Christmas Gold and Lumps of Coal

Here’s the best and the worst of New York sports this past year.

Gold

Harvey, Syndergaard, Matz and DeGrom

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Kristaps Porzingis

 

Odell Beckham Jr.

Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants

 

Coal

The Wilpons

Fred Wilpon, Jeff Wilpon

James Dolan

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Odell Beckham Jr.

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We the Sheeple

 

I told myself that I wasn’t going to write any more about politics unless I felt like what I had to say wasn’t being said elsewhere. The truth is I don’t know if this is being said elsewhere, but I was enraged enough after reading Patrick Healy’s “News Analysis” piece in yesterday’s New York Times,Bernie Sanders Falls Behind in a Race Centered on Security,”nytimes.com/…/bernie-sanders-falls-behind-in-a-race-centered-on-security that I felt like I had to address it.

It’s bad enough that the Republicans have turned terrorism into their Big Issue. We know that fear-mongering is pretty much all they have going for them, led by their resident bully (who wants to become President Bully) the big bad Donald Trump. Now the Democrats (make that Hillary) are jumping on the Terror Bandwagon because they’re afraid not to.

But to have The New York Times reinforce the narrative, making it seem as if only someone with their head in the sand like Bernie Sanders wouldn’t understand that security is the Big Issue facing this country, well, it just put me over the fucking edge. For God’s sake, people, are we going to let the Powers that Be, of which the paper of record is clearly a part, distract us once again from who’s really sticking it to us?

Hint: it ain’t Isis.

Economic Inequality, not just in this country, but all over the world, is the single biggest threat to stability and peace. We the People are pissed off and vulnerable. We’re pissed off because we know that things aren’t fair; and we’re vulnerable because we’re not sure who to blame. In a state like that we’re susceptible to all our worst tendencies, letting fear rule us, even when it’s not based on a measurable reality. In other words, we have become easy to manipulate and distract. And as a consequence we’re doing dumb things like putting our faith in dispicable dickhead cretins like Donald Trump (all right, not all of us support him, but can you believe how many actually do?)

I’m not saying that Isis isn’t a real threat. I’m just saying that if you decide to venture out of your house, you have a much greater chance of being killed by some random nut with a gun than you do of being killed by an Isis nut with a gun. So let’s get real about that and not blow it out of proportion–or listen to the people who are blowing it out of proportion. Like Fox News. And all of the Presidential candidates. And now The New York Times.

Bernie may not be perfect, he’s probably a long way from that. I have no idea if he would be a good president. But I do know that he’s the only person in the room who’s talking about the real issues in a meaningful way and speaking truth to power–and the establishment is terrified of him because of that. They’ll do everything they can to make it seem as if he has no shot because that’s what they do. So let’s not fall in line the way they expect us to. Baaaaa, motherfuckers!

 

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Honor Thy Mentor

 

In 1961, Gay Talese flew out to California on Esquire’s dime to write a story about Frank Sinatra. Talese’s editor Harold Hayes assured Talese that strings had been pulled and he would have exclusive access to the notoriously private Sinatra (who at that moment was particularly wary of the media because of rumors and innuendo about his supposed Mafia ties).

But when Talese called Sinatra’s press agent from his hotel the morning after his arrival to arrange a meeting, he was informed that “Frank isn’t feeling very well, he has a cold” and the meeting was not going to happen.

Talese, who frankly admits he wasn’t that keen on doing the story anyway, called Hayes and told him that he might as well return to New York. But Hayes told him to stay and wait it out. So Talese waited–for 31 days–and while he was waiting began talking to everyone he could in Sinatra’s world: the woman who carried Sinatra’s bag of toupees, the valet who cooked dinner for him on his rare nights home, the bartender at his favorite watering hole, anyone and everyone.

At the end of the month, Talese returned to New York and turned in a 15,000 word piece on the man he had never actually been able to talk to, and Esquire published it in its entirety. Using the techniques of fiction–getting inside Sinatra’s head, making use of interior monologue–Talese crafted a portrait of Sinatra that was deeper and more revealing than anything anyone had ever written about the man before. It was a groundbreaking piece, in that it read less like a celebrity profile and more like a short story, and was really one of the first examples of what was to become known as New Journalism. Here is just a taste of it:

Sinatra had been working in a film that he now disliked, could not wait to finish; he was tired of all the publicity attached to his dating the twenty-year-old Mia Farrow, who was not in sight tonight; he was angry that a CBS television documentary of his life, to be shown in two weeks, was reportedly prying into his privacy, even speculating on his possible friendship with Mafia leaders; he was worried about his starring role in an hour-long NBC show entitled Sinatra — A Man and His Music, which would require that he sing eighteen songs with a voice that at this particular moment, just a few nights before the taping was to begin, was weak and sore and uncertain. Sinatra was ill. He was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Sinatra it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage. Frank Sinatra had a cold.

“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” has just been republished in book form by Taschen in a lavish and gorgeous slipcased Collector’s Edition limited to 5,000 signed copies. The coffee-table sized book is beautifully illustrated with photographs by Phil Stern along with tipped-in facsimiles of Talese’s famous shirtboard outlines–the multicolored felt-tip penned diagrams and schematics by which Talese plotted out his writing plan of attack.

The release of the book was timed to coincide with what would have been Sinatra’s 100th birthday, and last night at the Gagosian Gallery on the Upper Eastside, Talese sat down before an audience of about 60 people to mark the occasion and talk about the story with my cousin John Buffalo Mailer.

John Buffalo had interviewed Talese on a previous occasion at the private club Omar’s, and though he came prepared with a long list of questions then, he only got to ask the first one, because Talese, renowned storyteller that he is, started talking and didn’t stop until 45 minutes had passed and they were out of time. This time, once again, John Buffalo came with his prepared list, but wisely prefaced his opening remarks by saying that he hoped that they might have time for him to ask a second question (in fact, he was able to ask a second question after Talese only went 40 minutes on the first!)

I have known Talese for many years now, having been first introduced to him by my uncle, and though he never talks down to anyone or assumes any airs, I still feel myself somewhat in awe of him. I certainly felt privileged to attend the event and to once again have a chance to talk to him. In addition to being a remarkable writer, he is gracious and charming, and above all elegant, and even before I knew him,  I counted myself as an admirer of his writing. Perhaps no piece of journalism was more important to me in my own development as a journalist and writer than his Frank Sinatra piece. In fact, the first piece I ever wrote for Esquire, which, due to him, my uncle, and a few others, represented for me the pinnacle of magazine publishing, posed a challenge for me not unlike the one he faced with Sinatra. At least that’s what I thought as I tried to pin down the elusive poker champion Johnny Chan (Chan is Bluffing, Esquire, May, 1989 http://www.seiyuu.com/okamoto/poker/misc/chan.htm).

Now, I won’t be so brash as to actually compare my piece to Gay’s, but I will tell you that without him, I probably wouldn’t have been able to write or get my Chan piece published. Gay showed me the way, and for that and many other things I would like to thank him here publicly, as I was able to thank him privately and in person last night.

And do yourself a favor. If you’ve never read “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” seek it out, find it, read it. You can thank me later.

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Jewish Christmas

 

Aside from the usual holiday pressures and obligations, most of them involving some form of gotta buygotta buy presents, gotta buy Chanukah candles, gotta buy a tree (yep, that’s what happens when you marry a shiksa)–there’s also been the dawning realization, further provoked by the season, that I need to find a better way to support all these obligations. Simply put, my cobbled together income of writing, editing and pokering is not getting the job done (the reasons for which really require a blog entry unto itself ). In not getting the job done, I am slowly coming to the conclusion that “getting a job” may be the only actual solution to the problem, i.e.  I need some kind of steady income-producing work and I need it pretty much yesterday. As you may surmise from the title of this blog–Free Alson!–what I am doing here is not really helping with the rent.

Before I go much further, however, let me vent a bit. Chanukah candles. Goddamn fucking Chanukah candles. Can they maybe order a few more in the stores around my neighborhood next year? Please! I went, I swear, to half a dozen drugstores and supermarkets and every single fucking one of them was sold out! Same exact thing happened last year. Do they not get it? Is it a conspiracy? Do they just hate the Jews? There must be more Jews in the West Village than there are in Jerusalem. Can we please get a few more candles? Does any of the Christmas stuff ever sell out? Are the Christmas shelves ever bare? Have you ever been unable to buy an ornament? Or find out the tinsel is gone? I don’t think so. At the Gristedes, last hope on my futile mission, the African American kid at the checkout counter yelled up at the manager in his perch, “Yo, we got any more of those Jewish candles around?”

I already knew the answer. Thanks a lot, yo.

So our menorah is sporting some swell leftover birthday candles. You gotta a problem with that? I mean, is God really gonna know the freaking difference? Does he even care about Chanukah? It’s kind of a sweet holiday but it’s not really big time in a religious sense, is it? I don’t even really know what it signifies. I mean, I think it has to do with the festival of lights and the oil lasting a lot longer than it was supposed to and the rededication of the Temple of the Maccabees and a few other things of that nature, but it’s really pretty sketchy overall as far as I’m concerned. I do like our menorah, though. It’s pretty.

Speaking of which, who doesn’t like a Christmas tree? When I was a kid I wanted a tree more than anything. Every year I’d be sad because my mom wouldn’t let me have one. She may not have been a practicing Jew, but that didn’t mean she was going to get me a tree. Her mother would have had a conniption if she did, for crying out loud. So the tree was not open for discussion. But now, married as I am to a Catholic, we get a tree every year. And I love it. I love the smell, I love the way it looks. I love the ritual of decorating it.

The only thing I don’t love? The freaking fortune the tree shysters charge for a temporary six-foot-high decoration that will turn brittle in a couple of weeks and then leave an impossible-to-clean trail of pine needles on the carpeted steps when you drag the thing out to the curb Jan 1. For a Jew on a budget, I guess it’s nothing more than appropriate karmic punishment. But seriously, $100 bucks for a scrawny tree? Are you fucking kidding me? And that doesn’t even include delivery (yeah, I carried it home, myself).

And so this carol of holiday cheer and good tidings concludes: I’m hoping for a job in my Christmas stocking. Or at least not a lump of coal. And if anybody knows where a bad Jew can get some Chanukah candles for next year, give me a heads up.

Seasons Greetings, yo!

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Folly?

 

I’ve been on a bad run at poker for the last month. So bad, actually, that it nearly wiped out my profits from a terrific September and October, and prompted me to take a break. In part, it’s just poker. The swings have always been an element of the game. But it reminds me that poker in New York isn’t what it once was. It’s tougher to consistently beat the game and make money at it. It isn’t as much fun. It’s more dangerous but less exciting.

I don’t know if I should take this as some kind of omen, but tonight Alice and I were coming home from a party, riding in a cab along West Houston Street, and as we were going along, she said, “Oh, look, that’s new. The Folly.”

I looked out the cab window. Big red script letters spelled out “The Folly” over a blacked-out window.

“Holy shit,” I said. “That used to be the Genoa Club!”

“That was it?” said Alice, who had only been able to imagine where I was on all those absent nights. “Really?”

I nodded sadly. “Now it’s The Folly.”

“Hmm,” she said.

Maybe I should be reading something into this. Maybe poker has always been something of a folly, however much I might have loved it. Or maybe that’s just what it’s become. Because once upon a time I had really loved it, and I had especially loved the little hole-in-the-wall social club a couple of steps up off the street with the little brass plaque that said “Genoa Football Club.” The action was always nuts there, an assortment of crazy-assed gamblers from all walks of life, just waiting to hand over their usually not-so-hard-earned money to those of us who knew how to extract it. Artie, the bent-nose owner; Elias, his badass Syrian partner, who reminded me of the cheerful white-haired spy who helps James Bond sight a rifle in From Russia with Love. And Ricardo, the chef, who made the meanest bowl of spaghetti with red sauce in all of New York, and who one night slashed Edgar’s arm with a butcher knife after an angry dealer flipped over a table and got into a wrestling match with Elias on the beer-soaked floor.

It was a real place, with character and characters to spare. But it’s long gone now. Shut down in the crackdown after Frank DeSena’s murder. Now poker in New York is like a fifth generation xerox of itself, all the sharpness and character gone, a sorry imitation of what it once was, just a big red sign telling me it’s a Folly.

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Is This a Great Country? Or What?

After yet another terrible mass shooting, this time perpetrated by some nutjob in Colorado at a Planned Parenthood office, the angry voices of the GOP have gone (not so) strangely silent. As vocal as they were in denouncing the silence of Muslims around the world following the Paris atrocity (which of course wasn’t remotely close to the truth), that’s how quiet they’ve been in the wake of the Colorado madness. Hypocrisy much? I guess it shouldn’t surprise that their inflammatory rhetoric–fomenting anger and fear in the weak-minded–inevitably leads to these kinds of episodes (and as it happens are precisely the kind of hate speech tactics used by the terrorists, themselves). For the rabid Right, acts of foreign terrorism seem mostly to be a political opportunity for manipulating voters. Acts of American terrorism, on the other hand, best not spoken of. To put it another way: when their own rabble rousing instigates violent acts on the part of their followers, what do we hear from them? Crickets.

Every single GOP candidate, in case you hadn’t been paying attention, has been slamming Planned Parenthood for months now, with Carly Fiorina leading the way. During one of the debates, citing a spliced together video of a fetus playing underneath a conversation amongst Planned Parenthood officials, she said, “I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain. This is about the character of our nation.” Though this video and her characterization of it was subsequently proven to be a cut and paste job, she stood by her over-the-top rhetoric. Of course, she has not said a word about the Colorado Planned Parenthood shootings.

In fact, the only GOP candidates to say anything at all about the shootings were Ted Cruz and John Kasich, who sent out weak tweets expressing sympathy for the victims, but did not mention Planned Parenthood.

Fox News is just as culpable for stirring up the crazies. I spent Saturday with Fox News in my face for reasons that I won’t go into. It had been a while since I had subjected myself to more than a few minutes of it. Suffice to say that I had forgotten how insane it is that a “news” network finds a way to twist every story they report into more evidence that Barack Obama is the Black Devil leading us towards Hell. If I watched this kind of craven hate-mongering all the time and didn’t know any better I’d probably wind up shooting someone myself.

And then there’s Donald Trump. Do I really need to say anything about him?

Let’s Make America Great indeed!

 

 

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What I’m Thankful For

I’m thankful that I get to write this blog without being censored.

I’m thankful that I  do not need to worry about serving any corporate master (even if that means I am currently unemployed).

I’m thankful that I can still go to a restaurant without passing through a metal detector or a security checkpoint.

I’m thankful that I do not own a gun.

I’m thankful that, despite the fact that we live in a dangerous world and there are plenty of things to fear, I do not live in fear.

I’m thankful that the sun will not burn out for another 5 billion years even if it might make us hot and miserable long before then.

I’m thankful that no one I know will be voting for Donald Trump (at least I hope this is true).

I’m thankful that presidential elections provide some measure of entertainment even if they do not provide much else to be thankful for.

I’m thankful for baseball.

I’m thankful for books.

I’m thankful for music.

I’m thankful for art.

I’m thankful for movies.

I’m thankful for food and water.

I’m thankful for my family.

I’m thankful for my friends.

I’m thankful that I am breathing.

I’m thankful that I live on this crazy planet in the middle of the black unimaginable vastness of space.

And I’m thankful that even if very little of it makes sense or can even be comprehended, we still get the chance to try.

 

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Why I’m going after Eric Schneiderman

I hadn’t been planning to write on this topic again, especially not so soon after yesterday’s entry (so apologies to those readers who have no interest), but after reading an editorial entitled “Why I went after the fantasy sites” by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in today’s Daily News, I’m finding it impossible to restrain myself.

He’s just such a self-righteous annoying dope that I feel compelled to respond. His editorial is so full of confused contradictory logic and misunderstanding that it makes me want to scream. Let’s take a look at some of his points:

  • He writes that “Daily  fantasy sports is much closer to online poker than it is to traditional fantasy sports.” Yes, that’s actually a true statement–and telling because online poker should be legal too. In fact, I naively believed at one point that the acceptance of DFS would pave the way for renewed acceptance of online poker.
  • He writes, “FanDuel and DraftKings have made the argument over and over-including yesterday in this paper–that they run ‘games of skill’ and are therefore legal.This is nonsense. New York law prohibits sports wagering–betting money on a future event outside of the gambler’s control–regardless of the skill involved. Yet this provision of the law is deliberately ignored by both FanDuel and DraftKings.” Okay, I’m not sure how it’s worded in the statute, Eric, but I’m already starting to see a problem here, in terms of what precisely is meant by skill. And I’m also unclear on why, if ‘betting money on a future event outside of the gambler’s control’ is illegal, how it is that you are not also shutting down the stock market. I have invested in many stocks, Eric, and I have won some and lost some, but I have never ever been in control of the outcome. Do you know anyone who is? If so, you better prosecute them because they’re undoubtedly doing something crooked.
  • He then writes, “Consider the final moments of a football game where the outcome has been decided and the winning quarterback takes a knee to run out the clock and assure victory. Let’s say it’s Eli Manning and the Giants are defeating the Eagles or the Cowboys. Statistically, this play would cost the quarterback one yard–a yard that could make the difference between someone on DraftKings or FanDuel winning or losing tens of thousands of dollars. What did that have to do with the bettor’s skill? It’s the classic risk involved in sports betting.” Aside from the utter stupidity and randomness of this example, how precisely is it different from any arbitrary event that affects any investment? Shit happens, Eric. That doesn’t mean you made a bad investment. To make an analogy, what happens when you invest in sugar futures and some unexpected weather catastrophe affects the price in a way you couldn’t have predicted? Isn’t that the classic risk of betting on options?
  • Schneiderman then goes on to write, “Like online poker, daily fantasy sports relies on a steady stream of ‘minnows’ to feed the ‘sharks.’ That’s why more than 89% of one site’s players are losers, despite seemingly endless TV ads promising easy money.” Wow, I don’t even know where to start with this. On the one hand, in the previous paragraph, you were arguing against skill, now you are saying that the skilled ‘sharks’ are devouring the unskilled ‘minnows.’ Is it skill or luck, Eric? You can’t have it both ways. Oh, and by the way, how is this any different than the stock market, where sharks and minnows pretty much defines the way it operates. Except when the sharks fuck up big time, crash the market, and then the rest of us, who aren’t even IN the game, have to pony up and bail them out.

Schneiderman’s editorial really typifies the tortured thinking and rationalization that justifies outlawing some forms of gambling and not others. Schneiderman defends what he’s doing on the basis that he’s just upholding the law, but if he didn’t feel that the law is full of awkward contradictions, he wouldn’t have felt compelled to write this editorial with it’s grasping and tortured logic. My advice? Next time you enforce a dumb law just keep your mouth shut. It may not improve your standing in my eyes but at least it’ll be less infuriatingly stupid.

 

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Could a politician have actually done something sensible?

 

The news out of Massachusetts today is that the Attorney General, Maura Healey, is proposing that daily fantasy sports be regulated not shut down. What a novel idea! Clearly New York AG Eric Schneiderman, who’s trying to run DraftKings and FanDuel right out of town, didn’t get the memo.

As The New York Times’ Joe Drape put it, Ms. Healey’s approach was “more tempered” than Mr. Schneiderman’s. I’ll put it another way: Mr. Schneiderman is an idiot and Ms. Healey, a former professional basketball player, is a forward thinker with her eye on the ball.

What she’s proposing is what’s called in the negotiation business “a win-win.” DraftKings and FanDuel get to stay in business, her state makes mondo tax revenue off of them, and the people who want to play daily fantasy sports get to keep playing them.

To me, that sounds like a no-brainer, and I applaud Ms. Healey for showing common sense. In America showing common sense gets you branded “forward thinking” by some, and a “commie” by others.

What exactly has Ms. Healey proposed? Well, that the age of participation be raised from 18 to 21; that the sites not be allowed to advertise or promote at school or college campuses or school sporting events; that the performances of athletes from schools and college sports can not be used for fantasy contests; that professional athletes, agents and team employees are prohibited from playing or taking part in contests; and that employees of the sites are forbidden from playing or taking part.

Additionally, Ms. Healey wants to impose restrictions on the amount of money participants can deposit in their accounts each month, limiting it to $1000 unless they show that they can sustain greater losses than that.

Most important, in my view, is that after pointing out that right now 2% of the players win 90% of the prize money, Ms. Healey has demanded a greater level of transparency, with the professional fantasy sports players identified, so that the amateur players know who they’re up against. But beyond that, that there be contests in which the pros are excluded from playing–“beginner” contests, as it were.

These are all reasonable and good ideas, ideas that can no doubt be further refined to make DFS more transparent and fair to everyone. Not surprisingly, both DraftKings and FanDuel are applauding Ms. Healey’s approach.

So am I.

 

 

 

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We Are Paris

Featured image

I remember how in the aftermath of 9-11, I felt a sense of powerlessness, anger and dread. The atrocity in Paris has reawakened those feelings. I walked down the street this morning on my way to the Abingdon Square farmer’s market with a sense of foreboding. I looked at other passersby suspiciously. Though Paris is across the ocean, I did not feel safe: the sense that logic and cause and effect are no longer relevant in the world, that terrible things can happen for no good reason, plagued me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the destructive effect of random violence on innocent people, whether it comes from a foreign or domestic terrorist, a school shooter or a government.

What exactly is that effect? It is the overpowering sense that we and our children can be harmed at any moment and in any place–and that no one outside our little circle of family and friends is to be trusted. That in essence is the goal of these terrorist acts. To make us feel that there is no such thing as safety or comfort. That we are vulnerable no matter where we are, be it in a restaurant, at a concert hall, in a school, at our place of work, wherever. Soon we may have to pass through metal detectors to enter a restaurant or the subway. I wish I were kidding.

I understand the paranoia and the precautionary measures that will inevitably be put in place. But that too terrifies and angers me. It plays right into the hands of those who would do us harm, who want nothing more than for us to implode, to set upon one another and compromise the very qualities that make us free–a freedom for whom many sacrificed their lives. The social fabric that holds us together is built on trust and a sense that in general people mean well and do not want to hurt us. But it is fragile. Look at how we are already coming apart at the seams.

In our own country, right wing zealots tweeted out reactions last night and today, contrasting what happened in Paris to the protests taking place on college campuses, making light of the protesting students’ need for “a safe place,” by calling them a bunch of whiners, etc., as if what happened in Paris somehow negates their feelings of disenfranchisement.

This too plays into the hands of terrorist groups, who are able to recruit willing accomplices by supplying them with a way to transfer their feelings of powerlessness and rage onto someone else–namely the rest of us.

We are in a battle for hearts and minds, and every drone attack that kills innocent people helps us lose that battle. The downtrodden and disenfranchised peoples of this world are easy targets for radicalization when they see us condemning their religion as a whole, without regard to the fact that most of them are good people just like we are. In fact, by acting as if these radical fanatics reflect Islam any more accurately than radical Tea Partiers or the Weather Underground reflect the mainstream of America, we have already lost the biggest battle. Even as we mourn this horrific tragedy, let us not simplify it or turn it into political fodder for dividing ourselves further. Let’s unite and be strong and make sure that our own freedoms are not compromised. Freedom comes with risk and at a price. Let’s not dishonor those who have given up their lives to defend it by forgetting that or giving in to fear.

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