Friday, March 12, 2010

Did I get leveled?

I played at Planet Hollywood last night. An hour or so into my session, we were joined by a new player. He brought only $60 in chips to the table, and minimum buy-in is $100. So first there was some delay in explaining to him why he had to get more chips. He was Asian, with a thick accent, and seemed inexperienced in how poker rooms work, so it all took some explaining and negotiating.

Once that was settled, he asked the dealer, "This is like video poker, right?" Because of his accent, nobody understood him at first. I think I was the first one to decipher his question (after the third iteration) and restate it for the dealer. The dealer understandably laughed, because the guy was smiling, as if he were asking this as an "I'm so dumb" joke. He answered sarcastically, "Yeah, just like video poker." This may seem unprofessional as I've told it, but I think everybody assumed the question was only in jest, so a jokey answer was not out of place. After all, if he were serious, then he was sitting down with $100 in play, not even knowing that he was playing against other players instead of against the house. I have never seen a player that green at a no-limit hold'em table. But then the guy followed it up by asking whether you trade in cards to try to make quads and royal flush like video poker. Then we understood that he was not kidding about his question, and the dealer appropriately changed the nature of his answer, and explained the whole process and structure of hold'em.

In fitting with never having played hold'em before, it took the player a couple of rounds to figure out about paying blinds, acting in turn, etc. He lost his first buy in making a couple of ridiculously bad calls. He left to hit the ATM and asked the dealer to save his seat. You would usually expect a couple of unkind comments about his skill level after he left the table, but there were none here, because this entire table was overall the most inexperienced I've ever sat at. It was like sitting at one of the instructional tables where they use tournament chips just to illustrate how the game works--except that we were playing for hundreds of dollars. I posted a couple of notes on Twitter about the table generally and this player in particular.

The guy came back with another $100. The game continued. He was chatting a lot with the player next to him. I missed most of it because of his nearly incomprehensible accent, the general noise level of the PH poker room, and the music in my earphones. I wish now I had listened in more, to have gotten more clues about his understanding of the game.

Over time, I began to wonder whether his whole extreme-newbie thing was an elaborate act. The first thing that was out of character was that he was rather facile with handling chips. I've spent a ridiculous amount of time observing players new to casino poker, and most often they keep their hands completely away from their chip stacks until they need to put money into the pot. There are exceptions, such as those with a lot of home game experience, but not many. I couldn't assume this Asian guy had home game practice, or else he wouldn't have mistaken hold'em for 5-card draw. But, I reasoned, maybe he played a lot of blackjack and became adept at handling chips there. On the other hand, not everything that I noticed him doing was consistent with how a blackjack player would handle chips. For example, most new players making a bet with, say, five chips will stack them neatly and push or place that stack just across the betting line. This guy, though, would casually lay such a stack across the felt with an apparently practiced motion that left the chips in a neat row. Hmmmm.

The second thing that drew my skepticism, though, was the relative speed with which he acted. Again, my experience with true beginners is that they take forever for even the simplest decisions. He didn't. He was able to come to very quick decisions about calls and folds and raises. For example, in the only pot of any size that I contested with him, I had 9-9, and the flop was 8-high. He bet $5. I raised to $20. When it got back to him, he didn't hesitate at all to move all in for an additional $56. I called, not putting him on a higher pair, since there had been no pre-flop raise. There are so many $1-2 players who will commit their stacks (especially relative small stacks like his) with just top pair in that spot that I thought a call was warranted. He turned over 10-10. I was immediately struck by the fact that he required no deliberation at all to make this all-in raise. If he were really playing hold'em for the first time, wouldn't he be expected to stop and think about whether he had the best hand? Of course, maybe he's just naturally an impulsive person. Or maybe he's just so green that it doesn't occur to him that his tens might be no good there. Still, it definitely caught my attention that he showed none of the mental wavering that is usually seen in inexperienced players.

He left after an hour or two, cashing out something around $350. I noticed that he knew, without asking, where to go to fetch himself a chip rack and how and where to cash out. Those are the kind of things that new players usually ask about, or at least you can see them turning their heads around as they try to figure it out without asking. Also, along the way, after taking a restroom break, he knew what to do when the dealer asked him whether he wanted to make up his blinds or wait; most new players would require specific instructions about what that meant.

As he was racking up, I realized that after the first buy-in, which he donked off badly, he had never got his chips in with the worst of it. His calls were correct. He raised where he should have. He folded to strength--and without hesitation. None of these things can be said for the play of a typical tourist hitting a Vegas poker table for the first time. Even the fact of him leaving when he was up, instead of staying to give it all back, was atypical for a new player.

I was left completely unsure of what I had witnessed. If the first part of his time at the table was an act, it was the most convincing one I've seen--including throwing away $100 as part of the gig. (Well, I guess I should qualify that. Obviously if somebody else has played the role of a rube so thoroughly that I never even suspected it was an act, that would have to top this performance. But I kind of doubt that. I'm pretty observant about picking up on clues and inconsistencies, and I'd like to think that I can sniff out the pretenders.) For 15 minutes or so, I was absolutely confident (and, I admit, salivating more than a little) that I was dealing with the first person I had ever seen sit down at a no-limit hold'em table not even knowing what hold'em was. But by the end of his session, I had seen enough from him that was not consistent with that status to have grave doubts.

My best guess in retrospect is that he is a more experienced than average player who decided to try the dumb role, but just couldn't pull it off for more than a short time. He hadn't thought through all of the things that mark inexperienced players as new and how to imitate them, and thus tipped his hand. I think it is unlikely that what I observed could be found in one who was genuinely so naive that he thought poker and video poker were the same game. But I'm still not entirely sure. It is well within the realm of possibility that he was just was he first appeared to be, and the traces of fluency and lack of hesitation that I saw were borne of a natural generalized confidence and/or aided by the booze he had been drinking, plus some experience at other games.

I feel like I've been in a real-world version of "To Tell the Truth." I'm not writing down his number on my card as the genuine article--i.e., the real inexperienced player--but without the reveal at the end of the show, I'll never know for sure.


carl said...

I think he really was experienced, and you hit the right things.

If his chip handling was from other casino games, he would have tried to color up, rather than knowing to get a rack.

And he wouldn't be able to (or even know to) spread his chips when moving them into the pot as you described.

And make up blinds? I have trouble with the make up blind and post-in rules, since it varies among the casinos I play at.

You're missing another possibility, apart from playing the rube for profit (from the game). IMOP style hijinks and prop betting.

Michael said...

I wouldn't be surprised if he was new, baccarat players can act very quickly and are constantly playing with chips as well and very comfortable with holding cards, especially on a large baccarat table. Not saying it's likely, but given the asian background it wouldn't surprise me.

BWoP said...

I agree with Carl on this one.

Also, on the occasions that I've played -EV games, dealers almost always immediately ask if I play poker based on how I play with my chips.

(Caveat: I've never been at a baccarat table, so I'm not familiar with how baccarat players play with chips.)

danm said...

no way ... definitely knew what he was doing. i had a buddy try to play that role in a tournament, and it worked until the final two tables when someone recognized him. fun little game to see how far you can pull off the how-you-play-this-game?

i wouldn't ever expect to see a baccarat player, experienced or not, sit down in a 1-2 game.

briguyx said...

The guy wouldn't have had to throw away $ 100 to prove he was new, as he would have seen the rest of the table to be as inexperienced as you did. His accent would have been enough to pull off being inexperienced. If he was from another country, I have no idea how popular hold 'em is in Singapore or Macau. He could have not known what he was doing at first, and then realized he had played the game on the internet.

Anonymous said...

"Also, along the way, after taking a restroom break, he knew what to do when the dealer asked him whether he wanted to make up his blinds or wait; most new players would require specific instructions about what that meant."

This really sticks out for me. I have played lots of live poker, and when a newbie shows up, the "what do I do because I missed me blinds" almost requires lots of explanation. And even the newbie who is trying to look experienced hits some kind of stumbling block here.

My read is that it was an act.

If it was an act, do you think it made him any extra money, Grump? Would you have been able to fold 9,9 against him if he had not done his little act?

Great post, as usual.

Rakewell said...

Yes, I think I would have folded 9-9 if I had then known about him what I knew by the time he left.