Saturday, June 28, 2008

Poker chip collecting

Nice little story about the hobby in the New York Times, available here. Thanks to Foucault, the Poker Philosopher, for the pointer.

UltimateBlecch




When I was a kid, my big brother either subscribed to or frequently purchased Mad Magazine. I read it whenever I could, even though much of the humor went over my head. The very first parody I can recall them doing was "Star Blecch," which, Google now informs me, was published in the December, 1967, issue, when I was six years old.

The word "blecch" got used a lot by the "Mad" writers, and it never failed to make me chuckle when they deployed it as a substitute for some vaguely similar-sounding title or product name (e.g., Blecch Shampoo).

I wanted to come up with an insulting parodic twist on the name "UltimateBet" for use in this post, and I guess all those years of reading "Mad" stuck somewhere deeply in my brain, because the title you see came to me within just a few seconds. It was undoubtedly influenced by the waves of nausea I was experiencing as a result of having just watched John Caldwell's interview with Annie Duke over on PokerNews, available here. "Blecch" is exactly what I was feeling.

For those who haven't heard about this elsewhere, here's the Reader's Digest condensed version: In January some players uncovered and posted damning evidence that one or more high-stakes UB players, using more than a dozen accounts, had been playing with access to opponents' hole cards. Eventually, UB confirmed these suspicions. As it turns out, millions of dollars had been scammed over a period of years. UB's public statements have blamed the cheating on one or more persons in or closely associated with the previous company ownership. They claimed to have closed the software "back door" that made such cheating possible and refunded all of the money stolen. But the big-name professional players long associated with UB (Annie Duke, Phil Hellmuth, Antonio Esfandiari, and others) remained strangely, suspiciously silent about the scandal.

I realize that I'm way behind the times with this being my first comment on the whole UltimateBet mess. The two main reasons for that were that (1) I was conflicted about what I wanted to see happen, and (2) it took me a while to do the fairly extensive reading required to really understand what the problem was and is. For the best readable summary of developments, along with thoughtful commentary, I recommended this series of posts at Hard-Boiled Poker. For a detailed explanation of the evidence that players uncovered by their own investigations, see this post by Cornell Fiji. (Hat tip: I encountered Fiji's work via this post by "Foucault"/Andrew Brokos, which in turn was pointed to by Shamus at HBP.)

Even after reading sharp condemnations from other players and bloggers whose opinions and judgments I respect, I wasn't sure where to stand. My first impulse was to forgive and move on. This was different from my reaction to the similar scandal that had unfolded at Absolute Poker last year--the difference coming primarily because UB had been sold in the interim, and it hardly seemed fair to join in an effort to shame, punish, and/or destroy the company when the fault lay with the previous ownership. If the new team was willing to step up and make things right, I was willing to give them the chance. The signing of Cliff "JohnnyBax" Josephy and Eric "Rizen" Lynch added to this desire on my part (precisely the effect I'm sure UB management hoped those new affiliations would produce), them both being players of genuine skill and integrity, to the best of my knowledge.

My hopeful, forward-looking position became less tenable, however, as I read the second series of posts by Fiji to which Foucault had pointed. This material is harder to access, because it got scattered over dozens of pages of 2+2 forum chatter, most of which is, as Shamus might say, applesauce. Perhaps somebody has pulled Fiji's stuff together somewhere, but if so, I don't know of it. Anyway, in this second series of posts, Fiji dissected in detail the public statements released by UB management. He also did yeoman's work in investigating what could be found in public records about the sale of the company.

The long and the short of it is this: It's not at all clear that UB was actually sold, in any meaningful sense. Rather, Fiji presents substantial evidence that what really happened was simply the original owners retaining profitable positions, but now hidden behind deeper layers of shell companies and surrogates.

Of equal concern is that at least some of the prime movers involved make Tony Soprano's "family" look like innocents by comparison. The network of interconnections and conflicted interests among UB, the disgraced Absolute Poker, and the Kahnawake Gaming Commission (the agency that licenses and allegedly "regulates" the sites, but which did nothing to prevent either crisis, gave only the lightest, most unconvincing slap on the wrist to Absolute, and so far has apparently not lifted a finger with respect to UB's sins) is impenetrable, a tangled web of shadiness. (It is, I think, noteworthy that due to the KGC's completely loss of credibility in the wake of the Absolute nastiness, PokerStars picked up its ball and went elsewhere, taking both its servers and licensing away from the Canadian tribe. Good for them. Full Tilt Poker needs to follow suit, to free itself of the taint.)

Furthermore, the press releases by the "new" UB team, if Fiji is anywhere near correct, appear to be little more than careful, clever, artful assemblages of half-truths. Not exactly the kind of display of integrity I was hoping I might see from a company determined to bring a new broom to the housecleaning.

So why am I speaking up about it now, rather than at some earlier point in the long-unfolding story? Annie Duke. Now, I'm not a Duke fan to begin with. My distaste for her began upon reading in James McManus's Positively Fifth Street that she took a look at an opponent's mucked hand during the 2000 WSOP. As I've learned more about her subsequently, my assessment of her character has not brightened. And I strongly disagree with her political stance about federal regulation of online poker, though that's the sort of thing on which reasonable, informed people can disagree without either of them being unethical or misguided.

But this interview with PokerNews struck me as being little more than a continuation of the half-truths and glaring omissions that have characterized UB's handling of the whole affair, and it has finally lit a fire under me to cry foul.

I have deliberately avoided reading any other reactions to the interview. There are probably dozens of pages of comments now available in the various online forums and from bloggers who got to it quicker than I did. I have read none of them. What follows is purely my own reaction, both unaided and untainted by whatever others may have said. I may have missed things that others have noticed, or maybe these thoughts are unique. I don't know, and don't much care, at the moment. I might go try to catch other opinions later, but I want to leave my own mark in the sand first.

So, to the interview.

I found it interesting that Duke says that she was on the verge of walking away from UB, but was so persuaded that the new management is determined to make everything good that she not only has stayed on, but has put her name on the site. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but it clearly implies something well beyond her previous level of involvement, which she characterized as has having been merely an endorser. I think it's fair to read into this that she is going to get paid more for her affiliation with UB. A cynic might say that that looks an awful lot like UB wrote a big check to keep her from bolting, which would not be good for their public relations.

To me, the most striking contradiction in Duke's interview was her claiming not to know who the thief or thieves were, yet simultaneously trying to reassure players that whoever he, she, or they were, they no longer have any association with UB. Well, Ms. Duke, how can you know that, if you don't know who the culprits were? And why won't management tell you who they were? If they're not even being transparent with you, what do you think that looks like to the rest of us?

Duke repeatedly asserts that the current UB management handled the crisis magnificently, going well beyond the call of duty. But she does not address any of the ream of falsehoods and half-truths that, if Fiji's research is even remotely on-target, these alleged saints put out in their press releases. Unfortunately, PN's interviewer, John Caldwell, did not press her for details on how she could reach the conclusion that management has been above reproach, when there is so much reason to think otherwise.

Interesting that she said that UB has made "seven figures" of restitution, but, in another part of the interview, that revenues have not been hurt. Gives you some insight into how lucrative this business is, doesn't it? Kind of makes me wonder why anybody with access to what is basically a printing press for money would feel the need to line their pockets further by using their back-door access to cheat their own customers at poker. Seems to me rather like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Human greed knows no bounds, I suppose.

As a side note, if UB can make all of that restitution without it affecting revenues, it makes Duke's assertions of management's magnanimity less credible. If they're doing nothing that causes them any significant pain or loss, there's not much reason to be in awe of their integrity.

One tidbit of news from the interview is that UB is about to announce the signing of a few more well-known pro players to their team. Should be interesting to see who has sold out.

I think the height of Duke's slickness comes when addressing Caldwell's question about why UB hasn't publicly released the name(s) of the criminal(s). Duke's answer dodges the question, or, more accurately, answers a different question than the one asked, which is the favorite trick of politicians and PR people when being interrogated. She addresses not why UB can't or won't announce who the culprits are, but the difficulty of having them prosecuted.

She is certainly right on that point; the jurisdictional legal problems about where the crimes were actually committed are not trivial. (Can they be prosecuted where they were sitting at their computers? Where the victims were located? Where the servers were? Where the company was licensed? This is made even more complicated, I assume, if the thieves operated from Indian tribal lands, with the additional jurisdictional thorniness that comes with quasi-sovereignty.) But that should not be either her concern or that of UB. If UB has reliable information about who was involved (and surely they do; if not, their investigation has been unforgiveably shallow), they could make public both the name(s) and what evidence they have against those people. UB can't control whether law enforcement does anything about prosecution, but they can let the world know who cheated hundreds or thousands of its customers out of the money that UB has had to refund.

If I ran UB, and were genuinely interested in doing everything I could to set things right, that announcement would be high on my list of priorities. If the guilty party or parties truly have now been completely cut off from any meaningful ties to UB, then UB presumably would have no reason to want to protect them from exposure.

Offhand, I can think of only two reasons why UB management would decide not to make public the names of the thieves. First is a concern about liability for defamation of character. As far as I know, nobody, including Annie Duke, has explicitly claimed that this is the reason, or a reason, why they are not releasing the names, but it's easy to imagine that that excuse might be forthcoming at some point.

It should not be taken seriously. Perhaps their evidence is not enough to yield a conviction in which "beyond a reasonable doubt" is the legal standard. Duke mentions, for example, that they can identify from which computers the cheating occurred, but that it is harder to prove exactly who was sitting at the keyboard at any particular time. Granted. (But you can narrow the list of possibilities pretty far. And following the money as it is taken out of the corrupt accounts would tell you who is behind it.) But to defend against a possible civil suit for defamation, they need, in the end, only persuade a jury with a preponderance of the evidence. Surely they have enough evidence to convince objective onlookers to be at least 50% confident that they have the right people, don't they? Moreover, do they seriously believe that the criminals involved are going to sue for defamation? A truly innocent person might, but surely not the guilty. The last thing they'd want is the increased exposure of a court battle, with all of the evidence against them being laid out for all to see. Cockroaches run from the light, not towards it.

If UB is not worried about civil liability from naming names, then the only remaining plausible reason I can think of for nondisclosure is that they are protecting guilty parties who are still associated with the company in some manner, whether as owners, ongoing payees, shadow owners, investors, regulators, employees, whatever--and that smells about as rotten as it can get. If UB will not name names, then they cannot provide plausible assurance that the guilty are gone for good from any and all association with the company.

The last thing that Duke said that really chafed me was her complaint about online muckrakers who continue to poke at this particular sore spot, not letting it heal. She says, in essence, fine, I understand if you remain sufficiently suspicious that you don't want to play on UB any more, but at least stop talking trash about the site and the scandal, because it's bad for the industry.

This is a little like Richard Nixon complaining that the press coverage of Watergate was bad for America. No, sir--what was bad for the country was break-ins and cover-ups and illegal wiretappings and using the IRS to hound political enemies and all of the other misdeeds you committed and authorized. The publicity given it is not the problem, but part of the cleansing process.

I would say the same to Annie Duke. The problem here is not people talking about the crimes that were committed by, apparently, the former (and possibly still current) owners of the site you're endorsing, or those closely tied to them. The problem was the theft of your customers' money. Complaints about publicity resulting from the scandal sound a whole lot more like sweeping under the rug than sweeping clean.

The whole thing stinks to high heaven. The actions by and statements from UB do not, in my view, reduce the smell by very much. In terms of reducing the stench, hiring on new high-visibility players and increasing the paychecks of the ones already on the team are like spraying Glade in a sewer.

Ideally, I would like to see UB continue as a big player in the online poker world. I think it is better for the players if there are lots of large, healthy sites competing for their loyalty. Because of the loss of credibility of Absolute Poker, I really wanted to believe that UB's scandal would be handled differently, in the kind of up-front, above-board, transparent, responsible way that, say, Johnson & Johnson handled the Tylenol cyanide poisoning scare back in the 1980s, which probably saved the company from ruin. So far, they have fallen woefully short of any such lofty standard, Annie Duke's overblown claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

I am willing to believe that the software hole at UB has been plugged, and no more cheating is going to occur there. (Well, at least not the special kind of cheating that only insiders can do. As for bots, player collusion, account selling, multiaccounting, etc., I don't know how UB compares in its security measures to other sites, but I'm not very worried about such things.) I also doubt that the people who had access to seeing hole cards ever bothered with cheating at tournaments with buy-ins of $10-30, which is most of what I played on the site. So it's not that I feel that I was personally cheated, or am afraid that I would be cheated if I played there now. It's that I hate knowingly giving money to criminals and sleazebags, if I can avoid it. And UB has not taken the definitive--and, actually, very simple and straightforward--steps it would need to take in order to convince me that that's not where the money is going.

It's too bad, really. I have enjoyed playing on UB. Before I recently started spending most of my online poker time trying to learn low-stakes razz and HORSE (which UB technically has, but the tables are empty every time I check), UB was usually my first choice to hit for a NLHE sit-and-go (well, after the loss of the ultra-fishy Party Poker, anyway) or a low-buy-in multi-table tournament for fun.

I have a small amount of money there on account still (about $40). For now, I'm letting it sit, keeping the "Rakewell" screen name on the books there. Does it make me a hypocrite, to write a screed like this but then not go all the way and cut off UB completely? Maybe. And if readers want to roast me for that, go ahead. But I do it in the hope, however naive and Pollyannaish, that continued pressure from its customers, from the press (like the "60 Minutes" piece we keep hearing is forthcoming), and maybe from regulators, will, sooner or later, prompt UB management to really come clean, and prove that they have severed all ties with the evildoers (as President Bush might call them). If they do, I will be happy to return as an active player on the site.

Until then, whenever I think about UB, or hear crap from their shills and spokesmen, my reaction will remain a deeply felt "Blecch."


Addendum, June 30, 2008

A few additional thoughts.

1. Last night I did a Google blog search for comments on the Duke interview and found nothing of substance, just a few pointers to it. Even a full web search finds no substantive comment yet. I guess it didn't bother anybody else as much as it did me.

2. Shamus reminds me in an email that "Cornell Fiji" on the 2+2 forums is professional player Steven Ware. I vaguely knew this, because I have seen those two names associated in news reports of Ware's tournament success, but for whatever reason I didn't consciously connect with the forum moderation/posting work done under the pseudonym. So this extra note is just to give credit where it's due.

3. Rather than linking to just the one post from Foucault, I perhaps should have used this link, which will take you to all of the posts he has written on the subject.

4. I had also intended to include in the main post above a note about a specific, well-known television producer associated with UB about whom Wicked Chops Poker had posted a note tentatively identifying him with one of the apparently corrupt UB poker accounts. But when I scanned back through the WCP archives for that post in order to find the name (which I couldn't remember offhand), I couldn't find it. I thought maybe I was hallucinating, or had read such a post elsewhere, but then thought to do a Google search using the terms "Ultimatebet" and "producer," and, sure enough, it pointed me to a WCP post. See screen shot below.



But links to that post are now dead. The date on the post, according to Google, was June 18, but if you search the WCP archives for that week, you won't find it. The fifth post here appears to be the WCP post that I remember, reposted without explicit credit, although it is introduced with a (now dead) link to the WCP post. Another reference to and summary of the WCP post can be found here. All of which means, apparently, that WCP took down the post in question, for reasons unknown. The source for the WCP post was this post on the twoplustwo.com forums by "trambopoline," who has been one of the main drivers behind the whole player investigation into the fraud.

I don't know why the WCP post was taken down. Speculating, maybe they got some additional information that the TV producer wasn't behind the apparently cheating account that bore a name strikingly similar to his. Maybe they got threatened with legal action, or just decided that it wasn't good to make the accusation without more evidence than similarity of names. It doesn't matter much. The point is that UB's failure to name names means that there will forever be speculation--right or wrong--about who among the UB insiders might have been on the take.

5. Yet another thing I had intended to mention in the original post, but forgot, was that to this date, as far as I know, UB has never communicated directly with its customers about the scandal. Sure, they've released public statements. But if you're a small-time recreational player who doesn't troll the various internet poker forums and blogs, you would never have heard from UB about the problem. I know that I have never received an email from UB or a notice upon logging in that would have alerted me to the issue. That is shameful behavior, an unforgiveable neglect, and again puts the lie to any claims that the company is working with the utmost integrity to come clean.

Poker gems, #136




Barry Tanenbaum, in Card Player magazine column, available here.


What is the biggest strategic change in the past few years? By far the biggest change in the games that I play is increased aggression. Many more players now play aggressively, and many play too aggressively. Coaches have been promoting selective, aggressive play for a long time, and increasingly, players are catching on to the aggressive part. Most still need a lot of work on the selective part.

Interestingly, there is a lot to be said for passive play now, which was not true in the past. This strategy works only when your opponents will do your betting for you, often on substandard hands or even hopeless bluffs, if you let them. Far more players now bet virtually every time you check to them, eliminating the fear of giving them free cards.

Since betting now represents some sort of badge of courage to many players, you need to give them more opportunities to make this sort of error.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A poker rules myth propagated again




I think there has been good reason to praise, in general, the coverage of the World Series of Poker by the live bloggers working for PokerNews. But once in a while, frankly, they just don't know what they're talking about.

Here's the post from earlier today that prompts that observation:

To Tell the Truth

Those that may be new to live tournament poker may not know that it is
against the rules to talk about your hand truthfully before showdown. For
example, if you are on the turn and getting ready to bet or call a bet, you
cannot tell a person what you actually have. If you were to tell a player that
you have a king and then show a king either at showdown, or at any point, then
you would receive a one-round penalty.

This rule was just explained to a table by our floor staff. After hearing
the explanation, a player stated, "In poker, it's OK to lie, but it's not OK to
tell the truth."

Welcome to poker.

But that's not the rule.

It's hard to know exactly how to apportion the blame for getting this wrong and, once again, putting out this erroneous information to the poker-playing public. Perhaps the floor person explained it badly. Perhaps the players misunderstood what he told them. Perhaps the field reporter for PokerNews heard it wrong. Perhaps the blogger writing up the post introduced some errors of his own. I can't tell. But I can tell that the result is misinformation.

I've previously explained in boringly excruciating detail what's wrong with this common myth, so I won't trouble y'all again about it. Go back and read that post if you're interested. For now, here's what PN got wrong:

PN said, "[I]t is against the rules to talk about your hand truthfully before showdown." That is not the rule. If it were, you could be penalized for saying, "I'm really strong here," or "I like my hand," if those were deemed to be truthful statements. Heck, you could pick up a penalty for saying, "I have two hole cards."

PN, with apparent approval, quoted a player as saying, "In poker, it's OK to lie, but it's not OK to tell the truth." That, too, is not the rule. As I detailed in my previous post on this subject, it would be trivially easy to disclose one's hand to an opponent, should one choose to do so, entirely with lies about what one is holding. But disclosing one's hand by lying is just as much against the rule as disclosing one's hand by telling the truth. The prohibition is against disclosure, not the means by which one might accomplish the disclosure.

PN wrote, "If you were to tell a player that you have a king and then show a king either at showdown, or at any point, then you would receive a one-round penalty." This isn't entirely wrong, but it's not entirely right, either. There is some squishy, unclear area about exactly how much one can "disclose" about one's hand before it violates the rule. For example, in some situations it might be irrelevant whether one has a king, and if so, such disclosure may not amount to much more than saying, "I have two cards." Therefore, it is not clearly correct, as a blanket statement, that truthfully announcing that one has a king will always incur a penalty.

Furthermore, the penalty may not necessarily be sitting out for one round. It might be merely a warning. Or, if the infraction is deemed unusually flagrant or affects the outcome in some way that is highly prejudicial to another player, the tournament staff might choose to impose a more severe penalty, even on a first offense. They have a lot of discretion about penalties. (See WSOP rule 46 here.)

That's a lot to get wrong about one rule, in one post.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

There oughtta be a law, or at least a rule




A couple of nights ago I was playing at Planet Hollywood, when I witnessed an action so foul, so evil, so vile, so disruptive to the entire order of the game, that I instantly became convinced that we need a new universal rule put in place to prevent its future recurrence.

There was an Asian guy about my age sitting in Seat 4, directly across the table (the short way) from me, since I was in Seat 1. I had a perfect view of him. I picked up an unusually good tell on him. Twice he made a large bet on the river, bluffing with just ace-high or with a busted draw. Both times, he verbally announced the size of the bet ("Forty," or "Eighty") quite emphatically, then grabbed and slid forward the corresponding amount of chips. Conversely, I twice saw him make value bets on the river with very strong hands, and in both of those instances he remained silent, just pushed forward the amount he was betting.

This is a fairly common type of tell: People do tend to do things differently when they are bluffing than when they have the goods. In fact, I have noticed a tendency in myself to do something similar; if I'm not careful to think about it in advance, there's a pronounced difference in how I make an all-in move when I'm hoping for a call versus when I'm hoping to see a fold. (No, I'm not going to tell you what it is!)

I got involved with this guy on a hand some time later. I raised before the flop with A-K. (It was a frustrating night because every single strong starting hand I received was when I was in early position, making them much harder to play profitably and well.) He called. The flop was 2-5-7, rainbow. I made a smallish continuation bet, which he also called.

I had decided well in advance not to try to bluff this guy, because he had a large quantity of calling station in him. As a general rule, people tend to think that everybody else plays the same way that they do. Frequent bluffers like him therefore tend to see bluffs everywhere, and call readily. He followed this common pattern. So he was definitely one from whom I was planning to make my money by (1) value bets, and (2) catching his bluffs.

Because of his call on the flop and my determination not to blow money bluffing at him, when the turn card was an 8, of no help to me, I shut down. He checked behind me.

The river was a 9. I checked. He thought a bit, then loudly announced "Fifty," and grabbed 10 red chips to put out.

Hmmm. I was quite confident, from having watched him for a couple of hours, that he was not one to make thin value bets. That is, it was highly unlikely that he had something like one pair here; if he did, he'd be much more likely to check again and just hope he was good against what he would have to worry might be my overpair. He either had a very strong hand, or nothing. Of course, I had just ace-king, no pair. But I had seen him bluff with an ace-high, which I could beat, and I had seen him bluff with a busted draw, which I could also beat.

The size of the bet, which was more than the size of the pot, also smelled of a bluff. If he had a strong hand, he would presumably want me to call, rather than to scare me off. Since I had checked both the turn and the river, he couldn't think I had a great hand that could call any bet he cared to make. He had to know that I wasn't particularly strong here. So if he was strong and wanted to get paid, he would bet smaller.

Then, finally, there was that tell. The way he announced the amount in advance was just like he had done twice before, and distinctly different from what he did when making value bets with strength.

That sealed it for me. It's not often I'll call a bet larger than the pot with just ace-high, but this combination of considerations led me to conclude that it was the right choice here.

This demon spawn had K-6, and had caught runner-runner straight.

Why did he call an early-position raise from a tight-aggressive player before the flop with K-6 offsuit? Because that's what calling stations do. Why did he call on the flop? Because that's what calling stations do. I saw similar idiotic calls from him all night long.

Anyway, I decided right then and there that all poker rooms need to institute a rule prohibiting players from establishing clear, distinctive patterns for their bluffs and value bets, then breaking away from those patterns at crucial moments. The remedy? I should be able to explain my observations to the floor person, point out how this cad cheated by using his bluffing action when he had a strong hand, and be entitled to the pot--or at least to a chop. Nobody should be able to get away with such nefarious actions.

Incidentally, as I kept watching him, it became clear that he had no pattern at all. He had not carefully constructed a false tell for me to pick up; rather, he was just completely arbitrary in whether he announced a bet amount in advance. There was no relationship between his betting mannerism and his hand strength. I had simply detected a pattern on the basis of too few observations that didn't hold up as I gathered more data. (That said, seeing distinctly different things on each of two bluffs and two value bets is usually a pretty reliable basis for assuming that the observation is a consistent unconscious pattern.)



The image above is one of the more famous ones from the "Dogs Playing Poker" series by C.M. Coolidge. This one is titled "A Bold Bluff." If you look closely, you can see that the St. Bernard appears to have just a pair of deuces, but he is betting into the exposed pair of aces of one opponent, and tens of another. He probably stated the amount of his bluff before pushing out his chips....

Poker gems, #135




Jacob Sullum, Senior Editor of "Reason" magazine, concluding a June, 2008, article on the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA). I recommend reading the full article, which is available here.



Opponents of online gambling focus on extreme cases and imply they’re typical. A June 2007 hearing on Internet gambling held by the House Financial Services Committee featured testimony by an Ohio minister whose college-age son robbed a bank to pay off the debts he incurred while playing online poker. The research firm Ipsos estimates that 15 million Americans play online poker for money; most of them do not end up robbing banks. According to industry data collected by the Poker Players Alliance, the average online player spends $10 to $20 a week. Players like these are neither winning nor losing large amounts of money; they are mainly having fun, a concept that Bob Goodlatte seems to have trouble comprehending.

Barney Frank, by contrast, gets it. In July 2006, during the congressional debate over the UIGEA, Jim Leach averred that “there is nothing in Internet gambling that adds to the GDP or makes America more competitive in the world.” Frank took exception to Leach’s argument:

“If an adult in this country, with his or her own money, wants to engage in an activity that harms no one, how dare we prohibit it because it doesn’t add to the GDP or it has no macroeconomic benefit? Are we all to take home calculators and, until we have satisfied the gentleman from Iowa that we are being socially useful, we abstain from recreational activities that we choose?…People have said, ‘What is the value of gambling?’ Here is the value: Some human beings enjoy doing it. Shouldn’t that be our principle? If individuals like doing something and they harm no one, we will allow them to do it, even if other people disapprove of what they do.”

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Poker gems, #134




David Chiu, in Card Player magazine, June 4, 2008 (Vol. 21, #11), p. 74. This comes at the conclusion of a remarkable story. In 1998, Chiu was arrested and charged with kidnapping, in a classic mistaken-identity situation. He spent 3 1/2 months in jail and nearly $100,000 on legal defense before the charges were dropped.


People ask me, "How are you able to stay so calm about everything you've been through?" I just think about it in the same way that I would handle a poker hand. I took a really bad beat in a really big pot, but life goes on. Next hand.

Poker gems, #133




Roy Cooke, in Card Player magazine column, June 4, 2008 (Vol. 21, #11), p. 66:

You don't need to be the best [poker] player in the world to perform well, just one of the two or three best at your table, in most situations.

HBPRS, #5

Episode 5 of the Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show is now up, with download and show notes available here. As usual, the Grump has a little part in the show.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Poker gems, #132




Max Shapiro, as quoted a short time ago by one of the PokerNews live bloggers:


Two things you don't do, pull on Superman's cape or play Billy Baxter in a lowball game.


[Until yesterday, I hadn't really paid attention to Baxter's track record, though of course I knew the name. The guy has won an amazing seven World Series of Poker bracelets, all in lowball games--specifically, five in deuce-to-seven events, one in ace-to-five, and one in razz, scattered between 1975 and 2002. See the full evidence here. Nobody else even comes close to his record in these rather unpopular and unconventional forms of poker, and probably nobody ever will. This is an amazing accomplishment, old-school poker at its finest. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2006. As I write this, he has made the money in yet another 2-7 event, and is the chip leader with only 17 players remaining. I'm pulling for him to rack up piece of gold #8 at the final table tomorrow, to stretch out his bracelet-winning span to an astonishing 33 years.]

The theory of poker records





The intrepid reporters at PokerNews yesterday brought us this unusual boast from David Sklansky:


A Long Drought

There are plenty of dubious records to hold in sports like baseball: lowest
career batting average, minimum 2,500 at bats (Bill Bergen, .170); most errors
in a season (John Gochnauer, 98); and longest losing streak (Philadelphia
Phillies, 23 in a row). We may have discovered the poker equivalent.

David Sklansky claims to hold the record for longest time between
bracelets. He can't think of a single player who won a bracelet before
Sklansky's last bracelet in 1983, who is still playing and hasn't won a bracelet
since. That's 25 years since Sklansky's last bracelet.

"A very interesting record," said Sklansky. Do you see why?

If that last question is being sly about something, it has passed right over my head.

But as to the record--if it is, indeed, a record--it is one that is rather difficult to verify, which is, I assume, why Sklansky phrased it with some tentativeness. As with most things in poker, all one can say is "it depends." In this case, it depends on exactly how you define the question, and on information that is not always readily available.

To see what I mean, consider these examples of possible contenders to Sklansky's title that I was able to find with a little Googling. I did not attempt to check every pre-1983 winner (too time-consuming), but I did find some names that at least give one pause about accepting Sklansky's claim.

Bobby Baldwin: He won the last of his four WSOP bracelets in 1979, so he clearly surpasses Sklansky in number of years since last being champion. But is he "still playing"? That's where "it depends" comes in. He is certainly still playing poker, at least occasionally, and at least in cash games. But his last cash in a major tournament was apparently in 1995 (see Hendon Mob database entry here), so he is either no longer entering tournaments or doing quite poorly in them. There's no easy way for me to check this. But if Sklansky's "still playing" is interpreted loosely as still actively playing poker in one form or another, Baldwin has him beat.

Carolyn Gardner: According to her Hendon Mob database entry, she won her one and only WSOP bracelet in 1983, the same year as Sklansky's last one, thus tying him in length of drought. But again we bump up against the question of whether she is "still playing." Her results show a cash as recently as July, 2007, in last year's WSOP, but I can't verify anything since then. Heck, she might be dead for all I know. Although not mentioned in the PokerNews story, it is also possible that Sklansky would limit his claim to those with a win in an open event, and Garder's came in the restricted ladies event (then called the "women's" event--I have no idea when or why they decided to change that to "ladies"), which was then played in 7-card stud, rather than today's no-limit hold'em.

June Field: She took her one and only bracelet in 1982. Is she still active? The latest I can find on her is a September, 2004 cash, so I just don't know.

Terry King: We have approximately the same situation here. She claimed her only bracelet in 1978, but it's hard to tell if she is still actively playing. Her last recorded cash was in 2003. However, the one before that was in 1998, so perhaps she only plays occasionally, and will pop up again some time soon.

So I'm left unsure whether to give Sklansky the credit he is asserting for himself. It's the sort of claim that would be hard to prove definitively true (because it's really not feasible for any one person to check on the status of every pre-1983 bracelet winner; that would involve knocking on doors, seeing who is still alive, who still plays poker at their local clubs but maybe not in big tournaments, etc). But it's also the sort of claim that could readily be disproven with a single name, should anybody come up with the right counter-example.



Addendum

Immediately after I finished writing the above, I went back to the PokerNews page on which I had seen Sklansky's claim posted, in order to read the rest of the feeds that came in after I had shut it off for the day yesterday. I found that the definitive refutation of Sklansky's theory had already been suggested in the "Shout Box" section of the PokerNews live feeds, in which readers can contribute comments and questions to the bloggers. Somebody calling himself "jimmyjam" wrote:
Sklansky is a goof. Why be proud of your ineptitude? Anyway, Howard 'Tahoe'
Andrew won two bracelets in 1976 and is still playing/cashing in tourneys.
...so, not surprisingly Sklansky is wrong in his claim.

Whatever you may think of this guy's assessment of Sklansky, his information is correct. Howard Andrew did indeed win two WSOP bracelets in 1976, none since, and is still active in poker tournaments. According to his Card Player magazine player profile, he continues to rack up many cashes every year, and most recently had two cashes in late April, 2008.

Sorry, Mr. Sklansky. You don't get to claim this record after all.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Two rules controversies from the WSOP




Every variant of poker has its own peculiar rules, often ones that developed early in the game's history and are perpetuated, even though they don't make a lot of sense in the modern world. When I was in poker dealer school, I chafed against having to announce "possible straight" and "possible flush" in seven-card stud. After all, that information is out there for all to see, and if a player doesn't perceive the potential, well, it's his own damn fault! But they said that's just the way it is done--do it or your don't graduate.

Another common house rule in stud is that if you call, but can't beat even the cards that your opponent was showing (let alone his full hand including the down cards), you get your last bet back. This was instituted, apparently, to protect the most naive of players from going broke too fast. I don't like that one, either, but nobody asks me.

I have played very little of the game called deuce-to-seven triple draw (aka Kansas City lowball). Lots of poker rules apply only to specific, uncommon situations, so you tend to become familiar with them only after you've played the game long enough to have seen even the rare things come up. For example, I can't count the number of times that I've seen tourists unfamiliar with what is done when the dealer puts out a board card in hold'em prematurely, before a betting round has been completed. They tend to think that the card room staff is making up a remedy for the problem on the spot, and want to argue about it. Actually, they're just following a script that was written long ago. They do exactly the same thing every time, but the newbies don't realize that, and often think they're being treated unfairly.

Anyway, the only 2-7 (in which the object is to make what would in most forms of poker be the worst hand: five cards as low as possible without any pairs, straights, or flushes) I have played has been as one of the rounds in a mixed game. This also wasn't one of the main poker variants covered in dealer school. As a result, there are lots of intricacies of its rules that I know nothing about. Two of them that were new to me made for controversies at the WSOP triple-draw event today.

First was this, as reported by PokerNews:

Check Those Suits

Bit of controversy. After the third draw in which Mimi Tran and an opponent
just drew one, Tran's opponent spread out his hand -- 9-8-7-4-2, and Tran mucked
before realizing her opponent had five spades.They called for a ruling, and it
was determined that since Tran had mucked her hand her opponent gets the pot.
Gavin Griffin pointed out that the hand probably would have turned out
differently if we were playing in Los Angeles, where one must announce if one
has made a flush. One isn't obligated to make such announcements here,
though.

My first thought was that Tran was plain out of luck, pure and simple, just like a million other dummies (myself included on a couple of occasions) that have misread an opponent's hand and mucked the winner. How is there even a controversy here? She screwed up, and has nobody else to blame.

The note about Gavin Griffin's comment, though, was enough to send me to my rule books to check. As it turns out, things are not as I had assumed.

Cooke's Rules of Real Poker says this:
7.18.03. Verbally Announce Pairs

Any player spreading a hand at showdown with a pair in it must announce
"pair" or risk losing the pot if it causes any other player to foul a
hand.

Similarly, The Rules of Poker by Krieger and Bykofsky says:
8.5.3

Players holding a pair in their hand are obliged to announce the pair's
presence at the showdown. If they fail to announce a pair, and that failure
causes an opponent to foul his hand, the player holding the pair in his hand may
lose the pot.

These books don't explicitly extend the same principle to straights and flushes (which are even worse in 2-7 triple draw than pairs), but one would tend to assume that the same thing applies. If not, then the rule is even dumber and more illogical than I already judge it to be. I don't know if Vegas casinos routinely employ this rule when spreading 2-7 as a cash game. If they do, however, I don't know why the WSOP isn't using it for the tournament.

I don't like this rule even a little bit. In my not-so-humble opinion, the rules of poker ought to be universal and standard across all of the variants, insofar as it is possible to make them so. In hold'em I certainly do not have to make a verbal announcement of what my hand is at the showdown; I just have to expose my cards. Reading my hand, comparing it to his own, and deciding whether he holds a winner or a loser is my opponent's responsibility. I shouldn't have to help him. I can't think of any good argument why it should be different in triple draw. The only thing the rule has going for it is tradition, which isn't sufficient rationale, in my view.

Here's the second rules controversy, again as reported at PokerNews:
Discard Controversy

Tournament Director Jack Effel is being chased from one side of the
Amazon Room to the other by several players who are unhappy with his decision
regarding the procedure to use when more draw cards are taken than are in the
deck.

To reiterate, at the start of the tournament Effel declared that discards
will immediately be killed and placed in the dead wood. (This is the pile that
includes mucked hands but excludes burn cards.) Those cards will be shuffled
back into the deck if needed. However, burn cards will stay down on the table
for the duration of the hand.

Howard Lederer thinks all discards should be kept separate from mucked
cards; you should never have the chance to get back the same card. Typically, in
2-7 Triple Draw, the discards are kept in a separate pile from the muck for this
very reason. However, under Effel's rule, it's possible that a player could
receive in the third draw a card he discarded before the first draw.

Greg Raymer, and several other name pros, are even more unhapy with the
chance to receive the same card in the same round. They all agree that there
should never be the chance for such a situation to occur. However, again, under
Effel's rule, each player discards, and those discards are immediately killed
and placed in the dead wood. If the stub proves insufficient to cover all draws
in that round, the dead wood is shuffled and then the draw is completed.

Again I had no idea there was disagreement about how to handle this, so once again I hit the books.

Cooke:
14.26 Reshuffles.

In any situation in any game requiring a reshuffle, neither discards nor
burns shall be included in the reshuffle. If there is any doubt as to whether a
card ought to be included in the reshuffle, then it shall not be so included.

OK, that seems to be in agreement with what the players are arguing.

Krieger:
8.7.4 Insufficient cards

If too few cards are available to complete a drawing round, the muck is
shuffled and used to complete the draw. The universe of cards available to
complete the draw therefore includes discards from previous drawing rounds and
discards from any player who received all of his replacement cards on the
current round.

Aha! So that conforms with what the WSOP tournament director is requiring (at least insofar as it pertains to cards discarded in an earlier round; reading between the lines, it seems to agree with the players about discards from the current drawing round), in direct contradiction to Cooke's rules and the players' experience. So at least we know that Mr. Effel isn't just making stuff up here.

I don't know if there's a more compelling case for one point of view than the other, nor do I know how this problem is handled in cash-game situations. I also don't see any good reason not to include the burn cards in the reshuffle. But it certainly sounds like something they had darn well better get cleared up before next year's event.

By the way, kudos to the PokerNews team for including stories like these. They are interesting, educational, and, in my opinion, add a lot of color to what can otherwise become a fairly dull hand-by-hand chronicle of the goings-on.

Another cautionary tale from today's WSOP event

Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh
out of the mouth, this defileth a man. (Matthew 15:11, King James Version)

I've written several times before about how being careless about one's words can cause all sorts of troubles at the poker table; see, e.g., here. Today at the World Series of Poker Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw event, a player had to learn this the hard way. PokerNews tells the tale:
That's Tilt-Inducing

There was a little bit of controversy on Blue #2. A floor was called
over to make a ruling on the final round of betting after one player checked.
His opponent claimed that he then asked, "Did you check?" The original player
only heard "check" and exposed his hand: 9-8. Allen Kessler, also seated at the
table, said he only heard, "Check." No other player expressed an opinion. The
floor ruled that the second player checked as well. Disgusted, he turned up his
hand to show a wheel and said sarcastically, "Yeah, I definitely checked this
hand."

I think we can safely assume from the cards that he showed down, the player's protest at not being allowed to bet, and his comment when it was all over, that he really did ask--or at least intended to ask--about his opponent's check, rather than intentionally checking himself. What we don't know is exactly what he said. Although he claimed after the fact to have said, "Did you check?" it is, in my opinion, just as likely that he actually said just "Check?" with a raised inflection in his voice, intending it as a question. I have heard such careless questions from players countless times.

Such subtleties are easily lost in a noisy poker room. Also there are players with impaired hearing, others with music blaring in their ears, and yet others with a native language in which a slight raise of the voice does not communicate a question as distinguished from a statement.

If you ever have need to inquire what action has transpired, you should not include any words which, if taken alone and out of context, might be erroneously interpreted as a statement of your own action. If you ask another player "Did you raise?", you might have just inadvertantly committed yourself to a raise. If you ask the dealer, "Did he check?", you might have just inadvertantly passed up your opportunity to bet. If you eyeball the stack that an opponent pushed forward and ask, "100?", but it was actually only 10 because you mistook the colors of the chips, you might have just committed yourself to a raise to 100.

The only safe way to ask is with words that cannot be misinterpreted as a declaration of your own action. For example, ask the dealer, "What is the action so far?" or "What did Seat 4 do?" (By the way, such questions are better addressed to the dealer than to an opponent in the hand. The dealer will answer; the opponent may choose not to. Furthermore, if the dealer gets it wrong, and a controversy ensues, the floorperson will be more inclined to see things favorable to you than if you rely on something another player has said that is inconsistent with what action was actually taken.)

Occasionally there is a situation in which I need to use the potentially dangerous words. For example, I have asked the dealer to count an opponent's all-in bet. He then tells me how much it is, but he has a thick accent, and/or the room is extremely noisy, and I'm not sure I heard it right, and I need to repeat back to him what I think I heard him say. In such cases, I always make sure that I have his full attention and we have direct eye contact, and I ask it with a full sentence (e.g., "Did you say 150?" rather than just "150?"), all in an effort to minimize the chance of a misunderstanding. If I haven't yet decided whether to call, I don't want my repetition of the amount of the bet to be interpreted as a statement of my bet size.

This all must seem incredibly picky and burdensome to players used to online play or casual home games. But you don't have to spend too much time in commercial poker rooms to see exchanges exactly like the one that occurred today at the WSOP. Misunderstandings happen all the time.

As long as we're stuck with the now-entrenched dogma that verbal declarations are binding as to one's actions, and other players are entitled to rely on what comes out of your mouth, you have to think carefully about what words you put out there. They might come back to haunt you.

Things aren't always what they appear--but sometimes they are




At Bill's Gamblin' Hall and Saloon last night, I had positioned myself with the table's weakest player on my immediate right. He was stuck, and trying to play every hand in an effort to catch lucky and get back to even. He was also drinking heavily. This is USDA-certified Prime picking-on material.

In the hand of interest, he limped in. I had Q-Q and raised. He was the only caller. The flop was Ad-8d-2c. Well, not the greatest flop I could have asked for, but when he checked to me I bet at it, hoping he'd credit me with having an ace. He called. Hmmm. Flush draw seemed the obvious possibility, maybe a weak ace, maybe second pair hoping to catch trips or two pairs. The yellow flag was waving, but not the red flag just yet.

Turn card was the queen of diamonds. I loved making my set here, but I was not thrilled with the third diamond on board. My opponent checked again. I wasn't sure what to make of this. I had him pegged as extremely straightforward, so I would expect him to bet a flush if he made it. On the other hand, maybe he was going for a check-raise, or maybe he had only a small flush and was afraid I had just made a bigger one. I couldn't tell.

Well, in poker the way you get information about an opponent's hand is by betting and seeing what he does. So that's what I did. In response, he grabbed enough chips for a substantial raise, but then just held them for a while, thinking what to do. Finally, he said, "I don't like those three diamonds out there." He then dropped most of the chips that had been in his hand, and put out only enough for the call.

Hey, pal--you think I was born yesterday? You think I can't see right through a speech? No sensible player who was actually afraid of the possible flush would give that information away by saying so out loud. Ergo, he has the flush and is trying to lead me astray so that he can squeeze more out of me. Oldest trick in the book.

Obviously I hoped to pair the board and thus make a full house, then have him bet his flush hard. No such luck. The river card is the 9c. This changed nothing about the situation. For the first time, he now became the aggressor and bet out, but it's small--only about 1/4 of the pot. Well, for that price I was willing to make the crying call, in the remote hope that he had two pair or something else I could beat, but fully expecting to see him flip up two diamonds.

I was astonished to see him instead show me two black 8s. He had flopped a set, and slow-played himself to a loss. I can only guess that he credited me with one diamond, so when no fourth one came on the river, he thought his three 8s were good.

Speeches during a poker hand almost always spell trouble. "Beware the speech," the saying goes. Remember a couple of years ago at the WSOP when Jennifer Harman made a full house, and was beaten by Cory Zeidman's straight flush? Before he raised her on the river with an unbeatable hand, he said, "I guess I can do a lot of sightseeing if I lose this hand." Classic example of a speech. (See the incredible hand play out here; see the players' after-the-fact reflections on it here. Actually, Zeidman believed he was raising--hence the speech to draw Harman in--when he didn't understand that she had bet enough that his all-in move was just a call.)

This was a new one on me: A speech that actually meant what it said, from a player so bad that he truthfully announced that he couldn't beat a flush.

Or maybe, just maybe, it was an amazingly brilliant double-reverse psych-out, plotted carefully to convince me that he did have a flush and then win the pot with a bluff on the end. After all, it contributed to my unwillingness to raise him on the river, so he lost less than he otherwise might have. And if he had moved all in there, instead of making the small bet, I would have had quite a pickle on my hands. I really don't know what I would have done.

Nah, I don't think the brilliant reverse is what was going on. I'm about 99% confident that he was too drunk and too stupid for such third-level trickery. But the possibility of pulling such a move had never occurred to me before, and it might be a good one to add to the arsenal for deployment in just the right situation some time in the future.


Incidentally, this was one of two hands in last night's session in which I made a bigger set on the turn to beat an opponent's flopped set, which is a pretty darn rare occurrence. In the other one, I had 10-10, raised, and got one caller, a pretty good player at the other end of the table. The flop was J-7-3. I bet, hoping he didn't have a jack. He raised. I thought it was most likely that he had a mediocre jack (J-Q, for example), and was a savvy enough player that he could lay it down if shown sufficient strength. I hadn't been bluffing at all, and had shown down only good hands. So I reraised him all in, thinking that he would credit me with A-J or an overpair that had him beat. He insta-called, and turned over 7-7 for the set. Oops. But then a third 10 hit the turn, and I sheepishly showed that I had caught one of my two outs for the win. As you can see, poker is all skill....

Free show at Bill's, starring you, maybe




Many Las Vegas casinos like to leave their doors wide open to encourage passers-by to enter without expending even the effort to open a door. A lot of them appear to have sort of a wall of vertically moving air, pushed by strong fans, just inside the open door. I assume that this helps prevent mixing of the >100-degree outside air and the cool indoor air. (This way, the casino owners' parents don't have to yell at them, "Close the door! I'm not paying to air-condition the whole world, ya know!")

At Bill's, the tiny, two-table poker room is just inside the doors leading to the Strip. The previous times I've played there, either they didn't have the doorway fans going (it wasn't nearly as hot then), or I just wasn't paying attention. Last night, though, something anomalous became very apparent: The Bill's fans blow upward from the floor, rather than downward from the ceiling. In case the famous Marilyn Monroe photo above didn't give you adequate foreshadowing, at this point I'll let you guess what the result is.

A few times per hour, a woman with a loose and/or short skirt or dress is caught unawares by the fans, and gives everybody in the room a free look at what she is wearing underneath. I suppose some give a free look at what they are not wearing underneath, but that didn't happen last night.

Be careful. It's a jungle out there.

He shoulda listened to the Grump, redux




Almost three weeks ago, near the beginning of the World Series of Poker 2008, I put up this post about a player in one of the tournaments who had to learn the hard way about using a card protector to prevent the dealer from accidentally picking up and mucking one's cards.

Some people just refuse to learn. Yesterday it happened again. Here's the story, as reported by the hard-working live bloggers at PokerNews:

A Bit of a Kerfuffle

From time to time a calming influence is required at the table, and
today that person was Clonie Gowen. With one player yelling at the dealer for
accidentally mucking his cards, Gowen quoted the TD [Tournament Director] rules
in which players are responsible for the protection of their own hands and
cannot blame the dealer if they are subsequently pulled into the muck. The
player seemed to accept this and the situation was quickly diffused without the
need for a tournament director to step in.

Now, Clonie Gowen is hardly the optimal person to turn to on questions of rules, after admitting on national television to cheating in a poker tournament and advising others to do the same (see here). But this time she was absolutely correct. Players never seem to think about this until it's too late, but what do they imagine the solution should be, once their cards have been accidentally mucked? Allow them to dig through the muck until they find what they claim their cards were? Just announce what their cards were? Those are so obviously rife with potential for angle shooting and outright cheating that it's laughable that anybody would seriously suggest such idiocy as the proper recourse, once the mistake has been made.

One might argue that the whole hand should be declared moot, as is done when a fouled deck is discovered, and all bets returned to the players, as if the hand had never occurred. But why should the other player(s) be penalized because you failed to take the extremely simple expedient of dropping a chip on your cards?

By odd coincidence, I saw the same thing happen during my cash game at Bill's Gamblin' Hall and Saloon last night. The player in seat 9 (to the dealer's immediate right) looked down to respond to a bet his opponent had just made on the turn, only to discover that his cards were gone. None of us had noticed it happening. They were mixed into the muck and unrecoverable. He was livid (although he calmed down after his opponent, in a very nice gesture, showed him that he was way behind in the hand anyway, and the dealer's mistake apparently saved him a lot of money). But he hadn't protected his cards, and the second rule on the list on the wall at Bill's poker room says--as does every other list of posted poker rules I've ever seen--that players are responsible for protecting their cards at all times.

C'mon, folks. This is really, really easy. Dealers make this mistake not every day, but with a predictable enough regularity that not using a card cap is like driving without a seat belt--just begging to get hurt.

Among poker players who habitually leave their cards unproctected, there are only two types: Those who have had a hand accidentally killed or fouled at an inopportune moment, and those who will. The World Series of Poker is probably not the place at which you would want to move from the latter category into the former.