Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Shady Characters Outside Hollywood Park

Last week, I was talking to my brother on my cell phone just outside one of the entrances to the poker room at Hollywood Park. A man approached me and showed me a watch. This seemed not just strange but rather rude since I was clearly on the phone so I just turned away from him and tried to continue my conversation. The guy approached me with his watch again and said something I didn't hear. I figured maybe he was trying to ask me for the time so that he could set his watch, so I told my brother to hold on a second as I checked my phone's screens. It didn't have the time. I told the man with the watch the bad news and went back to my conversation, assuming he'd move on to someone else. Instead he continued talking to me. I told my brother to hold on again.

"What?" I snapped, now agitated.
"Do you want to buy this watch?"
"No! I'm on the phone," I said, assuming he would realize I meant "go away."
"It's $12,000, you can have it for $500," he persisted.
"I don't want it."
"$400." At this point I just shook my head and walked away. This time he finally let me be.

An hour or so later I saw the guy again, this time sitting at a slot machine or something. He waved at me with two fingers up. "Two hundred?" I shook my head and continued on.

Later, as I made my way to the parking lot when I was done playing, a shabby looking man approached me.

"Hey, how are you?" he asked. I'd been solicited for money outside the entrance before, but this guy was half way to the parking lot, with nobody else within earshot.

"I'm okay..." I responded suspiciously. Then he made his pitch. He is NOT a bum, he tells me. He never asks people for money, and he's embarrassed to have to ask me. However, he was there with his wife and child, but something (I don't remember the story he gave me) had happened and now he needed money for a cab. "Could you spare me $37? I'm not a bum, I'll pay you back."

"No, sorry."
"$20 maybe? Just to get me on my way?"

I think this is a fairly standard tactic: come up with a compelling story of emergent need of some quick cash of some specific amount.

"I'd rather not get involved. They could probably help you at the desk inside."
"You don't have to get involved... there's nothing to get involved in. I just need to get a cab."

This went on for another 20 seconds or so, then I just said "sorry" again and started walking to my car. He followed me. Again he assured me he was not a bum and would pay me back. I turned him down again and continued to the parking lot. He still followed. My car happened to be in the very first row, and there I was, standing right next to it with this guy still hassling me. I had about $3500 in my pocket. I decided not to get in the car with him right there; in fact, I didn't even indicate it was my car. After one more failed attempt to get rid of him, I turned and walked back to the casino. When I came back a couple minutes later, the guy was nowhere to be found.

When I was heading back to the parking lot the second time, I was approached AGAIN by yet another shady guy. He wanted my advice on whether he owed somebody money. This was a new one: I wasn't sure how he was going to turn this into a plea for me to give him money. He had supposedly been playing blackjack, and somebody had given him $4 and asked him to bet it for him. He won the hand. Does he now owe the guy $8 or only $4? To his chagrin, I informed him that it sounded like he owed $8. To my surprise, he left without asking me for money.

Do I really look so much like a sucker that con artists (if you can call them that) will persist in trying to get me to give them money even after I've pointedly turned them down? Wouldn't it be more worth their time to move on to one of the dozens of other people in the areas outside the casino? Well, the situation was rather anomalous, so I guess there's no real reason to think there's something about me that caused it.

Oh, and the Helmet Man has been hanging around again, too.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Tournament "Insurance"

I'm worried about the integrity of poker. A couple weeks ago I turned on ESPN2 and saw Phil Hellmuth get put all-in pre-flop at the final table of some WSOP event. Once the two hands were revealed, Hellmuth went over to the sidelines and, on camera, made a deal with a spectator (Phil Ivey) for "insurance": if Hellmuth won, he'd pay his "insurer" some amount, and if he lost, his "insurer" would pay Hellmuth some amount to cushion the loss. For reasons that I can only assume involve TV ratings, the dealer and other players waited for Hellmuth while he negotiated the deal. When finally he came back and the cards were dealt out, he won the hand. The next time he was all in, the dealer, players, and viewers were all subjected to this display again. I stopped watching, but I think it may have happened a few more times.

One of the most compelling aspects of poker is that players can occasionally force their opponents to make decisions for more money than they are really comfortable losing. I think this aspect of poker is especially important when you consider poker's value as a spectator sport: these high-risk situations create pretty intense drama. Why, then were ESPN and the WSOP willing to allow Phil Hellmuth to sap the drama out of these situations by stopping the game while he negotiated "insurance" for himself? I'm not really sure, but I assume it's because Hellmuth is one of their most recognizable star players, and this was an opportunity to show him doing something other than whining or deriding other players. Unfortunately, in addition to losing entertainment value, allowing players to insure themselves in the midst of individual hands also interferes with the integrity and fairness of the game.

A standard strategy used by players with big stacks in tournaments is to try to push around their more vulnerable short-stacked opponents by forcing them all-in and making them risk elimination if they decide to call. Allowing players to insure themselves against being knocked out greatly diminishes the effectiveness of this strategy. I'm assuming that the WSOP doesn't allow ALL players to stop play and negotiate insurance packages whenever they are put all-in, since this is clearly infeasible due to time constraints. (Not to mention the fact that this would encourage an odd black-market insurance industry where financiers would jockey for position on the sidelines of major tournaments!). By allowing some players to insure themselves and not others, the WSOP is making their tournaments blatantly unfair.

Poker tournaments like the WSOP and the WPT have had plenty of scandals already. For example it has been exposed recently that there have been instances of collusion in tournaments (a problem that is especially rampant online). Another example is the better known situation where the WSOP invited Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, and Phil Hellmuth to join the WSOP Tournament of Champions, thus diluting the pool for all the players who had earned their spots in the tournament. The difference in this situation with the insurance is that it was entirely condoned by the WSOP, ESPN and the commentators. The one hit I could find on google discussing the event also seems to condone it. Previous infractions were either fixed or at least swept under the rug in shame. The fact that nobody else seems upset about Hellmuth being able to pause the game to get an insurance deal and that the WSOP and ESPN producers don't seem to consider it necessary to hide such behavior is what really worries me. I hate to see poker losing it's distinction as being a truly equal-opportunity endeavor.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

LA to Vegas to LA to Philly to Boston to Cleveland, back to LA

Having just returned from another trip east, I haven't had the opportunity to blog or play much poker recently. Two weeks ago I was in Vegas for a bachelor party, and I managed to find some time for some poker. I didn't play much, but from what I saw the game has gotten tougher in Vegas since last year. At the Bellagio, I sat down at their 5-10 NL game and immediately recognized two pros to my left, one of whom I remember as being among the best players I can remember playing against (I don't know his name, just remember him making lots of good decisions and no bad ones). When a new 2-5 NL game started, I got up and moved over there. Several of my fellow bachelor-party-goers also joined this game (I think Ben, Joe, Andrew, and Aaron were all there), but since this was "must move" table, we were soon dispersed to other 2-5 games. My table had a few drinkers, one of whom was pretty bad. Other than the the table was rather tough. This was a Saturday afternoon, so although I didn't expect the games to be very wild, I thought there may be more inexperienced tourists there. The Bellagio used to be teeming with them on the weekends, but it seems the pool has dried up a bit. I think Andrew was the only one to come out ahead.

Incidentally, James Woods sat at the 5-10 table shortly after I left it. He was accompanied by a woman who I suspect was his girlfriend, but, by the look of her, she could just as easily have been a professional escort. In any case, Woods seemed to find it satisfying to show her off to the other poker players.

Speaking of celebrities playing poker, supposedly Jose Canseco comes to Hollywood Park rather frequently and plays in their daily tournaments; I haven't noticed him. (How do they know it wasn't Ozzie?)