Top 10 memories from my time at Casino City
By Aaron Todd
I'm not just leaving this company — I'm leaving the gambling industry altogether. (As a side note, our style guide insists we call it the "gaming" industry but I hate that euphemism. World of Warcraft is gaming. When you try to win money by playing poker, slots, table games or betting on sports, you're gambling. I'm hoping our top-notch copy editor Clare Fitzgerald will give me a pass on this in my last column!) I'm returning to my hometown to lead the marketing and communications efforts for the athletic department at my alma mater, St. Lawrence University.
While I'm excited about my new role, it's a little bittersweet as well. I've truly enjoyed working for Casino City and being part of this industry, and I will bring many happy memories with me as I go. Here's a list of 10 of the best.
10. My interview process
I found my first job at Casino City almost by mistake. I was spending a lot of time searching for new full-time opportunities, mostly on HigherEdJobs.com, Monster.com and Boston.com. Because I was out of work, I was also looking for freelance work on Craigslist and happened to see an advertisement for a "Poker Industry Reporter" position.
My background was in journalism and I played a bit of poker in home games and online, so I figured it was worth a shot. I sent off my resume and a cover letter, expecting this to be just about as fruitful as most of my job-hunting efforts in the greater Boston area had been (i.e., not very).
About two hours after I'd e-mailed my application materials, I got a phone call from someone saying they were the CFO of Casino City and they'd like me to come in for an interview the next day. I was pretty skeptical. I spent the first five years of my professional career working in higher ed, where the job search process can proceed at a glacial pace. Getting an offer for an interview less than 24 hours after applying for a job screamed "identity theft scam" to me.
Despite my reservations, I went in for the interview the following day. I made sure to leave my wallet and any other identifiable information that could make me vulnerable in the car, then walked into the office. To my surprise, the office seemed completely normal, with dozens of busy people walking around, interacting and laughing.
"If this is an attempt to steal my identity, it's pretty elaborate," I thought.
The interview went well, and I received a job offer the next day. Again, I thought this was strange, but they had yet to ask for any information that would be useful in stealing my identity. But to be honest, I didn't really have a whole lot they could have taken from me at that point in my life, so what did I have to lose?
While Casino City likely does have enough information to steal my identity at this point (they obviously know my social security number, my address and lots of other information about me – how else would they have paid me?), unless this is the longest con of all time, my read on this was almost as bad as my read on my opponents at the poker table.
9. The PokerRoom.com "Become a Poker Pro" cruise
Just one month into the new job, I was given the opportunity to cover the PokerRoom.com "Become a Poker Pro" event, held on Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas cruise ship. My former colleague Ryan McLane and I shared the tiniest cabin available and had an amazing time.
I learned a lot about the industry in this short trip. I learned that people who worked at online poker companies at that time didn't like their legal names showing up in articles. I learned that covering a poker tournament isn't all that fun, unless there are interesting characters playing (in this case, there most certainly were). I learned that there is a code of ethics among poker players. I thought I learned that single-deck blackjack with 6/5 payouts on blackjack was a "beatable game," especially after you've had 2-3 more Foster's oil cans than your liver can handle. I also learned that the best cure for a hangover is to find several hundred more dollars in your wallet than you started with, even though you'd spent the night playing a wretched game with horrible odds.
The PokerRoom.com cruise got me excited about working in the industry, but going to the World Series of Poker for the first time got me hooked.
Ryan and I almost didn't end up going. We applied for media credentials and didn't hear anything back, so we arranged our travel. I got on a plane headed for Las Vegas, and unbeknownst to me, while I was in the air, Ryan received word that our request had been denied.
Thankfully, Ryan can be pretty convincing. He got on the horn with Gary Thompson, Harrah's Entertainment's Director of Corporate Communication, who was handling the credentialing process at the time, and they let me in.
I'd like to think that our coverage the first year — with me covering Chip Reese's epic win in the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event, and Ryan covering Jamie Gold's Main Event win — is what earned us an invitation back the following year. More likely, Harrah's (now Caesars) realized that "Internet bloggers," as we were called at the time, were just as important — if not more important — than print media.
My first WSOP was truly incredible. The final table lineup of the H.O.R.S.E. event was legendary. The crowd for the final table was insane, as poker fans gathered several layers deep around the bleachers (yes, the featured table was surrounded by the same aluminum bleachers you'd find at a high school soccer field) to watch the action. I learned the meaning of a 19-hour work day and tried to write while falling asleep at my computer.
While I never got quite as excited for the WSOP as I did in that first year, each year I arrived at the Rio for the first time, I'd get a bounce in my step and I couldn't wait to get started.
I'm a little sad about the timing of my departure, as I'm leaving Casino City right as this year's WSOP gets underway. But one of the great things about working in college athletics is that the summers are light, so starting next year, if Casino City needs a stringer to cover the WSOP, count me in. And if that doesn't work out, there's no doubt I'll be trying to assemble a group to play in the tag team event or play in Colossus III next year.
Once upon a time, I won $0.60 in a freeroll on PKR.com. Then, the UIGEA passed. PKR hadn't launched for real-money play, and it announced that when it did, it wouldn't allow players from the U.S. to play in real-money games.
I asked readers what I should do with my check for 60 cents, and one suggested I try to trade my way up to a house. (Read the column to understand why he made this suggestion.)
I ended up trying to trade my way up to a seat in the WSOP Main Event on the (now-defunct) website 60centmainevent.com, and made it all the way to a signed, framed photo of former Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez with a piece of a game ball from the 2004 World Series. I still have the picture and plan to hang it in my new office — unless someone wants to give me a $10,000 Main Event seat for it, of course.
6. The Casino City Gang
I'll admit that I never really saw the point of our weekly podcast from a business perspective. Each week we rambled on for way too long, for some reason we decided it would be a good idea to pick every game on the NFL schedule against the spread, we rarely had guests, and we never had that many listeners. That said, it was great fun to talk about the gambling industry with Vin Narayanan, Dan Igo and, later, Dan Podheiser.
It's been a little over a year since my last appearance on the Casino City Gang (there was one more after this one, I was out of the office so I missed it). Honestly, it didn't make sense to continue the show. Collectively, our editorial department spent 5-6 hours a week on it, and there's very little evidence that it produced any revenue.
That said, I do miss it, and I have some great memories. I loved talking with Nolan Dalla, and how could I ever forget the time that Vin got caught in a meeting and missed our interview with Bernard Lee? I learned a lot about how to fill time after Bernard hung up the phone and I had to fill dead air on my own.
RIP Casino City Gang, and thanks to all the devoted listeners (yes, we had two or three!) who have reached out to me to find out if we were very going to go back on the air.
I know we're supposed to be impartial, but since I'm leaving I feel comfortable admitting that Antonio Esfandiari is one of my favorite people in the poker world. The first time I saw him on television, he tortured Phil Hellmuth at the Gold Rush Tournament at Lucky Chances Casino when I was a graduate student in 2002 or 2003.
A few years later, even though I had very little credibility with just three months' experience in the industry, he agreed to an interview. I really enjoyed writing his profile, and he was always willing to give me a few minutes of his time when I was in Las Vegas for the WSOP.
After leaving the industry for a bit for a stint back in college athletics, I got to write about him again for the cover story of the first issue of the GPWA Times Magazine upon my return. And of course, I was there to cover the biggest moment of his career, when he won $18.3 million as the first $1 million Big One for One Drop winner.
When I first talked to Esfandiari, there was very little about his life that I could relate to. He moved to the United States from Iran as a child. He was a professional poker player. He was a bit of a playboy, going to Las Vegas clubs with his "Rocks and Rings" crowd and getting bottle service. I honestly couldn't imagine that lifestyle. I remember how painful it was the first time I paid more than $5 for a beer when I moved to Boston. Despite all that, he was still my favorite player to talk to and write about.
He's become a bit easier for me to relate to for me now, as he's joined the ranks of fatherhood, and he's always seemed like one of the most genuine people in the poker world. If you can't root for a guy who seems to have so much fun playing the game, while openly expressing his love for his father and his son, who can you root for?
4. Playing at the WSOP
I checked off a bucket-list item last year when I played in the first $565 Colossus. I didn't last very long, but it was amazing to be part of a record-breaking tournament. I doubt it will be my last experience as a player at the WSOP.
Of course, I also found time to jump into cash games all over Las Vegas when I wrapped up covering the WSOP every year, and even found time to play in a few WSOP Deepstack events as well. In 2013, I made the deepest run I've ever made in a large poker tournament, finishing 33rd out of 1,261 entries in a $235 Deepstack event to cash in for $1,171. It was the biggest win I'd ever had in poker at the time, and it took me a long time to get to sleep that night, even though I'd been playing poker for 12 hours and gotten back to my hotel after 2 a.m.
I have no doubt that, at best, I'm a break-even player in events like this, and I'm much more likely to have an EV of -15% or worse. But I've yet to walk away from one of these tournaments thinking, "That was a horrible experience." In fact, I would relish the opportunity to return to the Rio in future years so I could fully enjoy the player experience and not have to worry writing 2-3 stories a day.
3. My exclusive on Revel's "You Can't Lose" promotion
The most time-consuming story I wrote during my time at Casino City was easily the most important. The oft-bankrupt Revel Casino Hotel offered players refunds of up to $100,000 in free play for losses over a calendar month, and surprise, surprise, a few advantage players found it to be easily exploitable.
Despite the fact that these players did nothing that broke the rules of the promotion, they were denied their promised free play when the casino discovered that they were going to lose money to the advantage players.
In the end, I'm not sure who ended up looking worse, Revel's promotional and legal team, or the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement (DGE), which flatly refused to provide us with any information about the complaints or whether the players involved would receive any compensation for their losses, which they would not have incurred had they not been offered the promotion.
Unfortunately for the players involved, when Revel went bankrupt for the last time, their case was essentially killed. They were put on a list of creditors, but there wasn't any money to give them.
Behind the scenes, this article took more than two months to research and write. I wish that we'd had more time and resources to conduct serious investigative journalism in my time at Casino City. It's hard work, and it takes a lot of time, but it's incredibly rewarding.
2. My New England bike tour
About a year ago, I went on a five-day, four-night bicycle tour in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. On three of those nights, I played in home poker games.
It was a grind, in more ways than one. But it was also incredibly rewarding. I had a blast, got to see some great New England scenery, and learned a good deal about myself as a poker player, too.
I still dream of riding my bike across the country and playing home poker games as I go. With a light summer schedule, it's possible that my new job might leave this open as a possibility. I'm not making any immediate plans —I may have to wait another 15 years until my kids are all grown — but I'm not giving up on this dream just yet.
1. Rolling Casino City eyes
Of course, outside of all the columns I've written and stories I've covered, there were dozens and dozens of behind-the-scenes moments that stand out. Interactions with colleagues in any workplace can make or break your experience, and I've worked with some amazing and memorable people during my tenure at Casino City.
One moment I will never forget occurred when our CEO's son, Steven Corfman, was explaining the idea of "dice control" to a fellow colleague. If you're not familiar with the term, dice control insinuates that a craps shooter can influence the outcome of the roll of the dice by setting the dice in a particular way before the toss, and throwing them in a consistent manner. The goal, of course, is to reduce the occurrence of a roll of 7, which would end the shooter's roll once a point was established.
Steven and I were both deeply skeptical of the "evidence" behind these claims, and he was attempting to convince our colleague that it really was impossible to have a measurable impact on the probabilities associated with the roll of the dice using these methods. To illustrate, he picked up a pair of oversized dice that the company had made to give away at trade shows. Instead of a single pip for the "one" side, it had the Casino City logo.
"I'm going to roll Casino City eyes," said Steven, and held the large dice between his index, middle and ring fingers. He flung the dice down on the floor, and they banged against the wall. Wouldn't you know it, when they finally settled on the ground, both dice had the Casino City logo face up.
"Oh my God!" said the other employee, awestruck that Steven had called his shot. "What are the odds of that?"
Steven and I responded simultaneously, completely deadpan: "1 in 36."