Thursday, August 31, 2006

How Not to Beg on the Streets

AFTER WORKING IN NEW York City for more than 7 years, and having spent another 4 living in Boston, I have a fairly thick skin when it comes to panhandlers. I would rather aid an organization that works to secure them the means to escape their dire straits long term via mental-health care, employment, or lodgings. Failing that, I would choose food as a means of direct assistance to these folks.

This attitude was born of seeing people like the woman sitting outside the 14th St. PATH station this morning. Next to this busy portal sat a well-fed woman with an extended written request for money on a clean-looking piece of cardboard. What made her stand out from the average beggar was her cup of coffee and her cigarette.

Now, this wasn't some nub of a filter she might have scrounged a la Roger Miller's "King of the Road" with his cigar butt. This was a healthy length of nail. Cigs in New York cost upwards from $5.50 a pack, and coffee starts at six bits.

This isn't the first instance of misplaced charitable investment. Up in Midtown, I used to pass a man who had a table, a water bottle with change and a few bills in it, and some literature on the homeless outreach program he supported. He had a solid rap, too, one that he projected well over a block. For a while I could recite it from memory.

I occasionally dropped some pocket change in his bottle, seeing as he had a powerful sales pitch and would sit out there in any weather. What stopped me, though, was seeing him smoking one day. This guy could be dropping that money, anywhere from $5 to $6.50 a pack, into his own bottle, which depending on his dosage could be anywhere from $120 to $360 a month. Granted, even charity god Paul Newman might have a glass of wine with you now and again. But as vices go, this one is entirely needless and could have helped a lot of the people he was exhorting the office workers streaming around him not to forget. My contributions to his bottle stopped that day.

Fast forward to this "beggar" outside the PATH stop. I wanted to ask her precisely how many commuters she had to hit up to get enough dough for a loosie cig, but I hadn't the time or the inclination. I can only hope others who passed her by had the same thought as I did. What's more regrettable is that she might bias people of charitable leanings to snuff that impulse when presented with a legitimate opportunity to do good.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Schizohedron Bullet Points! for 8/30/06*

  • IN ONE DAY FLAT, the HR person at my previous place of employment sent me a fat sheaf of forms to use for swapping my retirement funds from there to the 401(k) at my current job. I haven't dealt directly with her, so I don't know if this typical of her speed on such requests, or radically atypical, but I'll take it. The paperwork is a bit daunting, so I think I'll call her and ensure, 100%, that I am checking off the right boxes. It all seems simple, but fucking this up can have significant tax consequences. I've had the funds there for so long, and I intend to nurture them for at least another 30 years, so taking a day or so to get everything right is absolutely justifiable.
  • THE DEPARTMENT IS MINE. Well, not quite. My immediate supervisor is off to Europe to attend a destination wedding, along with one of the other designers, a guy she's know since high school and a mutual friend of the couple. In a storm of mounting tension and frantic multitasking, she eventually disappeared sometime midafternoon, without leaving me anything from her desk to worry about. I will be the contact person for the printer, our mutual bosses, and the department leads in the editorial realm, but it's only until next Wednesday, with Labor Day coming in the middle. My absent coworkers have the "honor" of paying their full freight for the flight to Europe and the lodgings, to say nothing of tux rental for one of them, and any incidentals, all of which need to be paid in the robust euro. You want to get married in the land of your ancestors? Do me a favor and tell me you were conceived in Central Park, because that's a lot more reasonable than a transatlantic jaunt through paranoid security that, at least in one Euro airport, is now disallowing pens. Pens, for fuck's sake!
  • LABOR DAY'S SWEET SONG: No huge plans coming up. I'm slated to see Snakes on a Plane this Friday, which if I'm lucky will set the tone for the rest of the weekend. The weather is supposed to be subpar as Labor Days go, with the leading edge of Tropical Gender Dysphoria Ernesto verging on our area. (Meanwhile, in the Pacific, according to The Weather Channel, Wake Islanders are bracing for the arrival of what sounds like an anime or trading-card character: Super Typhoon Ioke!) I do welcome the official end of the summer season, which will help clear out the Garden State Parkway traffic for my eventual return to Atlantic City and my scheduled trip to visit my parents at the shore, much like last year. More importantly, the heat of summer will yield before the glorious approach of autumn.
*Why yes, this is in fact my attempt to keep my hand moving, in the Natalie Goldberg sense, in lieu of a 1,000-word monstrosity of the type that loyal readers have come to expect, or perhaps to dread.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Lifehacker's Been Reading My Mind!

HOT ON THE HEELS of my last post, I noticed a post on efficiency-tip trove setting up an emergency fund. This page also cites a similar story they previously linked, on I think both are worth a read, even if you have a fund set up or know the basics of how to build one.

Above and beyond the basic wisdom of maintaining such a fund if you can, what does it say that this topic is on more than one mind? Pessimism about the financial future of the country? Concern for one's ability to survive a calamity on the eve of the Katrina anniversary? Who knows.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Pass GO and Collect $75

A TAX REFUND RECENTLY spurred me into getting my financial house into better order. With any luck, this $75 check that I received earlier this month will pay generous dividends decades down the road as a result.

Unlike my Federal tax refund, which was used to fuel a trip to Atlantic City, this one was considerably smaller, being a rebate for New Jersey renters as part of our property-tax-rebate program. Still, at first thought, I filed it under "found money," and after cashing the check, displayed the cash to my parents and crowed about pissing it away on something fun.

Yet I never actually executed that plan. Initially, it was because I could think of nothing immediately on which to blow it. Yes, I have an iTunes account and an Amazon wish list and an eBay login, all three heads of the modern Internet-spending Cerberus. And I do work within walking distance of innumerable used bookstores, cafés, and knick-knack shops in Greenwich Village. I have a quirk of mind, however, that — after I have made a list of CDs, or books, or whatever, that I might want to buy — leads me to blank out on the items once at the destination store. If I don't actually commit the list to paper, I'll walk up and down the aisles entirely lost. Very frustrating, though perhaps a backhanded financial survival trait.

Instead, the $75 went into my emergency fund. On its origin: Back in the mid-Nineties, I tended to do my laundry at my parents' house rather than spend $5 a load in my apartment basement. I started setting aside $5 a week to represent the laundry moolah I wasn't spending. Also, in a (failed) effort to curb my videogame habits, I began dropping a quarter into a jar each time I started a new game, usually of Twisted Metal 2. Both stashes eventually totaled over $400, including around $170 in quarters. (Ever lift a Classico pasta-sauce jar full of quarters? Buy a truss first.)

I continued the laundry-cash tradition when I got my own apartment, but I also began a Friday ritual of throwing any extra money from my weekly allowance in as well. Basically, each week the larger of $5 or my allowance remainder had to go into that pot. If I ran through my allowance earlier than Friday evening, $10 went in; should I be foolish or pressed enough to return to the ATM a third time, $15; and so on. Taking a ten and a five out of the $60 that you need to last the week forces you to stop returning to the well so often, I can assure you. Soon, I started adding any sort of "found money": tax returns, appliance rebates, folding money from the coin-counting gadget at the bank, unused walking-around dough from vacations, even a couple of good blackjack scores. Two years later, in the wake of 9/11, I dubbed this now-substantial cache of cash my emergency fund, only to be tapped upon widespread failure of ATMs. (I assure you that this is as paranoid as I got after the attacks; none of the money went to a supply of plastic sheeting and duct tape.) Four years after that, I was able to use a big chunk of my emergency cash to fund fully my 2006 contribution to my Roth IRA. Automatic savings may be unconscious, but never are they mindless.

Now, when I have heard coworkers complain about never having enough money to fund a 401(k) or take part in the Section 125 health savings plan (or, more recently, the transit equivalent), I cite this as an example of how small amounts can make a big difference. I can understand how someone still paying for college or negotiating a mortgage would have debt reduction as their biggest priority, and it's smart to do so. (After watching a friend in college rack up four figures of credit card debt, I have since feared long-term debt like medieval townsfolk fleeing the return of the Black Death.) I can think of two coworkers, however, who definitely have leaks in their games, rivulets of money that could be diverted into a reservoir of effortless thrift. Even $10 a week into a mutual fund (to which my current employer does add a profit share), or to lend to Uncle Sam in order to pay uncovered medical expenses or a MetroCard, can reap big rewards.

In dropping this $75 into my emergency fund, I began to think seriously about the exact disposition of my retirement funds, and the market in general. I have no problems funding my 401(k) or my IRA (if I couldn't, no way would I be jetting out to Las Vegas at least once a year), but I am sure I could have the allocations more finely tuned for my needs. I therefore got some books out of the library, and reread one I've had for a couple of months, to address this. Also, I actually still have a fund open at my old employer, where a couple of the specific investment options were good performers. This will change. Sources inform me that the boss there is expanding the office. Nobody is suggesting he would fund this considerable expense with anyone's capital but his own. However, this is the sort of situation in which such shenanigans have been known to happen. Why even take the risk? So I have a phone call planned to the customer service of my current fund company to figure just what I need to do to move that money under my own more direct control. Then I need to sit down with the fat book of Morningstar ratings at the library (which I wish would open on summer weekends . . . another reason to hate this part of the year) and determine some better places to allocate this cash. Because when the time comes to retire, I suspect it will be all I receive.

I firmly believe that Social Security will fail my generation. I view the Trust Fund as something located between an IOU issued by a casual acquaintance and a Ponzi scheme. I do not trust the current gang of fuck-knuckles in Washington, nor any of their foreseeable successors, to exert the moral and political muscle to guarantee that the nation will return in full what it has taken from every paycheck I have received since high school — and without interest, might I add. Anything I spend at that time of my life will have to come either from my continued labors or what I can manage to conceal, via legal ERISA allowances, from Uncle Sam's withering reach.

So with any luck, and a little diligence in both my financial and writing lives, I hope to link to this post from 30 or more years in the future and tell you just how much that $75 rebate has grown into.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Las Vegas 7/06: Opening Fire on the Locals

Early Skirmish at Bugsy's Joint

IT WAS SOMETIME IN the early afternoon of Thursday, July 13, that I felt battle had to be joined. I hadn't flown across the country merely to watch these games from the rail or to cruise through the new rooms without at least giving one of the old poker pits a try. After eating, my wanderings took me to the Flamingo, where I had stayed for my first three trips to Vegas, and where — like most casinos in town — they had expanded their poker room to accommodate the surge in interest. From what had been a vestigial nook, the management had grown a respectable-sized cluster of tables in one corner of the casino floor.

I watched the play for a while, selecting a $1/$2 no-limit hold'em game situated close to the rail. Play seemed weak; few preflop raises, and pots being taken down on the flop or turn with a single raise. Spying an open seat, I decided to take a chance.

It turned out I was sitting close to a very drunk player, two seats to my left. This guy was betting at every pot, seeing just about 75% of flops, and seemingly stealing pots at random. This made it tempting to play back at him, but with very little time to have seen what sort of cards he played, I held back. When I did finally get into a hand with him, I found myself facing an all-in river bet after he called my increasing flop and turn bets . . . and I had only a strong Ace paired with one on the board. Not wanting to go broke this early on merely top pair, good kicker, I folded. The guy mucked without showing and mumbled, "I bluffed you." He repeated this a few times while stacking the $150 or so pot. I said nothing, having lost an early profit and only about $20 of my starting buy-in, so I wasn't too upset about how things had gone down. Besides, this guy's starting hand range was fairly broad, so if I got him all in with a solid hand, I was a favorite to take the win back. Tragically, he racked up and left before I had the chance, balancing two racks of red $5 chips and a Budweiser as he weaved to the cashier.

Around this point, some skilled locals sat down. I have a post in the back of my head about identifying this sort of potentially dangerous player, so all I will say at this point is that I took my advice from January's trip and racked up when a new $1/$2 NL table opened.

You can travel halfway across the globe and be surprised to find someone from not only your own country, but your neighborhood. I didn't hit that close, but the young couple who sat to my left at the new table was from Cape May, New Jersey. I chatted them up, primarily to see if they were regulars at Atlantic City to their north, and learned that they actually habituated an underground cardroom down in their neck of the woods. Never hurts to be friendly at a poker table, especially with the two folks to your left, because, among other reasons, they're the folks whose blinds you'll be stealing as often as you can when you have the button or the cutoff seat. (You'll also be chopping the blinds with the person to your immediate left, another reason to at least be on speaking terms.)

Although the couple spoke in terms that led me to believe they had some technical depth at hold'em, the young man was outclassed in skill by his girlfriend. He was making very poor plays with only a single high pair (the sort of trap I had avoided earlier with the drunk), and he rebought twice before busting a third time and storming off in a sullen rage. With one mediocre player gone, and a couple of locals sitting down, I decided to cash out and secure some food. After being ahead nearly $100 at the other game, I was now dead even, and if my choice is a hard-fought tie or a loss born of stupid play, I'll take the former every time.

Storming the Castle

A LIVELY COMMUNITY OF poker bloggers has been regaling the Internet with their adventures for better than two years now. These folks have met up in Las Vegas a couple of times, to put names to faces and let off some steam with low-limit poker enhanced by alcohol and sleep deprivation. In one early jaunt, one blogger suggested the entire group descend on the poker room contained within the Camelot-like façade of the Excalibur. Echoing Billy Crystal's parting exhortation to Cary Elwes and Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride, this plan was cloaked under the codename of "storming the castle."

After grabbing some dinner, I was ready to mount a siege of my own. I've played some fun poker at the Excalibur, owing to its low table limits and the lessons the poker room offers to passing tourists. It does host a no-limit game, for those looking for a higher-level game. This doesn't guarantee that you'll get a table of skilled operators, though. Table selection is still key, no matter what the reputation of a room as a fish tank might be.

I noticed two no-limit tables running. The floor person was initially looking at the "main game," but it looked to be populated with serious players. I wanted funloving tourists and drunks out to donk it up with a couple of surplus Benjamins. That description more closely suited the second table, which had a couple of seats ready and waiting. "I'll take one of those seats, please," I said, peeling two C-notes off for conversion into chips. He acquiesced, and the cage person proffered a stack of 20 reds, an abbreviated second stack of 16 more fivers, and 20 blue $1 checks. I noticed that the Excal had sprung for new chips, not an insubstantial investment. Nice to see one of the comparative bargain properties laying out some coin.

My initial assessment of the table was correct. This one was laughing, betting it up, with four or five players seeing flops. I'm normally a "tight" player, seeing fewer than average flops with my starting cards, but when you have half the table tossing in $2 to take a chance on the next three cards, and even three or four of them calling a raise, I broaden my range somewhat to take advantage of strong draws or to kill the crowd with a flopped set. At a fun table like this, you want to join in, and if it means you sacrifice a couple of two-buck bets so as not to stick out as a rock, you'll have a great chance of cracking someone when your middle pair catches a third or your suited connectors flop straight and flush draws.

Despite loosening up preflop, I didn't take too many hands to the river. I won a few pots here and there, which made up for the flow of chips my looser play had created. This would become moot when two new players sat down. After about an hour or so, our table became shorthanded, with only 6 players. I like short games; you can push single pairs harder and price opponents out of draws much more easily. Some of my poker-night regulars dislike short games like this for that very reason. Hell, six-person (aka 6max) tables have become a staple on Internet poker sites, many folks on the Two Plus Two message forums have inquired as to the production of a book devoted to shorthanded play, and there is even a 6max event at the World Series of Poker now. Last year, poker legend Doyle Brunson, who was winning big across the oil states and in Vegas before the Internet was born, took his 10th championship bracelet in the 6max no-limit event. So this is a straight-up legit form of poker.

So as I said, my chance to be more aggressive at the shorter table was interrupted by the two new arrivals. I initially regretted this, because my earlier, looser play would have benefitted me now. I was already entering a greater number of pots, which is a staple of 6max play, so when I put the pedal down and raised preflop more with a wider range of hands, I might have gotten more calls with even worse hands than mine. Then when I had KK or AA, I could take them to school. With eight players, however, this sort of deceptive, lucrative larceny is a little more difficult.

My regrets faded about a half hour into playing with these two new guys. One was clearly experienced but favored unreasoning aggression over selective force, and this cost him. I limped into a pot (i.e., called the starting bet, then called a raise that came after me without reraising) with A5 of the same suit. I had at least three other callers in addition to the aggro guy, so I had favorable odds for a flush draw on the flop.

Instead of the flush draw, I got an Ace and a 5, two pair. No matching cards, no straight possibilities. Split two pair on a rainbow flop is a great hand. The aggro guy bet strongly, I called, figuring to push on the turn, and the other players folded. The turn was a beautiful Ace. He checked, I thought for a while and bet about half the pot (I didn't want to scare him out), and he went all in. The only problem was that he pushed the bulk of his chips in, then said, "All in," and tried to drop the remaining $60 or $70 in. I said nothing, but the dealer immediately called it a string bet, and declared only the initial, majority bet to be a legal raise.

I have played long enough to sit there with some discipline while someone is in the process of putting his or her foot in the snare, so I waited while the dealer sorted this out, then said, "I call," and flipped up my cards to show the full house. Aggro-man yelled "Fuck!!" and pounded the rail with both fists. He showed Ace King for trips, which did not catch another King. I took down a $270 pot on that hand.

I drifted down about $70 over the course of the next hour, due to draws that didn't come in on the river that I had to fold, but I was still firmly in the black when I scrounged for a chip rack and headed over to the podium to cash out. I did find out why the two guys had come over in the first place. They had been sitting at the other no-limit game, the more serious-looking one, and at some point it had simply broken up. The second of the two players who migrated to my table — the one I didn't clobber with the Aces full — got into an argument shortly thereafter with the dealer. When a person went all in, the dealer counted down the bet. The second guy (hereinafter Nit) — who wasn't one of the two participants in the hand — said the dealer wasn't allowed to do this. The dealer disagreed, and after Nit became vociferous, the floorman was called. After getting the dealer's side of things, he declared it legal and departed . . . but not before angrily telling Nit, upon learning that he wasn't in the hand, to mind his own business when he didn't have cards. This shut Nit up for the duration of my stay, which, after sensing this was why the previous table had collapsed, was not much longer than the time it took to lose the aforementioned $70 or so. I instead hit the parking lot, reflecting in turn on how lacking in etiquette both men had been in their own ways, and of course bouncing along on the cushion of a win.

Ealier entries in this tale of degeneracy can be perused here:

I Am the Key Master

SOME TIME AGO, I detailed how I stumbled upon a handbag at Whole Foods and, via the store's customer service desk, returned it.

Evidently, this began an unwitting streak of being a roving lost-and-found. Two recent incidents, both involving keys, point to this trend.

The first one occurred about two weeks ago. While entering the lobby of my building, I spotted a car key. It was one of the more recent ones, with the functional fob forming the base of the key, which was more of a long metal probe than a traditional key-shaped implement. A tag indicated the car was purchased at a Bergen County car dealer.

I went back out to the lot and pressed the panic button. (This feature, a Nobel Prize–level innovation if you ask me, is the only way I could find my various rental cars in the anonymous sprawls of the many Vegas parking garages in which I have wandered. Until I learned to write down the level and section, that is.) A white sedan in the parking lot across the street began honking and flashing its lights.

I took a look at the car, inside and out, to see if I could determine the owner. No clue. Based on its location, though, I figured that this person had bought something in the strip mall to which the parking lot catered, then had visited someone in my building. I went back upstairs to make two simple signs with my phone number, which I planned to hang on the two most likely exits this person would take.

I found the owner of the car while posting the signs. It turned out to be a regular visitor, whose elderly father had, until recently, lived directly across the hall from me. (He suffered a fall some weeks ago, and has been recuperating under close care in a rehab facility.) She left the key out front when she switched hands between her father's mail and her house keys, and when I found her in the entryway, she was digging through her handbag with the unmistakable air of someone who knows he or she came in with something and now, for the life of him or her, cannot put a hand on it. I asked her if she was looking for something, and she accepted her car key with gratitude and relief.

So upon returning home tonight, I had cause to think about that incident when what do I see sitting in a jagged brass jumble next to the mailboxes but a hefty set of keys. This was a little more serious. Anyone with half a brain and a larcenous heart could spend a little time figuring which key opens the front door, then do a few things: enter the complex at will, copy it and allow confederates to do the same, go door to door with what they suspect might be an inside key and try to break in, or sell the whole lot to someone with the time and inclination to do any of the above. Plus they'd potentially have a free car, as there was a key for some vehicle among the bunch.

As with the last car, I had only a fleeting moment of the risk–reward equation of grand theft auto, and scooped up the keys to at least get them away from thieving hands. Once upstairs, I had dinner, and while finishing, I made up another sign, this one with my cell number, because my plan was to write for a while at the library (my current location). I cleaned up, bagged my Mac, and headed out, affixing the sign to the front door before leaving.

Just as I was checking out a book that, fortuitously, had arrived today via interlibrary loan, my cellphone vibrated. I missed that call, but it immediately began vibrating again. Definitely the panicked repeat dialing of someone down a couple of dozen keys. It actually turned out to be that person's employer. The owner was a domestic or a home health aide (I didn't inquire which), and the caller was ringing me to see if she could head over to my apartment to pick up the keys. I explained that I would be there in about 5 minutes, as I was at the library, and the caller said the person would be downstairs to meet me. I also got her name — Maria — so they could ID themselves.

I drove back to the apartment quickly enough (despite a traffic backup from the train passing through town), and found a Latin American woman waiting in the front hall. She walked up to my car, said her name was Maria, and gratefully received her keys with several thank-yous and God-bless-yous. I briefly told her about the previous key incident, and she pronounced me a good person. Well, let's not get hasty, I thought, but I thanked her for it and let her head on out as I returned to the library.

So it seems like I'm on a streak! If you should happen to misplace something over the next few weeks, you might call me first before panicking. At this rate, I just may have found it.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Leaks in Your Game

I'M SLOWLY COMPOSING MY Las Vegas adventures, but I've had some thoughts in the back of my head that I don't want to let slip away.

In poker, the term leak refers to a chronic flow of money due to unprofitable plays. For example, in no-limit hold'em, calling raises with suited connectors in a shorthanded ring game with aggressive flop betting is a leak. With few players seeing the flop, and the strong likelihood of a large flop bet destroying the pot odds, the right play (after having made the wrong play of staying in) on any flop that does not offer a four-flush with a gutshot straight or a made straight or flush is to fold. The fact that this player is still venturing capital into this situation, which rarely is going to give him or her the right price to continue with the hand, is a leak.

Online poker players often run software called PokerTracker during play. PokerTracker analyzes the hand histories (textfiles saved to the player's computer with all the details of the hands he or she plays) to reveal patterns of winning and losing plays, both by street and by individual starting hand. So for example, one can chart whether calling with T9 of hearts has been making or costing money, and from which positions on the table it's been doing the best.

For the disciplined player, this is a powerful tool that can eliminate leaks and raise one's profit. But what about leaks in life? Not just holes in one's financial boat, but other places where effort, energy, or talent is dissipated needlessly?

It's easiest to apply this analogy to money flow in life. I see this every day. You can buy a bag of perfectly serviceable coffee for anywhere from $6 to $10 per pound, grind the beans yourself in a gadget that sets you back $15 or so as a one-time expense, and brew yourself a tall one in a machine that could be as cheap as $30 or $40. Yet when I pass the Starbucks in my building in the morning, there's a line nearly to the door. In the afternoon too, I see coworkers walking slowly back to their desks with some $4 or $5 whipped-cream-topped concoction from Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts.

This brings up another point in the health realm. Jeremy Zawodny, a programmer, amateur pilot, and blogger posted a series on how he lost 50 pounds with the assistance of an Excel table in which he tracked everything he ate. Like PokerTracker, this rigorous recordkeeping can help one isolate those bad food habits that, over time, add up to excess body fat. It's very simple math. With drinks that can add up, with whipped cream, to nearly 700 empty calories for the largest size, drinking Starbucks's fancier offerings over time without exercise or other limitations of intake, will make you obese. Minor leaks like this, when run together over days or months, add up to significant health problems.

For another exacta of behavioral leaks, consider smoking. A pack of butts will set you back at least $6 in New York City, with not much price relief in the rest of the state or in Jersey. Smokers rarely figure the monthly or even weekly cost of their habit, as long as prices remain stable — and even then, after a flurry of grousing over a hike in costs, they settle down and pay the increase. Even more neglected is the eventual health cost, both in physical performance and capital. Smokers pay a penalty for health insurance, lose workplace productivity or (for self-employed smokers) direct income from respiratory ailments made more frequent or worse in impact due to damaged lungs, suffer cardiac problems earlier in life, and often run afoul of long-term illnesses like cancer, emphysema, and congestive heart failure that sap their money for years.

Getting back to financial leaks, there are other areas where money flows pointlessly out of our pockets because of neglect or "convenience." Habitually patronizing ATMs outside of one's network. Buying the highest grade of gasoline for an old car. Getting the most inclusive cable package but failing to watch the vast majority of the channels. Loading up on books through Amazon rather than patronizing one's local used book store or library. Perceived in isolation, these don't seem like major diversions of cash. But it's like observing a single raindrop. Enough of them in one place can result in a devastating flood.

Although I have isolated my most costly leaks at the poker table, I am not free from leaks of lifestyle or habit. When short on time or foul in mood, I eat nonnutritious convenience or junk food. I have a three-can-a-day Diet Coke habit. The Internet is a seductive time-sink into which I frequently fall. And my sleep schedule varies wildly from one week to the next, which kills my productivity on the weekends when I sleep off the debt. Small leaks add up over time, but so do small efforts to plug these leaks and make the vessel, so to speak, even more leak resistant. I could plot a week's worth of meals over the weekend, even cooking or prepping a bunch of it ahead of time. I could replace one Diet Coke a day with tea, or — and this would be a Herculean effort — cut the habit completely, and watch the money I spent on soda flow into my coffers. I could set a literal timer for my recreational Web browsing, or find better things to do on the Net, like research investments or study poker strategy . . . or even post here! And that would directly influence my sleep habits.

Every massive cave system begins with dripping water, which over millennia erodes deep shafts and grand galleries of space and decorates it with intricate columns of mineral deposits. The Grand Canyon was sliced from the North American landmass by the rain and snowmelt that fueled the Colorado River millions of years ago. Each beach was once a balustrate of stone, which fought a slow, losing battle against relentless waves, yielding itself to sand. Over time, even the smallest leak can destroy a bankroll, a waistline, a talented soul's productivity. Leave the leaks to geology and make yourself watertight.

What are your leaks?

Flood Your Heart With Bollywood Joy!

THRILL TO THE WONDERS of Bollywood vamp and WFMU favorite Helen in this clip from YouTube!

If this is slow or jerky at all, view the direct YouTube link here, because Helen is delish. I am such the sucker for a sensuous dancer in a cheongsam. And I could listen to Bollywood soundtracks for days. See WFMU's Beware of the Blog entry on Helen's film triumphs for more links to YouTube clips.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Las Vegas 7/06: Abbreviated World Poker Tour

WITH MY TRAVEL DAY behind me, with my body slowly adjusting to Vegas Time (i.e., no clocks and no work make James a sleep-deprived boy), I arose on Thursday ready for some cards. I began the day with a trip to Whole Foods, located far west on Charleston, near the new Red Rock Station hotel and casino. Vegas's Whole Foods is a huge, grand temple of freshness, and I chowed down on hot breakfast selections, yogurt, and a bran muffin while reading printouts of AllVegasPoker's poker-room reviews and stealing glimpses of a strikingly curvy local sitting on the other side of the store window, with a friend, chatting and splitting a quarter-watermelon with a friend in the early morning heat.

But I didn't come to Las Vegas to look at women. (Well, it wasn't my first priority.) I was here for some poker, and this time around, I had a few new venues in which to play, and before settling down to some cards, I wanted to check out my broader range of playing options.

So after polishing off my muffin and casting one last longing look at the beauty beside me, I drove back down to the Strip, parked at the beautiful Wynn Las Vegas, and began my walking tour.

I did take a quick peek at Wynn's room, which actually opened more than a year ago but which still gets high grades from players. The average skill level there exceeds my own, even at the "lower" games (e.g., they spread a low-cost no-limit game, but there is no maximum buy-in, which skilled, aggressive players favor), so I have not played there yet, a trend that continued for this trip. Someday I'll give the $1/$3 no-limit or one of the inexpensive limit games a shot, but not this trip.

Next, I walked a sweltering block south to the Venetian. Their room went in only a few months ago, and it's a spacious affair with lots of tables, comfortable seats, the electronic seating board most new rooms install to help players see how long their wait might be, and a slew of smaller amenities like tableside dining and an automated login for player's cards so folks can track their comp dollars. A classy room for one of the more upscale properties on the Strip.

Across the street from the Venetian sits Treasure Island, or TI as they have renamed themselves in an attempt to snare the hipster crowd. Its sister property, the Mirage, had what was the premier poker room of its time when it was built in the Nineties. Years later, as poker ebbed, then rushed back in with the force of a Phil Hellmuth temper tantrum, TI finally offered a room to capture some of the wave. Although I missed it at first and had to ask a keno-desk person for directions, in retrospect it's pretty damn easy to find. Walking around from one of these new poker rooms to the next was like Christmas morning; each one a mystery box waiting to be unwrapped. TI's room is mostly enclosed, though you can watch the games from two large rail-windows or the main entrance. It looked very nice, and at that time of day (around 11:00 a.m.) wasn't really so crowded, but it was fairly small. I suspected it would fill up quickly during these weeks with the WSOP in town.

After TI, I took the tram over to the Mirage. I like playing here, even though in my early visits, I took a few solid lumps playing seven-card stud against devious experts. Had I not diverted into hold'em, I probably would have continued to work on my stud skills so I could play in the games here as an equal.

Trouble is, hold'em has almost completely displaced stud in Las Vegas. What few stud games still run are low-buyin, $1-$5 spread-limit games that attract mostly local retirees who play barely any pots, wait for the absolute nuts to begin betting, and castigate anyone who dares to raise a pot. The Mirage used to host two of the few mid-level stud games ($5/$10 and $10/$20) in town. When I visited the room that day and on future occasions, the low-limit version was all they had left. Aside from the Bellagio, where games of many types and nearly every limit can be found, I couldn't imagine where else the dedicate core of mid-limit stud players might have gone. Too bad, because it featured an interesting blend of personalities, which could almost be a blog post on its own.

One other change I regretted at the Mirage was in the change of dealer uniforms. This is a trend that has spread across most casinos. The traditional garb for a poker dealer is a white oxford or tux-inspired shirt, bowtie, black pants, and either a short apron or, increasingly, a fanny pack for personal items. Maybe a vest over the shirt, which always had a left front pocket for tips. In new rooms, and as time goes by in many old ones, poker dealers now wear the same smocks as the rest of the dealers, and what had once been a small company of professional-looking card dealers at the Mirage now had no individuality. Chalk it up to corporate monomania, or perhaps to sentimentality on my part. Another story I could tell you concerns how I actually played dealer at a birthday party, and how I approximated the classic look, even on a roasting-hot July day, but again, that can wait for another entry.

My walking tour — getting hotter by the hour under skies clouded by smoke blown in from a California wildfire — took me next to Caesars Palace. As part of the Harrah's megalith, which also owns the WSOP, opening a poker room in one of the company's star properties was a dead bang. As befits a sprawling resort like Caesars, its poker room is likewise immense. Equally large is the adjoining tournament area, where both independent competitions and satellites for the WSOP can be run. When I arrived, a new no-limit tournament had just started, and the side room was packed with players, the only sounds the clicking of myriad poker chips being nervously shuffled together as the players began forming early impressions of their opponents, testing the table's nerves with a raise here and there, nothing too crazy this early, just enough to let them know a Player is in town. Yeah, most of them have something akin to this kind of crazy dream, all except for the very new players, who have ponied up a buck-twenty for the entry fee and are shaking in their sneakers, or the seasoned local pros, who are already charting their way to the final table through this ill-kempt scrub and wondering which other regulars they will see there.

Having completed my survey of the new offerings in town, it was time to get some actual play under my belt. This will be the topic of my next entry, as will a demonstration of how right and how wrong the best starting hand in hold'em can be.

To view the first two moves along this tainted Candyland board of a city, slide over to these links: