you be staying over there? Any specific games you plan on playing?
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Old 03-12-2014, 07:09 PM   #155
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Thanks for the chapter by chapter breakdown, I'll have to add that one to my list. Have you read The Professor, The Banker and The Suicide King?
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Old 03-12-2014, 07:24 PM   #156
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)



Have fun but not too much fun in Vegas Bob.
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Old 03-13-2014, 02:42 PM   #157
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

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Thx for yet another excellent review! GL in Vegas. Where will you be staying over there? Any specific games you plan on playing?
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Originally Posted by DiggertheDog View Post


Have fun but not too much fun in Vegas Bob.
Thanks guys! Staying with a friend of a friend's dad on the strip. A lot of basketball (opening weekend of March Madness) and some poker. Should be a good time.

My buddy and I will play some 1/2. Any recommendations for poker rooms we should hit up?
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Old 03-13-2014, 02:44 PM   #158
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

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Thanks for the chapter by chapter breakdown, I'll have to add that one to my list. Have you read The Professor, The Banker and The Suicide King?
Yes, I liked it a lot. Very gripping story. Review here: http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/sh...2&postcount=23

You around next weekend, Pure (the 21st)? I'd enjoy it if I could buy you a beer and hear about the Vegas grind. I'll be watching a lot of college bball, too, if you're into March Madness. Let me know if you want to meet up.
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Old 03-14-2014, 01:12 AM   #159
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

You will be betting on College bball? As far as the poker rooms, I would suggest the Venetian and the Bellagio.

Last I was there (January 2013), the Quad was trying to combine the sports betting with poker by combining both rooms together (but there was literally no one there though). If game is running, it is a very soft 1-2 game though (made over 4.5k in 2h).
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Old 03-14-2014, 05:31 PM   #160
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maybe some friendly betting between friends, but not serious betting. I'm just a basketball fan in general, esp the tourney and the NBA playoffs. The first weekend of the tourney is pretty crazy from what I've heard.

Thanks for the recs. I haven't played live poker in like 5+ months so this trip will be more for entertainment than any kind of serious grind.
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Old 03-15-2014, 03:56 PM   #161
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

Two play money hands that confused me.

Hand One

no reads. effective stacks 125ish. Hero overcalls a 3$ EP raise with 44 and four of us see a 4 5 3 flop (12).

The original raiser bets 11 into 12, hero raises to 36, folds back to villain who calls

*** TURN *** [2] (90)

Preflop and flop seems standard to me. Villain has 70 remaining. Is this a shove or a check/call?

Hand Two

V1 (106), loose/passive, limp for 1$ in mp
V2 (100), limps the button
Hero (100) completes with K J]
BB (100) checks


*** FLOP *** [J J3] (4$)
Hero bets 3, BB folds, V1 minraises, button folds, action to hero.

I prob raise this 60-70% of the time preflop but decided to complete here. I like to lead in this spot with value hands and semibluffs because villains are passive stations who'd rather call a bet than bet themselves. Is this a 3bet with the intention is getting it in? Villain could stack off with AJ, QJ, JT, we can also get value from a flush draw. A 3bet probably folds out midpair and def air.

Hero calls

*** TURN *** [2] (16)
Hero checks, Villain bets 10, hero calls

*** RIVER *** [JJ 3 2 7 (36)
Hero checks, Villain bets 11, hero...

Good runout but this spot is pretty meh. If we flat the flop, what's the best line going forward?
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Old 03-15-2014, 09:48 PM   #162
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

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Two play money hands that confused me.

Hand One

no reads. effective stacks 125ish. Hero overcalls a 3$ EP raise with 44 and four of us see a 4 5 3 flop (12).

The original raiser bets 11 into 12, hero raises to 36, folds back to villain who calls

*** TURN *** [2] (90)

Preflop and flop seems standard to me. Villain has 70 remaining. Is this a shove or a check/call?

Hand Two

V1 (106), loose/passive, limp for 1$ in mp
V2 (100), limps the button
Hero (100) completes with K J]
BB (100) checks


*** FLOP *** [J J3] (4$)
Hero bets 3, BB folds, V1 minraises, button folds, action to hero.

I prob raise this 60-70% of the time preflop but decided to complete here. I like to lead in this spot with value hands and semibluffs because villains are passive stations who'd rather call a bet than bet themselves. Is this a 3bet with the intention is getting it in? Villain could stack off with AJ, QJ, JT, we can also get value from a flush draw. A 3bet probably folds out midpair and def air.

Hero calls

*** TURN *** [2] (16)
Hero checks, Villain bets 10, hero calls

*** RIVER *** [JJ 3 2 7 (36)
Hero checks, Villain bets 11, hero...

Good runout but this spot is pretty meh. If we flat the flop, what's the best line going forward?
Hand 1: I hate that board because of how often I've been shown the Ace in that situation. I'd check and then decide how well I like 9:7 if V shoves.

Hand 2: I think flatting is acceptable but I'm probably raising about .4. Not too hard to get away from if he comes over the top, I guess.
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Old 03-15-2014, 10:43 PM   #163
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Yes, I liked it a lot. Very gripping story. Review here: http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/sh...2&postcount=23

You around next weekend, Pure (the 21st)? I'd enjoy it if I could buy you a beer and hear about the Vegas grind. I'll be watching a lot of college bball, too, if you're into March Madness. Let me know if you want to meet up.
Yeah I really enjoyed it.

Sure shoot me a pm when you are in town and I'm down to say hi.
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Old 03-15-2014, 10:47 PM   #164
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I like a c/c in hand 1, I think he is shoving a wider range than he is calling a shove with.

I would just fast play in hand 2 to get max value from worse Jx and draws.
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Old 03-19-2014, 12:18 PM   #165
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

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Yeah I really enjoyed it.

Sure shoot me a pm when you are in town and I'm down to say hi.
PM sent.

If any Vegas grinders read this blog and want to meet up this weekend--to watch bball, grab a drink, whatever--shoot me a pm. I'm around from late tonight through Saturday.
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Old 03-24-2014, 10:51 PM   #166
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

Vegas, Baby!

Had a fun weekend in Vegas watching March Madness and touring the city. Made a point of wandering into some of the poker rooms and saw a few pros in the Bellagio. Played <3 hours the whole weekend, though. I can only think of two notable hands from a short session at Binion's.

Hand One

Hero (300): hasn't played a hand, I've folded about two orbits
Button (300+): loose geezer, stacked off light and showed a few bluffs.

In general the table was loose/passive, stacks are between 200-400

Hero limps 67 in EP, folds to geezer who makes it 8, folds back to hero who calls.

Not a fan of playing this so passively pre but I was anticipating a bunch of limps

Flop 885, hero c/raises 15$ cbet to 35$, villain folds


Hand 2

same table, button straddles to 11. Hero (300)$ makes it 25 from EP with 55, button and sb call.

Flop AT4 (80)

Hero bets 40 into 80, sb calls.

turn 3, check/check. river A, check/check and mhig vs KJ

A good reminder of how passively some LLSNL villains play draws.
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Old 03-27-2014, 05:46 AM   #167
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

How long you there for?
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Old 03-27-2014, 02:58 PM   #168
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

a long weekend--Thurs and got back Sunday. Enough to get a glimpse and decide whether I want to go back (I do).
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Old 03-27-2014, 04:02 PM   #169
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

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Hero limps 67 in EP
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Old 03-30-2014, 10:05 AM   #170
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

Random thoughts on Vegas

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.


spent a lot of the weekend wandering from sportsbook to sportsbook watching and betting on the games. How many people really "beat Vegas" over the long run? Is this even possible? Even if you win, you get paid something like ninety cents on the dollar. Seems like a pretty tough hurdle to overcome. The same goes for every other game in the casino, of course. All that said, the three of us still managed to finish up on the weekend. Pure skillz



I have basically no clue how the Vegas poker games play since I logged like three hours. The games didn't seem any tougher/less tough than other places I've played. I do agree with the idea that regs should try to have a good time with fish/tourists: http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/10...anize-1423757/

when I sat at the Wynn for a short session, my table was all grizzled grinders, like 5 youngish guys 2 older guys. No one talked. Then a 40ish guy showed up and was chatting up the table and splashing around, it transformed the mood and the action. I tend to be quiet at the table but try to banter with players when I can. I always enjoy doing so but I have more trouble paying attention.

stripburger was good: http://stripburger.com/. the waitress's fiance was a professional sports gambler ldo.

Enjoyed the random Stars Wars characters wandering the strip. I got a pic with Chewbacca and we saw Darth, stormtroopers, and an evil-looking Yoda.

Stayed with a friend's parents in Henderson. The area reminded me of where my parents live--south of Tucson--but it has the casinos, Red Rocks, shopping and dining galore. For responsible adults (read: people who won't gamble away their retirement) Vegas seems like an awesome place to live. Lots more than just the strip/gambling, which I'm sure I realized on some level but it helped to see this firsthand.

The Venetian waterways/boats are ridiculous. in a good way.
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Old 03-30-2014, 10:49 AM   #171
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Random thoughts on Vegas

spent a lot of the weekend wandering from sportsbook to sportsbook watching and betting on the games. How many people really "beat Vegas" over the long run? Is this even possible?.
Being the bball fan that you are, have you read the excellent Bob Voulgaris ESPN article about how he consistently beat the over/under odds by creating an analytical machine? If you haven't, well worth the read.

http://espn.go.com/blog/playbook/dol...op-nba-gambler

But I agree that for the simple mortal, it would be hard to be a long term winner.
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Old 03-30-2014, 11:16 AM   #172
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

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Being the bball fan that you are, have you read the excellent Bob Voulgaris ESPN article about how he consistently beat the over/under odds by creating an analytical machine? If you haven't, well worth the read.

http://espn.go.com/blog/playbook/dol...op-nba-gambler

But I agree that for the simple mortal, it would be hard to be a long term winner.
i haven't, thanks for the link! I recall Voulgaris on high stakes poker, this will be an interesting read.
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Old 04-01-2014, 05:10 PM   #173
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

Double Down (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999)



Gambling was joy for us. We were stepping out of our mundane lives. We liked hanging out, talking to, laughing with the players, the dealers, and the strange, slightly unsavory types who worked the pits and managed the floor, the lifers in the casino business, even though their company cost us dearly. We liked masquerading as people who could afford to do what we were doing—gambling with this money and losing the way we were losing. As it happened, we could afford it, but only because our father was dead. As recompense, the whole experience took us into itself, created a new world, fresh, dangerous, and private, every time we went (87).


Ever heard of Donald Barthelme? He's a big name in the literary world--a "postmodern" minimalist who wrote wacky, powerful short stories and established one of the best creative writing programs in the country at the University of Houston. Turns out his younger brothers are excellent writers too. Double Down is Rick and Steve Barthelmes' account of what it's like to lose more than $300,000 over a few years and be indicted for cheating as well. A lot of the money lost they had inherited, and they also tell the rueful story of their parents' deaths and the end of what they consider an exceptional family. http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/11/2...28harsiet.html

Why Gamble?

For these two English professors teaching in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a life of stability had grown stale and even false. “What we didn't like about the academy was the falseness: conservative people presenting themselves in Che Guevara suits, digging hard for career advantage while settling hearty congratulations all around for assigning radical authors to their students to read, thus threatening the established order. Soon they would take their SUVs into the mountains” (104). Gambling on the gulf coast--especially at the Grand Casino in Gulfport--was a “life-affirming, adrenaline-rich euphoria” that introduced that to an people of an entirely different stripe. Simple, "ordinary," honest, these people were fun to chat with or, for writers like the Barthelmes, to idealize: “It was not that we liked our fellow gamblers, the dealers, the pit and floor people, the cocktail waitresses. It was more that we loved them, at a respectable distance, the same distance at which one loves characters in books or on television shows” (71).

We've heard the story before: two curious, wide-eyed newbies enjoy a few early wins that lead to bigger losses; they concoct wacky strategies for beating unbeatable games like blackjack or the slots; then, as the losses pile up, they realize that they're addicts and gamble anyway. The distinctive part of the book is the way in which this somewhat conventional gambling narrative intersects with the Barthelmes' family history, especially the brothers' efforts to cope with the grief caused by the death of Don (in 1989) and, a few years later, both parents. They needed coping devices, strategies of forgetting that could dull the grief. Enter gambling: “At the casino, as long as there was money to play with, we never had to think about anything but the cards, and in the cards, everything else disappeared” (198).




Rick and Steve were also mourning the loss of an illusion--the illusion of perpetual childhood. Gamblers, they noticed, resembled children: “concentrating on play, oblivious, intense, yet at ease.” Rick and Steve were children, too: they had dogs, girlfriends, and wives but no children—no families of their own. “In our lives, with no children, no future, just a permanent present, we believed in the illusion that we could ignore this loss, that the family was abiding, still mattered” (197). When both parents died, the illusion was shattered.

The book nicely weaves together the gambling and family narratives until an ominous third story takes over: the brothers' indictment. They're charged with conspiring with a dealer, and ultimately the charges are dropped.

Addiction

Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing, are pretty benign. But something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as relief from the very problems it causes. David Foster Wallace, "E Pluribus Unum: Television and U.S. Fiction"

David Wallace is talking about TV in the quote above, but his definition of malignant addiction seems to apply to how Rick and Steve treat gambling—as an escape from grief that ultimately bring them more pain and loss. Throughout the book, neither brother denies that he has a gambling problem. Their attitude's more like--so what? They had the time and money to blow, and they enjoyed their chosen addiction a lot. What's the big deal?

This question isn't really answered since their gambling doesn't end from guilt or bankruptcy, but from the uncomfortable truth that they may spend time in jail. Double Down might have been scarier if the brothers hadn't been indicted, since it seems that they might have gambled themselves into the poorhouse. In the end they lost a few hundred grand of their father's inheritance. But they gained a good story.

Notes and Questions

Gambling and the "why" question. Gambling and health. Is it always unhealthy? Mickey Appleman: “Gambling helped me more than analysis. I suffered from depression—I was so entwined with my inner world I never had a change to enjoy myself. For me, activity was the answer. I took up gambling after I finished with psychoanalysis, and the depressions never returned.”

Is gambling synonymous with poker? How would the Barthelmes' story be different if they were playing poker instead of blackjack?

The people blur together along with the wins and losses (44)

“one night.” a good chapter that reads like a short story.

***

Cliffs: Double Down is a well-written memoir that offers a gripping account of gambling, guilt, and addiction. The brothers are at their best when they discuss gripping nights at the casino rather than their family life or, towards the end of the book, their indictment.

***

I plan to read Rick Barthelme's Bob the Gambler (1998), which he wrote shortly before his own gambling mishaps.
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Old 04-01-2014, 06:06 PM   #174
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Re: The Poker Project (playing and writing about poker in the U.S.)

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... Cliffs: Double Down is a well-written memoir that offers a gripping account of gambling, guilt, and addiction. The brothers are at their best when they discuss gripping nights at the casino rather than their family life or, towards the end of the book, their indictment.

***

I plan to read Rick Barthelme's Bob the Gambler (1998), which he wrote shortly before his own gambling mishaps.
I was fascinated by Double Down but, perhaps because fiction allows more shapeliness, I found Bob the Gambler the more satisfying reading experience. Both give the reader a compelling sense of what compulsive gambling can be like at its worst, the kind of gambling that is self-punishment with little upside. (If the choice of blackjack wasn't bad enough, the fallback to slots was really showed what bad shape Frederick Barthelme was in.)

Those cheating accusations are still very puzzling, given how badly they were doing. (Though they must have been feeling very desperate.) So far as I know there was never any further explanation.
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Old 04-01-2014, 06:10 PM   #175
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I was fascinated by Double Down but, perhaps because fiction allows more shapeliness, I found Bob the Gambler the more satisfying reading experience.
Even though I'm only a poker player and only occasionally visit casinos these days, I still find myself recalling scenes from those books when I'm at the cage or walking through the rows of slots.
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