Saturday, May 31, 2008

Micro-stakes razz

I just logged on to PokerStars, looking for one of my regular $0.50/$1 razz tables, when, to my surprise, I discovered that the site has now added some levels below what used to be their cheapest entry into the game. If $0.50/$1 is too much for you, you can instead choose $0.25/$.50, $0.10/$0.20, or even $0.04/$0.08 limits to learn the game.


Some people just don't recognize a good deal when they see it

The first time I played poker at Bill's Gamblin' Hall and Saloon they accepted my generic Harrah's card for tracking hours. But last night, they said that I had to get a Bill's card. OK, whatever, I don't mind adding to my collection.

When I got it, they also presented me with what you see above--a Bill's Fun Book. It's loaded with coupons for free and discounted goods and services at Bill's and other Harrah's properties. (They haven't yet changed it to reflect the new corporate name of "Caesars.")

I looked through it, and there wasn't much I would personally use. So it occurred to my ever-enterprising self to sell the thing. As you can clearly see, it says right on the front cover, "$850 value." But when I tried offering it around at the bargain-basement price of just $500, nobody would buy! Can you believe it???

So just for my readers, I'm making an even steeper discount. A mere $100 and it's yours! That's what a generous guy I am.

Of course, you could sort of get one for free just by signing up for a Bill's card. But don't let that stay your hand! This offer won't last long!

Me and my brain: A story in four parts

Part 1.

Tonight I went to Bill's Gamblin' Hall, where I had played only once before, on its opening day. Remembering how that game had been chock-full of weak, passive calling stations, and anticipating more of the same, my brain had a little chat with me as I was walking from the parking ramp to the poker room.

BRAIN: There will be no bluffing tonight, you understand.

ME: Huh? What?

BRAIN: Not here. You're going to be surrounded with people who will call you down with second pair and a bad kicker. The watchword for tonight is "value bet."

ME: OK, I'll cut back on the bluffing.

BRAIN: Did I say anything about "cutting back?" No. There is to be no bluffing. Zero.

ME: But you know that bluffing is a pretty big part of my game. I can't just, y'know, go cold turkey! That could lead to, I dunno, convulsions or something!

BRAIN: Do you want to leave here with more money than you have right now, or not?

ME: Well, yeah. But I want to play poker, too.

BRAIN: Shut up with the commentary, and just answer the questions. Do you want to leave with more money?

ME (whimpering): I suppose.

BRAIN: Is trying to bluff a table full of calling stations the route to making money?

ME (shuffling feet, kicking pebbles, face down, dejected): Not really.

BRAIN: Then it's settled. No bluffing. Value bet.

ME: Oh, all right. I guess I'll have to get by with just my semi-bluffs.

BRAIN: You really are a retard, aren't you? You will wait for a good hand, bet it strongly, and get paid. It's that simple. What part of this formula is too hard for you to understand?

ME: You used to be fun.

BRAIN: Yeah, well, get over it. We are not here to gamble. We are here to take other people's money as painlessly and with as little risk as possible. One of us has to be responsible.

ME: Just my luck, stuck with Mr. Responsible.

BRAIN: So are we understanding each other here?

ME: (mumble mumble mumble)

BRAIN: Excuse me, I didn't quite catch that.

ME: Yes, all right, dammit!

Part 2.

That I made this commitment less than wholeheartedly became perfectly apparent only 15 minutes or so into the session. I had J-10 of spades in first position.

BRAIN: Throw it away.

ME: What? You're crazy! It's a good hand!

BRAIN: It has its place, yes. But this isn't it. You need good position to even think about playing it. What will you do if somebody raises? Huh? What then?

ME: But they won't. There's a lot of limping in this game.

BRAIN: Oh, so now you can see the future, eh? If you call now, then you're going to feel committed to calling a raise, too, and you'll just dig a deeper hole. Throw it away.

ME: No! It's only a dollar with this silly game structure Bill's has. What's a buck? I can muck it if somebody raises.

BRAIN: No you can't--you never do.

ME: I will this time, I promise.

BRAIN: *sigh* Well, I can't stop you. You control the right hand, not me.

ME: That's right--and don't you forget it. There. One dollar in.

BRAIN: You should have kissed that chip good-bye first.

Several other players limped, then a player in late position raised to $5.

BRAIN: OK, you said you'd fold to a raise, now's the time.

ME: Well, to a real raise, sure--but this is only $5. And everybody else is going to call. Pot odds! I've got pot odds! All the books say you need a lot of people in the pot for suited connectors to be profitable, and we have that!

BRAIN: Don't those same books say something about needing late position, too?

ME: Um, well, I don't really remember for sure. Oops! That red chip just slipped out of my hand!

BRAIN: Sure it did.

The flop was 9-6-6 with two spades.

ME: Whee! A flush draw! I loves me my flush draws! I'm gonna bet!

BRAIN: You're the first one to act here. Don't you think it might be better to check, with six people left to act behind you?

ME: Nope. Gotta thin the field. I know I read that somewhere.

BRAIN: Do you remember what we said about waiting until you have a strong, made hand to bet?

ME: I bet $10.

BRAIN: You're not even listening any more, are you?

A couple of people called, then a guy across the table raised it to $30.

BRAIN: OK, now you see what you did? You got caught with your hand in the cookie jar. Get out while you still can.

ME: But, but, but I have a flush draw! You want me to fold?

BRAIN: If you'll recall, I didn't want you to get into this hand in the first place, and this is exactly why. Now dump it!

ME: But it's a good hand. It might win.

BRAIN: What do you think he has?

ME (softly, not very convincingly): I dunno.

BRAIN: Yes you do. He has a 6 in his hand. He flopped trip 6s. He wouldn't raise with anything else here. It couldn't be more obvious if he showed it to you.

ME: He, uh, he might be bluffing!

BRAIN: Yeah, right.

ME: Maybe he has a really bad kicker with his 6, and if I go all in, he'll decide I have a better kicker and fold.

BRAIN: What, exactly, have you been smoking?

ME: What's wrong with that plan?

BRAIN: First, he could easily have A-6. What "better kicker" will he think you have then, eh? Second, suppose he just has 6-2. If you were in his seat, would you fold 6-2?

ME: Fold equity! I read about that in a book, too!

BRAIN: How much do you have left to bet? About $70? There's already about $90 in the pot. You can only charge the guy $40 on top of what he just bet. So what pot odds are you offering him, hoping to make him fold?

ME: Hey, you know I'm no good at math story problems!

BRAIN: OK, then just trust me. Your fold equity is basically zero. He is going to call.

ME: But I could still hit my flush! Then his having called would be great!

BRAIN: Really? Even if he has, say, 6-9 or 9-9 for a made full house?

ME: Well, maybe not. But if he doesn't, then I'm in good shape with a flush.

BRAIN: Yeah, you might hit. And one of those other players still in the hand might be on a higher spade draw along with you, so that you're drawing dead.

ME: Nosirree. I am not drawing dead, no matter what. Look again--that's the 9 of spades out there, and I've got the jack and ten here in my hand. That gives me three parts of a straight flush draw that I might hit.

BRAIN: Listen to yourself: you're justifying an all-in raise into a made hand because you might hit two perfect cards to hit a straight flush. When was the last time you made a straight flush--a year ago, maybe? Isn't that a little far afield from the "wait for a strong hand, then bet it hard" plan we agreed on?

ME: But a flush is a strong hand!

BRAIN: You don't have a flush, dude. You're hoping for one. And if your idea of winning poker is to shove it all in with 2:1 odds against making what you hope for, then you might as well go play at the craps table instead.

ME (fingers in ears): I can't hear you, I can't hear you, nyeah, nyeah, nyeah! I'm all in!

Of course the raiser called. And of course he had a 6.

But sometimes the fools win, and the queen of spades came floating down the river to save my sorry butt. The other guy just looked at me and shook his head.

Dude--I feel you. I've been on that end of it many times.

Part 3.

All right, enough of letting you listen in on the colloquy. Let me just explain how it all played out in the end.

I really did feel sheepish about having made what I knew as I was making it was a stupid move. It felt even worse, because I quickly realized that I had done precisely what John Vorhaus had warned about in the "Poker Gems" post I had written up just a couple of hours earlier: I had veered way over the line between deceiving my opponents and deluding myself. I had told myself every flimsy excuse to justify each bad step of a bad hand, even though I was perfectly aware that the rational truth was just the opposite. I was just like "bad Jim" in James McManus's wonderfully honest tale of playing at the WSOP 2000 in Positively Fifth Street, with a right hand that kept pushing in chips in spite of knowing he should fold.

When I buy in fairly short, as is my custom, I need to build up my chips rather carefully before I have a stack with enough force that I can wield it as a weapon. And the ugly truth was that tonight I just wasn't feeling patient enough to do that the way I usually do. I wanted to build it up quickly, go home, and go to bed.

Patience, I am well aware, is one of the few poker commodities that I tend to have in greater abundance than most of my opponents. When I try to play without it, I nearly always regret it and end up losing. I know that. I know it deeply and thoroughly. I've proven it over and over and over again. I tell it to myself before every poker session, and frequently while playing. Usually the self-coaching works. But once in a while, impatience still gets the better of me.

At least I have enough sense to recognize when I'm playing badly, and do something about it. Usually when I'm feeling impatient, that's not something that's going to fix itself in that session, and I'm better off just leaving and waiting for another time. But I had memories of how the cash flowed so freely into my coffers the previous time at Bill's, so I was really reluctant to leave.

I'll spare you the internal dialogue (trust me, it wasn't pretty), but Brain really took Self out to the woodshed and made himself very, very clear about what was going to happen. I got enough of a sense of control that I decided I could indeed play the way I had at the last Bill's session. And I really did get a grip, and started playing smart.

I also started thinking about the possibility that I might be able to exploit the fact that the table now had me pegged as somebody who would try to push as a semi-bluff, just on a draw. If only I could luck into a situation where it looked like I was doing that again, but this time with a made hand, I might really be able to hit a home run. Proverbs to the contrary notwithstanding, in poker it might actually be possible to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Part 4.

About an hour later, it happened. I had A-4 offsuit in the blind (Bill's plays with a single $1 blind). Nobody raised, so I got to see the flop for free. It was A-5-4 with two clubs. Top and bottom pair for me was feeling promising. But the pot was really small. I needed to build it up. I bet the size of the pot, got one caller, then the best friend of the guy on whom I had rivered the flush raised. The action was back to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the other player with cards in his hand, ready to muck. So it was going to be one on one.

I was reasonably confident that I was ahead here. I didn't think he would play 2-3 (for the straight) before the flop, even for just a dollar. The most dangerous possibility was 5-5 for a set, which he probably would indeed raise with here, given the draw-heavy board. A-5 was less likely, since two of the four aces were accounted for.

I concluded, after thinking for a while, that it was most likely that he had an ace with a medium kicker (e.g., A-7, A-8, A-9), and he was raising because he put me on a flush draw, just as in the previous situation when I was up against his buddy. My dilemma was the stack sizes. Moving all-in would be a substantial overbet, and if I was right, I didn't want the fish to spit out the worm because he tasted something suspicious. On the other hand, if I was right, then an all-in push might be the very thing to seal his conclusion that I was on a flush draw, because that's just what I had done before. It was a tough decision--milking him versus going for the whole enchilada.

Finally, I went with my read of him, and announced all-in. He thought and thought and thought. And finally he called. He was even weaker than I had guessed: He had just A-2, with only the one-way straight draw to save him.

He didn't get as lucky as I had, and I took his whole stack. I didn't ask him what he thought I had, but the answer is pretty obvious. He must have concluded that I was on either a flush draw or a straight draw, because he could not beat anything else. So not only had my assessment of the situation been dead-on, it was exactly the kind of spot that I had been looking for since my initial bad play, when I began wondering if there was a way to exploit the image I had created for myself.


I think the one thing that more than any other makes me occasionally feel like a honest-to-goodness professional at this game is the rare occasion when I'm able to figure out what an opponent's thoughts and/or weaknesses are, to get inside his head, then either design or exploit a situation in a way that takes maximal advantage of what I have concluded about him. This was one of those moments. They don't happen every day--not by a long shot.

I was feeling pretty smug about the whole thing. But then Brain came along and made it perfectly clear that I would be getting none of the credit, thank you very much. I had created the mess; he got us out of it.

I guess I'd have to give him that much.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Poker gems, #122

John Vorhaus, in his Card Player magazine column, May 7, 2008 (vol. 21, #9), p. 98.

Don't justify a bad move by calling it elegant misdirection. Dig a little deeper and you may find that your primary motivation is not to win money but just to be in action. In that case, you have crossed the line from deception to delusion.

When good people make bad decisions

For both of the last two years, WSOP events have had way too many reports of inconsistent, questionable, and downright wrong decisions by tournament staff. These have come from multiple sources, with usually reliable professional players describing what appear to be all of the relevant details.

It is not encouraging that in the early stages of the very first event of WSOP 2008 we appear to have another case of the same. Here's the story, as reported for Poker News by well-known poker blogger/reporter Change100:

A Min-Raise or a Max-Raise?

After several players had limped in, including Jamie Gold, a
middle-position player announced "raise" and tossed a single 5,000-denomination
orange chip into the pot without making a verbal declaration of the amount of
the raise. As the players at the table, as well as the dealer, disagreed whether
his action should be ruled a min-raise or a max-raise (in this case the max
would be 4,800, as it's pot-limit) the floor was called over.

The player's action was declared to be a minimum raise, though the majority
of the table disagreed with the ruling, as typically when a player bets with an
oversized chip without declaring the amount of the raise, the bet stands at the
amount of that chip.

Jamie Gold called the minimum raise and the two players went to the flop,
where Gold check-folded to a bet.

"You just cost me 1,200. You'd better not do that again," seethed Gold, who
was left with only 3,100 after the hand.

The Tournament Directors Association rules, 2007 edition, is explicit on this point, at rule 11:
A single oversized chip will be considered a call if the player does not
announce a raise. If a player puts an oversized chip into the pot and states
raise but does not state the amount, the raise will be the maximum allowable up
to the size of that chip

(Emphasis added.)

The WSOP's own rules are virtually identical:
Putting a single oversized chip into the pot will be considered a call if
the player doesn’t announce a raise. If a player puts an oversized chip into the
pot and says, “Raise,” but doesn’t state the amount, the raise will be the
maximum allowable up to the denomination of that chip

(Emphasis added. That is taken from the 2007 rules, #49, found here. I have not yet been able to find a copy of the 2008 rules online, but it's highly unlikely that this point changed since last year. If it has, making today's decision right, I'll gladly post a correction/retraction.)

It's hard to know how the rule could be stated more clearly, or in a way that would be more directly applicable to the exact situation described in today's event. I have no idea what the floor person was thinking, or on what rationale he based making a decision that directly contradicts the tournament's own explicit rules.

Here's a kind, gentle suggestion to those running the Series this year: Have your tournament staff read your own $#%^&*@ rule book!

Here's another suggestion: When there's a controversy, maybe the floor staff should have a copy of the rules in hand to refer to, rather than making stuff up as they go.

As for Gold's nasty little dig/threat, well, I hope the stupidness of it is sufficiently self-evident that I don't need to say more about it.

Less blogging, maybe

Today I started in on a new temp job for/with/about (not sure which preposition fits best) the World Series of Poker. It's behind-the-scenes, hush-hush, top-secret, on-the-down-low, if-I-told-you-I'd-have-to-kill-you kind of stuff. It is likely to mean less time for writing, as well as less time for playing poker and thus generating stories and observations and questions related to same. All of which means that posts will probably be somewhat rarer than you may have become accustomed to. Not to worry, all is well, just a temporary shift in time priorities. And it may turn out to be less of a time suck than I'm envisioning right now, in which case this forewarning will be moot and pointless. We'll have to see.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Old Vegas

If you're fascinated by how this city has grown and changed over the years, click here to be treated to a nice slideshow of mostly 1950s photos. A few things shown still exist--but not a lot.

"I had to see the flop"

The first full hand I watched play out after taking my seat at the Rio tonight had Player A limp in, Player B raise to $15, Player A call. After the flop, it was check/bet/fold. Player A showed his cards to the table before folding. "I had the jack-ten of hearts. I had to call. I had to at least see the flop, for a possible $4000."

I hadn't been aware of it, but apparently the Rio high-hand jackpot is up to a little over $4000 for hitting a royal flush.

Let's run a few numbers. If you start with any two of the five cards needed for a royal flush, how likely is it that you will have the royal if you see the hand out to the bitter end? Obviously, you're going to need the final board to have the other three exact cards that you need, leaving two other slots that can be filled with any ol' cards. So after we specify what five of the seven cards have to be, there are 47 possibilities for one of the open slots, and then 46 for the final slot, for a total of 2162 different final boards that will complete our hand (assuming that we don't care about what order they come in).

The total number of boards that we might get, after eliminating our two parts of the royal from the deck (because they are in our hand), is denoted by (50, 5). Running this on Excel, that turns out to be exactly 2,118,760. In other words, of a little over two million possible five-card boards that might show up, a little over 2000 of them will give us the royal flush. The odds are 980:1. Let's round it to 1000:1 to make things neat and simple.

With a $4000 jackpot, the expected value is therefore about $4 every time you have two suited Broadway cards and see the flop. Mathematically, then, you should imagine that the house has plopped an extra $4 into the pot as soon as you see those two hole cards, and then make your decisions with that slightly altered assessment of what the pot is offering you.

From the discussion that ensued after this guy folded, it was clear that he dislikes playing J-10, and called the $15 raise only because of the jackpot possibility. In other words, he threw in an extra $12 (beyond the $3 call he had already made) in order to win $4.

Actually, the situation is worse than that, because that extra $12 only gets us to the flop, and even when the royal is destined to come, it will most often not all hit at once like that. So we're going to have to be willing to invest even more money if we get one or two more pieces of the royal flush on the flop and an opponent bets. The real amount that one would have to invest in order to collect that hypothetical $4, playing the way this guy was apparently willing to pay, would certainly be, on average, something like two or three or four (or more) times what we've already calculated. On the other hand, sometimes he will win the pot even when he doesn't win the jackpot, so that reduces his average price (or you can say that it increases his average profit) some. For a hand that he recognizes isn't intrinsically strong, this surely won't be enough to offset his entire entry price, but let's be extremely generous and assume that he'll win often enough to compensate for what he'll have to pay, on average, on the later streets, thus leaving him with just the pay-12-to-win-4 deal.

Of course, he would protest that he didn't spend $12 in order to win $4; he spent $12 in order to win $4000. OK, let's look at it from that point of view. How much will he have to spend, on average, in order to collect that $4000, if this situation were to repeat itself endlessly? That's easy: about $12,000 ($12 each time, for 1000 iterations). And, again, this is the best-case scenario--if the royal comes on the flop or our opponent is generous enough to let us peel off two more free cards, which doesn't seem like the most common way it will play out.

By his own words and actions, we can infer that this guy is willing to spend $12 (or more) to win $4, or $12,000 (or more) to win $4000. He can pick either of those ways of expressing it that he likes, and I won't argue with him. But, of course, they're both equally stupid.

One of the things I would most like to see in one of the poker publications is a series of columns or articles with rigorous mathematical assessments of various poker room promotions, how they distort the pot odds, and to what degree should one alter one's play to adjust for them?

For example, a casino I used to play at in Minnesota had an "aces cracked" promotion one day a week--you'd get a rack of white chips ($100) if your pocket aces got beaten. Some players insisted that the only smart way to play aces was to limp, hope for lots of opponents, play completely passively and see the hand to the end as cheaply as possible, hoping to get beaten and pick up the $100. The problem with this strategy is that often the aces would still hold up, and you're left without the bonus, and with a tiny pot. Other players insisted that because of the problems with that strategy, it was best to play the hand as usual, hope and expect to usually win the pot, and let the $100 bonus just be sort of a net to break your fall if you got unlucky. Arguments about this took place every single week. I'd love to see somebody take reasonable ranges of assumptions about the variables involved (number of callers, size of the pot, probability of holding up against X opponents, etc.) and crank out a mathematically sound answer. I sure can't do any more than guess at what it is.

I think that bad-beat jackpots probably introduced relatively little distortion, because the threshold requirements are usually two big hands that would inevitably get played out anyway. It's hard to imagine folding four of a kind just because an opponent with the perfect two cards in his hand might have a straight flush, for example.

But there undoubtedly is a mathematically optimal way to account for various promotions--such as should I hold on to a J-5 of diamonds that I would otherwise fold, for the possibility of hitting a diamond flush at the Palms? In order to answer that, you'd have to know approximately how many people hit one every day, so that you could calculate the expected bonus value of hitting the flush, then make some estimate of how much EV you're losing in the pot by calling. Those aren't easy or obvious numbers to come by.

I have written to a few of the more mathematically minded columnists at Card Player and suggested this topic, but none of them have taken up the challenge yet. Oh well. I have a pretty good idea that the guy at saw at the Rio tonight would flip right past them, or would get a glassy look in his eyes at all the numbers, then say, "But I might win $4000!" (Think of the look and tone of the guy in "Spinal Tap" saying "But these go to 11!")

Time to stay away from the Rio

I went to the Rio tonight, thinking that I might be able to get one more normal poker session in before the place becomes a WSOP madhouse. Nope. Too late.

All but one of tonight's dealers were substitutes, brought in for the event. None of them knew the house rules. One of them was literally on his first day as a dealer anywhere.

Thousands of things irritate me, but I'm actually very slow to anger. This dealer, though, brought me to the brink. He was painfully slow, getting out only seven or eight hands per down. He didn't know how to make change. He left the amount of money in the tray wrong after every down (according to the excellent Rio regular dealer who had the misfortune of following him around--"He drives me crazy!"). He didn't know that he was supposed to prevent string bets/raises. He had no idea what to do with missed-blind and "absent" buttons. He thought that maybe a player who had missed three sets of blinds had to make up all of them at once. He flashed cards with every deal. He forgot to burn cards. If somebody asked him something, everything had to stop while he talked, because he couldn't even hope to accomplish two things at once. He forgot to move the dealer button--EVERY time. He usually forgot to take the rake until after pushing the pot, then would ask the player for some chips back to pay the house. He knew less about poker rules than an average player--for example, he insisted that when two players were both all-in, they had to turn their cards up before he could put out the turn and river cards (which is true only in a tournament, not a cash game).

It was the most excruciating experience with a dealer I've ever had. Out of literally thousands of hours of live poker, he was far and away the worst I've seen--so bad that nobody else even comes in a close second place. I've had a fair number of dealers on their first day out of school, and they were all slow, but they knew what to do, and would get things mostly right. That doesn't bother me--in fact, it's kind of cute and fun to watch. But this guy tonight, well, if he passed any sort of audition to get the job, it must have consisted of nothing more than checking to be sure than he had a pulse. I cannot imagine that he had to demonstrate actual competence or proficiency in dealing.

As I was leaving, I spoke to the poker room manager and told him that if that dealer ever again sat down to work a table I was at, I would simply get up and leave, rather than suffer through that experience again, that he was absolutely not ready to be put in charge of a table on his own. Unfortunately, my complaint/observation seemed to fall on deaf ears. The response I got was "Yeah, probably half of the dealers we got for the series aren't really ready." Oh, well, that's a fine explanation. There was no apology, just a "I can't do anything about it" kind of reaction.

So that's the end of my playing at the Rio until the WSOP is done and they get their normal staff of fine dealers back in the box. It's clear that the Rio doesn't care about making poker an enjoyable experience for its regular players while the series is in town. It's obvious that they don't care about my business, so I'll take it elsewhere.

I pity people who pony up $10,000 to enter one of the championship events, and get stuck with the dealer I saw tonight, making every possible error and putting out half or a third of the number of hands that the rest of the tables are getting.

It may be that all of the Harrah's--oh, excuse me, it's now all of the Caesars--properties will be like this until July. I'll check in with a couple of others and let you know.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Accidental tipping

I just got back from a delightful afternoon with Short-Stacked Shamus. He is every bit as smart, funny, educated, interesting, and self-effacing as you would anticipate from reading his blog. We've been chatting via email for many months now, but never met. So we had lunch at Gardunos, a nice Mexican (their web site calls it "New Mexican"--whatever) restaurant inside the Palms. Chatted for a while, then went (of course) to the poker room, and played $2-4 limit hold'em for a while.

Shamus had a good session. Me, not so much--but I only lost $12, so it didn't really sting.* I had been ahead for the day, until Shamus cracked my pocket kings with a heart flush on the river, swiping a nice multi-way pot. Of course, this doesn't bother me one bit; it's just part of how limit poker goes. I'm much too broad-minded to harbor even the tiniest bit of resentment over such things. But I should mention--completely unrelated to that incident, of course--that his blog totally sucks rocks and you should never, ever look at any of the completely worthless crap posted there.

(Just kidding!)

Also, if he tries to tell you that he was merely getting even for when I beat his solid A-K on the button with a crap hand that I should have folded the instant I saw it--like maybe a J-7 offsuit from out of position, or something equally awful--well, he's lying, and that's all there is to it. I'm simply incapable of playing that badly.

Anyway, on to the story of the day:

Shamus got seated first, and I was standing by watching, when I saw something unexpected happen. A player was getting low on chips, and pulled out another $20 bill to buy more. The dealer counted out four stacks of five chips each, then made them into one stack, lifted it up with one hand (his left hand was holding on to the deck of cards for the hand that was in progress), and handed it to the player. What I saw, but the dealer didn't, is that when he lifted up the stack, the bottom chip stayed on the table, right in front of the dealer. He looked away at the crucial instant because there was pre-flop action going on at the time, and he was trying to follow it at the same time as he sold the chips. The player didn't re-count the chips he had just bought.

A few seconds later, when he went to gather in the pre-flop bets and put out the flop, the dealer noticed the lone blue chip sitting in front of him. He picked it up, clearly unsure of where it had come from. He quickly reached to put it into his tip box, because, after all, that's the most common and logical explanation for why it was there. But then I saw him hesitate. I watched his eyes go around the table--he was counting the number of players who had put limped in, then counting the pot, to be sure that the extra dollar wasn't spillover from one of their bets. When he saw that the pot was correct, he concluded that the dollar had indeed been a tip and dropped it in the box.

I know this dealer well enough to be absolutely certain that this was not deliberately stealing. I've chatted with him many times while he's in the box. He knows my secret identity. (OK, it's not really all that secret, since you can pretty easily find references herein to my real-world name, photos of me, etc. Still, most people I play with have no idea that I go home and blog about them.) He would never be that corrupt, nor so stupid as to endanger his career for a lousy buck. It was just an innocent mistake. He made a genuine effort to be sure that the chip wasn't supposed to be part of the pot before keeping it for himself, and just didn't think about the possibility that he had accidentally dropped one off of the stack he had sold to the player.

Maybe I should have spoken up. But I was just a bystander, not even seated at the table yet. And it was just a dollar. (Today's helpful hint: Count the chips that the dealer sells you, even if you just watched him or her count them!)

I certainly got a dollar's worth of amusement out of watching the dealer's confusion resolve into an incorrect, though perfectly understandable, conclusion.

*It's strange how poker money is both conceptually and emotionally different from regular money. A session in which I end up $12 down means nothing to me--not even a pixel on my Excel graph of cumulative results. It literally gets lost among all of the bigger numbers (bigger on both the positive and negative sides). But if I somehow became aware that I had, say, been shorted $12 in change at Target, or paid $20 for an item that I could have bought for $8, or discovered that $12 had fallen through a hole in my pocket onto the street, I'd be seriously irritated at the loss. Maybe someday an expert in poker psychology can explain this anomaly to me. It seems utterly irrational, and I don't like having to admit that there are irrational facets to my being.


You can read Shamus's version of events here.

Noses and mouths causing problems at Foxwoods

Two interesting back-to-back stories on rules and etiquette over at the "Aces Full of Ducks" blog: See here and here.

The first story is another cautionary tale about the wisdom of just habitually turning your cards face up, even if you think you lost, because otherwise once in a while you will have misread your hand, and accidentally muck the winner. I have done that three times (once where I would have won the pot outright, and twice where I would have split it) that I know of.

I wonder what happened to the dealer. He or she should have had a new orifice chewed open, for (1) not mucking the guy's cards when he pushed them forward and stood up to leave, and (2) not preventing the nosy player from looking at them. Even after the cards were revealed, the dealer should have taken them from the intervening woman and shoved them deep into the muck, just as would have happened without her injecting herself. I think the floor should have ruled the hand dead, because it clearly would have been dead if the dealer had done his or her job right.

Furthermore, the woman should have been asked to leave for the day for such an abominable violation. No matter how she gets scolded or warned, she is going to feel that she did the right thing, likely on some warped version of the "do unto others" concept. She needs to feel enough sting as a consequence that she actually makes a decision not to interfere like that in the future, even if she thinks she should intervene. I think it does no good to try to persuade her that she was wrong; she has to know that she gets penalized for breaking the rules, even if she disagrees with the how the rules work. The saying is "once burned, twice careful." Well, she needs to get burned a little bit there.

I'd probably make a really lousy poker room manager. I'd be kicking people out right and left, until there were no customers left to play. But at least then the place would be quiet and orderly, the way it should be!

Same with the woman in the second story, by the way. She should have been shown the door, too. Three times in one hand is completely inexcusable. (Incidentally, why was the dealer not shutting her up at her first peep?) And again, it's clear that she left that day certain that she had done exactly the right thing. No amount of words will convince her otherwise. You have to make it hurt, so that the next time such a situation arises, she remembers the day she got kicked out, and makes a different decision.

I've mentioned several times that my main hobby (at least before moving here) has long been competitive handgun shooting. In particular, most of my experience was with the United States Practical Shooting Association. It may not be possible to have more fun than shooting one of their matches. But because the whole deal is about people running around with guns, firing at targets as fast as they can, there have to be some pretty stringent safety rules. And the USPSA is absolutely fanatical about enforcing those rules, with a sterling safety record as a result.

There are about half a dozen things you can do that violate one of the major safety rules, such as dropping your gun, taking it out of the holster when you're not supposed to, having it loaded when you're not supposed to, having your finger on the trigger when you're clearing a jam, having any part of your body get in front of the muzzle, etc. Break even one of them, even once, for just a second, and you are done--ejected from the match, sent home for the day. No excuses, no exceptions, no mercy. It's all done with kindness, though, and you're welcome back for the next match.

I had it happen to me--once. I wasn't paying attention when I should have been, and jostled my pistol in such a way that it fell out of my holster and plopped onto the ground. There was no actual danger to anybody, but it's one of those zero-tolerance rules--because if your attention is waning enough that you can drop your gun, well, then just about anything can happen. The awkwardness and embarrassment of having everything stop while they fixed the problem and gave me the friendly boot out of the range really sank in. It was impossible to think of anything else for the entire 45-minute drive home. Shame can be a powerful motivator. As a result, I never again let my attention lapse in such a careless way. If they had just let it slide, and let me off with a warning, I might not have achieved the higher level of vigilence that thereafter accompanied me to every match.

Human brains are wired perfectly to respond to positive and negative incentives and reinforcements. We remember acutely how actions in the past have been rewarded or punished. We're all Pavlov's dogs. I firmly believe that poker rooms need to be a lot more aggressive about ejecting players for the day when they egregiously violate rules--because actual negative consequences change behavior much more effectively than just warnings do.

Addendum, May 27, 2008

I received the following email from a reader, presumably in reaction to the above post, with a couple more interesting stories of a similar nature:

I'm still reading your blog regularly. It is one of my favorite poker blogs.

I spent a few days in Vegas and have a couple of stories that you may have interest in discussing.
The first involved myself not reading my hand correctly. I was playing at Mandalay Bay. I was in seat 3 and limped with A-9 offsuit. Several people saw the flop of A-K-4. Seat 8 made a small bet and I just called with my weak kicker. I don't remember the turn. Seat 8 made another small bet and I called. The river came and seat 8 checked and I checked. He turned over A-10. I was out kicked. I then did something I rarely do, I showed my Ace.

I was about to muck my hand when the dealer said "you have to show both cards". I was confused. Initially I thought this was a new house rule like they had at the WSOP last year where if you showed one card you had to show both. I said "what?" and the dealer repeated his statement. He was looking at me waiting for me to do something. So I showed my 9. He immediately said "split pot". Shocked, I looked back at the board and realized that the river card was a 4. Because I was playing the hand passively and was happy to get a check on the river, I hadn't realized that the board had paired negating my kicker.

Seat 8 then objected and told the dealer he shouldn't have helped me. The dealer said that I didn't make a clear action if I was mucking the hand or trying to claim the split with only one card. He explained to seat 8 that he was simply instructing me of the rules. Seat 8 asked for a floor decision and after hearing the replay, the floor concurred. Since I didn't muck my hand it was not clear if I was showing the ace for half the pot. I told everyone that honestly I didn't realize it was a split and that seat 8 could have the pot (it was a very small pot). He said no just split it and we were fine.

However, seat 4 turned into an expert and he now objected. He said that my intention of mucking my hand should outwiegh my actual action of showing my hand. The floor upheld his decision and we played on. For the next 2 hours I had to endure seat 4 retelling the story to every new player at the table.

Story number two involves a situation that you often hear could happen, but this is the first time I actually saw it happen. I was playing at the Golden Nugget. At the opposite end of the table, seats 7 and 8 were involved in a hand that went to the river. Seat 7 said all in on the river and seat 8, who had a much larger stack, said call. Seat 7 turned over his cards and showed 2 pair. Seat 7 hadn't counted out his chips so the amount of the bet was unclear. Seat 8 said something and started stacking his chips next to seat 7's stacks. I didnt' hear what seat 8 said, but is was problably "that's good" or "you win" or someting like that. He was clearing counting chips to pay off the all in bet. Seat 8 still had his cards. Seat 7 said to the dealer I want to see his hand. The dealer reached over and turned over the cards. The dealer then announced "straight". Seat 8 had top pair, but didn't realize that his kicker had made a straight. Then all the money went to seat 8.

Two other players at the table objected and said that the dealer should have killed the hand in the muck before showing it. The dealer explained that it was a house rule that if any player involved in the showdown asks to see a hand then the shown hand is live. The hand is only killed if the request comes from a player not involved in the show down. There was an appeal to the floor who upheld the ruling.

I also played at Red Rock for this first time. I haven't actually been keeping track, but I think they have the most comfortable poker chairs that I have sat in.


Last night I watched another poker movie that was just truly painful to sit through--one of those that makes you wonder how it ever got made. Did all of the actors, writers, directors, producers, etc., really delude themselves into thinking that they had something worthwhile on their hands?

The movie is "Aces" (2006); see the IMDB entry here. It was a direct-to-video sort of deal. The story is that three California babes (pictured numerous times above, in my attempt to make up for this blog's previous severe deficiency of bikini photos) concoct a scheme to cheat at poker by marking the aces with a dye that can only be seen with special glasses. See those yellow smudges on the cards? That's what they do. At first they clean up, moving from joint to joint--exclusively private and underground games, so as to avoid scrutiny from casino security. But then their plan runs into some unexpected obstacles.

The mathematical whiz among them is forced to play without cheating, against a murderer's row of the most dangerous poker sharks on the planet, with her friends' very lives on the line (insert ominous chord here)! Fortunately, she has been reading books, and can calculate on the fly her odds of hitting, say, two pairs. So--and I'm sure you'll all be shocked to learn this--she prevails. Because, after all, as everybody knows, all you need to succeed against the best poker players in the world is to have read some good books on the subject.

We get the obligatory scene of them driving down the Vegas strip, plus some unexpectedly nice shots of Rio, when they end up invited to a high-stakes private game there.

The writing and acting are positively atrocious, worse than you'd probably get from an average high school drama class. The villain (Asian guy in the red shirt in the photos) mainly conveys how tough and angry he is by breathing extremely heavily, to the point that they probably had to have paramedics on the set to revive him after hyperventilating on every take.

But I have to give them props for this much: They have one bitchin' car, the sweet '68 Camaro shown. Were I a billionaire, one of those would definitely be in my car collection. One of the most gorgeous automotive designs ever.

There's lots of poker in the movie, but we see almost no hands played out. Instead, we just get the end of the hand, where the winner is revealed.

Predictably, they get lots of poker details wrong. For example: (1) As you can see from the screenshots, even in regular casinos (the one pictured is the Normandie casino in southern California), they're using generic one-color chips, just like in "The Big Blind" (see here). No, couldn't possibly be any security problem with that, could there? (2) As also depicted above, when players go all in, they invariably just shove their piles of chips into the already sizable pot, without anybody bothering to count them first. Yeah, that's going to be fun to sort out when the hand is over. (3) In a home game, one of the girls takes her turn as dealer. She says to the player on her left "You're the big blind," and to the guy two seats to her left, "You're the small blind." That is definitely the strangest blind structure I've ever heard of. (4) When the heroine is heads-up with the villain, at one point he bets, she calls, then he raises. In what bizarro poker world does a call re-open the action to the original bettor?

They can't even get details of regular life right. See the next to last photo above? Take a look at the $100 bills. Now pull a real one out of your wallet, or see one here. They apparently were so short on cash that they couldn't afford a few real Benjamins to dress up the shot. Cheapskates.

Oh, and as an extra little raised middle finger to the poker community, the filmmakers cast as the dealer in the white shirt seen above a guy who is the spittin' image of the vile, hated, enemy of all that is holy, Senator Bill Frist (may he burn in hell forever). (If you have to ask why "Frist" is now the f-word that is not allowed at poker tables, you haven't been paying enough attention to politics.)

This stinker ranks way down there with "The Big Blind," "Blowing Smoke," "All In," and "Shade." Even the awful "Luckytown" at least had better acting and production values. It's so bad that it makes me want to give a special award to "Lucky You" and "Deal" for not sucking quite as much as they possibly could have.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Two more books get it wrong

Back in January I wrote about some published sources that have significant details wrong in their descriptions of one of the most famous hands in poker history, Johnny Chan versus Erik Seidel at the conclusion of the main event of the 1988 World Series of Poker.

I just found two more.

Richard D. Harroch and Lou Krieger, in Poker for Dummies, have a chapter on bluffing. In a sidebar on p. 140 they discuss Chan's "reverse bluff" with the nuts:

Chan had won the World Series the previous year and had been on a roll ever
since. Here he was, 12 months later, with a chance to win back-to-back titles.
But he'd need some magic to accomplish it. Seidel, a former commodities broker
from New York, left Wall Street for the life of a professional poker player; and
now he had a big chip lead on the defending champ.

At this point in the tournament, the blinds were $10,000 and $20,000. Chan
was first to act on each betting round. The flop was Qs 10d 8d.

Chan checked. Seidel bet $50,000. Chan called. The turn card was a complete
blank, and both men checked. The fifth and final card was another blank. Chan

Seidel held a queen in his hand, giving him top pair, albeit with a weak
kicker. He thought for a moment that Chan might have a queen with a better
kicker. But by checking on the turn and on the river, Chan passed up his final
chance to bet!

Seidel then pushed all of his chips into the center of the table, certainly
a sizeable enough bet to cause Chan to release any slightly better hand in the
event that Seidel had misread him. Seidel thought his all-in bet would prevent
Chan from calling with hands such as a queen with a better kicker, or two small

Seidel had, in fact, misread Chan. And not by a little, but by a lot. Chan
smiled as he turned over his hand. Chan had flopped a straight with the Jc
Here are the errors:

1. Seidel did not have the chip lead; Chan did--by about 4:1, in fact. That's why when he won this hand, the tournament was over. If Seidel had the chip lead, how do Harroch and Krieger explain the fact that the tournament was over when Seidel lost the hand? It's true that when heads-up play began, Seidel had a chip lead on Chan ($1.2 million to $470,000, according to Michael Kaplan and Brad Reagan's Aces and Kings, p. 111.) However, by the time the final hand came up, Chan was way ahead.

2. The 10 on the flop was the 10h, not 10d. This can be seen clearly in the video clip from YouTube, included in the addendum to my original post.

3. Chan was not "first to act on each betting round." He had the button.

4. Chan did not check on the flop. The action was that Seidel checked, Chan bet $40,000, Seidel check-raised an additional $50,000, and Chan called.

5. Chan did not check on the river; the action was Seidel moving all-in, followed by Chan's call. Thus, Chan did not "pass up his final chance to bet," as Harroch and Krieger claim (with an exclamation mark for emphasis, even).

I'm also pretty sure that Seidel had not yet set out on the life of a poker pro at this point; the WSOP was kind of a lark for him. Kaplan and Reagan report Seidel saying that it was doing so well in this tournament that made him realize that "maybe I could make a living from poker" (p. 111).

Let me also take this opportunity to point out yet another error in David Apostolico's report, one that I overlooked in my previous post on this subject. He said that the queen on the flop was the queen of clubs. Nope. It was, as Harroch and Krieger correctly report, and as can be seen clearly in the video clip, the Qs. Seidel was holding the Qc.

When re-checking some of the above, I noticed that yet another published source has the action wrong! Kaplan and Reagan, in Aces and Kings, p. 111, repeat the Smith/McEvoy/Wheeler error, discussed in my original post, of saying that Chan checked on the turn, followed by Seidel moving all-in. This in spite of them acknowledging earlier in the same paragraph that Chan had the dealer button! If Chan checked the turn on the button, that necessarily means that Seidel had checked first (which is correct). So how can they then say that Seidel moved all-in on the turn after Chan's check? In theory, that anomaly might be explained by Seidel making his all-in move in the dark, after Chan's turn check but before the dealer had put out the river card. But as the video clip makes clear, that's not at all what actually occurred.

I remain astonished that so many prominent poker writers, with the correct facts so readily available, will get things so many things wrong when describing a hand that just might have been viewed in video replays more times than any other hand in poker history. It really makes one wonder about the accuracy of the reporting on plays for which it is not so easy to check up on the authors.

Raise it--where?

Last night at the Venetian we had a dealer who could never say just "raise." Instead, it always had to be "Raise it up."

This annoys me. (Of course, so do about a million other things, which is why this blog exists.) In what other direction does she think one might raise it, other than "up"? Would somebody "raise it down," or "raise it sideways"?*

One might raise corn in one's garden; one does not "raise up" corn. One might raise a child**; one does not "raise up" a child. One might raise oneself by one's bootstraps; one does not "raise oneself up" by one's bootstraps. One might ask one's boss to raise one's salary; one does not ask one's boss to "raise up" one's salary. One suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease might raise the head of his bed; he would not "raise up" the head of his bed.*** One might raise a ruckus; one does not "raise up" a ruckus.

Please, Miss, knock it off. A simple one-word announcement of "raise" is all we need to hear.

*This is not an original observation with me. I first read it in The Professional Poker Dealer's Handbook, when I was in poker dealer school. But the fact that a specific admonishment against this odd phrasing has been for many years in the premiere guidebook for poker dealers means that this dealer should darn well know better.

**Some people object to the phrase "raise a child," arguing that one raises vegetables, but rears a child. Though I can be a nit-picking purist about a lot of things, especially with respect to language, that particular complaint goes beyond what I think is reasonable.

***Lest some wiseacre rush to the comments to point this out, I'll acknoweldge that the King James Bible has 41 instances of the phrase "raise up" (see here). But many of those are the intransitive verb instead of the transitive. More importantly, that was then (1611, to be exact), this is now. Such usage sounds quaint, redundant, and out of place to modern ears.

Addendum, May 25, 2008

My father, upon reading the above, sent me this email, which I trust he won't mind my sharing here:

Your blog reminded me of a Geography teacher from England who taught us
when I was in the army at the University of Washington. One day she was
discussing the industry in some part of South America, in which, as she put it,
the major occupation was rearing asses. She repeated this phrase at least a
dozen times during the class, and each time she did so the suppressed laughter
became less suppressed. She didn't seem to catch on to the fact that this was
humorous to the average American young man.

Adding more interest was the fact that each morning we did
calisthenics, and that one of the exercises lent itself admirably to the name,
"rearing asses", a fact that was not missed the next morning by some wise guys
among us.

One hand, two stories

Venetian last night. Player A puts in a raise to about $10 from early position. Player B reraises to $35. Player C calls from the big blind. Player A calls, too. Flop is three spades, one of which is the 9, though I don't remember the others. Player C is first to act and moves all-in for about $90. Player A calls. Player B grumbles a bit, then folds A-K with no spade. Player A turns over the nuts, A-Q of spades. Player C sees this, then throws his cards face down in the muck, and walks away from the table before the rest of the hand plays out.

The turn are river are two more 9s, meaning that if Player C had any pocket pair, or had made any pair on the flop, he would have made a backdoor full house and beaten A's flopped nut flush. Now, maybe he was genuinely drawing dead, with a hand like K-10 of spades for the second-nut flush, without even any runner-runner straight flush possibilities, so that he wasn't giving up anything by his muck-and-run. But it was pretty strange nevertheless. I wish I knew what he had had. He very well may have thrown away what would have turned into the winner.

I've told other stories about players unwisely walking away from the table in the middle of a hand. This is another example of why that's a really bad idea.

Part Two of the story is that as Player A was raking in the chips, Player B started giving him grief for the bad pre-flop call: "You had a reraise and a flat call, and you still called from bad position with A-Q. Brilliant." Player A kind of shrugged, murmured something like, "OK, maybe it was a bad call," but clearly didn't want to get into an argument over it. Player B kept it up: "You were a 7:1 dog going into the flop."

Now, hold on just a dog-gone minute there, pardner. 7:1??? No way. Suited A-Q is a 70/30 dog against A-K, plus or minus 2 percentage points depending on what suits the A-K has (and I don't remember what Player B's were). That's about 2.5:1, not 7:1. The only way one hand can be anything like a 7:1 underdog pre-flop (assuming we don't know what other cards were folded, and thus no longer in the deck) is a big pair versus two undercards that cannot work together to make a flush or straight, such as A-A or K-K versus 7-2 offsuit.

It's bad enough to spew hatred at an opponent for what you think was a bad play that turned lucky for him. But if you're going to do so, at least get your facts and numbers right. No need to look like a hotheaded, immature, sore loser and an ignoramus!

Galloping along

WARNING! This is another of those occasional posts about my personal results, likely of interest to very few readers. Avert your eyes, maties, or prepare to be bored.

As I've mentioned, on May 10 I started playing around with cheap sit-and-go HORSE tournaments on Poker Stars. I've surprised myself by doing pretty well at them. I wanted to see exactly how well, so I had PS email me my tourney results, and entered them into a spreadsheet. Here's what I found:

I've played 32 of these things, almost all of them for $5 or $10 entry fees (plus the site's take), though a couple were turbo events that have odd amounts. I didn't like how fast the blinds went up in those, so have abandoned them.

I've cashed in 15 out of 32 (47%), with 37.5% being the nominal expectation (because 3 players out of 8 get paid in each one).

Here's the frequency of finishing in each possible place:

1: 8
2: 4
3: 3
4: 2
5: 2
6: 4
7: 3
8: 6

In other words, if I don't finish in the money, I'm most likely to be the first one out! I think that's a result of being aggressive. If a couple of times I either misjudge an opponent's hand strength and push hard where I shouldn't, or get unlucky on the last card after lots of money is in, I'll be out. But if I'm not the first one gone, I'm usually going to cash. And I'm taking top prize a full 25% of the time, twice as often as would be expected with equal luck and skill among eight players. Still, this is a pretty small statistical sample, and this could just be the nice side of variance, with the pendulum about to come back the other way and crush me like a bug.

My return on investment is $1.50 for every $1 spent on entry fees. That sounds spectacular by itself (conventional wisdom is that a working pro should be able to have a $1.10 ROI over thousands of such events, and that $1.40 or more is unsustainable over the long run), but there's a more humbling way to look at it: I've had a total net profit of about $107. They last about 90 minutes if I'm there to the bitter end, a whole lot less when I finish in 8th place. If we assume an average of an hour each, I'm not making even $4/hour yet. So I'm not recommending this as the road to riches. But since I'm still in the way-early learning stages, I'm content with any positive net.

A pure time/reward analysis would say that I'm better off sitting my butt in a casino for those hours, rather than at my desk. On the other hand, this is the sort of thing that I hope will bring dividends with a time horizon of years, when I get good enough at all of the games that I can play them live for something well beyond these micro-stakes.

As an added bonus, I'm having a lot more fun with them than with comparable no-limit hold'em SNGs.