Saturday, November 03, 2007

Pokker Playar Noospapper needs gooder riting

I really enjoy reading most poker periodicals: Card Player, Bluff, All In, Poker Pro, and Poker Player.

I've mentioned previously that, as a former editor, I'm bothered more than most people by bad prose and typographical errors. Most poker publications are about average in the quality of their editing, compared to the magazine industry as a whole. Card Player is quite a bit better than average. Given its relatively small market, they do an admirable job over there.

Then there's one that is just horrible: Poker Player newspaper ( It is riddled with more errors and just plain awful, first-draft writing than any publication that I regularly read in any subject. It's as if they don't know what a copy editor is. For them, I'll explain: it's a person whose job it is to fix at least the obvious problems with spelling, grammar, and punctuation. If this person is also authorized to help the writers with clarity, forcefulness, euphony, rhythm, and other aspects of good writing, all the better. But at a bare minimum, you have to weed out the errors that make it look like it was written by sixth-graders, or you lose credibility with readers and advertisers who care about the language.

Not the entire publication is this way. Columns by Mike Caro and I. Nelson Rose are almost always pristine, or nearly so. At the other end of the spectrum are the pieces by Jennifer Matilan and Donald Woods (who, in his most recent column, wrote that something increased "traumatically," when he presumably meant "dramatically"--hey, no problem, they mean almost the same thing, right?). It appears that for both of them having a coherent thought is a Herculean struggle, let alone putting it into words.

Given this range in the quality of writing, I get the distinct impression that the writers send their work in, and it gets shunted directly to the layout people for placement on the page, without anybody ever looking at it critically for problems with the clarity, orthography, and general writing quality. There is no copy editor mentioned in the staff listing, which, I suppose, shouldn't be too surprising.

Well, I've finally had my fill of it. I've been reading this rag consistently for well over a year without saying or doing anything about it, and the slow boil has finally set off the kettle's whistle. I'm feeling like Howard Beale in "Network":

You've got to say, "I'm a HUMAN BEING, Goddamnit! My life has VALUE!" So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to
get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and

OK, maybe I'm not quite that hot and bothered, but it is damn annoying to have such good information sullied by such lousy writing and editing week after week after week.

So I'm going to do something about it--something possibly even more effective than sticking my head out the window and yelling at the neighbors.

I've spent the last few hours going through the current issue with a pen and circling all of the examples I could find of typos, misuses of punctuation, sentence fragments, missing words, ambiguities, and just plain bad writing. I then typed them all out in this format:

Original: Relying solely on hyper aggressive play
Corrected: Relying solely on hyper-aggressive play
Comment: I could also live with an unhyphenated hyperaggressive, but hyper aggressive as two separate words is unambiguously wrong.

Original: Yang’s a long time fan of
Corrected: Yang is a long-time fan of
Comment: This is another one of a zillion compound adjectives that, for some reason, you don’t want to hyphenate. As for the contraction, it’s usually better in formal and semi-formal writing to omit the great majority of them. There are exceptions, but this is not one of them. (Lest you think me a hypocrite, I do not judge the present communication to be either formal or semi-formal. My intention is to write just as I would speak if we were face to face. For that purpose, things like it’s and don’t in this paragraph work better than the alternative, because it is and do not would sound unnatural.) Here the reader’s eye sees Yang’s and expects the next word to be a noun, because Yang’s looks like a possessive pronoun. Yang’s isn’t technically wrong here, but you remove the ambiguity, look less lazy, and simultaneously inject a touch of elegance into the writing by omitting the contraction.

Original: just as respectable as chess…
Corrected: just as respectable as chess.
Comment: I mentioned the misuse of the ellipsis earlier. Matiran is a flagrant offender, doing this four times in one column. This is a sure sign of somebody who simply has no clue about how to use standard punctuation. Aside from the obvious case of an omission from a quotation, the only legitimate use of the ellipsis is to indicate an unfinished thought or a trailing off into silence (the technical term for which is aposiopesis). There are occasions when this rhetorical device might be appropriate in a column, but not a single one of Matiran’s four uses is of this nature.

I was planning on doing the entire issue, but just couldn't stomach it after the first six hours or so. I made it through half of the contents, and the list of problems takes up 14 pages in a Microsoft Word document--and most of them do not have extensive comments like the examples above.

Next I'm going to email this document to the publisher, editor, and managing editor, with a suggestion that they are sorely in need of a good copy editor. If they want to hire me for the job, I just might take it. Of course, it's more likely that they'll just ignore me as a raving lunatic. They can't cut off my subscription in retaliation, though, because I pick it up free at poker rooms around town. (Perhaps they'll require the rooms to post my picture with a warning, "Do not give our publication to this man!")

Regardless of what the response is, your intrepid reporter will faithfully post it here.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Poker gems, #46

Jennifer Tilly, in her Bluff Magazine column, November, 2007, about being knocked out of a British tournament when her Broadway straight fell to an opponent's quad 9s:

The English have a thing they do when they leave the table. They stand up, shake everybody's hand, and say, "Well played" to the person who knocked them out. This strikes me as exceedingly sportsmanlike of them. In America, they say, "I can't believe you sucked out on me!" or "What a donkey call," or (contemptuously) "Nice river!"

I stand up and shake Mikael's hand. I want to say, "Quads, you lucky son of a bitch!" but I don't. I am in England now. "Well played," I say.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Poker gems, #45

Todd Brunson, "God Save the Queen," column in Card Player magazine, vol. 20, #21, October 24, 2007, p. 54, on his recent trip to London:

We spent an entire day at the Tower of London and still didn't see everything there.... The dungeons gave me great imagery for my fantasies of what I'd like to do to some of the guys who lay bad beats on me. The rack, the thumbscrew, and the boot are OK for most, but I'm saving bowel removal before beheading for the one-outers.

Strange night at the Venetian

Halloween in a casino can be surreal. At a minimum, I spotted a caveman, Superman, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Ali G, a cat, a belly dancer, mob enforcers, Ozzie Osbourne, a bumblebee, a Mexican bandito, and a young woman doing a spot-on impersonation of a Venetian cocktail waitress.

OK, she may have been an actual Venetian cocktail waitress. It's hard to tell for sure.

It's the same with all the people dressed as pimps and hos. There's just no telling which of them are in holiday costumes and which are just dressed for work the same as every other day.


Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Poker gems, #44

John Vorhaus, in his "Killer Poker" column in Poker Player newspaper, October 29, 2007, p. 34:

It's fine to tell lies to other players at the table; you're right that that's part and parcel of the game. But telling lies to yourself is something that simply cannot be tolerated....

Remember: Deception is what you do to others; delusion is what you do to yourself.

Funding online poker accounts is a pain

Is online poker rigged? I doubt it, but who knows, really? This I do know, however: It is a royal pain in the butt to put money into an online poker site.

I haven't had occasion to do that in a long time, because I just don't play online much. But last week I learned that a site I like a lot (and keep referring to, in case you hadn't noticed),, was having a private tournament on Full Tilt Poker tonight. I wanted to participate, because it's people I chat with often. The tournament was only $5.50--surely I had that much sitting in my FTP account, right? Nope. The cashier said I had exactly $0.01. Hmmm. I don't think that will cut it.

NetTeller used to be so slick. Once it was set up, click-click-click, money in from your checking account and zapped to the poker site in mere seconds, or back again when cashing out, all for free. *sigh* Those were the days, my friend.

No more. The nasty, stupid, detestable bill that Congress put through last year made NetTeller scared to death, and they stopped accepting business from U.S. addresses. Now we're left with all of the expensive, awkward, clunky, difficult-to-use, exasperating alternatives.


I first tried my epassporte account. I've had this for years, and it has worked fine, except that they steal 5% of what I want to send to an online site. Fine, I'll pay their ransom this once, I thought. But I tried it several times from the FTP software, and it wouldn't go through, and wouldn't explain why. So I logged onto and found a cheery message telling me that my account had been placed into some sort of security-review hold status. So I sent their customer service center an email asking, y'know, WTF? This was six days ago. As of today, no response. So, getting desperate as the hour of the tournament approached, I called them. Got put on hold for almost 30 minutes. Finally the person at the other end confirmed what that cheery message said about my account, but couldn't tell me anything about why or what it meant or what had to be done to fix it. She promised to pass the problem on.

Well, at least they were quick about it. Within about half an hour I had an email telling me to check my messages at the epassporte site. I did, and it told me they needed more documents to verify the account. I'm guessing this is because I moved from Minnesota to Nevada since the last time I used their service, so something in my bank account routing number had changed, or maybe a public-records database search found the change in driver's license. Whatever. They needed me to scan my Nevada DL and latest bank statement and email them back. So I did. Now they tell me that they'll have somebody review those documents real soon. Yeah. Right. Just as fast as you nimrods reply to your customer-service emails, I'll bet.


Plan B: Last week when I couldn't put through an epassporte transaction, the FTP site suggested that I try their newest funding option, something called "GatorPay." Officially what one does at GatorPay is buy long-distance telephone charge cards. But from what I can tell, it's largely a sort of back-door way of funding online gambling, because, unlike most phone card systems, this one will let you authorize a vendor to take money off of your prepaid card. You can see how that would be handy.

So I slog through the page after page of information that they need to set up an account, including a bunch of security questions. The last step is that their computer has to call my home phone number to verify that it works. Well, that's a problem. You see, I live in a stupid apartment complex with a stupid 1970s vintage phone system that has one stupid phone number for everybody; you have to dial a stupid extension for a specific apartment after the stupid switchboard answers at the stupid main number. This is frequently a problem online, because the stupid forms almost never give you enough space to add in the stupid "extension." GatorPay's did let me put in the stupid digits, but I was confident that their stupid computer would disregard them and couldn't handle the extra business about waiting for an answer, then punching in a stupid three-digit extension. Sure enough, the verification call that I needed in order to complete setting up the account never came through.

So I called GatorPay's customer service and explained the problem. The guy was very understanding and said that it was no problem, he could call the number manually and do the verification. Well, at least he usually could, but not right then, because their whole system had crashed. I checked in a couple more times over the next few hours, and the web site was down, too. This does not inspire confidence in the technology to which one is giving access to one's bank account.

I kind of forgot about the whole thing until today. While I was waiting for epassporte's response this afternoon, I tried GatorPay again. I couldn't log onto their system because it said it had no such account. Hmmm. Well, maybe when the verification step never occurred I got deleted after a day or two, for security reasons. That would make sense. So I tried to create a new account. But after the first page of data, the system told me, "It appears that you already have an account with us." So I tried logging in again, and it wouldn't let me. I tried the "forgot my password" option, in case maybe I had typed it wrong, and that seemed to be a dead link that didn't do squat.

I called customer service and related the whole sorry tale. Predictably, they had nothing about me in their system. The guy assured me that I had no account there and it would be no problem to set one up from scratch. He didn't seem to grasp that I had just tried that, and had hit an electronic brick wall, because the system did, in fact, recognize me. This is where he started grasping at straws. He asked me if I had had accounts at other online gambling funding sites. Well, yeah, NetTeller, and a couple of others that I used to use when I was in Minnesota and brick-and-mortar casinos were few and far between. He said that was the reason, that I wouldn't be able to set up a GatorPay account, because their system recognized me from my business with those other sites.

Now, this makes absolutely no sense. First, I doubt that they can actually gain access to those other businesses. (Unless, that is, GatorPay is secretly associated with them in some way, which I kind of doubt.) Second, it would be utter lunacy to set up a business such as this that would automatically reject every potential customer that had ever dealt with their competitors. That's like Apple saying, "Sorry, you can't buy a Mac, because we see that you've owned an IBM previously." It's like Delta refusing you as a passenger because their records showed that you once flew United.

So obviously this guy is either a charlatan or a madman. Since he tells me that there is nothing more he can do, I ask to be transferred somewhere else. He sends the call to the security department. To this guy I relate the whole thing. Again. He checks, verifies that I have no account there, and tells me--wait for it--that there is no reason I can't set up an account at GatorPay. No, he has no idea why it won't let me do just that. That's not really a security matter, he oh-so-helpfully informs me. It's an IT issue. No, I can't talk to IT personally, he has to pass on a message.

Maybe I'll get an email back from somebody at GatorPay, someday. Maybe I won't. You want to place a bet on that? Well, I would take your bet, but first we have to do some background checks on you. It'll only take a few days.

A savior (which is not Christ the Lord, in this particular instance)

In the meantime, I posted a note of regret on the AVP forum, explaining my dilemma and why I wouldn't get to register in the tournament. A white knight came to my rescue and offered to transfer me a few bucks from his FTP account, somebody I don't even recall chatting with before (though presumably he recognized me from my posts). I shot him the money via PayPal, and he made the transfer on FTP. The whole thing took four emails and about three minutes. Thank you, jlindley9, whatever your real name might be! Even in this high-tech age, sometimes actual humans--even strangers--are more reliable and efficient than computers.

Oh, the tournament? I did great, just great! As per my usual lack of online prowess, I finished in 17th place. Out of 24 players. Guess I gotta keep working on that aspect of my poker game. At least now I have a little money in place to do it with, no thanks to the businesses that are allegedly set up specifically to facilitate it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Phil Hellmuth is bad at math

I thought I couldn't dislike Phil Hellmuth more than I already did. Turns out I was wrong about that. In fact, I'm thinking now that my capacity for disliking him may actually be infinite. Still, I didn't know, until last night, that I would end up including "poor math skills" on my list of reasons for disliking him.

On this week's installment of GSN's "High Stakes Poker" an interesting situation came up. The hand itself was pretty unremarkable, as you can see from the cards shown in the accompanying screenshot. What was interesting was whiny Phil Hellmuth's negotiations for "insurance" on the hand.

In this game, $67,000 pots are bigger than average, but not all that unusual. In most episodes there are one or two pots that climb into the $100,000-$200,000 territory. So to start off with, it's strange for a player to be so afraid of losing that he'd seek insurance on a pot of this size. Nobody else at the table would even think of it--only Phil, who, for some reason, just can't stand losing a biggish pot. This is particularly strange, since he is up by a couple hundred grand for this session, as he has already bragged.

But OK, it's his right in this game to try to reduce the chance that Eli Elezra will catch a lucky card and steal this pot from him. They could agree to run the last card twice, for example, and it would be highly unlikely that Eli would luck out twice in a row, so Phil would be almost guaranteed at least half of the pot. Another possibility is one that Eli explicitly offered: give Eli a quarter of the pot and take three-quarters for himself. I've seen Phil make this kind of arrangement when he's in a dominant position and all-in against Barry Greenstein in a previous season; if I recall correctly, Phil was something like a 90% favorite, and Greenstein agreed to give him 80% of the pot, and they didn't even play out the rest of the cards. In Greenstein's more rational view, he'll take the expected value that Phil is giving up, and not worry about the variance.

For some reason, though, Phil this time wants to go the "insurance" route. That is, he wants to pay somebody a small amount if he wins the hand and, in exchange, be paid a larger amount in the event that Eli draws out on him. This is where it starts to get strange.

I have the episode on my hard drive, so I can play it back and do a verbatim transcript. Phil says, "Queen is a chop. All right, I'm just going to insure against a nine or a jack."

Here's Phil's first mistake. It's true that a queen on the river chops the pot, because both players would have two pairs, kings and queens with a 10 kicker. But Phil fails to notice that a 10 also produces a split pot, because it gives both players tens and kings with a queen kicker.

Phil continues: "So it's eight outs.... 36 to eight is the actual odds. I'm a 4 1/2 to 1 favorite."

That's his second and third mistakes. Eli actually has only seven outs to win the pot outright: the four remaining jacks to make a straight, and the three remaining 9s to make a better two pairs. Additionally, Phil is strangely counting the cards that make for a chopped pot as being on his side. (Sam Farha folded a 9 and a 10, which would affect the calculation if Phil knew about them, but he doesn't, so we'll consider them as unknowns, treating them the same as the ones still in the dealer's hand.)

The actual odds, not counting the queens and 10s, are 31 cards for Phil and seven cards for Eli, which is 4.4:1 (which, by coincidence, happens to be close to what Phil said, though he was wrong in how he got there). If you account for the pot-splitting cards by adding them to both players' sides of that ratio, it's 37:13, or only 2.8:1.

Phil asks for insurance at 4:1. "I'm 4 1/2 to 1. I'll take 4 to 1. I'm letting you have above 10%. You're getting 12 1/2% juice. That's pretty good."

Brandon Adams takes him up on it for $40,000 to $10,000. That is, Hellmuth is to pay Adams $10,000 if he wins the hand, and collect $40,000 from Adams if Elezra sucks out on him. Then Farha joins the deal for an additional $8000 to $2000.

The dealer puts out the river card: a queen, and the pot is split.

Now Hellmuth says, "It's a split pot, nobody has to pay any insurance."

Farha objects, but then both Jamie Gold and Daniel Negreanu remind him that Phil specified that he was only insuring against a jack or a 9, and Farha, for some reason, accepts that.

But that's what is most strange here. You would expect Adams and Farha to collect their insurance payment, because the event against which they were providing insurance did not occur. Phil said he wanted insurance against a jack or a 9, and none came--so he owes his "premium" to his insurers. What's more, he was unambiguously including the pot-chopping cards as being for him in his proposal, when he claimed that he was a 36:8 favorite. He never said that a chopped pot would mean no money going either way as part of his offer.

So one of two things happened: The insurance deal was made with the understanding that a split pot meant Phil owed insurance, and he reneged on his end of it, or he misrepresented the terms of the offer. By coincidence, he happened to state the odds approximately correctly for the situation in which a chopped pot meant no payment either way, but his explanation clearly included the implication that he would pay up in the case of a chopped pot. It's a very strange situation, and I wonder whether debate among the participants continued after the taping stopped, and whether any money ended up changing hands. (This was the last hand of the night.)

However they worked it out amongst themselves, we're left with these conclusions: Phil Hellmuth doesn't know how to count an opponent's outs. He's a high-stakes dweeb who, uniquely among these players, can't tolerate the swings that inevitably come with playing for these amounts. Finally, he either misrepresented the offer he was presenting to Adams and Farha or welched on it after the hand was over.

If you didn't have enough reasons to dislike Hellmuth before, there's at least three more for you.

Addendum, October 30, 2007:

I've been discussing the math of this with a bunch of other people at the forums, and one of them just posted a link to this entry from Hellmuth's blog, apparently made soon after the taping of the show in question: In this post, he says, "Later on, I figured out that I owed $12,000 to Brandon ($10,000) and Sammy ($2,000), because they insured the very last hand of the night. By the way, Brandon doesn't even know that I owe him $10,000, because I decided that I owe him after the fact! He will be pleasantly surprised, that's for sure."

Glad to know that he finally did the right thing. Still hard to know why they didn't get it sorted out on the spot.

Addendum, November 4, 2007

Brandon Adams just posted a note about this situation to the twoplustwo forums:

Yo, I should have commented on the Hellmuth insurance thing earlier. First off,
Phil is one of my favorite guys in poker. He's not cheating anyone. I'm going
off memory here....The deal was only partially clear in my head at the time of
the insurance. it was obviously a good deal for me. when we chopped, i didn't
know what we were supposed to do, though since insurance naturally is protection
against something bad happening (in this case, a bad beat) and something bad
didn't happen, my first thought was that a chop went to me. but then i started
thinking about it and i realized that the deal was good for me even if a chop
was a chop. so i was confused and decided to let it go. this is just what i
remember thinking... as of now, i have no recollection of the cards and i
haven't read the above. The next day phil runs into mori at the coffee shop and
tells mori that he should have paid me. Phil emailed me to tell me he owed me
10k. I thought about it some more and told him not to pay me. I said this b/c if
i had won with a chop, then that implied some ridiculous vig for me (i still had
a decent edge counting a chop as a chop). He insisted on paying me, I told him
we'd flip a coin for it, then he said he'd pay me $6k. he paid me $6k the first
time i saw him at the series. ba

This is pretty reasonable of Adams. Here's the math on what he's saying: Suppose the deal had been explicitly made that no insurance money went either way in the event of a chopped pot. There are 31 cards that win the whole pot for Phil, 7 for Eli, so the odds against an insurer having to pay out are 31:7, or 4.4:1. That's what Adams is calling the "decent edge counting a chop as a chop." On the other hand, if a chopped pot meant that Phil still had to pay his insurance "premium," then there are 37 cards on which he has to pay it (the 31 that are an outright win, plus the 6 cards that result in a split pot), and only 7 on which he collects insurance. 37:7 is 5.3:1, which is what Adams is here calling "some ridiculous vig for me" (32%, actually, compared to the 11% he decided was "decent").

In any event, it sounds like they ended up settling it like gentlemen.

Poker gems, #43

John Carlisle, in his "Poker Counselor" column in the Poker Player newspaper, October 29, 2007 (p. 14):

Making a living at poker is more than hard. It is a daily struggle that tests the mental fortitude and internal strength of any person. There is no steady paycheck. There are big swings, with losses hitting hard. The losses don't just hit the pocketbook, though. Instead, the losses crack your ego, your spirit, your energy, and your will.

Poker is a grind, and there are innumerable vultures at those tables waiting to beat you down and pick at your bones.

A fellow grump

I've long liked the posts from a guy who calls himself "Local Rock" on the discussion forums of, but today he outdid himself. Have to take a hat off to this kind of grumpy writing:

Monday, October 29, 2007

The strange grammar of poker

Every specialized field develops a language all its own. Poker is no exception. But even after being fully immersed in the game for well over a year now, and pretty intensely involved in it for a year or so before that, some of what is generally accepted as correct lingo still falls hard on my ears.

The first phrase I remember catching my attention as being just plain confusing was the phrase "dead to," as in "He's dead to a jack or a queen." This means the opposite of what one would initially tend to think. I first understood this to me "If a jack or a queen comes, he's dead; otherwise he'll win." But it's actually used to mean just the opposite: "He has to catch a jack or a queen, or he's dead." The syntax there still doesn't make sense to me.

The next one I started encountering was "running good." This has a specific meaning, which is "getting lucky." It is not to be confused with playing well, which is an entirely different concept. And the adverb good appears to be universal, even though it sounds like a grammatical clinker; nobody ever says that he is "running well." Of course, that bleeds over into the other half of the poker equation, so that people tend to say things like "I've been running good and playing good." Or this, from Kristy Gazes's blog: "70% of the time I ran bad, 20% of the time I played bad...." ( I've mostly gotten used to the first half of sentences like those; I will probably never get used to the second half, because "good" and "bad" as adverbs (instead of "well" and "badly") are just never going to sound right.

One that I've heard much more commonly from high-level professionals than from the low-limit players I usually associate with is the use of "winner" and "loser" as adjectives, rather than nouns. You have to learn to think of them as synonyms for "up" and "down," or "ahead" and "behind." As I've mentioned several times recently, I've been re-watching all of the past episodes of GSN's "High Stakes Poker," and this comes up all the time there. "I want to be able to quit winner for a change," and "I was doing OK, but I just got loser," are a couple of examples of this peculiarity. In one episode, commentator Gabe Kaplan says that the stage is set for action, because "all the right people are loser." What he meant was that when people are losing, they tend to play more hands and bet harder and faster, in a desperate attempt to get back to even, and in the situation at hand it was the already loose, crazy players who had gotten behind and were likely to make it a wild ride for the whole table. In an episode of "Cash Poker: The Ultimate Gamble" (crummy syndicated show), Bob Bright has been losing quite a bit, then hauls in a large pot, and Gabriel Thayer, seated next to him, comments, "You might be winner now." Mike Matusow, in an interview during another episode of "Cash Poker" was asked how he was doing, and replied, "I'm $28,000 loser." In Doyle Brunson's book, My 50 Most Memorable Hands, he writes, on p. 143, about his worst year in poker, 2004: "I got loser, and instead of taking a break like I usually do when I go on an extended losing streak, I kept playing and I lost the staggering sum of $6 million." That's "getting loser," all right!

Though I'm quite a stickler for correct grammar, I understand that words and phrases and expressions just develop within an insular community, and one can't fairly judge them to be "right" or "wrong" by reference to standards for non-specialized English. This post, then, isn't intended to scold the poker world for these odd terms and usages (as if that would do any good anyway). It's just to note that, well, they're kind of weird and unconventional, and they take some getting used to.

But there are some on which I have to take a grumpy stand. For now, I'll exercise restraint and finger just one flagrant violation: "I'll put you all in."

Sorry, but you can't. Only I can put all my chips into the pot. What you can do is put all of your chips in. But I'll decide whether to put mine in, thank you very much.

I really don't get why this particular verbiage has survived and thrived, when it's so obviously wrong. If you are up against just one opponent, it is shorter, more accurate, and less affrontive to simply say, "I'm all in." The effect is the same (because an all-in bet between two players is effectively only the amount of the smaller of the two stacks). Now, if there are three or more players still in the hand, and you want to bet enough that a call on my part would have me all in, but not go all-in yourself, then the thing to do is ask for a count of my stack, and bet exactly that amount. Alternatively, you can announce to the dealer, "I bet the amount that Seat 4 has in front of him," which has the same effect. (The former route is safer, though, because with the latter you may get a nasty surprise, if Seat 4 has some high-value chips or bills hidden where you can't readily see them.)

I'm certainly not the first one to chafe at this phraseology. I think the first place I read something that let me know that I wasn't the only one bothered by it was here: Since then, though, I've heard a few players at the table argue about it when somebody says it to them. That, I think, is pretty pointless, and probably counterproductive. It slows down the game and results in a stupid argument that nobody is going to win. If somebody is susceptible to a reasoned explanation of why they shouldn't use those words, it is far more likely to happen from reading something like this post than from a confrontation across the green felt in the middle of a hand.

I'm also never going to yield on the common but grating "I should have went all-in." I even heard Daniel Negreanu say this during an episode of "High Stakes Poker." Geez, people--can't we even manage to conjugate the most common verbs in the language correctly? This particular piece of abuse of English just makes me shudder with revulsion. Nothing and nobody will ever get me used to it, or make me accept it as part of "the strange grammar of poker." Some things are just plain wrong.

A poker player tries a different game, and wins (non-grumpy content)

I hadn't done anything with my UltimateBet account in a long time, so decided to see what was happening there. Sometime earlier this year, as it turns out, they added Roshambo (Rock Paper Scissors) to the games you can play. I had to try it out.

I went for the $0.50/match table (match is best of 3 throws). I knew that I would outthink myself and second-guess, third-guess, and fourth-guess myself into utter insanity if I actually tried to analyze what an opponent would throw and then take counter-measures. So instead I opened Excel, did a one-cell spreadsheet of =RANDBETWEEN(1,3), then hit F9 before every throw. This would generate a randomly selected integer between 1 and 3, and I would go with that, no matter what I thought my opponent would do. (After I got tired of switching back and forth between applications, I had Excel print out a list of 1000 of these random digits. It's easier to just run my finger down the page, but the effect is the same.)

24 hours later, I've done surprisingly well. I've made $11 in maybe 3 hours of playing online. Not exactly a huge rate of return, but it's the win rate that has me intrigued more than the dollar income. I've taken on 9 opponents and defeated 8 of them, all in sets of at least 3 matches, to a max of 19 matches.

Unless this is just the good side of variance, I don't get it. Using a truly random strategy, I shouldn't be able to win or lose. In fact, in the long run, I should lose exactly $0.02/match, which is the UB rake on the game. I'm obviously not outplaying my opponents in any meaningful sense, since I'm not even trying to strategize. But it seems to me that it shouldn't matter how "well" or "badly" opponents play, either--they could go for "rock" every single damn time and be able to tie me over the long haul. And, of course, they could have been using the same random strategy, for all I know (although I was quite sure I could pick up patterns against some of them).

What's more is that I'm confident I could have done better by occasionally departing from my random-number list, because there were times when I felt extremely confident what an opponent was about to do, and I was nearly always right in those spots. There was some definite bleed-over from poker habits involved here, because I could figure out what my opponent must be thinking that I was doing, based on what would appear to him/her to be a pattern I was engaged in.

So am I right that this initial success is just an unusually lucky run, or am I missing something? That is, is there some way that an opponent can systematically make his outcome against a random strategy worse than average? If so, I don't see how, but it's not something I've thought about in enough depth to have clear thoughts on yet.

The only things I've read about Roshambo strategy are Rafe Furst's chapter in the Full Tilt Poker Strategy Guide, but that's just about getting inside an opponent's head, which I haven't even been trying very hard to do. I also found a couple of pretty superficial online strategy guides, but haven't looked around enough to see if there are in-depth discussions, though I assume there must be.

For now, I'm pleased to be winning, even if it's only small amounts, and even if it is just dumb luck, because it's fun and a nice diversion from poker.

Addendum, November 11, 2007

Immediately after writing the above, the pendulum of statistical variance turned against me. Since then, I have engaged in 23 contests, ranging from 1 to 31 matches (each match being best of 3 throws), winning 5, tieing 5, and losing 13. Ignoring contests/sessions against particular opponents, and lumping together all of the results since my last post, there were 137 matches, including 62 wins and 75 losses. This is easily within the expected range given by the binomial distribution; a handy online calculator for such things ( tells me that a coin flipped 137 times will have an outcome at least this skewed from an exactly even split about 31% of the time. That would have to be at around 5% or less to make me think that there was something other than pure chance operating.

The experiment has sufficiently convinced me of what I suspected before: that playing a random strategy basically yields random results. My initial success was a statistical blip, which has been reversed with the subsequent games. What's more, I've concluded that playing a random strategy is pretty boring, and playing with a non-random strategy is probably only a little less so. I may revisit the game from time to time for a bit of diversion, but I feel like I've pretty much exhausted my interest in it for the foreseeable future.