Mar 27 2019190 Faro, the Hottest Game in the West

The image of cowboys playing poker has shown up again and again in Westerns. However, if you walked into a saloon in the late 1800s, you likely wouldn’t find poker, blackjack, or other contemporary casino games. Instead, you’d probably find a game of faro. The French card game (also known as “bucking the tiger” or “riding the tiger”) was popular throughout Europe and North America up until WWII. Faro was all but synonymous with gambling, and prominent figures like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were fans of the game. However, it is essentially extinct now.

Mar 18 2019189 Thom Wall on The History of Juggling

Thom Wall is a professional juggler and who’s known both for his feats of dexterity and his enthusiasm for old-style vaudeville performance. His new book Juggling From Antiquity to the Middle Ages traces the history of the art across time and place. Juggling has been invented independently several times over in Ancient Egypt, Mesoamerica, and Polynesia. Wall traces its myriad histories into, eventually, the art of throwing and catching we know today.

Nov 17 2016106 Live at the Jack London, the Portland Vice Scandal

In 1950s Portland, police and racketeers worked hand-in-hand to provide the city with gambling, protitution, and other in-demand vices such as pinball. The man in charge of all of this was Jim Elkins who, for a brief period, was Portland’s king of illegal fun things. However, Elkins had a major falling out in the late 1950s with Portland city officials, and his city’s vice network eventually came to the attention of the federal government.

Apr 21 201677 Molly Newman on Crafting Good Trivia Questions

This week’s episode is an interview with Quizmistress and Jeopardy! contestant Molly Newman. Molly runs multiple successful trivia nights in Portland, Oregon, hosts private trivia events, and knows what makes questions good, bad, boring, easy, hard, funny, and compelling. With hundreds of fans in the Portland area (including your humble podcaster) she has made a career about entertaining people with facts both widely-known and obscure. We talked about how to craft good trivia questions, why some questions are too hard or uninteresting, and the surprisingly scandalous origins of Trivial Pursuit.

Molly can be found at her website and on Facebook.


Mar 10 201671 Live at the Jack London, The Story of Oregon Trail

Oregon Trail is arguably the most successful education video game of all time. Created in 1971 by student teacher Don Rawitsch, the popular simulation began its life as a game played on paper with dice and cards. Eventually Rawitsch, along with two other student teachers, adapted the game for play on teletype machines. The game eventually migrated to what would now be called a PC, and something like 65 million copies of Oregon Trail have made their way to various machines across the country.

However, the Minnesota Educational Computing Conortium (MECC) that oversaw Oregon Trail’s distribution crumbled in the face of a hostile takeover and subsequent purchase by Mattel. The last real copy of Oregon Trail was released in 2001, and MECC is gone. The game now exists primarily on emulators and in the memory of people who played it as children.

This talk was part of Stumptown Stories, a history collective that hosts monthly events in Portland, Oregon.


Oct 08 201551 The Ultimate Palindrome

The Sator Square is a level of palindromic perfection untouched by other palindromes. It reads perfectly backward, forward, up, and down. The inconsequential sentence (something like “The farmer Arepo works the plow”) is not not profound, but the structure of the phrase is a level of balance and perfection untouched by other word squares.

The exact origin of the square is unknown, but it’s been the subject of all manner of speculation and pseudohistory. Multiple (spurious) sources have attempted to link the palindrome to Christian mysticism, but, in all likelihood, it was much more likely to be a meme than mystical. Before human beings obsessively reproduced “Kilroy was here” or LOLcats, they obsessively reproduced this perfect Latin sentence.


Related Links:

I’m serious. Send me your best palindromes, word games, and linguistic weird stuff on Facebook. Do it!

I mentioned that “S” that we used to draw on binders and such. Here’s a video about it.

Jun 02 201533 Live at Velo Cult, the Legend of Polybius

This episode is a little different. About a year ago I was approached by a team of documentary film makers who were making a movie about Polybius, Portland’s mythical video game of doom. I’d previously spoken about Polybius at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, and they asked if I would also like to talk about it on camera for the movie. I said yes. They set up an event at Velo Cult, a bike/bar/event space here in Portland, and I had a great time talking to people about a creepy nonexistent video game that, supposedly, did weird things to people’s brains.

The Polybius Conspiracy is running a Kickstarter campaign to help with the funding of the film. If you want to see a movie about a legendary video game with me in it (and I hope you do) then consider giving them some of your dollars.

Polybius maquina real

Related Links:

Help fund the Polybius Conspiracy on Kickstarter.

The post on that started the whole Polybius myth.

Polybius, a song by James Houston and Julian Corrie.

Apr 16 201526 Joseph Barker on Artificial Intelligence, Strategy, and Games

Today’s episode is slightly different than our other entries. We have another interview episode, this time with Joseph Barker, who has a PhD in artifical intelligence, and whom I quoted in the last episode about the mechanical Turk. Instead of talking about fake, illusory artificial intelligence, this episode is devoted to how real, actual machines play games and formulate strategy.

The picture below shows Claude Shannon (whom Barker mentions in the podcast) and his chess machine at MIT in 1950. The machine, impressive at the time, could handle all of six chess pieces.



















Related Links:

Barker mentioned John Von Neumann and Prisoner’s Dilemma by William Poundstone is an excellent introduction to Von Neumann and his ideas.

Read more about Claude Shannon, a pioneer of chess programming.

A good rundown from Slate about everything wrong with A Beautiful Mind.

Play Dots and Boxes online courtesy the UCLA math department.


Apr 09 201525 Clockwork Genius

Humans have pursued artificial intelligence, in one form or another, for generations. One of the most potent signifiers of intelligence has, historically, been chess. Even though the ability to play the game does not actually require as much cognition as, say, cooking or carrying on a conversation, the ability to play the game has been used as a symbol of intelligence, such as when Deep Blue shocked the world by defeating chessmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997.

Probably the most famous artificial chess player was a fake. The mechanical Turk, initially built in 1870, appeared to be an automaton that could outsmart and outplay human beings. In fact, it was a human being. A living, breathing operator was nestled inside the Turk’s innards, controlling the game. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most famous illusions of all time.

Tuerkischer schachspieler windisch4

Related Links:

See a modern replica of The Turk in action.

Tom Standage’s The Turk at, the book that introduced me to the chess player, and annoyed me when I found out it was a hoax.

Maelzel’s Chess Player by Edgar Allan Poe.

The Turk was the inspiration for the 1927 silent film The Chess Player, about a fictionalized version of the Turk.

The Turk lends its name to’s Mechanical Turk service, the subject of a podcast by NPR’s always excellent Planet Money.