Saturday, May 10, 2008

Gunning for the Grump

First a bit about the photograph above. I stole it from the "Literature and Poker" blog kept by Tim Peters--specifically the December 27, 2007, post. Tim is the book reviewer for Card Player magazine (his older stuff is here, but unfortunately it appears that his newer contributions there, the book reviews, don't get put up on the CP web site), and contributes to the Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show (as do I). He doesn't post often in his blog, but when he does, it's always worth reading. He also has a knack for finding wonderful old poker photographs, postcards, etc., with which to illustrate his posts. I came across the one above just as I was mentally composing this very post, and instantly knew that it was what must accompany a post with the word "gunning" in the title.

The incident I want to tell you about actually happened several weeks ago. There is no particular reason for the delay in writing it up, other than the fact that every time I felt like blogging, there always seemed to be something else more immediate to talk about.

Anyway, I was at Planet Hollywood, and within my first few hands was dealt the A-J of diamonds. I made a standard raise, got a couple of callers. The flop brought me a royal flush draw, with the Q and 10 of diamonds, plus a blank. I made a continuation bet. A highly aggressive player at the other end of the table made a substantial raise. I had no idea what he had, but there's no way I'm folding with so many cards that will make me the nuts.

An additional incentive is this: It's not likely that I'll get the one card in the deck I need for the royal, but if I do, there's a $600 bonus the casino will pay me. I have about a 4% chance of it coming, the effect of which is the mathematical equivalent of the poker room having just dropped an extra $24 into the pot.

I'm perfectly content to get all my money in at this point, and do so. He calls. He has K-Q for top pair. The turn brings a baby diamond to complete my flush, and I double up.

None of this would be particularly unusual, except that Mr. Hothead takes the loss of the hand very, very personally. He makes a snide comment, something like, "So you like going all-in on draws, eh? Nice suckout." I ignore him and stack up the chips. (There's something about stacking an asshole's chips that makes ignoring his nastiness a whole lot easier....)

I didn't think much more about it, until the next time I put in a raise he called, and called me down all the way to the river. They were all insta-calls, glaring right at me, barely paying any attention to the cards on the board. I got the distinct impression that he was gunning for me, determined to take back what he felt were rightfully his chips.

Sure enough, for the remainder of that session, every time I limped into a pot--100%, with zero exceptions--and he had not yet acted, he would put in a large raise, and every time I was the initial raiser--100%, with zero exceptions--he would call or reraise. Furthermore, he never gave up to a bet on the flop; he would always at least see the turn card. Sometimes he would raise, sometimes just call me down.

I have never had an opponent so obviously and doggedly trying to take me down. It was actually quite amusing in how predictable he became.

Now, think about how easy this made my session. Suppose we set up an unusual set of poker rules, in which you are required to play every hand you're dealt, but I get to pick and choose whether to put my money in. Short of being allowed to see an opponent's cards, it's hard to think of a set of rules that would make my life as a player easier. Yet that's precisely the disadvantage that this moron put himself at, committing himself to playing any two cards when I was in the hand, while I could sit back and wait for premiums.

Furthermore, after the first couple of times that he raised after I limped in, it became clear that he would do this as a matter of course, so I started to limp with the biggest hands, and let him do the raising for me, disguising my strength, then nail him with a big reraise either before the flop or when the flop looked good for me.

Naturally, I didn't win every hand against him. If the flop missed me, I didn't bother with bluffing or continuation bets, because there was no getting rid of him, so I could concede them with little loss. He probably hit a few monsters along the way, but I wouldn't pay him off. In other words, I won the big pots, and he won the small ones. Seems like a good deal for me; for him, not so much. But he was the one setting the strange terms under which we played, and I wasn't inclined to renegotiate them with him, since I kept coming out ahead.

Two or three days later, I was playing at PH again when he arrived and sat down two seats to my right. He immediately asked the floor for the first available table change, and was moved within ten minutes or so. I can't be certain that he had decided he didn't want to play with me anymore, but I have my suspicions.

One of the most foolish things you can do at a poker table is target another specific player. Now, I have to qualify that assertion. Certainly one is always on the lookout for the weakest opponents, and hopes to tangle with them. But the rational way to go about this is to identify what kind of errors they tend to make, then look for or set up situations to exploit those tendencies (e.g., value-bet the calling stations, bluff the tight-weak players when scare cards come, etc.). Moreover, you don't do that for just one opponent, but for every person at the table simultaneously, so that you can make money from anybody and from a wide variety of favorable situations.

Making a mental decision that you're not going to rest until you have won the chips from a particular player is just asking for trouble, because the only way to do that is to repeatedly come after them at a disadvantage. In addition, you will waste your ammunition (chips) in these failed attempts, so that you have less available to use in what would be more advantageous situations against other opponents. It's insanity. It's ego run amok.

Mr. Hothead decided, whether consciously or not, that it was more important to win chips from me specifically than to maximize his win rate for that session, letting the chips come from where they may. Getting even with me was a higher priority than actually turning a profit for the day. I had no such inversion of goals. I was looking to make money whenever and wherever I could. As it happened, a disproportionate share of it came from Mr. Hothead, because he, more than any other player that day, repeatedly and willingly took the worst of it against me.

I'm happy to play under such conditions anytime they are offered to me. I just can't begin to grasp why he wanted to offer them.

HORSE and donkey

Yeah, I know, I know--nobody is interested in my personal poker accomplishments. Tough. It's my blog, and I reserve the right to use it to mark my significant milestones when they occur from time to time. As always, though, I promise that it will never devolve into a blog that is primarily about what or when or how or how much I've won or lost. There are ten million poker blogs out there that do that, and nobody reads any of them.

I just won a limit HORSE single-table tournament on Poker Stars. This is only the third time I've even entered one. Both of the other two times I was first or second out, so taking it down was a big step up.

Without question, the hand that made all the difference was in razz, where four of us stuck it out to the end, with one complete moron who kept pushing it up at every opportunity, despite never having a decent made hand--he even started as the bring-in, with a queen showing! I started with an 8-7-6, which is really, really marginal, but caught good enough (there's one of those odd pokerisms that I'm still having to get used to: to catch "good" or "bad" versus "well" or "badly") to hang in passively, and my 8-low was good enough for the 33-big-bet pot at the end. That gave me a massive chip lead, and allowed me to pretty much duck my head under the waves and fold-fold-fold through the Omaha and stud portions, where I am still basically clueless about sound strategy. A few killer hands in the next round of hold'em got me to heads-up, which I won in Omaha-8 with, first, a big scooper making the wheel, then flopping top two pair. In other words, after the big razz hand, I (1) coasted and (2) got very lucky. But a W is a W, right?

A $20 cash isn't exactly going to bump me up into a different tax bracket or anything, but it's quite satisfying to be making these baby steps of broadening my horizons from playing nothing but hold'em, which is where I was just a couple of months ago.

Now I just have to round up $50,000 so I can enter the Chip Reese Memorial HORSE tournament at the WSOP next month. I feel ready! Those guys can't be that much better than me, can they?

Friday, May 09, 2008

A household physics mystery (not even remotely related to poker)

Sorry, folks, nothing whatsoever to do with poker, but I'm so intrigued by this that I have to write about it here, in hopes that somebody will be able to explain the mystery that I found.

I was cleaning some old stuff out of my stereotypically bachelor-neglected refrigerator. Several months ago I put a pitcher of water in the back, but then never used it. Now that the weather is getting warmer, I thought some really cold water would be nice, so pulled it out in order to fill it with fresher stock. I was shocked by what I found inside. This photo is taken looking straight down into the pitcher. You can click it to see it greatly magnified.

Nothing else in the fridge shows signs of freezing, so I hadn't had reason to think the coldness setting was too low, but about 95% of what was left in the pitcher was ice--maybe 6 inches at the bottom. I went to dump it in the sink, but when I did, only a little bit of water came out--the big chunk of ice wouldn't budge. When I looked down on it, I was startled to see many horizontal holes in the otherwise solid ice. You can see them in the photo below. Each one stretches from roughly the center of the ice block to the edge. I have to stress that at no time has this pitcher been in any position in the refrigerator other than bolt upright. That's what makes all of those horizontal bubble/tubes so mysterious to me.

That little dark crescent on the left is a small gap between the ice and the plastic of the pitcher, which had water in it until I poured it off.

Just as surprising, to me, was looking inside the lid:

The ice here isn't a solid block, as in the pitcher, but clearly an aggregation of crystals. This is a little easier for me to explain, at least in broad terms: During cooling/warming cycles in the refrigerator, some water is vaporizing, then refreezing when it rises and hits the lid, forming sort of a hodge-podge of icy mini-stalagtites.

But I remain completely baffled at the horizontal air passages in the solid ice inside the pitcher. Actually, calling them "horizontal" is a bit misleading. You can't tell this from the photo, but looking at the pitcher from the side I can see that they angle up from the edge to the center at about 30 degrees, slightly curvilinear, with the angle steeper toward the center of the block. I've never seen anything like this before. I don't think there's any way I could get this to show up adequately in a photograph, unfortunately. I can only see that much by holding it up to a light.

So I'm putting out a call to the amateur and/or professional physicists among my readers. Can you explain what happened to the water in the pitcher to cause a couple dozen air tracts to form from edge to center, in parallel, curving lines? (Of course, calling them "air tracts" isn't quite accurate, either. They were filled with water, I assume, until I poured the water out and discovered the little buggers.)


As the block melted a bit, I was able to slide it out of the pitcher and take a couple more shots of it that should make the orientation of the bubbles clearer. The first pic below is from the side that was at the bottom of the first picture posted above. The second pic below is from the side that was on the left of the first picture posted above, which below you can see is slanted.

And, BTW, the first wiseacre that tells me that I have way too much time on my hands is banned for life from the site!

I kind of liked this hand

A 36-big-bet pot, having made the you-know-whats on 6th street.

PokerStars Game #17318685215: Razz Limit ($0.50/$1.00) - 2008/05/09 - 20:37:35 (ET)
Table 'Velleda III' 8-max
Seat 1: perro85 ($18.15 in chips)
Seat 2: genteel_1 ($9.35 in chips)
Seat 3: Kern89 ($16.35 in chips)
Seat 4: WBSandbagger ($24.10 in chips)
Seat 5: JorgeG17 ($28.05 in chips)
Seat 6: DanteMonte ($19.70 in chips)
Seat 7: dangeraw ($13.45 in chips)
Seat 8: Rakewell1 ($11 in chips)
perro85: posts the ante $0.05
genteel_1: posts the ante $0.05
Kern89: posts the ante $0.05
WBSandbagger: posts the ante $0.05
JorgeG17: posts the ante $0.05
DanteMonte: posts the ante $0.05
dangeraw: posts the ante $0.05
Rakewell1: posts the ante $0.05
*** 3rd STREET ***
Dealt to perro85 [7d]
Dealt to genteel_1 [6s]
Dealt to Kern89 [7s]
Dealt to WBSandbagger [Qh]
Dealt to JorgeG17 [Qd]
Dealt to DanteMonte [7c]
Dealt to dangeraw [4d]
Dealt to Rakewell1 [Ah 2d 4h]
WBSandbagger: brings in for $0.25
JorgeG17: folds
DanteMonte: raises $0.25 to $0.50
dangeraw: calls $0.50
Rakewell1: raises $0.50 to $1
perro85: folds
genteel_1: calls $1
Kern89: calls $1
WBSandbagger: folds
DanteMonte: calls $0.50
dangeraw: calls $0.50
*** 4th STREET ***
Dealt to genteel_1 [6s] [8s]
Dealt to Kern89 [7s] [6d]
Dealt to DanteMonte [7c] [Th]
Dealt to dangeraw [4d] [2s]
Dealt to Rakewell1 [Ah 2d 4h] [5h]
dangeraw: bets $0.50
Rakewell1: raises $0.50 to $1
genteel_1: calls $1
Kern89: calls $1
DanteMonte: calls $1
dangeraw: calls $0.50
*** 5th STREET ***
Dealt to genteel_1 [6s 8s] [As]
Dealt to Kern89 [7s 6d] [9d]
Dealt to DanteMonte [7c Th] [Ac]
Dealt to dangeraw [4d 2s] [Jd]
Dealt to Rakewell1 [Ah 2d 4h 5h] [Kd]
genteel_1: bets $1
Kern89: calls $1
DanteMonte: raises $1 to $2
dangeraw: folds
Rakewell1: raises $1 to $3
genteel_1: calls $2
Kern89: calls $2
DanteMonte: calls $1
*** 6th STREET ***
Dealt to genteel_1 [6s 8s As] [Qs]
Dealt to Kern89 [7s 6d 9d] [Ad]
Dealt to DanteMonte [7c Th Ac] [4c]
Dealt to Rakewell1 [Ah 2d 4h 5h Kd] [3d]
Kern89: checks
DanteMonte: bets $1
Rakewell1: raises $1 to $2
genteel_1: calls $2
Kern89: folds
DanteMonte: raises $1 to $3
Rakewell1: raises $1 to $4
Betting is capped
genteel_1: calls $2
DanteMonte: calls $1
*** RIVER ***
Dealt to Rakewell1 [Ah 2d 4h 5h Kd 3d] [Kh]
DanteMonte: checks
perro85 said, "nice pot"
Rakewell1: bets $1
genteel_1: calls $0.30 and is all-in
DanteMonte: calls $1
*** SHOW DOWN ***
Rakewell1: shows [Ah 2d 4h 5h Kd 3d Kh] (Lo: 5,4,3,2,A)
dangeraw said, "wow huge pot"
DanteMonte: mucks hand
DanteMonte said, "vnh"
Rakewell1 collected $1.40 from side pot
genteel_1: mucks hand
perro85 said, "youre right"
Rakewell1 collected $35.05 from main pot
genteel_1 said, "vn"
Rakewell1 said, "ty"
*** SUMMARY ***
Total pot $36.95 Main pot $35.05. Side pot $1.40. Rake $0.50
Seat 1: perro85 folded on the 3rd Street (didn't bet)
Seat 2: genteel_1 mucked [3h 5s 6s 8s As Qs Jh]
Seat 3: Kern89 folded on the 6th Street
Seat 4: WBSandbagger folded on the 3rd Street
Seat 5: JorgeG17 folded on the 3rd Street (didn't bet)
Seat 6: DanteMonte mucked [2c 5d 7c Th Ac 4c 9s]
Seat 7: dangeraw folded on the 5th Street
Seat 8: Rakewell1 showed [Ah 2d 4h 5h Kd 3d Kh] and won ($36.45) with Lo: 5,4,3,2,A

I have crept from being break-even at the lowest-stakes razz cash games offered by Poker Stars (I'm still boycotting razz on Full Tilt, because I object to not being able to review how the hands played out--and I think my boycott has nearly brought that site to its knees, financially) to a small but reasonably consistent winner. The key seems to be patience (one of my stronger traits), waiting for a few premium hands like this one, then pressing them hard. I might even be ready to move up a notch.

Incidentally, I've also been experimenting with the lowest-stakes single-table turbo sit-and-go razz tournaments, in addition to the cash games. (Oooo, just had an interesting Freudian slip--I initially typed "sin-and-go"!) I play ultra-tight in the razz cash games, because there is no hurry, and I wondered if I could adjust to the very different constraints of a turbo SNG. Apparently I can, as I have played four of them, walking away with a first, two seconds, and a fourth. (That thumping sound you hear is me patting myself on the back just a little bit too hard.)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Where did my voice go?

Here's a secret that I've previously only shared with a couple of close friends: When I first started playing poker, and some situation came up that just plain smelled wrong, I would frequently hear a voice inside my head saying, "Get out, get out, get out!" Exactly those words, exactly three times. It was loud and emphatic, like the impossible-to-ignore irritation of a smoke detector sounding.

When I heeded that warning, I was always right, at least as far as I could tell (i.e., I was never shown a bluff, though of course it's possible that the alarm was actually a false one, and I never knew it). Essentially 100% of the time that I ignored it and plowed ahead with the hand, I regretted it.

This was a pretty strange thing to have to deal with, because it always felt as if the voice were coming from somebody else. The reason it felt that way is because it was outside of my usual thought processes, coming unbidden. I like all sorts of puzzles. I approach them as logically and systematically as I can, and nearly always I would be able to explain to an onlooker what I'm doing and thinking. (Not that anybody actually would be interested; it's just a hypothetical observation.)

I have no reason to think the "Get out" voice phenomenon was anything supernatural. Rather, it was just that some part of my brain was integrating disparate bits of information and coming to a conclusion in a way that somehow bypassed my usual verbal, linear, logical, deductive process. Because I could neither articulate nor reproduce the factors that were leading to the warning, it felt as if it were coming from somebody else or someplace else. I still have no idea why the warning took the specific form that it always did, but I accept that the brain does many mysterious things--mine perhaps more than most!

I haven't heard that "Get out, get out, get out!" voice in a long time, and today I started wondering why. Where did it go?

I think the only reasonable conclusion is that I don't need it anymore.

Today I am far more analytical about the game. I'm much better able to explain, both to myself and to others, why I did a particular thing in a particular situation, why I came to a given conclusion about what another player was holding or thinking, etc. Bet sizes, betting patterns, facial expressions, ways of handling chips, table talk, are all things from which I have learned to derive specific inferences. I can integrate those clues and deductions with much greater facility than I could a few years ago, verbalize to myself everything about the process, and do it in the short time available for making a decision.

Consider, for example, the hands I dissected in nauseating detail here and here. I couldn't perform that kind of analysis and synthesis at all--let alone in a few seconds--when I started playing. All I had going as a means of self-protection was some crude pattern-recognition capacity that would notice that something undefinable was out of line with the way successful hands had played out in the past, and somehow that recognition would sound my internal alarm. Looking back over the two hands I posted about, I think that in earlier days the "Get out!" warning would have gone on, and I would have folded. Now, instead, I can often assess the various clues, weigh their significance, and reach a more accurate and more useful conclusion about what's going on. A binary "Go" versus "Get out" decision has been gradually replaced by a more sophisticated mechanism, which gives me a broader range of options. In fact, in that second story I even mentioned that I was having an internal debate, torn between the gestalt, nonspecific fear that my opponent must have a better hand, and the analytic part of my brain dictating a call. The latter proved to be the correct approach.

In late 2006, Byron Jacobs wrote this interesting column for Card Player magazine. In it he describes having had a very clear impression that his online opponent was bluffing, but he couldn't articulate what it was that had allowed him to reach that conclusion. It was only in retrospect that he found the clue. Some deep part of his brain had correctly interpreted the clue, but it took some work for him to recreate the process in a manner that he could articulate. Moving to that higher level, though, makes it much easier for him now to recognize and interpret that clue when he sees it again, and avoid giving it out himself (except for when he wants to deliberately use it as a false clue to confuse opponents).

A very bright guy I used to correspond with once wrote something in a letter that I've never forgotten, because it was so profound: "Clear thinking begins when we make explicit the assumptions we were not aware we were making." Of course, to learn that point, I had to endure him then proceeding to pick apart the arguments I had written, showing me the assumptions that were unconsciously embedded in what I had written, and how they were questionable. It was a pain worth enduring, though, as his aphorism comes back to me often when I'm facing a conundrum that doesn't readily yield to my first analysis.

Poker players often describe making a decision based on what their "gut" is telling them to do. It's crudely stated, but I think what they mean is essentially the same general phenomenon that resulted in my "Get out!" warning: Some clue or combination of clues is leading to a decision about an action, although the player would not be able to explain what he is perceiving or exactly why it should lead to a particular course of action. Useful as such a mechanism is, I'm convinced that learning to tease out the clues, explicitly decipher what they mean, and articulate why they point to a specific best decision is a far, far more flexible and valuable skill. (Note that I'm not claiming to be an expert at it--just a lot better than I used to be.)

Overall, I have no doubt that how I approach poker situations now is many-fold better than it was a few years ago. Still, sometimes I miss having that voice to do the work for me. Hearing such a warning is a lot easier than reasoning out exactly what's going on. Furthermore, heeding it is both easier and more emotionally comforting than is relying on the end product of a process of clue analysis and deductive reasoning.

I wouldn't trade back what I have for what I've lost. But I do wish that somehow that voice hadn't been so thoroughly driven out of my psyche by what replaced it.

Poker gems, #111

The final paragraph of Robert C. Schenck, Draw: Rules for Playing Poker, published in 1880, and available for reading online through Google Books, here.

The main elements of success in the game are: (1) good luck; (2) good cards; (3) plenty of cheek; and (4) good temper.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Of pots and kettles

During an afternoon session at the Venetian today, I watched a pot call a kettle black.

Mr. Pot was in seat 1. After the turn card was dealt, the board contained a 6-7-8-9. Faced with a bet, Mr. Pot said, "I have an open-ended straight draw. But I guess everybody else does, too." And with that, he folded.

This was highly improper, for two reasons. First, his words effectively announced that he did not have a 5 or 10 for the straight (although at least not having a 10 would be inferred from his fold). Second, it drew attention to the fact that there were four consecutive cards on the board.

This should be obvious to everybody, and such comments are usually made by somebody who assumes that it is obvious to everybody, and thus there is no harm being done.

But it is not uncommon for players to misread the board. In fact, at this very table was a woman who had forgotten to bring her glasses, and was having trouble seeing the cards, frequently standing up so that she could lean forward, or asking the dealer what was out there. Sometimes players are drunk, and they mistake an 8 for a 9, or a spade for a club, or whatever. Sometimes a player has a flush draw, and focuses only on the suits visible, and doesn't notice that the ranks are lining up in a meaningful way. A comment such as Mr. Pot's can easily tip off another player about a situation of which he was previously unaware. This violates the rule about talking about the hand in progress, because it may be providing assistance to another player, which is also against the rules.

I didn't say anything because I had just sat down, didn't have any feel for the table dynamics, and didn't want to start off the session on a bummer note as the rules nit. Unfortunately, the dealer didn't say anything about it, either.

On the very next hand, the final board contained two pairs. Mr. Pot was first to act. He said, "I think I have the best hand, but I'm gonna check." The other three players in the hand also checked. Before anybody exposed their cards, Mr. Kettle, sitting in seat 2, just to the left of Mr. Pot, said to Mr. Pot, "Your ace is good."

Mr. Kettle did indeed have an ace, and that was, in fact, enough to win the hand. But as he was stacking up the chips, Mr. Pot gently chided Mr. Kettle for speaking up in that manner.

He was certainly correct on this point. Players must make every decision in a poker hand without help from anybody else. This critically includes the decision, after the action is complete, as to whether to expose one's cards or muck them unseen. Once a player has turned his cards face-up, the dealer can help him read what he has (e.g., pointing out a straight or flush that the player had overlooked), but nobody can help a player decide whether to expose his cards or throw them away, any more than they can help him decide whether to call, raise, or fold.

Suppose that a player here had A-2. He sees the A-9 exposed by Mr. Pot, and makes a mental error, thinking that Mr. Pot's better kicker wins it, when actually they would split the money (because the kicker isn't part of their five-card hand, when there are two pairs among the community cards). The comment from Mr. Kettle could suddenly alert this inattentive player to the fact that his ace is just as good as Mr. Pot's, and cause him to table his cards face-up and claim half of the pot, when without the comment he was going to just toss them in the muck. Mr. Kettle could cost Mr. Pot half of the money, by sticking his nose in where it didn't belong.

So Mr. Pot was correct to warn Mr. Kettle not to inject himself into the hand in that way--and when Mr. Kettle initially resisted the criticism, the dealer spoke up to confirm what Mr. Pot was saying.

But what a hypocrite! Mr. Pot apparently thinks that it's OK for him to say things about the hand in progress that could assist another player, but not OK for anybody else to do the same!

Poker gems, #110

Chris Ferguson, interview in Card Player magazine, April 23, 2008, vol. 21, #8, p. 74:

The most important thing for a professional poker player to have is discipline.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Poker gems, #109

Anonymous player in a low-limit razz game on Poker Stars, commenting on the not-so-good hand that an opponent had just reluctantly revealed to have been behind some aggressive betting:

Looks like he was trying to fill Noah's ark, with all the pairs he had.

The latest on Superman

This blog is pretty small potatoes in the poker blogging world. But I do have my niches. Nobody, but nobody, provides more thorough coverage of the subject of Superman playing poker. So when I came across this cartoon in a Google search while looking for something else, I flew like a speeding bullet to repost it here for you. Original is at I suppose the artist's intention might have been blackjack rather than poker, but it's close enough for my purposes.

Poker gems, #108

Scott Fischman, giving advice to Andy Bloch on playing against Orel Hershiser in the NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship:

Try not to sign the ball.

[Hershiser was having the players he defeated autograph a baseball at the end of each match, and the ball was accumulating more signatures than anybody thought possible, as he tore through the ranks of the pros.]