Norman Chad, on this week's World Series of Poker installment on ESPN:
See, ace-jack is like ace-queen with fleas--it's just trouble.... Ace-jack looks pretty good, but it's a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
[For a contrary view on ace-jack--pardon me, jack-ace--see here.]
Saturday, October 10, 2009
James McManus, in Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, being released October 27, as excerpted in Card Player magazine May 9, 2007 (available online here). (Thanks to my friend Shamus for reminding me of this in an email this morning.)
By the 1870s, as the nation tentatively recovered from the bloodiest conflict in human history, genuine and self-proclaimed experts began publishing books on the new poker variants brought home by veterans. Among the most lucid of these was math professor Henry T. Winterblossom's The Game of Draw Poker (1875). The 72-page primer begins with a brief history of cards, followed by caveats about the morality of playing for money: "Poker, unfortunately, is one of the few games that cannot be played so as to afford any pleasure, without the interchange of money. Indeed one might as well go on a gunning expedition with blank cartridges, as to play poker for 'fun.'" He puts its corrupting potential on a par with faro and betting on horse races, even warning prospective readers: "If they have never indulged in the game, they are earnestly exhorted at this point to seek no further information, but to remain happy in their innocence" - which sounds like a quaintly Victorian selling point similar to warning viewers about the Strong Sexual Content of an HBO series. "It is unnecessary to say that the game should never be permitted to enter the family circle, no matter how trifling the stake proposed may be," he tut-tuts, all part of his wobbly balancing act. "Those who have winked at [the morality of poker], and those who have denounced it, may both be in the wrong. It must be admitted, however, by its most bitter enemy that, as a source of recreation, when moderately indulged in, and stripped of its objection-able features, it presents advantages not to be obtained in any other amusement."
[H]e advises readers to "keep steadily in view the principle of conservatism." He admits that while this strategy "may perhaps to a limited degree be open to the charge of timidity, no one will regret in the end having pursued it. The most brilliant play is rarely satisfactory when it terminates in a loss."
As one of the first pokeraticians to focus on psychology, he notes that "a thorough exhibition of each individual character is revealed at every step of the game." More than that, "even the most casual observer cannot help perceiving that the commodity known as selfishness predominates to an unlimited degree, notwithstanding the various contrivances the players adopt to conceal its presence." In keeping with Adam Smith's and Alexander Hamilton's insights about market capitalism, he makes clear that poker is "not only a selfish game, but one that every subterfuge that can be brought to bear is introduced; every artifice that the laws of the game will permit, is pressed into service; and all directed at one object, viz: to win your money."
Friday, October 09, 2009
I have an idea for how to make hold'em better.
Rather than the dealer pitching cards around the table one at a time, he takes two in a row to give to each player. Additionally, the dealer looks at them first and arranges them with the higher card on the bottom, then carefully slides them to the player with that order undisturbed.
Can you see why this is a great idea? Assuming you lift up the cards so that you see the bottom one first, you will never be disappointed by what the second card is. Never again would you see a lovely king, followed by a wretched four. If you see a king first, you would know that the other card awaiting your eyes can only be another king or an ace! Happy days!
I don't care that this would slow the game down to about half the current pace. The avoidance of that big letdown would be worth it.
This isn't the first time, and it sure won't be the last, but in this week's episode of the World Series of Poker main event on ESPN we have the situation of a player's cards accidentally being mucked by the dealer. The difference here is that it's the rare case where the entire thing is caught on videotape.
Here's the "victim" (one of the last three women left in the field at this point):
The situation is that J.C. Tran had made an opening raise. Ms. Denis moved all in, later claiming that she had pocket aces (but nobody else saw them, so we have only her word on that).
Here you can see her stack forward and the dealer's hand grabbing her cards. Note that she has no card protector, and her attention is elsewhere.
And, predictably, about one second later her cards are mixed into the muck. She still doesn't know what has happened, because she isn't paying attention:
A few more seconds pass before she realizes that her cards are gone. Then begins the predictable sequence of events: She complains to the dealer, tells him what her cards were, floor guy gets called over, he calls over his supervisor, etc.
One unusual step happened that I don't think should have, though in the end it made no difference. When the supervisor arrived, he allowed Ms. Denis to whisper to him what her cards were. He then went to the muck and lifted the corner of what appeared to be the top two cards, after which he declared her hand dead. Apparently, then, the top two cards were not the ones she claimed to have had. This isn't surprising, since the dealer made no effort to place her cards on top of the muck.
This was a bad decision from the supervisor. The WSOP rules make clear that they will not attempt to retrieve cards from the muck in this situation:
73. If a dealer kills an unprotected hand, the player will have no redress and
will not be entitled to his or her money back. An exception would be if a player
raised and his or her raise had not been called yet, he or she would be entitled
to receive his or her raise back.
The Tournament Director Association's rules are nearly identical (not surprising, since the WSOP rules are derived from them):
39. Unprotected Hands
If a dealer kills an unprotected hand, the player will have no redress and
will not be entitled to a refund of bets. However, if a player had raised and
the raise had not yet been called, the raise will be returned to the
(The latter part of both rules was followed. Ms. Denis had to forfeit the chips required for a call of Tran's bet, but got the rest back.)
There are no wiggle-room words there, such as the player "may" have no redress. Her hand was unprotected by any chip or other object, unprotected by her hands, and unprotected by her attention. It should have been declared dead without any attempt by the supervisor to verify whether the top cards in the muck were the ones she claimed to have been dealt. At least he didn't plow through the entire muck looking to see if he could find two aces somewhere in there to give back to her. That would have been a far worse travesty.
I hated how ESPN covered this. Throughout the drama, they commended the player for taking it so well. I disagree. The only way I would give her credit for taking it well is if she uttered words along these lines: "It's my own damn fault." She never did. She placed the entirety of the fault on the dealer.
Of course the dealer made a mistake, and shares in the blame. But players--especially those in the two seats next to the dealer, where this occurs most commonly--have to know of this possibility and take simple precautions against it. Placing a small object of some kind--or just your hand, as long as you don't cover the cards so that others can't see that you're still in--is essentially 100% effective at preventing this dealer error.
Ms. Denis didn't bother taking that simple precaution. She didn't pay attention at the critical moment. She suffered the consequences, as have many, many before.
I'll never understand why some players refuse to learn from the mistakes of others, but I have no sympathy for them. Not even a little bit. Tough noogies. That's what you get for being stupid and careless.
For previous similar stories, see here and here and links therein.
In the same spirit with which Barack Obama has just accepted the Nobel Prize for peace, I am humbled today to accept Harrah's bestowal upon me of a World Series of Poker bracelet--not for anything I have actually accomplished, but in recognition of the fact that I'm currently doing things which may, with some time and luck, eventually lead to having earned it.
Thursday, October 08, 2009
Not everybody reads the comments, I suppose, so you may be missing the discussion that Heffmike started in response to my post last night about the Mookie tournament. He suggested that the hand in question is interesting enough to warrant a post of its own. He may be right. So here it is. (If you've already read these things in the comments to the previous post, there's nothing new here, so move along.)
For reference, here's the hand in a replayer (not very exciting to watch, since there's not much action, but it does tell the basic facts of the story):
First, Heffmike's original comment:
Nicely done... but this...
I was short-stacked and she was trying to knock me out when any sort of opportunity arose for it. A critical moment, in fact, was when I shoved from the big blind with A-5 offsuit after she raised from the small blind with what she later told me had been 8-8. She folded after a long think.
I hope she doesn't make raise/folding a pair BvB three handed a habit. She let you off the hook and you took advantage of it.
My overly long reply:
Well, Heffmike, she was definitely kicking herself afterward for not calling. But your comment prompted me to go review the hand history, which I had not done before. It goes to show that I shouldn't rely on my memory too much. We were not on the bubble; we were down to three-handed already when this hand occurred. (Four were paid.) Also, it was not blind versus blind; she was the button, I the small blind. Finally, this was at a point when I had slightly more chips than she did. So about what I wrote above? Uh, never mind.
Here's the hand history:
Full Tilt Poker Game #15194480191: The Mookie (110330420), Table 2 - 400/800 Ante 100 - No Limit Hold'em - 0:31:06 ET - 2009/10/08
Seat 1: Rakewell (24,651)
Seat 2: Bone_Daddy84 (38,698)
Seat 9: cardgrrl (23,651)
Rakewell antes 100
Bone_Daddy84 antes 100
cardgrrl antes 100
Rakewell posts the small blind of 400
Bone_Daddy84 posts the big blind of 800
The button is in seat #9
*** HOLE CARDS ***
Dealt to Rakewell [As 5d]
cardgrrl raises to 3,200
Rakewell raises to 24,551, and is all in
cardgrrl has 15 seconds left to act
cardgrrl has timed out
cardgrrl is sitting out
Uncalled bet of 21,351 returned to Rakewell
Rakewell wins the pot (7,500)
*** SUMMARY ***
Total pot 7,500 Rake 0
Seat 1: Rakewell (small blind) collected (7,500), mucked
Seat 2: Bone_Daddy84 (big blind) folded before the Flop
Seat 9: cardgrrl (button) folded before the Flop
Should she have called there? I don't think that's clear. She had put in about 15% of her stack with the raise, so she definitely wasn't pot-committed. She risked going out in 3rd place because I had her covered. What range should she put me on to shove there? Well, I think the broadest possible range would include any ace, any pair, and any two Broadway cards. Against that range, PokerStove says her 8-8 is about 58%/42%. If my range is only pocket pairs, she's exactly 50%/50%. If it's any pair and any ace, she's about 59%/41%. If my range is, say, only pocket pairs of 5-5 and better plus any ace with a 7 or better kicker, then she's about 52%/48%.
So yeah, a call is probably the right move there if all you consider is the numbers. This might be especially so because of thinking that I might be reading her for a blind steal from the button and thus defensively shoving with an even wider range than listed above. And she knows I have a tendency to (1) blow up and go crazy at critical moments in tournaments, (2) believe opponents don't have anything and are making moves--both of which should widen my expected range here.
On the other hand, I had been playing fairly conservatively, not shoving lightly. In fact, I had been letting go of lots of stuff, trying to creep up the money ladder like a little rat (to quote Daniel Negreanu). She had certainly noticed this, so had decent reason to take my shove with some caution. Also, she presumably realized that my decision to shove was made knowing that I had the big blind behind me yet to act. That would have the effect of making her credit me for more strength than would otherwise be the case.
All in all, I think it's a really tough spot and not clear whether it's best to be brave with the 8s or reliquish 15% of the chips and wait for a spot where the equity is more heavily weighted her way.
You can see from the history that she timed out. She was so focused on figuring out what to do that she failed to request more time. In any event, the one thing she was most definitely NOT doing was donating chips my way out of the goodness of her heart. It was a genuinely difficult position to be in, without a single clearly best solution, IMHO.
Yeah, this makes a lot more sense given actual hand history.
It's actually an interesting spot that would make for a decent post in and of itself.
Cardgrrl then added:
@Heffmike: I was getting close to the decision to call, in fact, when I timed out. D'oh! FWIW, if Rakewell hadn't had me covered, it would have been much more of a snapcall.
So that's the discussion so far. Readers, how would you have played it? Would you have shoved in my spot? Would you have called in Cardgrrl's spot? Why or why not?
At the end of July I published this brief observational post:
If you start off a poker session digging yourself a deep, ugly hole (as I did today), but manage to claw your way back first to even then to being up (as I also did today), walking away with what is objectively a pretty mediocre and pathetic $103 (which, yes, I also did today) feels like an absolute fortune in one's pocket.
If, conversely, one starts off like gangbusters, raking it in hand over fist, enjoys the pleasures of "stacks and towers of checks I can't even see over" (see here), then gives back nearly all of the gains, and one walks away with the same $103 net profit on the day, for the same number of hours of play, it feels like you've lost a fortune.
It's all relative. And, of course, it's all completely irrational. But like most of us, I have to confess to retaining pockets of irrationality in my brain.
I have, of course, experienced both sides of that relativity. But it's not often that I experience both sides of it in such close proximity as I did this week.
It was just Tuesday that I wrote up what had happened during my session Monday at Mandalay Bay, giving back virtually all of the profit I had accumulated. Today I got to be on the other side of things.
I went for an unusual (for me) afternoon session at Bally's. Bally's is not one of my favorite card rooms, but lately I've seen a spate of Twitter messages from Las Vegas Michael about his sessions there, and the seeming ease with which he has been walking away with ridiculous hourly rates of profit. This has made me think that maybe I should try playing there more than has been my habit. Hey, the Venetian is a much nicer place to be, but if there's a ton of low-hanging fruit at a less desirable venue, I'll grab for it.
Anyway, less than five minutes into the session, I had the two black aces on the button, flopped top set on a monochrome board, and ended up losing to a flopped baby heart flush. My opponent slow-played it until I was pot-committed; I basically had to call his all-in check-raise on the turn, because of the amount that was in the pot, even knowing by that point that I would probably have to pair the board to win. I didn't. That hand cost me about $145.
I spent the rest of the session digging out of that hole. It was pure grinding. Getting-back-to-even poker is never fun poker. But I did it. The pot that put me over the top ("the top" here meaning back to even) actually got me ahead by $21. My plan was to finish that orbit then head home, because I was planning to play in the Mookie tournament on Full Tilt. (See immediately preceding post.) But I got lucky and won two more small pots immediately thereafter and finished up the day ahead by $47.
At one point in the grind, I sent a text message to my friend Cardgrrl to apprise her of my status. After relating the AA/flush hand, I wrote, "Now up to -$85. Monday breaking even felt like a L. Today it will feel like a W."
And it did.
Now, trust me--I know that $47 for four hours of poker is nothing to brag about. But the strange thing is how triumphant it felt. After getting used to the fact that that money is gone and you can't reverse time and get it back, that becomes the reality. Then when one does get it back (not the same chips, of course, but they're fungible, so who cares?), it's like a gift.
But you know, even after writing that, I have to say that it's not quite right. There's nothing gift-like about it. In fact, that's one of the things that felt so good about the result: I earned it. I didn't go on tilt and steam off the rest of my chips. I didn't get desperate or despondent. I just realized--not especially happily, but at least with a quasi-professional equanimity--that I had a job to do and I'd better get cracking at it. And then I did it. I didn't get hit with the deck or anything, but I found the good spots to push and took them. I played well enough to get paid at a rate of right around $50/hour, which, in a $1/2 no-limit hold'em game is not too shabby.
Cardgrrl has written forcefully on several occasions about the feeling that results from this kind of cash-game grinding work (and let's not kid ourselves--it is work). See, for example, here and here. In fact, come to think of it, I wrote a similar post about a year ago, and rereading it just now I still like what I had to say there. Having a sufficiently even keel to recover from that kind of early knock-down is one of the necessary traits for long-term success in this game, and I take a measure of pride that on most days I possess that characteristic in pretty decent quantities.
Of course, it's a lot nicer when I can avoid falling into a hole early in the session. But some holes can't be avoided. When I'm in one, it's good to know that I have both the technical and emotional wherewithal to climb out of it and walk away a winner in spite of what was thrown my way.
Last week I came in second in the Mookie. Thus inspired, when on Tuesday night my pal Cardgrrl told me she didn't have any particular plans for tonight, I suggested we try playing the Mookie again. She agreed. Much to my surprise, I won the thing! To make it even better, Cardgrrl came in second!
And yes, it genuinely was a surprise. I was short stack on the bubble and was just sure that I was going to wind up busto with nothing to show for it. At that point, Cardgrrl and one other player had such dominating chip stacks that I despaired of being able to end the tournament well. (It would be embarrassing, I'm afraid, to reveal the gloomy, fatalistic--and, well, let's face it, grumpy--comments that I was sending Cardgrrl via our IM chat while we played.) But I got lucky in a few key spots and ended up not only surviving the bubble, but knocking out both the 4th- and 3rd-place finishers, thus entering heads-up play with Cardgrrl with a big (just over 3:1) chip lead on her.
Actually, Cardgrrl was chip leader through most of the entire tournament, starting just a few hands into it when she doubled up with QQ versus AK. I think that after that point she was never out of either first or second spots on the leaderboard for the entire tournament (except very briefly when we were down to three), which is a pretty impressive accomplishment.
There's not a lot to report on. It's not like I played so phenomenally well that I want you all to pore over my amazing, brilliant play. But there were a few highlights.
I lost this hand to the deuce-four. I was drawing dead from the time the cards were dealt, obviously.
This may have been the most satisfying hand of the tournament, because I knocked out one of the two rude jerks from last week. He bet, I raised, he called. On the flop he check-raised me all-in. Easy call. What's that they say about revenge being a dish best served cold?
Then late in the game I lost yet another hand to the deuce-four, this time its power being compounded by being in crubs, which got there, naturally. This was all-in on the flop. I flopped two pair, which usually in three-handed play would be practically a guaranteed winner. But deuce-four looks at two pair and just laughs at its puniness. The hand is so powerful that sometimes it works even for those troglodytes and heathens who refuse to believe in it.
Embedded below is an animated replay of the final hand of three-way action, followed by the short (14 hands) heads-up portion of the match, for your viewing enjoyment. Nothing too exciting, though, I'll warn you.
Once again, anybody who suspected that Cardgrrl and I would soft-play each other because of our friendship need only review the hand histories from the bubble play on. I was short-stacked and she was trying to knock me out when any sort of opportunity arose for it. It was scratch and claw. A critical moment, in fact, was when I shoved from the big blind with A-5 offsuit after she raised from the small blind with what she later told me had been 8-8. She folded after a long think. Had she called, she probably would have won and knocked me out on the bubble. [Edit: I got this wrong. See comments.]
This probably sounds peculiar to people not in the poker world, but I'm proud to have as a close friend somebody who has enough integrity to take her best shots at me every time. I wouldn't want it any other way. I was fortunate to come out on top tonight, though that's not usually the case.
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
Fortunately for me, most days that I play poker I still actually enjoy it. After three years, I'm still not feeling burned out. I like playing, and on any given day I will basically keep playing until the game goes bad, I'm feeling too tired to continue, or I just feel like I want to go home and do something else.
There are days, though, when, for whatever reason, it feels like a grind and I'm just putting in the hours to collect the money. I don't hate the work, but I'm not really having fun, either. Which is, I suppose, how most of the world's population feels about their work most of the time. When I'm having a day like that, my tendency is to set some arbitrary goal for income for the day (usually $100 or $200 or $300--the amount depends on how ambitious and energetic I feel, how the bankroll has been doing lately, how pleasant the poker environment is, and other intangible factors) and call it quits when I get there. I very much like Tommy Angelo's advice: "[I]t's okay to quit while citing this to yourself as the reason: I want to have fun. I am not having fun. So I will stop this unfun activity, now." (See here.)
Yesterday was one of those days. I was at Mandalay Bay again. I made the first $100 fairly quickly--$70 in the first hand, in fact--so I decided that when I got to a $200 profit I'd call it a day, go home, and finish watching a Netflix movie that I was in the middle of.
About two hours into the session I counted my stack after winning a pot and found that I was up by $199. So close. Just one more pot and I'm done, I told myself.
But I lost the next one, and was then at +$183. I thought about leaving, but it felt like it would be lazy to quit short of my goal--like I hadn't really put in my honest day's work. So I kept going.
I lost the next pot, too, and was down to about +$160. Now I was annoyed because of the extra time it was going to take me to grind back to where I wanted to be. But the table was soft, I wasn't especially tired, and there wasn't anything I really needed to be doing anywhere else, so I decided to put my nose to the grindstone for a while longer.
Grindstone? That's the wrong word. Millstone is what I should have said, because there was one tied around my neck and I was sinking. Next time I counted, I was at +$120 or so, then +$101 (I remember that one exactly), then about +$85.
Just. Could. Not. Win. An. Effin'. Pot.
As far as I could tell, nothing had changed. The table had not suddenly gotten tougher. I had not gone on tilt and started seeing promise in trash hands or making desperate calls. My most objective assessment (though I recognize that one's ability to analyze these things deteriorates and may not always be reliable) was that it was just a bad streak: my draws not getting there, opponents' second-best starting hands catching up, being dealt my best hands in worst position, etc.
So I shrugged it off the best that I could and kept playing.
And I kept losing.
+$85, +$60, +$35 came and went. I finally crashed down through the break-even point.
I reassessed, still felt reasonably good about the EV of the situation, so kept going.
Long story short, I bottomed out at about -$80. I seriously thought about quitting then, because this trend showed no signs of reversing. I still couldn't see that there was anything in particular that was wrong. However, I have enough experience with poker to know that sometimes there is something that is adversely affecting me in some insidious manner and I just can't diagnose it in myself until later, in retrospect, when I'm removed from the immediate situation. I was therefore wondering if this was another of those cases, and, if so, whether I should just take my loss and run away before losing the rest of my stack.
Fortunately, right about then, I finally won the first meaningful pot of the last couple of hours, and was back to about -$20. That gave me some sense of confirmation (rightly or wrongly) that I was OK to continue at least for a while more. And, sure enough, I soon thereafter hit another winner that took me back over the most critical psychological threshold. I left with a big $4 profit to show for my 4 1/2 hours of work.
I could have stayed longer, but I had enough uncertainty about whether there was something I wasn't perceiving about my own play or about the situation that I thought discretion was the better part of valor. There's always another game another day. So I left technically a winner for the day, but, of course, feeling like I had actually lost $195. Which sucks.
My buddy Cardgrrl recently had a similar night. As her readers know by now, a few months back she set up for herself an incentive plan to help her get up from the table when she has won enough to be content with. This was to avoid the awful feeling that results from giving it all back. Last week in a cash game she had bought in for $200. Her incentive plan involves doubling the buy-in, so when she was at about +$180, she texted me to say that she should be done and heading home soon. But it was not to be. Just like me, things started heading south. If I remember correctly, over the next few hours she lost not only the accumulated profit but the original buy-in, too. (If I have that wrong, Cardgrrl, my apologies--the days all start to run together in memory after a while.) Had she been content with a $180 profit, instead of chasing that last $20, it would be in her pocket now.
These stories aren't told as criticism of either my own decision or Cardgrrl's decision to stay and win a little bit more. These things just happen sometimes. In both cases, staying was presumably +EV, and just didn't work out as expected. In both cases, the next pot could just as easily have gone my way (or hers) as the other, the goal would have been met, and there would have been joy in Mudville.
That's the thing about poker sessions--kind of like with the stock market, you can't ever tell where the peak is until after it has passed. Especially when playing no-limit, the next pot could double or triple your money, or, conversely, leave you staring at the felt, facing the awful decision whether to rebuy or go home loser for the day, and wishing you had quit one hand earlier. And on the other side of the equation, it's entirely possible that packing up for the day after hitting some arbitrary amount of win is a mistake because the next hand would have doubled your profit for just three more minutes of work. You just never know. There have been plenty of times that I've kicked myself for not leaving when it first occurred to me that I should, but there have also been plenty of times when I've gone on to win a lot more money after that point, and ended up thinking, "Good thing I didn't listen to myself!"
Most of the time I don't have any particular need to employ a stop-loss or stop-win mechanism. (I'm well aware of the arguments for and against such devices, but don't feel like engaging in that discussion at the moment.) But at least for the foreseeable future, I think that when I'm having a "poker is just a grind at the office" kind of day and I have set some arbitrary income amount, I'm going to remember the sting of last night's cost of chasing that last damned dollar, and be willing to cut things short when I get within shouting distance of whatever that amount is.
I attended some of the 2008 NBC National Heads-Up Championship at Caesars Palace, and wrote up a post about it here. Included were a few video clips I shot of hands being played out. I posted them on YouTube, then embedded them in the blog post.
Well, yesterday YouTube notified me that one of the clips--with Mike Matusow eliminating Tom Dwan--had become very popular. They were inviting me to share in the revenue from ads placed next to it.
This puzzled me, because there's nothing special about that hand or the little video I shot of it. So I went to YouTube to check out the viewing stats:
Good Lord! The things has been watched 122,000 times!
This completely boggles my mind. I have no idea why it has been hit so often. None of the others that I did at the same time is over 30,000--and even that number startles me.
I didn't know it, but I guess I'm just about the next best thing to the Numa Numa kid!
To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.
Answer: City Center (Ha! I cheated, using a shot of a casino that isn't even open yet! My game--I get to make and break the rules whenever I feel like it! :-) Thanks to my friend Cardgrrl for snapping this picture as we drove by the place on I-15 in August.)
Monday, October 05, 2009
My friend Shamus just put up an interesting post weaving together thoughts about the new Ricky Gervais movie, "The History of Lying," the soon-to-be-released James McManus book on the history of poker, and the role of lying in the game of poker.
These are the two paragraphs that primarily triggered the desire to comment here:
That said, notice how McManus characterizes “good poker” in the
above-quoted passage, which includes hiding one’s tells and knowing how to
bluff. You can’t play poker without lying, even when you aren’t cheating. The
game doesn’t work without it.
In fact, if you think about it, the ability to lie (and to suss out others’
lies) is pretty much what we’re talking about when we argue for the “skill” of
poker. Sure, as McManus notes, “calculating pot odds and value bets” is part of
“good poker,” too. But knowing those things is hardly sufficient. One has to be
able to lie, and lie well, to succeed.
If I'm reading Shamus correctly, he is categorizing bluffing as lying. He would hardly be the first. I've heard this said many times.
I've never felt right about it, though. I would certainly agree that one cannot succeed at poker without being deceptive about one's down cards. That sometimes involves convincing an opponent that one is stronger than is really true (bluffing), sometimes that one is weaker than is really true (slow-playing). But I do not think that this constitutes lying.
Standard dictionary definitions of lie, in the verb form, consistently involve speaking. See, e.g., here. This seems to me a little narrow, since one can obviously also lie in writing. In the noun form, the definitions mostly involve the word statement. A lie is a statement, whether written or spoken.
I think that's the source of my discomfort with the categorization of deceptive poker play as lying: There is no statement being made--at least not necessarily. I virtually never speak during a poker hand. Some people do, and of course I've heard players utter direct lies about their cards and their thoughts, both during and after a hand.
I don't do that. If somebody asks me what I had, I duck the question. I have several stock responses: "If I answered you, I'd just lie about it anyway" (which is basically true). "Sorry, I can't tell you that." "I think I'd better keep that to myself." Etc.
Two of my most common stock responses are, "Gee, now I can't remember," and "Aces, of course. I only play aces." Both are said with such an exaggerated tone of voice and facial expression such that it is unmistakable that the words are false. That is, the listener will know without a doubt that I'm not telling the truth. This isn't lying, exactly, since there is no intent to deceive, which is the sine qua non of a lie.
My point, though, is that not everything that is deceptive is a lie. I would go further and say that not everything that is deceptive is dishonest. Those who argue to the contrary (and I have had this exact conversation any number of times) usually say something like, "If you make a pot-sized bet when you have nothing, it's a lie, because you're telling your opponent that you have something that you don't actually have." I disagree. I don't think that is either the only or the most natural way to characterize such a bet. I think it can just as accurately be understood to be saying, "I don't think your hand is strong enough that you'll be willing to call a bet of this amount." That is an absolutely true statement, so if a bluff can be considered to constitute a statement at all (as necessary for it to potentially be a lie), it is not necessarily a false or deceptive one.
Similarly, checking the nuts could, I suppose, be considered a form of lie if that action is understood to say, "I have nothing." But surely that's far from the only possible message being conveyed. I think it is more accurate to understand a check to be saying simply, "I decline to bet right now." Again, that is an absolutely true statement.
Put another way, every check or bet is, by nature, ambiguous. Ambiguity is not lying. It is not dishonest.
Based on those considerations, I reject the claim that lying is a necessary part of good poker.
But let me take this opportunity to go beyond the question of whether betting actions constitute lying, which is just a debate about definitions and semantics, and talk more generally about the role of lying in the play of a poker game.
I have kind of a strange and, admittedly, not terribly consistent attitude about lying at the poker table. First, I virtually never lie about my hand or what I was thinking or doing--i.e., about what's going on in the game. As mentioned previously, I prefer to shut up about it, and dodge any questions directed my way. If I decide I want somebody to know what cards I had, I will show the cards. If I don't want people to know, I won't tell them anything. I suppose there probably have been a few occasions when I did tell an outright lie about what I had, but they are so few and far between that I really can't remember the last time it may have happened.
This decision on my part is, I think, an extension of how I see lying in life in general. I've told enough lies and gotten into enough trouble from it over the years that I've decided just not to go down that road any more. I lie very rarely these days, and I can't think of any life situation in which I tell a lie that has any significant consequences. On the rare occasions that I lie at all, it's most often to avoid unnecessary complications. For example, yesterday I stopped at a Walgreen's pharmacy to get a flu shot. Among the questions they asked was, "Are you taking any medications?" Well, the fact is that I am, but I know that none of them pose any problem or contraindication to getting the shot, and if I listed them, it would take more time, possibly lead to other irrelevant questions and diversions, while in the end not benefitting either me or Walgreen's. So I lied and said, "No." I would not give the same lie if the situation were, e.g., that I was about to undergo general anesthesia for surgery, in which case the need for the caregivers to know what's in my system has more potentially serious consequences, and is therefore worth disclosing.
I am not comfortable lying. It makes me squirm internally, though I probably have a good enough "poker face" by now that I'm better at disguising any associated body language than most people are. (There's a show on the Fox network called "Lie to Me," which stars Tim Roth as an expert human lie detector. I watched the first few episodes last season. It had some interesting stuff about how people behave when they're lying, but I thought there was too much sameness from one installment to the next. It's kind of a thin premise for sustaining interest over the long haul, it seems to me.) For the most part that feeling extends to the poker table. I don't like to lie. I'd rather not do it if it can be avoided without too much bother. When playing poker, it's usually easy to be able to avoid it, so I do--at least insofar as it comes to the poker itself.
But, like I said, I'm not completely consistent on this subject. Earlier this year I confessed here about the standard BS line I give people when they ask about my job. This is part strategic, but also partly because I just feel like my personal life is nobody's business, so if they go probing about things that they have no call to know about, they get what's coming, which is useless information and a distracting shower of verbal chaff. If I were perfectly consistent, I suppose I would handle this the same way as when asked about what my cards were, with a clear deflection. But social norms being what they are, one's career is generally considered fair game to ask about. It would therefore strike a discordant and antisocial note to tell the truth frankly, which would be, "None of your business." So I lie. It avoids complications and avoids social awkwardness at the same time.
There is yet another type of lie--at least arguably--in which I will engage while playing poker, and that is saying something like, "Nice hand" to a donkey who played horribly and got lucky. Obviously this is strategic, because I want him to continue playing that badly. I think this is less clearly lying than things like baldly naming cards other than what one really had when asked. That's because it's ambiguous: it could be taken to mean, "Nice outcome you got there," or, "Lucky catch on the river." In other words, it doesn't necessarily mean, "You played that well," which would be a clear lie if said in so many words. Again, ambiguity is not lying. If the listener understands from such a vague comment that he is being complimented on his play, well, that's an interpretation to be found only in his mind, not in my words.
So that's my somewhat complicated, odd, and admittedly inconsistent attitude about lying at poker. Others bring to the table a very different ethic. My friend Cardgrrl, for instance, openly admits that when playing poker, "I lie my ass off." (See here.) She has also mentioned a few times how during the latter portion of her most recent Vegas visit she adopted a new, experimental table persona, which involved a fair amount of lying about herself, her career, and her poker experience. (See here and here.) I don't suppose she would mind me revealing that she has also privately warned me that when we're playing together, I'm just as fair game for being lied to at the poker table as any other opponent. Outside of the poker room, though, I know that she is a scrupulously honest person.
A few weeks ago I told her about a situation in which a player I respected was leaving the game, and I took the opportunity to tell him privately about the only big hand in which we had confronted each other. I had raised, not sure whether he had a bigger pocket pair than mine or two unmatched overcards. He folded a higher pair face up. (I think it was queens to my 10s on an all-baby flop, but I no longer remember for sure.) He had been deeply curious about whether he had done the right thing, so as he was leaving I took him aside and told him the truth. I did so because I both liked and respected him. Cardgrrl, I think it fair to say, was at least puzzled and possibly even shocked by this. She told me she would have lied and told him he made a good laydown.
That's just not my style. It's rare that I will take an action such as I did with this guy (it has happened maybe three or four times in my three years here). Most often I will just leave people hanging, forever wondering whether their decision was correct or not. But if I'm going to tell him one way or the other, it will be the truth, not a lie.
I want to be clear that I don't condemn Cardgrrl's attitude here. In fact, I think it's undoubtedly the most common one among poker players. I've heard Daniel Negreanu, for example, say that he considers openly lying at the table, even to his best friends, to be just part of the game. I fully acknowledge that the prevailing view is that the poker table is a zone in which the usual social opprobrium about lying is suspended, and anything goes, on the truth/fiction scale.
I just haven't been able to bring myself to adopt that point of view and the conduct that would go with it. This isn't because I'm morally or ethically superior in any way. I just find it both personally uncomfortable and almost completely unnecessary (with the two general categories of exceptions I detailed above). What's more, I have a nagging fear that if I became more comfortable and free with lying during poker, it could easily start to spill over into other areas of my life--especially considering how much time I spend at poker. That's an outcome I'd like to avoid.
So, to wrap up a post that is already about five times longer than I planned when I started writing it, I respectfully submit my disagreement with my friend Shamus about lying being an intrinsic part of poker, both from the standpoint of whether betting actions constitute lies and whether it is necessary to tell lies verbally (though, in fairness, he didn't directly say anything about the latter).
Comments, as always, are welcome. And I ain't lying.
The Mandalay Bay poker room is rather notorious for its quirky set of house rules. (See posts here and here and here for examples.) Today I noticed another.
Most must-move games operate first in/first out. That is, the person who has been at the table the longest is forced to move to the regular game when a seat opens up there. Mandalay does it backwards: The person who has been there the longest is given the option of moving, but is not forced to move; if they go down the whole list and nobody wants to go, the last person to have joined the table is the one that will be required to move.
I like this! It is, so far, the only one of the idiosyncratic house rules at Mandalay that I think is superior to the standard procedure. Those who arrived first should be given the option to move or stay; they have the most invested in having observed opponents and having created a table image.
I had noticed the floor staff operating like this at Mandalay previously, but I thought they were just kind of casually bending the rules. Today a comment from the supervisor clued me in that this is, in fact, what their protocols dictate.
Is there any reason this idea should not be implemented universally? I can't see any down side to it. It seems like the way things should be everywhere.
Mike Caro, in Caro's Most Profitable Hold'em Advice, p. 272.
7. When You're Not in a Pot and Don't Feel Like Observing--Don't
I believe that one of the main reasons players don't learn observational skills, and thereby sacrifice profits, is that observing constantly is agony. It's better to let your mind rest when it wants to rest. Always observe when you're in a hand. Otherwise, when it's comfortable to observe do; when it's not, don't.
Yes, you can force yourself to concentrate more and play a little better for short periods. But most people will find that they burn out quickly and are unable to play longer sessions in profitable games if they force concentration when their minds rebel. I believe that in those long, profitable games, you should let your brain relax between hands whenever it wants to.
A woman sitting next to me at Mandalay Bay today had this unusual card protector: two 9mm cartridges welded or soldered together.*
By this means, whenever an opponent asks what she has, she can say, "I've got bullets," and not be lying.**
* You can see by the pierced primers that they have been fired, then reloaded, presumably without gunpowder. If you're knowledgeable about guns, you can even tell that they were fired in a gun with a traditional hammer (e.g., a Browning Hi-Power), rather than in one with an internal striker (e.g., a Glock). This is because the indentation in the primer is round rather than rectangular. If you're truly a gun nut, the kind who loads his own ammunition in the basement, you might even notice that these rounds were badly made and overpressured, probably with an excessive load of powder; the primers are flattened and backed out. If I had made these, I would throw the batch away. Continuing to use them risks blowing up an expensive gun. They're probably pretty safe to use as card protectors, however.
** The shooting enthusiast in me, though, wants to be sure that all understand that it is erroneous, though terribly common, to refer to loaded cartridges as bullets. A bullet is the projectile component of the cartridge, not the cartridge itself.