Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Main Event Memories

Been back on the farm more than a week now from Las Vegas. I snapped that pic to the left as I left the Rio for the last time following a 16-night stay.

It took me a while, but finally I’m sharing links to some of my favorite features posted during the World Series of Poker Main Event.

Early on I had the chance to chat with New York Times best selling author Maria Konnikova about her current book project. You might have heard something about it -- the story has been passed around the poker world the last few month’s as Konnikova writing a book “about” Erik Seidel, although that isn’t exactly what she’s doing.

Rather, the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and The Confidence Game is spending a year playing poker on the professional poker tournament circuit as part of an inquiry into how humans make decisions, including when faced with elements outside of our control (such as happens in poker).

Talking with Konnikova was one of my favorite half-hours of the entire trip, to be honest, and while not everything we talked about made it into this post, a lot of it did, including a fuller introduction to her study. You can read it here: “Konnikova seeking answers in the cards about life, poker, and everything.”

A couple of days after that I had another fun conversation with Vanessa Selbst, a player I’ve been covering in tournaments for nearly a decade now.

If you followed the Main Event you probably remember how Selbst found herself in a highly unusual spot only an hour or so into the tournament, running into Gaelle Baumann’s quads to be eliminated halfway through the very first level.

We talked about that hand, of course, but also about one of the very first tournaments I ever covered, the $1,500 pot-limit Omaha event at the 2008 WSOP in which Selbst won her first bracelet. That remains one of my favorite reporting experiences ever -- thanks in large part to the crazy finish -- and it was fun inviting Selbst to remember the scene.

She also neatly tied together with her comments the end of that tournament and her exit hand in this year’s Main -- check it out: “Vanessa embraces the variance.”

The cash bubble burst at the end of Day 3, and just before the start of Day 4 I spoke with one of those who’d made the money -- Kenneth “K.L.” Cleeton.

You might have heard something about this story, too. Cleeton is a 27-year-old player from Illinois who suffers from a rare neuromuscular disorder that leaves him essentially paralyzed from the neck down. He’s anything but handicapped otherwise, though -- very quick-witted and gregarious and also a good poker player, too.

Cleeton entered a contest put together by Daniel Negreanu and along with a couple of other entrants was put into the the Main Event by Kid Poker. With his father at the table providing assistance looking at cards and making bets, Cleeton survived the bubble bursting with a short stack, and both of them were unsurprisingly ecstatic about it all when we chatted just before Day 4 began.

Negreanu shared some comments as well for the post. Read about Cleeton and be energized by one of the cooler stories of the whole Main: “K.L. Cleeton continues inspiring run into Day 4.”

As the tournament wore on, a player named Mickey Craft started to get everyone’s attention thanks to his big stack and especially loose style of play. He was also kind of a character at the tables, chatting it up and obviously enjoying himself immensely.

I happened to be around when Craft won a big pot on Day 4 in an especially nutty hand. I remember watching it play out alongside the ESPN crew, talking a bit with one of them who was marveling at how crazy the poker was. I knew right then they’d be finding a way to get Craft onto a feature table soon, and sure enough that’s what happened later in the day.

Here’s that post describing the wacky hand: “Mickey Craft is must-see poker.”

Finally, if you paid any attention at all to the Main Event -- particularly to the final table -- you certainly heard about the 64-year-old amateur from Bridlington, England named John Hesp.

You couldn’t miss Hesp in his multi-colored, patchwork shirt and jacket and Panama hat. His personality was just as colorful, and by chance I ended up chatting with him on multiple occasions during his deep Main Event run, including about how the Main was a “bucket list” item for him, a bit of a diversion from his usual 10-pound tournaments in Hull.

Just before the final table (where he’d go on to finish fourth to earn $2.6 million), I posted a piece sharing some of what Hesp and I chatted about: “John Hesp’s Vegas vaction continues; or ‘When I’m Sixty-Four.’

These are just some of my favorites among the nearly 100 posts Howard Swains and I wrote over the course of the Main Event. Wanted to kind of bookmark them here, though, and also invite some more eyes to ‘em in case folks missed them before.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

You Wanted the Best, You Got the Best

The WSOP Main Event drew 7,221 entrants this year, a big boost from a year ago and actually the third-largest field ever behind the pre-UIGEA 2006 Main (8,773) and the last pre-Black Friday one in 2010 (7,319).

They’re down to a final table now, with the two-day respite before that gets going very welcome to those of us who've been at this for 10 days running. You’re no doubt following the action in the usual places, as well as on both ESPN and PokerGO (a very welcome addition to the coverage, imo).

Just to report quickly here on a few off-the-beaten path items, the WSOP Media Event happened back on Tuesday. Close to 100 played, I think, and your humble scribbler made it to the last 20 or so before finally busting a short stack.

“Thanks to all my backers,” I tweeted, forgetting to add the obligatory “AQ<QJ” afterwards. (The Media Event is a freeroll).

A few days after that Howard Swains and I felt uptight on a Saturday night and so spent part of the dinner break walking over to the other side of the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino to enjoy a round of KISS Mini Golf.

Was a fun 45 minutes or so knocking golf balls around the course replete with cool black lights and glow-in-the-dark decor full of all sorts of KISS imagery, with the tunes blasting the whole way (natch). Click that pic above for a bigger image. Imagine “Calling Dr. Love” pounding through your device’s speakers as you do.

I’m going to post a full report in a few days over on the PokerStars blog which I’ll link to here. (Here’s that report: “Rock in the Rio at KISS Mini Golf.”)

Finally, the day after that (Sunday the 16th) I was parked as usual on media row when Antonio Esfandiari came around to settle up his “shirt bet” with Lance Bradley (here with Pocket Fives). Was humorous watching them tie up that loose end, then seeing Esfandiari look up at everyone with a grin to say “Who’s next?”

Most everyone cowered behind their laptops in response, not having Lance’s courage. (If you aren’t familiar with the bet, Lance spells it out here.)

More to come.

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Novel News -- Obsessica eBook is out!

Am all settled at the Rio where the first couple of Day 1 flights of the World Series of Poker Main Event have already played out. Already had some fun interviews and other items of interest -- will report soon.

Just a quick note to share that the eBook version of Obsessica is now available! It’s good for the Kindle and other devices. Those who buy a print version of the novel should also get access to the Kindle version for free, or so I understand it.

I was writing here not too long ago about how I still can’t quite think of “novels” as being something other than those physical objects with hard or soft covers and words printed on pages that we hold and look at for a few hours or days or weeks.

I know to say such things is to sound irrational (or just plain stubborn). It’s a silly thing to insist upon, something belonging in the category of useless complaints about how the present ain’t the past.

As I’ve mentioned before, Obsessica is a book set in the past -- an adult narrator looks back on something that happened when he was a kid in 1980 -- and so kind of exemplifies that same desire to go back and experience that time and all of the “old” things that marked it.

There’s even some talk about books in there, despite the fact that the narrator makes a point to say early on that he isn’t much of a reader (or writer, for that matter). The House of the Baskervilles and the Guinness Book of World Records turn out to be two important books, and also are meant to serve as extra-textual “secondary” sources for the novel, in a way, that point to certain themes.

Like I say, though, I’m fully aware that nostalgia for books is a kind of folly. And of the irony of my indulging in it while writing on a blog, and spending just about every other waking moment writing for online-only outlets.

Anyhow, you e-reader types -- go check out my novel. I’ve heard it’s kind of a page-turner. Or screen-scroller.

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Friday, July 07, 2017

Back to Vegas

This morning I was trying to calculate just how many days I’ve been in Las Vegas before. It’s probably the one place where I’ve lived the most without having actually moved there.

Going off to college or grad school doesn’t count, as those were genuine “moves” wherein I was more or less living full-time somewhere new. Nor does that year Vera and I spent living in France, even though we knew all along that was a temporary thing.

I spent six summers total reporting on the World Series of Poker (from 2008-2013). The first three I was there the entire way, meaning stays of about seven-and-a-half weeks. The latter three times I only went for four weeks. Add to that other visits here and there, and it probably adds up to 10 months or so living in hotel rooms and apartments in Sin City.

Feels like a lot, although I have friends and colleagues who have spent a lot more of their lives in Vegas while actually living elsewhere. And some who started out going there for a few weeks at at time, then moved there permanently.

In any case, the time I’ve spent in Vegas has been more than enough to make coming back here today seem a bit like some kind of faux homecoming.

So many familiar sights and sounds. I’m staying in the Rio this time, too, and already I’m realizing I long ago memorized many of the details of the place. Have already made that long walk through the casino, down the halls and past the Penn & Teller, down to the ballrooms where everything is still full blast as the last prelims play out and they ready for the Main to start tomorrow.

I’ll be here 16 nights altogether to help report on this year’s WSOP Main Event. More features and interviews and “color” this time than in the past when it was mostly all about hand reports and chip counts for your humble scribbler.

A couple more differences from past summers -- I won’t be updating here everyday along the way, although I will try to check in occasionally. And with the November Nine having been jettisoned (finally), I’ll finally see the sucker through to the end.

Best part of this whole trip is getting to reunite with many friends, a lot of whom I’ve worked with or alongside before, and most of whom I’ve only been interacting online since my last Vegas trip. A lot of been-there-done-that feel, then, but a lot to look forward to as well.

Image: “Las Vegas: Welcome to Vegas” (adapted), WriterGal39. CC BY-ND 2.0.

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Monday, July 03, 2017

Pages and Screens

Busy times here on the farm. Getting hotter, with the daily afternoon storms not doing a whole lot to cool things down.

My trip westward to the World Series of Poker is fast approaching, as I leave on Friday. I’m looking forward to getting back to Las Vegas -- it has been four whole years since my last trip there. Doesn’t seem nearly so long, though, probably because I previously spent so much time in the Nevada desert so many summers in a row.

Indeed, it’s become out of the ordinary for me to take poker trips within the U.S., as most of my tourney journeys over recent years have been to Central and South America or Europe. That trip to New Jersey last fall for the first PokerStars Championship Festival was the first U.S. trip for me since late 2014 when I went to Florida.

Meanwhile I did want to let you know an eBook version of Obsessica is close to being available -- just a few more small things to take care of before it is ready to go. Was kind of a similar deal with Same Difference (my first novel), for which the ebook didn’t appear until well after the hard copy was first published.

I still can’t quite embrace the idea of reading books on the Kindle or some other device.

Obsessica is a book featuring a 12-year-old protagonist -- it isn’t quite “YA” fiction, I’d say, although I imagine younger readers might enjoy it. The story got me thinking about books I enjoyed as a teen, and after going down that road a while I decided I wanted to reread a couple of them -- Dune by Frank Herbert and The Stand by Stephen King -- both books I first read when I was around 13-14 or so.

I no longer had my copies of those two, and so went online to order new ones. I didn’t want Kindle versions, though, nor did I even want updated editions. I wanted the exact same paperbacks I’d read before, and so after hunting a little I was able to order exactly those.

Now there’s some sort of minor psychological tic in there somewhere that might be mildly interesting to explore, something related to the compulsion to repeat and/or a desire to go back and experience again something from one’s childhood.

But in the present context I’m more intrigued by the mental block I have regarding electronic versions of books, one that prevents me from feeling as though I’ve “really” read a novel if I read it on my Kindle or as a .pdf or listened to an audiobook version of it. For me the physical book is the thing, which is why (I suppose) I continue to think of the eBook version of my own novels as somehow secondary, even if I know many (most?) readers think differently.

Blogs are different, of course. Not books. Even the ones that go on and on for thousands of posts and hundreds of thousands of words.

Curious about Obsessica? (Fair warning -- there’s no poker in it.) Find the hard copy here, and stay tuned for that eBook (coming soon).

Image: “Kindle Touch” (adapted), Luke Jones. CC BY 2.0.

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Monday, June 26, 2017

New Poker Reads to Recommend

Checking in briefly to let you know I’m still here, up to my eyeballs at the moment with World Series of Poker-related stuff as well as teaching a summer session version of my “Poker in American Film and Culture.”

There’s also the usual, endless amount of farm work to be done. We’ve picked up a new barn cat who just appeared one day and has now moved in permanently. Just six months or so, and impossibly cute. We call her Nancy.

But you didn’t come here for news flashes about felines. Let me share something of use to you -- recommendations of a couple of new poker titles, both of which can be filed under the heading of something a little out-of-the-ordinary when it comes to this niche genre.

One is my friend Tommy Angelo’s new one Painless Poker, a book he first started telling me about several years ago and which has finally made it to the presses. I’m about halfway through this one now, and it has been an entirely enjoyable ride thus far.

Painless Poker is an entirely unique poker book, compiling both a wide variety of advice to players and some enjoyable, insightful character creation and examples of storytelling. If you’ve read Tommy’s earlier books -- Elements of Poker or A Rubber Band Story and Other Poker Tales -- you’ll recognize he takes a similar approach toward combining entertainment and enlightenment with Painless Poker.

Rather than explain the narrative frame, I’ll let Tommy do that himself -- check out this interview we did for PokerNews a while back that introduces the book and includes an excerpt: “Tommy Angelo Presents His New Book ‘Painless Poker.’

The other book I wanted to recommend is a nifty, slim history telling the remarkable story of poker’s prominence in Gardena, California during the middle decades of the 20th century, a book called Gardena Poker Clubs: A High-Stakes History by Max Votolato.

I found out about this book after doing a bit of writing myself about California Poker for my ongoing “Poker & Pop Culture” series of articles for PokerNews. One article in particular concentrated on a recent documentary Votolato made titled Freeway City that presented the history of Gardena with considerable attention given to the role the several famous poker rooms played in the city’s story.

The experience making that film led Votolato to follow-up with the book where he could share a lot more about the various figures and card clubs. It’s a neat, well-made volume with lots of pictures -- really a valuable resource to those interested in poker’s historical development during the 20th century.

So there are a couple of summer reads for you. And of course, if you’re looking for something besides poker to read about while on the beach, you can always pick up my novel Obsessica as well.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Revelation Regarding the (Alleged) Moss-Dandolos Match

Busy days here on the farm of late, although like everyone I’ve been following all that has gone on at the World Series of Poker thus far. Hard to believe they are only about two weeks into the series, as they’ve already gotten up to the 30th event today.

Have been glad to track the updates on PokerNews once more, and am tuning in over at PokerGO now and then. Speaking of the latter, they finally did get PayPal working and so I got a monthly subscription. They have it on Roku now, too, although I never have been able to get anything to load over there (it seems to stick in a “Retrieving” cycle and never quite opens the live event).

I did want to touch base, though, and let visitors know about a recent “Poker & Pop Culture” column of mine that relates somewhat to the history of the WSOP.

A few weeks back I ran a revised and expanded version of a column focusing on a famous heads-up poker game between Johnny Moss and Nick “The Greek” Dandolos. If you’re reading this blog you’ve probably heard of that match before.

According to most accounts, the pair got together sometime around 1951 (or thereabouts) at Binion’s Horseshoe to play a high-stakes match that lasted several months, with Moss ultimately said to have come away a big winner ($2 million or more, say some). The game was open to the public, goes the story, and for that reason sometimes gets linked to the later idea of the WSOP first run at Binion’s in 1970.

That column, titled “Moss and Dandolos at the Horseshoe - Legend or Myth?” was really more about the many stories about the game than about the game itself.

I included in there how one of the most referenced sources for details regarding the match is Al Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town (1983), a favorite poker book of mine that I’ve written about here many, many times over the years.

I also included a bit from Jesse May regarding how some of those who talked to Alvarez for his book (including Moss) likely embellished their tales more than a little bit.

In any case, about a week after that column went up I had a nice surprise when I got a note from a person who works for Jack Binion. The note asked if I could get in touch, as Mr. Binion had some information to share about the Moss-Dandolos story that could help clear up a lot of the uncertainty surrounding it.

I called and after a couple more exchanges ended up getting some fairly remarkable memories from Jack Binion regarding the alleged match. I say “alleged” because one of the clarifications he made was to explain that the match never really happened! At least not at Binion’s, and not in public. And likely not for the super-high stakes often cited, either.

I won’t give away the rest of the story here, but instead point you over to the newer article that shares Jack Binion’s insight:

Poker & Pop Culture: Jack Binion Sorts Fact From Fiction Regarding Moss-Dandolos Match.”

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Thursday, June 01, 2017

It’s Getting Better All the Time: 50 Years of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

I was probably around 12 years old when I got my first copy of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, perhaps just a little earlier.

That’s the age -- 12 -- of the protagonist in my new novel Obsessica. Have had some more readers and a couple of very nice reviews over on Amazon since the last time I brought it up over here. I’m actually in the middle of getting the ebook version together, and also have some other plans to promote it a little more going forward -- more on that soon.

I was chatting with someone about the book and stumbled into an observation about 12-year-olds. It’s an idea that might well have come from the narrator of Obsessica, who is writing as an adult about something he experienced when he was that age.

“We’re all 12, really, or thereabouts,” I said. “That is, there’s a point in there somewhere before we’ve grown up when we become who we end up being, and no matter how much we change after that we can’t really leave behind that first-finished-draft of ourselves.”

If that’s true, it matters that I was around 12 when I first listened to and loved Sgt. Pepper.

Later I would learn more about the Beatles, reading books and like many engaging in a kind of protracted study of every little detail of their history, including all things Sgt. Pepper. But well before that more intellectual engagement took place came the deep impression caused by many, many listenings back when I was a kid -- back when the record, like other things I experienced, inevitably became part of who I am.

I love the songs. All of them. And the idea. During their first few years of recording and performing, the Beatles provided a kind of template for the whole concept of a “band” (at least in the realm of popular music). Then with Sgt. Pepper they invented a fictional version of themselves to enable even greater experimentation.

They were already larger than life by then. But Sgt. Pepper was an even greater revelation -- about what the Beatles could do, and about what could be done by others, too.

In the title song, Sgt. Pepper is a character described as having “taught the band to play.” Like a mentor or muse or something. Which, of course, is what the album has served as for countless bands and musicians and people who yearn to be creative in other ways.

People talk about it being a “concept album” which it is. To me the analogue is a short story collection like Dubliners, Winesburg, Ohio, Nine Stories, or What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Different episodes, different characters, different moods, all connected by common thematic threads relating a particular ethos and vision emanating from the artist.

Sgt. Pepper features a variety of characters and voices and perspectives, complemented by the many different styles -- rock, blues, music hall, psychedelic, vaudeville, classical, traditional Indian, avant-garde -- all made to fit inside so-called “pop” formats.

The variety was more than enough to stimulate my still forming brain, with the record almost feeling like one “novelty” song after another. It’s rocking and relaxing, moving and melodramatic, catchy and complex, funny and frightening.

I suppose it’s true that an impressionable 12-year-old probably experiences these things more deeply than a cynical adult. But there I was, listening to Sgt. Pepper over and again on the stereo console, ensuring that decades later I’d still be thinking these thoughts and feeling these feelings when listening again.

I’ve written here about the Beatles many times before, including telling the story of my father playing the Red and Blue albums on eight-track player that came with an old Plymouth Valiant, and going with Vera to see the Cirque du Soleil show Love, and going to see Cheap Trick perform the whole of Sgt. Pepper, also in Las Vegas.

And (I must not omit) describing the card game I invented last year called “Sgt. Pepper,” a Badugi variant. Here are the complete rules:

Pulling out my Sgt. Pepper LP today, I’m finding tucked inside a copy of the fan mag The Beatles Monthly, dated June 1987. Yes, I’m old enough to remember when it was twenty years ago today the Beatles released their album that begins with the lyric “it was twenty years ago today.”

And now it’s fifty years ago today, the LP being released in the U.K. on June 1, 1967 and in the U.S. the next day. And everyone is listening to and talking about Sgt. Pepper and acting like kids again.

And I’m setting the needle down to listen -- again -- knowing even before the orchestra starts warming up that it’s guaranteed to raise a smile.

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Monday, May 29, 2017

Pursuing Poker

Spent the last couple of days watching poker on my computer. The PokerStars Championship Sochi series is running, and as I’m staying on the farm for that one I’ve had occasion to check in now and then from here to follow the coverage both on the PokerStars blog and via PokerStars TV.

Then yesterday I had Day 1 of the Super High Roller Bowl on all day, that $300K buy-in tournament that started last night and lasts for several days. Both events are serving as a kind of prelude to the World Series of Poker that gets cranking on Wednesday.

Did very much enjoy seeing Kevin Hart knock out Phil Hellmuth on Day 1. Hellmuth had a bit of a cooler versus Justin Bonomo early (flopped set versus flopped straight), then as a short stack lost all his chips in a set-under-set hand versus Hart.

In fact, when the cards were dealt and Hellmuth had pocket treys versus Hart’s queens, I was already imagining a Q-3-x flop and that’s exactly what happened. Such fun.

Realizing the NBA Finals don’t start until Thursday -- a full week since the last game of the conference finals completed -- I had to joke on Twitter that poker had found a “sweet spot” amid what amounted to a “November Nine-like wait” for basketball to return.

Indeed, the entire WSOP, right through the Main Event that will go until July 22nd, will more or less function to fill a fairly dead spot in the sports calendar between the NBA and NFL. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’m all on board with getting rid of the November Nine and playing the Main down to a winner this summer with only a couple of days’ delay before the final table.

This new PokerGO channel that PokerCentral has created seems okay from the outside, although there are obviously a lot of kinks still to be ironed out. While it’s nice to be able simply to click through and watch (as with PokerStars TV) -- ideal, really -- I’m not too bothered by the subscription model they’ve set up and $10 a month doesn’t seem like a lot to fuss over, as long as the sucker works.

(That said, I’m still waiting for the PayPal option to become functional, as I prefer that route to using a credit card. And I’m looking forward to them getting Roku up and running as they are saying they will, as I’d much rather watch on the teevee than the laptop.)

Still feel like televised (or online streaming) poker remains a super niche form of entertainment, and frankly can’t imagine it being otherwise. There’s always a dream to grow televised poker into something bigger than it is, something resembling or even competing with other sports or entertainment. In other words, something like it was 13-14 years ago, when the televised poker boom first boomed.

That ain’t happening again, of course. But a more modest goal of providing something worth checking out when other desired distractions aren’t available isn’t such a bad one.

Images: PokerStars; PokerCentral / PokerGO.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Recreational Poker Writer

For a couple of months now I’ve been aware of an anniversary of sorts coming up on the calendar. No, I’m not talking about me and Vera’s anniversary (although that’s coming up, too). Rather a poker-related one.

It was exactly 10 years ago today I wrote my first article for PokerNews.

I’d been writing on this blog for over a year by then. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I believe that PN article had to have been the first poker-related bit of scribbling for which I’d ever been paid. Which means, in turn, it represents the first, tiny indicator of what would become a big life pivot about four years after that -- away from full-time teaching and into full-time freelancing.

The article was a short one, just five paragraphs -- “Poker Bill Fails to Pass Louisiana House.” Pretty standard stuff, and the kind of thing we’d end up reading (and some of us writing) over and over for the entire decade that followed.

But even if I might look back with ambivalence (and even a little cynicism) at such a slight morsel of reporting, I do remember the excitement at seeing something I’d written show up on the site.

I’d placed some articles in academic journals, wrote columns and book reviews for The Charlotte Observer, and even had some poems published before (no shinola). But this was something new and different.

Like a lot of poker “enthusiasts” then (and now), I couldn’t get enough of poker -- playing the game, thinking about it, reading about it, and writing about it.

Getting paid even just a little for a poker article offered the same sort of thrill as winning those first few real money pots when playing online. In neither case did I think a career was in the offing, but both involved realizing a small profit from doing something that was already fun and intellectually stimulating.

I have Haley Hintze and John Caldwell to thank (again) for having recruited me to write that first article way back when. And a ton of other folks thereafter for giving me opportunities and helping guide me to become more than just a “recreational” poker writer.

Even now, so many years later, it doesn’t seem like a “regular” gig, even if that’s what it has been for quite a while. The constant flux of the poker world -- with people always coming and going -- is one obvious reason for that feeling, I’m sure.

But another is the fact that there’s still a lot of “play” involved when doing such “work.” And that’s a very good thing, whatever your job is.

Photo: courtesy Carlos Monti / PokerStars blog.

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