Saturday, May 17, 2008

Why do people play that way?

Last night at the Rio the only seat open was #10, which was fine with me, because that's my favorite by default anyway. (It's often the one open, because most players dislike it, and move away from it at the first opportunity, leaving it for the person next to join the table.) It was a fortunate thing, because seat 8 housed a classic poker maniac.

He didn't look the part. He was a mid-50s quiet man--not your standard maniac demographic. But when I say "classic poker maniac," I'm speaking of style of play rather than outward appearance.

I don't think I saw him fold a hand pre-flop the entire two hours I played. He raised about 75% of the time if nobody raised ahead of him. His raising range appeared to be, literally, roughly any pair and any single ace or face card. He would bet at every flop if nobody did before him. So being two seats to his left was a prime spot. It's extremely difficut to handle a maniac if you have to act before him. Position is everything. When dealing with a raging bull, you want to be sure that you're riding him, and not the other way around.

When I joined the table, he was at what must have been his peak chip stack for the night, around $600. By the time I left, he was, almost inevitably, down below $200. Maniacs never prosper. Well, never in the long run, and almost never in the short run. It is simply impossible to play that many hands profitably. Nobody can do it, absent an incredible streak of luck. Nobody.

Soon after I realized what he was doing (which didn't take long), I flopped top pair against him. I figured this was way good against his likely range, and responded to his bet with an all-in. Lost my first buy-in that way, because it happened to be the one time of the night he had the big overpair--kings. Oh well. One has to take such chances, or just cower in the corner whimpering, and getting steamrolled.

Predictably, I got back what I lost, and more, about an hour later. I decided that K-Q hearts was good enough to take against his raise. Flop was queen-high. He bet, I called. (I was remembering Mike Caro's advice: Don't try to out-maniac a maniac, just call, call, call. Plenty of money will get in, and you won't lose as much the times that he actually has a strong hand.) Same on the turn. The river brought me a third queen, which I was confident was gold for me, with no straights or flushes out there waiting to bite me. He could only beat me with A-Q or a full house. He bet again, I raised all-in, he called. He had a queen in his hand, but with a 7 kicker. I doubled up.

That's the thing about playing mediocre hands like Q-7, especially playing them as aggressively as he was habitually doing, and without regard for position. Sure, sometimes you'll hit a sneaky monster and get to stack an opponent. But more often, you'll be the one losing it all or doubling up the opponent, because the other players are being more selective about which hands to put a lot of money in with. Repeatedly taking the worst of it just isn't smart poker. His strategy might work well heads-up, where he starts with a 50% chance of having the best hand, but trying to do the same against a distribution of nine other hands at the table is a recipe for failure. It cannot work in the long run, and only works over the course of a session with a heaping helping of luck.

Every time I see this kind of play, I walk away baffled by it. Surely this guy knows that he is a long-run loser at poker, unless he is capable of a truly massive degree of self-deception. So he knows that his approach loses money. The only explanation, I think, is that the excitement is worth more to him than the money. He gets such a big thrill out of stealing lots of small pots, the occasional big score (like against me with the kings), and the rare hugely positive session, that he doesn't mind the overall monetary bleed year after year.

I have to admit that I don't understand this frame of mind. Then again, I'm just not a gambler at heart. I don't get the thrill from it the way many other people obviously do. That old saying, that the next best thing to gambling and winning is gambling and losing, is lost on me. Yes, I enjoy playing poker, but if I'm not making money from it, I'll drop it, for the night or for a lifetime. It is all about the Benjamins, as they say.

But not so for the maniacs, I guess. For them, it's all about the action, the thrill of risk and reward. I suppose that if he weren't playing poker, he could get the same effect from shooting dice. While I sort of understand that on a detached, intellectual level, I am wholly incapable of actual empathy, of seeing things from that point of view--it's just so far removed from what I'm there for.

None of this is meant to condemn the maniacs; they simply have different priorities and values than I do, and that's fine. In fact, I'm happy to have them around, because they are a prime source of my income (although with a lot higher variance and more ulcers than when playing against a table full of clueless fishies).

The guy who is focused entirely on making money at poker has a huge intrinsic edge over the guy who is just there for the thrill of the gamble, to whom profit is of secondary importance.

So bring on the ten thousand maniacs. I'm ready.

(Because of planning that last line, I was going to illustrate this post with an album cover from 10,000 Maniacs. But when doing the search, I came upon something even better, the above wonderful sketch from Charles Bell. Bell was an early 19th-century Scottish physician and anatomist, who might be considered the founder of modern neurology. "Bell's palsy" is named for him. He also happened to be a talented medical illustrator. So I'm delighted to use his drawing here. However, I should note that nobody with whom I have played poker--not even last night's maniac--actually looks much like the poor guy shown.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would argue that French physician Charcot is the father of modern neurology. I agree with your points about maniacs, however!