Saturday, April 09, 2011

Random is random

There are a bunch of poker room rules and procedures that don't make any sense from a rational point of view. The ones I'm thinking of are those that are designed to preserve the order in which cards are or were "supposed" to come.

I was first sensitized to this early in my time playing live poker by a column by Lee Jones in Card Player magazine. Something got me remembering that piece today, and I found it in the C.P. archives, here, from November 15, 2005. As he emphasizes, a random card is a random card, and it makes no objective difference which random card(s) a player gets. But there is a lot of superstition about a "right" order of the deck, set in stone when the dealer makes the final cut before pitching.

For example, once in a while the dealer forgets to "burn" a card before putting out the flop, turn, or river--or, alternatively, accidentally pulls off two burn cards. This inevitably causes weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. The floor is called. Arguments ensue about which card(s) are the "right" ones to be put on the board. In reality, it makes no difference. There are no "right" board cards. In principle, I wouldn't care if the dealer always spread the stub of the deck face down on the table and arbitrarily selected three cards to make up the flop (my only objection being that that would be slightly slower in execution). The flop needs to be three random cards. It does not need to be the three random cards that were precisely at positions 22, 23, and 24 in the cut deck (assuming a ten-handed game). Every card in the deck is equally random (or, at least, equally unknown and unknowable to both dealer and players, which is effectively the same thing). Random is random.

Similarly, we have a standard procedure of dealing the cards one to each player, going around the table as many times as necessary to deal the required number of cards (two in hold'em, for example). It would clearly be faster, more efficient, and less prone to error to have the dealer pitch the requisite number of cards to one player, then move to the next, etc. Except for the fact that it would be slower, in theory it wouldn't matter if the deck were spread out face down and players allowed to choose their own hole cards (though that would introduce some game integrity problems because of dishonest players). As Jones points out, there could be a standard rule that after the deal, players pass their unseen hole cards one seat to the left, and it wouldn't matter. Of course the outcome of each hand would be different, but any player's expected value for the hand wouldn't change; he would be exactly as likely to improve his status as to worsen it. Random is random.

Once in a while the dealer skips over a player in the pitch, and this isn't recognized until the next couple of players have received and looked at a card. The rational thing is just to give the missed player the next card on top of the deck when the deficiency is noted, then go on. But no--the silly rules say that it has to be declared a misdeal, lest players start out with hole cards other than the ones they were "supposed" to get, based on the order of the deck after the cut. It's preposterous.

The most complicated set of rules where this comes into play is in stud. My eyes glaze over when I read the byzantine procedures for assuring that each player gets the cards he is "supposed" to get. E.g., if a player folds his hand when not facing a bet, there are rules about how the next street is dealt to account for that anomaly. I don't even remember what they are, but it's all done in service of the crazy idea that the game is committed to some "destiny" of how the deck was ordered at the time of the cut.

As the good doctor says at the end of "The Bridge on the River Kwai," it's "Madness! Madness!"


I just learned a new poker word, which doesn't happen very often these days. The process of spreading a new deck out on the table face up in order to prove that all 52 cards are there is called "spading" the deck.

Poker gems, #414

Bob Ciaffone, in Card Player magazine column, November 5, 2004.

In a recent e-mail, a player told me about a situation that occurred in which only one card was shown, and asked if I thought the players had a right to see the whole hand. My rules did not talk about this situation, and I do not know of any other set of rules that does. Yet, I have seen it occur several times over the years, usually with someone claiming the whole hand must be shown. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with flashing a card as you throw away your hand - assuming that the hand is over. Sometimes a player shows a "bad one," implying that he stole the pot without showing the whole hand. More often, he shows a "good one," as if to say, "I had you beat." The point is, there is no reason anyone should be entitled to view more than what was shown. If a lady decides to dress in a manner to reveal some cleavage, are you then entitled to look at the whole works?

Guess the casino, #822

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Golden Nugget

Friday, April 08, 2011

Game, set, but no match

In the current issue of Card Player magazine, Steve Zolotow has a column about the difference in hold'em between a set (pair in your hand matching a card on the board) and trips (one in your hand matching a pair on the board). I would have thought that anybody who has played for more than a minimal amount of time would already understand why there is no contest between them, though Zolotow says that "many inexperienced players fail to realize how much difference there is between trips and a set."

He goes on to illustrate one way to view the difference: If the board is 7-4-2 and you're holding 4-4, there are only three possible combinations of cards (the three ways to make three 7s) an opponent could be holding that have you beat. But if the board is 7-4-4 and you're holding 4-2 (he picks this unfortunate example, apparently not knowing its unique power; we'll let that slide for now), there are 43 combinations of two hole cards an opponent could have that are ahead of you--even though nominally these two hands are equivalent at the moment (4-4-4-7-2).

He also points out that it's often harder to win an opponent's entire stack with trips than with a set, because the trips are more exposed, and players with overpairs tend to be alert to the obvious danger.

All true enough. But he fails to point out another way in which a set has a big advantage over trips. Suppose the board is A-9-9. You have 9-10, your opponent has A-K for top pair/top kicker. You get it all in. If he catches another ace on the turn or river, you're toast; his aces full will crush your nines full.

If, however, we keep his cards the same, but give you 9-9, with a flop of A-10-9, you have the same five-card hand as in the first example (9-9-9-A-10), but now binking another ace will do your opponent no good. He will make trip aces, but the same card will elevate you to a full house. He will have to catch both the turn and the river with some combination of aces and kings (or a straight or flush) in order to prevail.

(In this situation, when the guy with top pair sees another ace come, he often celebrates for a few seconds, thinking he has pulled off an upset, before somebody points out to him the painful truth.)

A set is, as a general rule, so much better than trips that it's not even close. I think I had figured that out pretty early on in my live play. I wonder if Zolotow is right that this truth is not widely recognized among less-experienced players.

Guess the casino, #821

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Bally's

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Location, location, location

I have written a few times about playing against bullies and maniacs--for example, here and here. I inevitably talk about the importance of position. (Dang it. There was another long-ago post, I'm sure, about how I was faring badly seated to the right of a maniac at the Flamingo, until a seat opened on his left, I moved, and the tide turned. But now I can't find it, no matter what search strategy I use.)

In February of 2009, Shamus mentioned in one of his posts an interesting article by Rolf Slotboom, in which he challenges the conventional wisdom of trying to sit to the immediate left of a maniac. Among other points, he notes that everybody likes to adjust to the maniac by doing more check-raising, and if you're to the maniac's immediate left, you're likely to be caught in the trap with him. If, however, you're on the maniac's immediate right, then you're the last one to act after his bet, and you thus force the check-raiser to spring his trap before the action is back to you. This was the first time I had ever read a argument against the usual tactic, so it definitely caught my attention and got me thinking. About month later I was up against another maniac, on his immediate right, and that article was one of the reasons I decided not to move, as I explained here.

A recent issue of Card Player magazine had two columns dealing, in large part, with the question of position with respect to a maniac.

First, Todd Brunson explains his reasons for preferring to be a few seats to the maniac's left. Unfortunately, Card Player has recently revised its online format, using Flash, so there's no easy way for me to copy and paste a paragraph of the argument. But he makes many of the same points that Slotboom did. Most prominent is that other players will try to take the first seat or two to the left of the maniac and use raises to isolate him. If you are to their left, you can use the observation of what they are doing to trap them between the maniac and you, rather than you being the one that gets trapped in the middle, as can happen with the conventional advice.

Roy Cooke doesn't advocate any particular spot, but discusses how your strategy changes depending on where you are relative to the maniac.

Over the last five years, I have come to feel much less anxious about being stuck with a maniac on my left, probably because I have become more deft at the techniques of using his aggression against him judo-style. I find that I can manage myself from anywhere, for the most part.

As a rule of thumb, though, the more smart, adaptive players there are at the table, the more I want to be on the maniac's right, forcing those smart players to reveal their intentions before I have to act. Conversely, the more timid and unimaginative the opposition is, and the more I see that they are hunkering down and tightening up against his aggression, the more I'd prefer to be the one pulling the isolation moves from the maniac's left. The latter remains my most frequent choice, because the games I mostly play in are not exactly teeming with smart, flexible, observant players. (When they are, I try to find a softer table.)

But all three articles--Slotboom, Brunson, and Cooke--are worth reading and mulling over. The more tools and flexibility you have at your disposal, the better prepared you'll be for whatever situation you might find yourself in.

HORSE and razz tournaments

Here's an updated list of when the two major U.S.-facing sites host HORSE and razz multi-table tournaments in the price range that I like to play.

Good news

This blog has been officially deemed an "essential" service, and will continue publishing even in the event of a federal government shutdown.

Guess the casino, #820

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Sunset Station

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Guess the casino, #819

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Sahara

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Poker gems, #413

Richard P. Feynman, in 1974 commencement address at Caltech, as quoted in Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, page 212.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool.

Guess the casino, #818

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Luxor

Monday, April 04, 2011

Duh, winning!

There are times that the poker gods have decreed, "You will lose tonight," and there is nothing you can do to stop it. You play patiently, read opponents with laser precision, get your money in with the best of it every time--and lose, lose, lose.

There are other times that the poker gods have decreed, "You will win tonight," and there is nothing you can do to stop it. You play loose, from out of position, make every mistake in the book, get your money in bad every time--and win, win, win.

I didn't exactly play that badly tonight, but it was unmistakable that some unseen deity had declared it to be my night.

A year ago, almost to the day, I met reader Matt from Atlanta. As I reported then, he generously staked me in a tournament at the Venetian, just to have an excuse to meet and chat with me for a while. We've kept in occasional contact via Twitter since then. Several days ago he let me know he'd be in town again for a convention. He said he'd be staying at Hooters, and planned to hit their poker room Monday night. I had no other plans, and hadn't been to Hooters in a couple of months, so quickly agreed to meet him there.

I got there early and was one of the four to get the game started. Within the first ten minutes, I had called a raise with 6-6, flopped a set, turned quads, and picked up a $100 high-hand bonus in addition to the pot:

It has been several months since I last hit a jackpot--a statistically anomalous dry spell. It was high time it ended.

After that, the good times just kept rolling. I just Could. Not. Lose. I literally won every pot of over $50 that I contested the entire session, save one; I lost a race with J-J versus A-K all-in pre-flop for $45 each. Other than that, pretty much everything rolled my way. Raise with a good ace, and the flop would have an ace or my kicker as the high card. Call somebody else's raise with suited connectors, and I'd make the flush, straight, trips, or two pair. This streak was completely, utterly, off-the-charts, must-be-rigged ridiculous, and it had the full attention of every other player and all of the poker room employees.

I played for just over 2 1/2 hours, starting with the max buy-in of $200, and cashed out with $980, for a win rate of $297/hour. That is insane!

Matt and I had agreed in advance to a $5 bet over who could win a pot with and show the Mighty Deuce-Four first. Well, before he even arrived, I had scored a double-felting with it. I raised from the button to $15. The small blind moved all in for $27. The UTG player called, leaving himself only $10 behind. I called, too. The flop was K-4-x. UTG tossed in his last $10. I called, of course. Both he and the small blind had K-Q. So what came on the turn? A deuce ex machina. Two pair, thankyouverymuch. Pot to me.

(I explained to the table that not only was it my favorite hand, but it was the most powerful hand in poker. Some actually scoffed at this idea. Another player claimed that deuce-five is much stronger than deuce-four. Now it was my turn to scoff. The silly ideas that some poker players get in their heads!)

Matt was kind enough to pay me off when he arrived and heard about the Deuce-Four double-felting, even though he hadn't witnessed it. I didn't think it should count (even though other players were vouching for it having occurred) since I had an unfair head start. But I think he just wanted to give me this chip anyway:

He had been in Panama on his honeymoon, and brought it back as a souvenir for me, knowing that I collect $5 chips. I think it's lovely, and it's one that I am extremely unlikely ever to have picked up on my own. Thanks, Matt. You're a classy guy.

So how did I repay his kindness? The story gets ugly here. Gory, even. If you have small children in the room, you might want to have them leave before you read on. You don't want them having nightmares.

I had 7s-9s and limped from early position, Matt (on my left) also limped, along with a couple of others. Mr. Deuce-Five raised to $17 from the big blind. He raised a lot, but usually with good position, so this smelled of a real hand. I called, as did Matt. Three to the flop, which was J-7-7 rainbow. Ding! Mr. D-F bet $25. I smooth-called, assuming he'd bet nearly any turn, and it would either be an all-in bet or he'd be pot-committed to me shoving on him.

That's not how it worked out. Matt blindsided me with his own shove, for about $120. Mr. D-F shoved, too, for slightly more than that--almost surely with an overpair to the board. I was pretty confident Matt didn't have J-J, both because he hadn't raised pre-flop and because I think if he were that strong he would milk it more, trying to keep both me and Mr. D-F in. No way was he bluffing, and no way was he foolish enough to think that it would be a good spot to commit his stack with something like A-J, after my suspicious flat-call on a drawless flop. He had to have a 7, no two ways about it. But what kicker? I feared an ace. But Mr. D-F might well have two of the aces, and I also thought that after an ace his most likely kickers were a 6 or 8, for suited connectors. If so, I was ahead by a nose. It seemed to me at least twice as likely that his second card was a 6 or 8 as that it was an ace, so with more than 2:1 pot odds, I called, holding my breath.

I showed my 7-9, and Matt rolled over.... wait for it.... suited 7-10. D'oh!

I just barely had time to process this bad news when, Boom! Nine-ball, corner pocket. Full house. Blank on the river. A roughly $530 pot came my way. When the poker gods have made you their golden boy for the night, hitting a three-outer is child's play.

Fortunately, Matt's lovely young wife was taking the slot machines to school, making up for his sick losses. Also fortunately (for me), he laughed it off like the good sport he is. He left to go do something else, though we may meet up again tomorrow night. I've got to give the guy a sporting chance to return the suckout! Maybe my luck will have run out by then.

But I wouldn't count on it.


I like Noah Stephens-Davidowitz more every time he posts. Here's his latest on how repentant former poker cheaters can rehabilitate themselves:

Mixing it up

Last night I spent 5 hours playing the Imperial Palace Sunday night mixed game with Mrs. Lederer. I have found her to be an unusually pleasant person with whom to share time at a poker table, and I like her more every time she visits town. It's been over a year since I tried a mixed cash game, so the itch for doing something different combined with the chance to chat with Mrs. L. made for good incentive to sign up for the mixer.

They play a rotation of ten games, all $3/$6 limit, only three of which I play fairly regularly as part of the standard HORSE mix (Omaha/8, stud/8, and razz). There are several weird and baffling variants thrown in. As it turned out, those were the ones in which I made the most money. I don't mind admitting that it was pure luckboxing; I had no skill edge.

My biggest pot of the night came in what they call 3-2-1 Omaha. It's a high-only game in which you get three simultaneous flops, then two turns, then one river. You can mix and match any flop and turn, plus the river, to make your five-card board (but you have to take one of the flops as it is; you can't just pick any three cards from the nine), then combine that with your hole cards in the usual Omaha fashion, i.e., two from your hand and three from the board. I find this game extremely confusing, because you have to examine six different combinations of board cards in order to figure out what the best possible hands would be, then judge that list against your own holdings.

Well, on the second hand of this rotation, I started with QQxx, flopped a set, and made quads on the turn, which was the nuts. The river, however, put a possible straight flush out there; somebody holding the Ad-3d would have a steel wheel. I wasn't too worried about it. My lone opponent remaining at the river bet, I raised, she reraised. Still not worried. I raised again. (There is no cap when heads-up on the river, so we could keep going until we were all in if we chose to.) She rechecked her cards, reexamined the board, and raised me back. I figured she had a strong full house. She was the least experienced player at the table, and usually timid in her betting unless she had the stone cold nuts. So I was slightly worried, but not enough to stop me. I raised yet again. Again she looked at her hole cards and again she spent some time examining the board, before announcing "Raise." Holy crap. If I have quads beaten by a straight flush, I'm going to be seriously annoyed. But I just can't believe that this particular player would turn this aggressive with anything else, so this time I end the raising war with just a call, while simultaneously asking, with some incredulity in my voice, "Did you make the straight flush?" I was stunned when she said, "No, but I have the nut flush."

Whew! I showed my four queens and took in what may have been the biggest pot of the night. As she repeatedly explained, she just didn't see the two queens out there. When she was rechecking the board, it was specifically to see if there were any pairs that somebody could use to make a full house. Not seeing any, she concluded that her nut flush must be good. She was the only player at the table inexperienced enough to make that mistake after checking the board as many times as she did. But hey, poker is all about profiting from other people's mistakes, so I'm not feeling bad about it.

In the same game, I played a hand only for the amusement of Mrs. L. and myself (she folded, so I showed her my cards and let her sweat the hand with me), since I started with a 2-2-4-x on the button. (Top poker mathematicians at MIT are still working out whether the deuce-four combinations are always winners in 3-2-1 Omaha.) The bottom flop came 6-6-2, giving me a tiny full house. The only other player in this hand was Mark, on my left, a regular in this mixer, and by far the most experienced and aggressive mixed-game player at the table. I just check-called the flop and turn, fearing that he had a better full house. But when he checked the river, I figured I was good. I bet, he called with trips.

Only once did I screw up because of forgetting the rules or format of a game. It was the first hand of 4-Card Ocean Crazy Pineapple. You get four hole cards, betting round. Flop, betting round, discard one. Turn, betting round, discard one. River, betting round. Then finally an "ocean" (6th card on the board--the river flows into the ocean, you know), and another betting round. They said that somebody always forgets that an ocean is coming and exposes his hand after the river. Well, last night it was me. I announced that I had a full house. Mrs. L. called anyway, presumably hoping to improve to her own boat on the ocean. She didn't. At worst, I cost myself only one big bet with that gaffe.

Considering the complexity and unfamiliarity of most of the games, to play for 5 hours and make only that one technical error was something of a triumph. I never lost track of what game we were playing, whether the ace played for high or low, which of three draws we were on, or whether we were on a betting round versus a discard round, never misread my hand, never tried going for a low when no low scored, etc. (Pats self on back.)

I bluffed only once. The game was badugi. Mark and I both had strong 3-card starters, and were drawing one. It was just a contest to see who got there first. I had been playing it passively, letting him bet (as was his wont), and just check-calling. I knew that he knew that I tended to do that with him, and get aggressive only when I made something. I decided to use that knowledge against him. When the final draw didn't give me the suit I needed, I led out betting. I didn't think he would raise as a bluff, so the worst that would happen is he would raise and I'd fold, or he'd call and I'd lose. That is, at most I would lose one bet. But if he had missed, too, he might give me credit for having made it, fold the best three-card hand, and I'd win the whole pot. I thought (and still think) it was a smart play.

To my surprise, he thought long and hard about what to do. The longer he thought, the more it became clear that he did not have a badugi. With a strong badugi he would raise. With a weak one he would call instantly. I realized that he must have a pretty good three-card hand, or he wouldn't take so long to think it out. When he finally called, I said, "Well, I was bluffing, but now I think I might have been bluffing with the best hand." I showed my three-card 6. He winced and showed his three-card 7. Yes!

Late in the evening, there was one remarkable hand of badugi. Playing four-handed, three of us made strong badugis. I made an 8-7, Mrs. L. made a 7-6, and Mark made the nuts, a 4. I'll wait here while you go figure out the odds of that happening.

I twice made a #1 (the nuts) in 2-7 triple draw. I haz mad drawing skillz.

A little after midnight, I was finally too tired to continue, and cashed out with $66 more than I had bought in for. I'm not sure, but I think that is the first time I have ended winner in a mixed game. On top of that, I had a great time. The other players were friendly, smart, funny people that were just plain enjoyable to be with. All of us except Mark, I think it's fair to say, had to struggle to keep straight all the rules and mechanics of each game. It's not like we were playing deep, third-level, mind-game poker. I mean, go ahead--just try triple-range-merging your Double-Flop Omaha hands while everybody else at the table is just trying to remember how many cards from their hands they have to use and whether low gets half the pot. Fat lotta good it'll do ya.

I don't think I'll exactly become a weekly fixture in that game, but I do think that I should pay it a visit more often than I have been doing.

Guess the casino, #817

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Gold Coast

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Guess the casino, #816

To reveal the hidden answer, use your mouse to highlight the space immediately after the word "Answer" below.

Answer: Circus Circus