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Posted by on Jun 18, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Music and Concert Reviews | 1 comment

Are Great Pop Musicians Washed Up by Age 30?

 

 

Recently, I read an intriguing retrospective of the dreadful Paul McCartney solo studio album, Ram — released 46 years ago today:

[COUNTERBALANCE:  PAUL MCCARTNEY’S ‘RAM’]

Recorded in the spring of 1971, Ram was McCartney’s second post-Beatles musical overture.  At the time, the lackluster album was universally eviscerated by critics.  In one of the kinder and gentler reviews, Rolling Stone described Ram as “incredibly inconsequential” and “monumentally irrelevant.”  Spoiled by a steady assembly line of Lennon-McCartney classics from the preceding decade, the public didn’t care much for the new music either.

Aside from the stellar Band on the Run, released a few years later in late 1973, most of McCartney’s other solo projects consisted of mostly patchwork collections of erratic inconsistency, while engaging on occasion, far more often mere trinkets of Paul’s much-celebrated earlier works.

By 1982, when McCartney crossed his 40th birthday, he’d all but retreated from the cutting-edge cliff of innovation de facto morphing into the world’s highest-paid nostalgia act (albeit, still a remarkable live performer filled with boundless energy, even today at 75).  If pressed to tell the truth, most hard-core Paul fans would probably have a difficult time naming a truly great McCartney-composed song released within the past 35 years.  For whatever reason, Rock’s Mozart has become Muzak.

To be fair, McCartney’s post-Beatles stuff has always been unfairly judged against the gold standard of pop music genius.  Expected to continue the greatest creative run in recorded musical history indefinitely, when Liverpool’s Fab Four plugged in their prehistoric instruments (by today’s standards) and changed everything within the eye blink of seven-year stretch, most fans and critics looked to McCartney as arguably the most talented of the group, and therefor best suited to transition as a solo artist and simply pick up where he left off right after the painful band break up in 1970.  Yet despite some valiant solo efforts along the way, McCartney has failed to deliver anything remotely close to the catalog of masterpieces when the far more youthful icon — still in his 20’s — wrote (or co-wrote) an astonishing collection of more than 300 songs, many the soundtrack to a generation.

How could the same creative source of ingenuity who penned “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” (by age 24), followed up by “Hey Jude” and “Let it Be” (by age 27) fade into a has-been, creatively speaking?  Indeed, how does the same musical sage who composed so many classics later record and release so many utterly forgettable songs?

_____

Do great pop musicians run into creative gauntlet by age 30, and if so — why? [Note:  For purposes of discussion, I made “30” the creative cutoff.  But it could be 29, or 31, or 32 — the point being that musical creative talent diminishes perhaps over time]

The evidence does seem pretty convincing.  In my introduction, I picked on Paul McCartney because he’s one of the best-known musicians in history and his career is easier for us to judge over a longer stretch.  However, I could have said pretty much the same thing about the Rolling Stones or The Who — the two other legendary bands of the 1960’s trifecta.  I could also have plucked several other rock icons — including David Bowie, Elton John, Queen, U2, or Bruce Springsteen and made a similar argument that most of their creativity reached a peak prior to their 30th birthday.  Then there’s Bob Dylan, arguably the greatest songwriter in our lifetime, who pretty much peaked by age 34 with Blood on the Tracks.

Let’s take a closer look at the Stones.  While Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have clearly stood the test of time (and then some), they haven’t written or recorded anything remotely close to the temblor of Beggar’s Banquet (1968) or Let it Bleed (1969), or Exile on Main Street (1972) in nearly four decades.  By the time the Rolling Stones had released their most memorable stuff, Jagger and Richards, the band’s primary songwriters, were both age 28.

The Who penned and recorded an astonishing burst of great music between 1965’s My Generation up through 1973’s Quadrophenia.  Then, Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend turned 30, and it’s been all downhill since, at least from a cutting edge creative standpoint (to be fair, Keith Moon, a seminal force, died in 1978 at age 32).

This discussion isn’t limited only to white males of a certain era.  It also applies to female songwriters and many soul and R&B artists, as well.

Consider Carole King, a monumental force of songwriting who — after spending years in the shadows penning hit songs for other artists — enjoyed her own personal breakthrough with Tapestry, released in 1971.  At the time, she was 29.  King remains a vibrant performer.  However, like McCartney and the Stones and the rest, she’s not written anything particularly memorable in the last 35 years.

Stevie Wonder was a child prodigy and a bombshell of musical creativity.  Wonder was one of the first R&B artists to seize full musical control of his material, intentionally choosing to write his own songs and experiment with new sounds when many Black artists remained under the thumb of record company executives.  The years between 1970 and 1977 for him were as fruitful any artist in history.  Wonder hit is creative peak in 1977 with the release of the epic album masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life.  At the time, Wonder was 27 years old.

_____

What explains such an apparent decline in musical creativity, at a relatively young age?

Other genres of popular expression don’t seem to suffer an age lapse at all.  Consider that over the years, many painters, writers, and comedians have produced their greatest works well into the 40’s and 50’s and beyond.

With writers, advancing age has been shown to be, not an inhibitor, but an elixir of creative inspiration.  Few writers make much of an impact while still in their 20’s.  But over time, as one masters the use of language and art of expression, (good) writers do tend to become better at their craft.  I’m not sure if it’s the same with architects or scientists, who must also call upon vast reservoirs of knowledge and experience.  However, it seems quite clear that virtually all artistic avenues crowded with older people doing better work now than yesterday, and destined to improve on their efforts tomorrow.

So, what makes music — or at least pop music — so much different?

Thoughts?

__________

Note 1:  Keep in mind, I’m strictly discussing musical creativity, not musical performance.  Many performers put on a great show well into their 50’s, and beyond.  However, very few write good music well into their 50’s, and beyond.

Note 2:  Consumers of pop music do tend to skew much younger than average.  This would explain why many of the most popular musical acts are teenagers and in their 20’s.  There’s simply more profit to be made catering to this younger audience.  Hence, younger and fresher artists get far more opportunities and perhaps even greater creative latitude than older more experienced artists.

Note 3:  Audiences could be as much to blame for the lapse in creativity as anything else.  Most audiences prefer to hear hit songs.  Most audiences don’t want to hear new (unfamiliar) music.  So, there’s pressure on older acts to deliver stale material and no longer push creative boundaries.

Note 4:  Finally, there’s obvious complacency which sets in once a musician is a multi-millionaire, earning royalties for the remainder of their lives.

 

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Posted by on Jun 16, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Politics, Rants and Raves, What's Left | 1 comment

The Cuba-Saudi Arabia Paradox

 

 

Today, President Trump rescinded the normalization of United States-Cuba relations.

In a rambling politically-charged speech delivered in Miami this morning, Trump said that he intends to return to a failed foreign policy which has harmed both nations, divided families, and was so grotesquely counterproductive that in fact, it created the longest-lasting political dynasty in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

Fidel Castro, who died last year, rule Cuba from 1959 until 2006 — a span of 47 years.  Despite numerous attempts to depose him from power, he outlasted nine American presidents.

[READ MORE HERE]

Here’s a short historical timeline:

(1)  Prior to Castro Regime coming to power, the United States fully supported a brutally corrupt military dictatorship (Battista) which murdered as many Cubans within a seven-year period than the Communist government over more than five decades.

(2) The US rejected Fidel Castro’s peaceful overtures during the first year of his rule. When Cuba nationalized US oil refineries in 1960, that ignited a secret and illegal war run by the CIA using Cuban exiles and the Mafia to overthrow the government.

(3) US-backed forces, which included those Cuban exiles, financed by the Mafia, INVADED a sovereign nation, without any provocation in 1961 — in the Bay of Pigs.  The invasion was a disaster.  Predictions were embarrassingly wrong that Cubans would rise up and join the revolt.

(4) The US attempted to assassinate a foreign leader numerous times. Some of these illegal methods tied were laughable — like sending Castro poison pens and exploding cigars.

(5) Cuba’s economy floundered, largely due to a US-imposed embargo which lasted for 50+ years. Nonetheless, this policy backfired badly. Castro’s rule in Cuba LASTED LONGER than ANY leader in the history of the Western Hemisphere. The embargo only hurt the Cuban people. That’s the very definition of a failed policy.

(6) Americans were denied traveling to Cuba for years, based on concerns about human rights in Cuba. Meanwhile Americans have been free to travel to numerous other regimes run by murderers and military juntas all over the world. Furthermore, the US opened up diplomatic relations and even encouraged investment on other far more dangerous Communist regimes, including the USSR and PRC.

(7) President Obama finally became the adult in the room and recognized the embargo as a complete failure. In 2015, he opened up travel and investment in Cuba and American businesses flooded into try to pluck the economy, hoping to make a buck. Deals were in the works for hotels, resorts, banking, etc. which would certainly benefit US interests and the Cubans themselves.

(8) There’s now overwhelming support for the US opening up diplomatic relations with Cuba, except within the rabid Cuban exile community, which is largely comprised of the old remnants of Battista’s henchmen who once terrorized the country.  Many of these opponents of normalizing relations are descendants of landowners who hope to gain financially if the current regime fails.  The last thing they want is a peaceful and prosperous Cuba.

(9) Trump nixed Obama’s US-Cuba deal, returning to an outdated and failed Cold War mentality where the island nation is forcibly isolated from travel and tourism and investment. Although other island nations remain economic basket cases (Dominican Republic, Jamaica, etc.) while Cuba maintains a strong sense of pride and national identity, Trump now throws us back to a counterproductive Reagan era policy that will only harm ordinary Cubans and keep families divided.

(10) Parroting “human rights violations,” Trump rails against Cuba in a speech today in Miami, just a few weeks after praising an 11th Century regime which CRUSHES all dissent, which imprisons all protesters, which cuts off heads and limbs, which supports global terrorism more than any nation in the world, and which makes women third-class citizens with the same rights as slaves. Oh, and Trump also signs a $150 billion arms deal with these Saudi fucks, while at the same time blasting the Cubans.

Absolutely disgusting.

 

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Posted by on Jun 10, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Politics, What's Left | 1 comment

My Take on the Bill Maher Controversy

 

 

My Take on the Bill Maher Controversy:

(1) If you fear the occasional provocation, then don’t watch the show.

(2) If you don’t want to risk being offended, then don’t watch the show.

(3) If you are bothered by salty language or objectionable words, then don’t watch the show.

(4) If you demand politically correct content at all times, then don’t watch the show.

(5) If you demand that writers-comedians-performers adhere to a strict safe zone of family-friendly content, then don’t watch the show. In fact, don’t go *any* adult comedy show, because many stand-up acts are far *more* “racially insensitive.”

(6) If you accept the premise that Bill Maher has always been a risque comic who sometimes says and does inappropriate things, but are STILL offended, then don’t watch the show.

(7) If you don’t see a far bigger picture that Maher is an experienced comic who has built a successful career while offending people indiscriminately, then don’t watch the show.

(8) If you called for Maher to be fired but haven’t done jack shit to object to far more incendiary material put out and sold by Sony Records and other major record labels, then don’t watch the show.

(9) If you fail to weigh Maher’s lifetime of countless words and actions, which reveal an *indiscriminate* attack-dog persona without regard to race, then don’t watch the show.

(10) If you can’t tell the difference between the abject cruelty of a “nigger joke” which was/is a deplorable example of rampant racism versus Maher’s self-deprecating attempt at humor, told off-the-cuff in an unrehearsed setting, then don’t watch the fucking show!

 

There are thousands of television channels available to you for alternative mainstream entertainment which won’t ever risk offending you. For every Bill Maher, there are 100 preachers trying to pluck you wallet. For every Bill Maher, there are thousands of scripted shit shows which never take a risk, nor will ever make you think.  Go there. Make that choice on your own.

One not need be a fan of Bill Maher or agree with his politics to see that this is a very troubling episode. In fact, he should be supported by everyone who values free expression, and is a fan of uncanned humor.

My Conclusion: Maher should NOT have apologized. His apology was especially troubling, given Maher’s long advocacy of free expression and self-professed championing of anti-political correctness. It’s also a severe setback for ALL comedians and artists everywhere which will inhibit future exploration of touchy subjects.

Out.

 

Note:  To follow the Facebook discussion on this topic, please click HERE.

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Posted by on Jun 2, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Personal | 13 comments

My Colonoscopy

 

I know.

Yuck.

A colonoscopy.

Who wants to read about that?

Well, since you’re already into the fourth paragraph of today’s feature, I’ll take this as an indication you’re either innately curious, or sick enough to wallow in the joy of my misery.

Fair enough.

At age 55, I’m told that puts me at higher risk for colon cancer.  Gee, that would really suck to be diagnosed with any form of cancer.  But if I do get such a scary diagnosis, I sure as shit don’t want it in my ass.  Excuse the pun.

Most of us put off unpleasant procedures like this until — sometimes it’s too late.  Especially men, like me who often feel invulnerable.  Since I don’t feel any pain down there, why worry about it?  That’s the all too-familiar tune.  Sure, I get annual medical check ups.  I visit my dentist regularly.  I go through a vision test and get new glasses whenever I can.  So, why would I voluntarily subject myself to such an intimate intrusion by undergoing a colonoscopy?

In other words, if it’s not broken, why fix it?

My ass works just fine.

I won’t gross you out with too many gritty details, but the downside of putting off a colonoscopy is a slow death in the most miserable way.  Unfortunately, I happen to know this firsthand.  Marieta’s father died from colon cancer about 20 years ago.  Losing him was painful enough.  But to see such a strong and kind man like Marieta’s father, who was once worked as a Bucharest policeman, bed-ridden during the final six-months of his life was a terrible ordeal to bear, especially since colon cancer was entirely treatable, if it had been caught in time — in other words, if he’d had a colonoscopy.

Marieta lost her father that way, and she certainly didn’t want to lose me, especially in the same manner.  So, prodded on by her insistence — what most of us husbands would call “nagging” — I finally agreed to undergo my first colonoscopy, earlier this week.  In fact, we agreed to go in together as a couple.  She decided to have one too, on the same day.  No, we didn’t get a 2 for 1 discount.  We didn’t even get frequent flier points.  Cheap ass insurance company.  Like having Spirit Airlines insurance with a $5,000 deductible.

The procedure is relatively quick and simple, which I’ll get to in a moment.  It was also completely painless.  However, the prep was a bit annoying, especially for a foodie, like me.  I was instructed forgo all food and drink for a 24-hour period prior to the procedure.  No, not even a glass of wine.

The horror.

Being a Type-A personality, I took these medical instructions to the extreme.  I didn’t eat or drink anything (except for water) for 40 hours straight.  I’m not sure that qualifies me for any Guinness Book of World Records, but I think I deserve some kind of Evel Kneivel award for my immense sacrifice.  I don’t believe I’ve ever gone so long without eating or drinking anything in my entire life, except once when my car broke down in West Virginia and I deduced starvation was preferable to eating anything in that state.

To my surprise, fasting was much easier than I expected.  Perhaps being a Muslim and doing the Ramadan thing — which means not eating for 30 days — isn’t such a big deal, after all.  Besides, it’s a pretty effective way to lose weight.  Maybe I’ll convert, at least to the fasting part (not!).

On the same morning when the 2017 World Series of Poker officially began, an annual event in Las Vegas which I’d worked steadily for more than two decades, while players from all over the globe — including hundreds of friends of mine — were congregating together in gambling’s biggest and most prestigious event, I was having a rubber tube inserted into my ass.

How far the mighty have fallen.

The prep was critical.  They make you drink this clear liquid, which tastes like artificially flavored citrus soda.  I was told there are some yucky-tasting prep kits.  But I was prescribed one of the really good ones.  I must admit, it sure was tempting to spike the prep drink with a little vodka (my new creation — the colonoscopy screwdriver).  But I was a good boy.

Anyway, I drank two full dosages of the prescribed citrus drink and for the next 24 hours I felt like I was riding a motorcycle through central Mexico.  Fortunately, there were no major disasters.  There were, however, a couple of really close calls.  Football is called “a game of inches.”  Well, the prep game of having a colonoscopy is kinda’ like that, too.  Then and there I realized there are advantages to having house cats.  One just gets used to poop and vomit on the floors.  What’s one more little “accident?”

Our procedure was done at an outpatient facility here in Las Vegas.  From the moment we entered, I was impressed with how professionally things were run.  I was taken to an admission section, asked several questions about my medical history, and then was asked to disrobe.  No lap dance.

They gave me a gown to wear, which was this weird thing that was very poorly designed.  It opened in the rear, which meant my entire backside was exposed to the world.  Worse, the strings in back were inaccessible.  Much as I tried, I couldn’t reach around and tie it.  So, I finally just gave up.  I figured these medical people have seen just about everything by now, so I walked down the hallway like some doddering old mental patient with my ass hanging out until someone ran over from the nurses’ station and tied my bow up like a pretty Christmas present.

Next, they laid me down on a stretcher with wheels and then some people with masks on came over and started wheeling me into an operating room.  I didn’t like the looks of those people with the masks.  They looked scary.  I thought this was just a colonoscopy.  It was supposed to be 20 minutes, in and out.  They looked way too serious.  Maybe they saw something on my chart.

By then, it was too late.  I was placed in a small room with all kinds of electronic equipment.  Next, a woman stuck a needle in my arm and told me I’d be getting something called “saline solution.”  I asked, “why.”  She replied this was to keep me fully hydrated.  I insisted that I wasn’t thirsty, but if some Chateauneuf du Pape could be pumped into the bag I sure would appreciate it.  No one thought that was funny. Medical people have no sense of humor, or maybe they just don’t know French wines.

Anyway — next, an even more serious-looking man who resembled one of those silver-haired doctors you see on TV came into the room.  He introduced himself Dr. Something-Or-Other, “the anesthesiologist.”  I wasn’t there to take notes, nor remember names.  All I knew was, he was expensive.  Marieta had done some advance research on the anesthesia they typically use.  She disovered it’s the same stuff Michael Jackson was addicted to.  I did not find this news comforting.

Next, Dr. Anesthesiologist punched the “play” button on a stereo system, and all of the sudden Supertramp’s “The Logical Song” came on with the volume cranked up to “7,” blasting out of Bose speakers.  I know they were Bose, because I saw them with my own eyes.  I know this firsthand because I was there.

My colonoscopy was about to begin….

[You have to click the music for the full effect……do it, and then read on]

At about the second stanza, a soft rubber mask was placed directly over my mouth.  I was instructed by someone with a calm voice to inhale deeply.  Then, I was told to roll over on my side and tuck myself  into “the fetal position.”  I looked at a clock on the wall.  It read 8:16 am.  As for the doctor, I still hadn’t seen him yet.  My only worry was that he’d clipped his nails sometime this week.

My deep breathing continued.  The music played.  I’m not sure how long I stayed conscious, certainly not until the first chorus when the saxophone solo came in.  I went totally blank within about 30 seconds.

The next thing I remember was opening my eyes.  A nurse was standing at my side.  I was still laying in the fetal position.  I wondered — when are they going to start my colonoscopy?

Oddly enough, I had a short dream.  I also noticed drool coming out the side of my mouth and dripping onto the pillow (hey, you knew this story wouldn’t be pretty).  I recalled the clock time flashed 8:16.  I wondered what time it was now and when they would start the procedure.

I rolled over onto my back trying to find the clock hanging on the wall.  It wasn’t there.  The music was off, too.  In fact, I wasn’t even in the same room.  What the hell happened?

That’s when the nurse spoke up.  She said everything went smoothly.  No complications.  She told me they’d removed something called a polyp, which would later be tested at a lab.  Most polyps turn out to be benign, I was told.  I couldn’t believe the procedure was already done, so quick.  I didn’t feel a thing.  I didn’t even remember a thing.  I slept better than a baby with a hangover.

Within 30 minutes, Marieta had joined me waiting in the recovery unit.  We were wheeled out together and by 9:30 we were out the door on our way home.  The two-hour start-to-finish procedure basically gives us ten years peace of mind, that we don’t have to worry about colon cancer.

While the prep period certainly wasn’t fun with the mandatory “cleansing” stage, and missing meals was annoying, the actual procedure of undergoing a standard colonoscopy (including polyp removal) is relatively simple and worry free.  I’ve had haircuts that were more painful.

So, why share all this?

During the course of my writing, I’m never quite sure which topics will resonate with readers.  I seriously doubt this column will become a reader favorite.  Surely, there will be some wisecracks, most intended in good fun.

Aside from the laughter, please do take a moment to think about this seriously.  In the U.S. 50,000 people die from colon cancer every year.  Chances are, you know someone who has been diagnosed with the cancer.  Most of these deaths would not have happened if the cancer was caught in time.  It’s highly preventable.

Honestly, I would never have agreed to do this procedure unless Marieta absolutely insisted.  Unless she nagged.  I also thought getting a colonoscopy would be both embarrassing and painful.  I was wrong on both counts.  It’s not embarrassing, unless we make it so.  It’s also not painful.  I didn’t feel a thing.

If today’s article motivates just one person to have a colonoscopy, and something gets diagnosed early, this will be well worth it.  So, don’t put it off — especially if you’re someone in a higher-risk category.

Ten years from now, I hope to have another colonoscopy.  And in twenty years, another.  And, thirty years from now, on my 85th birthday, yet another.  Think of it this way.  It sure beats the alternative.

Don’t put it off.  Do it.  It’s easy.

It’s logical.

 

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Posted by on May 29, 2017 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Politics, What's Left, World Series of Poker | 3 comments

Poker’s Shining Moment

 

Screenshot 2016-06-13 at 8.02.47 PM - Edited

 

A Personal Note:  The 2017 World Series of Poker begins this week.  This will be the first WSOP in 25 years which I don’t plan on writing about, or attending.  With poker becoming a faint glow in my rear view mirror, this seems like a suitable occasion to clear out some personal files and post a few (previously unpublished) articles that were written up last year, but never posted.  These next few days, I’ll post some behind-the-scenes leftovers of my final series.

 

There was a time not too long ago when Ryan Laplante might have faced ridicule, and even hostility inside a poker room.

Why?

Because he’s an openly gay man.

Years ago, before being who you are was acceptable to many, the shackles of unwavering expectation sired a strict conformity.  If being gay was widely viewed as unacceptable, then being out about it was downright scandalous within many social and business circles.

It took a while, far too long many would insist, but the poker community became an unlikely coadjutor in the broader at-large struggle for gay rights, and in some peculiarity even progressively far ahead of other arenas of society, especially male-dominated sectors, like sports.  This wasn’t at all expected, and was surprising even, given poker’s jaundiced past where one’s masculinity was once tethered to a cowboy hat, a smoky cigar, and a dirty joke.

But poker turned out to be a most welcoming scene for those considered a little different.  Just about anyone and everyone was permitted to sit down and play — male or female, black or white, gay or straight — so long as the minimum buy-in was posted and no one tried to impose themselves on the competition.  Sure, unrestrained prejudice still burgeoned systematically away from the tables outside the poker room, but was muted once the cards were dealt.  To its credit, poker has acquired a startling egalitarian quality.

This seemingly odd kinship between serious-minded poker players and disparate subcultures which have been the targets of varying degrees of discrimination, including the gay rights movement, came to pass by means of the shared common experiences of society’s outcasts.  Like gay people, poker players too, were once cultural castaways, often viewed with suspicion and mistrust.  Perhaps it’s the ability to identify with those who have historically been excluded from the traditional mainstream.  Perhaps this is what makes serious poker players of today generally more tolerant and accepting of others different from ourselves.  Poker players would be among the first to challenge the old adage that being normal is no virtue.

Indeed, we must accept our differences.  That is because so often, we play, we work, we socialize, and we engage is so many activities with others who are not like us.  Sometimes, they are even the opposite of us, and oppose the very things we believe in.  Welcoming those who are different from ourselves isn’t just good for poker — it’s the right thing to do.

_____

Getting here was a rocky road.

There was the time not long ago, July 2007 to be exact, when Rep. Barney Frank made an unlikely appearance at the World Series of Poker, held in Las Vegas.  At the time, Rep. Frank, who represented a congressional district in Massachusetts was the only openly gay member of Congress.  He was also a tireless advocate for legalizing online poker in the United States.  Although Rep. Frank didn’t play poker at all, and knew very little about the game, he viewed our cause as his own.  And so, Rep. Frank became arguably the most unlikely proponent for legalizing online poker.  He introduced pro-poker bills in Congress.  He appeared frequently in media and often went out of his way to bring up initiatives supported by the Poker Players Alliance (PPA).  His appearance at the biggest poker event of the year seemed to be an ideal setting in front of a friendly audience.

What could possibly go wrong?

I was there, that afternoon, when Rep. Frank — joined by other dignitaries at the Rio — took the microphone to say a few words to rally public support, just before giving everyone the customary tournament opening, “Shuffle Up and Deal.”  However, when Rep. Frank was introduced by name, the crowd’s reaction turned out to be an embarrassment.  About half the room containing a few thousand players, completely ignored the introduction.  Only a few clapped.  Others booed.  A few hecklers hurled shameful insults at Rep. Frank.

I was standing near one particularly boisterous section of the crowd, positioned next to Rep. Frank when I heard someone yell out — “faggot!”  Right there, I nearly lost it, and yelled something profane back into the crowd.  That didn’t help the matter, of course.  It was just my gut reaction.

I was so angry afterward that I had difficulty staying in the same room among so much indifference and hostility.  Desperate for an emotional sanctuary, I walked back to the main casino at the Rio with Rep. Frank.  Along the way, I made a feeble attempt to explain that this wasn’t truly representative of the way most of us felt about what he was doing for poker and the players.  “Don’t worry about it,” Rep. Frank replied.  “I’ve been hearing shit like that all my life.”

_____

Years later, a young poker player named Jason Somerville made his first appearance at a WSOP final table.  That’s a really big deal, especially to a player who has serious aspirations of making poker a career.

Before the finale began, it was customary to introduce each player to the crowd and the viewers watching on the live stream.  It was pretty simple, really.  We normally announced the player’s name, hometown, occupation, plus a tidbit or two provided by the finalist via something called a “Player Bio Sheet,” usually completed the night before.  Some players used this rare occasion of making a final table to call out their friends and supporters.  Others listed interesting things about themselves.  Pretty standard stuff.

Somerville decided to use this occasion to send an important message.  On his bio sheet, Somerville wrote that he was an openly gay man and was active in the fight for equal rights and protections.  He hoped that this public acknowledgement on a major stage would encourage others who were watching, particularly those who might still be comfortable about disclosing something still viewed as controversial at the time.

We customarily followed the wishes of each player, unless something written on the bio sheet was terribly inappropriate (which alone might make for another good column, someday).  After all, this was Somerville’s time to shine under the public spotlight.  If he wanted to acknowledge something personal about himself, then who were we to censor his wishes?

Unfortunately, the announcer didn’t honor Somerville’s request on the bio sheet.  It was simply ignored and the occasion was mostly forgotten.  Somerville never made an issue of it.  But the incident did stick with me, long afterward.  I thought we made the wrong judgement call that day by not following the player’s request.  Then again, at least we avoided a possible repeat of the Barney Frank episode from four years earlier.

One can never predict quite how a crowd will react — especially a poker crowd.

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[Reminder:  This previously unpublished article was written June 14, 2016]

Ryan Laplante won the largest non-Hold’em tournament of all time at the 2016 WSOP, defeating a field of 2,483 players in the $565 buy-in Pot-Limit Omaha event, good for a hefty payday of more than $180,000 — plus his very first gold bracelet.

Then, he woke up Sunday morning to the news of a terrible tragedy.

The worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 took 49 lives when a madman stormed into a popular Orlando nightclub and gunned down more than four dozen people, mostly young gay men.  Since the attack occurred very late on a Saturday night, most of us didn’t hear the news until the following day.

The scimitars for poker and the real world do not often cross.  It’s as if what goes on outside the highly-competitive, almost circus-like arena of the WSOP stands as some kind of island or desert mirage apart from the rigors and ritual of reality.  I recall that a major tournament was even played on the very afternoon of the morning right after the events of 9/11, a disgraceful decision by tournament organizers made considerably worse by the callousness shown by the dregs of humanity — those morally-bankrupt poker players who bothered to show up to play, all while the towers of our national identity were still smoldering in ashes.

The Orlando shooting was certainly shocking, as all terrorist acts are, but to most of us — it didn’t touch us personally.  The deranged gunman who targeted people just for being gay wasn’t personal for me (or others) in the same way it was so very personal to Laplante, and presumably many others.

On what should have been a day of celebration instead had become something far more surreal.  Laplante had been scheduled to receive his gold bracelet on that Sunday, barely 12 hours after the Orlando murders.  Moreover, as was the custom on occasion, I was to be the fill-in emcee privileged to award Laplante his poker amulet.  As horrific images of the Orlando nightclub shooting aftermath were being shown on televisions throughout the poker arena, we were about to award an openly gay man with poker’s supreme honor.

One of the perks of working in an executive position at the WSOP is the occasion to take something to a whole new level.  Indeed, this was a time for elevation and we owed it to ourselves to aim especially high.

That morning, during my drive from home to the Rio, I pondered the unprecedented quandary of just how to handle the upcoming daily gold bracelet ceremony.  This wasn’t just any day.  This wasn’t just any winner.  This wasn’t just a typical five-minute ceremony, with no lingering afterthought.  This was a celebration blunted by a terrible tragedy, fronted by a remarkable young man of courage and conviction fully prepared to use this occasion to educate us, heal us, and make us all better.  It was about making the event bigger than just himself, bigger than all of us.

When I met with Laplante just moments before he was to take the stage and receive his gold bracelet, it became instantly obvious he’d been thinking the same thing.  Gleefully standing upon a stage and going through the usual routine in light of terrible events just didn’t seem appropriate.  What did seem fitting however, was to have Laplante’s fiance, Chris Katona standing on the stage with him to present the bracelet in front of the poker world.  Typically, this honor is reserved only for poker legends and sometimes the relatives of players, mostly wives and parents.  Having two men in a committed relationship onstage together in celebration would be a poker first.  Stung by the tragedy, but also empowered by the occasion to do a pubic good, Laplante agreed with the alternative plan.

At about 2 pm during a tournament break, I took the microphone.  I introduced Laplante as the latest poker champion.  Then, the stage was all his.  No one knew what he would say, nor what to expect.  No one knew how the huge audience — comprised almost exclusively of poker players and tournament staff — might react.

 

Screenshot 2016-06-13 at 8.11.32 PM - Edited

 

Once Laplante took possession of his gold bracelet, next he stepped up to the podium.  Few players opt to speak at these events.  I think I understand why.  Public speaking can surely be scary.  Many players don’t really have much to say.  Besides, no one comes to the WSOP to hear a speech.  Everyone wants to play poker.

This time, the room fell silent.

 

Screenshot 2016-06-13 at 8.05.40 PM - Edited

 

Rather than post my recollections of the speech given my Laplante, instead I’ll let this short video clip (provided by Card Player) speak for itself:

 

 

After the speech ended, everyone in the audience rose to its feet and applauded simultaneously for what seemed to be the longest duration in anyone’s recent memory.  The memorable occasion didn’t make up for past sins, the ill treatment of Rep. Frank or the refusal to acknowledge people for who they are.  The cheers weren’t some false notion that everything now is okay.  But it was a big step in the right direction.

June 13th, 2016 was was very good day for poker.  It was a day to be proud, not because we are, or we aren’t gay.  It was a day to be proud because we’re human.

 

Screenshot 2016-06-13 at 8.07.27 PM - Edited

 

Note:  Special thanks to photographer Antonio Abrego for the photographs.

 

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