If you like trivia, check out my other site, THE HARRIS CHALLENGE, and play every weekday!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

NFL Socialism

Friday night, Bill Maher finished his HBO Real Time show with a New Rule about what makes NFL football so great -- socialism.

Football is more like the Democratic philosophy. Democrats don't want to eliminate capitalism or competition, but they'd like it if some kids didn't have to go to a crummy school in a rotten neighborhood while others get to go to a great school and their Dad gets them into Harvard. Because when that happens "achieving the American dream" is easy for some, and just a fantasy for others.

That's why the NFL runs itself in a way that would fit nicely on Glenn Beck's chalkboard - they literally share the wealth, through salary caps and revenue sharing - TV is their biggest source of revenue, and they put all of it in a big commie pot and split it 32 ways. Because they don't want anyone to fall too far behind. That's why the team that wins the Super Bowl picks last in the next draft. Or what the Republicans would call "punishing success."

Baseball, on the other hand, is exactly like the Republicans, and I don't just mean it's incredibly boring. I mean their economic theory is every man for himself. The small market Pittsburgh Steelers go to the Super Bowl more than anybody - but the Pittsburgh Pirates? Levi Johnston has sperm that will not grow up and live long enough to see the Pirates in a World Series. Their payroll is about $40 million, and the Yankees is $206 million. They have about as much chance at getting in the playoffs as a poor black teenager from Newark has of becoming the CEO of Halliburton. That's why people stop going to Pirate games in May, because if you're not in the game, you become indifferent to the fate of the game, and maybe even get bitter - that's what's happening to the middle class in America. It's also how Marie Antoinette lost her head.
Maher's whole piece is here.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Being Banned Is Good For Business

Beginning in the early 1990s, Billy Joel did a series of Masterclass Concerts, in which he'd appear without his band but with his piano and guitar. He'd talk about his music and his industry and take questions from the audience, which would lead to stories about his songs, which he'd then play. Although he'd often get the same kind of questions from venue to venue, the evening didn't follow a preset plan, and he'd just go with the flow of whatever the audience came up with.

One of those Masterclass Concerts was recorded in late 2001 at the University of Pennsylvania for an A&E television special. To my knowledge, that show hasn't been released on DVD, but here's a clip where Billy talks about getting some help from an unlikely source in making one of his songs into a big hit...

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Snakes In The House

The family's moving out because the snakes have moved in. Least likely next owner: Samuel L. Jackson...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Final Table #104: Jeffrey Pollack & Jack Effel

Today on my Final Table radio show, we talked with Jeffrey Pollack, former commissioner of the World Series of Poker, about the new professional poker league he's created with Annie Duke, which will include several made-for-TV events later this year. He explained that, while the criteria for which pros will be included hasn't been worked out yet, reports that the league won't include online pros are false. In fact, many of the details are still being developed (including the name of the league!), but we dug into as many questions as he could answer at this point.

We also talked with Jack Effel, director of the World Series Of Poker, who just announced the schedule of tournaments he has put together for his year's WSOP, which will run from May 31 to July 19 at the Rio in Las Vegas with 58 gold bracelet events. He explained the tournaments that are new to the WSOP this year, how late registration will extend to four hours for all events, and how he has added more lower-stakes events, mega-satellites, and deep-stack tourneys than ever before.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Stuck In A Na Na Loop

You're having trouble remembering the lyrics to "Hey Jude"? Follow this flow chart...

Monday, January 24, 2011

Paperless And Powered Up

It's nice to see the airline industry embracing some changes that make travel a little less burdensome.

First are the the new smartphone apps that allow you to check in without printing out a boarding pass. Instead, the app produces a digital boarding pass on its screen, which you show to the TSA checkpoint personnel and gate agent, who scan it and let you right through. At the moment, there are seven airlines that permit them (Alaska, American, Continental, Delta, United, US Airways, and Virgin America) at 79 airports (full list here). Unfortunately, at Lambert Airport in St. Louis, you can only use them for Delta flights, because the scanners haven't been installed in the American concourse yet. And I'm surprised that Southwest hasn't jumped on this bandwagon, considering how good they are at making the air travel experience as hassle-free as possible.

Second is that airports are now making more electrical outlets available, and putting up signs to tell you where they are. That helps when you're stuck at a gate for an hour or two and want to use your laptop or iPhone without draining the battery. The outlets were so scarce and so in demand that last year, while waiting for a flight at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, doing some writing on my laptop, I was approached by a guy who asked if I would share the outlet I was using. He had an extension cord that could accommodate three plugs, so I said yes, and within seconds we were both powered up. As more airports add more outlets, that scramble for current will become a bit easier. Some airlines have even added USB ports that you can plug into to power up your mobile device. Good move.

Third is the growing number of airports that offer free wi-fi in the terminal. Sadly, Lambert lags the industry by charging for its Boingo Hotspot service, which is not worth the expense if you're only going to use it for a little while. When airports as busy at Atlanta Hartsfield and Chicago O'Hare provide wi-fi for free for tens of thousands of fliers every day, there's no excuse for Lambert to be so stingy. Even the tiny airport in Gulfport, Mississippi (total # of gates = seven), provides free wi-fi terminal-wide, as well as a room with desktops and plenty of AC outlets.

The hotel industry needs to embrace free wi-fi, as well. In my travels over the last year, I've found that the bigger the hotel, the less likely it is to offer free wi-fi in the rooms. While smaller chains like LaQuinta, Red Roof, and even Super 8 provide the service on a complimentary basis, the only internet access you can get in many larger venues is via an ethernet connection. While that's a step up from the days when we plugged into the data port on the side of the hotel room telephone, they'll have to abandon plugs altogether in this age of the iPad. Some of these mega-hotels still charge for internet access on a daily basis, while others tell you it's free when they're really burying it in the "resort fee" they charge every customer (which also covers other things they didn't charge you for before, including the gym, the pool, and the coffee maker!).

While there is a cost to the hotel or airport to install and maintain wi-fi throughout the property, it's good to see some of them treating it as a utility for all -- just like those electrical outlets they let us plug into.

Theater Recommendations

I spent the last few days visiting my mother on Long Island and going into Manhattan to see a couple of one-man shows -- Todd Robbins in "Play Dead" and Colin Quinn in "Long Story Short."

I've written about Robbins before. At Players Theater in Greenwich Village, he combines his abilities as a magician, sideshow performer, and monologist to create a show about death that's both amazing and funny. There are others who help him create the illusions, many of which take place in the dark -- completely pitch black because even the exit signs have been turned off -- and audience members are brought onstage to participate, get bloody, receive messages from lost loved ones, and be killed. "Play Dead" was directed by Teller, who helped devise some of the trickery Robbins uses to amuse, amaze, and scare the crap out of his witnesses.

Some of what Robbins does has a direct link to Harry Houdini, who also used his skills as a conjurer to expose and denounce those who use death to exploit people's emotions. So it was perfect timing that, hours earlier, we went to the Jewish Museum to see its Houdini exhibit, which does a good job of telling the story of the greatest magician and escape artist of all time. The audio tour is narrated by Neil Patrick Harris, and included commentary by David Blaine and James "The Amazing" Randi. You can hear it without traveling to New York by downloading the audio and video from iTunes.

Quinn's show, at the Helen Hayes Theatre, is a 75-minute standup routine that traces the history of society from the Greek empire to the Roman empire to the Egyptian empire to the British empire to the American empire, with nods to the Incas, Aztecs, and Mayans, plus stops along the way in France, Spain, Africa, and South America. Quinn has always been a very clever writer and comedian. In "Long Story Short," he assumes that his audience came to the theater with some knowledge of world history, and plays with that accumulated information to create some truly funny scenarios.

There are sequences in the show that have a distinctly Seinfeld-ian rhythm, partly because Colin and Jerry have been friends for a very long time, and partly because the show was directed by Seinfeld, who no doubt offered a few lines and pretexts. In the end, though, it's all Quinn onstage, and he delivers nicely.

Incidentally, the Helen Hayes Theatre is a perfect venue for a show like this. At just under 600 seats, everyone's close enough that the laughter is communal, and the performer can establish a real rapport with the audience. That's why it worked well in the mid-90s as home to Rob Becker's "Defending The Caveman," which holds the record for longest-running one-man-show in Broadway history.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Quick Pet Peeve

Two people go into a restaurant. The waiter takes their orders, then brings a basket of rolls. There are three rolls for two people. This forces one of them at some point to awkwardly ask the other, in as unselfish a voice as possible, "Are you gonna eat that last roll?"

Sure, the customers could ask for more rolls, but that request still comes after the first three are consumed. Why not fill the basket with four rolls, easily divisible by an even number of people?

Of course they'll bring a basket of four -- as soon as three people sit down.

A Bounce-Free Zone

This is truly odd. Friday, just before one of Maria Sharapova's matches at the Australian Open, play was delayed because of a dead spot on the court -- so dead that a tennis ball wouldn't bounce!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Modern Day Snake Oil

The CBC TV show "Marketplace" takes on homeopathy and shows it for what it is -- a con job.

Despite its popularity with gullible people, the science shows that when you take a homeopathic "remedy," you're consuming nothing more than water and/or sugar. But people who believe nonsense can't be convinced, as you'll see with the industry spokeswoman who hides behind the "the way it works is a mystery defense" and the mother who only gives her son homeopathic medicines even though they always take longer than real medicines to make him feel better (because the human body is built to heal itself over time of most minor problems like a cold or cough).

So, if it's just water or sugar, where's the danger in homeopathy? It's in the millions who need real medicine but use these placebos instead and, even worse, don't give their children the medical remedies they need to fight serious illnesses. They would never (I hope) believe that a diet in which their child eats no food but drinks plain water all day long provides the nutrition their kid needs to grow up healthy, but readily accept that same water as the answer to all of the pediatric problems they encounter. Treating your child with homeopathy is simple parental negligence, just like refusing to have children vaccinated -- it puts their lives at danger.

That is evil.

Parents who go down that path are buying into unscientific garbage, but the blame shouldn't be placed solely at their feet. Worse are the companies that peddle these products, making claims that don't stand up to scrutiny, offering no valid evidence (other than anecdotal) of the efficacy of homeopathic "cures," yet making billions and billions of dollars each year. They, and the individuals who call themselves "homeopaths," are nothing more than con artists.

In the US, we have laws that say you can't label something as apple pie unless it actually contains apples. A homeopathic pie would have less than one-billionth of an apple, and yet they can still get away with labeling it "apple pie." How American is that?

They could also get away with labeling it "cherry pie," even though its ingredients were identical to the one labeled "apple pie" (you'll see an example of this in the show, where two different homeopathic remedies, supposedly for two different ailments, are tested and shown to have the same contents -- sucrose and lactose).

That is nothing less than fraud, yet the homeopathic industry is allowed to sell whatever it wants, and make any claims it wants, with no regulation and no legislation to stop it. To the contrary, this piece includes one Ontario politician who is willing to allow the government to give homeopathy the stamp of legitimacy purely because a lot of people are buying into it, science be damned.

You can call that homeopathic public policy -- diluted so much, it does no good at all.

The expose comes in two parts...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Fab Two Reunion

As a lifelong Beatles fan, I thought I knew all their stories, but here's one I'd never heard before -- the one about Paul McCartney showing up at a studio in LA where John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Harry Nilsson, and Bobby Keys were recording some material, and jamming with them for several hours. This was in 1974, four years after the Beatles broke up and the two halves of the greatest songwriting team in rock history had gone their separate ways with solo careers. Even more intriguing: the next day, they got together at a pool party at Lennon's rented home in Malibu and nearly sparked a Beatles reunion.

Russell Hall recaps the story that was revealed in the recent McCartney biography by Peter Carlin.

Impossible Balls

This beautiful illusion toys with your perception, then reveals the secret...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Final Table #103: Prahlad Friedman

Today on my Final Table radio show, Dennis Phillips and I talked with poker pro Prahlad Friedman, who said he'd never "sell out" and be sponsored by an online poker site, but did just that in a deal signed earlier this month. He explained why he changed his mind, and why he made the deal with UB -- the same site where he was cheated out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Prahlad answered some tough questions about the endorsement from some of our Twitter followers, and also discussed the controversial "countdown" hand he was involved at last year's Main Event, which included a ruling that may lead to a change in WSOP rules.

In our news segment, Dennis and I touched on:
  • the TV broadcast of the PCA Main Event final table this weekend, the first time American viewers have seen every hand unedited, with hole cards, over the course of several hours;
  • whether Full Tilt's new Multi-Entry tournaments will give too much of an advantage to players with bigger bankrolls;
  • Isildur1's potential $150,000,000 tax bill;
  • the new league Annie Duke and ex-WSOP commissioner Jeffrey Pollack are forming, with made-for-TV events open to well-known poker pros only
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Pain In The Foot

There's gotta be a better way to run a business.

Yesterday, I went for a follow-up appointment with my orthopedist about the achilles tendon injury I've been recovering from for several months. After wearing a boot for 10 weeks and working with a physical therapist for two months, I'm finally at the point where I'm walking again without a limp, and can get back out on the tennis court soon. I'm looking forward to playing again, even if I don't get back to the three-times-a-week schedule I'd had for the previous decade.

So, this office visit was just to check with the doctor, report on my progress, see if she had any medical objection to my running around, etc. The appointment was for 11am, and I showed up a few minutes early. Figured I'd be out of there by 11:30am at the latest.

I knew I was in trouble when I saw about 100 people in the waiting room. My orthopedist is part of a large practice with several doctors, so I'm used to seeing a bunch of people there, but this was the largest group I'd ever had to navigate. When I got to the appointment desk to check in, I asked the receptionist how far behind my doctor was running, and she said, "About 25-30 minutes."

I grimaced. I'd brought a couple of newspapers because I knew there would be a wait, but I didn't expect it to be that long. And it wasn't -- it was longer.

After an hour, I'd had enough. I went back up to the desk, where a different receptionist asked which doctor I was seeing. When I told her, she looked surprised and said, "Oh, I didn't think she was seeing any more patients today." That's not what I wanted to hear.

She called back to the doctor's assistant, who said the doctor was still busy with other patients, but that I'd be next. I told the receptionist I knew what that really meant -- that I'd be the next patient brought back to an examination room, but that it would still be at least a half-hour before the doctor came in and spent five minutes with me.

I couldn't wait around, as I had a radio show to do. The receptionist asked if I wanted to reschedule, but not wanting to go through all of this again, I told her to just cancel the appointment -- and be sure not to bill me for the privilege of sitting in the waiting room for over an hour.

They obviously have a thriving practice and a community with a huge need for their services, but there has to be a better system. I know that these (and other) physicians are triple-booking the time slots so they can squeeze in as many patients as possible, and that the staff is constantly moving people in and out and the doctor is trying to get to everyone with all due haste while still offering valuable medical advice. Different patients have different needs that take different amounts of time for the doctor to deal with, and there are going to be backups in the course of any business day. But this office had only been open since 9am, and by 11am, just two hours later, they were more than an hour behind.

That kind of scheduling nightmare is not an anomaly -- it goes on every day in medical practices across the country. It is simply untenable to have patients come in at the pre-arranged time yet have no idea when they'll receive treatment. Granted, this wasn't an emergency room (which often has similar crowds and its own problems), but it's not like we have all day to wait.

At a certain point, someone on the staff has to decide that they've reached the maximum number of patients that can reasonably be seen in one day. If any other business treated customers this way, they'd lose those customers. Ask any salesman how his day would go if he were consistently an hour late to every appointment -- think he'd sell anything?

Here's an idea. In this digital age, in a practice as busy and modern as this one, it shouldn't be hard to install a communications system that notifies patients when the doctor is running late. Kinda like the airlines' flight-status notifications -- they have your phone number and an automated system calls or texts you when they're running behind. With the patient notification system, we'd find out a couple of hours ahead of time and, perhaps, be able to adjust our schedule to get there closer to when the doctor could actually see us. Or, we could call the office to reschedule. That wouldn't solve the problem, but it might loosen up the logjam of people in the waiting room.

On the other hand, this could all be a plot by the pharmaceutical companies that make hypertension medicine -- it's a very effective way to raise the blood pressure of a large group of people at the same time.

There was some good news. I ran out of there with no pain.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Ridiculous Ricky Ruckus

The Hollywood rumor mill went crazy Sunday night about Ricky Gervais' performance as host of the Golden Globes.

He did exactly what he was supposed to do -- be himself and take jabs at the celebrities in attendance at an awards show that means nothing. He was funny, clever, and better than last year.

Yet some industry reporters speculated that Gervais had gone "too far." When he wasn't on screen for a long stretch in the middle of the show, they assumed that the producers had decided he was too over the top and had to be pulled off the air. When he returned, they surmised that he must have been given a talking-to and was only allowed back at the podium if he stopped making fun of everyone (which he didn't).

The Twitterverse was full of such nonsense, despite confirmation from anyone associated with the show. That turned into a story for the rest of the media to run with on Monday, when much of Official News World was quiet for the King holiday. Although it impacted no one and was based on no evidence, the Gervais story got play on all three 24-hour news channels. Brian Williams did a segment about it on the NBC Nightly News. Newspapers and websites by the dozens ran with it.

In doing so, they proved themselves less valid as journalists than the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, because none of them knew what they were talking about.

Bottom line: the producers knew what they would get from Gervais, since he'd done the same thing last year at the Globes. They weren't upset with him, they didn't think he'd gone too far, they didn't fire him. Oh, and the ratings for the telecast were up 5% -- despite Helena Bonham Carter's hair.

If only someone, anyone, had asked Gervais what happened. Or, easier, read his blog:

Obviously the rumour that the organizers stopped me going out on stage for an hour is rubbish. I did every link I was scheduled to do. The reason why the gaps were uneven is because when I got the rundown I was allowed to choose who I presented to. I obviously chose the spots that I had the best gags for. They couldn't move around the order but I could move around however I wanted.

All the same conspiracy theories as last year too... "So and so was offended"... "hasn't been invited back yet"... exactly the same as last time. "Paul McCartney was furious"... no he wasn't. And nor was Tim Allen and Tom Hanks. I was drinking with them after.

Why do people have to embellish? They're allowed to say they hated it. They're allowed to say they didn't find it funny, that it was tasteless, over the top, or whatever. But why do they speculate and make stuff up?

Don't worry, I know the answer. Because it's more interesting than "it went fine and some people won some awards and then went to a party". But that's all that happened.

Actually, I see what they mean. Boring. So here's what really happened. Bruce Willis and Sly Stallone started a fight with me but Alec Baldwin and Mark Walberg stepped in and helped me out. That's what happened.

Monday, January 17, 2011

More Teasing

To go along with my column on Sarah Palin and The Tease, here's Ross Douthat on how the media must kick its Palin habit...

Palin, meanwhile, officially despises the "lamestream" media. But press coverage —- good, bad, whatever -— is clearly the oxygen she craves. She supposedly hates having her privacy invaded, yet her family keeps showing up on reality TV. She thinks the political class is clueless and out-of-touch, but she can't resist responding to its every provocation. Her public rhetoric, from "death panels" to "blood libel," is obviously crafted to maximize coverage and controversy, and generate more heat than light. And her Twitter account reads like a constant plea for the most superficial sort of media attention.

It's a grim spectacle on both sides, and last week's pointless [blood libel] controversy was a particularly low point. So let me play the relationship counselor. To the media: Cover Sarah Palin if you want, but stop acting as if she's the most important conservative politician in America. Stop pretending that she has a plausible path to the presidency in 2012. (She doesn't.) Stop suggesting that she's the front-runner for the Republican nomination. (She isn't.) And every time you're tempted to parse her tweets for some secret code or crucial dog whistle, stop and think, this woman has fewer Twitter followers than Ben Stiller, and then go write about something else instead.

The Palin Tease

I don't care what Sarah Palin thinks about anything.  Never have, never will.

She's never impressed me as anything more than an attention whore, the ex-beauty queen and local TV reporter who lives off her fame without actually accomplishing anything, much like Paris Hilton without the sex tape. She's the political Kelly Ripa -- a woman whose name few in America would have known if not plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight by a man older than her grandfather.

On a regular basis, our media fall for these neo-stars and inflate them far beyond their true worth. Instead of grimaces at their lack of discernible talent, they get the spotlight that becomes the perpetual-motion publicity machine that makes it seem like they're offering something important that the public cares about. Would Snooki get a book deal and appearances on Letterman if she were a brilliant high school science teacher? Would Michele Bachmann get all that TV time if she'd proposed any kind of useful legislation instead of just throwing word bombs? 

Like other celebutants before her, Palin is riding her wave as long as she can. She gets all that attention because of The Tease -- will she run for President in 2012?

The answer is NO.

To do so, she'd have to emerge from Celebrity Land to answer real questions, develop real policies, and address real problems, none of which she has been able to do thus far.  But you can't convince the media punditry of that. As long as the possibility exists in the media's mind, they'll keep reporting everything she tweets, as if her utterances add any value to our national discussions. 

They don't, because it's just The Tease, and they've fallen for it, big time.  They're the nerdy guy at the bar that the beauty queen just winked at.  She lets him buy her a drink, maybe dinner.  He pretends to care about her pageant platform and listens to her smalltown-girl-makes-it-big story, all the while hoping she'll give him Something More.  He's so entranced by The Tease that he can't see that he'll never get anything else -- because it's not on her personal agenda.  She only wants him on her terms, for as long as she can use him to enrich herself. 

Then comes the really bold part.  She texts her friends how much she hates him and despises every moment with him.  And she doesn't even have the courtesy of doing it behind his back.  Instead, she shows him the texts after she sends them, then touches his arm and giggles so that, instead of being annoyed by her arrogance, he texts his friends to tell them what she said and how he thinks he has a real chance with her!

Watch and wait.  Even when it becomes clear that Palin won't run in 2012, she'll keep the speculation alive and the media will begin to wonder whether her real plan is to run in 2016.

The Tease works every time.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Washed Away

Some footage from the devastating flash floods in Toowoomba, Australia, shot Monday by a guy in a second floor office overlooking the cars in a parking lot as they're washed away by the fast-rising waters of East Creek...

[thanks to Ellen Shipley for the link]

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sesame Street's Closer

Sesame Street's Muppets take on Kyra Sedgwick's TNT series...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Final Table #102: Dennis At The PCA

Today on my Final Table poker radio show, while I was in snowy St. Louis, Dennis Phillips reported from the sunny Bahamas at the PokerStars Carribbean Adventure, the world's second-largest poker tournament.

We talked about Dennis playing Day 2 of the $2,000 buy-in event today, the results of the $100,000 buy-in Super High Roller event, the cash games full of loose online players, and one of the hands Dennis played in the PCA Main Event this weekend. The field for that tournament was huge, and you'll be able to watch the final table live this Saturday at 4pm CT on ESPN3.com, with ESPN2 joining the coverage from 9pm CT to the conclusion.

Dennis also announced the details behind PokerStars' brand-new innovation, Home Games Online, where you can play a tournament or a cash game with just you and your friends invited -- your own private poker club.

In our news segment, we talked about two big stories:
  • the recent theft of a player's cash and chips from a game in the Bellagio poker room (which I wrote about here);
  • the New Jersey legislature passing a bill that would allow online gambling within that state (not just poker, but craps, blackjack, roulette, and any other game offered at a casino in Atlantic City), and whether that's good or bad for poker players.
Next week on The Final Table, we'll talk with Prahlad Friedman, who said he'd never "sell out" and be sponsored by an online poker site, but did just that last week in signing with UB.com.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Peter Yates

Movie director Peter Yates died this weekend at 81 after a career that included "Bullitt," "Eyewitness," "The Dresser," "Suspect," and "The Hot Rock."

Regarding the latter, I'm shocked that remake-crazy Hollywood hasn't remade that ensemble comedy crime caper. Not that I'm anxious for them to do so, considering the creative pedigree of the original, which starred Robert Redford, George Segal, Ron Liebman, Paul Sand, Zero Mostel, and Moses Gunn, with a script by William Goldman from a novel by Donald Westlake. "The Hot Rock" has long been on my Movies You Might Not Know list.

In addition to that diverse filmography, Yates was also responsible for "Breaking Away," a wonderful movie about small-town America, friendship, bicycle racing, and class distinction. NPR's Linda Holmes wrote a loving tribute to that classic.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Another Must-Read Piece

When Jesse Kornbluth heard about the Tucson incident, he immediately thought of the brilliant Chalmers Johnson and his concept of "blowback."

Wrong Rhetorical Answer

I've been trying to figure out what I wanted to say about the mass-murder in Tucson over the weekend, and about the knee-jerk reaction by some who too-quickly put the blame on various political and media personalities because of their rhetoric. Then I read this piece by Time magazine's TV critic James Poniewozik, and I realized he said everything I would have:

Hostile, belligerent rhetoric isn't wrong for what it causes. It's wrong for what it is in itself.

There's already a reason that it's inappropriate to use "fight" and "target" and "battle" metaphors cheaply; to suggest "Second Amendment remedies" for frustrations at the ballot box; to put crosshairs or bullseyes on a map over the districts of your ideological opponents; to make a campaign ad where you take out a rifle and shoot a bill you don't like.

That reason is not that somebody is going to see that and suddenly decide that murder is a legitimate means to an end. It's that responsible, grown people don't act that way in public. It's because it cheapens us. It's because acting as if every triumph of your political opponents is the end of democracy, every concession of your allies the appeasement of Hitler and every election loss a secret coup is bitter, small and ugly. (No one inscribes the monuments of beloved leaders with their greatest political insults.) It's because our automatic habit of seeing every disagreement as a "battle" with "targets" and "war rooms" makes us a cynical, depressed, crabbed electorate--at minimum.

If Jared Loughner were somehow definitively proved to have acted for reasons entirely unrelated to violent political rhetoric, would that violent rhetoric suddenly become any better? No.
Read Poniewozik's whole piece here.

Dave & Regis & Dilly

One of the problems with the multitude of late night comedy shows (Letterman, Leno, Kimmel, Fallon, O'Brien, Lopez, etc.) is that there's very little spontaneity. Every bit is rehearsed within an inch of its life. Every guest is pre-interviewed so the host can lead them into the answers or stories they're prepared to tell. If it's not on the blue card, it rarely comes up in the conversation.

That's why I found an appearance by Regis Philbin with David Letterman last week so entertaining.

Before the show, Letterman had come out to chat with the audience as he usually does for a couple of minutes, and for some reason made a reference to Dairy Queen. An Australian woman in the audience raised her hand and asked what Dairy Queen was, because they don't have them down under. Letterman was shocked, so he had someone on his staff go to DQ and get him a box of Dilly Bars (vanilla pops on a stick with chocolate coating). At the top of Segment 3, he brought out the box of Dilly Bars and gave one to the woman before returning to the desk to introduce Philbin.

Because Regis is a master at small talk who has made a career out of his talent at telling stories about virtually anything that's happened in his life, and because he doesn't have any new project to promote, the conversation wasn't centered on any particular topic. In other words, there were no pre-determined talking points, and no index card full of leading questions.

They talked about Regis spending the holidays at Disney World with his grandchildren, which led to both hosts telling stories about being fired, which led to Dave learning for the first time that Regis had been in the Navy during the Korean War, and on and on. At the end of the segment, Dave pulled out the Dilly Bars, offered one to Regis, and they both bit into the ice cream as the show went to commercial.

When they came back for Segment 4, they were still talking and eating, and the topic of conversation turned to the four people who Letterman considers to be great broadcasters: Oprah Winfrey, Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and Regis Philbin. I doubt that think Letterman watches or listens to all of them every day, but he certainly respects their talents and success -- one multi-millionaire superstar admiring four others.

No one said it, but Letterman certainly deserves to be included alongside them. He's approaching his 30th anniversary on the job, and no one has changed the late night landscape in the post-Carson era as much as Letterman (a fact that no other host would argue with).

Their timing in the segment proves why Letterman and Philbin are both so good as broadcasters and communicators. Remember, they're having a conversation while they're eating. You may think it's easy to do because you talk with your spouse or friends over meals all the time, but it's not. It's a lot tougher to do when there are cameras and an audience. Top-notch movies and theater actors hate having to do scenes with food because it gets in the way of the words so easily. But not with these two pros. They know when the audience will laugh, how big a bite to take, when to do takes to the camera, how to needle each other just enough, and how to maintain the verbal flow.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Re: Bellagio Insecurity

Stuart Snyder replied to my Bellagio Insecurity piece:

Maybe all of this is an argument in favor of a hybrid poker table -- one where real cards are dealt by a real dealer, but the betting and money is handled electronically -- no chips on the table.
Some casinos have experimented with electronic poker tables with no human dealer. You'd think they would appeal to the millions who play online and are used to virtual cards and chips, but the machines haven't been a success because live cash game players seem to like the feel (and sound) of cash and chips in front of them.
The point you make about not leaving cash on the table is a good one, and I suspect many people do not know you can (and should) take it with you when you leave the table temporarily for any reason. Do you have to let the dealer know you're doing this? And how much you're taking?
Yes, it's a good idea to alert the dealer, for two reasons. One, you're not allowed to remove cash or chips from a live game for any other reason (other than tipping your waitress) because the games are played for "table stakes," meaning whatever you have in front of you stays in play until you leave the game. However, you can pick up your cash with the promise of returning it to the table after a quick break. The other reason is because some games have a maximum buy-in (at Bellagio, you can't start in the $5-10 no-limit hold'em game with more than $1500), but if you're doing well, your stack may exceed that, and by telling the dealer that you've picked up a couple of thousand, you can be sure no one will object when you put it back on the table, even if it's over the buy-in cap.
As for protecting chips, some Poker rooms have acrylic chip covers available to secure chips when you leave the table for an extended break. This isn't perfect either, as someone could still grab your chips and go. But, they'd call attention to themselves by having to remove the cover, and hopefully the dealer or other players would notice and say something.
Correct, but those "playover" boxes are only used when another player on the waiting list wants to sit at your spot temporarily. The cover goes over your chips to protect them, and you get the seat back when you return from dinner (or whatever) up to an hour later.
For a variety of reasons, it's also probably a good idea to keep your chips in identifiable stacks that are easy to count. That way, if your chips are stolen, at least it should be clear on the videotape how much was taken.
During the game, you should do this so other players can clearly see how much you're playing, but it also makes things easier when they have to review the surveillance video for any number of reasons.
Finally, what about protecting your money when you go to places like the bathroom and your room? Do we have to be like women and go to the bathroom in pairs?
I've never asked a guy to join me in the men's room, and don't plan to start. But you should certainly be alert anywhere, any time you're carrying cash.

Bellagio Insecurity

On my Final Table poker radio show, we have talked a couple of times about poker players being robbed at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. I don't mean having a big bluff pulled off against them or having someone hit a one-outer on the river to take down a massive pot. I'm talking about real crimes, in which the players had their money taken through no fault of their own nor a turn of the cards. In at least two of the cases, the thieves got away clean, and the victims got little to no help from Bellagio security.

Considering the stakes played there (and in other casinos) by even mid-level poker players, it's not unusual for a lot of people to be carrying several thousand dollars, and when you get a gun stuck in your face, you're usually going to hand it over -- although there was the story of 2004 WSOP Champion Greg Raymer, who was accosted later that year in the hallway outside his room by two men who tried to rob him. Greg managed to fight them off and get safely inside -- with the $150,000 he was carrying. That was at the Bellagio, too.

Then there was the story a few weeks ago of a man who pulled up to the north valet entrance at Bellagio on a motorcycle, talked the valet into leaving it there instead of parking it because he wouldn't be gone long, then walked through the casino with his helmet on to the craps pit, where he pulled a gun and got away with over $1.5 million in chips. He ran back to the valet area, got on his bike, and was gone.

Now, from last Tuesday, there's the story of another poker player who was robbed at the Bellagio -- and no one pulled a gun. The crime was committed right in the poker room, under those surveillance cameras, and I'm not talking about a big, successful bluff. This was a crime.

On his blog, RJ Bell writes that while playing a $5-10 no-limit hold'em game, he got up to go to the bathroom, leaving his cash ($300) and chips ($130) on the table. When he got back, it was all gone. He asked what happened to his stack and the player next to him said, "Someone walked by and grabbed it all and kept walking."

And no one stopped him.

When Bell complained, the dealer just shrugged, the floor supervisor was no help, the shift manager didn't do much more, and when security finally came, all they did was give him some forms to fill out, but no promise to return his money. Bell was lucky that, considering the game he was playing, he didn't have a lot more on the table, as most players do. I have a friend who had $4,000 swiped from his spot in the Bellagio $10-20 game a few years ago in exactly the same way -- some guy just walked up, leaned over the table, and took it, never to be seen or heard from again.

This is lunacy.

While incidents like this happen elsewhere -- including at the casinos in St. Louis -- I'm singling out the Bellagio because it's one of the nicest high-end resorts in the country, and its poker room has a reputation for some of the best games in Las Vegas (although the Venetian has given them a run for their money for a few years). That makes it a busy, crowded place, but for Bellagio personnel to take a "nothing we can do about it" attitude is bad policy, and bad business.

Simply put, the Bellagio is not living up to its responsibility to customers when it comes to their safety and the security of their money.

There are important lessons here for anyone who plays poker or carries large sums of money while gambling. I've seen way too many people flashing huge wads of $100 bills that they casually carry in their back pockets. They pull out the cash at the table, at the cage, or even in the gift shop, without paying attention to who's around and who's watching. You'd never do that at the ballpark or the 7-11, so what makes you think the casino is a more secure environment?

The other key rule is that if you're in a game where cash plays on the table (whether it's poker, blackjack, roulette, or Carribbean Stud), don't leave it there when you get up to go to the bathroom, or dinner, or anywhere more than two steps away from your seat. Casinos are not responsible for your cash! The surveillance cameras can see the size of your stack and the denomination of your chips, but they can't count how many bills you have sitting there. So, always pick up your cash when you walk away, even for a minute, and put it back in play when you return to the table.

When it comes to your chips, however, the casino should guarantee their safety. It is clearly impractical to have players pick up their chips and carry them every time they have to take a leak.

As for those surveillance cameras, remember that they're only good after the fact, and they're really there to protect the casino's money and property, not you and yours. Casinos have cameras all over the place, and it's impossible for security personnel to monitor each of them in real time. So it's unlikely that anyone is keeping their eyes trained on you and your money. They can use the footage afterward to determine what happened, but by then, as in RJ Bell's case, the thief could have easily disappeared into the crowd.

Even if there were humans watching the video feeds at all times, the cameras aren't everywhere. For privacy reasons, they're not in the hotel rooms, and they're not in the public bathrooms, either. That's why there's no footage of Scott Montgomery (one of the 2008 November Nine) being robbed in a Bellagio men's room three months ago.

None of this should dissuade anyone from going to a casino, but it should raise a red flag that makes you more cautious about those portraits of Ben Franklin you're carrying and who is around you when you take them out.

Bottom line: it's your money, so be vigilant.

Especially at the Bellagio.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Final Table #101: Linda Johnson & Annie Duke

This week on my Final Table poker radio show, Dennis Phillips and I talked with Annie Duke about why she has ended her relationship with UB.com, the online poker site that had sponsored her for the last 9 years. She dispelled some of the rumors that have spread since the announcement of her departure, as well as Phil Hellmuth's, and what they'll do next. Annie also discussed speculation that UB is going to sign Prahlad Friedman, a move that surprised many in the poker community because he was the highest-profile victim of the cheating scandal at UB several years ago.

Then we spoke with Linda Johnson, nicknamed The First Lady Of Poker for her long service to the game. Johnson has won a World Series Of Poker bracelet, published Card Player magazine, organized Card Player Cruises, worked for the World Poker Tour, co-founded the Tournament Directors Association, and helped start the charitable organization PokerGives.org. Linda shared stories about:
  • how tournaments have changed from the first time she played (when she was the only woman in the field) to today;
  • why she didn't recognize Robert Duvall, Jason Alexander, Tobey Maguire, and Macauley Culkin when they showed up a celebrity events;
  • why the poker cruises always stop the games at dinner time
  • what the TDA can do about deep stack tournaments that offer too much play.
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!