Vol. 4 No. 3

October, 2004



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Rocky, our tech guru, pondered if it was ironic that ESPN is showing its made-for-television movie on Pete Rose called HU$TLE, then showing tournament poker right after the movie broadcast. A movie about the evils of gambling followed by an event that glorifies the aspects of gambling?

That is not ironic. It is moronic if you are programming on firm principles. It completes the MTV morphing that I predicted years ago. ESPN, not happy to be the best sports channel on earth, got full of itself when their funny in-house commercials made the talent mini-cable celebrities. So instead of just reporting sports, the anchors starting reporting on themselves-- the glib self-promotion and then cross-media pollution to sports-talk, then to sports gameshow, to the current level of stupidity, the sports docudrama--- which normally is sold as a documentary but has more factual errors than an inner city, politically correct textbook. The board of directors must be asleep in their oatmeal mush.

As ESPN tries to reinvent itself into hip pop culture, it is making enemies of the sports leagues it covers. Example, the ESPN series, the Playmakers, was about a fictional pro football team with the soap-opera-bad movie-cliches of drugs, sex, dope, drugs, violence, gangs, etc. I think the producers actually spliced in recolorized game films. Anyway, the NFL was not pleased to have their game tarnished by a cable network devoted to true sports fans. So how did the NFL react? Several owners wanted to pull the ABC parent football contract. Several owners decided not to entertain any further bids for football when the current contract expires (which had to be joy to the ears of NBC). But it was very telling when ESPN's self proclaimed 25th anniversary shows, like the #1 lists (of sports plays, comebacks, etc.) was devoid of any NFL film footage. If play number 3 was the Bills great comeback vs. the Oilers, the narrator spoke over still AP photos instead of replaying the key game moments. It is clear that the NFL refused to grant permission to use its film archive for that ESPN program. And that was AFTER ESPN agreed to cancel the Playmaker series in Year 2.

The MTVism of the pregame yellers, and the Sportscenter hosts, makes most of the current sportscasts unwatchable. It is the hosts own opinion, own spin and own catch-phrases that are centermost that makes the thumb press FWD on the channel remote. Remember, this is the same bunch of programmers and huckster hosts that created a Game Show of untalented wannabees to take THEIR CURRENT JOBS!! Does that not demean, devalue and debunk Stuart Scott's worth to a network if he's judging an unqualified replacement for his own job? Because Scott is now a celebrity, and sitting on the judge's table, he thinks he's immune from the correlation that these people are interviewing FOR HIS JOB???

There is no common sense, especially in the hallways of Bristol. The only watchable programs are Baseball Tonight, because the panelists actually watch the plays of the day, and make informed analysis. But even this program is getting the smaltz producer factor, with the stand-up pro-con stage, the gimmicky "bit" segments like CUP or Down, or the Curse on Trial grandstand special event. And the other is WSOP. The only reason poker got to ESPN was that it stole the cable show from the Travel Channel, which had spun off its Vegas hotel and game explanation shows into the World Poker Tour. The only reason that the WPT made any sense was that some clever guy figured out to put a lipstick camera in front of each player at the table so the viewer could peak at everyone's cards. For television, that move was on par with the invention of television graphic machines in the 1960s by a father-son team who made a fortune from their technology from the networks. The allure of the televised poker game is that for the first time (I believe ABC Sports in the 1960s had televised the highlights of WSOP on Wide World of Sports with Jimbo McKay) the viewer had MORE information that the pro. It is part sporting event (watching pros duke it out), part game show (what would you do? do you call?) and part soap opera (he's bluffing damn it!!!). And what other event has the winner's prize money deposited on the table BEFORE their is a victor? AND IN COLD HARD CASH!!

Sir Rupert immediately got FOXSat to broadcast British and Euro tournaments ---live. Which is incredibly air-hoggish because an average session can last for days or weeks. It was such an immediate hit, that several churches gave up their bingo nights for Texas Hold Em tournaments. So ESPN had a leftover stringer, an unemployed sportswriter named Norman Chad, and an opportunity to broadcast from Binyon's in Vegas every year, so they grabbed the chance to do the event, which they could repeat three or four nights a week. Now every casino on the planet is sponsoring poker tournaments. And the prize pool is getting outrageous. The last three WSOP winners were 1) an pure amateur who won over a million dollars, 2) an internet amateur who won over two million dollars and 3) the current semi-amateur player won five million dollars.

It is great for the casino-host. The players bring in the prize pool!!! Once players are eliminated, they may have the urge to gamble MORE, and gee, look at those backjack tables next to the poker room..... so inviting..... It is great for the players who dream of the big score. $10,000 buy-in for a chance at $5 million? The odds were only 2,587 to 1. It has probably drifted the wall street day traders into green felt junkies. It is great for television. You can set up a two camera shot, plus the 10 mini-table cams, a control room and commentators make their speeches during the boil-down edit to an hour broadcast--- you can spin gold from that 8 hour raw footage for the price of some non-union tape editing jockeys. The disservice about the televised game is that it compressing the play into a hour, so new players THINK that this the real pace of the game. Deadmoney (or new) players get churned out quickly because they play too many hands because they have been "educated" by TV that this is how the game is played. In reality, a professional player knows that the pace of the game is like watching concrete dry on an overcast day.

So a nation is foaming at the mouth to become the next Moneymaker at the poker table. It looks easy. It looks like people are having fun. It looks like a way to make a lot of money---fast. So college kids skip class to play all-nighter poker games to hone stills for the spring break to Vegas to catch the chips of the WSOP. Who wants to go to med school when you can wear shorts, a baseball cap and shades to work at the felt table without worrying about paying a malpractice premium. But there is a price to pay for this.

First, the players do not realize that this form of gaming is A NET ZERO SUM game.... meaning for every dollar one, there is a equivalent dollar lost. It is like the Internet stock bubble, but this time you get to see the smiling snake across the table physically take the money (chips) from your cold hands.

Second, the mad rush of non-stop poker coverage will begin to brain-freeze the average viewer to turn it off. How many tournaments can one watch in a week without going totally numb from off-the-cuff odd calculations to the commentator's repose that there are only six outs "on the River."

Third, the networks will lose viewers to the Game itself. The Internet is not the land of the new media or the industrious blogger. It is the home of the virtual casino, with no limit shops popping up like roadside weeds. As little a few bucks or PayPal account, you can be gaming on screen and making calls just like the pros on TV. You are the Sim but in a real world context. But there is still a slight problem to this--- on-line gambling is still against the law in the United States. Oops. ESPN has been promoting the fact constantly that the New Breed of Poker Great is coming from the on-line gaming sites. ESPN is then promoting an illegal activity, in a backdoor way of promoting its own poker program shows. What is worse? A JJ boob flash or promoting illegal activity when a network's license is up for renewal??? Again, is there anyone in the board room still BREATHING???

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The Battles Have Begun!


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Poke 'em in the Wallet

Doyle Brunson is a seventy-year-old poker master. He came out of the era of Texas plains gamblers who played big money cash games wildcatters, oilmen and other pigeons while evading the law and highway robbers. The Gold Rush Wild West was still alive a century after the last gold dust was collected at Sutter's Mill. Brunson has survived the underbelly of American gambling. Today, gambling has come full circle to one of the most acceptable forms of entertainment in America.

The televised poker tournament on cable television has spawned a boom to the poker industry. Go into any national book store chain and you can gauge the height of pop culture fads. There are now whole sections of new paperbacks on the the rules, the players, and the systems of winning poker tournaments. In three years, poker has become more addictive to the national psyche than nicotine.

Binyon's Horseshoe Casino drew in the professional poker players in the 1970s to play for a championship style tournament. Ten to twenty players would exchange the company of cards, chips and the felt until one had gathered all the money on the table.

It was viewed as a side show to the big lights of Vegas. It was still a quiet diversion off the Strip until Binyon got the idea from the U.S. Open Golf tournament. The US Open using a series of small tournaments called satellites to slot golfers in the final field of an Open Championship. Binyon used the idea of smaller tournaments as a stepping stone for an amateur player to win his or her $10,000 entry stake to the poker championship. For $25 to $250 dollars, an average Joe could try to get his feet wet in tournament action. This is the price point of taking the family to a professional sporting event. But the big difference is that you control the action, and in theory, can actually win back your entertainment dollar. There is no house. The game is not rigged by the casino to nickel and dime you stake to death. The game is you against your other human gamblers. It appears that you have an even money chance to be successful.

But there is a major difference between professional players and amateur gamblers. A professional player has the vast knowledge of the game through hundreds of thousands of actual hands of poker. A professional poker player has three main attributes: being a mathematician, being an acute observer of human actions and reactions, and being able to control one's “guts” in stressful situations. An amateur had none of the game experience, even less experience reading their opponents, and may have too much emotion to make the correct play while under the stress of thousands of dollars of your own money being lost in a pot. The pros call these nervous amateurs “dead money” a/k/a an easy target.

But the surge in poker players has overwhelmed the small community of professional players. The new amateur is under thirty, educated and a quick study. Instead of putting their savings into the NASDAQ or their 401(k) plan, they are taking stock in themselves to try to win millions on an investment of thousands. The World Series of Poker in 2003 had 800 players. In 2004, the entrants swelled to 2,500. It is like a locust of wild cards running loose at the Horseshoe. For the pros, the boom of poker interest has expanded the prize pools to unbelievable dollars. At the same time, the boom of new players have been unpredictable and lucky. For those who can gauge the odds of winning, a pro now must realize that it is easier to win the championship against 250 players (mostly amateurs) verus 2,500 (seasoned amateurs).

Brunson said that the new breed of player is different than the rank amateurs of the past. He said that today an new player can learn in two weeks that took him a lifetime to learn. A new player can play thousands of poker hands a week with on-line tournaments. Brunson acknowledges that this technology is an advantage. Experience in seeing how other players bet, react and play used to take years to digest. Today, a college kid with a high speed Internet connection can play multi-tournaments at the same time for little monetary investment. Brunson himself goes on-line to play tournaments in order to keep his skills sharp.

On-line poker tournament sites have become big sponsors of events, and television shows. Players sit at the tables now looking like NASCAR drivers -- sponsor logos on their shirts, or their hats. ESPN, in an attempt to squeeze every penny of profit off the fad, is creating a new docudrama series based upon poker. There is a reality series allegedly following the aspects of a real casino. In the old days, cameras were never allowed within the casino because the owners did not want to have someone's picture taken that would embarrass a customer. There is no stigma in being a gambler today. It appears to have taken a revered status. Brunson gets standing ovations at the tables, even when he busts. People ask for his autograph. People are buying his poker strategy book. Life is good.

But Life can get bad. For the pop culturist taking notes on the poker boom, a comparison to the Internet stock bubble of the 1990s is in order. There were housewives in trailer parks calling in four letter designations to their brokers to catch the wave of the day's hot IPO. They did not know what the four letters stood for, what the corporation's name was, what products it produced, or whether it made any money. All that mattered was that it was touted on a cable stock show, the Internet financial sites like the play, and the CNBC ticker showed it going up. But the stock market, like poker, is a zero sum game. For every winner, there is an equal loser. When the Internet saga busted, there were thousands of investors who had their 401(k)s and retirement savings wiped out.

But if something is popular, it will be copied, hoisted aloft with commercial sponsors, and grinded to death with over use in the next few years. The whole poker explosion has already jumped the shark when cable television offers $100,000 prizes for B-type celebrities who have never played the game to play for charity.

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Top Five Gambling Movies

5. The Sting (1973). Paul Newman and Robert Redford as a pair on con artists who rig poker games and the boiler room horse betting parlor. The movie focus is on the risks of the con artist who uses the lure of big money winnings of gambling to take down their targets.

4. The Gambler (1974). James Caan as an anti-hero, compulsive gambler who keeps on taking risk after risk. It is a personal study of how gambling becomes as addictive and crushing as other vices.

3. The Hustler (1961). Paul Newman as the young pool hustler who learns his final lesson from the gambling master, Jackie Gleason. The dark realism of the seedy side of pool halls and the sharks that lurk in the shadows.

2. The Cincinnati Kid (1965). Steve McQueen is the young card shark who learns his final lesson from the poker master, Edward G. Robinson. The professional gambler is spotlighted against two-bit cheaters who want to rig the outcome of a serious cash game.

1. California Split (1974). Elliot Gould and George Segal as a pair of down-and-out gamblers who continue to play for the big score because their luck has to change at some point in time.


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Poker School Alternative

Most personal computers shipped with some card game installed on the hard drive. Solitaire was a popular choice of OEM. Some users upgraded their card games to include games of Go Fish! for their kids. Some other users would upgrade to games like Blackjack. Simple games for those fifteen minute breaks in the work day. You played against the computer.

In order to learn the game, you have to play the game. The first real money gambling experience was at school. Very little studying went on at study hall in high school. Dealer's choice. For the working class stiff, there are few study hall type moments in the day. Only a few states have legalized casino gambling. Most casinos do not cater to the private poker room because the operator would rather have players roll dice or pull slot machines. That's where the casino makes its money. In order to get good, you need practice. If the local casino does not cater to the new poker player, then one would have to go to a virtual school.

The problem with the huge wave of on-line poker players is simple. In the United States, it is still illegal. Gambling using interstate communications is against the law. However, most gamblers perceive this situation like traveling 65 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone. It is no big deal. It's like the idea of a speeding ticket never is furthermost in a driver's lead foot mind. But some credit card companies and web providers are getting heat from the authorities about illegal activity running loose on the net. Some are blocking sites, others are not processing transactions from off-shore gambling ventures. Is there an alternative training ground?

While at the Apple Store shopping for a gift for a first-grade computer literate niece, I came across a whole line of boxes screaming “Tournament Poker NO LIMIT TEXAS HOLD'EM” Well, as an avid viewer of the poker tournament series, this quick gal suddenly became a serious grab at the box to check it out. It was touted for the seasoned player or the beginner to put yourself in a seat against thousands of unique computer players to test your level of skill in various tournament formats. For a Jackson, it was in the bag at the register.

After a simple install, it was on the Powerbook that evening. Simple tournaments with 40 computer generated amateur players seemed to be the best way to gauge the game play. It follows the pace and look of an overhead televised view of the game.

The play is realistic and automatic. There are aspects of the real game that are lost by the computer's quick calculation of bets, deals and flops. There is a cheat mode where you can look at opponent's cards. I decided against using the cheat mode in order to experience what it would be like to play in a tourney.

In the first few times, it was a humbling experience. The first lesson from television is the urge to bet. There are no consequences for going “all in.” Well, there are consequences . . . like losing. Busted out early in the first seven simulated tournaments. In number eight, a finish in 26th place. No money won. So you continue to play in the next few days. The first tournament win was in number 12. Prize for $47 in cybercash entry fee was $837. There were other victories: in tourney 16 and 27 with a second place finish in the last one played, number 33. In a span of five nights, I played 33 tournaments, including a 10 player $10,000 winner-take-all satellite. (Finished a disappointing second.)

In the home virtual world, four finishes in the money netted only $499 in profit. I only scored in the money 12.1 percent of the time. The return on the money wagered against the total money won was 19.69 percent. The latter return on investment is the lure of any form of gambling. It is notion that there is money that can be won easily.

A computer or on-line game does not have the one element that is sometimes captured by the television series. The bluff. Whether the opponent is sweating bullets or is anxious for you to fall into a trap. The interpersonal interaction is missing from the computer version (which will probably be changed in the future with interactive web cam action).

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New Media Bytes Old Media

CBS News was the gold standard for broadcast journalism. America's most trusted man for decades was Walter Cronkite. Dan Rather inherited the mantle of the Cronkite legacy. In the twilight of the Rather era, network journalism took a major hit propelled by the infant new media blog and news sites of the Internet

Rather and CBS had broadcast damning charges that President Bush failed to follow a direct order and report for duty when he was a member of the national guard. This was a counter-attack to the anti-John Kerry ads which attempted to deflate Kerry's service and Purple Heart awards while a swift boat officer in Vietnam. Bob Dole, crippled from World War II, rebuffed Kerry's service by stating that he was not aware of any soldier coming home from service with three purple hearts who was not severely wounded or disabled.

The odd debate was a leftover from the Democratic convention where Kerry trumpeted his Vietnam combat service as qualifications to be commander in chief. The comparison of Kerry's military service was being played against Bush's Vietnam era national guard service, in an illogical assumption that Bush's national guard service was not worthy of Bush being commander in chief. But the reality of the situation is that Bush has been commander in chief for four years. This whole comparison is irrelevant in 2004. But the old media decided to run with the comparison as the number one political story of the campaign.

Under this background of pumping up Kerry's war record, and attempting to deflate Bush's military history, media outlets have been bombarded by partisan claims. As a gatekeeper for the truth, media journalists are supposed to search for the truth and report accurately facts in reporting a relevant story. A disgruntled former Texas national guarder had apparently been filtering the Bush national guard story for years including the 2000 campaign. But no news organization went with the claims.

But in this heated, bickering and soundbite attack season, CBS, losing ground to the cable 24/7 news channels, decided to run the blockbuster political story of the year. A producer was given a highly charged memorandum which allegedly confirmed that Bush violated direct orders while in the national guard. Dynamite for the Democratic sympathizers. So CBS interviewed and published the letter/memorandum as proof that Bush had lied about his national guard service.

The problem for CBS was that the memo was a forgery. The memo was scanned and circulated around the net for public consumption. It was digested immediately into controversy. Political and news weblogs quickly came to the conclusion that the typeface was not from the 1970s, but a modern Microsoft computer text output. Then, it was learned that the CBS taunted document expert said she was only a handwriting expert who was asked to examine the signature only; and she made no conclusion about the document. With these factors thrown back at CBS, Rather and the news department stood by its reporting that the document was genuine. But the Internet sites continued to press the case of the inaccuracy of the document. PDF copies circulated; more document experts examined it; military writers compared the context of the document and found the wording off for national guard terms; the consensus was that this was not a real document. (Having had the opportunity to view old government documents, I am aware that most are manual typewriter written, and the paper usually ages to a yellow musk over time. The CBS document on its face looked like a pristine, fine photocopy of a recent black and white page--- which should have also raised red flags.)

After two weeks of asking CBS for its proof, the network finally admitted that it could not confirm the validity of the document. Rather apologized during a broadcast. Other old media beat up the reporting of CBS. Many people felt that the liberal media bias in favor of Democrats was shown by the CBS use of forged document to tarnish the image of President Bush. FoxNews spent two weekend broadcasts discussing the ramifications of the CBS blunder. The heat was so hot that CBS hired two independent men to review the story and investigate how CBS reported the story. (Now, that raises another red flag. If CBS cannot investigate itself of why the story went so wrong, how can a viewer trust the next CBS investigation? A news organization's credibility and reputation is its stock and trade.)

In the final analysis, credit was given to the Internet sites for breaking the CBS Memogate story. The power of the new media is that the quick release and review of information can be researched, fact checked and authenticated by hundreds or thousands of Internet readers while an old media organization may still rely upon a single reporter and editor to get the story completely right. Some may say CBS took a chance on a dicey but juicy story. Clearly, CBS got burned for taking that chance.


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