Saturday, April 18, 2009

Poker gems, #240

Phil Laak, in Bluff magazine column, April, 2009, p. 118.

A few days ago I got to the poker room [at Commerce Casino] and saw that it was going to be thirty or forty minutes before I would get into one of my games. I scanned the entire room. Oh, look there. One open seat at $300/600 Stud. Normally I wouldn't bother but with the one massive fish I see sitting and visibly steaming the whole thing is justifiable.... On the first hand I was dealt a king with pocket tens in the hole. My opponent had an ace up and I decided I didn't believe him. By fifth street I found myself believing him but playing bad and couldn't let it go. I hung on until the bitter end, when he tabled his ace-high. But what's this? The dealer pushed him the pot. I suddenly realized that it was Razz I was playing; the table card description confirms it. I have just pissed away $4,800 by not knowing what game I was in. What a moron I can be.

Guess the casino, #116

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Answer: Silverton

Friday, April 17, 2009


I've been a busy Grump the last few days. Much to report when I get a chance some time soon. For now, I'll just tell you that today is my birthday (#48, which seems impossible every time I think about it). Going out for Tony Roma's ribs later, then the next installment in the Paul Newman film festival, "The Sting." Hmmm--think a pokery thought or two might come to me from watching that one again? Could be.

More later.

Guess the casino, #115

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Treasure Island

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Guess the casino, #114

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Luxor

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

L.V. locals: Your opinions are wanted

I was just contacted by the Review-Journal reporter who did the story on my Cannery incident a couple of weeks ago. He asked a favor. It's easier to explain, I think, if I just quote his request:

I'm writing a story tomorrow about a new Web site that has deals for LV locals. It is sponsored by the LVCVA.

If you have many locals following your site, it would be great if you could help me out by posting my contact info ASAP.

I want to hear from LV locals and ask them what they think casinos, spas, restaurants etc., should do to attract more locals.

I'm sure lots of people would have ideas on that subject.

The story runs Friday, so I need to talk to people today and tomorrow. If you can help me out, I'd appreciate it.

-- Ben S.

Benjamin Spillman
Business reporter
Las Vegas Review-Journal
702.477.3861 (direct)
702.477.3852 (fax)


So there you have it. He's a good guy, so if you want to help contribute to the story, give him a call or send an email.

"Dead Man's Hand" review, part 5

The next story in line is "Poker and Shooter," by Sue DeNymme. This is the tale of a high school hazing gone bad, and it only passingly mentions poker. I found it most unpleasant, primarily because there is not a single likable character in it. They are all pretty despicable, and I don't think any reader could care what happens to them. Waste of space.

"The Monks of the Abbey Victoria," by Rupert Holmes, is a clever and enjoyable piece. Our narrator, the new guy at NBC headquarters in New York, circa 1960, is invited to join the weekly poker game held by some of his new co-workers. But at the first session, there's something strange going on, which our hero can't quite put a finger on. Turns out that the poker game is simply a cover for something more nefarious--and even that may not be quite what it seems. Beyond that I cannot go without spoiler alerts. But the twists are a pleasure to encounter.

We now switch to the first British story in the collection, Peter Robinson's "The Eastvale Ladies' Poker Circle." Sadly, as with a couple of other stories here, poker plays such a marginal role that it's hard to see how they qualify as "Crime Fiction at the Poker Table" (the book's subtitle). Here, a monthly poker game is simply the alibi for one of the suspects in a murder. That's it. The story is a fairly bland whodunit otherwise. Nothing particularly wrong with it, but little that I found particularly enjoyable or memorable.

Eric Van Lustbader wrote "The Uncertainty Principle." It's about an 18-year-old woman who runs an underground poker game in Reno with her father. What she will do with her life apparently comes down to what she will do in one huge hand of poker. But the author leaves us hanging at the end, without resolution. That made the entire reading experience frustrating. Thumbs down.

"Hardly Knew Her" is by Laura Lippman. It centers on the strained relationship between a 16-year-old tomboy and her degenerate gambler father. The children in the family grew up being unable to be sure anything they valued would stay with them, because their father would pawn or sell any valuables in order to get into a weekly poker game, at which he was obviously not very good. Our heroine, Sofia, accepts this unpleasant reality mostly with equanimity, but finally her dad goes too far, and she has to resort to extreme measures to get back what he has taken from her. Once again, poker is just too far in the background for this to be considered a poker story. You could just substitute an addiction to sports betting for poker, and nothing here would change.

OK, just two more stories to go and I'll finally be done with the book!

Guess the casino, #113

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Hooters

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Readers' tournament, third reminder

Coming up on April 27. Full details here. Nine players signed up already. Warning: Registration ends two minutes before the start of the event, so you'd better hustle and get in NOW!

Rumor has it that Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, Barry Greenstein, Daniel Negreanu, Jennifer Harman, Chris Ferguson, Phil Laak, and Patrik Antonius will all be putting in appearance. I can't confirm that; as I said, it's only a rumor. But just in case it's true, you wouldn't want to miss it, would you?

Guess the casino, #112

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Gold Coast

"Dead Man's Hand" review, part 4

I am more than a little embarrassed. I started this book review well over a year ago, and I'm still not finished with it. Just as embarrassingly, I'm also still not finished with the book.

For those new to the blog, or who happen not to remember every single post I've ever written (and shame on you!), I started this collection of poker-related crime short stories, edited by Otto Penzler, back in January, 2008. You can see the first three parts of the review here. It's not that I'm not enjoying the book. I am--honest. It's just that with a series of unrelated stories, unlike with a novel, I don't build any momentum in the reading. It then becomes easy to put it aside, intending it to be just for a night or two while I read something else. But then the book gets buried under other books and magazines, it gets forgotten, etc.

Now I have incentive to finish it. Back when I first started it, I had intended to finish it quickly, then pass it on to Shamus for his review. He has some actual experience and credibility in evaluating crime fiction. When I didn't finish reading it as fast as I intially planned, I then decided that I would just finish it in time for the 2008 World Series of Poker, and could then hand it to Shamus in person when he was in town. Well, as you can see, that didn't happen, either. I hang my head in shame.

I am now given a chance to redeem myself. Shamus is coming to Vegas again this week, and we have plans to meet up. (Actually, it appears that Shamus, Cardgrrl, F-Train, B.W.O.P. and I are all going to be getting together. Pity the place that gets chosen to host that little shindig.) So I'm on a rush to finish the book. (It might all be for naught. It's entirely possible that Shamus got tired of waiting and long ago bought or borrowed a copy himself, and has been too polite to tell me so.)

So, onward we go.

Next story is "The Stake" by Sam Hill. This is about an over-the-hill pro poker player who has been down on his luck and needs a big score not only for his own personal and financial redemption, but to help his daughter, who is struggling through college. There's not a lot of plot here, and no crime to speak of (raising the question of whether it really belongs in this volume). But it's a good character study, full of nostalgia for the old-school players, and the poker game in which he will either win big or lose it all has some decent drama.

"Pitch Black," by Christopher Coake, is the longest piece in the book. It doesn't deserve that much space. I found it self-indulgent and dull. Poker is only a small piece of it, too. It's far more about adolescent angst and rock music than poker. The author's attempts at a distinctive writing style, I thought, were just intrusive and annoying.

Parnell Hall's tale, "Deal Me In," is perhaps the most pure crime-genre story in the book so far. It's a classic whodunit, with our narrator the private detective called in to assist the police in solving an apparent murder at a home poker game. I loved the first paragraph:

Seth Beckman sat facedown at the poker table. His eyes were wide and
unblinking. His mouth was open, his nostrils were flared, yet no breath was
coming through. Mr. Beckman was done playing poker for the evening. His cards
were on the table in front of him. As were the stacks of chips on which he lay.
Due to which, the man presented at least a linguistic paradox. Mr. Beckman had
not cashed in his chips because he had cashed in his chips.

There's a lot of smart writing like that here. The author also understands poker in a way that is more evident than with any other writer so far. For example, there's a detail about why the players in this game play short-handed--because they don't want to have to shuffle the discards in draw games. That's not a factoid likely to have been casually picked up by somebody watching the World Poker Tour. Poker terms and observations and quips are all used in very natural ways, bespeaking a deep familiarity with the game and culture.

Hall also understands poker players' mentality. As detectives are working the crime scene, what is the players' main concern? How to get the game going again. Precisely! All the players are suspects, of course. The one who had a lock on the hand in progress when Beckman keeled over sardonically tells the suspicious investigators, "Believe me, if I was gonna kill him, I'd have waited until after the hand."

To top it off, it is the psychology of poker players that leads to the solving of the case, and our PI narrator solves it by means of a poker hand and a bluff--but I can't tell you any more than that. Overall, it's a cracking fun read.

OK, that's it for this installment. Seven more stories to go. Will I finish it in time? That's the real mystery here. If I don't, it will be a, um, crime.

You can't always get what you want

But if you try sometimes well you just might find
You get what you need
Oh baby, yeah, yeah!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Too tight?

I'm about halfway through Winning Omaha/8 Poker by Mark Tenner and Lou Krieger. It's OK, but I'm wondering if it is practical to play the way the authors suggest, or whether it could even be profitable to do so.

Maybe I should put the caveats up front: I'm far from an expert in the field. In fact, it's precisely because I always feel that I'm just making it up as I go along when I play the O/8 portions of my almost nightly HORSE tournaments that I wanted to read something to give me a more solid grounding in the game. I therefore have no vast fund of experience against which to judge their advice. Yet I'm still finding myself skeptical that it makes any sense.

Let's begin with their starting hand requirements. On pages 82-84, they identify seven classes of playable hands:

1) Any A-2.

2) A-3, if the ace is of the same suit with any of the other three cards.

3) A-3, if the remaining two cards are 10-pointers (i.e., would count a 10 in blackjack--10s, jacks, queens, and kings).

4) Ace with two other "prime cards," which they define as aces, deuces, treys, fours, and fives. Exception: Do not play any A-5-5-x hand.

5) Suited A-x if two of the cards are 10-pointers.

6) Any four prime cards with no ace. (I assume that they would exclude trips or quads, though this is not explicitly stated.)

7) Any four Broadway cards, unless you are dealt trips. (Presumably quads, too, though again this goes unsaid.)

They have more details about which of these are stronger than others, which features within each category make a hand more or less favorable, which ones are weak enough that you shouldn't play them from early position or after a raise, etc. But that's the basic formula.

Incidentally, I note that this list, while tight, nevertheless was not completely consistent with their earlier dogma, quoted here, about not playing hands containing the dreaded sevens, eights, and nines. For example, A-2-8-9 obviously fits into their category 1. The list also violates their other earlier-stated dogma, quoted here, about avoiding "three-legged stool" hands. For example, A-2-3-9 fits category 4, but has an obvious "dangler" (and violates the other rule at the same time). On p. 81, they write--in italics, even--"[D]anglers are the kiss of death in Omaha starting hands." I have so far found no attempt to reconcile this assertion with the list of starting hand requirements that clearly allow for some dangler hands.

After studying this list for a while, I got to wondering what percentage of hands one would play if restricted to these rules. I attempted to work it out mathematically, and came up with 81,882 total hands, which amounts to 30.2% of the 270,725 possible starting hands. However, I was highly unsure of whether I had this right, because I found no easy way to account for hands that fell into more than one category. For example, Ad-3c-Kd-10s fits into both categry 2 and category 3. Ac-2c-3h-10d fits into categories 1, 2, and 4. Because I couldn't be sure how much double-counting was in my total, I had little confidence in my conclusion.

A digression. Long ago I read somewhere (can't even vaguely remember where it was now) about a college physics professor who assigned his class to determine how long it would take for the center of a one-pound roast to reach 180 degrees in a 350-degree oven. One student reasoned that beef was mostly water, and therefore used the known thermal properties of water to make a theoretical calculation. Another went out and bought a one-pound roast, stuck it in an oven with a meat thermometer, and waited for the target temperature to be reached. A third student called his mother, an experienced cook, and asked her for the answer.

The philosophical question raised by the story is which student would make the best physicist? The field needs theoretically minded researchers. But it also needs good experimentalists. And, finally, it needs those with the insight to perceive shortcuts.


So, finding myself stymied by the theoretical approach, I decided to try the experimental. Yesterday I logged onto PokerStars and found an insanely loose $0.02/$0.04 limit Omaha/8 cash game, ten-handed, with 49% to 77% of players seeing the flop (according to the stats in the lobby, which I checked periodically). Over the course of about two hours, I played exactly 100 hands, checking each one against the Tenner/Krieger list. Only 10 of them would meet the criteria. (Specifically, one each from categories 2 and 7, two each from categories 1, 4, 5, and 6, and none from category 3. However, I did not check carefully for multiple qualifiers, just chalking the hand up to whichever criterion I first noticed it would meet.)

(Incidentally, since nearly every hand went all the way to a showdown--this being a no-folding group of players--I also kept track of how many non-qualifying hands would have turned into winners. The 90 "don't-play" hands would have won four scoops, 14 half pots, 2 quarter pots, and, one time, would have chopped the low three ways for one-sixth of a pot. The obvious implication is that despite the questions I'm raising in this post about how tight is too tight, it's clear that the great majority of "reject" hands as classified by Tenner and Krieger really are dogs, with only remote hopes of winning.)

Ten percent was way under what I had estimated mathematically. Even with a fairly small sample, that was too far off for comfort. It was also taking too long. So I broke out a deck of cards and dealt myself another 100 Omaha starting hands. I found five in category 1, eight in category 2 (of which three would also have qualified in another category, but I lumped them all here), two in category 8, and none in categories 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7. That's a total of 15 "playable" hands out of 100, with 85 rejects.

This combined sample is now big enough for me to believe that the listed guidelines would actually result in playing about 10-15% of starting hands. I think that I must have messed up the math somewhere in my first accounting, but it's too much of a chore to go back and try to learn what went wrong.

I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with recommending a starting hand spectrum that tight--especially for beginners, as this book is explicitly aimed at. In fact, the authors trouble themselves to point out that more experienced players can profitably play a somewhat wider range of starting hands, because they are less likely to get trapped with good-but-not-quite-good-enough hands in a large pot. Fair enough. I certainly believe that to be true for hold'em, so I find it perfectly plausible for Omaha as well.

But the authors' obsession with avoiding second-best hands extends past their starting requirements, and this is where I began to wonder whether their full set of guidelines were really feasible.

They are positively fanatical about getting away from straight draws and even made straights if you don't also have a solid low to accompany it, or in the face of a possible flush. It's not hard to see why: straights can be beaten by higher straights, flushes, and full houses, and even if they hold up you may end up with just half of a pot. So I see the underlying wisdom and reasoning.

Still, their straight and straight-draw rules strike me as draconian and timid: When three low cards flop and you don't have the nut or second-nut low to go with your straight draw, fold it. If two low cards flop, draw to the nut straight only if making your straight won't produce a possible low, unless you have a strong low draw, too--and even then you should play it passively, checking and calling, rather than aggressively. With no low cards on the flop, don't play a straight draw unless you have at least seven outs to the nut straight or you have additional outs such as top two pair or top or middle set. Non-nut straight draws with bottom two pair or bottom set should be mucked. If the flop has two suited cards, you must have at least eight outs to the nut straight to continue, and play it check-and-call. A straight draw with two suited cards and two low cards on the flop should be mucked, unless you have at least the second-nut low draw to accompany it. If you flop a straight with three low cards on board, check/call with three or fewer opponents, and muck against four or more; with two low cards, also just check/call. If you flop the nut straight with no low cards on board, never raise without a redraw. If you flop the second-nut straight, fold unless you have at least six outs to the nut straight or a full house. Muck the nut straight with three suited cards on the flop; just check/call when two suited cards flopped.

You get the idea. Basically, they're trying to get you to recognize situations in which you could get trapped for a lot of bets which will prove to be the second-best hand, even if it is the best hand on the flop.

No doubt there is a lot of hard-won, painful, expensive experience speaking here. But it leaves me wondering what fraction of hands one would end up actually playing to the river under their guidelines. And I haven't even gotten to their chapters on playing the turn and river, where I assume there will be yet more advice to muck, muck, muck just about anything short of the mortal nuts. I get the feeling that, especially in a limit game, the very few pots eventually won will not be large enough to justify the large number of times one is folding out of fear of running into a better hand or winning just half a pot. I certainly don't know this to be so, and I am given pause in my criticism by the authors' vastly greater experience. But offhand it just doesn't strike me as right. My limited experience--admittedly against really bad opponents--is that it often does not take the nuts to win. When you have many opponents willing to go to the mat with 10-high and jack-high flushes, it seems OK to chance it with the king-high flush rather than always living in fear that the nut flush is lurking.

I am also concerned by the number of situations in which they advocate completely passive checking-and-calling play, rather than taking the initiative. That obviously goes against the most basic and universal advice of good poker: being selectively aggressive, and putting your opponents to the decision, rather than reacting to their actions.

All in all, I am left wishing that I could watch one or both authors play through an extended session and see whether they actually play as snugly as they are laying out in their book. My hunch says no. But I could be wrong. Lord knows that has happened once or twice before in my life.

Guess the casino, #111

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: M Resort

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Guess the casino, #110

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Wynn