Saturday, March 22, 2008

Fly on the wall

Last night I logged on to Full Tilt Poker to play my nightly sit-and-go. Before joining a table, I decided to scan the big-dollar cash games to see if anybody interesting was playing that I could watch for a while. And boy, did I hit the jackpot there. As you can see, this $500/$1000 HORSE game had Eli Elezra, David Benyamine, David Singer, John D'Agostino, Mike Matusow, and John Juanda. You don't often find a lineup like that.

You might also notice that this screenshot happened to catch Matusow sticking a knife into Benyamine via the chat box. It's pretty well known that Benyamine stopped playing online for a while earlier this year after losing a few hundred thousand dollars. He's getting back into it now, but apparently Matusow wants to make the experience as painful as possible. Note the irony of Mike Matusow chiding somebody else's financial status. Anybody want to take Matusow's side on a bet as to whether he or Benyamine has the greater net worth, or the highest average annual income for the past five years?

Anyway, I had a great time watching this game for a while before closing the window. I resisted the temptation to click on the "join waiting list" button, since I think the FTP server would have sneered or laughed at me, while pointing out that I don't have enough in my account for even one small blind in this game. I moved on to my $5 STT. I won it, but it felt kind of pointless and pathetic.

Keeping the store open

In Steve Zolotow's Card Player magazine column this month, he pays tribute to the late Chip Reese. He tells the story of having once found Reese, Doyle Brunson, and "two other very strong players playing." When the game broke up, Zolotow said,

"Chip, I know you're a great player, but why do you waste your time playing
in a tough game like that? If you wait around, there will be a lot of better

He laughed and said, "Well, buddy, if you don't open the store, how can you
get any customers?"

It's the perfect answer, as one would expect from Chip Reese. And it reminds me of something I've been meaning to gripe about for a long time (yeah, I keep a list--and it's a long one!): Players who won't help keep a game going.

Certainly everybody has the right to stop playing at any time, because you're tired, you ran out of money, you have other commitments, the game isn't good, you're bored, or whatever. Furthermore, it's not unreasonable to perceive that a game is winding down for the night, as players leave without being replaced, and decide that the action has passed its peak, and call it quits for the day.

But there are lots of other situations in which a game gets short-handed temporarily. This might be for just a few minutes, because a group of friends that were playing together all left at once and the floor just needs to call off the names of the players on the waiting list, or it might be for longer, as when a tournament is starting and there is no waiting list, but there is every reason to believe that the game will fill up again over the course of the next 30 minutes or so as other players trickle in. That's the kind of situation I'm talking about.

There are a number of players who refuse to participate in keeping the game going. They dislike short-handed play, and simply won't stoop to it. It doesn't seem to matter to them that their leaving compounds the problem for everybody else. They are looking out for number one, as they see it, and the rest of you can fend for yourself.

Inevitably, these are the same people who won't help to start a new game until it's full. That is, let everybody else get it going, then they'll join. They won't be bothered with sitting there while the table-opening procedures are gone through, or playing short-handed while the room staff find out who from the waiting list is still there. They plunk down their chips to reserve the seat, then go play blackjack (or whatever) for a while, returning only when they see that the game is in full motion.

These people are rude, selfish jerks. Yeah, poker is perhaps the most purely self-interested game in existence, but there are some aspects of it that require a cooperative spirit, and this is chief among them. You have to get the store open, and you have to keep it open. This is equally the responsibility of every player who wants to participate in the bounty of the full game that will usually result. If the table temporarily drops down to six players, and you use that as your cue to go take a long walk until it fills up again to your satisfaction, then you're not doing your share; you're making the problem worse for everybody else, rather than helping correct the situation. If more than one or two people take this approach, the game dies, and we all suffer.

Yeah, I understand that short-handed play is generally less profitable. I dislike it, too. Some people excel at it; I'm not one of them. I have a hard time adjusting my range of hand values and bet sizes for fewer players. Virtually every time I have tried playing a game with five or fewer players for an extended time, I've lost money. (That's not an inevitability; it's a result of my own weakness in that aspect of my play. I need more practice at it.) But if we all follow the lead of the selfish boors who exacerbate the dearth of players, that's it, the game's over, and we all lose out. Conversely, if we all just stay put, keep playing for a while, they'll bring in other players with fresh money, and we can go back to the normal, profitable game.

Do you think you're special, and that you particularly should be exempted from helping out in this regard? If so, on what basis do you reach that conclusion? Were you anointed by the hand of God or something? I kind of doubt it.

What goes through your pea-sized brain when you stand up and abandon the table in that situation--that it's everybody else's job to keep the game going for you, while you take a break, and fill it up so that you can then come back and reap the benefit? Did your mother really raise you to be lazy, narcissistic, unsocial, egotistical, self-indulgent, uncooperative, stingy, and ungracious--or did you decide on your own that those were qualities you wanted to develop? Maybe she didn't read to you the story of the Little Red Hen enough times, so go remind yourself of its lessons again:

Those people really torque me off (in case you couldn't tell).

Friday, March 21, 2008

"The Grand" makes a bad second impression

Seven weeks ago the poker movie "The Grand" made a great first impression on me with its trailer. See Today, though, it has dropped precipitously in my eyes. I've had its opening day on my calendar since that first post. Tonight, however, I find no showtimes listed in Vegas theaters. What gives?

I poke around a little, and find that the March 21 date is basically a lie. It's one of those "limited release" deals--extremely limited, as in two theaters in the entirely country. See Worse, one of them is in New York City.

Did you catch that? New York City? They made a poker movie--a poker movie that is set in a downtown Las Vegas casino (the Golden Nugget)--and they're not opening it in Las Vegas. No. Instead, they've chosen to open it in New York City, where playing poker gets you either arrested or robbed.

Brilliant. Ingenious. Good way to spread favorable word of mouth in the poker community. They must have the finest PR firm in the nation working this case.


18 more cities get to see the movie on April 4 and April 11. Is Las Vegas in that list? It is not. Salt Lake City is, though. Salt Lake City, capital of one of the two states in the union in which no form of gambling is legal. They get the poker movie before Las Vegas does.

The film's official web site contains no hint, as least as far as I can find, of when they might bother showing up here. Maybe sometime after the glaciers melt?

How incredibly annoying.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A most worthy aspiration

Remember Phil Laak and Ali Eslami playing against a computer last year, and barely winning? Well, here's a blog post about a talk recently given by one of the artificial-intelligence researchers about that match and their work to improve their program: (which I found via a link posted at

I most enjoyed learning that the project has this as one of its goals: "They want to make Phil Hellmuth cry."

Oh yeah! I will be rooting for the machine!

A theoretical exercise, and a bit of a puzzle

Suppose we invent a strange new (and, I'm afraid, quite boring) variation of Texas hold'em. In this game, there is no real betting, no decisions to be made--just an ante from every player to make the pot. Everybody gets their two cards, then the five community cards are dealt, and the best hand takes the pot.

Obviously, nobody is going to show a profit in this game in the long run; players will overall just trade chips back and forth with a neutral expected value, and a net loss if there is a house rake. But here's the question: In the ranking of hold'em starting hands, which ones will be long-term winners?

I'm not sure why, but I started wondering about this question today. Actually, what I started off asking myself was slightly different: What is the worst starting hand that will, on average, be the best one at the table? (Mammas, don't let your babies grow up to be poker players. It warps their brains so that they start thinking about questions like this while eating an otherwise normal lunch.) I decided that I could really only answer that if I defined "best" as being equivalent to "the most likely to win over repeated trials if all five community cards are seen every time without additional rounds of betting." That's why I invented my new poker game.

I used Poker Stove (, with some trial and error, to figure this out. I assumed a ten-handed game. The results surprised me.

It turns out that any of the following hands has the highest equity (i.e., just over 10%) against nine opponents' random hands, and would therefore be correct to bet on in my warped little game (if you were given the option to bet or not after seeing your cards--which you're not):

  • Any pocket pair.
  • Any suited ace.
  • Any unsuited ace down to A-8. [Plus A-5; see comments.]
  • Any suited king.
  • Any unsuited king down to K-9.
  • Any suited queen.
  • Any unsuited queen down to Q-9.
  • Any suited jack.
  • Any unsuited jack down to J-9.
  • 10-9 offsuit. (This is the lowest unpaired, unsuited hand that is profitable.)
  • Any suited ten down to 10-5. [Should be down to 10-4; see comments.]
  • Any suited nine down to 9-5.
  • Any suited eight down to 8-5.
  • Any suited seven down to 7-4.
  • Any suited six down to 6-4. [Should be 6-3; see comments.]
  • Suited 5-4. [And 5-3; see comments.]
  • Suited 4-3.

Yes, the lowly 4-3 of clubs (or any other suit) will, over several thousand trials, show a small profit played against nine random hands in this game.

I realize that this information is pretty functionally useless as hold'em is actually played. Sure, 10-5 suited in my invented game is profitable, but try playing it in a real hold'em game whenever it is dealt to you, and you will almost surely show a long-term loss. There are two main reasons for this, I think. First is that you're never up against nine random hands. As soon as we give players the option to put in money or not after seeing their hole cards, there is a selection process by which the worst starting hands are weeded out. This reduces the amount of -EV money going in, and improves the average range of hands against which your cards have to hold up.

Second is that hands like a suited 10-5 are likely to put you in situations in which you have to make very difficult decisions on later streets, and difficult decisions mean lots of room for error, which errors will cost you money.

Still, I found it very surprising that many sets of cards generally reckoned to be so pathetic as to be instant folders in a real game would actually be profitable in the artificial construct in which they merely have to hold up against nine random hands slightly more often than one time in ten.

It gives new life to that most common of all donkey refrains, "But they were suited!"

Caveat: I have some degree of doubt about my list, because it leads to a counterintuitive conclusion. Let me explain. There are 1326 possible hold'em starting hands, all equally likely to occur. The list of supposedly profitable hands above includes a total of 538 starting hands, if I've done the math right. For example, there are 78 pairs (6 different possible pairs for each of the 13 ranks of cards). There are 48 possible suited aces (from each of four suits, the ace can go with any of the 12 remaining ranks). There are 72 ways to make an unsuited ace down to A-8 (12 ways to make an unsuited A-K, 12 ways to make an unsuited A-Q, etc.). Add up all of those on my list and you get 518. (In my list, something like "unsuited jack" means that the higher card is a jack, so I'm not counting, say, all the J-K combinations there, because they were previously counted in the kings categories.) But that's about 39% of the possible starting hands. It strikes me as doubtful that 39% of the possible starting hands could all show a long-term profit when matched against 9 opponents. Logically, I would expect the profitable list for a ten-handed game to include only a hair under 10% of the possible starting hands.

To check this, I ran the same sort of calculation for a heads-up version of the same game. I won't bore you with the list of what Poker Stove says are positive equity hands, but it comes out to 658 possible starting hands, which is just a tad under 50% of the 1326 possible starting hands--exactly what I would have guessed (given some small margin of error for the equity calculations).

So now I'm not sure whether Poker Stove is spitting out incorrect equity numbers in the 10-handed situation (I'm using the Monte Carlo simulation because the calculation against 9 random hands otherwise takes way too long for me to wait), or there's something wrong with my intuition that 39% of starting hands can't be profitable in that situation. Maybe the solution lies in ties--that is, that most of the equity in that 39% consists of hands that end up tying with at least one other hand, and if Poker Stove instead spat out its numbers based on winning the whole pot outright, the range of hands on my list would indeed be just under 10% of the possible starting hands. That's my best guess for now, but I really don't know. I'm going to have to mull it over some more. Comments from other brains will be appreciated. Mine hurts too much right now to give it any more thought today.

Poker gems, #97

Alan Schoonmaker, in Card Player magazine column, March 12, 2008 (vol. 21, #5), p. 115:

Poker is a battle for information, and it takes hard work to acquire and process it. You must also resist your natural impulses to give it away. Much of this work and discipline must be done at times that most people just relax, but winners keep working, getting ready for future battles. They constantly ask a question that you should often ask yourself: "How can I get more and give away less information?"

Another celebrity impersonation

First, see this recent post, if you didn't previously:

Now there's another suggestion to add to the mix, this time from somebody who hasn't even met me! Gadzooks64, proprietress of "OMGWTF: It's a Blog?!" says that I remind her of Scott Adams of Dilbert fame (see the post at

See what you think.


Me (a few years ago; I chose this because my old glasses more closely match those in the Adams photo):

So what do you think? Were we separated at birth? If so, do I get some of his money?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

When you believe in things that you don't understand, then you suffer

When I was cashing out at Planet Hollywood a couple of nights ago, the nice man behind the counter asked me if $50 bills were OK with me.

When I first moved to Vegas I was baffled by why casino cashiers always asked this before paying me in $50s. I have since learned that it is an old and well-established Vegas superstition that carrying fifty-dollar bills is unlucky, and many people refuse them.

Several times I have asked cashiers their experiences with this denomination. I did again at PH Monday, and his response was typical. He said that if he doesn't ask and just starts counting out the bills, people will often react with horror, sometimes stepping back and saying something like, "Get those away from me" or "I don't even want to touch them." I asked him what percentage of customers reject them, and he guessed that it was something like 80%. Again, this is consistent with what other poker room cashiers have said when I've asked.

Even Daniel Negreanu, usually a pretty rational, thoughtful fellow, appears to buy into this crap. He wrote in his poker blog for November 29, 2006, "Superstitions are stupid, but $50 bills are unlucky. That’s just a well known fact…." (See Of course, there could be a tongue-in-cheek element here, but it seems likely that the writer at least partially believes the truth of his statement.

All of which makes me wonder this: What the hell is wrong with you people? Have you all lost your ever-lovin' minds?

Did just seeing the photo of the bill at the top of this blog entry make you cringe with fear? If you are one of the apparently millions who subscribes to this looney theory, can you please explain to me the exact physics involved? That is, what is the nature and location of the force in the universe that scans people's wallets, determines who is carrying which bills, then messes with the random number generator on the Shufflemaster in specific ways so as to cause a string of second-best hands to be dealt to any person it detects carrying pictures of Ulysses S. Grant? Seriously--isn't that what you have to believe is going on to put any stock in this particular piece of insanity? How can you invest even three seconds of critical thought into this notion and still cling to it?

I'll make this blanket assertion: If your way of thinking about poker includes garbage ideas like this, you will never, ever become a winning player. Period. If you clutter your brain with thoughts about whether you're wearing your lucky underwear, whether you should really be playing on the 13th day of the month, whether this dealer is one that always delivers you bad beats, whether just having gotten your hair cut has sapped your good luck, etc. ad infinitum, then you haven't got room left for rational analysis of the factors that really do matter, such as pot odds, stack sizes, table image, tells, and position.

Now, I happen to think that it's kind of dumb and pointless that we have $50 bills; there just isn't much practical need for a denomination between $20 and $100. (The same is true for the $2--which is part of why it never caught on.) But as long as the bank will take it as part of my deposit, any poker room cashier is welcome to unload their otherwise unloved 50s on me any time, any day. You people who won't accept them because of fear of some curse, well, you're just plain stupid--that's all there is to it.

I don't know if Stevie Wonder is a poker player, but he certainly nailed one element of it: Superstition ain't the way.


This series is among the funniest poker blog writing I've ever encountered. Go read.

Addendum, March 20, 2008

Gadzooks64 mentioned in her comment that she also linked to Goat's series of online player profiles. I had somehow missed these previously, but she's right--well worth reading. See

"English only!"

I'm afraid I may not be able to relate this story effectively, as it was kind of a "you had to be there" moment. But I'll try.

At Treasure Island last night there were two Irish tourists to my immediate right. They were chatting with each other between hands, and continued talking as the cards were dealt. As the dealer gave them their first down card, he cautioned, "English only." They paused for a second, but then went on. As the dealer came around again to deliver their second cards, he repeated more emphatically, "English only! Once the cards are dealt, you have to speak in English."

The two friends stopped their conversation, both looking at the dealer with puzzled faces. Finally, one of them protested, "I don't have any choice--it's the only language I know!"

They had been speaking English all along. The problem was that the dealer was Asian, with English as his second language, and he simply didn't recognize the heavy Irish brogue as being the same language he had learned.

The dealer was embarrassed, I think, but the rest of us found it to be pretty funny. I asked whether accents were banned from the table. To the right of the affected players was a guy from the deep South. He drawled, "I wonder if he can understand me!" The two friends laughed it all off without offense, and they didn't get any further reminders to speak only in their native tongue.

I should add that I do indeed appreciate this dealer's attempt to enforce a rule. In my experience, dealers generally don't take care of this particular infraction on their own, but intervene only if another player complains. I don't like having to be the one to ask to have the rule enforced. So I hope that this one slightly embarrassing experience doesn't dissuade him from his laudable efforts.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Your two pair is good"

Last night at Planet Hollywood I was on the button with 10-8 of hearts, when a tight player two seats to my right put in a pre-flop raise, to something like $12 or $15. I called, because this is the kind of hand that has a lot of sneaky potential to win a big pot against a player who has a fairly definable range of opening-raise hands. Both blinds called, as did one other guy who had limped in ahead of the raiser.

I should mention that I had successfully established a (false) image as a player who bets after the flop only when he has something. Part of how I did this was to deploy one of my favorite tricks early in the session. I raised with A-Q, and when the flop missed me I checked behind my two opponents. On the turn there was a small bet from the first player, which I and the other guy both called. It got checked around on the turn, and the first player won the showdown with pocket 6s. I showed my A-Q. I have found that giving up one small pot this way early in a session does a world of good at persuading other people that I don't just automatically fire a continuation bet on the flop if it misses me. They conclude that I'm a straightforward player, betting when I have something and playing passively when I don't. Heh heh heh!

But back to the original story, which occurred much later in the session: The flop was 10-7-3 rainbow. It got checked around to the original raiser, who bet $25. I was pretty confident from faces and body language and how cards were being held that none of the three players who checked were going to contest this pot any further, so it was going to be down to the raiser and me. I have top pair, bad kicker, no draws. but that could well be the best hand right now; if he put in his pre-flop raise with AK, AQ, AJ, KQ, KJ, QJ, 99, 88, 66, 55, 44, or 22, then I'm good. I'm only behind if he had a premium pocket pair or the unlikely 10-10, 7-7, or 3-3 with which he would now have a set. The fact that his bet was rather small compared to the pot size, I think, increases the probability that he didn't really like this flop.

My hand is unlikely to improve; it's probably as good as it's going to get. His hand, on the other hand, could easily improve with any ace or face card hitting, in which case it's going to be hard for me to continue with the hand. So it seems clear to me that a raise is in order. If I'm ahead now, I'd like to take the pot now and be done with it. If I'm behind a big pocket pair or a set already, I can probably learn that more cheaply with a raise now (when he comes roaring over the top of me) than by calling two more progressively larger bets from him on the turn and river.

So I push forward $75. Everybody else folds, as I had anticipated. My lone remaining opponent clearly hates this. He's fidgeting, counting his chips, looking puzzled. He asks, "Why bet so much?" That was a strange question, because tripling an opponent's bet is probably the single most common increment for a raise. But if you want an answer now, pal, it's simple: less than that, and I give you correct pot odds to call even if I'm ahead in the hand now, but more than that and I'm verging into territory where I'm pot-committed to shoving in the rest of my chips no matter what you do or what other cards come, and I'd rather still be able to get away from this hand if I become convinced that I'm beat. That was a stupid question, but there's your answer. It's straight out of any introductory poker book.

Anyway, he hems and haws long enough that I became quite confident that he did, in fact, have an overpair to the board--probably jacks or queens. Finally, though, he threw his cards away, saying, "Your two pair is good."

(I won't quibble with the grammar. I think "two pair" and "two pairs" are equivalent and equally valid expressions. Furthermore, at least for poker purposes, I'm willing to accept "two pair" as a singular noun phrase, so that "is" works just as well as "are" in that spot. It's not clearly correct, but it's not clearly erroneous, either.)

I've taken a long time to get here, but the point of this rant is about his last comment. It's far from the first time I've heard such a thing. In fact, just a few days ago at the Rio I had J-10 with a flop of 8-9-10. I bet. A very loose-aggressive frequent bluffer raised. I reraised, because I thought he was trying to represent a monster with nothing. He immediately mucked, saying, "Your straight is good."

Note that in both cases, the assertion of what I had was wrong. In my experience, that's usually the case with this kind of statement.

Why do people say this? I can think of a few reasons, none of them very good.

1. It's a ploy to get me to reveal my hand. Maybe they think that if they correctly name what I have, I'll be impressed and show them confirmation of their read. Conversely, perhaps they figure that if they get it wrong, I'll be tempted to show them that they misdiagnosed the situation, and get a free look. Well, for me at least, you're wrong either way, if that's your motivation. I find the comment so stupid and irritating that you're definitely not going to get rewarded with cheap information. If you want to see what I had, the best way to do it is to show your own cards as you fold; I'll often reciprocate the gesture. But I won't be goaded into it.

2. It's face-saving. If you say something like "Your straight is good," it conveys the impression that you had something that could only be beat by a straight, like trips or two pair--whether that's what you really had or not. This is a stupid motivation, because nobody is going to believe you on your word unless you show.

3. It's an attempt to show off your hand-reading acumen. Again, a stupid motivation, because you're just as likely to be wrong as right, in which case I've learned that I can easily fool you. Worse, somebody might show the entire table just how far off you were--not exactly good for your image.

An even more annoying variant of this is when the player mucks while saying "Nice bluff." Hey, moron--if it's a bluff, you're supposed to call or raise, not fold! This is clearly an attempt to have it both ways: not lose money in case you're actually behind, but save some face if the opponent turns over a bluff. Again, this certainly won't work on me, because I'm not inclined to reward you for saying something so stupid.

Last year at the Hilton, early enough in a session that I didn't know the opposition, I had 9-8 in position, and the flop was 8-8-7. I liked this a lot. A woman across the table bet, and I raised. She called. On the flop she checked, so I fired again. She check-raised me. She looked extremely serious about taking this pot. I concluded that I must be behind, even though I had liked it up until that moment. I folded face-up while saying, "OK, I guess you must have the last 8 and a better kicker." She exposed 7-7 (for a flopped full house) as she raked in the chips. I said something like, "Wow, even better. Nice hand."

I got out of that not only a free look at her cards (and thus some insight into her play), but also managed to advertise to the rest of the table that (1) I had a real hand, so they had better not play back at me without a monster, (2) I'm capable of folding a big hand when necessary, and (3) I'm a nice, conciliatory guy, not an egotistic jerk who gets upset at losing. Of course, she got good advertising out of it, too.

Can you see the difference between this and the usual curmudgeonly "Your two pair is good" kind of declaration?

Poker gems, #96

Stu Ungar, as quoted at

It's hard work. Gambling. Playing poker. Don't let anyone tell you different. Think about what it's like sitting at a poker table with people whose only goal is to cut your throat, take your money, and leave you out back talking to yourself about what went wrong inside.

Monday, March 17, 2008

How the world should be

Shirt available at

Razzberry-flavored poker

I got several comments on my post about last night's mixed game, wherein I tried several new (to me) poker variations.

I forgot to mention that I found Razz to be a particularly intriguing game. It is conceptually the simplest form of poker I've ever come across: no pairs, trips, straights, flushes, full houses, or quads to deal with. Whoever has the five lowest unpaired cards wins, period. That's all there is to it. Nothing could be simpler. But I also learned why some describe it as the most frustrating game to play: you get four great cards to begin with (e.g., A-3-4-6), then as you hit the big-bet rounds the damn dealer throws you a king, a queen, and another king. ARGH!

Anyway, one of the commenters mentioned that he has a poker blog, too. That will always cause me to go check it out. His name is Mitchell Cogert, and his blog is dedicated exclusively to Razz poker, which makes it unique, as far as I know. See He also just published a book on the subject. Although Razz is covered as part of several other poker books, he claims, plausibly, that this is the first one dealing with Razz exclusively. You can order it through or here:

I just put it on my Amazon wish list. I'm curious to learn more about this strangest of the poker games.

Addendum, March 17, 2008

It was pointed out to me in a private email that David Sklansky did a book on Razz way back when, titled, oddly enough, Sklansky on Razz. That book is now out of print, but its contents are incorporated into the still-available Sklansky on Poker, available here:

Mixing it up--just a little

Without doubt, the most boring poker blogs (constituting, unfortunately, a majority of them) are the ones that are basically somebody's online diary of games played and results. Try to read them, and your eyes glaze over with boredom. That's why I try to write here sort of as if I were columnist for a poker magazine (which would be a cool job). I realize that almost nobody cares about whether I won or lost on any particular day, and hands have to be truly off-the-charts unusual or interesting to be worth trying to describe.

But today is a departure, because my poker playing was a departure. Before today, I had never played any poker game other than hold'em. Well, that's not quite true; in poker dealer school, we rotated through playing Omaha and stud, in order to give each other practice dealing those games. But no money was involved, so there was zero attempt for anybody to play by sound strategy; it was literally just going through the motions.

Treasure Island occasionally spreads a mixed game. Today I saw a notice on that tonight would be one such occasion, and I decided to give it a try. I suspected that badugi would be included. I'm so clueless that I had to look up how to determine the winning hand, which I knew was different from all other forms of poker, but I didn't understand how it worked.

TI has about a million large, orange, plastic disks, each representing one poker variant, and they allow participaing players to sort through them and settle on what mix of games they want to include in the mix. Tonight's group voted for razz, crazy pineapple double-flop, Omaha high double-flop, badugi, deuce-to-seven triple draw, Omaha eight-or-better, stud eight-or-better, and baduci. I had never even heard of baduci before today. It's a mish-mash of badugi and triple draw, split sort of like a high-low game, in that the best four-card badugi, if there is one, takes half the pot, otherwise the best 2-7 hand scoops it. It was definitely the most confusing one for me.

I ended up losing about $30 for the night, which I considered spectacularly good; I had mentally prepared myself to lose my entire $200 buy-in (with $3 and $6 betting rounds), and write it off as education. Poker education always costs money. I wish I could say that the better-than-expected results were because of general poker acumen pulling me through, with brilliant reads and savvy calculation of my pot odds. But it was really just dumb luck. Heck, in four of the eight games I won or chopped the first hand I contested. The technical term for this phenomenon is "beginner's luck."

My basic problem, once I understood the form and goals of each game, was that I was clueless about where I stood. In hold'em, after tens of thousands of hands, I have a pretty good idea of what can and can't reasonably be expected from any two hole cards, and further into the hand I have a pretty sound feel for how likely it is that a particular hand will be the winner. Obviously I'm wrong sometimes, but I'm rarely completely at sea. With these games, though, I have no inkling of what constitutes the great starting hands, the good ones, the mediocre ones, and the complete dogs. As a result, I did what most beginner hold'em players do, and put money in about 90% of the time, always looking at how good the hand could theoretically turn out to be. Horribly defective strategy, I'm sure, but I didn't have any better guide to go by. After I took half of an Omaha double-flop hand with a pretty ugly two pair, having started with a rainbow A-Q-7-4, I kind of sheepishly said, "I probably shouldn't even have been playing that hand, should I?" The chorus of "nope" came so fast that it was obvious the more experienced players were already thinking exactly that. *blush* Oh well.

As for play on later streets, again I was often completely in the dark about whether I was ahead or behind my opponents. I was reduced to "level 1" playing--just going by the strength of my own hand, since I didn't have any reserve brainpower to devote to figuring out what other players held. It made for a completely different poker experience from what I have become accustomed to.

For example, in one memorable spot playing crazy pineapple double-flop, I had the king of hearts and the two red tens in my hand. One flop had two hearts including the ace; the other flop had the ten of clubs. I had to decide which of my three cards to throw away--do I go for the nut flush on the top board, or take the set of tens on the bottom board? I just didn't have time to mull over which move had the higher overall expected value. It's the sort of dilemma to which, I think, the solution would be obvious if I had played the game much before, but caught me completely off-guard. I finally went for what I thought was nearly a certain win for half of the pot with the set of tens. As it turned out, the turn brought another heart to the top board, and if I had gone that way I would have scooped both halves of the pot. That doesn't mean it would have been the right thing; in fact, I still don't know the correct move in that spot, because I haven't taken time to work it out.

During our first round of badugi I had two good low cards, an A-5. I traded in the other two, and was stunned to receive in return two more 5s. Three of a kind instantly turned a promising start into a complete dud, with virtually no hope of improving to anything worthwhile. My opponent bet, and I took forever to figure out what to do. I even said something like, "You wouldn't believe what that draw did to my hand." She's smart, and responded, "Did you trip up" (i.e., get dealt three of a kind)? Yep. I didn't even know there was a term for it, but she was astute and experienced enough to figure out what I was going through just by how far it had thrown me off-balance. Again, having never even comtemplated the possible hand combinations that one can get puts me in a terribly awkward spot in such situations. I have to reinvent the wheel (no pun intended...), all by myself, with every deal. It is very, very far from what I am used to.

Because of my lack of experience, I made some incredibly basic blunders:

*Once in a razz hand I flipped over my hole cards after sixth street, because
I had lost track of where we were.

*On the first 2-7 hand, I kept an ace all the way to the end, only realizing
just before the showdown that aces were only high, not low, in this game.
(Ironically, though, I won that pot with my horrible A-Q [!!!] because I had the
only hand with five unpaired cards. The other players, I'm sure, felt about the
way that I do when a donkey tourist calls me down to the river with a pair of
deuces with a five kicker--and wins.)

*In one Omaha high double-flop game, I started with what I knew was a great
hand for making the nut low and raised before the flop. Only after the flop did
I realize that we weren't on a high-low round, and I therefore didn't have
squat. The idiot move consisting of the pre-flop aggressive raise, followed by a
timid fold on the flop when one realizes that it's a different game than one had
initially believed, is hereby christened a "Rakewell."

*I often had no idea where the action started on the stud games, because I was
so focused on remembering what cards I had and what I needed that I just
couldn't process the information of who had the best or worst hand showing
(which is how order of action in this family of games is determined). I was
completely dependent on the dealer to tell me when it was my turn.

*More times than I care to admit, I also lost track of what the bet was and
had to ask.

*I'm pretty sure that I failed to tip the dealers several times, because as the pot was being pushed to me I was still working out in my head how and why I won, what the other players were showing, etc. Again, there just weren't any brain cells left over for remembering to flip a chip to the dealer. My apologies to all who got unintentionally stiffed in this manner--honestly, it was just oversight on my part, and being overwhelmed with not understanding what was going on.

*When we started into the non-blind games, and the dealer kept moving the button after each hand, I couldn't figure out what the point of that was. It took two rounds before it dawned on me that that's how they keep track of the number of hands played; after the button makes one complete circuit, the game changes to the next one on the roster.

*In hold'em, I easily memorize what my hole cards are, and it's very rare that I get sufficiently distracted by something happening at the table that I have to check them again. There's a classic tell--about whether or not one has made a flush--that results from checking your suits again after, say, two spades hit the board, and I want to be sure I never give away that information. (It's funny seeing the whole table simultaneously diving for a peek back at the hole cards when a flush or flush draw becomes possible.) But with these other games, I just couldn't spare the memory, because of the overload of just remembering how to play the games. This was so even when I only had two down cards to remember (as in double-flop crazy pineapple [after the discard], razz, stud 8, etc.) I wanted to remember them, but just couldn't, and felt like an utter moron, having to check the same two cards 27 times over the course of one hand of poker. As for remembering four of them, no way--just wasn't going to be happening. My brain would have melted down if I tried.

These are precisely the kinds of fundamental errors and deficiencies and misunderstandings that, when I see them in tourists playing hold'em, let me know that I've found my meal ticket for the night. It was strange and humbling to be the least experienced and most clumsy player at the table. It really was like starting all over again, like the first time I ever sat down to play poker in a casino. It re-awakened a visceral sympathy for the people who work up the nerve to take their first crack at live poker in the games I usually play, where I am feeling right at home.

(By the way, I guess I've never told the story of my first actual poker experience. It was maybe five years ago at the Luxor, during a vacation trip. I entered a tournament for something like $50. I got knocked out roughly 20 minutes in. I was as surprised as can be at the loss, because I had the nut flush. Back then, I was so ignorant about the game that I didn't even understand that a pair on the board means that somebody could have a full house. I think I knew that a full house beat a flush, but my memory is even hazy on that point. When players say something that they think is obvious to everybody--such as commenting on the fact that there is a possible straight flush, given what's on the board--and I protest that they shouldn't be making such comments, and they respond that everybody already knows it anyway, I keenly remember being that over my head. It is decidedly not true that every player shares the ability to make even the most basic inferences about what's going on.)

It was simultaneously one of the most fun, humbling, and mentally challenging poker sessions I've ever had. I highly recommend trying it, if you get the chance. Yeah, it's scary, like jumping into the pool when you barely know how to do the dog paddle. But at $2-4 or $3-6, you don't really have to know how to swim like an Olympian; the water is shallow enough that you can just stand up. You'll be fine--really. If I can survive it, and come out better for the experience, so can anybody. Going outside of one's comfort zone once in a while is probably a good thing to do, in both poker and life generally.

To Eric, Michael, Sabrina, Cindy, Jimmy, and a couple of others whose names I never caught, my thanks for gently coaching me through, not whining too badly when I sucked out with horrible hands, and not laughing openly at the inexperience that I put on full and open display. I will long remember the experience and try to gently return the favor to others when I'm the one who's in my element, and they're floundering as much as I was tonight.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Where'd she go?

As regular readers will know, I put in a few sessions of poker at Caesars Palace during the weekend when the NBC heads-up championship was taking place. I hadn't been there in about a year.

One of the things that I fully expected was Bette Midler poker chips, celebrating her recently opened show at the Palace. Sure enough, there they were (as seen above).

What surprised me, though, was the absence of Celine Dion chips. On prior visits, there were no fewer than five different Dion $5 chips, and they constituted a sizable percentage of all of the $5 chips in circulation--at least 10-20% of them.

But in my recent visits, I saw exactly one Dion chip.

This cannot be a coincidence. Chips don't just disappear in such numbers. There could not possibly that many people so interested in collecting them that they all got snapped up by casino patrons. The clear implication is that Caesars had their chip counters, at some point, start removing the Dion chips from circulation as they came in. A few stragglers are still out there, not having ever been put in the drop boxes, or perhaps taken away by customers and brought back in later.

This is distinctly odd. Usually commemorative chips just stay in circulation forever, until they are broken or pocketed by customers, or whatever. Caesars did not do a wholesale replacement of its poker chips; there are still tons of old, worn ones being used all the time. They just selectively removed the Celine Dion chips. That's very peculiar--unprecented, as far as I know. At other places, you still get chips advertising shows that closed years ago.

Apparently, Caesars Palace wants not just to replace Celine Dion with Bette Midler, but erase any evidence that the former was ever one of their headliners. (They really should have some Elton John and/or Jerry Seinfeld chips made up, too.)

Maybe their current corporate brass agrees with the gist of this rant from Vegas Rex about the Dion years in Vegas, a shameful period from which we have now been freed:

"I'm not a cheater," part 2

Back in December I ranted about Chris Vaughn and Sorel Mizzi ("Imper1um") and their disqualification from a major online tournament because the former sold his position in the game to the latter in the final stages. (See

Well, for reasons known only to him, Mizzi has recently spoken up in his own defense again--see

I have a few scattered thoughts about his post.

First, he says that he had never previously bought an account to close out a tournament. I don't believe him. I have no evidence to the contrary, and he might be telling the truth, but his credibility is pretty darn low. Nearly everybody who gets charged with, say, drunk driving swears that it's the first time anything like that has ever happened, and they're usually lying. I think such considerations favor the hypothesis that it was not his first time, but I recognize that that is essentially unknowable.

Ultimately, though, I think it makes very little difference whether this was his first time. More important is that I'm quite confident it would not have been his last time, had he not been caught. His remorse strikes me as the kind that only results from the consequences of having been caught, absent which I think his conduct would have continued.

He says that he doesn't criticize others for having done the same thing. Why not? If he is convinced that it's wrong, why not say, "I cheated, and everybody who has done the same thing has cheated, too"? How can he plausibly maintain that he is convinced that what he did was wrong, if he's not willing to label as wrong the identical actions of other people?

He says that the "online poker gods" chose him "to make an example of." This strikes me as saying, in essence, "I shouldn't have the severe adverse consequences of having been caught, when so many others are getting away with it. It's not fair."

A little over a year ago, I got a ticket for speeding. I was coming out of a school speed zone, and I thought I was past the end of it, and was accelerating back to my normal speed. But I was a bit premature, and a hidden motorcycle cop with a radar gun nailed me at 7 mph over the limit in the last 40 or 50 feet of the school zone. (I thought the zone ended at an intersection, but the sign demarcating the end of the zone was just a bit past the intersection, and I didn't notice that fact in time.)

I suppose that I could whine that the ticket wasn't fair, because other drivers didn't even slow down at all for the school zone, and zoomed past while the officer was writing up my ticket, virtually thumbing their noses at us, whereas I at least made a conscientious effort to conform to the law, and just made a mistake. My mistake didn't endanger anybody, and was sort of a de minimis or technical violation rather than a flagrant disregard for the law. But the fact was that I was still inside the school zone and exceeding the reduced speed limit. That others get away with worse violations does not change that basic truth. Yeah, it's annoying, but I can't legitimately say that the ticket was undeserved. I paid my fine without contesting it.

Mizzi's words sound to me like he's bitter about having been "ticketed" when others continue to speed without consequence--which isn't the attitude of somebody who is genuinely sorry about his own actions. He is jealous, I think, that others have pulled it off better than he did.

Next, Mizzi writes, "Ghosting is not a topic that has ever been widely discussed until now and if these arguments had been presented on this scale, prior to me buying the account, I would have NEVER done it." This is pure BS. The subject had been discussed extensively in all of the forums, although often comingled with the related subjects of multi-accounting, collusion via phone or instant messaging, players getting help from friends, etc. Furthermore, the major sites had posted reasonably clear rules about what would be deemed to constitute a violation of their terms of service. (Granted, there remain some gray areas, but account purchasing is not one of them, and wasn't when his violation occurred.) The fact (if true) that he was unaware of such discussions doesn't mean that they hadn't taken place.

What's more, this really sounds like an "ignorance of the law" kind of excuse. He is claiming, in essence, "I didn't know it was wrong." First, I don't believe this. Second, even if it is so, it doesn't matter. Everybody is required to know and abide by the rules. I was supposed to know where the school zone ended, and I didn't. I have nobody to blame but myself for not paying sufficient attention to the signs. If Mizzi didn't pay attention to the rules and the online discussions, too bad--that's no excuse.

The last point I want to address in Mizzi's apology (of sorts) is this paragraph:

"Given the history of ghosting among the online poker community, I simply did not THINK when I bought the account. It was a reckless action, which can be clearly evidenced by my complete and utter carelessness to even try to cover my tracks which I could have easily done. It was completely stupid and naive. I was approached with an offer, I said yes, and I made a poor decision. I would NEVER do it again."

Let's dissect this a bit. He is clearly admitting that he knew of the practice of purchasing accounts in the late stages of online tournaments; the offer didn't come out of the blue as something of which he had never previously been aware. It seems to me that when one first learns that this practice is going on, one can have only two possible reactions: "Hey, that's obviously cheating, and I would never do that," or "Hey, that's a good way of making some relatively easy money; I hope I get the chance to do it some time." I don't see how one can be neutral about it.

Mizzi must have had a reaction akin to the second one I postulated. If his reaction had been like the first, then when the opportunity arose, he would have rejected it, actualizing the decision he had made in the hypothetical when he first learned of the possibility.

Last week after an installment of "American Idol," there was a game show called "Moment of Truth." In this, contestants are given extensive lie-detector tests in advance, then come on TV and have to answer some of the same questions truthfully in front of friends and family members. The payoff, of course, is that the producers do some dirt-digging, and ask the contestants the most painful, difficult, and embarrassing questions they can manage. On last week's show, a woman was asked, "If you knew you would never get caught, would you rob a bank?" She said "yes." That conformed to the answer she had given when hooked up to the polygraph, so her answer on the show was deemed truthful, and she got to go on to the next question.

Well, I think there are two kinds of people in the world, based on the distinction highlighted by the show's question. You either would rob a bank if you knew you could get away with it, or you wouldn't. I don't think it's a very difficult question for most people; it's something that you just know about yourself, one way or the other.

Mizzi knew about account purchasing and, as I see it, must have decided in advance that he was on the "Yes, I would rob a bank" side of the ethical line. Then, when the opportunity actually arose, he simply carried out what he had already decided, on some internal level, to do. I can't see how it could be otherwise.

And therein is the "big lie" about his confession/apology, the most obvious thing that he leaves unsaid. He thought he could get away with it, and that mattered to him far more than whether it was right or wrong. That gives us a lot of insight as to his character. The reasons that he gives for why the practice is unfair to other players are correct, as far as they go. But they miss the bigger point: it's wrong because it's cheating.

At no point in this little tirade does Mizzi say "I cheated," or anything like it. Perhaps it's true that he wouldn't commit this specific infraction again, even if presented a juicy opportunity and with no chance of detection. But what about some other method of angle-shooting? Nothing he has said leads me to believe that he would approach another ethical/rules-related gray area in a manner different than he did this one, i.e., "Does it give me an advantage and can I get away with it?" Nothing he has written makes me think that his fundamental approach as to whether to be a honest person or a dishonest person is different now than it was six months ago.

Lastly, nothing he writes here make me think that he would choose to recant or revise the statement that triggered my previous rant: "I'm not a cheater."

Yes, Mr. Mizzi, you were, and apparently still are.

Focus, focus, focus

This is a guy at my table at Binion's a couple of weeks ago. You may not be able to tell clearly, but he has a cell phone up to his left ear--though he had to push his stereo headphones out of the way to hear his conversation. And he has live cards in front of him. (This is OK at Binion's--not so everywhere.) You may also notice that he has a book on the table. Between hands, he was reading his new novel (The Venetian Betrayal by Steve Berry) and rocking out to his iPod.

How good do you suppose he was at picking up tells on his opponents during this hand? When he wasn't involved in a hand, how much data do you suppose he picked up on things like what range of hands other people tended to play, how they looked when they liked their hand and when they didn't, clues about players' habits based on their casual conversation, who plays their hands aggressively versus passively, who is patient or impatient, who can pick off bluffs and who can be bluffed, etc.?

I wonder if he has any idea how much free information is zooming right past him while he talks on the phone and absorbs his book?