Thursday, June 30, 2011

Stand By For Broadway

While in New York last weekend, I took my wife, daughter, and mother to see "Memphis," the musical that won the Tony Award last year. It's based on the story of Dewey Phillips, a disc jockey who was one of the first to play black rhythm & blues/rock & roll music on a white radio station.

In the show, the character's name is Huey Calhoun, a fast-talking white guy with an ear for the change coming in popular music and the ability to talk people into all sorts of things. One night, he wanders into a blacks-only nightclub and sees Felicia Farrell singing. He falls for her, a risky proposition in 1950s Tennessee (as was appealing to white teenagers with "race music"), and their relationship sparks much of what follows.

Huey is a demanding role that won Chad Kimball the 2010 Tony for lead actor. But when we got to the Shubert Theatre, there was a notice announcing that the role would be played by Bryan Fenkart, the understudy. That can be disappointing if you've bought your ticket expecting to see a particular performer, someone who so indelibly puts their personal stamp on a show that their absence would completely change the experience (e.g. Bernadette Peters, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close, or the late Gregory Hines).

Sidenote: as we passed a poster for "The Addams Family" musical, I noted that the always-bankable Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth have left the show and been replaced by Roger Rees and Brooke Shields. Talk about having to lower your expectations, particularly when Morticia has to sing.

In the case of "Memphis," we didn't know who any of the actors would be -- we were there for the show itself -- so our expectations weren't affected. As it turned out, Fenkart was terrific, an electric performer who delivered for every minute he was onstage (which is virtually the entire show). I've learned since that he's done the role a few dozen times, so the cast and crew were familiar with his version of Huey, making the substitution seamless.

The rest of the cast was damned good, too, particularly Montego Glover (a 2010 Tony nominee), a small woman with a huge voice and range, who plays Felicia. Throw in some very clever set design, direction, and audio/visuals -- particularly when Huey starts hosting an afternoon TV dance show -- and, all in all, you got yourself a fun time at the theater.

My only complaint was about the seats at the Shubert, a theater that was built in 1913, when Americans were a lot smaller. I'm not just talking about girth, but height, too. Theater-goers of that era must have been about five feet tall. I'm 6'4", so you can imagine how incredibly cramped I felt. There was no leg room at all -- I couldn't sit facing forward, even with my knees so far apart they needed Google maps to find each other. I was forced to turn and put both legs out into the aisle, a position that didn't come close to qualifying as comfortable, but had to do if I was going to stay for the show. Fortunately, "Memphis" was enjoyable enough to take my mind off the contortionist act I was doing in my seat.

Still, as the cast launched into their show-closing number, I was ready to give them a standing ovation. It was the only way I could get the blood flowing to my legs again.

Link: here's an interesting interview with Bryan Fenkart, in which he explains what it's been like to understudy into the lead role in "Memphis," including the first night he got the call to step in as the star on Broadway.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lassitude at LaGuardia

I can't name an airport I love, but I can tell you one I hate: LaGuardia.

I have flown there often because I have family in the New York area and can't recall a single trip where arriving at or leaving from LaGuardia wasn't an uncomfortable undertaking. It's as if the people running the place have decided to see how bad they can make the travel experience in the hopes they might drive business away, which would mean they wouldn't have to work as hard.

In the last decade, none of my flights in or out of LGA has been on time, and that perfect record remained intact this weekend. Our flight was kept on the ground in St. Louis for about a half-hour because of some thunderstorms close to New York. Weather-related delays are always a risk, and blame can't be placed on the airline or the airport for that. However, once we made it to LaGuardia, we then sat on the tarmac for 40 minutes before being allowed to park at the gate that, our pilot informed us, was open and waiting for us.

The problem: too much ground traffic, so the pilot literally couldn't drive the jet to the terminal. LaGuardia is so busy that they can't move all the planes around and keep them out of each others' way.

That's inexcusable.

Monday, our return flight was no picnic either. The problem started with one of those employees whose job it is to make sure everyone approaching the screening area has a boarding pass. These are not TSA agents charged with security, they are mere airport ushers, but the one we encountered decided she was more important than that.

She looked at my suitcase and told me I couldn't carry it on because it was too big. I assured her it wasn't, since I had brought it to New York three days earlier on the exact same model of airplane (MD-80) I was about to board to go home, and it always fits in the overhead compartment. She insisted I put it into the baggage size tester box. It fit just fine in all dimensions except that the wheels stuck out about 1/4". That was all the evidence she needed to refuse to allow me to board with my bag. I tried to explain that this suitcase has traveled more miles around the world than she ever will, and always fits. Despite the now two-dozen people in line growing impatient behind me, she would have none of it and would not let me pass, telling me I'd have to check my bag. I toyed with the idea of leaving it there and telling her to keep my dirty laundry, but I also had some of my wife's clothing inside and so I huffed off to the ticket counter.

I have never seen this situation handled this way at any other airport. Usually, if there's any question about carry-on size, it's raised at the gate, where an airline agent judges what will fit and what won't. And, if your bag is too big at that point, they will gate-check it for you at no charge.

Which brings up another point. Being forced to check my bag cost me $25, the fee American Airlines charges (yet another reason why I try to fly Southwest Airlines as often as possible -- unfortunately, they don't have a STL-LGA nonstop). I also had to endure the poorly-run baggage check-in system at LaGuardia, which involves standing in one long line to get to an automated kiosk, then standing in another long line to give your luggage to an agent who applies the appropriate tags, then carry it over to a third line at the TSA drop-off area, where there were approximately seven gazillion other bags waiting to be screened.

It's a wholly inefficient process -- and this was in the middle of the day on a Monday. You can't imagine how much worse it is on Friday and Sunday nights when more people are traveling.

Throughout this procedure, from the airport usher to the baggage check-in personnel to every other employee I encountered, not one of them was treating customers with respect, kindness, or helpfulness. It was if our mere presence was a huge imposition. I'm sure their jobs are tedious and repetitious, but if you're on the front lines like that, part of your job is to make the experience as positive as possible for your customers, not to make them feel like they're ruining your day.

Once that fiasco was completed, my wife and I cleared security and made our way to gate D3, where we encountered more LaGuardia incompetence. Our flight was sold out, but there were far too few chairs in the area, so fully half of the passengers had to stand around. There were virtually no electrical outlets to plug into and no wi-fi to connect to, big oversights in these digital days. It was impossible to understand the continuous stream of announcements being made throughout the airport which added to a cacophony of noise in the terminal that would make a jet engine cover its ears.

Eventually, we did get out of the terminal, down the jetway, onto the plane, and into the air -- 20 minutes late, of course!

These may all seem like little things but, piled on top of each other, they add up to a business that seems to have little concern for the comfort and convenience of its customers. Yes, LaGuardia is a busy airport, but it's not as busy as Atlanta's Hartsfield or Chicago's O'Hare or Phoenix's Sky Harbor or Las Vegas' McCarran, all of which handle more travelers every day yet manage to make traveling a lot less stressful than their New York counterpart. Even St. Louis' main terminal at Lambert Airport does a better job -- and it's still cleaning up from being wiped out by a tornado a few weeks ago!

The only explanation I can come with is that the people who run LaGuardia don't actually fly in and out of their own airport, eschewing the areas populated by the public in favor of a back entrance, so they don't know how painful it is for their customers. Perhaps they can consider me a not-so-secret shopper, and this is their failing grade.

Al Gore Takes Them On

Al Gore has a remarkable piece in Rolling Stone, in which he takes on the news media for not doing its job as our national referee when it comes to climate change, campaign finance reform, three wars, and the politicians who have so easily sold their souls to corporate America. He also takes President Obama to task for "failing to use his bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change."

Without presidential leadership that focuses intensely on making the public aware of the reality we face, nothing will change. The real power of any president, as Richard Neustadt wrote, is "the power to persuade." Yet President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action. He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community — including our own National Academy — to bring the reality of the science before the public.

Here is the core of it: we are destroying the climate balance that is essential to the survival of our civilization. This is not a distant or abstract threat; it is happening now. The United States is the only nation that can rally a global effort to save our future. And the president is the only person who can rally the United States.

Many political advisers assume that a president has to deal with the world of politics as he finds it, and that it is unwise to risk political capital on an effort to actually lead the country toward a new understanding of the real threats and real opportunities we face. Concentrate on the politics of re-election, they say. Don't take chances.

All that might be completely understandable and make perfect sense in a world where the climate crisis wasn't "real." Those of us who support and admire President Obama understand how difficult the politics of this issue are in the context of the massive opposition to doing anything at all — or even to recognizing that there is a crisis. And assuming that the Republicans come to their senses and avoid nominating a clown, his re-election is likely to involve a hard-fought battle with high stakes for the country. All of his supporters understand that it would be self-defeating to weaken Obama and heighten the risk of another step backward. Even writing an article like this one carries risks; opponents of the president will excerpt the criticism and strip it of context.

But in this case, the President has reality on his side. The scientific consensus is far stronger today than at any time in the past. Here is the truth: The Earth is round; Saddam Hussein did not attack us on 9/11; Elvis is dead; Obama was born in the United States; and the climate crisis is real. It is time to act.

Those who profit from the unconstrained pollution that is the primary cause of climate change are determined to block our perception of this reality. They have help from many sides: from the private sector, which is now free to make unlimited and secret campaign contributions; from politicians who have conflated their tenures in office with the pursuit of the people's best interests; and — tragically — from the press itself, which treats deception and falsehood on the same plane as scientific fact, and calls it objective reporting of alternative opinions.

All things are not equally true. It is time to face reality. We ignored reality in the marketplace and nearly destroyed the world economic system. We are likewise ignoring reality in the environment, and the consequences could be several orders of magnitude worse. Determining what is real can be a challenge in our culture, but in order to make wise choices in the presence of such grave risks, we must use common sense and the rule of reason in coming to an agreement on what is true.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Final Table #126: Vanessa Rousso

Today on The Final Table, we continued our coverage of the 2011 World Series Of Poker at the Rio in Las Vegas at the end of its 5th week (with over $100,000,000 paid out in tournaments so far). We also discussed three big poker stories in the news:
  • a hand played in Macau in which a player who was all-in refused to give up his $45,000 in chips to the other player;
  • a lawsuit filed against Tobey Maguire and other celebrities who won money from a hedge fund embezzler in a high-stakes private cash game;
  • the new federal online poker legislation proposed by Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX).
In our guest segment, we talked with Vanessa Rousso, who has racked up over $4 million in tournament earnings over the last few years. She explained what she'll be teaching at her Main Event Prep Camp at the Aria on July 7th, and shared some of that advice for free, including some basics for anyone who will be playing the WSOP Main Event for the first time next week. We also asked Vanessa to update us on how her husband (poker pro Chad Brown) is doing after his cancer scare earlier this year, and share her thoughts on the "hard stop" rule for WSOP tournaments. Then the three of us discussed a controversial hand from the new season of "The Big Game" (which you can only watch online, not on TV), in which Tony G blatantly angle-shoots against Phil Hellmuth in a big hand.

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

Friday, June 24, 2011

Random Thoughts

Various unrelated items to finish the week...

Now that Donald Trump has a 2-year renewal for The Apprentice, is there anyone left who believes he was really thinking about running for President?

Here's a question no one's asking: when 33,000 troops -- particularly reservists -- come home from Afghanistan in this economy, what are they going to do for jobs? With so many of them having served for so many years, their employers are likely to have filled their positions, eliminated them, or possibly gone out of business. This could get ugly.

The tech blog rumor mill says Apple will release the iPhone 5 by the end of the summer. I won't be lining up for it, but can I reserve one now?

Jon Stewart is more than "just a comedian" -- he's an activist, fighting for the cause of reason, says Will Bunch. I agree.

An official at Wimbledon says that grunting by some of the female players has gotten out of control (the legacy of Monica Seles). He's probably talking about these noisy women.

Today's lesson from the Knuckleheads In The News® file: if you get caught shoplifting a coat, you'll have trouble pleading not guilty if you wear that same coat to court.

Also from Knuckleheads In The News®: who was using a toothpick in the operating room?

And finally, US Airways is being accused of a racial double standard because one of its pilots kicked a black college football player off a flight in San Francisco because he wouldn't pull up his saggy baggies -- but a week earlier, the crew of another US Airways flight let they had no problem with letting this white guy on board. How would you like to have him squeeze into the middle seat next to you in this outfit?

Retro Movie Summer

I've been trying to expose my daughter to some movie classics this summer, and this week was no exception.

A couple of days ago, we watched "Dog Day Afternoon" with that remarkable performance by Al Pacino. He had the huge scenery-chewing scenes in the street ("Attica! Attica"), where Charles Durning matched his energy brilliantly, but he also had the quiet scenes -- particularly the one on the phone with Chris Sarandon as his gay lover, Leon. Just heartbreaking. Also spotted: the FBI agent who eventually takes over the negotiations was played by James Broderick, father of Matthew. And whatever happened to Penelope Allen, who played the cool-as-a-cucumber head teller and should have become a star?

Yesterday, we watched Bill Murray and Harold Ramis in "Stripes," with a supporting cast that included Judge Reinhold and the outrageous John Candy. My daughter also spotted a very quick appearance by Timothy Busfield in one of his earliest roles, as the soldier ordered by John Larroquette to fire an ill-targeted mortar that knocked Warren Oates off a climbing tower. Sean Young and PJ Soles were in there, too, as the female MPs that the guys fall for. I know the former went nuts in the "Catwoman" breakdown, but whatever happened to the latter? I think the only other thing I ever saw Soles in was "Rock and Roll High School."

Taking On The TSA

While I don't agree with a lot of Sen. Rand Paul's politics, I do admire the stance he's taken against the TSA when it comes to the security facade at airports and, in particular, random invasive patdowns of passengers.

Here he is addressing TSA chief John Pistole at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Wednesday. The 6-year-old girl he refers to was patted down at the New Orleans airport on April 5th because she moved while being scanned in the body imaging machine (shocking video here). She and her parents complained about the search, but the TSA agents continued to touch her in ways that should bother any non-pedophile.

I have some experience with this. In November, 2011 (just weeks after the 9/11 attacks), I had to stand by helplessly while a security guard at LaGuardia Airport felt up my then-seven-year-old daughter over my objections (a story I told here).

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Not Exactly Luv In The Air

If you haven't heard the audio of a Southwest pilot caught on tape, here's the audio and my comments this morning on WHAS/Louisville. The pilot, who didn't know his mike was on and broadcasting his comments to everyone else in the air and on the ground, complains loudly to his co-pilot about the "gays, grannies, and grandes" he encounters when he's on a layover and trying to score at hotel bars.

As for Southwest, they say they suspended the offending pilot without pay, but won't say for how long.  The flight attendants union and some gay groups say that's not enough -- he should lose his job.

My perspective:

  1. How'd you like to be a flight attendant who recognizes this guy's voice and has to fly with him on an upcoming flight?
  2. How many wives are wondering about their pilot husbands after hearing this?
  3. If I'm on your flight as a passenger, I'd prefer you just shut up and fly the plane!
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Final Table #125: Mike Sexton at the WSOP

Today on The Final Table, we continued our coverage of the 2011 World Series Of Poker at the Rio in Las Vegas, from the record-breaking attendance in the Seniors Event and other tournaments to Phil Hellmuth's quest for his 12th bracelet (he just missed again) to the controversy over the ten-level hard stop rule.

We also talked with Mike Sexton, the Poker Hall of Famer best known for his announcing work on the World Poker Tour, which has had a 35% ratings increase this season. We talked to him about making the final table at the WPT event at Bay 101, why he would like to see Kara Scott with the WSOP Main Event, what he thinks of the plans for next year's Million Dollar Buy-In tournament at the WSOP, and much more.

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

Silent Sirens and False Alarms

One of the stories I talked about this morning on WHAS/Louisville was a test of the tornado sirens yesterday afternoon. It surprised a lot of people, including those who ran it, because it was supposed to be a "silent" test.

I don't know how you test a siren silently (not turning it on would seem to qualify), but since there had been some pretty severe storms in the area the day before, which caused several thousand people to lose electricity when power lines were downed by fallen trees, residents were a little on edge, and the sirens freaked some people out. There are also lingering bad feelings from February, when tornadoes did touch down around Louisville and the sirens never went off ("silent" test successful!).

The county could have avoided the apprehension by simply alerting us ahead of time. Then we would have informed everyone in our listening area that the sirens were going to be tested at a certain time. Fortunately, the siren test took place on an afternoon when the sky was blue and there was no wind or rain, so most people didn't panic. While tornadoes can form rapidly, you can almost always see the skies get dark -- even a weird green color -- before anything hits the fan.

We have similar sirens in the St. Louis area, and I'll admit that we rarely pay attention to them, despite the fact that a tornado ripped up Lambert Airport a couple of months ago, and there are severe storm warnings almost daily during the spring and early summer. My daughter is the only one who hears the sirens and makes us go to the basement. If she's not here, I just go on with my life, although I will at least look out the window to see if the sky looks threatening.

It's the same attitude I've seen most people have in a public building when the fire alarms go off. We all assume it's a mistake (testing the "silent" alarm again?), and since no one else is leaving, we stay wherever we are. Perhaps it's our history of being in similar situations that turned out to be nothing more than a false alarm, or it might be that we're thinking "everyone else is staying put, so at the very least, I won't die alone. And if it does start to look like something's wrong, I can outrun most of these other people."

I remember an incident at WCXR/Washington about 20 years ago. I was doing the morning show, and the rest of the station staff would wander in around 8am for sales meetings or just to get to their desks to begin the day. Many of them would stop by the studio to say hello or share some small talk during commercial breaks.

On this particular day, I noticed that several of my colleagues were walking out the door around 8:30am. After a few minutes, I sent an intern down the hall to find out what was going on, and she reported back that there was no one else in the station. I looked out the studio window at the courtyard 3 floors below, where I saw our radio colleagues, along with a couple of hundred other people who worked in neighboring offices.

It turned out that the fire alarms had gone off in the building, and everyone had evacuated. I had a crew of 10 people working on the show at the time, and none of us had heard a word or a sound -- no one had thought to come into the studio and let us know.

We didn't panic, assuming it was yet another false alarm (correct!). Instead, we stayed in the studio and talked about our situation on the air (I ran the show in such a way that we tried to share everything with our audience, and everyone on my show could say anything they wanted at any time). My sports guy, Dave, joked that this proved what he'd thought all along -- that we were the least important members of the staff. John, the news guy, disagreed, saying that this proved we were so valuable to the station that they wouldn't dare pull us off the air. Dan, the deep-voiced production god, said the sales manager probably wanted to make sure we didn't miss any commercials because we were so sold out they'd never be able to make them up. My producer, Leigh, said that she was going to put together an emergency tape that played "Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida" over and over again in case we ever did have to abandon the studio. The intern, Karin, joked that catching fire was not the way she wanted to earn college credit. The traffic reporter, Victoria, worried that, if we did go up in flames, there would be no one to report on the inevitable backups on the main street in front of our building. Listeners called in to share similar circumstances that had happened at their jobs.

I assured everyone that not only were we safe, but we'd come out of this as winners, because I was going to demand that management give us hazard pay for working in these conditions. Then I played all three minutes of Arthur Brown's "Fire."

By the time it was over, the rest of the staff returned to the station. The General Manager poked his head in the studio door to make sure we were all okay, then apologized for the lack of communication, promising to have the engineer install a red light in the studio that would flash the next time the fire alarms went off in the building. He eventually did, but there were no more alarms, so the beacon never did light up and we never had to abandon the show.

Not even as a silent test.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Really Big Man

On hearing of the death of Clarence Clemons this weekend after complications from a stroke, I flashed back to the first time I talked to him.

It was Thanksgiving weekend, 1980. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were performing at Madison Square Garden to promote their new album, "The River." In those days, a Springsteen concert was a marathon affair, and on his home turf, this one stretched to over 4 hours. He interspersed stories with his songs, played what seemed like everything he'd ever written, and featured those long sax solos by Clarence that gave his music its unique sound.

I was the Program Director of WRCN, the rock station on eastern Long Island, and one of several radio people invited to both the show and an after-concert party thrown by Bruce's label, Columbia Records. The party was held at the bowling alley at Madison Square Garden -- a big surprise since I had no idea there was a bowling alley in that building.

At the party, I mingled with a few people I knew and watched as the E Street Band members came in to get a drink and some food and schmooze with some of the well-wishers. Some of them grabbed a ball and headed for a lane. Springsteen came in, but I never got close to him as he was mobbed by friends and music industry executives.

As I stood with a beer in my hand taking in the scene, I was suddenly aware of a presence just behind me. As I turned, I saw something huge and furry. My first thought -- I'm not kidding about this -- was that a moose or a bear had somehow gotten loose and entered the party. Then I realized that it was Clarence, wearing an enormous full-length fur coat. He looked like a giant, which is saying something considering I'm 6'4", the same height he was.

He noticed my shock, extended his arm, and said hello. I pulled myself together and introduced myself, asking him if he was going to grab a ball and knock down some pins. He replied with a laugh, "Nah, The Big Man doesn't bowl." I told him how much I'd enjoyed the concert, and we made small talk for a few minutes before a crowd of people formed and he excused himself to greet some of the other party-goers.

A few years later, during the "Born In The USA" tour, I did the first of several radio interviews with Clarence and reminded him of that story. He said he remembered the party and the fur coat -- but he still didn't bowl.

There's speculation about who will be hired to replace Clarence's signature sound in the E Street Band. Bruce already had to find a new organist to take the place of the late Danny Federici, but he was never featured up front the way The Big Man was, so many fans never knew the difference. Clarence's absence will be more obvious. It's unlikely that the band would go sax-less on the next tour, since so many of Springsteen's songs feature those soaring solos. Whoever it is will no doubt be a damned good musician, but it's unlikely the crowds will take to him/her the way they did to Clarence Clemons nor will they have the same magical chemistry with Bruce.

And I bet they won't bowl, either.

Here's the transcript of a short interview I did when Clarence called my WARW/Washington radio show in 1997. The E Street Band was on a touring hiatus, so he was doing some acting on TV shows like "Nash Bridges" and "The Sentinel."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Final Table #124: Buying Heartland + Matt Affleck

Today on The Final Table, we continued our coverage of the 2011 World Series Of Poker at the Rio in Las Vegas, but first we dove into some breaking news -- the acquisition of the Heartland Poker Tour by Federated Sports and Gaming. Todd Anderson, one of the founders of the HPT, joined us to explain how the sale will affect both companies, with one targeting poker pros and the other targeting recreational and amateur players.

Then we had an extended conversation with Matt Affleck, who has racked up 19 cashes in 3 years for nearly a million dollars in winnings, including deep runs in the 2009 Main Event (finishing 80th) and the 2010 Main Event (finishing 15th). Matt explained what it was like walking back into the Rio to start this year's WSOP, shared some very valuable advice on how to play $1k and $1,500 buy-in WSOP events, talked about how he made the move from online poker to live cash games even before Black Friday, and much more.

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

Friday, June 10, 2011

Maid To Do It

I’ve just spent 9 days at the Rio in Las Vegas, and I’ve traveled quite a bit this year, staying in hotels all over the place, and encountered lots of maids. But unlike Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the World Bank guy who’s accused of raping a maid at a posh hotel in New York, at no point, in any venue, did the thought of having sex with any of them consensually, let alone forcibly, ever cross my mind.

In fact, I've never seen a hotel maid I was attracted to in any way. I'm not saying they're all ugly, just that none of them has made me turn my head and look twice nor lay in bed and fantasize about them.

The women who do these jobs in hotels are not dressed in the slutty-maid outfits that costume stores sell for Halloween. They wear normal, everyday work clothes that no one could consider sexy or alluring, and they don't look anything like supermodels or porn stars. I'm sure that's the case even in the super-upscale places DSK stayed in.

So, we're not talking about a guy seeing an attractive woman and getting turned on. We're talking about a powerful man used to getting what he wants, and what he wanted at that time in that place was to have sex with a woman, any woman, against her will.

That's not me. All I want is for her to clean the bathroom and make the beds, preferably without waking me up at 8am.

A Liberal Lost

Someone asked me today what I thought of the Anthony Weiner story that has played out in all its tawdry glory for the last week. I told them I was filled with a sense of disappointment. It’s the same feeling I had when Elliot Spitzer’s fling with a hooker took him down, or when Bill Clinton’s presidency imploded over the Monica Lewinsky affair.

The root of my disappointment was that I admired these guys as much for their ideas as their tenacity. Weiner was the latest in a string of liberal* politicians who stood for positive change and against the drumbeat of backwards-thought that has kept American politics in a quagmire for years. I was not alone in viewing Weiner that way; he had plenty of supporters, and would likely have become the next Mayor of New York if he hadn’t allowed his sexual obsessions to overwhelm his sense of Things You Shouldn’t Do.

*I prefer that to “progressive,” a word adopted after the perfectly-good “liberal” was abandoned in the face of years of denigration by right-wing extremists.

Liberals aren’t the only ones to get caught in sex scandals. The GOP has had its share, from David Vitter to John Ensign to Mark Sanford. I wonder if those on the right feel the same disappointment when their conservative icons become entangled in similar scandals.

The difference is the hypocrisy of “family-values” conservatives letting their “genital values” run wild. They’re the ones constantly screaming for “less government,” except when they feel it’s their job to play Morality Police, scolding you and passing laws regarding how you live your private life, while they live an alternate reality life that is even more secret.

Regardless of party, the smugly righteous loyalists will always place blame on the media for trying to destroy the man they support, as if covering the dalliances of the powerful was based on political agenda. News outlets don’t care which side of the aisle the pol is from, as long as there’s video or audio or text that can be replayed over and over and over again. And new details will always come to the fore, extending the news window and increasing the embarrassment that could have been avoided by: 1) telling the truth, and 2) not being a putz in the first place.

Critics accused Weiner of behavior unbecoming a Congressman, a standard that was already pretty low. What he did was worse than that – it was behavior unbecoming an adult human. But, as with all the others, what made it more reprehensible was his attempt to cover it up with a series of denials so lame a child could see through them. In this digital age, why does anyone ever think that will work, that the truth won’t eventually come out?

Back to my disappointment. Perhaps that’s the wrong word, because I can’t name many politicians I truly respect. Senator Bernie Sanders might be the exception. But when a liberal who’s an effective speaker, who is both compassionate and passionate about the issues, who is willing to take to the floor of Congress and challenge the ignorance of the other side, when he (or she) falls off the political pedestal, I grieve a little bit for what could have been.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Korean Susan Boyle

If this doesn't get to you, you have no heart. Meet Sung-Bong, a 15-year-old homeless kid who appeared on "Korea's Got Talent" and wowed everyone, Susan Boyle style...

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Endangered Vegas Species

There are three jobs on the periphery of the World Series Of Poker that aren't in what I consider growth industries:

First is cigarette girl. As the number of people who smoke continues to decline, the woman who lugs around those big trays of tobacco seem less and less happy. I bet she'd do more business if she carried around candy bars and chips. As if that's not bad enough, she has to wear the only non-tobacco item she sells -- big fluorescent bunny ears. Anyone who buys those has already had too many visits from the cocktail waitresses.

Second is shoe shine guy. I never see anyone in his chair, and with a hotel full of poker players, there aren't a lot of shoes to work on. Sneakers don't need polishing.

Third is male masseuse (excuse me, I mean massage therapist). The demographics of poker are that 96% of the players are men. Given our choice, when our backs are sore from sitting hour after hour, we'd rather be rubbed by someone of the female persuasion. My gut tells me that most women would rather be massaged by a woman, too. That's why there are literally dozens of women walking around the World Series Of Poker every day giving back massages to the guys. The good ones make a lot of money, especially if they have regular customers (I admit I'm one of those -- last year, I had one woman, Sara, work on my back almost every day, and she remembered me when she saw me this year, so I've been putting her to work again). But there's also one guy walking around offering to do massages, and in all the hours I've spent in the midst of the poker action, I have never seen him with any customers, male or female.

At least he doesn't have to wear fluorescent bunny ears.

Vegas Venting

A week in Las Vegas sounds like a lot of fun, but I've been here so often that the novelty has long-since warn off. While I still enjoy this trip every summer for the World Series Of Poker, after awhile the little annoyances build up and I have to vent. Today my ire is aimed at the hotel I'm staying in, The Rio.

The rooms (all suites) are nice and spacious, but I'd like to find whoever designed the layout and ask why they have a window in the wall between the bathroom and the bedroom. It means that whenever someone goes in there and turns on the light, it shines right on the beds and, with the odd hours people tend to have in Vegas, can often mean that whoever was trying to sleep is awakened by whoever came in late or is up early and taking a shower. There is absolutely no reason for that 10" x 10" window, unless the hotel does a lot of business with voyeurs.

I'm unfortunate enough to have a room on the pool side of the hotel. It's not the view I mind (even from several hundred feet up), it's the pounding music they play at the pool from 10am on. It's really cranked up and echoes off the surrounding walls to create a cacophony that makes it difficult to sleep or get any work done in the room during the day. Yes, this is partly a function of the upside-down hours I keep on a poker road trip, but with a hotel full of World Series Of Poker players all trying to sleep late, there's no reason to blast the tunes. I'd bet that most of the people actually at the pool don't like it either -- it's loud enough to drown out conversations in the lounge chairs.

For some reason, the electric eye on the auto-flush toilets in the Rio men's rooms are set on ultra-super-sensitive. So much so that they often flush while you're still sitting there. As if that wasn't annoying enough, they flush with such force that the water sprays up every time. I think this may be to appeal to their European visitors who still use bidets. But for Americans, it's a far-too-moist pain-in-the-ass.

Goin' Mobile

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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Final Table #123: WSOP + Maria Ho

Today on The Final Table, we're at the Rio in Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker. We recapped the action of the first week, from the size of the crowds to the tournaments to the cash games to the Grudge Match between Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth. We also discussed the latest on the Phil Ivey lawsuit against Full Tilt.

In our guest segment, we welcomed Maria Ho back to the show. We recorded this interview Friday morning, just before she went off to play Event #4, the $5,000 buy-in no-limit hold'em tournament -- where she finished second! Maria shared a great story about her first WSOP experience, whether it's become easier for women in the world of poker, whether she and Tiffany Michelle would go back on "The Amazing Race," and her new deal as poker ambassador for a Winstar casino in Oklahoma.

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

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Mute Button

The latest from Improv Everywhere is a group of people gathered in a park making noise, the suddenly going silent while continuing their actions, then noisy, then silent again. They call it The Mute Button...

Friday, June 03, 2011

More From The WSOP

More random stuff from the Rio in Las Vegas, where the 2011 World Series Of Poker is underway...

Dennis Phillips and I recorded several interviews today for future Final Table broadcasts. In upcoming weeks, you'll hear Dwyte Pilgrim, Tony Dunst, Collin Moshman, and Maria Ho -- who told a great story about the first time she came to the WSOP. We're going to bring in a few more guests over the weekend, too.

The weekend warriors are hitting town, ready to play in the first $1,000 buy-in no-limit hold'em tournament tomorrow. Hopefully, when they bust, they'll sit down in the cash games and donate some money. There's no shortage of action here and elsewhere. Last night, I played at Bellagio, where every table was full. I'm sure the same is true at Venetian, The Wynn, and other poker rooms.

The Rio has "bevertainers," waitresses who regularly put down their trays, climb up onto a small stage in their section, and sing a song. They're not horrible, and certainly are easy on the eyes, but I can't help wondering how they feel about their professional life. They almost never get any applause from anyone, and the few minutes they spend on stage means they're not delivering drinks, which means they're not collecting tips. Is that job a stepping stone? Is the next rung on the career ladder a spot in the free show in the Masquerade courtyard, lip-syncing 80s hits with a half-dozen dancers around you, hoping to get your big break as a showgirl at some other hotel in Vegas? I suppose the bevertainers tell themselves, "At least I'm not one of the I-Candy Dancers shaking my butt on a pedastal in the lobby bar." There's gotta be a hierarchy here, right?

No visit to Las Vegas is complete without a visit to In & Out Burger, so a friend and I drove over last night. The menu's as simple as can be -- all they sell are burgers, fries, sodas, and shakes -- and the food comes out fresh. We ate at a table outside, where the pigeons are always on patrol. Despite signs asking customers not to feed the birds, these have to be the most fast-food-addicted pigeons in the world. Nothing says fine dining like a double-double on a concrete table with a bird staring you down for a piece of your bun.

I just realized that most of that last sentence could pass for a dirty joke in England.

At the other end of the food spectrum, a dozen of us from St. Louis are about to descend on Cafe Martorano, the terrific Italian restaurant at the Rio. If we end up playing credit card roulette, this could end up being an expensive night. But at least it won't feel like an aviary.

More later.

Update: I wasn't the credit card roulette loser, but had a helluva meal -- thanks to the two guys whose cards were last, and decided to chop it.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

At the WSOP

I'm in Las Vegas, where this year's World Series of Poker has just gotten underway at The Rio in Las Vegas. I won't play any of the tournaments, but plan to spend a lot of hours in cash games, as well as recording interviews with Dennis Phillips for our Final Table radio show, and hanging out with several other St. Louis poker players who have made the trip.

Yesterday afternoon, there were dozens of tables going in the live-action corner of the Pavilion, where you could find pretty much any game you wanted to play, from hold'em to Omaha to stud to mixed games, from low-limit action ($1 and $2 blinds) to a huge pot-limit Omaha game with blinds of $250/500/1,000 and a minimum buy-in of $40,000. I was not in that game, but settled in to a $5/5 PLO game for a few hours while some friends founds seats in $5/10 no-limit hold'em games. At dinner, we compared notes and agreed that the games are a little tougher this year -- there aren't as many bad players at the tables, but there are more young guns. That's probably due to the fact that they can't play online anymore, so they're sitting down with us live game veterans, and there aren't many soft spots. But it's very early, and the good thing about the WSOP is that the roster of players changes day to day -- even hour to hour -- and when the weekend comes, the situation will be different.

After dinner, we went over to Aria, where I ran into to Jennifer Harman, who guested on my Final Table radio show recently. When I first called out her name, she turned with a worried look on her face, probably wary of questions about Full Tilt Poker and the Phil Ivey situation (he announced Tuesday night that he's suing the company and won't play in the WSOP because FT hasn't returned player funds yet). When she realized I just wanted to say hello and congratulate her on her successful charity event in Reno a couple of weeks ago, she seemed relieved, as if she just wanted to play some poker and not deal with the controversy. I didn't bring it up as we chatted for a couple of minutes before parting. Then I sat down in another PLO game and played for a few hours with no big swing one way or the other before we called it a night.

It always amazes me to see how much simultaneous activity is going on at the WSOP. It's premature to declare a verdict in the question of how much the Black Friday online poker shutdown will affect attendance, but Media Director Nolan Dalla told me that entries in the first 3 tournaments are up 10-12% over last year. Yesterday, they had a record number of entrants start in the $1,500 Omaha High-Low tournament (925), played two more rounds of the $25,000 Heads-Up Championship (with some marquee matchups including Tom Dwan vs. Gus Hansen), finished the $500 Casino Employees event, ran 3 deep-stack tournaments, plus single-table sit-and-go's and all the cash action.

It goes like this for seven weeks -- and overflows into the Strip's other big poker rooms at Venetian, Bellagio, Aria, Wynn, etc. I won't be in Vegas for all of it, but it's exciting to be back.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Final Table #122: Lon McEachern & Chris Krafcik

Today on The Final Table, we talked about the 2011 World Series of Poker, which began today and will continue for 7 weeks. The open questions are about how many players will show up and what effect Black Friday will have on tournaments and cash games. We also discussed the news from Full Tilt Poker that they're still not ready to return funds to US players, and what the backlash could be from players who encounter Full Tilt (and Ultimate Bet) pros at the WSOP.

Our first guest was Lon McEachern, the play-by-play man for ESPN's coverage of the World Series Of Poker. Lon explained how they're expanding to include near-live online streaming of several events on -- including the $25,000 Heads Up, the $50,000 Poker Players Championship, the Grudge Matches (Moneymaker/Farha, Chan/Hellmuth, and Chan/Seidel) and 6 days of the Main Event -- in addition to the dozens of hours of televised coverage this summer and fall.

Next, Chris Krafcik joined us for updates on online poker legislation at the state level, which is moving forward faster than in the US Congress. He had information on new developments in Nevada, and explained why Missouri is unlikely to be among the first group of states to embrace intra-state internet poker.

Next week, we'll have coverage of the first week of the World Series of Poker from the Rio in Las Vegas, with special guests!

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