Thursday, August 23, 2007

Poker gems, #3

Mike Sexton, commenting on a bad beat during a World Poker Tour event:

"If you don't like a little pain once in a while, poker is probably not your game, because as you can see, you're gonna get it."

Unlikely events (non-grumpy content) (WARNING! Math ahead!)

I played at the Venetian again today. Two mathematical long-shots occurred that are worthy of note.


During a cash game, I heard a sudden commotion from the next table that could only mean that something really unusual had happened with the cards. I wasn't in a hand at the moment, so I stood up, took a few steps, and saw something I had never seen before: Quad kings beat quad tens, with both players having started with pocket pairs. If the Venetian had a bad-beat jackpot, this certainly would have qualified. I don't remember the order in which the cards came on the board, and I have no idea how the betting went down, but it doesn't really matter.

I wondered about the probability of this happening. Let's take any two pocket pairs, since the probability will be the same for whichever ones we pick. And let's ignore what order the community cards hit the board, because just about any order will get all the players' money in nearly every time (probably the only exception being if the high pair makes quads on the flop with the non-matching card, and the lower pair folds, thus never seeing the turn and river cards).

Here's the ugly math. First, how likely is it that two or more players will simultaneously receive pocket pairs when dealing to a table of ten players? This is something I've never worked out, maybe never even wondered about, but now that I've crunched the numbers, it's kind of interesting. You can find the relevant equations (and a web-based calculator to run them for you) many places, including Here, "p"--the probability of any player being dealt a pocket pair--is 1/17 (because after you get the first card, there are 3 possible pairs to it left and 51 cards left, and 3/51=1/17), or 0.0588. We'll set "n" at 10, assuming 10 players to a table. The probability that nobody gets dealt a pair on a given hand (i.e., k=0) then works out to about 55%, which is quite a bit higher than I would have guessed offhand. The probability of exactly one player being dealt a pair (k=1) is about 34%. The probability of two players being dealt pairs is about 10%, and the sum of the probabilities of all of the other possibilities (i.e., three through ten players being given pairs simultaneously) is the remaining 1% or so.*

(The interesting implication of this: If you're dealt a pocket pair, about 3 out of 4 times you're the only one at the table with a pair. I never knew this, and don't recall seeing it mentioned anywhere else before.**)

So let's settle on 11% as a good estimate of the likelihood that two or more players will, on any given hand, start with pocket pairs.***

We now have 48 unknown cards left, after assigning our two players their pairs (and it doesn't make a bit of difference how many other players are in the hand; their cards are unknown to us, so the math is the same as if only two people were playing). There are five cards to come on the board. There are exactly 1,712,304 different combinations of five cards that we can theoretically pick from 48 cards (as long as we ignore order). (Praise heaven that Microsoft Excel has a built-in function ["COMBIN"] to calculate this for me.) In order to get quads versus quads, four of those five have to be the cards in question, so now eight cards are assigned/accounted for, leaving 44. In other words, 44 of the 1,712,304 possible combinations of five cards we could put out will have the specific four cards we need to see this clash happen, plus one straggler. That makes the probability of quads versus quads (starting with two pocket pairs) 44/1,712,304, or 1 in 38,916. In other words, pocket pairs will only end up in the kind of quads-over-quads outcome that I saw tonight once in about 39,000 times.

Now we combine that with the fact that only about 11% of the time do we even have two or more players starting with pocket pair in order to set this up, and my grand conclusion is that one will see quads over quads only once in about 354,000 hands of Texas Hold'Em. It's even rarer than that, if you account for the fact that the two paired players very often won't both see the flop, since a large pair will usually raise before the flop, causing a small pair to fold. I would guess that one of the pairs folds before the flop roughly half the time, which, if correct, means that one would have to sit through something like 700,000 poker hands before seeing quads over quads hit. No wonder I've never seen it before!


I entered the Venetian's 8:00 p.m. tournament. I finished in about 16th place, but only the top five split the money, so I left with nothing to show for it. Oh well. At least I got a story out of the evening.

I had Q-10, and raised with it in late position. I was called by one other player. The flop was Q-7-2. I had top pair, and not many chips left, so I pushed all-in. She called. She had pocket 7s and had flopped a set. I was pretty much dead meat at that point. But then miracle of miracles, the turn card was a 10, giving me two pairs and a ray of hope. Then the river was a lovely third queen, giving me a full house. The only way I could win that hand was with the turn and river coming 10-Q, Q-10, 10-10, or Q-Q, and it happened! An online poker odds calculator says that I had a 1.6% chance of hitting one of these combinations. That makes this an even worse suckout than when I hit a 3% chance full house over two opponents with flopped flushes (see the tale at It's definitely one of my luckiest hands ever.

Incidentally, with experience I'm unquestionably getting better at making quick estimates of poker probabilities. As soon as this happened, I commented to the guy next to me, "That must be in about the 2% range to hit like that." Pat, pat pat. (That was me giving myself a pat on the back for being so smart. Maybe some day I'll be smart enough not to commit all my chips when I'm a 98:2 underdog.)

Editorial comment

If either of these hands occurred online, the chat boxes would fill with conspiratorial notes about how Internet poker is rigged to make improbable events happen more often. But given thousands and thousands of hands being dealt in a large card room like the Venetian every day, extraordinarily unlikely events are bound to occur, even with no puppetmaster manipulating the strings. Randomness is a wondrous thing to behold, given enough chances for rare events to occur. It's no different online, except that nerds sitting in their parents' basement playing poker on a computer all day can get their world view twisted pretty severely, and what are objectively pretty ridiculous theories about how improbable events occur can start to make a weird kind of sense.

*There's a little problem here, in that these occurrences aren't really quite independent, because one person getting a pair reduces the number of pairable cards available to everybody else. But this is close enough for present purposes.

**The exception, of course, is if you're dealt K-K. Then the probability that somebody else has been given A-A is about 99%. Or at least it seems that way....

***Again, this is a bit off, because of the possibility of two players both having the same pair. But I think that will only throw things off a small amount, and since I'm really just interested in ballpark figures, I'll ignore the discrepancy.

Addendum, August 23, 2007

I forgot yet another oddity that occurred during the tournament: 4-of-a-kind appearing on the board. In this case, it was 8-8-8 on the flop, and the final 8 on the turn. If we ignore what order the cards come in again, this will happen only once in 20,825 hands. I have seen this once or twice before, but it's pretty rare. Once it worked out great for me, because an opponent in a tournament flopped a full house. I had just ace-high. But with quads on the board when the river card hit, this idiot tried to bluff me. When there's four of a kind on the board, and I have an ace in my hand, I can't lose--the best he can do is tie me with an ace of his own and split the pot. So I raised, and he folded his cards face up to show his disgust at having his flopped full house go down in flames to an opponent holding just an ace. (He didn't have one.) Hee hee hee!

Addendum, August 25, 2007

If you're at all interested in the first problem I posed above, then you should read the comments. I'm putting this here, rather than in another comment, because I'm now pretty well convinced that I got something wrong, and the corrective information herein is more likely to be seen here than in another comment. (I'm always happy to be given better data or arguments; anytime I can replace bad information or logic with good, I'm better off for it.)

"Froggee" made me rethink how I approached the question of the probability that my pocket pair is the only one dealt on that hand, versus being up against another pair somewhere at the table. I posted the query on the Two Plus Two forum:

A respondent there pointed me to an incredibly detailed calculation of this (which turns out to be much, much more complicated than I had imagined at first): This is part of a larger set of posts on other computations problems related to poker, which, if your brain is wired strangely like mine is, makes for interesting reading:

Brian Alspach, author of those pages, approaches the problem as not just whether there is some other pair being held by another player, but whether there is a larger pair lurking out there. But that's OK; by using his answer for the case when you're holding pocket deuces, we get what I assume is the answer for whether there is any other pair (since any pair--other than the very rare case of somebody else having the other two deuces--will be larger than deuces). At the very bottom of the page cited above, we see that the probability of there being one larger pair is 32.69%, the probability of there being two larger pairs is 8.19%, and the probability of there being three larger pairs is 1.19%. These sum to 42.07%. The main reason the math is complicated is something I alluded to in a footnote to my original post: Being dealt a pair affects the probabilities of what other players can receive, and thus the standard formulas--which assume completely independent events--are a little off.

Anyway, I conclude from this that Froggee's method of estimation is better than mine was, and that when one has a pocket pair, about 42% of the time somebody else at the table will have another pair.

Incidentally, this doesn't affect the calculation I was aiming at (about quads over quads). I was correct that at a ten-handed table there will be two or more pocket pairs about 11% of the time. I just erred in my side note about what that implies about other players' holdings when I have been dealt a pair.

My thanks to "Froggee" for alerting me to the mistake.

Addendum, August 26, 2007

I thought of another way to verify the above conclusion--sort of a "poor man's Monte Carlo simulation." That is, I don't have an easy way to actually simulate 10,000 random deals, but I can do it mathematically, using the probabilities I derived in the comments:

P(0) = 0.5455
P(1) = 0.3408
P(2) = 0.0958
P(3) = 0.0160
P(4) = 0.0017
P(5) = 0.0001

In 10,000 deals, 3408 of them (ideally) would contain exactly one pair given out somewhere among the ten players. Let's say I'm in seat 1 for the whole time. I would then get 341 of these pairs. There would be 958 deals containing exactly two pairs, of which I would expect to receive 2/10, or 192. There would be 160 deals containing exactly three pairs, of which I would expect to receive 3/10, or 48. There would be 17 deals containing exactly four pairs, of which I would expect to receive 4/10, or 7 (all these are ideals or averages, of course).

Summed up, in 10,000 deals, I would receive a pocket pair 588 times (341+192+48+7) in seat 1. Of these, 341 would be the only pocket pair dealt--that's 58% of the 588 times, meaning that 42% of the time at least one other person would also have been dealt a pair.

OK, that does it, I'm convinced that 42%/58% is the correct answer. That is, 58% of the time that I have a pocket pair, it's the only one at the table, and 42% of the time there's at least one other pair given to an opponent.

Addendum, September 10, 2007

While looking around YouTube at various poker hands from televised shows, I came across this one:

It's from the European Open III, though I've never heard of any of the players and don't recognize the commentators' voices (the American guy sounds very familiar, but I just can't place him). But it's a phenomenally rare occurrence, worth looking at. At a 6-player table, 5 players start with pocket pairs! The probability of this is about 0.0004%, meaning that it will happen about once in every 250,000 hands. Even more bizarre, three of the pocket pairs are aces, kings, and queens. The guy with pocket kings makes a phenomenal--almost impossible--laydown, correctly reading the opponent with aces. But then he gets his heart broken when a third king flops, and he would have taken the huge pot. Even sicker, the guy with queens spikes a third one on the river, meaning that Mr. Aces not only lost the hand, but would have been in third place if the kings had stayed in!

This is the sickest game ever invented!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Poker gems, #2

David Mamet, "The Things Poker Teaches," New York Times Magazine, 1986, as reprinted in John Stravinsky, Read 'Em and Weep (Perennial Books, 2004), pp. 167-170:

Poker reveals to the frank observer something else of import--it will teach him about his own nature. Many bad players do not improve because they cannot bear self-knowledge. The bad player will not deign to determine what he thinks by watching what he does. To do so might, and frequently would, reveal a need to be abused (in calling what must be a superior hand); a need to be loved (in staying for "that one magic card"); a need to have Daddy relent (in trying to bluff out the obvious best hand), etc. It is painful to observe this sort of thing about oneself. Many times we'd rather suffer on than fix it....

Last September, one of the players pointed out that five of us at the table that night had been doing this for two decades. As a group, we have all improved. Some of us have improved drastically. Because the facts, the statistics, the tactics are known to us all, and because we are men of equal intelligence, that improvement can be due to only one thing: to character, which, as I finally begin to improve a bit myself, I see that the game of poker is all about.

Why do poker movies have to be so awful?

Everybody in the poker world seems to like "Rounders," but let's face it: all the good poker and all the good lines happen in the two scenes with John Malkovich. You can skip the middle 90% of the movie and not miss much.

But "Rounders" is solid gold compared to three other stinkeroo poker movies I've seen recently.

Lucky You

"Lucky You," finally released this spring, was universally disliked by every poker player I've asked about it. We're supposed to believe that the protagonist deliberately mucks the winning hand at the World Series of Poker because he has a soft spot for his father? Oh, please! There's not a professional poker player in the world who would do that, and any poker-playing father who found out that his son had thrown the game that way would be outraged about it, not grateful. A father would presumably try to win, but might actually get more joy from seeing his son win. Knowing that he (the father) only won by his son letting him would completely ruin the experience. To top it off, what the son did was cheating, and, if discovered, could easily get him banned from future events. It's chip-dumping, and is one of the most flagrantly illegal and unethical things you can do in tournament play. Horrible, horrible, horrible ending.

I was also stunned about the scene with the satellite tournament. After the thing is over and they've awarded the seat (the entry into the WSOP), then they discover and decide to fix a problem with how the final hand was dealt??? That would never, ever happen. The dealer would have cleaned up the table by then; it would be impossible to recreate the hand.

There was no apparent reason for so many professional poker players to appear as themselves, while a bunch of others (Jennifer Harman, David Oppenheim, etc.) appeared as characters other than themselves. If they're not supposed to be themselves, why use such recognizable people? Why not use unknown actors? This makes no sense at all.

And, though it has nothing to do with poker, what's up with the relationship with the Drew Barrymore character? Basically her first three experiences with the "hero" are (1) he steals $1000 from her purse on their first date because he needs poker money; (2) she sees him throw away somebody else's $10,000, given to him as an investment by a backer for his WSOP entry fee, playing a stupid card game for pride with his father; (3) he makes a crazy prop bet to try to win a replacement $10,000, and yells at her because she wouldn't help him cheat to win the bet. Wouldn't that be pretty much all the information you'd need about somebody to decide that maybe he's not somebody you want to spend the rest of your life with?

All In


I just now finished watching this on Showtime. Plot synopsis (with spoilers): Father teaches his little girl how to play poker, then presumably dies in a car crash. She grows up, gets to medical school, where she and her five buddies are short on money and decide to win some playing poker. She gets to the final table of a $5,000,000 tournament, and--surprise, surprise--who is the other last player left? Dear old dad, who, it turns out, faked his own death for reasons that are too stupid to detail. And what does he do? He folds a straight flush on the next-to-last hand to ensure that his little girl wins. (Hmmm. Where have I heard of an ending like that before?)

Besides the writing and acting being just plain bad, what's so annoying is how movie makers get so many things wrong when it would be just as easy to get them right. My other hobby is competitive handgun shooting, so I notice how nearly every movie and TV show gets technical things about guns wrong, and it drives me crazy, because they could do them right with no more effort, and avoid distracting knoweldgeable viewers. It's the same with poker. For example, during the tournament's final table, the father lifts his hole cards high up off the table to look at them. There are spectators just a few feet behind the table that could easily see them. No serious player would do this, because of the possibility that a person behind will react in some obvious way ("Oh look, he's got aces!"), or furtively signal the opponent as to what he's holding.

Early in the tournament, the girl isn't doing well. Her brilliant friends suggest that because she has been playing very tight, she should loosen up, play some junk hands that might hit, and her opponents will never guess what cards she has. She suddenly brightens up--what a great idea! But this is absolutely the most fundamental strategy for both cash games and tournaments, to "mix up" one's play, to "change gears" from playing just premium hands to playing a wide range, then back again before opponents can figure out what you're doing and adjust to it. And this never occurred to her?

The night before the final table, she and her friends spend hours reviewing videotape of one particularly difficult opponent, who all the other players have declared to be unreadable. Finally, when they've just about decided that he has no tells, one of the group announces that he's found it. When the guy has a strong hand, he takes four seconds to bet, and when he's bluffing he takes eight seconds to bet, "almost to the tenth of a second every time." GROAN! This kind of tell is so obvious that every player to sit down with this guy would have figured it out in the first 30 minutes. We're supposed to believe that Erik Seidel and John Juanda (who play themselves in the movie at the final table), among all the others, never detected this pattern? Absurd. Somebody who really did that might as well play with his cards face up for his opponents to see, it's so obvious.

And I've got to add a bit about the medical stuff. I have first-hand experience with medical school, and this movie gets just about everything in that field just as wrong as the poker stuff. For instance, one patient is an 8-year-old girl with appendicitis. She just lies there quietly smiling in bed and lets the medical students poke her abdomen. Uh, no--that's not how it goes. Kids with appendicitis look really sick, they feel absolutely miserable, and it shows in everything about them. You may get one poke at the belly, but after it hurts them like hell, you'll have to fight them to do it a second time. Finally, at the close of this scene (which takes place on early morning rounds), we're told that the kid's surgery is scheduled for 1:00 that afternoon. Huh??? I guess nobody involved minds a little malpractice suit here and there for letting the appendix rupture sometime in the next six hours or so. When they finally do the surgery, the area isn't even draped the right way (you try to expose minimal skin, because that's where most wound infections come from), and the operating room is dark, with a single, dramatic spotlight on the patient, rather than the nearly blinding lights in a real OR. This kind of nonsense is all over the medical details of the movie--as, unfortunately, with most medical shows.

Oh, and on the first day of class, the students are told to memorize all the bones and all the muscular attachments to all the bones for a test the next day. That's a pretty compressed curriculum they've got; I sort of recall that being spread out over the whole first year. In fact, I'd wager that there's not a person alive who could memorize all of that in one night--there are hundreds of muscles, each with at least two points of attachment to bones. Memorizing just the names of the bones wouldn't be too tough, since most of them are already familiar, but to get the muscle attachments, you'd also have to memorize many, many names of grooves and bumps and prominences and sulci and ridges that every bone has, just to be able to describe where the muscles attach. Here's an example picked arbitrarily from "Gray's Anatomy" (

"The Trapezius is a flat, triangular muscle, covering the upper and back part of the neck and shoulders. It arises from the external occipital protuberance and the medial third of the superior nuchal line of the occipital bone, from the ligamentum nuchæ, the spinous process of the seventh cervical, and the spinous processes of all the thoracic vertebræ, and from the corresponding portion of the supraspinal ligament. From this origin, the superior fibers proceed downward and lateralward, the inferior upward and lateralward, and the middle horizontally; the superior fibers are inserted into the posterior border of the lateral third of the clavicle; the middle fibers into the medial margin of the acromion, and into the superior lip of the posterior border of the spine of the scapula; the inferior fibers converge near the scapula, and end in an aponeurosis, which glides over the smooth triangular surface on the medial end of the spine, to be inserted into a tubercle at the apex of this smooth triangular surface. At its occipital origin, the Trapezius is connected to the bone by a thin fibrous lamina, firmly adherent to the skin. At the middle it is connected to the spinous processes by a broad semi-elliptical aponeurosis, which reaches from the sixth cervical to the third thoracic vertebræ, and forms, with that of the opposite muscle, a tendinous ellipse. The rest of the muscle arises by numerous short tendinous fibers."

Now repeat that for a few hundred other muscles, and we'll quiz you on it all in the morning, OK? Ridiculous.

The only good thing about this movie was Lou Gossett, Jr. I've never seen a bad performance from him, and he's the only bright spot in the film. Too bad he's only on screen for about five minutes.



I just got this from Netflix and watched it yesterday. I had high hopes for it, because they spent some serious change on the cast: Sylvester Stallone, Melanie Griffith, Hal Holbrook, Gabriel Byrne, Thandie Newton, and Jamie Foxx. But the whole thing was just terrible, terrible, terrible.

This one focuses on the world of poker cheating, and the climax pits several cheaters against each other to see who can walk away with the money. OK, I can accept that there's a large poker underground where that stuff happens, even though it's far removed from modern casino poker. I'll even admit that there's a little bit of good stuff, particularly in how they drilled the actors to do the fancy false shuffles and phony deals, so they didn't have to cut away to close-ups of somebody else's hands doing the moves. Nice touch.

But they still get the basic rules of poker all wrong. Worse, they know it, as I discovered when watching the "making of" featurette on the DVD. The writer and director freely admit that how they broke the rules in the story drives poker players nuts, but they needed to do it for maximum drama.

The main problem involves table stakes. "Table stakes" means several things all at once. It means that you put money on the table at the beginning of a session, and you can't take it off the table (except for minor things like tipping cocktail waitresses) until you're done playing. This is to prevent people from squirreling away winnings and only keeping minimal amounts at risk. The idea is that after you've won, the winnings have to remain available for opponents to win back, until you declare yourself done for the day.

The second thing that "table stakes" means is that you can buy more chips if you've lost a lot, but you have to have them purchased and on the table before a hand begins; you can't buy chips in the middle of a hand and have them be in play. Obviously, if you could do that, it would be smart to start with just a few chips on the table at risk, and buy more during a hand if you had a strong hand.

The third thing that "table stakes" implies is that you can only win from each opponent the amount that you have in front of you at the beginning of the hand, and, conversely, you only put that amount at risk. After seeing poker scenes in old Westerns, I always wondered why the richest person didn't always win. By the way they play in those movies, if you can't match somebody's bet, you lose. That would mean that Bill Gates could beat everybody in poker by putting, say, $10 billion into the pot, which nobody could possibly call. That's not how poker works anymore (and I'm not sure it ever really was as portrayed in those old movies, though I don't know that as a point of history).* If I have $500 in front of me and go all-in, you can call my bet even though you only have $100 left. The dealer just pushes $400 back to me.

This is a common misunderstanding among casino newbies. I've several times seen players pull out their wallets, thinking they have to buy more chips in the middle of a hand in order to call a bet that is bigger than the number of chips they have left on the table. It's kind of funny, really, though I try not to laugh. They're not stupid people--they just don't understand how the rules work.

Finally, I have to say a word about string bets/raises. Again, old movies, whether or not they represent how things really were once, they don't accurately portray how things are now. You get one chance to make an unambiguous declaration of what you're going to do, either verbally or by pushing chips forward. The classic tension-filled movie moment in which the hero says, "I'll see your $10,000 [dramatic pause] and raise you another $50,000," would now get the referee's whistle blown as a foul. As soon as you say the word "call," or push forward chips that constitute a call, you forfeit the right to raise. This is to foil people from saying "call" and watching for an opponent's reaction before deciding whether (or how much) to raise.

All of which is a long introduction to what drove me crazy about "Shade." They violated these rules left and right. Now, one might argue that as long as we're dealing with underground poker cheats, who cares about the rules? But everything I've read about illegal poker clubs tells me that they follow modern conventions of table stakes and string bets--because it only makes sense to do so. It's to everybody's advantage to abide by these rules, even if you're out to cheat the other players by breaking a bunch of other rules (like using marked decks, dealing from the bottom, or whatever).

So in this stupid, stupid, stupid movie, over and over again you see things done just like in old Westerns. People announce a call and push in some chips, then pause dramatically, reach into a satchel and pull out bundles of cash, throw them on the table, and say, "And I'll raise you...."

As I said, the movie makers justified doing this because it increased the drama, even though they admit that they know this isn't how the game is played. What BS.

I guess what I find so annoying and baffling about all of this is that poker is intrinsically one of the most dramatic games I know of, which you can see every week by watching real games on the World Poker Tour, or WSOP, or High Stakes Poker. Poker doesn't need puffing up with phony rules to create impossible situations. You don't see, e.g., baseball movies putting 15 defensive players on the field, instead of nine, and excuse it by some need to increase the drama. The game is played by the same rules that pertain in real life. Poker movies can and should do the same.

It is not the requirements of drama, but the laziness of the writers and directors that cause such idiocy to be introduced into poker movies. I hate it.

*There must be at least some truth to it, because I've read a fair number of 19th-century stories involving poker, and characters will do things like leave the table and run to the bank to get more money in the middle of a hand. I assume that writers like Mark Twain and O. Henry wouldn't have such things occurring in their stories if that wasn't part of the poker reality of the day, because they weren't trying to write parodies. Their contemporary readers would have been confused if there wasn't some basic correlation between the game as it was really played and the game as it was portrayed in their fiction.

Addendum, August 30, 2007:

By coincidence, the current issue of Card Player magazine (August 29, 2007, pp. 96-97) has some useful information about 19th-century non-table-stakes games. They've been running a series of articles by James McManus about the history of poker, which I assume are excerpts from his forthcoming book on that subject. This article describes two famous games (one real, one fictional) played that way--and I learned that the term for it was "open stakes." McManus writes:

Many real games of this period were played with open stakes, but too many scams,
kited checks, deeds to twice-mortgaged farms, and other dubious IOUs eventually
led to the near-universal adoption of table stakes. Each player starts every
hand with a verifiable stake on the table, and at no point during the hand may
she remove money or chips from her stack or add any more from her purse, let
alone from a banker across the street. But once she goes all in, she retains
full equity in the main pot as whatever side pots among better-funded players
keep building.


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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Poker gems, #1

I've decided to add a bit of contrast to my usual long rants and stories with occasional brief thoughts that I pick up from whatever poker book or magazine or web site I'm reading.

Most will be just a sentence or a paragraph, but I'm going to start with what will probably be the longest one I ever type out, because it's so good. Although I have seen the phenomenon of the poker cold spell discussed any number of places, nobody I have read previously has nailed the feeling as well as Larry Phillips, in The Tao of Poker (pp. 163-166). Having just recently emerged from a nasty cold streak lately (mid-May to early August), this really struck home, as if Mr. Phillips had been monitoring my thoughts somehow.

I'm reproducing about two pages of text here. I'm aware that this likely runs past the safe margins of the "fair use" doctrine of U.S. copyright law, and if, as a result, the author and/or publisher object, well, I'll delete it. But I hope they won't, and, in fact, I hope they'll recognize that the description will so resonate with every serious player that they'll probably sell a bunch more books by having it posted here, because readers will want to find out what wisdom is in the other 242 pages.

So here we go:

All real gamblers know the feeling that Steve McQueen had in the movie The Cincinnati Kid or Matt Damon in Rounders: that walking-outside-in-the-cold-dawn-after-losing-it-all, completely-tapped-out feeling. They know the feeling of standing in the morning sunlight with their pockets turned out and not a cent to their names.

They know that feeling of serious re-evaluation, of taking stock of one's life. They know the feeling of: Maybe you're in over your head; maybe you never understood this game from Day One and you've been fooling yourself all along. Your opponents had your number all along and you didn't know it. Oh sure, a period occurred when you were running well, and that threw them off briefly--and allowed you to keep the fiction going to yourself--but by and large they had your number all along.

All real gamblers know the Inner Scream. It's like the face in that one painting, The Scream, the oval-headed guy with his mouth open and his hands on his cheeks. It's exactly like that, only it's on the inside. It's a scream for just average luck, not even for good luck anymore. For that wondrous state of affairs where, every time you get annihilated, there is some kind of offsetting win of some kind, somewhere. It is pleading just to break even.

Even the most calm, serene, and composed among us has a limit. It might be 7 losing hands in a row. It might be 7 bad beats in a row; it might be 7 hours or 7 weeks or 7 months. However long it is, there is a limit beyond which our sense of humor begins to leave us.

A true cold spell is a thing of wonder. It is almost breathtaking in its scope and depth. It is breathtaking in the way that it feels as if the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. It's a feeling caused by a combination of events so unlikely, so statistically improbable, that it's really hard to believe. And yet we see it happen right before our eyes, often over and over again.

Statistical occurrences that are 20-1 against, 50-1 against, 100-1 against happen routinely, in an unbroken string. And as a player you know these odds. And you know that they are even longer when combined.

So as a player, you know how unlikely it all is. You know the statistical likekihood of missing the flop a couple of hundred times in a row. You know the statistical likelihood of every player in the game getting playable hands except you--and of having this go on for days--or weeks. You know the statistical likelihood of sitting in a certain seat for eight straight hours without getting a playable hand, only to move to a different seat, and watch the guy who took your old seat start a winning streak that lasts for four straight hours. You know the statistical unlikelihood of this sort of thing, and it is this that creates the emotional component--anger, rage, resentment.

But the annoying part, really, is not the losing. And it's not the money either. Because you can always get more money. It's a feeling of betrayal almost, the appearance of a suddenly topsy-turvy world where logic no longer seems to function, where bad players win effortlessly, and good play is penalized. It's a funhouse-mirror world where logic--and the familiar laws of long experience--no longer apply. It's as if you accidentally dropped something, some object, and now the object falls up, not down. It's the dismissal of a world you knew--or thought you knew.

You question your game. You question deeper things too: your luck (ill-starred from birth?), your fate, your destiny. You start to dredge up the memories of all the losses in your life, going back to grade school and beyond. And in retrospect, they all do seem to form a pattern. You begin to question your grasp of the fundamentals, your body language ("Am I utterly transparent to the other players?"). You begin to question your religion, your God, your place in the universe.

You become the dictionary definition of "indecisiveness"--doubtful, tentative, defensive, and fatalistic. On a personal level, "feeling sorry for yourself" reaches a level you didn't know existed--and certainly wouldn't have believed you were capable of. It reaches the final level, the one that doesn't just soak itself in self pity but involves a thick seasoning of bitterness, anger, and resentment....

Is it a crisis of confidence? No. That's too small, too puny a term for it. We're talking about a complete poker breakdown. We're talking about all phases of one's game heading for the bottom, taking up residence next to the hull of the Titanic. We're talking about the poker equvilent of a nervous breakdown, where you get beat on the river so many times, for so many weeks, that you can almost no longer function in the game.

In the process, you've struggled against novices, amateurs, rookies, first-timers, locals, drunks, and greenhorns. You've struggled as you watched all manner of opponents come and go in the game, rack up chips cheerfully by the basketful and leave. And now, finally, you just lost it. Not over this game, over the whole thing....

You may have started off with a series of annoying losses, but it developed its own momentum after that. Your chief role now is just another body at the table, holding down a chair--taking up space.

For the poker player, macro-tilt is the last straw, the card player's Waterloo. Nothing he or she does seems to work, and though the nightmare may have begun with a statistically unlikely series of events, by this point you're willing to admit that a lot of it probably is your fault. The disaster is self-caused. You admit it.

You've now picked up the ball yourself and are running with it. You've gotten so gun-shy, so shocked when anything good happens that you really aren't sure how to play your hands anymore. Other players sense this too, of course, and walk all over you. Bad players have new confidence when playing against you. Even card room regulars you've intimidated out of their boxer shorts for years are starting to wonder what's the matter with you.

A man once bitten by a snake fears a rotted rope." --Folk saying

Cell phones

You just knew I'd get around to griping about this sooner or later, didn't you? It's commonplace to read/hear people grumbling about other people using cell phones in cars, theaters, restaurants, public transportation, business meetings, etc. So I'll take it upon myself to add poker rooms to the list of places in which cell phones are potentially problematic and rude.

I have to start by saying, though, that I'm somewhat conflicted about this. As a competitor, it's to my advantage to have opponents jabbering away with Aunt Bee about coming to dinner next Thursday, or negotiating a real estate sales price, or ordering a pizza, or whatever. They have that much less attention available for the game, which means that they're more prone to making mistakes.

It also makes their play much more straightforward, in that anything distracting (eating, watching a football game, etc.) makes it much more difficult to bluff. Bluffing takes a lot more thought and attention than textbook, A-B-C, play-your-cards poker does. Anybody who is engaged fairly deeply in conversation or any other activity is only secondarily interested in playing poker, so they tend to play only premium hands, bet/call/raise if they've improved, and fold otherwise so that they can quickly get back to whatever it is that they're really interested in.* In that sense, players on cell phones are unusually easy to deal with, for the most part, because you can pretty much rule out serious trickery going on in their preoccupied brains.

Still, it's just plain tacky and rude. Just as in all those other venues, the rest of us just don't want to have your conversation inflicted on us. I really don't mind the 30-second calls that are basically, "I'm still playing poker. I'll be home in an hour." Those are, I think, harmless and innocuous, and impose pretty minimally on others' ears. The ones who get on my nerves are the idiots who yammer on and on (I once sat at a table at Caesars Palace with a guy who engaged in a 30-minute call!), or who take calls every few minutes.

For those jerks, I have a few thoughts:

1) If you're so in demand that you can't leave those calls for later, then you don't have time to be playing poker. Go attend to whatever personal or family or professional business you have obviously decided is more important than playing poker, and come back some other time when you're genuinely at leisure.

2) This is just a rumor I've heard, so I can't be sure whether it's really true or not. It seems unbelievable, but maybe, just maybe, there's something to it. I've heard that at least SOME models of cell phones have an "off" button or switch. No, really! That's what I've heard! I know it sounds crazy, but who knows?! The same people say that nearly every cell phone service has automatic voice-mail service that kicks in when the phone is turned off. Maybe it's just an urban legend, like the risk of waking up in a tub of ice with a note saying your kidneys have been stolen. But it's worth looking into.

3) You're probably not actually as urgently in demand every minute as you'd like to believe, you egomaniacal idiot. The world just might be able to keep spinning even if you didn't take calls for a couple of hours.

With that out of the way, I feel a need to address poker room rules about cell phone use. It's one of the most non-standardized areas of the rules. In some places, you can't use phones at all.** In some, you just can't use them at the table, but if you step away, you're OK. In others you can talk at the table, as long as you're not in a hand (and they won't deal you a hand if you're on the phone when the cards are dealt). In some, they say cell phones at the table are fine as long as you're not slowing down the game. Finally, some places have no restrictions whatsoever.

To make it even more complicated, some casinos impose diferent rules on cell phone use for poker tournaments than for cash-game play, a distinction that, as far as I can tell, is completely ridiculous and groundless. How can it possibly make any difference? If concern about collusion with an outside agent is the reason for the tournament restriction, then is the casino not concerned about such collusion during its regular games? I can't fathom what motivates treating the two situations differently. It seems completely irrational to me.

Anyway, if I had my own casino, and were free to impose whatever rules I wanted, I think I'd take the tack that brief calls were to be allowed at the table (say, under one minute), but if a player answered the call while in a hand, his hand is ruled dead, and he can't be given cards while he's talking. This is only secondarily to prevent collusion (which I think is a pretty remote worry); it's mainly to prevent these people from slowing down the game--because they definitely do make things creep along with their inattention. Dealers would politely ask players on phones to step away from the table after a minute or so, if it appeared that the call was going to continue. This would not only help prevent the talker from imposing his conversation on everybody, but would facilitate necessary communication at the table (as to where the action is, what the current bet is, and so forth). It would, I hope, also emphasize to people that you're either talking on your stupid phone or you're playing poker--not both.

But still, I have to admit that that would be a pretty arbitrary rule, when so many other distractions are allowed or even actively encouraged: meals delivered to the tables, big plasma TV screens all around, massages available at the table, MP3 players cranking away, etc. Maybe in my own casino I'd get cranky and ban them all, telling people that if they're there to play poker, then play poker, dammit!

Or maybe I'd side with the sharks who like their fish as distracted as possible, and encourage all such side entertainments.

Like I said, I'm conflicted about this whole thing. It's annoying, particularly to somebody like me who has purist tendencies, and who appreciates quietness, but, on the other hand, it makes it that much easier to make money, which is kind of the point of playing.

*I notice the same tendency in myself, on the occasions that I indulge in an ice cream cone while playing. It's kind of inconvenient to play while one hand is full, and my attention keeps going to preventing the thing from dripping, so I revert to tighter hand selection, and I'm more willing to fold when there's a decision to be made. There: to any opponents who hadn't already figured that out about me, now you know.

**In Vegas casinos, this is sometimes imposed by the Nevada Gaming Commission because of the proximity to the sports book. Apparently the regulators don't want people telephoning their friends with the betting lines/spreads established by a casino. This is an idiotic and woefully outdated rule, what with the lines being available within minutes after they change at about a zillion different internet sites that monitor such things constantly. It's perfectly OK to, e.g., take a photograph of a sports book's big board, step outside, and email that photo from your phone/PDA/laptop to anywhere you'd like. It's crazy, in an age of so many ways of transmitting information instantaneously worldwide, to try to stomp out one particular way of doing so (cell phones), while the others are unregulated.

Nevertheless, the poor casinos have to do what the regulators say, with threats of big fines if they're caught not enforcing the rules. I notice this problem most at the Hilton, which is one of the places that has to impose a no-cell-phones rule for its poker room. The staff seem to spend half of their time telling this to people over and over and over again. The people who have to be told this tend to fall into one of two categories. There's the idiots who never noticed the dozens of big signs hung all over the place saying something like "All cell phone use is strictly prohibited in the entire sports book area and poker room by Nevada Gaming Regulations." Then there's the jerks who are perfectly aware of the rule, and just trust that nothing more will happen to them than that they get another polite reminder to get off their phone. This group baffles me. If you don't like or refuse to obey the rules a particular establishment has, why keep going there? Either follow the rules, or boycott the place and tell them why you won't play there. It reveals a lack of personal integrity to patronize an establishment, thereby tacitly agreeing to abide by the applicable rules of conduct, then knowingly violate them time after time.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Whining winners

Last week at the Hilton I was one of three people calling a $12 raise from a guy in first position. The flop was A-K-K. The original raiser checked, as did everybody behind him. Same thing on the turn. Finally on the river the raiser put in a small bet, and the rest of us all folded. He groaned, as he turned over his pocket aces, "Oh, man, couldn't just one of you have had a king?" Apparently, picking up an easy $30 or so (after rake and tip) wasn't enough to satisfy him. Me? I'd be perfectly happy with that result.

Just a couple of hands later, this same guy had a straight, and was facing a large bet on the river. His only concern was whether his opponent had the one possible higher straight. He showed his cards while he was thinking. He said, "I've got the second nuts. Does he really have the nuts? Could I really be that unlucky?"

I couldn't help myself. I said, "The guy who just had pocket aces and flopped a full house is complaining that he's unlucky. Do I have that right?" He glared at me without responding. (Incidentally, he made the call and split the pot; the other guy had the same straight.)

Whining is bad enough in poker when it comes from somebody who just lost a hand, but it reaches its maximal repulsiveness when it comes from the guy who won. This should be grounds for immediate, automatic, unappealable, permanent banishment from the game.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Walking around in casinos

One of the most annoying things about spending a lot of time in casinos is trying to walk around in them. It's a lot harder than it should be.

The first (and, so far, only) time that I visited New York City, I was constantly astonished--and annoyed--at how New Yorkers paid no heed whatsoever to the simple habit of walking on the right. Walking down the sidewalk was a constant struggle of dodging oncoming pedestrians; a hundred times per block you have to do that stupid visual negotiation/dance of "which way are you going?" Even worse were street crosswalks. There was absolutely no effort to keep more or less to the right, and when opposing groups met in the middle of the street, well, if you'll pardon the language, there's just no better work for the resulting tangled chaos than "clusterfuck." It was insane, when such a simple convention (keeping toward the right side) would have prevented most of the conflict. No other city that I've visited has had such determined and consistent mass pedestrian mayhem.

Until, that is, I moved to Las Vegas, and started spending time in casinos. I used to think that only airports and shopping malls rivaled the idiocy of how pedestrians interact on the streets of New York. I was wrong.

Yeah, I know that casino floor plans are carefully designed to make it hard to move efficiently out of them. This is, I assume, for at least two reasons: to make it psychologically harder for people to leave, and for security reasons--to make it hard to bolt from any particular spot for the exit.

But what makes traversing a casino difficult is, I think, far more one's fellow patrons than the layout of the place. The problem is that such a high percentage of the people walking around are totally oblivious to the fact that they're sharing the space with others. I call such airheads "Oblivioids."

I have noticed many identifiable subspecies of Oblivioid:

There's the Cork in a Bottle. This is a group of Oblivioids that congregate, for no good reason, right in the middle of a high-traffic area, to have a discussion about whatever is on their tiny little minds. They have a predilection for doorways, aisle intersections, etc. Naturally, it never occurs to them that they're in the way of dozens of other people, or that by simply moving a little way over, they could clear the path.

There's the Lovebirds. These are the people who stroll holding hands, usually with quite a bit of space between then, la-di-da, paying no attention to the traffic jam they're creating by hogging the entire width of an aisle or hallway.

There's the Chorus Line. These are like the Lovebirds, but without the hand-holding, and there tend to be more of them. The common feature, though, is that they insist on walking two or three or four abreast, no matter how much space this takes up, or what traffic is coming in the opposite direction. Perhaps there's some sort of egalitarianism at work among them here, such that they're incapable of rearranging themselves into single file, even in the narrowest of passages. Heaven forbid that they have to delay their conversation for a minute, until they're in a place where they can stop and chat without being in everybody else's way.

There's the Random Walker. This is the most dangerous subspecies. This is the moron who will, without notice, suddenly dart right or left, hummingbird-like--or even suddenly decide to head the opposite direction, turn on a dime, and slam right into the person behind. It never, ever even begins to dawn on these people that there might be somebody else in the vicinity, until after the collision. When both parties are picking themselves up off the floor, the Random Walker is stunned at the realization that he wasn't the only person in the casino.

There's the Flailer. Like the other subspecies, these idiots somehow delude themselves into believing they're the only ones around. But they manifest their obliviousness by suddenly making wild gestures or other movements with their hands/arms. When out of nowhere you get poked in the eye by a pointing finger, you've just met a Flailer, who couldn't imagine that another human would materialize at the exact place and time he felt an overwhelming urge to wave his arms frantically, trying to get the attention of a friend at the craps table across the room (often with a drink in hand, which, of course, spills all over you).

There's the Misplaced Eyes Monster. It's easy to mistake this type for the Random Walker, but there's a crucial difference. The MEMs don't have eyes at the front of their skulls--or at least act as if they don't. You typically see them steadily observing something of great significance on their right or left, but they keep walking, turning the head farther and farther around, while they continue walking forward. Their version of obliviousness is to be surprised every time that they fail to notice a person in their path who would have been obvious, and easy to avoid a collision with, if their eyes were in the front, like everybody else's. The other natural habitat of the MEM is in conversation with one of their own, standing still. But then they'll suddenly start walking during the last few words of the discussion ("OK, bye, see you next Tuesday!"), while maintaining focused eye contact with their friend. Of course, the direction in which they set off wandering has no relation to where they are looking at the moment they step out. You have to kind of feel sorry for their handicap, though; it must be hard going through life with your eyes on the side of your head instead of in the front (or with your neck chronically craned 90 degrees to one side)--kind of like trying to drive while looking out the side window instead of the windshield. But, boy, are they ever a menace to the rest of us.

There's the Blind Left Turners: When turning left from one hallway to another, these Oblivioids habitually fail to consider the possibility that another person will simultaneously be making the opposite turn using what is, to him, the right-most space available. Of course, the BLTs save maybe two steps by cutting the corner as sharply as possible, and if they happen, in the process, to slam directly into somebody else, oh well, it was unforeseeable, right? A few high-traffic areas have convex mirrors overhead to help prevent injury in such places, but it matters little, because an Oblivioid could never, ever be bothered to look up at a mirror before selecting a trajectory for the corner.

There's the Elevator Stalkers. These numbskulls wait for the elevator directly in front of the door, and start stepping in the instant it opens. They are always shocked, SHOCKED, to discover that there are people already in the elevator who need to get out. Some of them take it to the extreme that they won't even observe the courtesy of letting people out before getting on, even once they realize that there are people trying to exit.

Notice that I'm not griping one bit about people who are slow because they're in wheelchairs or scooters, hobbling on canes, or just walking slowly because they're on vacation and in no particular hurry. Slowness is not the issue here. Like automobile traffic, pedestrian traffic can easily accommodate people using a wide variety of speeds, if people will just follow a few simple guidelines.

Maybe the thing that perpetually mystifies me is that these rules are the same ones that the great majority of people follow pretty much without fail when driving: keep to the right, don't jam up traffic, be careful when passing, look both ways at intersections, be aware of what's going on around you, try not to make sudden, unpredictable changes in your movement (stops or turns), keep your left-hand turns wide and your right-hand turns sharp.

I can't ever figure out why there is such a huge fraction of the population that never thinks to implement the same kind of conventions when walking among a large mass of their peers as they deploy automatically when driving. Perhaps it's because the consequences tend to be less severe than with the same kinds of violations when driving. Maybe it's because there aren't any written rules, nor pedestrian cops to enforce them. Maybe they're all just really stupid. Or maybe they're just self-centered jerks, and it simply cannot occur to them that they should take even minimal precautions to prevent colliding with, inconveniencing, and annoying their fellow walkers.

Whatever the underlying cause is that turns ordinary people into Oblivioids, the effect seems to be more pronounced in casinos than just about anywhere else. Those of us not so afflicted have to take extra defensive measures accordingly.

Addendum, August 19, 2007:

Strange coincidence. I wrote the above last night. This morning I was at the Venetian, waiting for a table. I had read all the good magazines they had, so I was reduced to perusing the awful "Action!" magazine (Summer, 2007, issue). I was startled to discover an editorial titled "Las Vegas: Litter and Slow Moving People," by a guy who just calls himself "Rude Dude." Here's the relevant excerpt:

I have ranted and raved (just a little) in past issues about tourists who
don't know how to walk in Las Vegas. You know the ones who stop right at the top
of the escalator to look around! Or the slow moving herd of people who decide to
walk side by side on Las Vegas sidewalks and in the casinos. Hellooo there are
people behind you...

I am going to run for Mayor just so I can pass my "Keep Moving" law. It
would be a simple campaign. There would be public service announcements that say, "Keep Moving." If you slow down the person behind you has the right to moo like
a cow so you will get the heck out of the way.