September 2009
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Hit me with your BST shot

The Grand Series of Poker III is two weeks of online tournaments hosted by Gala Poker.

With relatively affordable buy-ins compared to other online series ($50 to $200 per event) and added value for a leaderboard of top finishers across the series, I’d decided I would take a punt at this.

I’d even accepted that if things were going well, I’d have to play the 6-handed Omaha tournament.  That would be seriously -EV, but it’s +Eleaderboardpoints, so what can you do?

According to Gala’s web site, things were due to kick off tonight at either 8pm or 9pm UK time.

I’m vague about the start time because it’s not exactly clear.  The site says: "All GSOP events start at 21:00 CET (20:00 GMT)"

This is confusing, because right now, with daylight savings time in effect, GMT is two hours behind CET, not one.

Given that the clock at the top of Gala’s own web site shows the time incorrectly – for example it says "19:30 GMT" when it’s actually 19:30 BST – my best guess was that it would start at 8pm UK time (20:00 on Gala’s not-GMT clock) but I figured there was a chance it would actually be 9pm (20:00 actual GMT, so 21:00 BST).

So, when I thought I was turning up in plenty of time to play it, logging on at just before 7pm to load my account and pre-register, you can imagine my surprise when I saw the event start right in front of my eyes almost exactly at the moment I went to buy in.

I guess that’ll teach me to check the times in the lobby when I want to play a poker tournament on an unfamiliar site.

Not that it would have done me much good, because for this tournament the lobby showed a start time of 19:00 CET.

So that would be 17:00 GMT or 18:00 BST, right?  (Trust me, it’s right).

And yet there it was, starting at 7pm – and with no option of late registration.  I just don’t know how I could have seen that coming.

I thought I’d call Gala to see if anyone knew what time it was.

"Hi, your poker series event tonight, what time was it meant to start?"

I’d naively assumed that just because they’d answered the phone with "Gala Poker, can I help you" that I’d be speaking to someone who actually worked for Gala and would therefore be aware of this multi-million dollar poker event.  I should know better by now.

So I gave him the full title of the tournament and waited patiently on hold for an answer.

"Sir, I just checked and on the web site it says 20:00 GMT, but as we’re in the summer right now, it’s actually an hour behind and it started a few minutes ago".

"But that would make it 9pm, wouldn’t it?" 

"I’m sorry, I mean it’s an hour ahead"

"OK, whatever.  But it’s only 18:00 GMT right now". 

He put me on hold to go and check, and came back a couple of minutes later to tell me that he’d looked at a world clock and it said the current time was just after 20:00 GMT.

The world clock web site I found told a different story (this screenshot taken after the call, but compare GMT to the times in Dublin and Frankfurt).

After holding once more, I came to the conclusion that nobody in the call centre knew what time the tournament was meant to start, what time it actually did start or even what time it was in the part of the world they were meant to be talking to.

At least he gave an honest explanation: "I’m from India and I’m struggling myself to see what’s going on with all the different timezones involved here".  He took my details and said he would ask a real person at actual Gala to send me an accurate schedule.  Whether they’ll have any more of a clue remains to be seen.

To be fair, this was one of the most helpful Indian call centre dudes I’ve dealt with in a long time.  Very polite, and he seemed keen to help me out with something that nobody could actually do anything about.

Really, it was just me having a whinge and being a bit awkward.

Baby needs a new dodgy cover of American Pie

The radio had been washing over me all day and I hadn’t really been paying attention until I heard the sound of dice.

Radio 1 DJ Greg James was doing a puntastic feature called "Dice Another Day" where he was going to throw the bones to determine which Madonna song to play from a list of 12 possibilities.

Two dice make just about the worst random number generator you could come up with to pick a number between 1 and 12 and I have to admit I was shouting at the radio for quite a while about how wrong this was, while also inwardly cheering for him to roll Vogue the hard way.

What can I say?  It gets lonely working from home sometimes, and it’s quite likely that I’ve played too much craps.  If that’s actually possible.

At least he realised part of the problem eventually, at 0:59 in this clip: "I’m guessing it’s not going to be number 1".

Something I’m sure Madonna was delighted to hear a Radio 1 DJ say about her new album.

But, in context, good guess, imo.

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Gotta Luv It

I just came across this clip of The Late Late Show, where Mindy Kaling from The Office talks about everything that’s great about Luv It Frozen Custard in Las Vegas.

It’s not just the product, which is unbelievably rich and heavy and manages to sit in your stomach for days, and even though you’re sure it must have melted on they way down if feels like something survived.  It’s also the ambiance of the surrounding area, from naked homeless guys to nearby drug raids.

I have to agree, it probably is worth risking your life for.  Although to be fair I would probably think twice about walking around that part of town in a shiny dress and high heels.

Thou shalt not accuse, falsely or otherwise

In a sit-and-go tournament at PokerStars, I’d reported a hand where two players (showing as from the same country) appeared to dump chips to each other to prevent one from being blinded all-in on the bubble.

Naturally, that fate then fell to me.

Blinds were 200/400 with a 25 ante. Villian 1, sitting on about half the chips in play, raised to 1,200 and then folded after Villain 2 moved all in for a total of 1,275.

With the dead blinds and antes, his pot odds were 37-1. It’s an instant call for just 75 more chips, even if all you have in your hand is one 3 and a bridge score card.

A couple of weeks later I got a reply from PokerStars with the result of their investigation.  It said they couldn’t find any history of these guys playing together in the past and concluded that the first player almost certainly clicked on the wrong button and folded by accident.

They even found hands earlier in the same tournament where those two had played hard against each other – and sent me two hand histories that showed it.

PokerStars has a reputation for providing first class support to players and they’ve yet to disappoint me.  Ideally I wanted my $16 back, but I can accept their findings.

I had forgotten that after this hand I wasn’t able to keep my mouth shut at the table, and their response also went on to reprimand me because of this:

On a related note, I noticed that you accused these players of collusion at the table. Three problems exist when you make an accusation at the table:

1) You may be accusing two perfectly innocent people of being dishonest. If they are innocent, then you have sullied their reputations amongst other players at the table without cause.

2) If they are guilty, you have just alerted them to your suspicions. This allows them to come up with cover stories and alter their play all of which makes it more difficult for us to confirm the suspicion.

3) In an environment where there is already concerns about cheating in different forms, making such an accusation only serves to propagate the existing fears. Our support staff works extremely hard investigating collusion complaints and dealing with the integrity of our site. A lot of that work is undone with an accusation of this nature.

Please understand that accusing a player of cheating at a poker table is extremely serious and should never be done. If you have concerns regarding the play of two or more individuals, we encourage you to notify us immediately so that we can investigate. Include as many details as possible including their player IDs and where they are playing.

As you can see, we have a lot of tools at our disposal which help us keep our games honest and fair. In addition, the thousands of honest, vigilant players who point out situations that merit investigation are an important part of our arsenal. Thank you for doing your part to protect the integrity of our games.

Well, that’s me told.

But I have to admit I had never thought about this in so much depth. Kudos to PokerStars, it’s a good point well made.

Even if it is a cut-and-pasted standard response, it’s a damn good one and I wanted to share it.

Awesome work if you can get it

Here begins the possibility of the most unlikely of career changes for me.  On Friday, I was hired to be the co-presenter on a pilot TV show.

It’s not the first time I’ve been on TV, but it is the first time I’ve been The Talent.

OK, so that’s a bit of a stretch.  But there I was, looking into the camera, sitting alongside someone who had actually done this kind of thing before, spouting on about blackjack.

Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be a television gambling pundit!

How did this come about?  I’m still not really quite sure.

I’d been asked to write a series of articles about various casino games for a new area of the Poker Channel’s web site.  It must have been about this time last year that I was working on it, because I remember during the summer trying to grab as many game rules leaflets as possible from every table game in passed in a Las Vegas casino.  I now have a drawer full.

I began to write and started sending articles to the editor, whose subsequent departure from the company was timed so perfectly that I’d completed 17 of the 20 pieces he’d asked for before I found out that the new casino section was no longer a priority since he left and nobody else knew what I’d been working on.

Months passed, and eventually I decided to start hassling someone to see if there was any chance I they still wanted to use my work, or if it would instead become part of my yet-to-be-published “Luckydonut’s Awesome Guide to Gambling”.  That’s obviously a working title, but it has potential.

It turns out that somebody read my stuff and quite liked it.  Next thing I knew, I was invited to a meeting at their offices to talk about a TV show they were developing about blackjack, and really that’s as much as they told me before I got there.

I thought I might get some writing work out of it, but when I got there they’d already penciled me in as Charlie Brougham’s sidekick on the show.

I don’t watch any sport on TV so I didn’t know who Charlie was, never mind how to spell his last name.  It’s B, R, O, then a bunch of letters that don’t make any sound, and an M.  And they say English is a difficult language to learn.

When we first met, Charlie asked me what I did and I struggled to come up with any kind of answer that justified my being there.  “I’ve written some bits about blackjack for the web site” didn’t seem to cut it, even before I’d (I thought, politely) asked him the same question.

Next time I’m introduced to someone down there my reflex question is going to be, “Haven’t I seen you on the telly?”.

The next time I met Charlie, he’d ask me the same thing again – in front of the camera.  Fortunately this time I knew it was coming and had prepared an answer.  In the script, it went like this:

I’ve been a recreational gambler for as long as I can remember, and I’ve played and studied the strategies for just about every casino game you can think of.  I’m a bit of a maths geek and I’ve worked with computer software, so I’ve used that to analyse games and test various strategies to help me prove or disprove various theories about how to play casino games.

In reality it was a bit more stammery, but the same idea. 

As the idea of the show is to make money for a casino sponsor (in fact, the programme would be classed as an infomercial so that it can push the casino product as hard as possible) I thought it probably wasn’t appropriate to talk about bonus abuse and how I usually only play blackjack when I know the odds are heavily in my favour.

I wrote a few more set pieces about why blackjack is great, why you should never take insurance and some common mistakes to look out for, but the rest of the material was the two of us talking about blackjack hands that were being played out on screen, with me occasionally forgetting things I was meant to know, like whether or not you’re meant to double down on soft thirteen against a dealer’s four.

I’m told I did just fine.

However, I did come to realise that nothing is ever bad in TV land while the cameras are rolling.  If something’s not quite right, it’s “great” and if it’s a complete clusterfuck then it’s “fine”.

For example, “that was great, but we’re going to do it one more time, and try not to look so much like a rabbit in the headlights when you look at the camera”.

Or, “that was fine, but can we go again, and if Chris could remember what he was going to say that would be great”.

Well, eventually we got through it.  Editing and post-production will take about a week, and they’re going to send me a DVD when it’s done.  I doubt I’ll be allowed to upload any video, but my friends on Facebook will probably notice a new profile picture.  I’ll be quite disappointed if there’s not a usable screenshot with the caption: “Casino Expert”.

It was only a pilot so I don’t know whether the show will ever be aired, but if I’m going to be on the TV I might just mention it…

Straightening up and flying right

BMI Diamond Club just really impressed me.  I called to make some changes to an award flight and it was incredibly easy.  Everything appears to be confirmed already, so credit where credit is due. Good job BMI.

Originally I’d panic-booked some dates for April 2010 as soon as they lit up on the availability calendar. With millions of miles to burn with an airline that no longer flies non-stop to Las Vegas, I was thinking that worst case I’d at least have something to spend the miles on this way, and best case I could just pay the change fee if something better came along.

Something better did indeed come along, and it’s mostly thanks to Claire’s school, because instead of having to teach on the first two days back after Easter they now have “training” days.

Which, to a non-teacher, looks rather like there are no kids there so the staff don’t need to bother turning up either.

The flights I nabbed originally were via Denver on the way out, and via Los Angeles on the way back. The agent actually suggested the same Denver route for the return leg, but I insisted on LA – thinking that the longer transatlantic leg would be better to try to get some sleep after I get changed into my first class pyjamas while someone makes my bed.

It has to be a swanky flight when you’re redeeming miles. It just has to be.

What I didn’t realise until it was too late is that flight UA948, listed as a scheduled flight from LA to Heathrow, actually makes one “technical stop” in Denver.

It’s an interesting use of the word “stop” because to follow that route all the way through, you have to get off a 757 in Denver, wait while it magically transforms into a 777 (with the same flight number) and then reboard it to get you to London.

That 777 is actually the same plane I would have been on if I’d just taken the LAS-DEN-LHR route in the first place.  So all in all not the greatest travel plan I have ever put together.

Anyway, a whole bunch of flights had opened up since I first made that booking, particularly via San Francisco. It was showing as available for virtually any date and I got my first choice.  Leave on Saturday instead of Sunday, and return Thursday instead of Monday.

Cost to make this change: £40.  Can hardly grumble at the price to make a massive improvement to my initial screw up and buy me four extra days of Vegas time!

The most noble of all the gasses

Neon.  It’s just so cool when you put it in a glass tube and give it a few thousand volts.

Of all the places in Las Vegas to truly appreciate the beauty of neon, my favourite is at the intersection of Fremont Street and Casino Center Blvd.

Vegas has neon lights everywhere, but nowhere is it quite as intense as between the Fremont Casino and Binion’s.  You have a wall of red on one side and a mass of turquoise on the other.  I must have been there dozens of times and it still gives me chills.

Of course my video isn’t going to do it justice.  In fact, the key moments last just a few seconds in each direction, and because it was so shaky I had to turn the stabilisation all the way up, which has made it a bit fuzzy in parts.

Hopefully you’ll still be able to see why this is my very favourite stretch of Las Vegas scenery.

I am not the devil

Thanks to Geoff for sending me the link to this article.  I actually didn’t think to ask how he found it, but that’s probably a good thing.

Just in case you had any doubts about it, I am not the devil.  Google says so.

OK, so it’s an imposter.  This is the guy whose book on snakes appears when you search for me on Amazon.

So maybe I should go and check for horns after all…

Underneath the arches

Expect more videos to follow as I sort through the randomness captured on my camera.

But let’s start with this one, which is probably the least interesting of the lot – except to geeks like me!

I happened to catch the giant neon McDonalds arch outside Harrah’s when its LED board had flipped into a manufacturer’s demonstration mode.

To be honest, I can’t recall what this bit of the sign usually says.  Probably "99c double cheeseburgers" or something.  But this time it was boasting such proud features as a serial port, and a whole megabyte of RAM.

Day 36: One last gamble

Although our flight from LA wasn’t until 9.15pm, we weren’t taking any chances with getting there in time and left before lunch for a leisurely drive through the endless desert.

I thought the gambling was behind us, until we stopped for a toilet break in Barstow, CA.

A vending machine selling lottery scratchcard tickets.  That’s almost as good as a slot machine!  How could I resist?

With a car full of all our worldly posessions, we played tag team toilet.  I went first and came back with two scratchcards.  Then when we didn’t win, Claire got two more.

These two are simple “match the numbers” games.  You’ll see that we didn’t even bother scratching off the prize boxes, so we’ll never know just how much we could have won – if only the cards had been a winning ones.

The next was a crossword game where you had to take a letter at a time from the list at the top and scratch them off the crossword grid and see if you made a word.

We made one three-letter word (“age”) and you need two or more to get paid.

Whereas it took only a few seconds to find out that the other cards were losers, this one kept us going for a good ten minutes.

Finally, there was a poker-themed game, where your hand had to beat the dealer’s to win a prize.  So as not to alienate anyone not familiar with the rules of poker, there was a hand ranking guide on the back of the card.

Our dealer had trips, so it wasn’t going to be easy.

The first four cards making a flush draw for twenty five grand could have been an exciting bit of a wind up, except that inexplicably I was scratching from right to left.

I still don’t know why, but it meant that we never really saw anything come close to a win, except for a gutshot straight draw for $75.  Yes, we did both shout for the deuce.

My scratchcard experience is pretty limited but I was fairly impressed with this range of gameplay options – from the quick gambling fix to the chilled out game that you actually have to think about.

We were offered one final chance to gamble, at the airport.  In a terminal dogged by construction, the baggage scanners were just plonked on the floor in a busy area quite close to the doors, with a bit of that stretchy barrier stuff they use in Post Office queues around them.

“You can just leave them there, I’ll take care of it from here”, said someone who apparently worked for the airport, as we approached the barrier.

Upside: not having to stand and wait for thirty seconds.

Downside: could be quite severe.

After careful consideration, I decided not to take that bet.