Friday, September 07, 2007

Another bad poker movie

"No Limit: A Search for the American Dream on the Poker Tournament Trail" (; is a 2006 documentary about a divorced couple with a film production company who decide to try using a series of poker tournaments to win enough money to fund some other film project (never specified) that they want to do. Only the female partner of this team, Susan Genard, plays poker, so it's all on her.

The small gripes: They have a small son named Brick. BRICK??? Who in the hell names a child Brick?

For non-players of poker, Susan's descriptions of what happened to her in tournaments will just be gibberish, because there is absolutely no attempt made to explain the game. When she says something like "I had A-A-2-3 double-suited," nobody who hasn't played Omaha high-low will get the meaning, or how good a hand it is, or what one would normally expect to happen with such a starting hand. Her ex, hearing such things, perhaps reflects the typical non-expert viewer, with a blank stare and sort of forced attempt to be sympathetic, when he has no clue what she's talking about.

There are a lot of brief snippets of interviews with well-known poker players, but I thought most of the screen time they had was wasted answering what we must assume were the same couple of questions asked of them: What is the American dream, and can you attain it by playing poker for a living? In my opinion, that's about the least interesting thing you could ask these people, but that's nearly all we get to hear them talking about.

There's almost no poker in the movie. We hear Susan talking about hands that she lost, but don't get to see any action. We don't even get periodic updates as a tournament progresses, in order to get a sense of when she's doing well or otherwise. Most of the tournament coverage shows her buying in, getting her seat assignment, then the end of the hand with which she busts out some hours later. There is more time in the movie on mundane crap like getting a babysitting for their kid than seeing the poker.

My biggest complaint, though, is how Susan deals with losing time after time. To put it mildly, she's a whiner. Her excuses are what most bad players say when they lose: She couldn't catch any cards, she took bad beats, she had bad luck, she got assigned to the toughest table there was, they gave her an unlucky table or seat number, etc. No kidding, she even blames her ex for one loss, because he "invaded [her] poker space" without her permission by leaving a shirt draped over her chair at the table, thus bringing her bad luck. She was not joking. The one time she does well in a tournament (an Omaha event at the World Series of Poker), she's one of the chip leaders when there are only about 20 players left. She's so arrogant that she says that winning the bracelet will be a "gimmee." You have to be incredibly naive or egotistical to think that any such event is going to be a cakewalk going from 20 people to the title. Sure enough, she busts out in 10th place, not even making the final table of nine. It's her biggest cash yet, a little under $9000, but there was the little matter of the $5000 entry fee reducing the profit just a bit.

Because we essentially never see her play even a single hand, I can't say whether she's a good player. But I can say definitively that that kind of crap is exactly what one expects from bad players, and not what one expects from good players. Not once do we hear her say that she played badly, either overall or just in any one hand. Her reasons for losing are always anything and everything except for the one thing that she can control, which is how she plays. I think it is unrealistic, perhaps even impossible, for a player with such an enormous blind spot to reality to have any long-term success in poker. Denial is a powerful force. It's ubiquitous among poker players. Nobody who fails to overcome it will accomplish much in this game, I believe. I found it annoying to have to listen to more complaints and excuses from a losing player, when I'm subjected to so much of the same every day.

I think Susan needs to read Your Worst Poker Enemy by Alan Schoonmaker. It's a book entirely devoted to the psychological/emotional factors in poker. One of its major themes is breaking down the walls of denial of reality that prevent people from improving, and even from playing as well as they know how to. It's much easier to blame bad luck, other players, the table you draw, or anything else, rather than look inward.

It became apparent to me early on in the year of tournaments that Susan couldn't do this, so she was virtually guaranteed to end up a long-term loser. Perhaps if I could have seen her perform brilliantly in a few hands, I'd have started with more hope for her. But because it seemed inevitable to me that she would fail, there was zero drama or tension in watching the year of tournaments play out. It was just loss after predictable loss. And there was no evidence that she took lessons, sought advice, hired a coach, read a book, or did anything else to improve. Of course not--if you fancy yourself a great player, and your negative results are all because of bad luck, why bother with such things, right?

Daniel Negreanu reviewed this movie on his blog: (He appears in it.) His impression was vastly different from mine. In contrast to his feeling, I experienced not one little bit of sympathy for her, and actually found her to be a pretty annoying person that I don't think I'd want to spend much time around. I also think Daniel is way off base in his analysis of the relationship between Susan and her ex. She blames him for things that aren't his fault; she won't be honest with him about the money issues they're facing; and she breaks the one promise she made to him near the beginning (no cash games, only tournaments). Those aren't small things--lack of openness and trust are deadly poison to serious relationships--and we never see them get anywhere near a decent resolution of any of them. Daniel says that he can't see why they're divorced. I can, easily. In fact, I can't imagine her having a successful relationship with anybody as long as she has those traits. (Tim, the male half of the film company partnership, presumably has his issues as well, but because the movie really focuses more on Susan, it's harder to judge what they might be. However, the fact that he leaves his two other children, from a different marriage, at home in Maine while he follows Susan around the country to poker tournaments, doesn't imply good things about his parenting skills and priorities.)

There's potential cinematic gold in good documentaries about the poker tournament world. "No Limit," though, falls short by every possible measure. I suppose it's not as much of a stinkeroo as the dramas I reviewed a while back (, but it was a big disappointment.

Poker gems, #12

Lou Krieger:

I believe in poker the way I believe in the American Dream. Poker is good for you. It enriches the soul, sharpens the intellect, heals the spirit, and—when played well—nourishes the wallet.

Poker gems, #11

Bobby Baldwin (in an interview for the documentary “No Limit”):

Most of life is understanding other people, in business, or in your personal life. If you don’t understand other people, you probably don’t understand yourself, and you’re not going to be a successful card player. It’s all about people, and it has virtually nothing to do with the cards. The cards are just there as a medium to kind of confuse the bad players into thinking it’s luck.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Poker gems, #10

Mario Puzo:

Man needs his foolish dreams perhaps more than he needs anything else. He must forget the hardship and pain of life. It can be argued that man's instinct to gamble is the only reason he is still not a monkey up in the trees.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Poker gems, #9

Phil Laak, master of the obvious, on "High Stakes Poker," season 4, episode 2:

People are always trying to beat you. That's the problem with poker.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The punctuation of poker

The Hilton recently acquired a new board for displaying its high-hand jackpots. Today was the first time since it was installed that I sat at the table closest to it. That allowed me to notice something I hadn't seen from across the room: 13 erroneous apostrophes, a sampling of which can be seen in the photograph. (Yeah, yeah, yeah: I used my cell phone in the poker room to take a picture. So sue me!)

Hey, Hilton staff: I love you guys--I really do. But somebody there should have checked a punctuation usage guide (or just asked anybody with a little editing experience) before shelling out the bucks to have this 13-fold blunder custom-made into big lettering.

No matter how often one sees it done (and it is painfully frequent these days), apostrophes are not used to indicate plurals--with rare exceptions.* "Jack" and "queen" and "king" and "ace" are ordinary words, and just as in this paragraph I didn't write "apostrophe's" or "plural's" or "exception's" or "word's," it's wrong, wrong, wrong to have "Jack's," "Queen's," "King's," and "Ace's" up there on your jackpot board.

Using an apostrophe to make the plural of a numeral (e.g., "8's") isn't as obviously wrong, but it's still wrong, or, at best, unnecessary. It works just fine to write "8s."

Don't believe me? Check any style guide in print, or these online ones:

and about a zillion other similar works available at the click of a mouse. (This isn't exactly obscure information.)

For a delightful book-length rant on the modern misuse of punctuation, and why it matters, pick up a copy of Lynn Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. She has a whole chapter on the poor, abused apostrophe.

Does it matter? Well, yes and no. It's certainly true that nobody looking at the sign will be left wondering about the basic meaning, just because there are a few extra punctuation marks. But it matters in the sense of showing that one doesn't care about getting things right.

Let me suggest a poker analogy. It is common for card room novices to mix up the terms "bet" and "raise" and "re-raise." For example, the first person to act after the flop will sometimes say "raise" before putting in a bet. To experienced ears, this sounds like a musician hitting a wrong note. There is no previous bet to raise. Sometimes the dealer will even point out the error, saying something like, "You can't raise, because there has been no prior bet on this round. But you can bet if you'd like." Sometimes they'll just mercifully let it go in silence. There is no serious problem with anybody mistaking the newbie's intention, but it's just plain wrong to announce "raise" in that situation.

Similarly, everybody looking at this sign will understand perfectly well what it's saying. But people with experience using written language according to the traditional rules will immediately notice the errors. It's just as jarring as hearing poker terms used incorrectly at the table. In both cases, it show carelessness, and/or an unfamiliarity with the basic tools and components of the relevant language. I don't think that's an image one would want to project. So I'm going to be like the dealer who gently corrects a green player's misunderstanding of terminology.

To the Hilton poker room staff: You might check to see if the printer will make up a new sign for you without 13 punctuation errors on it. Otherwise, I might have to sneak in there some time when the room is dark, with my bottle of Wite-Out.

*See, e.g.,

Addendum, September 12, 2007

Some poker rooms offer a progressive jackpot to the loser of a pot in which one very strong hand beats another strong hand. In an advertisement in this week's edition of Card Player magazine, the Hustler Casino in Gardena, CA, mentions that their so-called "bad beat jackpot" requirement is "Aces' Full of Ten's Beaten by Four-of-a-Kind or Better."

Within the same advertisement, however, they correctly make various other plural nouns: "games," "cards," "details," and "rules." I cannot fathom why somebody there--probably more than one person, given how many people are typically involved in writing and laying out a full-page ad--thinks that there is something different about "aces" and "tens." Morons, every one of them.

What--chips into the pot aren't enough for you?

Every time I think I've seen it all, some idiotic player comes up with a new way to complain. This time it was a guy who--no kidding--thought that his opponent putting the right number of chips into the pot wasn't enough to constitute a call of his bet.

Hilton, Sunday. Player A is a 60-ish Floridian I've never seen before, one of those who likes to brag that he usually plays at much, much higher stakes than this--which is incredibly annoying and condescending. Player B, on my immediate right, is a 20-something tourist, friendly and inoffensive. I didn't learn either of their names. A is clearly a more experienced player, but B is a whole lot more fun to be around.

They get involved heads-up in a pot. The final board is A-4-3-4-5, with no flushes possible. Player A has been leading the betting all the way, with B just calling. The same pattern occurs on the river. A bets $40. B thinks quite a while, with the $40 in chips already counted out and in his right hand.

Finally he decides to call. He puts the chips well over the betting line with his right hand, and maybe half a second later flips up his hole cards with his left hand. He has A-9, for two pair (aces and fours) with a 9 kicker.

Player B nods in apparent acknowledgement. He picks up his down cards with one squarely on top of the other, and flashes the face of the bottom card to Player A. I see it, too--a 3. Then he tosses both cards face-down toward the dealer (Jessica), who dutifully mucks them. Jessica then begins to push the pot to B.

Here's where the surprising thing happened. As A sees the pot going past him toward B, he gets a startled look on his face and says, "Hey, what are you doing?"

Several of us at once say, "You mucked your cards!" He protests that Player B never called the $40 bet on the river. Apparently he was so distracted with looking at B's turned-up cards that he didn't notice that that action was preceded by B putting eight red chips out in front of him.

Player B was playing straight up, no doubt at all in my mind about that. He did nothing at all to conceal or mask his action. He wasn't shooting an angle, trying to barely have the chips touch the betting line, or any funny business like that. And I was watching him--he unquestionably put the chips in before exposing his hand (although it wouldn't have made any difference; in cash games when heads-up, it's usually allowed to expose one's hole cards to see if an opponent will react to them, before deciding what to do). He did nothing wrong whatsoever, just took the unusual (but not illegal or unethical, by any means) step of showing his hand first, rather than waiting for the bettor to show first. It's true that he never verbally announced "call," but he doesn't have to--actions with chips speak for themselves, by every rulebook of poker ever written.

Player A then compounded his problem by attempting, first, to pull the pot toward him. Jessica sternly rebuked him for this. He then attempted to fish his cards out of the muck. Again, Jessica correctly covered the muck with her hands and told him that he was not allowed to touch the cards. She did all this while calling for the floor person (Ken).

After sorting out the usual cacophony of voices and opinions offered to him all at once, Ken made the only possible decision: the pot went to Player B. Each player has the resonsibility to know what other players' actions have been, and to ask the dealer if it isn't clear.

Player A just screwed up--it's that simple. He failed to notice B putting out his chips, and, upon seeing B's cards face up, assumed, without asking, that B was folding. On the strength of that error and that assumption, he mucked his hand after flashing the 3.

His whole argument came down to two points. First, he claimed that Jessica hadn't announced the call. She says that she did. I don't know whether she did or not; because I knew by watching him that B had made the call, I would have completely tuned out the redundant announcement even if I had heard it. Furthermore, there is no rulebook in existence that says that a dealer failing to announce a player's action makes it as if that action hadn't occurred!

Second, he claimed to have had pocket 3s, for a full house (3s full of 4s). We should believe him, he said, even without having seen his second card, because he wouldn't bet $40 with just the lowest pair on the board. Oh, right--there's no such thing as bluffing in his world, I guess.

Well, too bad, dude. You folded your hand before the dealer awarded the pot, end of story.

In The Professional Poker Dealer's Handbook by Paymar, Harris, and Malmuth, p. 18, we find this (emphasis in original):

1. Players must protect their own hands at all times. This
may be the most important rule in all of poker. A hand may be declared
"dead" if even one card touches the muck or if another player's card touches a
hand that is not protected.... Although the dealer should be aware of only
mucking discarded hands, a player who fails to take reasonable means to protect
his or her hand usually has no recourse if the hand becomes fouled or if the
dealer accidentally collects an unprotected hand.

While it is not necessary for the winner of a pot to show the hand if there
were no callers, it is suggested that the player protect the winning hand until
the dealer is actually pushing the pot to him. The dealer should not ask the
player to relinquish the winning hand before pushing the pot.

I read this shortly before attending poker dealer's school, and it changed how I do things. I now habitually hang on to my down cards until the pot is coming my way (if I'm the winner, or think I am). That way, if the pot is heading to somebody else by mistake, I still have a live hand I can show to claim it. I look at the transaction as a trade: my cards for the pot. Since starting this practice, I have twice accidentally mucked the winning hand (by misreading the board--until it was too late), but I have never had to forfeit a pot that was rightfully mine because of releasing my cards prematurely and letting the dealer muck them before the pot was pushed, or because the dealer uncorrectably pushed the pot to the wrong person. Retaining the cards makes any such error easily correctable.*

The same concept is expressed in Cooke's Rules of Real Poker, p. 75, rule 11.10:
A player with a hand he believes to be the winning hand is responsible to
hold onto his own hand until the pot is awarded. No player with an interest in
the pot should release his hand to the dealer until his portion of the pot has
been pushed to him.

Kreiger and Bykofsky use nearly identical language in their Rules of Poker, p. 140, rule 5.22:
A player holding what he believes to be the winning hand should retain his hand
until the pot is awarded. A player with an interest in the pot should not
release his hand until the dealer pushes the pot, or his portion of the pot, to

Finally, we have "Robert's Rules of Poker," most recently Version 10 (found at numerous places around the Web, such as
Cards speak (cards read for themselves). The dealer assists in reading hands,
but players are responsible for holding onto their cards until the winner is

So in terms of the rules and how they apply here, this wasn't even a close call. Player A in today's incident was just a guy who made a mistake--two mistakes, actually (not noticing that his bet had been called, then throwing away his hand before the dealer pushed him the pot) and was looking to place the blame everywhere except where it belonged--squarely on himself.

Player B rightly got the pot--not necessarily by having the best hand (because we don't know who did), but by having the only hand turned face-up on the table after the final bet and call. I was glad that he didn't apologize or appear to feel guilty over the decision going his way (as it had to, under the circumstances). He did nothing wrong--at least as far as the rules are concerned. (Making that call with his hand was pretty questionable, though!)

Player A, if you're reading this, I have a message for you: I hope that you learned a valuable lesson today. It only cost you about $240 or so--chump change for a guy who is used to playing for tens of thousands at a time, as you claim to do. Maybe it will save you from losing a pot back home in your Big Game there, and you'll come to see it as having been a cheap piece of education. Pity that in all your years of playing for such high stakes, you never bothered to learn some of the most basic rules of the game.

*Incidentally, dealers are supposed to award the pot before killing the winning hand, just to prevent that kind of problem, but unfortuntely many don't follow that correct sequence. Sooner or later, players who don't hold on to their cards until receiving the pot will lose one in an ugly controversy such as today's incident became.

Ladies at the table

Many poker rooms have rules regarding one's speech. At least as posted on the wall, the proscription is generally against something like "abusive" language. Some, though, basically enforce only a rule against dropping f-bombs.

I'm not going to rehash here the debate over the wisdom of a no-effenheimer rule. Those interested can read several columns in Card Player magazine that have argued for and against the rule, at least as applied to tournaments:

I think it's obvious to everybody that even in poker rooms with a no-f-word rule, it is enforced with hopeless inconsistency. I suspect that nearly everyone--those who like the rule and those who dislike it--would agree that arbitrary, inconsistent enforcement is worse than either alternative (having the rule and consistently enforcing it, or having no such rule at all).

For now, I just want to focus on one particular brand of inconsistency that I have heard way too many times from dealers trying to quash the f-bombs: "There's a lady at the table."

Please. What century are these dealers living in? I assume that there is no card room in the nation that has a rule that prohibits the f-word only when a female is within earshot. So why do some dealers pretend that this is the basis for enforcing the rule? Do these dealers really believe that women need to be protected from this particular word more than men do? If so, what planet are they from? This is, without a doubt, the stupidest reason I've ever heard for not swearing at the poker table, but it comes up with surprising frequency--a couple of times a month, on average, I would guess.

Dealers, you have to make peace with yourself and your employer about how aggressively to enforce your rules. And, frankly, I'll likely find some reason to gripe about it no matter what, because if you sweep the fairly harmless, passing, impersonal f-bombs along with the vicious, fighting-words variety, I'll point out how stupid it is to focus on a single word in the dictionary without regard to context and intent; if you enforce it inconsistently, I'll point out how arbitrary and unfair you're being; and if you have no rule about language or have one and don't enforce it, I'll complain that your card room is an unpleasant place to play. I understand that there's no perfect solution.

But of all the alternatives available to you, the brand of selective enforcement that kicks in only in the presence of two X chromosomes is absolutely the worst one you can pick. Please stop using this as your justification--unless, of course, you're also going to require that male players pull out and push in chairs for female players, tip their baseball caps to women, and rise when any female stands up to leave the table.