Sunday, February 26, 2006

Conditions of the Working Class in Chelsea

THE HEAD OF OUR small group of designers called us to meet late last Friday. To preface this, a fundamental change in how my company produces newsletters has been in the works for months. The original target time for instituting the new system was last summer, with full implementation slated for the fall. Neither occurred. So our group has been in the position, as they say in certain parts of the South, of fixin' to get ready for some months now.

My supervisor told us we are close to reaching an important milestone in the process, and that we are now expected to get this new method going in the summer. For this reason, our boss told my supervisor that we are not to take breaks longer than a few days between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Because I usually spend 8 days each summer in Las Vegas, this directly curtails my plans. I don't know if 4 days in the form of a very long weekend (like my usual January trip) still would be okay. I imagine I will be pulling my plumage out like an insane parrot if I don't get a decent stretch there, but this does not rule out taking a trip of my usual length in the fall. Las Vegas is supposed to be fantastic in October, though the hotel prices reflect this. (It's dead cheap to stay in July.)

This change screws my supervisor over worse, though, because she is enrolled in graduate school for this fall, which makes the summer the ideal time for her to take an extended vacation. She's linked into enough management duties that taking time off in any season is already a tricky dance. And the way this project is being described, she's gonna need to decompress more than any of us.

What this says to me is that our boss, and perhaps hers as well, are utterly paranoid about the chances of success this new workflow has. My boss is its primary champion, and she stands to lose a fair chunk of credibility (at minimum) if it fails. She can't afford to fail. She is contributing one of two incomes to a six-person family, and at Long Island prices. Four college educations and three marriages down the road, plus a mortgage. So despite the harmony in our little workgroup in doing one another's work when someone's out, the presumption is that any reduction in workforce will jeopardize the entire project.

Situations like this help me realize how free I am from a lot of this heart-killing, stomach-eroding, soul-crushing management bullshit. I can foresee a time when my supervisor completes her degree, begins to shop around her book of work, and leaves for a more creative design position where her new skills will flower more fully and she will make better connections in the graphic design world. Her position might then go to me. I don't know if my current mindset of rejecting the bafflegab of fools is compatible with the ass-backwards methods of my company's management. Of course, they could also go outside the company to recruit a new manager for the department. This is not incompatible with the aforementioned ass-backwardism. But the natural move would be to slot me into her place if she gave notice. I am not sure I want it.

I quit my last job for a number of reasons, but one of the big ones was that the senior duties of training and supervision took me away from doing what I enjoyed: editing and typesetting. My super at the current job does still do design work, but she splits it with some entirely unrelated business and management duties that I know I will loathe. Even if I wanted the position, there is no internal path upwards from it. My boss and everyone above her will only leave their positions if they commit felonies and are fired . . . and my supervisor made the mistake of transmitting the words of my boss to me that it is very difficult for anyone to get fired. Not the sort of thing you want to tell a man who has already decided to suppress bullshit with heavy return fire whenever it leaves the treeline.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if I were laid off. It's not out of the question. In the same meeting, my super mentioned that a sister press of ours, which took over the typesetting and prepress duties of several of our journals, may soon be dissolved. My boss is avoiding contact with the head of that company, rejecting or ignoring requests for equipment upgrades, and leaving her out of managers' conference calls. It's not known when the axe will fall, but my super says it will, and that their work, once ours, will return to our desks. (Another reason they are worried about extended breaks during the summer.) Closer to home, back in late 2003 we went through a stretch when we thought our work might be moved to another division, and that our positions were in danger. Layoffs had already thinned the promotions and editorial departments. So our boss deliberately overloaded our desks with work, to keep us all looking as crucial to the process as we could. It was fucking insane, and two of our staffers occasionally broke down in tears from overwork or even from minor mistakes (they are no longer with us). I just maxed out my 401(k) contribution to stash as much retirement income as possible, gritted my teeth, and tried not to fuck things up too much from haste. It probably contributed to my current senior position.

Even then, I did not share my super's fear of being laid off. She was just starting graduate courses then, on the company dime, so her worries were genuine. I had no such extra financial need, nor was I in debt. The next Vegas or even Foxwoods trips could have waited until I was getting steady paychecks again. I could have made my way for a few months if thrown out, especially if I got some sort of settlement package. Not to say I wouldn't have been upset and need some time to sort out the business reason from the personal rejection, and of course the job hunt would've sucked, especially at that time, in the early phases of the Iraq War. But I would not have starved. Nor would I now.

Downsizing and promotions are two stressors I will not allow to threaten my health or sanity. I am willing to indulge my boss's fear of allowing her crew too much shore leave in case her pilot project fails. The reward for this could be worth the inherent humor. It'll make the week in Las Vegas all the sweeter when I finally take it, in my favorite season of autumn, in a land where no leaves fall from the trees even on All Hallow's Eve.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Tablua Rasa for One

I SAW A FRIGHTENING story on the news this morning. I was watching CNN Headline News while at the gym, and they ran a piece on a man who was about to be reunited with his family after he was struck by amnesia. I can't find the story on CNN's site, but the gist was that he went out one day from his New York–area home and simply disappeared. Police turned up nothing. His anxious family eventually turned to posting his picture on America's Most Wanted. Meanwhile, the man — a Mr. Powers — had been taken in at a Midwestern church/mission and cared for by the pastor and several of the flock, who couldn't elicit any self-identifying information or memories from him. They, in turn, saw the AMW piece, recognized their wayward soul, and took steps to get him back together with his family.

Mr. Powers was clearly shaken up mentally, speaking with a pronounced stutter. Worse, he didn't recognize any of his family. One of the younger members took the bright side, saying that she and her kin would help him create new memories. But this doesn't remove the fact that he was entirely at a loss to recall his old life.

I understand that everyone had memories they would love to discard permanently, whether frivolously or therapeutically (cf. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). But to lose everything? To look in a mirror and not be able to connect that face with a past? To sit at your workplace and not be able to command the matrix of skills and relationships that once represented your professional persona? To riffle a stack of photos through your fingers and not recognize slices of your own life?

Does this not scare the shit out of anyone else here?

Ultimately, most of us will begin to forget things as we enter old age. Alzheimer's can accelerate this process very cruelly. But this was a middle-age man, who either suffered some sort of chemical imbalance, physical trauma, or little-understood psychic shock, and simply broke with his past. How delicate the concepts of consciousness and memory appear in light of such an event, and how frail the physical seat of such phenomena.

Think about walking around your dwelling and recognizing none of the books, art, or furniture as being reflections of your personality and tastes. Think about the faces of your loved ones evoking no more reaction in you than those of people you edge by while getting a seat on the bus or who exit a store while you enter in a rush. Think of reading archives from your blog and feeling no more affinity for the narrator than you would for the protagonist of any piece of fiction.

Because that's how you would perceive it: fiction.

This is not the first time I've heard a case like this, and it evoked a similar horror in me then, as now. Last time, I wondered if it would help to make some sort of memory cache, a written self-testimony to give yourself an authentic connection with the past. How large would such a document have to be? A multipage Word scroll? The front and back of a piece of paper? A 3 x 5? What would you absolutely include?

And what would you omit?

Saturday, February 18, 2006

That Street Is Poi-son!

ME: WALKING EAST ON 15th Street to the subway station on Friday night. Ahead: a slower, smoking woman talking on a cellphone. I speed up to pass. As I do, I hear her say, "I'll meet you on Bell Biv DeVoe Street."

I slow down to hear the rest of this.

"Yeah, Bell Biv DeVoe Street. 'That girl is poi-son!'"

I turn at this point, laughing at loud, to catch her eye. She smiles and says, "No, he's totally laughing with us."

She catches up with me at the corner of Seventh Avenue. I ask, "There's really a Bell Biv DeVoe Street?"

"No, it's Devoe Street in Brooklyn. My friends and I call it Bell Biv DeVoe Street."

"Oh," I laugh. "I thought some overzealous borough president had decided to name a street after them. Right next to Naughty by Nature Boulevard."

She laughs even harder, and walks up Seventh and away.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

I'm Not in the Happiness Business

SO FAR, I HAVEN'T made too many metaposts about this blog itself, especially regarding my schedule. I post when I have something to write. When the idea's mostly done in my head, I sit, write, warm the idea to completion, and send it on its way into the dark dungeons of the internets. I have a number of prose blobs in my computer's blog folder . . . half-baked ideas, sentences, paragraphs, that never really jelled. I hang onto them in case I ever come back to them with the right sort of mindset to finish them, or bearing the ending that was eluding me, or whatever.

Still, I feel crummy for not promptly finishing my whole set of Las Vegas posts. Not to use real life as an excuse, but . . . I don't know how to finish that sentence. Seriously, I think I lost momentum on relating the tale, despite taking notes while I was there. Bringing a computer along next time might assist matters, especially if I stay at the Plaza again — the table and chair setup there was great for writing.

I may still finish out that trip with some sort of summation, but when I have the words done. I'd hate to just apply some sort of conversational twist-tie to seal it off like some sort of literary Hefty Bag. It might spend a little time in my fragment folder, or just pour out when it's done. I want it to be as true as it can be, even if it's just closing out the story. I'm not here to lie about myself. The truth is far more amusing.

So this will be a catchall catch-up sort of post. Strap in.

The other big issue weighing on my mind recently, in addition losing a friend of mine, is my mother's continuing quest to determine what's been up with her health. I can sum it up thusly: Don't be afraid to ask for a second opinion.

Last time I wrote about this, my mother had been told that her right carotid artery was 50% blocked, and that the doctor didn't regard it as an emergency. The number struck me as odd. The stereotypical responses to a test of an artery's flow are either that it's totally clear and the patient has nothing to worry about, or it's 90% blocked and the patient is immediately swabbed with Betadine and cracked open like a Brazil nut. It's never 50%.

This piqued my mother's curiosity as well. She was also concerned about her continuing visual impairment, and whether anything else could potentially break off and travel somewhere more sensitive. She spoke to a friend of hers who had suffered the same condition and had been treated with carotid surgery. The friend spoke highly of the care she had received from a doctor practicing at a hospital on the other side of the county. Mom mentioned this to the primary care physician's nurse, and she gushed over the doctor in question, a vascular specialist. So she asked for a referral.

Now, keep in mind that my parents both spend a few days a month each at one doctor or another for chronic ills. If my mom isn't getting an epidural from a pain-management specialist to stave off sciatica, or having her liver enzymes checked to monitor the side effects of the psoriasis and anticholesterol meds she is on, then my dad is at the cardiologist having his pacemaker checked or having the latest suspicious growth examined by the dermatologist.

At this rate, the future depicted in Logan's Run is looking mighty sweet.

Anyway, this just shows how little incentive my mother had to add yet another medical station of the cross. But she thought, I didn't even get my diagnosis from the doctor himself. He didn't request a CAT scan of the brain for blockages, or a heart scan to see if any coronary arteries were occluded. What the fuck? (Yes, in those words. Salty gal, my mom.)

Her experience with the second doctor was in every way excellent. It turns out this man is not only a vascular surgeon who has broad experience in clearing carotid arteries, but he is the chief of that specialty at his hospital. His card had more board certifications than a medical convention. He put her at ease, interviewed her for a history, asked to see the previous scan, and — when his staff couldn't read the results — asked her to have a more complete scan done there.

Good idea. The prior scan was unreadable because my mother has irregularly formed carotid arteries, curving repeatedly instead of straight. The other hospital quoted 50% because they were seeing an incomplete picture. Her right carotid is actually 70% blocked, on top of being malformed.

Had she simply heeded her primary care guy's advice — which didn't even come directly from him — she might have put off surgery for months. The vascular specialist was stunned to learn of this, as well as to hear that the other guy prescribed no cardiac scan or plaque-managing drugs. As for the technician who prepared the first scan, he said that the person ought to lose his license.

The next step is surgery on the afflicted carotid, sometime within the next few weeks. The primary care physician finally got his shit into gear and ordered cardiac and brain scans, but earlier this week, my mom had to cancel on at least one of them. The pressure of going from one doctor to another for this, on top of having to push one of them to get serious about followup, gave her a panic attack, to the point of shaking like a leaf and being unable to hold a cup of coffee. A day of blessed inactivity with my father at her side and an extra Xanax helped calm her down, though, and she has continued the march from MD to MD this week in a more tranquil spirit.

All of this — my mom, Nick's death — has reduced my tolerance for bullshit by a marked degree. Some things I deemed important have diminshed; others have grown. I have also been reading two productivity blogs, 43 Folders and Lifehack, and picking up hints on tightening my routines at work and home.

At work, the four Mac users in my groups lost the ability to use Microsoft Outlook for email. I know what you're thinking, "Free at last!" Not so simple; as the company uses it, so must we, even if it's through its vile Exchange incarnation. So we had been struggling for two weeks to read, print, and archive email via this clunky Web interface. An utter waste of time.

Last Friday, we all got Microsoft Entourage. So much more functional. Once again, we can drag and drop files to get them in or out of emails. Filling archive folders is now an instant experience, not a 7-step series of clickthroughs. Moreover, we can organize groups of emails, contacts, and calendar dates in "projects," a quantum leap forward from merely having a swelling Inbox in which lurk five or six related emails with disparate headers and addressees.

This inspired me to instigate a purge. I deleted well over a thousand emails over three days. I felt like the last 5 seconds of an Ex-Lax ad. My immediate boss had asked the other three of us to organize our printed emails and off-press work in file folders along her system. I had done so, but now I felt like this new software could help me group this sort of stuff in these projects and keep everything moving and marked for updates.

Then I turned to workflow. For the vast majority of our newsletters, the in-house editors provide us with printed MSS and Word files on a common server. For three of them, though, the files are emailed directly from the publications' editors in the field to me — not to the in-house folks for reviewing art quality, styling text, and the like. This has me printing the MSS, doing the aforementioned editorial tasks, and (for one of the three) contacting the field editor to solicit MSS.

This is patently not my job. I pointed this out to my boss, who agreed. I then emailed the two in-house eds and their supervisor to tell them that the next issue should go directly to them, not to me.

Said super came down to discuss this. She has a history of being spongy on decisions, of not standing up to demanding field editors, and of allowing her eds to be used for tasks better suited to a temp. (Amid slates of 9 to 11 active monthly or quarterly editing and proofreading jobs, she has them review online Web versions of their pubs for quality control. Get an intern to do this and let the editors edit!) More alarmingly, when I pointed out an aspect of workflow to her in explaining why this job was better done by her staff and not me, she betrayed basic ignorance about how the edited files are prepared for typesetting — and I made it a point to run through that process for her in a voice loud enough for my boss to come over and get involved in the discussion.

In the end, I evaded her claims that "this is how we've always done it" and "it will create more work for these folks" and left the issue in her lap. I was pleased to receive my boss's direct support and her compliment for "standing my ground." I replied that the company is riven with inefficiencies like this, and I am not interested in supporting them, especially with a major switch in how we produce newsletters coming sometime this year (read as: should have been in operation for 6 months by now). that, incidentally, will require that supervisor to know the procedure she blanked on as well as her staff. I said to my boss that I had a feeling the editors wouldn't be happy with my move, but — and this phrase has been running through my head for the past week since I read a thread on personal mantras — "I'm not in the happiness business."

This is not to say I will not make people happy. I made my boss happy by detaching an inessential function and grafting it back onto the department where it will best be carried out. I surely made my sysadmin happy by douching out a grand of useless email. In the phrase, the happiness I am denying people is the happiness of complacency in believing my department will do your shit work, of tolerating mediocre results like a half-assed medical scan that could have killed my mother, of letting a thousand emails rot, of seeing tasks and believing them impossible rather than digestible in single bits . . . of evading the excellence I could achieve in writing, in exercising regularly, in mastering poker, in being an example at work and leading rather than responding.

I'm not in the happiness business. And business is good.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Fifteen Pounds and Whaddya Get?

I HAVE A SMALL APARTMENT. Sixteen paces from this computer to my bed. You could sit on my kitchen counter and warm your feet on my stove. Yet I have an incredible ability to lose items here.

My example for today's ridicule is the 15-lb. dumbbell, referred to in the header. The Northeast got hit with a blizzard, so the gym is closed. I wanted to flex the dumbbells a bit to do something vaguely healthful besides copy crap onto my iPod and fold laundry. The first weight I located in its place on a rack in my bedroom. The second was nowhere to be found.

Thinking like Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, I mentally erected a cordon around the bounds of my apartment. Beyond this limit the weight would not be found. It WAS within this reach. Locked down. Hiding. Plotting its next move.

The bedroom had two places where it might sequester itself: beneath the bed or in the closet. The former was unlikely; there is already a stack of flattened Staples boxes beneath the bed. Still, I ran my foot around the perimeter, in case I had rolled it just under the dust ruffle. I came up with bupkis, which is Yiddish for "a dusty foot."

The closet: More than any other area in my apartment, my bedroom closet resembles a double-canopy jungle. On the top shelf, one finds photo albums and stacks of collectible game cards (Illuminati: New World Order in my case), along with a mobile population of old video- and audio tapes. Personal items often spend their entire life cycle here without ever entering the shadowy forest just below them. The second canopy comprises a densely packed old-growth forest of the leaseholder's current and former clothing choices, some reaching back as many as 7 years to a primeval time of 38-inch waistlines and black T-shirts. At the bottom of this mysterious environment lies the rich mulch found on any jungle floor: decaying sneakers; stiff work shoes slowly disappearing into the loamy soil; the odd sock gliding silently along; and the sad and lifeless bodies of the top-canopy dwellers, coming to rest after a long fall only to enrich the cycle of life all over again.

Nowhere within this acreage of overworked metaphors did I see my 15-lb. weight.

I skipped the bathroom. The only reason I can fathom for needing such a weight in there is as a weapon: if my lack of attention to the algal colonies on the shower curtain allowed them to make quantum leaps toward becoming sentient and carnivorous.

I recalled at this point that I had used one of the 15-lb.'ers to hold back a corner of my living room rug. I had a particularly full poker table one night, so I pulled the corner back so the player's chairs wouldn't be half-on, half-off the rug. All this did was lead four of the players to trip on the rug over the course of the night. This is what happens when I try to help. Anyway, the dumbbell was neither in my dining area nor among the plants looming next to it.

Next came the actual living room. The space beneath my coffee table is a parking garage for itinerant shoes, but I could also envision myself rolling the weight under there to get it out of the way. In a rare case of cleanliness, there were no shoes, but neither was their a hunk of metal with "15" stamped onto the sides.

At this point the title of this post came through my head, courtesy of Tennessee Ernie Ford. How do I lose a hunk of stationary metal in such a small apartment? I've gone through this with shoes as well, though there is a fixed set of locations where they eventually turn up due to my sickeningly consistent postwork intra-apartment path and the trail of outerwear that can be found along it. Maybe if I had stubbed a shoeless toe against the weight, I might have had the wits to heft the damn thing back onto its rack. This, I decided, would rob my life of the essential absurdity and entertainment it provides to any resident ghosts or decommissioned saints. I'd hate to disappoint my audience.

The stupid thing eventually turned up hiding under a bench I use to collect old newspapers. Items placed under this bench, if they are small enough, disappear completely unless you stoop and peek. Eventually, I stooped and peeked. And swore. There it was. I could lift now.

But I really didn't need to. I'd already had my workout. Throughout this entire search, I had been carrying the other 15-lb. weight with me.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Las Vegas 1/06: Shuffle Up and Deal

JUST FIVE SHORT YEARS ago, poker was a game in decline in Las Vegas. Gambling veterans tended to study blackjack or craps, or perhaps the tuxedo-clad mystique of baccarat. Then the one-two punch of the World Poker Tour and Internet player Chris Moneymaker's 2003 win in the World Series of Poker sparked a renaissance. Suddenly, Vegas casinos reopened their poker rooms, expanded their existing ones, or included them in the blueprints to catch the wave. The town is now an ocean of poker, and many thousands swim among its green-felt islands . . . some of them fish, others sharks.

I am neither. I am a seasoned beginner at poker in general and Texas hold'em — the type you mostly see on TV — in particular. I know enough to stay out of obvious danger, but I haven't logged enough table time to match wits with leather-assed Vegas or Atlantic City locals who play every day or visitors who have honed their skill on the Internet. However, if there are some casual players at the table, like a rich lunatic who treats poker like any other luck-based table game in the place, or one or two people who are flush with booze or starved for sleep, I've got a better chance. This helped me score a sizable win in July 2005, when I haunted the Aladdin's poker room and its rich crop of mediocre players.

To sidetrack: It's not enough simply to know the rules, what hands to play, or how to bet. Even the famous tells — unconscious physical or verbal clues to the merit of a player's hand — are but one factor, as most skilled cardsmiths conceal them or drop false ones as traps. Finding tables where you are most likely to win is key — as is getting up from a table where you either can't make money (i.e., few hands get played to showdown) or where you are outclassed in skill.

What made the Aladdin so lucrative last year was its tournament schedule. People want to play the no-limit hold'em tournaments they see on TV, although for far smaller entry fees (anywhere from $40 to $100 for the smaller ones, vs. $1,500 and up for the WSOP events). Inevitably most of these players lose all of their play tournament chips and, spying the non-tourney no-limit ring games in progress, often decide to make a run at recouping their entry cash. One good hand and they're set, right? Problem is, if they were a rotten tournament poker player, they're going to be just as bad a ring-game player.

That's where they run into me.

I am not a genius. I am not a math whiz. I am not a wild gambler or a crazy bluffer. I am just a patient, slightly paranoid poker player who gets aggressive with hands that I think will go the distance. I don't get drunk at the table on the free booze. I don't take smoke breaks every 10 minutes and miss critical details on other folks' styles of play. I don't pound the table angrily when the flop connects with the hand I just folded. And I don't get emotionally attached to hands that — despite being statistical favorites to win — get beaten anyway. I fall back on the same expression every player uses when he takes a beating against the odds or at the hands of a shitty player — "Nice hand" — count my remaining chips . . . and consider it a loan.

One other thing I do is to take notes. I am still learning this game. The strategy I just described is very basic. Against pros, I would get peeled open like a ripe Jiffy Pop. So I write down on 3" x 5" cards details of the hands, bet amounts, what the opposing hands were, and (if I lost) what I could have done differently. Even if I get beaten or busted out, I grit my teeth, note what happened and why, and either buy more chips if it's an otherwise beatable table, or call it a night. (If this is in Vegas, a consolation In-N-Out Burger is not out of the question.)

So that's the preparation that goes into this sort of poker binge. How did I do this time?

Days 1 and 2: 2005 Redux
I returned to the Aladdin poker room with hopes that the caliber of players would match that of the crowd in July 2005. The lineup of dealers was largely the same — good news, as the Aladdin's crew is fast, friendly, and not into a lot of needless chitchat during hands. I did recognize a couple of regular players from last time as well, which helped me fold my borderline hands with more caution against these folks. In one case, it kept me from turning my two pair into an all-in situation and busting out to a guy's straight.

As for the rest of the players these two days, most of them were tourists staying at the hotel or just there for the morning tournaments, and were predictable and profitable. People like to talk during a game, and this is how you first get a sense of how much you might be able to get away with versus this or that player. Sometimes they've played regular weekly tourneys at their homes, or at bar leagues. Maybe they have a Party Poker account and they're giving live play a shot while in town for a convention. Sometimes it's a young hotshot, the best player in his Thursday night home game, who plays brashly, drinks heroically, and takes bad beats with a storm of obscenities because he has equated skill with entitlement, and is disappointed by both.

I took it all in, but kept largely mum on my own abilities. When the regulars began raising and reraising each other, or targeting the transient players, I backed well off and let the carnage pass me by. On both days, I managed to increase my initial buy-ins by at least 50%.

More important, when I called home at the end of my first-day session to check with my mother (who had had a test scheduled for her vision impairment), she said there was only a 50% blockage in a single carotid artery; probably not enough to warrant immediate surgery, just close observation. She once again exhorted me not to think of her while I was out there, and I breathed a sigh of relief audible even over the clanging slot machines in the main casino.

Day 3: The Luckbox Versus the Locals (and Me)
Here is where I was caught between heeding my advice over table selection and falling into the temptation to see when a player's lucky streak would end.

I should say that I have a neutral attitude toward luck. Specifically in poker, there are a few occasions where a super-strong hand is a 100% favorite to win. But often there is a mathematically expressible chance that a favorite will be beaten. I don't think this is "luck" in the sense of some wave of math-warping mojo, even as I use the term casually to describe it (kinda like how I use the names of the Christian Trinity, usually in vain, despite being a massively lapsed Catholic). Still, when a single player piles up unlikely wins in the face of statistical logic, it's tough for the human mind — ever the seeker of rational patterns — to avoid considering this some sort of mystical rush.

The crowd on the third day was distinctly different. On Sundays, the Aladdin runs single-table tournaments with the same format as those offered online. These are the sit-and-go tourneys I describe halfway through this post. This brought out veteran Internet players in bulk, so when I sat down at the no-limit ring game this time, it was mostly locals. It was safe to assume that I was going to see real skill here. I nonetheless decided to give it a spin.

I wasn't disappointed on the skill count. These players were deeply bankrolled, willing to raise big on single-pair hands or to bluff when the cards on the board were weak, and showed down just enough legitimate hands to make picking out these bluffs difficult. Although a few of the guys were playing on little sleep or too much early-morning booze when I first sat down, these guys eventually went to bed or breakfast to be replaced by solid players busted out of the SnGs but who still craved action. I played tightly (i.e., bet on few starting hands and raised with still fewer) while getting a feel for the players, but still couldn't make too much headway. I had two trips (pokerese for three of a kind) I was down about $50 out of my $200 starting stack when the biker sat down.

I don't know if he was actually a biker — he never stated his profession during the hours he played, nor did he have any motorcycle club insignia on — but he looked and sounded precisely like a Hell's Angel. Tall, husky, bearded, with a cigarette-ravaged grumble of a voice, he walked up to the podium wearing denim bib overalls and a stained baseball cap. Half of my table watched him, sensing fresh meat.

I watched but did not prejudge. That's dangerous. I got my ass handed to me once at the Bellagio by a sweet old man who plaintively asked, "Why?" every time I raised him in a pot. I later learned that he was leaving for the East Coast in two weeks to play high-limit seven-card stud for a couple of months. Assumptions can be costly. Dummying up and observing is free. So I let the locals salivate and decided to watch him for a couple of rounds to see how he played.

It didn't take long. He was there to gamble, but also to win.

Selectively applied aggression pays in poker. When you bet your good cards hard, or attack perceived weakness in other players' betting patterns, people think twice about calling your bets, and especially your raises. They begin folding hands they ought to play. And when they make mistakes like this, your chances of profiting increase.

The players at my table were not afraid of aggression, merely cautious. When the biker fired out bets of $10 to $20 each time he entered a pot before the flop (in a game where the typical raise might be to $7 or so), they pegged him as a LAG — a loose aggressive gambler. Professional poker players, especially those who have made deep mathematical studies of the game, eschew the term gambler. They believe they are making bets, raises, and bluffs on a rational, if carefully unpredictable, basis. What remaining randomness in the way the hands end up is a residue of their preparation, observation, and experience. (They tend also to be found in the kitchen at parties.)

The usual way to approach a LAG at a no-limit hold'em game is to tighten your range of starting hands, sometimes let him do the betting when you hold strong holecards, then reraise to get him and yourself heads-up and then try to take him to the cleaners. This is what the locals were trying to do with the biker. The problem was that the biker was making fantastic hands. Unlike the usual LAG, whom you can occasionally catch raising on a bluff and then get him to fold or go all in with a strong reraise, this guy was getting more than his fair share of pocket Kings and Aces, or two high suited cards, and hitting three of a kind or flushes on the board. If the flop looked remotely threatening, he would bet at least half the pot. None of the locals could tell if he was bluffing or not, so they folded (possibly wrongly) or called and lost more money. His constant aggression was cutting a path through their chips just as surely as an icebreaker across the Arctic Circle.

I only got heads-up with this guy once. After a couple of hours of dodging the locals and folding to the biker's raises, I got Kings in the hole. I raised to $15, and the biker was my only caller. The flop contained a third King, I bet somewhere around half the pot, figuring the biker would raise me, which he did. Three of a kind is sometimes safe to play slowly (without the full level of aggressive betting) if you figure the other player is going to do the raising for you. However, this can backfire if the next card is threatening, as it was in this case. The turn card made three clubs on the board, and neither of my hole Kings was a club. Worse, there were two cards that could help make a straight.

At this point, the biker announced he was going to call any amount I bet. Technically this is a binding bet. He then showed me one of his cards —the Jack of clubs — which is legal when only two players are in a hand. I decided to put my last $103 in the center. I had lost money not pushing trips hard in a previous hand, so I decided to make a stand.

"Shit," he said, and settled back into his seat to think. Nobody — not even the dealer — pointed out that he had stated an intent to call any bet I made. Another $103 would have been only about a tenth of the massive wall of red $5 chips fronting his seat. Plus, on the off chance he was actually drawing to a straight flush, the Aladdin had high-hand jackpots that would have paid him an extra $599 for hitting it. So he had to factor that potential gain into his play here.

After a couple of minutes, he finally folded. He explained that my all-in raise led him to think that he was facing a made King- or Ace-high flush, and that his Jack was the high and only club in his hand. We asked the dealer to show the now-irrelevant river card (which is usually not done in casino poker). To the biker's shock, it would have completed his straight flush!

I stuck around with my now-refreshed stack of chips for another hour or so, hoping to get the biker in another hand, but eventually he ambled over to the podium with three racks nearly full of red chips (almost $1,500!). The locals exhaled heavily, counted their remaining bankrolls, and waited for easier prey.

Said prey turned out to be my undoing. A young guy soon sat down to my immediate left. I could tell he was a tight player like me, but by this point, I was getting tired, and my radar was not returning signals rationally. I was dealt KK, raised, was reraised by the new player, raised again, was reraised again and this time all in, called, and was shown a baleful pair of Aces. The flop put out a third Ace but also a Queen and a Jack, so any 10 would have given me a straight. No 10 came, though, so as they say on the Internet, IGHN — I go home now.

The reversal of that day cost me my first two days' worth of profit and a couple of hundred more. I decided to back down in limits for my next outing, which, after nearly 7 hours of play that Sunday, was not gonna happen before Monday. If nothing else, I got to watch how players with daily experience react to a whirlwind like our biker. I also had reinforced for me the importance of picking the right table. I took this lesson to the Paris Las Vegas Champagne buffet, and began plotting my next game amid mounds of crêpes and stems of bubbly.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Las Vegas 1/06: I'm-a Riiiiidin' for Red Rock

UPON AWAKENING TO MY first full day in Las Vegas, I headed west on Charleston away from the Strip, toward the town's Whole Foods Market. My parents had given me two of their gift cards for Christmas, and I figured I would snag some healthful food to buffer the buffets. The distance on the map was deceptive; by the time I reached the market, I was closer to the edge of the city than its center and well above the level of the valley. It was worth it, though, because this is a huge and well-stocked Whole Foods, featuring a hot-breakfast area in addition to the many baked and packaged temptations available for those greeting the Vegas sun. I shopped for snacks and fruit, then assembled a solid hot breakfast that I ate at a gloriously leisurely pace (definitely not a work-week option).

When I headed back to the car, I again noticed how close I was to the city limits, and the desert and mountains beyond. There they stood, glowing in the morning sun in stunning ochre, russet, and red. (It took a supreme effort not to buy my first digital camera at the Best Buy near the Whole Foods in order to do true justice to the mountains.) Though I had packed up for a day out gambling, I decided that the nonstop poker action could wait a couple of hours, and continued west on Charleston, past the last fringes of new condo developments and the shell of a nearly completed casino, into the open desert of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

I had visited the park on my first visit, driving the long loop of Route 159 past the various and gorgeous scenic rock formations, I didn't recall visiting this particular part of it before. Perhaps I took a different turn. When you leave Las Vegas via this route, the changeover to desert is quite abrupt. One minute you're passing corporate parks and cloned condos, and then you're bumping over a metal grid set in the road to deter the native burros from leaving. Yes, Red Rock and the tiny neighboring community of Blue Diamond are home to wild burros, and there are signs around warning visitors not to get too close, as they bite. I saw no burros on either trip, though I did hear a rooster crowing from the yard of one of the houses in the arid town just outside my destination.

I drove along blacktop bordered on either side by sand and scrub, following signs and marveling at the crystal-clear blue skies, until I stopped in a largely empty and new-looking parking lot at the base of the mountains. I was as far out as I could drive at this point, and short of the few streets and the houses sparsely set along them, and the signs indicating the rules of the rest area and the beginning of the self-guided nature walk, I was entirely alone. Dead silent, the only sound a flock of birds that took off and landed in a body from one part of the rock face above to the other. As I watched them, a Hummer pulled up, and two young women disembarked and started up a trail toward the mountains. Red Rock features numerous trails of varying difficulty, but I am suited to none of them, so I contented myself with watching this duo ascend for a spell.

This particular corner of Red Rock used to be part of a ranch, which was granted back to the state to maintain and protect from development. It features a nature walk around a spring-fed meadow, which is circled by a boardwalk trail with signs describing the wildlife and geological formations in the area. I followed this trail around the meadow, a broad expanse of yellow grass with a couple of trees set along the course of the spring runoff, until I reached the source of the spring itself, pouring with a loud gurgle in the silent desert air from a recess in the sandstone into a swampy pond. This pond, in turn, filtered into the meadow, which apparently hosted a wide variety of greenery and animals in the warm season, all adapted to steal what moisture they could in the wet times to better resist the brutal Las Vegas summer. While walking along, I saw sandy-brown birds hopping in the sparse, defoliated bushes, and once I surprised a hidden rabbit, which bounded out of a thicket and disappeared behind rocks.

The only other sounds I heard came from far above me, from the Tatooine-like rock face rising hundreds of feet above me as I sat writing at the meadow's edge. I had forgotten about the two hikers while walking along the nature tour. When I heard distant voices, I looked up, there to see two tiny dots of color moving along the rusty rock face. There were the two women, ascending even further with careful yet confident strides up the trail!

I imagine there are diehard Vegas visitors, and not a small number of locals, who never come out here. I find that sad. When the women finally came back down and returned to their truck, I felt a great surge of envy. New Jersey has natural wonders, certainly, but those mountains against that sapphire sky had temporary possession of my heart. What a wonderful natural resource to have, with such stark beauty, and what an opportunity to be able to hike across the park's trails, or simply to come to this little park to read or barbecue or simply watch the sun rise against the stone. Funny that the park, and not the casinos, should inspire such envy of the locals in me.

From the edge of this park, the mighty Las Vegas Strip is a grey line of shadowed sculpture, millions of times younger than the walls of ancient rock that lower down upon it. The problems of so many people would ease themselves if folks took the opportunity to visit this park, or the Valley of Fire north of Vegas, or even the Grand Canyon a day-trip's distance away. Just to absorb the raw beauty surrounding the city. Thankfully, this whole area is a Federally protected enclave, and the few residents who came in before this mandate seem devoted to repelling any development by the rapacious condo or casino companies. I saw a couple of Red Rock locals while driving around, working in their xericultured yards, riding horseback in the gentle winter morning, or jogging along. They seem happy to have no neighbors in great numbers, and I suspect most of them understand what a precious treasure they live near.

I decided at that point, as I headed back to the car, that I could get my ass handed to me at the tables, my bankroll crushed, but at least I would have this beautiful natural resource waiting for me.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Sad Interlude

I RECEIVED SOME BAD news last night. While I was writing the next installment of the Las Vegas trip, my buddy Rick called to let me know that another friend of ours, Nick, had just unexpectedly died. Not to go into too much detail out of privacy, but he was stricken while working late, and by Friday morning he had succumbed.

I was stunned. Nick was all of 43.

Though we had met at a barbecue Rick threw when he still lived with his family, I first got to know Nick at Rick's apartment some years later on the occasion of my first home poker game. He, like Rick and the other friends of his gathered, was a nice guy and fun to hang around with. He was endearingly inept at shuffling the cards, and usually one of the adjacent players would do the honor, then pass the deck for him to deal. "Nicky doesn't bluff" was a frequent refrain when he bumped up the action with an extra quarter, and I — inexperienced at poker to begin with — usually followed others by folding to his move. When he in turn was raised out of a pot, he would throw in his cards with a half-resigned, half-relieved "AMF!" Adiós, motherfuckers!

Nick was part of a crew that went back a number of years at a prior workplace where most of them had met. The thing was, I wasn't made to feel out of place by the in-jokes and references to past bosses or scary coworkers. Far from it. They took the time to describe the events for me, which usually left the rest of the table in hysterics and cherished impersonations of the third parties being lampooned in the stories. Nick was right there laughing with them. Though different jobs, the needs of family, and distance had reduced the frequency of their gatherings, all someone had to do was drop a favorite Three Stooges or Honeymooners line and they were on.

In the short time I was privileged to know Nick, I could pick up on how some things could only have happened to him. The first time I gathered the guys for poker at my place, it began snowing with authority. Not to be deterred by the weather after having worked with some effort to get a day that was good for everyone, I rallied folks to come, and come they did — but Nick, not the boldest navigator out there, I had to guide in, via his cellphone, from Rockland County to my place in Bergen. With the sound of his windshield wipers and passing plows in the telephonic background, I got him down the highway, onto the right exit, through the winding suburban streets he had chosen, and all the way to my parking lot, all of this through thickening snowfall. I stood outside amid fat flakes to wave him triumphantly into my parking lot, which he entered — riding on a flat tire. He pulled into a spot and greeted me with a big smile of, whereupon — feeling suddenly guilty over tempting this nice guy out of his warm house with cards and Chinese food —I had to break the news to him about his tire. He had no idea it was flat, nor how long he had been riding it as more of a rim cushion than a tire. As we waited inside for AAA to arrive, all a man could say was, "Only Nicky."

Later that day, we were ordering said Chinese food after venturing forth in a slackening of the storm. While contemplating dishes to order for the table, Nick — not of the sternest constitution when it came to exotically seasoned food — inquired of each proposed entree, "Is it spicy?" Not in a contrary or dickish manner; he knew where his tolerance for zesty spices ended, he was just curious, and we were happy to accommodate him. But it was hearing him ask it five or so times in a row that made it funny. Later, I related this story to my buddy Dave, and I managed to convey the charming humor of the situation to him. He even dropped the line once or twice in food conversations months later. I told Dave that if we all ever had the fortune to dine together, especially somewhere that spicy food was offered, he would be under my close scrutiny for his ability to keep a straight face (which I knew full well was impossible). I regret now that this meeting will never happen.

Part of the table talk at poker and — later — boardgame gatherings inevitably involved work. Nick was itching to move on from his job, and he had been exploring taking classes online (e.g., University of Phoenix Online) for a while when we met. He did eventually take a course, though neither Rick nor I could recall if he ever mentioned completing the program. But he was moving on, even at 43, and even more sadly, Rick also mentioned he had an interview lined up for next Tuesday. You can be in the middle of any type of self-improvement or progress, but if it's your time, that's it — and it was a sobering thought for both Rick and myself to realize how tenuous life can be no matter how solidly embedded in the middle of it you might think you are.

I mentioned to Rick last night how there are so many people out there I would rather see go than Nick, who was, as far as I know, never anything less than a good person. Why couldn't it have been those two assholes in New York who tortured their child and eventually beat her to death, or the thugs who beat that cop down at the Bronx White Castle last week? Why not arch-prick Kim Jong Il or some other tyrant? Nick was a truly good guy, a taxpaying homeowner, and even a recent cat owner. (Rick had worked to get a message through to Nicky's cousin, his most immediate survivor, to check up on the poor beast, alone since Thursday and possibly hungry.) But there's only frustration in railing against the injustice of the situation, frustration that nevertheless took me a while to get to sleep last night.

I last saw Nick on New Year's Eve. Rick mentioned last night he was happy to have gotten folks together that night, even if it has been tough nowadays to do so on non-holiday occasions. I sympathized with him, acknowledging how that there are a lot of pressures and responsibilities weighing on folks. As mentioned in the blog link, we enjoyed a meal together, watched the Times Square ball drop amid boardgame madness, swapped jokes and stories, and generally enjoyed one another's company. I suspect that's the most you can ask of life or of those in it, New Year's or not.

I owe Rick a debt of gratitude for giving me the opportunity to meet Nick, and an even greater one to Nick himself just for being a tremendously sweet guy in a world where that trait is becoming rarer by the day. I can only hope he understood how much he was valued by those who knew him . . . those who dearly miss him now.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Las Vegas 1/06: The January Jinx Peaks Early

I HAVE VISITED LAS Vegas three times in January. The first two times, there was some sort of emergent situation that gave the end of the trip a bit of a jinx. In 2004, I had to leave Vegas prematurely on a redeye the night before my actual departure day, because a huge blizzard charging into the New York area would have paralyzed the airports and left me either orbiting Newark or cooling my heels in Pittsburgh. In 2005, I got food poisoning from Mon Ami Gabi at Paris Las Vegas, and spent the last night in town horribly ill and the plane flight back in a feverish zombified state. It seemed I had acquired something of a January jinx.

To counteract the former possibility for this trip, I used frequent flyer miles, so if my flight were canceled, I was out exactly $5. To guard against the latter, I stuck to eateries I had survived repeatedly in the past or ones I could trust implicitly. For the rest, I trusted, as one does in Las Vegas, to chance.

Chance soon stepped forward.

I have been staying at the Golden Nugget in Downtown Las Vegas for the past several trips. I tried them for the first time in January 2004, when they sent me a postcard with ridiculously low rates ($39/$59) for a winter stay. For the chance to stay at the nicest property in Downtown, it was an absolute steal. A sidenote: Downtown Las Vegas sits above the Strip, and was the original site of both the town itself and its gambling halls. Downtown has long offered cheaper rooms, if in sometimes older and humbler lodgings, but for hardcore gamblers the table limits offer both cheaper prices and more liberal rules. Downtown has attempted to capture more tourism by adding the Fremont Street Experience lightshow and the Neonopolis neon museum, but the fact remains that between it and the Strip, you have to cross a run-down zone of cheap motels, drive-through wedding chapels, and slum apartments. This deters the casual visitor.

But once in your hotel, especially the Nugget, you are as safe as you would be anywhere on the Strip, and you will pay less for a decent room to boot. I enjoyed my first stay at the Nugget, which used to be part of the same family of properties as the Bellagio and the Mirage, and in my two subsequent visits I found it to be kept up just as nicely. One area, however, where the new owners have not upgraded the apparatus is in the reservation system.

When I arrived, I was told that their reservation computers were down. I could check my bags with the concierge if I wanted, and they anticipated having the system up in an hour or so. I also had to pick up a rental car from Dollar, theoretically based at the end of the reservation desk. This is when I found out that Dollar had left the Golden Nugget a week before my arrival — despite my getting a confirmation email from them the night before — to be replaced by Budget.

Okay. Neither glitch was insurmountable. I was, after all, in Las Vegas already. The hard part was over. I ditched my luggage with the concierge, and called Dollar's central office to scout out another location in town. Perhaps I was still in the system, and had only to go to that outlet.

Turns out the closest Dollar was at the Sahara, which is on the North Strip, not too far from Downtown. They volunteered to send someone from Dollar over to retrieve me. Fair enough. Fifteen minutes later, a Dollar-branded car pulled up to the Nugget's rear entrance, and I asked the driver if he was the one who would take me to the Sahara. He looked surprised, because he had been told that he was transporting someone to the airport. I assured him that I was going to the Sahara for a car that had been lined up for me, and he just shrugged, unlocked the trunk, and sped me on my way.

I ended up having a pleasant chat with the gent, a relocated Chicagoan, but I couldn't help wondering if there was some poor bastard standing at the front entrance of the Nugget, bags stacked next to him in the windy Vegas morning, wondering when his transport to the airport would arrive. The way I saw it, this Dollar driver showed up precisely where and when I had confirmed it with the dispatcher. To quibble over details would be to oppose the flow of the universe. And in Las Vegas, you don't bet against a rush.

By the time I got to the faux-Arabic Mob-funded Old Vegas icon that is the Sahara, the mild irritation I had felt over the double whammy of the hotel reservation and the car glitch had subsided. What would getting angry serve? Especially on vacation? There are tens of thousands of rooms and rental cars in town — and failing the latter, a flotilla of taxis that would make the Spanish Armada look like a poorly funded bathtub navy. I had options. And plastic. I would soon exercise both.

I tooled back to the Nugget in my rental Sebring (who names a car after a Manson victim?), only to find that the reservation computer was still down. A long line of suitcase-burdened vacationers filled the lobby, the mood distinctly un-Vegas. I called home to kill the time, and while I was talking, one of the Nugget employees announced the system was back up. Perfect. I said goodbye to my parents . . . and seconds later, the same employee sheepishly declared the system down again.

This time, they tried to bribe folks with lunch at the buffet or coffee shop. I decided they had had their chance. I called Las Vegas information for the number of the Plaza, which as you can see in this map from CheapoVegas is right down the street at the head of Fremont Street. I got their reservation desk, was quoted a price on a room comparable to my still-in-limbo reservation at the Golden Nugget, accepted the quote, and told them I would be there in about 10 minutes.

As CheapoVegas notes at the head of their review, the front entry of The Plaza has been in a number of movies, but the camera usually stops there. The casino, despite a recent re-theming with the new logo and a touch of has a lived-in feel, and it attracts low-rollers looking for an accessible lounge act, cheap eats, and a predictable, inexpensive room. They also have a striking domed restaurant that has likewise been featured in movies (Robert DeNiro and Sharon Stone have a contentious dinner date there in Casino). Frankly, I had gotten 8 hours of sleep in 2 days, and my fuse was running out quickly, so my biggest priority was finding a room in which to drop my bags and a bed on which to pass out.

Check-in at the Plaza was swift, and the room, up on the 16th floor, offered a great view of the Las Vegas Strip from the north — I looked forward to seeing it at night — as well as the mountains to the west of the city. The furniture was plain, with only a dresser, a nightstand, and a table with no writing desk, but the table was actually more usable than the ones in the Golden Nugget's rooms, because it came with a real chair, not a cushioned piece of furniture that can't be pulled up under a desk or table. Instantly I knew it would have been perfect for the laptop, but considering the change in venue, I would have been concerned about securing it in their vault. (The safe deposit boxes didn't look like they would hold a 17" PowerBook.) Still, it would be just right for scrawling notes for this very blog (some of which I have drawn upon as I've been going here).

By this time it was nearly 3 p.m., or 6 p.m. by my reckoning, so I didn't do anything all that elaborate for the rest of the day. I walked around the Plaza casino for a bit, resisted the urge to sign up for one of the nightly poker tournaments, wandered over to Binion's (where the World Series of Poker began and, until recently, was held each summer), and got a hero at the Subway downstairs. I wish I could tell you that I then proceeded to tear up the local rounders in a knives-bared no-limit hold'em match, but sadly, I returned to the room and wrote while eating. I don't like to dive right into gambling the first day I'm in Las Vegas. I'm tired from travel, acclimating myself to the local time, and besides, I had just faced down the January jinx, and the games aren't going anywhere.

I would seek them out soon enough the next day.