Thursday, January 31, 2008

"One Of The Most Dangerous Celebrities In The World"

Jennifer McKeown has an excellent review of Andrew Morton's new unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise up over at pajiba. It's genuinely disturbing stuff, and it's worth quoting:
It’s easy to mock Scientology: these fucking morons actually believe that we are inhabited by the souls of dead aliens. Members must dedicate their entire lives to Scientology, even having abortions and cutting off family members when the organization commands it. But while it’s easy (and fun!) to mock them, underestimating them is deadly. As Morton proves, Scientology is an extremely dangerous organization that is, without a single ounce of exaggeration, hell-bent on taking over the world. No wonder Germany balked at Tom playing the role of Claus von Stauffenberg, one of its champions of democracy: Germany considers Scientologists a fascist organization akin to the Nazis.

A close inspection of Tom’s close friends lends credence to the belief that Scientology is planning world domination. Consider Tom’s last few girlfriends before marrying his “one and only,” Katie. First, there was Penelope Cruz, so chosen to pave the way for Scientology in Spain. Then there was Sofia Vergara — whom he dated just two weeks before falling head over heels in love with Katie Holmes — who was chosen to start a recruitment drive in Latin America. Then there’s Tom’s choice of friends: the Beckhams, who can bring Scientology to England and Europe. Will and Jada Smith, who can open the African-American market. J-Lo and Marc Antony for the Hispanic market. Like I said, these crazy bastards are dangerous.

The danger is intensified when one considers that the highly-revered Operating Thetan VII (that’s big-time important, just so you know) has used his celebrity status to gain access to top officials like Scooter Libby to lobby for bills that support his nutjob beliefs. To date, “Some twenty-eight Scientology bills have been introduced by members of the Arizona state legislature aimed at limiting access to treatment and medication for children with mental health disorders.” For this reason, one defector from Scientology has labeled him “one of the most dangerous celebrities in the world.”

Slim Charles Speaks

I know, I post a lot about The Wire. That's because I think a lot about The Wire. And dream and talk and worry about. Last week, my wife asked me, despairing, what we were going to do when this season (the show's last) ended. I answered--half-serious--"get a divorce and move back in with our parents." She nodded, considering....

Slim Charles, the one-time Barksdale associate, now with Prop Joe, never gets much screen time--especially now that the show's got 25 subplots going. Still, my love for him is undiminished. Here's an interview with the man (well, ok the actor who plays the man) himself....

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Rorty and Nabokov

Rereading Pale Fire, I came across this passage. It's not from the book itself, but from Richard Rorty's introduction. (It appears in the Everyman's Library edition).
Nabokov arranges things so that, just when we thought that we had stepped back and found the proper standpoint from which to see his book in perspective, we get an uncanny sense that the book is looking at us from a considerable distance, and chuckling. The resulting discomfiture usually turns into renewed exasperation over Nabokov's egotism, his puerile tricksiness, his silly attempts at novelty.
This more or less exactly summarizes my own experience with Nabokov--my frequent unease, as well as my ever-growing admiration. Hopefully, this pass through Pale Fire will mitigate the unease and deepen the admiration. Regardless, the introduction is worth the price of admission.

Sunday, January 27, 2008


...A priest went up to each of them with a cross. Consequently, he had about five minutes left to live, not more. He said those five minutes seemed like an endless time to him, an enormous wealth. It seemed to him that in those five minutes he would live so many lives that there was no point yet in thinking about his last moment, so that he even made various arrangements: he reckoned up the time for bidding his comrades farewell and allotted two minutes to that, then allotted two more minutes to thinking about himself for the last time, and then to looking around for the last time. He remembered very well that he made precisely those three arrangements, and reckoned them up in precisely that way. He was dying at the age of twenty-seven, healthy and strong; bidding farewell to his comrades, he remembered asking one of them a rather irrelevant question and even being very interested in the answer....

from The Idiot

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Vegas Poker Report: II

I know: you're all desperate to hear more poker stories. The response to the last post has been overwhelming. The letters, the phone calls, the emails. The telegraphs. It's almost too much. Thank you! Thank you all! I'm just glad I could make so many of you happy.

Anyway, because I promised I would, here's more of the Vegas trip.

* * *

Sunday night I won again, mostly because I was fortunate enough to make a set of Queens on a board of AKQ against an opponent who had AQ. She folded her hand on the river after deciding her two pair was beat, but at that point she had already put several hundred dollars into the pot.

The next day, Monday, started at Caesar's. I was fortunate (sort of) to be seated at a huge action table. A Middle Eastern gentleman was raising nearly every pot preflop, running over the table with a super-aggressive style and a lot of bravado. He fit a certain kind of stereotype; he had his shirt unbuttoned almost to his navel; he wore a number of gold chains, he threw around a lot of cash (at one point in the session he had thirty hundred-dollar bills in his stack) and he had a temper. He was also not afraid to call, bet, or raise with any two cards. His whole game, in fact, was about proving that he wasn't afraid. It's a common trait with men of certain cultural backgrounds. What they care about most at a table is not winning money, or playing 'smart', it's proving to themselves and everyone else that they aren't afraid. Sammy Farha is a variation of this type player.

And when they're getting hands, they are very hard to play against, because you never know what cards they're holding. An example: early on in this session I found myself in middle position with 88. Two players had already limped in ahead of me and I decided to do the same. Angry Middle Eastern Man had yet to act--he was in the small blind--and I felt fairly certain he would raise it (as he did 4/5 of the time) when the action got around to him. I was planning to call a medium size raise if enough people were in the pot and hopw to flop a set.

Of course that's not what happened. Five people called and when it got to Angry Middle Eastern Man he raised All-in. (!?) He had around 900$ in front of him, and he was betting that into a pot that held about 30$. Everyone folded, and it got back to me. Now, this seems like an obvious fold. Even if he has AK, I'm not a big favorite. Typically, in a cash game, optimum strategy dictates you avoid playing coin flips for large amounts of cash. The thing is, against this guy--and this guy only--88 was likely to be a pretty large favorite. He could have literally any two cards--he'd made a similar move a few hands earlier and shown J2. Still, I didn't want to risk it. What if this was the time he had Kings? (Well, he didn't have Kings. He'd try to get more value out of kings). I folded, thinking I'd wait for a better spot. A late-position player called; he only had 200$ in chips and he held AQ; I thought it was a good call. It turned out to be a great call when AMEM tabled A7. Of course you know what happened: a seven peeled off on the flop, and late-position player went bust. Had I called, I would have doubled up.

About an hour later I played the biggest hand of my day--hell, of my week. UTG, I found myself looking at KK. Oh joyous day, calloo, callay. Counting on AMEM to raise for me (he was on the button) I limped in. A few players also limped until it got to AMEM who, true to form, raised the pot to 45.00$. Thinking I'd take the pot down right there, I reraised to 120.00$. Everyone folded to AMEM who, naturally, called. (When you fear no one, you never fold. Folding is for the weak--those who lack machismo).

The flop came: A 9 4. And I was sore afraid. Of COURSE there was an Ace--the card every player holding KK dreads. At this point I had about 450.00$ in front of me, certainly too much to just shove it all in there and hope that AMEM missed. I checked. Without even thinking about it, AMEM says he's all-in.

Well, damn. What does that mean? Simple: either he has an Ace, or he knows I don't have an Ace.

I sat back, considering. Was it possible he had an Ace? Of course. Hell, he could have 9-4 and have just made two pair. The more important question is if he'd had an Ace, would he really bet so much? There's only about 250.00$ in the pot. He's just bet his entire stack (really my entire stack) into that pot (about 450.00$). That's a significant overbet. Wouldn't he try to get some value out of his hand if he had an Ace?

The MOST important question: what does he think I have? Based on my preflop actions (the limp reraise), he has to put me on one of about three hands: AA, KK, or QQ. If I have AA, he knows an all-in bet like this is idiotic, but if I have either of the other two, it's probably going to scare me. (And it has). He's seen how tightly I've played for the last two hours. I've folded almost every hand I've had. And look at me! A quiet, pale, white guy with glasses and headphones. I may as well have a pocket protector. I sure look like the kind of player who's going to fold to a big bet unless I hold the stone-cold nuts.

The thing is, I know he knows that. I know my image so far, and I know that any decent player (and though crazy, AMEM is not stupid) is going to try to exploit what he perceives to be my weaknesses. This kind of bet would never work on HIM, but it might work on me.

It might, it might. ("But time will not relent.") But after I think about it for a minute (while the table sits in expectant silence) I decide it's much more likely he's on a steal than holding an Ace. Somewhat ruefully, like a man taking off his pants in a crowded station ( I call. Before I even show my hand, he says "good call." Huzzah! Blood rushes through my head. I sing and dance (quietly, palely, whitely). I never get to see his hand (he tells me he has a small pocket pair), but when I show my kings I say "it was a good bet; I almost folded." He says "it was a better call."

And you know what? He's right: it WAS a good call. (It was also a HUGE rush. For the next hour I feel like I'd just parachuted off of a bridge). Yes, it's an obvious bluffing opportunity. Yes, every piece of evidence did point to AMEM being on a steal. But you know what--it's still a hard call (at least, at this point in my poker career). Even if I fold to his bet, I'm ahead for the session. That kind of reasoning SHOULDN'T enter into one's calculations, but it usually does.

The thing is, if bitches want to play me, they're gonna get got. I look meek, I don't talk a lot, and I usually fold. That whole image sets me up as someone who's easy to bluff out of pots, and probably I usually am. But that doesn't mean I'm some kind of punk, you know. Hell no. HELLS NO.

Cue: Wu-Tang Clan, pistol shots, the smashing of empty St. Ives' bottles on the pavement. Mayhem.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Education in America

An excellent article in the new City Journal argues there's much more to education reform than school choice; we also need to pay significant attention to curriculum.

Vegas Poker Report: I

I got back from Las Vegas Tuesday night, after two and a half straight days of poker. The trip went well; I played some of my best poker while I was there, and managed to make my monthly "nut" in only nine sessions. Here's a recap of some notable hands, players, and wombat death squads I encountered while there.


I arrive at 2 pm, check into the MGM (room courtesy of L. Thanks, man!), and take a cab to the Bellagio. I check out their Omaha H/L game, thinking I'll start there. Unfortunately, it's 30/60--too big for my present bankroll. I decide to play No Limit Hold'em, and I walk to Caesar's. I prefer Caesar's poker room to the Bellagio because it's quieter and less crowded. Caesar's also has nine players to a table; the Bellagio has ten. I have long legs (and a beak); I prefer nine.

My strategy for the week is simple: buy in at every table for 300$, play until I've doubled up, leave, and repeat. I wouldn't say that I'm confident this will work, but I do feel like my No Limit cash game has gotten significantly better in the last six months. I've made a lot of small changes to the way I play, I've gotten much better and avoiding tilt, and I think I'm just generally more confident in my own reads. But it's poker. Anything can happen.

The session at Caesar's goes more or less as planned. My second hand at the table is JJ. An early position player raises to 30$: I reraise to 70$, trying to test his hand. If he comes back over the top, I'll give him credit for an overpair and fold. However, he just calls. The flop comes all rags; he checks, and I bet 120$. He thinks for a long time and folds. I assume he has AK.

I move seats a few hands later to be on the left of the table's resident action player. A backwoods kid from Arkansas with a strong Southeastern accent, he's playing at least 50% of his hands preflop, and calling down on all three streets with middle or bottom pair. He's also hitting hands; he has at least 1500$ in front of him. He tells the table that he's a tournament player new to cash games who really has no idea what he's doing. I'm not sure if he's being honest or trying to set us up. He's not a donkey, I don't think--just a loose player who likes action.

A few hands later, Arkansas boy puts me to the test. I'm dealt AA in middle position and raise it to 30$. Three people call, including him. The flop comes 10/10/7. The first two players check and Arkansas leads into me for 80.00$. Based on his play so far, I'm fairly certain my Aces are good (I don't think he's trick enough to bet out here). My worry, though, is that one of the blind players has a 10, and has decided to check-raise. I call, resolving to fold if one of the first two players reraises. Happily for me, they both fold. Arkansas checks the turn (a blank) and I go all-in for another 200+ dollars. He harasses me a little and then folds. An hour later I win another decent pot when an older player calls me on the flop with bottom pair, hits two pair on the river, and pays off my set. This is why you don't call flop bets with a pair of threes, boys and girls. Also why leading out when you've flopped a set is often a good idea. You get value, and you often paradoxically disguise the strength of your hand. Up 300+, I cash out and walk back to the Bellagio.

Unsurprisingly, the table I'm assigned at the Bellagio is fairly strong. A know-it-all to my left is giving poker lessons to another player (to his left)--teaching him the intricacies of semi-bluffing, probe bets, and so forth. I hope to take him down; I feel like he's got too much ego for his own good (though he's very friendly). He turns out to be a decent player, however, and refuses to pay me off when I make fours full of jacks against him in a big blind hand.

One great improvement I see in my cash game over the last year is the way I play AK. In tournaments (which is really where I learned to play Hold'Em), reraising in middle and late positions with this hand is often the right play. In cash games, though, I think it pays to play AK very softly. It rarely wins you big pots, anyway: when a Ace is on the flop and there's significant action, it's more likely that someone has two pair than an Ace with a worse kicker. If you play it too fast preflop you're likely to scare off the very hands you want in the pot with you--AJ, A10, etc. Also, if you play it slow preflop, you don't feel any need to continue on after you miss. (How many people have gone broke trying to represent a big pair with AK after a ragged flop?)

My new handling of AK helps me a win a significant pot after about an hour at the Bellagio. An early position player raises to 30.00$, and a middle position player--a French kid who's been running well--calls. I have AKo and elect to call. The flop comes K 4 8. Early position checks and Frenchy bets 40.00$. I call. Although a reraise here isn't terrible, I don't want to commit myself too deeply to the hand just yet. It's possible Early Position is planning a check raise with AA or KK. It's possible Frenchy has a set, too. People assume you need to reraise to gain information from opponents, but often a call is just as effective--and much cheaper.

Early position folds. The turn is a 3. Frenchy checks. I feel confident at this point that he has a King--I put him on KJ or KQ--and try to figure out how I can bet and still get called. I bet 55.00$; he calls in a heartbeat. The river in a 6. He checks again; I bet 100.00$. He again calls quickly and tables K10. Mon ami! You can't play K10 in middle position to a raise! I probably could have bet much more on both streets, in retrospect. Like many good but not great mid-limit players, Frenchy can't fold top pair. My win here comes through his poor pre- and post- flop play, not my own skill, but that's fine. A win is a win. By the way, note that a preflop reraise here almost certainly scares off K10 and therefore wins me a much smaller pot. On the other hand, if a 10 appears on the turn or river, I'm in trouble. I was ready to slow down if a J or Q came off, but no way do I think he's stuck around all that way with just a 10.

Next time: I face off with a Stereotype and play Omaha High.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Uses of Literature

I've been enjoying Stanley Fish's blog in the New York Times of late. His most recent entry attempts to explain why we should study the humanities. It's a compelling piece; I especially liked the ending:
.... It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Wire

An interesting essay in The Atlantic describes David Simon's tendencies to distort reality to fit his jaundiced view of the world. It doesn't make The Wire any worse of a show. In fact, the intensity of his beliefs goes a long way toward explaining what makes The Wire so great. Still--as is obvious to anyone who's seen the show--the man's got some anger.