Saturday, December 08, 2007

How to write a gambling column, part 2




You don't really have to read part 1 of this two-parter (http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2007/12/how-to-write-gambling-column-part-1.html) to follow what I have to say here. In part 1, I was railing about the particular two theories that a keno-playing columnist touts as being the keys to winning play. The larger point that I had intended to get to, but never did, was the process of writing a regularly published column about a game that is 100% luck, 0% skill, and always a negative expected value on every play.

I'll try to keep on topic better this time around.

I was talking with a friend a couple of weeks ago about Linda "L.J." Zahm, the keno columnist for "Slots Today." As hard as it is to come up with new and different things to write about poker a few hundred times in a row, it would be vastly more difficult to write about strategies for games in which there cannot be any rational strategy. Or at least that's what I opined to my friend.

She, though, being wiser than I am and more in tune with the way that most of humanity thinks, immediately pointed out that I was wrong. In fact, as she noted, it's much easier to come up with material, because it doesn't have to be verifiable!

I quickly realized that she was right, and found myself awash with jealousy. Dang! I want to be writing a blog about playing video keno or slot machines instead of poker! Poker is just too complex, and, besides, there are theories and ideas and strategies that are actually testable, that can be proven to be correct or incorrect, net winners versus net losers, and I would hate to be wrong about them.

But for keno, slots, lottery playing, etc., there is no strategy that is right or wrong!* That gives you enormous flexibility and freedom in what you write, and nobody can ever prove you wrong!

"Today's column is about standing on your left foot while throwing the dice in a craps game. I've tried this several times, and have won enough that I think I'm on to something here!"

Then for your next submission you can write, "Today's column is about standing on your right foot while throwing the dice in a craps game. I've tried this several times, and have won enough that I think I'm on to something here!"

Two weeks later, when your next column is due, you can have another new discovery: "Today's column is about having your girlfriend blow on the dice before you roll them. I've tried this several times, and have won enough that I think I'm on to something here!" And, of course, the one after that would explore the no-blowing theory, with your evidence of several trials.

The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

Along the same lines, I'd like to offer Ms. Zahm some topics for her video-keno columns, since she may be short of ideas, as evidenced by the fact that the two I've read from her covered basically the same two bogus theories.** There's no charge for these, Ms. Zahm; you may use them without paying me royalties, because that's just how nice of a guy I am:

--Using a $5 bill versus five $1 bills to charge the machine.
--Playing in the morning versus afternoon versus evening versus middle of the night.
--Playing on weekends versus weekdays.
--Showering versus not showering before you play.
--Wearing green versus blue versus red hats while you play.
--Picking your nose while the machine is spitting out the winning numbers versus non-picking.
--Selecting numbers based on family members' birth dates versus the birth dates of Hollywood celebrities.
--Using astrology versus consulting a psychic as methods of predicting the winning numbers.
--Praying to Jesus versus Buddha for your selected numbers to hit.
--Pressing the "play" button really forcefully versus pressing it very lightly, just enough to make it go.
--Sacrificing a live chicken and smearing its blood on the video keno machine before playing, versus smearing the blood on your face and arms, versus no smearing at all (cuz you've always got to have a scientific control group, ya know).

With each of these you could write a column about why you think it should work, along with a description of what happened when you tried it "several times" (which Ms. Zahm unquestionably believes is all you need to test a gaming theory). However, with the chicken-blood thing, you may have to move to a different casino for each trial, because security will probably 86 you fairly soon after the squawking ends.***

Of course, anybody with a lick of rational thinking ability already knows that any of these things would have exactly the same long-term expected value as Ms. Zahm's nutty ideas about number clusters and machine resetting. But clearly her readership is not composed of people who think very hard about the plausibility of the material they're presented. If they were, Ms. Zahm would be out of a job real fast.

In fact, it's safe to say that anybody who enjoys, appreciates, and/or puts stock in what Ms. Zahm has to say about how to beat keno must, by definition, be just as stupid and clueless about the nature of randomness as Ms. Zahm proves herself to be every time she sits down to write her next installment.

I suppose it's easy work, if you can get it.


*That's not quite true. In most casino games, some ways of betting have larger or smaller house edges. With most slot machines, e.g., your expected return is at least a little bit larger (or, more accurately, a little bit less negative) if you always put in the maximum allowable bet, because this entitles you to a proportionately larger jackpot if you hit the miracle combination. But all such basic strategy can fit onto a 3 x 5 card, and once you've stated those facts, as a columnist, you're out of advice that can actually help or hinder "winning" play.

**Incidentally, I should be something of an expert at keno, because I was once, long ago, actually married to a woman whose maiden name was "Keno." Yep. Absolutely true. Apparently a French ancestor, with a name something like "Quineau," had it phonetically Americanized by a bureaucrat upon his entry at Ellis Island. I submit that that history give me just as much authority and credibility to write about keno as Ms. Zahm has.

***Have you ever wondered where the term "86" (for expelling and banning a person from a business establishment) came from? I've wondered that every time I've heard it. I just now tried looking it up, and found that there are many theories, apparently none of them with conclusive supporting evidence. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/86_(number), about halfway down the page.

How to write a gambling column, part 1



Most of everything is crap. Most food is crap. Most movies are crap. Most books are crap. Most journalism is crap. Most web sites are crap. Most blogs are crap. Most TV and radio is crap. Most cars are crap. Most clothes are crap. Most nations are crap. Most games are crap. Most of the mail is crap. Most politicians are crap. Most magazines are crap. Most music is crap. This is just the way the world operates. Because most people are undiscerning and have no taste in what they eat, buy, wear, drive, and entertain themselves with, the market supplies mostly crap, in large volumes and at low prices.

It's the same with poker publications, both books and magazines, and, as an extension, with gambling publications generally. Most of what's out there is crap.

But sometimes I'm stuck in a poker room waiting for a table, and the only things to read are issues of the worthwhile publications that I've already read, and the crap. So I pick up the crap, and hope that maybe today it will be a little less crappy than the last time I looked at it. Hasn't happened yet, but hope springs eternal.

One of the worst rags is a dual tabloid, with "Gaming Today" in one half and "Slots Today" in the other half. They actually have columnists specializing in how to play slot machines and other casino games. I feel kind of sorry for these writers, because, really, your first installment in the series pretty much has to be, "Playing this game is like flushing your money down the toilet, except that you'll probably lose it a little bit more slowly than you would to the sewers." And then what do you say after that?

The keno columnist

The first time I perused this paper, I was particularly struck by an apparently recurring column on how to play keno, written by one Linda "L.J." Zahm. Turns out that she has also published a book of her ideas.

The other day I picked up the latest issue of GT/ST, and there she was again. She said pretty much the same things that she did the other time I read her column, at least as I recall it. I was going to try to check the online archives of her writing, but I discovered that this nasty little rag actually charges you a membership fee to look at their past stuff, even though they give the thing away at every casino in town. This I don't get: the credible, professional, helpful periodicals, like Card Player and Bluff, have free access to their past material online, but one of the lowliest, crappiest, most worthless pieces of trash in the industry thinks people will pay to see it?

Anyway, Ms. Zahm has two central tenets of playing video keno. First, the winning numbers tend to fall into clusters on the screen, so you should pick your numbers in clusters, too. Second, you're more likely to make a big win shortly after you sit down at a machine or, failing that, cash out and then log back on to one.

The machine re-setting strategy

Let's look at the second premise first. Here's how she states it in the current column:

[T]here's no secret that part of my strategy in playing video keno is the
notion of "re-setting" the game frequently, as virtually all of my big jackpots have come within the first few plays of re-setting the machine.

Once again, "re-setting" means cashing out the EZ Pay ticket and beginning over again, or going back to the starting screen menu (on the Game King machine), then returning to the game....

Oftentimes people ask why this works, if in fact it does work. First, let's look at the opposite strategy: staying on your numbers without a break, that is, playing the game as if it were a live keno game by letting the numbers "come to you."

I know this doesn't work because I've testing it several times--usually at great cost in time and mostly money!

For whatever reason, the keno machine often slips into a cycle in which the numbers simply won't "come to you," no matter what.

Thus, it makes sense that if you feel this is occurring then you should cash out and start again.

She freely admits that she doesn't know how this works or why it should work: "I simply don't know, not being privy to how the keno program works." There is not one speck of evidence or statistical analysis in the column, beyond the claim that she has tried not "resetting" the machine "several times" and has lost money by doing so. QED.

Now, I'll readily admit that, like Ms. Zahm, I have no insider information as to how video keno machines' software works. But I would readily wager my entire net worth on the proposition that her observation is pure hogwash--that is, that over a number of trials large enough to even out random statistical fluctuations, there would be absolutely no difference in a given set of numbers hitting a winning combination on the first game after sitting down (or resetting a machine) and the 100th game.

How can I be so confident? Well, look at it from the perspective of the owners of the casino. They will, within allowable regulatory parameters, set up games to reward the kind of player behavior that makes them the most money. They would much rather have a player stick his ID card in the machine, charge it up with cash, then sit there and play uninterrupted until all the money has gone into the casino's coffers. The last thing they would want is for it to be both true and widely known that a player's odds of winning are greatest within the first few games, because then customers would respond by playing a few times and walking away. If nothing else, the time that the player spends logging off then checking in again, as Ms. Zahm advises, is time that that player isn't gambling. From the point of view of the casino, that customer is wasting space during those seconds.

There is just no way that a casino would choose to purchase machines that were programmed to operate that way, which means that there is no way that a manufacturer would design them that way.

So what explains the author's perception? That's easy. Look at her own language: She tried the opposite "several times." She obviously plays a lot of video keno, which means that all except "several times" she has employed her frequent-resetting strategy. It is therefore no surprise that nearly all of her big jackpots have come within the first few games after resetting, because all (or nearly all) of her games are within the first few games after resetting! If you buy a lottery ticket every week, and always pick 2-4-6-8-10, then if you ever win, it is guaranteed that your winning numbers will be 2-4-6-8-10. It will have nothing to do with whether that particular combination is really more likely to hit than any other, and everything to do with the fact that that's all you ever tried.

If Ms. Zahm had an identical twin in a parallel universe who, for whatever reason, stumbled upon the opposite strategy, she would write her book and columns to encourage people to stick it out for long sessions, having learned from experience that virtually all of her big jackpots came that way. She would write that she had tried the frequent-resetting strategy "several times" and it never worked for her. And her claim would be just as valid as Ms. Zahm's is. In fact, although it's unlikely that the machines have any built-in bias for or against picking winners based on duration of play, just thinking about how casinos want to reinforce players' behavior, you'd have to guess, in the absence of any hard data, that the alternate-universe columnist is at least slightly more likely to be correct.

The cluster theory

What about the central tenet of the Gospel According to Zahm, that of playing keno numbers in clusters? Well, this, too, is clearly just a figment of her imagination.

It's certainly true that if you look at a typical completed keno board (traditional or video), you can spot several clusters of numbers. To understand why, just think about what would have to happen for that not to be the case: The numbers would have to be quite evenly distributed. Even distributions are statistically rare. Randomness is "clumpy" by its very nature. Let me give you three examples of this phenomenon from three completely different fields.

First, a while back I took the time to figure out how many different possible Texas Hold'em boards of five cards did not make a possible straight for the lucky player holding the right two hole cards: http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2007/10/doyle-brunson-is-wrong.html. I discovered that of all the full, unpaired boards, 1206/1287, or 93.7%, have a straight possible, given the right hole cards. That is, the great majority of the time the cards are "clustered" closely enough together in rank that you can make a straight. It is quite difficult for a random shuffle to produce the relatively few combinations of cards in which the spacing is so dispersed that no straight is possible.

Second, people are always reporting to various government health agencies their fears of a cancer "cluster." Typically this happens when somebody becomes aware of, say, three kids on one block all developing leukemia, or a few co-workers all being diagnosed with brain tumors in some relatively short period of time. But, again, that's just how randomness is--it doesn't spread things evenly. Random things tend to have more clumps or clusters than one would be inclined to think. There are lots of governmentally sponsored web pages that try to explain this to people so they won't leap to the conclusion that there's some scary external force that is behind the cancer clusters--for example, this one: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/clusters. It doesn't help much, though. People see a cluster and immediately convince themselves that it's the electrical lines or the flu vaccine or something in the water or the nuclear power plant a mile away that's the culprit. It isn't, the vast majority of the time.

Finally, consider why people make very poor random number generators. If you ask people to write down a long string of random digits, the result will almost always fail statistical tests for randomness, and almost always for the same reason: there aren't enough clusters. That's because a person will think that something like 4-4-4-4 is too obviously non-random, so even if he puts down "4" twice in a row, he's unlikely to write it a third and fourth time. But real random digit strings are chock-full of sequences that look distinctly non-random. Of course, over several million digits, the occurrence of any particular suspicious-looking string won't be any more than would be predicted. But there are lots and lots of digit sequences that, in isolation, look artificial. The human digit-generator will tend to filter those out, and the results are much more "smooth," statisically, than actual randomness produces. The human thinks, "Hmmm, I haven't written a "9" in quite a while now," so he throws one in. The true random number generator has no memory for what has come before, and nothing in it that is trying to "look" random, so it has no bias to spit out a "9" just because there hasn't been one in the last 20 or 30 digits.

All of which is a long way of getting to this point: When Ms. Zahm sees clusters of numbers on a keno board, they really are there. But the knowledge that they tend to come in clusters is of exactly zero helpfulness in predicting the winners.

Everybody who has played poker even once has seen that some players go on streaks of unusually good luck, while others go on streaks of unusually bad luck. Again, that's the "clumpiness" of statistical variance at work. But knowing that that will happen doesn't help you. Unless you know in advance which seat at the table is going to be hitting the lucky streak, and exactly when that streak will begin and when it will end, the theoretical knowledge that streaks will occur is useless.

It is precisely the same for Ms. Zahm's cluster-keno theory. Her telling you to pick numbers in clusters is just as pointless as if she told you, before sitting down in a poker game, "Be sure to sit down in the seat that is about to get hit by the deck." Gee, thanks for the hint!

Until Ms. Zahm figures out a way to tell you exactly which clusters, of all of the hundreds of possible clusters one could define on a keno board or card, are going to be the ones that hit, her observation is meaningless. I think it's safe to say that if Ms. Zahm possessed this information, she would (1) be so rich that she wouldn't need the income from writing for a cheap, pathetic tabloid, and (2) she would keep that secret very, very quiet.

I wonder if she keeps complete and detailed records as to her wins and losses. It would be interesting to see if she is actually a winning keno player over the long run. I kind of doubt it.

Wrapping up

Well, to my chagrin, I see that I have rambled unforgivably here. This post is already about twice as long as I had envisioned it, and I haven't even gotten yet to the main point suggested in the title! That's a clue to end it here, and start a new entry, I think.

Poker gems, #56

John Vorhaus, Card Player magazine column, December 5, 2007, vol. 20, #24, p. 72:

It turns out that a glaring leak in most people's play is their simple unwillingness to face the hard facts of their play. They get hammered in a game and attribute it to bad luck instead of bad play. They tangle with superior foes because their egos won't let them admit they're outclassed. They justify foolish or self-indulgent moves with specious or circular logic. They leave their flaws unacknowledged, their assumptions unchallenged. And they do all of these things because, let's face it, the truth hurts.

Another Hellmuth-hating post




I'm innocently reading my Card Player magazine and come to Phil Hellmuth's column. As regular readers will know by now, I dislike a whole lot of things about Phil, but at least his columns usually have a worthwhile hand analysis or two. My distaste for nearly all things Hellmuth won't prevent me from learning a tidbit of poker insight here and there if he can provide it.

But this time the column just made me mad. Without so much as a "Warning: Spoiler alert!" he blurts out the outcomes of three of next year's "Poker After Dark" tournaments that he just finished taping. This is NBC's late-night poker show, which stuffs an invitational, six-player tourney into a Monday-to-Friday nightly series. A large part of the fun of watching is the tension from not knowing what's going to happen.

And here Phil goes and spills the beans on three weeks' worth of shows!

I understand that when there's a major open tournament that will eventually be televised, such as the World Series of Poker or the World Poker Tour, it's impossible to keep the lid on the results until the show airs months later. I get that. I don't ask for a news blackout for events like that.

But when there is a show like "Poker After Dark" or "High Stakes Poker," where just a handful of players is invited to participate on a closed set, it's not asking too much, in my opinion, for those involved to keep quiet about how it all turns out, so that we viewers get the little vicarious feeling of suspense from not knowing the ending.

And now Mr. Hellmuth blows that. (Note that I won't further spread his sin by repeating the news here.) I can't think of a single good reason why he couldn't have written the column while the hands in question were fresh on his mind, but then held off having them published until after the tournament was televised. In fact, they would serve a better educational purpose after the broadcast, because interested viewers would have seen the whole context of the game as background for understanding whatever points he wanted to make about why he played the hands as he did. (Poker hands cannot be examined fully without the context of table image, who has been running hot, who's on tilt, who has been playing the role of maniac and rock, etc.)

This is just one small pebble that has been added onto a mountain of classless, thoughtless acts perpetuated over the poker career of the proud and self-proclaimed Brat.

While I'm at it, shame on Card Player, too, for not stepping in and holding these submissions until later. What's next, CP? If you review a poker-themed murder mystery, will you tell us whodunnit so that we don't have to suffer not knowing while we plow through the book? If you get invited to an advanced screening of the next Hollywood poker movie, will you outline the whole plot, beginning to end, so that we can sit in the theater comfortable in the knowledge of how it all turns out? If you wouldn't do such things, then why allow Hellmuth to accomplish the same thing with his column?

Poker gems, #55

John Vorhaus, Card Player magazine column, December 5, 2007, vol. 20, #24, p. 72:

[P]oker is not about cards and draws and odds, but rather about all-out psychological warfare, and ... the true intent isn't just to win money but to make folks cower.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Lying about your hand

"Did you know that it's OK to lie about your hand, but you're not allowed to tell the truth about it?"

I heard that from a woman at the table yesterday at the Flamingo. It's not the first time that I've heard somebody make such an assertion. Most famously, Annie Duke said essentially the same thing during one of the 2006 World Series of Poker episodes. I suspect that the 700 million re-broadcasts of the series are ultimately the source by which most players "know" this rule.

But it's not true. The fact that so many people hear this and instantly believe it is just one tiny manifestation of the general societal problem that most people have precious little training or experience in critical thinking.* Even if I weren't pretty well attuned to the subject of poker rules, just an overall skepticism about accepting as fact things that people say would have caused me to raise a quizzical eyebrow at Ms. Duke's claim. I would immediately think, "Can that really be true? If so, it doesn't make any sense at all."

Let me address this under three headings: (1) Why the "rule" as stated would be stupid and pointless, (2) What the rule actually is, and (3) What I think the rule should be.

The alleged rule would be stupid and pointless

Suppose for a moment that there really were a rule that said that you could say any lie you wanted to about your hand, but couldn't tell the truth about what you were holding. Two prominent poker columnists have recently addressed this in detail, apparently both believing that there actually is just such a rule. They both do a nice job of explaining why it's ridiculous.

First is Steve Zolotow, writing for Card Player magazine (http://www.cardplayer.com/author/article/all/57/10074):

Someone in the main event told the truth about his hand, saying, "I have a king." His opponent folded, but he received a one-round penalty for telling the truth. Obviously, he should have said, "I don't have a king," then paused and added, "but there is a penalty for telling the truth." Thus, he could have conveyed the same information by lying about his hand. As long as we know that our opponent must be lying, we can assume the opposite is the truth. Unless players are allowed to use some mix of truth and lies, they effectively are telling the truth.

Next up is Mike Caro, who calls this "the idiot rule," because it prevents people from disclosing whatever they want about their cards only if both players are idiots (http://www.pokerplayernewspaper.com/viewarticle.php?id=2351):

But the worst rule in poker states that you can't tell the truth about your hand. For instance, you can't say, "I have three aces," if you actually do. That sucks. It sucks because, by rule, anything I say must be a lie to be legal. So, if I say I have a full house, opponents are given information. They know I can't have a full house or I'd be in violation of the idiot rule. So, I guess, if I wanted to tell someone I had aces full, I'd have to say something like, "One thing I can say positively is that I don't have aces full." If I said that and didn't have aces full, I'd be telling the truth and in clear violation of the idiot rule. For that reason, astute opponents would know that I'm lying--which is legal--and that I absolutely do have aces-full.

Exactly so. A rule requiring that everything you say about your hand must be a lie would be (1) unenforceable (because not every hand gets opened to check to see if the player was telling the truth or not) and, (2) completely ineffective. In fact, paradoxically, the more rigorously it was enforced, the less effective it would become at the presumed goal of preventing collusion.

That ain't really the rule

Fortunately, nobody has yet, to the best of my knowledge, actually been stupid enough to implement the "rule" that Zolotow and Caro rail against. I'm really quite surprised that both of these columnists took the trouble to publish a critique of a rule that doesn't exist.

So where does this poker urban legend come from? As far as I can tell, the source is this language in the World Series of Poker rules (http://www.worldseriesofpoker.com/pdfs/wsop.tournament-rules.07.pdf):

52. Players are obligated to protect the other players in the tournament at all times. Therefore, whether in a hand or not, players may not a.) disclose contents of live or folded hands....
Notice that it doesn't say anything at all about "truth" or "lies." It forbids one to "disclose" the contents of one's hand. The number of ways that one can "disclose" one's holdings are limited only by the imagination. You could show your cards. You could just say what you have. You could tap it out with your feet in morse code. You could send smoke signals (well, except that they've banned smoking at the table now). You could let an opponent keep guessing, shaking your head "no" when he's wrong and nodding "yes" when he's right until he's got it, thus never speaking a word. Maybe if you have a touch of Marcel Marceau's spirit in you, you could pantomime it. It doesn't matter--they're all equally prohibited.

The implication is that you also can't "disclose" your hand by invoking a logical game such as Zolotow and Caro propose: "I do not have XYZ, but you know that I have to be lying about that." As they note, that is the functional equivalent of straightforwardly stating exactly what you have. Both are prohibited under the actual wording of the rule in question, because both are just two of the myriad methods by which one might "disclose" one's hand.

Let me repeat: There is no currently published rule anywhere that says or implies that you can lie about your hand but not tell the truth about it.

Let's look at some other common sources for poker rules, for the sake of completeness.

The Tournament Directors Association rule 12 is nearly identical to, and the probable source of, the WSOP rule:

Players are obligated to protect the other players in the tournament at
all times. Therefore, players, whether in the hand or not, may not: 1. Disclose contents of live or folded hands....

Next is Bob Ciaffone's "Robert's Rules of Poker" (http://www.lasvegasvegas.com/poker/chapter1.php):

The following actions are improper, and grounds for warning, suspending, or barring a violator:

...Revealing the contents of a live hand in a multihanded pot before the betting is complete. Do not divulge the contents of a hand during a deal even to someone not in the pot, so you do not leave any possibility of the information being transmitted to an active player.

Cooke's Rules of Real Poker--for my money the best single rulebook yet--says this (p. 71, rule 10.20):

A player shall not intentionally expose a card or reveal it verbally in order to induce or inhibit action. However, in head's up matches (where only two players are dealt in) revealing a card shall be permitted.

I'm not sure if this is intended to cover literally only games where there are only two people playing the whole time, or if it is intended to extend to full ring games, when only two players are contesting the pot.

Lou Krieger and Sheree Bykofsky, in their book The Rules of Poker: Essentials for Every Game, go even further, and would disallow such disclosures even when heads-up (p. 79, rule 3.9):

Intentionally exposing a card to induce or inhibit action is a serious breach of poker ethics, and in certain instances can be considered a form of collusion. It is never permitted.
Notice that not even one of these sources says even a single word about lying versus telling the truth. So the next time you hear somebody make such a claim, ask him or her to point you to the actual source where the alleged rule is written. It's a safe bet that the speaker will be unable to do so.

What should the rule be?

Let's talk about cash games first.

The overarching reason for any no-disclosure rule is to protect other players. For example, perhaps a player has moved all-in ahead of me before the flop and I have pocket kings. I move all-in, too, and show my cards before other people have had a chance to act, because I would really prefer to have to beat only the guy who is already all-in; large pocket pairs don't play well against, say, five or six opponents, so my action is intended to scare off opponents. But the person who first moved all-in may have something like suited 9-10, which plays much better, in terms of risk:reward ratio, when there are several players in the hand (because the payoff for hitting a straight or flush is potentially enormous). Obviously, the same reasoning applies to saying "I have two kings, so the rest of you should fold," even though the verbal disclosure leaves more doubt about the speaker's truthfulness than does showing the cards.

What about less specific disclosures, such as "I have a really big hand here"? I would outlaw them, too, on the slippery-slope argument. If you write the rule so that it only prohibits stating exactly what your cards are, then presumably it would be acceptable to say something like "I have a pocket pair bigger than queens." That comes so close to what is prohibited that the rule ceases to be useful. So I would move the dividing line all the way down to zero: you can't say anything that suggests--truthfully or not--the strength of your hand. I would also prohibit statements that come in the form of "I might have...," which is a common ploy of some players.

When there are only two players contesting the pot, however, a player disclosing his hand cannot do any harm to anybody except himself, and since I don't believe in protecting people from their own mistakes and/or stupidity, I'd allow it. There are times when revealing one or more cards can work to one's advantage in confusing or deceiving an opponent. Consider this absolutely brilliant ploy by Daniel Negreanu, where he combines showing one card, a statement about what the other one might be, and a scary-looking minimum raise, to get Sam Farha to fold a better hand: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d33K96MGzVA. It's an ingenius trick, one of the slyest bits of deception I've ever seen deployed at a poker table.

I was on the bad end of another skillful bit of deceptive revealing by an opponent a couple of months ago. I started with a strong hand (can't remember exactly what it was), but hated seeing three hearts on the flop, when I had none. The turn brought a fourth heart to the board. I bet, my tricky opponent took a long time to decide what to do. While thinking, he turned over the 7 of hearts. He finally called. The river was a blank. I decided that with just a 7-high flush, he must be worried that I had a higher flush, so I moved all-in. He insta-called with the look on his face of the cat that caught the canary (as, indeed, he had). His other card was the king of hearts. He had flopped the king-high flush, and his showing the lower card tricked me into thinking exactly what he wanted me to think: that he just had a low flush and was in a difficult spot, when really he had the second nuts. Well played, sir--you lured me in perfectly.

That kind of clever psychological gambit should absolutely be part of the game, as long as only two players are involved. So showing one or both hole cards, or announcing or hinting at your hand--honestly or dishonestly--is fine by me.

What about in tournaments? The same considerations hold for multi-way pots, but there's an added wrinkle in tournaments that makes the picture less clear for heads-up situations. That relates to the concept of "tournament equity." This isn't the place for detailed analysis, but basically, depending on the payout schedule, late in a tournament, how one player acts in a hand can dramatically affect the amount of money that other players--even those not involved in the current hand--can expect to win. This is at the heart of an interesting debate between Lee Jones and Daniel Negreanu, at http://www.biggerdeal.com/2007/10/05/daniel%e2%80%99s-wrong-i%e2%80%99m-10000-sure/. Be sure to read the comments, too. (One of the commenters is me. I'll let people guess which one.)

I don't know the optimal way to balance the advantages of allowing the kind of Negreanu-esque ploy, which has traditionally been an integral part of the game, against preventing injury to uninvolved players' tournament equity. Perhaps starting the ban on disclosing one's hand, even when only two people are in the pot, when the money is reached, or a few places before the money, or at the final table, would strike the best balance. Of course, even if it works that way, when it gets down to the final two contestants, the rule serves no purpose and could be taken out of effect again.

Back to the start

But all of that is mostly irrelevant to where I started this discussion. I began with griping about how so many players just hear somebody say what a poker rule is, and accept that as the gospel truth, without looking it up anywhere, without thinking very hard about whether the alleged rule makes any sense or not, etc. To compound the problem, these people then repeat it to others, spreading the disinformation. It makes me crazy. It's not that hard to find out what the rules really are.

So when you hear somebody claim that there's a poker rule that says ________, and you've never heard it before, ask for evidence. Hold the thought in suspension until you can verify it. Don't pass it on as it it's the revealed word of God.

And for Pete's sake, don't talk about your hand!


*I risk going off on a full-tilt tangent here, because this is one of my biggest all-time sources of frustration and dismay about the world. In fact, if I had the magical power to cure just one ill of humankind, I think it would be the lack of critical thinking. I would make every person on the planet instantly inclined to critical thinking, and skilled at it. This would immediately solve countless woes, from the relatively trivial (people wasting their money on pills that the sellers promise will cause miraculous weight loss, enlarge male genitalia, or make the user irresitible to the opposite sex) to the truly world-changing (people being led to believe that if they fly a commercial jet into a skyscraper they will be rewarded with a bevy of virgins in heaven). So don't get me started.


Addendum, December 7, 2007

I emailed Mr. Caro to tell him of my disagreement with the premise of his column (Mr. Zolotow doesn't have a published email address). He responded quickly, for which I am grateful. With his consent, I'll share his comment:

About the issue on “can’t tell the truth.” I know that rule is in existence. It only applies to tournaments, though. Many directors have since modified it. Hopefully, my urging had something to do with it. I was, I think, instrumental in arguing against it on several televised events I participated in. They even waived the “can’t show cards” heads-up rule in both the National Heads-up Championship (NBC) and Superstars, when I participated. That wasn’t my influence alone. Many others felt it made for good TV to adopt these changes.

I even had the honor of roasting the person who first put the rule into place at the WSOP.

This is useful information. I can't find any such rule in current, published sources, but it's certainly possible that, as suggested in Mr. Caro's reply, there are tournament directors who use such an unpublished rule specific to their facility, and/or that if I looked at older versions of tournament rules I would find it. I freely admit that I didn't investigate older materials, so if a must-lie rule previouly existed, I wouldn't know about it (having been in the poker world for only a couple of years now).

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Not talking about the hand in progress includes dealers, too

Nearly every time the flop brings three parts of a straight flush, or especially a royal flush, there's at least one player at the table who feels the obligation to point out this fact to everybody else. That's bad enough, but it's far worse when the culprit is the dealer.

Flamingo this afternoon. I'm not in the hand. Flop is A-Q-10, all diamonds. The dealer, Stephen, instantly says, "Oh my God, here comes a royal."

I shouldn't have to spell out everything that's wrong with this, but I will anyway. Any such discussion by another player or by the dealer is clearly forbidden, because (1) it might be helping a player in the hand (and simultaneously hurting another one), and (2) it can change the action as a result.

Yeah, the fact that three-fifths of a royal flush just hit the board should be obvious to everybody--but you never know when it's not. A player could be too drunk or distracted to have noticed. A player may have bad eyesight and mistakenly think that one of the red cards is a heart. If you are lucky enough to have the K-J of diamonds in this situation, you secretly pray that somebody else will make a full house or even quads and not even notice the possibility of the royal.

Comments like Stephen made can queer the action. Players who are suddenly alerted to the possibility of a jackpot hand get a different view of their effective pot odds. A player with the jack of diamonds might decide it's worth calling big bets in the hopes of hitting the royal, either just to be able to say that he got one once in his life, or in order to claim a high-hand jackpot. (Most high-hand jackpots require both of the player's hole cards to be used, but a high percentage of tourists don't know that, and will chase the draw, thinking that they're eligible for the bonus when they aren't.)

A dealer at the Hilton used to do this every time there was a possible straight flush. The first time, I quietly pointed out to him that he's not allowed to say anything in that situation. After that didn't stop him, I would inform the shift supervisor. But even though I reported his inappropriate comments at least three different times, he kept doing it. I'm afraid the most obvious explanation is pretty venal: he wanted to be sure that somebody with a jackpot-winning hand didn't muck it, and thus lose out on a potentially big tip for himself.

Similarly, I would wager a large sum that Stephen is perfectly well aware that he's not supposed to make comments such as he did, but he figures that it's not very likely anyone will complain about it, and speaking up might nab him a big tip that would otherwise slip away. Well, Stephen, I'm complaining. It's unprofessional. It's an unambiguous violation of the general rules of poker. I'm confident it is explicitly prohibited by the written rules for employees of the Flamingo poker room. And you presumably already know all of those facts, yet do it anyway.

That's reprehensible.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"I'm not a cheater"




A few weeks ago there was another online poker cheating scandal. Chris Vaughn, who writes for Bluff magazine, got down to the final 20 or so players in one of the big Sunday tournaments. At that point, he sold his position to a well-known online tournament player, Sorel Mizzi ("Imper1um"), who logged on as if he were Vaughn and finished first in the tournament. But an investigation by the site, Full Tilt Poker, uncovered the irregularity. The win was voided, the prize money reclaimed, and everybody else retroactively moved up a spot in the final standings.

OK, nothing too surprising there. It's no secret that this stuff goes on. There have been at least four or five so far this year that I recall reading about, and it's anybody's guess how many go undetected.

What's surprising about this one is that the culprits have gone public with what happened, in an interview with Poker News: http://www.pokernews.com/news/2007/12/online-poker-sorel-mizzi-chris-vaughn-speak-one.htm. [Note added December 6: The second half of the interview has now been posted at http://www.pokernews.com/news/2007/12/online-poker-sorel-mizzi-chris-vaughn-speak-part-2.htm.] To their credit, they both admit it was wrong and say that they regret it. Vaughn also says that he regrets frankly lying about what happened when confronted about it on this online poker radio show: http://www.pokerroad.com/_/big_poker_sundays/11-18-07/. (I'm listening to the interview even as I type this. He says the accusation is "ridiculous.")

The eye-popping bit of the interview, for me, is this:

PN [Poker News]: Right, so you logged off the account, and Sorel logged in. Sorel, is this something you do a lot and is it part of the gameplan? Is this the first time you've done this?

Sorel Mizzi: No, I'm not a – I'm not a cheater; I'm not a multi-accounter. I acted fast without malice and didn't intend to hurt Chris and myself, opponents, or the entire poker community. This is something that was a one-time – it was a one-time thing and I clearly didn't give it much thought, which is exactly why I got caught, because… because of actually logging into his account which would be traced. But, I want to make it clear that this is something that was an isolated incident and it's, it's not something that I've done in the past.

JC [John Caldwell, interviewer for Poker News]: So this is the first time you've ever done this – you've never bought an account before online, late in a tournament?

SM: Never.

That's what got me: "I'm not a cheater."

Uh, yes, you are.

You can't admit to cheating, then claim not to be a cheater.

I understand, I think, what he means. He means that he's not a regular cheater, a habitual cheater. But that's not the question.

Mr. Mizzi, since you are apparently unclear on this, allow me to address you directly:

The line between cheaters and non-cheaters does not fall between those who cheat whenever they can and those who cheat just once in a while. It falls between those who have cheated and those who have not cheated.

You cheated, by your own admission. Therefore, you are a cheater. You may not like that conclusion, but those are the simple facts. You, Sorel Mizzi, are a cheater, and that is so no matter how many times you repeat the words "I am not a cheater."

But the analysis should go deeper than mere semantics. You got a phone call from Vaughn, and you offered to buy his place in the tournament. Now, surely you knew that others have engaged in this practice. It's not like the idea of buying an account sudden leaped unbidden into the mind of a person who had never heard of it before.

Those who have read of this practice can really have only one of two reactions: There's,"Ugh. That's despicable. I would never do such a thing." And then there's, "Hey, that's not a bad idea--if you get bumped out of a tournament before making the money, you buy the right to finish using the account of somebody else who has made it deep. I hope I get the chance to do that some day."

Your claim that this was a spur-of-the-moment decision is completely implausible. Somewhere inside of you, you must have already decided to take the opportunity if it ever presented itself. Your action that day was simply the fulfilment of what you had decided long ago, when you first learned that others were doing this. When the call came, you were already prepared to figure out how much you could earn by winning, what your chances of winning would be, and, therefore, what would be a fair price to offer Vaughn for his account password and the right to take over his seat. You could not possibly have worked that out in the very short time available without having decided in advance that you would do it when you got the chance, and what the general parameters of such a deal would be.

That, too, makes you a cheater, because before the opportunity arose concretely, you had decided that you would do it. A less demonstrable, but still valid, way of separating cheaters from non-cheaters is to draw the line between those who would cheat, given the opportunity, and those who would not cheat, given the opportunity. By that line of demarcation, you were already a cheater before you logged onto Full Tilt using Vaughn's account. Your action that Sunday merely moved you from the "would cheat if able" category to "does cheat" category. Ethically, that's not much of a shift.

And one more thought: As far as I can tell from the chronology that has been made public, you took no steps to right the wrong yourself. Nothing happened until Full Tilt took its action. If you actually regretted what you did (as one might if it had genuinely been a spur-of-the-moment impulse decision), you presumably would have quickly admitted your transgression and turned yourself in to Full Tilt. It looks, instead, like you didn't regret anything about it until the controversy became public and you lost the money. In short, you acted like a cheater would, holding onto the money and hoping you wouldn't get caught--so that you could do it again later.

Mr. Mizzi, I encourage you to contact Poker News and request that they let you publish a correction to what you said in the interview. Try something along these lines: "I am, in fact, a cheater. I regret having been caught, because of what it has done to my reputation. I wish now that I had decided, long in advance of the situation arising, that I would never cheat under any circumstances. I am resolved to never cheat again, no matter how juicy the opportunity."

There--now doesn't that feel better than the ongoing denial?

(My thanks to an anonymous reader who sent the above doctored photo of Mr.Mizzi. It's a much better rendition than my poor digital manipulation skills could pull off with my own original version.)

Monday, December 03, 2007

Respect or money




I'm in the middle of watching "House of Games," a 1987 David Mamet film that revolves around poker and con men (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093223/). In one early scene, Joe Mantegna is in a hand of draw poker with Ricky Jay*, who has been bullying the table. Mantegna, with three aces, check-raises Jay. But to his surprise, Jay, who drew just one card, re-raises him all-in. Mantegna stands up from the table, furious. He says, "You son of a bitch, you've been steamrolling over me all night! What are you trying to tell me? One card? You caught a flush? A boat? What? I think you're bluffing, pal. I think you're trying to buy it."

Jay just sits there, calmly but menacingly, then quietly replies, "Then you're going to have to give me some respect, or give me some money."

Oh, SNAP!

I'm not much of one for using talk to try to manipulate opponents into doing what I want them to do, but if I were, that is definitely a line I would add to my arsenal.

The dialogue in this movie, as would be expected from any Mamet work, is first-rate. It's so good that the Poker Grump is willing to overlook the game's use of non-standard rules. After all, they're in the back room of a bar, and laxity of rules is probably realistic in that scenario.

Here's another little nugget from Montegna's character, just before he folds to a large bet: "If a guy's got a full house and you've got two pair, that puts you in a philosophically indefensible position."

Indeed.



*For those who don't know, Ricky Jay was demonstrating world-class talent for high-velocity, high-accuracy card throwing many years before Chris Ferguson ever thought of taking up the challenge. See, e.g., http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UI_vaCADD4c; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFAzKv8_XF4.) He even wrote a book about the technique in 1977 ("Cards as Weapons"), which is considered the bible on the subject, and was for a long time in the Guinness Book of World Records for throwing a playing card 190 feet at 90 miles per hour (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ricky_Jay).

Define "emergency" for me

Another post taken from an old email home. The story took place at the Hilton on October 18, 2006.

*************

There are countless stories—some of them well-documented—about people having heart attacks or other major ailments at a poker table, but they stubbornly keep playing nevertheless.* Tonight I witnessed a strange variation on that theme.

Casinos have a wide variety of policies about cell phone usage in their poker rooms, but because of the specific configuration of the room we were in, state gaming regulations completely prohibit the use of phones (it’s complicated and stupid—don’t ask, just take my word for it), and the casino can get in a lot of trouble if the employees allow patrons to use the things. There are big signs informing customers “No cell phones allowed,” and they’re usually quite strict about it. But, naturally, there are always people who don’t see the signs, or think that the rules don’t apply to them.**

Anyway, at the poker table this evening was a woman who appeared to be in her early 60s. She was visiting from the Northeast. In the middle of one hand, her cell phone rang, and she answered it. The dealer immediately tried to get her to hang up. But from the woman’s facial expression and words, it soon became apparent that this was an alarming call. She began sobbing and folded her hand at the first opportunity. She kept saying “Oh no” and “Oh my God.” She was asking things like, “Are the paramedics there yet?” and “Are they reviving him?” The dealer astutely and compassionately decided to forego enforcing the rule in this situation. When the call ended, the woman apologized, saying “I know it’s against the rules, but it was an emergency.” The dealer assured her that it was fine, under the circumstances. I think we all expected her to gather her things and make a quick exit.

But instead, she kept playing. Over the course of the next hour, she kept receiving and placing calls on her cell phone, during and between poker hands. Obviously there was somebody back home in a medical crisis of some sort—somebody important enough to this woman for the situation to be upsetting, at least initially, but, apparently, not quite important enough to warrant quitting a good poker game.

This woman exploited to the fullest the first dealer’s humane reaction. Every time she took or placed a call, a dealer or another employee would politely try to intervene, but she would brush them off, saying, “It’s OK, it’s an emergency.” But she would keep playing her cards while on her phone—which conveyed pretty clearly just how dire this “emergency” was.

Now, personally I don’t much care if people talk on the phone (or watch football, or listen to music, or read a book) while they’re playing poker, because the more distracted they are, the more likely they are to make a mistake that will win me their money. But it was positively vile how this woman cared nothing for either the house policy or the difficult, uncomfortable situation in which she was repeatedly placing the casino employees by declaring herself exempt from the rules. The staff even offered to let her use the employee lounge (where the state regulations don’t apply) for her calls, but she wouldn’t leave the table. My compassion for her turned to disgust as her arrogance and callousness became increasingly apparent.

My hunch is that in the not-too-distant future, when this woman is next reunited with Cousin Joe—or whoever it was that had to be taken to the hospital—she will tell him how terribly worried she was when she heard the news, but will conveniently omit the fact that she managed to keep playing poker while the “crisis” played itself out.

*************

*For an example of this phenomenon at the 2007 World Series of Poker, see http://wickedchopspoker.blogs.com/my_weblog/2007/06/paul_eskimo_cla.html and http://wickedchopspoker.blogs.com/my_weblog/2007/06/paul_eskimo_cla_1.html.

**For those with any interest in a whole blog-rant on the topic of cell phones at the poker table, see http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2007/08/cell-phones.html

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Eliminating a recurring problem: A new proposed rule





In the December 10, 2007, issue of Poker Player newspaper, the always thought-provoking Mike Caro tells us that he was asked to help prepare a poker rulebook for the Bicycle Casino when it first opened in 1984. A variation from the standard rule that he tried--without success--to implement was that verbal declarations of action would not be binding. That is, a player could announce "call," but then actually raise or fold.

Yes, this obviously opens up an avenue for angle-shooters, but Mr. Caro's arguments for why the net effect would be less confusion, ambiguity, misunderstanding, and even less angle-shooting are not easily dismissed. The skeptical reader should think about his points before dismissing them as daffy. (The column isn't available online yet, but I'll try to remember to add a link to it in an addendum to this post when it has been put up at the publication's site.) Consider also stories such as those told in this post: http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2007/09/youve-got-to-be-careful-what-you-say.html. Consider the headaches that come from interpreting/enforcing conditional declarations (see, e.g., this discussion: http://www.allvegaspoker.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=3471). Consider the recurrent problem of players making verbal declarations out of turn.

Under Mr. Caro's proposal, actions with cards (folding) and chips (calling or raising) would be all that counted; anything verbal would be just table talk, which players would quickly learn to disregard. I think Mr. Caro is probably right that this would overall be a preferable rule. In fact, Mr. Caro fails to mention other potential benefits of his proposal: Players who are deaf (or just have their iPods turned up too loud to hear what is being said) would no longer be at a disadvantage. We would never have to poll the table to find out if other players could confirm what somebody said.

I wish the game had evolved as Mr. Caro proposed. I'm afraid, though, that this particular horse is well and thoroughly out of the barn, and the door closed, locked, and welded shut behind it. We're stuck with verbal declarations being binding, despite the problems that that convention brings with it.

But I think there's one way to reduce, at least by a small amount, the magnitude of the problems attendant to binding verbal declarations, and that pertains to raise amounts in no-limit and pot-limit games. One of the most common game-stopping situations is a player who is facing a bet and wants to raise, but states an amount in a way that is ambiguous as to his intention. That is, nobody can tell if he is raising by 100, or to 100 (to pick an arbitrary example). The game stops while the dealer and players sort it out. This annoys me no end (as do so many things--hence the very existence of this blog as a place to rant about all my irritants).

I think it's crazy to have such a common problem not governed by a rule. Consider other situations in which we have eliminated ambiguity and angle-shooting, and largely reduced delays, by a clear, simple interpretive rule. First there is the oversized-chip rule. If you're facing a bet and you throw into the pot a single chip of a value more than the current bet without first announcing a raise, it is deemed to be a call, even if you intended to raise. This keeps us from having to stop to ask the player what his intention was, and prevents angle-shooters from getting a read on an opponent's reaction to the bet before making up his mind whether to say that he intended to call or raise.

The string-bet rule is similar. It converts a situation rife with potential for confusion, ambiguity, aruments, and angle-shooting to a clear, simple rule.

In both cases, of course, inexperienced players not knowing the rules can be hurt by them, but they catch on quickly (after just one error, unless they're particularly dense). Furthermore, the degree to which they can be hurt by their lack of knowledge is usually much less than how they could otherwise be hurt by a predacious, unethical opponent in the absence of a clear rule.

I propose that we take a similar affirmative step for verbal announcements of raise sizes. Here is how I would state the new rule, if I were writing a poker rulebook:

In pot-limit and no-limit games, a verbal declaration as to the size of a raise may be made by announcing either (A) the increment by which the previous bet is being raised, or (B) the total amount of the player’s bet (i.e., the sum of the previous bet and the increment of the raise). A player verbally announcing a raise amount in a manner that is ambiguous shall be construed to have raised the lesser of the two possible interpretations, i.e., as if he had made an unambiguous declaration under option (B). If that interpretation of an ambiguous declaration would constitute less than a legal raise, the declaration will be deemed to have been one of a minimum legal raise, and the player will be required to put into the pot the corresponding amount of chips.

1. Examples of unambiguous declarations of the amount of the raise, which conform to option (A); other unambiguous variations are equally acceptable:
“Raise by 100.”
“100 on top.”
“Plus 100.”
“Make it 100 more.”
“Add another 100.”

2. Examples of unambiguous declarations of the new total amount of the bet (i.e., the sum of the previous bet and the raise increment), which conform to option (B); other unambiguous variations are equally acceptable:
“Raise to 100.”
“Make it 100.”
“100 total.”
“Total of 100.”
“The bet is 100.”

3. Examples of ambiguous declarations, which will be construed as being in conformity with option (B), provided that the amount stated would constitute a full, legal raise:
“100.”
“Raise, 100.”

Examples of the application of the rule when the declaration is ambiguous:

1. The opening bet is 50. The next player says “Raise, 100.” Because a raise to 100 constitutes a legal raise, this declaration is so construed. It is not construed to be a raise by an increment of 100, to a total bet of 150, even if the player claims after the fact that such was his intention.

2. The opening bet is 60. The next player says “Raise, 100.” Because a raise to 100 would not constitute a legal raise, the declaration is construed as announcing a minimum raise, to 120. It is not construed to be a raise by an increment of 100 to a total bet of 160, even if the player claims after the fact that such was his intention.
Unfortunately, I discovered that it took a whole lot of words to lay out what is actually a pretty simple concept. (I begin to understand why legal statute books are so thick.) But I think that once you read through it carefully, the proposal is really quite easy to understand and apply.

Never again would a dealer have to stop the flow of the game to ask a raiser whether he meant to raise by X or to X. Never again would a player get to change his mind about that point after he realizes that there is ambiguity or confusion about what he wanted to do.

Now, if only I had some actual influence in how such things are implemented....

Addendum, December 22, 2007:

The Caro column discussed above is now available at http://www.pokerplayernewspaper.com/viewarticle.php?id=2366&sort=author.

A word from Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr.



I was just looking up something completely unrelated when I came across this lovely tidbit of wisdom from one of the greatest Supreme Court justices our nation has known. I post it here because I am reminded again of the idiocy of the federal government trying to make it difficult or impossible to play online poker through banking regulations, and some state government trying abolish it by outright criminalization.

"State interference is an evil, where it cannot be shown to be a good."

Casino bingo is RIGGED! (non-poker content)






I have virtually no interest in any form of gambling other than poker. But once in a while I am curious about something and have to try it.

Recently when I was at Palace Station for the L.A. Comedy Club show, I noticed that they had a bingo hall. I commented to the friend that I was with that it might be fun to try that sometime. She has played several times before and quickly offered to go with me whenever I wanted. So last night we did it.

My family had a board-game version of bingo when I was growing up. There was a large stack of cards, and you'd place little plastic disks on the cards you were playing to mark the numbers that had been called, so that you could use them over and over without messing them up permanently. That was basically my whole framework for visualizing bingo, other than occasional scenes in movies and TV shows that take place in nursing homes or Catholic church basements on bingo nights.

Well, that's not exactly how things work at a modern casino, as I was to learn.

We went back to Palace Station. There was a bewildering variety of ways to buy into the session. The nice lady behind the counter tried to explain the options, but the lingo meant nothing to me. The signs and brochures didn't help much, either. With people waiting in line behind us, we finally bought what appeared to be the most basic package: $9 each for a ten-game card. It took just under an hour to play the ten games. It got even more complicated, in that some games used the free space in the middle, while others didn't; some games required just one completed row, while others required two or three, and the final game required every number on the card to have been called. I sure don't remember those variations from the old home game.

I was suprised--though perhaps I shouldn't have been--at how computerized the whole process has become. Maybe half of the people there were actually using automated devices, so that they didn't even have to bother finding the numbers on the cards and marking them. Talk about lazy! But even those of us going old-school had serial numbers on the pages, so that verifying a winner didn't involve rechecking what balls had been drawn, as I've always pictured the process. Rather, an employee just reads off the serial number of the player's page of cards, and another enters it into a computer, which instantly checks whether it's a winner or not. There is maybe 30 seconds total down time between when somebody yells "Bingo" and when the next game is going. Very efficient.

But not nearly as efficient as it could be. Assuming they keep track, by serial numbers, of which cards were sold for a given game, and link the sale to one's player's club card, an entire game could be played in less than one second. They hit a button, the computer randomly picks numbers until it detects that one of the cards sold for that session has hit a bingo, and it announces that the winner is Thelma Stanberg. Done. On to Game 2. Employee hits a button, and beep-boop-bop, a tenth of a second later we have the next winner announced. Repeat ten times, and we're all out of there in maybe two minutes tops, ready for dinner.

Of course, that takes away all of the suspense of being close to a bingo and feeling nervous about whether you'll hit the last number you need before that old witch across the aisle hits hers. The outcome would be the same, however. (Well, maybe not quite. It would eliminate the possibility of somebody failing to win because they overlooked marking a spot. But that's already being taken care of by those who use the computer-terminal thingies.)

From my perspective, it wouldn't be any different at all, because I never came even remotely close to winning. I never had fewer than two open spots left to fill in a regular game, and never less than four spots to fill on a double or triple game, before somebody obnoxiously yelled out "Bingo!" There was no adrenaline rush, except from the mild frustration of wondering why every number set everybody in the room madly daubing at numbers on their cards, while I looked in vain for any matches on mine. I ended up quite confident that they sold me the packet with the lowest number of matches to what was being drawn. I think they were mocking me for being pretty much clueless as to what was going on.

There is only one logical conclusion: Casino bingo is totally rigged! You probably have to bribe either the clerk who sells the cards, or the guy drawing the numbers, or both, in order to win.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go write my letter of complaint to the Nevada Gaming Commission, to have them look into this obvious malfeasance.

Is turnabout fair play?





This image is part of an ad in the current issue of the Poker Player newspaper for one of the lesser lights of online poker, http://www.pokerhost.com/.

After a series of recent posts here on religiously themed poker crap (see http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2007/11/anything-for-buck.html and http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2007/11/weve-got-to-go-all-in-on-jesus.html and http://pokergrump.blogspot.com/2007/11/poker-vs-church.html), I was made to wonder: Will those who see nothing wrong with using poker to promote Jesus also see nothing wrong with using Jesus to promote poker? Or will they deem this blasphemous and disrespectful, while they continue distributing Jesus poker chips and using poker metaphors in their sermons?