Pages Menu
TwitterRsslogin
Categories Menu

Posted by on Feb 22, 2018 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Las Vegas, Personal, Sports Betting | 5 comments

20 Years of Online Poker: Star of the Party (2004-2006)

 

 

Tales of Fast Money, Wicked Beats, and Broken Mice: 

Chapter Four — Star of the Party (2004-2006)

[Note:  Read INTRODUCTION to this series here, and PART ONE here, and PART TWO here and PART THREE here.]

 

15.

One afternoon early in 2004, my Motorola flip phone rang and I took a call that changed my life.

Rich Korbin was on the line with Dan Goldman, PokerStars.com’s Vice-President of Marketing.  I’d known Dan for years, spending many a boisterous night trading chips back and forth playing Pot-Limit Omaha whilst arguing about bourbon.  Dan and I developed a close friendship and strong working relationship when Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker, during which time he was the up-and-coming website’s point guard.  Dan was arguably the third most powerful mogul at PokerStars, after Isai Scheinberg and his son Mark Scheinberg, the site’s founders and owners.

PokerStars was determined to hire me.  They created a new position to be called “Director of Communications.”  PokerStars upped PartyPoker’s offer by ten percent, plus generous bonus incentives.  One clause stated that if PokerStars overtook PartyPoker as the #1 poker-playing website, I’d receive an extra $100,000.  There was also speculation PokerStars might eventually go public, just as PartyPoker soon did, in which case most execs would likely receive seven-figure packages.  This was a real chance to become a multi-millionaire while doing something I loved.  I had to pinch myself to believe my good fortune.

H.L. Mencken once said, “when someone says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”

Well, it wasn’t about the money.

Despite all the financial perks, PokerStars’ generous offer wasn’t the primary reason I decided to go to work for them.  It was about having a voice and being heard.  It was about having access to the top.  It was about having a seat at the table.  It was about the very real possibility of shaping an industry and making a difference in a multi-billion dollar company.  It was about being in the game.

Everyone in poker talks about “the big game.”  This phrase typically refers to a stratospheric high-stakes cash game going on somewhere, such as Aria or in Macau.  In 2004, poker’s biggest game wasn’t dealt on a green felt table.  The big game was played within the hidden walls of data centers stocked with servers uploaded with cutting-edge gaming software and sophisticated storage systems.  The big game was played over fiber-optic cables carrying a multitudinous number of kilobytes every millisecond.

The undisputed Goliath in this new game was PartyPoker, which by mid-2004 had way surpassed ParadisePoker and had pretty much become the online poker industry’s equivalent of Coca-Cola and Pepsi combined.  PokerStars ranked a distant second.  Other sites were scrapping to increase their own market share — notably Full Tilt, UltimateBet, Absolute, BoDog, DoylesRoom, 888Poker, and others.  Most sites were burning money trying to outspend each other.  Between 2004 and 2006, every luck box who won a major televised poker tournament was signing a deal.  Every D-List Hollywood celebrity who couldn’t get a call back from a studio was endorsing an online poker site.  Online poker wasn’t the Wild West anymore.  It was the Gold Rush.

I made a final decision and picked my team in the big game.

I accepted PokerStars’ offer and began working immediately.

But it wasn’t about the money.

*****

16.

Leaving the Horseshoe and joining PokerStars was like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

PokerStars was growing so fast that no one could keep up.  About the time I started working for them, there were maybe 60 full-time employees in the entire company spread all over the world, and half of those were assigned to customer support.  Isai resided in Richmond Hill, a suburb of Toronto.  Mark lived in London.  Dan lived in Los Angeles.  Rich lived in Denver.  Terrence Chan, hired to oversee Customer Support, lived in Vancouver.  Thomas Koo was also in support and lived in Costa Rica.  Joe Versaci, who handled advertising, lived in Ohio.  Lee Jones, hired about the same time who became Card Room Manager, lived in the Bay Area.  I was the only PokerStars employee based in Las Vegas.  Later, PokerStars set up company offices on the Isle of Man.  But during the early years, most employees worked out of their homes.

Initially, most PokerStars staff were American or Canadian.  That’s because most of the players/customers were North Americans.  We sure as hell didn’t want the operation to resemble some call center based in the Philipines.  That would slowly change during the mid-2000’s, prompted by unforeseen legal obstacles and the explosion of the European poker market, which would ultimately surpass traffic from the U.S. and Canada.  Within five years, PokerStars would go from a tightly-knit cyber confederation of close friends and colleagues unified by a single purpose and a common mission to a vast European-based international company.  But, stop.  Misdeal.  I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Every week was the start of some new project.  Every day was an adventure.  This edginess was totally crafted by design, inspired by the mysterious man at the top.

One of these days, hopefully soon, people connected to poker will come to know and better understand the monumental contributions made to the growth of the game by Isai Scheinberg.  His personal ambition, his management style, his attention to even the most absurd tiny detail should be the curriculum for courses taught at Wharton or the London Business School.  Blending his background in computers and high-tech from working as a programmer at IBM Canada, Isai created PokerStars in 2001 and until 2014 when he sold his company for $4.9 billion, never seemed to take a day off.

To give a better perspective of Isai, consider that he bought his family home in Richmond Hill sometime during the mid-1980, about the time he immigrated to Canada from Israel.  Years later, after Isai had clearly joined the exclusive billionaires club, despite being perhaps 1,000-times richer, Isai was still living in the same house.  Isai wanted no publicity for himself whatsoever.  To this day, I don’t think he’s ever given a press interview.  Most of the people in company never met him and wouldn’t recognize the man if he knocked on their front door.

This isn’t to say Isai was frugal, nor were there strict reigns on budgets at PokerStars.  To the contrary.  Isai was generous, almost to a fault.  Some of the early programmers who worked with him on design and did preliminary Beta testing were awarded six- and seven-figure packages.  Many deals were done the old-fashioned way, with handshakes.   The man’s word was his bond.  Isai also raised exorbitant amounts for charity and disaster relief, in most cases for causes that had nothing to do with gambling, poker, nor any relation to geography.  A human need was a human need.  To do the right thing was the right thing.  Among insiders at PokerStars, the stories are legendary.

Perhaps the longer story will be told someday.

*****

17.

Things got off to a rocky start.

My first day began with the initial conference call, ultimately kickstarting the bold new venture which was to become the European Poker Tour (EPT).  My preliminary instructions were, “We’re thinking about starting a new televised poker tour over in Europe and we need you on the call.”

Umm, okay.  How exactly does on prepared for that?

PokerStars was the antithesis of a 9-5 job.  You might as well have ripped clocks off every wall in the house and thrown your wristwatch into the garbage.  Night or day — what time it was didn’t mean shit.  I’d been tasked by Dan to be available at any minute, and since everyone was scattered across different times zones — Isai was in Toronto and the other main player in the project was John Duthie, who was based in London, plus a few techies from Sky UK (TV) — lining up all the moving pieces on the chessboard took some doing.  That’s one of the disadvantages of living in the West because late afternoon across the ocean is very early morning here.  Over the next many years, I was on many a conference calls scheduled at 5 am.  At least I could explain the occasional lapse with the excuse, “I’m not a morning person.”  But what I quickly learned was — I was now working for a 24/7 company which was engaged with clients and customers all over the world.

Given my background working for the WSOP which had provided close proximity to ESPN, Isai likely assumed I had intimate working knowledge of television production, costs, and so forth — which certainly wasn’t the case at the time.

Creation and financing of the EPT were to be done with one purpose in mind, and that was to get on television with a regular program that would blanket the European continent.

The pillar of success in the online poker business had been sculpted by our primary rival, PartyPoker.  Just a few years earlier, PartyPoker had been a floundering startup company, very likely to go under and be forgotten had it not been for the exemplary marketing brilliance of Mike Sexton, then their main spokesperson.  [ADDED FOOTNOTE:  Vikrant Bhargava, Party’s Vice-President of Marketing also merits much of the credit]

Mike had dual roles in poker, much like myself, which was quite common back in those days.  He was the announcer for the World Poker Tour (WPT).  He also appeared in most of the commercials which aired during the broadcast for PartyPoker.  Mike famously told the other PartyPoker executives, “Buy all the TV advertising you can!  Buy it all up!  Take every spot you can get!”  That sage marketing advice might not seem so innovative in today’s climate.  But back then, no one knew if television commercials promoting an online poker site would prove successful.  It could have bombed.  PartyPoker could have lost millions.  I’m sure Mike was paid millions for his work at PartyPoker, but whatever they gave him wasn’t enough.  They should have quadrupled it.  Without Mike and his knowledge, the site might have ended up like HighlandPoker or any of the other bumblefuck websites which crashed and burned and ended up in the online scrapyard.

This point cannot be overstated as it bears to the overall  20-year history of online poker.  Anyone watching the nationally-televised WPT, which was drawing about a million viewers a week, would eventually (perhaps inevitably) want to play poker.  So, they’d log onto their home computers, easily download the PartyPoker gaming software, and be soon hooked to the action like bristlemouths netted by a giant fishing boat out in the Pacific.

In short, though he didn’t vocalize it in that way, we were determined to copy the Mike Sexton/WPT/PartyPoker strategy and apply the same model to Europe.  Though PartyParty would be none too pleased, I suppose there’s a truism to the old line about imitation being the best form of flattery.

The phone rang, the discussion began, and then out of nowhere, the questions came….

“Nolan, what do you think of the show’s bumpers?”

“Nolan, are these production costs in line with what you experienced with ESPN?”

“Nolan, should we outsource the entire thing or hire entirely in-house?”

While someone from Sky UK asked me something about poker demographics in Europe contrasted with the network’s distribution, I was furiously Google searching — what in the hell is Sky UK (TV)?

Headlights meet deer.

My first day on the job was a disaster.

Fortunately, things were about to turn around fast.  In poker, this is what we call — going on a rush.

*****

18.

Working as Director of Communications for PokerStars was like being the tour manager of the Rolling Stones at the height of their popularity, only with less heroin and lots more booze.  We lived and played and worked and partied like rock stars.

I never worked harder.  I also never had more fun.  I traveled constantly.  I had meetings at casinos at 2 am.  I never called in sick — because there was no such thing as calling in sick.  I never asked to take a day off nor requested a vacation — because there was no such thing as a day off or a vacation.  You didn’t have to ask permission.  Ever.  So long as the work got done and the mission was advanced, which was to catch PartyPoker, no one gave a damn about your schedule or personal habits.  It was the ultimate in Byzantine libertarianism.

We met with movie stars.  We partied with the Miami Heat.  We hosted Shaq O’Neal’s 33rd birthday party.  We crafted deals with NHL teams.  We sponsored boxers.  We signed comedians.  We paid celebrities to wear our logo.  We went to Le Mans car races.  We even met Donald Trump.

[Read more:  “The Night I Met Donald Trump at Shaq O’Neal’s 33rd Birthday Party”]

We held jam-packed press conferences in New York, announcing the signings of new poker ambassadors.  We made the cover of Cigar Aficionado.  We did a press event in Dallas with a poker game for celebrities, and half the Dallas Mavericks team showed up.  We had a private box at a Mavericks game and owner Mark Cuban came up to see us, eager to meet the new 2004 world poker champion, Greg Raymer, who had just signed a major deal with us.

We even got a feature story aired on 60 Minutes, widely considered the pinnacle of mass media exposure.  The show was watched by an estimated 16 million viewers, making it very likely the single most viewed poker-related television broadcast of all time.  CBS legend Dan Rather was still working as one of the correspondents.  Supposedly sick of interviewing presidents and prime ministers, Rather specifically asked for the assignment (I would find out later when I spoke with him in the CBS studio) and flew back from another story he had been working on in Japan just to interview Chris Moneymaker and do the voiceover for the feature.  It was just about the coolest thing ever in the wacky wheelhouse of my experiences to say I got to stand there watching a story on 60 Minutes being taped at STUDIO 33, inside CBS Studios on W. 57th Street, which was the longtime home of so many iconic programs, including the CBS Evening News hosted by Walter Cronkite.  By the way, the most popular TV show now being shot and recorded at that location is probably Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

More than a few times I secretly thought to myself — I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.  I love my life.

Ignited by Isai and Mark, and kindled by Dan, the spark of a new idea was always welcome in any discussion.  We held phone calls and exchanged e-mails constantly.  No idea was off the table.  Nothing was too crazy.  This “outside the box” thinking encouraged creativity.  Knowing that you wouldn’t be laughed at by your peers (and more important — superiors) was a great investiture of confidence.  I’ve never been a student of business school but if I was giving a lecture of prospective M.B.A.s, that attitude of openness would be at the top of my list.

[One example of PokerStars’ freewheeling management style was my proposal to buy the NFL’s New Orleans Saints right after the Hurricane Katrina disaster.  The Sporting News story can be read here.  My original story, “How PokerStars Almost Offered to Buy the NFL”s New Orleans Saints,” in much greater detail can be read here.]

PokerStars wasn’t a workplace.  It was a culture.  It was a mindset.  While it will sound arrogant and probably piss off rivals who worked at the time for other sites, PokerStars had the superior product.  We had the best game interface.  We had exemplary customer support.  For instance, one strictly-enforced rule at PokerStars was — all customer inquiries, including detailed complaints, were to be addressed within one hour.  With thousands of players from around the globe who spoke dozens of different languages constantly sending in questions about money transfers, operations, the inevitable charges of cheating/collusion, and around the clock threats from hackers and blackmailers, I have no earthly idea how so many good people whose names will not be mentioned were able to do their jobs so well and maintain such a constant level of professionalism.  Similarly, the people who specialized in online security, some who I knew quite well long before we were all working together at PokerStars, truly were the anonymous champions of the company.

When you get right down to it, being Director of Communications wasn’t hard.  It was a glamor job.  I might as well have been head of PR for Lexus or Apple — highly-respected companies widely acknowledged to produce superior products.  Selling PokerStars to the booming online gambling market was like doing marketing for Guinness beer in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day — I mean, how hard could this job be?

By 2005, we’d locked up the previous three world poker champions under contract (Chris Moneymaker-2003, Greg Raymer-2004, and Joe Hachem-2005).  We were about to sign two more superstars — Daniel Negreanu and Barry Greenstein.  We were also carpet bombing the airwaves with television commercials just about everywhere.  The EPT was underway.  And PokerStars’ market share steadily continued to rise.

PartyPoker had been so far ahead at one point, they were completely out of our sights.

Now, we could see their taillights.

*****

19.

Sometimes, a believer in a cause can be made into an even stronger believer and when that happens, he becomes a diehard activist.

I became a diehard online poker activist in mid-2005 following a goodwill tour of Washington, D.C. which was designed to rally support for online poker’s legalization inside the United States.

More background is needed here:  Although just about anyone could play online poker in the U.S., outdated federal laws made this a confusing issue.  Online poker sites couldn’t base their operations on American soil, which would have been regarded as illegal gambling businesses and promptly shut down.  All the major online gambling-related sites, including poker companies, circumvented federal intervention by basing servers and day-to-day operations outside the U.S.  Technically, I wasn’t even an employee of PokerStars.  I was a consultant.  Some poker sites were located on Caribbean Islands.  Others were based in Central America.  Malta, an island-nation in the Mediterranean, became a haven for online gambling business startups.  Even tribal lands in Canada, most notably the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, housed some of the world’s most sophisticated and highly profitable servers.  Some shortsighted companies, many with shady ownership, wanted to remain in the dark and quietly go about their business.  Others online poker/gambling companies, including PokerStars, sought total legitimacy and transparency.  They/we wanted to be taxed and regulated.  So, they/we helped to create and partially funded the Poker Players Alliance (PPA), which lobbied for online legalization and a sort of Bill of Rights for all poker players.

I’ve always been a political person.  So, this was a natural calling.  Before relocating to Las Vegas, I’d spent more than a decade living and working in Washington, despising those thousands of the silk-suited lobbyists jerking the chains of lapdog politicians and leading them to the puppy bowl of campaign money.  This was familiar territory.  This time I wore the silk suit.

Our poker delegation was a motley crew.  It was comprised of reigning world champ Greg Raymer, who happened to be an attorney before cashing his $5 million title windfall; Chris Ferguson, certainly one of the game’s most recognizable figures; Howard Lederer, who like Ferguson was a major shareholder in Full Tilt, and myself in the less visible, behind-the-scenes role.

By mid-2005, poker was plastered all over TV, especially sports channels.  Those who appeared on poker shows became the latest mavens of pop culture, with Andy Warhol holding a stopwatch.  With his distinctive cowboy hat and Jesus-like appearance, Ferguson stood out on the steps of the U.S. Capitol like John Wayne riding into town on a horse.  Everywhere we walked, Ferguson (and Raymer to a lesser extent) was recognized and approached for an autograph.  Autograph requests became so common, they began carrying Sharpies whenever they went out in public.

Congress is a beast, its cranky machinery greased by a sizable contingent of super-dedicated and idealistic young people, most in their 20’s who watch sports channels during their off time.  This I know, because I used to be one.  Somehow, the PPA pulled off the political coup of the year when they somehow were able to commandeer an entire congressional hearing room located inside the Cannon House Office Building, which is kinda’ akin to the Times Square of political real estate.  Lobbying groups typically don’t get afforded hearing rooms used for official business on government property.  How they pulled off that feat remains a mystery to this day.  Raymer, Ferguson, Lederer, and myself — we each made brief statements and answered questions — most directed at Ferguson and Raymer, naturally, because they were the recognizable stars everyone wanted to see and hear.  The turnout was a shocker.  The room was packed with perhaps 250-300 press people, congressional staffers and even a few congressmen, such as co-sponsors of some bills to make online poker legal.  During my time in Washington, it was rare to see activities held in committee rooms draw more than a few dozen in the gallery, and here we’d drawn ten times that number.  The poker players were greeted like celebrities.

The great irony (and tragedy) of this story is the hypocrisy.  Some percentage of those young bright-eyed congressional staffers who gathered inside that room, who couldn’t wait to get autographs and cozy up for pictures with Ferguson and Raymer, would end up implementing the dirty work for the very same legislators who ultimately passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), which was the Pearl Harbor surprise attack on our industry a year later.  On the clock, they were dutiful cavalrymen who muscled the bloody raid to stamp out online poker.  Off the clock, many of these staffers were playing online poker on their home computers next to framed pictures of themselves with poker champions.

My resolve on this issue was about to turn into zealotry, and I don’t use that word hyperbolically.

The day following our press conference on Capitol Hill — Raymer, Ferguson, Lederer, and I paid visits to the Walter Reed Medical Center and Armed Forces Retirement Home both located on sprawling estates in suburban Maryland.  We’d developed some close contacts with American military personnel, in many countries.  A sizable contingent of America’s military force, including those on active duty serving in war zones, were avid online poker players.  This was no surprise to us since military life comes with lots of downtime and poker has been a tradition with soldiers since the Civil War.

Nothing could have prepared me for the interactions I was about to witness.  Many residents and long-term patients of the facilities were combat veterans who had suffered indescribable physical deformities and mental anguish.  Some were unable to live and function in society, at large.  They needed physical and emotional support.  Arms and legs were missing and in some cases, their faces were blown off during battles in frightening, faraway places like Afghanistan and Iraq, two wars which had begun three years earlier and were still going full throttle.  These were proud men who may have been confined to wheelchairs but who still stood tall.  Without exception, they wanted to live their lives with some resemblance of normalcy.  On the outside, they may have looked broken.  But inside they were strong, even spirited.  And many we met and saw that day were dedicated online poker players eager to meet the poker celebs.

When we arrived, these resident ex-soldiers — many in rolling wheelchairs, some hobbling on crutches, others resting in contorted positions — greeted our delegation with appreciation, when the sick irony of all ironies was, we should have been the ones bestowing our appreciation to them.  Raymer spent hours talking poker strategy with wounded vets.  Ferguson did some really cool magic tricks.  Lederer told poker stories of what it was like to play for millions of dollars.  The heroes who had toppled Saddam Hussein were just like everyone else, excited to be around famous poker people.

Soldiers shared their remarkable stories with us, but they didn’t want to talk about war.  Their stories were unexpected and unrehearsed, told in various ways that online poker had helped them to recover.  Confined to medical units in some cases for months or even years, poker enabled them to use their minds, compete with their peers, and have fun.  It was a chance to feel alive again.  No one knew the player with the screen name “Tommy1981” from Silver Spring, MD was covered in skin grafts confined to a burn unit at Walter Reed Medical.  In online poker, there are no deformities.  There are no handicapped people.

Most of those we met played small-stakes poker in .25-cent-.50 cent games.  Some played in $5 or $10 poker tournaments where a few bucks provided many hours of entertainment and enjoyment, with a chance to make a few bucks or perhaps win a trip to a live event.  In most cases, these wounded warriors couldn’t play sports or visit a live casino, but they could compete in an online poker game and have just as much fun as anyone else because it was so convenient.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, that’s when I realized the work I was doing wasn’t just “about the money,” as H.L. Mencken cynically proselytized nearly a century earlier.  It wasn’t just protecting my self-interest.  Working for PokerStars and becoming a tireless advocate for online poker’s legalization had become a calling, and a mission.

Coming Next:

 

Tales of Fast Money, Wicked Beats, and Broken Mice:  

Chapter Five — After UIGEA, the Party’s Over (2007-2010)

 

Photo Credit:  With Dan Rather in New York at the taping of a feature story on online poker, which aired on “60 Minutes.”

 

Read More

Posted by on Jan 28, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Sports Betting, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Matt Lessinger’s 2018 Grammy Awards Predictions (Gambling)

 

 

Gambling on the Grammys this year?  It’s not an exaggeration to say no one in the world has picked more Grammy winners for profit over the past five years than my dear friend — Matt Lessinger.  Here are his latest thoughts on this year’s nominees:

 

Note:  I’m posting this (unedited) write-up, which was just received from Grammy-betting guru Matt Lessinger.  I will update the page with more info as I receive it. 

READ PREVIOUS LESSINGER GRAMMY PICKS/WRITE-UPS HERE:

2015 GRAMMYS

2016 GRAMMYS

MORE INFO ON LESSINGER

 

Sorry for the super late write-up.  In the interest of time, this will be shorter than past write-ups. The Grammy Awards are tonight.  Let’s make some money.

As has been the case in recent years, I can find odds only on the four major betting categories. Here is my take on each of those categories:

 

BEST NEW ARTIST:  Alessia Cara is the -200 favorite, and she seems like the logical choice, and the line seems about right.  If the line was closer to even money, I would make a play on her, but at -200 I’ll pass.

No bet in this category.

 

RECORD OF THE YEAR (RotY): Despacito is the -250 favorite, and again seems like the logical choice. The song was already an international hit, then they added Justin Bieber to the English language version of the song and it became the most listened to pop song in any calendar year ever.  That makes it hard to beat.  Kendrick Lamar is the +240 second choice with Humble.  I personally like the song, but I wouldn’t touch that from a betting perspective.  Bruno Mars is the +650 third choice with 24k Magic.  I would like to get better odds than +650, but I think there’s a chance that Bruno Mars sweeps the major categories.  He is historically a favorite of Grammy voters, and his throwback style aligns perfectly with what has seemed to be their preference in years past.

Small play: 24k Magic for Record of the Year at +650 or better.

 

SONG OF THE YEAR (SotY):  The -150 favorite in this category is 1-800-273-8255.  Yes, that is the title of the song.  It is also the number for the suicide prevention hotline.  It was a collaboration song done by a number of artists, and it’s obviously a heavier song than the average nominee.  If song of the year was truly being given to the best written song, then probably this song deserves to win.  However, in many years, there seems to be little separation between RotY and SotY.  Very often the artist who wins one also wins the other.  For that reason, it’s hard to justify a collaboration song being the favorite.  Despacito is the +200 second choice, and if it wins RotY as it will likely do, then it’s chances for SotY go up substantially.  Bruno Mars is nominated again as the +375 third choice, but for That’s What I Like — a different song than his RotY nominee.  I don’t think the same artist has ever won RotY and SotY in the same year for different songs, but if anyone might do it, he’s got a shot.  Since I view the odds on the favorite as too low, I think there’s value in the other two likely winners.

Small play: Despacito for Song of the Year at +200 or better.

Small play: That’s What I Like for Song of the Year at +375 or better.

 

ALBUM OF THE YEAR (AotY):  THIS is where we take our shot.  Kendrick Lamar is the -300 favorite with DAMN.  Yes, that is the title of his album.  There is no question that is a turnoff to some of the more traditional Grammy voters.  He is a hip-hop artist.  NO hip-hop artist can EVER be made a -300 favorite in AotY, until the Grammy voters show some inclination to vote for one.  In the history of the Grammys, your only AotY hip-hop winners are Lauryn Hill and Outkast.  As Tony Kornheiser would say, “That’s it! That’s the list!”  This has FADE written all over it.  I personally like Kendrick Lamar.  His album is fantastic, it’s received plenty of critical acclaim, and yet I would make it +200 AT BEST.  So while I recognize that there’s about a 33 percent chance that he will win, I maintain that a bet on anyone else is +EV.

Let’s spread the money around a little bit.  24K Magic by Bruno Mars is +300 on Bovada, but I managed to find it at +460 on a rogue site, so I went balls to the wall at that price.  I would still make a large play at +300.  I cannot reiterate enough that Grammy voters stick with what they like.  He is a Grammy favorite, to the point that he beat Michael Jackson for Best Male Vocalist the year that Michael Jackson died! That’s basically their way of saying that they have found a new king of pop.  Bruno Mars is everything that Grammy voters like.  He is my best bet of the night.

Having said that, there are arguments to be made for every other nominee as well.  Lorde is the +700 third choice.  She is the only female nominee, which carries a lot of weight in the “year of the woman.”  Her album has received plenty of critical acclaim, and it would not be any sort of surprise if she were to win.  I will be placing a decent bet on her as well.

The fourth choice is Jay-Z at +1200.  He fits the “Lifetime Achievement Award” angle, although that almost always goes to old white males.  Nevertheless, we are at the point in time where hip-hop artists can have a body of work that dates back 20 years as his does, so even though no one would realistically make the case that his album was the best album of the year, he could win from that angle.  As a side note, it would be an unbelievable slap in the face to Beyonce if Jay-Z wins AotY when she was repeatedly nominated and never won.  I’ll make a small hedge play on him to protect my other two wagers.

The longest shot is Childish Gambino at +1500.  He fits the “lucky to be nominated” angle, which wins a shocking amount of the time.  Most recently, four years ago, I would have told you that Daft Punk was lucky just to be nominated, and sure enough they won as the longest shot on the board.  In 2010 Arcade Fire was lucky to be nominated, and I bet them from that angle and collected at 8-1. But I gotta draw the line somewhere!  This would just be an upset of biblical proportions and I have to take a stand at some point, so no bet on CG.  Instead, my action is as follows:

BEST BET: Bruno Mars to win Album of the Year at +300 or better.

Medium play: Lorde to win Album of the Year at +700 or better.

Small play: Jay-Z to win Album of the Year at +1400 or better.

 

Good luck to everyone this year, and especially to Bruno!

Cheers,

Matt L

Read More

Posted by on Nov 13, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Personal, Sports Betting | 5 comments

My Dinner with Fabio Coppola (Restaurant Review: Roma Deli)

 

 

Roma Deli has been a centerpiece for traditional Italian food for as long as I’ve lived in Las Vegas.

Roma has also weathered some significant changes during this past year.  It was recently purchased by new ownership.  When a restaurant is doing just fine, as was the case before with Roma, making changes is not necessarily a good thing.  An “Under New Management”  sign is often a red flag that something’s wrong, or things are about to go downhill soon.  Sadly, when most decent restaurants are sold off as prey, new owners step-in and reduce quality in order to cut costs.  Then, they wonder why they’re empty a few months later.

I’d visited Roma perhaps 60-70 times over the past decade (ten years multiplied by an average of one visit about every two months = 60).  Every previous meal either met or exceeded my expectations.  Four dozen visits — not once did I ever leave disappointed.  Sure, the old-world decor, with tile floors and rickety chairs, was spartan.  The inside looked more like a local market than a full-fledged restaurant.  But service was always reliable and the food consistently delivered on quality, taste, value, and authenticity.

Why mess with success?  The reset button wasn’t necessary.

The identity of Roma’s new ownership wasn’t exactly a mystery.  In fact, I know the three primary investors quite well.  Fabio Coppola, Max Pescatori, and Todd Brunson (all well-known Las Vegas poker pros) combined their bankrolls and purchased a controlling interest in the flagship store located a few blocks east of the Jones-Spring Mountain intersection, on the edge of what’s known loosely as Chinatown.  There’s another Roma Deli, at Sahara and Durango which remains under old management (Note:  It’s also very good).

I have an equal dose affection and respect for Coppola, Pescatori, and Brunson.  But running a successful restaurant isn’t like pulling off a $10,000 bluff at the poker table.  It requires a completely different skill set so rarefied that about 85 percent of all new restaurants close within three years.  To be frank, I wasn’t sure what to expect the next time I visited “Roma Deli 2.0.”

Intentionally, I skipped numerous invitations to dine at Roma Deli over the past six months, offered by more than a dozen friends and associates.  I preferred to re-acquaint myself with this old culinary friend at the right time, with the proper host.  Fabio Coppola’s dinner invitation to join him on a Friday night became the perfect storm of excitement and expectation.

__________

 

If you want to really know someone, take them out to dinner.

Better yet, have them take you to dinner.  It’s cheaper.  Especially when your gracious host is the owner of the place.

The first major difference I noticed about Roma Deli from previous visits was the decor had been vastly updated.  A wooden floor had replaced the dingy old tile.  Tabletops were now glass.  The garden room had expanded, and for the first time, outdoor seating was available.  Buzzing refrigerators along the walls had been replaced by half booths and tasteful Italian-themed artwork.  RTV playing non-stop on televisions blasting Italian programming that only the staff watched was tuned to ESPN.  The new Roma looked much classier and cozier.  Roma also expanded from serving only wine and beer to a full-service bar.

Fabio reserved the best table in the house for us, located next to a well-illuminated deli counter steps away from a busy kitchen.  Dinner began with a hearty Barbaresco wine, from Italy.  Always one to display some fanfare, Fabio insisted the wine be decanted first, so as to breath and release the full bouquet of flavors.

My disdain for Italian reds is widely known.  Even Fabio knew this, as a regular reader.  But a proper dinner guest always shackles his personal biases and respects the host and his wishes.  When in Roma, err make that “when in Roma” deference to authority is the norm.  Well, what a marvelous discovery the Barbaresco turned out to be (particularly after about 30 minutes decanted).

Over the course of three hours of conversation, I learned the following things about my host, Fabio:

(1)  Fabio was born in Rimini on Italy’s east coast.  But he has three Italian hometowns — Rimini, Rome, and Naples.  He lived in all three cities as a child before immigrating to the United States.

(2)  Fabio has never considered himself a full-time poker pro with lofty aspirations of fame and fortune.  Rather, he’s used poker to earn extra money and meet lots of interesting people.  Some of those people, including Max and Todd, became business associates.

(3)  Fabio conveyed that voted for Donald Trump, but also expressed objections to many of his actions and policies.  Oddly enough, this past year Fabio’s first choice for president was Bernie Sanders.  Reflecting a paternalistic view of politics which is quite common among native-born Italians (based on my experiences), Fabio declared, “What America really needs right now is a grandfather everyone can look up to….someone to take care of a large family with a lot of internal arguments and conflict.  That’s the way I see it.”

(4)  Sometime soon, Fabio expects to open up a chain of Italian coffee shops around Las Vegas, serving genuine pastries and lunch fare.  He’s already picked out a few locations.

(5)  One of the most interesting topics of our detailed discussion was a debate about having children.  Most manly conversations don’t include this topic (I don’t recall ever discussing this subject before).  However, given that I’m now age 55 and Fabio is 42, he was innately curious to know from someone older and who’s been married many years about having children.  He wanted to know if I/we had regrets about deciding not to do this.  I shared my perspectives with him (which will remain private for now).  He noted that when he asked people the same question about having kids — when they were able to speak honestly — the majority stated they would have chosen instead NOT to have children.  This was perhaps the most interesting topic of the night, aside from the wine and dinner.

Update:  Oh one more thing, I almost forgot!  Fabio is a distant relative of famed movie director Francis Ford Coppola, who shares the same last name.

__________

 

One of the many delights of my dining experience was meeting Leo, now the head chef at Roma.  Leo came out of the kitchen and spent considerable time with us.  I learned that Leo had previously been the chef at the famed “1212” restaurant in Santa Monica (Los Angeles).  Fabio and the Roma Deli ownership team coaxed him into moving to Las Vegas and trying a new culinary venture.

Smart move.

The staple of all Italian cooking is the house sauce.  It’s the foundation.  Without a good sauce, everything else crumbles.  If the house tomato sauce misses, nothing else can make up for the disappointment.  Every Italian restaurant (and chef’s) sauce is different.  In a sense, a sauce is like wine.  No two are the same.

I’m outraged by how bad (and mostly bland) most house sauces are at many Italian restaurants, not just in Las Vegas but all over the country.  It’s like these fake Italian places open up a giant can of Hunt’s Tomato Sauce and presto!  That’s it.  I can’t fathom how some Italian restaurants take any pride in what they’re doing.  This is an abominable culinary crisis and gives Italian cooking a bad name.  By the way, don’t even get me started on how many lousy overrated Italian restaurants serving bland sauce exist in the phony meccas of Italian cooking like New York and Philadelphia.  I won’t go there.  A different topic and rant for another day.

Roma gets it right.  It serves a house sauce that’s almost blood orange in color, with the perfect consistency and taste.  Not too acidy (the sure sign of a cheap sauce) but rather filled with a progression of savory tastes depending on the pairing.

In the past, I’ve tried about two-thirds of Roma’s menu choices, which are quite extensive.  On this night, I enjoyed two appetizers (antipasti plate — with sauteed red peppers, fresh eggplant, black olives, sliced prosciutto, and an assortment of cheeses) and some delicious arancini (best described as stuffed rice balls with ground beef).

Determined to continue my flirtation with trying to go vegetarian (I eat meat only a few times a week — trying slowly to phase out animal products from my diet), I ordered a specialty primavera item that was custom made just for me.  I’d had this garlic/broccoli/olive oil/capellini dish made al dente by the cook many times previously, and Leo was happy to tackle the latest challenge of pleasing Las Vegas’ most demanding amateur reviewer.

My custom dish was outstanding.  Roma is willing to make any dish upon request.  Try that next time you dine at Olive Garden.  Carnevino sure won’t do that.  This is why I love places like Roma.

My “going vegetarian” aspirations were sabotaged when Fabio totally surprised me with our main course, which I learned was to be shared.  A heaping stack of fresh lamb chops, perfectly seasoned and scrumptious, were put on display in the center of our table.  I temporarily ditched the vegan experiment and morphed into a caveman beast, clutching the rib of a dead animal in my right hand as I licked juicy meat like a starving wolf in the wild.

The lamb chops were accompanied by a platter of sliced whole potatoes, perfectly sauteed in butter.  Snappy carrots braised in olive oil topped with a dash of parsley minimally redeemed my good standing as a pseudo-vegetarian.  Question:  If I eat double the carrots, is all forgiven about me devouring the lamb?

Speaking of butter, this is another of my odd proclivities.  Any (northern) Italian restaurant that doesn’t serve real butter with bread should be shut down and burned to the ground.  I’m all for the faux-olive oil and vinegar thing you now see so frequently.  But any real Italian place serving primarily American clientele must make butter an easy option.  Real butter.  Not shit margarine.  And not olive oil pouring college students with accents from Indiana.

Without asking, Roma served up piping hot bread, topped with a dusting of flour, like it had come out of the oven five minutes earlier.  Bread was served in a basket wrapped in a white tablecloth.  And the butter.  La vita e bella.  Life is beautiful.

Dinner was topped off with a slice of fresh homemade ricotta cheesecake, accompanied by shots of double expresso.  Boring predictable cheesecake is a plentiful dime a dozen in this town, but fresh ricotta is much a rarer find.  Consistent with an extensive in-house bakery that displays an assortment of pastries, cakes, and cookies (the house specialty), Roma nailed the dessert to perfection.

__________

 

Fabio told me one of the things he respects most about my writings is the brutal honesty I usually deliver.

He’s about to get more of that now.

If there’s one serious concern I have with Roma, it’s the pricing which is slightly higher than most off-the-Strip Italian-themed restaurants.  Yes, I know better-quality ingredients and talented kitchen staff costs money.  The prices must be higher.  But I worry this could inhibit growing a successful business in a fickle city that’s highly-competitive when it comes to restaurants, especially with so many ex-pat Italians and their resident descendants.

Then again, Roma is not going for the crowd that thinks Olive Garden is real Italian food.  At Roma, most pasta dishes are priced close to $20.  The higher-end steaks and cuts range from $30-40.  Formal dining joints with white tablecloths can get away with charging high prices.  But Roma remains a neighborhood deli, and despite all the upgrades and best intentions remains a deli, and so one minor criticism some could have upon a quick inspection of the menu are the prices.  A decent meal here for two, when done right, will run about $100.  To be fair, Roma also offers lunch specials which are much cheaper and still just as good.

Judging by the crowds I witnessed, Roma is doing just fine though — and for the time being perhaps my concerns with the pricing are in the minority  I’m thrilled to be wrong about this.  Fabio stated he’s trying to expand his night business and might soon introduce a late-night happy hour (reverse happy hour) with specials after a certain hour.  This is all in the works.  Las Vegas could certainly use a great late-night restaurant that isn’t Chinese or a coffee shop.

Roma appears to be trying to compete with Nora’s which is nearby and probably the best-known upscale Italian restaurant on the west side.  Nora’s offers a much fancier atmosphere.  But the service is far better at Roma.  Based on my visits to both, Roma’s food is better, also.

When making comparisons, Roma is far superior in value than any of the outrageously expensive and overrated so-called “Italian restaurants” tempting tourists on The Strip, most notably the abomination known as Carnevino anchored at the Venetian.  Why anyone would subject themselves to snooty servers, bastardized Italian fare, crowds of conventioneers, and double the rip-off prices is totally beyond me.  Some advice:  Skip the likes of Carnevino, and try out a real authentic family-owned business run by hands-on people who care about their food — and that’s Roma Deli.

My conclusion:  Roma Deli is one of the very few Italian restaurants I’ve visited which successfully bridges both northern and traditional southern fare, blended into the farm-to-table techniques of Tuscany, combined with the culinary sophistication of Rome.  Add a market with ample desserts, meats, and cheeses, with a full bar, and that makes for the perfect refuge.

Thanks, Fabio.  The food was surpassed only by the host and company.

A final word:  At dinner, we both did many movie impersonations.  This is me doing my best/worst Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter from “Silence of the Lambs.”

“Ah, Clarice….a census taker once tried to test me.  I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.  Sssss….ssssss…..sssssss.”

 

 

VISIT ROMA DELI’S WEBSITE HERE

 

Writer’s Note:  During this visit, I did not take notes.  Fabio was not expecting me to write a restaurant review.  I think most of the details here are correct and will update any errors pointed out to me.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article used the word “vegan.”  This has been corrected to “vegetarian.”

Read More

Posted by on Jul 31, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Sports Betting | 3 comments

When is a Contract Worth the Paper It’s Printed On?

 

 

Today, let’s talk about contracts, particularly as they apply to professional sports.

Even if you do not like sports, this discussion should interest you, especially if you like debating the principles of law.

I just read about an NFL player who is holding out of training camp.  He’s under contract to his team.   But he refuses to show up and play. He wants more money.  I won’t mention the identity of the player, nor name his team, because it’s irrelevant.

The player is one of the very best at his position.  No one will deny this.  Prior to last season, he signed a two-year contract and agreed to accept $11 million for this period.  He played last season and was selected as an All-Pro.  This is now the second year of the deal, for which he’s scheduled to make $5.5 million.  However, the player is convinced he should be paid more money, so he is holding out.

Full disclosure — I typically side with labor against management-ownership because the working class is generally entitled to reap more of the benefits which they create (my political and economic view).  However, the terms of a legal contract impress me as a *binding agreement* between two parties.  Both parties must follow the terms.  End of discussion.  What’s there to negotiate?  They already have a deal.

By using this tactic, the NFL player may be able to squeeze more money out of the team.  Yes, I realize that teams and owners screw just about everyone, so I have no mercy for how they usually do business.  Yet, purely as a matter of principle, shouldn’t the player be forced to honor his end of the deal?  If he is able-bodied and refuses to show up for work, why doesn’t the team file a civil lawsuit against him for breach of contract?

Keep in mind the contract is a two-way street.  Had this player performed poorly last season and lost his starting position, or been seriously injured, or fallen off his back porch and broke his leg, the team would STILL be obligated to pay his full salary.  Think of how many disappointing players leave their teams stranded with wasted high-salaries (one of the major problems with pro sports, and a major reason tickets cost $150+ each).  This happens ALL THE TIME.

Hence, if the player was injured, he’d still be getting $5.5 million — regardless.  If the player performed poorly, he’d still be getting $5.5 million for the 2017 season, even if he was sitting on the bench wasting a roster spot.  So, the team is obligated to pay the salary no matter what.  Given these mutual risks, why does the player have any rights to renegotiate the terms of a contract that were agreed to by both parties?

Please explain this to me.  Why would any fan support a player like this, let alone cheer for someone who is hurting his team?  Moreover, it would seem fans should have some rights, too.  Alas, everyone forgets about the fans.

Consider the actual situation years ago when a losing NHL team from a smaller market signed a star player who was likely to improve the team’s chances to make the playoffs.  Season ticket sales increased by 40 percent.  Then, the star player held out on his team and refused to honor the deal during the final year of the contract.  Shouldn’t the fans who bought season tickets based on the prospect he’d show up and play be entitled to damages?  Or, at the very least, a refund?

One more scenario, which is a bit of an outlier, but still deserves mention.  We’ve seen past situations where an inexperienced backup NFL quarterback is playing for a relatively small salary.  Then, the old starter gets injured and the young player comes in and surprises everyone by exceeding expectations and winning the job.  Under this scenario, one could argue the young quarterback might be entitled to a renegotiation during the following offseason since his responsibilities have increased dramatically.  As a purist, I don’t think any contracts should be forced to be re-negotiated.  However, I concede that teams want to keep players happy and will do this as a practical matter.

However, in the case of the player holding out because he doesn’t think $5.5 million is enough money, nothing has changed.  Seems to me he’s in serious breach of contract and should be sued by the team for violating the terms of an agreement.

Of course, this won’t happen.  It never happens.  But it just seems wrong that athletes can hold teams (and fans) over a barrel in these types of negotiations.

What are your thoughts?

 

FOLLOW THE DISCUSSION HERE ON FACEBOOK.

Read More

Posted by on Jul 29, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Sports Betting | 3 comments

Are You Ready for Some Footb….err, uhh — CTE?

 

 

Football has been part of my DNA ever since I lost $1 betting on the Dallas Cowboys against the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V, way back in 1970.  I’ve been chasing that elusive buck ever since.

Over the years, I’ve come to recognize what a disproportionate amount of time is wasted analyzing pre-game matchups, arguing about players and coaches, and watching college kids and grown ups tear ligaments and break bones to move an oval-shaped ball made presumably of the skin of a pig across a designated white line in order to achieve the ultimate obelisk of the game — which is scoring 6 points.  Whippee.

Of course, I’m more guilty than most, not only in sheltering the fever bug of sports fanaticism, but also promoting the duplicity through my writings, videos, and the inevitable rants after a particularly brutal weekend.  I fully recognize — and am even bothered to some degree — by the hypocrisy of this lifelong obsession with sports gambling while at the same time so often belittling the distractions of these mindless diversions within our culture.

I’m disgusted with the game, but alas I still love it so.  College football — the corrupt NCAA, the phony colleges which exploit so-called “student-athletes” while paying coaches and executives millions, and the grotesquely imbalanced ranking and bowl systems.  Pro football — billionaire owners playing pauper to gauge taxpayers for one-sided stadium deals, greedy players holding out and breaking contracts, $30 for game day parking, and way too many television commercials.  And shit referees.

Like all football fans, I bitch and moan incessantly about it all, but then I’m right there every Sunday morning and Monday night, like an addicted junkie doddering towards a needle for another fix.  Nolan Dalla — guilty as charged.

Still, I wonder about the future of football, especially in light of today’s bombshell announcement about the long-term effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.  The short version of the latest most comprehensive study ever on the subject is as follows — CTE is real.  Evidence — Out of 111 brains of deceased NFL players that were studied, 110 were found to have some form of CTE.  110 out of 111.  Ka-boom.  That means playing football over a period of time causes serious brain injury.  End of discussion.

Think about that for a moment.

Would you play pro football if given the chance?  I think most of us would say yes.  The money is just too good.  The excitement of putting on an NFL uniform would be way too cool a proposition to pass up.  Well, maybe not playing for the Rams.  But anyone else.

That said, most of us would likely take a long hard look at what we’re doing to our bodies and brains once the inevitable injuries began taking their toll.  Look at it this way:  How much is walking normally worth to you?  How much money would you need to make to sacrifice your mental faculties in the final few years of your life?  These are legitimate questions that every athlete and every parent and every wife, mother, son, and daughter should be asking of those who strap on a helmet and take the field.  The evidence is clear.

It’s one thing for a professional athlete who’s earning millions of dollars to carefully assess the serious risks of playing football.  Indeed, one can justify playing in the NFL at least a few seasons perhaps in order to live the good life and support one’s family.  That’s a risk many are willing to take and a price they are willing to pay later down the road.  But what about high school kids, college players, and those who will never earn a dollar from playing football?  Is it really worth it to endure the whiplash of getting tossed around the turf like a ragdoll playing football for Purdue?  At what point do parents and students say — stop!  it just isn’t worth it.

I suspect this study [READ MORE HERE] and the fallout of more research to come will not be good for football’s long term prospects.  Some parents already don’t want their kids playing football because, they say, it’s too risky.  As evidence mounts, recruiters must worry and now be willing to face what could become a legitimate objection to playing football, in favor of safer sports like basketball or baseball.

Will football be dead in 20 years?

It’s hard to imagine a downfall given all the money, the fame, the billion-dollar stadiums, the entertainment spectacle, and the cultural infatuation with it all.  The National Football League is the American pastime.  That’s because a fan in Macon, Georgia is every bit as interested in watching a game that takes place in Arizona or Missouri or Wisconsin as his team, the Atlanta Falcons.  This is the genius of pro football — making it into a national game.  No other sport casts such a spell over the mass populace.

The counterargument to football’s decline (for medical reasons) is the recognition that violence sells.  A few decades ago, a sport like the MMA/UFC would have been unthinkable.  Women fighting in cages would have a cultural taboo.  Now, it’s on ESPN primetime.  America loves violence.  America is obsessed with violence.  So perhaps, even the risk of ending up like a vegetable attached to a feeding tube will simply be looked at as one of the hazards of the game.  Perhaps it’s an acceptable risk.

But hey, 110 out of 111 brains — all bludgeoned with CTE?

You tell me.  What the risk?  Hell, it seems more like a certainty.

In 1975, a movie came out starring James Caan and John Houseman.  The movie didn’t do particularly well at the box office and has mostly been forgotten since, but it still left an indelible impression on those who saw it.  “Rollerball” told the story of a corporate-controlled future world where the violence of sport turns star athletes into cultural icons.  That fictionalized vision from nearly five decades appears to have become real.  So, perhaps our hunger of violence and obsession with money is so insatiable that games of violence, including football, will forever be with us.  [SEE FOOTNOTE]

So, which way will we go on pro football and CTE?  Is this really the beginning of the end for football?  Or, have we reached the inescapable dystopia reality that violence and entertainment are intertwined?

__________

FOOTNOTE:  From the IMDB page on “Rollerball” (1975) — The game sequences were filmed in the Olympic Basketball Arena in Munich.  Munich citizens were invited to the filming to serve as spectators to the games.  Director Norman Jewison intended the movie to be anti-violence, but audiences so loved the action of the game that there was actually talk about forming rollerball leagues in the wake of the film which horrified him.

 

FOLLOW THE DISCUSSION ABOUT THIS ARTICLE ON FACEBOOK HERE

Read More
Page 1 of 231234...1020...Last »
css.php