Friday, April 16, 2010

Beware the newbie

Remember the old Mr. Magoo cartoons? Virtually blind, he would stumble (or even drive) into all sorts of incredibly dangerous situations, completely oblivious to what was going on around him, and yet miraculously emerge unscathed, with no clue as to what a narrow escape he had just had. Others around him, though, weren't so lucky. They tended to get hit by all the things that missed Mr. Magoo.

New poker players can be a lot like that. I was reminded of that fact last night while playing at the Stratosphere. After I had been there just a short time, two guys wearing matching company shirts sat down in the seats on my left. They were in town for the big National Association of Broadcasters convention. I chatted them up a bit, and learned that their company makes equipment for institutional video instruction. The guy two spots to my left was a pretty typical poker tourist, having played enough to know what's going on. But he brought along a co-worker who was absolutely clueless. He did not know what beat what, how to tell when it was his turn, what the blinds were, or anything else--as green as green can be.

This is not meant to be demeaning. Everybody has to be new and clueless when starting out at just about any undertaking, and poker is no different. He was just there to have fun, which is fine with me. I went out of my way to help him have a good time, congratulating him when he won, saying, "See how easy this game is?", giving him little pointers about protocol and rules, etc.

An aside: Before I forget, I have to add a stern word of condemnation for one of the other players who tried to take advantage of how this guy never knew what his options were. He tried to tell him what he had to do ("Bet two red chips!") while in a hand with him, to manipulate him to his own advantage. He did it smilingly, but it seemed clear to me he was trying to use the new guy's inexperience to get him to make mistakes. This not only flagrantly violated the one-player-to-a-hand rule, but was just plain despicable angle-shooting. I was shocked that the dealer didn't intervene. I did what I could, quietly telling the new guy, "You should ignore advice from him. Just always ask the dealer what your options are and make your own decision." But a pox on him and his house. Fortunately, and fittingly, it backfired, and the newbie had the best of it every time, even when he just did what the jerk suggested.

Back to the story. He bought in for $60, and won the first hand he played, quite by accident, and had about $70 in front of him when the most hilarious hand of the night transpired. Newbie limped in, as he almost always did, then called a small raise from the player to my right. The flop was K-7-2. Newbie bet $5 and got a call. Turn was a 4. Newbie bet $5 again. This time, the player on my right raised to $25. Newbie hemmed and hawed, but finally called.

The river was another 4. Newbie didn't realize he was first to act (he never knew). Finally the dealer told him the action was on him: "Check or bet?" Newbie looked horrified at the thought of betting. He waved his hand in front of him the way one traditionally does to indicate "hold" to a blackjack dealer, and said, "No, it's too much." He wasn't facing a bet, so I took this to mean that he felt he had enough of his chips in the pot already and didn't want to be risking more. His opponent moved all-in. The dealer then had to explain to Newbie that he could either put all of the rest of his chips in or fold. He thought a while, then resignedly said, "Oh, all right," and called.

The other guy turned over Ac-4c, for rivered trips. He had obviously just been trying to bully the weak-appearing Newbie on the turn, and got incredibly lucky on the river.

Newbie's face dropped. He said, "Oh, wow, that's good." He had his cards in his hand, looking unsure what to do with them. Another player across the table said, "Turn your cards up." (This was completely improper, but we'll let it slide for now.) He did: pocket 7s, for a full house. It was the most perfect, though completely unintentional, slow-roll I've ever seen.

The table erupted in laughter. Newbie had no idea he had won, but he was delighted with the news and the pot.

None of us ever knew what to expect when he revealed his cards. His betting patterns were as inscrutible as his body language; he would bet $25 into a $10 pot on the flop, then $5 on the turn, with no rhyme or reason to it.

But in spite of that--or maybe because of it--he went on a tear. He won virtually every hand he contested, though he clearly had no idea whether he had the winner until the dealer announced it. He played for only about an hour, but racked up close to $300 in chips when he left. If ever there were beginner's luck, this guy had it.

About a month ago, I wrote about a player that acted like he was new to poker, but in whom I noticed some charteristics that were sufficiently inconsistent with that role to make me suspicious that I was witnessing an elaborate ruse. So trust me when I say that last night's Newbie was either genuinely what he appeared to be, or the most masterful actor since Sir Alec Guinness died. I would stake my net worth on the former.

A while later, the corporate twins had left, as had the guy who had unwisely tried to bully Newbie. Replacing him on my right was Newbie #2. He wasn't quite as raw as Newbie #1 had been, but still was pretty lost.

One hand I played against him perfectly illustrates the Mr. Magoo-like danger of such players. He was under the gun, I was second. I had a suited A-J, and just limped with it. (Yeah, I know, but spare me the lecture for now, please.) Then I called a raise to $15 from the button (yeah, I know again), as did Newbie #2 and one other, making the pot about $60. The flop was jack-high with no draws. I was tentatively planning on a check-raise, but the action checked all the way around. That made me think that the button probably had either an A-K or A-Q type hand or a pocket pair lower than jacks. Turn was a blank, and when Newbie #2 checked to me, I bet $40. The other two players folded. Newbie #2 debated with himself for a while, but finally called. The river was another apparent miss. Newbie #2 checked to me again. I bet $50. He again took at least a full minute before reluctantly making the call. I showed my top pair/top kicker. He let out a sigh of relief, said, "Whew!", and showed me his pocket queens.

That caught me completely off-guard. I would have been less surprised to see some junky low two pairs than that. I don't normally go crazy with TPTK. I'm well aware that it does not rank high in the pantheon of hands. But Newbie #2's entire being radiated weakness and fear. Given that unmistakable body language and the betting pattern, I had a high degree of confidence that my hand was best.

And that right there is the problem that newbies pose to more experienced players. They have no sense of where they are in a hand, no feel for how strong a hand should be to be the likely winner in any given situation. As a result, their betting and their tells give off false information--not because they're trying to be deceptive, but because they tend to grossly either underestimate or overestimate the strength of their holdings.

In this case, it worked to his advantage. If he had played his pocket queens in a more traditional, aggressive manner, it would have been much easier for me to fold at some point along the way, and he wouldn't have ended up with $105 of my money.

Of course, what makes newbies profitable is that they are just as inclined, on average, to overvalue hands as to undervalue them. They will call you down with third pair or ace-high, they will run bluffs in situations that have zero chance of success, etc. In the hand I lost, for example, that combination of appearance and betting sequence will far more often turn out to have been signifying that he held a jack with a lower kicker (J-K, J-Q, etc.), or something like pocket 10s, than the dominating queens.

You will frequently hear people say that they hate playing with novices because of how unreadable and unpredictable they can be, and prefer playing against better opponents. I understand the point: It is uncomfortable to play against people who give you no idea--or a false idea--of where you are in a hand. Still, people who say that are just crazy, or don't like money, because inexperienced players will tend to make far, far more mistakes (and more expensive mistakes) than experienced ones. They tend to be very profitable opponents, but you have to be prepared for all sorts of surprises at the showdown.

It can be a lot of fun to play with Mr. Magoo. Just watch out for the piano falling from the window above, because when it misses him, it's likely to hit you.


dbcooper said...

I agree Grump . I find the hardest players to play against are the ones that have no idea how good or bad their hand is. I would much rather play against experienced players at leat I usually know what I am up against.

Anonymous said...

I play in a regular monthly poker club. We do a tournament style and have this one guy who is not a newb but plays like it all the time. The money does not matter to him and he will play any two cards but in such a way you don't know what he will turn over. The havoc he creates is hiliarious.

He frustrates the other players to no end but I love it. I love it because he introduces a variance to the game.

Initially he frustrated me as well, but once I recognize his style of play, I adapted. The other players continue to complain since they lose pots to him when he is playing crap and gets the cards he is needs.

However, I hope to have him at my table after he busts a few players. Once in a while I will lose to him but most times I get a lot of chips off him. I try to get him to play cash games but he likes the tournaments only.

Anonymous said...

So the moral of the story is newbies win more often than experienced players? There goes the skill argument.