Monday, December 04, 2006

Perfect poker

A couple of weeks ago I was at a table at the Orleans when I overheard a conversation between a player and a dealer. The dealer expressed to the player his surprise at learning that the player had placed only second in a recent tournament. The surprise was apparently because the player had gone into the final table with a substantial chip lead. The player, explaining his disappointing second-place finish, naturally proceeded with a series of bad-beat stories, complaining about what terrible players his opponents were, etc. The player--for whom the terms "loudmouth," "braggart," and "egomaniac" are woefully inadequate--concluded by griping that he had played "seven hours of perfect poker," only to fall victim to other players' stupidity.

I couldn't help myself: I laughed out loud. "Perfect poker." As Bill Cosby used to say, "R-i-i-i-i-i-i-ght."

Imagine what that would entail, were it humanly possible. It would mean perfect reads on every one of one's opponents' hole cards every hand. It would mean never giving away a speck of information about one's own hand beyond what is conveyed in the size of a bet (i.e., never a bit of hesitation or haste in the timing of a bet, not a hint of any facial expression related to the hand, not a trace of weakness or strength in the tone of one's voice). It would mean never betting, say, $100 when a weaker opponent would actually have called as much as $101.

I do not believe that any person is capable of pulling this off more than on a rare, exception hand--and it's damn hard to know that one has done it, because you just don't get the information you'd need to be able to ascertain that it had been accomplished.

I am impressed with the far more realistic assessment that Barry Greenstein makes in his superb book, "Ace on the River" (pp. 204-205):

I typically make more than twenty plays in a session that in retrospect I
think were mistakes. Some are clear blunders that cost me the pot or caused me
to lose more money than I should have on a hand. Others are more subtle. Maybe I
should have check-called or check-raised instead of betting. Sometimes I should
have folded instead of calling, or called or raised instead of folding. Yet, I
have played with people who have told me they play almost flawlessly. I have
never respected the play of anyone who has said that....

I believe the game of poker is so complex that we all make many bad
decisions, but the best players win by making fewer than others. It reminds me
of what Lee Trevino said when he was asked if he chokes. He admitted, "Of course
I choke, but I look around and see other players choking worse than I do. That's
why I'm able to win golf tournaments."

Seven hours of perfect poker, my ass. It can't be done.

Still, I'm happy to have heard the guy say this. It's exceptionally revealing about his psychological state. First, he has a huge ego. Second, that ego is tied to his success at poker--the outcome more than how he actually plays. Third, his ego is fragile enough that he desperately needs the accolades of others--else why bother trying to convince everybody that he's so good? (The really great players don't need to talk people into believing in their skill.) Fourth, he's incapable of honest self-assessment, which perforce means that he's incapable of assessing others accurately; he'll likely think that I'm a terrible player, no matter what I do, which is just fine with me, because then when I win hands, he's that much more likely to go on tilt as a result. Fifth, he believes that any loss is due to bad luck and/or bad play by others, which means that he'll never, ever improve; after all, how can you learn to play better than "perfect"?

I'd almost feel sorry for the guy, if it weren't so much fun to ridicule his pathetic condition.