Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Thawing the Poker Cold War at the Venetian

MANY FOLKS VIEW POKER as a war, especially poker of the tournament or no-limit variety. Every player is an enemy general, every chip on the felt a soldier. Ground is ceded or conquered at the flip of a card. From a distance, a Vegas poker table can look like a hostile parley among several military strongmen, eyes walled off by mirrorshades and obscured by caps or visors, arms folded, the silence only split by terse pronouncements of bets and the crash of chips across the green field of battle, and your only ally an unbeatable hand.

The truth is far more complex. Given the right blend of players, game conditions, dealers, and alcohol, a poker table can rival in spirit even the most convivial craps game. Amid the forbidding silence of an all-in bet awaiting a call, and the reluctant creak of a player’s joints as he rises, chipless, from his seat, the anonymous bettors to one’s left and right can turn out to be comrades by the last deal of the night.

One night during my last trip to Las Vegas, I played at the regal poker room of the Venetian Hotel and Casino. This room was designed for serious, comfortable play: lush seats, gorgeous new chips and tables, cocktail waitresses both toothsome and swift with the firewater, and a highly skilled cadre of dealers. Without capturing the interest of the local Vegas players, no poker room will thrive, and the way to keep locals happy is to give them a comfortable space, a generous comp program, tableside food, and a constant flow of rich fish from the schools of tourists washing through the casino. In this, the Venetian comes up aces.

Players ringed most every table of this lush card palace, either battling it out in the daily tournament, or peering at one another across stacks of hard-won chips at the regular ring games. I had read that the Venetian’s regular no-limit Texas hold’em players ran to the shark end of the spectrum, so I shied away from those tables for my virgin expedition. I was also smarting from a beating at no-limit two days earlier, in which my pocket Aces — the strongest starting hand in hold’em — were shot out of the sky twice in the same day. Having restored my confidence with several hours of limit hold’em the day before, I decided to keep working out the cramps at one of the Venetian’s limit tables. With bets and raises in structured denominations, your money can last longer. Unlike no-limit, therefore, you won’t go broke on the first hand. You also have a better chance of finding a player who pre-dates the no-limit craze, a veteran from whom you can learn. Wide public interest in no-limit is only about 5 years old; players who survived the late-Nineties closure of Vegas poker rooms are likely to have a rich trove of wisdom and stories about the game. This can pay more, long term, than winning for just that one day.

I took a seat with a couple of racks of the peculiar $3 chips used at the Venetian’s $6/$12 game. I had a feeling this denomination would lead to a calmer game than the one the night before at the MGM Grand. There, the $6/$12 game used the more traditional $1 and $5 chips. For the first two betting rounds, folks tended to bet with six singles; they did the same at the turn and river for the double bets. This made average-value pots look far huger: massive seas of blue chips with the odd $5 leering out in alluring red. Players who otherwise might not call a raise on the flop took one look at the gargantuan pile of cashlicious clay and decided, sure, why not throw another $6 in? Add to this a maniacally loose player to my right who raised and reraised nearly every hand preflop — and got at least two calls per hand — the dealers had to push some of these pots to their winners in three or four sweeps.

My hunch about the pace of the game proved to be correct. I was looking for a change from the heart-pounding duel of no-limit, but this was almost too slow. A $36 pot looks a lot more impressive as 36 individual dollar chips, rather than as a wan clutch of 12 tokens in this game.

It did give me a chance to get acquainted with my tablemates. None seemed to be a stereotypical “rock,” a local player grinding out steady wins by raising rarely, folding frequently, and breaking his silence about once per evening, usually to complain about some young “World Poker tour punk” who dared to raise his blinds. I did recognize one local, an off-duty Venetian dealer in fact, who I had seen during my trip the previous summer at the Aladdin. By her chitchat to her neighbors, I identified at least two of them as fellow Venetian poker dealers. Some players salivate at the prospect of playing with a bunch of dealers, believing them to be weaker players or risk-happy gamblers, but the one I recognized had a fairly effective, if straightforward, game. She did make the mistake of tacitly broadcasting her strategy in her between-hand commentary. I filed this information away in case we got head to head at all.

I struck up a conversation with the guy to my right, with whom I shared a number of favorite classic animated cartoons, including a few that I could imitate. Skilled mimicry of Homer Simpson can get even a stiff table laughing. Even better, the aforementioned dealer was wearing an Aqua Teen Hunger Force T-shirt, marking her as a geek of quality.

Our attention was drawn to a loud player two tables away. In a Russian accent slowed by a few drinks, he called for more chips and fresh booze at regular intervals. I smiled. Russians have a special place in the hearts of many recent converts to hold’em. In the film Rounders, John Malkovich portrays the ruthless underground poker-club owner Teddy KGB. Log enough table time and you will inevitably hear someone drop such classic KGB lines as, “Is position bet. I call,” and “Pay him . . . pay that man his money” in their most menacing faux-Russian accents.

In real life, however, poker players love gambling it up with Russian nationals, because if they’ve got the scratch to vacation in Vegas, they likely will be cavalier about throwing more green into the game. Few gamblers are as enthusiastic as Russians when they are building a mini-Kremlin of chips . . . and win or lose, they absolutely will have a drink or three with you. If you’re not having fun with a Russian sitting at your table, you’re deader than Lenin.

“Cheeps! Cheeps!” bellowed the Russian, as I and my seatmate steepled our fingers in a Monty Burns–like pose of financial anticipation. Would the Poker Gods guide this wandering son of the tundra to our table? I watched him accept another rack of chips from a runner, then stand and head to the exit, slapping a fresh pack of Marlboros smartly against his palm. If you’ve ever seen From Russia With Love, our man at the Venetian closely resembled a suntanned Red Grant, with his blond hair cropped closer, and dressed for holiday in a striped T-shirt and khaki cargo shorts. No stereotypical, lumpy gray Muscovite this.

Over the course of the next hour, I kept an eye on him — who, for the sake of at least giving him a name, I shall call “Yuri” — as he burned through chips with a scorched-earth vengeance, guided hapless cocktail waitresses into an empty seat to harangue them on some point, and above all downed drink after drink with a lusty “Na Zdorov'ye!” . . . until a spilled tequila shot got him cut off. A grievous blow!

As if feeling jinxed by that incident, Yuri rose slowly with the remainder of his chips and sat down at a no-limit table adjacent to mine. This evidently proved costly, accelerating his donation of chips to a point where even this gamble-happy guy had had enough. With a bellowed “I do not like NO LEEMIT!”, he once again called for chips, rose again . . . and sat down to my immediate left. I nudged my neighbor and quietly issued a Quagmire-esque “Giggity giggity giggity giggity!”

Yuri seemed more sedate than his earlier self as he carefully unracked his new chips. Perhaps his losses at the no-limit table had finally reached his threshold of pain. When someone takes a licking but still has chips, or seems willing to buy more, you leave them along with their thoughts for a while. The worst thing you can do is to rub the player’s nose in it and induce them to leave. In poker parlance, the exhortation to keep a fish in play is, “Don’t tap on the glass.” So I let Yuri think, stack his chips, and bet when the action came to him.

A way of opening a connection presented itself in the form of my dinner. Earlier that evening, my neighbor had availed himself of the tableside dining option by selecting, from the leatherbound mini-menu of entrees, fish and chips. When the golden-battered fish arrived, nestled in a bed of green-leaf lettuce next to a fragrant sheaf of shoestring fries and enticing tubs of tartar sauce and cider vinegar, I pointed a quivering finger at it and all but commanded the waiter to clone it for me. I devoured the fish upon its arrival, but could only engulf about half of the fries. So I offered Yuri the chance to help me finish them. He graciously thanked me and set to work cleaning the plate.

I gently chatted with him about poker, thinking less of him now as a sheep to be sheared and more as a fellow player. He definitely preferred limit hold’em, not liking the dramatic swings of no-limit. I could see why, based on his style of play; he bet to the river with hands as small as a single pair and chased draws like a pitbull chasing a chicken-fried cat. I never got into a hand with him, my cards having gone dead-ass cold. I sympathized with him at getting cut off from the free-drink train, and suggested he ask the floorman to reconsider. All Yuri really did was knock over a glass onto the rolling drink stand next to the table. Hardly a bootable offense.

About an hour after Yuri sat down, I counted my own chip stack and decided the combination of good limit players and my growing drowsiness were not going to restore it to its starting size anytime soon. As I had guessed, the $3 chips made the pots visibly smaller, and thus less worth loose calls and raising wars, than the gargantuan pots buckling the MGM $6/$12 tables. And the only real fish I had encountered was the deep-fried kind I had engulfed earlier. Yuri was a steady, but not wild, donor, betting but rarely raising, more like someone playing a multistage blackjack hand. He fell short of being the true maniac every solid poker player covets.

In the area of courtesy, however, Yuri measured up strongly. I racked up my chips and offered him my hand and a parting “Do svidanya.” He smiled, rose, accepted my hand with both of his, and returned my valediction, adding a sincere “Good luck.” As I redeemed my chips at the poker room cage, I could still feel the warm impression of his handshake.

All told, I probably lost about $100 at the Venetian poker room. I returned to my hotel room less disappointed with losing than I might have been. With a few more days left to battle it out at the poker tables, I considered the loss no more than a new scar across my back from the most recent hand-to-hand melee with the enemy. Amid the press, however, Yuri distinguished himself as a welcome and friendly rival.

Far from my initial eagerness to loot him, I was now glad I hadn’t been at the no-limit table and in a position to take his whole stack. To paraphrase Hannibal Lecter’s reason for sparing Clarice Starling, the poker world was far more interesting with Yuri in it. He was worth more than a hundred grumpy rocks who bitch incessantly about the casino air conditioning or drink service. Give me a table full of Yuris each time I play poker, and I can retire, if not rich, then happy.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Meditation on My Progress

THE ENVELOPE OF GOALS — some of which I remember, some of which have slipped my mind — still sits on the ledge of my whiteboard. It greets me as I leave the apartment. Though I may not recall explicitly every single detail, I use it as an inspiration to improve something —to keep moving forward, to expand my boundaries or tighten my routines just a little bit each day, and to end unproductive or damaging habits that keep me from achieving my potential.

It's a long list, but some of them will have lasting effects, and will efface deeply engraved habits, so I am introducing them in digestible chunks to avoid being discouraged. I've continued noting my achievements in the Google Docs list. When the month ends, I'll make some notes for myself to see how I did and shift focus if I need to.

This may all sound basic, but I need to build this level of discipline if I pursue a freelance career. With the right boss, I thrive; but I may need that boss to be me. I need to have confidence in my ability to overcome a variety of disasters that I ordinarily would get an officemate or tech support person to resolve. I also need to fine-tune my recordkeeping. It's already quite good; I spent some time at work last week disposing of weekly records of work I did from the first day of work at my current job. If I am working for myself, however, I will need to maintain tax, billing, and accounting figures; file and manage warranties for hardware and licenses for software; execute regular software updates and disk backups; and regularly solicit new business. Even if I go the gradual route and ease into freelance work, these skills will be critical.

With the departure of my last couple of January 2007 newsletter titles, I will have lots of time on my hands at work. I will use this time to perfect my resume, engage the assistance of our outplacement firm, and post my data on the job-hunt sites. I will also do some work to see how much building a home computer system would cost, and maybe — if they don't fire me for all of this Internet browsing — check out the process of forming my own corporation.

I've also spent time writing at work. Some of my recent posts have begun in a work email, then have been sent home for completion and posting. One of my goals is to write daily. Not necessarily posts here, not even anything I would ever sell. I think one of my biggest mistakes is not fully cultivating my talent. It is far from too late, but I do regret not taking the advice 10 years ago, of someone I know, of writing daily. He recommended I wrote 3 hours per day. At the time, I copyedited freelance for my employer, so this was 15 hours per week (I excluded weekends) I could be earning risk-free money. So I scoffed at this, saying there was the issue of how I would earn a living at what I felt was going to be crappy writing anyway. I should note that my interlocutor is a fierce optimist who knows no shame in pursuit of success, and it has paid him well; he is the cofounder of a successful, NYSE-affiliated daytrading firm. If he was confident enough to take that sort of risk and endure through the dot-com crash and the market tumult after 9/11, surely I can rethink my resistance and, if nothing else, develop what I have long suspected is one of my greatest skills.

With nothing to do at work except watch the outsourcing initiative induce wailing and gnashing of teeth amid our editors, and the production-change initiative founder rudderless, I need these goals, long term and short, to feel useful, to feel like I am moving something forward in a torpid department. The last thing I am concerned about right now is money. It will come. I just have to trust myself to make decisions, to adjust my aim when I fail to hit my mark, and event to cut loose unrealistic goals when I find I'm just wasting effort on something unattainable. Forward motion.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Chips, Cards, and the Flat Tax

LAST NIGHT, OUR POKER game was the touchstone for a varied range of conversational topics. Some may make certain presuppositions about the tenor or content of the gab at the traditional Thursday night poker game. See if any of these match your stereotype of what 11 men crouched around a swatch of green felt, chips vying with beers for space, might discuss:
  • Whether the progressive tax system favors the rich and/or unfairly burdens the poor
  • The virtues of a flat tax
  • The budget deficit vs. the national debt, and how we briefly ran a surplus before 9/11
  • General consensus that elimination of wasteful government spending must precede any worthwhile revision of the tax code
  • The cost of the Iraq war
  • The recent hangings in Iraq and the practice of execution by hanging, in particular whether death is instant
Amid this, quite a lot of poker was played, including some dramatic all-ins. With time, however, the New York Giants returned to the table as a talking point, along with what the draft might bring, and from there, we did eventually debate the merits of such female luminaries as Rachel McAdams, the Jessicas Biel and Alba, and Scarlett Johansson.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Mood Swings and the Job Hunt

WHILE EMAILING A FRIEND and former coworker yesterday regarding a long-overdue get-together, I began writing about the possibility of freelance work, and inadvertently came up with a tentative plan for this year. I spent some time at work last week browsing the jobs available in my field on Monster and mediabistro, but found myself discouraged. Many of them wanted a portfolio, because they were closer to full graphic-design positions than my current one. I am ashamed to say I have done very little that might be of interest to these sorts of employers. I never achieved my goal of designing an incoming newsletter from the ground up, which would have been as close as one in my job might get to doing some creative work.

True, the accounting title I worked on for 3 years involved tight deadlines, tables and graphs created under pressure with ill-suited software, and reflow of copy when stories went stale or changed fundamentally. But there is very little to show for it. I will yank some representative PDFs for my book, but that leaves it very thin.

If I were to advise students at my alma mater, I would exhort them to watch very carefully for signs that they will not have the chance to add to their skill sets in their jobs. If they go for longer than 3 months without an opportunity to learn, to secure a new certification, or to crosstrain on another aspect of their profession, they should lobby their employers for these chances, take classes on their own, or quit for a position that will grant them all of this. In waiting for 2+ years for this new workflow to be implemented at my job, I took no classes or cert courses, figuring the launch was just around the corner. It kept me less marketable, and I regret the gap and its unproductive expanse.

This is not to say that nothing can be done about it. Far from it. While writing to my friend about my current choices, and mentioning my deficiencies in areas like Photoshop and Web design, I came up with the following, which I shall paraphrase so I'm not entirely revealing verbatim private correspondence:
  1. Find a fulltime job that increases my skill with areas of the Adobe Creative Suite where I am weak. (Or at least offers the chance to train, perhaps with tuition reimbursement. If not, pay it myself and see if it's tax deductible.)
  2. Begin copyediting, proofreading, and/or writing freelance.
  3. Learn new editing stylebooks — I adhered to American Psychological Association style at my first job, occasionally used AMA there, and got my feet wet with Blue Book during my first year as an editor/typesetter at my current place.
  4. With more developed design skills, and a regular roster of editing work, begin offering freelance design work as well.
  5. Find myself 2 or 3 years down the line better able to do much of this on my own, and go fully freelance.
Granted, in the next month, I could find a compelling, spiritually nutritious full-time job where I gleefully spend the rest of my career. But I let my mind go through the freelance option, for the sake of example, and not without precedent. My Jedi master at my first workplace, who taught me how to copyedit, proofread, and use DTP software, left that company almost 5 years after I started, and 12 years after he had signed on, to form his own freelance business to do just about anything he did while employed, plus writing (he was a talented writer and often crafted every word in the company newsletter). So theoretically, it can be done. I need to get back in touch with him to see what his recent activities have been. He hasn't been using the same email as he did when he was freelancing, so I'm not sure if he's still in business. He may still have some wisdom to pass along on those lines, though. I do recall his saying that healthcare represented a huge nut to cover.

That I had come up with a sort of action plan didn't really sink in until this afternoon, during which I had been searching for jobs online again. The office was depopulated, and I had little work at my desk. Typically we get Martin Luther King, Jr. Day off, but for some reason, they needed a day to complete some holiday weekend that I won't be around to exploit, so we had to come in. Many folks took the day off anyway, because they knew our printers and other vendors would be shut down. So I did some more searching, and read through the materials our outplacement firm had provided.

I found myself getting discouraged again. Each ad required just a little something that put me way behind even the newest graduate from design school. I left today wondering how I could have felt so optimistic back in November after we met with the outplacement specialist. He had said some mood swings were natural, but I just wasn't feeling the initial euphoria of having new opportunities.

I had a date for dinner at my parents' place, where the discussion turned . . . to the situation at work. I had no real difficulty talking about the current state of affairs there, how the typesetters at the outsourcing firm are mangling schedules and offering subpar typeset results, and how there are so many aspects of the jobs being eliminated that our bosses, who have never viewed our roles from trench level, will only encounter when they become a problem.

Where I began to get a bit impatient was when my parents asked me how the job hunt was going. I had told them there were going to be days when I didn't want to discuss it, although I didn't say this immediately, because they didn't push. Eventually, though, after I mentioned that I was in need of some remedial education to better qualify for many graphic design positions, they began asking what I would do if I had to change careers — what else I would want to do. I told them nothing. They pushed the matter, asking if I had any other interests in jobs that weren't going to be sent offshore with everything else. I let their questions follow me to the fridge, where I got another soda, and then by way of answering, I fixed my mother's gaze and said, quietly, "Do we really need to discuss this?"

"No," she said, ceasing her inquiry.

I finished my dinner in relative silence. Later, I gently explained to her that I had had a demoralizing day, and that I had mentioned that there would be days on which I wasn't going to feel like answering a whole lot of questions about my search. She understood, though she did say that my father eventually was going to want to know how things stood. Her phrasing bordered on a suggestion that he was entitled to such updates. Considering I'm not paying him rent, car money, or tuition debt, I think he — along with my mom — will get regular updates as my morale dictates.

I wonder how they would have reacted had I given them the plan I outlined above. Probably they would doubt my ability to get it done, and absolutely they would worry about my health insurance costs. I think a time eventually comes where you realize that you are the best assessor of your own abilities, prospects, and goals, and you can distinguish between those that are truly best for you, and those that you inherited from parents as a product of their concerns. True, they are probably valid at the base, but if they keep you from realizing your best destiny, they are limits, and should be broken. And as I said in the email to my friend, I will be working for the next 30 years, if not more. If it takes a little more time right now, when I in the best financial and health condition I'll be before middle age crashes in, to find the right skills and career path, don't I owe that to myself?

I think the prospect of utter failure is underrated by some people and should not be seen as some sort of living death, but rather as part of the journey to boundless success. This country — its tax system, its unemployment laws. the easy flow of credit and loans — offers many opportunities to recover fully after bankruptcy, misfortune, or utter fuckups. If it takes some false starts, and maybe some gloomy or even hungry nights thereafter, to get where I really need to be in my life, won't those be the most critical and beneficial fuckups I can make?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Hearing the Moo of the Sacred Chao

BY YESTERDAY MIDAFTERNOON, I was steadily losing my will to live. My daily workflow has slowed down to a bare trickle; our January 2007 newsletter issues are the last that our design group will do before the outsourcing gnomes take over. Each printed advance that comes in puts us one step closer to the end, which could be hastened if it is perceived that we are filling no needed role here. Combine my barren inbox with a short stretch of sleep last night, and the afternoon becomes a deathmarch of futile combat against the opium-scented breath of Morpheus.

I decided to take a walk to wake up. The winter weather had eased somewhat since the morning, but I anticipated that the crisp breezes off the nearby Hudson would invigorate me. My default destination used to be a dog spa two blocks from my building, a storefront in which lazed around a dozen daycare-ditched dogs, draped over leather couches, curled in pools of afternoon sun, or eagerly accepting Liver Snaps from spectators who could buy them from a gumball machine near the entrance. As befalls many small businesses in Manhattan, this one succumbed to a rent hike, which I discovered while seeking refuge one crappy day last month.

At first, I figured I’d just walk along the Hudson for a while, but upon spotting the nearby Chelsea Piers complex, I chose to visit that instead. I’ve never visited this large sports conglomeration. When I noticed that it had a bowling alley, I grew curious. I foresee needing an escape if I am stuck here for the full term and I don’t find a job before the end. A couple of midday games on the lanes might be just the thing to shake loose the cobwebs between sending out interviews and building my experience at Photoshop.

The complex was depopulated. What patrons were there may have been at the gym, out of sight to a casual visitor like myself. Drifting around the grounds, looking for the entrance to the bowling alley, reminded me of a particular theme from some of my dreams. In these, I wander endlessly through a decades-old facility of some type — a high school, college, hospital, or asylum — searching for a way out, but finding locked exterior doors, bolted windows, or no stairwells or elevators in which to descend to ground level. Think of the set design in the institutional scenes of Conspiracy Theory or Jacob’s Ladder and you’ve got an idea of what I mean. I finally found my way to the wing that contained the bowling alley and entered, happy at least to break the connection to my dream-self.

As with the rest of the complex, the bowling alley was thinly patronized. Employees outnumbered bowlers. Bad, light hip-hop played on the house PA system. A young guy was decorating a table along one side, crafting large white napkins into careful sculptures with practiced ease. One of the front-desk crew explained that a birthday party had reserved the joint. Sounded like a fun time. I used to bowl in high school, and a couple of years ago, my gang got on a bowling kick and would roll a couple of games on weekends. This dried up, as will many casual attempts to reconnect with activities of our youth.

I lingered as long as I could stand with the truly crummy music in the background, then headed back the way I came. It was then that I thought about a connection this destination had with current (if comparatively obscure) events — specifically, the death of Robert Anton Wilson.

Wilson, the coauthor of the seminal Illuminatus! trilogy, author on his own of various pieces of conspiracy-nut and anti–control agency fiction and nonfiction, and living prophet of Operation Mind Fuck, died Thursday. Wilson and Illuminatus! collaborator Robert Shea based much of the trilogy on the Principia Discordia, the nongoverning noncanon of the religion of Discordianism. If you ever played the Steve Jackson Games offerings Illuminati or its collectible cousin, Illuminati: New World Order, you owe a debt to the Principia and the aforementioned trilogy. The authors of the Principia, Greg Hill and Kerry Wendell Thornley, first crafted the precepts of this faith in a Whittier, CA bowling alley.

If I had to believe in a religion, I would certainly like to believe in one in which I had been guided to this Chelsea Piers bowling alley by the unconscious Brownian ministrations of Erisian forces.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Very Brief Poker Hiatus

ONCE AGAIN TAKING A break from the usual Thursday poker game, this time due to recovery from my cold. I did go to work today, but following that up with a 2:30 a.m. bedtime is not the way to get the old immune system up and humming. I also would hate to pass this cold along to the 9 or 10 folks who would be crunched in around the table with me. It's actually more of a courtesy that some of the younger, more shortsighted players extend. Some of them would play with seeping surgical wounds rather than miss the action.

Breaks in the game have their virtue. It gives one the chance to review recent performance, good or bad, and eliminate what's not working in favor of what is. You have to take some down time to study strategy guides or posts on such forums as the one on Two Plus Two. It's the only way to stay current; you'd be surprised sometimes, upon rereading a text you thought you might have absorbed, how much you may have been neglecting or taking for granted. Or you might discover that one of your guiding reference works is no longer suited to the style of the home game or poker room in which you play. Alternately, the refresher course might prod you to change games when you realize how slim the pickings have become.

It may be some time before they get slim in my current game. A typical full table offers a range of player types, each with their potential for profit, each with pitfalls to avoid when necessary. Each week, I look at the lineup of players in the host's email, and try to imagine what the night will be like. It's always a little different. Recently, we have had two maniacs at the same table: two rich, reckless gamblers who will raise preflop without looking at their cards and will go all in at the slightest sense of weakness in an opponent, regardless of whether their own hand has a chance of winning. One of these guys at a table can make for some nice wins if you get a well-concealed good hand at the right time. Two of them playing at the same game . . . well, bring a few extra buy-ins. It can get wild.

Another guy has been going on fairly serious tilt recently. He will get desperate, make a large, irrational-seeming raise at some point, often for all of his chips, and rely on superstition about his reputation for making crappy starting cards hit big to push out opponents. The problem is that he often fails to take into account the folks who almost never get past the flop without premium cards, or who are willing to bet strong with powerful drawing hands (e.g., two pair with four flush cards). Opponents like this are getting their money in there with the best odds, and someone playing 9 5 offsuit because it's "his hand" is not going to shit miracles forever.

Add to this the many players we have in our group with a firm grasp of poker math and good reads on what hands other players might be holding, and it makes for a very stimulating intellectual evening. Winning never hurts. What I consider almost more of a reward, though, is when an opponent needs several minutes to call one of my all-in bets. I'd hate to think I have become predictable or transparent in terms of the range of hands I play. If someone actually has to break down the consequences of multiple potential holdings of mine before calling such a bet, then I can go home satisfied, with the pot or not.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Day Two of Our Continuing Health Coverage

SICK DAYS WERE SO much better when we were kids.

Seriously. Think of what a sick day meant when you were a child. Seventy-five percent of the time, it was going to hit during the academic year, so you got to stay home from school. Other than school, what did you really have going on? Scouting? Swim lessons? Music practice? Nothing that couldn't wait. At most, a class chum might bring over some homework. Aside from that, however, you had nothing to do except convalesce and soak up some parental attention. What could you do? You were a kid?

Now, a day off from work means something so much different than a sick day during one's school days. If I'm taking off from work, I don't want to sit around the house doing nothing but screwing around on the Internet and watching TV. I want to sit in the park and catch up on some reading with fresh air in my lungs. I want to go to Atlantic City and throw some chips around on the felt. I want to use my train ticket to ride into NYC as a tourist, and revel in the many charms that great metropolis offers its visitors. I want to clean, improve, or move out of my apartment. I want to sit by the Hudson and watch the sun warm the Palisades or run its sweltering gaze down the brick balustrades of the Upper West Side. Add a companion or significant other and the opportunities increase exponentially.

Short of "sick days" taken to avoid mental collapse or physical assault on my smoother-brained coworkers, the real deal — hours spent on the couch waiting for symptoms to abate or in doctors' offices — profoundly sucks. I woke up early this morning, 4:00 to be exact, and not because I was catching an early flight to Vegas. My fever had come back, and I spent the next 2 hours tossing in an agitated state. I finally calmed down enough around 6:30, shortly after I called into work to let them know I was not going to come in. Based on how I felt at that point, I wasn't planning to do much besides fall back to sleep, bestir at some point, and cough my way through the day.

This is eventually how it turned out. The highlight of the day was getting regular mail service again. No sign of my goals list yet. I look forward to going to work tomorrow, as maddening as it may be, because if I can get to work, I can get to the gym, and make some real progress on the health aspect of my goals. I do recall one of them is to visit the gym at least four times per week. This level of activity will reinforce my immune system, which will help me avoid these nagging stops in the head-cold pitstop.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Goals for 2007: Posted and Mailed

I DECIDED TO FOLLOW the strategy of columnist Chuck Jaffe in setting goals for this year. In this article, he describes how he writes up 30 or so goals for the upcoming year, mails them to himself, and then — without retaining a copy to consult over the course of the year or memorizing the list before posting it — tries to fulfill as many as he can. At the end of the year, he tears open the envelope and compares his list to what he actually achieved. "A good year," he writes, "is one in which I nail half of my targets and get close to the bull's-eye on about half of what is left."

On Monday morning, I typed up around 30 goals, with a wide variety of life areas. I printed this before going to my parents, did not revise it, and mailed it out. Concurrently, I set up a shared Google Docs page on which I will record what I consider to be achievements for the day. I went with this format so I could update or consult the list from any browser, and not have to trust to memory for an end-of-day recap. I know a few of these were on the goals list I mailed out — including writing up the list itself — but I felt I should get an early start on recording just what I could show for the year, to make the 12/31/07 review all the more useful.

I don't intend to list every little twitch here in the same detail as I use on the list. Naturally, anything blogworthy will show up here. Just to show you the sorts of things I care about, here's the first 2 days:

1/1/07: Composed list of 2007 goals; dropped into mail. No copy retained.

1/2/07: Fully funded 2007 Roth IRA for $4,000.

1/2/07: Opened fixed-income ladder: 3- and 6-month T-bills, 9- and 12-month CDs. Also opened first 4-week bill for year (these will be opened as long as the rate > that of FDRXX).

1/2/07: Blogged (twice).

1/2/07: Began a spending record.

1/2/07: Set up Gmail acct under true name.

Doesn't seem like much, but considering the main goals of interest on my sheet are to find a new job and to define the next stretch of my career, having a detailed record of achievement should, if nothing else, help me refocus unproductive efforts and take pride in effective ones.

So I have a mystery list of aspirations floating around out there, soon to be affixed onto my wall, there to remind me to expand, if not fulfill, my potential for this year and beyond.

Inadvertently Suspicious Sick Day

AN IGNOBLE BEGINNING TO 2007, with me home with a cold. Too bad, as the weather outside my window looks quite gorgeous, if breezy. And of course there's also the shoegazing tone your voice inevitably takes when you call in the day after New Year's, no matter how congested you sound, no matter how accurate the reading you give from the thermometer. Short of faxing a blood test with an elevated white-cell count, it just doesn't look good.

Of course, with my layoff looming in 3 months, how guilty can I really feel?

The New Year's weekend went calmly. I prefer an evening with friends for celebrating the passage of the year to anything more elaborate. I don't like large, drunk crowds, so I've never gone to Times Square for the occasion. Las Vegas is supposed to put on quite a show, which I would no doubt end up celebrating from my hotel room and watching the fireworks add light to the already sparkling skyline. Preferably with someone special, if I ever do it.

In this case, I met up with Amy and Ratatosk at their place on the 30th for a night of food and boardgaming. I was feeling a bit mopey at the end of this year, as sometimes happens, perhaps a little rocked back on my heels at the responsibilities ahead in '07, and a night with friends was just the bracer I felt I needed. In this, it did not disappoint.

We feasted on barbecued ribs from the Market Basket, along with coleslaw I procured at the town deli, beans, rolls, and apple pie. The ribs were dry-rubbed with a fine blend of spices; I prefer the dry style to the heavily gloppy sauced style for ribs. Brisket sandwiches I can go with either approach. The meat in rack o' ribs was robust in flavor without being too hot in spice, a delicate blend. Once more, I had the passing regret that I don't own a backyard in which I could set up a smoker. Although I don't eat meat during the week, I would love to summon forth a mighty mass of smoked meats for my mates some day.

After dinner, and while we were waiting for the final member of our party, I sat with Amy and discussed a unique editing project she is undertaking. I'm still not sure in which direction my career will go next — now that the holidays are done, I can intensively research that — but it was very helpful and interesting to peer into the details of another realm of my profession. I have to begin presenting myself to employers as possessing a range of abilities, and this sort of cross-pollination is useful for seeing what I can offer.

Once our final member manifested, we played a fast-moving card-based game called Citadel. The goal is to assemble a city of eight different cards, each representing various urban features. The trick in this game is that the role one plays changes from turn to turn, via the distribution of character cards that lend certain powers or allow one to go at specific phases of the turn. This can grant one the ability to knock another player out for a turn, gain more currency (which allows purchase of properties, or destruction of others' properties to keep them from reaching the magic eight) based on the type of cards one has down, or steal another player's currency. This was our first time playing this specific game, so we went a little more slowly than usual, but Rat's description of the game as a quickie looks to be accurate. (We tend to play a quick card or boardgame before the main course of the night, usually a military sprawl like Samurai Swords or Risk 2210).

All in all, it was a most pleasant night spent with friends, gaming, and fine food. Just the ticket.

I elected to spend New Year's Eve in. The Travel Channel was running a World Poker Tour marathon, ESPN was replaying the 2006 World Series of Poker Main Event, the Packers were taking on the Bears, and Comedy Central was blasting a clutch of music-themed South Park episodes. Bill had originally planned to have folks over, but when most of the potential invites turned out to have plans (including Matt and his girlfriend with the enviable destination of First Night Boston, much more suited to my temperament than the Times Square crowds), he decided to skip it. With a brief flick over to one of the broadcast networks for the ball drop, I spent my evening on the above list of stimuli, then teetered off to bed at a fairly late hour.

This cost me. On Saturday, I had returned to the gym after a week's hiatus. I did the first of the two-part weight training program I usually do, and I felt a little sore over the course of Sunday as a result. The problem is that when I return to this discipline after a lapse, if it happens amid a sleep deficit, I usually get sick. So on New Year's Monday, when I was coughing fitfully and felt a deep pain in my legs, I knew it wasn't the workout. I hoped that I wasn't communicable yet, because I had a dinner date over at my parents' house, and they, being 70ish, do not easily shake off colds.

By the time I headed back home, I was feeling chills. I crawled into bed after placing a quick Happy New Year call to Felix, drank some water, and . . . lay there for 4 hours. If I dropped off at all, I don't recall it. I was going from hot flashes to chills, alternately tossing off and shuddering under my sheets. I could feel my dinner just sitting there in my stomach, but it stayed down, so I could rule out food poisoning. I began sweating around midnight; although I wasn't hallucinating the way I do when my fever spikes, I sensed it was high enough to register on a thermometer. A quick consultation with that instrument showed a 102.5º fever. I teetered over to the cupboard for Aleve and my cellphone, so I could call into work the next morning.

The Aleve worked. My fever dropped by half a degree in the next 20 minutes, and the restlessness borne from the chills and hot flashes eased to the point where I could sleep dreamlessly (I have wildly exotic dreams when my fever is high). I set my alarm for 6:00 so I could call in without encountering my department head, who arrives around 7:00 some days. With that done, I dropped off again, this time until a healthy 10:00.

For now, my fever has leveled out at 100.2º, so I've concentrated on rehydrating and sticking close to home. I dodged any number of sick train passengers and coworkers since the fall, an especially nifty trick with the warm weather tempting the ill to venture forth before becoming incommunicable. Each one of my teammates has been home with a cold so far, so perhaps I simply eroded my immune system to the point where the bug in my system could sally forth. Still, the benefit of being sick first thing in the year is that it can only get better from here.

So here's hoping for a considerably healthier, prosperous, and bountiful 2007 for all who stumble upon this entry. I'll see you when I stop coughing!