Friday, January 25, 2008

Overkill on the souvenir chips

I've mentioned several times before how I like collecting the various commemorative poker chips that casinos issue. It's not a serious thing with me; I care little about condition (which real collectors obsess over), and I won't pay more than face value. I just like having a bunch of interesting designs to look at, and I appreciate casinos that provide opportunity for gaining a few new ones now and then.

But tonight at the Hard Rock--my first time there--I was floored by the number of chips they have, just in the $5 denomination. You can get a sense of the magnitude of the collector's problem from the lower photo above, which is a display of chips at the Hard Rock cashier's cage. I don't even know if it's a comprehensive set.

They issue new chips for every holiday--every year--for movie premieres, for every band that comes to Las Vegas, etc. I think they might actually put out a new commemorative chip every time a new guest checks into the hotel.

I am not even going to attempt to acquire a full set of these things, even after they open a formal poker room in the fall, which might find me spending more time there. Trying to get that many would become a chore for me, rather than a pleasure, and would seriously cut into profits, too. So I limited myself to the 20 best ones that came into my possession over the course of the evening, and future ones will have to be especially nice to get added to the set.

But when a casino has chips honoring April Fool's Day, Ozzy Osbourne, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Iwo Jima, how can one resist? Who doesn't want to have poker chips featuring parrots, Boticelli's Venus, Halloween black cats, Abe Lincoln wearing sunglasses, and girls in bikinis?

Interesting new hold'em variation, field report (mostly non-grumpy)

The session

I hadn't really planned on playing poker today, because of other things I needed to get done, but I just couldn't resist the lure of being one of the first to play a new version of poker on the day it's initially offered publicly at a casino. (See the immediately preceding post for more details on how the game works: I'm glad I took advantage of it. I made about $220 in just under five hours, in a game I've never played before ("Royal Hold'em"), and at limits I've never played before ($5-$10; the highest I've previously gone is $4-$8). I don't consider myself a poker savant or anything, but it's reassuring to prove to myself that I have solid enough fundamentals of poker that I can successfully handle a new curve being thrown my way.

I bought in for $150, and almost immediately got up to about $250 with the first two hands I played, both K-Q offsuit (which I would have folded, except for being in the blinds), both making the top full house, and getting paid off by several opponents. As one of the members of the team marketing the game told me just before I left, "It's a game where you hit quads and full boats and actually get paid off!" Absolutely true; in standard hold'em, a common disappointment is that you hit big, and nobody else does, so you make little or no money with your strongest hands. That's not a problem in Royal Hold'em. (I think I'm supposed to insert one of those little "TM" symbols when I write that, but I'm not going to bother. So sue me.)

At this early point in my session there were two completely clueless players donating their chips. Right after I sat down, I overheard one of them ask the dealer, "Are we playing with just one deck?" I think she saw the cards coming out of the autoshuffler, and thought that maybe it worked like blackjack, with multiple decks shuffled together. The other clueless player twice called a bet on the river holding a straight when the board was double-paired, meaning that the person betting into her virtually had to have a full house. Both times, she was genuinely surprised that her straight was not the winner. Sharks, meet the fish.

But soon thereafter the competition stiffened up dramatically. The aforementioned players left after giving away their chips, and were replaced by some of the denizens of, the site where I had first read about this game and initial discussions of strategy. Dave, Sabrina, and Michael unquestionably knew at least as much as I did about how to approach the game, and my stack slowly dwindled down to about $100.

They all left after a couple of hours, though, and were replaced by others. One was another guy from AVP, though I didn't recognize his handle (my apologies, sir!), and he was rock-solid. But others who came and went seemed to be passersby who watched for a while, then sat down to try it, and had no idea of strategy. One guy believed that unrelenting aggression was the key, and raised about nine out of ten starting hands--when better strategy would be to fold about that many. He was on the good side of variance at first, hitting quads a few times (which I never did--not even once!), but then, inevitably, the luck ran out and his stack experienced a Seinfeldian shrinkage.

Observations on strategy

Overall, I was surprised that one simple variation in the game could make such an interesting difference in strategy and how the game plays. For one thing, suited versus unsuited hole cards makes essentially no difference, because making flushes (all of which must be royal flushes) is so rare. I didn't see even one in my time at the game tonight.

On the other hand, there is a whole lot of sameness in the hands, because of the narrowly restricted range of cards in play. My sense is that I would get tired of this variation a lot more quickly than when playing with a full deck. There seems to be very little room for creativity and deceptiveness in how one plays.

I came away with a strong impression that there are two keys that will separate winners from losers in the long run: Starting hand selectivity, and willingness to fold a full house when you have evidence that you are beat by a higher full house or four-of-a-kind.

It's a tricky mental adjustment at first. To look down at a suited K-Q or pocket 10s on the button and fold them just seems unnatural. But it's the right thing to do, because by the time five more cards have hit the table, those are far more likely to be underdogs than the best hands.

I also was left with the impression that the river card changes the winner to the loser, and vice-versa, more frequently with the 20-card deck than in standard hold'em. I don't know that that is really so, but it seemed that way to me. I would have to give it a lot more thought and run simulations to see if that's true, which is way more work than I'm willing to put into it, but it is at least an interesting theoretical question.

Problems and suggestions

I had just two gripes. First, see that crown-looking thing in the foreground of the first photo? That's the dealer button they came up with to help set the game apart from Texas Hold'em. Guys, that's pretty darn ugly. Looks like something that came with the kiddie meal at Burger King. You don't need silly gimmicks like that to make this work.

Second, without going into stories and examples, I'll just say that the dealers need to be more assertive about enforcing the rules about one player to a hand and talking about the hand in progress. Because everybody is new to the game, friends and family members of players seem to feel strong urges to give advice. And because boards that would be highly unusual in standard hold'em are commonplace in Royal Hold'em, people at first just can't resist pointing out the straight on the board, the possible royal flushes, and so forth. Dealers really need to politely but firmly drop the Cone of Silence on such chatter.

One problem, of which the folks are acutely aware, is that the Hard Rock dealers are not poker dealers, so lots of things that would be already be automatic for poker dealers adapting to this variant become problems--things like quickly and accurately determining the winning hand, remembering to make change when necessary, etc. But that's not an intrinsic flaw of the game, just a consequence of having its debut at a casino that lacks a cadre of experienced poker dealers.

Problem dealer

I did have a problem with one dealer, Kevin. (Of course, he might report that he had a problem player. I'd disagree, but that's the nature of interpersonal conflicts.)

At one point, only Sabrina (a poker dealer at Treasure Island) and I were left in the hand. I checked on the turn. She attempted to bet her last $8, when the standard full bet would have been $10. For reasons that I couldn't comprehend (and, I think, neither could Sabrina), the dealer wouldn't let her bet that. He seemed to think that if she didn't have the full $10, then she could only bet $5. That was strange, but I was planning to call anyway, so I spoke up with what I thought was an obvious solution. I pushed out $8 and said, "I'll raise to the $8 she has left."

There is not a poker dealer in the city that wouldn't accept that as valid, under the circumstances. But this guy said, "You can't raise just $3; it has to be another $5." I looked at him incredulously and asked, "So you want me to put out $10, then give me $2 change when she calls, rather than having me just put out $8 now?" He said yes, that's how it had to be. Oh well, it got the job done. But then, to put icing on the cake, he didn't give me the change until I reminded him of it.

A bigger problem with the same dealer came up on his next down. A woman two seats to my right announced that she was leaving, just as it would have been her turn to pay the big blind. (That's a common point in the rotation at which players stand up to go.) She was racking up her chips, and the dealer was just staring at her. After 10 or 15 seconds of nothing happening, I asked, "What are we waiting for?" The dealer said, "It's her big blind." OK, so maybe he didn't hear her say she was leaving. She told him that she was done playing. But then, strangely, he continued to just sit there and look at her, as if this messed everything up. I got the distinct impression that he had no idea how to handle this situation--he had that "deer in the headlights" look about him. So I finally spoke up, saying, "If she's leaving, then he [pointing to the guy on my right] becomes the big blind, and we can go."

To my great surprise, this dealer turned to me and said, "Am I dealing this game or are you?" I usually try to either ignore rudeness or respond to it nicely, giving the person a chance to change his approach, rather than escalating conflict. But this was so out of line that I decided to reply in kind. I said, "Neither of us. We're both just sitting here doing nothing."

He asked, "How much have you dealt this game?" Well, none, but that hardly settles the question of who knows what needs to happen here. I did; he apparently didn't. I had tried to point out how to get things going again, and he had snapped at me for it. I think it's the rudest a poker dealer has ever been to me.

But he apparently decided in the end that my solution was good enough, and the game got underway again. Because of his reaction, though, I did something that I have never done before to any dealer, no matter how incompetent and no matter how much I disliked something he or she did: I stiffed him on tips for the remainder of the evening. I didn't feel any perverse pleasure in it, as in "Ha! Take that! You're not getting a dollar from this pot!" I just decided that I really didn't have any other way of communicating how out of line I thought he had been, short of talking to his supervisor, which I didn't feel like taking the trouble to do. (I'm open to other players and dealers piping up in the comments, as to whether that reaction was too much, too little, or about right for the situation. I'm still unsure about it myself.)


That little unpleasantness aside, however, it was one of the most interesting and engaging poker sessions I've had since moving here. A lot of the decisions I make while playing have become fairly automatic, the result of having faced a similar situation many times before, and "pattern recognition" sets in; I can take a mental shortcut around the step-by-step process of figuring out what an opponent has, and jump right to the action I need to take. But the shortened deck made me think it out from scratch every time: What can I beat, what beats me, and how likely is it that my opponent's hand falls into those two categories? It is the last part of that algorithm that dramatically changes from the usual game.

Oh, and they gave me the "New Poker" hat shown above, which is nice. How could I not like a game when I make money, get my brain stimulated, and end up with a new hat to boot?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Interesting new hold'em variation (non-grumpy content)

A new variation of Texas Hold'em, called "Royal Hold'em," is starting its official, legal trial period today at the Hard Rock casino. Play is the same, but the deck is stripped down to 20 cards, the ten through ace of each suit. See for details:

You can play it online for free at the sponsoring company's official web site: (I hate web sites that start playing cheesy music automatically if your computer speakers are on. The music here sounds like it could be from a porno flick. Ugh!)

That thread and this article,, have hashed out the basic strategy and relevant probabilities. The reduced deck results in some weird facts:

*The only possible flush is a royal flush.

*A straight can only be the nuts if it's on the board, with no flush possible.

*The worst possible hand you can have at a showdown is two pairs.

*If you flop a straight, you are drawing nearly dead.

*Most common winning hand is a full house.

In any new poker variation, figuring out the basic strategy before the competition does is the key to winning. Having read what's available, I may need to head over to the Hard Rock tonight to see if this gives me a profitable edge over those just passing by who decide to try it out. Of course, if the game is populated by the readers of, I'm screwed!

I've been cheated--by a book

A few months ago I made my way to the Gambler's Bookshop. It's is only a mile or so from my apartment building, but I hadn't had much reason to stop in, what with and all. I ended up buying a stack of books, some of them poker-related fiction that I had never heard of.

Among them was the one pictured above, Deadman's Poker, by James Swain. I finished reading it a few minutes ago. I can't remember ever feeling so angry at an author upon concluding a novel.

The story involves a retired cop, Tony Valentine, turned private consultant to casinos on cheaters and scams that they face. This is apparently the sixth Valentine novel. I don't really dislike the character, but also don't find him particularly interesting. He's well-off, always virtuous, can handle himself in a fistfight, always out-maneuvers the bad guys, makes all the sharp deductions from the clues, etc. In other words, he's too good to be true. OK, I can live with that, if it gets me to a good story.

I was aware going in that a good story was the most I could expect. From quickly hashed-out serial novels of this sort, I'm not expecting great literature, insights into the human condition, etc. I understand that such books exist only for the plot. Characters are there to be part of the plot, or they don't show up at all. You can even stick a mental label on what part each character plays. There's the always-messing-up son so that Valentine has somebody repeatedly in jeopardy that he needs to bail out. There's the secretary who coordinates information. There's a guy who is only there so that Tony has somebody to whom to explain how casinos run, how security works, how cheaters ply their trade, etc., while we readers listen in.

The story revolves around a thinly disguised World Series of Poker. An unlikely player is running away with it, and there's plenty of reason to think that he's cheating, but nobody can figure out how.

Frankly, the book was so lame overall that it took me about three months to finish it, because I kept setting it aside from lack of interest, and read other things instead. When I finished my formal education many years ago, I vowed that I would never again feel compelled to finish a book I wasn't enjoying; the freedom not to finish reading something that isn't interesting and/or enjoyable is a precious thing. The only thing that kept me coming back to Deadman's Poker was curiosity about how the scam was being pulled off. Valentine narrows it down to marked cards that a corrupt dealer can read and somehow signal to a player, but neither he nor the FBI nor the Nevada Gaming Commission experts can spot any markings.

But the novel ends abruptly, without this central question being answered. It doesn't actually end--it just stops. Then the reader is treated to a preview of the first chapter of Swain's next novel, Deadman's Bluff. Only then does the reader learn the ugly truth, that the book he has just finished isn't actually a novel, but just half a novel. You have to buy the "sequel" to finish the story and learn how it all falls out. (I suspect that it involves radium or some other radioactive material as the marker.)

There is no indication anywhere on the book that this is the case. Nothing marks it as being "Part 1 of 2," or anything like that. (I scanned in the front and back covers above, so you can verify this yourself.) The only hint is the plug for the next volume, but nothing suggests how the two are related.

Had I read the reviews on before buying it, I would have been adequately warned. One reader writes, "Half a book. The writing is great and the build up to the end is great but there is no payoff. We have to buy the next book to figure out what is going to happen (I think). Frustrating and disappointing." Another writes, "I assume that the rest of this book and the 2nd one were boring because the author (editor/publisher) were trying to stretch this out to sell twice as many books. If you just read this book and not the 2nd you really will be unhappy (1 star happy)." A third writes, "You should probably get Dead Man's Bluff at the same time if you wish to see the plot fully resolved."

See why I tend to shop online rather than yield to impulse purchases in bookstores? I wouldn't have started with an unknown author if I had known this up front.

I think this is a dirty, nasty trick for an author and publisher to pull. Yeah, I'll probably read the stupid sequel to gain a modicum of resolution and satisfaction about the whole thing, but only because I found a used copy on for $0.46, which is not only nearly free, but ensures that this scummy author and publisher won't profit another nickel from my wallet as a payoff for their underhanded cheating. It will absolutely be the last Swain novel I ever touch. An author with so little regard for his readers doesn't deserve being rewarded with followers or with royalties.

Another online W

Like I said last night, this is getting scary, as if it's just w-a-a-a-y too easy. Took the first player out on the second hand when I flopped a set against his top pair. I then led it wire to wire, as they say.

Maybe I'm being set up for a big fall....

Smelly Venetian

I like nearly everything about the Venetian poker room. (See It's quiet, smoke-free, comfortable, profitable, always action going day or night, standard comp system, better-than-average dealers.

The thing I most dislike about playing there is a complaint that I have for no other poker room in town: the smell. Not the stink, mind you, as I would say if it were cigarette smoke or body odor or an open sewer or something. It's the smell that they add to the ventilation system. It's a sickly sweet lavendar/vanilla mix of some sort. It's so heavy that it is nearly assaultive. If I put in a long session, I will definitely be able to smell "Venetian" coming from the discarded clothes in my laundry basket for the rest of the week.

Tonight I got another tangible example of how thickly they use this odorant. I was there with out-of-town family for less than an hour--just long enough to go to the poker room to pick up a comp ticket, then go to a restaurant for dessert. While at the comp desk, I snatched a Kleenex (yeah, I know the manufacturer hates having the brand name used as a generic term; tough cookies, I'm doing it anyway) from the dispenser, because the slight chill outside tonight had made my nose run a bit. I stuck it in my shirt pocket.

Fast forward. It's now six hours later. I'm sitting at home at my computer doing some other work. I keep having the sense that I'm smelling the Venetian. It finally dawns on me that it's that damn Kleenex. I pull it out of my pocket, and, sure enough, that's what is doing it.

If you are putting so much perfume into the air that six hours later a Kleenex taken from the hotel still reeks of it, well, you're seriously overdoing it. It's really quite ghastly.

To the best of my knowledge, no other casino in Vegas feels compelled to add perfume to their air. At least if they do, it's at such a low level that I don't notice it, which means that I don't care.

Admittedly, I've griped about this to other players and even one Venetian dealer, and haven't yet found anybody who was bothered by it enough to count it as a strike against the place. So maybe it's just me. Maybe I have genetically defective olfaction that is hypersensitive for the exact ingredients the Venetian infuses. But boy do I wish they would drop its intensity about six notches on the Richter Smelly Scale.

Can't they just pump in tons of extra oxygen, like every other casino?*

(Above: The new chips celebrating the opening of the Venetian's sister property, the Palazzo. For lots of nice photos of the place, see

*Please don't write to tell me that that's just an urban legend. I know it already. It was a joke, OK?

Today's helpful hints, miscellaneous


If you order the "Fudge Cake Collision" at the Grand Lux Cafe at the Venetian, bring a friend to share it with. Or two. Or three. It's that big. (See above.)


Try the jerk chicken at Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville" restaurant (inside the Flamingo) sometime. Very tasty. I hadn't eaten at that place before, and it was really quite nice. I liked the continuous-running Buffet music videos playing on a big screen. Different atmosphere than you'll get anywhere else in town.


If you should happen to lock your keys in your car in a casino parking garage--let's say, Sam's Town, to name a completely random example--their security people will not open it for you, quoting some rot about liability for damages, but will helpfully hand you the telephone number of a locksmith. A mere 45 minutes and $45 later, you can be on your merry way.


If you pre-pay for a line or two of late-afternoon bowling at a local set of lanes associated with a hotel-casino--let's say, Sam's Town, to name a completely random example--and then decide that you could do one more before heading off for dinner, and so you go up to the desk to pay for another game, and it happens, unbeknownst to you, to be close to the time that they will be starting their league night activities, they will not politely say something like, "I'm sorry, but we have league bowling starting in about 15 minutes, and can't have any new games start now," but instead will convey that same basic message to you in a startling mixture of incredulity and exasperation, with a combination of body language, facial expression, and tone of voice that will unambiguously convey that you are a complete idiot for not having known in advance that you couldn't start a game after 4:30, due to their league commitments, because, after all, doesn't everybody on Planet Earth know that already, you imbecile?

(I believe I just broke my own record for longest sentence there. Good thing I'm not back in junior high school, with the assignment to diagram the grammar of it.)


The musical dancing-waters fountain shows in front of the Bellagio really are nice to watch--no matter how many times you've seen them before--whatever song they choose to choreograph. (Hmmm. Seems like we need a different word for what it is they do. Maybe "aqueograph.") If you're entertaining out-of-town visitors, it's a near cinch that they will enjoy it.


The "Poker Shrink" ( has a blog entry pointing to a BBC Science site ( on which you can look at 20 smiles and test yourself to see how good you are at discerning the genuine smiles from the forced ones. He points out that while this specific ability is not necessarily useful for poker, it is part of a whole package of being able to gain insight into people's emotional states from non-verbal manifestations. I got 16 out of 20 right. It's an interesting way to spend five minutes of your life.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Poker gems, #72

Good advice never goes out of style. This gem comes from William J. Florence (see, who in addition to his acting acclaim wrote one of the first books on how to play poker: The Gentleman's Handbook on Poker, 1890. The following excerpt is as quoted in Graham Sharpe, Poker's Strangest Hands, p. 51.

The strong point in poker is never to lose your temper, either with those you are playing with or more particularly with the cards. There is no sympathy at poker. Always keep cool. If you lose your head you will lose all your chips. Poker being as much a criterion of character as anything else, keep in the shade your personalities.

Something may have changed

I've mentioned several times that I don't play much online because I'm not particularly good at it. I'm not entirely sure if I'm an overall winner or loser. I've had two big tournament wins, for about $5000 each, one about two years ago and one about three years ago. Trust me--they were mostly flukes of luck. The amount that I have reloaded into various accounts is probably close to that, but I'm probably still a bit on the good end of it all. (That all occurred before I started keeping good records.)

Anyway, this week I decided that maybe it was time to give online poker another shot. After all, if I'm going to consider myself a professional, I shouldn't have such a glaring weak point. I should at least be working on making it less weak. So I loaded $100 into four different sites, and started playing two or three $10 single-table tournaments (sit 'n' gos) every day.

Something is different.

I'm actually winning with decent consistency.

I keep getting messages like this one from Poker Stars:

"PokerStars Tournament #74826117, No Limit Hold'em
Buy-In: $10.00/$1.00
9 players
Total Prize Pool: $90.00
Tournament started - 2008/01/23 - 04:34:53 (ET)
Dear Rakewell1,
You finished the tournament in 1st place.
A $45.00 award has been credited to your Real Money account."

Maybe the several hundred hours sitting at real casino tables since the last time I mounted any kind of meaningful attempt at playing online has had some bleed-over effect. I feel as though I have a better sense of where I am in a hand than I used to. Used to be that I felt I was groping my way through the darkness. An opponent betting with the nuts or on a complete bluff felt just the same to me, if I couldn't see him face to face. It feels somewhat less murky now. Betting patterns speak to me at least a little more clearly than they used to.

On the other hand, it may be dumb luck, because I have been saved by some absolutely ridiculous, embarrassing suckouts. Then again, I've been clobbered by nearly as many, and both sides of that tend to be true of nearly every tournament winner.

I guess time will tell whether or not something has really changed--in either my play, the opposition, or both.

But there is hope that I won't forever have to shun half of the poker world out of fear.

A pox on the "button straddle"

Every time I think I know everything about poker--at least about rules and procedures--I'm proven wrong.

Last night at the Rio a player was putting in a straddle bet from the button. This is something I had never seen before. The dealer would announce "button straddle."

Looking around the internet, it appears that this is the same thing as is elsewhere called a "Mississippi straddle." I have heard of that before, but only in the context of players asking dealers in other casinos if it was allowed, and the answer was always "no," so I never explored how it worked. I was surprised to learn that the Rio allows it.

The player on the button can post double the big blind before the cards are dealt. The pre-flop action then starts with the small and big blinds, concluding with the button. In other words, the button gets to act last on every round of betting, not just the three after the flop.

I don't like this at all. With the common straddle, the players in the blinds only have their relative position altered slightly. The big blind, instead of being last to act before the flop, is next-to-last. This isn't much of a change, and if the action has gone all the way around without a raise, the blinds can limp in with only the straddler left as a possible raiser behind. But with the button straddle, the players in the blinds have their relative order of action shifted radically, from last or almost last to first. If they choose to limp in, there is the whole table of people yet to act behind who might raise, rather than just the straddler. That makes a huge difference in whether one judges it to be worth calling from the small blind.

I don't think a player should be able to alter the order of play that dramatically.

There is nothing about this in the poker rule books that I have. It isn't even included in Michael Wiesenberg's poker dictionary (see I find precious little intelligent discussion of its merits and demerits in the various poker forums. All of which means that I don't have thoughtful commentary from reliable sources that might help me see aspects of this variation that are at present escaping me. For that reason, I'll keep an open mind on the subject for now. Maybe there are decent arguments that would make me revise my opinion.

But for now, I think it stinks.

(Had another small profit at the Rio today, and picked up another nice batch of colorful chips, as shown above.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"That guy didn't bet his full house!"

Last story from tonight's session at the Rio.

I'm in the small blind of a $1-$3 no-limit hold'em game. I have a J-2, an awful, despicable hand. But about five other players limp in ahead of me, so the pot odds are probably right to throw another $2 at this trash in the hopes of hitting something juicy, like two pairs. The big blind checks behind me.

The flop is Q-Q-J. Yuck. It gets checked all around. Everybody who doesn't have a queen in his hand is suspicious that somebody else does have one and is lurking like a snake in the grass, waiting for somebody else to bet, so he can pounce on it with a raise.

The turn card is another jack. This is interesting, because now I have a full house, jacks full of queens. But, of course, I'm crushed if anybody was, in fact, slow-playing a queen, because he would now have queens full of jacks. Nevertheless, there's a decent chance that nobody is sitting on a queen. So I bet $10. I get called by the guy two seats to my right (in the cutoff seat).

At this point, I naturally assume that he has either a queen or a jack, and I see no point in wasting any more money on this hand. The river card is a meaningless brick. I check, and my last remaining opponent checks behind me. He has A-4, giving him the two pair on the board with an ace kicker.

Before he sees my cards, he says, "We must be chopping it up." In other words, he concluded that I must have an ace, too. When he sees my full house, his eyes bug out. "You didn't bet that????" (Yes, there were actually four question marks in his voice. Precisely. I counted them.) He laughed, and then I heard him turning to the people on his right, and he said to them, "That guy didn't bet his full house!" To him, it was abdunantly clear that I was the dumbest poker player the world had ever produced. He added, though, "I guess it doesn't matter--I wouldn't have called another bet anyway."

I don't give poker lessons at the table, but I don't mind giving them to my faithful readers. (I'm confident that many readers will already understand the logic behind checking instead of betting there, but surely this will be a new concept to at least some.)

Betting on the river would be a classic example of what is technically known as a "zero-equity bet." Putting it more colloquially, it is commonly said that in that situation, "You'll only get called if you're beat."

My oh-so-knowledgeable opponent appears to have had at least a glimmer of insight into this, when he said that he wouldn't have called another bet on the river. Presumably, he would correctly interpret such a bet to mean that I had either a jack or a queen, and from his point of view it wouldn't matter whether I had the big full house or the little one, because he would lose either way if he called.

If my opponent had a jack, then he would probably call, and we would just split the pot, meaning that the river bet gained me no profit. If, though, he had a queen, he would raise, and I would be forced to either fold, thus wasting whatever I had bet, or make a bad call, and lose even more.

The only way I make money with a bet on the end there is if I'm up against a complete novice (or drunk) who has absolutely no clue what he's doing, or, possibly, a timid player who would fold a jack. But it's far more likely that my opponent has a queen than that either of these scenarios is happening. In other words, if I bet there every time over the course of 100 such situations, I will lose that bet to a guy with a queen more times than I will get called by a guy with no full house, or win the whole pot (rather than splitting it) from a guy with a jack. In the long run, betting at that point costs me money. It gains me nothing.

There are only two reasons to bet in poker after all the cards have been dealt out: To get a weaker hand to call, and to get a stronger hand to fold. There are no other useful goals for betting the river (assuming that you're playing in order to make money, rather than for reasons of ego, etc.). In the situation described, there is no hand stronger than my full house that will fold, and no hand weaker than mine that will call, assuming that the opponent is not a blithering idiot.

But the guy at the table tonight can't think that deeply about the game. He's what we call a "level one" player, focused only on what the cards are. To him, the logic is this: "I have a full house! That's a great hand! I'm going to bet!" The analysis stops there.

At the risk of sounding self-absorbed, it is very, very good for me that the poker rooms of this city teem with players whose thinking is that shallow. They keep my bills paid. At the same time, though, it's a little sad that there are so many people who put so little thought into a game that so richly rewards deep pondering with both intellectual satifsaction and monetary gains. (Not that this particular concept is really deep. It's not quite Poker 101, but thinking about why one should or should not bet in a given spot is certainly not much further along than, say, Poker 201.)

Another stupid Rio house policy

In addition to the miserly way the Rio handles comps (see immediately preceding post below), I observed something else there tonight that had previous escaped my attention.

I noticed a dealer give the deck a riffle shuffle before inserting it into the Shufflemaster. I thought this was odd, but didn't say anything about it--until I saw him do it again after the next hand was completed.

I asked whether that practice was mandatory at the Rio, or just his own little flourish. He said it is their policy. I asked, a bit sarcastically, "So random order isn't good enough, it has to be extra-random?"

He was a good sport and laughed. He acknowledged that it's a pointless gesture. He said that he thought it was just to placate the occasional patron who didn't trust the machine to actually be doing what it's supposed to do.

What rot! (I mean, that probably is the reason for the policy--but it's still stupid.) This is exactly like the idiocy of players asking for some special extra randomizing step (see

Hey, Rio poker room management, hear this: You can't get the cards any more random than random. If you don't trust the Shufflemasters to be giving fair shuffles, then get rid of them. If you do trust them, then deep-six an idiotic policy that caters to the occasional dunderhead who can't grasp the concept of randomness.

Sure, it's only about four extra seconds per hand of poker, but why waste even that much time? You presumably paid out the big bucks for the shuffle machines in order to speed up the game and put out more hands per hour, right? So then what is the point of slowing things down to placate morons? It would make just as much sense to anoint your dealers priests in some voodoo religion, and have them throw salt over their shoulders while incanting a few magic words, before putting the cards in the machine. That might make some imbecile players feel that good luck has been properly infused into the deck, and wouldn't waste any more time than the superfluous shuffle, so why not? Your current policy is every bit as pointless, stupid, and wasteful of players' time as a phony magical ritual would be.

Addendum, January 22, 2008

I was at the Rio again this evening, and noticed that the dealers were not doing a pre-shuffle shuffle. So I asked the shift supervisor whether it was a house policy or not. He said that it used to be, but isn't any more. That would explain the inconsistency. Maybe last night's dealer didn't get the memo on the change, or had just developed a habit that he hadn't broken.

The Rio is chintzy with their comps

Most Las Vegas poker rooms give their frequent players $1 in credits toward food purchases at the property's restaurants for every hour of play. A couple of places (Binion's, Treasure Island) double that. A few (Sam's Town, Golden Nugget) don't keep track at all, and whether they will write you a ticket for a few bucks off the buffet is completely up the discretion of the shift supervisor that happens to be working that day.

At the Hilton, the dollars earned were cumulative, in that there was no limit to how many you used in a day, as long as you had them in your "bank." I don't eat out a lot, so in the poker rooms where I play a lot, I tend to build up comp credits faster than I can use them. My favorite way of using them is at a time when I'm not playing, but have a date, or family or friends coming from out of town that I can treat for free.

I had blithely assumed that most or all places worked roughly like the Hilton did. I was surprised to learn tonight that that is not necessarily so.

My sister is coming to town this week with her husband for a convention related to their family business, so I want to take them out somewhere nice to eat. I was thinking that the Rio had some good choices, between their popular buffet, the high-end Voodoo Steak and Lounge, and the brand-new Rub barbecue place.

So when I finished playing poker, I asked the shift supervisor about how the comps work, what I need to do to redeem them, etc. Frankly, I don't have enough built up yet to put much of a dent in a three-person restaurant tab, but I thought I might as well use what I have. I was disappointed to hear that they limit payouts to $8/day--no matter how many credits one has accumulated.

How cheap can you get??? From the poker room's point of view, what possible difference can it make if I take out $8 a day for ten straight days or $80 all at once, so that I can treat friends or family, instead of just stuffing my own face? This just reeks of somebody in upper management making a tightwad decision that favors saving a few bucks over doing something that would please customers.

It's bad enough that poker players are already universally regarded as second-class citizens as far as casino comps are concerned. I understand the reason for that--we don't give them as much profit as the brain-dead zombies that pour their paychecks into slot machines, and some poker rooms are even loss leaders for the casinos. But once you've decided to throw us a bone, how about making it one with a tiny scrap of meat left on it, rather than doing the bare minimum you grudgingly have to do just to keep up with the competition across the street? Why not at least try to give the illusion that you care about the riff-raff that sit their butts for unnaturally long stretches at your poker tables? What's next--I need a note from my mother and/or my doctor in order to cash out a few comp bucks?

To his credit, the guy on duty, when I explained the situation, said that he could do $8 a day, with a ten-day expiration on each ticket, and I could then use them all at once. So that's something--but still, what a horrible image it conveys that the employees and I have to pull such nonsense in order to wriggle around a stupid limitation that shouldn't be there in the first place.

I'm seriously still considering making the Rio my main base of operations. I've played there four sessions now--all short ones, totaling only 6.6 hours--and it has been highly profitable, three winning sessions and one loss, for a net uptick of $1026, which works out to about $156/hour. I don't expect that will be sustained over the long run, but it's an enticing start to what could be a beautiful relationship. I hate that this tightfisted, sour note was injected into it so early.

(Despite their stupid comp policy, the Rio does have an awfully nice assortment of souvenir chips, another handful of which I picked up tonight, as shown above.)

Love the shirt!

After I finished playing poker at the Rio tonight, I went for a stroll through the property to see what restaurants were there that I might want to try some day. I passed the World Series of Poker merchandise store (which I didn't even know existed). They had signs announcing 70% off of all "2007 WSOP" stuff, so I bought a $40 sweatshirt for $12. I don't usually wear poker clothing, but something innocuous that like is OK with me. I'll have to endure the occasional question of why I'm wearing the sweatshirt when I didn't set foot near the place during the Series, but that's OK.

If I were inclined to wear poker-themed clothes more than I do, I certainly wouldn't include in the lineup ones that are taunting--there's way too much potential for somebody to take it personally, or for it to get turned back against me if I get unlucky or make a bad play. I don't need that extra bit of grief in my life.

However, if I were predisposed to wearing such items, the one pictured above would go on my list. As such things go, it's a very nice in-your-face jibe. As I say, it's not my style, but I can appreciate the humor in it.

I'm also reminded that I saw in a blog post from the WSOP (sorry, don't remember whose it was) claiming that the author had seen a player at the table wearing a T-shirt that said, "Your sunglasses can't hide that you suck." Now that's a message that more players need to hear!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Poker gems, #71

Graham Sharpe, in Poker's Strangest Hands, pp. 38-39. The story involves Wild Bill Hickok and a frequent opponent identified only as "McDonald."

They sat down again in a no-limit, one-on-one game, drinking as they played. Midnight came and the game was still going strong. Bill had picked up what he thought was a winning hand and was betting accordingly.

Finally, McDonald showed his hand--three jacks.

"I have a full house--three aces and a pair of sixes," declared Bill, throwing his cards face down on the table.

McDonald lifted them one by one. "I see only two aces and one six."

Bill whipped out his six-shooter, saying, "Here's my other six." Then he produced a knife--"And here's my one-spot."

McDonald knew when he was beaten and conceded the pot.

[Grump's editorial note: This kind of conduct is now frowned upon in most of the better Las Vegas casinos.]