Saturday, January 08, 2011

Not as simple as it looks

My favorite magicians, Penn and Teller, have for decades had in their act a routine in which Teller does something that looks simple, but is actually difficult and intricate. He appears to crush out a cigarette, take out another and light it. But what's actually going on is a complex series of sleight-of-hand moves. Take a look:

I was reminded of this just now when watching Wednesday's Poker After Dark. Tom Dwan has A-5 and raises. Phil Galfond reraises with A-K. Dwan calls. The flop is 9-2-3. Galfond bets. Dwan raises all-in. Galfond tanks for about 30 seconds, then settles on a call. (You can watch the hand play out here; it's Wednesday's segment 3.)

We have all seen a zillion calls that superficially resemble this. Most of them come from bad players. Their thought process is no deeper than approximately this: "I have ace-king. I'm not getting many good hands. He might be bluffing. I think I have to go for it."

I think we can safely assume that Galfond's thought process was vastly more complex and nuanced. He knows Dwan's play very, very well, as they have played against each other for countless hours. He knows that Dwan has the positional advantage and a big chip lead in the tournament, and deduces that Dwan will be using those factors to force Galfond to difficult decisions. He obviously knows that it's possible that Dwan has a monster hand, such as a flopped set, or even a medium-strength hand such as A-9 for top pair/top kicker. But he runs some quick estimates about Dwan's range, how often he is bluffing with complete air, takes into consideration that it's a winner-take-all format (which requires taking more chances), checks the size of the pot and his stack, perhaps stares deep into Dwan's soul, and the end result of crunching all of that information is a conclusion that a call is a worthwhile gamble--paying off often enough to be worth going broke if he's wrong.

What I find fascinating is that the call made by the fishy amateur and the one made by the top pro look externally identical, but there is almost no similarity at all in what is actually taking place inside their heads. One is flailing wildly, with more hope than sense. The other is drawing upon his years of experience, his memory of the thousands of hands he has played against this opponent, the facts of the specific situation, some complicated math, and an incredibly well-honed intuition, using it all as inputs for a black-box algorithm so complex that the best poker software in existence would not be able to replicate it.

When you make a call for all your chips with ace-high, which thought process would we see if we could look inside your head?


Josie said...

Excellent and thoughtful post.

carl said...

That's one of the things I love about poker. The incredibly advanced, over-my-head play, and the completely boneheaded, what-were-you-thinking play end up looking the same to an external observer.

Even better is that sometimes, when I make such a play, I'm not sure which category it falls into. :)