Expectations and Results, pt 2 of 2

(for part 1, click HERE)

My mother was an ardent 1970’s feminist, and like most of her feminist friends I knew growing up, bore a fierce antipathy to the religion/culture she was raised in (European Jew, Italian or Irish Roman Catholic, WASP, take your pick – they were all heartily patriarchal and undeniably sexist in varying ways.). She straightened the Jewish kinks out of her hair all her life, then loved when people mistook her for Italian. She loved Christmas. We decorated the house with ornaments and evergreen branches in December, and I got (and gave) Christmas presents galore. I also went to a little private school in Albany, NY, in which I was one of three (or was it two?) Jews in my graduating class.

This is all to say that, while I didn’t precisely share my mother’s hostility to Judaism (and even greater antipathy toward Israel), I never thought of myself as Jewish beyond that others labelled me as such and there wasn’t much I could do about it. To me, Judaism was a religion – one that I, the atheist my parents raised, didn’t practice – not a biological destiny to embrace or deny. After high school, I moved to New York City for college, where, I sometimes joke that eveybody’s Jewish, or at least “ethnic” enough to allow for a great deal of cultural anonymity if one chooses that route. So, in a much less active way than did my mom, I too remained distant from my family, if not genetic, heritage. It was only at 27, when I moved to San Francisco, where people are blond-er and WASPier than even at the Albany Academy, and where I suddenly found myself recruited by Jews to do Jewish things, that I attended my first Seder.

Now back East, but in a tiny New England town, I’ve pretty much returned to my full-on secularity as best I can. Coincidentally, though, this “Thanksgivikah” week has brought the issue a bit to the fore. I wished one person a happy Thanksgiving and she responded with a quick, “Happy Hannukah!” To my brain, that read as well-intentioned but also as thanks, and/but I hope you enjoy your holiday too, as if Thanksgiving weren’t quite mine, especially this year. I asked someone else what they were up to for Thanksgiving, and they too responded, “Happy Hannukah!” I said thanks and then repeated my question. She replied, but didn’t ask me what I was doing for mine. I was suprized and a big more miffed by both interactions than I should’ve bothered to be. And a question, as ever, lingered: since I’ve never discussed religion with either of them, what made them so sure  I was Jewish in the first place? My neurotic, comedic patter? The talking with my hands? The nose?

In those fourteen years in California, though, I grew to accept and even identify somewhat with what I’m seen as (a Jew), but I still remain about as a-religious and a-cultural (as opposed to Mom’s “anti-“) as any Jew I’ve ever met.

Huge digression aside (or, well, vaguely relevant), when I walked into that hotel room, after a moment of unease at just how many Lehavots I was meeting all at once, I felt right at home.

When I headed back to my room after hanging out and chatting with Amir and his nearest and dearest for a bit, I knew absolutely that I’d much rather spend my time in Vegas as a friend than a fan or a member of the press. On Monday, I met up with Team Amir and we fought off the Riess throngs (a bit of actual physical shoving by some Riess stooges took place) to take our little section in the front-right of the audience, screaming as Amir took down the first hand of the night, and on we went from there. It was nine hours of AWESOME! (Okay, there were tedious moments now and then, but mostly.) Of course, seeing as Amir finished third, not first, there were disappointments along the way, Amir’s losing with trip kings to McLaughlin’s runner-runner kings full is of course atop that list – Amir played a very strong hand perfectly, but still lost – “That’s poker, folks.” Amir lost a big hand he couldn’t have won or folded, but, through pot control, managed to lose about as little as he could’ve in doing so. Here it is:

But there a few great “ups” to counter the “downs,” tops among them the JJ vs A-6 hand against Riess that catapulted Amir from fifth to third with five left, hugely helping him toward his third place finish a little while later.

By choosing to go the friend route, of course I was very likely to face eventual disappointment; after all, as I wrote before the Final Table began, the best player only wins maybe 40% of one-table sit-and-gos, no matter how bad the opponents. The opponents Amir faced ranged from very, very good to at least okay. So I was a heavy favorite to lose by proxy when my friend eventually busted out.

But anticlimax really never happened, but for a brief few minutes. Amir’s joy at his accomplishment when we gathered at one of the Rio’s bars just a few minutes later was infectious.

On top of the thrill of watching Amir, rooting him on and celebrating with him and the team, I got to spend a couple days with one of my oldest and dearest friends, who drove in from LA to come along for the ride.

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My friend Case, and let’s call him Case, because it’s his name (that’s us, in the background behind Lon & Norman, here), is fascinated by casinos and gambling, but he’s not very experienced at poker. Sitting with him in the theater gave me a great view of the perspective non-fans have to all this ridiculousness, although I think Case found it all more fascinating than ridiculous. And explaining (as best I could) some of the intricacies of the poker being played made me realize that, regardless of my lifetime poker R.O.I., I’ve learned a LOT in these last five years. Plus we had a buncha fun when we weren’t in the theater!

If I’d gone the journalist route more, gotten myself a press pass, etc. I could’ve guaranteed myself material, gotten a little more access – to all the players, to the stage, etc. – and maybe I could’ve even found a publication where I could publish an account of the experience.

Instead, I made a friend, a few of them actually. I watched and rooted said friend on as he excelled at the highest level of his profession, and celebrated with him and his afterward. Many near-perfect moments experienced, all (reasonable) expectations exceeded!

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Expectations and Results, pt 1 of 2

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In the lobby, a few minutes after the bust-out. I love how much less exhausted (and not at all disappointed) Amir seems (and in fact, was) of the two of us – watching for nine hours may have been more nerve-wracking than playing!

In the interview video I posted last week, when Amir is asked about the bright lights and the glory (and disappointment after busting out) of his November Nine status, he responds that he felt lucky to have gotten so far and, regardless, was focused on maximizing his “expectation.” A friend wrote and asked whether he meant purely mathematical expectation. While, I can’t speak for Amir, I feel safe in saying yes, I’m quite confident that was precisely what he meant. It’s also one of the elements that make Player X truly a professional in a world where many call themselves pros but only a select few live up to the term by making their living at poker for more than a year or so before “blowing up” or burning out, cutting their losses and going back to college or a previous straight job (Steve Gee, who nearly made the 11/9 the last two years in a row is the very odd example of someone who left the game and then returned, to great success, no less, years later.) All the psychological, mathematical, game-playing talent in the world have time and time again failed to translate into long-term success in poker for people who don’t have incredibly level heads as well.

Extremely long and odd working hours; the temptation to gamble hard-grinded (ground?) poker earnings on sports or table games (roulette, craps, “the pit,” as gamblers refer to it);  and the beating one’s ego takes in the extreme variance of the game are among the elements that require almost unthinkable calmness, psychological stability, and focus on, yes, maximizing one’s expectation over the course of a grueling poker lifetime.

Amir has combined skill and luck and discipline, mixed with what seems an innate steadiness, to achieve what only the teensiest fraction of really great players can only hope for;  in his first five years or so as a pro, he has become an extremely successful online tournament player, has a WSOP bracelet in a prestigious $10k event (Pot-limit Hold-em, 2011, among other WSOP and WPT final tables and cashes) and has fulfilled the second-to-last step of every tourney pro’s biggest dream by making the final table in (and taking third at) the Big One for a huge seven-figure payday. Expectation maximized. Ultimate fantasy perhaps not quite fulfilled, but all reasonable expectation absolutely maximized.

But the kind of expectations I had for the 2013 Main Event Final Table were something different altogether.

Before the trip, I thought a lot about what my own decidedly un-mathematical expectations were for my trip to Vegas. As November approached, it occurred to me that I was looking for what I look for all too often, and which are about as common as unicorns: what Spalding Gray (and, I’m sure, countless others) call  “perfect moments.”

In the first posts for this blog, I wrote about fandom, about how I’ve always enjoyed being a fan of one kind of another. In anticipation of my Vegas trip, I’ve had a good look at the awkward space between fandom and friendship. Amir and I were somewhere in between friends and acquaintances before the Final Table, but certainly closer to the casual, online acquaintance. In deciding to write about him in this year’s WSOP, I was certainly acting as more of a fan than anything. But, in deciding to go to Vegas and root him on, I certainly tipped, at least from my perspective (I’m not sure about Amir’s, although he seemed happy from the git-go that I was making the trip) toward the friend side. In continuing to write and post about the experience, though, I was still very much the fan/observer. You get the idea.

On Saturday, November 2nd, as the plane touched down at McCarran, I was excited, but also anxious, as is my nature. I’d spent several months gearing up for this experience I was about to have, and now here I was, having the experience! My baggage was the first off the belt, the shuttle to the hotel was deadly slow in Saturday evening Vegas traffic, but it got me there. I was handed a WSOP bottle of water as I entered the Rio, I checked in, and headed up to my room . . . the experiences, the moments were piling up faster than I could appreciate them. It was all just fine . . .  but far from perfect.

Once I got settled into my room as best I could with all those images of Penn Jillette staring me down from table tents and fliers on my desk and night table, I texted Amir that I had arrived, and we made a plan for me to stop by his room and pick up my tickets to the big show on Monday. A few minutes later, Amir ushered me into a room where his wife, baby boy, mother, father, sister, and he were hanging out. Amir’s mom didn’t say much, but his father and I exchanged a few words; Player X, Sr., definitely had an accent, I’m not sure what, but one of the many “Florida” accents from my youth. The Lehavots have been in the States for decades, and Amir is listed as Israeli/American and plays under the Israeli flag, but Israelis, of course, come from all over the world. Amir’s dad reminded me of my grandfather and his brother, Uncle Sol – Russians – and of that first poker game back in Ft. Lauderdale.

(next: Mom, Jews, results)

How was Vegas? Did your friend WIN?

Here’s an article that sums up the details of Amir’s final table ride. The twitter version would be that he played pretty darn flawless poker, got unlucky at two key moments, then gave an object lesson in short-stack poker, surviving from sitting in sixth with six remaining to take home third in the 2013 Main Event for $3.7 million.

Not bad for eight days’ work. In both the unlucky hands, and in his bust-out hand against eventual champ Riess, both Amir and his opponents played the hands more or less how they had to be played (although one could question one or two loose calls by his opponents and maybe some bet-sizing – as this donk sees it, anyway). The poker gods just didn’t smile on Amir at those moments, although he’ll be the first to say they sure did for the tourney overall.

Since I’ve been home, I run into friends, who ask versions of how my friend did, if he won. My answer is a resounding “YES!” mixed with a dollop (okay, two dollops) of bittersweet “. . . and no.”

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Reporters file stories after all is said and done.

Amir Lehavot, media befuddler, exits stage left

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Here’s Michiel Brummelhuis, doing the requisite Kara Scott interview (which I was calling “the consolation prize”) after busting 7th. Every player took his turn, except one. When Amir busted, the two of them and her cameraman met up at her spot on the side of the stage and started to set up, but there was a lot of hubbub in the house – the night was over, it was down to heads up for the title – so Amir and Kara waited a bit. Then they talked for a minute, and then Amir, undoubtedly the most stealthy third place finisher in the ten years since Moneymaker, left the stage. I didn’t ask him whether he told Kara no thanks, or it was just the last bit of ESPN’s not knowing what to do with the reserved, press averse, rounder, but either way, I’m sure he was happy about it.  I should be happy if he’s happy, but I’m not like him, a big part of me wants him want to be recognized, in spite of his own desire for anonymity. Admittedly, from Hellmuth to Esfandiari to Chad (McEachern seemed almost annoyed with Amir’s reticence, but who really gives a shit what he thinks, certainly not his partners in the booth), the commentators gave Amir tons of credit as a player, but as a person, they just didn’t know what to do with the man.

Below is the lone interview with Amir after the bust out. The audio is horrible at first, but improves about 45 seconds in. For those of you living in Western Mass, finding a video or audio interview with the man sometimes know as Player X is as common as sighting a fisher cat. In the next post, I’ll discuss the decision I faced once I arrived in Vegas – whether to be more friend/supporter or writer/press (with privileged access to a press-averse subject) and why it would’ve been hard to do both – I chose “friend” and my experience was so much the better for it.

During this interview, I was standing off to the side with others on the Fear Amir squad. What struck and impressed me about Amir then, and more so when we went celebrated Tuesday night and at brunch the next day, and what seemed to baffle, even annoy the interviewer, is that Amir was, just a few minutes after busting, genuinely happy, both with his performance and his results. Notice the interviewer’s repeated insistence on the GLORY and the DISAPPOINTMENT and Amir’s on “maximizing my expectation” and “playing poker.

Here are a few quotes that represent Amir and why he’s a lesson in how to succeed in poker, and from what I’ve learned, in life:

On how he feels: “[I’m] feeling very happy, fortunate to get to this spot in the first place.”

On disappointment, and being under the bright lights: “I love playing poker, so it was fun.”

In response to one of the questions about his aversion to stardom: “The spotlight wasn’t the goal, the goal was to maximize my expectation.”

The interviewer (I think it was Andrew Feldman, sounded like him, asked precidely the idiotic questions he’d ask), like the rest of the poker press, is utterly obsessed with that “spotlight,” just couldn’t understand Amir’s satisfaction, any more than they could understand how David Benefield (who, like everyone else but Amir, stood at the WSOP podium in the theater lobby to be interviewed) could possibly want to leave a super-high-stakes poker career to go back to college to study something as useless/zany as Political Theory and Chinese – you know, instead of stuff you’re supposed to go to college for, like hotel management, business, or, just maybe, law – of the corporate, of course or, for extreme bohemian types, maybe entertainment variety.

Money, fame – fame, money: these are the only concerns of the poker establishment – it is gambling, and Vegas after all. It’s an odd place, but also an essential one, for a reserved former engineer and chess player who really likes, makes his living at, and happens to be one of the best in the world at playing poker.

LAR-RY WALK-ER

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When I arrived at the lobby of the Penn and Teller theater a week ago, there were a whole lotta people dressed more or less like this waiting to get in. It seemed weird, as there was no Irish player in the final nine These were the French-Canadians. Since one of their own, Jonathan Duhamel, one the Big One (click on his name for one of the most brutal and pivotal beasts in WSOP history) in 2010, they’ve had there own poker boom, had a great series this year, and another Quebecois made it to the final table, Marc-Etienne McLaughlin. They told me the green was for his Irish background, but I wasn’t sure if they were putting me on. (They weren’t.)

If you watched on TV, the people screaming “LA-RRY, WAL-KER” once every round (when their man was in the big blind, urging the other players all to fold, to give him a “walk”), were these guys. I haven’t checked the stats, but McL. got a whole lot of walks, certainly the most at the table. They were obnoxious as hell, but unlike the almost vicious Riess contingent, they were also good-natured and very inventive and fun. Their man played some exciting, aggressive poker too, before bowing out sixth.

 

Blind man’s bluff

Since Tuesday, I’ve written a whole lot of words about my trip, and have been sorting them out this afternoon. I just can’t seem to wrangle ’em into post shape, yet. I wanted to lead off my posts from back home with BIG thoughts and FEELINGS about my EXPERIENCE, but let’s have some fun instead, for now.

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From the audience, from left to right, Messrs. Esfandiari, Chad, and McEashern. Somehow, I like Norman (Chad) a little better, or maybe dislike him a little less is more like it, after seeing this. If only poker TV were as good as this more than once a year, with nearly real-time play, and  shockingly in-depth, insightful, enlightening commentary by Antonio. Sigh.

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.15 Seconds of Fame?

Last night, I finally got a chance to start watching the (DVR-ed) broadcast. This is from the same pre-show segment as the first pic. That’s my dear friend Case by my side (in the background/audience there) – he came in from LA to watch. He looks as if he’s brought his blind friend Jamie to the WSOP, right?

So many ways to think about seeing and being seen. A minute or so before or after I shot the picture, and a few moments before the trio left the stage (for a soundproof booth at an undisclosed location to watch on a screen while we watched it live), the camera caught me. When I took my shot, I was looking at them in a way one isn’t supposed to, sneaking a peek behind the curtain. The camera had no interest in me, and I’m guessing, not counting my wife, Anja, and me in the living room, (along with dogs and cat, but even they didn’t care about my cameo), absolutely zero of the millions watching around the world noticed me. Yet there I am, not noticing that I’m being seen by an eye that isn’t looking at me.

That’s about as best I can parse it for now without my brain starting to hurt. That’s a lie, my brain hurts.