Monday, March 30, 2009

New sheriff in Trebekistan

I'm several days late in getting to this, but, well, life happens.

Here's a belated yet heartfelt salute to Dan Pawson, who emerged triumphant in this season's Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. Dan pulled out a hard-fought victory over two worthy co-finalists, Larissa Kelly and Aaron Schroeder, in the 25th Anniversary ToC taped at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

I had a premonition when I first wrote in this space — more than a year ago — about Dan's Jeopardy! skills that a Tournament title might be in his future. As it turned out, I was correct. That means next to nothing, however. I am notorious lousy at sizing up the field in Jeopardy! tournaments, even after having played in three of them. (For the benefit of any new arrivals, those three were the 1988 Tournament of Champions, Super Jeopardy! in 1990, and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005.) When you fill a room with top-level Jeopardy! players, anything can happen, and often does. In this instance, I believe that the strongest player came away with the grand prize.

Well played, Mr. Pawson. Congratulations also to Larissa and Aaron, who helped make this one of the most memorable two-game finals in ToC history.

Speaking of Jeopardy!, I just finished reading Bob Harris's excellent book, Prisoner of Trebekistan, in which Bob spins a hilarious, often surprisingly heart-tugging tale about his career as a Jeopardy! champion. I had the pleasure of meeting Bob during my second-round taping in the UToC, and he's every bit as charming and funny as his book would lead you to believe.

The fact that I personally relate to many of the anecdotes Bob shares added to my personal connection with the book, but it's a fun read even if you've never been a quiz show contestant. If you dig Jeopardy!, or simply enjoy a behind-the-scenes peek at the inner workings of television, I enthusiastically recommend Prisoner of Trebekistan.

Even though Bob neglected to mention me in it.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Chip and a chair, baby!

Online Poker

I have registered to play in the PokerStars World Blogger Championship of Online Poker!

The WBCOOP is an online Poker tournament open to all Bloggers.

Registration code: 530517

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The $9 million Danish

I wish I could steal the headline composed by Lance Bradley, writer for the poker magazine Bluff: "The Riches of Eastgate."

But I won't.

Congratulations to Peter Eastgate, who in the wee hours of this morning became the youngest-ever winner of the World Series of Poker's Main Event.

Eastgate dominated the so-called November Nine, routing the final table in convincing fashion. The 22-year-old from Odense, Denmark held off a worthy challenge from Russian pro Ivan Demidov to capture poker's highest prize, the gold World Champion bracelet and the $9 million cash that accompanies it.

You can catch the highlights of the final table, with scintillating commentary by Lon McEachern and Norman Chad, tonight on ESPN starting at 8 p.m. EST.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

If it's November, these must be the Nine

After a four-month break, the Main Event of the 2008 World Series of Poker is once again under way, its nine-man final table having reconvened earlier today at the Rio in Las Vegas.

Personally, I think the new format for the Main Event — which played from 6,844 entrants down to nine back in July, before taking a planned hiatus — is ludicrous. With everything that's happened in the sports world (the Summer Olympics, the World Series) as well as the real world (the plummeting economy, the Presidential election) during the past four months, you'd have to be a hardcore poker fanatic to even remember that the tournament was resuming today, much less still be interested.

Which tells you something about me, I guess.

As I compose this post, the November Nine have already been whittled down to the Magnificent Seven: Craig Marquis, a 23-year-old from the Dallas area, busted out in ninth place (Craig was eighth as play resumed), and Kelly Kim, a poker pro from southern California, departed in eighth place (Kelly had been the final table's short stack).

The remaining players, as they rank at this moment, are:
  • Ivan Demidov, a 27-year-old poker pro from Moscow (Russia, not Idaho), who last month finished third in the WSOP Europe Main Event in London.

  • Ylon Schwartz, a 38-year-old former chess prodigy from New York City.

  • Peter Eastgate, a 22-year-old pro from Denmark.

  • Scott Montgomery, a 27-year-old pro from Ontario, Canada.

  • Dennis Phillips, a 53-year-old trucking company executive from St. Louis. Dennis was the chip leader at the start of today's play.

  • Darus Suharto, a 39-year-old Indonesian-born Canadian accountant.

  • David "Chino" Rheem, a 28-year-old pro from Los Angeles, and probably the best known of the November Nine prior to July.
Tournament officials expect to have a winner sometime tomorrow night, or early Tuesday morning at the latest. A two-hour condensation of the final table play will air Tuesday night (and endlessly thereafter, if tradition holds) on ESPN.

Let's shuffle up and deal!

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Poker's candle in the wind

Brandi Rose Hawbaker, the Britney Spears of poker, has folded her hand. Permanently.

She was only 26 years old.

Or somewhere in that vicinity.

The tragic act occurred more than a week ago, apparently, but news is only now getting around on the poker blog circuit. Brandi's suicide draws the curtain on a roller-coaster ride that seemed bizarre and outlandish even within a milieu that attracts — and thrives on — the bizarre and outlandish.

Like most poker aficionados, I first became aware of Brandi when she led the field for the first several days of Festa al Lago V, a 2006 World Poker Tour event. Although she ended up finishing a respectable 35th in the tournament (two places ahead of Jennifer Harman, widely considered the best female poker player in the world), Brandi's run as chip leader — coupled with her photogenic appeal and exhibitionist personality — sealed her date with demi-celebrity.

Attractive young women with actual talent come along in professional poker about as often as vegans dine at the Outback Steakhouse, so Brandi's advent on the scene set testosterone-fueled tongues wagging across the Internet. Sad to tell, Brandi's newfound fame came packaged with tales of self-destructive and antisocial behavior that rivaled those of Hollywood's tabloid darlings. These stories spawned persistent whispers about untreated mental illness, supported by online testimony from people close to Brandi.

The whispers, it seems, spoke at least a modicum of truth.

Neil Young once sang, "It's better to burn out than it is to rust." I'm not certain that I agree with him. Brandi Hawbaker, whether by conscious choice or karmic twist, apparently did.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Psych-out at the WSOP

Congratulations to Dr. Jerry Yang, a psychologist from Southern California, who in the wee hours of this morning won the Main Event of the World Series of Poker. Yang outlasted a field of 6,358 to take down the $8.25 million top prize and a lifetime of bragging rights.

Yang, a 39-year-old father of six, only started playing poker two years ago.

I hate him already.

(Just joshing, Doc.)

Yang is, in fact, not an atypical poker success story. A Hmong immigrant from Laos, Yang follows in the footsteps of numerous other top players — including Scotty "The Prince of Poker" Nguyen, the 1998 World Series Main Event winner — who came to the U.S. from southeast Asia and discovered the American dream through the great American game.

The poker-playing shrink bested a diverse final table, including players from Denmark, England, Russia, and South Africa, as well as Vietnam-born Canadian Tuan Lam, who finished second. The best-known player in the surviving nine, Spokane-area poker pro Lee Watkinson, busted out in eighth place.

As SSTOL regular Tom Galloway sagely predicted a few weeks ago, the Main Event field was narrowed considerably this year by fallout from recent legislation passed by Congress. Fear of possible prosecution has caused many online poker sites — a primary source of qualifiers for the WSOP — to discontinue accepting action from U.S.-based players. Only a handful of online casinos, including PokerStars, Ultimate Bet, and Full Tilt Poker, continue to keep the welcome mat out for courageous card-playing Americans.

Nice going, Dr. Yang. Save wisely — you've got a sextet of future college educations to fund with those millions.

By the way, I'm SwanShadow at PokerStars. Come play with me.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Shuffle up and deal!

The 2007 World Series of Poker kicked off this past weekend, and already history has been made.

A mere 10 days beyond his 21st birthday, baby-faced Steve Billirakis became the youngest player ever to win a WSOP bracelet when he outlasted 450 other card sharps in the megatournament's first event, the World Championship Mixed Hold 'Em. (In a mixed hold 'em tournament, the first several rounds are played with preset betting limits, the last several rounds are no-limit.)

Billirakis, whose online poker ID is "MrSmoky1," pocketed $536,287 for his winning efforts. Not a bad couple of days' work for a college kid.

The real suspense in this year's WSOP, however, will come from seeing whether any of the three legendary players tied for the record in career bracelets — Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, Johnny "the Orient Express" Chan, and Phil "Poker Brat" Hellmuth — will score a victory in one of the Series' 55 discrete events to take the all-time lead.

That, and the thrill of seeing who will emerge out of what's certain to be the largest-ever field in the WSOP Main Event to claim the title of World Champion.

For that revelation, we'll have to wait until mid-July.

As for my debut appearance in the WSOP Main Event? Maybe next year. Sigh.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Munkey business in Vegas

Let's see how he'll explain this at election time...

San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks and his undersheriff, Carlos Bolanos, got nailed (no pun intended) in a prostitution raid at a Las Vegas massage parlor last weekend.

The sheriff pleads his innocence, saying, "I believed I was going to a legitimate business."

Wait a second. The man in charge of stopping criminal activity in San Mateo County can't even recognize criminal activity when he sees it? Munks either: (a) is the most inept law enforcement official of whom I've ever heard tell; or (b) just came up with the lamest, least credible excuse proffered since Bill Clinton "did not have sexual relations with that woman."

The voters of San Mateo County will have to decide which. Either way, it doesn't bode well for the crimebusting career of Sheriff Munks.

Neither Munks nor Undersheriff Bolanos, the former police chief of Redwood City, were formally charged by Vegas Five-0.

News reports failed to specify exactly whom the undersheriff was under at the time of the massage parlor sting.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

They're dropping like flies

Death must be in the air these days, and I don't believe it's just the stench of human decomp wafting over from Abby Chapel of the Redwoods.

Let's pause for a moment to reflect on some of the passages we've noted recently...
  • When wine mogul Ernest Gallo, the 297th richest person in America, died last week at the ripe old vintage of 97, my thoughts turned to his younger brother Joseph, who passed away about three weeks earlier.

    Joseph Gallo owned a cheesemaking enterprise known today as Joseph Farms. (Good stuff, as stock American-made cheese goes. We buy Joseph Farms products quite often.) Originally, the company was called Joseph Gallo Cheese. Ernest and Julio Gallo, however, didn't like the fact that their junior brother was slapping the family name on his dairy output, so they sued Little Joe over the rights to the Gallo moniker... and won. Thus Joseph Gallo — despite being every bit the Gallo his elder siblings were, genetically speaking — was legally estopped from using his own name on his cheese.

    Blood may be thicker than water, but wine is thicker than either.

  • Wow... Richard Jeni. There's been any number of comedians whose lives played out like horror headlines waiting to be written — Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze, Sam Kinison, and Mitch Hedberg are just a handful of the names that leap to mind — but Jeni didn't seem like that kind of guy.

    Jeni always seemed amazingly normal for a comic, and his wry observations about life were earnest and easily to identify with. Whatever his demons were, they didn't surface in his comedy to any pathological degree.

    Maybe that would have helped.

  • Most casual comic books readers likely never knew who writer Arnold Drake was. To the cognoscenti, Drake was a legend — an iconoclastic creative talent who specialized in unique ideas and good old-fashioned fun.

    In the realm of superhero comics, Drake's best-known creations reflected his wonky sensibility: Doom Patrol, which was kind of like the X-Men as seen through a funhouse mirror, and Deadman, the bizarre tale of a murdered circus acrobat who wandered the earth hunting his killer. But Drake was more than just a scribe of muscular, slam-bang fantasy — he also invented a clever comedy series called Stanley and His Monster that in many elements prefigured the later Calvin and Hobbes. Drake also wrote dozens of issues of Little Lulu.

    I sat in on Drake's delightful showcase panel at WonderCon two years ago. The man knew where all the industry's bodies were buried, and he knew how to tell a great story. I'm grateful now that I took the opportunity to see him in person while he was still among us. He was a genuine treasure.

  • I felt a twinge of sadness when I heard some time ago that the Stardust Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas had shuttered. That twinge hit again as I read the news this morning about the old joint being imploded to make room for a new megadevelopment. By the time of its demise, the Stardust wasn't the swankiest joint on the Strip, but it sure held a history.

    KJ and I enjoyed a terrific evening at the Stardust some years back. We dined at the 'Dust's resident outlet of Tony Roma's Ribs, then caught a pretty decent production show called Enter the Night. Of course, the show that made the Stardust famous, Lido de Paris, was long gone by then, its stars Siegfried and Roy having jumped ship for the Mirage several years earlier. But we had a nice time anyway.

    I'm told that the Stardust's legendary sign, at one time the largest display on the Strip, has been preserved by the Neon Museum in Vegas. As for the Stardust itself, the lights are out, and the party's over.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to Katie Rees, the erstwhile Miss Nevada USA, who was stripped of her title by Donald Trump and his fellow pageant owners yesterday after salaciously compromising five-year-old photos of Ms. Rees surfaced on various Internet sites. (Let's make it clear that the salaciously compromising photos were five years old, not taken when Katie was five years old. Because that would be a whole other issue.)

As a general rule, I don't collect much published comic book page art. For me, a page from a comic story requires context — it doesn't possess much meaning or resonance all by itself. (I know that many comic art collectors disagree with me on this. You collect what you like, I'll collect what I like, and we'll all be happy.)

That said, I have a couple of outstanding exceptions. I own the majority of the original pages from the first issue of the 1991 Millennium Comics miniseries Doc Savage: The Monarch of Armageddon — considered by many Doc Savage aficionados to be the character's most representative appearance in the comic book medium. As a lifelong Doc fan, I enjoy having these pages, both for their nostalgic value and for the wonderfully evocative art by penciler Darryl Banks (a personal favorite) and inker Robert Lewis.

I also own several original pages from a relatively obscure comic: Web of Spider-Man #45, published by Marvel in December 1988.

This story, like the Doc Savage book, holds some personal significance for me. It's set in Las Vegas, Nevada — and if you're an SSTOL regular, you know I loves me some Vegas, baby. What could be better than combining my boyhood hero with my favorite adult playground?

I especially enjoy page two of WoSM 45 (seen above), because it contains some classic images of old-school downtown Vegas that don't exist in the real world any longer:
  • Panel 1 (top left): The old sign from the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino (the Nugget is still there, but the sign has been updated) and the corner facade of the Lady Luck (which closed in January 2006).
  • Panels 2 and 3 (top right): The original signage and '80s vintage facade of the Horseshoe Casino (now known as Binion's, even though the Binion family no longer owns it).
  • A shuttle van from McCarran Airport, on which the name of the airport is misspelled.
Later in the story, Spider-Man faces off with his long-time nemesis, the Vulture, in the blazing hot Nevada desert. Why? Who knows? It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Whatever the reason, it's an opportunity for the Web-Slinger to duke it out with the villain high above the desert floor...

...and to deliver one of his patented quips: "Blow it out your beak, Tweety!"

...and to flirt with attractive federal marshal Sara Glenville, who's cleverly disguised as a flight attendant. Because you never know when you might need a flight attendant in the middle of the Nevada desert. She could bring you a bag of peanuts and a Coke. (Actually, there was a plane crash earlier in the story, in which all of these people were involved. See what I mean about context?)

Giving credit where credit is due, the artists who created these images were penciler Alex Saviuk (who drew Web of Spider-Man for about seven years, and currently is the artist on the Spider-Man Sunday newspaper strip), inker Keith Williams (who teamed with Saviuk on WoSM for roughly half the former's run on the book), and letterer Rick Parker. Writer Adam Blaustein penned the scintillating script.

Remember, kids, keep your clothes on in front of cameras if you hope to be Miss Nevada USA someday. And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

My career guide to Vegas

Seeing as how Las Vegas is one of my three or four favorite cities in the United States — one to which I might be tempted to retire someday, were it not for the fact that (a) I'm not retiring anywhere it gets 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime, and (b) I doubt I'll ever have enough spare cash on hand to retire anywhere, period — I was intrigued by this article in the Las Vegas Business Press describing "The Coolest Jobs in Las Vegas."

Then I saw what the jobs were.

My bubble of hope plunged to earth like a lead zeppelin.

Let's examine the reasons why I'll never have any of the coolest jobs in Vegas.

Women's golf coach, UNLV. Here's everything I know about golf: Tiger Woods. Annika Sorenstam. "A good walk spoiled." Tiger Woods. The Davis Cup. No, wait, that's tennis. The Ryder Cup. Tiger Woods. Plaid slacks. Green jackets. Tiger Woods. Tin Cup. Windmills. Volcanoes. Tiger Woods. Did I say Annika Sorenstam already? Yeah, I did. Okay, then. Tiger Woods.

Music promoter, Divebar. Unless Vegas clubgoers dig spending their evenings shaking their moneymakers to four-part a cappella harmonies, '70s/'80s arena rock, Gamble and Huff Philly soul, and Bill Withers's greatest hits, they aren't going to want me booking their house band.

Craftsman, Ed Roman Guitars. I think it's awesome that the fellow who currently has this gig is close personal friends with two of my all-time guitar heroes, Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser of the Blue Öyster Cult and Brian May of Queen. But I flunked out of guitar lessons when I was in the sixth grade, and haven't picked up the instrument since. If I were building their axes, Buck and Brian would sound like that banjo player in Deliverance.

Assistant curator, Dolphin Habitat, The Mirage. I bawled like a schoolgirl when George C. Scott's talking bottlenose squeaked out "Fa love Pa" at the end of Day of the Dolphin. To this day, I can't even look at the critters without getting a little misty. By the end of my first week at the Habitat, I'd be an emotional wreck. Plus, I'd drive everyone crazy by constantly asking when Roy is coming back.

Pirate, Treasure Island. I could almost pull this one off. Unfortunately, I hate parrots, I become seasick easily, and those eye patches itch. Say, did you know that International Talk Like a Pirate Day is September 19? Arrrrr!

Promotions manager, Zia Record Exchange. Do they still make records?

Brewmaster, Monte Carlo Resort. Hey, I'm a teetotaler, remember? The strongest thing I brew is my morning pot of Folgers. And barista at Starbucks isn't on the "cool jobs" list. Besides, the last time I was at the Monte Carlo, Lance Burton whacked me in the face with the monofilament fishing line he was using in one of his cheesy magic tricks. I still owe him one.

VIP host, Studio 54. They'd fire me the night I carded Paris Hilton and sent her to the end of the line.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

The power of Gold

On this fine August Comic Art Friday, we salute Hollywood talent agent turned professional poker player Jamie Gold, who dominated a record field of 8,773 to win the Main Event of the 2006 World Series of Poker.

Gold flopped a pair of queens on the final hand of the tournament to crack Paul Wasicka's pocket 10s to capture the coveted championship bracelet, plus a $12 million grand prize. Becoming the reigning world champion of poker likely means that Gold, a protégé of two-time WSOP Main Event winner Johnny "The Orient Express" Chan, will never have to work in Tinsel Town again.

Speaking of gold...

If you were searching for artifacts made from the glittering stuff among the ruins of an ancient civilization deep in the Amazon rain forest, you'd want Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, leading your expedition.

Of course, if she did, you'd probably get bushwhacked by a humongous killer robot packing multiple automatic projectile weapons, as happens in this action scene created by the brilliant Brazilian illustrator Diego Maia.

There would, however, be no cause for alarm. Lara Croft laughs in the faces of humongous killer robots packing multiple automatic projectile weapons. Then, she brings them down. She brings them down to Chinatown. She makes them cry like little Catholic schoolgirls. Then, when she's done pummeling them into submission, she'll pack up their loot, jet back home to Croft Manor, and chill with her pet tiger, just like in this sweet portrait by hungry young hotshot Ty Romsa.

Just don't ever take Lara to the World Series of Poker with you. If some Hollywood wannabe cracks her pocket 10s by catching a lucky queen on the flop, she'll pistol-whip him within an inch of his pathetic life, then kick his pasty white butt all the way back to Malibu.

Because that's how the Tomb Raider rolls.

In the immortal words of 1998 WSOP Main Event Champion Scotty "The Prince of Poker" Nguyen, "You call this one, and it's all over, baby."

And that's your Comic Art Friday. May all your cards be live, and your pots be monsters.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

The turn of a friendly Nugget

KJ and I spent this past weekend hanging out with the quartet and a gaggle of other barbershop singers and enthusiasts at a regional convention in Reno, Nevada. (Technically, we were in Sparks, as the convention site was John Ascuaga's Nugget Hotel and Casino. But since you can pretty much hurl a spitwad into Reno from any location in Sparks, I doubt the distinction makes much difference to anyone other than the locals.)

We had big fun. As a foursome, we probably gave the best big-stage performance of our career on Saturday evening. We also got to hear quite a few amazing quartets, most of whom were far younger and immeasurably more talented and good-looking than the four of us. So we hated them. (Just kidding. Sort of.)

I always enjoy a trip to Reno, even at the tag end of winter when the weather is still dicey. (A number of years ago, KJ and I got snowed in at Circus Circus for an extra two days past my December birthday weekend.) Reno's like a friendlier, more intimate Vegas — less glitzy and adrenalized on the downside, less crowded and costly on the upside. And as mini-resorts go, you could fare a good deal worse than at John Ascuaga's Nugget. The accommodations are congenial, parking is both convenient and free of charge, and the restaurants serve tasty fare accompanied by solid service. (Even the buffet is reasonably decent, as casino buffets go — and anyone who's ever risked his or her intestinal tract choking down the toxic steam-table spread at Circus Reno can attest to the measure of compliment that is.)

I can't testify to the quality of gaming in the Nugget casino, because I've never played there. (People who know of my near-rabid fascination with Las Vegas and Reno are often surprised to learn that I'm not much of a gambler. I play a considerable amount of online poker, but mostly free games or low buy-in tournaments. And I garner more enjoyment playing my other game of choice, blackjack, solo on my computer in an environment where the air is unsullied by tobacco and alcohol and my tablemates are both sober and silent.)

KJ put three bucks into a quarter slot machine without positive return. She did, however, get to see the real live John Ascuaga wandering his casino floor. She thought briefly about telling him how much she enjoyed his Nugget. But she figured that might come out wrong.

For those not as enraptured by barbershop music as we, the featured headliner in the Nugget's Celebrity Showroom over the weekend was the Alan Parsons Project. The hotel was liberally festooned with placards advertising the show, all of which featured a photo of Alan Parsons looking as though he'd just come off a lengthy bender and wanted to be anywhere other than onstage at the Nugget. For what they were probably paying the guy, you'd figure he could at least smile for his picture. Then again, it's been 25 years since The Turn of a Friendly Card, which was the last time anyone gave a royal rip about Alan Parsons or his Project.

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