Saturday, November 10, 2007

You heard it here first: Combat poker

An excerpt from

Andreas Dilschneider was still thinking about his opening moves on the chessboard when his opponent rushed up to him and punched him. Several times.

Mr. Dilschneider didn't complain. It was all perfectly legitimate. He threw a few punches of his own. When he got back to the chessboard, he was laboring and the adrenaline was pumping. He tried to keep calm and avoid hasty moves. Four minutes later, it was back into the boxing ring again.

Welcome to chessboxing, a young and intriguing sport that prides itself on its incongruous mix of muscle and mind, the pawn meets the brawn if you like. Think jab with your right, counter with your queen. The rules are simple: six rounds of speed chess interlaced with five three-minute rounds in the ring. Each competitor has 12 minutes in total on the chess timer. Victory is by knockout, checkmate or resignation, or failing any of those, by points-based scoring system.

It shouldn't take much imagination to see where I'm going with this: mixed martial arts poker. Now we can have the perfect way of exacting vengeance for that ugly suckout: a roundhouse kick to the cranium. Some nooge stacks you by calling your raise with a 10-3 offsuit? He's got a painful and prolonged joint lock coming right up. Moron calls down your A-K with bottom pair and a bad kicker? He'll get what's coming when you leap down on him feet-first from the turnbuckle.

A nice side benefit of this new sport will be that all the players who have gotten fat and out of shape by sitting way too many hours at poker tables will suddenly have an incentive to start working out. And the smokers among us? They haven't got a prayer. I'm only 5'7", 145 pounds, and not much of a fighter, but I'll take my chances in the ring against the average middle-aged, overweight, drunk tobacco fiend who coughs up a lung after a brisk walk to the restroom--especially on the adrenaline rush of the anticipation of punching out the lights of the doofus who catches a two-outer on the river to knock me out of a tournament. I'm convinced that people will start thinking differently about their starting hand selection while they're picking up their teeth from the mat.

I would explain in fuller detail my thoughts on exactly how this will work, but if you'll pardon me cutting it short, I think I need to go work out now.

Reading level

According to, the reading level of this blog is "Elementary school"!

Horrors! If that's accurate, I have not been doing my job! Since I write pretty much as I think, well, I'd hate to confront actual evidence that my thinking is stuck at an elementary-school level.

I'm suspicious of the accuracy of the rating, though. A legal blog that I regularly check, The Volokh Conspiracy (, where I spotted a link to this readability rating service, only ranked as "junior high" level, even though it's filled with highly technical discussions of academic legal issues. So I'm dubious.

But in an attempt to bump up the average reading level for the entire blog, I hope readers will bear with me as I make the next few entries about things like the search for Higgs bosons in non-Einsteinian condensates, the futility of denominating Emerson as a transcendentalist in light of his post-modern predelictions vis-a-vis the Hegelian dialectic, and the debate over non-Mendelian equilibriums as a mechanism of microevolutionary destabilization in founder populations subject to intrinsic genetic re-randomizations. All as they relate to poker, of course.

I had a hunch, based on how fast the rating web site ran its test, that it was only checking the most recent one or two posts. So, after putting up the foregoing bit of claptrap, I ran the test again, and just that one long sentence managed to push me up into the "junior high" reading level. Progress!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Idiots blame the dealer

One of the most baffling things I see and hear at poker tables is players who blame the dealer for bad cards or bad outcomes.

Of course, there's always at least a bit of this from everybody, mostly joking and good-natured. For example, after 15 or 20 minutes of unplayable hands, I'll occasionally request that a dealer see if she can find it in her heart to pass me one face card before she completes her shift. After an especially bad beat, I'll sometimes try to lighten my own mood by telling the dealer, "You understand that I have to hold you personally responsible for that pot." I think, though, that I have always made it abundantly clear through tone of voice and facial expression that I'm kidding. Many times I have seen off-duty poker dealers sitting at a table as players, and they needle the dealers about bad cards and unlucky outcomes, too—and I have always had the impression that these comments were both made and taken with a wink and a nod.

Some players, though, aren't kidding about this. Some sincerely believe that particular dealers have it in for them. There was a regular at the Hilton who would always take a 30-minute break when a particular dealer came to the table, convinced that it was impossible for him to win a pot from that dealer. Dealers get cursed at, have cards and chips thrown at them, and in other ways take personal abuse from angry players—not for any breach of protocol, but simply because of an unfavorable outcome in the play of a hand.

This is one of the most puzzling attitudes I run into. I'd like to interview these players in detail, and ask them, "Just how do you believe that the dealer is carrying out this plot against you? Does she spend her breaks setting up the decks in a particular order to deliver you bad beats, then slip those decks onto the table when you're not watching?" The idea that casino dealers deliberately select starting hands or outcomes of pots cannot withstand even a few seconds of critical thought by anybody with more than about three neurons connected together within his cranium.*

H. Lee Barnes, in his book Dummy Up and Deal: Inside the Culture of Casino Dealing (University of Nevada Press, 2002) eloquently, if unscientifically, explains the reason for this irrational behavior, from the player’s point of view.** From page 2:
Barnum was right about [a sucker being born every minute]. But the players
refuse to see their pictures on a poster with P.T. Barnum pointing at them. Nor
can the players see the house. What’s the house, after all? A building with
carpet and walls and chandeliers? A corporation? What the players see is the

“How can you do this to me?” a player asks.

The dealer can’t pass the blame off onto Blaise Pascal*** or the
player’s bad judgment or the house. The dealer must shoulder the responsibility
for his or her imagined power, no matter how absurd it is to think that the
dealer exercises any control. The dealer becomes not the medium through which
chance plays out its pure odds, but rather the conduit of luck…. What is left
after all the motion is the dealer standing behind the table in her uniform. She
must face the player.

“How can you do this to me?”

The most unflinching assessment of this phenomenon I have encountered is that of prolific poker writer David Sklansky, in Fighting Fuzzy Thinking in Poker, Gaming & Life (Two Plus Two Publications, 2000), p. 113:
Players sometimes throw cards at the dealer, insult him or her, or declare that they will never tip. Sometimes this happens because the dealer made a mistake. More often, it is because the dealer dealt the abusing player a losing hand.

While I have never knowingly abused a dealer, I have a confession to make—I like it when I see someone else do it! It’s not because I am a sadist; and it’s not because I secretly wish that I had the gumption to do it myself. Rather, it is because I am delighted to know that my opponent is an imbecile!

The fact is that any player who gets mad at the dealer for his losing cards, truly, is a complete moron, and his stupidity ought to make me money…. So to repeat one more time, if you don’t think the dealer is cheating, and you still abuse him or her when you lose, you simply are an idiot.

Most of the overt signs of irrationality I complain about from low-stakes players can also be seen among high-stakes professionals, at least occasionally: superstitions, asking for new decks of cards to try to terminate a streak of bad luck, rabbit-hunting, having "feelings" about what card was coming next, getting upset when a judiciously folded trash hand would have hit big, etc. Until this week, though, I had never seen a recognizable, successful, name-brand, professional player earnestly blame a dealer for the cards.

Then yesterday, while browing around YouTube for something else, I came upon this clip of David "Devilfish" Ulliott: (from which the first screenshot above was stolen). In it, he and Phil Hellmuth get all their money in before the flop, and Hellmuth gets lucky to flop a third 9 to beat Ulliott's pocket aces. As soon as he sees that card, Ulliott says, "Look at this fucking dealer." (The Brits are less squeamish than we are about language on television.) He manages to make Hellmuth look like a classy gentleman by comparison--which is quite a feat in itself.

In another episode of the same series, Ulliott again takes out his bad beat on the dealer--even though he was openly reprimanded for it after the first incident (by a voice off-camera; I couldn't tell if it was the tournament director or one of the television producers). You can see the situation in the second screenshot above, and the hand is shown at Again, all the money is in before the flop, with Andrew Black having attempted an all-in bluff reraise, which Ulliott called. As he walks away, he says something that is partially obscured by the commentators, but sounds like, "You'd better get coffee out to that dealer. She's fucking worse than the other one."

Yeah, Devilfish, it's the dealer for sure. Hellmuth and Black paid the dealers under the table to arrange the cards so that you would lose.

Really, what other scenario is possible by which it makes any sense to blame the dealer? But if Ulliott genuinely thinks that's what happened, then why not lodge a complaint with the tournament director, insist on reviewing the videotapes, scrutinize the security procedures, etc.? Of course, it's pretty unlikely that he actually believes this. But then, if he doesn't believe it, why say something so monumentally stupid, especially when you know it's going to be put on television?

When Hellmuth blows up, it's always at another player, whose idiotic play, in Hellmuth's eyes, resulted in whatever bad outcome he's currently bitching about. Mike Matusow, in his blowups, just blames bad luck, repeatedly claiming that he is simply the unluckiest player alive. These attitudes are stupid and demonstrably wrong, but at least they have some kernel of truth to them. Lots of Hellmuth's opponents do make bad plays, then get lucky--but he's no more a victim of this than every other professional who has to fight their way through large fields of amateurs to win modern tournaments. Matusow often blames bad luck when it was actually his own bad judgment at fault, but luck is certainly part of every hand. If he's not actually cursed with extraordinarily bad luck, in his blow-up situations it is at least true that he failed to get good luck where it might help him.

But blaming the dealer? Mr. Ulliott, in addition to being supremely ill-mannered, that's just moronic.

*I realize that there are countless schemes by which a dealer can manipulate a poker game. People playing in home games and underground cardrooms really do have to watch out for these "mechanics." But in casinos, using modern, standard security practices, it's almost unthinkable that any such shenanigans are going on. The dealer, if caught, would obviously be out of not just a job, but a career, as he or she would be forever unemployable in the gaming industry--not to mention facing criminal charges. Except at the very highest stakes, it would be impossible to win enough money from such a plot to make it profitable, after paying a dealer a large enough bribe that he or she might consider risking that much for it.

**This was written in the context of games in which the player is set against the house, with the house having a fixed edge, but the same psychology clearly carries over to poker, in which players are pitted against each other, with the house having no interest in who wins or loses.

***A 17th-century mathematician who, with Pierre de Fermat, basically invented the entire field of probability theory. See

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

No-limit straddles

Every poker room in the city, save one, has what seems to me to be a flaw in its rules: specifically, a fixed amount for a straddle bet in no-limit games. This is my call for the other 50+ rooms to get with the program.

First, the basics. A straddle is the currently more popular term for what Michael Wiesenberg's poker dictionary (the best there is; see calls an overblind:

1. (v) Put in a blind when one is already present. In a traveling blind game, this could mean someone putting in an optional blind in addition to the mandatory blinds. In a game without mandatory blinds, this would be blinding a pot (putting in a blind) after someone else has killed it. (To put in an overblind is sometimes called to kill.) Sometimes called go the overs. 2. (n) The blind put in by the person who overblinds. In a 3-3-6 traveling blind game ($12 limit or $12 minimum bet no-limit), John might put in $12 before getting his cards. He has doubled the limit (or the minimum bet) to $24, and he gets last action before the draw. Someone might say, "John acts last; he has the overblind." Also straddle, for both meanings.

Because a straddle is simply a blind raise (though whether it is technically a "raise" is a point I'll deal with shortly), with the option to reraise oneself, in limit games it makes sense for it to be the same amount that a regular raise from first position (i.e., under the gun) would be. But since no-limit games don’t restrict the size of a raise, it's illogical for the amount of a straddle to be limited.

To be sure, nearly every poker room with no-limit games allows only a fixed straddle of double the big blind. Treasure Island is the exception. (The astute reader may have guessed that from the choice of accompanying photo.) There, a straddle bet in a no-limit game can be of any size the player wants to make it, up to his whole stack. After thinking about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re doing it right, and everybody else is doing it wrong.

Personally, I think straddles are generally pretty stupid strategy. (See my full rant on this at I rarely do them, but it doesn’t bother me that others like using them. It just seems to me that if the goal of allowing them in the first place is to increase action (particularly at a tight-fisted table), then that would be better achieved by allowing a straddle of any amount. As it stands, the difference between calling the $2 big blind (in a $1-2 game) and a $4 straddle is virtually nil. But a straddle to, say, $15 would definitely alter (and make more complicated) the decisions for the other players. And from the perspective of poker room managers, it will tend to increase the chance of getting a pot large enough to collect the maximum rake.

I’ve checked several sources, and there is very little advice in print about this question. Specifically, the allowable amount of a straddle in a no-limit game is not discussed in Cooke’s Rules of Real Poker or Lou Krieger’s Rules of Poker. Bob Ciaffone’s "Robert’s Rules of Poker" (never in print, as far as I know, but widely available online) specifies that the straddle amount is twice the big blind, but it’s not clear to me whether he is intending to include no-limit games in that prescription. In Paymar et al’s Professional Poker Dealer’s Handbook, p. 141 (2nd edition), they don’t discuss no-limit games, but do say that in spread-limit games the straddle amount can be anything up to the maximum raise that would be allowed. This makes sense. Extending the same logic to no-limit games, the straddle amount should be unlimited.

Two technical questions that I can think of will come up if other poker rooms were to decide to give this a trial:

1. What is the minimum amount of a reraise? If the straddle is just a raise of the $2 big blind, then a straddle of, say, $15 is a $13 raise, and one would think that the minimum reraise would therefore be another $13, to a total of a $28 bet. But it may be better to think of the straddle not as a standard raise, but more like another (optional) blind. If so, then the minimum next raise would need to be double the straddle amount (e.g., to $30 on a $15 straddle). (Robert’s Rules, version 10, #15: “A straddle bet sets a new minimum bring-in; it is not treated as a raise.”) Personally, I think this makes more sense, and would be easier to implement, though it’s only a small difference.

2. What is the minimum bet on subsequent betting rounds? Usually the minimum bet on the flop, turn, and river is the amount of the big blind. Usually the occurrence of a straddle before the flop isn’t considered to change this. However, if one sees the straddle as, effectively, a third blind, then it might make more sense to use the straddle amount as the minimum bet size on subsequent streets, too. Furthermore, if there’s a straddle to, say, $15, with a call or two, a minimum bet on subsequent betting rounds of $15 is more sensible than reverting to a $2 minimum, given how big the pot is going to be. The question may never come up, because the kind of action junkie that will throw in a sizable straddle, given the chance, isn’t going to even consider a $2 bet when there’s a decent-sized pot built by his pre-flop action. But the room staff should make the decision in advance one way or the other, to be prepared, just in case.

So how about it, Venetian? Caesars? Mirage? MGM? Mandalay? Binion's? Red Rock? Who among you will step forward, admit that you've had an illogical rule in place, and change it?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Tick tock, tick tock

Before I had a blog, I wrote about my poker experiences in emails to a friend back home. Here's one from September, 2006:

I forgot to tell you about an incident the other night at Golden Nugget. The guy in seat 10 was a real asshole--slowing down the game, criticizing other people's play, thinking he was funny by pretending to push all-in, then folding, etc.

In a hand I wasn't involved in, another player raised this guy's bet by $100. The guy took forever deciding whether to call or not. Finally, I asked the dealer for the clock. Any player at the table who thinks somebody is taking unreasonably long can call for the clock, which gives the player one minute to make a decision. If he does nothing by the end of that minute, his hand is automatically declared dead (i.e., it's the equivalent of folding).

In practice, it's rare to need to use this, because the vast majority of people are pretty reasonable in taking time to make decisions. When somebody has an unusually difficult call to make, the others are understanding about letting him take the time he needs. It's only when somebody is repeatedly slowing things down that he'll likely get the clock called. And even then, just the act of calling for the clock usually is enough to prompt the recalcitrant player to act. I've only called for it a couple of times, and I've never seen it actually get down to the end of the one minute.

So I call for the clock. The supervisor comes over with an electronic stopwatch, and calls out the time as the seconds elapse. One player at the table has never seen this process, so asks the supervisor what happens if the player doesn't act. The supervisor explains that the hand is dead--so even if the guy in seat 10 didn't understand that before (and, of course, every player is responsible for knowing the rules and procedures without them being explained to him personally), he is now informed of the consequence.

30 seconds. 20. 15. 10. Then 5-4-3-2-1, and the beeper sounds. The guy still hasn't done anything. The dealer reaches over, picks up the guy's cards and throws them in the muck.
At this point, the asshole really yells up a storm. "Hey, what the hell are you doing? I want to call!" Then he addresses the supervisor. "He picked up my cards when I was going to call!"
Fortunately, the dealer and the supervisor held the line and enforced the rule. Hand is dead. The guy, of course, keeps griping for several more minutes.

The player to my right thanks me for calling for the clock. Seat 10 is annoying everybody.
Why do some people have to be jerks?

Compare this to a guy at the Hilton recently. He hadn't played in a casino before. He was faced with an $80 raise. He wanted to see what his stack would look like if he called the bet and lost, so he counted out the $80 and set them in front of his cards, then looked at what was left, and said, "Nope, I don't think I can call you." But, of course, the act of putting the chips out constituted a call, and the dealer gently informed him that he had already called and couldn't take it back. It was obviously an honest mistake. The guy just said, "OK, I'm sorry, I didn't know. My fault. Do what you have to do." He lost the hand, bought more chips, and said, "Well, that's one way to learn what the rules are," and laughed at himself.

Why can't everybody be good sports like that?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Poker gems, #47

John Blackridge, writing in 1879, as quoted in Graham Sharpe's book, Poker's Strangest Hands:

Poor players usually increase their bets when losing, on the principle that bad play and bad luck united will win. A slight degree of intoxication aids to perfect this intellectual deduction.

Monkey poker (non-grumpy content)

In the November issue of Bluff magazine, Justin Bonomo describes playing a tournament at the Borgata while on "super monkey tilt." I had never heard that phrase before, but I took an instant liking to it. I think I'm more resistant to tilting than most players, though by no means completely immune. I'm not quite growing hairy arms or flinging my own poo around, but I have total empathy with the concept of "super monkey tilt."

That phrase reminded me of another I heard sometime last year. One player had a friend who was just sitting down and asked about the play at the table. The guy who had been there for a while said, "The monkeys are swinging from the trees." I loved that. It's so true sometimes.

I remember a few months ago when the king of the monkeys came to the Hilton. I was just about to leave, because I had been spinning my wheels for a few hours, not able to build a profit, when a guy came in and sat down on my right, which is the prime spot for milking a less-experienced player. Everything about him screamed novice: he didn't know what the blinds were, didn't know what to do with his chips, always had to ask what his options were, etc. He bought in for the minimum, which is something that almost no experienced players will do (because it so severely cramps how you can play and how much you can win). He even said out loud several times, "I have no idea what I'm doing. I only play 5-card draw at home." And he wasn't sandbagging--he really was clueless, didn't even know whether he had won a hand or not until the dealer would tell him. So I stayed.

You know how in cartoons, when somebody sees an opportunity to make a lot of money fast, their pupils change into dollar signs, and you hear the cash register bell going "cha-ching"? That was me.

But this monkey won, and he won, and he won. He just kept calling everything. A couple of players kept trying to bluff him off of pots, and he would just call with minimal hands--then turn out to have the winner at the end. Or he'd catch incredibly lucky cards on the river to make a winning hand. And a couple of times--seemingly almost at random--he's suddenly announce "all in," which would cause everyone to fold, because it was impossible to know what he had. He turned $50 to over $300 in less than an hour, and to about $400 over the next hour.

Since almost none of it was my money, I was having a great time watching. It was really, really funny to watch how it frustrated the people who were losing to him. Naturally, I kept encouraging him by telling him "nice hand" when he won. When he'd say, "I don't know what I'm doing," I'd tell him, "That's the beauty of this game--you're just as likely as anybody else to wind up with the best hand."

You can't bluff a bad player. They don't know how to read the messages you're sending. They don't have enough experience to know that, e.g., top pair with a bad kicker isn't a hand to call a big raise with. So they call, and if you have less than that, you lose.

I knew, though, that the lucky streak couldn't last, and I'd get my fair share of his accumulated booty if I just picked my spots carefully. And sure enough, when he was down to about $200, I got a series of three big hands in 20 minutes or so. He'd check, I'd bet, he'd call all the way down, and nearly all of his last $200 came into my stack. Of course, I'd just shake my head, say, "Sorry, I caught a lucky hand on you there." He was very nice about it--completely an "easy come, easy go," "oh, well" kind of attitude.

It's ironic, sort of. I really took very little of his own money. He was just like the conduit for getting the other players' chips to me--the people who tried to push him around, or weren't cautious when there were possible draws on the board that he might hit. They lost the chips to him, then I took them when I was in a dominating position. It was as if the whole thing had been orchestrated. It made for an unusually enjoyable and profitable day.

I guess you could say that the monkey put most of the table on super monkey tilt.

Perchance to dream (non-grumpy content)

I suppose it's inevitable that if one spends a good portion of each day playing, reading about, and thinking about poker, at night one will sometimes dream about it, too. And as with most dream subjects, the result is often weirdly distorted.

Last night I dreamed that I was in a hand with two cards, marked "6" and "12." I was having some difficulty figuring out whether I won or lost to a guy who was holding a 6 and a king.

But even with extra cards, that was a simple game, compared to another one that played out in my addled brain one night. I found myself in a game in which one had to bet on the number of vowels and consonants that would appear in the cards. For example, "eight of hearts" has five vowels and eight consonants. The winner was the one who had most accurately predicted the total number of vowels and consonants in his final five-card hand. It was terribly complicated.

I find that I much prefer a 52-card deck, with pairs and straights and flushes determining the winner. As baffling and frustrating as the game seems at times, it's far simpler than the mutant versions that my twisted subconscious invents in the dead of night.

How to play poker, from the mouths of babes (non-grumpy content)

I played poker not too long ago with a woman who told me about a recent trip to a toy store with her 6-year-old son. He had apparently picked up on parts of the game when his mother watched it on television. In the store they passed a display of sets of poker chips. The boy said, “Mom, I know how to play poker. You push your chips into the middle of the table and say 'all in,' and you win!”

The kid might turn out to be one of the great ones.