The Awards Detective

Eric Danis is one of poker’s underappreciated movers. Each year, Eric shakes off the rabble’s unhappiness with the system and goes about improving his Global Poker Index Awards. Of course, he’s serving himself and his business by improving his product and without complaint, but it’s easy to forget how markets work in 2024, aka Year Eight of our Lord of Economic Illiteracy.

That said, many of the Award nominations don’t really make much sense, but that is on us, not him. Clever move there, Eric. The process is a sort of democratic republic one, with many ins and outs and whatnots and what-have-yous. So, while there could be some concerns, we are represented, but… well, we the represented sure don’t know much. Crowds tend to get the obvious right: Andrew and Brad and Ethan really are all they are made out to be, the big time vloggers and a few others have done more for poker than many more long in the tooth and big in the name poker legends. Eric and all of us should probably just throw a party for them alone, never mind one for the equity lottery champs and whatever else we celebrate at the end of this month.

Still, a few picks, nominations and omissions are worth noting, despite the excellence of the overall program.

Nothing makes this point clearer than the Podcasting category and the notable absence of Billy M.’s Sessions. This podcast was nominated by the public but the select GPI voters did not get it past the first round. The problem being, none of the other podcasts, as attractive as they may be, are going to be remembered in coming generations. Of course, that’s fine, we don’t need or want everything to be artisanal or even great, and I’m sure it will remain TTTTTTIIIIIIIIMMMME FOOOOHHHHHRRRRR THHHHE CCCCCCHHHHIPRAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYCEEEEE for quite a while, but no one in 2060 will be interested in that or the variety shows of today, in the same way no one cares about Jack Paar or The Hot Seat now.

They still do care about Jack Kerouac, and Billy, aka DGAF, is our Jack Kerouac. I don’t have to describe him much here, I’ve done it all over my blog. In fact, this frees me up to “steelman” my argument: of course Billy is a mess: you will not find the contented life and Container Store organization of The Heart of Poker or The Grid here. As good of a player as he is, Billy is a special, instinctive one but not really a strategist: listening to the illogica of some of his hand histories is a headache you will never get from Thinking Poker. His is no Poker News or even poker rumors source, either; Billy lives in his own head, an alternate world where Berkey is out to get the Hustler, his reputation has been ruined by a few crank losers, and Nick Airball is worth staking.

What you do get, however is pure poker character. A lot of dummies like to talk about what’s “real” – of course, everything is real – but what they mean is something closer to undiluted. Better yet and closer to DGAF’s own appetites, distilled.

Billy and his podcast Sessions are west coast poker distilled. Billy has forgotten more about how to survive in our live poker scene than you ever knew. He is the still-living spirit of smoke-filled rooms of chalk boards and low-ball. Billy is owed by everyone and owes everyone. He is up at all the hours you aren’t, where that great game is running that you never find, a corona in hand and a five a.m. dinner on the mind. Billy never runs out of stories or anecdotes yet like your favorite poker uncle, never stops reminding you of how much money he won in 2012. Billy is poker in a way the GPI voters just aren’t and so they are annually and foolishy failing to appreciate his work in the most embarrassing way.

Yet the clock is ticking. Sessions has been running for seven seasons and is now on the eighth. Billy’s not thrilled about this development, nor was he thrilled about any of the predictions I made about it and him, all of which came true, because, well, I’m not an idiot or blinded by the particular brodom he surrounds himself with. However, as long as he is here, stuck in the Dostoyevskian limbo of gambling, delivering the story of his life, his salvation through his children, and the story of live poker itself, you really should be a subscriber for at least a spell. His show itself really should sneak past a round of the GPI that sees warmed-over poker boom novelties like DAT Poker still getting attention, along with all the other drive-by tourney flash-in-the-pan hypage. Just as you should probably hear Dylan before he goes on the most final of all tours, and you should probably be able to say you threw DGAF a Patreon sub before he quits.

That said, Billy really shouldn’t still be struggling or just be on Patreon at all. The real way forward for Sessions is to court the corporate scene and get picked up by Barstool or some podcasting syndicate. His income would 10x and his dream, one he sometimes openly and sadly doubts, would be saved. I pointed this out in his chat long ago, but he and others were not really paying attention nor ever did, preferring to snipe for dissent and opinions, and above all his personal bugaboo, “judgements.” There is still big money in podcasting and mostly Sessions avoids it. Michael Knowles, the head of podcasting at Barstool, and all the other people like him in media, would easily appreciate the excellence of some of Billy’s pods (his peak storytelling episodes in early 2023 were comparable to anything on the market, a sort of This American Life for gamblers) and could make him into a national character. Cleaned up a tad, shaved, and delivered on a schedule, there is a world where Sessions is not only the best podcast in poker, it is the most lucrative one.

Of course, Jack Kerouac wasn’t always appreciated in his time either. He was trouble, and getting to the bottom of all that stuff takes some investigation and thought. Alex O’Brien, a sort of science lifestyle journalist, promises to help with exactly this sort of thing with her 2023 book The Truth Detective: A Poker Player’s Guide to a Complex World. As I write this in January and thought in October, this book will win the Written Media GPI.

As it should… but not for the reason you’re thinking it should. Because, for one thing, The Truth Detective is not a poker book. Pitched as a poker lens upon the disinformation and illusions of society, the poker part ends up barely connecting to her main material; the game is merely window dressing. O’Brien does not demonstrate her thesis or even search much for it, preferring instead to use her considerable gift of narrative to branch out from a few poker anecdotes and concepts into a far longer collection of loosely related histories, scientism and general galaxy-braining.

We don’t, in other words use poker much at all. We don’t learn “to think like a poker player,” and we certainly don’t apply those unlearned skills to real life, as she writes in the intro. The book’s value is elsewhere. Alex is a writer you’d want to hire for her topic transitions alone, and the content is fun, researched, and educational.

However, we can’t escape the essential disconnection between her objective and her text. The problem is engrained into the script from the start: almost everything O’Brien says about poker is wrong. It’s hard to build from there, no matter how talented she is. Here’s one dreadful conflagration:

First off, for the winning player the objective is to win? Who needs that sentence? Next, exploitative poker is not merely a strategy that targets imperfect players because every player in on the “exploitative” spectrum. An exploit is a profitable distance from the optimal, an optimal which is unlikely to be achieved outside computational models. The idea that players are out there, turning off the optimal button at will when they see a fish is cartoonish at best. Worse yet, Alex reveals she is merely chirping back words at us, as the next sentence, “You can exploit them still further… with the occasional bluff” is maddeningly wrong, because a bluff, of course, is a primary tool in poker at equilibrium itself. A bluff is so basic to the functioning of the game that it is confirmed in the simplest of mathematical toy games and in theory that has existed for decades.

Of course, Alex is a real player and journalist, so will get some things right. Her distinction between variance – a measure of outcome dispersal – and luck – what you guys are usually talking about – is pretty sweet, even though she risks mixing ideas with the “random draw” bit:

I could go on, but what’s interesting is not a list of misconceptions but that I don’t entirely think all of this is really O’Brien’s fault or her problem. She doesn’t have to care, for as she notes on a fawning Poker in the Ears podcast episode (for the love of Christ, imagine how this podcast gets more shine than Sessions and how silly that will look in a few years), she is an amateur player and not necessarily to be held to any particular standard. In fact, she reports choosing to not involve a poker-competent editor deliberately, under the tenuous logic that non-competence makes for better mass appeal. (Some motivational clues there, too.) However, the flock of United Kingdom poker pigeons that praise and fluff her really ought to know better. In fact, the reviews and recommendations and blurbs are not only overstated, but some of them are also outrageous.

Here’s Seth Stephens-Davidowitz on the cover: “Who knew one book could teach you so much?” Now that is one hell of an exaggeration, and speaking of truth detecting, should clearly make you suspicious. In fact, it turns out to be a dubious pull from a longer, more specified quotation, so don’t tell Taleb about this book yet. Still, who writes shit like this?

Friends, is the point. Detectives, if not Truth Detectives, call them accomplices. Speaking of, one of them offers up that the Truth Detective is “the best book I’ve read since ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ O’Brien doesn’t pull any punches…” Of course, that discredited and goofy bit of scientism is exactly the genre we are talking about here, and a genre truly beloved to game players… but bro, what the hell have you been reading? And have Barry find some new clichés for you.

Of course, Alex does pull her punches. (They always do.) In fact, the beauty of The Truth Detective is that if we follow her lead, do a little truth detecting ourselves and use our imagination, we can see the shape of a much better book, a real poker book, one that is educative but also more compelling because it is more personal.

This is because Alex’s motivation is not all mercenary idea-travel journalism. Alex reveals from that start that she is deeply upset by William Kassouf, the dithering autistic tourney whippoorwill himself, elevating him in her mind to a “dangerous pro.” Of course, he is not a pro at all but an annoying barrister on a particularly shameless vacation. His alternately fun and tedious cat-calling style has hurt him as much as helped him, but Alex turns his subway act into a personal windmill, blending him with a truly tired version of patriarchy/misogyny morality play we must all applaud in the 2020’s or be damned.

“I grew up proving that my gender doesn’t define my skills and abilities.” Yes, I’m sure Alex decided to go through puberty just to spite the Man. Now in what century did women last not write and journal? Of course, the next sentence is about her husband. Sometimes thoughts themselves are clichés; perhaps we should worry less about A.I. Meanwhile, Alex tells us that she rebels against society’s restraints by allowing her son to paint his nails. Dara is no doubt riveted.

Alex’s biggest public moment surfaces when she satellites to a potential heads-up match with Instagram playboy buffoon Dan Bilzerian. Dan withdraws, reasons unknown, but we do get the de rigeur words on his “misogyny.” Now where is our Truth Detective at this crucial moment? Instead of falling for the obvious Dworkinesque trope that this man “hates” women (all while surrounding himself with them constantly), can she rise to the occasion and find a better, more accurate explanation? No, Dan’s infantilism and thus infantile relationship with the better sex goes undiagnosed in exchange for clichés and run-of-the-mill self-congratulatory gender gluten.

Yet the memory of bird-brained Kassouff returns to haunt her, as he resurfaces once more amidst the factoid-debris mid-book, a memory and a man on a log in the ocean of ideas:

kassouf returns

It’s a moment of oxygen for the book. Here is, apparently, Alex’s real drama and personal interest, the kind that made Maria Konnikova’s book a much stronger one. Can Alex stop burying her head in the sand of historical trivia and solve her problems in poker, thus connecting her thesis with her text? Why is our author spinning such a long, trying-to-be-interesting concoction when what actually matters is so compelling? She could use poker to explore her fears and conquer these banal men, but as she tells Joe Stapleton, she’s already moving on to a new science lifestyle piece that will require the sacrifice of vacationing in Thailand. A rolling stone gathers no sick houses, however. The detective is off the case.

The depth of the analysis of the content outside the poker is of course, objectively better, but still suffers from some breezy certainty while covering obvious societal pain points. It’s striking that in a highly distributed page of the book, where she is supposed to be going for the throat with her thesis, she talks about the need to see through bullshit and how those who do could have seen through Trump:

Yet she has gotten it precisely backwards here. No one needed a Truth Detective to ferret out the vapidities of our incredible clown-in-chief Donald Trump, a man who literally paints his face to go fail at his job. No, a Truth Detective really was needed to see through the veneer of a far more slippery man, Barack Obama, who ended up disappointing leftists terribly. It takes a severe and actual truth detective (aka scholar) like Norman Finkelstein to find the man to be a “cipher” and to have no real core beliefs and to see why he would accomplish so little against the neoliberal stasis which progressivism supposedly battles. Try looking closer to home indeed, detective; someone with a byline at the Guardian might have thought this through for two seconds.

I want the author to have taken this different approach and made a good poker book, one where the detective is an interior investigator as much as an exterior one. A book where poker is the conduit instead of a scantly-mentioned theme; Charlie Wilmoth counted only 50 pages where poker managed to surface in The Truth Detective. Instead, one of her post-poker reveries goes from the critical thinking movement to emotions, politics, sample sizes, climate change, brain malleability, new media, propaganda, the Russian civil war, the British Labour Party, Saddam Hussein, the Arab Spring, homophily and then crash lands on some tips for evaluating news which do exactly nothing for your poker game and conversely, poker has taught you nothing about.

Can I verify the source of your bet sizing, sir? (Oh, it’s a parody bet – think I saw one of those on the Hustler.) The real work and measure of a book is how it demonstrates its thesis, its objective, not how it displays its figurine collection. The book never even comes close to accomplishing this; it is almost half-written, in this sense, a draft she needs more time with – maybe that is the generous and true interpretation I need to find. Nevertheless, returning from this whirlwind of objects and ideas, our heads spun but cleared, we now realize we must forgive her friends for their overpraise. Poker is at heart a scam and a take and a grift itself: the UK kit is right to collude and take care of business. Check the evidence.

Which, to conclude, is why The Truth Detective should win the GPI award. We need these inflated appraisals of the game, as they draw new blood – or am I mixing metaphors too uncomfortably for the literature as self-improvement poker audience? Muhaha, dorks. Further, Alex is in fact a smooth and disarming writer – otherwise you’d never get through all this stuff in order to lie about how good it is – and doubtless a wonderful and sensitive person who pays her taxes, supports immigration and boycotts the right fast foods: exactly the sort we want to see in our game and smiling in a tournament photo. After all, aside from the poker stuff, The Truth Detective is an engaging enough script, the kind of modern menagerie of facts and anecdotes that will leave you more informed for the time exchanged. It’s a reach at the beach. Very well, we can say, if not well done.

Watch the Road, Dave! or Next, David Tuchman Kills Poker Legend for 888

Speaking of, the most overdone man in poker is David Tuchman. He is a remarkable fellow and professional broadcaster, a man who can listen to himself for hours and who makes others want to listen to him talk to himself. He is the great Pacifier of Poker Audiences; to hire him is to guarantee a stream of smoothiness and slow incapacitating befuddlement. Dave is a beer with a lot of hops and simultaneously the guy at the bar who has a lot to say.

Dave had podcast at one point called Under the Gun, which of course involved the premise that a guest was under the gun, in that great expression transferred and kept alive by our game. After a strong run, David’s podcast ended last year. Why, you ask? Because along the way he stopped inviting guests so he could just listen to himself. After about a year of this, he must have finally caught on and noticed no one responding to him and sheepishly gave up. Is the guest in the room with you now, David?

In any case, David was nominated, once again, for Best Broadcaster, as he should be. His endless babble sedates and calms the audience; his strategy suggestions confuse and hypnotize; his anecdotes are always self-involved and circular.

Just wind him up and let him ramble. On the latest show I heard him on, Tuchman has me beside myself. “I’m not supermarket businessman…” he begins with some unimportant point. WE KNOW YOU’RE NOT IN SUPERMARKETS DAVID! “I would bet here…” he tells us in some spot where you must have checks or corrupt your range. I KNOW YOU’D BET HERE YOU MUNCHKIN! “So people would mistake me for Jim Carrey…” NO ONE THOUGHT YOU ARE JIM CAREY FFS, THEY DID THINK YOU WERE IN DUMB AND DUMBER!”

It doesn’t matter what he says, our protests die quickly, even my cranky ones. We want to hear David’s river of words, his pacifying inanity, even if our conscious brain needs him to shut the fuck up. In other words, Tuchman is pretty good at this, just don’t actually listen closely to him. Let him run, let the words fill the space. Dave is the elevator music that ensures you don’t have to think or talk to someone else. And you know how much we hate that.

Tuchman helps you zone out. Ironically, Billy thinks everyone is just perfectly pacified by his story on Sessions and that Tuchman is the perfect professional. Yet listening to Sessions is to be often uncomfortable, horrified, and worried about the storyteller, whereas hearing Tuchman is to find the sleep of the mind Billy proposes. Tuchman is good because he projects distraction and lowered attention. He is white noise in a grey hoodie.

Hearing Tuchman reminds me of the time I went to the Roma Deli for dinner. Appropriately enough, there was big Todd Brunson presiding over the remnants of a large meal he had apparently destroyed, Gaza-style. A large bottle of Pellegrino was all he had left to swallow. His heavy eyes were fixated on a television. His body was an immobile mountain, his face a grim crevice. However, there was also a thin, older man in an orange shirt seated to Todd’s right. The man was talking to him; sports I think. Yes, an interminable stream of odds and margins and teams and numbers.

I ordered, ate and drank, and called for the check. The man, meanwhile, had never stopped talking and Todd never said a word for the duration. Of course, it might have tempting, and that determined look on Todd’s face betrayed a hint of it, to reach over and snap the neck of this man, his personal David Tuchman, but then, I bet, Todd knew he’d miss him.

We’d miss David if he was gone, too. As Limon once said, Tuck is wrong about everything. What Limon knows, didn’t say and didn’t have to, is these sorts of people make the world go around. David Tuchman keeps the poker stream train on the tracks. When he says he doesn’t care what you think, you know what, for once, I actually believe these words. His mouth just keeps moving: it’s a kind of noble obliviousness. That’s special.

I hope you voted for Tuck as well for best Broadcaster, or will in future, as I think he missed out on the final round. He is one in a million.

Eric has both earned his laughter and probably needs it to deal with everyone’s demands.

What will Eric do next time to top his latest awards show? Well, he could fix the written content section and not run books like The Truth Detective up against short-form click-bait gristle. That’d be swell for those of us who care. We know the lads have not just been hyping the winning book but writing their own, more relevant stuff, no?

Really though, the GPIs should have a Best Feud category. After all, there are only more coming. When Berkey tries to take down Jlil for his latest bit of facile Twitter goo and Kid Sandwich fights for honor of meandering play-and-explains, that’s the market at work. Margins are tight, and competitors will compete in all the theaters of commercial war.

After all, if Eric is giving out trophies for best trophy, it’s not as crazy idea as you think. He must have a sense of humor to do that, right? And no light without heat, as they say.

So, what’s next? Time for the WSOP already, right?

3 thoughts on “The Awards Detective

  1. Sessions and Third Man Walking are the only Podcasts (besides yours) that I find worth listening to these days.
    Tuchman – as far as I can tell – is a talkative bore and I wish he wasn’t on live poker commentaries. His voice is also gravelly and loud.
    Norman Finkelstein (“scholar”) is also the self-hating ghoul who demands that Israel to offer its neck to Hamas, unconditionally.

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