Friday, March 28, 2008

The real poker grump

Despite the nickname I've given myself, I'm really about as ungrumpy a fellow as you're likely to meet at a poker table. I grumble here as a catharsis for all the things I don't say at the table. But there are some genuine grumps out there.

Ted at Red Bull and Poker ( posted a YouTube video clip from a guy who plays online as "Tuff_Fish." He also makes little movies of his sessions, live-narrating his thoughts and reactions. He is, um, just a teeny bit volatile. Here are some samples. Warning: There may be profanity involved. Loud, shouted profanity.

Old poker song

I was looking around in the web site of the Library of Congress when I came upon this song from 1878, and thought I'd post it here for your amusement. You can look at (and print out) the sheet music here: The following web site saved me the trouble of extracting the lyrics from the sheet music myself:

Dedicated to the "Home Club" New York
"That Game of Poker!" (1878)
Song & Chorus
Words & Music by Charles MacEvoy
New York: William A. Pond & Co., 25 Union Square,
between 15th & 16th Sts.
[Source: 032/104@Levy]
I'm a man of the world I would have all know,
And to learn of its follies I'm not at all slow.
At the “Home Club” I first indulg’d with delight,
In an innocent game that is play’d ev’ry night!
We play’d it with cards call’d “Squeezers,” they said,
The finest assorted, with backs blue and red!
But the pastime I sing of is well-known to fame,
I like it, you all do, “Draw Poker’s” the Game.
CHORUS [sung after each verse]
But that game of Poker, O that game of Poker!
All other card-games to it really seem tame!
A square game of Poker, a good game of Poker
I like it, you all do! Draw Poker’s the game.
Forty five is the number, a quiet retreat,
Where all the gay vot’ries of “Poker” now meet.
’Twas there I first “Antied” my checks, hon’t with cash,
Which were rake’d off quite fast as I bet very “Brash!”
But during the “Session” four Aces I got,
I thought it the best had, and cried “that’s my Pot!”
But, another, with fiendish delight whisper’d “Hush,
”Your hand is no good, for I have a “Straight-flush!
”There’s a “Rake” in this circle call‘d “Kitty” by name:
We do not object when we sit in the game.
For the players are jolly, of good things there’s lots,
While the Landlord, he smiles as so many “Jack Pots,”
The betting is high when the game waxes hot;
I once stak’d my pile in a very large “Pot”
I held three of a kind, but alas! what a fate!
I was beaten once more by a mean little “Straight!”
I sometimes stand “Pat” when my hand is quite small.
They can’t raise me out and I never will “Call.”
At this kind of “Bluff” we are all often caught.
But the limit is reach’d and the result’s a big “Pot!”
When we draw to a “Bobtail” with hopes we may fill,
Our chances are few, but we stick to it still!
The “Widow’s” made happy and all thro’ our play,
But what do we care boys as long as we’re gay?
’Tis true that this pastime is often abus’d
By “Parlorgame” swells, who are justly accus’d
Of stealing, but yet they don’t give it that name,
And “I. O. U.’s” tender but ne’r pay the same!
These fellows infest the best Clubs of the town.
A few, I could mention, have gain’d some renown
For playing mean tricks which you’ve all heard about.
For my part, I play where the chaps are ruled out.
Then let us be merry and bannish dull care.
Now deal the cards lively be sure ’tis done fair;
If luck is not with you, why, don’t be profane.
Have patience, you’ll win and your losses regain.
By way of a moral, to close with, I’ll say:
At Poker be careful, and don’t overplay,
Unless you are wealthy, pray be not too rash,
And cut the cards always, ’twill save you your cash.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A brief political interlude

I have concluded that John McCain is a poker player, and that he especially likes razz. At least, I'm pretty sure that's why in news stories you often see after his name the designation "R-AZ."

Elton John (non-poker content, but c'mon, Elton John!)

Vegas is a place that can get you used to things being free that aren't usually free elsewhere--like meals, drinks (which would be really great, except that I don't drink, so the whole concept is kind of wasted on me), parking, etc. It's also not terribly hard to get free tickets to lots of the shows in town, if you know where to look. But the premium ones don't get offered for free very often. So I was delighted when a friend-of-a-friend kind of connection unexpectedly brought me tickets to see Elton John's "Red Piano" show at Caesars Palace tonight. It has been one of a handful of shows on my "must-see-someday" list.

Here's the review in brief: Even better than I have spent the last few years thinking it would be, and overall the best pop music concert I've ever been to.

Sorry for the crappy photos. It's my low-resolution/wide-angle cell phone camera again. It makes it look like we had the worst seats in the house, but really they were pretty good--maybe 50 yards from the stage. And did I mention that they were free? That's right, baby, $175 tickets, gratis, because I'm so well-connected with all the VIPs and the Beautiful People in town, y'know. (Cough, cough.)

For several of the well-known songs, these concert versions are much longer, and a lot of the extra time is Elton pounding away on the piano. I thought that was the best part of the whole experience. I really wish I had recordings that included those long piano solos. (Maybe there are some concert recordings that do--I haven't looked into that.) His music is so good to begin with, in large part, because it is so harmonically complex. You don't find three-chord garage bands covering very many Elton John songs, because they require lots of interesting and unexpected musical turns. I think the only other pop songwriters that are as consistently interesting, in a musical sense, are Lennon/McCartney, Billy Joel, and Jim Steinman. This complexity reaches mind-blowing levels live with the solo riffs, with chord changes and modulations that you'd never see coming. Really great stuff. I couldn't tell how much of it was improvisational versus rehearsed, but I didn't care.

My main puzzlement was why the piano was out of tune. It wasn't horrible, but it was noticeable. It didn't sound deliberately detuned as if they were going for a honkey-tonk sound--it just sounded, well, neglected. I wondered about that many times over the course of the show.

He started the show by acknowledging that he had until recently shared the concert hall with Celine Dion. He added, "I miss that skinny bitch."

Much has been written in other reviews about the creative photography and videography projected on a giant screen behind the stage for many of the songs. It is as interesting as people have claimed. I frequently felt torn between wanting to watch Elton and wanting to watch the video interpretation of the song he was singing. I suppose that too much good stuff happening all at once is a nice problem to have.

Have to admit, though, that a couple of them were real head-scratchers--hard to interpret, at least on first viewing. For example, accompanying "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" there were clips of a naked woman with a bloody nose, sitting in an executioner's electric chair with a lighted sparkler in her crotch, interspersed with clips of a guy wearing a purple bear costume, dancing on ice skates. Maybe I just haven't done enough drugs in my life to grasp the deep significance of it all.

If you've ever felt perplexed by what's supposed to be going on in the lyrics of "Daniel" (what's this business about dead eyes and scars that won't heal and Spain?), Elton sort of clears it up for you. He just thought the lyrics as originally submitted to him made the song too long, so he crossed out the last verse--the one, unfortunately, that explained all of the previous ones. Oops. This was new information to me, though I see now that it's not exactly a deep secret--you can find it on Wikipedia (

All in all, this was one of the three best Vegas shows I've seen, right up there with Penn & Teller and Ka. If you've loved Elton John's music for a few years or a few decades (and who hasn't?), it's well worth pencilling him in to your next trip out here--even if you have to pay for the tickets.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I'm famous

As previously mentioned (, Monday evening I played a blogger's tournament at Full Tilt, sharing a table with Julius Goat, among others. At one point, he was involved in a hand with a full house, and I made some lame joke in chat rhyming "goat" and "boat" a la Dr. Seuss. The "Green Eggs and Ham" meter and rhyme scheme then became a running chat motif. (And Goat was much more clever at it than I could pull off, despite my best efforts.)

I also mentioned in that post my unfortunate tendency to think everybody is bluffing me online, call or re-raise them with next to nothing, type "oops" in the chat box when I see that my read was 180 degrees off, then get to type "Wheeeeeeeeeee!" when I pull the 3-outer to win the hand.

I suggested to Goat that I would make an excellent model for the next in his series of player profiles ( the guy who is metaphysically certain that every opponent's bet and raise represents a pure bluff. Goat responded, "Actually, that's not a bad idea." I didn't really think I'd live to see it, but this morning my blog-browsing was pleasantly rewarded with seeing myself featured: I am officially uncredited, but the discerning reader will be able to detect the unmistakable traces of my online poker personality. (How he knew about the athlete's foot thing, though, is beyond me. And it's more than a little creepy.)

Excellent work, Goat.

Poker gems, #101

John Juanda, after a frustrating hand of razz, as quoted in The Full Tilt Poker Strategy Guide Tournament Edition, edited by Michael Craig, p. 392.

I was going for a full house.

Poker gems, #100

Ted Forrest, in The Full Tilt Poker Strategy Guide, Tournament Edition, edited by Michael Craig, p. 408.

Razz is one of the purest forms of poker, because the good players will make the money and the bad players will lose the money. It's a beautiful, beautiful form of poker.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

My first razz tournament

Apologies in advance for putting up one of those posts that's of interest to very few people--how I did and specific hands from a tournament. I know--YAWN! You're all forgiven for stopping here and clicking on to your next read for the day. But playing a razz tournament on a whim was kind of exciting for me, so I need to document it.

This was part of the "Bloggament Skill Series" (see I thought it would be fun to enter an event about which I know nothing. Well, that's not completely true. I know the rules. And I've heard that good advice is to never play a hand unless you start with three unpaired cards 8 or below. That's it. That's my complete fund of strategic knowledge. (And, of course, I couldn't bring myself to actually implement that advice, because that would mean playing so few hands that it just wouldn't be any fun!)

So naturally I played like a complete donkey. I have very little sense of where I am in a hand for the most part, so I did what any beginner does: check-call, check-call, check-call. Horrible, horrible way to play, as I am well aware. But a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

It helps if you get cards like this, for the very first hand of tournament razz I ever played (OK, technically the second hand, but I just folded the first one, so it doesn't really count):

Let's analyze this: The best possible hand is 5-4-3-2-A, and I had, let's see, mmmmmmm, 5-4-3-2-A! Whee! This game is going to be easy!

The next big confrontation is shown below:

This earned me an "OMFG" in the chat box from Pushmonkey. Apparently she thought I should have folded. Note, though, that there was no point in the hand in which she was ahead, except with the first three cards. Her gripe, in other words, is that I called her bluffs with a mediocre hand. Obviously, then, the fault is mine for suspecting that her hand wasn't as good as she was representing, rather than being hers, for picking the wrong spot and the wrong opponent to bluff. And I really was suspicious of her; she was instabetting every street, not taking even a half a second to analyze the cards that hit, which suggested to me that she was just trying to push me off the hand. Whaddyaknow, I was right. So of course she has to bitch at me about it. Whiner. I hate whiners.

With that pot, we're only about 7 minutes into the tourney, and here are the standings:

So far so good.

Not too long after that came this hand:

This got more nasty comments in chat for me, including "disgusting but classic" from Emptyman. Notice, though, that I was ahead at EVERY point in this hand. I was definitely unsure whether I was ahead or behind, but I thought that the chance that I was ahead was great enough to be worth calling him down. Apparently he and others thought I was being an idiot. And maybe I was--I don't have anywhere near enough experience to make an objective evaluation of my own play here. But calling with the best hand on every street can't be all bad, can it?

The biggest moment for me was the following hand, which got completely out of control because Pushmonkey had declared in advance that she was tired of the way the game was going (apparently referring primarily to my bad but successful play). She bet, raised, capped at every opportunity, clearly just trying to lose all her chips and be gone. (Wouldn't it be easier just to click "sit out," then close the windows?) I had no difficulty believing that I was likely going to be able to beat her, but the situation was greatly complicated by one of the better players, crackinKK, being tangled up in it, too. I thought I was behind her, but the pot had grown so large from pushmonkey blindly getting it all in that I felt compelled to see it through:

In retrospect, I can see how incredibly lucky I got. Basically, both of my last two cards had to be 7 or under, without pairing me, in order for me to end up the winner, and that's what happened. To her credit, crackinKK didn't whine or fuss about it--at least not publicly. That enormous pot put me into the friggin' chip lead of the entire tournament:

Unbelievable, given that this is a game I've only played once before (see I also picked up $2, because this was a knockout tournament. Pushmonkey was the first one out--at my hands, which was quite satisfying, since she was the first one to openly criticize my play.

At the first break, I still held the slimmest of leads:

I managed to stay one of the chip leaders for another 30 or 40 minutes, but then my donkish tactic of calling down opponents with mediocre hands predictably, inevitably caught up to me--as I knew it must, at some point. I harbored no fantasies of winning this thing, even after being a huge chip leader for a while.

It's really strange being the object of derision for my poker play. In hold'em, essentially the only times I get criticized are when weak, ABC players, who think they have a firm grasp on the One and Only True Method of Hold'em, can't see merit in something advanced or tricky that I tried (successfully or not). In such situations, the comments are more amusing than irritating, because I know that I have a deeper understanding of the game than they do, and their words reveal the narrow mindset with which they're approaching it. It's kind of like a third-grader, who has never heard of negative numbers, boldly and confidently announcing that you can't subtract a bigger number from a smaller number.

Here, though, I was well aware that I would be the least experienced razz player at the table. In fact, I almost announced that fact in the chat box at the beginning, but then decided against it--after all, they'll probably be able to deduce it on their own fairly quickly.

It's incredible how free people feel to post nasty remarks when they think an opponent plays badly, after all of the imploring that has been done in every possible forum and venue about how rude and harmful to the game such conduct is. If somebody is being an idiot, that is a Very Good Thing for the better players, and they should logically do all in their power to (1) keep the idiot playing, and (2) make sure he doesn't learn how to play better. That means being nice and friendly, telling him "nice hand" when he stumbles into a winner, etc.

But a huge percentage of players--especially online--just can't bring themselves to treating a bad player decently. Their blistering criticisms can only accomplish a couple of possible things: Making the fish feel bad enough that he picks up his chips and leaves, or making him see his mistakes and start playing better. Being overtly hostile to a bad player is the stupidest, most self-destructive thing you can to at a poker table, but still it happens all the time. I really don't understand how typing nasty remarks into the chat box can make the writer feel better about himself, unless he has significant "issues" that have nothing to do with poker.

Anyway, I understand that being a fish/donkey/live one/idiot is just part of the process of learning a new game, and I'm willing to accept the mantle for a while as I catch on to better strategy. Razz isn't something I'm going to try to excel in anytime soon, but it is definitely a fun and intriguing game, so completely different from hold'em that it's hard to believe that they can both be called "poker."


Two commenters have already pointed out that the hands as shown are not in the order that they played out. This makes sense, because a couple of times when I checked the hand history immediately after the hand was over, I knew that they weren't in order (because, e.g., two of the first three cards made a pair, and I wouldn't have played it if that's how they had been dealt). But they're not in any obvious order, perhaps just random. Also, in some the down cards are indicated by slashes, and in others not, for reasons that I can't deduce.

So ignore everything I wrote above that has anything to do with the order in which the cards came. Maybe as a result my play was worse than what I thought, maybe in other spots not quite as bad. Impossible to know now, I suppose.

I don't know why FTP would scramble the cards in the hand histories. As far as I could tell, when there was a showdown I could see the order in which opponents' cards were dealt (although maybe that was an illusion, too), so why not in the hand histories? Also, in a live game you can certainly reconstruct what an opponent hand at any point along the way, so why not allow the same information out for an online game? Very odd.

The definitive way to do a Vegas poker trip

Read the three-part trip report:

Well done, Grange.

It was a pleasure to meet these guys during the Saturday night AVP tournament at TI briefly described in part 3.

I'm officially scary

Last night I played in the weekly MATH ("Mondays at the Hoy") bloggers' tournament. I was at a table for most of my time with Julius_Goat ("The Goat Speaks" at and Al Can't Hang (

When playing online, I have an unfortunate tendency to think people are bluffing at me a lot more often than they really are. Two or three times Julius saw me reraise all-in into a better hand that I was confident was nothing--and win, with horrible, ugly suckouts. In fact, one of those was against Julius himself.

After about the third time that I showed my prowess at misidentifying bluffs and catching incredily lucky, I had built an embarrassingly large stack by virtue of this repeated folly. That's when I screen-captured this lovely moment: Julius announcing in the chat box that he stands in fear of me.

When I'm playing tournaments online, there is very little reason for anybody to fear my poker talent, especially in a six-max tournament, since I suck even worse at shorthanded play than regular full tables. (Nobody ever has real hands when playing short, right? This moral certainty on my part exacerbates my already tragic tendency.) But once in a while, there is indeed reason to fear my frightening ability to catch absurdly lucky cards.

It didn't last, though. It never does. It was inevitable that somebody would put the reverse suckout on me, following which my next misidentification of a bluff didn't work out quite as well as the previous ones had, and I was gone. I was really close on that read, though--he only had A-K.

So, Julius, when do we get to see the player profile based on me--you know, the guy who is metaphysically certain that everybody is always bluffing at him?

Three things I know are true (but would have a hard time proving)

1. You are far more likely to flop a set (three of a kind) if the pocket pair you start with are of different colors than if you have either the two red ones or two black ones.

2. A flush draw in hearts is much more likely to hit than a flush draw in any other suit.

3. You get dealt better cards while listening to Elvis than with any other music in the MP3 player. At least this is true in Las Vegas; I can't swear to it being valid elsewhere.

Monday, March 24, 2008

"It's definitely due"

A couple of weeks ago I was playing at Harrah's. The Harrah's properties in Nevada (well, most of them, anyway) have a linked system for bad-beat jackpots, so that when it hits at any poker room in the system, everybody logged in at all of the properties gets a piece of it. Of course, the winner and loser of the hand get the biggest chunk. The threshold qualification for it drops over time as the pot gets larger.

At the time, the jackpot amount was something like $75,000 with a requirement, as I recall, that four-of-a-kind nines had to be the losing hand. The dealer was explaining the rules to a new player. The player noted that the jackpot was quite large. The dealer responded, "Oh yeah, it's definitely due to hit."

This was very similar to a comment I heard at Mandalay Bay in February, when one of their royal flush high-hand jackpots had swollen to unusually large proportions. A woman at my table commented that she had switched her play to Mandalay because the jackpot was "due" to hit very soon.

I don't understand how people can play so much poker and still be completely out to sea about the most rudimentary concepts of probability.

It is certainly true that over a long period of time one will find an average amount that is in a bad-beat or high-hand jackpot when it is hit. But if an unusually long time goes by without a qualifying hand, so that the jackpot money grows larger than average, that does not mean that it is "due" to hit. A qualifying hand is no more likely to be dealt on the next shuffle, or within the next 24 hours, than it was the week before.

The probability of a jackpot hand occurring is precisely the same every time the cards are dealt. It is exactly the same the very next hand after the jackpot has hit as it is when months have gone by. If we assume for the sake of simplicity that a given card room deals the same number of hands every day, the probability of having a qualifying hand is exactly the same today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow, completely independent of when or if the jackpot was last awarded.

Think what would have to be true for it to be otherwise. There would have to be some central respository of information about all of the hands that have been dealt, and somebody (one of the lesser poker gods who couldn't get a plum assignment, perhaps?) would have to be constantly reviewing them, noticing that they hadn't seen, say, a royal flush in quite a while, which entity would then have to actively intervene in the shuffle to arrange it to happen. If you believe that things like that happen in this universe, then you have bigger issues than being mentally ill-equipped to play serious poker.

The cards have no memory as to what arrangements they have been in in the past, nor any consciousness to use such information, nor any means of organizing themselves into particular configurations as a result of a decision based on that information. This isn't like some slot-machine jackpots, which are programmed to have a guaranteed big payout within a certain time frame or before they reach a certain capped amount. Poker hands are random and fully independent events. The probability of a certain type of high hand or bad beat occurring remains exactly the same every time a deck comes out of the Shufflemaster.

If you find yourself saying, or even thinking, that such a jackpot is "due," get thee to a remedial math class. You need a refresher in the basic concepts before you play another hand of a game for which a decent grasp of probability is indispensible.

Not everybody rechecks

I just started watching "The Best Damn Poker Show." I've had to download the episodes from a site of questionable legality because my dumb cable service doesn't include Fox Sports.

The show would be more accurately titled "The Most Annoying Damn Poker Show," because the producers apparently think that Annie Duke and Phil Hellmuth arguing with each other makes for great, great television--better than actually watching poker. Wrong. It makes me never want to spend a minute with either one of them.

The players are typical amateurs, making lots of weak, unsound plays. The only redeeming quality of the show is Phil and Annie when they are civilly debating the merits (or lack thereof) of various plays. IMHO, Annie comes off better in these exchanges because she is more flexible, willing to acknowledge value in what would normally be dubious moves, when there are special circumstances. Phil, predictably, is far more rigid about what is proper play.

On the second episode, there's a hand in which one player flops the nut flush in position. His opponent bets into him three times. Mr. Flush smooth-calls twice, then moves all-in on the river. When Phil and Annie critique the aggressor's play, they both agree that he should have taken a clue from the fact that Mr. Flush didn't recheck his hole cards when three hearts came on the flop. That, they said, should have been the key clue to figuring out that he had flopped the flush.

Now, it's certainly true that many players are less likely to recheck their cards when they are suited and make their flush or flush draw than when they have hole cards of two different suits. This is because when they're suited, they have already formulated a wish for a flop with two or three of that suit. With offsuit cards, they tend not to hope for a flush in their immediate future, so when the possibility arises, they don't remember for sure whether they have it or not, and so recheck.

Still, it seems a bit much to me for Phil and Annie to make such a big deal out of the fact that Mr. Flush didn't recheck his hole cards. Isn't it possible that he's somebody who never does, who has managed to teach himself to devote a couple of brain cells to memorizing his two cards before the flop, precisely so that he never gives away a tell by needing to recheck them after the flop? A few of us can pull that off. It's not exactly difficult.

I am frequently surprised, in watching televised poker, how many top-flight poker professionals have not made a habit of this, and genuinely don't know, without rechecking, whether their red ace was a heart or a diamond without looking again after three diamonds come on the flop (or whatever). I'm far, far from a poker savant, but I make it a habit to recheck and memorize my cards just before the flop comes so that I never have to check them again when doing so might give away information about whether I have a flush or a flush draw. It just isn't that hard!

That said, I'm capable of getting confused occasionally between what I am holding and what I am hoping to see, particularly when I have connectors and there are two or three cards in the same neighborhood that might make a straight for me. In about four years of playing I have on five occasions believed I had a straight when I didn't, because of exactly that mental misfiring. It almost happened again last night, when I couldn't remember on the river whether I had 8-9 for one pair and a missed straight draw, or 7-8 for two pair, because the brain cells that were silently calling out to the poker gods to deliver specific straight-making cards got their signals mixed up with the cells that were supposed to be devoted just to remembering my down cards. But having been punished for that mistake several times, at least this time I recognized that there was a state of confusion and checked again, rather than plunging ahead into disaster. Something akin to this happens maybe once a month or so. Since I play roughly 120 hours of poker a month, that's pretty infrequent.

Which means that if players follow the Phil-Annie advice, and assume that when I don't recheck my hole cards on a single-suit flop that means that I have flopped the flush, well, fine, I get to make them think that I'm stronger than I really am.

I just don't think it's nearly as reliable a piece of information as they're making it out to be.

What's up with the Benjamins?

Ever since moving to Las Vegas, I've noticed that a substantial fraction of $100 bills have odd little stamp marks on them. I scanned in close-ups of the ones that happen to be residing in my wallet at the moment. Most marks are found on the backs of the bills, including all except the odd little crocodilian in the last photo here, which is on the front.

Actually, I spotted a couple of such marks even when I still lived in Minnesota, though not nearly as frequently as around here. I've also occasionally seen them on 20s, but they are much more common on 100s.

Surely somebody out there can explain this oddity to me definitively, or at least posit a plausible theory. It seems most likely that they are institutional stamps, added either at banks or at casinos, perhaps to indicate spot-checks for authenticity or to mark that a bundle of bills has been counted (though when the bills come back through in re-circulation, the latter would tend to confound things, so I don't really think that's it).

Poker gems, #99

Phil Laak, in Bluff magazine column, February, 2008, p. 86:

Chris Ferguson wrote a great article a few years back. It explained why you should never limp if you are the first one in the pot. It is a long story and I don't want to get into it... but I think it is trivial, obvious, and great advice for a poker player. It is one of those golden rules that has about a million things going for it, and whever I limp first to act, a little part of me dies.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

An empirical test of luck versus skill in poker

You can read the full research report here:

or the newsy summary of it here:

The fundamental conclusion: "The question at the start of this study was Is poker a game of luck or skill? The unequivocal finding is that poker is a game of skill. In both studies, participants who were instructed outperformed those who were not instructed."

Well, yeah, but....

I'm confident that the same would be true of blackjack--those receiving, say, printed cards instructing them in the mathematically optimum strategy for each combination of their cards and the dealer's shown card would surely do better than those given no instruction at all. But they would simply lose less, rather than actually being winners over the long run. In fact, the same is undoubtedly true of slot machines; the simple expedient of pointing out to a new player that typically there are proportionately higher jackpots available when you play the maximum amount of money at a time rather than the minimum would produce a statistical edge for the player following that advice (though you'd have to watch for a long time to see it emerge). Even with craps and roulette, there are bets that have larger or smaller house edges. Just teach a new player which are the bets with the smallest house margins, and you've got a player that will lose his money to the casino more slowly than somebody who is given no instruction.

Does the fact that one can learn to lose less, all by itself, make something a game of skill rather than luck? I don't think so.

Annie Duke argued, in a column for Bluff magazine last year ( that there is, in reality, no luck in poker, not even in the short run; it's all skill. This is based on a theoretical computerized player that makes each move randomly from among the legal options available--her definition of a zero-skill player. OK, but then by the same argument you would have to accept that blackjack is a game of all skill and no luck, too, because any player trained in the basic strategy would do far better than a computer player that simply chose to hit or stay randomly. Especially considering the political consequences, does Duke really want to be stuck with the conclusion that blackjack is 100% skill and 0% luck just the way poker is? Wouldn't that logically mean that online blackjack is just as deserving of legal protections and/or exemptions as poker is?

There's also a problem with Duke's definition of "short term." Her argument is based on the fact that the random player would never win even such a short-term game as a single-table tournament. (I don't think that's correct; given enough trials, it would eventually win at least once. But that's just an academic point that I don't think is really important.) But even if that's true, it's a very convenient definition of "short-term." What if "short-term" is considered, instead, to be one hand? Would she argue that her zero-skill player will never win even one hand? I doubt it. Readers who follow this kind of stuff in ridiculous detail, as I tend to do, may recall the idiotic court decision last year in North Carolina in which a court determined that poker was predominantly skill, on the evidence provided by one "expert" about one televised poker hand in which a player was something like a 9:1 dog when the money went in, but still won the hand. In other words, I think Duke's argument breaks down when you don't let her set the definition of "short-term" to one that proves her point.

Duke has also argued ( that the fact that one can deliberately lose at poker shows that it is a game of skill rather than luck, because one cannot deliberately lose at, say, roulette or baccarat. The obvious rejoinder to that, again, is that by that criterion, blackjack must also be all skill and no luck, because one can certainly lose every blackjack hand on purpose, should one care to do so. One can also lose money on every spin of the roulette wheel by simply betting the same amount on every number as well as the 0 and 00; one of them will hit and you'll get paid $35 on that spot, but it costs you $38 to put down this assortment of bets. You lose. By Duke's argument, roulette is therefore a game of pure skill.

Still, I think she's right (even if only in a way that's fairly obvious to experienced players) in saying that the smaller the difference in skill level between two players, the longer it will take for the skill difference to show itself in tangible results, and the more luck will control (or I think she would say, appear to control) the results in any one session.

I have still not found anything that persuades me away from what seems the only rational conclusion: luck can be (though isn't always) the dominant factor over skill in any one hand, but as the time frame is increased, the importance of luck diminishes and skill becomes the dominant factor in determining who is a long-term winner or loser. At some undefinable point of sufficiently long duration, luck has been rendered very small, perhaps even negligible--though never truly zero--as a factor.

I wish courts would follow Mark Twain's lead on this question. Back in about 1867 he wrote about a group of men criminally charged with playing a game of chance, known as "old sledge" or "seven-up." Their attorney convinces the court to convene a jury of six experienced players and six novices. When the novices lose all of their money to the better players, over the course of a night of playing, they unanimously conclude that it's a game of skill, and the defendants are acquitted. (See

That's the essence of what happened in the study with which I started this post, though without the judicial aspect. The outcome is hardly a surprise. The "unequivocal" conclusion, though, that poker is a game of skill is, or should be, subject to the caveat about the time frame of the observation. I think it is reductio ad absurdum ever to state that the game is either all skill or all luck.

Poker gems, #98

Phil Laak, in Bluff magazine column, February, 2008, p. 86:

Poker is a whipping ground of probability curves and philosophical conundrums. We enter and leave it at our own risk.

"I would have split that with you!"

Palms, earlier this evening. I'm stuck in a $2-4 limit game waiting for a no-limit seat to open up. I've only been there maybe five minutes when I have Q-8 on a flop of K-8-2 and decide to get stubborn and call down the guy who is taking the lead. I hit a lucky Q on the river to make a winning two pair.

As the dealer is starting to push me the pot, the guy on my left smacks the side of my left thigh and exclaims with a broad smile, "I would have split that with you!"

It frequently occurs in my life that people say things to me for which I can think of no reply that is simultaneously meaningful, civil, and honest. This was one of those occasions. I can't say something like, "Wow, that's really interesting," because it isn't even a little bit interesting. Why in the world would I care what he threw away? What I'd really like to say is more along the lines of "What makes you think I give a rat's ass?" But that would kind of get us off on the wrong foot, and I don't need more enemies in this world. So, as usual, I'm stuck saying absolutely nothing, because I can't think of a single thing to say that wouldn't fill me with self-loathing for having joined his level of airheadedness.

He notices my silence, and says, "You're not a talking poker player?"

Crap. Now I'm really stuck, in the social sense. I can't continue to just clam up without causing the same iciness that would result from me telling him how idiotic I think he's being. So I said, "It's not that, it's just that I couldn't think of any response that would mean anything. That's just how poker is sometimes."

It seemed to mollify him--perhaps too much, because he became the source of a litany of inane comments about the hands he wish he had played, bad-beat stories, asking me to speculate on what some other player had, asking whether he played a hand right, etc.

Dude, really, can you just shut the &%*$* up until you think of something interesting/original/substantive to say? I guess that's asking way too much of some people.

I think I will never catch on to this thing you humanoids call "small talk."