Friday, July 20, 2007

The drunk cop

Here's a story from last October that I wrote up and emailed to a friend.

At the Hilton today there was a guy that, by coincidence, had been at my table at the Orleans last night. He’s terrible as a poker player. He didn’t seem too drunk last night, but this afternoon he was reeking and reeling, and barely coherent. Because he recognized me, he acted as if we were best friends, particularly since the only open seat was on his immediate right. While I was trying to focus on the game, he kept trying to engage me in conversation about work, about sports, about blackjack, whatever. At one point he nudges me and shows me a badge—he’s a cop from Tulsa, Oklahoma. I have no idea why he thought that I would be impressed.

Anyway, I’m in the small blind with Q-8, a pretty worthless hand, but nobody raises, so I toss in the extra $1 to see the flop—and it has two more 8s in it! There are no straight or flush draws possible, so I can safely slow-play it. I check, somebody bets $5, which several people call, building the pot nicely. I’m salivating.

Turn card is another blank, but it’s the second of one of the suits, so I think I’d better take the pot on this round of betting rather than risk somebody catching a flush on the river. Still, I’m first to act, and confident that somebody will bet at it and I can raise, so I start off just checking. Drunk Cop surprises me by betting $15. It gets folded around to an Asian guy two seats to my right, who is sitting behind several hundred dollars in chips. He looks at Drunk Cop and says, “I’ll put you all in,” which means that he’s raising—betting whatever amount Drunk Cop has in front of him. The dealer counts D.C.’s chips, and it’s $59, so Asian Guy pushes out $59. I can barely keep from slobbering. “I’m all-in,” I say. D.C. looks at me as if I’ve just insulted him or something, but he pushes all his chips in. Asian Guy clearly doesn’t like this development—he had obviously assumed that his big raise would push everybody else out and it would be just him vs. D.C. But he calls my all-in reraise. We show our hands, and Asian guy has 2 pairs. D.C. has the last 8, but only a deuce kicker versus my queen kicker. The river card doesn’t change anything, and I take down the whole stinkin’ pot. It’s the kind of hand that I wait hours for, and makes all the difference in whether it’s a winning or losing day.

But the weird thing is that after it’s all over, D.C. starts whining to me about what I did. “Come on, you know I’m a cop, you know I don’t make much money. You didn’t have to play it that hard. You could have gone just a little easy on me.” He is dead serious. And he keeps it up. “Why did you have to do that? You make enough as it is. [I have no idea how he thinks he knows what my income is.] I can’t afford to be losing this much.”

Well tough cookies, dude. Excuse me, but weren’t *you* trying to take *my* money with your bet? What in the hell is unfair about me turning the tables on you? You took a chance, I took a chance. You might have had 8-K and beaten my 8-Q, or you might have had a full house instead of just trips. I knew that, and gambled that I was ahead, and I was right. You thought you were ahead, and you were wrong. How in the hell does that make me the bad guy here? And what am I supposed to do—check every player’s 1040 forms before deciding how hard to try to play against him? Ask whether he can really afford to be playing poker? Bite me, you weirdo! What an idiot.

Of course, I don’t say any of that. I just say, “Hey, it’s a game. I try to play it the best I can. I’m not trying to hurt you, you just got stuck with a hand that was second-best. I’m sure you wouldn’t have folded if you had been in my position. And if you had turned out to have the best hand, I’d have said, ‘Nice hand,’ and moved on.” I am intensely conscious *not* to apologize in any manner. Fortunately, right about then another seat opened up, and I moved away from him. Later, I caught the dealer on a break and asked if she had overheard that. She said, “Oh yeah, the guy playing the sympathy card? That was seriously weird. I wonder if he expected you to give his money back or something.” Who knows?

The poker threat

I'm glad that it's rare that I hear actual threats of bodily harm at the poker table. But I'm puzzled that once or twice a week I hear a poker threat. These take many forms, but the most common are warnings like this: "You just keep playing that way, pal--it'll catch up to you." "Next time you raise my blind I'm going all-in on you." "I'm going to let you have this one, but I will bust you before we're done."

Last week I cracked a guy's pocket kings with sneaky little suited connectors that hit the flop just right. As I stacked up his chips, he said, "I'll be coming at you to get those back." There was not a trace of levity in his voice or demeanor.

I don't get this. Well, actually, I do, in a sense: It's purely about ego. A player who lost a hand or was forced to fold takes it as a personal affront to his dignity, and makes that kind of stupid comment to repair the psychic damage. But what I may never understand is why people let their egos get caught up in whether they win or lose a hand.

It's just not possible to win every hand in poker. It's not even possible to win every hand that you contest all the way. All that matters is that, over the long run, you win more money than you lose. That might mean giving up a lot of small pots in exchange for winning a few big ones, or, if you're a "small ball" kind of player, winning a bunch of little pots but reducing your chances of winning a huge one. Nobody keeps track of the number of pots won, because it simply doesn't matter.

So why do people take it as some sort of dent to the ego when they lose or have to lay one down? That fact is not a comment on one's worth as a human being, or skill as a poker player. It's just part of the game.

The poker threat doesn't intimidate any sensible opponent. It only accomplishes a few things, all of them bad for you: (1) It tells everybody at the table that you can't play dispassionately, that your fragile self-image is, in essence, put into the pot along with your chips on every hand. Any smart player will recognize this as a huge leak in your game, because you will do things like make bad calls to avoid the agony of being bluffed, or just to show that you can't be pushed around; you'll loosen your play in frustration, trying to give yourself more chances to get lucky, which will spew more chips to your opponents. (2) It changes your future play for the worse, because now you'll feel some weird obligation to carry through on your threat, targeting somebody who may be a better player or who is just on an unusally lucky streak--to your detriment. (3) It sours the previously light, friendly mood at the table. (4) If the opponent you threaten really was playing stupidly, it just might smarten him up enough that he'll play better, making those chips that much harder to win back.

You pay these steep prices all for the sake of a little phony self-soothing when your poor, delicate ego has been bruised. What a rotten trade-off.

So don't be an egotistical idiot (unless, of course, you're on national TV, in which case it might make for good viewing). Keep the threats to yourself.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

You can't help another player--is this concept too difficult?

Hilton today. I'm in a pot against an inexperienced player I've never seen before. I have pocket 8s, both red. There is a pre-flop raise, which I and several others call. The flop is 8-9-10 with two clubs. There's a bet. I make a large raise to push out anybody hoping to draw to a straight or flush. This new player is the only one who calls me. The turn card is an offsuit jack. Ick. I don't like that because of the obvious possible straight sitting out there. But the pot is now large enough that I decide to push all-in, crossing my fingers and hoping that he was on the club draw and didn't just make his straight. The guy thinks for quite a while, then calls. He has a few chips left over after the dealer makes the pot right. The river card is an off-suit 7, putting a jack-high straight on the board. There is no possible flush, so unless my opponent has a queen (which I think is pretty unlikely), we're going to split the pot.

I turn up my 8s. He looks at the cards and the board, gets a befuddled look on his face. It's obvious that he doesn't know what to do, but he's aware that everybody is looking at him to do something. Bizarrely, he grabs his remaining chips and pushes them forward. The dealer politely returns them to him and reminds him that I'm all-in and there is no more betting. He still looks confused.

At this point, I'm dearly hoping that he decides that my set of 8s has him beat, and he will just muck his hand face-down, relinquishing his half of the pot, so I can take the whole thing. I'm hyperalert to anybody talking to him, because I just know that some blabbermouth will feel obligated to help him in some way: tell him to turn his cards up, or point out that there is a straight on the board, or some such thing.

Sure enough, a woman at the far end starts to say, "There's a..."--and quick as a wink I cut her off, saying, "Please don't help him." The guy has still got the deer-in-the-headlights look, and he's looking at the dealer. Bless her, the dealer just tells him, "We're waiting for you, sir." Of course, if he asks what his options are, she can inform him that he can either turn his card face up or muck them face down, but she correctly does not offer even this much assistance, since he didn't ask.

Finally, he turns his cards up. Amazingly, he has 10-10. We had a set-over-set situation, in which I had the worst of it, and didn't know it. I thought the straight killed my winning hand, when, in fact, it saved me. The pot gets split.

I have no idea what this guy was thinking during that 30 or 45 seconds when he froze and didn't know what to do. But it doesn't matter.

The point here is the predictability that somebody would attempt to step in and help him. Folks, you just can't do that! Of course, it's possible that whatever that woman was going to say would have been innocuous and within the rules, but it's much more likely that she was going to say something that would have helped him make his decision (between tabling his cards face up and mucking them face down), and I wasn't going to let her. I really couldn't even wait to find out what she was going to say, because if I was right, the damage would have been done, and protesting after the fact wouldn't do much good.

After the hand was over, the guy next to me said, "She can tell him there's a straight on the board." No, she can't. Really the only things you can say about the hand while it's in progress are the pieces of information that are freely available to everybody: what the community cards are (in case somebody with poor vision can't make them out, for example), where the action is, what the amount of the last bet was, etc. Telling somebody that there is a straight on the board goes beyond that, into the realm of interpreteting the raw data of what the five cards are. That's helping (or at least potentially helping) a player who isn't paying attention. One player to a hand means no helping of that sort. This guy had the right to muck his hand if he wanted to, even if it would have been stupid to do so.

(Confession: I have twice mistakenly mucked the winning hand, and just last week accidentally forfeited my share of what would have been a 4-way split pot, by mucking--in each case because I misread the board. All my own fault. This guy must be allowed to make the same kind of mistake all by himself. It's part of the learning curve of poker to lose money because you screw up.)

Both the dealer and the other players are also forbidden to instruct another player to turn his cards face up. That's crossing the line from telling him what his options are--i.e., what he may do--to telling him what he should do. That territory is strictly off-limits. The dealer can tell him, if asked, that she can't award the pot to anybody while his cards remain live but face down. But she can't instruct him to turn them up any more than she can turn them up for him, because that is taking an important decision away from the player.

We all have a social impulse to be helpful. And that's a good thing in nearly every aspect of life. But the poker table is different. A player in a poker game has to fend for himself.

A few weeks ago in a Saturday Hilton tournament, we were down to just 6 or 7 players. A woman was trying to decide when to make a dash for a restroom break because she couldn't wait until the next scheduled break. A friend was pointing out to her when it might be most advantageous to go. Marc Nelson, the tournament director, correctly stopped her. The friend protested, "We're just talking about when to go to the bathroom!" But that was a decision with considerable strategic implications, given how big the blinds were and how fast they were coming around. He was absolutely right to stop that discussion.

Now, there are plenty of exceptions. Last week I was seated next to a woman who freely announced that it was her first time playing in a casino, and she'd appreciate help. I made sure the dealers knew this, because they're much more likely to give only the kind of help that is proper. Other players, unfortunately, in their zeal to be nice, tend to cross the line all too easily. For example, when this woman was faced with a large bet on the river, and there was 4 parts of a straight on the board, a player told her, "Don't call unless you can beat a straight." Well, that's just way more help than any player or dealer is allowed to give. After the hand, if it seems that she made a blunder and appears to welcome strategic advice, that's OK--but not during the hand. I was also happy to explain to her how the high-hand jackpots worked, why it's wise to cap one's cards, how to tell when it's her turn or whether she's in one of the blinds, etc. Those are all just pieces of general information, things that everybody is entitled to know, and things that the dealer would be happy to explain to her; I'm just in a position to do it more quickly and quietly, sitting next to her.

Unfortuantely, there are way too many players who don't understand the boundary between what can be said and what can't. If you're not absolutely certain, discretion is the better part of valor. Just keep it to yourself. The dealer will give a player needing help all that is allowed.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Mr. Destiny

Yesterday was an interesting day. It's the first time I have shelled out for the pay-per-view live feed from the World Series of Poker main event final table. I watched all 15+ hours of it.

It's hard to know for sure until we see the broadcast with the hole cards, but it looks like in Jerry Yang we've just crowned our most unskilled player ever as world champion. It appears that he's a far, far worse player than the other two relatively unprepared amateurs, Robert Varkonyi and Chris Moneymaker. I think that when those two won, they were both better players than I currently am, though they have taken licks from all around because they simply weren't in the same league as the poker world had become used to seeing in the title role. I'm no poker genius; I think I have a pretty good handle on where I am in the poker food chain, and it's just barely high enough to be a long-term winner at low-stakes games rather than a loser or a break-even player. I wouldn't consider myself a better player than anybody I saw at yesterday's final table, except for Jerry Yang.

So how did he win? Well, to hear him tell it, God ordained it to be so.

From early in the final table, when he was all-in with another player, he could be heard saying things like, "Lord, you have a destiny for me today," and "Father, I will use the money to glorify your name." He gave the Big Dealer in the Sky further credit in his closing interview with Norman Chad.

I have to wonder about this. Does God really care who wins poker tournaments? If so, does he actually make his picks not only during the course of the tournament, but right at the very moment that a hand is being played out? If not, then it would seem to me that entreaties made while waiting for the last cards to be dealt out are pretty useless; the deck has already acquired a particular arrangement, and that has already determined what cards will be coming. There would, then, seem to be little point in pleading to God to favor one person over another that late in the course of things.

And, by the way, does it really help your case to tell God what you plan to do with the money? That is, can an omnipotent being really be bought off with a bribe? Isn't he able to bring into existence all the money he might need to carry out whatever his plans are, without needing 10% of Jerry Yang's winnings? What if Yang's opponent at the same time promised God to donate, say, 20% of the prize money to noble charities, or to "glorifying God's name" (whatever that might mean)? Does he then decide on whose behalf to intervene based on who will be giving him the biggest cut? If so, then why didn't Barry Greenstein win, a guy who would have donated 100% of the money to children's charities? (Oh, I know: God hates Jews because they killed Jesus, right?)

Does Mr. Yang actually believe that if he says just the right prayer, God will miraculously change the order of the cards in the deck that the dealer is holding? This is just as nutty, frankly, as Shannon Elizabeth invoking the "law of attraction" in an attempt to make it more likely that cards favorable to her will be dealt out (which absurdity was shown clearly on NBC's "Heads-Up Poker Championship"). And if God really does step in in this manner, it seems to me that it's a pretty clear violation of the one-person-to-a-hand rule. After all, if it's illegal to ask a friend in the stands whether to make a tough call or to fold, how much more wrong is it to get an omnipotent supernatural being to alter the order of the cards in the deck after the shuffle?

On the other hand, maybe God really does help Mr. Yang. Maybe that's how he knew to call Lee Watkinson's all-in reraise with just a stinky little A-9: God was whispering in his ear (in a voice like that of Charleton Heston, no doubt), "He's only got A-7, so you're about 75% to win. And besides, I've peeked at the deck with my x-ray vision, and there's no 7 coming. Go for it." That would be a pretty darn handy way to win poker tournaments, all right. Maybe it's the only way Mr. Yang can win. In fact, come to think of it, maybe that's what is meant by the "glorifying your name" business: Having him as the game's ambassador for the next year tells the world, "Look, God is so powerful that he can even make a really, really bad player the world champion! Walking on water is child's play next to that kind of miracle!"

But if so, I still have to wonder how God goes about picking his winners. After watching Mr. Yang, it certainly isn't on the basis of skill and preparation. Nor is it based on conduct at the table. He wasn't over the top or downright rude, but the loud cheering every time a card fell that was favorable to him just isn't cricket, as the Brits say. When you see Phil Ivey, Chris Ferguson, Doyle Brunson, Dan Harrington, Greg Raymer, Allen Cunningham, John Juanda, T.J. Cloutier, or other classy guys start doing this, then you'll know that the rules of conduct have changed (for the worse), and it's OK. Until then, keep a lid on it, dude. It's obnoxious and annoying.

Look, I have nothing against people in general, or poker players in particular, being religious. Daniel Negreanu has said several times in his blog that when he feels his relationship with God is out of sorts or taking a lower priority than it should, his poker results suffer. OK--so be it. I certainly can't prove that that's not so. And believing that God will help you win a tournament is, objectively, no crazier than, say, Gavin Smith thinking that not cutting his hair gives him better luck than when he cuts it. On the other hand, it is, objectively, no saner and no more rational than thinking that a certain fat denizen of the North Pole brought the presents under your Christmas tree in a magical sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer.

But putting your slightly nutty beliefs on international display in a manner that opens all sorts of unanswerable questions of logic and theology just isn't smart. It just makes you look foolish, as if you haven't given more than passing thought to what you're doing and its implications for how you think divinity operates. Keep it to yourself.

Addendum, added 7/20/07:

I just saw this article in the Las Vegas Sun:

More evidence for Yang's peculiar thoughts about how God works is found therein. Note that apparently divine omniscience doesn't mean that God necessary understands poker, because he needs Mr. Yang to tell him what specific cards to have the dealer pull out of the deck in order to make him a winner.

Once, for instance, he risked a big chunk of his stack of chips with just a
pair of 4s and ran smack into an opponent's higher pocket pair.

It was then Yang - like a lot of poker players, including some who are probably more
reluctant to admit it - turned to prayer.

"I kept saying, 'Lord, give me a set,' " Yang said, using the common poker term for three-of-a-kind. "And there was a 4 on the flop."

Another time, Yang needed an ace or a 4 on the final
card to fill a straight and extend his tournament life.
"I said, "Lord, if you want me to win this, put the ace or the 4 on the river,' " Yang said. A 4 came, and Yang lived to fight on.

"I've seen miracles," he said.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Celebrity (lookalike) sighting (non-grumpy content)

Hey, look who I played poker with tonight at Planet Hollywood.

That's right, it's Michael Moore! Or at least someone who looks a lot like him, which is close enough, right?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Worst call ever (non-grumpy content)

Orleans tonight, $1-2 no limit hold'em game. Player A, on my right, is a smart, rock-solid guy who plays true tight-aggressive style. I don't think I ever saw him show down a losing hand. Player B, on my left, is a tourist, probably from Australia, judging by the accent. He appears barely old enough to gamble. He's playing an "any two cards" style, and for the first hour or so it's wildly successful; he hits at least 4 full houses in that time with completely junk hands. He has at least doubled his original $100 buy-in. He's obviously feeling like the poker gods are going to be on his side all night.

I'm in late position with K-Q offsuit. I put in a raise. Player B calls from the button, as does Player A from one of the blinds. The flop is A-10-7 rainbow. I don't like that much, but when A checks, I put in a standard continuation bet, hoping both opponents will credit me with an ace and go away--and even if they don't, I might get really lucky and catch a jack for the straight. B calls. Dammit. Then A check-raises all-in. I've seen him check-raise a couple of times before, but never all-in, and never against two opponents. (He's sitting on $400+ and has both of us covered.)

I'm outta there as fast as I can throw my cards away. But B is seriously contemplating a call. After maybe 30 seconds, A throws him a bone. He spreads out his two hole cards face down and tells B, "You can pick either one to look at." B picks the one on his left. It's a 10.

Let's review the evidence at this point. A has been playing absolutely no-nonsense poker, showing down only winners. He called a pre-flop raise from out of position, then followed that with an all-in check-raise of two opponents. To top it off, he's confident enough of his hand to let an opponent pick one to look at, and it's a pair to the board. Unless Player A has just had a stroke, or ingested LSD with his last Perrier, the bare minimum he has here is two pair, and it shouldn't surprise anybody if he were to turn over pocket 10s for a set.

In fact, Player B seems to recognize this, and says, "Oh, damn--I bet the other one is a 10, too." But then he thinks a bit more and says, "To hell with it. Let's gamble. I call."

And with that, he flips over Q-2 of diamonds.

Let that sink in for a moment. Q-2 of diamonds. There is one diamond sitting out there in the flop.

Not surprisingly, Player A turns over A-10, for top two pairs. The only way B can win is runner-runner straight, runner-runner flush, or Q-Q or 2-2 for trips. According to an online odds calculator, he just under 6% to win--and that's not even accounting for the fact that I folded one of the jacks he would need for the straight and one of the diamonds he would need for the flush. If Player A actually held a set of 10s, as B seemed to believe, he would be only about 4% to win.

In other words, B put in roughly $200 believing that he was worse than a 20:1 underdog.

Just astonishing. I'm not sure I've ever seen a more jaw-droppingly bone-headed call.

When B didn't catch his miracle cards--surprise, surprise, eh?--he swore and got up from the table. The dealer asked if he would be coming back. He said he would, but not for a while, so don't hold the seat for him.

After he was respectably out of earshot, the chatter and laughter began. One player thanked the dealer for asking that question: "We all wanted to hear that he was coming back, but I didn't want to appear too eager." Somebody else closed his eyes as if in prayer and started chanting, "Please come back with more money. Please come back with more money."

I hoped the same thing, but didn't see Mr. B return during the time remaining before I called it a night.

I sincerely hope to run into him again while he's here on vacation, though.