Writer’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series. This blog is contributed by someone who wishes to remain anonymous. All names of those in this story have been changed at the author’s request. Please take the time to read this. It’s beautifully written — and a wonderful inspiration to kids and adults alike.
If you’re a kid playing baseball, there is nothing that causes more disappointment than striking out.
You walk up to the plate and every eye in the stadium is focused on you. Regardless of what the statistics indicate about your potential for success, the level of expectation is still high. When a pitcher gives up a home run, it is certainly a disappointment for him. But everyone knows that in order to be effective in his role a pitcher must throw strikes. Pitches in the strike zone are, for the most part, hittable and sometimes they are hit out of the park.
When you’ve struck out however, you have either missed the pitches that were in the strike zone, or swung at pitches that were not. Sometimes both. You were given multiple opportunities and you wasted them. To make matters worse you must now take a long, lonely stroll back to the dugout, which affords you ample opportunity to contemplate your recent failure.
But you are certainly NOT a failure — for in the battle between pitcher and hitter, a significant advantage belongs to the pitcher in almost every case.
It has been said that hitting a round ball with a round bat is the hardest fundamental task in all of sports and yet each time you come up to the plate, you expect to and are expected by others to, hit the ball.
When a player makes an error, he may be given the opportunity to redeem himself on the very next pitch. A diving catch or a perfect throw results in a stadium full of cheering fans, and the dejection that was felt mere seconds ago has now been drastically reduced if not completely eliminated and replaced by a sense of joy and accomplishment. Strike out however, and several innings will likely pass before you get another chance to bat. You will carry that sense of failure with you from the batter’s box to the dugout and when you take your position on the field, that sense of failure will continue to haunt you. It will likely persist even as you take your next turn at bat. Striking out can be horrible. Indeed, the disposition of the entire town was adversely affected — their hopes gone, their dreams crushed — by one single example of missed opportunity when The Mighty Casey struck out.
Every summer there are kids on diamonds all across America striking out. They walk back to their dugouts with their heads hung low while their parents either sink in their seats trying to hide, or scream at them to keep their eye on the ball, or worse yet, telling them they suck. Right, as if that beer-bellied dad could hit a 65-mph fastball on the inside corner thrown by a 11 year old from just 45 feet away.
Pick any team, on any summer day, on any diamond in America and I guarantee you’ll see it — unless by some miraculous improbability the team you pick happens to be one that I coach.
When coaching youth sports, I believe that it’s important to be as positive as possible. Emphasize successes, not failures and look for opportunities to promote success in difficult or disappointing situations. Give the athlete something specific to focus on improving rather than dwelling on the negative result.
NOLAN DALLA: 2012 POSTED SEASON RECORD 4-8-0 —– (minus 8.8 units)
STARTING BANKROLL: $10,000
CURRENT BANKROLL: $9,120
1 UNIT = $100
Bad start with wrong side of New Orleans-Washington game, which killed three big teasers. Coming back this week with some bigger weapons, making the NY Giants the key team in the wheel of multiple teasers.
Writer’s Note: The next two blog entries are follow-up to a controversial column posted two weeks ago on former NFL coach Vince Lombardi’s famous creed — winning is everything. I received some interesting e-mails in response.
One reader was emotionally affected by the discussion. He was kind enough to share his perspectives with me about his own experiences as an amateur baseball coach. I was so impressed with his outlook on what coaching and teaching really means, that I requested permission to reprint his email. He graciously agreed. His thoughts are posted in Part II. The title is “The Dropped Third-Strike Drill” — coming tomorrow.
Part I (below) recounts my experience several years ago as a little league soccer coach.
On ball fields all across America, millions of kids and parents of those kids will be cheering and having fun. But there will also be a lot of ugliness.
You know what kind of ugliness I’m referring to. You’ve seen it. You’ve experienced it. It may have even crept into your own team or family. It is the ugliness that comes from the twisted mantra — winning is everything.
No. In fact, winning is not everything. In many cases, it’s not even that big a thing. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.
Many years ago, I coached a boys soccer team. I took the voluntary position because I had been a licensed USSF soccer referee for about five years. Refereeing kids soccer games subjected me to some serious abuse. But I loved the game and therefore was determined to get more involved as a head coach. I also played a few seasons in an adult league as a goalkeeper. Believe it or not, I was on the local Catholic Church team. We were called the Crusaders. And we sucked.
I lasted two seasons as a head coach. We were known as the Zavala Vikings. I enjoyed working with those kids, so much. They must all be grown up now. I wonder what happened to some of them. Occasionally, I also wonder if the things I did and said on the field helped them in some small way.
Writer’s Note: The World Series of Poker Circuit is currently taking place at Horseshoe Bossier City. So, I’m staying in Shreveport, Louisiana during the next two weeks. Today, I’ll share with you two things that have impressed me most so far about my visit.
It sounded like a screech. A deafening, high-pitched screech. Almost like the scream in a horror movie.
I looked up into the sky. There it was.
A giant B-52 bomber.
If you’ve never seen the breathtaking sight of a B-52 in flight, I must say — even from the ground — the visual is awe-inspiring. Conjoined with its high-pitched eardrum-shattering 120 decibels, the image of the B-52 plowing overhead with it’s beastly eight engines barreling out thick black smoke is a momentous assault on the senses.
Barksdale Air Force Base is located on Bossier City’s east side. Years ago, I remember well the sight and sound of B-52s regularly hoovering over the Louisiana Downs Racetrack off in the distance, which I frequently visited. It’s been a long, long time since I saw this aircraft up close. I had forgotten how intimidating the sight is. Earlier today looking up into the sky, I rekindled that double-edged love affair with darker forces and was once again reminded of mankind’s inherent aptitude for creating marvels of self-destruction.
It was horribly beautiful.
The B-52 is an astonishing image of national power. The fleet carries payloads of nuclear weapons. These are B-52s on high alert — always ready to strike. Prepared for its target like wolves catching the scent of a bunny, B-52s are always swilring around up in the air somewhere, defending the nation. This is intentionally so, as a sort of Orwellian flip-flop of logic manifested by explaining the madness as a “deterrent.”
Never mind that their constant presence was one of the things which triggered an arms race and ignited the fuse for a lot of bad guys in the world who came to accelerate their own ambitions for nuclear weapons. Even with the Cold War long over, B-52 missions continue around the clock, every day and night of the year. I had just witnessed the conclusion of one of these missions, landing at Barksdale AFB.
But what’s really most impressive about the B-52 is longevity. This year marks the aircraft’s 60-year anniversary. That’s right. America’s nuclear arsenal is hauled around in a fleet of planes that were designed when Eisenhower was President and most the country was tuned into “I Love Lucy.” I’m not sure if that’s more astonishing, or horrifying.
That’s how incredible these planes are. That they have stood the test of time for six long decades and remain just as frighteningly effective as the day they first rolled off the Boeing assembly line as the most powerful fighting machine perhaps that’s ever been designed. Think of all the advances in technology and changes in aircraft design since that time. And yet, the most destructive instruments in the history of mankind are hauled around in the equivalent of a 1952 Chevy.
Idiot on the left in white t-shirt grabs the fucking remote and tries to change the channel during the Green Bay-Chicago game. This man is about to be dealt a savage beating.
I’m having trouble breathing right now.
Some selfish-ass motherfucker just stormed into the lobby of the hotel, and tried to change the television channel. No big deal, except the program a few of us were watching was the game between NFL rivals Green Bay and Chicago!!!
What a jerk!!!
Doesn’t this clown have a television set in his hotel room? And, what fucking show would you dare turn to when there’s an NFL game on???
Let’s back up. Begin story.
I’m sitting here working on my laptop in the lobby of the Courtyard Marriott in Bossier City, Louisiana. Internet connection is strong here, so I’m camping. It just so happens there’s a big screen television with the Green Bay-Chicago game being shown. Nice!
So, there are perhaps 3-4 people watching the game, minding their own business. Then, out of nowhere — this middle-aged jerk barges into the lobby and grabs the remote. He starts flicking through the channels like he’s standing alone in his underwear at 3 am, totally oblivious to the danger he is putting himself in.
I thought the man was pulling a bad joke.
But no. He starts flicking the channels and I am sitting there speechless. Finally, the words come.
“Hey, we’re watching that game, man!” I say.
“Yeah, I just want to check out something else for a minute,” he says.
So, the prick starts with the remote and like watches each channel for 30 seconds before flicking to the next channel. I’m not believing what I am seeing. Does this man have a death wish?
I’m like shaking by this point. I decide to grab my cell phone and take a picture of this prick (see above) because this might end up as the lead story on the 11 o’clock news.
I decide to give the idiot another 3-4 minutes to get his rocks off. That passes. He’s still channel surfing!!!
“What in the hell are you looking for?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I just wanted to see what else was on!”
Are you fucking kidding me????????????
By this time a few others have mustered up the courage to run this lout out of the room. One of the guests insists that we were all here first, so we have control of what gets shown on TV. If he wants to pick the show, he needs to get here earlier and stake out his territory.
Finally, the man sitting to the right (in the photo) simply walks over and grabs the remote out of the fool’s hand. He shifts the TV back to the game.
The snake slinks away like the loser he is and now all is right with the universe.
No lead story about a homicide on the 11 o’clock news. But it was close.
ALERT! Be advised the following items, consumer products, programs, and personalities are NOT permitted at the Dalla residence. Any guest who shows up with any of these items will be denied entry. For further explanations, see “footnotes” below:
1. Merlot (wine)
2. Light beer (of any kind)
3. Any broadcast, likeness, or product endorsed by ANY one of the following — Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Simpson, or any member of the Kardashian family
5. Any product manufactured or branded by Dell Computers
6. Any item connected in any way (hats, t-shirts, bags, etc.) to either Full Tilt Poker or Ultimate Bet.
7. Soft drinks of any kind (Coke, Pepsi, etc.)
9. Anything written or published by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer
Writer’s Note: Last week, Stu Ungar would have celebrated his 59th birthday (Birthdate — September 8, 1953).
The short-lived Players Television Network debuted at the 2005 World Series of Poker.
I was asked to moderate two panel discussions, which were later broadcast via “On Demand.” The first show was on the late great poker legend Stu Ungar. The second show was a panel discussion about the business of online poker.
I wasn’t at all prepared to assume the role of moderator. I recall leaving the rigors of my job at the WSOP for an hour our so, getting abruptly fitted with a microphone, and then walking out and taking a seat in front of a live studio audience and rolling television cameras with no script.
The good thing about the unrehearsed format is that everything was spontaneous. The bad thing is the show could have been much crisper had I been prepared. Looking back now, I certainly would have asked more penetrating questions than what appear here.
Fortunately, the four guests who appeared on the Stu Ungar segment were outstanding. Madeline Ungar (Stuey’s former wife), Stefanie Ungar (Stuey’s Daughter), Larry Grossman (Las Vegas radio personality and gambling authority) and Peter Alson (writer and my co-author on Stuey’s biography “One of a Kind”) were all in top form.
In the coming weeks and months ahead, from time to time, I’ll be writing more about my personal recollections of Ungar — particularly during that tragic final year of his life when I spent the most time with him. I look forward to telling some stories that were not included in the book which might interest poker fans.
In the meantime, here’s the panel discussion from 2005 that runs about 30 minutes in length.
Writer’s Note: This marks the first time I’ve written about the events of September 11, 2001. I resided at 1201 South Eads Street, located in the Crystal City section of Arlington, Virginia. My ninth-floor residence at The Bennington overlooked the Pentagon.
The memory that still haunts me to this day is of a man whose name I do not know.
The morning after that horrible day, the man stood in solitude a few hundred feet away from the smoldering southwest side of the Pentagon. He looked and he stared at the scene of horror. The man appeared to be struggling to make sense of it all. He seemed to be waiting for someone to return.
That man stood there all morning and all afternoon. His eyes gazed into an empty chamber, where the façade of a formidable building had once stood. Now, all that filled the void was a collapsed pile of rubble shielded by grey clouds of smoke rising ominously into the air.
The following day – 48 hours removed from the time of the tragedy – the man dutifully returned once again to the Pentagon. He stood in the same spot where he had waited in vain during the previous day. He continued to look and stare into the ashes.
The man was looking for his wife.
That shattered man waited and waited and waited for someone who would never return.
Still shocked by it all and in an utter state of disbelief, he held onto the only thing he had left –hope. Indeed, hope was all that sustained him — the hope that by some miracle his wife would somehow be found safe beneath it all and somehow leap from the ashes and rush toward into his open arms.
I remember seeing that man whose wife must have worked on one of the floors that was hit during the attack. He certainly wasn’t alone in suffering a loss far beyond human comprehension. His sad story was one of many sad stories – of good people who lost their husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and colleagues. All gone.
The image of that man staring into the smoke and waiting for his wife holding onto the faintest of hope is the memory I keep above all others from that terrible time in our history.
He’s unlikely to ever find the answer to the question he’s asked a thousand times. Namely — why?
That’s an answer no one knows.
Balcony view from the 9th floor of The Bennington, before the attack
The first thing I remember from that gorgeous Tuesday morning was the sound of an explosion.
Such a disturbance wasn’t unusual. After all, I lived in a congested city with several high rise apartment buildings surrounding the perch. There was always lots of heavy traffic and the usual ambient noise of horns and sirens. Washington National Airport was less than a mile away, emanating a steady hum of aircraft engines. There were always accidents happening along I-395, the main artery for suburban Northern Virginian commuters who were headed into the District of Columbia, many of them were civil servants.
Yes, I heard the loud crash. So what was my reaction? I promptly rolled over and went back to bed.
A few minutes later, the telephone rang. The alarm clock showed 8:55.
My worldview, indeed everyone’s worldview, was about to be jolted.
“Did you see what’s happening?” the voice said.
I recognized the voice instantly. It was my wife, Marieta. She was at work.
“What? What are you talking about? I asked — barely conscious from my peaceful slumber.
“Turn on the TV! Turn on the TV! Do it now!”
I located the remote, pressed a button, and for the first time saw an indelible image that remains seared into my mind.
Most of us probably remember our reactions upon first seeing the World Trade Center towers on fire. Disbelief. Panic. Terror. Horror. Sadness. Anguish.
“What in the hell happened?” I asked.
“I don’t know — but there’s a report that something just happened at the Pentagon,” Marieta said. “Can you glance outside and have a look?”
From the distance, the sky appeared to be clear. But as I moved towards our sliding glass doors I began to see a haze. Then, I caught sight of giant plumes of thick black smoke rising high into the air. Doors opened, next, I heard the wailing sounds of sirens. It seemed like hundreds of sirens. Fire trucks and police cars roared by, all headed to the spot where, off in the distance, there was a concentration of smoke and fire.
The next minute or two was a blur.
The World Trade Center was in flames. Not one tower, but both towers. The Pentagon too was now burning.
I had been awake for perhaps five minutes.
I returned to the television and stood in front of the screen. The image of New York’s burning towers was unchanged.
Then, it happened.
The announcer stopped what he was saying in mid-sentence. The first tower began to collapse.
I’m not sure why — but the distress of seeing the Pentagon in flames just outside my door was not nearly the shock of watching that tall tower crumble to the ground. My first reaction, quite frankly, was — the end of the world was here.
Perhaps in retrospect — that’s an absurd overreaction. But that’s honestly what I felt at the time. Our world was about to come to an end. Maybe that’s just how shocking it all was — seeing so many ghastly images within such a short time. Our ability to make sense of things shuts down. Logic abandons us. We all become susceptible to panic.
Marieta too, speaking on the other end of the phone, saw the tower fall — first one and then two. What was happening? Were we all under attack?
Since my wife worked on Pennsylvania Avenue, just two blocks from the White House, she had a different perspective on things. Word came that the White House and Old Executive Office Building were both being evacuated. Presidential advisors were actually running out into the streets. There was a rumor that another hijacked airplane was headed towards the White House. A similar thing reportedly happened over on Capitol Hill. All along Pennsylvania Avenue, people were flooding out of office buildings and spilling onto the busy boulevard.
Metro service abruptly stopped. This suspension of subway trains meant tens of thousands of government workers from outside the District had no way of getting home. Cell phone service also became a problem. Cars were not allowed into the District.
Marieta and I continued to discuss the events of the day and quickly hatched out a plan. We agreed that she should leave the building immediately and start walking from Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Lincoln Memorial, perhaps 20 blocks away. It was agreed that I’d come and meet her on the District side of the Memorial Bridge, which is the span which crosses from Virginia into Washington, D.C. I estimated that it would take us each about an hour walk the distance and meet.
I was about to get my first close-up look at the Pentagon.
I had no intention of bearing witness to what was going on at the Pentagon that day, terrible as those events were. But the five-sided symbol of the most powerful military force in the history of the world stood smack dab between my current location and the Memorial Bridge.
And so by foot, off I went.
The Pentagon is normally an ultra-high-security area. Aside from the mammoth-sized Pentagon bus depot and metro station, no one gets inside or anywhere near to the building unless they’re wearing a military uniform with lots of brass or have one of the government-issued IDs around their neck, festooned by a chain.
I had neither.
But that didn’t matter.
Once on the periphery of the Pentagon, skirting its northern corridor on foot, I was on the direct opposite side of the crash site. Hundreds of military personnel — from every branch of the armed forces — were running around in panic. Some were screaming orders to subordinates. Secretaries and support workers sat in the grass. The entire building of thousands of workers had been evacuated. Many seemed to be setting up some kind of triage. There were armed soldiers everywhere. Majors, Colonels, and even Generals were a dime a dozen. It was like a scene right out of a disaster movie.
I walked across the freshly-mowed green grass, over paved roads empty of traffic, stepping over curbs, until the muffled shouts of important men were far off in the distance. Minutes later, I could no longer see the Pentagon from my vantage point. But I could still see smoke in the air and smell its stench — a frightening reminder of death. It was a surreal experience, walking through Lady Bird Johnson Park so full of flowers along the George Washington Memorial Parkway on such a beautiful day. On any other say, this would have been a splendid experience. But here I was perhaps a quarter mile away from the spot where hundreds of people had just lost their lives, headed towards the nation’s capital on foot, which could very well be under attack.
I walked on. Further still.
Sometime later, I was standing on the east side of the Memorial Bridge, where I saw Marieta waiting faithfully.
The site of Marieta that day was something I will never forget. I think she looked more beautiful at that instant than any other day I had seen her.
I’m not sure what happened next. An embrace likely. A kiss to be sure. Another embrace, and then another. We held each other a little longer at that moment.
We walked home tearfully, once again passing by the fringes of the Pentagon.
This photo shows the Pentagon and the Crystal City district of Arlington, VA. Above the Pentagon is a white building. Directly above that is a larger and darker building, which is The Bennington — where we lived from 1994 through 2002. Off to the left side of the photo is Washington’s National Airport.
In the days that followed, we visited the southwest side of the Pentagon — not out of morbid curiosity but to pay respects.
We didn’t know anyone by name. But they were still our neighbors. It took nearly a week for the smoke to go finally away. Day by day, the fire slowly went out and the smoke gradually dissipated.
But the shock and the pain and the outrage lingered.
I had been so very lucky to find my Marieta waiting for me on that day. The man who was standing next to the Pentagon off in the distance, all by himself — the man whom I saw standing, the man who I saw staring, the man who I saw waiting — was not so fortunate.
That man could have been me. And he could have been I. But by an odd twist of fate whereby his wife just so happened to be employed on one of the floors of the Pentagon and my wife worked a few blocks from the White House, we had much in common.
But at that instant, we had nothing in common. Nothing at all.
I had survived that day intact.
That man did not survive. Although there in body, he was no longer there in spirit.
I am so sorry for that man. I am so, so very sorry.
This is one of the more unusual columns I’ve ever written.
The spark of inpiration was more like a slow-burning fuse It came from something that’s been bothering me for 11 years.
Feelings of diappointment and anger have simmered inside me since 9-11-01. So, I chose today to confront those feelings and ultimately share what I learned and the peace I have come to about this affair with readers.
On the very day when our world changed in a way it would and could never be quite that same as before, I was astounded to learn that not just one, but two major poker tournaments were played on September 11, 2001.
In Los Angeles, an event at the Heavenly Hold’em tournament (No-Limit Hold’em) at the Commerce Casino attracted 122 entrants.
In Las Vegas, there were two major tournaments played that day as part of the Queens Poker Classic, held at the Four Queens Casino. A No-Limit Hold’em tournament at noon attracted a field of 89 players. A 7-Card Stud event played later that day had 65 entrants. So, that’s 276 poker players who seemed to think a poker tournament was more important than the nation and our way of life being under attack.
As I began to write about this and attempt to discover how and why anyone could be so insensitive to such an overwhelming emotional experience, I came to an entirely different conclusion about the ways people deal with tragedy and pain. In short, I learned not to judge.
II. AT HOME — THE BACKSTORY
First, here’s some background.
By September of 2001, I was technically unemployed. I left a comfortable job in the nation’s capital to pursue what I really wanted to do. I spent most of my weekends in Atlantic City playing poker. I spent my weekdays at home in Crystal City, VA — just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC — writing about poker and gambling, as well as betting on sports. Life was good.
At the time I followed the poker tournament circuit very closely. Six years earlier I had created CARD PLAYER MAGAZINE’S “Player of the Year” system. I tracked all the results from around the country myself and announced who had won the “Player of the Year” honor in my each of my year-end columns, which appeared in late December. Because I couldn’t miss a single day of results, I followed every major tournament held around the country — including Heavenly Hold’em and the Queens Poker Classic which were played in September.
Like everyone else, I was stunned by what took place on September 11th. Part of the tragedy occurred within sight of my apartment balcony, which overlooked the Pentagon. What was normally a magnificent ninth-floor view of the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery and all the famous monuments became an observation point of utter disbelief and unspeakable horror.
A few days after September 11th, I returned to my duties and began looking over recent poker tournament results again, which had to be entered into my “Player of the Year” database.
I was astounded to discover that none of the three tournaments scheduled that horrible day had been canceled. They went on just as planned. Even more baffling — well over 200 players had decided to enter. One of these tournaments was the Queens Poker Classic, which took place at the Four Queens in Downtown Las Vegas. At one time, the Four Queens was a big deal. It was spread over two weeks and even had a $10,000 buy-on championship. Stu Ungar won it one year. All the biggest names in poker used to enter and play.
III. POKER’S MOST SHAMEFUL DAY?
I could not imagine a more revolting decision by so many ill-mannered people. While our nation was under attack, while the entire nation’s air service was suspended and millions were stranded everywhere, while thousands of bodies were still buring beneath rubble of twisted metal, and while every sane person in the universe over the age of 6 was either in front of a television set or seeking comfort by connecting with others in a giant umbrella of solidarity, a few hundred utterly insensitive buffoons were joking it up at the poker table. At least, that’s what I thought.
Before continuing — there’s a historical precedent here worth mentioning. Poker most certainly did not learn from the mistakes of the past.
Perhaps the only similar event in modern history which had such a profound impact on our nation was the Kennedy Assassination. How did society react to that shocking event? More specifically, what happened to recreational activities that were scheduled that weekend back in November 1963?
Days after the president was murdered, the National Football League decided to go ahead and play its full schedule of games. Years later, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozell cited that decision to continue with the games — so soon in the shadow of a national tragedy — as one of his biggest regrets. In the NFL’s case, that turned out to be three days afterward. In short, everyone agreed — it was wrong to play those games.
But in the case of a few poker tournaments — and specifically, one event held in Las Vegas, the time lapse between the buildings collapsing and the start of the tournament was just under five hours.
Not a day or two. FIVE HOURS.
Question: What kind of moron would decide to go ahead and hold a poker tournament under such conditions? Couldn’t the competition be delayed a day? Isn’t there anything that deserves universal respect — at least temporarily? Moreover, who were these thoughtless players who chose to play, seemingly indifferent to the tragedy that had impacted millions of their fellow citizens?
I mean — what would it take for them to “get it?” Would they still choose to play poker a few hours after a presidential assassination? What about an earthquake? What about a nuclear attack? Would 276 people still show up expecting cards to be dealt if the missles were flying? Where does one draw the line?
My anger and disappointment were directed at what I knew and what I was connected to — the poker industry. It continued to bother me. My outrage percolated for 11 years.
IV. GETTING THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
This appeared to be one of our industry’s most shameful moments. Imagine trying to justify holding such a trivial pursuit to a non-poker player. You can’t. So, I had to try and learn more about why this all happened. I had to try and find out who would decide to spend the whole day playing poker under those extraordinary conditions.
I found the tournament results. Glancing over the payouts, I wondered if I knew any of the players that made the decision to play that day? I was stunned by what I discovered. Not only did I recognize several names — I also saw a close freind had finished in second place. Even more shocking, this player was from New York!
While his city was being attacked and while his family and freinds may have been in danger, the New Yorker decided to enter a poker tournament.
The only word I could think of to describe this would be — baffling.
So, I emailed him a few days ago.
And, this is where our story suddenly takes a twist.
The person from New York I am talking about is named Scott Byron.
My e-mail to Scott Byron follows:
This is going to come across and very rude and perhaps even accusatory.
Please forgive the tone of this in advance.
You and I have been good friends for a long time and none of this has anything to do with that friendship. Okay, disclaimer done. Here it goes.
I am going to write and post something I will call “POKER’S MOST SHAMEFUL DAY.” This refers to a tournament that was held at the Four Queens back Sept. 11, 2001. My position is the tournament should have been cancelled (at least the noon event). Moreover, those who entered are pretty much a disgrace to humanity.
I was astounded to go back and look at the results of that tournament and discover that you played, and happened to finish second. Some idiot playing — I might understand. You, knowing you and being from NYC, playing an event where those towers has just fallen a couple of hours earlier strikes me as absolutely baffling. Hopefully, you can understand how stunned I was to see that you played in that tournament.
If you care to, I would like to hear your explanation as to why you would chose to play something as trivial as a poker tournament on what was the most frightening day of our lifetimes? You may speak on or off the record. I am not sure I will use any of your quotes, and will not if you ask me not to. But this is something I simply cannot understand, both from a professional and personal perspective.
Thanks — one again, I hope you understand the spirit of the question.
Scott Byron replied a short time later. Here’s his very thoughtful perspective (which I was given permission to make public):
Sure, I understand. I’ll tell you what happened.
First, I signed up for the tournament the night before. So, it wasn’t an active choice I made that morning. I set my alarm and woke up with about an hour to go until the tournament started, and by that point the towers had already fallen.
I sat on the edge of the bed watching on TV for a while, but it was all very confusing at that time; the TV stations had not yet created a narrative out of the pictures. It was very disjointed. I remember at one point noticing that my head was tilted while I watched, which was an indication of my confusion about the whole thing.
Nobody knew where I was staying (which was the Lady Luck) except for my mom, who lived on Long Island. Nobody had called me — as it turns out nobody could get through. I tried calling my mom, but I couldn’t get through.
Nobody knew what or how to feel at that point. Certainly not me. I tried to think if I knew anyone who might be in danger, or if I knew anyone who worked in the towers. To the latter, no. To the former, the only thing I could think of was that it was possible that someone was in the subway passing under the WTC site when they fell, but that didn’t seem likely.
Just sitting there staring at the TV didn’t make much sense in that moment. I decided I needed to find out what was going on at the tournament area. I sort of assumed that they would cancel the event, and I would get my money back. I showered and headed over to the Four Queens.
The same vibe was in the room there. Nobody knew how they should act or what to do/not do. They made a decision to carry on with the tournament, but offered refunds to people who wanted them. They announced that they would let people keep their cell phones on the table, which was not allowed for the rest of the tournament. All of the TVs in the room were tuned to the news.
I had about 15 minutes to decide. The question was — do I go to my rather drab hotel room and stare at the TV all day, hoping for a call, or do I spend it with these people, watching the same footage, and hope for a call? Remember at that time the poker world was a lot smaller — these were my friends from the poker circuit, not a mass of strangers. We already knew at that point that nobody was going to be able to leave Las Vegas for a while, as the flights were already grounded.
So, I decided to play. It gave me something to do, rather than just sit alone and stare at the TV. Some people took the refunds, but not too many. It was a relatively small event — 89 players if I recall? They paused the tournament when President Bush addressed the nation. I actually didn’t hear from anyone for 5 or 6 hours — calls just weren’t getting in or out of New York at all. It wasn’t until dinner time that I was able to speak to anyone, which of course was well into the night in NY. Some people I couldn’t reach for days. Everyone was okay.
I don’t know anyone personally who died. As it turns out there was one regular from the Mayfair Club whose company had an office in the towers, and he lost a few employees, but he wasn’t there. Late that night watching a list scroll by of businesses which had offices in the towers, I saw his name scroll by (“Julian Studley Associates,” or similar) and my heart leapt. That’s as close as I came to knowing someone, which surprises me because there were a lot of “business people” among the Mayfair Club regulars.
I don’t regret my decision at all. Confusion was the primary emotion that first day — not anger or sorrow or even fright. All those emotions came later. Of course I felt the need to “do something,” like everyone did, but what could I do from where I was? It didn’t seem like sitting alone in a hotel room and moping/mourning was the best way to spend that day. I was scheduled to fly home a couple of days later, but I knew that I would be there for longer. I had no imperative to go home (no job, then) and I knew that other people would be desperate to get out sooner than I had to, so I wasn’t going to take a seat on the first flight, either.
Much to my amazement, I haven’t had my decision to play seriously questioned by anyone until now. I’ve told the story many many times, as people want to know my 9/11 story when they hear I’m from New York. It’s an unusual story, for sure, winning $12K or so (there was a deal heads-up). That day, it was a distraction, and a distraction was what I needed. I have other stories from when I was finally able to get home later. I got a few chances to “do something” and I did.
If you want to read an exceptional personal account of the time, my friend Nicole Blackman wrote a piece you can read here: NICOLE BLACKMAN BLOG
I’m in that piece a couple of times; I’m sure you’ll recognize me even though I’m not mentioned by name.
So that’s the bare-bones story. Was the tournament trivial? Of course. But I spent the day with friends and strangers, watching TV like everyone else, while playing a game. We talked about how we felt, we speculated on what was happening and why. We shared an experience. I think that was better than sitting alone in an ugly hotel room.
V. UPON FURTHER REFLECTION
There are more than a few lessons here, and I just learned one of them.
I suppose the most important thing is not to jump to conclusions without getting the facts. Moreover, people react to extreme situations in different ways and given there’s little or no previous example of what to do and how to react, we all respond differently.
In retrospect, September 11, 2001 was not poker’s most shameful day. Perhaps continuing with the tournaments gave people some measure of comfort. Perhaps playing in a poker tournament served as a much-needed distraction from the horrors of the day. And perhaps all people should be entitled to deal with tragedy in their own way.
COMING NEXT: AT THE PENTAGON — REMEMBERING SEPTEMBER 11, 2001