Archive for the ‘Vegas, Baby’ category

Comic Art Friday: Let’s make some REAL news

August 11, 2017

I’m just back from my annual junket to the Trivia Championships of North America (TCONA) in Las Vegas, and man, is my brain fried.

I’ve attended every TCONA since the first one in 2011, and it seems as though it’s even more of a blast each successive year. It’s my one opportunity every summer to interface in person with fellow quizzers (including many other former — and some yet future — Jeopardy! champions) from all over the continent (and in a few cases, from other continents), amid the diz-busting, face-melting heat of Vegas in August.

Once again, I managed to keep my six-year medal-winning streak alive, with a bronze in the Team Trivia Championship (shared with five of the nicest and smartest people you’d meet anywhere). When you can’t be the brightest bulb in the room, it’s good to be one of the luckiest.

Best of all, the Pirate Queen joined me as usual at the end of the convention for a few days of Vegas-style R&R, as we are wont to enjoy.

But you’re here for the comic art, aren’t you?

All righty then.

Starman and The Creeper, pencils and inks by Tom Derenick

Today’s featured artwork is this tremendous effort by Tom Derenick, a leading contender in the Why Isn’t This Artist More Famous? sweepstakes. Our latest dip in the Common Elements theme pool matches The Creeper, one of Steve Ditko’s less prominent creations, with the Golden Age hero Starman. What in the wide world of DC Comics might these two have in common, you ask? Perhaps more than you’d think.

When we first encounter the man who would become The Creeper in Showcase #73 (March 1968), he’s Jack Ryder, an obnoxious blowhard TV personality. Starman in civilian life is Ted Knight, who shares his name with an actor (sadly, no longer with us) best known for playing… wait for it… an obnoxious blowhard TV personality. There’s your first common element.

I say “first” because sometimes when I devise a new Common Elements concept, I’m so focused on the idea I have for the project that I miss entirely plausible alternate connections between the characters involved. My good friend and colleague, the legendary commission collector Damon Owens, was quick to point out one here that I didn’t even think about.

The alter egos of these two characters go together to form “Knight Ryder,” a title differing only in spelling from that of a popular action-adventure program from the 1980s. That series, coincidentally, starred David Hasselhoff, a man who also fits the description of… wait for it… an obnoxious blowhard TV personality.

(Incidentally, any additional connection, real or imagined, to an obnoxious blowhard TV personality currently in national public office is 100% serendipitous. *cough*)

So, there’s another common element — one you’d suppose that a self-professed trivia maven such as your Uncle Swan would have picked up on from Jump Street.

Alas, no. Therefore, my thanks to Damon for sweeping the glass and snatching the uncontested rebound.

Back to our spotlight heroes for a moment. As noted previously, The Creeper sprang from the fevered imagination of Steve Ditko — probably best known as the artist co-creator of Marvel’s Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, but also the source of such characters as The Question, Hawk and Dove, and Shade the Changing Man.

In his debut adventure, Jack Ryder becomes The Creeper through the most unlikely of circumstances. In his capacity as a security expert for the television network that recently fired him from his talk-show-hosting duties, Ryder hunts down the subversive agents who kidnapped a famous scientist. While tracking the kidnappers, Ryder crashes a high-society masquerade ball wearing a costume he threw together from random items — the costume that later becomes The Creeper’s signature look. When Ryder finds the missing scientist, the man gives him a serum that speeds healing from injury, along with a device that enables Ryder to transform his apparel from his everyday clothes to his Creeper garb in the blink of an eye. The scientist is soon murdered, leading Ryder to devote himself to battling evildoers.

Starman’s history dates back to Adventure Comics #61 (April 1941), wherein astronomer Ted Knight invents a device he dubs a gravity rod. This handheld implement allows Knight to fly and to fire blasts of energy at his opponents. Almost a year later, in All-Star Comics #8 (January 1942 — the same issue in which Wonder Woman makes her debut appearance, although in a separate story), Starman and blind crimefighter Doctor Mid-Nite join the Justice Society of America, the original superhero team.

Starman faded from the scene (like most Golden Age superheroes) in the late 1940s. In the intervening decades, several other DC characters have used the Starman identity — some connected by legacy to the original Ted Knight version, others completely unrelated. A cynic might opine that DC keeps creating new Starman types merely to keep its trademark alive… but we’re not cynics here, are we?

Returning to our artwork: Not only does Tom Derenick draw with classic style and razor-sharp precision, but he also employs a brilliant twist of perspective here. If you look closely at the background, you’ll notice that the “bottom” of the scene from a real-world point of view is actually the right-hand side of the frame (in other words, that’s where the “ground” is). Thus, in portrait orientation — which is clearly how Derenick expects the viewer to see the image — it appears that The Creeper is jumping down onto an upwardly rising Starman, in attack mode. But when we adjust the angle, and put the bottom of the frame where it would actually be, we observe that it is in fact Starman who has the upper hand, and The Creeper is leaping (or falling) backward, away from his opponent. (See the rotated image below.)

Starman and The Creeper, pencils and inks by Tom Derenick

It’s a masterful shot, perfectly designed and executed. When Tom sent me his preliminary sketch early on in the project, the background was merely suggested by a handful of lines. Only when I saw the finished piece fully rendered could I understand and appreciate what the artist envisioned. I was completely blown away. You might be too.

As with so many things in this life, it’s all in how you look at it.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

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TCONA 3: Most of my pursuits are trivial

August 16, 2013

I just flew in from Las Vegas, and boy, is my brain tired.

Actually, the Pirate Queen and I flew back from Bright Light City two days ago, and I’m mostly not tired any more. I’d headed to Vegas last weekend for the third annual Trivia Championships of North America — henceforth, TCONA, or I’ll be typing all day. The Pirate Queen joined me on Sunday following the festivities, and we spent a blissful three days checking out the sights and sounds of one of my favorite vacation destinations.

But let’s talk TCONA.

What began two summers ago as a largely informal gathering of game show champions, Quiz Bowl veterans, and pub quiz mavens has ballooned in this third installment into a real live media event. Not only were crews from two nationally televised game shows — NBC’s Million Second Quiz, and The Chase, GSN’s new Stateside version of the UK hit — on site to conduct in-person auditions, but the stars of both the US and UK editions of The Chase also participated in several of the weekend’s competitions. The Experts, easily the best weekly quiz program on YouTube, taped four episodes before a live audience. And of course, there was in attendance the usual assortment of trivia geeks from all over the continent, and beyond. (I met at least one fellow who’d come all the way from Sweden. Or maybe Norway. Somewhere in Scandinavia, anyway.)

A summary of one attendee’s highlights follows.

The weekend commenced on Friday morning with a multi-part written quiz. This opening salvo serves not only to start the neurons firing, but also to provide an initial gauge of one’s level among the competitors. My first thought after completing the test was that I should have ingested more coffee before we began. I was relatively pleased, once the scores were published later that day, to discover that I hadn’t fared as poorly as I feared, and in fact, I’d outpointed several folks whose names are far better known in the trivia world than my own. With another triple latte in my system, I might have performed even better.

One of TCONA’s primary individual events is 5×5, a buzzer battle whose gameplay bears distant similarity to a certain television quiz program with which I am intimately acquainted. Despite the aforementioned acquaintance, I never seem to do very well at 5×5, and this year’s contest was no exception. I lost my first match thanks to a foolishly aggressive final wager — I was leading up to that point — on a question about Celebrity Apprentice, a program with which I am clearly not as intimately acquainted as I thought. I was never a factor in my second game, and thus lost any hope of advancing to further rounds.

I had high expectations for myself in another individual event, LearnedLeague Live. At TCONA 1, I won my first round against seven other competitors, despite never having played the game before. Last year, I held my own at an eight-player table that included several seasoned LearnedLeague veterans; I didn’t win the table, but I felt that I acquitted myself decently. This year, I made the critical error of playing at a table featuring two of the greatest (and two of my favorite) players in Jeopardy! history, Jerome Vered and Dan Melia. Note to self: Next year, instead of sitting with people you like, sit with people you might stand a chance of beating. Assuming there are any.

For the main team event, Quiz Bowl, I reconnected with two other members of last TCONA’s silver-medal-winning squad for a run at fresh hardware. Our team captain, Dave Legler, who once bagged $1.7 million on the game show Twenty-One, recruited as our fourth player a trivia host from Chicago, Jeremy Cahnmann. Combine that with our not-so-secret weapon, Jonathan Hess, a soft-spoken grad student from South Carolina who knows more arcane information than I’ve forgotten — and I’ve forgotten a lot over the years — and little old me (you remember that I’ve won eight games on that TV quiz show with the Canadian ex-pat, right?), and we liked our chances going in. We galloped off to a tremendous start, going undefeated in our first three games and winning our four-team bracket. Then, in our first elimination match, we ran into a tough crew led by Anne Hegerty, one of the “chasers” on the original British version of The Chase. As coincidence would have it, the game commenced with a battery of Anglocentric material that Anne leaped all over like a wolf attacking a Porterhouse. Our side rallied, though, making up ground furiously as the game progressed, only to lose in the end by the value of a single question. It was a hard loss to stomach… but there’s always next year.

Luckily for me, redemption came in the other team event, the Pub Quiz Mashup. Another Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions veteran, Dr. Shane Whitlock, invited me to team up with him and his charming bride. We added three other players to fill our roster, which Shane dubbed (in the time-honored pub quiz tradition of quirky team names) “Natalie Portmanteau.” After seven often-hilarious rounds of play, we walked away with the silver medal. Except… well… we didn’t exactly. An apparent scoring error, uncovered between the end of the event and the medal presentation the following day, resulted in our being bumped from second place to third. So we got the bronze medal instead of the silver. I don’t care — it started out silver, and I’m sticking to that. It’ll always be silver to me.

Having the two hottest new game shows in television making their first TCONA appearances generated considerable buzz. Both Mark “The Beast” Labbett, the “chaser” on the US version of The Chase, and the show’s producer came in for Q&A sessions. (Not only is Mark a smart fellow, he’s also ginormous. They don’t call him The Beast for nothing.) Quite a few folks auditioned for Million Second Quiz; it’ll be interesting to watch the show and see how many people I know who made the final cut.

Speaking of game shows, if you aren’t already watching The Experts every Monday (or whenever you choose — it’s on YouTube, so tune in when it suits you, but the new eps post on Mondays), you should be, doggone it. Produced by my Jeopardy! colleague Alan Bailey, it’s consistently as entertaining a 20 minutes as you’ll spend. Alan and his crew shot four new games on Saturday night, including an all-star slugfest between The Chase‘s Anne Hegerty (whose subject specialty was Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) and Jeopardy! superstars Brad Rutter and Roger Craig (experts on Mad Men and Prince, respectively). All four games offered action, suspense, brain-shredding trivia superiority by the contestants, and abundant joviality for all. I won’t spoil the outcomes for you — you’ll just have to hie yourself over to YouTube when the new shows post, and check them out for yourself.

There were, as usual, plenty of ancillary events in and around all of the above. Quiz hosts and trivia producers from all over North America bring their favorite material and stage impromptu games throughout the weekend, which anyone can drop into and play. TCONA is also the home of the World Championship of Kno’dgeball, an amusing yet bizarre hybrid of trivia and dodgeball. (Your Uncle Swan declines participation in the latter, preferring not to combine mental challenge with risk of bodily injury. But the Kno’dgeballers do seem to enjoy themselves.)

Of course, TCONA’s most memorable highlights are always the connections and reconnections with my fellow trivia mavens. TCONA is the one place each year where I run into some of the many amazing people I’ve met via Jeopardy! — Bob Harris, Roger Craig, Brad Rutter, Steve Chernicoff, Dan Melia, Shane Whitlock, Alan Bailey, Jerome Vered, and I’m probably forgetting others, for which I’ll apologize in advance. (Yes, all of those people are as intelligent as they appear on TV. More, even.) It’s also a chance to meet up again with my Quiz Bowl teammates Dave and Jonathan, as well as many other new acquaintances I’ve made over these past three events, including such quiz show stars as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire winners Ed Toutant and Joe Trela, whose exploits I’ve admired from the other side of the tube. It was fun to put faces to many of the names with whom I compete in LearnedLeague — I think at least half of Rundle A West, my current LL bracket, was in attendance this year, several of whom I met for the first time.

Kudos to the TCONA team for lining up an infinitely superior venue this time out. The Tropicana met the event’s needs as well as anyone could have hoped after the horrors of Circus Circus last year. The Trop’s not perfect — in particular, its dining options are limited, especially in the budget-friendly/quick-service areas (there’s neither a buffet nor a true food court). Still, it’s an easy stroll across the street to the MGM Grand, New York New York, or the tram-connected Excalibur/Luxor/Mandalay Bay trio, so ample eating choices are right nearby. On the positive side, the conference center is easily accessible, and eminently convenient if you’re staying in the Trop’s Club Tower — basically, step off the elevator and you’re there. I couldn’t have been more satisfied with my room, which was large, well-appointed, clean, and comfortable. The in-room high-speed wifi worked splendidly. (Don’t get me started about the execrable Internet access situation I encountered when I moved over to Excalibur after the convention ended.) And, if you like to while away your free time and dollars in the casino, I found the Trop’s blackjack dealers as friendly and helpful as any I’ve encountered anywhere in Vegas.

Speaking of the Trop, TCONA shared the hotel’s weekend hospitality with another niche convention: the National Pole Dancing Championships. (Yes, that’s a thing. I kid you not.) I can assure you that, for the most part, you’d have had scant difficulty determining which guests were there for the trivia, and which for the pole dancing. Let’s just say that, were you to draw a Venn diagram depicting quiz nerds and pole dancers, there would be precious little overlap between the two sets. Maybe none.

Before I departed, I registered in advance for TCONA 4. You could join me in Vegas (probably at the Trop, but that’s yet to be negotiated) next August 8-10. But I’ll warn you: You’d better bring your A game.

World Series Wonderboy

November 12, 2009

Congratulations to 21-year-old Joe Cada, who earlier this week became the youngest player ever to win the World Series of Poker Main Event.

Cada outdueled Darvin Moon, a logger from Maryland, to take down the most prestigious prize in poker, the World Champion’s gold bracelet. On the ultimate hand, Cada’s pocket nines bested Moon’s Queen-Jack holding, as neither hand improved when the five community cards hit the table. Ironically, Cada had indicated in an online interview that of the nine members of the Main Event’s final table, Moon was the player with whom he was the least familiar going into this week’s final table.

As fruit of his efforts, the youngster from Shelby Township, Michigan scored $8,547,042 and the envy of millions of poker players worldwide. Moon’s second-place loot totaled a none-too-shabby $5,182,928.

For the second consecutive year, the WSOP Main Event suspended play in July after its field of more than 6,400 players had been winnowed to a nine-seat final table. The so-called “November Nine” had an additional four months to brush up their hold-’em chops before reconvening at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas for this week’s endgame.

The biggest name at the final table, poker superstar Phil Ivey, finished in seventh place. Jeff Shulman, the publisher of Cardplayer Magazine and a veteran of the 2000 WSOP Main Event final table, landed in fifth place. Shulman finished seventh in 2000.

Thanks to young Mr. Cada and the rest of the Nine for an excellent end to the 40th WSOP.

Nine

July 16, 2009

They’re down to the final table at the World Series of Poker’s Main Event tournament, and a couple of familiar faces are still in the mix.

My poker hero, Phil Ivey — a.k.a. The Tiger Woods of Poker — sits in seventh place. Phil has been on quite a roll at the WSOP this year, adding two victories in earlier tournaments to bring his career bracelet total to seven. Despite holding one of the shorter stacks at the Main Event final table, Phil will be the player to watch when the tournament finishes in November.

Also earning one of the coveted seats is Card Player Magazine publisher Jeff Shulman, making his second appearance at a Main Event final table. Shulman finished seventh back in 2000, the year Chris “Jesus” Ferguson won all the chips and the gold bracelet. Jeff will be in fourth place when play resumes.

As has become the norm at the WSOP, the chip leader is an unknown — Darvin Moon, who’s said to be a lumberjack from Maryland. (I don’t know whether there’s any validity to the rumor that Moon puts on women’s clothing and hangs around in bars.)

The complete final table, with current chip counts, looks like this:

1. Darvin Moon – 58,930,000
2. Eric Buchman – 34,800,000
3. Steven Begleiter – 29,885,000
4. Jeff Shulman – 19,580,000
5. Joseph Cada – 13,215,000
6. Kevin Schaffel – 12,390,000
7. Phil Ivey – 9,765,000
8. Antoine Saout – 9,500,000
9. James Akenhead – 6,800,000

I’m still not sold on the gimmick, begun last year, of stopping the Main Event when the final table is set, and continuing play in November. I understand the logic — it affords four months to build suspense and public awareness, and gives ESPN a big event to broadcast during the fall ratings sweeps — but it just seems stupid to halt a tournament in mid-game and take 16 weeks off before resuming. It would be like baseball holding the divisional playoffs and league championship series in October, then not playing the World Series until the following spring. All of the momentum — for both participants and spectators — is gone.

But that’s yet another reason why I’m not in charge.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to spend four months listening to the onrushing footsteps of Phil Ivey. Then again, considering that every member of the November Nine is guaranteed a minimum $1.2 million payday…

…I think I’d get over it.

My dream poker table

May 20, 2009

This week, NBC’s late-night series Poker After Dark (yes, I am often up and about at 2 a.m., and yes, occasionally I’m watching poker on TV) is rerunning one of its “Dream Table” episodes. The basic concept is that the gaming site Full Tilt Poker runs a tournament online, and the amateur player who wins the tourney gets to play against his or her five favorite poker pros on the TV show.

Poker After Dark has held three of these Dream Table events, if I recall correctly. None of the amateurs has ever won the table, but I’m sure they’ve all enjoyed pitting their poker skills against some of the legends of the game.

Not that I’d ever get on enough of a roll to merit my own Dream Table, but if I did, I know the five pros I’d invite. My table probably wouldn’t provide as much ratings fodder as those that have appeared on the show thus far, because I’d bypass obnoxious but telegenic players like Phil “PokerBrat” Hellmuth (he’ll win this week’s rerun, in case you don’t want to stay up late Friday night) and Mike “The Mouth” Matusow in favor of talents I admire even though they aren’t as flashy.

Look at it this way: If I were granted a once-in-a-millennium opportunity, why would I want to waste it with people whose company I probably wouldn’t enjoy? I’d rather choose people I might actually like. Life’s too short to play poker with jerks.

So here’s my Dream Table, in no particular order.

Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu. I read Daniel’s newsletter every week. He’s smart and funny, knows everything there is to know about the game, and seems like a genuinely nice guy. Daniel is the man I’d hire to upgrade my game if I won the Lotto. Which is unlikely, since I haven’t bought a Lotto ticket in maybe 20 years.

Jennifer Harman. Considered by many to be the world’s best female player, frail blonde Jen (she’s had some fairly serious health problems in recent years) looks like a homeless urchin whom someone cleaned up and dropped off at the casino. She’s quiet and thoughtful — almost sullen at times — while playing. But I like her focused approach.

Phil Ivey. Often called “the Tiger Woods of poker,” Phil doesn’t turn up on TV as often as some of the other big-name pros, but when he does, he’s usually right in the mix. (He’s made a record eight final tables on the World Poker Tour.) I can’t make heads or tails of Phil’s hyper-aggressive style — there doesn’t seem to be any visible logic to the starting hands he plays — but I dig watching him.

Howard “The Professor” Lederer. Howard might be the smartest guy at any table he plays, except when Chris “Jesus” Ferguson (a math prodigy who holds a Ph.D. in computer science from UCLA) sits in. Howard’s father is the linguistics maven Richard Lederer, whose books on wordplay — including Anguished English and The Cunning Linguist — are among my favorites. I’d mostly invite Howard in the hope that he’d introduce me to his dad after the show. (Howard’s sister is poker star and Celebrity Apprentice runner-up Annie Duke. I like Annie, but I wouldn’t want anyone at my Dream Table who’d been that close to Joan Rivers.)

Jennifer Tilly. And no, not for the two most obvious reasons. Jennifer was nominated for an Academy Award in 1994 (for Best Supporting Actress in Bullets Over Broadway; she lost to her costar Dianne Wiest). I’d want another actor at the table so that I’d have someone I could talk with about a subject other than poker. You know… a subject I might actually know something about.