The Kroon Swoon

(NOTE: Gentle readers, once again, I’m having the WordPress problem of everything being in italics, and no matter what I do, it just won’t go away, thus, once again, I ask for any assistance, as any wordpress forum stuff I’m finding about hidden open “em” tags is not helping me with this one. Thanks!)

ESPN Episode 2’s intro is all about Ivey, sitting with a good stack and oh so dangerous, with replays of his near bust-out of Mader. They will definitely be in the spotlight again.  In previous posts, I’ve mentioned how incredibly improbable it would be for him to get back to that spot where Moneymaker felted him back in ’03. What I didn’t mention is that he DID make it deep again, all the way to the final table, in ‘09. Sadly, Ivey started the table with short stack, and busted pretty quickly, by perhaps an even more inexperienced player than Moneymaker, Darvin Moon. Ivey’s unreal greatness (making five WSOP Event final tables in a row over a thirteen-day span last year) and a likeness that went at least a smidge beyond race, at one point led to some calling him poker’s Tiger Woods, but comparisons faded away (although a few diptychs like this can still be found on the interwebs).


ESPN cuts away from the final table to show us the requisite annual bust out of Johnny Chan. As Chad tells us, the legend (for his pre-Moneymaker greatness, from “Rounders”), has only cashed in the Main Event twice in the past twenty years.

Quick cut to Mark Kroon, whose stack has grown to 700k, still top o’ the pile.

Focus back to Phil v. Phil. At one point, Ivey asks Mader where he’s a farmer. Mader tells him, Nebraska, then asks, “You know where that’s at?” Then, in a key hand between them, Ivey flops two pairs, and shoves, Mader calls with JJ (a tough call for all his chips, but not necessarily a bad one with such a dry board). And suddenly, Phil Mader, cinderella farmer, is in big trouble. He stands up to leave, and the turn is a blank, but then Mader hits the trip jack on the river to take the hand and double-up. Here it is:

After the hand, so un-Ivey like, the great one complains about his luck, is really openly annoyed. The cameras roll and Ivey continues chattering, even going to far as to ask the farmer what he had in the hand earlier where Ivey had the full house and Mader somehow folded his QQQ. Mader tells Ivey about the Q’s and Ivey’s even more tilted. The farmer stands up between hands and chats with his wife. He’s ESPN’s poker wet-dream – a regular guy having the time of his life. (Watching again later, a second time, Ivey’s behavior is that of someone who’s just not quite right. Later, McEachern calls him “smart Farmer Phil Mader,” which, if I were a farmer, I’d sure find a tad offensive.

Meanwhile, Sheikhan continues to needle his table, calling opponents hands when he folds (he’s by no means untalented, just, at least when cameras are rolling, one horrible human being), even calling Doyle’s hand once (he was wrong on that one, but not by much).  At one point, he says to Doyle, “Once I win this, there are going to be changes in the poker world.” The difference between Sheiky’s antics and Hellmuth’s, to me, are substantial. Sheikhan is just a jerk – Hellmuth is a clown, an entertainer, a WWF-worthy bad guy. In a profession where, even for the elite, a dry spell of several years is normal, he’s branded (and thoroughly monetized) himself  “Poker Brat,” and the money has followed in terms of endorsement deals, product lines, the list goes on, and on, and on, like Phil himself.

After a break, we see replay of Ivey bubbling the ’03 final table that I showed you a few posts back. It flashes through my mind how many phenoms have risen and then vanished in those ten years. Where are the LAG (loose-aggressive) Europeans, Antonius and Hansen and Elky, Where’s Paul Wassicka? Where’s Dennis Phillips? Where is Tom Dwan?!!? For the most part, they flamed out. Some probably just haven’t cashed in big TV tourneys. Some switched to just playing cash games, which can be easier on both wallet and soul for many players. What makes players like Doyle, Ivey, Hellmuth, Negreanu (the little shit) so impressive, and such fascinating characters, is that they just keep grinding tourneys, sometimes cashing, occasionally going deep, mixed with lots of losing, but then persevering, re-emerging time and time again, gritty little poker phoenixes. All those years of losing such a huge percentage of the time, and they keep grindin’. How? Why?

At one point, Sheiky wants to make a bet with Doyle about a hand. Doyle, who’s been mostly smiling or ignoring Sheik to this point, replies, “You don’t really want to bet, you just want to talk.”

Cut to Ray Romano busting out, his KK vs. AA. He takes it like a champ, which of course is easier when the money is no issue. It’s markedly easier to play poker if money is no issue, which is why bankroll management and playing at one’s proper level are so important. X tried to teach me this a few years back. I’ve only learned it recently. On a tangential note, most pros have backers, people who buy substantial pieces of them in tourneys. X once told me he doesn’t sell pieces of his action.

ESPN does it’s usual highlight real: one bust-out after the other, and as I watch the TV, I realize, OH MY GOD, X WENT SOOOO FRICKIN’ DEEP!!! (and I can’t wait for when we’ll start seeing him on TV).

Mark Kroon is starting to look as invincible as he apparently seems to feel . . . and then, as the announcers wonder why he’s taking so long to fold, he inexplicably five-bet reraises all-in on the river with no pair to an opponent with a straight, donking off more than half his stack. Kroon lost his mind for just a second, got way too happy, and, BOOM, one big  mistake, borne of fatigue, and of believing your clippings more than a bit too much. When fatigue sets in, when that third 12-hour day starts to drag, people will suddenly “blow up,” make a huge, often deadly lapse of judgment. Steadiness, calm, focus, so crucial. Kroon is clearly embarrassed. Let’s take a look:

Ah, hubris. And just like that, a complete unknown German amateur named Somar Al-Darwich (with two tourney cashes for $6k before this) is handed the gift of being overall chip leader in the Main Event as Day 3 ends.

The more I watch this with my analytic glasses on, the more I realize ESPN does a heckuva at making people sitting and playing cards into great TV, if not honest sportscasting by any means. Even the obnoxious Chad and bland McCairn, who seemed like awful choices a decade ago, and still annoy the hell out of so many, have helped build their brand consistently.

(next: hitting quads in the big one)

How to go deep in big tourneys, Twitter edition, by Player X

Our friend X read the first posts and suggested it might be interesting to look back at his tweets from the Main Event (link is to various poker pros twitter handles), to keep track of him in the Main Event, especially since he somehow manages to duck ESPN’s cameras for quite some time, as you’ll see. Each day starts at noon and ends . . . late. Tournaments can be a roller coaster ride, especially for more aggressive players (which X can certainly be, at times),  but X’s ride on the first days was pretty steady. So, yeah, wanna go deep in the Big One? Just do this:

(Starting stack for the Main Event, once again, is 30k. Text in parens is mine):


The Selected Tweets of Player X, WSOP Main Event, 2013, Days 1-3:

(End of Day 1)

39.5k at end of day – had a very soft table, got coolered post in a few big pots; happy with my play


(Day 2)

100k on dinner break, won a big flip my AhJh>QJ on Qh Jx 7h board

Not a great level, misplayed a few hands 85k now

Good last level, finished with 201k guy bluffed a bunch into my top pair then got a bunch with a set


(Day 3, 7/11/13)

200k on first break

Chipped up some, 320k on break

355k on dinner break

550k at break, got 60k from a shortie AJ>A6 and won a few more pots

Bagged 679k 

(at the end of each day, players count and bag their chips)


Seems simple enough, right?

(next: back to TV coverage: Phil v. Phil, pt. 2 and much, much more!)

WSOP 2013 – Shuffle up and deal!

(Technical Note: Well, it took a few posts, but I’ve finally hit a WordPress glitch – no matter what I do or how it looks in the edit, this post keeps appearing in all italics. Any tips? Please drop me a line!)

Okay, gang, let’s check us out some WSOP 2013!

ESPN Day 1, WSOP Day 3

“This is beyond fairy tale, it’s inconceivable!”  -Norman Chad, 2003

TV Coverage of the Main Event starts with Day 3 of the tourney, perhaps because Day 1, with the 6,000+ entrants, is just too huge to manage.

After a brief reminiscence of the Moneymaker 10-year anniversary and a montage of other champs and legends, actual tourney coverage starts with shots of hopeful players entering the room (later on we’re updated that 1,700 or so are left, about 1,100 til the money).

Mark Kroon, 50-something Michigan bar owner, former online pro (Screen name: Poker Ho), old pal of Phil Hellmuth, is the chip leader. Cut to Ray Romano and Kevin Pollack and Jason Alexander, the obligatory tip of the hat/pandering to the Hollywooders still in it.  Then we see Phil Hellmuth (loved and hated, incredible poker player, incredibly obnoxious, “The Poker Brat”). Over to Jean-Robert Bellande (another huge ego, former Survivor contestant – viewers, and announcer Norman Chad, love to see him lose). Then there’s Shawn Sheikhan, trash talker, but not a clever one only player to ever make Mike “the Mouth” Matusow look like a good guy.  And finally, a hero: Doyle Brunson, beloved by players and fans alike. Doyle’s A big, soft-spoken, 80-year-old Texan in a ten-gallon hat, what poker used to look like – his survival to Day 3, and with a healthy stack, no less, makes for great TV. These are the familiar faces, with one semi-Cinderella (Kroon). ESPN rolls the dice on where to focus most of its cameras and lights, on one “feature table” and a couple of others. Kroon is at the second-feature table.

At the feature table, along with Phil Ivey “the greatest player in the world” (not that it isn’t true, it’s just repeated so much it’s become a kind of poker truism), is a bespectacled young black man with a historically-bizarre name Willie Horton (not Bill, not William – Willie. Were his parents making a bizarre statement? Didn’t care? Didn’t follow politics in the 80s? Doesn’t matter much, as we won’t see him for long.)

Willie is an athletic, openly nervous guy with chunky glasses and a high voice, sitting next to Phil Ivey, one of the best – and most intimidating – players in the game, who’s also, in an odd coincidence, black. (There are about as few black poker players as women. Around 5% of Main Event entrants are women). As cynical as I am about ESPN’s poker coverage, the network has no say in seat assignments, which are random. What ESPN has is the ability to choose which of the nearly 200 tables left to focus their lights and cameras on – and they often choose well. People complain a lot about the sensationalization of poker, about how ESPN only shows a tiny fraction of a 12-hour day of play, which the network edits and angles to make it all seem “live.” Such coverage gives a completely unrealistic picture of tournament poker. But the same can be said for any sports highlights on Sportscenter. Said critics still watch, though, it’s the only game in town for WSOP coverage, after all. And so we watch the huge hands, the all-ins and bust-outs, hopes dashed by the turn of a card; shell-shocked amateurs and pros alike stand up, one by one, shake their heads, walk away. Bellande, sitting on a good-sized stack, gets it all in with KK, but his opponent, a British theatre director, has AA, Three days grinding, he gets the second best starting hand possible, and . . .  nearly all his chips are gone, just like that – a few minutes later, Jean-Robert exits stage left.

At the secondary table, a giddy Mark Kroon celebrates a hand with Phil Hellmuth, his old Michican pal, sweating him. I met Kroon in Vegas at the WSOP Academy three-day sleep-away camp Annie invited me to way back when. Kroon was very buddy-buddy whenever we were out with Annie (if you’re just tuning in, see post one), told me to look him up after for tips, training, etc. When I emailed him with a couple of questions after returning home, he never responded, not even with a polite demurral. But I’m not bitter.

By way of intro to Hellmuth and Kroon, and to eleven-years-running-WSOP announcing team of Lon McEachern (WASPY straight man) and Norman Chad (shticky “ethnic” type), here’s the hand, I report, you decide, whether Kroon is the guy you want to see at the final table:

Willie Horton busts, keeps his chin up. What did he learn?

“I can play poker with the best of them, and make it,” Horton tells us, and it’s clear he means it.  In fact, though, he didn’t make it at all – he made it to Day 3, sure, outlasted 4,000 or so players, but, while he had a good run, and got to play beside the man he called his “idol,” he still lost his ten grand, same as the guy who busted first on Day One. And yet, Willie Horton tells us, he’ll be back, he’ll do it again. It’s a story you hear every year. About 10%, 650 of the 6,000+ entries, will cash, with the smallest amounts being about double the $10k entry fee. Six thousand people show up, and if you polled them, I’m sure more than five-sixths of them will tell you they’ve definitely got the chops to cash. Watch the WSOP, or heck, play poker with anyone on any night anywhere, and watch the concept of illusory superiority borne out in spades, as it were.

Back at the feature table, we’re introduced to this year’s Cinderella, “farmer” Phil Mader, whom I mentioned previously, which leads me to our first major video hand of the tourney!

While “I never said I was any good,” I feel safe, at this point, giving two pointers. 1. Don’t play poker with Phil Ivey.  But, 2., if you must play poker with Phil Ivey, BE CAREFUL!  Patience and discipline are two fundamentals of poker success, perhaps the two that are hardest to come by, or at least the two that abandon so many in moments of crucial decisions, especially when being stared down by Ivey. Antonio (Esfandiari, aka “the Magician,” who won the inaugural One Drop tourney last year, the most expensive tournament ever, with a MILLION DOLLAR buy-in) said it best in the video – just because you have a great hand, doesn’t mean you have the best hand, and in a tourney, if you push all your chips in the middle and lose, as opposed to in a cash game, you don’t get to go back and buy more, you’re just done.

A couple of times in the hour, coverage cuts to Doyle, winning a couple of big hands. Sitting to his right is Sheikhan, arguably the biggest, bitter-est asshole in a big-bitter-asshole-infested world, who yammers at the legend nonstop, tries to goad Doyle into saying something negative about Moneymaker’s picture hanging on the wall right behind them next to Doyle’s. He wants Doyle to show some disgust, some contempt for the amateur who changed everything a decade ago. Doyle just smiles – Moneymaker has made the latter end of Doyle’s long career incredibly lucrative. People buy Brunson’s books (His Super System is considered the first great poker guide), rich fish who never would’ve cared before ’03 flock to Vegas for the honor of losing to him, and he’s now a hero well beyond the world of high-stakes gamblers. It’s the cash games – not these tourneys – that make the Brunsons their bread and butter, and those games have gone through the roof since 2003.

Coverage shifts again, to a boat over boat (full house over full house, very unlikely, and unlucky for the smaller boat), a middle aged white guy losing all his chips to young pro Melanie Weisner, in a very tight and low-cut shirt, accentuating one of several advantages Annie used to tell me she has against men, even seasoned pros. They were distracted, or overly polite, or they just didn’t think she could possibly know what he’s doing; they let their dicks do the betting, and they pay her off time and time and time again. On a quick side note, Weisner is sitting next to a young gun I recognize from Foxwoods, Ronnie Bardah (who finished 541st in the Main Event last year, for $21,000) – I’ve sat at tables with him and with his father – so close yet so far.

Cut to Greg Merson, the reigning champ, still in it, short-stacked, catching cards and winning a big hand. And that’ll do it for Episode 1. As for our friend Player X – no sign of him on TV.

(I’ll be alternating coverage of this year with looks back at the last hands or another big hand) from the last decade’s final tables, so next post feature be the final hand of 2003, and some tweets from X from Days One through Three.)

Dad/fandom – Big Guns & Regular Joes – WELCOME! (Intro., pt. 3 of 3)

Five-point-five – Fan/Dad

While my mom and her five-years-gone-iversary were more on my mind when I thought of this blog, my father is fundamental to my fandom in general and to my love of poker. I grew up sneaking peeks at (and wishing I could play in) his weekly game with colleagues. When I finally did get to play with him and his friends, about a decade ago, I don’t think any of them realized what an honor it was. My pops also taught me most of what I know about adoring/despising athletes for no particular reason beyond what we glean from games on TV. In fact, one of our longest running arguments is about Patrick Ewing, whom I love and think never got the supporting cast he deserved, while my father can’t stand Ewing and blames him and his “little hands” for over a decade of Knicks woes. He and I have also watched poker on TV together since—well, I know it started well before some 24-year-old punk named Hellmuth took the Main event from Johnny Chan back in ’89. And not only was Mark Berger there when I won my first MTT at Lucky Chances (outside San Francisco), but I even busted him out of the tourney. Looking back at a short piece I wrote for McSweeney’s online about that day, I can’t believe it was only nine years ago – it feels like a zillion poker lifetimes ago.


Coupla riverboat gamblers?

Six – Big Guns, Regular Joes

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been blessed (as my friend Hearty White would put it) to know a few people close to the game, and through them, now and then I’ve been able to indulge my fandom from a suffocating proximity. On TV, for more than a decade, I’ve watched each year’s poker Icarus (more than any other pursuit I’ve ever seen, that luck factor leads to meteoric rises and flame-outs) over and over, trying to figure out why on earth I’m rooting for some of these guys (and it nearly is all guys, white guys), against others, and vacillating on a couple more.

I’ve sat at felt-covered tables trying to trick other people out of their money, and been thrilled when I’ve succeeded. I’ve never rooted for people like these before, much less wanted to be one of the “best” of them: the rich, debauched, and clever, who thrive more or less stealing from those less rich, debauched, and clever. In fact, in all my life outside of this game, I’ve rooted and often worked for those without advantages of wealth or genetics or dumb luck, to get their fair share.

Poker geeks (often a very different group from those who are actually any good at the game) tend to root for established pros, as if pros deserve to win. Someone who plays with his pals in the garage once a month and catches a few episodes on ESPN now and then might well root for the nice-guy trucker on the roll of a lifetime, but the pros and the geeks definitely don’t, although perhaps they should.

The ultimate example of the regular-Joe-on-a-tear that poker insiders were rooting hard against (but clearly shouldn’t have been – he spawned the exponential influx of money and players to the game over the next decade) is Chris Moneymaker. The ultimate crushing of the Main-Event dream of an exalted pro came right before the final table of that 2003 WSOP, when Moneymaker eliminated the player nearly unanimously called the greatest poker player in the history of the game, Phil Ivey, in 10th place (out of a mere 893). In ’03 , the geeks were disgusted by Moneymaker’s loose calls and suck-outs. And they were crushed by Ivey’s loss. But that loss, and Moneymaker’s win, even though it probably means Ivey will never have another chance at that ultimate prize, has meant millions and millions of dollars to him and other pros. For our first video segment, here’s that legendary ’03 hand,

Back then, I too was crushed by Ivey’s demise, and hated the seeming donk/cracker who took him down. In fact, though, while no one would ever mistake Moneymaker for a poker genius, and he hasn’t had much success on the felt since that incredible run, his decisions were sound more often than not, and his play improved markedly as the tournament progressed – he absolutely rose to his moment. (see that Grantland history for more on that – it’s a great read for even the most cursory fan).

Until this year, I too, tended – as I thought myself more and more sophisticated about the game, if not necessarily successful at it – to root for a big gun to take the Big One. This year, though, that started to shift for me, as I found myself rooting for Nebraska farmer Phil Mader, a player who was clearly an amateur (although not nearly the rube ESPN made him out to be, with several five-figure cashes to his name, including 453rd Main Event in 2009 for $25k).

Besides cliquey insider-ness, the reason the poker community roots for pros is that the pros grind it out every day – they suffer for the game, so they deserve to win. Grinders and their fanboys feel it’s somehow unfair that the odds against them have risen as more and more “donks” (unskilled amateurs) take their shot at the big one. The flaw in this logic is that these pros are often an arrogant bunch of punks (strictly objectively speaking) who already make damn good money sitting around feeding on fish (amateurs, tourists . . .) at cash tables, and besides, what’s more exciting than a farmer from Nebraska having a life-changing experience, and winning a life-altering amount of money?

The chance of any of the top pros making the final table of the Main Event in their lifetimes is thousands and thousands to one, against. Multi-table Tournament (MTT) poker, is, many argue, as much as 90% luck. But, as Branch Rickey said, luck is the residue of design, and a winning lifetime percentage (or, as the more mathy poker geeks put it, ROI, return on investement)  comes from honing that remaining 10% (logic, math, memory, focus, psychology, endurance, discipline, White Magic) as finely as possible, to combine with great luck at perfect moments.

Up against 6,000+ opponents, one week a year, that 10% skill (or even if it’s 20, or even 30%) isn’t going to get even the best of the best to that final table, not in one person’s lifetime, no matter how good he or she is, not without a whole lotta luck to boot. Hellmuth, the all-time leading WSOP bracelet leader, is infamous for saying, “If it weren’t for luck I’d win them all.” But if it weren’t for the, as poker players like to say, sick luck skill and modest skill a Georgia accountant brought to the table ten years ago, the Hellmuths of the world wouldn’t have a fraction of the cash they have in the bank now, and certainly not even a tiny fraction of the media attention that they, and he in particular, so crave.

Seven – Welcome!

The November Nine starts four weeks from this past Monday, and there’s a lot to catch you up on, starting with the first fourteen TV episodes. My crispy-clear iphone-camera recordings of and commentary on a hand or two per episode will begin next post. I’ll be looking at this year’s Cinderellas, the legends, and the quirky, faux real-time nature of the coverage itself. And eventually, we’ll follow Player X on his potentially career-making run.

This isn’t going to be a pro-gambling blog. Nor is it an anti-gambling one, a story of recovery, an addict’s nostalgia trip. I will cover some obsession and regret – as a Foxwoods tourney grinder I’ve gotten to know a little put it, after an awful beat knocked him out of a tourney we were playing: “That’s the cruise we signed on for.” A few years, back, a long-time Gamblers Anonymous member (is “member” the term? ) and friend, said to me, about my teaching and tutoring and nonprofit work, “See, isn’t this just better, more satisfying, than poker?” The question, as he saw it, was rhetorical. But a straight yes was definitely not my answer, and it never will be. They both satisfy, and frustrate, in utterly different ways. And while I have opinions on gambling in general, the legalization of online poker, the growth of casinos, as I’m sure you do too, that’s not why I’m here.

This is a blog for people who love poker – who play, watch and fantasize poker and/or follow professional poker but aren’t looking for wise-ass twenty-something strategy tips and are sick of Nate Silver making you feel stupid. I kid, of course, Silver is great. If he’s such a mad genius, though, why doesn’t he play and crush poker tournaments? We’ll get to that, but it definitely has something to do with it being a lousy way to invest your money.

But this is also a blog for those who are just kind of curious. It’s about how poker culture has infiltrated pop culture. It’s for people who are interested in digging around to figure out why they are obsessed with poker, or why others of us are to the extent that we’ll not just sit at a table playing cards with strangers for hours and hours and hours on end, we’ll watch others do so on television. (“Hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror,” the saying goes).

I hope you enjoy it. I’m awfully excited, myself!

(next: The 2013 Main Event!)

Mom / The Fan (Intro., post 2 of 3)

(for post 1, click HERE)

Five – Mom.

It’s ten years since Moneymaker’s run, and, on a somewhat darker note, coming up on five years since my mother’s death. I’ve written pretty much nothing for those five years. Sheila Barbara Strongin Berger was my primary and most important reader and my biggest, most dedicated/persistent/annoying/infuriating supporter/reader/editor/critic. In Fall 2008, when she got the final diagnosis (six weeks to six months – she was gone in four weeks), I left school and went back to Albany to be with her, first at home, then in the hospice wing at St. Peter’s Memorial Hospital (where all the Jews go!). I’m not sure exactly what prompted it, but I started playing a lot of poker online – in her apartment, in cafes, in the hospice lounge – with just about all of my free time, and I had a lot of free time. Here’s something I wrote from my mother’s last days, from those first days of my online poker journey:

I sit in the day room, three AM, lights out, visitors gone except for the one family on death watch all packed into a room down the hall. I’ve had a bourbon at the old-man bar, plus half a Xanax from her medicine cabinet, but I can’t go back to the apartment. So I sit in the day-room recliner and play poker on the screen with other people awake,people in Jersey and Vegas and Sweden. Notoriously, bizarrely aggressive, the Nordic players. I bet and I raise and I fold and I . . . go look in on her. I turn out the bedside lamp. Bedside, lovely word. Sheila Berger,is she still in there? Her body keeps on dying. Her lungs pump air, in and out,in and out.

After she died, thanks to Mom’s sensible, long-scrimped savings – aka my inheritance – I continued to play online, and to study the game more and more seriously, more seriously than I’ve ever studied anything in academia, without a doubt. Through 2010 and into 2011, I read dozens of books, watched training videos, and put in 20-30 hours a week, sometimes more, playing online tournament poker. It was at an online poker table that I met Player X. He and I were playing in a lot of the same tournaments and got to chatting in the table chatbox from time to time. Chatting led to an email correspondence about a project he was working on, and I ended up doing some writing and editing for a press release and a website of his, and he ended up coaching me in poker. After losing a great deal of money, I stopped playing online a few months before the government shut down internet poker in 2011.

X and I have remained friendly, and I touch base with him from time to time; I’ll congratulate him on a big tourney win or let him know when I actually do well in one myself. (I play at Foxwoods a couple of times a year, and, s-l-o-w-l-y but surely, I’ve begun to win back some of Sheila’s hard-earned, meticulously scrimped loot.)

Six – The Fan.

I have always been, and unabashedly love being, a fan. Bands, sports heroes, great artists, writers, actors, food – the lists go on, and so does my fandom for those on the lists. Why do I love being a fan, a cheerer-on? It has to do with ego (it’s much easier and more pleasant for me to support others than myself) and inherent enthusiasm.

A quick, vaguely chronological list, rapid-fire, off the top of my head, of a sampling of my fandom, ready, go:  Hank Aaron, The Lorax, Mrs. Everett (1st Grade teacher) Bugs Bunny, O.J.Simpson, Dr. J, Don Mattingly, Bernard King, J.R.R. Tolkein,Yes, FDR, Abraham Lincoln, Michael Doonesbury, Jethro Tull, Joy Division, New Order, John LeCarre, Calvin and Hobbes (not the philosophers), Elvis Costello, Sisters of Mercy, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Laurie Anderson, Eric B. & Rakim, De La Soul, Steve Martin, Young Marble Giants, Spalding Gray, Mimi Goese, Contraband, Raymond Chandler, Raymond Carver, Robert Lax, Frank O’Hara, OnSite Dance Company, Selena Colburn and Dominque Zeltsman, Stereolab, Fantasy, Little Fuzzy, Simon Evans, Phillip K. Dick, Joanna NewsomThe Grey Album, Agota Kristoff, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Gary Shteyngart, Ready Player One, Hearty White. I could spend the rest of my life writing history of my fandom; suffice to say, I’ve been a gushing, supportive fan of people for the quality of their words, art, athleticism, actions, character, et cetera ad astra.


This is Rober Lax. How could you NOT be a fan?

Over the last decade, though, I’ve taken my fandom to a new, irrational extreme. I’ve become a fan of poker players, people who don’t do or make anything of quantifiable value. They flatter and envy the rich and famous, they steal from whomever they can, they backbite and whine. They have no particular grace, their skills are vague, hard to quant- or qualify, “White Magic,” as “the Poker Brat” Phil Hellmuth would put it. Often (very often) they are not people of particularly high moral character, nor are they particularly charismatic. Among these heroes are names like Ivey and Brunson and Seidel and Duke and and Harrington and Selbst and even a guy named Raymer; among nemeses, you’ll find Negreanu, Areih, Sheikhan, Lindgren and, of course, Hellmuth except… well, I may be softening on that a little, based on the extremity of young guns’ hatred of Phil and denial of his undeniable gifts. But that too will wait for its own post.

Point is, my perspective is a fan’s perspective. My plan is to study poker as a fan, and fandom as a poker fan and sometime player.

(tomorrow: Big Guns, Regular Joes)

Roots, Annie/Vegas, WSOP/Player X (Intro, pt. 1 of 3)

Hello and welcome!

This is a blog about poker, but not just that. If you’re not the least bit interested in poker, my voice probably won’t carry you. If you’re only interested in poker, though, this blog won’t do much for you either – it’s no geek’s inquiry into tactics, nor am I an internet-poker whiz-kid in shades and a hoodie.

So why a poker blog? Why now? Why me writing it? Why you reading it?

One – Roots.

My long and many-splendored relationship with poker began, of course, at the dining room table in my grandparents’ condo in Fort Lauderdale, at around age ten, circa 1975. We played with pennies, nickels and dimes from a cookie jar – quarters were way over our bankroll. I remember loving the slick feel and flight of the cards. I remember loving WINNING. I remember being quite manic about it all, by turns worrying and annoying my relatives. I remember Aunt Miriam in particular – big jewelry, make-up, and scowl. I remember wanting to play forever – way past bedtime, anyway. I was mesmerized by one game in particular, Black Mariah – standard seven-card stud, but the person with the high spade in the hole split the pot. I remember peeking down at my cards, seeing that ace of spades and just being insane with joy, and, moments later, greedily scooping that sweet sweet pile of coins.

My father and his mother (who cheated at cards), circa 1945.

My father and his mother (who cheated at cards), circa 1945.

Two – Annie/Vegas.

In 1999, I reconnected with a college friend, Annie Lederer. Some of you may know her as Annie Duke, poker pro, former Celebrity Apprentice second-place finisher (shafted because the Donald adores Joan Rivers), and sister of poker great (and recent poker pariah) Howard “The Professor” Lederer. I visited Annie Vegas three times in the early 2000’s, twice during the World Series of Poker (WSOP), where I got to “sweat” her (sit behind and watch and root on) while she played in the highest stakes cash games (in public, anyway) in the world at the time, at the Bellagio. I watched thousands, to tens of thousands of dollars change hands. . . every hand. I watched a guy pull a full-on, brick-sized gold brick out of his knapsack and place it on the table, just for laughs. I sweated, alright.

I ended up writing a profile of Annie for our college alumni magazine. One trip started with my walking into the Bellagio and within minutes having my pocket picked while simultaneously winning $500 at roulette (as the ball plinked sweetly down on my lucky number 9, I felt my empty pocket and started to panic) and ended with a redemptive Elvis Costello concert at the Hard Rock. Another year, I visited and attended one of her three-day WSOP-Academy trainings. There are some tasty bits to share.

Three – The WSOP, a Whirlwind History

As some of you reading this well know, the World Series of Poker is held annually from late May through early July, at the Rio Hotel in Vegas. The WSOP has grown into an annual month-and-a-half-long extravaganza consisting of more than 60 multi-day day tournaments capped off by the “Main Event,” a $10,000 entry, nine-day, marathon World Championship event that’s grown from one insider event with a few dozen old-school gamblers and poker legends with names like Amarillo Slim and Puggy Pearson, to a series of events with a few hundred entries in the late 80s and 90s, to an incredible boom from 2003 on that launched an industry and a world-wide cultural phenomenon –  a seedy backroom had become the VIP lounge. For the past eight years, more than 6,000 people have ponied up the $10k to play the Main Event, and poker lingo is now ubiquitous everywhere from hip hop to Fox news. Ten years ago, if you heard newscasters call the president “all-in” on Health Care, they meant that POTUS was exhausted and calling it quits for the night – that definition is still (I was shocked to find) the only one in Webster’s Collegiate, but no one under thirty will know what you’re talking about if you use it that way. What made 2003 poker’s transformative year?

First came the rise, leading up to ’03, of Texas Hold ‘Em as the prevalent form of the game – it’s a way higher risk, higher reward poker than grandma’s, and is deceptively complex, if I’m coining my term correctly. That is, it looks easy, but, as the World Poker Tour’s Mike Sexton puts it, “It takes five minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master.” It’s kind of like the Second Amendment – a whole lotta folks only pay attention to half a sentence but feel like experts. But what made the 2003 WSOP the sharknado of poker were two major factors: the introduction of hole-card-cameras (so folks at home could actually see the cards players were playing as they were playing them); and the ridiculously improbable $2.5 million victory in the Main Event by a chubby-cheeked, thirty-ish accountant and home-game amateur from Georgia with a stranger-than-fiction name: Chris Moneymaker. Here’s a great oral history Grantland published earlier this year, in commemoration of the Moneymaker ten-year anniversary.

Four –  WSOP 2013 / Player X.

This year’s Main Event drew 6,352 entries, for a prize pool of $59,708,800, to be divvied among the top 650 or so finishers. In July, they played seven grueling days, down to the final nine players. When that heartbreaking/dream-making week ends each year, and they’re down to those nine lucky souls, the WSOP then shuts down for four months, and soon thereafter, the hype machine starts churning. ESPN TV shows ensue, 22 weekly episodes following the July action, culminating in the November Nine, two nights of extended televised coverage of the Final Table on Nov. 4 and 5. (Episodes 1-12 have already aired, and I’ll be posting a hand-of-the-night video from each, starting on Thursday, and running throughout the month.)

In those two days, the final nine (all of whom, by that point, are guaranteed at least a $733,000 payday) play down until one person has all the chips  (over 190-mil of the suckers) and a first prize of over eight million dollars and the cherished Precious, the Main Event bracelet.

Every year, I watch religiously, following my favorite players (and least favorites – it’s a fun and easy pastime to find poker players to dislike), staying up ungodly hours staring at my laptop at a single camera shot pointed directly down at the table while cocky young pros, overexcited at being handed a microphone, whine about how badly the luckboxes at the table are playing. So I already know who this year’s November Nine are. If you don’t know, I suggest not peeking – we’ll get there.

But what’s making me especially amped about writing about this year’s WSOP in particular is that someone I know personally (and like!) did very, very well this year (“went deep”), and it’s hard to explain what a huge thrill it is to bring him into the mix. For now, let’s call him Player X.

(tomorrow, Intro, Part 2 – Mom, the Fan, Big Guns and Regular Joes)