Monday, February 19, 2007

Poker is Still Being Played

I checked my Email today to notice more than one "Where the hell have you been?" message in my box. Since I've returned from Vegas, my computer has been online pretty much constantly, and apparently enough people added me to their "friend" lists on Yahoo and MSN chat that they missed the reassuring presence of my name in boldface ("available").

But lately I haven't been online; my computer is blooey at the moment. I suspect the power supply is overheating; after running for a wholly random amount of time my computer simply shuts off. Except for the first time this happened, the outside of the power supply doesn't feel particularly hot, but that still remains my guess as to what is going on. I may be able to replace the power supply, or possibly put my hard drive into an entirely new computer, within the next week and a half, so my hiatus from the online world is far from permanent. (Well, the computer would be new to me rather than actually "new," and not that great compared to the state of the art, but eighteen months or so newer than my own computer, so an upgrade, anyway.)

I haven't been playing online much anyway, even before my computer went blooey, because I don't currently have a lot of money online. This is partially purposeful—I didn't want a lot of money to get "stranded" online—but mostly I don't want to play cash games online (for reasons I've touched on before), and although I have a respectable ROI in tournaments they're streaky enough, and the psychological aspects of playing in them is different enough, that actually making a steady income from playing smallish tournaments won't work well for me. In short, live > online, so I prefer to play live as much as possible.

Mostly live play has been unremarkable of late, though. No huge wins and no huge losses to report, but in the last couple of weeks I've played in two places I haven't before, and so I can put a couple of "trip reports" into my blog.

The DeltaPlex

In the 1950s, in a mostly industrial area at what would have then been the edge of town in Grand Rapids, Michigan, they built a smallish hockey and basketball arena. Using their remarkable ingenuity in coming up with names for such places, it was called "Stadium Arena." The arena would be used by various minor-league sports teams in various leagues over the years, and be booked for concerts, dog shows, and everything else under the sun, right up to this day, especially once an adjacent exhibition hall was added. Around ten years ago, the complex was bought, some money was invested, and it had a grand re-opening as The DeltaPlex, but it's still basically a 54-year-old, second- or third-rate venue whose main attraction for exhibitors is that it's cheap. It's only this last bit that's really relevant here.

I've talked about the "charity" games that have been run under the auspices of the Michigan Lottery Bureau, and participated in a few. But it's been a while. They're a specialized form of a "Millionaire Party," which is what the state calls it when a charity hosts a "casino night" as a fundraiser. Until recently, a player was not permitted to win (or lose) more than $500 at a Millionaire Party, which meant that a poker tournament with any kind of decent turnout would either have to have a very strange payout structure—say, $500 each to the last twelve players—or would have an obscene amount of "juice," of money taken out of the prize pool for the charity, often over 50%. Sometimes, a tournament would have both. So, while the players featured at these events were usually pretty abysmal, the entry fees didn't make these particularly profitable.

But while I was in Las Vegas, the Lottery Bureau removed the $500 cap on winnings. (I can't find any reference to a cap at all in the Lottery Bureau's rules for running a tournament, so I suspect they removed the cap entirely rather than set a higher cap.) This has allowed charities to run tournaments with better prize structures and lower juice, to the point where many of them are now actually a pretty decent deal for a good player. The flip side of that is that more good players are playing, however.

In the wake of this change, several outfits have started signing up charities to be the charity-of-the-day to host games, and begun holding games on a regular basis. One outfit, All-In Entertainment has lined up enough charities to regularly host both tournaments and cash games in Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Lansing, three cities underserved by casinos (as is, truly, most of Michigan's Lower Peninsula). The Grand Rapids events are held at the DeltaPlex, which is why I wrote that whole paragraph above, which turned out to be the first in many paragraphs of set-up, when I don't think I'll actually write that much about my actual experiences playing there. But I haven't written that part yet, and I've been known to be needlessly verbose.

The first time we went was a week and a half ago, now, to their Friday night "Fort Knox" tournament, which is an $85+$15 tournament with a surprisingly good blind structure. Although the blind levels are fifteen minutes apiece, the blinds generally increase gently enough that an "average" stack isn't under a lot of pressure until the sixth or seventh blind level. And while the juice is high when compared against an online tournament, for a live event, it's actually pretty reasonable, even compared to Las Vegas. (Their Thursday and Saturday tournaments have a lower buyin but 25% juice, which compares much less favorably.)

We played a little bit of their cash game—pretty much exclusively $1/$2 no-limit—before the tournament a week and a half ago. The rake is obscene, 10% to $7, which limits the appeal of this game, but mostly neither Gil nor I got anything decent to play (and failed to hit the not-decent hands we played) in the hour we sat the game, and we each lost a little bit. In the tournament, I lost half my chips on the second hand when my opponent hit his gutshot on the river, built back up to a near-average stack, and went out shortly after the first break when my preflop all-in reraise with Ace-King was called by Ace-Ten, who proceeded to run me down. (I think he might have made a straight, but this was a week and a half ago, and it doesn't matter anyway.) Gil more than doubled up in the first hour, and for the rest of the tournament simply played aggressively against short stacks. Sometimes they folded, sometimes they doubled through Gil, and sometimes Gil busted them, but that all averaged out to Gil winning a lot of pots, and eventually the tournament.

We went back this past Friday, mostly to play the tournament but partially for a reason I'll talk about at the end of this post. This time, I outlasted Gil. He said there were two all-ins ahead of him (this is in the first or second blind level), on the flop, and Gil had four to the nut flush. He called (debatable) and failed to hit, and was either out then or a few hands later. I won a few and lost a few, including one fantastic suck-out on my part, and was probably the #5 or #6 stack (of 25 or so) at the first break. But even so, my stack was only about 50% above average, and when I lost a medium-sized pot I was feeling some blind pressure. In my final hand, there was a small raise, and a short stack went all-in, and I went all-in over the top with Ace-Jack. The initial raiser called, and it turned out that the initial raiser had Ace-Five, the all-in had Ace-Nine, and I had Ace-Jack. I was looking good, until the river came with a Nine, and I was out of the tournament. Meanwhile, Gil had made several hundred dollars sitting a $1/$2 cash game, by (he said) letting other players bluff their money off to him.

Overall, these "charity" games are run about as professionally as one can with dealers that are effectively volunteers. They have ten or twelve tables set up, and the people running the show do know poker. Their dealers are hit-or-miss, but generally reasonable. The rake is high in their cash games, as I've said, and they have a few strange rules that are basically the fault of the Lottery Bureau not so much understanding poker, about which more later. All of that said, though, if you're interested in playing $1/$2 no-limit, and you live near Grand Rapids, it might present a better opportunity to play (at least three nights a week) than whatever casino you drive as far as four hours away to get to.

Sault Ste. Marie

After the game this past Friday, and after the consumption of a fair amount of beer (on my part) and Scotch (on Gil's part), I slept on Gil's couch, expecting that we'd leave fairly early to go play poker somewhere (quite likely Michigan City). (By the way, I don't recommend Gil's couch. As couches go it's comfortable enough, but it's not long enough. At least, if you're six foot three.) Early Saturday morning, Gil was awakened by a phone call from someone who needed an act that night to replace an act that cancelled at the last minute. Since Gil would end up making more than three times his usual fee, he took the gig, even though it was more than a five hour drive from Grand Rapids, and I went with him, since it was at a casino.

Sault Ste. Marie is in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, at the eastern end of Lake Superior, across the St. Mary's river (of course) from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, of which the Michigan city is essentially a suburb. Taken together, the two cities have nearly 100,000 people, which is actually quite a lot considering how far north they are.

Among the small casinos dotted around the Upper Peninsula are five run by the Sault tribe of Chippewa Indians, managed as Kewadin Casinos. (Kewadin also runs the Greektown Casino in Detroit, although that's technically not an Indian casino because it's state-licensed.) This was my first visit to one of them, and in fact I think this is the first time I've been to the Upper Peninsula at all in almost twenty years. My one-sentence impression of the casino is this: It's a pretty nice casino, except for the casino.

The casino floor(s), restaurants, gift shops, showroom, hotel, and everything else are laid out along either side as you walk through a curving atrium, which isn't that far from the miniature malls in Vegas casinos like Paris or Caesar's Palace, really. My experience with everything except the casino itself was overwhelmingly positive. The casino floor is split into two rooms on either side of the atrium, neither one terribly big. The larger of the two holds the table games, maybe 60-70% of the total number of their slots, a snack bar, and a bar that's actually well laid-out and well-stocked (they knew what a black-and-tan was and prepared it with no comment). The smaller contains the remainder of their slots, a lounge very much in the mold of old-time Vegas, and their poker and keno area.

The poker room consists of precisely three tables, spreading almost exclusively $1/$2 no-limit, although on this particular Saturday night they could easily have had eight tables going. While Gil was preparing for his show, I went to add myself to the list, and found that I was more than forty names down, at 7:00 in the evening. That foretold a long wait—probably very long. If I were in Vegas and ran into that, obviously the casino would lose my business, but the monopoly conditions in Michigan meant that I was stuck. So, I played probably as much live blackjack as the total of what I've played before, and ended up down $25, which probably is pretty close to (or slightly above) the EV of the amount of play I gave them. I was generally playing $5 to $10 a hand, but the table minimum was actually $3, which I haven't seen before in this part of the country.

The casino's location meant that I saw something I haven't seen before. The dealer's tray was split in half: The right half contained chips denoted in U.S. dollars, and the left half contained chips denoted in Canadian dollars. When you bought chips from the dealer, he gave you chips from the appropriate side, and if you were betting Canadian dollars, you got paid in Canadian dollars, and if you were betting U.S. dollars, you got paid in U.S. dollars. There were only two problems with all of this, and they are both minor: First, with less of any individual chip denomination in his tray, the dealer needs fills more often. And second, except for the US$25 chips, none of the chip colors were anything close to the standard colors, which would cause me a slight problem later. The US$1 chips were actually slot tokens, and they used Kennedy halves, but there were chips for C$1 and 50¢C denominations. I was told that the cage only paid out in U.S. dollars, but of course I didn't have cause to find out.

Once I was finally seated in the poker room (after a five-hour wait), my stack size was generally trending downward. Gil was seated not long after I was, despite not getting on the list until more than two hours later than me, since it was after midnight. Gil went on a tear right away, getting good starting hands and running his $100 up to nearly $400, before making an ill-advised call of an all-in and losing nearly all of it. I trended downward, as I said, but once I was into my second buyin I started building it back up. The hand that really turned my fortunes around, I really shouldn't have won. Four or five people took a $20 flop, which was already unusual, and I was one of them with 56♠. The flop came KJ6, or something similar, which I really didn't like, but then everyone checked to me, and somehow I found myself betting $45. I got two callers, one of whom had exactly $45, and the other of whom had exactly $56. That was a horrible result, because now I had to rely on making the best hand to win, and with two callers that really wasn't very likely. But the turn was a Five, and I bet the last player's $11 (which I probably would have done anyway), and my hand ended up being good. As it happened I was up against Ace-Jack and some sort of draw, probably the straight draw, which didn't get there. If the night had ended after that hand, it would have been a decent night, but in one of the last hands before they closed the room for the night I bluffed off over $100, which must have been obvious because I was called by a pretty weak hand that happened to have me beat. I ended up clearing exactly $1 in profit from the game.

My biggest beef with the poker room is that there aren't enough tables. This night, there was a drawing being held for a WPT seat, so pretty much all the regulars were there. Plus, there were a lot of drop-ins that would have liked to have played. Surprisingly, some of them stuck it out, and I did in fact play against a number of people who clearly weren't regulars. I can't believe that the chairs in the Keno area are ever all filled, so two (maybe three) tables could be added incredibly easily. If they took all the Keno chairs out, which seems reasonable to me because I never really see anyone playing Keno anywhere in any casino ever, then the poker room could expand into that space and have eight to ten tables, which (last night, anyway) would all get use.

The dealers I saw were below average but not terrible, but it was confusing to play with the odd-colored chips, because the $1 and $5 chips that played in this game were colored oppositely to how they are at most other casinos: red chips were $1, and white (or off-white) chips were $5. A couple of times both Gil and I messed up trying to make bets because of that.

The best thing of all about this poker room is that the rake, at least in a $1/$2 game, has a three dollar maximum (only U.S. dollars play at the poker table). Nearly everywhere in Las Vegas has gone to a $4 rake, and in the midwest it can be as high as $6 plus a jackpot rake. So to find a three dollar rake, especially in this part of the country, is quite a pleasant surprise. I'm even told that during the week they even have a "happy hour" when the room first opens for the day when there is no rake at all.

It was nice to cross the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula, which I don't think I've done for almost twenty years. (Michiganders refer to the Upper Peninsula as "the U.P.," pretty much universally, although we don't say "the L.P.". The U.P.'s residents are thus "Yoopers," including among themselves, while Yoopers refer to the other 97% of Michigan's population as "trolls," because we live "below the bridge.") And though I wouldn't have made the trip for the hell of it, I did enjoy "checking out" a casino that was new to me. But I'm not itching to go back.

I almost forgot: They had Gil prepare his show in the green room backstage, which didn't mean much to him since he mostly does his show out of a suitcase. But when they let us in, I used the bathroom in the green room, which meant I peed in the same toilet as any number of randomly famous people who've performed at that casino. Does that mean I'm famous by association?

Poker in Michigan

After I got back tonight, I took a lengthy nap. As I was awaking from the nap, I was thinking of that the law really does suck for poker players, in Michigan and in many other places. Michigan doesn't even have the "as long as there's no rake" exception that many states have; poker is just flat-out illegal unless the state tells you it's okay (casinos, charity games, and small stakes at old-folks homes). I was thinking about how to change that. If I planned to be in Michigan indefinitely, I might spend more time pursuing this, but as it is there seems little point. Nonetheless, I was thinking about it.

Michigan has two ways that a law can be passed. First, it can be passed by the legislature. Second, it can be done by initiative, meaning you get a whole freaking lot of signatures, it goes to the legislature, and they accept or reject it. If they reject it, it goes on the next ballot, although the legislature gets to make up a different bill on the same subject and put that on the ballot too, if they want.

My best guess is that the chance of passing a liberalization of poker laws through the legislature is small. The only way it's likely to happen is if a large minority of the population is for it, and nobody is vociferously against it. This would mean a lot of money to spend in a lot of media to educate a lot of people, against the opposition of people with moral objections to poker or to gambling generally. The bill would probably have to be introduced by a Republican from suburban Detroit, and I have no "ins" with any of them.

The initiative thing could work, actually, but the problem is similar. You'd need a lot of money to get the issue to the legislature. The constitution says you need to collect signatures from 8% of the number of people who voted in the last governor's election, which (I checked) currently means 304,101 valid signatures. That actually means something in the range of 350-400,000 signatures, to account for signatures that are for one reason or another invalid. The easiest way to get that many signatures is to hire professionals. I used to know how much they get paid, but I don't anymore; it might be as much as $1 per signature. So that's a quarter to a half million dollars right there.

The problem is that this doesn't make the issue law: The legislature still needs to approve or disapprove it. The safest route for them, in terms of political "cover" from antigambling forces, is to disapprove the initiative, and let it go to the ballot. This would let them claim, when somebody calls them on "why did you let gambling get expanded," that they were against it, but the constitution didn't let them do more than let it go to a vote. (If you've ever had a real conversation with your congressman, you know: Politicians hate to take a stand on anything.) So, in all likelihood, the issue would then go on the ballot.

That brings up another problem: After the issue is on the ballot, you have to support it with a political campaign. The antigambling forces already have money for things like that because they can just pull it from other campaigns. And the existing casinos would probably fight the law as well, and they have deep pockets. (On the other hand, there's maybe a 20% chance they'd sit on the sidelines, since they don't really like poker very much anyway.) But the pro-poker forces would have to marshall their forces to make their case. It might cost as much as ten million dollars just to counter the radio and TV ads that the antigambling forces would marshal; I don't know. But I think the pro-poker forces would at least need to spend two million defending their proposal if it went to the ballot.

All of that is really just set-up for what I was actually thinking of while I was lying awake at what apparently was five hours ago (I've been typing for a long time). I was writing snippets of the law itself, in my head. Without including those, here are some of the things I think the law needs to say (and this is kind of free-form from here on out, making it up as I go along):

  1. Remove poker from the list of gambling games that are prohibited, or specifically exclude poker from prosecution under the criminal code
  2. Define poker, also define not-poker (e.g., "Four Card Poker" isn't poker, but Badugi, played with four cards, is)
  3. Recognize poker as a game of skill
  4. Explicitly permit poker for any stakes without permit or license if the house doesn't take a rake.
  5. If the house takes a rake, make the house get a license from the Michigan Gaming Commission (or whatever it's called) that was set up when the Detroit casinos were approved. Set a maximum price for the license, and otherwise low barriers.
  6. Specifically allow people with liquor licenses to get poker licenses.
  7. Make sure the house has poker rules available, but otherwise limit the state to making sure the house follows its own rules.
  8. Provide for some sort of dispute resolution (this might already be in the stuff about the Detroit casinos).

I may add to that list as I write out some of my explanatory stuff. I want the resulting bill to be non-scary to a legislator, to increase the chance that it wouldn't have to go to the ballot. I'm therefore sticking to poker, rather than all gambling. I want to exclude some of the workarounds that put pit games into poker rooms in California (so I read); I don't want to have to defend "crapjack" when I'm talking about poker. And I want legislators to be reassured that the government is in charge, hence the Gaming Commission stuff (which is probably a good idea, anyway).

The other big one I wanted to mention was point 7, about house rules. When the state has tried to make rules about poker in the past, they've done a really bad job. Look through the Lottery Bureau's rules for Holdem tournaments and cash games if you don't believe me. (In particular, look at rule #24 for cash games.) Therefore, I'd like for the house to have its own rules, something like Robert's Rules of Poker or another ruleset, which is complete and well thought-out, rather than someone with a "Thursday night poker" mentality writing rules for professional games. Poker rooms generally do have rulebooks—I've actually seen it at one casino—but they don't like players to have access to them because it turns them into "Philadelphia lawyers," arguing every floor decision. (The floorman's job isn't actually to make the right decision. It's simply to make a decision. If it happens to be the right decision, that's just a bonus.) But in any case, it is these rules which should apply, and the state should mostly just make sure houses are living up to their rulebooks.

In my mind, the maximum license fee should be something like $5000 per table per year. But it might be necessary to put in a bit to reassure operators that they'll actually make $5000, especially for part-time operators (like bars), so maybe also put in a bit about 10% of revenue, or something, as a maximum if that's less than $5000. But simply having anything percentage-based might mean that the state would have to delve into records that the operator would have cause to falsify, and it wouldn't work out. Another way to accomplish the same thing might be to scale the license fee, charging fairly low fees for one- and two-table rooms and higher fees for rooms with more than ten tables. Ideally, none of this should be in the law itself, but rather left up to the Gaming Commission. But they might read "maximum of $5000" as "$5000," instantly, always, and forever.

It might be good to exclude people who've been convicted of embezzlement from getting licenses, but otherwise I'd want pretty much anyone to be able to get one. This means that I'd want the Gaming Commission to not be able to put unreasonable demands on licenseholders, such as that they carry forty billion dollars' worth of insurance, or something. I'm not entirely sure how to encode that into a law, or even if it should be. Maybe it's just a "shall-issue" clause, that unless someone's excluded by dint of X, whatever X is, the Gaming Commission "shall issue" a license.

I was thinking in terms of actual language earlier when I was thinking of this, and perhaps at some point I'll box some of this into a "model bill" as think-tanks and lobbyists use the term. If I do, I will post the model bill here. But I don't really intend to spend much time pursuing this, in Michigan. Instead, I plan to leave.

Vegas Update

By and large, things are as they have been. I'm behind the curve as far as assembling the money to move west. The only developments are minor ones.

One of the reasons we went back to the Deltaplex a second time is that it would present me an opportunity to get in some practice dealing; I'd like to be able to walk into a casino and pass an audition. So I intended to talk to them and find out how exactly I do that. As it happened, I barely brought it up before I was told I was talking to the wrong person, giving me the impression I'm not the first to ask. Looking at the Lottery Bureau's rules, it seems the charity is not allowed to pay a dealer ("worker") more than $30, although possibly the people they hire to run things (All-In Entertainment, in this case) can provide some dealers, and All-In might be able to pay their dealers. Although the $30 would almost certainly be in cash and hence "under the table," it still wouldn't be even minimum wage. Nonetheless, I'd want the experience dealing before I went west, and this would provide a good way to get it.

Talking about all of this with Gil, he seemed nearly (but not quite) ready for us to go west "a little light," meaning on a shoestring: counting on our experience in Vegas to pay for most of the actual trip, after the fact. That doesn't really change Gil's long-term concerns about moving, but in the short term, it might.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Forrest Gump