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Is Levitt a Celebrity? It Depends on Your Definition

A few months ago, after someone claimed I was a celebrity, I offered to test that hypothesis by giving $100 to anyone who identified me spontaneously over the next 30 days. (In the deal I excluded the U of C campus area, because people know me there just because I am a professor.)

It was an easy bet to make, because I have been me for a long time and I know exactly how often strangers recognize me: never. I was almost certain that I would not have to pay a cent.

Much to my surprise, I did end up paying off one person, although technically I didn’t have to because they identified me two blocks from my house and the U of C campus. They said they only know me from TV and the book jacket cover, though, so I coughed up the cash. That was only the second time ever that someone has spontaneously recognized me.

The offer expired at the end of June. Predictably, no one has recognized me since either. Until yesterday. I was riding in an elevator in Las Vegas pecking away at my Blackberry as usual. A guy standing next to me says, “Hey, I think I seen a story on TV.” I turn to him, ready to acknowledge an appreciative fan. He continues, “Ya, that thing in your hand. I think I seen a story about them things on TV. Ain’t they like a phone that does email too?”

By a different definition, though, I am a celebrity because I got invited to play in the media/celebrity invitational at the World Series of Poker. (Or maybe that just means I am media.) I probably will not be able to play anyway, but the invitation was the impetus for me to overcome one of my most irrational fears. I have a terrible fear of playing poker against live people instead of over the internet. Despite the fact I have played an enormous amount of poker online, I have literally never sat at a table with a real dealer. In previous trips to Las Vegas I have spent hours in the poker room trying to will myself to sit down at a table, but eventually lost my nerve and walked away. This phobia is not without justification. I know myself well enough to know that bad things happen in these situations.

This time, though, I knew I had to do it. I walked into the room where they play the World Series of Poker and signed up to play in a satellite tournament: 10 players, $175 each, winner take all in the form of tokens to enter the World Series. I went to my table and confidently took a seat. A few seconds later a man gruffly said, “You are in my seat.” I thought he was just a jerk, but it turned out to be just the first of my many gaffes. To choose seats you pick a card laid face down on the table with the numbers one to ten, corresponding to which seat number you will be in.

I made every rookie mistake. At one point I decided to go “all in.” So I picked up my stack of orange chips ($100) and moved it into the middle of the table. Then I picked up my two green chips ($50) and put them in the middle. “All in for $650,” I announced. Not so easy, it turns out. You’ve got to put all the chips in at once or it is what is called a “string bet.” I was roundly chided by the other guys at my table. I could go on, but it is too embarrassing. The only thing that buoyed my spirits was that my new buddy Frankie O’Dell (long story, don’t ask) came by and gave me some props.

All of this buffoonery actually had a payoff in the end. The guys figured if I didn’t know how to act at the table, I probably didn’t know how to play poker either. I was able to exploit that and eventually found myself one of the last two players.

My worst mistake, though, wasn’t a violation of poker etiquette. Fittingly, it was a math error. Often when you get down to the last two players you make a deal to split the money. I had 40% of the chips, my opponent had 60%. He offerered a deal that gave him two $500 tokens and I would get one $500 token and $100 in cash. It didn’t sound like a good deal to me. I made a counter offer that he rejected, and we played on. It was only later that I actually thought more carefully about his offer and realized he was offering me 37.5% of the payout — somehow at the time I thought it was much less — and I probably should have taken it.

Two hands later I went all-in, lost, and walked away with my wallet $175 lighter. Still, the etiquette lessons were worth the price. The next time I sit at a poker table it will only be my play that embarrasses me.