Thursday, November 22, 2012

Keeping Poker Grey

Yes, a post about poker... here. Who'da thunk it?

I was reading Grange's writeup on the recent court decision on a home game in South Carolina when I got to thinking that poker staying in this grey area of legality creates appeal to the game.

Poker is American as something that is considered really American. It's a game that still brings forth images of saloons and guns and aces up sleeves and flipped tables and smokey back rooms and riverboats and lives being traded on the turn of a card. Yet it's now also associated with sunglasses and hoodies and feature tables and piles of cash being brought out and commentators and hole cams and live blogs and websites and avatars and virtual felt.  It's modernized and gone mainstream while holding onto its outlaw appeal.

Poker has been sitting at a crossroads for a decade now. It's everywhere if you look for it, yet still not accepted or understood by the masses. One still sees poker games portrayed incorrectly in modern media. My favourite version is where someone bets more than their opponent has in front of them, and the only way to see the hand through is for the short-stacked sucker bet something of value - his wedding ring, or watch, or car, or house, or whatever moves the plot forward. In reality, the short-stack is simply all-in, and can lose no more than what they have in front of them. About a half second of thought reveals why this is so: If reality worked that way, I'd just buy-in for more than everybody and go all-in every hand so they could never call without risking their Ferrari vs my extra $5.

But it's that risk that appeals. That feeling that you could lose it all or win a fortune depending how the cards fall. That image is supported by the fact that poker is still illegal in so many places.

Toronto once had a booming underground poker scene. The nearest legal poker rooms are an hour or two away in big casinos. During the summer, a charity poker room opens up at the Canadian National Exhibition, and it's where Daniel Negreanu and Evelyn Ng got their start. But if it was Tuesday evening and you wanted to toss some chips around? You were out of luck unless you knew the right door to buzz.

The media portrayed these clubs as dark dens of iniquity. Fortunes stolen by the owners, illegal drugs and prostitution abounding. The reality, at least for the club I was in, was much more mundane. Well-lit rooms full of 20 & 30-somethings who knew each other by name. A couple TVs with the game on, and a fridge to put your beer in. Sure, a rake was taken, but the lights had to be kept on, and the guy running it needed to get something from the deal. Nobody complained, and everyone had a good time. Outside of the odd joint (brought in by the smoker), the most illegal drug was Red Bull.

But there was something exciting about hitting that buzzer and looking up at the small video camera by the door. There was something SO COOL about walking into that room and having the owner greet you by name and ask how it's going. And there was always the odd butterfly that flitted around wondering if you'd get caught. You loved telling your friends about the "underground poker club" you played at. It made you seem like an even better player at the home games. And if you saw one of the other members on the street, that knowing nod and grin said it all.

Of course, when mine was busted in all its media-reporting glory (an hour after I had left for the night), I stopped going. I thought about it once, then thought better of it. They got busted again, tried re-opening with a different runner, and as far as I know, gave up.

It was the threat of danger that appealed. Once that danger became all-too-real, the allure was lost. I'm no bad-ass rebel. I'm a lazy middle-class white man living in a great big city in a condo in a safe neighbourhood. but poker is one of those vices that feels like it adds a dimension of cool.

Because it's not entirely legal.

Saying "I play softball" or "I like to shoot hoops with my buddies" is pedestrian. Whoopdeedoo. Sure, it's fun, social, and requires some level of skill, but it's also safe. It's accepted. Kids do it in gym class. But poker? Poker gets people raising an eyebrow and saying, "oh?" Saying you go to Vegas or Niagara sometimes to play cards is fun, even though those are places where poker is as accepted as softball in suburbia. Finding a fellow player is like finding another Stonecutter - a member of your secret society.

A home game is a tiny bit of rebellion. The stakes may only be $20 + beer and pizza money, but it means the married folks got permission from their spouse, or found a babysitter. It means the single ones are showing off that they can do this whenever they want. And in some places, like South Carolina apparently, the cops could bust down your door and take your Walmart chip set.

When online poker was all over the States, every single player knew they were, at BEST, in a grey area of legality. It wasn't easy to get money on a site. There were laws out there that weren't entirely understood. Justifications about skill vs chance were used to reassure oneself that everything would be okay. And when the hammer came down, every US player was pissed, but at least secretly thought "well, I knew that could happen."  Let's face it - you felt special when talking to your non-poker friends about how you played online poker. If it had been perfectly legal, it would be as impressive as talking about how you play World of Warcraft.

So yah, busting up a home game isn't cool. Not having a legal poker room in a population centre of over 5 million people seems ridiculous. Keeping people from playing poker from their couch reeks of a nanny-state. If poker ever gets out of the grey and into the domain of accepted pastimes, let's hope it stays at least as cool as pool. But right now? When laws against it are being fought in courts, and when millions of dollars of player money are still being held by law enforcement agencies? Damn, does it ever make us boring-ass nobodys feel a little like outlaws.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Pouring Baseballs

Reports are that the Jays have signed Melky Cabrera to a two-year $16-million contract. Not the Cabrera you necessarily want, but maybe not too shabby.

This feels incredibly un-Jays like though. Not the free-spending, that's happened in the past. No, the signing a performance-enhancing drug user. The Jays have generally been seen as a very clean team during their life. Hell, they've barely even had players with attitude problems, let alone cheating ones.

So why Cabrera? Sure, we needed a left fielder to go along with Bautista and Rasmus, as the consensus seems to be Davis is a late-game speed replacement, not an every-day guy (which I find kind of sad, I like him). But there had to be one with less baggage.

If Cabrera can perform with even his Kansas City numbers, then he's well worth it. A switch-hitter who can hit .300? Hell, anyone hitting .300 is a welcome addition to the Jays. If he drops back to inconsistent Atlanta and New York numbers... well, he's just another Jay, and nothing special.

That said, the team is much stronger already, so if he gets buried in the 6-8 spots, it won't exactly hurt the team as long as he can play left worth a damn.

If he puts up numbers like last season, cleanly, then it's the biggest surprise since Bautista got his swing right.

This opens up more trading possibilities. If Davis is happy being a pinch runner and strategic entry, then he stays on the roster. If not, then he's trade bait. Both Moises Sierra and Anthony Gose can stick around in Buffalo (that's just weird) and be called up as needed, although Gose is just about ready to go every day in the bigs.  If Gose achieves that, then Rasmus could be on the trading block.

Arencibia is still definitely trade bait. For a second baseman? Maybe. Talk of Bonifacio vs Maicer Izturis for the spot is there, but if someone better is available, I'm sure Anthopoulos will jump on it. Or who knows? Maybe Scutaro comes back to the Jays fold. That'd be one hell of a capper to an offseason.

Other holes are starting pitching depth, but that's more minor-league transaction-level at this point, and maybe figuring out 1st base. Encarnacion and Lind platooning 1B and DH is the most likely scenario, and that's not a bad situation really.

Oh, and I guess we still need a manager. Shouldn't be too hard to find interested parties now. I wonder how Farrell likes the view in his rear-view mirror now.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Baseball in November

Yesterday the Blue Jays made a huge trade with the Miami Marlins.

12 players.

Just about anybody making money with the Marlins is now a Blue Jay. A whack of prospects, our backup catcher, and our shortstop who wrote a gay slur in his eye black are heading to Florida.

Helluva trade.

I do love how the ESPN guy asked "Where did Toronto get all that money??" Once again displaying the invisibility of this team to the League at large. The Jays are owned by a multi-BILLION dollar telecom/media company that pulls in over $2Bil in profit annually.  They're probably one of the richest ownerships in the Majors, they just don't like spending on a team that pulls in 20,000 fans when the Yankees or Red Sox aren't in town.

Evidently, the lack of Leafs revenue this year has prompted them to look at their other teams. Yes, Rogers owns half the Leafs and Raptors too.

Miami fans are rightly pissed. Jays fans are generally happy, except that most Jays fans are clueless, so some of them don't actually recognize any of the names.  But the sports media will work to change that, since they actually know who Buerhle, Reyes, and Johnson are.

Local media is calling it the second biggest trade in Jays history. The biggest is known to any Jays fans - McGriff and Fernandez  for Carter and Alomar. But if the Jays can pull off a couple World Series wins and three divisional titles, then this one could beat it.

The big names are the scene stealers here obviously, but I'm more interested in John Buck.

Buck signed with the Marlins after his best year ever, with the Jays. Nobody's expecting 20 HR out of the guy this time around, but with Mathis going to the Marlins, Buck is a $6.5 million backup to J.P. Arencibia. Which seems... odd.

Arencibia is history. He's a top-tier catcher who isn't needed here. The fans love him, but Travis d'Arnaud is ready and is as can't-miss as prospects get. So you trade J.P. for a need (everyday left fielder? First baseman if you don't think Lind can handle it? Second base seems the most pressing), and let Buck mentor d'Arnaud in the majors for one season. Then Buck's gone, D'Arnaud is every-daying it, and you find your next cheap backup.

There was some talk of moving Arencibia to 1st, but that just seems unlikely.

But let's look at this team now.

Starting Pitching: Romero, Morrow, Beurhle, Johnson, Happ. That's one solid lineup assuming Ricky's surgery fixed what ailed him last season.  There's Kyle Drabek on the shelf after Tommy John surgery too, so that's a possible mid-season replacement if someone doesn't work out.

Bullpen: Middle relief is decent, and in many places solid. If Oliver decides to come back for one more season, he'll likely be the setup man to Casey Janssen, who OWNED the closer spot when it was thrust upon him last year. He was dominant, and Janssen has been Mr. Consistency for years now.

Infield: Reyes at short, Lawrie at 3rd are your key points. 2nd is unknown, I just don't see Mike McCoy there every day, 1st has Adam Lind, who everyone hopes can show the power he once did. At catcher is Buck, and as I said earlier, likely d'Arnaud. Some holes in the infield, but Arencibia should bring in some filler.

Outfield: Bautista will be back, Rasmus had a decent year in CF, and left is a bit of a question mark. Rajai Davis had spurts of brilliance, and is too fast not to play regularly. Anthony Gose was in RF during Bautista's absence but will likely be looked at in left, and his second time up with the Jays was stellar. Bonifacio could also find himself in the mix here.

So fielding-wise there might be a few weak spots, but the strong spots are pretty damned solid.

Hitting? Reyes is THE leadoff guy. Lawrie behind him, especially if Brett can learn how to run the bases with a bit of smarts. Then Bautista cranking them all home and Encarnacion batting cleanup to protect Bautista. That's one HELL of a top 4.

If they could find a way to have both Gose and Davis in the lineup regularly, you'd have unbelievable speed in your lineup. Sadly, that looks like it would only happen if one was brought in to run late in a game. Lind and Rasmus both have some pop, d'Arnaud was tearing up the minors before being injured last season. That leaves whoever they hell they get for 2nd base to round it out.

Now they just need that 2nd baseman and a manager.

Jays fans are talking today. The team went from an injury-plagued disaster of a promising season to on-paper contenders in one fell swoop. No hoping for the Yankees to falter, or Tampa to have a bad run. For the first time in a long time, the hype is more than hope.

As long as they stay healthy.