WSOP Main Event

Finally got to sit down and put together a write up of my very first WSOP Main Event.

This year they increased the starting stack to 50,000 chips from 30,000 during previous years and levels to 2 hours from 1 hour 50 minutes. I really like it as I tend to play better with a deep stack – there are more opportunities to actually play poker with a deep stack. You can both sit and wait for the hand, or you can try a few maneuvers, none of which, if unsuccessful, will be a death blow, with plenty of time to recover.

Towards the dinner break on Day 1 I built up my stack to about 55k, all without any kind of premium hand, just picking up small pots here and there. As I was relatively card dead the entire time, I expanded my range to play ace-rag. One of such hands cost me dearly. I got A4 offsuit in position and called a small raise preflop from an aggressive guy. The flop came 234. It wasn’t a bad flop for me so I decided to float the guy. He bets on the flop, I call. Turn is a 7 – a rather innocuous card. He bets again, I call. River is a K. Here he makes a large bet that could be interpreted as just going for the pot. I think that while it’s possible for him to have K (he raised preflop), his raising range is much wider than AK, KK, besides if he did have AK or any K, he would’ve probably checked the turn. So I thought my A4 was good. I call and he turns over K4 for two pair. So I was right about my A4 being good, just until the river. My stack was down to low 30s after that hand. I bagged 29,000 at the end of Day 1.

On Day 2, at a new table, I was the shortest stack. Again card dead I decided to try a few raises in position, but it’s hard to scare anybody with a short stack. After raising and missing the flop a few times my stack got down to about 15K, when they broke our table and moved us to different tables.

With blinds going up I was under pressure to do something fast, but also to balance my shoving range. Although many books will recommend shoving with any two face cards I decided to wait for some really premium hand; thus KQ twice went into the muck and so did pocket 22. Finally, when down to 11k, I peek into my cards and see KK. A raise in front of me makes my decision easy. I shove, the guy snap calls and turns over QQ. My kings stand and I double up to high 20s.

Then the fateful hand. I’m in the big blind with J8 of hearts. Now, looking back at it I missed a huge warning sign – no raises preflop. Now, at this kind of game, there are almost no unraised pots preflop. I’m pretty sure that during my entire 2-day run this was the very first pot that went unraised. So the action went very suspiciously, but I failed to give it too much thought. So I’m in a big blind and there are 3 other limpers. So I get to see the flop for free. The flop comes 567 two hearts – an excellent flop for me with a straight and a flush draws. I’m first to act, I bet about a third, utg min-raises, probably just to see where he stands, mid-position calls, button folds and I call. The turn is a 10 of hearts, I got my flush. I bet again, the utg folds and the mid-position calls. River is a black A. At this point I go all in and the mid-position snap calls and turns over AK of hearts for a bigger flush. It took me a few moments to realize I was dead and out.

So that was my run. I can’t say I got super unlucky. I’ve heard so many stories of set over set and some sick suck outs on the river that to lose with a made flush doesn’t seem like a reason to complain.

But still, poker is a cruel, sick game.

Cruz’s Chutzpah And Trump’s Inadequacy

Between Christie and Cruz I always thought it was Christie who had the balls, Cruz being more of a Machiavellian calculating weasel. It’s amazing what a few days of GOP convention can do to my perceptions. I was totally wrong. Christie proved to have neither the balls nor the winning vision, selling his soul to Trump but getting nothing for it. Cruz, in addition to playing a smart, long game has also demonstrated an impressive chutzpah yesterday at the convention, in front of increasingly hostile crowd, when he refused to endorse Trump. He clearly positions himself for 2020 and I can’t say that he won’t have an advantage during the inevitable finger-pointing after Trump’s spectacular crash and burn.

Let me dwell a bit longer on the topic. Over the course of the last decades, that perhaps started with Bush II theatrical landing on an aircraft carrier in 2003, the displays of power, mostly on the right, have devolved into displays of unearned and misplaced masculinity. The less time a person has spent in or near the military or a physically dangerous situation, the more he will want to prove to a given audience his macho credentials. Thus modern day American understanding of toughness has two key elements, neither of which has anything to do with actual courage: it’s belligerence rooted in insecurity. To even further degrade the actual meaning of courage, that belligerence is not directed at someone who can respond in kind, but to a mere female political opponent, delivered to an already agreeable, and frenzy-whipped crowd. “Guilty or not guilty?” chanted Christie from RNC stage, in a mock (but in reality, real) witch trial of Hillary. “Guilty!” the crowd roared back, stroking Christie’s fantasy of being a righteous, brave warrior.

Indeed, even Trump, whose life quest seem to be about squashing people’s doubts about his fortune, victories – business or personal, his virility and his toughness, generally avoids situations, whether strategically or out of fear, where he can face an unfriendly audience. He wants to be friends with all the tough guys around the world and he veils it in the rhetoric of ‘making deals.’ The business world, and specifically the dog eat dog New York commercial real estate world, where Trump claims to have domineered, is a metaphorical war zone, littered with corpses of developers and builders. Trump has been killed there a long time ago and the only franchise that has kept his name in lights is, well, his name that he lent to new construction – a nice racket that, due to recent events, might soon come to an end. Trump is neither courageous, nor good at making deals, unless filing for a strategic bankruptcy or stiffing his contractors counts, in his world, as a ‘good deal.’ I imagine him negotiating the status of the Baltic States with Putin – itself an unimaginable scenario just a few months ago, before the American politics has been so distorted by his candidacy. The fact that, in his mind, this is even up to a negotiation, speaks of his inability to perceive of a situation that has no ground for deal-making, like, for example, when your daughter is harassed by a bully. In that scenario, that is becoming less and less hypothetical, the poor Baltic States will be a mere token for Trump’s thoughtless personal brand posturing. Trump’s tactic has never been to put himself on the spot, to risk his own money; it is Trump’s partners, the others, that traditionally have the exposure. Should he, God forbid, become President, his bag of tricks that worked so well for him in reality TV – a squint in the eye, a catch phrase, a limited roster of over-recycled adjectives (Amazing! Unbelievable! Tremendous!) – will fail to impress the more serious, less gullible counterparties. And the way out of the mess will be paid, like always, by someone else, a third party.

Kant vs The Hedge Funds

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This is the quote by Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge fund manager who supports Trump, at a recent Romney retreat, cheering on the anti-Trump crowd to join him in defeating Hillary Clinton. (Hillary=White Walkers, get it?)

The problem with the hedge fund guys is that, in their mythology, they are all brave, valiant, noble warriors fighting against some dark forces. I understand the urge and underlying mental dynamics: It is difficult for a man to do his job while recognizing that the very nature of that job is predatory. A man is not made this way. At the end of the day he wants to feel good about himself.

Thus we often witness the construction of elaborate mental schemes by those with power and leverage, aimed at the public, but also, in a way, at themselves, because getting validation of their goodness through public channels – such as charity – mitigates their furtive feeling of worthlessness. Still, a public praise is a weak consolation to such a smart group of people, simply because they know more than that adoring crowd of know-nothings. That’s why, receiving public accolades at a charity gala is always met with self-deprecating modesty: that self-deprecation is hardly faked. Deep down they know that it is undeserved; they know how they made their money. Such inadequacy is manifested by their public admiration of the truly noble, mostly fictional characters: Jon Snow, Obi Wan Kenobi, Batman. They wish they were like that. For example, I’m willing to bet that Trump, who avoided service in Vietnam, wishes that he would have avoided that service in a manner of Muhammad Ali – by being a conscientious objector and spending time in jail for his noble beliefs – rather than being a soft-ass run-of-the-mill son of a rich man.

Often, the argument in the defense of such guys goes along the lines that they are smart and risk taking. Intelligence, awareness and risk-taking are important qualities in a person, as I, too, hold those in high-esteem. But the argument usually stops right there as if smarts and risk-taking are good qualities in themselves. For some reason, we as a society, don’t demand that those qualities were channeled to the public good or just simply good. For us, smarts in the service of self-enrichment is admirable enough.

This is a problem. Even worse so, as philosopher Immanuel Kant says in his ‘Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals’, “without the principles of a good will those qualities may become extremely bad, and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.”

We only wish that our villains would be stupid and inept, but more often than not, they are not.

Kant, who spent decades pondering on the issue, makes a point separating goodness stemming from inclination from goodness stemming from duty. That is an important, illuminating distinction that renders the entire ‘hedge fund good guys’ argument impotent. Charity, a favorite public display of goodness, is an inclination, not a duty, and therefore, according to Kant’s logic is disqualified from an absolute good. He gives an example of a philanthropist clouded by sorrow of his own, that (the sorrow) extinguishes all sympathy for the lot of others. While he still has the power to benefit others in distress, he is not touched by their troubles because he is absorbed with his own.

This is an inclination, not a duty. But notion of duty is absent from our public conversation. We often argue that if an agent charges you a fare fee because otherwise the market forces would put him out of business, then such a dynamic should be celebrated as beneficial to both. Kant disagrees. Or rather, he’s unsatisfied with such motivations. If the market forces were not there to inhibit the unscrupulous agent, he then would be free to charge you whatever fee he wanted. For Kant the absolute good, or good will, is for an agent to do the right thing even when the restricting or triggering forces are absent. This is the kind of level of thinking that is out of reach to our valiant hedgies, and sadly, to the public as well. We still can allow a standard economic argument to end with a simple: “but it makes money” cudgel and go on our way.

Sad!

Screenplay

I entered my screenplay, The Greatest Trade of All, into a few contests, the biggest and most important of which announce their winners in July-September. In the meantime, I placed well in a smaller contest, making it through the Finals and receiving ‘honorable mention”, whatever that means. That places my screenplay in the top 25 (of the 1527 total submissions). Holding my fingers crossed for Nicholl (that’s the biggest one), PAGE and Austin Film Festival.

Plato’s Republic

I’m in the process of reading Plato’s Republic, and, incidentally, this 2500-year old text is also at the center of a recent Andrew Sullivan treatise about how a democracy can be susceptible to tyrannical forces.

Plato’s political sentiment might not play well in our modern-day uber-democratic approach to politics. He devotes chapter after chapter to building a case for a caste of Philosopher Kings – a group of people, selected through rigorous mental and physical training, to rule the Republic. They are required to forgo the pursuit of material accumulation and fame and only concern themselves with the wellbeing of the state. They would subsist on a modest public allowance. In popular culture this kind of selfless servants of the Republic can be found in Star Wars mythology – the Jedi Knights.

Plato is aware of the many pitfalls where during the training, or later, during the actual governing, one might veer off the intended path. There are just too many temptations along the way – fame, riches, vanity, military glory. He acknowledges this risk, and while his solution – more rigorous selection and cultivation of the needed qualities (which include wisdom, courage and moderation) – might seem weak and susceptible to various impostors, he believes it is still our duty to proceed on this path. Just because something is difficult and has not been done before it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried. Or, as Tyrion Lannister would say: ‘It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be.’

Further, in a beautiful allegory about how we perceive the world, Plato employs a thought experiment that came to be known as Plato’s Cave. Imagine there’s an underground den, a cave, where people are chained to a wall from their birth. They can’t go outside and they can’t even move their heads, as the heads are too constrained by a vise-like device. During the day a sunlight comes through the hole and those cave dwellers can see images on the wall, shadows of objects that live and move outside the cave – people and animals. But the prisoners have no concept of life outside the cave, so for them the reality is represented by those shadows projected on the cave’s wall. That’s all their eyes can see. And, of course, they believe their eyes and thus think of the shadows as ultimate reality.

This is a metaphor for our own epistemology, a way of learning about the world. We believe our eyes and what we’re able to perceive with our senses, and describe the world around us according to those findings. This method involves, of course, more than just our vision; our sense of touch and smell and hearing are also a part of that big illusion.

Plato argues that in order to come closer to the truth – a universal truth – one has to abandon such method of inquiry and employ a purely dialectic method, that of reasoning alone.

The cave metaphor carries greater implications. Imagine someone from that cave somehow made it outside. It would take him a while for his eyes to adjust to the light. (Btw, I love it how Plato recognizes that enlightenment is both the sunlight illuminating objects so that we can see and learn about and describe them and also that light, in this case, is a facilitator of knowledge that is outside of our immediate surroundings, an allegory of pure knowledge.) As soon as the prisoner is able to see in the light he would be perplexed to see strange things that have no definition in his old underground world. Plato believes that there are a lot of perplexed people out there – whether by stepping from darkness into the light or vice-versa – and it is for us to determine the reason for a person’s confusion and to help him along the way. Plato takes it even further to posit that it is the duty of those residing in the light world above to descent into the cave and help those still chained to the wall, even at risk of being ridiculed and/or executed.

But modern-day elites forgot what their position of power should be all about. Such amnesia is thoroughly examined by Thomas Frank in his recent book about elite liberals who, in their pursuit of meritocracy, forgot the very people (the working class) they were supposed to represent. Instead of going into the cave and helping the prisoners out, the modern-day liberals ridicule those unfortunate for their ignorance, while sipping champagne at Davos and TED talks, wallowing in their superiority.

There’s someone who went into the cave though. Trump.

Odd Alliance Between Evangelicals and Supply-Siders Comes To An End

A curious observation about Evangelicals that were supposed to stop Trump in the South. What kind of evangelicals are they if they prefer Trump to a Bible-thumper Cruz? Is it some kind of special, American strain of Christianity that’s all about ego and winning and bombast? I’m glad Trump exposing it as a total fraud, even though that’s not necessarily his intent. He’s doing a job no one except him could’ve done. On the other hand that also explains why this alliance between Evangelicals and supply-siders lasted so long: they are Christians in name only. They got their guidance from prosperity preachers (which is, I hope how Cruz will end up) and WSJ editorials, not the good book. (I haven’t read it but I saw Jesus Christ Superstar and I clearly remember Jesus smashing the trading terminals in the temple.)

The bottom line is you can pray and you can trade but you can not do both.