Monday, February 05, 2007

Tao of Oz: Travels

Traveling always puts perspective on things. You assume and can conjure up an image of what other parts of the world are like but you never fully grasp its complexity and significance until you are confronted with it. For decades I have heard stories about Australia and my initial stereotypical opinion on the island/nation/continent was groomed my mass media and popular culture. Fosters. Crocodile Dundee. Outback Steakhouse. Kangaroos. Jacko. The Crocodile Hunter. Koala Bears. Mad Max.

Of course, none of those are true. I didn't drink any Fosters. Didn't spot any kangaroos. No koalas. No anti-semtic rants from Mel Gibson. And no one ever heard of Paul Hogan. I did have one random Steve Irwin happenstance and that's when Brandon Schaefer and I went to a bar in Sydney and one of the big screens were showing a Crocodile Hunter DVD.

In the last two years I had been hearing interesting things about the Aussie poker scene. Prior to Joe Hachem winning the 2005 WSOP, the only two poker players I knew that came from Australia were Tony G and Mel Judah. Now I know about local guys named Billy the Croc, Mick the Hoon, James "Welcome Back" Potter, Kiwi G, Lee "Final Table" Nelson, Jethro Horowitz, and Gary Benson who is rumored to be swinging a paint can below the equator. Not to mention dozens of other colorful characters and players that have honed their skills online, in RSL halls (like VFW halls), or in games held in the back room of pubs.

After a few days in Melbourne I had gotten a crash course in the origins of poker in Oz. I learned that as online gaming is being strangled to death by a menagerie of suits, cops, judges and politicians in America, the international poker markets are steadily growing with new emerging markets ready to burst. For whatever reason you are playing poker, there are millions of other players in places on the other side of the planet that are doing it for the same exact reasons.

Everyone knows that without a constant influx of fish and donkeys burning through their paychecks, the online poker games are going to get tougher and tougher. Without a quick, safe, and easy way to fund/withraw online poker accounts, the majority of wealthy American action junkies have to seek alternative means to get the money online or find some other way to get a fix. Most of them have addictive personalities and will seamlessly absorb into other gambling vices, online subcultures, or other hobbies. The profitable ring games will eventually dry up as the rest of the serious players and semi-pros will move closer to casinos and card rooms or make more frequent trips to Las Vegas, Tunica, Foxwoods, AC, or head out to their local riverboat or backroom game.

Until The Man calls off his big dogs or until there's a revolutionary form of Neteller on the cusp of being released, the orgiastic donkfest of jonesin' Yanks will have to wait a while until Americans are let back into the mix or until the doors to China and the Pacific swing wide open. Both will eventually happen. But when?

Moving on...

Australia has always been a country of sporting activities so it was natural that they'd eventually get into poker. Horse racing was one of the first big gambling events and the tradition still continues every year with the Melbourne Cup. It's like the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes rolled up with American Idol and the Super Bowl. That's how huge the day is which happens to be a holiday and everyone gets off from school and work to partake in the pre-race festivities.

There's four or five different forms of rugby, not to mention football (soccer) and Aussie Rules football. Of course there's cricket which captivated me for hours on end. I think I finally picked up a basic knowledge of the game. There are local teams from each city and a national team that plays week long matches with England, New Zealand, South Africa, and Pakistan.

The Australian Open tennis tournament is one of the four major events on the circuit. It was going on at the same time as the Aussie Millions. Several of the biggest pros were staying in the same complex and it was not uncommon to bump into Andy Roddick, Martina Hingis, or Maria Sharapova in the elevators.

With an abundant area for beaches, surfing is extremely popular on the Gold Coast. Then there's sailing and America's Cup. The first country to whoop the US in regatta sailing in 132 years was the Aussies' vessel Australia II. Since then the Americans recaptured the Cup, but the Kiwis won it one year. There was plenty of basketball on the tube as well. Those guys like Andrew Gaze, Luc Longley, and Andrew came from somewhere, right?

With an active sports culture comes the British tradition of sports betting. Sports and betting have always had a symbiotic relationship. Corner oddsmakers and bookies are legal in Australia provided you have a bookie license. At one point, Barracuda pointed out that three of the largest bookies in all of Australia were sitting in the poker room one night. Sports betting is out in the open. And while there's always a layer of sleaze involved with sports gambling, the openness of the bookie operations minimizes the shadiness which means the criminal element is virtually eliminated from the equation.

That's what is being overlooked by the politicians and DOJ. If you criminalize a popular and profitable entity (whether it's booze, drugs, or online gaming), it's a matter of time before several spheres of organized crime rings will swoop in taking over the industry. Part of the reason there was no hooker bar at the Crown Casino was that there's no demand for one due to legalized prostitution in Australia, with a famous brothel (that's publicly traded on the Aussie Stock Exchange) located not too far away.

Of course my favorite Aussie Gangster gambling related tale involved the jockey who refused to throw a race. He ran it and won it, so the pissed off gangsters kidnapped the jockey and hung him upside down in a helicopter as it flew over Sydney Harbour. They didn't kill him and let him live as he never again argued when he was asked to throw a race.

Poker did not start to gain popularity in Australia until post WWII, when a new wave of immigrants from Greece and Italy assimilated into the culture. They started gambling as a quick and easy way of earning money for their recently relocated families. Some of them played Manilla, which is still popular today. It's a version of Hold'em with only 32 cards as all the 2-3-4-5-6 cards are removed from the deck. You have to use two cards in your hand and three of five community cards that are dealt one at a time. There's more betting with two extra rounds.

One of the Aussie Millions tournaments was the $3K buy-in Two-card Manilla with $3K rebuys. Lots of old Greek guys show up once a week at the poker room at the Crown Casino. They flood the air with Greek curse words, mark the cards, then accuse each other of cheating. Of course, they are having a balls out time.

... to be continued.

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