Sunday, March 29, 2009

Table talk

The other night I sat down at a poker table and watched a guy amass nearly a thousand dollars in the course of an evening. What's more, he didn't even show up on time.

Of course, results must be considered in context. If you're playing for $500 a hand, winning $1000 in an hours-long session is more or less breaking even. In our case, a $1-2 mixed game of no-limit hold'em and pot-limit Omaha hi-lo, winning a grand in a sitting is a remarkable feat.

I play my share of poker but haven't discussed it here because doing so is a no-win proposition. Reporting on my own winning would be in poor taste, and recounting my losses would be dwelling on something I'd just as soon forget.

There are other reasons I steer clear of writing about poker. I write for a general audience (props to both of you), few of whom play the game. Getting into the minutiae of specific hands might be confusing to a non-player. Plus poker stories are like golf stories, frequently of greater interest to the teller than the listener.

Then there's the fact that my poker pals have been known to read this site. Why would I share opinions and strategy here that I wouldn't in person?

Of course, I'm not saying poker isn't worth writing about. There are plenty of good poker blogs out there by famous pro players and enthusiastic amateurs, not to mention enough worthwhile poker books and magazine columns to break a shelf. Some of these are considered required reading in poker circles. My blog is not.

Writing about poker also serves to advertise, to whatever degree it exists, my own degeneracy. I would make a principled argument, à la Matt Damon in Rounders and a thousand husbands to their wives, that poker is a game of skill played not against the house, even at a casino, but against other players. There is a luck factor, but over time, the superior player will relieve the lesser player of his chips.

I share many people's distaste for gambling, but poker doesn't feel like gambling to me. Pumping money into a slot machine, throwing it at a roulette wheel, those are gambling. Not only can you not control the outcome, but the odds are tilted against the player. I prefer not to donate.

Poker, though, is a test of ability, one I find challenging and enjoyable, and there's camaraderie and continuity in a regular game that you won't find online or in a casino. Plus, in a home game, you're not cutting the house in on your winnings. I've played in and hosted different games over the years around the city, and I'm glad I have.

Then again, even if I concede the point that playing poker is gambling, there is also that, as Norm Macdonald observed, "gambling is the only disease where you can win a bunch of money." Without going into specifics, I am a winning player, which is one reason I continue to play. I just don't usually write about it.

Though I am content with my results on the felt, I further concede that every evening spent throwing chips around is an evening I could have been seeing a play, writing a novel, learning to construct a crossword puzzle or bedding Elle Macpherson. (Hey, it could happen. Again.) So I keep it in moderation.

As for the guy who won the thousand bucks, it was just his night. Let's call him Dan in honor of one of my favorite players, Daniel Negreanu. Despite what I said above about poker stories, here's an example of how good Dan was running (in poker parlance, "running good" means winning consistently). I'm going from memory here but this is more or less how it went. Please forgive the lingo.

Late in the evening, already the big stack with $400+ in front of him, Dan wakes up with pocket 5s against two players who each hold 9-Xo. They call his preflop raise. The flop comes 9-5-blank. He checks his set and smooth-calls a bet from Opponent A. Opponent B, also having flopped top pair, calls. The turn card comes a 9, giving each of his opponents top set. Little do they know Dan's got them crushed with fives full. A round of betting ensues and everyone sticks around. A and B, of course, think they're good with a harmless-looking board; if they're worried about anything it's that they're outkicked by someone else's trips, but either way they can't lay down top set.

The river card, the case 5, moots their kicker worries, as there are now two pair on the board and they've each got the better boat. Unfortunately for them, Dan just made quads, which he didn't even need; he'd already filled up on the turn. On the river A and B were drawing dead to a non-5 board pair, a paired kicker or the case 9 (and even in that case, one of them was dead to a better kicker); that it came a 5 was just gilding the lily. After the inevitable bet, raise, reraise and all-in shove, the dust settles with two guys watching stunned as Dan drags a massive pot in the neighborhood of $500 that knocks them both out of the game.

Of the six players at the table, three guys each lost $300 on the night, one guy lost something like $150, I won $78, and Dan walked with the rest of it. He was quick to point out that he'd lost $600 in his previous go-round.

I was happy for him, but it was hard to relate. I've never lost $600 in my life at a poker table, nor $300, because I would stop playing before I got stuck (poker term) for that much. I've been lucky enough to win four or five hundred bucks on a number of occasions, which was great and all, but it was as much the satisfaction of winning specific hands as it was the money. As they say on Wall Street, money is just a way of keeping score.

It's enough to know that I won, or on an unlucky night, to feel that I played well if I did. Paying my housekeeper in found cash is a bonus. I would never bet enough money to change my life one way or the other. I don't have it in me to expose myself to that kind of downside potential.

It is that aversion to risk, along with a pesky skill deficit, that will keep me from reaching the higher echelons of poker.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Theater watch

Wait Until Dark is mostly remembered these days as a 1967 movie in which Alan Arkin and his henchmen terrorize a blind Audrey Hepburn.

Originally, though, it was a Broadway suspense thriller from the same writer as Alfred Hitchcock's Dial "M" for Murder. It's now playing at the Court Theatre at the University of Chicago. If you're looking for an enjoyable night out, you could do worse.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Blagosphere

As Chicago Tribune theater critic and FOBB&B Chris Jones reports today on his blog, the Rod Blagojevich psychodrama will take yet another bizarre turn tomorrow morning when the cast of Second City's spoof show Rod Blagojevich Superstar! sits down with Blago himself.

If that weren't weird enough, it will all take place live on WLS-AM, and so promises to be the most excruciatingly awkward radio interview in recent memory. Awkward, that is, to everyone but Rod Blagojevich himself, who seems to have selectively tuned out the collective "We hate you!" of the western world, or else simply hears "hate" as "love."

Even Second City's musical theater bitchslap, featuring such lyrics as "Rod Blagojevich Superstar / Are you as nuts as we think you are?", apparently becomes a vote of confidence once filtered through the funhouse mirror of the ex-governor's mind.

Why else would he welcome to his radio show the very people who have, to widespread acclaim, crystallized and exploited a nation's disdain for him and everything he represents? Does he crave attention so much that he welcomes even this kind? The mind reels.

Tune in to WLS-AM 890 tomorrow at 7 a.m.; it ought to be good theater.

And speaking of good theater,
Rod Blagojevich Superstar! transfers Thursday to the Upstairs Theater at Chicago Shakespeare on Navy Pier for an initial six-week run (but I'd bet on an extension or three).

I attended the opening night at Second City e.t.c., surrounded by a chuckling cadre of Blagojevich colleagues. My full-length review is here; my Flavorpill preview is here.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Preview review

In which I go see stuff so you don't have to, or provide my two cents in case you might want to.

"The Great Buck Howard"

We had it at the Chicago International Film Festival last October (I say "we" as a former associate director and longtime member of Cinema/Chicago, which puts on the festival), but I missed it then, and it's finally getting a national release this week. It's not going to change your life but enjoyable enough and worth seeing. On cable.

John Malkovich plays the titular has-been mentalist working on the fringes of show business, Colin Hanks is the frustrated law student who quits school to work as his assistant, and some familiar faces pop up in smaller roles: comedian Dave Attell, author Jonathan Ames, magician Ricky Jay, real-life Buck Howard Don né Donny Most, "Larry Sanders" alumnus Wallace Langham, and Patrick Fischler, who plays fast-talking comedian Jimmy Barrett on "Mad Men" and looks like a Depression-era Brooklyn Dodger.

The movie is a sentimental homage to The Amazing Kreskin, but it's really the assistant's story as the kid gradually finds a direction in life while toiling in the hustings for a slightly famous oddball. As the quirky vehicle for the sidekick's self-discovery, Malkovich rarely gets to unleash his inner Malkovich, which is too bad; he's good as an old lion, but better when he hasn't been defanged. The overall message, meanwhile, is positive -- be true to yourself, etc. -- but one we've seen a thousand times before.

When you see a Playtone logo in the opening credits of a movie, and it rings a bell because it's Tom Hanks' production company, then Tom Hanks himself turns up as the father of his real-life son, it's not hard to figure out how Colin Hanks landed the lead role. Not only is it good to be the king, it's good to be the prince.

Hanks fils is pleasant enough, but boy is he dull. I did more acting sitting in my seat than he did in two hours of screen time. In fairness, his was the Nick Carraway role, the quiet observer of a grandiose personality, but still, it kind of made me wonder whether he'd rather be in law school.

"I Love You, Man"

Ed. note: I'm running out of time before my morning train, so in deference to my literally tens of readers, I'll just post the Malkovich item for now, and write up the Paul Rudd vehicle soon. Quite a professional newspaper arts section we're running here, eh?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

...and a radio note

FOBB&B Dan Bernstein will broadcast his sports talk radio show live from The Lantern in downtown Lake Forest, Illinois, today from 2 to 6 p.m. on The Score, 670 AM.  

Danny, the pride of North Star Camp for Boys in Hayward, Wisconsin, will surely offer insights on the Chicago Bears' problematic receiving corps as he takes his show deep into Monsters of the Midway country, just down the road from Halas Hall.

Stop by, try to win some Blackhawks tickets, throw back a green Bud Light and enjoy the broadcast.  Say hi to me while you're at it; it's a block from my office and I'll poke my head in too.

More information is here.

Stage notes

Chicago Theater League softball stud and all-around good guy Jake Schneider mounts a one-man show, "San Cliche," tonight at 8pm at the IO Theater (née ImprovOlympic), 3541 N. Clark Street. The show plays again on March 24. More information is here.

Stick around afterward for a performance by Jake's improv group, longtime Chicago favorite The Reckoning, playing at 10:30 p.m. The stalwart IO house team continues to crank out the high-quality bits even as its cast members have become sought-after players on stage and screen.

Pat O'Brien and Brad Morris, for example, are mainstage cast members at The Second City. When not banging out eight shows a week at Pipers Alley, Pat is remounting scenes from his critically acclaimed solo shows along with new material and special guests, Sunday nights at 10:30 at IO.

Everyone calls Pat "POB," which is why his production is called "The POB Show." More information is here.

Stop by and check out one of these fine productions, or heck, all of them.  Beyond supporting live theater, a worthwhile end in itself, you'll also be stimulating our fragile economy and providing a boost for some talented Chicagoans.  Plus you win too:  they're hilarious.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

You're welcome, readership

Tonight you finally get to see what I've been babbling about for the last few months, when Will Ferrell's "You're Welcome America. A Final Night with George W Bush" hits HBO live from the Cort Theater in New York City. (That's the official punctuation, by the way, to which I haven't scrupulously adhered; upon reflection it's a subtle dig at the ex-president, a syntactic style you might call "Bush vérité.")

It's not often that a Broadway show is televised live from the stage, as it's generally considered imprudent to cannibalize ticket sales by giving away the product for free, or at least the price of a cable TV subscription.

But "You're Welcome" has been a special production from start to finish. HBO, a frequent business partner of Will Ferrell's, has a financial stake, and producers took an educated gamble that airing the show on its final weekend wouldn't stop people from buying tickets. Sure enough, despite HBO's constant promotion of the telecast over the last few months, the entire eight-week run sold out weeks ago; it closes tomorrow.

And so this weekend's splashy conclusion is a happy win-win for all concerned: the show has been a huge hit with audiences and critics alike, becoming a must-see event despite the recession and Broadway's traditional first-quarter slow season; it led the box office parade, handily recouping its investment in short order; Mr. Ferrell got the Broadway debut of his dreams, capping it off with a hilarious appearance on Letterman last night to promote the cablecast; and now that the party is ending, millions more will get to see the show without even having to get to New York or shell out for tickets.

Catch it tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern, live from what Ferrell-as-Bush calls "the faggy theater district." If you miss it this evening, "You're Welcome America" hits HBO On Demand starting Monday.

p.s. Having been fortunate enough to be involved in the production as an investor, I extend my thanks and congratulations to producers Steve and Seth Traxler, Jeff Richards and Jerry Frankel; the great Will Ferrell and his equally great co-writer/director, one of my comedy heroes, Adam McKay; and everyone else who made "You're Welcome America" such a smashing success.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I recently attended a show business party in New York City. One of the other guests was "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels, whose imposing, earpiece-wearing bodyguard raised a few eyebrows. It wasn't clear what danger a bunch of starlets and Broadway financiers at a private function might pose, and the heavy struck a few cynics as a powerful man's affectation.

The truth is that Michaels has recently been harassed by a stalker, a troubled comedian convinced that "SNL" has been stealing his material. A Manhattan judge freed the man yesterday, ordering him to stay away from the producer.

I had a brief exchange with the industry legend during the party. A few weeks prior, while accepting a Golden Globe Award on behalf of "30 Rock," Tracy Morgan had intoned, "I want to thank my girl Tina Fey... I want to thank Lornie Mikes..."

I asked Lorne whether that was the first time he'd ever been called "Lornie Mikes." He laughed and replied, "No, Tracy calls me that all the time."

Stay strong, Lornie Mikes.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Quote of the day

Public address announcer at Maryvale Baseball Park, Phoenix, Arizona, where the Chicago Cubs faced the host Milwaukee Brewers:

"Today's gametime temperature is 69 degrees. The current temperature in Milwaukee is 39 degrees."

Friday, March 6, 2009

Ben Bass from beyond

I'm in Arizona helping my brother celebrate a big birthday (happy 21st, big guy!).

Still, as always, my Chicago roots are showing. Though I'm lucky to be in Scottsdale enjoying family togetherness, beautiful weather, outdoor tennis, old friends, Cubs spring training, a Desert Mountain house tour, and an excellent birthday dinner at the Royal Palms Resort, I pause to note that my travels will again prevent me from attending The Interview Show with Mark Bazer, tonight at 6:30 at the Hideout.

Unfortunate for me, but still a nice option for those of you in Chicago. In these troubled economic times, you can't beat a smart, entertaining show for a mere $5. It's nice and early so you can grab dinner afterward at a reasonable hour (or stick around, get your drink on and close the Hideout).

Tonight's guests include "Check, Please!" creator David Manilow, spoken-word artists from Remy-Bumppo Theater, street gang expert Greg Scott and Schadenfreude comedian Justin Kaufmann. Plus the host is hilarious, demonstrating with every show why he should have gotten the Conan gig.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Whither the Basstard?

Apologies to my literally tens of readers for the extended lull around here. I am briefly back in Chicago between two trips elsewhere, one of which will make excellent blog fodder as soon as I can find the time to write about it. I also agreed to remove an essay I'd posted on the way out of town last Friday, which had the unintended consequence of making the hiatus several days longer.

I am now scrambling to get out of town again, a prosaic, unblogworthy exercise that is also preventing me from blogging about anything else. I rarely travel this frequently and am quickly learning why.

Anyway, look for new content here by Opening Day.