Saturday, August 16, 2008

Reversal of fortune?

I rarely mention how I've been running because (1) it's nobody's business, (2) I don't think anybody cares, outside of my family and closest friends, (3) it's not very interesting, (4) I'd like to think that I have interesting stories and commentary independent of whether I've been winning or losing lately, (5) when I'm winning, saying so feels like bragging, and when I'm losing, saying so feels like whining. So I mostly just shut up about the whole subject.

But I can't tell you about tonight without the recent background. August has been, well, horrible. Terrible. Awful. Painful. Grotesque. Unfathomable. Disastrous. Get the picture? I've lost more in the first half of August than in any full month since I started playing poker. Before tonight, 10 of my last 11 and 12 of my last 15 sessions had been losers, a streak unlike any I've ever had before. The downward skid in my cumulative-results graph is shocking; it looks like I've fallen off a cliff. It has been apocalyptically bad.

(This doesn't include online play. As I mentioned recently, until a couple of weeks ago, online poker has been just a few tens of dollars here and there, not even enough to bother cashing out, let alone set up a detailed accounting system for. But even though the online income is picking up, it's like a bucketful of water on what has been a house burning down.)

Everything has gone wrong. Bluffs get picked off. Strong hands get called and sucked out on. I read opponents wrong, folding when I should call or raise and vice-versa. I get second nuts beaten by the nuts time after time after time.

Lemme tell ya, this sort of streak does things to even the soundest of minds. I started sessions thinking that I shouldn't even waste time playing, because I could get the same outcome in a lot less time by just handing a few C-notes to randomly selected strangers sitting in the poker room and go home. And, of course, once you start thinking fatalistically like that, it utterly saps the self-confidence, and adversely affects the decision-making process, causing a cascading effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a downward spiral out of control. You begin to believe that you know absolutely nothing about this stupid game, and then you start playing in a way that proves it.

I've always taken a day off anytime I have two losing days in a row, in order to sort of reset myself mentally and emotionally, and feel like that bit of nastiness is well behind me before I start afresh. That hasn't worked here.

It feels like hell. It feels like being in a war zone with no escape. It feels like being unable to wake up from a nightmare. It's Kafkaesque.

If you've never read Larry Phillips's wonderful description of a bad losing streak that I posted here as my first-ever "Poker Gem," please go do so now. It is spot-on. I'm sure nobody has ever penned a more true-to-life portrayal of how thoroughly it corrodes one's mind and poker skills.

But he's leaving something out. He's neglecting the added level of sheer panic that begins to set in when you have to win in order to buy groceries, pay the rent, keep the car running, etc. The spectre of homelessness and hunger adds a depth of crushing fear that I don't think you can appreciate unless you've experienced it.

Yeah, I have enough $ in reserve by now that this downswing hasn't bankrupted me. But if I were to continue to spew this badly for the rest of the month, the needle would be into the red zone, with no gas station for miles around, and I would be in deep doo-doo. I had to snap the bad streak. But paradoxically, the more that one feels that one must win, the more one tends to force situations, to try to wrest a victory when it is not to be. Panic and desperation kill the kind of relaxed "flow" without which poker simply cannot be played well.

So I set out for the Venetian tonight with dread and foreboding. I even had to stop at the ATM on the way there to pick up cash with which to play. I hate that. It's the walk of shame, the most concrete proof of failure. I could not completely dismiss the thought that I was taking this money out of the bank and was just going to give it away across a poker table, and how stupid that was, and how I would be better off just staying home and watching TV for the next, oh, year or two.

Like I said, this sort of streak does crazy things to the mind. I've even found myself entertaining thoughts that maybe this new PokerStars sweatshirt I've been wearing is what's bringing me bad luck, because it was right around the time it arrived in the mail that I started losing. It's the sort of silly, superstitious thought that I would normally laugh off the instant it occurred to me. But desperation sometimes trumps rationality, and I can't easily shrug off even the most far-out ideas that offer to make understandable what is otherwise beyond comprehension.

Something peculiar happened when I got to the Venetian. The parking spot I found was between two Honda Fits. Just about as soon as Honda released the Fit to the U.S. market a couple of years ago, I decided that that's probably what my next car will be, when my current one finally collapses into a pile of shards, like Oliver Wendall Holmes's Wonderful One-Hoss Shay. They're great little cars, just right for my needs. But demand for them has vastly exceeded Honda's initial projections, so they haven't been making enough of them, and it's still quite uncommon to see them on the streets.

With the way my thinking has been warped and distorted and made vulnerable to all manner of loopy ideas by this losing streak, something in my head clicked about this fortuitous parking spot. It's a sign of some sort--an affirmation that, yes, things will turn around and I'll be able to afford a new car when I need one. No, I don't seriously believe deep down that the universe caused these two cars to be where they were just as a personal manifestation to me, but my ability to banish such absurdities has been mightily compromised.

Things started OK inside the Venetian poker room. I had increased my starting stack by $50 or so in the first hour. I had the strategically best seat at the table, with the loose-passive frequently bluffing bad player on my right, and the ultimate rock on my immediate left.* But when I got pocket kings and got into a raising war with another player, it turned out he had the other two kings, and we just got our money back. (Still, that seemed a vast improvement from how things had been running for me lately.) Then I lost my whole stack to the loose-passive horrible player the one time in the evening he found A-A. Argh! It's happening again! The streak is going to continue!

But I rebought and patiently kept looking for good spots. I built things up slowly again. Finally the moment of truth arrived. Mr. Loose-Passive's wife came to get him. He gave her the "let me play one more hand" line--and it was one too many. He had J-Q to my A-Q, and when a Q hit the flop and another on the turn, his chips became mine. I was up by a net profit of $210, and I took the money and ran, before the poker gods could notice that they had slipped up and let me win.

(By the way, Ron Rose was at the Venetian, two tables away, playing $1-2 no-limit. It seemed very strange to me that he would be playing at that level, when he can and does routinely buy himself into $10,000 tournaments.)

I also left because it was 11:15. The Sahara has an 11:00 p.m. tournament, and catching players on tilt from busting out of that tournament has been one of the most consistently profitable moves for me. I hate the Sahara poker room and nearly everything about it. But it's a cash cow, and has been the way I've broken bad streaks in the past. (My records tell me I've played 12 sessions there, 10 highly profitable and 2 small losses.) I had hopes that it would serve that purpose yet again.

I sat down in Seat 1. This proved to be a fortuitous choice, because the table maniac was in Seat 10, on my immediate right. (I didn't know this at the time, of course.) On my very first hand, I saw A-A, just as I heard Mr. Maniac announce a raise to $10. I reraised to $35. It folded back around to him. He looked at my stack (I had bought in for my usual $100), then said, "Let's get it all in." I replied, "That sounds OK to me." He had K-10. But they were sooted! A flop of A-10-8, with only one of his suit, left him drawing very thin, and a second 8 on the turn gave me an unbeatable aces full. I doubled up on my first hand. (The guy was a very good sport about it. Nothing deterred him from having fun, bless his heart. He quipped, with faux shock and dismay, "That guy cracked my king-ten!")

The very next hand, Mr. Maniac announces before he looks at his cards that if there's a face card, he's going all-in. He peeks, says, "I've got one," and shoves. I have A-K. I am not afraid, especially now that I'm playing with his chips. I call, show my cards, and hit a king on the turn. He mucks without showing, and rebuys.

A few hands later I flop two pair and raise Mr. Maniac's flop bet yet again. This time he seems to have learned his lesson and reluctantly folds top pair. I show. I want this table to be afraid of me. It seems to work. From then on, when I bet or raise, I get only token opposition. Now, this isn't really the best way to build up a stack, because hands end early, before a lot of chips get into the middle. But given recent history, tonight Ill be content with small, safe steps forward.

Finally, after about an hour, and after a dry spell of cards, I decide to throw a curve. I raise from the cutoff position with 7-9 offsuit in a straddled pot. The straddler is my only caller. The flop is J-10-X. Nothing for me there except a gutshot straight draw. My opponent checks. I make the continuation bet. He calls. Uh-oh. Now what do I do? Well, I guess not everything can go my way in a session.

Or maybe it can, because the dealer just put out an unbelievable 8 on the turn, giving me a jack-high straight--the second nuts. I'm only beat if he happened to be playing Q-9, which seems incredibly unlikely. He checks again, and I move all-in. He calls. He has A-J for top pair/top kicker, and is already drawing dead, poor guy. It was sick, sick, sick. But am I giving back the chips? Nooooooooooo.

Soon thereafter, I felted yet another player when I flopped top two pair (K-J) to his flopped top and bottom pair (K-7).

Once again, I got the impression that this was as good as things were going to get, and I should hightail it out of there before the chips started migrating back to where they had come from.

So between the lovely Venetian and the nasty Sahara I managed to erase about a quarter of the deficit I had accumulated thus far in August. For once, I'll be thrilled if I end the month having broken even. Maybe tonight was the first step toward achieving that goal. Whatever happens the rest of the month, tonight was a breathtaking turnaround. All of a sudden, winning was as easy and automatic as losing had been before.

But I'll tell you, next time I set out to play, I'm gonna keep driving around the parking garage until I find two Fits to park between. And I'm leaving that damn unlucky sweatshirt at home.

*This guy was far and away the tightest player I've ever seen. It was astonishing. The first time I saw him voluntarily put chips into the pot I was so startled that I checked the clock. It had been exactly 90 minutes since I sat down. He put in a pre-flop raise. The guy on my right called, then called again on the flop and turn. Mr. Rock had--say it with me, because you all already know--pocket aces, and won. He stayed another 45 minutes, never played another hand except for his blinds, and with them he never once called a raise before the flop or a bet after the flop. He appears to be that rarest of poker life forms: the guy who literally plays only pocket aces. Maybe he changes it up now and then with pocket kings when he's feeling adventurous, but it was still quite amazing.

Friday, August 15, 2008

More non-answers from UltimateBlecch

Pokerati's California Jen has conducted an interview with Paul Leggett, the COO of Tokwiro Enterprises, which owns and operates UltimateBet and Absolute Poker. You can read her introductory remarks and get to the interview transcripts here.

Jen is quite complimentary about Mr. Leggett's accessibility and openness. Frankly, I don't see it. There may be a crumb or two of detail here that wasn't previous reported, but precious little, and nothing that I found important. It mostly strikes me as the same mind-numbing corporate PR-speak that we've gotten all along. (See my previous posts on the subject here, here, here, and here.)

For me, the most basic and central question remains, Whodunnit? Once again, everybody interested in the answer to that will be disappointed:

I cannot confirm or deny anybody that is involved or not involved at this
point. Every time I give an interview, obviously people want me to say exactly
who is the perpetrator or who is part of the investigation, and I simply can’t.
There’s nothing that would give me more personal satisfaction than to do that,
but unfortunately, our situation is very complicated.

But I have a ton of evidence – IP addresses, withdrawal information,
transfer information, addresses, names – and I’m confident in my own mind that I
know exactly what occurred. We’re involved in complicated legal action, and our
litigators have forbidden me to say anything about who is or is not involved at
this point.

I’m very hopeful that we’re going to be receiving a very large sum of money
as a result of our legal actions, something that represents some kind of justice
in this whole thing, and I’m very hopeful and committed to doing everything I
can to make sure that enough information comes out about this, whether it be
through our legal actions or whatever, to make sure that the poker community and
the public at large are satisfied at the end of this.

I wish that Jen had pressed harder on this. Not that Liggett would cough up any names no matter what she had asked, but I'd like to hear him explain exactly why he can't tell us who the culprits were. What does he fear would happen as a result of releasing that information?

One possible answer is perhaps found in a cryptic phrase in that last paragraph: "whether it be through our legal actions or whatever." It's that "whatever" that catches my attention. If the revelation of the names is to be through Tokwiro's "legal actions" seeking compensation, then it's hard to fathom any reason why revealing them now versus revealing them later in court documents makes any difference. It's not like the culprits don't already know that they've been fingered, and Tokwiro is therefore trying hard not to alert them to the investigation.

So what could that "whatever" mean? I wonder if it means that they are negotiating with the thieves for reimbursement to Tokwiro, in exchange for which their names will never be made public. (You may recall that the names of the culprits behind the Absolute Poker cheating were buried in exchange for them revealing to the company how they accomplished their misdeeds.) That would certainly explain the silence. But it would flatly contradict Leggett's assertion that he is "committed to doing everything I can" to satisfy the poker community, because no reasonable assessment of what information will satisfy the poker community could fail to include the names of the guilty.

In other words, this appears to be a statement of reassurance that "at the length truth will out," as Launcelot put it, but it is given with weasel words and loopholes; Leggett may simply later claim that the names of those involved are not part of what he defines as "enough information ... to make sure that the poker community and the public at large are satisfied." It's not hard to imagine him saying, now or later, "Uh, you don't need to know that."

Well, sir, we do need to know it, in order to find out whether the felons are still involved, in some direct or indirect way, with the company now. Your shills have claimed that there is no longer any connection, but there is considerable reason to doubt the truth of such assertions. In fact, the continued secrecy strongly fuels suspicions along those lines.

For example, suppose we were to ask Mr. Leggett whether Joe Norton, the CEO and sole owner of Tokwiro, was personally involved in the scandal. Since Mr. Leggett "cannot confirm or deny anybody that is involved or not involved," then he obviously cannot and will not deny that Mr. Norton knew about, authorized, and/or profited from the cheating. As long as that is the case, how on earth can they think that they have given even token reassurance to the poker-playing public that they have actually cleaned house?

The most nausea-inducing part of the interview, for me, was this final paragraph:
It’s our job now to do everything we can to prove to the poker community and the
world that we are open, we are transparent, we are secure, and as additional
information comes out about this investigation as it wraps up, that people are
more willing to listen to what we’re saying about security and transparency
going forward.

Oh, please! He says "we are open, we are transparent," in the same interview in which he doggedly continues to refuse to answer the single most central, basic, and nagging question about the scandal.

Does he really think we are so stupid as to believe this?

About the image above. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find tasteful images when doing a Google Image search for "vomit"? This one seemed OK to me.

Here's the information about the painting, as listed here:

Tonel (Antonio Eligio Fernández)
El vómito es la cultura (Vomit is Culture), 1998
Watercolor and ink on paper 121 x 91 cm. - 48 x 36"
Collection of the ASU Art Museum
Gift of the Bacardi Art Foundation, Miami

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Does Mike Sexton really think this way?

I'm watching this week's "World Poker Tour" (as the previous post probably suggested). Mike Sexton just said one of the dumbest things I've ever heard come out of his mouth.

Two amateurs are involved. One of them, Andrew, won a huge pot with K-K on the "previous" hand. (The reason for the scare quotes will become clear later.) Now a guy named Robert is on the button and raises with J-J. Andrew is in the big blind and reraises with 7-7.

While we're waiting for Robert to decide what to do, Mike Sexton says, "Well, Robert knows that he [Andrew] had two kings the last pot. You're never gonna put a guy on aces, kings, and queens back to back."


Why not?

Does Mike Sexton actually believe that the fact that a player had K-K on one hand makes it mathematically less likely that he has A-A, K-K, or Q-Q on the next hand? If so, how in hell has he managed to make a living at poker for the last 20 years or so, with such a fundamental distortion in his grasp of randomness?

The cards have no memory. The auto-shuffler has no memory. What a player had on the previous hand has exactly zero effect on the analysis of what he might have in this hand. He is every bit as likely to have K-K here as if you wait 200 hands and then try to figure out what he's holding. When the K-K hand was over, everything reset, and he became just as eligible to get K-K again as he ever was.

Yes, it's rare to get K-K (or any other combination of cards you care to specify) in consecutive hands. For any given two-hand sequence you name, them both being K-K will happen only once in 48,841 times, on average. But the probability of the second hand being kings is completely independent of the probability of the first hand being kings. Once you know that the first hand was K-K, you know nothing more or less about the likelihood of the next hand being kings than you did before. It is 1 out of 221, just as it was on the first hand, and just as it will be on every subsequent hand. In fact, even if somebody miraculously gets K-K 10 times in a row, the probability of getting K-K on the very next hand, to make 11 in a row, is still precisely 1 in 221 (barring some shady dealing going on, obviously).

I've talked about this common fallacy at least twice before that I can remember, here and here. I'm not really terribly surprised when I hear a recreational player fail to distinguish between a priori probabilities (e.g., the probability that two specified consecutive future hands will both be K-K) and conditional probabilities (e.g., the probability that the next hand will be K-K, given that the previous one was), which is the essence of the mistake here. After all, our public school systems are about as lousy as they can be in teaching kids to understand statistics and probability.

But how can a guy who has spent so much of his life playing, thinking about, and talking about poker as Mike Sexton has still hold on to such a simple, rudimentary error in understanding how randomness affects the game? It's kind of like an obstetrician still believing that babies are brought by storks.

The other possibility is that Sexton understands this perfectly well, but is being condescending towards Robert--saying, in effect, "This guy isn't smart enough to understand that what Andrew had on the previous hand should not be taken into consideration when assessing his range of hands here." If so, then he's being unfairly demeaning to the amateur player, with no reason to make such an unflattering assumption about him.

There's another factor making this statement even more stupid, if that's possible. Because of editing, this was clearly not actually the hand immediately following the one in which the player named Andrew had K-K. I went back and checked where the button was, and it had moved two seats. So there was at least one intervening hand not shown, and maybe 7 or 13 or 19 hands (beause there are six players at the table) that were not shown. This doesn't affect the probability, of course, but it means that both the factual basis and the theoretical basis for Sexton's statement are wrong.

To his credit, I don't recall hearing Sexton say anything quite this boneheaded before. But it was sure a doozy.

Poker gems, #158

Ted Forrest, interview on World Poker Tour, season 6, Foxwoods Poker Classic, aired August 11, 2008.

Everybody has their breaking point. You can just watch the wheels come off, so to speak, and players kind of crumble one by one, and if you can be the last one to crumble, then you're gonna be there at the end to win it.

What should I do? (Part 2)

If you haven't yet read the original description of the difficult decision I faced the other day, I suggest doing so here before reading the rest of this post.

It has been about 24 hours since I posted the problem, and there have been 22 comments left--far more than any of my other 800+ posts! I really appreciate the interest so many of you showed, and the thoughtfulness of the answers. It's a little hard to tell for sure, because I'm not positive how many of the "anonymous" commenters are duplicates, but my best count is 11 votes for shoving, 8 for folding. I guess that means that I presented it reasonably even-handedly, as was my goal.

So what happened?

I announced "all in." The middle-position guy instantly folded, as he had been impatient to do the entire time I was thinking about my decision.

The obnoxious jerk didn't do anything at first, just sat there. Then he s-l-o-w-l-y started counting his chip stacks. This took him maybe a minute and a half. At some point he apparently lost track and started over again. Finally he reached his mathematical conclusion, pushed the stacks forward, and said, "$288."

(By the way, this sort of nonsense is completely unnecessary. The dealer cannot take his word for the amount, and will have to count it up again anyway if he wins as the obviously shorter stack. One need merely say "call," and not rudely waste the time of 10 other people who are waiting.)

I turned over my hand, since I think that's the proper and polite thing to do in this situation, though not required. He did not reciprocate. The flop was three unremarkable cards, something like 10-7-2. The turn was an ace. Uh-oh. The river was a third queen.

However, between the turn and the river, Mr. Personality finally decided to show what he had been hiding: two aces.

So I lost, and got the nastiest slow-roll of my life at the same time.

(I was down to about $90 at that point. That went away about 15 minutes later. I had A-Q, raised to $15, got three callers. The flop was Q-10-3. With about $60 in the pot and maybe $75 left, I pushed it in when they all checked to me. An even worse calling station than the one I have been talking about called with just a 10-9 offsuit--second pair, bad kicker, and no draw. But he caught a J and an 8 on the turn and river for runner-runner straight. I took this as a sign from the poker gods that it was time to go home. Ugh.)

One commenter on the original post said something about it being good to learn to fold Q-Q before the flop. Actually, I have very little difficulty doing so, as a general rule. It was the particulars of this situation--the oversized raise and our previous history--that made it a very close decision for me. Absent those factors, it might have taken me ten seconds to decide to muck, but probably not even that long.

It's incredibly difficult to evaluate this in retrospect without being influenced by knowing the outcome. I still find myself going back and forth about it. The arguments for folding are both strong and obvious: a rational player won't call unless he's ahead or you're in a coin flip, and you can wait for situation where you're more clearly a favorite, besides, if you fold he's only taking $15 from you. But then, that confluence of the prior history (and his apparent attitude towards me) and the very peculiar size of the raise just can't be ignored, either. He is not necessarily a rational player, and one can't just assume he will behave like one. In fact, he is plainly a highly emotional player, and it can be presumed that he will act accordingly. Problem is, it's not clear exactly what that implies for a given situation.

So I'm still torn. Obviously, in the most superficial sense I wish I had folded. On the other hand, I analyzed the situation carefully, weighed all of the facts that I had available as well as the best inferences I could make from them, tumbled the math around in my head, considered each of my three options and their possible consequences, and then went with my best conclusion. There's not a whole helluva lot more that one can do in this game (well, other than be right all the time!). It was a lot of money to be risking on such a guess, but, conversely, it would have been a lot of money to leave on the table by folding if I had been right and he had had J-J (my best guess), or even A-K, and was willing to gamble with them for his revenge.

Nineteen other poker players have now read a detailed description of the relevant facts and recorded what they would do, coming out split right down the middle about it, which gives me some measure of cold comfort that the right answer truly is not obvious. Furthermore, even with all the time in the world to ponder it, none of the commenters came up with an argument that I did not consider in the moment--again, some small comfort that my analytic mechanism isn't completely off-kilter.

Of such messy situations is my grocery money made or lost. Guess it's the ramen noodles for me for a while.

Some poker-y things that I miss

The Las Vegas Hilton poker room


Party Poker

Shana Hiatt

The "Red Bull and Poker" blog


OK, that's all this crummy little post is going to be (except there was one more thing that I thought of to add to the list, then promptly forgot again; I'll add it back in later if I remember). But now I have a problem. It has to do with the ease with which I can be distracted from one task by another only tangentially related. You see, I tried to do a simple Google Images search for "sad" to find something appropriate with which to illustrate this post. One of the first images that caught my eye was the one shown above, which is Marcel Duchamp's 1911-1912 painting "Sad young man in a train." I looked, then looked again, then looked some more, and for the life of me couldn't see either a young man or a train.

This intrigued me, and soon trying to unlock the mystery of this painting completely displaced my interest in actually making something useful and/or thought-provoking out of a list of poker-y things that I miss--which is why the list didn't grow any longer or more interesting. I haven't found any one place that dissects the painting and points to specific parts saying, "this line is ______ and this curve is _________." Sort of a map of the painting, which is what I was looking for.

However, I did find a bunch of short descriptions of it, including a bit by Duchamp himself, and learned the following additional tidbits: The young man is nude. It's a self-portrait. The young man is walking down the corridor of a train that is violently lurching to and fro, tossing him about. There are actually many separate renderings of the young man, apparently sort of a stop-action sequence, as with Duchamp's most famous work (which came right after this one), "Nude Descending a Staircase." He is smoking a pipe. The pipe and his walking stick are beloved objects. According to one commentator, the man's penis is prominently displayed and he may be masturbating. Yes, in the corridor of a train. There are theories about why he is sad, all of which seem to be wildly speculative and ungrounded.

OK, I can see the walking stick. I think the thing just to the left of the walking stick looks like a tibia, so is probably supposed to be the lower leg. I also found the alleged penis, because of the detailed description of the masturbation theory here. That small, dark, horizontal thing may be the pipe with a wisp of smoke coming out of it, though it looks more like a cigar to me, if anything. But honestly, even after an hour spent looking at and reading about this painting, I still don't see the overall outline of a man, nor his face, nor features that would suggest sadness, nor multiple copies of the figure, nor anything that looks like a train or the corridor thereof, nor anything that would clue us in that the pipe and walking sticks are beloved objects. Yet apparently all of these things are there, and quite obvious to other people who have studied the painting. (Unless it's all just a massive case of the Emperor's New Clothes, and Duchamp is having a big ol' laugh at everybody who thinks they see these things. With Duchamp, that is not an impossibility.) Maybe if one looks at the full-sized original it's all easier to see. Here is the other most complete description of the painting that I found, though it's not really a lot of help.

(OK, I can see a shape that might be his head. But if so, it's hugely oversized compared to what I think is his leg and the walking stick, and distorted, looking sort of like an Easter Island head. Furthermore, if that's his head that I'm seeing, then it looks like both of his hands are holding his head, just like in "The Scream." But then that would leave no hands with which to be holding his walking stick or his, uh, other implement. Besides, that would make him anguished, not sad. I really don't think Duchamp would be copying or parodying Munch here, at least not without that being prominently featured by every commentator. So I'm not blind to what might be his head--it's just that I've considered it and decided that I'm trying too hard to discern it, and my eyes are finding things that aren't there, in addition to not finding things that are apparently there.)

Anyway, as you can see, this bit of intrigue completely overwhelmed my initial interest in drawing up a list of poker-y things that I miss, which means that said list will probably never be completed now. It has now completely overtaken this blog post as well, making it almost entirely about something other than what it started out being, and having nothing to do with poker, except for the (now misleading) title and the first 17 words. I can't even think of any relevant labels to attach to it. I'm pathetic.

This may be the strangest post I've put up yet. For the record, it is the first time that the word "masturbation" has appeared. I thought it would also be the first time that the word "penis" appeared, but a quick search told me I was wrong about that. There was one previous such usage, which I had forgotten about.

Another shirt I would love to wear

While I was navigating through the crowds toward the poker room at Excalibur this evening, I saw a kid wearing a t-shirt that I would love to wear (though I wouldn't actually do it). It said, "Your lack of skills makes me sad."

It had a Nike swoosh on it, too, though I don't know whether it was an official Nike product or a knock-off. I couldn't find such an item in the online Nike store just now, but maybe they made it once and discontinued it.

Anyway, it's the sort of thing that I think about poker opponents from time to time, though I would never actually say it. But it gives me a sinister little pleasure to think about having that written across my chest.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Brush with fame

I became familiar with the name of Lyric Duveyoung during this year's WSOP, watching the PokerNews live updates. It's one of those names that you really can't help but notice and remember, once you've seen it. (I listed it among the "just plain weird" in a silly post here, but it kind of grew on me as I saw it more, and I've come to think it's pretty cool. Then again, I'm fond of names like Dweezil Zappa and Moxie CrimeFighter Jillette, so you might question my taste.)

He was at the final table of Event #5, $1000 no-limit hold'em with rebuys, which ESPN broadcast last night. They mentioned incidentally that Duveyoung was the author and proprietor of the Donkey Test. I took that test last year and reported on my results here. I found it to be a difficult and worthwhile challenge.

I also mentioned in that post that I found a bunch of annoying typos in the test. In an addendum, I reported that the site's owner had contacted me about this aspect of my post, asked what errors I had found, and then fixed nearly all of them, which pleased me greatly.

So when they mentioned last night that Duveyoung was Mr. Donkey Test, I thought it was kind of odd that if he were the one I corresponded with last year I wouldn't have remembered the name. I checked my email archives, and found that the name part of the email address was just "lyricd," and the messages were signed simply "Lyric," which I probably at that point assumed was a pseudonym of some sort.

So you see? I have corresponded with poker people who are now famous, and didn't even realize it. Obviously, this makes me a Very Important Person myself.

Incidentally, I included two photos of Duveyoung above for a couple of reasons. First, I couldn't decide which one was better. More importantly, though, I think it's amusing to see the difference in a player's appearance when he's in his normal poker-playing clothes and when he's "badged up" for a televised final table appearance, looking like a NASCAR racer with every visible square inch sold off to somebody. This isn't a complaint. I don't begrudge him or anybody else for doing that. I probably would, too, given the opportunity. I just think it's funny enough to be worth pointing out explicitly.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

So pretty!

Imagine Homer Simpson, in his dreaming-of-food voice: "Mmmm. Straight flush. Mmmm."

It should be an outrage to every right-thinking poker player that I had this, but then had to let some other idiot have half of the pot because of some crummy little low hand he found. Harumph! Straight flushes should never have to split the pot.

What should I do?

I was playing at the Palms last night and found myself with an extraordinarily difficult decision to make. I thought I would share it with you.

The situation is actually pretty simple on the surface. I was under the gun, looking down at Q-Q. I put in what had been my standard raise for that table to $15 (this is a $1-3 no-limit game). There was one caller in middle position. Then the small blind raised to $85. He had about $300 in chips total. I had about $400. While I was thinking about what to do, the middle-position caller looked completely bored and impatient--I was about as certain as I could be that he would fold, no matter what I did (which proved to be the case), so we can essentially leave him out of the picture, except for the fact that he has contributed some dead money to the pot.

This sort of problem obviously boils down to an assessment of what possible hands am I up against. If it's A-K, well, I'm not thrilled to flip a coin for this much money, because if I wait, some better situation than that will come up. On the other hand, I am a slight favorite (about 56%), so if comes to that, I won't object. If he has A-Q or J-J or anything worse, I'd be delighted to get as much money into the pot as possible.

The dilemma, of course, is that he could be sitting on K-K or A-A, in which case I'm about a 4:1 underdog. Those are the only two hands that have me worried.

Everything depends on what this particular player would do here with various holdings, so let me tell you about him. He's loud and obnoxious, just about my least favorite sort of person to share the table with. He's late 50s, wearing fancy designer clothes and sunglasses. He tries to tell everybody what to do. He thinks he knows the rules and procedures better than the dealers do. On about half of hands, he acts out of turn, just ignoring the player to his right--and he doesn't stop no matter how many times he is asked to wait for his turn. He absurdly flirts with the cocktail waitresses. He talks loudly with a friend at the table between hands in a language that I think is modern Hebrew--often during hands, too, no matter how many times the dealers remind him of the English-only rule. (Obviously, rules are for lesser people than him.) At one point in the evening, he opens a package that I'm guessing was a frequent-player reward from the Palms--some sort of carry bag. He literally just tosses the wrapping and stuffing paper over his shoulder onto the floor, when there was a wastebasket within six feet of his seat. He's just the sort of egocentric jerk to think, "Somebody else can pick that up for me."

As for his playing style, for the most part he's a pretty bad calling station. When he does get aggressive, sometimes it's with a rare premium holding, but at least as often it's with something mediocre that he is way overplaying--not bluffing, really, just oblivious to signs of strength from opponents, as if blasting away will resolve the situation in his favor.

He and I have had exactly one previous significant encounter, and I think it hugely influences how both he and I are thinking here, so I'll tell you about it. For the most part, I was playing perfectly straightforwardly. But of course I have to throw in a few change-ups. This was one of them. I raised to $15 from the cutoff position with a 4-5 offsuit. This guy was my only caller. The flop came what turned out to be an absolutely perfect Q-4-5, because he was sitting on A-Q. He checked, I bet just under the size of the pot. He called. Turn was a 10 and the fourth suit (so no flush draws possible). Again, check, substantial bet, call. River was another blank that I don't remember. He checked. I pushed all in for my last $109. He thought for a long time, then finally called. When he saw that I had won, and that I had raised with a lousy 4-5 offsuit before the flop, he cursed at me, and said to anybody who would listen, "Who plays crap like that?" and "How am I supposed to put him on 4-5 when he raises?" That, of course, is precisely the point of playing hands like that once in a while, but I guess that is beyond his comprehension. He said that he thought I had A-K, even though I hadn't played a missed flop like that at any time in the session. (Frankly, I don't think he pays enough attention to hands that he's not in to have any idea of what I am or am not capable of doing.)

He has had to rebuy a couple of times (including after that hand, which almost wiped him out), and both he and I know that most of the money I've made tonight has come from him. That history raises the real possibility that he is out for some revenge, and/or may be suspicious that my raise on this hand is more B.S. from me.

I'm struck particularly by the size of the reraise. Most players with A-A or K-K would not put in a nearly six-fold reraise. They would raise to $45 or $50, maybe as much as $60, but something that is easier for a weaker hand to call. $85 seems to me mostly likely to be J-J, maybe 10-10, and I would think Q-Q if not for the fact that that's what I have, making it highly unlikely that he has the other two of them. A-K is also distinctly possible, with him not wanting to have to play the whole hand against me from out of position, and thus raising enough to take it down now, or at least find out if I'm looking like I have the two hands he would be worried about, namely A-A or K-K. He could also do this with complete crap, with his enormous ego driving him to want me to fold so he could show me (and the rest of the table) a bluff.

I pretty quickly rule out calling. It's not a terrible move, but I think it's the worst of my three choices here. If I call and the flop has an ace or king and he bets at it, I can get away. But the only reason to get away in that situation is if he has A-K. If he has A-A or K-K, I want to get away from it now, not before I give him an additional $70. Worse is that he might bet at such a flop with J-J or 10-10, in which case I will give him $70, then fold way the best hand. So I rule this out, and decide that I have to choose betwen folding and moving all-in (because there is no point in a smaller raise).

Folding is a real possibility. I'm ahead for the session. I've got a comfortable read on this table and think I can continue to play profitably without a lot of risk of losing my whole stack. I've only invested $15 on this hand. But there is this huge consideration: You've heard that money you don't lose is just as valuable as money you win. That's undoubtedly true. But it's also true that money you don't win is just as lost as money that you did actually lose. In other words, it's not true that folding means merely a $15 loss. It also means the loss of almost $300 that I might have won. The opportunities to win $300 in one shot in a $1-3 game are few and far between, and I don't want to miss one, if the situation is a right.

Raising all-in is the other viable option. If he has 10-10 or J-J, I think he will probably fold, guessing that I have A-A or K-K, especially since I raised from the one-hole, and I'll have $100 in profit with no further risk--not a bad outcome at all. But, of course, I'm happy to have him call with J-J or 10-10. I can't decide whether he is more likely to call or fold with A-K, but it doesn't much matter, because I'm essentially neutral about such a call. There's a small chance that he would fold K-K, fearing that I have A-A, but it's not really very likely. The argument against the raise here is the old "you'll only get called if you're beat." That's not quite true here, because of all of the A-K combinations he could have, but still, if he calls, I'm going to dread seeing his cards.

Here's the math: According to Poker Stove, if I have Q-Q and my opponent's range is A-A, K-K, Q-Q, J-J, 10-10, and A-K, given the frequency with which he might have all of those, and the possibility of us splitting the pot, my equity here is 52.4% to his 47.6%. I didn't know that precisely at the time, of course, but it wasn't hard to guess that it was going to run just about 50/50. That's because I'm exactly as far ahead of 10-10 and J-J as I am behind K-K and A-A, against the unlikely Q-Q we're exactly even, and against A-K I'm a slight favorite. Surprisingly, even if we remove 10-10 from his range, I only drop slightly in equity, down to 47.4%, so still just about even.

So there's the situation, in as much detail as I think I can relate it. What should I do? I'll return tomorrow with the end of the story.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Just give me the small piece

Playing $1-$2 no-limit hold'em at Mandalay Bay this afternoon, I saw a move that makes perfect emotional sense, but is completely insane from a profit-maximizing perspective.

On my left was a retiree, obviously local and well known to all of the dealers and floor personnel. His name is Sammy. He is a stereotypical--maybe even archetypal--local "rock." On the hand in question, a middle-position player raised to $10 after a couple of limpers. Nobody called behind him. Sammy was in the small blind. He put in a curiously large reraise, to about $55. The big blind and limpers folded.

The original raiser was the only one left with a decision, and he looked unsure what to do. As he was contemplating his options, Sammy deliberately turned face up his two red aces, and said, "Does that make your decision any easier?" His lone remaining opponent smirked, then said, "I suppose I could go in with a 9% chance of winning," but then folded. (I'm guessing from this comment and the fact that he apparently had a genuinely difficult decision that he most likely had A-K, which is indeed in the ballpark of a 10:1 dog to pocket aces.) As Sammy was scooping up the itty-bitty pot, he said, "Good. The last thing I need is you drawing out on me."

As I said, on an emotional level I can understand perfectly what was going on there. Sammy has played poker for a long time and has seen his aces cracked by inferior hands too many times. The sting of those memories weighs heavily on him, and he has devised a strategy to reduce the chance that he will have to feel that hurt again: He bets so big that nobody will call. And if it looks like that didn't do the trick by itself, and somebody might call anyway, he shows them the aces to dissuade them. He collects the small pot, quite content with the outcome, because he didn't lose.

It's obvious that that last phrase is the key to the whole thing. Never losing with aces has become his primary focus.

But it's a completely irrational way to play the hand if your goal is to maximize your lifetime profit from all of the times you are dealt pocket aces. In order to do that, you somehow have to get opponents to put as much money as possible into the pot when they are 4:1 or even 10:1 underdogs to win. If maximizing long-term profit were Sammy's goal, he should bet an amount that he thinks is the most that will be called by a player with A-K. (Exactly what that amount might be will vary with the opponent, relative table position, chip stacks, etc.) The question he should be silently asking himself is, "What is the most that this guy will be willing to call?" Sammy, contrarily, is asking himself, "How much will it take to make this guy fold?"

Given that that is his goal, one might wonder why he doesn't just move all in. My guess is that the psychological pain of possibly losing his entire stack if he fails to chase somebody away (e.g., somebody sitting on K-K, or a player who is drunk or otherwise entirely carefree, or one who is stuck badly and willing to gamble it up) and his aces get cracked is just too much to bear. So he instead has evolved this one-two punch of a big over-raise, followed by showing his cards, if necessary, to complete the effect without putting his entire stack at risk.

Most players, though, understand that being a winning player means getting maximum value from the rare occasion of being delivered a prize such as A-A. That, in turn, means coaxing opponents into the pot with more money. Yeah, it also means that you'll occasionally lose--and the amount may well be large, even one's entire stack. But the math doesn't lie: over the long run you really will make a lot more than you lose if you somehow manage to get opponents to put as many chips as possible into the pot when they have only a 10% or 20% chance of winning it.

I'll take A-A over A-K for as much money as I have in front of me, if my opponent is willing, and eagerly step up to do it again and again and again, as many times as possible. I know that this means losing that stake one out of ten times or so. I also know that I don't get to choose when the loaded chamber on that ten-round revolver pointed at my head will be the one under the firing pin. In a lifetime, it will sometimes happen three or four times in a row, and I'll feel like I got run over by a truck, and may start whining like Phil Hellmuth or Mike Matusow about how the universe is stacked against me. (See here for my personally most painful story of aces cracked for large pots nearly back-to-back.) But I understand that that is the price one necessarily must pay in order to reap the most long-term profit. It is not optional. It is literally impossible to get the greater reward without taking the risk.

There is a theorem in economics and game theory about something called "minimax" strategy. It involves picking a strategy that minimizes one's maximum possible loss. This isn't quite that, because Sammy could still lose everything on the hand (unless he secretly has a third component to his strategy, which is to fold if he gets reraised--I kind of doubt that he would, but with a set of values so distorted, it's hard to say for sure). Instead, he is trying to minimize the probability of losing anything at all. If there's a specific name for that in game theory, I don't know what it is.

But regardless of the label we might put on it, Sammy's strategy is essentially the equivalent of accepting a virtual certainty of walking away with the tiny slice of pie in the illustration above, rather than go for the whole pie, because he's unwilling to take the chance of losing everything, even when he is, at minimum, a 3:1 favorite. (Statistically, the best hand to put up against A-A is something like 7-8 of a suit not held by Mr. Aces. You're only about a 3:1 underdog in that scenario.)

It's not necessarily irrational, if one values avoiding the pain of a loss more than one values maximizing long-term profit. But I have to admit that that is an ordering of values and priorities that is utterly foreign to me.

Matt Lessinger, who I think is one of the finest columnists in Card Player magazine's stable, wrote an enlightening and clear-headed piece on the Sammy mindset a couple of years ago. I recommend reading (or re-reading) the whole thing here. I'll leave you with the excellent mini-lecture embodied in just one of his paragraphs:

I don't care if you are a rank novice or a world champion. It doesn't
matter whether you are in a tournament or a cash game. You could be playing for
pennies or Porsches. It's all the same. If you can get all of your money in as a
4-1 favorite, do it. And if you lose, live with it. It happens. Wait
for the next opportunity to arise, and then do it again. If you are
able to consistently create that scenario, you will be a successful player--end
of story.

"Did you see that?"

At the Suncoast Friday evening, one dealer's pitching technique was quite bad. She flashed a lot more cards than most.

One time a card she was dealing to the player on my right apparently flashed in a way that it would have been visible to me had I been watching, but my attention was somewhere else at that instant. She stopped the deal and asked me, "Did you see that?" I didn't even know what "that" she was referring to--some spectacular sports play on one of the TVs? I guess my look of confusion and reply of "See what?" weren't quite convincing enough, because then she explained that the card had flashed and I might have seen it. Nope. She apparently believed me and moved on.

But what a horrible way to decide what to do! Given the dishonesty of human beings in general, and the known propensity for a substantial percentage of poker players in particular to take advantage of any edge, whether ethical or not, it's sheer laziness on her part to take the easy way out and just ask whether a possible flashed card was seen. If I'm the guy whose card might have been seen, why should my ability to keep my cards secret from my opponents in this hand be made to rely on whether these strangers will happen to choose to answer her honestly?

The only correct and fair way to handle the situation is to replace the card. If it flipped or twisted or bounced in such a way that the dealer could see it, or it is reasonably possible that any other player could have seen it had he been paying attention, then just replace it--period.

I suspect that this particular dealer didn't want to do that because she would be replacing cards on almost every hand, her technique was so bad. So instead she developed the alternative "honor system."

It's a shame that poker players on the whole aren't honorable enough for an honor system to work, but we have to confront the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be.

Danny Gans is as good as they say

I took a day off from poker yesterday (except for a bit of razz on Stars). Instead I went out with a friend who had managed to get free seats to see Danny Gans at the Mirage from The tickets are usually $110 each, so this was a great score. (It's not easy. I've tried a few times, but as soon as the email goes out that Gans tickets are up for grabs, their phone lines clog up.) Early next year Gans is leaving the Mirage and will start performing at the Encore. My hunch is that free tickets won't be offered anymore at that point, so I really wanted to see him on the cheap while I still could.

It's a good show. He is as talented as everybody says. The show must have a fair amount of change and flexibility, because I've heard of other bits and impressions that he does that weren't on display last night. My favorite parts were (1) George Burns doing a cover of M.C. Hammer's "Can't Touch This," (2) Bill Clinton doing a naughtily customized version of Gloria Gainor's "I Will Survive," (3) an excellent recreation of "Carnac the Magnificent," with current events-based jokes just like Carson would do if he were still alive and on the air, (4) recitals of famous movie scenes, including "Forrest Gump," "Rocky," and "Scent of a Woman," and (5) a funny series of impersonations of pop music stars whose lyrics are basically unintelligible. My only complaint was that the whole thing was too loud. (Does that sound like a grumpy old man, or what? Next thing you know, I'll be yelling at the neighbor kids to keep off of my lawn.)

Before the show we ate at one of the Mirage's new restaurants, "BLT Burger" (thus making the whole thing not exactly free, and surely fulfilling one of the hotel's hopes for how people getting free tickets will behave). I had recently read VegasRex's impression of the place, and thought it sounded worth a try. It was. I had their signature piece, the BLT Burger. Usually I ask restaurants to skip whatever special sauce they want to put on a burger, because, well, plain ol' ketchup is better. But I decided to be adventurous (yeah, this is my idea of "adventurous"--tells you a lot about how pathetic my life is, doesn't it?) and let them sauce away as they would. And I was glad I did--one of the rare times that I found something I liked even better than ketchup. Overall, I thought it was the best burger I've ever had. My friend, not so much. Her impression was basically, "Meh." But then again, she had warned me as we set out that she was in a foul mood and was pretty much going to hate everything about the evening, so you have to take that into consideration.

Have to say, though, that the fries were way unworthy of the $6 additional price. She had the skinny fries, I the fat fries, and neither were particularly good. You get better at "In and Out Burger." My friend's black-and-white shake, though, was quite tasty, and may have justified its $6 charge.

Oh, and their music was way too loud, too. Seriously, my friend and I tried talking a couple of times, and then basically gave up and sat there staring at each other, because conversation involved a frustrating amount of "What did you say?" and "I can't hear you." Why do restaurants do this? Doesn't everybody find this as maddening as we did?

Unusual razz hand

I won't bore you with the full hand history, because who bet and raised when isn't terribly interesting. What was interesting was that all three of us in the hand were obviously catching great cards, and it was going to be a very close showdown. My 6-5-4-3-A won by the smallest possible margin against 6-5-4-3-2, and a usually winning 7-5-4-3-2 was the big loser here.

Just look around the board and count the good cards. Collectively, we're showing two aces, three deuces, all four 3s, all four 4s, all four 5s, two 6s, and two 7s--that is, 21 out of the 28 lowest cards in the deck. There just weren't very many more playable cards available!

Strange stuff.

Online razz is SO rigged!