Saturday, February 05, 2011

Adapt or die

This week I started reading a book my sister gave me for Christmas: The Gun by C. J. Chivers. I first learned about this book just before its publication date in October, when the author appeared for a long, fascinating interview on NPR's "Fresh Air," which you can listen to here.

The book is a history of the AK-47, and how dramatically this one weapon changed the way that wars are fought. As an owner of two of the myriad derivatives of the original form (I have a Romanian-made semi-automatic rifle chambered for .223, and a Russian-made semi-automatic 12-gauge shotgun variant, the Saiga-12), I was eager to learn more about this story. However, the book's first 140 pages are spent laying out the 80 or so years of history of automatic weapons prior to Kalashnikov. This was completely unfamiliar ground to me.

What I found most interesting was how astonishingly slow even the most sophisticated armies of the day were to adopt their tactics to the new weaponry. Chivers asserts (page 113):

Military bureaucracies, as they considered incorporating machine guns into their armies, dawdled indecisively in every Western country but Germany. The thinking was fully blinkered. Senior officers recognized the effects of withering bursts of fire upon massed combatants, having heard reports of the felling of heaps of Arabs and Africans who advanced in formation toward machine guns. They were somehow unable to accept what might happen when such fire was directed against their own ranks.

Lest the reader disbelieve Chivers's claim that the world's most sophisticated military commanders were incredibly slow to figure this stuff out, he spends the next 25 pages providing the proof. His mention of "Arabs and Africans" is in reference to stories he has already told about how European colonizers in the 1880s and 1890s effectively annihilated more primitive armies of vastly larger numbers by simply mowing them down as they charged forward with their spears. It was slaughter of an efficiency and ferocity these opponents could not have even imagined when heading into the battle, with those at the rear having to clamber over piles of the bodies of the dead in order to take their turns at being gunned down.

So military commanders certainly understood the power of automatic weapons. But, as Chivers said, it somehow just could not sink into their skulls that their own men were just as vulnerable. In 1904, the Japanese skirmished with the Russians in Manchuria. Even after seeing wave after wave of men cut down, never getting anywhere near the Russian machine guns, the Japanese commanders kept ordering more troops to follow them until there were none left.

OK, so the Japanese are rather notorious for cherishing suidical acts of "courage" in warfare. They're an exception to how modern armies dealt with opponents' automatic weapons, right?

Nope. In World War I, despite having literally decades of experience with machine guns, the mighty British army was still training each recruit that the bayonet affixed to the end of his single-shot rifle was his most important weapon; practice with it constituted the majority of pre-deployment training.

Two years into the first major machine-gun war, the British had still not changed the basic tactic that they had used to attack an entrenched enemy for as long as anybody could remember: sending masses of men charging at the defended positions. This was done knowing that those in front would suffer high casualty rates. But given how long it took to reload older rifles, a sufficiently large number of soldiers would eventually be able to overrun the enemy. In retrospect, it is blindingly obvious that this same approach was sheer folly when the enemy had guns that spat out hundreds of rounds per minute. Somehow, though, this self-evident truth just could not penetrate the concrete, old-fashioned thinking of senior military types, and they kept trying the same thing over and over again, despite repeated heavy losses and little gain.

The insanty reached its zenith on July 1, 1916, in the Battle of the Somme:

Watching from behind their machine guns, German soldiers were amazed. They had weathered fear and frustration through the shelling, waiting for the immense attack they knew was coming. As they peered over their parapets in the sudden quiet, the sights astonished them: thousands upon thousands of men, strolling exposed in neat lines.... "The English came walking, as though they were going to the theatre or as though they were on a parade ground," one German soldier said. "We felt they were mad." Another saw waves in which the men were so densely packed they "were like trees in a wood." Some of the Germans whooped. They were professional soldiers, the product of a German military system in which conscription was nearly universal.... They had never seen such targets before. The time for killing was at hand. One German machine-gun team alone would fire at least twenty-five thousand rounds.

In this withering fire, a Yorkshire battalion, Company A of the Seventh Green Howards, lost 108 of 140 men in minutes. An even more galling destruction fell upon the Tyneside Irish, a brigade of three thousand men, which had to cross almost a mile of open ground behind its own front-line trenches just to reach the British edge of No-Man's-Land. It took twenty minutes under fire to complete this march. Bullets slammed into the soldiers the entire way. The surviving Irish were ordered on, to press the attack across five hundred yards of open space.... Of the three thousand men who had stepped off, fifty fighting men remained. The New Army, Lord Kitchener's grand two-year project to replace the battered British Expeditionary Force with volunteers from all walks of British life--the mines, the factories, the clerks, the schoolhouses--was being cut down in an hour. The Dervishes had fought this foolishly. So had Japanese soldiers, who saw duty in death. Now the British army was doing it, too.

A darker hour for England would be hard to measure. By one estimate, 30,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded in the first sixty minutes. The midday tally reached 50,000. By the end of the day, 21,000 British soldiers were dead, 35,000 wounded, and 600 more had been taken prisoner. The survivors were emotionally devastated. One lance corporal, a signaler who had not been assigned to advance, watched his friends try to cross, only, he said, to be "mown down like meadow grass." He stayed back, weeping.

(Chivers, pp 133-134.)

This colossal failure finally, finally caught the attention of the Allied commanders. It slowly dawned on them that maybe charging massed men across open fields into the teeth of machine gun batteries wasn't the best idea.

Why this historical reflection? Well, even those who have disdain for overly casual or frequent analogies between poker and life in general must admit that poker and war have much in common, and much to learn from each other. One particular truth that they share is this: If you do not adapt your tactics to those of your opponents, you will be defeated.

I see this as having both micro and macro applications. In the micro setting, you have to adapt to the players currently at the table. As an extreme example, I remember a guy who used to come in to the Hilton poker room occasionally. His approach was extreme: He would buy in for $100, then repeatedly move all-in blind--without looking at his cards--until he had either built up $400-$500, or had lost about the same amount. If the former, he would move to an aggressive but at least fairly rational style of play. If the latter, he'd laugh it off, decide it wasn't his day, and go home.

This immensely frustrated some of the other players--particularly the older, nittier crowd. It both offended them as the "wrong" way to play poker, and intimidated them. Their desire for a slow, conservative, low-variance approach was utterly frustrated by this tactic. In the presence of such a wild player, it is clearly a mistake to respond by tightening up even further, but that is exactly what they would do. They would welcome the chance to call his blind all-in, but only if they had aces or kings in the hole. But by doing so, they left lots of money on the table. In order to profit from that extreme degree of looseness, you have to loosen up yourself. A hand like K-J offsuit is a substantial favorite over a random hand, and one you should be willing to take against him (at least one on one; having other players also calling complicates things, however).

As more familiar examples, if you repeatedly try to bluff a calling station, you are just giving away money. If you back down to an aggressive, bluff-happy bully every time, you might as well just hand him your wallet and go spend your time doing something more enjoyable than watch your stack of chips erode.

Maybe the poker situation that most resembles the history related by Chivers is the unwillingness to let go of pocket aces or kings in the face of unmistakable evidence that they are no longer good. When the table rock calls you on the flop and check-raises you on the river when a third diamond falls, aces dwindle in stature to nearly nothing. But time after time you can see people react to such a counterattack by stubbornly moving all-in, throwing good money after bad, refusing to accept the reality of the situation. They might as well be a British recruit trying to charge an entrenched German machine gun with a bayonet.

Then there is the macro sense of adaptation, too. Poker is a game that evolves over time, and one must change with it. The first poker strategy book I ever read (because of its prominence in James McManus's Positively Fifth Street, which was the first poker book of any kind that I read) was Cloutier and McEvoy's Championship No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold'Em, published in 1997. Consider some of the advice that the authors give on pages 152-156 about how to play ace-king. (The "I" here is clearly Cloutier, with McEvoy acting sort of as his amanuensis.)

Say that you have raised with Ace-King from a front spot and one or two people have called. The board comes with 9-7-3, three suits. What do you do with your A-K? I don't care whether or not I've raised before the flop, I never bet A-K when the flop comes three rags....

By betting you have shut off your opportunity to get a free turn card and
possibly make your hand. If you check-check, you have found out information without it costing you anything. An aggressive player like Phil Hellmuth [Grump notes: It is a separately amazing thing that Hellmuth--now taunted for being overly passive--was once considered to be an unusually aggressive player.] may have a tendency to fire on the flop head-up; that's his style of play. But you can burn up a lot of chips that way. I don't continue with A-K unless I flop a hand that relates to it in some way, a hand with some strength in it....

Now, let's change the scenario: The action is two-handed, but you're sitting behind the other player.... The flop comes three rags and your opponent checks to you. You don't bet: You check right back at him. That way, you're not shutting yourself out. For example, what will you do if he checks, you bet, and then he raises you? What are you going to do with your hand then? So, you may as well take this opportunity that his check has given you and get a free card by checking along....

A lot of players will fire at the pot one time in these types of situations. When they see a baby flop, here they come! But I think they're making a mistake when they do that: You have to give an opponent credit for having something to have been able to call your raise to start with....

If a guy bets in front of me against that nine-high flop when I'm holding A-K, he wins the pot. It's that simple. I don't care what he has, he wins it right there.

Perhaps that advice constituted "championship" play in 1997; I don't pretend to know. But I do know that trying to play either a cash game or a tournament today by following that recipe will get you run over by nearly every player at the table. They will quickly figure out your transparent strategy, bluff you out of your shorts, and not pay you off when you actually do make a hand. You will not win the tournament. You will not make the final table. You will probably not even cash. You will have circles run around you. This is not just bringing the proverbial knife to a gunfight; it's bringing a knife to a machine-gun fight, and you'll be shot to pieces. There is a reason that you don't hear about Cloutier winning any tournaments lately.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's Saturday night of Super Bowl weekend, the Guest Gauge is "very busy," due to the confluence of that game, a UFC match at Mandalay Bay, and the Chinese New Year. I go off in search of poker players foolishly charging across open fields with their pocket aces.


Anonymous said...

Are saiga-12 legal in the U.S?

Rakewell said...


Andy said...

And you have one? I'm officially jealous. That, and you helped a fool part with his money, as in your next post.

NerveEnding said...

Maybe the various armies were just trying to use the Zapp Brannigan method in fighting:

Zapp Brannigan

Tic_Tac said...

A saiga-12? I'm not jealous, why on earth would you need something like that, is it even fun to shoot? Now if there's a zombie invasion then yeah it'll be handy, and I'll be jealous. Until then it seems like a really pricey paper weight.

KenP said...

Tactics have never kept up with tech. It always lags -- Agincourt, Picket's Charge, the list goes on and on.