Monday, June 30, 2014

The State of Poker: Thoughts fresh from a recent trip to Las Vagas.

I have been a poker player, in one game or another, since around age 16.  I started playing 7-Stud for pennies, moved on to Texas Hold-em out of necessity after the Moneymaker boom, and have recently been more interested in different variations of Omaha, Razz and other games, preferring to play in mixed-game tournaments more recently since I find the action to be more interesting.

All of that said, my days playing poker in casino poker rooms likely came to an end last week while I was in Las Vegas.

The short reason is that I just don't find the current environment of poker to be all that attractive.

The longer reason is a little bit more nuanced.

Let me first say this. If you're a level 2 or above card-sharp there is now more money to be made in poker rooms across the country than ever before. The preponderance of level 1 players, calling stations, and TV wannabes can make sitting down to a poker game very lucrative if you have the time, patience and ability to make the right reads and plays. I'm not walking away from the game because I'm losing money at it. I'm walking away because it's just not fun.

There was a time you had a better than average chance of having to play real hard at a 1/2 NL game. Not any more. The modern poker room has become a mish-mash of either grumpy old men (possibly myself recently if I'm honest) and young players with little regard for poker etiquette or an understanding of what costs them money.  Over the last week I saw the following:

 - Players at 4/8 L or 1/2 NL games wearing sweaters and sunglasses.
 - A guy who would holler "BOOM!!!" every time he did as little as sweep the blinds in a 1/2 NL game.
 - A lady get called a "donkey" who checked her blind (no raise in front of her) flopped a set of 4's and beat a guy with KK despite having only a 4-2 in her hole cards.
 - Got verbally thrashed by "BOOM!!!" guy when he went all-in with 8-4, I called with AA, and he caught an 882 on the flop.
 - A gentlemen took 5 minutes to call into a $10 bet, all the time acting as if it was a cool $Million on the line.
 - More rules calls and arguments than I've seen in 25 years playing the game.

Poker now is being ruled by two groups.

 1. The rules Nazi's.
 2. The wanna-be poker brats.

Neither of these two groups is all that much fun to sit down and play with.  As I said earlier, there is money to be made in poker rooms these days, but I'm not a professional poker player and (to be honest) I'm not going to make a living playing poker for the small amount of time that I play it.

At the end of the day, for me, poker is about having fun. 

I used to enjoy sitting down at a table, swapping stories with different people, talking about sports and other things. Playing poker was a release. When you got beat you said "good hand" or "nice river" and play went on.

These day's almost every hand is viewed as a referendum on one's ability to play. Small wins are greeted with histrionics, small disagreements over rules turn into repeated verbal squabbles and bad beats either turn into personal insults or worse. Poker has been taken over by a young-ish group of punks and, as a means of entertainment, it's fairly dead right now.You're more likely to be entertained at blackjack or even penny slots than you are the poker room. That might come off as a little "get off my lawn" but it's true. Bad beats I can handle. Bad sportsmanship on top of a bad beat?  Life is just too short.

Because of that, and because gambling for me is pure entertainment, I'm walking away from the casino game for good.  Sure, you'll still probably find me at a home game swapping cigars, beers and stories but when it comes to spending my casino dollars wisely?

I'll see you at the blackjack tables.

Monday, June 16, 2014

#USMNT vs. Ghana - World Cup 2014

Let's start from the top:  Jurgen Klinsmann is correct, this is a must-win game for both teams. And while I agree with the writer of the linked article that Group G is not the "Group of death" (I reserve that title for Group D with Italy, Uruguay, Costa Rica and England all having a chance to advance) this is a trouble group for the US and I just don't see them being all that competitive against the teams within.

For anything to happen for the USMNT however a win over Ghana is a must, and given the lack of quality in the US back-line in a World Cup that's already being marked by offensive play I just don't see the US withstanding a Ghana attack that includes some top level players including the Ayew brothers and top striker Asamoah Gyan who is faster than any US defenseman at any level.

The US is going to have to rely on Tim Howard who is still one of the better keepers in the world and will have to get in the way of some direct shots on goal often in this game.  One questions whether or not the US will have to refrain from sending their defensemen forward because of the threat of Gyan? Or will they be able to attack from the back in a game that is going to require that some goals be scored?

It's not as if the US doesn't have talent. While they have always lacked a true No. 9-style player, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey are a quality pair of forwards despite Altidore's much publicized scoring drought (broken, thankfully, in the last US WC warm-up game). And with the Black Star's star midfielder Messian questionable with an injury, you would think that Michael Bradley and Co. could have a little easier time of it controlling play in the middle 2/3rds.

But this is a World Cup where the Americans seem to be building for the future, one where Klinsmann is trying to show us that we still need player development beyond the current level.  Looking at the current roster as compared to the rosters from 2006 and 2010 it's hard to see much evidence of any progression whatsoever.

The USMNT is still missing a number 9 (the great white whale of American football), still has unproven players in both the defensive side and the midfield, still has a couple of stars who are asked to do things they're not ideally suited for, and is still waiting for their big breakout star. (In 2006 & 2010 it was the vastly overrated Oguchi Onyewu, this year it appears to be either Altidore, or possibly Julian Green)

Either way I think that this team, FIFA's silly world rankings notwithstanding, is going to find itself out of it's depth. I think the speed and offensive talent of Ghana is going to be the difference, especially when you consider the offensive flavor that is becoming dominate early on.  Both teems need three points here, only one is going to get them.

My bet is it will be Ghana at a score of 2-1.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Soccer in America

In a guest column today in the Houston Chronicle former US Men's National Team member and former Houston Dynamo Brian Ching pens a column that is, ostensibly, about the rise in popularity of soccer in America but which is really nothing more than a veiled shot at USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann for *gasp* having the temerity to leave Landon Donovan off of the World Cup 23 man roster.  More on that later.

First, it's probably that Ching's attitude toward soccer in America is fueled by his ignorance of Soccer at the top level of club play.  Taking participation rates in leagues and trying to extrapolate it to future interest is silly. A lot of children that play Little League baseball grow up to not be fans of Major League baseball. For that matter, look at all of the children in youth tennis, then take a look at ratings for professional tennis. Clearly it's not possible to project future interest in a sport based on levels of youth participation.

The second argument that Ching makes is even more silly.  Suggesting that the MLS is soon to be a top-two league in the US is ridiculous on it's face.  MLS is possibly the worst example of true soccer in America today. It's a closed league whose business model is not built around winning, but in putting aging players with names on rosters to drive fan interest. While this might have allowed Mr. Beckham to make some more money in his career, it certainly didn't help elevate the game across the board. Again, it's impossible to look at the popularity of the Barclay's Premier League on NBC and it's affiliates and suggest that those same fans are going to accept a marked decrease in quality and switch over to MLS in the future.

Finally, I'm constantly amazed by the amount of grief given to Klinsmann over his handling of the USMNT. For a former marginal player at the International level such as Ching to question a man whose got a World Cup in his trophy cabinet simply because he likes the guy being omitted from the team is ridiculous. Hell, I'm a Landon fan and wish he was on the team but you have to think that Klinsmann is using this WC to build for the next one where he might think the US has an actual chance.

Unlike Ching's "flip a coin" theory of whether the USMNT will advance out of the group stage I will posit that the US chances are slim to none.  While slim might not have left town it is certainly warming up the engine.  If it's agreed that the US has almost zero chance of beating Germany (and they don't) then you have to hang your hopes on beating Portugal, the number 10 ranked team in the WC while the US is ranked 20th.  Every team in the US group is ranked ahead of them, with Germany being among the favorites to win. Even the 3rd team in the group, Ghana, is the team that eliminated the US in the last two World Cups.

If anything, Ching's missive proves just how big the blind spot is for Americans when it comes to the beautiful game.  For America, even the big, huge American soccer fans, the World Cup is a neat little sporting event that allows them to watch world class football once every four years. For other countries, these games played over the next few weeks are matters of national pride, reasons to emote, celebrate and even cry. The World Cup, is all.

Four years ago my team, Scotland, was denied a chance to play in this grand tournament due mainly to a dodgy call by a horrible FIFA referee and an own goal which put France, where they had a terrible WC and didn't clear the elimination round. against Spain, who then went on to win the damn thing.  I was angry for months about that call game*.  This time around the Scots were horrible, the English are ageing rapidly and I'm for the Azzurri all the way. I'm betting on Germany however, who I predict will whip the USMNT 4-0.

*As Matt pointed out in the comments, I'm not sure why I juxtaposed Ireland v. France for Scotland v. Spain in 2010 WC qualifying. Maybe I'm getting senile as I get older?

Wagering Tidbits: American Football and Football

First off, it's football, not fĂștbol as American media outlets try and call it when they're trying to act knowledgeable.  Now, if you're speaking in Spanish, or another Latin-American dialect then yes,  fĂștbol would be correct. If you're speaking the Queen's English then you can call it footy.  Otherwise, stick with soccer folks.  It doesn't make you sound any more worldly when you call it otherwise.

Now, on a couple of upcoming bets that I'll be laying down on an upcoming trip to Vegas.

1. NFL Futures Bet: Texans Win total O/U 7 1/2 - I'm betting the under here because I still don't think the Texans have the QB play to contend. I also think there are still several holes in this roster that have not been addressed and will not be for a couple of years.  Given the team's management DNA I wouldn't expect them to break even until next year.

2. World Cup: To win: Germany @ 5-1 - I think Germany is the best team in this year's World Cup, but I think playing in Brazil is going to make it harder for everyone not wearing yellow blue and green. That said, I still like the Germans.

There are a ton of individual games that I'll be looking at, but I'm not ready to jump on them now.

That said, today's match between Brazil and Croatia looks strong for Brazil winning both the first and second halves (-125) although the overall line (Brazil -325) is a pass.  I also like Brazil to score more than three goals (7/4 odds per the link at William Hill but [sadly] not offered in Vegas) so the line of -110 for OVER 2.5 is very, very tempting.

Good luck and enjoy the matches.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Triple Crown Mania: The Ballad of Steve Coburn

We have now gone 36 years without a winner of the Triple Crown. Not since Affirmed finished off a great duel with Alydar has horse racing seen a horse good, and lucky, enough to win all three jewels of the greatest limiting factor in the industry.

Yes, you read that correctly, I contest that the Triple Crown, and the control the three tracks having in controlling racing's narrative, is the single greatest limiting force in the popularity of the sport of kings.

Things haven't been helped by California Chrome's owner Steve Coburn coming across like a spoiled brat after Tonalist upset his horse in a race that wasn't close. New shooters are hardly new in horse racing, and Coburn acting as if he was somehow wronged in all of this not only reveals a complete lack of sportsmanship, but also reveals a total ignorance about racing itself. Also, it should be noted that Coburn had no qualms about so-called "new shooters" when he beat them in the Preakness. It's only when CalChrome failed to kick in the Belmont that this long-time practice became an excuse for his horse just not showing up.

The good news is, it appears that most are seeing Coburn as the sore loser he is and there will be little interesting in dumbing down the award for future generations.  Leave the Triple Crown as it is.

In other areas of horse racing there are certainly things that need to be changed.  For one, how points are allocated to horses for the Triple Crown (and Churchill Down's almost monopoly on deciding that) needs to be looked into.  Another item to consider is de-emphasizing the Triple Crown in the public's eye.

I realize that this seems like heresy but it's not.  The fact is the Triple Crown highlights only a sliver of the best horses one year before their prime, and are usually not the best races of the year.  Further down the calendar there are several good stakes races (The Haskell being one, Breeder's Cup a second) that are given short-shrift only because of marketing.  Horse racing supporters will point to huge crowds at the various tracks on the days that the Triple Crown races were ran.  What they fail to mention is that on the Sunday's following those races (despite, in many cases, several competitive, big-money stakes races being on the cards) those tracks were ghost-towns.

One big issue that I think needs addressed is the control of the statistics in horse-racing by subscription-based, fee-charging websites and companies.  In all major sports statistics are free. You can go back several years in the NFL, NBA, MLB and the NHL and find stats surrounding everything. In horse racing however, if you want to find the past performances on the horses in the 3rd race at Monmouth, you either have to buy a subscription to a horse data site or purchase a program at the track.  This is wrong and should be reconsidered as opening up the statistical analysis side of the sport is key to bringing in more (and better) wagering.

There are several other issues that horse racing needs to address that I won't go into detail here. They include, track management who view tracks as concert venues rather than racing venues. weak and/or corrupt state commissions that need to be overhauled, the lack of nationwide standards which allows for silly controversies such as the CalChrome nose-strip, drugs and doping and minimum conditions for the care and treatment of both current and retired racers.

All of these things are important for the future growth of the sport. A sport that I've been following since I was six and Alydar and Affirmed punched it out over three races to give us our last Triple Crown winner. Since then I've watched, waited, anguished and laughed as I've watched both triumph (Afleet Alex in the 2005 Preakness) and tragedy (Barbaro in the 2007 Preakness). Through it all I've enjoyed going to the track and wagering my money on animals that I've learned to both respect and love. It's never been the horses that have let me down, only the humans associated with them.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Triple Crown Mania: The Belmont Stakes

Heading into The Belmont Stakes Weekend the question is whether any of the 10 other horse in the race can do what the previous 28 could not.  Can they beat California Chrome and deny him the shot at immortality.

Ignoring the morning line odds, here's how I see it....

Post Position 1: Medal Count - This horse finished a distant 8th behind CalChrome in the Kentucky Derby and skipped the Preakness to point toward this race. Given his lack of tactical speed and questionable pedigree for the distance I can't see him as a credible contender despite liking him in the KY Derby. Would not risk any money here except deeper in exotics.

Post Position 2: California Chrome - Over the last six races, this horse has done nothing wrong. It's going to be hard to bet against him here, especially running against what looks like at first glance, a relatively weak field. The only question, as it is every year at the Belmont, is fatigue and distance. A Mile and one half is a LONG way for a 3yr old horse. Only a play in exotics because the line should be horrible. (I'm thinking 1/5 when they go off)

Post Position 3: Matterhorn - Trainer Todd Pletcher is throwing two darts at the board in this race and this horse appears to be his weakest entry. Lightly raced and inexperienced against stakes competition it will take a huge step up for this horse to finish anywhere but off the back. I can't find any value in even including this horse in exotics. Feels like you'd be throwing away money.

Post Position 4: Commanding Curve - If there is a trendy pick to upset CalChrome in this race Commanding Curve is it. He's a closer than came from way back in the KY Derby to finish 2nd to the eventual winner. Clearly the trainers are hoping Curve can benefit from the long, long straight at Belmont. He's a hard horse to handicap because of the distance but I think he'd be one to throw some money at if the odds are right and definitely a horse to use fairly high up if you're betting exotics.

Post Position 5: Ride on Curlin - If I, gun to the head, had to pick an upset winner of the Belmont this would be my horse. Jockey Calvin Borel took RoC on a trip so horrible in the KyD that he was kicked off for the Preakness in favor of  J.R. Velasquez who maneuvered RoC to 2nd place.  And he was looking like he had plenty more to give in that race. Definitely a live bet since you're likely to get pretty good odds considering the amount of public money that will be thrown at CalChrome.

Post Position 6: Matuszak - The ONLY argument for an upset here is the history of the connections, trainer Bill Mott and jockey Mike Smith, who threw a bomb in the 2010 Belmont Stakes with Drosselmeyer. He just seems outclassed in this race having no stakes wins and no wins period since breaking his maiden. I can't see risking any of your bankroll on this horse except very, very deep in exotics if you're looking for a price to increase the payoff. Consider any money wagered on this horse pure gambling, hoping for another miracle.

Post Position 7: Samraat - If you could wager for who would be leading at the quarter pole and during the first 1/2 mile Samraat is your horse.  He's the only true speed in this race but will probably be battling it out for last with Matterhorn and Matuszak at the end of the race. I don't like betting on this horse in almost any scenario except one where absolutely no one decides to challenge for the lead and then all remaining horses refuse to close. Pass.

Post Position 8: Commissioner - Todd Pletcher's second entry in the Belmont is actually a horse that interests me when putting together exotics. While he's never won a stakes race he has also run fairly well on this track finishing 2nd in the Peter Pan (although it must be considered that he finished 4 lengths behind Tonalist), the race that's considered the "prep" race at Belmont for the stakes. Probably not the best horse to place a win wager on but definitely live in the bottom part of any exotics that you are considering.

Post Position 9: Wicked Strong - Another strong contender for upset wagering Wicked Strong is a NY based colt who had a terrible trip in the KyD where he finished 4th, skipped the Preakness, and appears to be on pace to challenge here. He had a blistering workout on Sunday and there is some buzz surrounding his barn.  While I'm not the biggest fan of his jockey (Rajiv Maragh) in big races he might have enough horse for it to not matter. He is currently sitting at 6-1 on the opening line and I'm guessing he'll go off at around 3 or 4 - 1 at post time.  If he creeps up higher than 5-1 jump all over him for value. Definite player in any exotic scenario.

Post Position 10: General A-Rod - While I'm a fan of jockey Rosie Napravnik the truth is she's death for a horse from a betting perspective due to what I call "girlpower" money that inevitably drives down her horses value. That said, I don't think GA-R has much of a chance at anything more than a mid-pack finish based on what I've seen. Consider this, probably the best jockey in the world right now, Javier Castellano, could only take GA-R to a "meh" 4th in the Preakness, and the horse was just out ran to 11th in the KyD. Possibly this is a horse to consider at the bottom end of exotic wagers but I wouldn't blame you if you passed.

Post Position 11: Tonalist - The winner of the Peter Pan Stakes (G2) at this very track should go off at moderate odds. Should it rain on Belmont Day then this horse becomes very interesting since he won the PPan on a sloppy track by 4 lengths. Certainly a mudder but you can't discount a win at Belmont when handicapping.  If it's wet, you definitely want to consider a win/place bet unless the odds get out of line. Certainly a horse to consider in your exotics, even in the top half.

My strategy: As always, I'm going to approach this race trying to find some value and beat the favorite.  I can't in good conscience put any money on CalChrome because he's likely to go off at horrible odds. I'm predicting around 1/5 or thereabouts. That said, my planned strategy is as follows:

4(Commanding Curve), 5(Ride on Curlin), 11(Tonalist) 5(Wicked Strong)*

Trifecta 2(California Chrome) keyed with 5(Ride on Curlin), 11(Tonalist) and either 4(Commanding Curve) or 5(Wicked Strong)*

Superfecta: 2-5,9,11-4,8,9-4,8**

One final note: Remember, whatever you do keep your bank-roll intact and don't throw too much  money at any one race.  As is typical with Triple Crown races, there are a LOT of good races at Belmont that day where some real value can be had.  Be sure to not bet 15% of your bankroll on any one race.

Good Luck on Saturday and here's hoping for a Triple Crown that pays on my exotic wagers.

*Subject to change based on odds.
**All bets subject to change based on race day odds, allowed wagers etc.

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