Thursday, May 27, 2010

Euronating IV

I left Venice on Sunday evening and boarded the night train to Paris. This was quite an experience. First I got in the wrong cabin. The number 85 referred not to the cabin but to the carriage; this made no sense to me - how can there possibly be 85 carriages? These were six-man cabins (with bunks on three levels) and I soon found myself sharing a cabin with four Argentinians. Patagonians in fact, and you could say they were in fairly high spirits. ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba! They also had ridiculous amounts of luggage. I tried to communicate with them using what little Spanish I could remember, but I felt shy and boring in comparison to them. We talked briefly about the upcoming World Cup. They said they had a soft spot for England and that some sort of bond (!) between the two countries had been created following la Mano de Dios in 1986. I grabbed one of the top bunks (¡arriba!) and slept reasonably well, despite the appearance during the night of the sixth member of the cabin, whom there simply wasn't room for amongst all those suitcases.
In Paris I stayed at another overpriced hotel (I was getting fed up of this) and attempted to get myself a ticket to Roland-Garros. Unfortunately it was a public holiday (I didn't know this until I got there) and all the daytime tickets had gone. However as people leave the stadium their tickets can be resold to people who arrive later, so I tried to get one of those evening tickets. I queued for over three hours. It was chaos, and arguments broke out involving people accused of queue-jumping. I'd almost reached the front of the queue when an intimidating line of gendarmes suddenly appeared, blocking off the entrance. Bugger. But then I saw some people run round the police towards the other entrance which they had neglected to block. I did the same. At 7pm, and with a stroke of luck, I was in. I saw the tail end of Murray's five-set win over Gasquet. Murray was playing so well that it was hard to imagine he'd earlier been facing elimination, down two sets and a break. I caught the last few games of Alicia Molik's brave fight against Jankovic before moving to Court 14 to see another fifth set involving Mardy Fish and Michael Berrer. It got very dark out there, Wimbledon 2008 final kind of dark, and I was amazed the players completed the match (Fish the eventual winner at around 9:40). All in all I'd had a good day. I'd spoken to more people on that day than during the rest of my trip combined, and I surprised myself with the level of French I was still able to speak.

Yesterday morning I got the Eurostar to London. At King's Cross I waited for the platform number to show on the departure board, but it just showed a zero which I assumed meant they didn't yet know what platform my train would leave from. But then I twigged: in true Hogwarts Express style, King's Cross now has a Platform 0!

I had a good and varied trip, but not without a couple of misgivings. Firstly I couldn't believe how much I was spending on sleeping, eating and drinking, all basic human needs. Secondly I found the whole business of travelling rather stressful. Well, not the travelling so much as the arsing around with hotels. I stayed in seven different hotels. Maybe I could have relieved some of that stress by booking my accommodation in advance, but I've always tried to avoid planning if I can help it. Finally I needed more company. Hopefully next time I go anywhere I might have some.

Euronating III

When I arrived in Venice at 2pm on Thursday I asked at the tourist office for available hotels. The cheapest they had was a three-star €120-a-night affair a minute's walk from St Mark's Square. The hotel was slap-bang in the epicentre of the action, but I couldn't believe cheaper hotels didn't exist, so I quickly set about finding one. I still stayed at the expensive place for one night but my last two nights were spent at a cheaper and more relaxing hotel towards the east of the city. At first I found Venice rather intimidating. Even with a decent map I got lost all the time. Things improved towards the end, but I would still walk for miles without really going anywhere. The boat - or vaporetto - was a life-saver for me, and I had almost perfect weather all the time I was there.

I tried to speak as much Italian as I could in my time there, but when they insisted on replying in English I began to think my lessons had been purely an academic exercise. In Venice, where it's almost expected that Italian won't be your first language, I virtually gave up with the whole Italian lark. And I certainly would never dream of using a public toilet in Venice:

Just like every country, Italy is full of graffiti, but as graffiti is an Italian word, maybe it originated there. Whatever, the graffiti I saw was very different to the stuff I was used to. The main difference was that I could actually understand it. A lot of the messages were a simple "I love you". I saw this one in Pisa:

In Italy I saw an impressive collection of clocks. I like clocks, or indeed anything with a nice analogue display. Some of them had only one hand - presumably they pre-dated the invention of the minute hand - and the single hand would waft around, pointing at nothing in particular. Others would have a face with hours numbered all the way to 24. But there were two clocks that for me stood out:

The one at the top is from the campanile in St Mark's Square in Venice; the bottom one is from the Piazza di Garibaldi (of course!) in Parma.

Euronating II

From Lucca I spent a very pleasant four hours or so on a train through Tuscany and up to Parma. It's an inexpensive and relatively stress-free way of getting around the country: a ticket to get from London to Huntingdon cost me £21; getting from Bologna to Parma - almost the same distance - set me back just a fiver.

In 2008 I visited Bologna and I liked the place a lot. I thought of going back there this time but went to Parma instead, another city whose name screams food. And I have to admit I pigged out a bit. Pizzas, pasta, gelati, plates of ham and cheese. I also bought ham, cheese, salami and balsamic vinegar for Gran who turns 88 on Friday, and (now this is a real rarity) a few items of clothing for myself. I even managed to find a cheap hotel, a place that did have two stars but one of them had been Tipp-exed out. It was only €35. I made a note of the hotel in case I ever visit Parma again.

My first taste of Parma wasn't so good. When my train pulled into the station I was dying to use the loo, but the station loos cost 70 cents. That's $1.30 where I'm from. A dollar thirty to have a pee! As they say, in France or Italy you don't spend a penny any more, you euronate. In fact in Europe it's very easy to piss money away full stop, especially if you're a one-man band like me. The cost of accommodation for a single person is a real killer.
A couple more hours on the train and I was in Venice, which was like nothing I'd ever seen before. A fantasy land. If it was simply a giant water maze covering a few square miles, with none of the history, Venice would still be incredible. But around every corner there was a photo opportunity. I found it hard to believe that people actually lived there.

Euronating I

In the last ten days I've been busy travelling, so I've had very little access to a computer. I'm back now, so in theory I have unlimited access, but in reality I only get a decent run when my gran decides to take a nap.

On the 15th I flew from Stansted to Pisa where I spent two nights. The city is world famous for its Leaning Tower, which I climbed at a cost of €15. In the past there were no railings at the top, so scaling the tower would have been something of an adrenaline rush, but when it reopened in 2001 safety was made much more of a priority. I'm glad I went up, just so I could say that I had, but my favourite attraction was the Camposanto, a large cemetery that was destroyed in World War II and later restored. I spent a good hour looking at the frescoes and inscriptions, trying to figure out what all of it meant. There was also a statue of Leonardo Fibonacci, the famous mathematician.

I didn't have great weather in Pisa, but there's not much you can do about that. Pisa has quite a large student population, and it made a welcome change on Sunday night to see crowds of students in the Piazza di Garibaldi (doesn't every Italian town have one of those?) eating their gelati. When I was at university various substances were consumed at weekends, but I don't remember gelati being on the menu.
From Pisa it was a short train ride to Lucca, an ancient city with a wall surrounding it. I spent several hours walking around the centre of town, ending up at the stunning amphitheatre. Lucca was a great town - if anything it had more to offer than Pisa - but like on many occasions I could have benefited from having someone with me.

Monday, May 17, 2010

On tilt

I'm in Pisa on a wet, stormy evening. I'll write more when I get the chance. It isn't easy trying to upload images from my camera in an internet café, so I'll just post this one:

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Made it

Well I made it. From beginning to end the journey took forty hours including a ferry, a bus, a train, a taxi and that six-hour wait at Hong Kong. I can have no complaints about the Air New Zealand flight out of Auckland. I was lucky enough to have an empty seat next to me, so I managed to doze a bit and see two very good films (Precious and A Single Man); the 11½ hours went by quickly. Coming into Hong Kong I didn't realise how mountainous it was, even though I'd landed there before. The airport is vast but it seemed the various shops selling designer goods were repeated throughout. You can only stare at banks of Cartier, Gucci and Omega watches for so long, although this time I was able to say, wow, with my poker winnings I can almost afford half this watch! Unlike the Air New Zealand 777, the Lufthansa Jumbo hadn't been brought into the 21st century with seat-back screens, and the flight to Frankfurt did seem to drag. The final flight to Heathrow took barely an hour, then I hopped on the underground. Having been out of the country a while, I always find the tube a bit of an eye-opener. I was greeted by a mob of vocal, alcohol-fuelled Chelsea fans whose team had obviously won the Premier League a few hours earlier. Campione, campione, olé, olé, olé! At the time I had no idea that they'd just thrashed Wigan 8-0. More striking were the women, the likes of which don't exist in New Zealand. How long did it take you to get your hair like that? And how much do those earrings weigh? It was hard not to stare. I wonder what they thought of me, looking washed-out and dishevilled. They must have thought I'd come from the other side of the world or something.

I arrived on my gran's doorstep, in Houghton, at 11:30 on Sunday night. It was great to see her. So far she's managed better than I might have expected. Things aren't easy - she gets confused a lot - but as long as my aunt stays out of the picture I think she'll be OK. On Monday morning I took the bike into St Ives. It was great to see the town again, especially on a Monday which is market day.

I'd planned to leave the country this morning, but realising I might upset my gran if I left so soon, I changed my flight (at a cost of course) and will now be flying to Pisa on Saturday. This lunchtime I got a surprise phone call from my brother. It was a pleasure to talk to him. We even talked politics for the first time I can remember.

We now have a government. Having voted in two MMP elections in New Zealand, I found it mildly amusing that the process of forming a coalition government caused such consternation here. I think a cobbled-together alliance of Labour, the Lib Dems and a bunch of nationalist parties would have been a disaster and I'm glad the Lib Dems went with the Tories in the end. There are clearly some major differences in policy between the two parties, but who knows, it just might work. I hope so.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


I'll be on the plane pretty soon now. I'm a bit nervous to tell the truth. For the first time in a long time I'm actually going to miss people. Even back in 2003 when I shifted my whole life 12,000 miles, I wasn't particularly affected emotionally. With the notable exception of my grandmother who I saw maybe every other weekend, I simply didn't have anyone around me to miss.

I'll be flying out at 11:15 tonight on NZ39. It's a great time of day to leave because I'll feel like falling asleep then. Whether I actually do is another matter of course. I'll then touch down in Hong Kong (assuming my plane successfully negotiates the skyscrapers) and I'll be stuck there for bloody ages. Six hours. I'll be cursing the fact that none of the cafés and shops will be open when I arrive (they'll have opening times of 8am till 8pm or whatever, even though when you're flying there's no longer any sense of a.m. or p.m.). I then fly Lufthansa to London via Frankfurt; when I finally get to my gran's it'll be elevenish on Sunday night. I hope she won't mind.

I'll only have a couple of days in the UK before I take a Ryanair flight to Brescia. From there I'll catch a train to Venice, which will be an amazing experience I'm sure. Hopefully I'll be able to get accommodation there for two nights, at least, before exploring a bit more of northern Italy. I then plan to travel through France on the TGV, maybe catch some of Roland-Garros if I can somehow get hold of a ticket, then take the Eurostar to London on the 25th.

I'll spend as much of my remaining time in the UK with my gran as I can (I feel a bit bad that I'm not spending longer there) although I'll want to catch up with my brother as well as some old friends from university in Birmingham (with the exception of one bloke, I've almost fallen out of touch with them).

I leave London on June 9th and then head to Bangkok. Hopefully the political situation in Thailand will have improved by then, or else I'll have to cross the border into one of the neighbouring countries, meaning all kinds of fun and games getting visas. I get back to Auckland on the 24th when the big job search will really begin.

I did follow the British election yesterday, quite intently. I was shocked to learn that many people ended up in long queues at badly understaffed polling places and were unable to exercise their democratic rights. Heads will roll I'm sure. And some of the results from individual seats were frankly bizarre. It reminded me a bit of the 2000 US election when all those people in Florida accidentally voted for Pat Buchanan. I really do hope they get things sorted quickly.

The poker win. It's not like I hit six numbers on Lotto or anything, but I can't deny it's a significant financial boost to me. I hope I can enjoy it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Tuesday. What a day. At 9am I fired up the SCOOP badugi tournament, not really expecting much. I was sure I'd played significantly more badugi than most of the field, and I rated my chances of some kind of payout at just about even, but making the serious money was such a remote possibility I had hardly considered it.

I didn't start well. In the first hour I won just one pot. During the first break I brought my washing in and then got back to business. Or so I thought. Dammit, I've lost my internet connection. Unplug, plug, unplug, plug. Still no reading, captain. I ring Vodafone. I'm on hold for ages. Stop it with the dance music at this time of the morning, would you? I finally get through to a bloke who was nice enough but clearly not based in New Zealand. "Have you tried unplugging it and plugging it back in?" "Yes, five times." I was told to type in various passwords and codes, then he noticed his switchboard was red hot. There was an Auckland-wide outage; he gave me a two-hour timeframe. Oh well. A quick back-of-an-envelope calculation told me I'd be blinded out of the tournament in almost exactly two hours.

I wasn't too disappointed. I hadn't invested much time or money in the tournament and I had plenty of other stuff to be getting on with. I left my computer on just in case; having worked in a large company I knew that "two hours" can be anywhere from a minute to some time next Tuesday.

When my connection miraculously sprung back to life - I was out for forty minutes - I still had nearly 80% of my initial 5000 chips. Things didn't improve much after that though, and I thought there can't be many tournaments where you can win just one pot in more than two hours of play and still show signs of life. In the third hour, with half my original stack left, I made a six badugi to virtually double up against a fellow short stack who I could tell had simply had enough of this badugi shit. I kept hanging in there but in the fourth hour, with half the 2408-player field remaining, I got involved with a couple of marginal hands and my stack was crippled. I was then dealt a one-card draw to a rough eight and had no real choice but to commit. I was three-bet by a monster draw and my tournament life hung by a thread. On the second draw I hit the two of diamonds to make 872A, my opponent missed, and I survived. I was about a 35/65 underdog on that hand. Two out of three times I would have exited right there.

I capitalised on my good fortune to build my stack up to 31,000 only to become one of the short stacks again as the money approached. When the bubble burst with 440 players left I was down to 11,000. Then something funny, but totally understandable when I think about it, happened. People started dropping like flies. You see, the payout structure was totally wack. Paying 440 is too many. Most of these people would only get their money back, plus a tiny bit more, and what's the point of that? And even as players were eliminated, the payouts hardly went up at all; 200th only paid slightly more than 400th, while even 100th was only enough to double your money. So it was hardly surprising that many of the short stacks said "sod this" and loosened up their play. Hence I decided to do the exact opposite. I haven't got a lot of chips here, but if I can just wait for a good hand and let everyone else knock each other out, who knows?

This strategy seemed to work. I played straightforwardly, betting aggressively with my good three-cards and staying out of the way with anything dodgy. With eighty or so left I hit the tournament lead and, almost in disbelief, took a screen shot of the lobby. At the ten-hour mark I realised I had a number of advantages over much of the field:
1. Yes I've been playing for ten hours and I'm getting a little tired, but think of all the poor sods in the States downing cans of Red Bull to avoid falling asleep at the wheel, or rather the screen. In contrast it's 7pm here and I'm still very much awake.
2. I've taken - and studied for - a lot of exams in my time, so concentrating on one thing for ten hours or more in a day is not a foreign concept to me.
3. I'm playing only this tournament. There were big Omaha tournaments going on at the same time. The very thought of playing simultaneous badugi and Omaha sounds like a nightmare. And of course people will be playing cash games and surfing the net and heaven knows what else.

I never thought seriously about the money until we were down to two tables, or to be more specific, eleven players. By this stage I was guaranteed a couple of hundred, but man were there eleven of us for a long time. And my stack was dwindling. Reaching the final eight would mean an extra hundred or so, while seventh paid over twice what eighth did! I wondered what was so special about seventh. As I said, the payouts were all wack. In fairly dire chip poo, I then won two big hands. On the first of these I committed with 43A while my opponent, who had tried to push me off my hand, had complete junk. I won the second as my six badugi went up against a seven.

As we hit the much-needed 15-minute break at the twelve-hour mark, I was chip leader with five players left. I glanced at those prizes again. What's fourth? Whoa. What's third? Oh man. I took a walk around the block in a bit of a daze. On my return we were soon down to three. Many more hands become playable three-handed, so I had to keep telling myself not to just click fold all the time. When we got heads-up I was at a slight chip disadvantage. Also I’d played very little heads-up badugi so I was flying by the seat of my pants. What should I three-bet with pre-draw? Three-card sixes? Smooth sevens? Nine badugis are monsters now, right? My opponent then wanted to make a deal. He was talking chip equity numbers and I had no real idea if I was being screwed over or not. In hindsight perhaps I was (at the time I was behind in chips by nearly two to one) but some PokerStars guru was on hand and everything seemed above board. I felt I had very little bargaining power as I’d never been anywhere near that situation before, and heck, win or lose the resulting payout would be beyond my wildest dreams (I later found out that my foe had taken home four figures a few times before). I took over the chip lead and on a couple of occasions I was a massive favourite to win, but after going head-to-head for more than an hour I’d had my chips. Second place for a whopping payout of US$4758. I was stunned.

Despite the previous day winning more than enough to pay for my next car (and the insurance for it!), yesterday was just a normal day, though I was very tired from Tuesday’s 14-hour-plus marathon. I talked at length with my counsellor about my relationship with Mum. Last night I attended the men’s depression group for the first time in ages (and also the last time in ages). I’d thought about buying drinks for everyone as a gesture, or perhaps going across the road to Hell Pizza (which, as the player who beat me was called Hellhound, would have been appropriate). In the end, as Andy suggested, I just got a few nibbles. We chatted about life, one of the blokes read out part of a play he had written, and I even talked about my gambling exploits with a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer.

Yesterday I spent some time just sitting out in the garden; it was a glorious autumn day. I realised one thing: whatever my next job is, I don’t want it to involve staring at a screen for 14 hours a day. I want to see some sunshine, some people, some life. I haven’t done enough of that lately. Tomorrow I’ll be seeing the careers advisor again.

The results of Britain’s general election will come in tomorrow. It will be a very tight race. If I was still in my old job I’d follow it on the internet at work, but I’m not sure if I will tomorrow. I’m hoping for a hung parliament and the Lib Dems to gain some influence, though I’m not sure it will really make much difference whatever happens.

It’s not long till I’ll be on the plane and I’ve still got so much to do before then. Maybe tomorrow I’ll write a quick post giving some idea of my itinerary over the next six or seven weeks. One thing’s for sure: poker will be off the radar.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Please Mum, try to understand

Mum left this morning. For four days we got on like a house on fire, or almost, as she tidied and organised my flat and made lists for this or that. On Friday we saw Boy which I found quite moving; it certainly lived up to its very positive reviews. On Saturday we ate at Manna, the local Thai restaurant. My curry was predictably very tasty. But yesterday afternoon everything kicked off. I was depressed and wasn't in the mood for doing anything. We went to the supermarket. Now I don't do supermarkets when I'm depressed, and certainly not in the daytime when it's busy. An exception to this was after last Saturday's tennis disaster when I needed basics like bread and milk. That time I literally ran through the supermarket aisles, grabbed my bread and milk, and got the hell out of there as fast as I could. Yesterday I told Mum I needed to get out of there, fast, and that's when all hell broke loose. She was very upset and angry with the way I acted in the supermarket. I was dumbstruck. What did I do wrong?! When we got back to my flat we had a three-hour argument, if you can call it that. I made the fatal mistake of trying to reason with her and explain my depression. "But I get depressed too, you know." No you bloody well don't. "You've got no respect for your mother!" Of course I respect you. "All I get from you is hate, hate, hate!" What?! Are you serious? I love you. Unfortunately Mum's understanding of depression is in the dark ages, and I hate to say it but after thirty years I sometimes wonder if she really understands me either. But I love her. A lot.

Last Tuesday I saw Career Services. My advisor was clearly a very clever woman. We talked about all the various options, and finding a suitable job this side of Christmas suddenly seemed possible. I'll be seeing her again on Friday.

I'll be leaving the country in under five days and I'm starting to actually think about my trip. I'm a bit worried about the Thailand bit on the way back, with all the unrest currently happening there. If I decide to hop over to any of the neighbouring countries I'll need a visa, but things might be fine in Thailand in a month's time.

Tomorrow I'll be playing the low buy-in SCOOP badugi tournament. I'm lucky that it's a 9am start on a day when I don't have to do anything, and it's happening before I go away. It's a much deeper tournament than anything I've played before and I could be playing for several hours. Or not. I'll give a report in my next post.