Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Last November Nine?

I was perusing my own archives yesterday, ostensibly to select some of my better pieces as writing samples for prospective employers. Not that there are any of those knocking my door down these days, but better to be prepared, right? In between my realization that I had not composed a traditional resume in over 12 years and the desire to bathe my scratchy throat with a glass of ice-cold chocolate milk, I came upon a list of op-ed ideas I'd scribbled down on October 4, 2010. One of them jumped out at me.

"Has the November Nine run its course?"

I didn't end up penning that one. I probably could or would have written the opposite side of that argument in 2008 or 2009. Back then, it was an innovative idea that had the potential to generate a lot of revenue for Harrah's and the "Niners" alike. And for a while, it did.

Later that day, I read this PokerListings piece, in which writer Arthur Crowson questions WSOP communications honcho Seth Palansky about the future of the November Nine.

“We’re committed to it but I think what we learned over the summer with the live and taped programming is that we’re going to have to revisit the concept after this November,” clarified Palansky.

My, how one year changes everything.

More than six months post-Black Friday, we've seen the poker television landscape decimated. Poker After Dark? No mas. NBC Heads-Up? No mas. My favorite new poker show The Big Game? No mas. And ratings for everything else, including the slickly packaged Mori Eskandani-produced WSOP broadcasts? In. The. Shitter. I'll go out on a limb and say that even if the events of Black Friday hadn't occurred, the drastic culling of poker TV hours was still an inevitability-- it just would have taken more time.

Bottom line? People just don't seem to want to watch it anymore, no matter how many bells and whistles are tacked on. Heck, even I don't watch it anymore and I'm supposed to be one of those "hard-core fans" producers and advertisers and network execs count on. These days, if I'm going to dedicate hours to watching poker, it's in the form of a strategy video or a final table replay-- something that can (and has) enabled me to make more money in live games. Because I'm sure not making it in the media anymore. And living in San Francisco sure is expensive.

This year's November Nine will more likely than not be the last one we see. One of the primary reasons for creating the four-month delay was to give the Niners the opportunity to pick up sponsorships, do a shitload of publicity, and "build anticipation" for the final table. Now, with poker's principal advertisers and sponsors (online poker sites) sidelined in the United States, what sort of deals are these guys going to get, if any? Mainstream corporate sponsorship has been the holy grail the Harrah's brass has sought for the WSOP since the boom, but their quest has largely come up empty in terms of the November Nine (and not for lack of trying. Really really trying). Rather than wearing patches touting Nike, Red Bull, or Mercedes-Benz, the Niners have largely shilled PokerStars, Full Tilt, and various online training sites. Oh, and that patio furniture company that threw a few bucks at The Grinder last year.

Not only has poker's sponsorship model drastically changed/disappeared, the game's delivery system has evolved. Rather than sticking with a produced, tightly packaged episodic format aired months after an event's completion, more and more of them are being live streamed online. Broadcasts like Live at the Bike and EPT Live pioneered this concept as far back as 2005, and it's now being widely used on the WPT, the WSOP-Circuit, and the WSOP itself. It provides instant gratification for the viewer, and technological advances have made it much cheaper and easier to implement. What sort of hard-core fan will still sort through hundreds of hands on a live blog trying to extrapolate the action when he or she can simply watch it all unfold on a 15-minute delay?

Put it this way. I watched the live stream constantly while the WSOP Main Event was playing down to a final table this July. But I haven't watched a single packaged WSOP episode on ESPN this year. And I'll probably watch the live stream again next weekend when the cards go in the air inside the Penn & Teller theatre.

Fans haven't changed, but their appetite for certain delivery systems has. I don't watch movies in 2011 the same way I watched them in 1999 and I don't follow poker the same way I did in 2007. Only three years ago, I made the bulk of my income live-blogging tournaments and now it's a method that is nearly obsolete. The optimist in me thought the death of tournament reporting and the rise of the live stream might give way to a rebirth of longer-form poker writing, but Black Friday put a stop to that when the taps of the two online behemoths pumping cash into the industry were abruptly turned off.

Magazines and online sites I once wrote for have precious few advertising dollars rolling in. Some have folded altogether. Others will no doubt follow in the coming dark years of the game, before the U.S. Government gets their shit together and finally legalizes online poker. But I have no more faith in those charlatans and snake-oil salesmen than I do in Full Tilt Poker, who still owes me $1,945 of my own money.

I believe there's a larger reason why folks have stopped watching televised poker. It's not only that the casual fans stopped tuning in as the boom drew its last breaths. It's not only that Black Friday effectively stopped the influx of new American players to the game. It's not only that televised final tables were increasingly made up of people folks had never heard of rather than familiar old-school pros. It's all of those things, but it's bigger than that.

People aren't just broke, they're broken. They are so fucking broken they're actually starting to turn off the Real Housewives and rise up out of their self-induced collective coma against the institutions rigging the game in this country. Russ Hamilton's crimes are downright quaint when held up against the shit Goldman Sachs gets away with every single day. With economic depression, high unemployment, falling wages and a bleak future facing the citizens of our hopelessly sold-out country, who the hell wants to watch a bunch of 23 year-olds in hoodies play cards for millions of dollars? Why give a rat's ass about the newest poker-minted millionaire when you can't even play a $10 sit-n-go in your own home anymore thanks to our government?

Think about why people got hooked on televised poker in the first place. Not just because they found it exciting and suspenseful, but because they knew anyone could win. Anyone could ship a satellite package online and parlay that into tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in a live event. Anyone could end up under those lights, popping champagne with Mike Sexton. Lots of "anyones" did, and millions were inspired to play. Without that carrot, it's well, just an empty stick. Live streaming will sate the diehards and perhaps the Main Event will always live on in some form of edited package, but I expect even more programming to die out unless online poker makes a quick, legal comeback.

On April 15, thousands of people who once had a way of supporting themselves outside the system had their way of life taken away with one stroke of Preet Bharaha's pen. When it comes to the fall of online poker in the U.S., the powers that be weren't getting their "fair share" of that juicy green pie. So they leveled the industry altogether in order to eventually weasel their way in. It won't happen in the short-term, but it will happen eventually. There may be time pressure for those clinging to the last vestiges of the industry, but there's no time pressure for them. Our money will always be there, ready for the taking the minute that tap is turned back on. Perhaps when the big banks finally start collecting all those precious transaction fees from online poker players we'll see someone in a JP Morgan Chase patch at the final table. Remember, guys. You're only allowed three. B of A gets three too, and so does Citibank.

I didn't apply for a press credential to last year's November Nine. I drove out there, saw some friends, dropped off Pauly and was back on I-15 south before cards went in the air. I didn't apply for them this year either, even though I will be in Las Vegas when someone finally holds that bracelet aloft. You're more likely instead to find me somewhere off the Strip, in a cash game or a nightly tournament, iPod in my ears and 16 oz. of steaming coffee in my cup holder, trying to grind out the rent money. After all, I do have another skill set that has thus far helped me avoid complete financial ruin. I might as well use it.

For what it was, though, the November Nine certainly had its moments. And most of them revolved around the friends, family, and fans of the players who came out to support them, often in matching specialized shirts (seriously, who doesn't love a group costume?). I'll miss their infectious energy and I'll miss the spectacle, but they'll no doubt be channelled into whatever new delivery system the Harrah's brass conjure up. A 48-hour delay? A week? Maybe I'll be around to cover it live, maybe I won't.

But I'll surely be watching the stream.

2011 November Nine photo by Jay "WhoJedi" Newnum

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Occupy Oakland General Strike 11/2/11

Stand in solidarity with Oakland today. Instead of watching another rerun of Keeping Up With Kim Kardashian's Divorces, take action against the banksters and corporate goons. Unless you're closing your account and moving it to a credit union, don't go to the bank. Don't hit up the ATM and eat another exorbitant transaction fee. Instead, use the powers of social media for good and spread the word. Tweet your followers. Put one of these cool posters on your Facebook wall. And if you're near a local #occupy movement, head down there and and see what its all about. Protesting isn't just for hippies and anarchists anymore, kids, despite how much the media tries to paint it that way.

If you're in the Bay Area, three rallies are scheduled for tomorrow at 9 AM, Noon, and 5 PM at 14th and Broadway in downtown Oakland as well as a 4 PM march from that location to the Port of Oakland.

For more info, hit up Tao of Fear and for ideas on how you can participate in the general strike visit Occupy Oakland.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Full Tilt Poker's New Brand Identity: Ponzi Scheme

"Didn't you work for that poker ponzi scheme company?"

This was the first line of an email I received today from an old friend, a Hollywood veteran but a total civilian when it comes to poker, online gaming, and the casino industry. I don't fault him for wondering. It's a valid question, and one I'm sure to be asked again and again. He only knew about it because it was on the front page of the New York Times. And if the Times calls it a ponzi scheme, well, it must be.

"No. I freelance for the one that gave all the players their money back. I did have almost two grand in an account on the other site that I'll never see again. Gross mismanagement, yes. Pyramid-like qualities? Yes. Ponzi scheme? No."

After living with my boyfriend, an ex-Wall Streeter, for 5+ years and having my eyes opened wider to the financial world by the day, I can confidently say that Full Tilt Poker was not a ponzi scheme. Ponzi schemes do not generate revenue, as Full Tilt did for several years. No, Full Tilt fucked up in a million other ways, most notably the utterly brain-dead decision they made in late 2010 to continue crediting player accounts with deposits before actually receiving them. Not segregating player funds was another biggie. And paying out close to half a billion in dividends and continuing to send giant monthly checks to their owners even when management knew the company was insolvent does indeed take the cake. But that doesn't make it a ponzi scheme.

In this case, "ponzi scheme" is the DOJ's PR strategy. It's a sexy phrase. It's in the public consciousness. People might not know exactly what it is, but they know IT'S BAD. It's like that thing Bernie Madoff did! That greedy, rich, sick fuck. Marry "ponzi scheme" and "online gaming" and you've got a front-page story the public will lap up. You have a small group of owners who paid themselves $443 million and tens of thousands of ordinary poker players out $390 million worldwide. It plays well on the evening news. In this economic climate, any story where little guy gets fucked over while a select few make out like bandits is a mouth-watering cupcake topped with populist frosting.

That's why I'm getting emails from people who could give a fuck about online poker but know I have something to do with it.

By using this phrase in the opening salvo of their amended complaint, the Department of Justice effectively rebranded Full Tilt Poker as a ponzi scheme, regardless of whether or not that assertion is true. Much like no one will ever be able to separate Ultimate Bet or Absolute from "cheating scandal" (and that one was true), Full Tilt will inexorably be linked with those two words. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharaha made sure of that and won the PR war in the process.

Poker biz folks have spent the last 48 hours cringing at those two words. Not because they're Full Tilt sympathizers or condone the company's alleged crimes, but for the pall it is casting over an already-battered industry. The whole "this shouldn't reflect badly on everyone" argument doesn't exactly hold up when such a massive slice of the market is either under indictment or underwater. The question now is whether the industry can possibly recover from the nightmare it's facing. In other words, you thought the UB thing was bad? Get a load of this.

Full Tilt Poker will be liquidated. The DOJ made sure of that too when they released the amended complaint on the same day the Alderney Gaming Commission held its hearing on Full Tilt's suspended license. Not 24 hours after the DOJ dropped their bomb, rumors began circulating that the AGC would permanently revoke Full Tilt's gaming license. There will be no white knight. No one is going to touch this mess. Full Tilt's remaining assets-- the software itself, Rush Poker, and a bunch of office furniture in Dublin-- will all be sold off. And the inevitable civil claims against the owners' personal assets will drag through the courts for years. It won't stop until all those dollars are emptied from the owners' offshore bank accounts, and even then, it probably won't stop.

Is there a future for online poker in the U.S.? Not immediately. This Full Tilt mess just set us another two steps back. And with online poker now branded as a "ponzi scheme" in the public consciousness, politicians will be even warier about getting behind regulation and legalization. American land-based casino entities ultimately got what they wanted-- a "level playing field" (aka "no more Stars or Tilt, ever")-- but if they don't step up with some serious, SERIOUS lobbying dollars and bring the banking industry along with them, they'll never get anywhere with the feds. Online poker will never be politically popular enough to fly on its own.

Can anyone get the industry out of this mess in Washington? Well, it's certainly not the PPA. A limp-dicked lobbying operation almost wholly funded by Full Tilt and PokerStars, the PPA claimed to represent the interests of players, but in actuality, they only represented the interest of their two biggest donors. Why else would they come out against the Reid bill last December? Um, because it would put them out of business in the U.S. since they were in violation of the UIGEA? Ding ding ding! Doesn't that 15-month blackout period sound positively dreamy right about now? We'd already be nine months into it. I'd be gunning for a 2012 WSOP Main Event seat from my living room in San Francisco on come spring, instead of wondering if I'll ever be able to play another hand of online poker. The PPA will forever be haunted by the specters of their former board members Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson, and the hundreds of thousands in dirty dirty Full Tilt player-owner money they took in donations over the years.

Wait wait wait... hundreds of thousands? These donkeys took almost half a billion in dividends and only spent about $1 million greasing the legislative wheels? Did they learn nothing from the real ponzi schemers on Wall Street who are almost never prosecuted? Instead the industry was left hanging like Stringer Bell in The Wire after he gave that suitcase of cash to Clay Davis. And you all know what happened to him two episodes later.

What's left of the industry is moving on without the United States. PokerStars' traffic levels have almost completely rebounded from Black Friday. Young, mobile online players of means are leaving the country, a few hundred more each week. They're setting up shop everywhere from Vancouver to Malta and shipping tournaments just like old times. They post photos of their "grind cribs" and twitter ironic things about how much more freedom they have in Mexico than the U.S. Sure there will be the inevitable downswings and visa problems and deportations, but for now, like always, they'll just grab that money while it's there. It's what we all did in the poker industry. Grabbed as much as we could before the party was shut down, hardly pausing to consider what would happen later.

Later is here, everyone. And it's not looking good. Not for Americans, anyway.


11:50pm: OK, so the PPA didn't exactly *oppose* the Reid Bill per se. Their abysmal efforts in getting it passed just made it seem that way.

Chris Ferguson photoshop by 2+2 user chytry

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hometown Glory

Thank you, Los Angeles. You've been a great audience. Don't forget to tip your waitresses.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Long Goodbye

It hasn't fully sunk in that I'm moving out of Los Angeles one week from today. On a practical level, I've certainly taken the necessary steps to prepare, spending the better part of my downtime since the end of the WSOP divesting myself of a sizable percentage of my physical possessions. 14 bags of corporately-produced clothing that I wore to slave for a corporation half a decade ago went to Goodwill. Three bankers boxes of books and DVDs are still sitting in the trunk of my car, waiting to be sold to a secondhand shop in Hollywood. Cabinets and drawers full of junk I forgot I owned have been sorted, catalogued, and (mostly) discarded. Most of my clothes are already inside a dresser in San Francisco and the winter coats and heavy sweaters I'll no doubt be donning in the upcoming weeks and months have been cleaned and pressed. I suppose it's the fact that I'm still hanging on to this apartment until the end of the year, the fact that it's still filled with furniture and appliances and art on the walls that separates me from the reality of moving. The 800 or so square feet I've called home for the last seven years will remain largely unchanged, albeit inhabited by a trusted caretaker. I'll make the 380-mile journey south come Thanksgiving to placate my parents' wishes to spend the holiday with both their daughters, and again for an unspecified amount of time around Christmas that has yet to be decided. It's a long, but necessary goodbye.

The move was met with mixed reactions from my family. My mother was sad, but ultimately understood, having moved clear across the country when she was 23 to a place she'd never been. Mandy was thrilled and can't wait to visit after her hellacious 10-week shoot in Las Vegas is complete. My father, as expected, was downright funereal in his tone and went on a negative offensive (It's cold up there! Public transportation is horrible! Everything is so expensive!). He's less dour now, but still unconvinced, and probably hoping that after the initial six months, will settle back down in Southern California, in and of itself, a highly improbable scenario. But he's my father and he loves me and I'm a lot more like him than I'd care to admit. So I get it.

Outside of my family, everyone who I was once close to in Los Angeles has moved on, or I see them so often outside of Los Angeles that our mutual home based has ceased to matter. My holy triumvirate of Showcase, Bean, and Ben are all on Eastern Daylight Time. My blogging brethren are scattered all over the world and the poker circuit limps on, although my role in that traveling circus is constantly being redefined. So there aren't too many goodbyes to be had. Los Angeles will always be my hometown, but home now is with Pauly, wherever life may take us.

I see a future without this couch and this table, without the zen blue of my bedroom walls and the dark woods of Pauly's office, without my grandmother's dining room table and the orange chair my father used to sprawl in as he studied for his law school exams more than forty years ago. It's also a future without the circular saw presently grinding away in the neighbor's yard, so there's that too. It'll be replaced by the rattling our bay windows make as the Muni whirs past and the wind through the giant ficus that stands guard outside our new home.

It's a future that is only a week away, and one I'd jump into tomorrow if I could. Anyone want to finish packing for me?

Friday, July 29, 2011


For two weeks, I had to drive through the intersection at least four times a day. Sometimes more. What used to be the windshield of my Mazda was still sprinkled across the center divider, growing more granulated by the day. It sparkled as the sun hit it in the mornings, twinkled a cruel reminder as the headlights of my rental car shone across it when I made my way home in the depths of the desert night. He hated that intersection far more than I ever would, closing his eyes to block out flashbacks of the wreck as we passed through.

Every day. At least four times a day. For two weeks. That's 56 chances to relive the horror, at a bare minimum. There's little wonder we fled Las Vegas as fast as we possibly could.

When I got the call that morning, it was him. I knew he was alive. He told me to look out the second-floor window and I'd see the scene of the accident. All I could see was an ambulance. I threw on shoes and started running. And when I got to the end of the block and made the turn north, I finally saw the car.

The entire driver's side door was punched in. Every airbag had deployed. The velocity of the oncoming car was so great the roof had buckled upward. Six windows, shattered. Mirror dangling off the side. The clearer my totaled car grew in my field of vision, the faster I ran, until at last I saw its driver walk out from behind the ambulance, looking almost completely unharmed. Sweat poured down my face and his as we finally embraced and sought out shade from the 105-degree heat. He had cuts on his arms, glass all over his clothes and some soreness that was sure to grow worse, but he was fine. The airbag saved his life. Mine too, because after ten seconds of imagining life without him, it wasn't a place I ever wanted to go back to.

The paramedics started questioning him to check for head injuries.

"Do you know what day it is?"

"I have no idea, but it's Day 1B of the World Series of Poker Main Event and I have to get to work."

"Do you know where you are?"

"Unfortunately, I'm in Las Vegas."

"Who is the President of the United States?"

"You know, that puppet Obama."

* * * * *

We'd been thinking about moving for a while. Pauly has never liked living in Los Angeles. Aside from the warm Januarys and the easy access to medicinal marijuana, there is absolutely nothing about this place he enjoys. He hates its food, its gridlock, it's vapid people and plasticine culture, its image-conciousness, and its lack of foot traffic. And after the accident, he wasn't going to be driving a car anytime soon. I don't hate it here, but its drawbacks are constantly multiplying. I've spent 85% of my life in Los Angeles and I'd like to see that figure drop. So why not get out while I can? It's not like I have a job that ties me to this place. The great thing about being a writer is that you can do it anywhere.

After Black Friday, we talked about Colorado. Our cost of living would drop dramatically and we already had a built-in network of friends in the Denver area. We started looking at Craiglist for rentals and talked to people about potential neighborhoods, and I was doing my best to remain open-minded to what would be for me, a great cultural/lifestyle shift. I mean, I'd be moving to a place where Tevas aren't just considered acceptable, but they're the norm. I'm not a hiker, a biker, a yogi, a skiier, or a boarder. My last experience living in a cold climate led to a decade-long affair with antidepressants. I know I'd enjoy being around friends and a great music scene, but could I really hack it living in Denver?

Then, like a fairy godmother, or perhaps Glinda the Good Witch, in walked Halli.

I met Halli in Vina del Mar, Chile of all places. I was on one of my first assignments covering the Latin American Poker Tour for PokerStars and she was there her best friend, Shirley Rosario. Shirley was playing the tournament and when Halli wasn't sightseeing or grinding the cash games, she was hanging out with our little media crew-- me, Otis, Chip Bitch, and Joe Giron. Back then, Halli was a cash game pro based at the Bike, but more recently she returned to San Francisco and moved back in to the sprawling Lower Pacific Heights Victorian that has bounced between herself, her brother, and various friends for years now.

When Halli came out to the WSOP and told us she was looking for someone to share her place with now that she'd ended her five-year relationship with her boyfriend, it was like a light turned on. It was almost too perfect. We'd be able to live in a place we both loved for less than what we paid in L.A. Pauly wouldn't have to drive at all. And don't even get me started on all the cool shit that is within walking distance of Halli's house-- everything from dive bars, to sensational Peruvian food, to world-class music venues like the Fillmore. Not to mention Halli herself. She lights up any room she walks into with her contagious energy... then she'll whisper vitriol in your ear about the fedora-clad hipster couple in the corner booth.

We spent the last three days up there and our new digs fit us like a glove. So, as a down payment of sorts, we walked into a mattress store on Geary and bought a bed. I teased Pauly about being in his late thirties and finally owning his first real piece of furniture. The plan right now is to stay at least six months. Maybe more. Maybe a lot more? I'll hang on to my place in L.A. through the holidays, but we'll have to make a more definitive decision about what to do with it at the beginning of next year.

* * * * *
"That looked like a new car," the paramedic said to me. He had short dreadlocks and kind eyes and tried to distract me as Pauly was treated.

"He bought it for me for my 30th birthday. I'd never had anyone buy me a present quite like that."

"It was a helluva present. It saved his life."

The back door slammed and the ambulance pulled a quick u-turn as we headed toward the freeway. A quartet of cops and tow operators still peered under the hood of my black Mazda as they prepared to haul it away. It was the last time I'd ever see it. A week later it was declared a total loss and I signed away the title in exchange for a check.

I bought another car. The same car, just a new color. And a moon roof. I was probably their easiest sale of the week, walking in off Santa Monica Boulevard and buying it just like I might a dress or a new pair of shoes. At one point, I pulled out my phone and showed the guys at the dealership the accident photos. One just could not wrap his head around the fact that Pauly hadn't even broken his arm. The other turned ghostly pale and zoomed in to get a closer view of the airbags before mumbling something about calling his wife.

Pauly loves the new ride, but is even happier about spending less time in it now that we're relocating to San Francisco. I can't say I blame him. I have great hope that this move will not only foster a better daily living environment, but be creatively fruitful for both of us. I could already feel it after only three days.

Only 31 more until a new era begins.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011


When the WSOP schedule was released I was confronted with a decision-- play the Ladies' Event or travel to upstate New York to attend a three-day Phish concert. If the Ladies' Event fell on any other weekend during the WSOP, there was about an 80% chance I would have played. Despite the score I had earlier this year, it still would not have been sound bankroll (or liferoll) management to buy in to any $1,000 event directly. Of course, there were other avenues available-- single-table satellites, selling action, and even at one point pre-Black Friday, sponsorship. The more I thought about it, however, the more it turned into hardly a decision at all. Of course I was going to choose to spend Fourth of July weekend seeing my favorite band with the love of my life over a poker tournament. And, as it turned out, I couldn't have picked a better weekend to leave Las Vegas and the World Series of Poker temporarily behind.

Stand too close to an impressionist painting and it is, in the inimitable words of Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, "A big ol' mess." Move back a few feet and shapes start to form. Make it a few yards and you'll begin to see the scene for what it really is. I had to get 2,500 miles away from the Rio to do just that.

We returned just in time to witness the final table of the $50,000 Players' Championship, where Phil Hellmuth is making his third run this summer at his record 12th WSOP bracelet. Although its a little strange NOT to be live-blogging the whole thing from start-to-finish, I can't say I miss it. At this point in my journey as a writer, I have a far better perspective standing further back from this particular painting. The same goes for the Main Event, which roars to a start tomorrow. My time is far more profitably spent these days grinding out rent money in the $1-2 and $2-5 NLHE at Venetian. No amount of words I speak or write will do anything to change the dramas that constantly repeat themselves in the poker world. And for that healthy dose of perspective, I have to thank the 30,000 strangers who gathered around a racetrack this weekend in Watkins Glen, my boyfriend, who encouraged me to join them, and four guys named Trey, Mike, Page, and Fish who put on one helluva show.

Good luck to everyone chasing the dream in the Main Event. I'll see you at the tables.