Friday, September 26, 2008

HORSEing around

Wednesday night I spread my wings a bit again: I entered my first live HORSE tournament. Green Valley Ranch has one every Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. for only $45. (Well, technically it's $40, but there's a $5 add-on at the beginning that everybody takes.)

GVR is a pretty nice room. It's comfortable, smoke-free, has good dealers, and, as far as I can tell, is well run (though there are definitely conflicting reports on this count on For me the only problems are (1) it's too far away from where I live, and (2) it has a very low tourist:local ratio. Since there are plenty of fishier waters within a much shorter drive, I just don't have much reason to head out that way. Too bad, because it's the kind of place I would definitely make a home out of if not for those two big negatives.

But this HORSE tournament will probably give me more reason to visit Henderson than I've had. I enjoyed myself quite a bit. I've now done 107 online single-table HORSE tournaments, and it appears that they have prepared me reasonably well. I doubt that anybody at my table would have guessed it was my first time doing one live. My favorite dealer from Bill's was, by coincidence, also playing at my table, which added a bit of fun.

I finished about 10th out of maybe 20 or so runners (two tables, with a couple of alternates coming in late). Nothing spectacular. But I had been 2nd in chips at my table for much of it--propelled primarily by one hand early in the first razz round in which I made a wheel at the same time as another guy made a 7-4, and we kept raising and reraising each other. I knocked him out. My chip lead swung way over into short-stack range, though, on two hands just before the first break. First, one opponent just wouldn't fold his pocket kings despite an ace and possible flush on the board. Of course, I didn't actually have him beat, but he should have believed that I did, dammit! :-) Then in a stud round my jack-high flush got sunk by an ace-high flush.

The average age of entrants was over 50, I'm sure. In terms of skill, I had no trouble keeping up with the table. I couldn't peg anybody as being obviously better overall than I was, despite the fact that I went into this prepared to be the least experienced HORSE player there. It was 100% straightforward, level-1 play--nothing fancy or tricky going on at all, as far as I could tell. Bet or call or raise if you have something, check or fold if you don't. In hold'em and razz, the two games in which I have enough experience to make some reasonable degree of judgment about relative ability of opponents, the skill level was pretty pathetic--about what you'd expect in a typical $2-4 game.

The only problems I had with the mechanics of the game were (1) some difficulty seeing opponents' up cards in stud games, because I was at one end of the longish table, and (2) one time forgetting to return my cards to the dealer in an Omaha round (a real amateur move, that).

The dealers, by the way, were great. I couldn't detect any weakness in any of them dealing any of the games. Of course, that is what one should be able to expect, but it is not a foregone conclusion in this hold'em-dominated age.

I viewed this as a trial run--test the waters, see if I'm really ready, be sure the mechanics aren't handicapping me or showing me up as a noob. I held up well enough that the next time I enter, it will be with the thought that I should have a reasonable shot to cash in the thing.

When it was over, I headed down the road a piece to Club Fortune. It's been more than a year since my only previous visit there. As I reported at the time, they were in the midst of constructing a new poker room. I wanted to see what they made of it. Answer: Nothing. There are still three tables stuck in the dead center of the casino floor. Nobody was playing. A dealer was putting some decks of cards into order. It looked basically the same as I remembered from 13 months earlier. Back then, they had said they would have the new room in a couple of months. I have to assume, then, that those plans got cancelled. It couldn't possibly still be under construction after this much time.

Mr. Observant

At the end of the post I just put up, I mentioned being observant of some peculiar and not-too-important things at the poker table. That post was already wandering far from what I had intended it to be about, so I wasn't going to digress further. But writing that paragraph reminded me of one tiny thing I noticed more than two years ago, but it was the key to the whole hand, so it sticks out in my memory.

This was before I had a blog, but when interesting things happened to me, I would write them as emails to a friend back in Minnesota. I had sort of a vague notion that some day I would want to be able to refer to them, and having my tales of starting out playing poker in Vegas in written, contemporary form might be useful. I'm glad I did, because when I read back through them now, there's no way I would even have remembered some of them at all, and others would have all of the colorful details lost or transformed via tricks of memory.

Anyway, here's an excerpt from an email I wrote on August 20, 2006, about observing things at the table:

It’s actually not very common to find a reliable, useful tell on an
opponent. I spotted a great one the other day at the Hilton, though. This guy
would carefully stack his chips into, say, 5 stacks of 2 $5 chips each for a $50
bet, then push the stacks forward deliberately one at a time when he actually
had a good hand. If he was bluffing, though, he’d make one big stack and shove
it forcefully forward. I watched him do this twice each way, so I was pretty
confident in it. Unfortunately, he left the table before I got to exploit it.
Damn. It would have been great.

A couple of weeks ago at Golden
Nugget, I raised from middle position. Guy on the button made a slight move of
his hand to his cards before reaching instead for chips—I was certain that he
had made a last-second change of mind to call me rather than fold, which meant
that he wasn’t very strong. We were the only two in the hand. I bet on the flop,
even though it missed me completely. He thought a few seconds, then raised. I
instantly said “all-in.” He agonized for at least 60 seconds, then finally
folded. I’m sure that he had deduced that the flop of rags probably didn’t help
me, and if I had something like AK or AQ I wouldn’t even have a pair and I’d
have to fold to a raise. And he would have been right, except for that little
slip of his hand pre-flop. I was *expecting* him to try to take the pot away
from me, and I was prepared for it. He might easily have made a pair with that
flop, but he couldn’t risk me having AA or KK or QQ for all his chips. It was
one of the purest poker moments I’ve experienced here: completely playing the
player, not the cards. The whole thing could have been done exactly the same
with any two cards in my hand. He probably still has no idea that that little
slip of his hand cost him about $50. Without that, I wouldn’t have dared make
that move on him.

Entertainment while you play

Played at Bill's again this evening. One of the sidelights of playing there is that if you time your visit right, you get to hear Big Elvis, who sings in the lounge maybe 30 or 40 yards from the poker room, so it's not hard to listen in. (They have the good sense to shut off the canned overhead music while he is performing.) According to Big Elvis's web site, he's there Monday through Friday at 3:00, 5:00, and 6:30 p.m.

When the game broke up unusually early at Bill's, I walked next door to the Flamingo. They had something going on I'd never seen before: Performers from the Flamingo's "X Burlesque" show (see review here) were dancing to loud music just inside the door. (Sorry for the blurry photos. They wouldn't hold still.) Maybe this has been going on for a long time, but never while I've been there. It appears that other girls from the show--or at least ones dressed as if they might be in the show--do some blackjack dealing in this area near the wide-open front door of the casino. As at Bill's, the poker room is close enough that you can listen in on the music, but you can't see the dancers from the tables. Probably a good thing--might be a bit too distracting. I liked Big Elvis's music better anyway.

Sorry, no interesting poker stories from tonight. I came home with more money than I left with, which is always plenty interesting to me, but not especially to anybody else.

Oh, but wait--I do have a story, though not much to do with poker. Bill's takes the rake in half-dollar increments, so you sometimes get 50-cent pieces back as part of the pot. You can also play two of them as if they were a $1 chip. Somebody did that, and I noticed that the sheen of one of them looked quite different from the other. I'm fairly sensitized to the appearance of real silver, because of having my one-ounce silver coin always in use as my card protector, and I thought this half-dollar looked much more like silver than most. And when the dealer picked them up and put them in the tray, replacing them with a $1 chip, the "clink" was definitely different from the usual cheap, tinny sound that American coins have been making since they stopped using silver and copper, and instead went to crappy metals like nickel and zinc. I could even see in the dealer's tray that the second one down looked different on its edge. So I asked the dealer to sell me two half dollars from her tray (she probably thought I wanted to use them to tip the cocktail waitress or some such thing). Sure enough, the second one was a 1968, when the alloy used was still 40% silver (see here for coinage history). It's about one-eighth of an ounce of silver, so, I dunno, something like $2 worth, that I purchased for 50 cents.

When Shamus was in town for the World Series of Poker and we played a little poker together at the Palms, he mentioned in his blog the next day about how observant I seemed to be at the table. Nobody had ever said this of me before, though I do try hard to pay attention to what's going on. I suppose it's true, given my irritating (to the dealers, anyway) tendency to be able to identify cards from tiny rub marks or creases I notice on their backs, pick up and later blog about snippets of other players' conversations, get grossed out by untidy dealers' ear and nose hair, notice illegally small raises, spot all sorts of nervous tells in opponents, etc. Now I have to add to the list that I notice the peculiar look and sound of coins in play! There are undoubtedly more important things to be noticing, but one really can't help what things catch one's attention.

The strange thing is that I'm completely obtuse and unobservant in life outside of the poker room. My friends will tell you that I can walk past some prominent object a thousand times before finally noticing it and asking them, "Has that always been there?"

Wow. This post really veered far from where it started. Sorry for rambling.

ESPN gets one right

I'm watching the second half of this week's WSOP broadcast. ESPN has another "Poker Fact." They say, "There are 2,598,960 possible 5-card combinations in poker." And, as it happens, that is correct!

It shouldn't be cause for amazement when ESPN gets something like this right, but given their recent track record, it is.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Poker gems, #169

Phil Hellmuth, apparently completely earnest, in "Poker After Dark" Wednesday night:

I'm huge on etiquette.

[You can see the astonishingly un-self-aware declaration here, at the 0:55 mark.]

Poker gems, #168

Warren Buffett (who was not talking about poker, but might as well have been):

Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My million-dollar idea

I actually had an original poker-related idea last night. An invention. Or, rather, an improvement on an existing invention.

Shufflemaster should add a sterilizing function to its card shuffler. My first thought was a powerful ultraviolet light bathing the cards as they get sifted. It would turn off when the lid is open, of course, like the magnetron in a microwave oven. I suppose that gamma radiation would work, too, though perhaps the shielding required would be prohibitive.

But though these methods might sterilize the cards, which would be nice, given all the grime that they accumulate, it would really be better if there were a physical scrubbing/washing mechanism. Like a little dishwasher. Heck, the machines already sound like a dishwasher, if you're in a poker room quiet enough that you can hear the things working. This would probably take a little time, so they might have to go to three or four decks being cycled through, rather than just two. But every time, the dealer would lift out a freshly washed, sterilized deck, perfectly safe for handling (until the gross players put their greasy, filthy, unwashed, poo-smeared, nose-picking, licked fingers all over them again). No disease transmission between the players! I could even settle for regular shuffling most of the time, with the "wash" cycle only turned on, say, every half hour, when the dealers change and there's an extra delay before the next hand starts anyway.

Of course, the problem is that it's hard to imagine most casinos caring enough about clean cards to spend the extra bucks on my upgraded machine. Maybe the Wynn and Venetian. But a place like Jokers Wild, where the dealers lick their fingers before pitching the cards? No way.

We'd also have to do something with the chips, which get even nastier than the cards do.

But it's a start. And I'm giving away my idea free of charge to Shufflemaster or anybody else who cares to work on implementing it. It's my public service for the day.

(What does a baby elephant have to do with this? Nothing, really. But I did a Google image search for "scrubbing" to see what might come up, and I found this picture of people scrubbing a baby elephant. I'm a sucker for pictures of baby elephants, and, as you might imagine, the subject matter of this blog doesn't lend itself to such photos very often. I have to grab the opportunities when I can. I don't know when my next real vacation might be, but if I can make it to a place where I can scrub baby elephants, that's where I'm going!)


Oops, I did it again! Another hundred posts. It has been 46 days since post #800. That seems to be about my average pace. Every time I have to say that I really can't believe I have this much to say on the subject of poker. How can there possibly be that much to be said that is worth reading? Yet the readership continues to grow apace, for which I am inexpressably grateful and flattered.

Special thanks this time to MemphisMOJO, a fairly new reader, for the heart-warming shout-out he posted this morning on his poker-and-bridge blog.

As always in these centennial posts, I'll ask you to do me the favor of clicking on the silly Google ads when time allows, which keeps the lights on in my fabulous downtown penthouse suite. (Ha!)

And thank you for reading. Your eyeballs on the page and your encouraging feedback are what make me look forward to sitting down at the keyboard every day to pound out another rant or two.

Phil Hellmuth acting badly--again? Say it ain't so, Jen!

I cannot tell the facts or give the commentary any better than California Jen already did, so just click on over to Pokerati and read.

In the comments, Jen says that Hellmuth is like the abusive boyfriend, always trying to bring flowers to make up for his misdeeds, and the WSOP is the woman who can't leave him.


But the analogy that comes to my mind is this ultra-great scene from the 1979 movie "Kramer vs. Kramer." Hellmuth is the little boy. The WSOP is Dustin Hoffman with his repeated insincere and ineffectual warnings. The analogy breaks down, though, because I don't believe that the WSOP will ever tell Hellmuth he is a "spoiled rotten little brat," call him "you little shit" and throw him in his bed crying for his mommy--though they clearly should do just that.

(By the way, is there something wrong with me, that I always think of things in terms of movie scenes?)

Oh, and as another BTW, while I'm on the subject of the guy I most love to hate, I greatly admired how Clonie Gowen handled him on Monday night's "Poker After Dark." He guessed out loud about what she was holding, and was WAY off. But instead of showing him, or telling him he was wrong, she lied, and acted all impressed at how good he was at reading her. She even asked, with magnificently faked sincerity, how he knew. This naturally stoked his ego so much that he had to go into a little lecture about how he had figured it out. What a maroon! Now that she has planted the seed, it will be interesting this week to see if she manages to find a way to use it against him.

Poker gems, #167

Phil Laak, on "Poker After Dark," September 24, 2008, after folding 8-8 to Mike Matusow's all-in bluff reraise with 7-4, which he showed.

How long do you think the pain will last?

Kentucky is bluffing

Shamus thoughtfully asks whether the governor of Kentucky actually has a hand, in his bid to take control of a bunch of online gambling sites and thereby cut off Kentucky citizens' access to same. (See also Pokerati's reports on the matter here, here, and here.)

Legal blogs are often great sources for informed commentary on such breaking news, but I couldn't find anything on them, not even on one dedicated to Kentucky legal issues. So I'm going to have to wing it alone. I'm not an attorney, but I've been involved in a number of legal cases, and kind of by osmosis gained a reasonable familiarity with how the system works. Here's my quick reaction:

I'm not worried about this, and I wouldn't be even if I lived in Kentucky.

First I'll address one of Shamus's questions--the one about the UIGEA. I think it's pretty safe to conclude that the UIGEA is not being invoked here. The statute says:

§ 5365. Civil remedies(a) JURISDICTION.—In addition to any other remedy
under current law, the district courts of the United States shall have original
and exclusive jurisdiction to prevent and restrain restricted transactions by
issuing appropriate orders in accordance with this section, regardless of
whether a prosecution has been initiated under this subchapter.

The key here is that the federal courts have "original and exclusive jurisdiction" over civil remedies. The simple fact that, according to news reports, Kentucky is filing its action in a state court, rather than federal court, is a pretty clear signal that the UIGEA is not involved here.

But the bigger issue is one of jurisdiction. When you file a suit, one of the first things that you're supposed to do is demonstrate, or at least assert, that the defendants are within the jurisdiction of the court, or take steps to have the court assume jurisdiction. In some situations, if the defendant just shows up in court for the hearing, or has an attorney do so, that is enough for jurisdiction to lie--which is why it won't surprise me if many or all of the sites simply ignore the hearing.

What the judge should do at the hearing, if there is nobody representing the gambling sites, is inquire of the state whether the opposing parties were properly served with notice of the hearing, and ask for evidence of that. He shouldn't be willing to do anything permanent without such evidence. (He might be able and willing to issue a temporary order of some sort, but what would happen with that is the same as what I will predict below would happen with an eventual permanent order.)

But suppose the worst happens, and the judge either disregards the question of whether any of the sites have been properly served and/or have a physical presence in the state such that they fall under the jurisdiction of the state's laws and courts, and he agrees completely with the governor's arguments. He either finds the sites in default for not appearing or he finds against them on the merits. He issues an order transferring control of the domain names to the state.

So what? When one kid threatens to do bodily harm to another, sometimes the rejoinder will be, "Oh yeah? You and what army?" Well, that's about what a site like PokerStars would say to Governor Beshear. You've got your fancy, autographed, embossed piece of paper ordering transfer of the site, but now what are you going to do with it? To whom can the state now deliver that order with any credible enforcement mechanism behind it?

They can mail it, or have it delivered by courier, to, say, the Isle of Man, or the Kahnawake tribe that owns the company that hosts the servers for many gaming sites. But Kentucky's laws don't extend there. Even if the sites disregard the order (as they surely would), and the judge eventually finds them in contempt--again, what, exactly, are they going to do to enforce the contempt order? I promise you, they are not going to try to send the Kentucky State Police to Canada or Great Britain to try to arrest the site owners or operators. And as I understand international treaties, contempt of court is not among the offenses for which foreign governments will use their own law enforcement agencies and courts to arrest you and have you extradicted to Kentucky. Murder? Sure. Contempt of court? Nope.

So I think it's all a sham, a show, grandstanding for purely political purposes. There is no end game that I can see that works out in favor of the plaintiffs.

Gov. Beshear is bluffing. Hollywooding. The floor is going to rule against him.

Have no fear.


I see now, reading the court order that Shamus linked to, that this is an in rem action. That's a special kind of civil action that only governments can use, taken against the legal fiction of property as the defendant, rather than against people or corporations. You occasionally run across a case title such as "State v. 2003 Chevrolet Tahoe, VIN ___________," or "United States v. $34,566.92." Those are in rem seizure cases. They are a unique brand of legal action to which all sorts of special rules apply. Most particularly, statutes shift the burden of proof after the government initiate such a case; if you are the owner of the property, you have to prove that the seizure was not justified. Here, it appears that the initial seizure order has already been signed by the judge, and the upcoming hearing is the first point at which the owners of the sites are being given the opportunity to refute the state's claims to the property, which has been seized on allegations that it was used to further criminal activity, as if it were a car transporting crack cocaine.

Nevertheless, the ultimate jurisdictional problem remains. The governor may crow that the state now owns the sites, but good luck actually taking control of them, when the servers are where you can't reach them.

Addendum #2

In the comments, Richard Brodie raises a point I hadn't thought through clearly, and that is the role of ICAAN. Trust, me--Richard Brodie has forgotten more about computers than I'll ever know. (Hey, just because I'm that Internet blog guy doesn't mean I actually understand how this whole Rube Goldberg thing works.)

So suppose that ICAAN does accept the judge's order. If I'm right about how this stuff goes, what they then do is switch what server your browser goes to when you instruct it to take you to, say, But, unless I'm grossly misunderstanding the basics of the system, Kentucky still could not take over the content of the PokerStars site, since ICAAN can't and doesn't control that; they just control the correlation between a particular web address and what server a command for that address goes to. So the sites would just have to register new names, like Bodog did. Servers owned by the state of Kentucky wouldn't suddenly be running the Stars software and its poker games. This could, of course, cost the sites a lot of money for the changeover, but it wouldn't accomplish what the governor says he is trying to do, which is actually control and modify the sites so that everybody except for Kentucky citizens can use them.

You smart guys out there, is this about right?

As for what it takes to convince ICAAN to recognize a court action, I have no clue. I have no idea where ICAAN is physically located, or in what legal jurisdiction(s) it operates. I also don't know whether it is prone to respecting such judgments voluntarily, even if there is no real enforcement mechanism to which it must bow. All good questions. I'll have to punt the ball at this point.

Three in a row???

Two weeks ago, when ESPN messed up on its weekly "Poker Fact," I thought it would be a one-time thing. They surprised me the next week by doing it again. I would not have believed they could hit the trifecta, but they somehow managed.

This week they say, "When holding any pocket pair, the probability of flopping a set is 11.76%."


The usual way of running this calculation, which is apparently how ESPN's people went about it, is to calculate the probability of the flop not having another of the rank in question. There are 50 cards left, so the probability of the first card of the flop not completing one's set is 48/50. If that happens, then the probability of the second card of the flop also not completing one's set is 47/49. If you have gotten that far without a set, then the probability of the third card of the flop still not completing one's set is 46/48. Multiple those three together (because all must be true simultaneously), and the probability of the flop not bringing a third card to one's pocket pair is 0.882449. Subtract that from 1.000000 (because the flop must either contain another of the rank in question or not), and you get 0.117551, or about 11.76%.

The problem, though, is that four of a kind is not a "set," and the calculation above does not exclude flopping quads. Given that you start with a pocket pair, the probability of flopping quads is 0.2449%, if I've done my math right.* (And if I haven't, please let me know in the comments so I can fix it.)

Therefore, the probability of flopping a set but not quads is 11.7551% - 0.2449%, or about 11.51%. What the ESPN graphic was showing was not the probability of flopping a set, but instead the probability of flopping either a set of four of a kind, starting with a pair in the hole. They are not the same thing.

Be sure to tune in next week for the next exciting installment of "How Many Ways Can ESPN Get the Math Wrong?"

By the way, when starting to write this post, I pulled out Phil Gordon's Little Green Book, which has a handy section of common poker probabilities. It's my usual first place to look for quick answers. But I see that he has it wrong here. On p. 271, he says that if one starts with a pocket pair, the probability of flopping a set is 10.80%, and the probability of flopping quads is 0.20%. Wrong on both points.

*We're specifying that the flop must contain two exact cards. There are therefore 48 cards left in the deck to fill that third spot on the flop. We don't care about the order, so that's effectively 48 different flops that will work. We already know that there are 19,600 possible flops, once we've accounted for the fact that our two hole cards can't be in the flop. 48/19,600 = 0.00244898, or 0.244898%.


I just knew I'd mess something up. Every time I've tried doing a math post in the middle of the night (note the time stamp on it), I make a mistake. As one commenter pointed out, I failed to account for full houses. If flopping quads can't be counted toward flopping a "set," neither can flopping a full house. I even noticed Phil Gordon's book separating that out, but then my sleep-deprived brain dismissed it as irrelevant. (I thought so because what flashed through my mind was the pocket pair plus three of a kind on the flop, which I dismissed as not flopping a set.) Clearly it is not.

So what is the probability of flopping a full house if one starts with a pocket pair? Well, that means a flop containing a third of our pair's rank, plus another pair. Hidden among the 50 remaining cards are 12 full ranks. There are 6 different pairs that you can pull from a group of four: C(4,2) = 6. That means that there are 6 x 12 = 72 different pairs that can hit our flop. Each of those might occur with either of the two remaining cards that would make our three of a kind, for a total of 144 flops that meet our specifications for a full house. 144/19,600 = 0.007347, or 0.7347%.

We subtract that from the previously calculated 0.115102 and end up with 0.107755, or about 10.78% for the final probability of flopping a set.

So, to summarize--given a pocket pair, the probability of flops is as follows:

Set: 10.78%. (That's 1 in 9.28 times, or 8.28:1 odds against.)
Full house: 0.73%. (That's 1 in 137 times, or 136:1 odds against.)
Quads: 0.24%. (That's 1 in 417 times, or 416:1 odds against.)

Set or full house or quads (which is what ESPN's graphic was actually about): 11.76%. (That's 1 in 8.50 times, or 7.50:1 odds against.)

(Note that "full house" here refers only to pair in the hand, third of that rank on the flop, plus a pair of a different rank on the flop. You can also flop a full house with a pocket pair and flop of three of the same rank. But since this possibility does not include the third card to the rank of one's pair, it does not enter into the calculation here. For completeness, though: There are 12 full ranks left in the deck. Each rank has three different combinations that can make up a single-ranked flop, because C(4,3) = 4. So there are 12 x 4 = 48 possible flops that would be three of a kind on the board. 48/19,600 = 0.00244898, or 0.24%. By strange coincidence, this is the same probability as flopping quads, starting with a pocket pair.)

Phil Gordon gives these numbers as 10.80%, 0.70%, 0.20%, and 11.80%, respectively. This is a little peculiar, in that he appears to have done the math correctly, then rounded off to the nearest 0.1%, then later decided to make it look more precise and added in an extra 0 digit at the end. That last step is the part that isn't right. If he had left the numbers as 10.8%, 0.7%, 0.2%, and 11.8%, he would have been fine. My apologies for incorrectly faulting his set calculation in the original post. It appears that his only error was in rounding, then "unrounding" by adding zeros.

Separated at birth?

Recently I've had a couple of people mention that they think I look like Robert Varkonyi, winner of the WSOP Main Event in 2002. We were at least born in the same year, so that's something.

This now gets added to the list of people I possibly resemble, along with Dr. Pauly, David Cross, Joe Pantoliano, and Scott Adams (see here and here for the earlier installments in this series).


Now Rocco Mediate (pro golfer who occasionally plays poker tournaments) is being added to the list of candidates--see first comment. But I don't agree. My watch isn't big enough.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sam the bellhop

For an amusing card trick, see

Playing slowly in a tournament--a sound tactic?

In the current issue of Poker Player newspaper (September 29, 2008) is a column by "Oklahoma Sarah" Hale (p. 26). Her columns are usually boring but otherwise unobjectionable.

This week, however, in a column on poker etiquette, I think she gave out some bad advice. After explaining the reasons why it is bad form to take longer than one really needs to make decisions, she adds:

The only exception to this rule is in a tournament when you are down to the
final few tables. In this situation if you are seated at the short handed [sic] table
the blinds will hit you faster then [sic again] is fair. This is the only
time I recommend playing slower than average.

I think this advice stinks. I say it is still rude to waste all of the other players' time.

But more than being rude, I think it is stupid, self-destructive strategy to stall. It is true that the blinds are coming around faster at a short-handed table than they are at a full table. But so what? If you're a better player than average for the tournament (and if you're not, why are you in it???), then you should be winning more chips per hand, on average, than the other players. You should see yourself as having a positive EV for every hand before the cards are dealt.

In that situation, you want more hands per hour, not fewer. Every hand is an opportunity to build up your chip stack, so you should want as many such opportunities as you can squeeze in. Sure, you're paying the blinds more often than your buddy at the next table, but that's completely irrelevant if an average hand at your table has you building your stack, while those of your opponents at your table are shrinking (or at least not building as fast).

Another way to look at this is that you are not paying the blinds more than players at the other tables are, you're winning the blinds more often than players at the other tables are--if you're the best player.

Good players should see every hand as another chance to take more chips from their weaker opponents. The more such chances you get, the better.

The weakest opponents just hunker down and fold, fold, fold, hoping to stay alive as long as possible. That's no way to win a tournament. For them, stalling may prolong their tournament life. But that possibility shouldn't serve as encouragement for better players to mimic such misguided tactics.

To see stalling as a smart strategy is to admit that one is such a weak player that one is just ducking one's head under the waves, rather than playing to win. So I guess we now know what Ms. Hale really thinks of her own play.

Incidentally, she fails to mention another situation in which taking time that is not really needed for a decision is justifiable: When you need to suggest to an opponent that you have a decision more difficult than it really is. Of course, even there one shouldn't overdo it. But a bit of hemming and hawing before making a call or raise is perfectly acceptable, in order to sell a false image of weakness.

I do not, however, think it is kosher to stall on what one immediately knows will be a fold. I know that Mike Sexton often says, with seeming approval, that a player who is bluffing and gets raised will often take some time before folding so that opponents will think he had a real hand. I think this is bogus. I notice that Barry Greenstein never does this--if it's going to be a clear muck, he does it instantly. I assume that this is because Greenstein has confidence that he is virtually unreadable in his actions and mannerisms, so even if he were to announce that he had been bluffing, there is nothing for an opponent to pick up on him that would be useful in a later hand.

Besides, a rapid fold does not necessarily indicate that one had been bluffing. One might have been simply putting out a probe bet with a hand of medium strength, and once the answer came in as a raise, that was all one needed to know in order to make folding the obvious decision. So if opponents erroneously assume that every quick fold after a bet-raise means that one had been bluffing, fine, let them make that mental mistake.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Crazy times at Bill's

Bill's Gamblin' Hall and Saloon is neither one of my favorite nor most frequent poker hangouts, but it's a reliable money-maker, so I try to hit it once or twice a month. This weekend I did something different and put in three sessions there, racking up $508 in 10.8 hours, for about $47/hour. Doing so produced a boatload of stories and observations, which I'll lump together here.

Ugly clothes

First I have to note the guy pictured above, who was standing there watching the pigs race. I don't know if you can see it well enough in the photo I snapped of him, but the sequins fastened onto the tail of his sports jacket spell out "Big Money." That's subtlety for you.

Pig props

Speaking of the pig races, I extended my perfect track record. Three of us at the table did a pig-race prop bet, and I won. Uptick $2. Thank you very much. I left shortly after that. Still at 100%, never having had to pay off a losing pig.


Saturday evening there were two women at the table in seats 6 and 7, on vacation together from the midwest. I was in seat 9, next to the dealer. At seemingly random intervals, these two would grope/fondle/massage each other's breasts. One time, when one did this to the other, the gropee responded, "Hey, don't start what you can't finish!" It added a whole new dimension to the game. I seriously thought about breaking out my pre-planned line about bringing good luck, but didn't have the nerve.

They were openly flirting with two young men at the table. They pretty much ignored me. *Sigh*. I'm afraid that my age and looks are such that I can't even remember the last time that a stranger tried to flirt with me.


That session was by far the most out-of-control I've ever witnessed at Bill's, and among the top five or so of my entire Vegas experience. The amount of drunkenness, inexperience, noise, conversation, and laughter at the table was such that the game slowed to a crawl. The dealers had to work to get nearly every player's attention nearly every time in order to get anybody to actually take a turn. We were down to about half the normal rate of hands per hour. This really tests the limits of my equanimity and patience. (And that of the dealers, too. They were perpetually on the verge of seriously losing it.) I hate that kind of crap, wasting time for no good reason, because my income is all about the hands per hour. But, as usual, the game was just unbelievably soft, so I tried to grin and bear it. I'm well aware, when setting out for Bill's, that it ain't the Venetian, that I will likely be the only one at the table who actually cares about making money, that for the rest it's all about the fun. So I do my what little it is within my nature to be able to do in order to contribute to a light, fun atmosphere.

There's a reason for the rule

Another thing I have to steel myself for in preparation for playing at Bill's is the looseness of rules enforcement. They are intentionally catering to first-time players, the ultra-casual players, people who have never tried real casino poker before. People buy in for $20 or $30 or $40, and get a taste of the NLHE game they've seen on TV, and it's a little thrill for them. They don't know the rules and etiquette. So I do my best to try to ignore a lot of it, put in a gentle word or two of education where I can, and not be too much of a nit.

After the gropers had left Saturday night, they were replaced by two young women who were part of a group that had lived together during college, and came out to Vegas every year for a kind of reunion. They had played poker in home games, but never in a casino, and were trying it for the first time. Another first-time guy was to their right.

They kept talking about the hand in progress, despite repeated admonitions from both me and the dealers not to. It was bad enough that at one point I even pointedly said to the guy, who was being pretty obnoxious about openly giving advice to players facing decisions, "You're kind of a slow learner, aren't you?" That seemed to finally stop his nasty little habit.

And then it finally mattered:

I was one of three people in a hand. I had 9-8 offsuit, and had called a small pre-flop raise. But everybody apparently missed the flop, turn, and river, so it just got checked down the whole way. The final board included four spades. I didn't have one, but the last card had been an 8, giving me a measly pair. I was in early position, so when the last player checked on the river, I was first to show. I was expecting one of the other players to show a higher pair or a flush, but both of them just pushed their cards forward, face down.

Before the dealer could gather them in, one of the college-reunion women said, "I can't believe none of you had a spade!" This prompted the guy on my right to pick up his cards again, at which point he got a startled look on his face, then turned over the ace of spades. He said, "I would have sworn that was the ace of clubs!"

He had not even noticed the spades on the board until the woman said that.

He got the pot that would otherwise have been mine.

I was seriously annoyed at this. I mean, sure, it was a small pot, and the person with the best hand took it, which is as it should be. But conversely, I firmly believe that players have the right to muck the best hand and thereby forfeit the pot if they are so inclined, and nobody else should interfere with them doing so.

At least this young woman had the good sense to be absolutely mortified at what she had done. She must have apologized a hundred times, and kept doing so long after I had both forgiven her and had stopped being annoyed about it having happened.

The good news is that seeing how one little stray comment can totally change the outcome of a hand (well, that, plus the floor guy coming over and giving a stern warning to everybody), the table finally seemed to catch on to the fact that you really must not say anything about the hand in progress. And, by the way, the hand is still in progress until the pot has been awarded and the next hand has begun with the beginning of the shuffle (or by the dealer removing the new deck from the shuffler).


As I've mentioned before, Bill's attracts the most unbelievably novice players in the universe. I have overheard the following comments in the past few days there:

  • Man plausibly claiming to have had 7-7 bets $6 from under the gun, folds to an opponent's bet on an ace-high flop, says, "I just wanted to take those blinds!" Remember that Bill's plays with a single $1 blind. In other words, he was claiming to have bet $6 not to start building a pot that he could later win, but simply in order to win the single $1 chip that was on the table when he made that raise. Good thinking, sir.
  • Guy who limped in, then had to decide whether to call a pre-flop raise, looked long and hard at his hole cards, then at the raiser, and said, in all earnestness, "I think I might be drawing dead here," and folded. (Note to the non-poker-players among my readers, to whom this might not be obvious: There are no two cards that are drawing dead to any other two cards before the flop. Any starting hand can beat any other, given the right community cards. One cannot play the game for very long before realizing this, which is why the guy's words reveal that he has likely watched the game on TV and heard this kind of comment in a different context, but has never actually played.)
  • On a paired flop, one player asked the dealer, "Do you have to use five cards to make a hand?"
  • One player, who repeatedly warned us that he had never played before and had no idea what to do, was there with a friend who was trying to teach him the game. The more experienced friend took a restroom break. When he returned, the newbie excitedly told him, "While you were gone, if I had played one hand, I would have made five in a row, 6-7-8-9-10. That's something, isn't it?"
  • Last night, a player with about $30 left was facing a $71 all-in bet. He asked the dealer, "Can I just play for, like, $5, or do I have to put it all in to play?"
  • One player asked the dealer whether an ace could play as part of a low straight as well as a high straight.
  • Last night, I saw this betting sequence on the flop: Player A checks. Player B bets $20. Player C calls. Player A decides to go all-in for $40. Player B also goes all-in, for less, a total of $36. Player C...FOLDS! There were three of us reasonably experienced players all clustered together at one end of the table, and all three of us had our eyes bug out at the fold. We quietly exchanged a few words, all of which were around this observation: There is no hand that C could have for which it makes sense to call $20 into a small pot, but then not call an additional $20 into what is now a much larger pot, on the same street. He was getting much better pot odds on the second $20 than he was on the first $20. He must (or at least should) have known when calling B's initial $20 bet that B was going to put his last $16 in on this hand, no matter what. In other words, C must (or, again, at least should) have either decided he was willing to put in $36 or not called the $20 to begin with. In fact, it would have been smarter, probably, to look at his two opponents' stack sizes, and just shoved there, trying to keep A from calling the $20 and getting pot-committed.

I hasten to add that I'm really not trying to make fun of these people for their ignorance. They're not stupid, just new. Everybody has to learn the basic rules and strategies of the game at some point, and there's no shame in not knowing something, or in asking a question in order to clear up what you don't know.

It's just that it's really rare to encounter this much absolutely bare-bones level of inexperience in no-limit casino poker. It's much more common that people learn these basics in home games, playing micro-limits online, or playing the cheapest limit hold'em in a casino. It's the incredibly low buy-in and blind structure at Bill's that prompts people to sit down and play a no-limit game, when they really would be better off in one of those other situations.

Oops, I broke up the game!

In two hands I busted four players last night. First one was with my top pair/top kicker against her top pair/medium kicker. On the very next hand I caught quad 7s (with a pair in the hand, which got me a $50 high-hand jackpot in addition to the pot) on a double-paired board, and busted three opponents at once. One had a full house, one had hit a flush on the river (I didn't pull the trigger until then, though I flopped a set and turned the quads), and one had an ace in the hole, and thought maybe two pairs with an ace was good enough to call off all of his chips with.

On the previous night (Saturday), when I arrived at about 5:00, as the floor guy was selling me chips, he said, only half-jokingly, "Don't bust the whole table too fast--I've got to keep the game going until 7:00, when my shift ends!" I guess he should have saved his warning for the next night!

(N.B.: This is a serious faux pas on his part, if you ask me. Yeah, it's nice that he has paid attention to my play, remembers my face, and recognizes that I'm probably going to be the shark in his little fish pool, but the last thing I need is for him to be saying such a thing three feet away from the table. It not only unnecessarily warns the more unsuspecting players, but it insults them, if they're alert enough to catch his meaning. Furthermore, does he seriously think I'm not going to try to maximize my profit, just so that his job is made easier? Please.)

The Internet blog guy

When I sat down for a late-night session last night, one player at the table looked at me and said, "You're that Internet blog guy, right?" He had spent some time with me during the evening described here, so had heard others mention my blog.

Anyway, for any readers who happen to run into me across the green felt, I found this guy's question so amusing in its phrasing that it is now the preferred official way to introduce yourself to the Grump: "You're that Internet blog guy, right?"

One difficult decision

Last night I was in late position with the two black 7s, so I raised to $5, and got two callers. The flop was 7-8-9, with two diamonds. It was checked to me. I deliberately overbet the pot ($25, I think) in order not to give proper pot odds to an opponent with a flush draw or straight draw. Both of them called. Ugh.

The turn was an offsuit jack. The first guy quickly moved all-in for $71. This is the same hand I mentioned above, in which the second guy then asked whether he could just play for, say, $5 more, instead of the rest of his stack. When told it was all or nothing, he folded.

I was sitting on about $400 at the time, so it wasn't like a call here would break me. But I couldn't make sense of the first guy's move. I didn't think he had flopped a straight, because with two opponents who might be on a flush draw, surely he would have either bet out on the flop or check-raised me. But it also didn't really make sense for him to have had a 10 for a now-completed straight draw, because he shouldn't have been willing to call such a large bet on the flop. He would have had to think that if another diamond came he couldn't count on a straight being good, which means that he should have reasoned that he only had six outs rather than the usual eight. Therefore, calling a bet that is substantially larger than the pot doesn't make sense. If he had miraculously gotten me in a set-over-set situation, again, surely he would go for the check-raise on the flop, rather than slow-play on such a highly coordinated board.

I thought long and hard about this, and finally decided that it was most likely that he had either two pairs or one pair plus a flush draw. Even if I was wrong and he had hit his straight, I would have ten outs to a full house. So I called.

I had indeed been wrong. He had had 9-10, for top pair and a straight draw on the flop, but with no flush draw. Now, if I had been in his spot, I would have either folded or gone for the all-in check-raise on the flop with that holding. The second guy has so little left in front of him that he's not really a factor. The guy with 9-10 should have figured that a check-raise would drive me out if I were continuation-betting a hand like ace-king that completely whiffed on the flop, and that it would price me out if I were betting a flush draw or straight draw, and he would still have outs to win against almost anything I could have, in case I called with something like an overpair.

But I forgot where I was. Players at Bill's do not think about the game the same way that I do, so when I went through the hand as if I were in my opponent's seat, figuring out what cards I would have to have in order to play the way he had done, I was simply wrong. That entire approach, which is both sound and necessary when facing opponents of comparable skill and experience, falls flat when tried against considerably weaker players, because they simply don't think the same way I do.

What I should have asked myself was this: "Would a tight/weak/timid player just call that flop bet with top pair and a straight draw, hoping that he would simultaneously make his straight without the possible flush card hitting?" And the answer to that would have been a resounding "yes."

But the poker gods were merciful to me last night, and let me slide on my lapse in clear thinking. They sent an 8 on the river, pairing the board, and giving me the winning full house.

I don't usually rely on luck to win at Bill's (or anywhere else, for that matter), but it's nice to get it once in a while.

Never bluff at Bill's--well, almost never

As I have emphasized in a couple of previous posts about Bill's, it is not a place to bluff, because one is surrounded by calling stations. But there are exceptions. This weekend I ran into a few players smart enough to lay down a hand like top pair in the face of an opponent showing unusual strength.

An opportunity arose Saturday night. One of the good players put in a straddle, then, after he got called in several spots, raised to $15. I had the distinct impression that he was full of shit, that he was just trying to take the $10 or $12 on the table and be done with it. I had suited K-Q. I had limped in with it instead of raising because I was in middle position, and didn't feel like playing a big pot with what is, after all, still a pretty mediocre hand, with three or four players acting after me. But when everybody between the straddler and me folded to his raise, I was certainly willing to take him on, since I would have position on him, and I likely was starting with a better hand. Everybody folded behind me, too, so it was to be one on one. Excellent.

The flop was J-x-x. It gave me no pair and no draw. But I also knew that most of the time it will have missed him, too. Nevertheless, he did what a strong, aggressive player should usually do, and continuation-bet at it, $20. I thought that he was still full of it, so I thought a bit, then pushed out $65. He was a smart enough player to see a pre-flop limp-call, combined with a strong flop raise, as signaling danger, such as somebody with a small pocket pair having flopped a set. Sure enough, he thought for maybe 30 seconds, then folded while flashing me a jack, to show that he had hit top pair. But he simultaneously admitted, "The other one isn't too good."

So I had been right that he was just trying to buy it with junk before the flop. I had, in one sense, been wrong in guessing that the flop missed him. But in a more important sense I had been right. That is, my bet on the flop was not a bet that he had missed it completely, because obviously I couldn't know that. Rather, I was betting that he did not have a hand strong enough to call a scary-looking raise from a solid, tight player who had not shown down a single weak hand all night. On that mark, I was exactly correct.

When he folded, I gave him a wink and a smile, and exposed my K-Q. I rarely show bluffs, but here it was entirely purposeful. I had managed to get into a situation in which I could put in a bluff with a high probability of success against one of only two players at the table whom I judged capable of folding a superior hand. To get maximal value, I wanted to be sure that all of the calling stations at the table saw what I had done, in the hope that it would reinforce their already erroneous tendency to look me up too often with medium-strength hands when I had the goods.

So to the gentleman whom I used as my advertising, my apologies. I honestly wasn't trying to rub your nose in it. I was trying to help coax additional future calls from the weaker players, whom I would not normally try to bluff. Please take it as a compliment that I recognized you to be a good enough player to fold--it genuinely is one.

A mistake that worked out nicely

Early in the session, I had flopped top two pairs with a 9-7 in my hand, and picked up a full house on the turn. I showed it, despite my bet not being called. I won another hand a short time later when the same cards caught two pairs again. It then became a running joke and/or point of commentary at the table about how often that night the board was coming in such a form that holding 9-7 would be a great hand. With freakish frequency, if you could have played 9-7 every hand, you would have been hitting two pairs, trips, straights, and full houses all evening long. One guy complained that he hadn't been dealt the 9-7 all night. Kind of odd, when you usually hear that gripe leveled about not getting aces or kings!

Anyway, after this had been going on for a couple of hours, I found myself looking at the 9-7 of hearts. I raised. The flop was A-6-4, with two hearts. I almost never bluff at Bill's, but I do mix in some semi-bluffs. This is because many of the players there are not used to seeing betting on the come, so when a third card of a suit appears, they assume that the person who had bet at the flop must not have the flush. This is, I assume, because beginning players tend to check a flush draw, figuring it's not worth throwing money at it if you don't have to, when you can just wait to see if you make your hand first. So mixing in some semi-bluffs can pay off. I decided to do it here, and got two callers.

The turn was an offsuit 3. Dang. I thought about checking, but decided to bet again, hoping that they'd read me for having a big ace and fold. But, of course, this is Bill's, and nobody's folding.

The river was an offsuit 5. Rats! No flush and no pair! The first player checked to me, and, well, my old habits took over. I'm a third-bullet shooter. In this case, my instant self-justification was that maybe both of them had been on flush draws and would fold. If I had thought for about two more seconds, I would have realized how unlikely that was. Furthermore, I had shown the bluff described above specifically so that I would get more callers! What in the hell was I thinking, trying to pull off a three-shell bluff? I wasn't thinking--that was the problem. It was completely foolish.

I bet $25 on the river, praying to see two players throw their cards in the muck, even as the more rational part of my brain was saying, "Don't throw good money after bad." They both called. Yikes!

So, fully embarrassed, I turned over my hand and quietly said, "I guess I'll have to lose with the 9-7 for once tonight."

To my utter shock, the dealer announced, "Straight." I had been so focused on the flush that I had not even noticed that I had backed into a 3-4-5-6-7 straight. I can't remember the last time I so completely misread the board. (It might have been the third story related in this post.)

Both opponents mucked without showing their cards. Nobody said anything about what they must have thought was my weird comment about losing. I was too ashamed to admit that I had not seen the straight. I hoped that if anybody had heard what I said, they would take it as having been somehow ironic. I have no idea what they thought, if anything.

The poker gods were truly covering my backside for me that night.

Best I can figure is that they were there to bet on the pig races.


I really wanted that pig-racing bit to be the punchline, and leave the post there. But upon re-reading it, I feel obligated to add a caveat here. I fear that the number of times in this post that I make reference to being so much better at poker than my opponents will sound far more arrogant than would be a true reflection of how I view myself as a player.

So I'd like to set that record straight. I've said this before, and probably will need to again at some point. I think I have a pretty brutally realistic assessment of my strengths and weaknesses as a player. I honestly believe that I am probably just about as low on the continuum of poker skill as one can possibly be and still have a shot at making a living at the game.

But it's a simple fact that even that extremely modest level of talent (modest, that is, in comparison to the world-class pros whose ability has me in awe) puts one ahead of at least 90% of the tourists that sit down in $1-2 no-limit hold'em games. At a place like Bill's, it does not require any haughtiness or self-worship to say that my knowledge and understanding of the game is far deeper than that of the great majority of the other players. It's a simple, objective, unmistakable fact, and anybody who sat and watched for a while would, I think, inevitably come to the same conclusion.

So please don't read into my stories and comments an inference that I fancy myself as one of the greats. I do not--not by a long shot. I realize and fully acknowledge that I'm simply choosing to swim in really small ponds, in which it is just not very hard to be at the top of the food chain.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Poker gems, #166

Mike Caro, in Poker Player newspaper column, September 29, 2008.

In many ways, poker is a more complex and skillful game than chess. It's just that the intermediate luck factor makes correct decisions and deep probing seem less vital. In the long run, the right choices matter just as much.