Book review: Ship It Holla Ballas! How a Bunch of 19-Year-Old Dropouts Used the Internet to Become Poker’s Loudest, Craziest and Richest Crew
By Bookmarked and Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Friday, February 15, 2013 - 0 Comments
The online poker boom has come and gone for American gamblers—Washington clamped down in 2011—but it lasted long enough for a crew of savvy young couch potatoes to earn small fortunes. What was the point of university when they could watch their bank accounts swell as they played 16 simultaneous games of online poker on four giant computer monitors? Online winnings were not taxed, and online poker admitted them years before casinos would. These young masters studiously learned the mathematics of the game to marginalize luck and earn steady rates of return. Of course, others made their success possible: Montrealer and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté makes a notable appearance as the reported loser of $16 million in 2008.
The teenagers featured in the book gamble like pros and behave like fools. You are unlikely to keep reading unless you can endure repeated moronic tales of teenage boys ogling breasts in strip clubs and lavishly spending their winnings on booze and Rolexes, and generally proving there is no correlation between wisdom and the capacity to earn money. Every now and then there is a flicker of self-awareness. After years of vertiginous peaks and troughs, one says, “I think I’m starting to realize that making money isn’t ultimately the highest purpose of life. Money is a means to an end.”
If you can read that without a groan, you may be able to tolerate the sophomoric antics long enough to appreciate the more subtle elements of the book, notably the culture clash between the online champs and the kings of casinos. When the pallid upstarts venture to play in live poker tournaments, they earn the derision of old-timers who honed their skills at actual poker tables where bluffing was more than a matter of clicking a mouse.
By Bookmarked and Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Friday, January 18, 2013 at 9:30 AM - 0 Comments
Al-Qaeda did not die with Osama bin Laden. The militant Islamist group continues to thrive in Yemen, a corridor of desert and tribes abutting Saudi Arabia in the south of the Arabian peninsula. Johnsen tracks al-Qaeda in Yemen from the 1980s to the present in authoritative, often stunning detail. We learn about how the organization has managed to recruit and persist despite the best efforts of the U.S. and the frequently co-operative Yemeni regime. A decentralized structure of compartmentalized cells has orchestrated a steady stream of attacks against Americans, tourists, the oil industry and Yemeni “collaborators.”
The U.S. found a sometimes ally in Yemen’s then-president, Ali Abdullah Salih, who released many jihadis in 2003-04 in a failed reintegration program, and who tended to ignore al-Qaeda during civil wars in the country’s north. But the big picture is a persistent American failure to come to grips with the extent and nature of the threat. Al-Qaeda has grown in Yemen despite the blowback it faced for attacks that mostly claimed the lives of Muslim Yemenis. Johnsen suggests that many U.S. policies, including an expanded bombing campaign by unmanned drones, have made things worse. The bombings kill many—and recruit more. As one Yemeni tribal leader put it: “The U.S. sees al-Qaeda as terrorism, and we consider the drones terrorism.” Continue…
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 11:31 AM - 0 Comments
Dalhousie takes kinder approach if students are arrested
University offers most students their first real taste of freedom from home and family, including the freedom to do stupid and illegal things. Even good students can become drunken criminals.
This year, Dalhousie University unveiled a restorative justice program for students charged with relatively minor criminal offences. The university hopes to address crime without large fines or the prospect of a criminal record. It is Canada’s most ambitious effort by a university to get involved in criminal justice for its students. Other schools seem less keen to follow. Should universities act when students commit crimes off campus?
Fresh-faced undergraduates not infrequently find themselves teetering in a public place with open bottles of booze in front of unimpressed police ofﬁcers. It happens. Indeed, it happened to hundreds of students at Dalhousie University last year. Each received a ﬁne of $457.41. Those who were careless enough to damage property received the distinction of criminal records. Continue…
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Friday, October 26, 2012 at 10:25 AM - 0 Comments
Book by Stephen Bown
Before Norwegian Roald Amundsen came around, no human had ever set sight on the South or North Poles. Amundsen was born in 1872 and decided as a young man he wanted to be a hero. In the course of his life as a death-defying adventurer, he sailed through the Northwest Passage, rode a dog sled to the South Pole and flew over the North Pole, all to the delight of an enraptured global audience. He died at 55 on a foolhardy impromptu flight to rescue a stranded foe in the Arctic, not long after he told a journalist that he had achieved all his dreams: “There is nothing left for me to do.”
Bown draws on extensive research and access to the personal journals of Amundsen and his travel companions to paint rich and gripping accounts of his perilous voyages. These are often marvellously entertaining. At times the biography can seem overly reverent, but it becomes clear that Bown simply intends a robust defence of his subject’s fading and embattled legacy.
Amundsen defied the odds through obsessive preparation and innovation. He adopted Inuit clothing and igloo techniques, designed his own snow goggles, and even contemplated using polar bears to pull his sled (a plan wisely abandoned a few years before he was mauled by one of the toothy white giants). That he survived as long as he did was a miracle, but he made much of his own luck.
Amundsen cared nothing for money—it was simply a means for adventure—but he needed a lot of it. He spent his inheritance on his first boat, and even then he literally fled his creditors as he set sail. His multi-year-long expeditions were expensive, so he learned to leverage his celebrity into a fortune. He sold news as a commodity and sponsored the products of his patrons. He went on lucrative lecture tours, which he viewed as a tiresome necessity despite the public adulation. A spendthrift on dreams, he was a tireless fundraiser. He died bankrupt, missions accomplished.
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Friday, October 19, 2012 at 10:35 AM - 0 Comments
In theory, this is a memoir, but the real subject is Nigeria, with Achebe as a bit player in a catastrophe. Students of Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s first and most famous novel about a village being dragged into modernity by colonialism and missionaries, will be interested in his reflections on a bifurcated childhood. He was a devout and studious Christian who earned the nickname “dictionary”—for his command of English, the language of the colonizer. But when his parents weren’t watching, Achebe would sneak off at night to receive an “alternative education” about his native Igbo culture. Still, Achebe had enough blind faith in Britain and its institutions to send the only manuscript of his first book by post to a London publisher, where it nearly got lost. He became one of Africa’s most celebrated writers, but it wasn’t long before he was drawn into a war.
Achebe devotes most of his memoir to the brutal secessionist conflict in Biafra between 1967 and 1970. He fled ethnic cleansing in Nigeria’s capital for his Biafran homeland and soon became an international envoy for the beleaguered cause. He leveraged his status as a cultural icon to gather support for the breakaway state. Discussing his novels with world leaders, he would slip them letters about the deteriorating humanitarian catastrophe in Biafra, where millions, mostly children, would eventually die. The war comes literally to Achebe’s doorstep, with the Biafran army setting up artillery positions on the hilltop of his ancestral home.
Achebe laments much else in Nigeria. He is disillusioned enough about post-independence history to commend the British for governing “their colony . . . with considerable care.” Never mind, as he notes, that Brits rigged Nigeria’s first elections and sold the warplanes that bombed Biafrans. Achebe, ever the engaged intellectual, concludes with an appeal for political and electoral reforms. He would write Nigeria’s future if he could.
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Friday, October 5, 2012 at 11:50 AM - 0 Comments
In December 2009, Somali pirates with AK-47s and rocket- propelled grenades interrupted the ocean idyll of a retired British couple on their dream boat. Paul and Rachel Chandler were taken from their 38-foot yacht to the bush of Somalia. Unfortunately for the pirates, their prey were less wealthy than expected, and more pugnacious. The pirates held out for monetary demands that could not be met by the two “elderly paupers” (the British government, apparently, really doesn’t negotiate with pirates) who had no qualms about screaming at the men with guns.
In their minutely detailed account, the Chandlers do disappointingly little to provide context for their misadventure. Why are there so many Somali pirates, and what is their civil war about, anyway? The Chandlers spend more than a year in captivity, but expend little time understanding their captors, even in retrospect. They describe the Somalis as “irrational,” “mindless,” “inhuman”—in short, uncivilized “gangsters” who are too stupid to make good on their greed. The Chandlers descend from impatient hope to despondent despair. Often, they are simply bored. Their policy prescription for dealing with piracy, in their case and those that will inevitably follow, is rather simple: “Kill the bastards.”
The hostage ordeal is prolonged and bizarre. The Chandlers do telephone interviews with international media at the behest of their tormentors. They become the objects of international consternation, but it still takes a year to cobble together sufficient ransom money. In the end, it is not the British government or the extended Chandler family that frees the languishing couple. Rather, they owe their freedom to a British child of Somali origin who complained to his father that he could no longer play football with his mates without being heckled about pirates. The businessman father, who had left Somalia in 1997, returned for six months to pull the requisite strings. Somalis seem capable of some good, after all.
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Friday, September 21, 2012 at 11:18 AM - 0 Comments
The saga of Paul Volcker, perhaps America’s lone unsullied statesman of finance and banking, unfolds in three heroic acts. First, he persuaded “Tricky Dick” Nixon to sever the link between the American dollar and gold in 1971, which ushered in the more sustainable (and, yes, often more unstable) world of floating currencies. Second, as chairman of the Federal Reserve, he stared down Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to stop the devastation being wrought by inflation. Volcker was a Democrat, but that didn’t stop him from precipitously raising interest rates (and unemployment) six weeks before the 1980 elections. Sorry, Jimmy, but Volcker took orders from data, not politics. Reagan was happy to win the election with the inadvertent assist, but was rather less pleased when Volcker was similarly implacable for the next six years. Finally, in 2008, Volcker appeared at Barack Obama’s side to help rescue the financial system, with mixed results.
Silber, a professor at New York University, records what Volcker did, but also explains why, drawing on extensive research and 100 hours of interviews with Volcker. Silber does his best to make monetary policy debates seem as dramatic as they were consequential. This leads to some overwrought metaphors (the price of gold serves “as a carbon monoxide detector for inflationary expectations”), but mostly Silber succeeds in evaluating Volcker’s judgments over the years with clarity and without unnecessary reverence for a living legend.
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Friday, September 21, 2012 at 11:15 AM - 0 Comments
Jian Ghomeshi, heartthrob musician turned suave CBC radio host, is now indisputably cool, but it was not always thus. In 1982, he was a gangly brown boy in a white Toronto suburb, who idolized David Bowie and had the eyeliner to prove it. He avoided cigarettes because he was asthmatic and because a doctor warned him his lungs couldn’t handle them, but 14-year-old Ghomeshi made sure his clothes reeked of smoke for social credibility. He wore vintage clothes in the new wave style, even when it perplexed his Iranian immigrant parents (“You are wanting to look like beggar?”). Yes, this was a teenage time of angst before adult fame, but life was simple: it was about the music, man, and girls, too.
The year charted by the memoir sees young Ghomeshi explore his musical passion and struggle with adolescence. He isn’t as white as he wants to be or the aspirant engineer his parents want him to be. A cute neighbour never manages to grasp that Iranians are not Arabs, though he excuses her ignorance because she wears “tight jeans.” Tormentors call him “Paki” and ask where his turban is. Music sets him free. He describes the ecstasy of discovering a new favourite band at a live concert beside the girl of his dreams. Later, he and his best friend stake out a recording studio for weeks to catch a glimpse of rockers from the band Rush. When “bassist extraordinaire” Geddy Lee eventually walks by and waves his arm in greeting, the young super fans are too stunned to reciprocate.
The book suffers from one rather large problem: it is addressed to teenagers who will probably not appreciate most of its cultural references. His subject is the timeless teenage quest to be cool, but at times the book feels like an excuse to write about his favourite ’80s bands. The wafer-thin storyline—loser likes girl, gets hip, gets girl—punctuates far richer tributes to the tunes of David Bowie, the Clash, and Talking Heads. Ghomeshi had crushes on girls, but he loved music.
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 2:00 PM - 0 Comments
This is a beautiful book that somehow manages to talk about a guy with “mad girls in orbit” and a teenage girl with “a big Dominican ass . . . in a fourth dimension beyond jeans” without sacrificing its elegance. Díaz has followed up his Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) with a book of short stories revolving around a Dominican family in the U.S. Love is ostensibly the subject, though the reader may have to squint to see it through all the lust.
Mostly Díaz deals with men failing rather spectacularly at monogamy, but he also inhabits with great tenderness the point of view of a young woman living with a cheating man who continues to receive letters from a faraway wife. The collection’s last story, “A Cheater’s Guide to Love,” describes a five-year spiral into depression that follows a prodigious (and mostly unrepentant) cheater getting caught, but Díaz shows little enthusiasm for moralizing.
One of the stories is G-rated. Two young Dominican lads step into their first snowy winter to meet their white neighbours, who would rather pelt the black newcomers with snowballs than play with them. Soon, the white families vacate the neighbourhood, fleeing the wave of darker migrants. This less racy interlude is a reminder that the book’s otherwise ubiquitous sex is often just stylized punctuation for stories about struggling immigrants, a brother dying of cancer, and men who don’t quite know their hearts. Díaz’s language is ceaselessly inventive (a flashlight is a “darkness obliterator”; a disgraced boyfriend is treated like he “ate somebody’s favourite kid”) and urban (“whitegirl” is all one word). Spanish proficiency is certainly not required, but it can come in handy.
Díaz is a master of rawness and among the keenest contemporary observers of brown and black urban America. He does not preach. It feels real. He writes that the “half-life of love is forever,” but that is the closest Díaz comes to saying something pretentious. He seems more interested in lived failures than eternal ideals. This book is more about lovers than about love.
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Friday, September 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM - 0 Comments
At six foot one, he was big; his customers were bigger. In his commitment to the perfect fit, retirement was never an option.
Ljubisav “Gilbert” Lazich was born on April 9, 1928, in the village of Slobostina in the former Yugoslavia; he was only six months old when his father Teso sailed to Canada looking for work and landed in the Great Depression. Gilbert’s three older brothers died of typhoid, and he was raised by his epileptic mother Stana. During the Second World War, Germans razed the family home, but Gilbert stayed in the village until his mother died when he was 17. Gilbert, tall, handsome and poor, set off to Belgrade to learn a trade. He became a tailor even though his fellow apprentices teased him for his big hands.
Two years later, Gilbert returned to his village in an impeccable grey pinstripe suit for a local dance, where he met a 15-year-old beauty in a blue dress. Her name was Stella, and she had survived Hitler’s army by hiding for weeks in a hole covered with leaves and dirt. Gilbert asked her to dance the polka, while a guitar, bass and accordion carried the beat. After Gilbert returned to Belgrade, he wrote her a letter, “a little bit of a love story, nothing much I believed,” Stella says. She didn’t bother replying. But the young suitor returned in a few months bearing a bottle of plum brandy and a marriage proposal. He told her, “We’re orphans, we’re going to make it in this world. We have to make it.” He wanted his young wife to own a suit, so he chopped up his own and remade it to fit her.
Gilbert’s father, still in Canada, wrote his son and said he could hire someone to smuggle the couple out of the postwar gloom of Yugoslavia. So they snuck across the closed border, through bushes, down a steep hill, over a running creek. From Austria they flew to Toronto—they called it “America”—and all they knew was that everyone there was rich.
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Tuesday, August 21, 2012 at 5:00 AM - 0 Comments
The biggest issues facing the country are being tackled not by Parliament, but in court
Prime Minister Stephen Harper called it “essential.” The judge called it “fundamentally unfair, outrageous, abhorrent and intolerable.” They were both speaking about mandatory minimum jail times for gun-related crimes—Harper when touting the law requiring them, and Justice Anne Molloy of the Ontario Superior Court when she struck it down by uttering the fateful word: unconstitutional.
Harper’s mandatory minimum sentences, presented as evidence of his toughness on crime, are under judicial fire. In February, a man faced three years in jail under the 2008 law, for momentarily posing with his cousin’s illegal gun for a Facebook picture. Justice Molloy called the legislated punishment of automatic jail time “cruel” and “disproportionate.” In July, another accused faced three years for offering to sell a gun he didn’t even possess. In that case Justice Paul Bellefontaine of the Ontario Court of Justice refused to apply the sanction prescribed by law, citing Molloy’s reasoning. Many expect one of these decisions to wind its way up to the Supreme Court, where the Harper government’s crime law will officially go on trial.
The NDP enjoys the title of official Opposition in a time of majority government, but it would seem the Conservatives’ real opponents wear robes and issue decrees. In addition to the rulings on mandatory minimum sentences, judges have delivered the Tories a series of stinging defeats of late. And it’s becoming apparent that in the next few years some of the country’s biggest and most consequential debates, around issues as diverse as euthanasia, refugee detention and brothels, will be fought not in Parliament, but in the courts.
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman with Simon Hayter - Thursday, August 9, 2012 at 5:11 PM - 0 Comments
Check out our PHOTO GALLERY of Canada’s boreal forests, plus our MOREL RECIPES
Each summer hundreds of nomadic pickers prowl Canada’s boreal forests in search of the elusive morel, reports Andrew Sniderman. Click here for a stunning photo gallery of morel hunters at work from Simon Hayter and here for a couple of delicious morel recipes.
“Freedom and adventure. Those are the main draws for people. You live in a tent in the bush, wake up when you want, work as hard as you want. Nobody is looking over your shoulder,” Eric Whitehead says. The 34-year-old picks, buys and distributes mushrooms—specifically, the prized morel mushroom, which looks like a cone-shaped sponge, delights gourmands, and retails for more than $100 per dried pound. “But,” he adds, “we still joke that we are slaves to the spore, moving it around the globe, doing its bidding.”
On a decent day, morel pickers make $250 by filling a pack and selling to a local buyer. Whitehead is a pro with 13 years of experience, so he can push $400.
Earlier this summer, mostly in remote parts of British Columbia, the Yukon, Alberta and the Northwest Territories, many hundreds of nomadic commercial pickers prowled boreal forests hunting morels. Unlike Canada’s tree planters, who sweat under the thumb of gargantuan logging companies, morel pickers live beyond the corporate gaze. Businesses haven’t figured out how to effectively cultivate morels, which means pickers can be as wild as their mushrooms.
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Wednesday, August 8, 2012 at 10:31 AM - 0 Comments
Often, they receive about a quarter less funding for primary school education than other Canadian children
The two schools sit a mere five kilometres apart as the crow flies, in a rural stretch of Manitoba about four hours west of Winnipeg. Their soccer teams compete every spring. Their students groan over many of the same textbooks. But as the road from Rossburn Collegiate to the Waywayseecappo reserve school runs down a hill into a lush valley, it also crosses an invisible jurisdictional line that led to an egregious gap between native and non-native students.
Until about 18 months ago, a student in Waywayseecappo received about $7,300 in annual funding from the federal government, while a student at Rossburn Collegiate received about $10,500 from the provincial government. Then one day the disparity disappeared, poof, overnight.
After three years of talks, Aboriginal leaders in Waywayseecappo persuaded the provincial and federal governments to let them join the local school board, effectively transforming their Aboriginal students into provincial students. Under the agreement, the feds matched the provincial standard dollar for dollar. With 300 students enrolled from kindergarten to Grade 8, that meant an extra $1.2 million for Waywayseecappo’s annual budget. The school immediately hired six more teachers, and the average class size halved from more than 30 to around 17. Previously, an entire wing had sat empty for want of teachers. Now all the classrooms are in use. “We certainly managed before, but it just wasn’t fair,” says Troy Luhowy, the school’s principal, who notes that reading scores have already improved noticeably.
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Tuesday, August 7, 2012 at 3:51 PM - 0 Comments
Hormone therapy might be slowing down South Africa’s star runner
Caster Semenya wants nothing less than the happiest of endings. “The plan is to win the Olympics, that’s all. I have to win a gold,” the 21-year-old South African runner said right after qualifying for the Games in May. That was three years after she was temporarily banned from racing following a flurry of speculation over her gender. Now, though, the very hormones she has to take to satisfy the authorities she’s woman enough to compete might spoil her Olympic dream.
In 2009, Semenya’s athletic debut degenerated into nightmare. At 19, she had won the 800-m event at the World Championships in her first international competition. She soared over the finished line a full two seconds—it might as well have been mile—ahead of her nearest rival, then wagged her finger, flexed her arms and grinned sheepishly. Some whispered about the newcomer’s deep voice, sculpted biceps and jaw line. A fellow competitor who finished sixth in the race voiced her doubts with unapologetic brutality: “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Wednesday, July 18, 2012 at 11:52 AM - 0 Comments
A viral ad campaign encourages Britons to stay home and cheer on the nation’s athletes
Businesses advertise to make us buy their product—this is the normal course of things. Brewers don’t applaud the abstemious (except as drivers for drinkers). Condom-makers don’t promote abstention. So it may come as a surprise that British Airlines (BA), sponsor of the Olympics Games, is instructing potential passengers “Don’t fly” in its latest ad campaign
Apparently, the company that flew the flame to London would rather Britons stay at home to cheer on their country’s athletes rather than sink their savings in flights.
“We want to help get the nation behind our medal hopefuls,” BA head of UK sales Richard Tams said. “We believe every clap and cheer will make the difference.” So the travel company wants people to stay put, at least for a little while.
A minute-long advertisement launching the campaign premiered at the European Championships during a soccer match between Great Britain and the Ukraine. It features an airplane taxi-ing through the streets of London. Tams admitted the campaign is “tongue-in-cheek.” But BA proclaims earnest patriotism as its prime motivation. They are even offering free flights home to friends and family of Britons who live abroad.
Naturally, the campaign has been an internet hit, with over 800,000 views so far on YouTube alone. BA’s selfless advertising will probably be good for business.