Thursday, November 09, 2006

Just show your cards already

Another incident from yesterday's session at Mandalay Bay:

Another no-limit table breaks up and we inherit 3 new players. One of them quickly shows himself to be a loose-aggressive type, in almost every hand, betting and raising at nearly every opportunity. When there's a showdown, he always tries to hesitate to see if the other player(s) will show first, and he mucks without showing if he doesn't have the winner. In other words, even though he's playing a lot of hands, I'm not getting a lot of feedback on what he's playing, and he's the hardest kind of opponent to put on a specific hand.

I decide to test the waters against him when I'm on the button with Q-10 offsuit.* I call his raise, and have him heads-up with position on my side. Flop is A-Q-x. He bets. My decision basically comes down to whether I believe he has an ace or not. For all practical purposes, if he does, I'm beat, and if he doesn't, I'm ahead. I think it's most likely that he doesn't have it, so I re-raise all-in. He calls. The turn and river cards are blanks.

The dealer asks to see the hands. Normally, I'm not at all reluctant to show--in fact, that's the whole point of this rant, how some players try to protect their hole cards as if they were top-secret classified documents, which just slows down the game and irritates everybody. But once in a while there is good reason to use the rules to force an opponent to show first--and this was one of them. I wanted to know what he had played that way, and if I showed first and won, I knew he would muck, and I'd win the pot but not the information. I wanted both, if I could have them.

So I said to him, "You're first." He countered, "No, I called your raise." I told him that was irrelevant, because it was on a previous street, not on the last round. The dealer, to my surprise, told me I had to show first. As it turns out, the guy did have an ace, and won the hand. But that's beside the point here.

The standard rule is this: if there is action on the last street, then the last player to make a bet or raise has the obligation to show first. But if there is no action on the last street, then the compelled showdown (if nobody voluntarily goes first) is in the same order as everything else would be: from the small blind clockwise around to the button. (I have read that there are a few casinos with house rules otherwise, but if so, I don't know which ones they are.) Many players believe, incorrectly, that if there is no action on the last round of betting, the obligatory showdown order reverts to who bet or raised on a previous street. Not so.

I'm never surprised to run into even fairly experienced players who don't know the rules of poker well. Furthermore, it's not being stupid not to know something. But it is being stupid to assert, loudly and confidently, something that just ain't so. And that's what this guy was doing.

I was also surprised that the dealer didn't know the rule. After all, this is a situation that must come up a dozen times in every shift, if not more. I complied with his request, however, because there was always the possibility that Mandalay Bay has a idiosyncratic house rule (or at least some instruction to their dealers) that he was following. But after the fact, I approached the shift supervisor to ask him, and he confirmed my impression that M.B. follows the standard rule, and the dealer should have instructed my opponent to show first.

After the hand, there was quite a bit of debate at the table about the rule. Several people sided with the other guy: since he called me, the obligation was on me. Well, folks, you're just plain wrong about that. Here's the rule as written in "Cooke's Rules of Real Poker" (in my view, the best poker rule book available), p. 72, rule 11.01:

If there has been a bet and raise or multiple raises on the final betting
round, then the person who made the final raise shall show his hand first,
followed by all remaining players in a clockwise rotation. If there has been no
bet on the final round then the showdown begins with the player who had the
obligation of first action on the final betting round--the player under the gun
in draw and board games [which includes hold'em] or the player with the highest
board in stud games.

I always comply with this rule. If I'm in worst position and there is no action on the river, I flip over my cards without waiting for anybody else. I expect others to do the same. And if I bet or raise on the last round of betting, when the action is done I flip 'em over, without waiting to see if maybe I can get away without showing. Them's the rules. Not too complicated, really. It's incredibly irritating to have the situation where everybody stalls, nobody turns, and the dealer is left to beg and plead for somebody to please show. Cut it out, people. The rules prescribe a simple and straightforward manner of proceding. Just follow it.

And dealers, if one general request, such as "Show me the winner" doesn't get results, don't futz around--turn to the player whose obligation it is (whether by position or by dint of having put in the last bet or raise), and tell him, "You have to either show first or muck your hand." Way too much time gets wasted because both players and dealers either don't know or won't follow the rules on this matter.

As a side note, there is also a point of courtesy and etiquette that goes beyond the rules: anybody who has a likely winner should expose his cards immediately, without waiting. As Roy Cooke states it (p. 72 again):

In the interests of efficiency and speeding up the game, a player who is
reasonably certain he has the winning hand should turn over his hand
immediately, regardess of the order of showdown. If a player does so, then other
players at the showdown who can beat that hand should also turn their hands over

There are occasionally valid strategic reasons for going by the rules rather than by this nicety, but they really should be the exception.

So, c'mon, folks--just show your hand already.

*Q-10 offsuit is a hand I would ordinarily either toss or try to play very cheaply, with a high willingness to throw it away unless I get a lot of help from the community cards, or a good bluffing situation arises. And against a loose-aggressive player, my usual reaction has been to re-tighten my already fairly tight game. Recently, however, I've read two things that are making me re-think that strategy. I include them here for the possible benefit of readers, though I didn't want to interrupt the story above.

First, I finished Barry Greenstein's superb book, "Ace on the River." On p. 204, he has a table of "opponent's tactics," the "typical incorrect adjustment" that we mediocre players make, and the "Better adjustment" that he recommends. The first entry in the table is "Extremely loose play." The incorrect adjustment is listed as "Wait for a good hand." The better reaction is given as "Loosen your standards and reraise frequently." Seems like cogent advice, though it takes more nerve than I've usually been willing to bring to bear. I'm trying to change that, a little at a time.

Second, just a few days after reading that, I read a column in Card Player magazine by Matt Lessinger, who I think is one of their best writers. He wrote,

Overaggressive Ozzie sits down in the same game, and in six of his first 10
hands, he raises to $20 preflop. Five times, he wins the blinds uncontested. One
time, someone calls him and the hand goes to the river, at which point Ozzie
produces Q-8 and wins with a pair of eights. I don't have to be Phil Ivey to put
two and two together, and conclude that he probably did not have premium hands
when he made his other raises. Therefore, I'm going to wait for something good
and try to pick him off.

But am I going to wait for pocket aces or kings? I could, but why would I
want to play so timidly? In a cash game, I want to take advantage of all
favorable opportunities that come along. Here, I have an opponent who is making
oversized preflop raises with substandard values. If I pick up a hand such as
9-9, or even A-J, and think I can get heads up with Ozzie, I'm probably going to
play it, because it figures to be the best hand against his typical raising
values. And I'm certainly not going to be deterred by the fact that he is
raising to $20 rather than a more normal raise to $6 or $8.

Bad call? No, it was a GREAT call!

So I'm at Mandalay Bay yesterday, and the guy on my left is a hyper-loose-aggressive type. I'd like to switch seats to get him on my right, but the opportunity hasn't arisen to do so yet. He and several others limp in. I find Big Slick in the big blind. It's a hard hand to play from out of position, but that's what you have to do sometimes. I put in my standard raise to $12. The loose-aggressive guy is the only one who calls.

The flop is all blanks. I put in my standard continuation bet, $20 (I think), which, as I predicted to myself, he insta-called. The turn is another rag. I bet again. He raises me all-in, for another $85. Now I have a tough decision. The straightforward analysis is that he figures me (correctly) for two big cards, which the board hasn't helped, and I therefore can't call a big raise. In other words, he doesn't need any real hand at all to make that move. It's one I've done successfully myself on any number of occasions--you're basically playing your opponent's hand (and the advantageous position of acting last) rather than your own.

There were no straights or flushes possible, and the board hadn't paired. I was highly confident that he didn't have much, but the obvious problem is that he could have hit just one pair somewhere, and that would be all he'd need to win a showdown, if I didn't get lucky and catch an ace or king on the river. I was certainly not going to call that big a raise on the hope of 6 outs, so I had to decide whether I thought he had hit a pair. His loose style meant that he could easily have called my pre-flop raise and my bet on the flop with small or medium suited connectors, or with something like a suited A-7, for instance.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought his demeanor was conveying that he had nothing. It was just the classic Mike Caro stuff of being a little too quick to fire that raise, and too forceful in how it slammed the chips in, etc.

I'm not afraid of losing $85, but it feels really silly to lose it on an all-in call with not even a pair, so this was not an easy call. But over the course of a minute or so of thinking, I decided that it was better than 50/50 that he had zippo. Combined with my possible outs on the river in case he had already hit a small pair, I thought it was worth acting on my read of him.

(Side note: I didn't find a lot to like in Charlie Shoten's book "No-Limit Life." But I do find very useful his "mantra": "I am calm, confident, and clear, and I wait for my best choice to appear after considering all of my choices and the consequences of each. When my best choice appears, I act." That is exactly what I was following in this moment. I had considered my choices and their consequences, and the right thing to do just kind of subconsciously emerged to the forefront, and I just needed to muster the courage to take the action that choice recommended. Thank you, Charlie Shoten!)

I called. The river was a 9. He turned over an 8-9, having caught one pair on the river. He had nothing before that. So I was right. I lost the pot, but was bursting with pride for having made the right decision. I showed my AK.

This isn't a bad-beat story. I'm not upset that he caught a lucky break. The story is about the aftermath. Both he and another player that wasn't in the hand started criticizing me for making the call. Between them, they said that it was a horrible call, a donkey move, etc. "You had nothing!" Not true--I had the best hand, you morons! I was way ahead when the money went in, which is all you can do to win in this crazy game. My read was dead-on accurate, and I had the guts to follow through with it.

The other player said, "You had no pot odds to make that call." Uh, excuse me, but aren't pot odds usually calculated for the player who is behind, to decide whether it's worth trying to catch a card to develop his hand into a winner? I already had the winning hand, so "pot odds" are irrelevant to the analysis of whether I made a good call or not. But thanks for revealing that you have no clue what you're talking about!

One other player chimed in with a cogent observation to the bluffer: "If your cards had been face-up, he obviously would have made the call, so he did the right thing." That's a Sklansky-esque analysis: if you made the play that you would have made if you had been looking at your opponent's down cards, you did the right thing. An excellent point.

I have no criticism of the other player's all-in raise here: it was a strong, aggressive move, made on a correct read (or at least I presume so) of my hand. In that situation, it has a high EV because it will usually force the weak but better hand to fold. But it's odd that a player good enough to recognize the value in that bluff couldn't also recognize that I made an even better play. If our roles in the hand had been reversed, I would have told him, "Good call--I just got lucky on you at the end there." But neither he nor the other guy could get past the simplistic conclusion that it's stupid to call a big raise with just ace-high.

OK, guys, you keep telling yourselves it was a bad move on my part. I'm done trying to educate you to the contrary. I'll just keep raking in the big pots the 87% of the time I win that situation.

Show one, show all

I was one of six or so players that started a new $1-$2 no-limit hold'em table last night at the Flamingo. I sat down in the 10 seat, which has recently become my favorite, if there are no strategic reasons to sit elsewhere. On the very first hand, the guy in seat 9 played quite aggressively and won the pot without a showdown. As the pot was being pushed to him, he showed his hole cards to the guy in seat 8, who I think was a friend of his, and said, "Pretty good way to start, eh?"

When one player flashes his down cards to another before mucking, I usually don't ask to see them, if it's just an occasional thing. But it's uncommon for players to come out so aggressively on the first hand of a new table, so I wanted to see what had motivated this guy. Accordingly, I turned to the dealer (who had seen the interaction in question) and said, "Show those, please." (I always prefer to ask the dealer to do it, so that it doesn't seem that I'm confronting or challenging or ordering another player.)

To my great surprise, seat 9 turned to me and gave me a look as if I had just asked him to drop his pants. With what struck me as unbelievable haughtiness, he said, "Do you have any idea what bad etiquette that is?"


I have heard only one person ever express the opinion that it's bad form to ask to see a player's cards after he shows them to another player, under the classic and universal "show one, show all" principle. That was Phil Hellmuth, in one of last year's WSOP events. I recall that another pro at his table state strong disagreement that there was anything wrong with the request.

In fact, I think the breach of etiquette is in showing your cards to one other player without voluntarily showing them to everybody, thus requiring that somebody else take assertive action to keep the flow of information equal. I, for one, never flash my hole cards to just one other player. I don't think the "show one, show all" precept just gives one a right to ask to see flashed cards; I deem it to confer on me an affirmative duty to "show one, show all." This may not be a universal sentiment, but still, I can't imagine under what ethic or rationale one concludes that asking for equal access to strategic information is bad etiquette.

Dude, you were out of line. If you don't want anyone to ask to see your hole cards, it's pretty simple: just don't show them to anybody. But if you choose to flash your aces to your buddy, you've got to expect that somebody else is going to ask to see them, too, and if you can't deal with that, just go back to your home game.

The dealer, incidentally, was great--she immediately took the onus off of me, and when she heard the player object to me, she stepped in and quite firmly told him that he was in the wrong. I love dealers who aren't afraid of offending a player when there's a rule to be observed and enforced.

Loved or feared? (Non-grumpy content)

Yesterday was a rare four-casino day. Most days that I play, it's in either one or two places. I get up and leave if I'm losing several buy-ins in a row, or if I go stagnant and can't make any headway, or if I'm feeling bored or distracted. Occasionally if I've made a lot of money and feel as though I've hit my peak, after which things will just go downhill, I'll leave to lock up a profit. But all of those reasons to pick up and go somewhere else usually don't have me hitting four places in a day, as yesterday did. I played at Mandalay Bay, Orleans, Flamingo, and the Hilton.

Anyway, I was at Mandalay Bay for only about 2 hours, and in that time had two people (at different tables) tell me that I scared them. This has happened occasionally before, but not often. I'm a completely non-scary person, but apparently, at least on some days, the way I play (pretty much a classic tight-aggressive style) intimidates some other players. The second person yesterday to tell me I scared her explained, when I asked her what was scary: "Because you actually have what your bets represent!" I thought that was pretty funny. It's also true--at least usually!

But in contrast, at the Orleans yesterday I received just the opposite message. One of the dealers I particularly like there (Mark) caught me away from the table as I was leaving; I think he was on a break. He wanted to know my name. He shook my hand and said, "I just wanted to tell you that it's always a pleasure having you at the table. You really bring a calming influence when you're there."

Now, maybe he was just blowing smoke up my arse, or shilling for future tokes. But it was an unexpected and completely unprecedented gesture, in my experience. I do take pains to remain as civil and nonconfrontational as I can at the poker table, because interpersonal conflicts make playing no fun, and can easily erode one's decision-making capacity. So if my efforts to keep the peace have some effect on others that I hadn't been aware of, I'm pleased.

All of which is a long introduction to this thought: Machiavelli famously pondered "whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved." I believe I have finally stumbled upon the ideal solution: It is best to be feared by the other players, and loved by the dealers.

Quasi-celebrity (non-grumpy content)

On occasion, I will deviate from my usual grumpy online persona to relate stories or observations for which I have no other outlet. This is one of them.

Last night was the first time I've had at a poker table a person that I instantly recognized from outside of the poker world: William Hung, who attained fame for his enthusiastic but, well, flawed rendition of "She Bangs" on "American Idol." Played with him for nearly four hours at the Flamingo. He apparently is sort of a regular there when he's in town, because at least some of the dealers had clearly seen him there before, and he had a card for tracking players' hours.

He got asked for a couple of autographs, though not by anyone at the table. He got a few Idol-career-related questions over the course of a few hours, but for the most part was treated just like any other nobody sitting down to play--which is, of course, how it should be. Once I heard a couple of guys at the next table over break out with "She Bangs! She Bangs!", then laugh themselves silly. But that was about it.

He's not a bad player, but my unofficial observation was that his chip stack stayed basically stagnant, neither growing nor shrinking significantly from start to finish. I really don't care where my chips come from, but I'm pleased to say that I won a couple of decent-sized pots from him, and lost only small ones where I didn't (couldn't) contest them seriously. In fact, shortly before the table broke up, somebody asked him whether he was up or down. He said, "Mostly winning--except against that guy," and pointed to me.

So, Simon Cowell, if you get a percentage of William Hung's poker winnings, sorry--I didn't contribute to your income this time around.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

"He hasn't played a hand all night"

The first time this happened (a few days ago at Flamingo), I didn't think much of it. But tonight I played for a while at Circus Circus (a pretty revolting place, but I'm gradually trying to get around to try all 52 or so Vegas poker rooms) and the same thing happened again.

At first blush, you wouldn't think much of it. Somebody bets, I put in a hefty raise, everybody folds, and the last guy to fold says something like, "I believe you--you haven't played a hand in hours." That was the Flamingo guy. The Circus Circus guy addressed the comment to his buddy in the next seat: "He has a real hand--he hasn't played a hand all night."

But the strange thing is that in both cases I had been at the table for less than ten minutes.

And no, they clearly were not being funny or ironic. In both cases, they really just hadn't noticed that somebody new had come into the game.

Brilliant way to inform the whole table that you're not paying any attention to who you're playing against.

Too many poker players have forgotten Mark Twain's advice: "Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

Ugly poker clothes

There's not much you can do to brand yourself as an amateur/tourist/wannabe than to wear stupid poker-themed clothing. This is really more of an amusement than a gripe, because it's so funny to see how oblivious people are to how ridiculous they look.

Take the guy in this picture, for instance, who was at my table last night at the Flamingo. (I apologize for the grainy picture; my cell phone camera has pretty low resolution, and my hands were shaking trying not to laugh.) When I asked him about the shirt, he boasted that it was custom-made--a bull-rider's shirt, he said. (He's in town for the big rodeo competition.) He was very proud of the thing. I had to obscure his face out of a sense of mercy. Might as well wear a rhinestone-studded white jumpsuit, like the dork in the Milwaukee's Best Light commercial.

A wise piece of advice, attributed variously to Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi: "When you get into the end zone, act like you've been there before." Nobody who plays poker on a regular basis wears silly clothes to do so. Special poker-themed shirts say to the world, "Woo hoo! I finally get to play POKER, in a real casino, in VEGAS, baby!"

It's perfectly understandable that one might feel that way, particularly if visiting from a state or nation where there are no legal places in which to play. But a poker table is not a place to wear your feelings on your sleeve, literally or figuratively. If you don't present yourself as a newcomer, you're less likely to be perceived as one--and "newcomer" is strongly associated with "weak player," which is not exactly the image you want to project.

So save the silly shirts for your Wednesday night home games, OK?