If you like trivia, check out my other site, THE HARRIS CHALLENGE, and play every weekday!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

My Dinner With Gallagher, Part 3

[this is the finale of a story recalling my encounters with the comedian Gallagher more than three decades ago -- it started here]

By the time Gallagher got back from rehearsing for the national high school cheerleading champioships TV special at Magic Mountain, an hour had passed and the drizzle had started again. Gallagher told Charlie Callas, with whom he was sharing a trailer/dressing room, that the TV crew was going to have to tape some of the cheerleaders in the rain, a phrase that Callas immediately improvised into a song, complete with filthy lyrics that had us on the floor. Before long, there was another break in the clouds, and the decision was made to record both comedians’ segments right away, while there were still people in the crowd.

Gallagher went first, as Robin and I watched from the bleachers. The crowd loved him, especially when he brought out the Sledge-O-Matic. I could see why his star was rising. He had presence, rapport with the audience, and terrific camera presence. Plus, he was really funny.

He did his ten minutes and left the stage to a roaring ovation. I wanted to stick around to see Callas’ act, but since I was Gallagher’s guest and hadn’t spent much time with him – and he was my only ride – I returned to the trailer with him. He quickly packed up his stuff, loaded it into the limo, and we drove home. He asked my opinion of his act, and I told him how much I’d enjoyed it. He said I should see his whole show sometime, and I promised I would.

When we returned to his house, I thanked Gallagher for everything and told him this was all pretty cool for a 22-year-old guy from a small market radio station. He said it wouldn’t be long before I moved onto a bigger city, and he hoped to see me there.

Eighteen months later, I did see him again, backstage at the Bushnell Auditorium in Hartford, Connecticut. By this time, he’d done another Showtime special and his fan base had grown considerably. He’d left small comedy clubs behind and was now playing theaters. My career had progressed, too, as I was now on WHCN, the leading rock station in the state. I didn’t know if Gallagher would remember me, but I stopped by to say hello before the show and, sure enough, he greeted me warmly again, and then insisted I go out and introduce him to the crowd of 3,000.
I did, and then watched him from a seat a safe distance away from the watermelon guts and other effluvia he sent flying during the Sledge-O-Matic finale. He was thoroughly entertaining, a real crowd-pleaser, and a helluva nice guy.

That was the last time I saw Gallagher in person. He went on to do many more Showtime specials, but I stopped watching, sad to see that he relied more and more on props and less on his verbal wit as the years went by – Sledge-O-Matic seemed to take up more than half his stage time. He also became more caustic (the lawsuit against his brother and the derision from fellow comics probably didn’t help) and in the last few years, beyond his peak, he’d been forced to return to those clubs where he’d started.

I have no idea what his act looked like before his medical problems caused him to get off the road, but I do know that there was a time when Gallagher made me laugh, a lot, both onstage and off.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Lottery Logic

Yes, I bought a MegaMillions ticket today. Yes, I know the chance of winning is small. But I also understand the concept of the overlay, with a jackpot that's four times as big as the the odds against. While it's unlikely there will be only one winner, so that overlay may be erased tonight, I remember a story my father told me many years ago.

He was a high school social studies teacher who never gambled on anything in his life. One day he went into the faculty cafeteria to have lunch with a friend who was a math teacher. Let's call him Jim. They talked about all sorts of things until Jim paused for a moment and said, "I have to remember to buy a lottery ticket on the way home."

My father was stunned, and said to Jim, "I can't believe this. You're a math teacher. You have advanced degrees in mathematics, you teach a class in statistics, you know the enormous odds against you winning. With your professional background, how can you justify buying a lottery ticket?"

Jim looked my father in the eye and answered, "It's a dollar."

Update 10:08pm...I didn't have a winning ticket. What a surprise.

My Dinner With Gallagher, Part 2

[this is the 2nd of 3 parts of a story recalling my encounters with the comedian Gallagher more than three decades ago -- you can read part 1 here]

When I got to Los Angeles in January, 1981, I did call Gallagher, who remembered me, said he was doing an appearance that afternoon, and asked if I wanted to come along. I said sure, so he gave me directions to his house, where I would ride along to the gig.

As I arrived at his home, the door was opened by Robin, a beautiful redhead with bright green eyes, who introduced herself as his girlfriend. She invited me inside for a beer while he got dressed. They hadn’t lived in the house very long, so there wasn’t much furniture, but the walls of the front room were covered with large pieces of paper on which Gallagher had written down all sorts of jokes, ideas, prop drawings, etc. I can’t remember any of them, but it was clear that this was the space where he poured out his brains whenever he thought of something that might become a bit for his act. Comedians in the 21st century use laptop computers as their scratch pads, but they hadn’t been invented 30 years ago, so he had turned his room into his idea gallery.

After 15 minutes or so, Gallagher appeared, greeted me, made sure he had his prop boxes ready to go, and led Robin and me outside to a stretch limo – my first time riding in such luxury, though for some reason I hadn’t thought to ask where we were going. During the ride, I asked if he planned to do more specials for Showtime, and he replied that he’d just signed a new deal for several more, which would include some of the things I’d seen on his wall. But that day, he wasn’t going to do any new material, because he’d only been contracted for a tight ten minutes for a TV special about the national high school cheerleading championships that was being taped at Magic Mountain.

When we got there, it was drizzling, so a TV production assistant led us to a trailer that would serve as Gallagher’s dressing room, although he’d have to share it with the other act performing on the show. He seemed a little bit upset that they hadn’t given him his own trailer until we got inside and met his trailer-mate -- Charlie Callas. Both Gallagher and I were fans of Callas, and when the older comedian told the younger one he liked his act, the two became quick friends. I found a place to sit and listened to them tell stories for a half-hour or so before the production assistant popped her head in the door to say the rain had stopped, so they were ready for Gallagher’s rehearsal. He and Robin left, and I was left along with Callas.

I was thrilled. Having seen him on innumerable Carson shows through the years, his facial contortions and verbal sound effects had always made me laugh. He was completely comfortable sitting in the trailer talking with me, picking up drumsticks to tap out a rhythm on the tabletop that he’d learned by watching Buddy Rich when he’d opened for him recently in Las Vegas. When I mentioned that I worked at a rock radio station, he admitted not knowing much about current groups, but wanted to hear about the life of a DJ. I explained that I’d only been in the business a couple of years, so I didn’t have many stories, but shared a few. He seemed as interested in those as I was in his backstage stories of Sin City and network TV. He couldn’t have been nicer, and was probably relieved to have someone help him kill time until they needed him onstage.

I'll share the finale of this story with you tomorrow.

Seven iPads to Stockholm

This is the best tourism promotion I've ever seen, performed by two magicians using seven iPads at an international real estate expo in Cannes. Sure makes me want to go to Sweden...

Thursday, March 29, 2012

My Dinner With Gallagher

Gallagher, the Sledge-O-Matic, watermelon-smashing comedian, has announced that he's not going to perform anymore after suffering two heart attacks in the last two weeks. A lot of people in the comedy community sneer when they hear Gallagher's name, writing him off as a hack prop comic with a loud mouth, but I knew him when he first burst onto the national stage as something fresh and clever.

In the fall of 1980, I was music director at WRCN/Riverhead. Among my duties, I'd listen to most of the new material that came in from the record companies and help choose what we played on the air. I would also comment on what I liked for Friday Morning Quarterback, a weekly trade publication that often printed my remarks.

Along with all the music, I occasionally received comedy albums, and when Gallagher's debut album came in, I put it on. I had seen his debut Showtime special earlier that year and liked it, but what I heard on the album really impressed me.. Many of his contemporaries, including the mega-successful Robin Williams and Steve Martin, were releasing albums that included visual jokes that didn't translate to vinyl, but ironically, Gallagher's album had none of that. Clever wordplay, silly jokes, and funny stories, yes, but no Sledge-O-Matic. It wasn't that the props weren't part of his act, but he was smart enough to realize what would work in the audio-only format of a vinyl album.

In my weekly call with FMQB, I mentioned all of that in explaining why I liked Gallagher's album so much. On the day of publication, I got a call from the rep at United Artists Records who had sent me the album. He said he was in his office looking at the trades and appreciated what I'd said about Gallagher -- who happened to be sitting next to him. He handed over the phone, and there was Gallagher, thanking me for the kind words. We talked for about five minutes and, as we wrapped up, I mentioned that I'd like to see his act sometime. He said he wasn't performing anywhere in the New York area soon, but why didn't I come into Manhattan and have dinner with him while he was there doing publicity for the album? I accepted, and two nights later we met at Gallagher's Steak House (no relation, but a nice touch by the UA rep!).

During the meal, which lasted a couple of hours, he was outgoing, funny, and a pleasure to talk with. The topic of vacations came up, and I mentioned that I was going to take my first trip to Los Angeles in a couple of months. Gallagher said that he lived in North Hollywood and I should let him know when I got to town so we could get together. I figured he was kidding until he took out a pen and gave me his home phone number.

I'll tell you the west coast part of the story tomorrow.

Adam Savage at Reason Rally

There was an event in DC last weekend called The Reason Rally, a gathering of the secular movement that attracted about 20,000 people -- despite rain and cool temperatures. The list of speakers and performers fighting for science and reason included James Randi, Michael Shermer, Paul Provenza, Tim Minchin, Richard Dawkins, Eddie Izzard, and the only open atheist in the US Congress, Representative Pete Stark.

Adam Savage of The Mythbusters was there, too, to give what many people considered the best speech of the day...

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pilot Season

Upon hearing the story of the JetBlue captain who went nuts on a flight yesterday and had to be subdued by passengers, I remembered a conversation I had ten years ago with a friend who was (and still is) a pilot for a major commercial airline.

He was frustrated with the screeners at an airport security checkpoint who had gone through his bag and taken away his nail clippers, which they saw as a possible weapon. As he stood there fuming, he wanted to ask if they thought this would really be a deterrent to some terrorist act he wanted to execute. After all, he didn't need to gain access to the cockpit, since that's where he worked. And if he wanted to crash the plane, all he had to do was lean forward on the controls and it would be earthbound before anyone could stop him.

He didn't say any of this out loud at the time, as it would have meant not being allowed to fly that day or possibly ever again, not to mention the battery of psychological tests and debriefings he'd have to undergo. But when he told me the story a few days later, he was still angry at the ineffective rules that were in place merely to create a post-9/11 security facade.

Fortunately, the JetBlue co-pilot acted quickly and heroically, getting Captain Clayton Osbon out of the cockpit and ensuring that he couldn't re-enter, and the passengers did what they had to do to subdue and restrain him.

But it could have been worse -- at least Osbon didn't have nail clippers onboard.

Final Table #164: Tony G

This week on The Final Table, we discussed my qualifying for the World Series Of Poker Main Event via the double shootout at Harrah's St. Louis, while Dennis talked about his road trip to the circuit event in San Diego and spring training in Phoenix.

In our news segment, we analyzed the plea bargains by two more payment processors who were indicted by the Department Of Justice on Black Friday, and commented on a very moving e-mail from one of our listeners.

In our guest segment, we talked with Tony G, owner of Poker News and a man who likes to verbally intimidate opponents at the table. We asked Tony to comment on how Black Friday affected his poker media business, and for his thoughts on the Full Tilt story. Tony surprised us be predicting that the Group Bernard Tapie purchase of Full Tilt Poker will be finished within the next week. He then discussed what that means for the former players getting their money back, whether they'd play on the site once it returns, and whether we'll ever see Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson in a live tournament again. Tony also had a few things to say about his feuds with Phil Hellmuth and Andrew Robl.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Organ Recital

Medical ethicist Art Caplan has a column today about whether Dick Cheney should have received a heart transplant -- not because of his politics, but because of his age (71):

Cheney is not the first person over 70 to get a heart transplant. He is, however, in a small group of people who have gotten one. Why did he? Cheney has an advantage over others. It is not fame or his political prominence. It is money and top health insurance. Heart transplants produce bills in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The drugs needed to keep these transplants working cost tens of thousands of dollars every year. Organ donations are sought from the rich and poor alike. But, if you do not have health insurance you are far less likely to be able to get evaluated for a heart transplant much less actually get a transplant.

The timing of Cheney’s transplant is ethically ironic given that the battle over extending health insurance to all Americans reaches the Supreme Court this week. If the President’s health reform bill is deemed unconstitutional, those who are wealthy or who can easily raise money will continue to have greater access to heart, liver and other forms of transplantation than the uninsured and underinsured.

It is possible that Cheney was the only person waiting for a heart who was a good match in terms of the donor’s size, blood type and other biological and geographical factors. If not, then some tough ethical questions need to be asked.
This medical ethical dilemma stems from the fact that we have a transplant shortage because not enough people agree to have their organs donated when they die. In a nation where 2.4 million people died last year, there were only 14,415 donors (that's less than 1%), according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. That's nowhere near enough to help the 72,000 patients waiting for organ transplants, including 3,100 on the heart transplant waiting list.

What we need is a system where you don't have to opt-in to become a donor. That should be the default decision. When you die, you're done with your body, so let's chop it up and let someone else use your liver, lungs, eyes, skin, etc. The system should be set up so that you have to make an affirmative decision to deny life to others, or we'll assume that you want to save someone as your last act.

Even if it is Dick Cheney.

Jim Vance on "The Talk"

Jim Vance has been the anchorman at NBC's WRC/Washington for over 40 years and is one of the most respected broadcasters in the city. Last week, Vance used his commentary segment of the channel 4 newscast to discuss the Trayvon Martin case, but from a perspective I haven't heard from any other broadcaster. Vance spoke, as the parent of a black teenager, about "The Talk"...

Sunday, March 25, 2012

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • Must-Read Piece Of The Day: Frank Bruni on an ex-college roommate who's pulled his head out of the sands of ignorance.
  • Explains a lot: Rick Santorum has won 3 of the 4 states ranked lowest on math & science education -- his supporters are still hoping he'll win the other 90%.
  • John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavin) says Cheers was written like a radio show -- you didn't have to watch to enjoy it.
  • How much of a bounty does NFL commissioner Roger Goodell get for his "cart off" of Sean Payton and Gregg Williams?

Etch A Sketch

"I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again." -- Eric Fehrnstrom
That televised blunder by Mitt Romney's senior adviser caused a lot of heartache for his campaign and caused sales for the toy to increase 400% the next day. Most of those purchases were by other politicians looking to make fun of Romney, and by TV anchors and commentators who needed a visual to accompany the story.

What none of them said is that the Etch A Sketch is not a great toy. Think back to the last time you had one in your hands. What did you draw? A staircase. Your name in weird block letters. You tried to make a circle but ended up with a jagged-angled dodecahedron. It took you approximately five minutes to realize that most of the Etch A Sketch art you found on Google Images must have been photoshopped or done by people who had way more talent and time than you'll ever have.

As Tina Dupuy said on Twitter the other day, "The Etch-A-Sketch is an analog iPad with only one app." So you shook it up and erased the screen one last time before you put the toy away in the basement, right next to the Slinky you never played with after you realized how lame it was, too.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

My Main Event Entry

This was a pretty good poker day, as I finally qualified for a seat in the World Series Of Poker Main Event -- the biggest poker tournament on the planet. The seat costs $10,000, but I got mine for a $400 investment in a satellite event at Harrah's St. Louis.

The format was a double shootout, in which there are ten tables of ten players each, and if you win your table, you go to the final table, where whoever is the last person standing gets a seat in the Main Event and some travel money, while everyone else gets some cash. Harrah's breaks it down into two flights of five tables each, one at noon, the other at 3pm. In the first flight, I made it to the final two of my table, but couldn't overcome a 5-1 deficit in chips. In the second flight, I again made it to heads-up, but I was the short stack once more, holding less than a quarter of all the chips on the table. I managed to fight my way back gradually until I overtook my opponent and won, earning a seat at the final table.

After a short break, I sat down with the other nine finalists to battle it out. These are not deep stack events (3,000 starting chips with 30-minute levels), so there's no room for tricky play. You have to be patient and make moves with good cards. Unfortunately, I didn't have many of those for the first 40 minutes until another player raised to 250 in early position (with blinds at 50-100). I was in late position with a pair of queens, so I re-raised to 1,000. Everyone else folded, and when he just called I knew he had a big hand, probably ace-king or better. The flop was king-nine-six. He checked and so did I, suspecting that the king helped him. The turn was a four, and he immediately bet out. I paused as if I was considering the situation, but I knew I was going to fold, which I did. He then showed me pocket kings! If he had re-re-raised all-in pre-flop, I probably would have called and been out of the tournament. Or, if the flop had been three cards below a jack, I probably would have put my remaining 1,600 chips in the middle, he would have called, and I'd have been eliminated that way. So, that king on the flop saved me -- for awhile.

I treaded water for the next hour, managing to steal a few small pots to keep up with the rising blinds, but never building a real stack. Finally, I decided to move all-in with ace-six. The woman to my left, who had twice as many chips, called with ace-ten. My friend Pete, the chip leader, thought for awhile before calling with ace-king. Wow, was I behind -- until two sixes popped up on the flop and I tripled up! That put me back in the game, and soon I doubled up again with two queens versus ace-queen. With half the table gone, I was now chip leader, a position I held until the very end.

When it got to heads-up with a tough player named Dave, I had a 2-1 advantage. I could smell victory, but played very disciplined poker, because any mistake would double him up and reverse our positions. We played a few small pots back and forth for over a half-hour. At this point, the blinds were 600/1200 as the dealer, Angela, tossed a card to Dave and then almost flipped over my first card. She paused to ask if he saw it. He said he didn't, as did I, so she gave us each one more card. Since I was on the button, it was my turn to act, and I raised the minimum to 2400, hoping Dave had enough of a hand to re-raise. He did, and moved all-in with ace-ten. I thanked Angela for not fumbling my first card, because it was an ace -- and so was the second! I had him dominated, and the five cards she put on the board didn't change anything, so all the chips were mine, meaning I had won the Main Event seat!

Dave congratulated me, and I returned the compliment, telling him he was a tough opponent. Then other friends in the Harrah's poker room came over to congratulate me, too. It was very exciting, but for some reason I remained very calm as I filled out the necessary paperwork and starting thinking about going to play in the event that I've observed and covered for so many years. Exhausted after more than 9 straight hours of poker, I went home to celebrate with my wife and daughter and reply to lots of emails and tweets from friends and followers.

So, for the next few months, listeners of my Final Table poker radio show will have to endure me asking most of our guests for Main Event advice -- as will my radio partner, Dennis Phillips. This Harrah's double shootout is how he won his seat into the 2008 WSOP Main Event, which turned him into a poker millionaire when he finished third in a huge field. I don't have illusions about running that deep, but I hope I can play as disciplined a game in Las Vegas in July as I did here today.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Springsteen's Keynote

Bruce Springsteen gave the keynote address at the recent South By Southwest conference in Austin. It's an hourlong personal ride through the history of rock and roll as seen from his life perspective -- funny, fascinating, and moving. The only thing it isn't is embeddable, so you'll have to click here to watch it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Stop With The Outrage

In an op-ed today, Bill Maher called for a National Day Of No Outrage, where no one will complain that someone said something that offended them:

If you see or hear something you don’t like in the media, just go on with your life. Turn the page or flip the dial or pick up your roll of quarters and leave the booth.

The answer to whenever another human being annoys you is not “make them go away forever.” We need to learn to coexist, and it’s actually pretty easy to do. For example, I find Rush Limbaugh obnoxious, but I’ve been able to coexist comfortably with him for 20 years by using this simple method: I never listen to his program. The only time I hear him is when I’m at a stoplight next to a pickup truck.

When the lady at Costco gives you a free sample of its new ham pudding and you don’t like it, you spit it into a napkin and keep shopping. You don’t declare a holy war on ham.
Read Maher's full piece here.

Remarkable Radio

I'm not a regular listener of "This American Life," but I did download the latest episode, in which Ira Glass and his colleagues retract and apologize for a show they did earlier this year with Mike Daisey, the monologist whose off-Broadway show, "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" has drawn a lot of attention. It's about working conditions at FoxConn, the Chinese factory complex where iPhones and iPads are made, based on Daisey's first-hand accounts of what he saw during a trip there.

Or so he said.

It turns out that several parts of Daisey's monologue aren't true, a fact that "This American Life" didn't uncover until Rob Schmitz, the China correspondent for another public radio show, "Marketplace," heard the "TAL" episode with Daisey and thought parts of it sounded wrong. He then did some digging that uncovered the falsehoods, and brought them to Glass' attention.

What happened last week was something remarkable in American broadcasting history. "TAL" devoted an entire hour to Daisey's lies, apologized for not being more diligent in checking out his stories and, to my amazement, got Daisey to come into the studio where Glass and Schmitz confronted him with the concocted parts of his story. At times, there are long pauses between their questions and Daisey's answers. Most other producers would have edited those out, but Glass left the dead air in, allowing the listener to feel how uncomfortable it must have been in that room that day.

Daisey, for his part, continues to obfuscate, saying that his monologue is true enough for the theater, but admitting that it's not journalism, as if there's a different standard for the truth onstage and on the radio -- there isn't. It's one thing to tell a fictionalized story that's based on real events, or doing composite characters for the sake of time and process, but it's another thing to say "I saw this" or "he told me that" in a first-person piece when neither of them occurred. Taking stories you've heard from other sources and pretending you witnessed them yourself isn't "theatrical," it's a lie.

Several times in the "TAL" retraction, Daisey says he regrets taking his monologue to the radio show. At first, it seems like he's apologizing to Glass and company. But after some reflection, it seems to me Daisey's only regret is that he finally encountered a reporter who didn't believe the words coming out of his mouth, and a show that would expose his lies to the world. Other media outlets didn't do that. He appeared on MSNBC and CNN and more, all of whom accepted his stories as fact. So did Glass, initially, and you can hear the hurt in his voice as he admits this to his audience.

I don't think Mike Daisey is a bad guy. He's obviously been moved by what he's heard about working conditions in China and wanted to use his platform to alert the world to them. There are enough real stories about FoxConn (e.g. the NY Times pieces by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza) to raise genuine concerns about the people who make the i-products we use every day and whether Apple can use its 800-pound-gorilla status to change them. But Daisey let his agenda get in the way; his departures from the truth undermined his cause. He has probably hurt his reputation permanently -- only time will tell if he falls into the same abyss as Jason Blair, Clifford Irving, and Judith Miller. One of the great ironies of this saga is that another of Daisey's monologues was about James Frey, whose memoir "A Million Little Pieces" was revealed as a fraud in 2006.

That Daisey piece was called "Truth," a word that can no longer be applied to his Jobs monologue. But Ira Glass, Rob Schmitz, and the team that produced the stunning "Retraction" hour deserve praise for the way they handled the story and their commitment to the truth. Give it a listen here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Global Taxi

For the last 13 months, 3 guys from London have been driving around the world in a taxi -- with the meter running...

There's more of their story here.

Whopper Down

According to reports this week, Wendy's is now the #2 hamburger chain in the world, pushing Burger King down to #3, but still behind the behemoth that is McDonald's.

I don't eat beef or fried food anymore, but when I did fill my face with fast food, I always preferred Burger King's to McDonald's. Perhaps it's because I worked at McD's as a teenager, which was enough to keep me away for a very long time (I'll share a couple of those stories sometime). Another reason is that I liked Burger King's "Have It Your Way" concept -- an effective marketing slogan they should never have replaced with the creepy "King head" they use now -- which made it easier to custom-order my Whoppers without onions and mayo. The BK crews always seemed pretty quick at fulfilling those requests, although they occasionally thought that leaving off the mayo meant they had to double the amount of ketchup to keep the volume of condiments on the burger at its fullest, which usually resulted in a big red stain on my shirt as I ate the Whopper while driving.

The only other problem I've had with Burger King was from a visit during my college years. A friend and I went inside to order our meals, and I asked the clerk if they had any root beer. She replied, "No, but we do have Diet Sprite." In what world is Diet Sprite the consolation prize for someone who wants root beer? Why offer me that as an alternative?

Have it my way, indeed.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Final Table #163: Linda Johnson

This week on The Final Table, Dennis explained what it's like to play poker in Las Vegas during March Madness, when the sports books are overflowing and a lot of loose players sit down at the tables. We also discussed this weekend's tournament at Harrah's St. Louis, where I finished 16th in a bigger-than-expected field.

In our news segment, we talked about the bankruptcy filing of Federated Sports + Gaming, parent company of Epic Poker League and Heartland Poker Tour, and whether funds from the latter were used to prop up the former, and how it seems that the proceeds from a charity event for Disabled American Veterans were never paid to that organization. We also discussed a new poker event, iSeriesLive, where ten pros will compete in a 10,000-Euro shootout that will stream live online so that viewers can place bets on who will win, what will happen in the next hand, who will last longest, etc. (of course, none of that wagering can take place in the US, but will be available to the rest of the world).

In our guest segment, we welcomed back the First Lady Of Poker, Linda Johnson, who was inducted into the Poker Hall Of Fame a few months ago. Linda explained why she got so emotional that night, and discussed her work with PokerGives.org, CardPlayer Cruises, and more. A longtime advocate for poker in all its forms, we also talked with her about Iowa and Hawaii jumping off the bandwagon for legalizing online poker, leaving Nevada just about the only state moving forward with legislation this year, while the federal government isn't even discussing it.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Adam Savage on Simple Ideas

I mentioned yesterday that Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of our best modern advocates for science and discovery. Here's another one -- Adam Savage, one of The Mythbusters (which returns with new shows starting this Sunday), explaining in a talk at the TedEd conference last November how simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries...

Monday, March 19, 2012

Bill Of Rights Comedy Concert

I have written many times about The Bill Of Rights Monument Project that my friend Chris Bliss has been working on for several years. My wife and I were among the first supporters and we're happy to see the progress he's made in his home state of Arizona, where he's gotten bipartisan support from the legislature. Three weeks ago, 10 giant blocks of limestone (weighing 22 tons!) were delivered to sculptor Joseph Kincannon, who will create the monoliths bearing the words of each of the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.

Meanwhile, Chris continues to raise funds for the Arizona monument, which will be located at the state capitol in Phoenix. To that end, he's producing a comedy concert with an astounding lineup of talent: Lewis Black, Kathleen Madigan, Bill Engvall, Tommy Smothers, Steven Wright, Dick Gregory, and Bobcat Goldthwait -- plus music from Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett of Little Feat.

I mention it because individual tickets (starting at $62) go on sale today. If you're going to be in the Phoenix area on May 13th, please support MyBillofRights.org by going to the concert!

We Stopped Dreaming

I'm about to start reading Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Space Chronicles," an anthology of essays in which he makes the case for continuing to fund (and increasing funding for) NASA and the manned space program. I saw him talk about this at The Amazing Meeting last summer, and he's made multiple media appearances to promote the book. He has become our greatest voice promoting discovery, science, and space -- this generation's Carl Sagan, which is fitting because he's currently working on a new version of Sagan's seminal TV science series, "Cosmos" (while the original now streams on Netflix).

Here's a compilation of Tyson's talking points, set to images from the glory years of our space program, when we dreamed of what could be and then set out to achieve those dreams. Unfortunately, as Tyson says, we have stopped dreaming...

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Wrecking Crew

I just finished Kent Hartman's biography of The Wrecking Crew, the group of Los Angeles studio musicians who played on hundreds of songs between 1960 and 1975, including dozens of number one hits.

Glen Campbell and Leon Russell were two of the few Wrecking Crew members who became famous as solo artists, but you've heard all of the rest on more songs than you know. They backed up everyone from Sonny & Cher to Frank Sinatra to the Mamas & Papas to Johnny Rivers to the Fifth Dimension. They played all of the original Monkees songs, and hits by Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, the Grassroots, the Carpenters, the Partridge Family, the Crystals, the Ronettes, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, and many others. They helped Phil Spector create his Wall Of Sound.

The Wrecking Crew often took the place of band members who weren't as talented as they were, because producers knew they'd provide the necessary sound, as well as offer suggestions on how to make songs better. While the bands may have played live at concert gigs, studio sessions were different because of the demands on studio time; the need to get it right and move on. So that was The Wrecking Crew on The Byrds first hit, "Mr. Tambourine Man," (Roger McGuinn was the only band member allowed to play in that session, and Hartman documents how that caused a major rift in the group).

They even recorded most of the Beach Boys tunes. While Mike Love, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, and Al Jardine were touring the country non-stop for several years, Brian Wilson would stay home, write new songs, and record the tracks with The Wrecking Crew. That's how the historic "Pet Sounds" album was created. Every once in awhile, the boys would come off the road to add their vocals, but pretty much every surf record of that era (including those by Jan & Dean) wasn't actually played by any Beach Boy -- or, at least, the ones that the public knew.

Hartman's book includes a great story about the sessions for Simon & Garfunkel's landmark "Bridge Over Troubled Water," including the contributions made by pianist Larry Knechtel (who came up with that iconic opening, for which he won a Grammy) and drummer Hal Blaine (who played on over 35,000 songs in his four-decade career, including 50 number one hits and over 150 top ten hits):
Blaine stepped out to his car and brought in a set of snow chains from his trunk. Spending the next few hours on his knees in an old microphone storage room, Blaine alternately slammed the heavy-duty galvanized steel links onto the cement floor while being remotely recorded. Drag on one, smack on two, drag on three, smack on four. The brilliant maneuver ended up being incorporated as a dramatic percussion element from the song's third verse all the way through to its epic conclusion.
You'll hear it next time you listen to the song.

LA wasn't the only place studio musicians were making huge contributions to pop music. The Funk Brothers played on almost every Motown hit (the documentary "Standing In The Shadows Of Motown," which features their work, pops up on cable TV every couple of months), the A-Team in Nashville played on tons of country songs, Memphis had a group of session all-stars at Stax/Volt, and New York had a similar compendium of great session artists.

None of them got credit when the singles and albums were released, so Hartman's book serves not just as a musical history lesson, but as a tribute to the men and women who helped create the soundtrack of a generation.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • After tonight's losses in Mississippi and Alabama, the upside for Mitt Romney is he'll never have to eat grits or say "y'all" again.
  • Actual MODOT traffic sign I just saw on the highway: "various lanes closed." Could you be less specific?
  • Happy to report that I've broken into the top 6 billion on Bloomberg's list of the richest people in the world. I'm only 5,999,999,997 behind Warren Buffett!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Final Table #162: Darvin Moon & HPT's 100th

This week on The Final Table, we caught up with Darvin Moon, the runner-up in the 2009 World Series Of Poker Main Event, who is now an ambassador for the Heartland Poker Tour and was in St. Louis for their 100th event this weekend. In addition to talking poker, Darvin offered some advice for young pros about how to handle their newfound wealth after a big tournament score.

We also talked with Todd Anderson and Greg Lang, founders of the HPT, about how they started the tour seven years ago, who they target with their tournaments, and the legal mess they find themselves in since parent company Federated Sports + Gaming and Epic Poker League filed for chapter eleven bankruptcy.

Also on the show, I explained why I laid down pocket aces pre-flop in a hold'em tournament last week, and criticized Phil Hellmuth for the rude way he acted towards poker fans who wanted to meet and play with him.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Skeptic's Lament

James Randi has begun a new column for Wired, with a debut entitled "America, The Beautiful (And Nutty: A Skeptic's Lament."  In it, he lays out a statement of his personal convictions, all of which he was written and spoken about extensively for decades, and will no doubt touch on again in future columns:

  • Those very popular mythical beasties — ESP, psychokinesis, prophecy, etc. — don’t exist.
  • Homeopathy is a dangerous farce.
  • Faith-healing is a deadly joke.
  • Perpetual motion is a juvenile dream.
  • Uri Geller is a 4-trick magician.
  • The dead don’t talk to anyone.
  • Religion is an ancient notion we need to get over.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Aces In The Muck

In Texas hold'em poker, the best starting hand is two aces.  When you look down at a pair of the only cards with vowels on them, you're happy to get as many of your chips into the pot as possible pre-flop.  They don't always hold up, and you often have to lay them down as the hand develops and you think your opponent can beat your pair, but if it's a matter of getting it all in during the first round of betting, you shouldn't hesitate.

Unless you're in the situation I found myself in yesterday.

I was playing a satellite tournament with 55 players.  Twenty percent of the field would advance to the main event.  There was no other prize.  Once the field was narrowed to 11 players, the tournament was over, and those who were left all won the same thing, regardless of how many chips they had at that point. We were down to 12 players.  I had enough chips that I wasn't worried about qualifying, because there were three stacks smaller than mine at our table and a couple at the other table, including one guy who was very very short. All I had to do was be patient and wait for any one of them to be eliminated.

As we started a new hand, I heard the short stack at the other table announce he was all-in.  Then a short stack at my table did the same.  Then someone at the other table called, so the all-in player's tournament life would be at risk, and if he went out, we were done.  At my table, the action folded around to me and I looked down at two black aces.  I laughed to myself because Dennis Phillips and I had just talked about this scenario on our Final Table show a couple of weeks ago.

While I held the most powerful hand in hold'em, I knew that at worst, I was a 4-1 favorite to win against any hand my opponent held, and I've seen aces lose plenty of times.  I also knew that I didn't need to risk any of my chips to qualify for the main event -- time would take care of that if the action at the other table didn't.

So I paused for a few seconds.  When I saw three players at the other table jump up with their arms in the air, I knew the short stack had been eliminated and the rest of us had crossed the finish line.  That's when I announced to the table that I was going to show something they might never see again in their poker lives -- and folded the aces face up.

Racing Goes To The Dogs

There's a story in today's NY Times about the tough times at dog tracks around the country and how owners who were allowed to add casinos -- slot machines and poker rooms -- now want to get out of the racing business altogether because the greyhounds no longer attract enough gamblers. The tracks are losing millions, while the casinos thrive.

I've seen this first hand on my visits to the Palm Beach Kennel Club, which has a poker room that supports the rest of the operation.  Last month, it hosted a World Series Of Poker circuit event that drew some of the largest fields in Florida poker history -- but there was never much of a crowd gathered to watch the dogs chase the artificial rabbit on a pole, and there weren't many lines at the windows where you'd place your bets (on races there and at other dog and horse tracks across the country).  No one on that side of the business; not the bettors, not the employees, not the dogs.  It's a depressing scene.

On breaks from the poker games, I'd wander outside to watch this not-quite-a-spectacle, look at the big board that laid out the odds for each race, and pick a dog -- sometimes the favorite, sometimes the long shot.  I didn't put any money down, and it's a good thing, because I usually got it wrong.

Watching the races without betting wasn't much fun, but it reminded me of the first time I ever saw a race in person and enjoyed it.  It was 40 years ago when we were on a family road trip.  We had stopped for the night at a motel in Charlestown, West Virginia.  Mom was exhausted after dinner, so my father suggested we leave her in the room while we walked to the nearby racetrack, the only attraction in town.  Dad wasn't a gambler in any sense of the word, but he was a good husband giving his wife a break by allowing her some time to relax without her loud sons making a ruckus.  Since my brother and I were underage, we couldn't get into the track, so we walked across a field to the far side, where we could stand by the rail and watch the horses go by, but couldn't see the big board or the finish line very well.  We spent an hour or so male-bonding and avoiding the cloud of dirt each pack of horses kicked up as they went by.  To pass the time, we'd each pick a number at random to see who could guess which horse would win.  We based this on absolutely no information, but occasionally one of us would hit one by chance. 

That's not all that different from the way most people place bets at racetracks. They like a certain number, or the color of the horse/dog's skin, or the silks the jockey's wearing.  Sure, there are the "experts" who read the racing form and study histories, but they're not getting rich betting on the races.  You've never heard of a track going out of business because too many people were picking winners.  They go out of business because too few people are coming through the turnstiles and passing their hard-earned cash through those windows.  The Kentucky Derby and other "prestigious" races continue to draw crowds because TV makes it all look majestic, but the reality is exactly the opposite.

As for the greyhounds, they're in the doghouse, where the best bet is on slots and cards.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Final Table #161: Epic Fails, PAD Returns

This week on The Final Table, we discussed the Epic Poker League filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, what that means for those who played in its tournaments, whether a pros-only league was a good idea, and the fallout from its lack of sponsors and failed merger with the Heartland Poker Tour.

In our guest segment, we talked with Mori Eskandani, whose company produced last year's ESPN coverage of the World Series Of Poker. He explained what's happening with plans for this year's WSOP coverage, as well as the return of his "Poker After Dark" show in reruns on the NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus), and the possibility of new episodes of that show and "Poker After Dark" and the "National Heads-Up Championship."

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News®

Here's the Knuckleheads In The News® segment I did this morning on KTRS/St. Louis, including this story from Pennsylvania, the sad story of a breakfast pastry coming between a boy and his mom. Unless the Pop-Tart had been toasted and she was burned by the strawberry filling, what kind of injury might she have sustained that required a trip to the emergency room?

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Sam Donaldson

Here's the conversation I had with Sam Donaldson this morning on KTRS/St. Louis about the ridiculous process by which we choose presidential candidates, whether Super Tuesday locks up Mitt Romney's inevitability, and whether Americans would support taking military action against Iran.

Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Monday, March 05, 2012

In Case You Missed It

From my Twitter feed...

  • If you buy something from one of Rush's advertisers, aren't you indirectly paying for his wife's birth control? Where are her online videos?
  • In the Rush controversy, media outlets repeat the myth of 20 million listeners, but that's way higher than the reality
  • Best part of being knocked out of a poker tournament is walking away and having people come up and ask "Are you out of the tournament?" No, I'm just walking away from the tournament area with my coat in my hand for no reason.
  • Things You Never See At The Poker Table: a cash game player who cuts a phone call short so he can fold.

Crazy Eddie's Insanity Finally Ends

It's been a quarter-century since the Crazy Eddie electronics chain went out of business, but it has taken until now to unravel the stock swindle that followed the company going public -- the largest securities fraud of the pre-Madoff era.  If you lived in the NY/NJ/PA/CT area in the 1970s or 1980s, there was no way you avoided seeing the company's commercials on TV. The spots -- which featured WPIX-FM disc jockey Jerry Carroll in a turtleneck and blazer (or Santa suit every December) exclaiming that Crazy Eddie's prices were "insane!" -- were ubiquitous, and helped the chain grow from one store in Brooklyn to 43 stores in four states. Here's one of the last ads they ran before the bottom fell out...

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Call The Rams Bluff

Once again, a professional sports franchise is holding our city hostage, and we should call their bluff.

The St. Louis Rams have a clause in their lease with the city that states that The Dome must be among the top tier of NFL venues, and if it's not, the team can pack its bags, break the lease, and move somewhere else.  The next time they can exercise that option is in 2015, but the contract says the Convention and Visitors Commission has to give them satisfactory plans for those upgrades this year.  On February 1, the CVC submitted its proposal, which would cost $124 million, with the team kicking in 52% of that and the region (i.e. taxpayers) covering the rest. Today, the Rams formally rejected that proposal. They now have until May 1 to present their counter-proposal, and if they can't agree on a deal by mid-June, it goes to the arbitrators.

Whatever the Rams come up with, the CVC should say no.  In fact, they shouldn't have offered to spend a single public dollar in the first place.  Why?  Because we -- St. Louis city and county and the state of Missouri -- are broke.  In fact, we have so many money problems we can't even see broke from here.  For example, the state announced last month that, instead of a 3% tuition hike at the University Of Missouri, the increase would have to be 6.5% because of yet another budget shortfall. Have fun paying off those college loans, Mizzou students!

The taxpayers will gain nothing by paying to upgrade the dome.  It won't create more business downtown, and it won't make our home viewing experience better.  We get zero return on our investment.  So, let the two groups who will benefit from the upgrade pick up the check.  One would be those who do attend the games. If the Rams raise the ticket price ten bucks for each game, that's $100/year for 8 regular season + 2 pre-season games. Multiply that by 60,000 seats, and in 10 years, you'll have $60,000,000.

The other party to benefit would be Stan Kroenke. The Rams owner is a multi-billionaire, one of the 150 richest people in the US.  Stan Kroenke has a fortune made up of dollars from his other teams (Colorado Rockies, Denver Nuggets, Arsenal soccer), his real estate holdings, and his wife's family's business, a little mom and pop retail chain called Wal-Mart.  We (the taxpayers) are so broke we can't even afford to shop at Wal-Mart.

We certainly shouldn't buy the argument that having the team is a boon to St. Louis and that a better facility will bring more businesses to downtown.  We fell for that in 1995 when we were told that having all those Rams fans nearby was going to guarantee the success of an adjacent indoor mall called St. Louis Center, which would make it the pre-eminent shopping destination in the area.  Or not.  It turned out that suburbanites already had their own malls nearby, so there was no reason to shop downtown, and very few Rams fans stuck around downtown after the game (they go early to tailgate, but that doesn't help local businesses except parking lot owners).  Contrary to the promises made, St. Louis Center wasn't the Magnificent Mile in Chicago or Madison Avenue in New York or Faneuil Hall in Boston.  It was a boondoggle that only increased business for the lumber yards that sold the plywood used to cover up the empty spaces after retailers abandoned St. Louis Center and left it looking like a ghost town.

We fell for this nonsense with the Cardinals, too. They wanted to replace their home field (the second Busch Stadium) with a new one -- but only if taxpayers helped cover the $365 million cost.  In return, the Cardinals owners promised to team up with some developers to build Ballpark Village (a mixed-use facility with offices, apartments, retail, restaurants, movie theaters) on the adjacent ten blocks at a cost of $650 million. Like St. Louis Center, we were promised that Ballpark Village would bring all sorts of new business to downtown.  Of course, to get what they wanted, the team's multi-millionaire owners threatened that if the city didn't want to cough up the big bucks to keep the Redbirds in the city that's always been their home, they would forsake Cardinal Nation to go elsewhere.

I was on the air at the time and regularly railed against public financing of the new stadium, pointing out that there was no metropolitan area in the country of a comparable or larger size (except DC, which was already in the process of acquiring the Montreal Expos) that didn't already have a major league baseball franchise, so the Cards really had nowhere else to go.  It was an empty threat. Despite my repeated warnings, the city eventually gave the Cardinals what they wanted, and the third Busch Stadium opened in 2006 on the plot of land next to its predecessor. Fans love the place, and World Series titles don't hurt.  But what about Ballpark Village, which was to be built where Busch II had stood?  Six years later, not a single brick has been laid there.  Promise broken.

As for the Rams, they're not as popular as the Cardinals, mostly because they have sucked for a long time. We had a couple of good years a decade ago with Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, but the rest of their 16 years in St. Louis have been about hiring and firing coaches, rebuilding through draft picks, and counting the number of concussions suffered by a series of quarterbacks. They don't have a lot of goodwill left in their fan base, which explains the drop in attendance -- and the fact that they're going to play one home game each year in London for the next 3 seasons doesn't help.

The Rams supposedly want to move back to Los Angeles, but that town never gave them the kind of support they needed.  If it had, the Rams wouldn't have moved here! During their run in LA (and 15 years in Anaheim), Rams home games were often blacked out on local TV because the stadium seats weren't filled. The Oakland Raiders discovered the LA's-not-an-NFL-town lesson, too, when Al Davis moved them there in 1983. Even though they made the playoffs in 7 of their 13 seasons in southern California, the fans still didn't show up, so Al moved back to the Bay Area, where their fan base has always been.  By the way, California's even more broke than Missouri, so why would its taxpayers want to underwrite a new home for Kroenke & Company? Even if they do, why should St. Louisans let bad fiscal decisions by Los Angeles force us to do the same?

New head coach Jeff Fisher will likely change the Rams' on-field fortunes, but I know a lot of people who, like me, will never go to the dome to watch them play under any circumstances because the NFL has become the ultimate TV-friendly sport.  I can enjoy the games much more in my living room with a big-screen HDTV, a DVR, cheaper food, and no line for the bathroom.  No amount of corporate suites at the dome will get me there in person.

If we have to offer the Rams a deal, let's keep it simple: we'll pay to upgrade your house when you pay to upgrade ours. You can start by re-paving my driveway.

Recommendation: Talkin Walkin

Kevin Pollak has had a varied career. He started as a standup comedian/impressionist, then moved into playing mostly dramatic roles in dozens of movies, hosted the first season of "Celebrity Poker Showdown" on Bravo, and a few years ago started an online-only interview show called "Kevin Pollak's Chat Show," in which he has one-on-one conversations with other celebrities. Those discussions often last over two hours, and he gets his guests to open up and tell stories from their lives that are often revealing and mesmerizing (I strongly recommend the John Landis episode, in which they discuss "Animal House," "The Blues Brothers," Michael Jackson's "Thriller," "Coming To America," and more).

Last week, Pollak debuted a new podcast, "Talkin Walkin," in which he becomes Christopher Walken. I'm using the word "becomes" because, while others do impressions of Walken in short bursts, Pollak spends the entire podcast improvising as Walken, imbuing every sentence with his quirky speech patterns. That's much harder than it sounds. When an actor portrays a real-life person on stage or on film, they are speaking lines that were written and rehearsed to perfection. Pollak isn't doing that. He has a conversation as Walken with a co-host who plays both straight man and provocateur, playing along but also asking questions that spark clever responses. After awhile, it's easy to forget that you're not listening to Walken himself, although I do laugh out loud each time Pollak wraps his impression around words that sound even funnier in the Walken cadence (e.g. cahoots, smegma).

I don't know how often Pollak plans to do Talkin Walkin, or if the concept will get old quickly, or why he changed Walken to Walkin in the title, but it's already one of the top comedy podcasts on iTunes. You can find it here.