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Poker, Chess & Black Friday April 18, 2011

Posted by Jennifer in : chess,poker , add a comment

With just an hour to go till the 2011 US Chess Championships kicked off in Saint Louis, I logged on to twitter to promote the live coverage on uschesschamps.com one last time. I saw a feed bloated with panicked tweets from the poker industry. Poker players are known to be dramatic, but just a few minutes of reading the monstrous twoplustwo thread and links on mainstream media outlets, I realized the gravity of the situation–Poker Stars, Full Tilt and Absolute Poker were no longer accepting US customers, while the owners were indicted for bank fraud, money laundering and illegal gambling. I rushed outside to make some calls and arrange for a cashout from Poker Stars. Whether it would help or not, I had no idea but I might as well get in the queue.

One of the most exciting moments in chess was coinciding with one of the ugliest in poker, quickly coined “Black Friday.” I had to get my mind back on the 64 squares so I shut out my sadness and joined GM Maurice Ashley in calling the play of 24 of the best chess minds in America.

They were playing at the beautiful Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, the host of the US Championship and the US Women’s Championship for the past three years. Many of the players in the competition had also dabbled in poker, hoping to follow the example of players such as original November niner, Ylon Schwartz and chess prodigy turned poker phenom Jeff Sarwer. A number of chessplayers had great success switching to poker, while just as many others had failed. But this time, chess players were having all the fun. As the most important and richest chess competition in the nation got underway, another tribe of gamesplayers was in panic mode.

It’s not just online poker that I’ll miss- I have a gut feeling that it will be back sooner than we think. I am terribly sad for all the professional players who have lost their incomes overnight, with no warning and just before tax day. I am also deeply saddened about Poker Stars in particular. Oftentimes when I told members of the poker industry about my accomplishments in chess and writing, I felt eyes glazing over—models and athletes dabbling in poker were stories, a chess master & author with books like Chess Bitch and Play Like a Girl was predictable. I’d seen disinterest by so many in the poker world that I was not terribly optimistic when I applied for a writing gig for Poker Stars Women, an initiative to bring more females into the game. So I was thrilled when Poker Stars did hire me as a member of the new writing team. The positive reinforcement leaked into my game, as I began to play better than ever, going deep in the Sunday Million several times in a row, and qualifying for a package to the Ladies PCA event in the beautiful Atlantis resort. I was spending more and more time on Poker Stars. When I was done with my “real work” for the day, I enjoyed nothing more than to log in and join my favorite tournaments. I looked forward to Sundays all week.

Poker Stars was the sponsor of one of the greatest innovations in American chess, the US Chess League. Some may call that previous statement biased, as the United States Chess League, now in its sixth season, was founded by my brother, an online poker pro and a Supernova on Stars. But the facts support my claim-the USCL featured the dozens of the strongest players in the country, from World #7 Hikaru Nakamura to reigning US Women’s Champion Irina Krush. The exciting structure and convenient schedule of the USCL also brought players many players out of retirement, including GM Patrick Wolff, who recently started a Bay Area hedge fund called Grandmaster Capital Management.

My heart dropped when I saw Poker Stars on the list of shut down sites and Isai Scheinberg on list of the indicted. Poker Stars’ readiness to support chess, women in poker along with aggressive anti-cheating measures and top-notch customer support gave me a soft spot for the company. I didn’t care if other players said the games on Stars were tougher than on other sites- it meant more to me to win there.

It’s always been clear to me that both chess and poker are games of skill. Listening to Shaun Deeb on timing tells is as fascinating to me as American World Championship candidate Gata Kamsky’s thought process in evaluating a knight sacrifice. Great poker and chessplayers go to creative depths to inch past their opposition, and such detail-oriented analysis has helped me as an artist and a thinker.

Games like chess and poker challenge us to confront our weaknesses. If I play a chess game or a hand badly, I have no one to blame but myself, and the hand history or game score is a reminder. One of my own weaknesses in both games is a discomfort with tension-my raises veer toward oversize and my chess style is very aggressive, in some cases overly so. As a chronic self-analyzer, I was always good at identifying such leaks, but the challenge was to fix them before tendency turned into habit.

Without trivializing the financial and logistical hardships that many players and members of the poker industry now face, I’m sure opportunities lay beyond the black clouds. Draconian legislation can do a lot of damage, but it can’t erase the vast online poker market. This may be a good time for me to learn to enjoy tension.