NEW YORK -- I have seen the future of poker, and it is the Unabomber.
I hope I am wrong about this.
Of course, we're not talking about the real Unabomber, the eco-terrorist who maimed and killed for years in the name of environmentalism. We're talking about Phil Laak, a poker pro who earned his nickname the old-fashioned way -- via his wardrobe. He always wears a gray, hooded sweatshirt while he plays; and often, while under duress, he hides inside it like a relationship-phobic turtle.
After five weeks in Vegas, playing 12 or more hours of high-stakes poker a day, I was determined to get away from the game. But last Wednesday, I heard -- and heeded -- the irresistible siren-song of my TV.
At the Celebrity Invitational, a World Poker Tour event on the Travel Channel, the card-playing Unabomber not only displayed his signature disappearing move, but showed that he has significantly expanded his puerile and infantile repertoire since his last public appearance:
1. When feeling feisty about his hold cards, he often jumped up in the middle of a hand and began shadow-boxing, a la Rocky in training;
2. Whenever he was all-in, he scurried around behind the dealer, leaned over to the height of the table and tried to get "the first look" at the flop before it hit the felt -- just one of his many cute "superstitions," we were told;
3. On a couple of occasions, after outdrawing somebody on the river -- invariably somebody who put him all-in with an inferior hand -- he dropped down on the floor and rattled off a half-dozen crunches, or just rolled around like an epileptic armadillo;
4. And, after knocking out an opponent, he applied a big, gooey hug to the victim ... because, you know, why just cause some poor bastard to suffer by busting him out of a tournament when you can also make him squirm with embarrassment?
|Starting Monday at 4 p.m., ESPN will get viewers ready for its 2004 poker lineup (to debut July 6 at 9 p.m.) with 22 hours of poker in a 24-hour period. The network will only take two one-hour breaks during the marathon, for "SportsCenter" at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.|
Okay, I know what you're thinking: Oh, Jay, relax already. Don't be such a tight-ass. So the guy's a little colorful, maybe a touch flaky. What's the matter, there aren't enough expressionless embalmers playing, we need one more?
You've got a point. But here's the first problem: The guy is setting a bad example for the kids. How long do you think it'll be before the poker rooms of the world are run over by mobs of Junior Unabombers?
You think not? At the Celebrity Invitational, the younger members of the audience were enthralled, howling like werewolves in heat at the Unabomber's antics.
And worse, though not at all surprising, the TV cameras loved him. The WPT announcers -- Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten -- acted as if this was just the coolest thing they'd ever seen, as opposed to a serious cry for help. (The other players were obviously quite uneasy, though they went along with it manfully; clearly, they did not want to look like bad sports.)
So what, you ask? Never forget the first rule of pop culture creation: TV giveth, and TV taketh away.
|Got a poker problem or want more details about Jay's Vegas adventure? Send in your questions and comments.|
TV is a user, a parasite that inhales whatever it needs, sucks it dry, spits out the husk and quickly moves on to the Next Great Thing.
"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" was a weekly sensation, then a semi-weekly sensation, then a daily sensation ... then a former sensation. If eating bugs for a million dollars was good, doesn't it figure that supermodels eating bugs would be even better? ... and, coming soon to a 21-inch box near you, ALIENS EATING BUGS FOR A BILLION DOLLARS!
If a six-pack of "Friends" looking for sexual satisfaction in New York City was good, then four women looking for good sex in the city was even better -- though not as satisfying as a bunch of unusually attractive lesbians, soon to be followed by ... what, an entire football team on the prowl? (Come to think of it, ESPN has already been there, done that.)
In other words, if broadcast history is any guide, here's where we are: Today the Unabomber, tomorrow entire squadrons of imaginatively-accoutred poker terrorists.
I hope I'm wrong, though that would be a first.
By the way, the Celebrity Invitational raised a few other troubling questions:
1. Though none made the final table, a bunch of poker-loving celebs (mostly B-level and down, though the usual top-tier suspects -- James Woods, Ben Affleck, Lou Diamond Phillips -- also showed up) was invited along with the pros. The last celeb to be eliminated -- in 11th place -- was Dave Foley, who, I cheerfully admit, I have never heard of, though hipper friends tell me he is a comedian/actor who was in "The Kids in the Hall" and "NewsRadio." Though I have no idea how gifted an artist he might actually be, his response to being the last celeb standing was, I thought, instructive: He attributed his fine showing to the fact that he didn't know what he was doing and so nobody else could figure out what he was doing, either.
I guess my first question is: Does the average American really want to watch a B-level celeb stumble his way through a poker tournament while knowing nothing about the game -- and being damn proud of that fact?
And if so, here's my second question: What does that say about the average American?
2. Did anybody notice how poorly the Unabomber actually played?
This was easily the poorest performance by a winner I've ever seen on a televised event, and I've seen them all. Not only did the Unabomber pull at least five key hands out of his you-know-what, but he made several plays where he actually acknowledged on air that he had no idea what he was doing.
One example: Holding a Q-9 suited, he called an all-in raise after the flop (which contained two more cards of the matching suit) even though he "knew" it wasn't the right play. He did it just because he "felt like it." (The reason it wasn't the right play: He was getting only about even odds on his money, when the odds against filling his flush and winning the pot were actually 2-1 against. Do that often enough and you will go broke.)
However, the worst play of the final table -- at least, the worst play they showed -- was made by the other finalist, Humberto Brenes of Costa Rica. With nearly a 2-1 chip lead, Brenes called the Unabomber's all-in bet of about $700,000 with a K-8 suited. Think about that for a moment. What hands could the Unabomber possibly have had that K-8 suited would be favored against? K-7 suited? 8-7 suited? Some kind of complete bluff? But why would the Unabomber, as unstable as he obviously is, risk all his chips on a complete bluff when there were only the blinds and antes in the pot?
Now consider the possible hands the Unabomber more likely held:
Any pair from 7s down to 2s? He'd be about a 6-5 favorite over Brenes' K-8.
Any pair from Qs down to 8s? He'd be at least a 2-1 favorite.
Ks or aces? A huge favorite.
A-K, K-Q, K-J, K-10, K-9? A prohibitive favorite.
Any A-x? A strong favorite.
In other words, any hand the Unabomber was likely to be holding would be a small-to-huge favorite over Brenes' K-8 ... and even in the unlikely event the Unabomber was holding a truly silly hand (like Q-J suited, or J-10 suited), Brenes would be only slightly favored.
Nonetheless, Brenes said, "Let's gamble," and called -- which led my teenage daughter, Woo (who is still not sure whether a straight beats two pair), to mutter: "How did those guys ever make the final table?"
Sure enough, a couple of hands later, when the Unabomber hit an ace on the river to go with his A-2, he sent Brenes back to Costa Rica for good.
Sadly, he also sent an army of immature poker players back to the drawing board to flesh out their own distinctive versions of Unabomberism, all the better to unleash them later on an unsuspecting poker world.
What's my point? I guess it's that poker, which is still in its innocent fad-of-the-moment infancy, deserves better.
Of course, that subject always reminds me of a scene near the end of "Unforgiven," when the notoriously ill-tempered mass killer William Munny (played by Clint Eastwood) is about to dispatch the helpless sheriff, "Little Bill" Daggett (played by Gene Hackman) to his eternal reward.
"I don't deserve to die like this," Hackman says.
And Clint, sighting down the barrel of his Spencer rifle, replies: "'Deserves' got nothin' to do with it."
Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins. You can watch the 2004 World Series of Poker starting July 6 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.