Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Poker gems, #94

Norm MacDonald, as quoted by Sam Simon in Bluff magazine article, March, 2008, p. 66:

No Limit Hold'em takes a minute to learn and five minutes to master.

Cats playing poker

After several decades of dogs playing poker, it's about time the kitties had their turn:

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


I put in an unusual (for me) early afternoon poker session today at Treasure Island. The TI is a delightful little place, definitely among the best of the small poker rooms. It is unbeatable for friendliness, service, innovations, and overall quality of dealers. But I've had kind of a curse there, losing more than I win. Before today, I had played 12 times in cash games, winning only 4 of those days, with a net loss of $929. It has been puzzling me for a long time why this particular room stands out from the rest of the Las Vegas poker rooms as such a prominent statistical anomaly. But once in a while, I head back there to see if I can break the curse. Today I tripled my $100 buy-in in one hour, and took the unusual step of quitting early to lock up the "W." This is now two winners in a row there, so maybe, maybe, I'm seeing what statisticians call "regression to the mean"--that is (to oversimplify), an unusually good or bad streak will tend, over time, to end and revert toward the long-term average.

Anyway, about halfway through my time there today, one player displayed a sufficiently high degree of ignorance about pot odds that I thought it was worth commenting on here.

He had just sat down at the table with $100. This was his first hand at our $1-3 NLHE game. He raised to $10 and had four callers. The flop was A-J-x with two spades. He bet $15, and chased away all but one opponent. The turn was an offsuit blank. He bet $35 and got called again. The river put out a third spade, and our hero pushed in his last $40. His nemesis called. The bettor showed A-J; he had flopped top two pairs. The caller had 4s-5s, for a baby flush.

This is the point at which the subject of this post threw up his hands and said, "Unbelievable!" This was followed with a cursory, insincere "Nice hand" to the guy who was stacking up the chips.

As I've said, I don't give lessons at the table, but if I did, I would have told our new player that he needed to do his math better.

Let's not debate whether one should call even a smallish raise from an unknown player who just sat down, when you have small suited connectors. Personally, I would wait until I had more information on a new opponent. But it's certainly not outright foolish, because you can sometimes make a big profit, as happened here.

Now we're on the flop. There's about $50 in the pot. The new player bet just $15 into four opponents with a double-suited flop. If one of these opponents had hit a flush draw with that flop, he is being offered a pot of $65 for a $15 call, or 4.3:1 on his money. Of course, he's not guaranteed to win even if he makes his flush, because of the board pairing and giving the first player a full house, or somebody else hitting a bigger flush. But even accounting for that, 4.3:1 payback when his odds against making his hand with the next card to come are only about 4.2:1 (out of 47 yet-unseen cards, 9 will make his flush and 38 won't, and 38:9 is 4.2:1) is not a bad deal, if you assume that he'll win more from this new player than what is now in the pot if he hits.

Now consider the situation on the turn. The drawing player had to call a $35 bet for a chance to win what was now a roughly $115 pot, which is about 3.3:1. If he could know that his opponent had flopped top two pair, he would probably expect to get the remainder of that stack if he hit his flush on the river, because players with top two pairs tend to be pretty stubborn with it. So if we add the new player's last $40 to the potential winnings, the "implied pot odds" jump to $155 for that $35 call, or 4.4:1, while the odds against hitting are only 4.1:1. Again, it should be a profitable call to make.

In other words, his opponent made pretty reasonable decisions at every point along the way. There was not one thing even a little bit "unbelievable" about either his decisions or how the cards fell.

One way to think about good "big-picture" strategy in poker is that your goal is to induce opponents to make mistakes, either mistakes in guessing what you're holding or mathematical mistakes of putting too much money into the pot for what their payback could be, weighted by their probability of winning. This new player didn't do that. If instead of $15 he had bet, say, $40 on the flop (about 80% of the pot size), and this opponent called, then he would have induced a mistake, because if these two players repeat this same scenario a thousand times, the bettor will win a whole lot more money than he loses.

Alternatively, the original bettor, after being called for $15 on the flop, could have reasonably guessed that his opponent was on a flush draw. Then, when the turn card didn't bring the third spade, he could have pushed in his remaining $75, thus requiring the drawing player to pay $75 for an approximately 1 in 5 chance of winning a $155 pot, horribly incorrect odds for trying to make it. And if the turn card had instead been one to make the flush, the original bettor could shut down, and limit his loss to $25.

Even after making two bet-size errors on the flop and turn, the new player still could have salvaged something of the situation on the river. After getting called twice, he must guess that this opponent flopped either a flush draw or something that had him beat, like a small set. He should not have bet the river, no matter what came. (I'd make an exception if he got lucky and made a full house on the river with an A or a J.) If the last card does not complete the potential flush, he will probably only get called by a player who had flopped three of a kind, and had him beat all along, making this a "zero-equity" bet. (See And if the last card does complete the possibly flush, he should save his last $40 instead of throwing it away.

In fact, the only thing unbelievable about this hand was that this new player to the table made three critical errors, and still thought that the outcome--the loss of his entire stack of chips--was "unbelievable." Nope; it was not only believable, it was entirely predictable.

Oh, and the photo at the beginning of this post? That's Danette, the day shift supervisor at TI. If she looks familiar, it's because she's one of the dealers on NBC's "Poker After Dark," GSN's "High Stakes Poker," and FSN's "Poker Superstars." (See She's also a frequent contributor to the forums at Despite several email exchanges, I had never managed to catch her on duty when I played at TI, until today. Delightful young woman, and even more fetching in person than on TV. To top it all off, she knows and cares about details of poker rules, and there ain't nothin' sexier than that! (Don't get any ideas, guys--she's married and has kidlets at home when the dealing's done.)

Poker gems, #93

John Vorhaus, in Card Player magazine column, February 27, 2008 (vol. 21, #4), p. 105:

They say that information is power; in poker, it's cash, just cash.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Wynn versus Tuscany

Last summer I had kind of a strange day in which I played at both one of the worst poker hellholes in Nevada (Arizona Charlie's) and one of the most elegant poker rooms in the world (the Venetian)--see Yesterday was another such study in contrasts, but with a twist.

The Wynn is perhaps the most beautiful building in Las Vegas. Its poker room is one of the better ones in terms of personal service, action, dealer quality, general room management, ease of access, and range of games and limits regularly spread. (My main gripe about it is that the tables are too close together.) Yet I've only played there once before, in November, 2006. I lost $500 in a couple of hours. It was a brutal beating. It was one of those days where I seemed destined to have strong but second-best hands--the king-high flush to an opponent's ace-high flush, flopped top two pair versus a flopped set, etc. My recollection is that I wasn't really outclassed, but, at the same time, there was not a single soft spot at the table to be exploited.

That experience hurt enough that I have shied away from the place ever since. I returned today, initially prompted by the lure of the cute chips to pocket (see, but also because I knew that the Wynn was a horse that had bucked me off, and I had to get back in that particular saddle again sooner or later.

There's no question that I'm a substantially better player now than I was in late 2006. Still, I chose a slightly tamer horse. This was particularly so because the Wynn's waters were sharkier than usual today (I believe in mixing my metaphors freely, as you can see), with the Wynn Classic series of tournaments in full swing. So I stuck with $4-$8 limit hold'em instead of plunging into what would otherwise usually be my normal $1-$3 no-limit game. Frankly, I wanted to be able to bleed more slowly if I ran into the same kind of day again. I figured that if things went well, I would have my confidence back for a run at no-limit the next time.

The table had two very good players, in the sense that they were tricky and aggressive enough that I usually had to simply guess whether I was ahead or behind in the hand, and with a low degree of confidence either way. The rest of the table was manageable, and only two players noticeably weaker than the average. I lost my first buy-in, but gradually ground my way to a profitable conclusion: up $172 in 3.9 hours. (I don't usually discuss my session outcomes this specifically, but there is a point this time.) I caught breaks about as often as others caught them against me, so didn't feel that luck was a huge factor in either direction. I think the outcome is probably about representative of my modest edge in skill over most of my opponents, and is probably in the ballpark of what would happen if I played $4-8 limit routinely.

Next I went to the Hard Rock, which is now in the final week of the 45-day trial period of the new "Royal Hold'em" game. (See I wanted to try it once more, since I don't know if or when it may reappear. But nobody was playing.

I didn't feel like driving back to the Strip, especially with the huge surge in traffic from NASCAR this weekend. The closest poker room to Hard Rock is at the Tuscany casino. I have only played there twice before, both times, coincidentally, also in November, 2006. I hated the place. The dealers weren't very good, it reeked heavily of smoke, there was only one table going, often short-handed, and both times there was at least one truly obnoxious player making everybody miserable, with the poker room staff doing little or nothing to curb it.

Nevertheless, both times the games were extremely soft, and the Tuscany has remained at the top of my per-session profit standings. (I haven't mentioned it before when discussing such things, because usually I include only the places where I've played at least five times, in recognition of the fact that it takes at least that many times to even out some of the random variation.) So I decided to give them another chance today.

It's still much too smokey. There was still only one table going. Although this time there was one very good dealer, there was also one who just didn't pay attention to his work. There was, again, an incredibly rude player, who, after I put a mildly bad beat on her, looked the dealer square in the eye and said, "You're a fucking asshole." Again, nobody seemed to find this particularly out of the ordinary, worth calling the floor person over to give her a warning, etc. It's as if they just expect players to be uncouth there, and the players fully expect to be able to get away with it.

But that other alluring aspect has also remained constant: I racked up a $699 profit in 1.8 hours of $1-$2 no-limit hold'em, and didn't even have to break a sweat. These were seriously bad players, and they weren't even drunk, as far as I could tell.

I had one very difficult decision to make, when an opponent, new to the table, pushed all-in on the river when I had just top pair (ace) with a jack kicker, on a scary board full of straight and flush possibilities. When I finally called, he showed his ace with a deuce kicker, and I took down the biggest pot of the night.

Other than that one tough moment, I basically just ran over the table, bullying with position and a big stack, getting away with bluffs while picking off other peoples', inducing calls when I had strong hands, etc. Look, I know I sound terribly arrogant here, but I'm being as objective as I can be when I say that there wasn't another player there that came even close to my skill level. And that's not because I'm super-high on the ability scale myself. I think I maintain a pretty realistic assessment of my skill with respect to the rest of the poker world at large, and I know that I'm about as low on the totem pole as one could be and actually have a shot at making a subsistence-level living at this game. But below me is a vast sea of people who really have no clue what they are doing, and don't have a prayer of long-term success against opponents of even my modest talent.

What Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) says in "Rounders" is so true. As two tourists sit down among Mike and some of the other New York grinders at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, we hear his voiceover:

These two have no idea what they're about to walk into. Down here to have a
good time, they figure, why not give poker a try? After all, how different can
it be from the home games they've played their whole lives? All the luck in the
world isn't gonna change things for these guys. They're simply overmatched... They wear their tells like signs around their necks--facial tics, nervous fingers, a hand over a mouth, the way a cigarette is smoked. Little unconscious gestures that reveal the cards in their hands. We catch everything.
As others have observed, it's very easy to think that one understands this game a whole hell of a lot better than one really does. I look back at when I first started playing online maybe four years ago and thought I had a decent handle on it. I was so wrong.

I'm as certain as I can be that every other player at the Tuscany tonight is in that same place, thinking they understand the game, when they don't. (And, of course, that's just what the highest-level pros would say about me where I am. But at least I have the advantage of being acutely aware of my deficiencies and weaknesses. I know full well that there are whole levels upon levels of deep understanding into which I have only glimmers of insight.)

I'm in this to make money, not to find the best table-side dinner service in town, or to gain prestige from being able to say that I'm a regular at the Wynn, Bellagio, and Mirage. The Tuscany is a dump, but it has lots of low-hanging fruit to be picked. A reader recently emailed and asked why I don't spend more time talking about the high-end rooms. Well, frankly, it's because I don't spend much time in them. I want the money-making to be as easy and painless and consistent as it can be. The high-end rooms are the daily offices of the best players in town. Why would I spend most of my time where I'm as likely to be the prey as the predator?

So here's my study in contrasts for today: The gorgeous Wynn, with what I think is one of the toughest games in town at the limits that I play, or what is nominally the same game at the same limits at the crappy, icky Tuscany, with players just shoving their stacks of chips my way, where I now average a bit over $200 per hour in profit?

Please excuse me while I go put the Tuscany on my speed dial.

*The lines I'm leaving out are these:
We're not playing together, but then again, we're not playing against each other either. It's like the Nature Channel. You don't see piranhas eating each other, do you?

The DVD has an audio commentary track with Phil Hellmuth, Chris Ferguson, and Johnny Chan. They all simultaneously break into protest at these lines. Yes, they insist, they are absolutely playing against each other.

I believe them. I think the "Rounders" writers either misunderstood or misrepresented how the poker world operates. Jennifer Harman and Erick Lindgren are two of Daniel Negreanu's closest friends, but at the poker table he will use every bit of skill and deception he can muster to take as many of their chips as he can lay his hands on, and they will do the same to him. At the same time, however, they have sufficient respect for each other that there is a necessary element of caution that would be much less of a factor when playing against inexperienced amateurs. It's not that the pros avoid confrontations with each other because of wanting to go easy on them due to the friendships; it's that in a mixed game there are other, easier targets to pick on.

The pirahnas of poker will definitely feed on each other, given a juicy opportunity. It's just a whole lot easier to get your meal from something that isn't quite as inclined to bite back.

Maybe the most adorable poker chips ever... least if you like cute little critters like I do. I've had dogs and pet rats, though never a piglet.

I saw a guy at another casino last week with one of the Year of the Rat chips, and I had to have one. (Click on the photo to see up close how cute that guy's little face is!)

This is the first time I've picked a place to play poker so that I would have an excuse to buy collectible chips, and the first time I've gone to the cashier just to buy chips, since these don't really circulate regularly (they're both an odd denomination--8 being a lucky number in Chinese culture--and physically oversized, about 3 mm bigger than the 49 mm standard, so wouldn't work well for actual gambling).

It turned out to be an unusually good poker day--uptick $871--so I felt justified in a little splurge for the chip collection.