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Posted by on Mar 14, 2018 in Blog, Essays | 1 comment

Stephen Hawking (1942 — 2018)

 

 

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.

— Stephen Hawking

 

Death gives us an opportunity to reflect and put things in perspective.

While he was alive for 76 earth years, astrophysicist-cosmologist-mathematician-author-teacher-husband-father Stephen Hawking gave everyone a much broader perspective.  More important, his thoughts and theories will usher in a greater understanding of the universe long after his death and we are long gone.

I’ve never been good at science.  Or, math.  Those subjects were always difficult for me in school.  That’s why I admire those gifted individuals who excel in the sciences and in math.  People who work in those fields sometimes come up with amazing ideas that I could never imagine, let alone understand.  Science and math may claim its findings are based solely on fact.  However, the greatest discoveries begin with a combination of curiosity and rebelliousness.

I wish there was sufficient time and opportunity to devote to a better understanding of science.  Like most ordinary people, I don’t have what it takes to be someone like Hawking — or Einstein or Newton.  Thankfully, Hawking understood this lapse better than most and did his part to bridge the abyss.  That’s one reason he wrote his landmark “A Brief History of Time,” which was the first widely-popular book on science I ever read.  Hawking expressed his complex ideas about the universe, astronomy, and physics in non-technical, easy-to-understand language.  Well, easier to understand, for some.  Translated into more than 40 languages, his vast concepts and emerging rock star status inspired a whole new generation of young people all over the world to begin asking their own questions about the origins of the universe and the nature of our modern world.

Hawking didn’t just teach us about science.  He taught us things about humanity and being human, too.  It’s easy to forget Hawking was a man.  He was a man with flaws and failings and frailties — much like everyone else.  He had kids.  He had affairs.  He went through divorces.  He could be tempestuous.  He was an imperfect man, which was no big surprise because all men — indeed all people — are imperfect.

There was such a defiant incongruity to Hawking, with the mind of a giant encased in the feeble frame of a fragile body scarcely able to carry the burden of his weight, nor the greater calling of innate responsibility that goes with such a rare gift of insight.  It was as though the secret key to understanding the mysteries of the universe were sewn inside his jacket pocket and no one could reach it.

The contradiction between mind and body was a cruel irony.  Contemplating fully the human struggle of making it through a day, interminably uncomfortable, often distracted by aches and pains, unable to communicate without the assistance of electronics, the constant reliance on others for sustenance, is almost too much to contemplate.  Complete paralysis from ALS since the mid-1960’s during most of his adult life made his tireless work ethic and ultimate discoveries all the more astounding.

Even his personal tastes were paradoxical.  He loved and often listened to the classics of Richard Wagner while he worked, presumably absorbed in the imaginative role of a operatic superhero vanquishing the forces of calamity.  In both fantasy and reality, he sought to create order out of chaos.

Indeed, death does allow for reflection gives greater perspective.  While the world continues to spin and species will evolve, we should freeze a brief moment in time in our lives to honor Hawking and think about how amazing he truly was.  When we look for heroes, we shouldn’t be thinking about sports stars and celebrities.  Instead, we should be revere the late Stephen Hawking who told us adapting to change was the highest virtue.

His story and struggle showed, Hawking didn’t just say those words.  He lived them.

 

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Posted by on Mar 6, 2018 in Blog, Essays, General Poker | 14 comments

Remembering Paul Magriel

 

 

Paul Magriel died yesterday.

Most poker players likely remember Paul from his disheveled appearance and quirky behavior.  At times, it seemed like he was from a different planet.  His nickname was “X-22.”  He often quacked like a duck at the poker table, usually after winning a pot.  When you heard “quack quack,” you knew Paul was in the room. Fittingly, his favorite Hold’em hand was pocket dueces, otherwise known as a pair of ducks.

What most people probably don’t know is the fascinating story of Paul’s life decades before he became a regular poker player.

From early childhood, Paul was a prodigal gamesman.  He started out playing backgammon and chess.  He won the New York State Junior Chess Championship just a few years after another prodigal talent, Bobby Fischer burst onto the scene.  By the late 1960s, New York’s Greenwich Village became his personal playground.  He frequented the Olive Tree Cafe on MacDougal Street, known to be the hangout of hustlers.  Later, he spent most of his free time at Singapore Sam’s, and after that, the far more fashionable uptown Mayfair Club.

Within a decade, Paul was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest backgammon players in the world.  He often played games for $1,000 a point — astronomical stakes at the time.  He won the 1978 World Championship of Backgammon held in Nassau, The Bahamas.  Months earlier, Paul was victorious in one of the greatest backgammon matches in history, a grueling 17-hour marathon in Athens, Greece against then European champion, Joe Dwek.  Paul was so proficient at the game that he became known as the “Human Computer.”  In 1977, he wrote a co-wrote a book with his first wife Renee Roberts simply titled Backgammon, which became the game’s bible.  It sold 10,000 copies in the first two months of release.  Later, Paul wrote the weekly backgammon column for The New York Times. 

But that was just part of who Paul was, who most did not know.

 

This photograph (above) shows Paul playing backgammon against Kiumars Motakhasses at the Mount Parnis Casino in Athens.  

*****

 

Paul was more than a master of games.  He attended the prep school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.  He earned a B.A. in mathematics from New York University, graduating at age 20.  Next, he did his graduate studies at Princeton.

He was a math wizard, who loved numbers and relished the opportunity to solve complex puzzles.  At night, he played games.  During the day, he was a math instructor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he worked for seven years before deciding to finally put away the chalk and take up backgammon (and later poker playing) for a living, because the money was just too good a thing to pass up and there were plenty of suckers who wanted a game.

Back then, backgammon was a high-stakes web of rich people and cultural elites who gathered nightly at posh social clubs.  Paul’s immersion onto that privileged scene, first in New York City then later around the world at the most exclusive resorts, was every bit as momentous as the indelible impact on games and gambling left by Ken Uston and Stu Ungar, every bit his contemporaries.

Paul’s exemplary talent was perhaps best displayed by playing backgammon while blindfolded.  He couldn’t see the board.  However, Paul could remember the placement of every piece and memorized the new layout after every dice roll.  He barked out his moves with the authority of a military general.  Paul regularly beat opponents who glared studiously at the board, ultimately forced to reach into their pocket at game’s end to settle a lost wager.

Quoted in a 1978 magazine feature, Paul explained his fascination with games as follows (see footnote below):

I think I’m addicted to backgammon.  I’m addicted to games in general. Games are controlled violence.  You can take out your frustrations and hostilities over a backgammon set, where the rules are clearly defined — in contrast to life, where the rules are not so well defined. In games, you know what’s right and wrong, legal versus illegal; whereas in life, you don’t.

Psychologically, backgammon is very different from chess.  It’s an exercise in frustration — you can make the right moves and lose, or you can make the wrong moves and win.  And chess didn’t have the gambling that I like.”

 

This photograph (above) shows Paul Magriel playing “blindfolded” against the legendary writer and adventurer George Plimpton at New York’s famous “21” Club.

*****

 

It’s been said that backgammon offers the ultimate challenge of creating order out of chaos.

Making the leap from the king of backgammon during the 1970s to one of the many millions who became caught up in the poker craze three decades later posed a new challenge and even offered the rare chance of reinvention.  Paul found a new game filled with chaos, but like even the game’s greatest players wasn’t able to create any sense of order.

You wouldn’t have known about Paul’s mastery of other games by looking at him in his later years, which were mostly spent grinding low-stakes poker games in Las Vegas, with the occasional tournament cash here and there.  He rarely talked about his life before poker.  The last time I saw Paul was a month ago.  He was playing in a $70 buy-in nightly tournament at the Orleans.

Cynics might have gazed upon Paul, seen his wrinkled pants barely hanging around his waist, observed his distracting facial tics, and be very hard-pressed to imagine this same man was once a gaming giant who regularly dressed in tuxedos, dined at the world’s finest restaurants, and always flew first-class.

Indeed, Paul seemed to become what many old poker players become in the late autumn of their years, broken down men who long ago forfeited their riches and glory to old age and the creeping hands of all human clocks, their lost triumphs now long past in the rearview mirror of life, invisible to the casual eye.

But we shall remember Paul because it is the right thing to do.

To remember him.  To honor him.  To celebrate his life.

To have known Paul Magriel and remember who he was is to gain a better appreciation for those greats who proceeded us all and blazed their own path, often alone, and left their own mark.

Paul certainly blazed a path.  And he certainly left a mark.

Quack.  Quack.

 

________

Photo Credit:  The three photographs posted in this article were taken from an August 1978 feature story in Gambling Times magazine. 

Some of the biographical content is also taken from the narrative, written by Susan M. Silver.

Here’s a link to another article, published in The New Yorker in 1977.  “PLAYING  x-22

Correction: A previous version of this article identified Phillips Exeter Academy as being located in NewYork.  It’s actually in New Hampshire

 

 

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Posted by on Mar 14, 2016 in Blog, Essays, General Poker | 9 comments

Remembering Stanley Sludikoff (Gambling Publisher and Pioneer)

 

Screenshot 2016-03-13 at 9.11.36 PM - Edited

 

Now is a time to remember and reflect upon someone truly remarkable.  He left an indelible imprint upon the gaming industry and gambling culture.  His name was Stanley Sludikoff.  He was a pioneer, a visionary, an educator, and a giant.

Today, there are thousands of gambling-related websites in many different languages.  There are online casinos and  sportsbooks operating in more than 100 countries.  There are countless books, guides, and other periodicals, including several hundred titles on poker alone.  There’s a treasure trove of gambling information out there, both narratives and on strategy.  It’s virtually impossible to remember an earlier era when none of this existed.

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Posted by on Mar 8, 2016 in Blog, Essays, Music and Concert Reviews | 0 comments

Remembering Sir George Martin (1926-2016)

 

martin conducting beatles2

 

I’m fascinated by the creative process.  Watching unfiltered talent in the raw and witnessing art evolve can be far more intriguing than sampling the perfectly-polished end product.  Sometimes, it’s just as interesting to watch the baker at work than to taste the cake.

Sir George Martin baked up and frosted as many rock n’ roll masterpieces as anyone else during the 1960’s, and that’s quite a statement given what a creative period that was in popular music.  As the longtime producer for The Beatles, Martin consistently infused the group with new sounds and unprecedented methods of instrumentation which had never been used before by pop musicians.  Some of the techniques would have been unthinkable were it not for The Beatles’ own curiosities matched with Martin as the perfect tutor of influence.  The lanky and straight-laced Martin looked more like a barrister than the megaphone for the counterculture.  Martin consistently pushed the Fab Four to new creative heights, obliterating old precedent with each new album release, which sometimes mystified the groups fans and risked proven commercial formulas.

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Posted by on Jan 14, 2016 in Blog, General Poker, Las Vegas | 7 comments

Remembering Rene Angelil

 

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The best Rene Angelil story I’ve heard was once told by his wife, the electrifying singer and stage performer Celine Dion.

While being interviewed on American television by Barbara Walters, Dion was asked point blank about her husband’s reported high-stakes gambling, which constituted a significant portion of his recreational time.  Angelil lived in Las Vegas during the final ten years of his life.  No doubt during much that period, Angelil enjoyed hanging out at casinos, and spent many hours in poker rooms, especially.  Angelil entered tournament events at the World Series of Poker every year and was often seen sitting down in No-Limit Hold’em cash games nightly at Caesars Palace while his wife was taking center stage to standing ovations at the sold-out Colosseum Arena.

“Is your husband a compulsive gambler?” was the gist of the question.

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