Saturday, August 04, 2007

Stupid is as stupid does

Since I spend so much of my blogging time and energy denouncing the stupid things I see other people do at the poker table, now I have to call one on myself. I made the single dumbest mistake of my short career during a tournament at the Hilton today.

The second time I ever played in a live poker tournament, I exited under maybe the worst possible circumstances: I called an all-in bet with nothing. Note that I didn't bluff off all my chips aggressively, a mistake which is embarrassing, but understandable and forgiveable. No, I called with not even a pair. I did that because I forgot what my hole cards were. Somehow, in the course of the hand, my brain conflated the cards I actually had with the ones I wished I had, because the ones I wanted would have made a straight. The mental short-circuit caused me somehow to believe that I did actually have the straight. I called the opponent's bet with great confidence, turned over my cards, saw that I had absolutely nothing, and slinked away from the table, hoping that the other players would have the decency to (1) not laugh until I was out of earshot, and (2) forget my face.

A couple of months later, exactly the same mental error occurred yet again. This time, however, the result was favorable. I moved all in with my imaginary straight. I was apparently so convinced I had it that it showed, and my opponent finally folded. I turned over my cards in what I intended as a friendly gesture to show him that, yes, I really had the goods. I was horrified to see that there was a gap in my "straight." Oops! I tried to explain to him that I wasn't trying to flaunt a bluff--I had just been stupid. I'm not sure he ever believed me.

From then on, I vowed not to let this happen again, and I have adopted a habit of always checking my hole cards again just before the flop comes. On very rare occasions--maybe once a month or so--I still end up unsure of what they were, usually because something highly distracting has disrupted the flow of the hand (need to call the supervisor over for a ruling on some unusual event, an argument breaking out, stuff like that). I just recheck them, no big deal. As far as I can recall, I haven't had any repeat instances in which I became convinced that I had hole cards different from what they really were.

Until today.

I had K-Q. The final board was 7-8-9-10-Q. Obviously, anybody with a jack had the straight, and the K-J was the nuts (with no possible flush out there). And somehow, in the few seconds after the last card hit the felt, my brain suffered that same glitch that it had on two previous occasions. I don't know what it is about straights that makes me want them so badly that I hallucinate them into existence. It has never happened with flushes or full houses or anything else. Maybe I have some sort of a fetish for straights, and need professional counseling.

Anyway, I moved all-in with what I believed to be the second nuts (Q-J) and got called in two places. One guy had just the J, and a woman had the actual nuts, the K-J. They probably thought I had been bluffing. Nope. Just stupid.

The only thing that saved me was that I was the big stack at the time. She took maybe 1/3 of my chips, so it wounded me but didn't finish me off. I managed to hold on long enough to take 4th place. I might have done considerably better if I hadn't donked off all of those chips to her, though. (She finished in 3rd place.) I needed Homer Simpson to give me a big "D'oh!"

Of course, even if I had had what I thought I did, I would have lost to her higher straight, but the point is that re-checking before committing all my chips would have been the prudent thing to do.

On a recent episode of "Poker After Dark," Annie Duke confessed to occasionally having thought that she had a pocket pair when she didn't. This has happened because she looks first at the bottom card, then shuffles them, then looks at the new bottom card. But a few times she has shuffled two times instead of once, or muffed the shuffle in some way, and thus looked at the same card twice, only discovering her mistake when later revealing her hand, and getting quite a shock at having played, e.g., A-2 instead of A-A.

So if even successful, well-known pros can occasionally screw up that badly, I suppose I shouldn't beat myself up too much for making a dumb mistake three times in two years. Just the same, though, I'd really prefer that it be at least another two years before I cross those particular wires in my head again.

WARNING: Do not try this at home! (Non-grumpy content)

Last night at the Venetian I had my biggest cash game win yet. One pot was incredibly sick.

A hand I played a few months ago was written up in a recent Card Player magazine by columnist Matt Lessinger as an example of taking advantage of one's reputation as a non-bluffer to pull off a bluff. I did it in that case with a 4-2. Since then, I occasionally get tempted to go a little crazy with the 4-2 again. Last night was one of those times.

SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: You should immediately forget having read this, and under no circumstances attempt to replicate the results!

I called a pre-flop raise and reraise with the 4-2. (But they were SOOOOOTED, he protests!)

I had been playing tight even by my standards, and had shown down only pocket pairs and premium hands. I was way up for the night already, and so feeling a bit loose with the cash (a terribly unprofessional attitude, I know--I'm not bragging about it, just telling it like it is). I knew that if I hit the flop, nobody could possibly put me on the hand I actually held. Of course, the probability was very low, but once in a while I just do things on a whim. I could BS about game theory and the need to throw randomizers into one's play, but the truth is I was just feeling kind of giddy and silly and reckless.) 5 people called the raise and reraise, so it was already a big pot (just another in my long string of excuses).

Flop was 9-2-2 rainbow. I led out $40 into what was maybe a $90 pot, got 2 callers, then a raise to $100. I pushed all in. The callers folded, and it was just the raiser left with a decision.
He thought for maybe 5 minutes--an exceptionally long time by the standards of $1-2 NL, anyway. He ran through what I might be holding out loud. He had watched me play for 2 or 3 hours, so certainly knew (or thought he knew) my range of hands. He was most worried about pocket 9s, appropriately. But he never once mentioned any hand with a 2 in it. Pretty clearly, he just automatically ruled those out as unthinkable for me to have called a pre-flop raise and re-raise with. (By the same reasoning, I was pretty confident that nobody was holding a 2 with a better kicker.)

He finally decided that I had JJ, and called with his QQ. I flipped over my cards. You could have gone around the table and stuck lollipops in all the mouths that were left hanging open when they saw what I had done.

My junk hand held up, and I raked in the biggest pot of the night.

It's one of the sickest, most demented plays I've ever done. And now, of course, I'll be tempted to do it again, and will probably, in the long run, give away more money trying to duplicate that moment again than I've won playing the stupid 4-2.

But it makes for a good story, doesn't it?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"He was going to get caught"

Last Saturday night I was at Treasure Island and participated in their evening tournament. I made the final table in relatively good shape, maybe 3rd or 4th in chips. But when we were down to 7 or 8 players left, I took a huge hit when the woman to my right (with a slightly smaller stack) and I got it all in before the flop. My pocket queens were a big favorite to her jacks going in, but she caught a set on the flop and took most of my chips.

I was left with only about 5 big blinds, and the blinds were going to double again in about six minutes. That means taking aggressive action, even near-suicidal action, because otherwise one has no shot. So the next four times in a row that the action was unraised before the flop when it came to me, I went all in. The first three times I picked up the blinds uncontested.

The fourth time I had A-4 offsuit, and got called by a guy with A-9. I got lucky and split the pot with him when all big cards came and our kickers didn't play.

But this post is about a comment I overheard when our hands were turned over, before the outcome of the pot was determined. I heard one player at the far end of the table tell the guy next to him, "He should have known he was going to get caught, going all-in that many times in a row." There was an unmistakable tone of derision in his voice, a "he's getting his comeuppance" attitude.

Maybe this guy didn't notice the size of my stack after the big hit. Or maybe he's a complete idiot at tournament strategy. Either way, the point is this: I wanted to get "caught." I desperately needed to accumulate chips rapidly. I certainly knew that I could only steal the blinds a very small number of times before somebody would have a hand big enough to call me. But that's the point: I wanted a call, even if that meant being in with the worst of it, because doubling up was my only chance of getting back into a position to have some control over my fate.

There were still two even shorter stacks at the table. So it's possible that I could have hunkered down, hoping that when these players were finally forced to be all-in, they'd both lose, and I'd just barely sneak into the money (top four were to be paid). But I think that's crummy strategy. It may or may not increase my chance of surviving the bubble, but it absolutely kills my chance of winning, or at least finishing deep in the money. Finishing at the top once, with no money three other times, pays better overall than finishing at the bottom of the payout schedule four times. So that's what I was going for.

As it turned out, I got "caught" again shortly thereafter, and didn't survive that encounter. I exited in 6th place. But under the circumstances, I'd do exactly the same thing again.

So, Mr. Smug Smartypants, yeah, of course I was going to get "caught." But, you see, that was the goal.

Where are the worst dealers in town?

Barry, who works at the Hilton, is one of the finest dealers I know of anywhere. He's friendly, fast, attentive, consistent, unflappable, and makes remarkably few errors. He has worked many other places, and has strong opinions of what poker dealers do right and wrong. As a result, I've chatted with him many times about problems I've encountered at other poker rooms.

A few months ago, he asked me which casino I thought had the overall worst poker dealers. That was a hard question, because every room I've visited has good and bad. But I've kept thinking about it, and I'm finally ready to answer: It's the Sahara.

I had been leaning toward that answer for quite a while, but a session there Sunday sealed the conclusion. At my table was a guy who was pretty obviously playing live poker for the first time. He made all the classic newbie mistakes: He couldn't tell when it was his turn, and so was frequently either acting prematurely or slowing us down because he didn't know the action was on him; he got confused about posting the blinds; he didn't know about getting change when needed, or pulling his change back so it didn't look like a bet; he too frequently had to ask what the bet was, and, if he already had money out, how much more it was to him; he always needed to be reminded to push his chips within reach of the dealer (Sahara's tables are bigger than average); he made string bets and raises; he'd always forget to give back his cards when he won a pot. Maybe what galled the dealer most is that he didn't know to tip. This man wasn't drunk or stupid or deliberately trying to screw things up--he was just new to the zillion little things that quickly become old hat after a few hours of live-action play.

All of this is dime-a-dozen common. I assume that dealers encounter inexperienced players like this literally every day. But one of the Sahara dealers displayed an egregious lack of patience, an unprofessional 30 minutes unlike any I've seen before. He never actually yelled at this customer, though I was expecting that to come any minute. But every time this poor guy froze like a deer in headlights not knowing what to do, or made a mistake, this dealer talked to him in the most impatient, irritated, condescending, "do-I-have-to-explain-this-to-you-AGAIN?" tone I've ever heard used by a poker dealer speaking to an inexperienced player. (I've certainly seen equally harsh manners used when a player is just being a constant jerk, and only a saint would be able to maintain a smile. But as I said, this guy wasn't being rude at all; he just needed extra help.) It was painful and embarrassing to watch.

Predictably, this dealer's annoyance rattled the player even more. He became visibly worse, presumably because he was trying so hard to do everything right to avoid getting chided again. It was obvious that a smile and a calm, reassuring manner would have been far more effective at helping him ease into the groove. It does wonders for nervous people to keep hearing things like, "It's OK, sir, you're doing fine," or, "No problem, you'll catch on sooner than you think." But this grouchy old sailor (judging from his tattoos) couldn't bear to part with a smile or a kind word for a new player. He seemed intent instead on making the guy's first casino experience one he'd never want to repeat. It was horrible.

So why do I keep going to the Sahara when they have the worst dealers in town, inconsistent spreading of my preferred game, and one of the smokiest "smoke-free" rooms? Because it's a real money-maker. Of all the places I've played five or more times, the Sahara has both the highest percentage of winning sessions and the highest average take per session. It's just a cash cow. I tend to hit it up after having two or three losing sessions in a row other places, to get a winning streak started.

But I really detest the place. I've never--not even once--had what I would consider an enjoyable time there. The smoke is one main reason for that, and having the worst dealers in town is another.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Hopelatrons and seeing the future (non-grumpy content)

That just has to be the most intriguing post title I've had yet. If you're reading to find out what it could possibly be about, it has done its job.

There's a new poker publication out, called "Under the Gun." In Vegas, so far I've only seen it being distributed at Treasure Island, though I assume they've hit other rooms, too. It's a small magazine that basically is just ads plus an overview of the contents of a DVD, which is included. All free, of course. The DVD is like a poker feature magazine for TV. It's really quite well done. Nothing like in-depth analysis, but interesting feature pieces.

The magazine does have one bit of content that isn't on the DVD, and that's part of an interview with Phil Laak, who I think is one of the most interesting poker pros. I think he's an unusually bright guy. Hmmm. I should perhaps explain that comment. Nearly all poker pros are reasonably bright people. But there are a few who strike me as having the kind of IQs and general intellectual capacity that would allow them to successfully take on just about any subject if they found an interest in it. These include Barry Greenstein, Eric Seidel, Howard Lederer, Allen Cunningham, Chris Ferguson, David Sklansky, Paul Phillips, and Andy Bloch. I would not make the same statement about most pros, including, e.g., Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Hoyt Corkin, Gavin Smith, T.J. Cloutier, Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson, or a zillion others. They are all highly talented and successful poker players, and undoubtedly a standard deviation or more above the population average in intelligence, but I see some much broader "smarts" in those on my smaller list. I would include Laak in that elite category, though I think he has less formal education (and less of the typical demeanor of those who have survived a PhD program) than most of the others.

Anyway, I try to read or watch anything about Laak that comes my way, because he always has something interesting to say. And the "Under the Gun" interview is no different. He introduces a term I hadn't heard before, one of his own coining:

"The best way to describe a hopelatron would be to imagine the middle earth soldier guys from Lord of the Rings. Collectively very strong, but from individual to individual very weak. None the less [sic; this new publication could seriously use a good copy editor], their strength is that there are so many of them. You are sure to take a beating from a hopelatron from time to time. Even thought [sic; see what I mean?] they can nail you in a hand, they are lifetime losers at poker. It is the hopelatrons that keep the pros in the money. Thank the good lord for each and every one of them. Basically it is a term of affection for all the army of weak players that comprise the poker universe."

I love that word. It has already eased the sting of a couple of bad beats I've received recently from their numbers. Just thinking of the Tolkienesque mass of the hopelatrons at poker tables all over the city is sufficiently amusing that it makes the inevitable occasional loss to one of them a tad more bearable.

The other amusing thing about him for discussion here is this story from the DVD (any errors in transcription are my own fault):

"I never feel that I can see the future. The only time in my life I saw the future was about six hours into Day 1 of the [World Series of Poker] Main Event last year, and I saw that I was winning the twelve million. It was really weird. I saw it. It was like I was prophetic, and it was as real as seeing, like, that table right there. It was so strange, and I was like, "Wow!" ... So two hands later, this guy enters the pot, and I went, "Wow," and I just knew that if I made a huge raise, he would have to fold. And I knew that if I made a huge raise and he re-raised I would be pot committed anyways if he had ace-king, so I decided to go all in. It was so smart a play. Except he had two kings and I had 8-3, and his kings held up handily, and I was eliminated from the tournament. So I've gone back to not seeing the future. It's a lot safer, y'know?"

Isn't it nice to know that even successful pros can make completely dumb-ass moves just like the rest of us?