Saturday, August 11, 2007

It's Geek Week at the Hilton (non-grumpy content)

Those are two "Star Fleet officers" just outside the Hilton poker room earlier this evening. Yes, the big Trek convention is here.

It's Geek Week in another way, too. Wil Wheaton was playing in a private game with a bunch of friends in the poker room this evening. He appeared to be having too much fun to interrupt to ask for a photo (besides which, I assume he had to pose for pictures all day, selling his new book at the convention), so I left him alone. And if you don't know who Wil Wheaton is, or why it's OK to call him a geek (hint: he wrote a book called "Just a Geek," and he was actually wearing a t-shirt that said "geek" on the back tonight), then you need to explore his blog ( You don't need to be a fan of Star Trek or poker or computers to enjoy it--just being a fan of interesting writing is sufficient; the rest will follow.

Addendum, 8/13/07: Here's Wil's description of his geek weekend, including the Hilton poker game:

Monday, August 06, 2007

Irony: A poker story in four parts (non-grumpy content)

I will never use this blog to relate bad-beat stories, unless there is a larger point to them. Besides, the things I experienced today technically don't count as "bad beats," because when the money went in...

Wait. I'm already getting ahead of myself.

Part 1.

Long session at the Hilton today. I started with my usual buy-in of $100, and had a hot streak early on, up to about $400 by the end of the first hour. From there I grind it up further. I'm at maybe $600 when I have my run in with Hopelatron #1. (For the definition of hopelatron, see He is new to the table, and has played only a few hands. He's on my immediate left. I have the button, and join a bunch of other limpers with my crummy little Ah-2s. The flop is all hearts. This give me considerable hope for this hand.

H#1 bets $10. I'm the only caller. The turn card is another heart, giving me the nuts. He checks, I check. I want him to think that I absolutely hated that fourth heart hitting. Apparently he does, because he bets in the dark, not even waiting for the dealer to put out the river card. His bet is $35, and he has maybe $100 left, so I figure he must have a high heart, and he's probably willing to put it all in. I move all-in. He calls. Sure enough, he has the king of hearts. (I don't remember what his other card was, but it wasn't a heart.) He's a very nice guy, and takes the loss in stride, though he's much more astonished by it than I think he should be.

Look at it this way. Sure, there was only one card in the deck that could beat him, but with 9 opponents each having 2 cards, there is about a 35% chance (18/52) that one of them was dealt that ace of hearts. Yes, he or she might have folded it, but people tend to hang on to aces, especially when there is no pre-flop raise. So it shouldn't have been all that surprising to him that that's what I had.

He kept marvelling at how unlucky he had been for me to have the one card that beat him. Well, yeah, it was unlucky. But as degrees of unlucky go, it was run-of-the-mill, happens-every-day, garden-variety unlucky. It wasn't oh-my-God, take-your-breath-away unlucky. But I do what I'm supposed to do, for reasons of both politeness and strategy: I enthusiastically agree with him that he just got amazingly unlucky. Hopelatrons always believe that they lose because of bad luck, and it's best to encourage them in this delusion. They are much happier that way than if they have to confront the fact that they're not very good players, and their happiness keeps them coming back to the table after trips to the ATM for more cash to spread around.

After a few more pleasantries ("Nice hand," shaking my hand, etc.; like I said, he was a good sport about the whole thing, bless him), he departs.

Part 2.

Maybe 30 minutes goes by uneventfully. Then I find pocket aces in the big blind. Because there are many limpers, I put in a hefty raise to narrow the field, but still get three callers, including Hopelatron #2. The flop is A-K-Q rainbow, giving me three aces, the second best possible hand at this point. It doesn't get much better than that. I have played with H#2 before, and know him to be overly aggressive. I'm highly confident that he'll take a pretty big stab at this pot if I check to him, so I do. Sure enough, he pushes out $50. The other two players quickly fold. I move all-in. I'm not too surprised when H#2 calls, but I have to admit I am surprised when he turns over the only hand that has me beat, J-10 for the straight. Damn. Still, there are seven cards I can catch on the turn to make either a full house or quads, and then ten more cards on the river. But it is not to be. I lose about $200 to H#2.

How unlucky is this? Well, A-A vs. J-10 is about 83%/17% by the time all five community cards are out. But I think that underestimates the rarity here, because it's giving all five cards for the underdog to catch up. J-10 will flop a straight 1.3% of the time. (See Matthew Hilger's book, Texas Hold'em Odds and Probabilities, p. 189.) That includes four different straights, however, only one of which contains an ace, thus simultaneously giving me the trips I need to abandon all caution. The probability of J-10 getting exactly the three cards needed on the flop (A-K-Q) to arrive at this situation, when two of the four aces in the deck are already sitting in my hand and thus unavailable, is 0.09%, by my calculation; that is, it will happen only once every 1081 times that these two starting hands clash.

Part 3.

About five hands later I'm in middle position when I spot another pair of aces. Again I raise, and get three callers. Again I hit a set of aces on the flop (even though, on average, this will happen only once in every 8 or so times). But this flop is all hearts. Uh-oh, potential trouble, since my aces are clubs and diamonds. Hopelatron #3, who was in the big blind, is a guy I've played with many times before. I know him to love his flush draws. He bets out $30. I raise to $100 to dissuade him. The other two callers scatter like cockroaches. H#3 doesn't re-raise me, but just calls. I am left unsure whether he has a made flush or is holding just one heart and is hoping for another one to come on the board.

The turn card is a blank. H#3 checks. I have a ray of hope, because if he's on a draw, he probably won't call a second large bet here. I push out $150. He insta-calls. Crap, crap, crap. I know this guy well enough to know now that he has it made, and he's not going away. My only chance is the river card pairing the board to give me a full house, or the last ace for four-of-a-kind. Nope. That's not happening. H#3 checks again, and so do I. I show my set of aces, and he confirms my suspicion with the measly 6-8 of hearts. I don't say anything, but I confess that an involuntary rolling of the eyes betrayed my feelings about the situation.

How unlucky is that? This is more straightforward than the previous calculation: His two suited cards will flop a flush 0.8% of the time (odds being 124:1 against it).

In the space of ten minutes, I had twice been given pocket aces, twice hit trips with them on the flop, and both times was beaten for very large pots. I had lost about $500 just that fast. I'm not whining here, but objectively speaking, that's world-class, immense-pain, put-the-poor-bastard-on-suicide-watch, please-let-me-trade-places-with-Job-and-his-body-covered-with-boils unlucky. The other players at the table understand that well, and there are groans of sympathy for me from all over. The word "brutal" gets repeated a lot. I think that "brutal" doesn't begin to cover it. I'm not sure any word does.

To the best of my recollection (and I think I'd remember it), I've never flopped trip aces and lost to either a flopped straight or a flopped flush--and here they both happen almost back-to-back.

Part 4.

Less than three minutes later, H#1 returns, and sits down next to me, where he had been before. He tells me that he hit a good streak at the craps table, and has made back the money he previously lost to me. (It is a sure sign of a hopelatron to decide that craps--a game with an absolutely unbeatable, fixed edge against him--is a better way to win money than playing poker.) He's feeling good.

He recounts once again his amazement about how incredibly unlucky he got in that hand, losing with a king-high flush to my ace-high flush, shaking his head in disbelief. I'm still reeling and dizzy from the previous two hands, feeling about as snakebit as I can recall ever experiencing. But I know that H#1 has no clue what transpired while he was gone, nor would he have any reason to care about my personal misfortune. He feels his own pain far more acutely than he could ever feel mine.

So I smile as kindly as I can, and tell him, "Yeah, that was about as unlucky as a guy can get, all right."

Sunday, August 05, 2007

"I hate (jacks) (queens) (kings) (aces) (ace-king)"

I am SO tired of hearing poker players complaining about getting premium hands. You've all heard it, too: "I hate ace-king." "I hate queens." Or whatever. Among all the things you can say at a poker table that show just how stupid you are, this ranks high on the list.

Let's look at this objectively--mathematically. At a typical table of ten players, if everybody stays in the hand until the end every time, you obviously average a 10% chance of winning any given hand. Put another way, before the cards are known, you have a hypothetical 10% equity in the pot that will develop.

If you are dealt AA, however, your equity jumps to a whopping 31%. That is, even if nobody ever folds, you will win the hand 31% of the time, while all the other random hands have their equity drop from 10% to about 8% against your bullets. The glass-half-empty types will note that that means losing 69% of the time. Yeah, but before you looked down and saw the aces, you expected to lose 90% of the time, right? Seeing that AA staring back at you suddenly tripled your chances of winning against nine random hands, and since you know that not all nine of them are going to stay in until a final showdown, your equity in the pot keeps going up every time one of your opponents mucks.

(For an excellent, free, downloadable tool you can use for running this sort of calculation, go to

I think I hear the "I hate ________" gripe most often with respect to ace-king and pocket jacks. This, too, is highly irrational. Suited A-K begins with 21% equity (double your usual value with a random hand), and unsuited A-K has 17%, against everybody else's approximately 9%. What--you don't like having more than twice the chance of winning as your opponents? Then you're an idiot.

Even the much-despised pocket jacks have 19% equity against everybody else's 9%. On average, you will be getting twice as much money back from this hand as you put into it. If that's a situation you hate, you need to have your medications adjusted.

Notice that people never use the "I hate _________" line for little pairs, such as 5-5. But that hand has only 12% equity in the pot, against everybody else's 10%. It's a tiny, tiny margin, compared to what the premium hands give you. So why doesn't anybody say that they hate being dealt pocket 5s? The answer is pretty clear: It's because they know how to play that hand with a single, simple, dichotomous decision. You try to see the flop cheaply, and if you hit three-of-a-kind you stay in, and if you don't you muck it.

So beneath the surface, players who say they hate jacks or kings or queens, but don't say they hate small pairs, are actually telling you, "I don't know how to play premium hands for good value." Whether they know it or not, they're actually saying, "I'm a really bad player."

The other day when I was catching up on some back issues of Bluff magazine, I was pleased and surprised to find a column by Angel Largay in which he says just about the same thing I always think when I hear that tired old complaint (March, 2007, issue, p. 100):

What preconceived notions and flat out self-deceptions about your poker
skill and knowledge are you clinging onto, and how much are they holding you
back? I guarantee that you can absolutely become a better poker player than you are now. Absolutely guarantee it, and here's how: Just cut through whatever B.S.
you're feeding yourself and get honest. Some of the stuff might be brutally
simple--like you hate pocket jacks. Well, pocket jacks have a positive
expectation. Yes, really, even in your $3-$6 game. If you don't like a hand that
has a positive expectation--then you just don't know how to play it correctly.
That's the truth. If it's your truth, then admit it, and you are well on your
way to fixing that problem. Deny it and you'll continue to find reasons to hate
a hand that should be making you money.

Well said.

And here's a thought: If you really hate your aces, or ace-king, or queens, or whatever other premium hand you've decided the poker gods are punishing you with, then do two things. First, throw it away when you get it. You'll be happy because you won't have to make any of the difficult decisions later in the hand that are obviously beyond your mental capacity, and I'll be happy to have you relinquish your lion's share of the pot, because it leaves me with a better chance of winning with my weaker hand. Second, just shut up about it. I would consider both actions to be a personal favor to me.