Monday, May 10, 2010

Showing and not showing, knowing and not knowing

I've fallen behind in blog reading over the past several days because I was using Safari as my RSS reader, and it has crapped out on me. I've made the switch to Google Reader, but it took a while, and now I have some catching up to do.

That's why I'm just now getting around to reading my friend Katkin's story about a recent hand in which a woman folded to his large bet, but got upset that he wouldn't show her his hole cards, as she requested. This triggers a whole bunch of only semi-collected thoughts on my part.

1. Mike Caro, not suprisingly, has given the whole question of whether and when to voluntarily show one's cards a great deal of thought. It's another subject that he has written about many times in many places, but most of it is summarized in an old essay he just put up on his web site a few days ago, here. The answer, as with most things in poker, is, "It all depends." It's all about the meta-game--manipulating opponents into making mistakes, manipulating their emotional states, manipulating your table image. Sometimes those goals are best furthered by showing, sometimes by not showing.

2. On one of the early seasons of the World Poker Tour, they did a little feature in which they asked a bunch of well-known pros what they thought of the voluntary showing of cards. Some were adamantly against it: "Never." Some were pretty casual about it. But I thought Daniel Negreanu had the best answer, which was, basically, "Sometimes--but always have a good reason for it."

3. I show sometimes without being asked, sometimes when asked. Again, it all depends. I can't say I'm as methodical about it as Caro advises, but there is at least some logic to it. It mostly depends on whether the nature of the table is such that I think I'll maximize my profits by inducing more calls or by inducing more folds.

4. I will occasionally show just one card. It's always the relevant one, though--e.g., the ace if there was an ace on the board. That is, I never show just the one blank hole card for the needling effect or to make people think I might have been bluffing when I wasn't.

5. I never, ever show just one player my cards. I firmly believe that the "show one, show all" principle confers on me an ethical obligation to be non-selective in revealing hole cards. I resent it when another player shows selectively, thereby forcing me to request the dealer to show the cards if I want equal access to the information he is giving away. I don't want to put others in that spot, so I either open the hand for all to see, or I don't show it to anyone.

6. About needling/irritating opponents: It's pretty rare that I will do so deliberately, but if somebody is of a temperament to get all hot and bothered over something as trivial as me not agreeing to show my cards when requested, let him start steaming. I won't go out of my way to provoke him, but if he has a hair-trigger personality to begin with, I usually won't try to assuage him. If he's prone to thinking I'm mean-spirited for not showing, fine, so be it. If he decides to target me with increased hostility and aggression as a result, bring it on--he will necessarily be making a strategic mistake, which I will hope to be able to take advantage of.

7. Pace Caro's perpetual advice about keeping everything light and fun and tension-free, I think there is definitely some psychological benefit to making opponents keep wondering. The more they are inclined to ruminate and wonder and stew over whether they made a good laydown, the less inclined I am to show. Once in a while, if I think an opponent will be tortured by not knowing, I will say, while mucking, "Sorry, you're just going to have to lose some sleep over that one." But that's a line I always deliver with a big smile.

8. I'm not a fan of the "You have to pay to see them" sort of comment when declining a request to show. Maybe it's just me, but I think it sounds hostile, and I don't like being affirmatively hostile. I think what bothers me about it is that it reminds the other players too explicitly that this is all about money. Of course they know that on some level, but I don't like that fact being pointed out too clearly. To the extent that I can participate in anybody's delusion that they're just playing for fun or for the competition, I'm glad to do so. And for the ones who really are playing for just the fun or competition, and genuinely don't care about the money, great--I don't want to get them changing their focus to the game being a series of monetary transactions. (For the record, of the large number of people who boast at the table that the money means nothing to them, I tend to believe about 1% of them.)

9. If somebody gives me the "Will you show if I fold?" line, I will either say nothing or reply, "I can't promise you that," as my default answers. But once in a while I agree to it. There's no specific formula to when I agree; it's kind of whimsical, depending on my mood, whether I like the person asking, how tough the game is, whether I'm winning or losing, etc.--plus, of course, the general strategic point mentioned above about how I want my advertising to go.

If I'm being asked to show after the hand is over, I will either just shake my head to decline or say, "I can't do that." Sometimes I'll even sweeten it with a little flattery: "You're too good a player to give extra information to." (That's sometimes even true.) But in that situation, I won't say anything unless I can do it in a pretty friendly, lighthearted way.

10. On the rare occasion that I'm in a big hand against a friend, I'm much more likely to show when it's over than I would be otherwise. I don't want unnecessary tension between us.

11. As far as I can recall, I have never asked an opponent to show his or her cards. As far as I can recall, I have never asked an opponent to tell me what he or she had. I don't see the point, since any answer is as likely to be a lie as the truth. I also don't want to give anybody else the satisfaction of having the power to either grant or decline my request. The more I project an image of not caring what he had, the better it is for me, I believe. It's also better for me to try my best not to care--a goal that would be frustrated by verbalizing a request.

There is a rare exception to that. Maybe once or twice a year, at most, after a long session, I will engage some specific player in a discussion of a key hand or two that we played. I only do this (1) away from the table, (2) when one or both of us is leaving for the day, (3) when it's a player I have come to respect, and (4) when I have some information about hands that he might want in trade for what I might want. I think I have done this sort of thing maybe four times in four years.

12. When I first became interested in poker, I bought Wilson Software's simulator program and worked with it a lot. In the lower levels of play, it gave you the option of looking at your opponents' hole cards after the hand was over. But when you moved to the most challenging setting, that option disappeared. After playing for quite a while at the lower settings, and getting into the habit of always looking, I found it immensely frustrating to try the highest level and not be able to find out whether I had done the right thing.

But I have since gotten used to not knowing. After all, in real poker one usually doesn't get the luxury of knowing, even in retrospect, what one's opponent held. That's just the way the game is.

If I were the woman in Katkin's story, reluctantly folding, I would tell myself something like this: "I think it is more likely than not that he had a better two pair, or possibly even A-10 for trips. It's possible that he was overplaying something like J-Q and I had him beat, but this game is soft enough that I don't need to put all my chips at risk in a marginal situation like that, when I'm not confident where I stand. There will be plenty of opportunities when I know I have way the best of it. I'll be content to wait for a better spot than that one was."

If he showed me a better hand, I'd just shrug and think, "That's about what I figured. OK, next hand."

If he showed me a decent but weaker hand, such as J-Q, I'd tell myself, "That's OK. Folding there was still reasonable, because most of the time I would have been in trouble. But it's good to know that he's capable of overplaying a hand like that, because it's a mistake he'll make again sometime when I have position and/or a stronger sense of being ahead, and I'll be able to stack him."

If he showed me a total bluff, I'd tell myself, "OK, pal, you got away with that one. But I just learned what you look like when you're bluffing, and unless you're much better than the average $1/2 player at camouflaging yourself, I'll have a better read on you next time."

I don't suppose my actual thoughts are quite that well-formed, but that's the general idea. I am a big believer in self-soothing via internal monologues. I'd love to be able not to think about it at all, instantly let it go, and be completely focused on the next hand. But my mind control isn't that perfect, so I resort to this kind of self-talk, which helps me more quickly close the mental book on that hand and get fully back in the moment.

I have argued before, and continue to believe, that it really doesn't matter what your opponent had, in terms of whether you feel good about the decision you made. It's a game of incomplete, imperfect information. You make your best judgment call and go with it. Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong. All that matters, for profit, is that you're right a higher percentage of the time than your opponents--especially in the biggest pots, when whole stacks are on the line. After-the-fact presentation of additional information to which you could not have had access when you had to make the decision is perhaps useful for the next encounter with that opponent, but it shouldn't affect how you feel about the decision you made any more than rabbit-hunting to discover whether you would or would not have made your draw. It's pointless to either congratulate or berate yourself retrospectively for not knowing what was unknowable.

I'm struggling with finding a clever wrap-up line here. Sorry, can't come up with one.


Dan said...

"clever wrap-up line" can be found somewhere else on the blog. Maybe you will find it, maybe not...

Glenn said...

Grump this was just a fantastic post. Thank you very much.