By Jay Lovinger
Page 2

The e-mails have been piling up like the snow after a New England blizzard, and that can only mean one thing -- it's time for the lazy poker writer's best friend, another Toxic Mailbag.

Some unfinished business:

(1) On the key hand I played against Tony Ma in the $10,000 buy-in Foxwoods World Poker Tour event in November (for those who don't remember the gruesome details, I slowplayed A-A pre-flop and post-flop -- the flop was K-J-10 rainbow ... then bet $700 into Ma when an A came on the turn ... then called his $2,500 raise ... then folded after his $2,000 bet after a blank came on the river, thereby blowing off about a third of my $13,000 chip stack):

I got e-mails criticizing me for every decision I made -- rightly so. Probably the worst hand I've played in my short career.

(2) On my two-part series which looked at "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" of online poker, the e-mails were pretty evenly divided between whether or not I'm a paranoid fool for suggesting that there might be a significant amount of cheating happening online.

(3) On my futile attempts to acquit myself nobly online -- futile attempts that, sadly, continue to this day -- readers were surprisingly sympathetic (for the most part) and had a lot of advice, including:

  • Go back to real casinos.

  • Forget about limit hold 'em and stick to no-limit, a game which seems to better suit my talents, whatever those may be.

  • Try the lower limits.

  • When poker ceases to be fun, give it up.

  • Don't worry. It's just bad luck, which eventually must turn.

    And now, on to new business ...

    Let's hope you, Jay, have a "pair" of your own to post this, because I'm dying for an answer ... Since when did ESPN go from being the well-respected sports network that I remember into becoming the shameless, self-promoting product launch brand that it has now become? Not only do ESPN viewers have to deal with the incessant number of commercials about "Tilt," but now the network has assigned its one and only poker writer to actually review their own series? This is akin to "Dateline NBC" devoting an entire program to "Seinfeld" after it's first episode. Do you not feel like you're prostituting yourself, Jay, to the ESPN execs? I mean, of course you're going to give it "two thumbs up" -- you work for the network that creates the show! How stupid do you think your readers actually are? Please get back to writing about your own poker experiences -- if people want to watch "Tilt," we'll do it by using our own judgment, not because some ESPN lackey is telling us to do so.
    -- Mike, Providence, Rhode Island

    Mike, I can understand your suspicions. Cross-promotional barrages are a pestilence, but I don't think ESPN is any more guilty of this practice than any other network. For example, how many promos for "Numbers" were broadcast during recent AFC games on CBS?

    As for my choosing to write about "Tilt," it would have been even stranger -- given that it is one of the hottest topics in Poker World -- had ESPN's only poker columnist not written about it, don't you think?

    By the way, as is almost always the case in any form of "journalism," the headline, "Two Thumbs Up," was written by an editor, not the writer. I can understand why this headline would have influenced readers to see me as reflexively and fulsomely praising the product of the people who pay my salary. However, even a casual reading of the column -- you did read it, didn't you, Mike? -- would reveal the following:

    (1) I started the column off with a long section -- about half the piece -- on all the different people and institutions that would be offended by the show.

    (2) I wrote that none of the characters on the show were remotely likeable -- they are all cheaters, or paranoids, or socially maladjusted in the extreme, or sellouts, or vicious psychopaths, or some combination of the preceding -- a problem which, if not addressed, might eventually sink the show, dramatically, since viewers would have nobody with whom to identify.

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    (3) I mentioned that the central premise -- that the best poker player in the world, a man "who can see into the souls" of his opponents, would have to cheat in order to beat "home-game heroes" -- was absurd.

    (4) I showed, in detail, how the poker playing was dangerously unrealistic -- the winner of every key hand started without a pair or even a face card (6-4 suited, 4-3 suited and 10-6 unsuited), a recipe for fiscal disaster if ever there was one.

    Yes, I liked the production values, the acting of Mike Madsen and much of the writing, and I predicted the show would be a hit -- a classic "guilty pleasure" -- but I hardly think this qualifies me as an ESPN "lackey."

    But maybe I'm just too close to the whole thing.

    Jay, I've never had a great deal of respect for your poker knowledge or amateurish views of the game, but after reading your "Tilt" review/advertisement, I have lost any respect that I did have for you. I find it interesting that the most in-depth article that you have written in months is about a show that your employer produces. You should change your name to Crackpot Jay.
    -- Nick, San Jose

    Nick, don't beat around the bush -- how do you really feel about me?

    C'mon, Jay, think about what you write. "Parents of Young Children"? "Tilt" comes with a warning before the show. And any parent who lets their "young child" watch a drama about poker has already stated their priorities. Your other reasons are fairly long stretches, too. Was "The Fugitive" offensive to policemen because they went after the wrong guy? Is "Rounders" offensive to Catholic schools because both Worm and Mike McD went to Catholic school? I dare you to say that anything shown in "Tilt" doesn't actually happen in Vegas. "Tilt" doesn't try to pass itself off as anything more than a drama, so perhaps you, in your quest to write a good column, should treat it as just that. It's not reality, and the things that it brings to the forefront are essentially true. Vegas is a seedy place? Who would've thought?! There are professional gamblers who can win money consistently? Wow, that's news! "Tilt" is no more "offensive" than "Rounders" was offensive.
    -- Vincent, Troy, New York

    So you think I'm na´ve ... but not a pimp. Okay, Vince! I'll settle for that.

    Jay, I am not a poker player, and maybe I'd feel differently if I was, but your prediction that "Tilt" will succeed is wrong. True, it manages to include some of the most absurd stereotypes and scenes, and these are no doubt entertaining to anyone who's out for a laugh. But this show will undoubtedly flop and end up in ESPN's film filing room on top of "Playmakers," holding up Bobby Knight's and Pete Rose's reels. Face it, when it comes to making dramas, ESPN is in the dark. When are they going to learn?
    -- Jano Valencia, Bethesda, Maryland

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    Only time will tell about "Tilt," but you are wrong about "Playmakers," which got very good ratings. (It was also, for the most part, well-received by critics.) "Playmakers" was not renewed by ESPN because it greatly offended the NFL, one of ESPN's most important business partners.

    I disagree with your assessment of "Tilt." I can't possibly see this being a successful show for one reason: The only people that are going to bother to watch a fictional show about poker players are people who are obsessed with poker (like me, and presumably most of your regular readers). And people who are obsessed with poker want to see one thing, and one thing only: great poker. Throwing in sex, violence, cheating, revenge and other sorts of drama only gets in the way of the actual poker. And, as you pointed out, the play in the show (rare though it was) wasn't even very good. This is why I'll watch any episode of the WSOP or WPT no matter how many times I've already seen it, but I doubt I'll ever watch "Tilt" again. The game itself is much more dramatic and engaging than any fictional subplots you can throw on top of it.
    -- Seth, New York City

    Got a question for you I came up with while thinking about your column: Why was The Matador so angry at the sucker cop's $8,000 buy-in ... when he himself bought into the game for $10,000? (We see him toss a $10,000 chip on the table and say something to the effect of "Can you change this?") Completely agree with the comments on the poker played in "Tilt." If this show: a) attracts more poker players, and b) teaches them to bet with 6-4 and 4-3 ... then bring on the suckers.
    -- Ryan, Ringwood

    While The Matador has a lot of problems, one of them is not a foolish consistency.

    Had a few thoughts on your "Tilt" column. I think a few things that you mentioned are really just a reflection of true people in the poker community. First, as to the winning hands that were played by The Matador (and Eddie), this seems to be a reflection of the fact that the writers are very into Brunson's "Super/System" (featured in a few spots in "Rounders"), and are simply just using his theory of how to play small suited connectors, i.e. call small bets and raises (or preferably raise yourself) in hopes of getting a flop to bust the guy who obviously has a hand, or a flop to bluff him with. In other words, invest a small amount to win a large amount. The Matador, "the guy that wrote the book on poker," got Nickel to check the best hand on the flop with a great read and a little trickery in order to get a free shot at hitting his double-belly buster, a move that Doyle would have loved. Another thing that you mentioned about the hand between Nickel and The Matador that I agreed with was the confusing way that The Matador was supposed to be cheating. I don't think there was much signaling going on in the hand he busted Nickel with, just superior play on that hand. They were trying to show that over the course of a long session, there is much signaling going on, just not necessarily on every hand. The guy does have skill on his side -- he just wants to stack the odds in his favor even more. (Also, I think the character Miami is influenced by the life of Jennifer Harmon, who supposedly played in the backroom of her father's Reno bar as a 12-year-old.)
    -- Doug, New Lenox, Illinois

    My only real problem with "Tilt" was the chips they used. They are all brand spanking new, not a single worn edge. No casino has chips that look like that.
    -- Elliot, Boston

    Jackpot Jay's Poker Glossary
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    That's for sure. The chips at Foxwoods, for example, tend to stick together when you try to bet. They could all use a week's vacation at a steam laundry.

    Am I the only one who watched the premiere of "Tilt" and realized that it was basically the adult version of the cartoon "Yu-Gi-Oh"? All we needed was for the main character to wear his hair like Bart Simpson with a perm and all the parallels would be there.
    -- Tim, Ventura, California

    Jay, you are a sincere guy with a knack for writing. You are also an amazingly bad poker player who understands little about the game. Many of your comments and ideas are laughable. Only 600 people making over 50K a year? Come on, there are way more than that making 50 grand on Party Poker alone. I play 100 NL on Party and, with multi-tabling, average 40 bucks an hour. I will make way over 50 grand along with going to law school full-time. By the way, if you can't beat NL 100 at Party Poker with all the time you've put into the game, go jump off a bridge right now.
    -- Dustin Dirksen, Iowa City, Iowa

    Dustin, isn't reading comprehension an important skill for a lawyer to develop? If you go back and read my column, you'll see that I never said only 600 people are making over $50,000 a year. I did quote someone to that effect -- I also quoted people who offered other estimates, like 3,000 -- but I never claimed to have any idea how many players are actually making over $50,000 a year.

    Also, on the math front, assuming you can really consistently average $40 an hour playing 100 NL (I'm guessing that's $100 maximum buy-in $1-2 NLHE), which is a hard rate to maintain over a long period of time, you'd still have to put in 25 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, to clear $50,000. That doesn't leave much time for classes, let alone studying.

    On the other hand, I've got to give credit where credit is due: You might be right about me being an amazingly bad player. (More on that in next week's column.)

    Jay, you've articulated in your last article so much of what I've been thinking about recently. Poker is not a beatable game in the long run. It will take a few years for all of the new players to realize that, but they will. Poker is gambling, not a job. Sure there's skill, but for every poker player we read about in the magazines or see on TV, there are 1,000 that didn't get lucky enough to win a tournament, though they have just as much skill. Once all of the new fish get to the same level of skill, they will all just eat each other alive and the online casinos will sit back and collect the rake while only 1 percent of the players will come out ahead. It's just a matter of time, and I do believe there will be social ramifications from the poker craze. As more and more college students become degenerate gamblers, there will be a noticeable erosion of the fabric of American society.
    -- ZB, San Francisco

    What do you need research for? Just look at the competition. The room at Mandalay Bay sees a good cross-section of people. More sharks than Flamingo or Orleans, more fish than Bellagio or Mirage. It has about 10 tables going at any time (thus, 70-100 players). Let's be generous and say that one person in 100 is good enough to make a full-time living at poker. So, realistically, unless you can sit down at a table there, and realistically consider yourself the best player in the room, you need to hold on to your day job.
    -- Matt, Las Vegas

    I think the data is available to conduct a comprehensive and accurate poker profitability study from any of the major online sites. I'd personally pay to see the results of such a study. But, funding aside, I think the problem is they wouldn't want to release those results because they are well aware of Ashley Adams' theory that if players knew how much they lost each year to their favorite hobby, they'd probably stop playing.
    -- Rob L., Boston

    I don't know about that, Rob. I've been a horseplayer for 40 years -- a game where you are being raked for at least 15 percent and as much as 50-plus percent if you make show bets at New York's OTB shops -- and I don't know a single bettor who is up for his betting career. And many of these guys have been going every night for most of their lives. As they say in the trade, you couldn't keep them away if you beat them with baseball bats.

    I believe it would be impossible to actually find a true number of poker players who actually make money in any given year, let alone play as their sole means of income. I play cards about once a week and can honestly say most people go through extreme ups and downs in the poker houses in Los Angeles. I keep a very strict tab on my winnings and losses. Over the last six months, I am only up about $1,000 playing the no-limit $100 buy-in. I do know now though that poker is a series of cruel ups and downs. I will go on a streak where I win consistently for five or six sits, make up to $1,500 in profit, then have four or five sits and lose $1,000. It's uncanny to be consistent. Like many of your days, the times I lose I have huge probability advantages pre-flop and after the flop and get caught by someone chasing. I usually take a week or two, or sometimes a month off, think about my play, return to the game, and go on another streak of wins and profit. I know now that being a pro would be a major pain in the ass and would cause me to get fat just sitting there all day grinding out a profit.
    -- Brian, Newport Beach, California

    I can personally attest to the truth of this, especially the part about getting a fat ass.

    I think your point about not being able to obtain reliable data to determine how many players really make money is completely true. It just won't happen, ever. Just read about several of the pros and their long journeys before going pro. Howard Lederer said it took him two years to be a consistent winner. I like to compare it to golf. Everyone thinks they are better than they really are, and many people play every day with aspirations to play on the tour, but only a very small percentage actually make it and then make money consistently. They have to have extreme natural ability and the nerve to make the shots when it really counts under tremendous pressure. To be highly successful at the poker table, you have to possess a natural ability to play the game, you have to practice all the time, and you have to be an intelligent business manager. Being successful at poker is just as much money management as anything you do at the table -- ask Annie Duke. It's a tough gig for anyone. Clearing $50K a year would be an amazing result with the highs and lows you experience. Any experienced player truly understands the term "grinding it out." It ain't for sissies ...
    -- Rob, Minneapolis

    From your lips to God's ear, Rob.

    At the end of your most recent column regarding "Tilt," it says that you lost $193 playing online. Just wondering if you lost that in ring games, thus already breaking one of your New Year's poker resolutions ...
    -- Sean, Oak Park, Illinois


    ""Rounders," only the greatest poker movie ever filmed. By a mile." Are you kidding me?!?! I thought you were old enough to have seen or at least heard of "The Cincinnati Kid." Without question the best poker movie ever made.
    -- Gordy, Spirit Lake, Iowa

    I've seen it many times, including just a couple of weeks ago. Very fine movie -- it's got a definite "Streetcar Named Desire" vibe, and a superb cast (Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Ann-Margret, Tuesday Weld, Karl Malden, Rip Torn). But it's a little slow, a little too moody, and the dramatic hand around which the plot revolves is truly absurd. In fact, for a generation spoonfed on hold 'em, all that five-card stud stuff is almost impossible even to follow, let alone appreciate. To me, it's No. 3, behind "Rounders" and "Big Hand for a Little Lady."

    Just read about how some state governments are trying to crack down on home poker games. Whatever. But the reason I e-mailed you is because of what the director of Minnesota's Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division said about hold 'em. "It's not gin rummy. It's not 500. It's not hearts. Those are all games of skill. This is a random game, and it's a gamble." WHAT THE #&*! This is the "director of gambling" and he thinks hold 'em is all luck. No question this guy is just a terrible poker player and a sore loser. How can somebody in charge of gambling in the state say this?? HOW?? WHY??
    -- Alex, Tampa, Florida

    Less we forget, Minnesota is the state which elected a "pro" wrestler governor. Compared to that, a director of gambling who thinks hold 'em is all luck is small potatoes.

    What is the rule on cutting the deck in hold 'em? My bro says it's okay to cut more than once. I say no. Is there a rule on this?
    -- Derek Cox, St. Louis

    Don't really know, Derek, though it make sense to allow only one cut so that it can't be cut and then re-cut back into its original stacked state. Any readers out there want to weigh in on this?

    I just read an article about Ben Affleck being a rated poker player in California. How is this possible? Poker requires moderate acting skills, and the guy couldn't act his way out of a box. If I walked in to a casino and saw Bennifer sitting at a table, I'd pray that the Poker Gods sat me there. Your thoughts?
    -- Adam Parker, New City, New York

    Though I've been accused (falsely, I think) of being mean to Ben in this column, my guess -- and it is strictly a guess, because I've never played against him or watched him play -- is that he's a lot better than most people are willing to give him credit for being. As far as his acting skills, I think he's more than capable ("Good Will Hunting" is a good indication of what he's really capable of). His problem is lousy script selection. (By the way, most people who have played with him say he's a very good guy, fine sense of humor, generous, not at all full of himself.)

    Just finished re-reading David Halberstam's "The Breaks of the Game" (I had read it many, many years ago). I noticed a Jay Lovinger in the acknowledgements. Is that you?
    -- Jimmy, Birmingham, Alabama

    In my old life, I was an editor, mostly for magazines. In 1980, when Inside Sports began publishing, I edited several pieces by David Halberstam, including a profile of "Pistol Pete" Maravich, the feature story in our first issue. (Halberstam, of course, is best-known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting from Vietnam; he is also the author of several best-selling books, including "The Best and the Brightest" and "The Powers That Be.") Though I had nothing to do with the editing of "The Breaks of the Game," Halberstam was kind enough to mention my name in his fine book about spending the 1979-80 season with the Portland Trailblazers.

    Jay!!! I am glad to see that you're finally doing well at online poker. Compared to some of your previous weekly totals, losing $200 seems like winning $1,000.
    -- Matt, Portland, Oregon

    Ouch, Matt. Ouch. Unfortunately, I've slipped again this week (see below).

    Last week: lost $407 playing online poker

    Online total: minus $5,150

    Career-to-date: plus $13,839

    Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for and also writing a book for HarperCollins.

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