Saturday, July 21, 2007

Poker Stud

For several years I have been playing online poker. Before any loved ones rush out to plan an intervention, I only gamble with 'play' money. Most of the online poker sites will credit you with $1,000 'play' money, you take your game to the table and best of luck to you. I noticed that, in the fullness of time, my $1,000 had grown to a robust 'play' fortune of several hundred thousand dollars. I halfheartedly looked into opening a real money account to try my luck but the thought of providing an online poker site with any financial information was most unappealing so I kept on piling up the 'play' dollars.

I went to Las Vegas over New Years, played real poker and won. I went to a casino in Connecticut, played more real poker and won. Obviously I'm good at this, and I will have to retire some day, so I decided to plan for that retirement by playing online poker for real. I went to a site called Full Tilt Poker and opened a Play Money account. My $1,000 grew and grew (because I'm good at this) and, therefore, I knew it was time to get into some real games.

There are many convenient ways to fund your real money online poker account, unfortunately, none of them actually work. You can't use your credit cards because the credit card companies won't process the transaction. You can't use a bank transfer because the banks won't process the transaction. You can't use Netteller, ePassport or PayPal because, again, they won't process the transaction. No, in the end, if you want to open a real money online poker account you have to go to a MoneyGram (Western Union will not process the transaction) outlet, slide real money through a small slot in a bullet-proof window and send it to one Senior Edgardo Mendez-Hurtado in Managua, Nicaragua and, bless his heart, he'll process the transaction.

To encourage you to open a new account with them, Full Tilt Poker offers to match your initial deposit up to a limit of $600. The minimum amount you can deposit using Senior Mendez-Hurtado's services is $250. So I slid $250 plus $10.00 commission through the little slot in the bullet-proof glass and raced home to begin building my $500 seed money into an early retirement treasure chest. Although, to be honest, in the back of my mind it occurred to me that Senior Mendez-Hurtado might be funding his own early retirement account with my money.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my Full Tilt Poker account actually showed the $250 I had deposited. I was momentarily ashamed of ever having doubted the upright and honest Senior Mendez-Hurtado. My matching funds weren't in the account yet so I sent an email asking when I could expect them to be deposited. "Ah, perhaps you neglected to read the fine print", was the reply. Although the wording on the offer very clearly implies that Full Tilt Poker will match your initial deposit up to a limit of $600, what they actually mean is that they will give you the opportunity to 'earn' those matching funds. You earn the matching funds by playing poker. You receive some sort of credit for every hand you're dealt. The credit, it turns out, is in the order of approximately six cents per hand. You can't access this 'credit' until it reaches a total of $20. So, you have to see approximately 335 hands before you can claim your first $20 in matching funds and you must be in approximately 4,167 hands to see your entire $250 in matching funds.

This was a bit disappointing, but not a deal-breaker. After all, I'd played many thousands of hands of online poker and was confident that I could build up my $250 and, over time, claim the matching funds. I got into a game that called for an initial buy-in of $50, lit my cigar (a decided advantage over playing in a non-smoking casino poker room) and began to assess my opponents. They were an unremarkable group and, as I was mentally spending their money, I lost my first $50. I had two or three goods hands that I backed with strategic calls and raises only to be beaten when my opponent drew a winning card with the last card dealt (called the river card). It happens. I ponied up another $50 and built it up to the massive sum of $65 before the poker gods again frowned and I suffered another run of bad luck on good hands. Because it was three o'clock in the morning and I had an Urdu class in four hours, I decided to save my revenge for another day and get some sleep.

I waited until Saturday to play again and lost again, but less quickly than before. Okay, obviously there were some differences between playing for real money and playing for play money. I decided to abandon my usual 'shock & awe' style of play in favor of something more conservative. I was now down $150, but I wasn't worried because the cards tend to even out in the long run and I was certainly due for some winning hands. It took about three hours to lose my fourth $50 buy-in and I called it a day. I checked my 'matching funds' account and discovered that I'd only been credited about $12. Why? It was explained to me that I only get the .06 credit for hands in which I bet. When I fold before the first bet, I don't earn the credit. Oh.

On Sunday I played for almost four hours before losing my final $50. My 'matching funds' stood unclaimable at $18.75 and my hopes for an early retirement were again back on the performance of the stock market. There are a couple of things you might bear in mind should you decide to send Senior Mendez-Hurtado any real money. First, forget about Full Tilt Poker actually matching your funds, they won't. You might earn the matching funds but it will be very difficult to do so. Second, be prepared for the strangest run of cards you'll ever see. You may experience odds-defying defeats at the hands of opponents who always seem to pull a winning card on the river. Third, don't slam your hand on your table and cause your coffee to spill onto the new carpeting in your apartment when your four queens are beaten by a straight flush. It happens. Finally, if you're at a table and a new player arrives using the poker-name IrinaS, leave the table. IrinaS has an uncanny ability to draw those much-coveted river cards and she'll take your money without even saying, "Thanks".

By the way, I've been assigned to serve on the Passport Task Force beginning on Monday, July 23rd in Washington, DC. I'll undergo a week of training and then, on the following Monday, begin adjudicating applications. All participants on the Task Force will work six-day weeks, but my schedule has been arranged so I can continue taking Urdu in the morning at FSI Monday through Friday, so Saturday will still seem like a day of rest. Many of my colleagues will be working on passports for several months but I'm only assigned until September 1st. Then I'll begin Urdu lessons full time for nine weeks, followed by the mandatory Crash & Bang course and my flight to Islamabad.

Washington DC has a tradition of showing movies outdoors on the Mall during the summer and on the schedule for my birthday it seems that Casablanca will be playing! I'll be downtown anyway, so that's where I'll be that night. If you're in town, join me.

This morning I played online poker for play money at and I won...big time. That's because I'm good at this.

These photos were taken during the GSO firefighting day at Quantico. It was in the high 90's that day so it made perfect sense to dress up in full protective gear and play with fire.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Just Call Me Junior

New Foreign Service Officers are called Entry Level Officers. This is the politically correct update of the old term "junior" officers. On Tuesday, July 3rd, all the ELOs at the FSI were called to a mandatory meeting and advised that any untenured FSO was subject to re-direct. By definition, all ELOs are untenured and "re-direct" simply reminds us that we can be reassigned at any time "for the good of the service".

It seems that there is a bit of a backlog in processing passport applications for US citizens and the State Department has sent out a call for volunteers to help reduce that backlog. Although passport applications are normally the responsibility of the Civil Service, the backlog is so overwhelming that all State employees, including FSOs, are being asked to volunteer their assistance. Anticipating that they won't get anywhere near enough volunteers, State has seen fit to remind all untenured FSOs that we serve at the pleasure of the Department and can be re-directed without notice. Clearing the application backlog is a top priority for State this summer and all personnel are expected to pitch in and help. However, volunteering means completely rescheduling your program training, your required language training, your travel tickets and itinerary, your pack out and shipping arrangements, your arrival at post, and the start of your new job. As Foreign Service Officers we have an expectation that we'll work in Islamabad, Nairobi, Madrid or Chennai. As volunteers for the PPTF (passport task force) we'll be assigned to work in New Orleans, Washington DC, Seattle or Portsmouth, NH.

So, on the one hand, they were calling for volunteers at the meeting on the 3rd (and many of my colleagues stepped up and offered to help right away) but on the other hand, they were simply advising us that if we were needed we would be re-directed and that was that. I left the meeting feeling fairly certain that I wouldn't be called. Islamabad is a one year post and is already two GSOs (my job title) short of its requirement. Surely they would take that into consideration. I have been taking Urdu for over eight weeks and being assigned to the decidedly non-Urdu speaking PPTF would set my Urdu clock back to zero. Surely they would take that into consideration. I haven't taken the ConGen course, which is a prerequisite for adjudicating passports. Surely they would take that into consideration. I just signed a lease and moved into a new apartment in Arlington. Surely they would take that into consideration. In the meantime, I planned to hide as low as possible and not do anything to draw attention to myself. If I could just make it to November, I'd be out of the country before anyone missed me.

I opened an email this morning that read, "Thank you for volunteering to serve on the PPTF." Apparently, they didn't take any of that into consideration.

It seems that I've volunteered to adjudicate passport applications from July 30th until September 1st and will be given ConGen 'light' to learn how to do so. There are several passport offices around the country and my colleagues are being sent everywhere from Seattle to New Orleans. The office in Honolulu seems to be fully staffed and is the only one not requesting assistance. I'm hoping to be assigned to the DC office so I can continue to take my Urdu lessons and not lose the little I've learned. If that isn't possible, I'll ask for the Portsmouth, NH office and go live back up at the beach.

The only impact this will have on me is that my departure to Islamabad will be delayed by between two weeks to a month...or so. I will have all the courses I was scheduled to take during August rescheduled and will pick my program back up in September. If they take out the two gap weeks in my original schedule and drop one or two marginal courses, I could be departing almost on time. Several of my colleagues have been volunteered for much longer periods of time, so my one month seems like light duty indeed.

And now for the good news. During the meeting, it was explained to us that, "as volunteers on the PPTF you will all be assigned to six day work weeks. However, as Junior Officers (all of a sudden we were Junior Officers again, what happened to ELOs?) you will also all be entitled to overtime pay." For the first time in over thirty years I qualify for overtime pay. Allow me to express a heartfelt, YIPPEE!!

I was looking forward to getting to Islamabad and beginning my new job, but I don't really mind doing this. Only a very few people managed to get away before being volunteered, so almost everyone I know will be pitching in and helping. The 135th A100 class started today and their bid list consists of only the US cities with passport offices. They have been volunteered as a group to staff the PPTF immediately after they complete the seven week orientation course. Hey, unless they get sent to New Orleans, they won't have to worry about learning a foreign language.

So that's it. My fantasy baseball team (the OverPaidPrimaDonnas) is solidly in first place (I trounced my cousin Bill's team this week), I'm in my new apartment and I'll be here until I leave unless State decides otherwise, I'm making slow progress but progress nonetheless at Urdu, I'm still going to Islamabad even if it's a few weeks later than I had planned and I qualify for overtime pay because I'm a "Junior Officer"! Washington DC is entering the hot, humid and hazy summer and I'll be staying cool adjudicating passport applications...or, I will as soon as someone explains to me exactly what "adjudicating" means.

These two photos were taken on a recent camping/river tubing/hiking trip I took with some friends in the Shenandoah Valley.